The Toughest Man in Cairo
vs The Zionist Vegetable
According to my old neighbor, Kamal Hanafi, the vegetables
in Israel are huge and good for only one thing. The cucumbers, he
exclaimed, eyes lighting up, are this longhe stretched his
hands more than a foot apart. They are this widehe made a
circle with his two hands. And they taste like shit, all chemicals and
unnatural fertilizers. He spat. No one can eat vegetables that
disgusting. The only people who use them are the women, who sit like thishe
spread his legs to demonstrate. And the men, of course. The invisible
cucumber in his hands jabbed sharply up. And now theyre sending
their vegetables to Egypt to fuck us all.
Kamal could see it. A flood of Israeli vegetables, inundating the Egyptian
market, washing away the old dream of agricultural self-sufficiency. More pernicious
still: the image of oversized Zionist produce coming for his two young daughters.
Kamal was very concerned with what his children put in their mouths. It
is difficult to keep them pure, he complained, before listing the few
shops that still sold untainted greens from Umm AlDunya.
But it wasnt just the vegetables. In the years since Sadats policy
of infitah liberalized the Egyptian economy, delectable imports have
come dancing through the open door to tempt the girls of Egypt. It began with
foreign banks, foreign aid, and joint ventures with Xerox, Colgate-Palmolive,
and Ford; and it culminated in a torrent of chocolates from Hersheys
and Nestl?, as well as Dove Bars, Lays potato chips, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi,
acidwash jeans, waffles, bikinis, rap music, exercise videos, Britney Spears,
If he had a son, things would be easier. But Kamal has not been so lucky. Hes
been trying to have a son for years. He tries every night, he told me, but
all his wife has given him are girls he will lose one day to a wet t-shirt
contest and the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet in Sharm el Sheikh.
My friendship with the Hanafi family was my proudest accomplishment in Cairo.
Kamal, his wife, and his two daughters lived just down the hall in my building,
a notso- solidly middle-class apartment complex in Sayyida Zeinab. Kamal was
an old friend of my Arabic teacher and, soon after I moved in, I began an aggressive
charm offensive. In the afternoons, I came back from my job editing English
translations and stopped by their apartment for tea, practicing my Arabic with
Kamal while the two girls practiced their English with me. I made a point of
bringing them tasteful and conservative gifts (Egyptian-made, of course). Colored
pencils, expensive stationary, pale white dolls with long, knotty hair and
ugly lace dresses. I sat with Kamal day after day and held my chin thoughtfully
through long lectures on the dangers of foreign involvement in Middle Eastern
affairs. One day, after polishing off a plate of kunaffa, I criticized the
idea of US intervention in Darfur.
It is an Arab problem, I said. And the Arab League can solve
it. The United States is treating Sudan like Iraqa staging ground for imperial
Kamal nodded, gazing approvingly at me through his large square bifocals. From
then on, he had his daughters refer to me as Uncle. I had succeeded.
I had friends.
My conquest was not complete, however. I could not, and never would, win over
Kamals wife. Rania taught literature in an adjunct capacity at one of
the universities in town. I would ask her about Arabic literature and poetry,
about her classes, her family, politics, movies she was never anything
but cordial, but there was something about the perfunctory way she answered
my questions that made me think she was wary of my presence.
She had cause to be wary. Soon after he declared me an honorary Arab, Kamal
embarked on a courtship of his own. It began with a series of quiet taps on
my door. It must have been sometime after two in the morning, and I was lying
in bed, neither awake nor asleep, paralyzed by the heat and a nameless anxiety.
The taps sounded like Morse code. An SOS? I tiptoed to the door and looked
through the peephole. I saw Kamals face, stretched and distorted, peering
back at me. I opened the door. Kamal was wearing his pajamas. He was barefoot.
And he was holding a trembling pack of Cleopatra Superluxsuper, because
they came in an extra-wide hard pack; lux, because they were extra-long.
I asked him if something was wrong.
He shook his head, no.
I asked him if he wanted to come in.
He showed himself to my couch and sat down, placing the pack of cigarettes
on the coffee table. He had something to ask me, he said, and he didnt
want me to take it the wrong way.
He wanted me to blow smoke in his face.
I looked at the cigarettes and hesitated. It was an odd request. I didnt
smoke. Even in Cairo, where everybody smoked, I had only ever gone in for melon-flavored
shisha, and even then I hadnt really inhaled, secreting the perfumed
smoke in my cheek.
I explained this to him, slightly chagrined.
Ah, but he wasnt asking me to smoke! He used to smoke two packs a day,
he said, back before he got married. His wife had made him promise to quit,
and he had. But he still liked the smell, and I wouldnt have to inhale.
He looked very innocent on the couch, with his thick bifocals and his pajamas
and his black dress socks, and I didnt mind the smell of smoke, either,
so I agreed.
I sat on the couch with Kamal and tore the plastic off the cigarette pack.
The couch was a gift from my boss, an ancient, leonine woman who had grown
up in the days of King Farouk, drank gin straight, and muttered angrily under
her breath at the sight of muhajabahs.
She must have been very fashionable in her twenties, which was when she bought
the couch. It was faux- French, with dark green fabric in a paisley pattern.
There were cherubic faces on the wooden backrest, carved in bas-relief, blowing
whorls of wind from pursed lips.
Over the decades, a rusty spring had cut its way through the center of the
couch. Six inches of jagged metal wobbled between Kamal and me. Ive never
been very good with matches, Im afraid, and I had trouble lighting the
cigarette. Each failed attempt added to a small mountain of matches on the
table and a stench of sulfur in the air.
Finally, it caught. The cigarette flared as the paper started to burn, and
I carefully drew a cloud of smoke into my mouth. I held my breath and leaned
in, over the paisley print and the exposed spring, within inches of Kamals
expectant face. He had removed his glasses for the occasion. I could see the
pores on his skin, the light razor burn on his left cheek, the mustard-colored
stains on his incisors, a testament to years of heavy smoking and poor oral
hygiene. I thought he would close his eyes, or at least look away, but he stared
right at me: I noticed for the first time that his light brown irises were
speckled with flecks of gold. Then I exhaled, releasing a stream of smoke that
traveled in a long, unbroken line before curling up into his nostrils. The
scent of his cologne mixed with the bitterness of the tobacco. Kamal threw
his head back, his eyelids fluttered, his upper lip quivered, and his cheeks
hollowed as he sucked away in my direction.
Somehow I had not noticed the awkwardness of the whole scene until that very
moment. I busied myself with the cigarette and the ashtray in an attempt to
hide the mixture of embarrassment and amusement I felt at Kamals evident
After Id stubbed out what remained of the cigarette, Kamal relaxed into
the couch. He spoke wistfully about his life before Rania, when hed spent
nearly all his time chain-smoking with his old friend Wagdi Lewis. If smoke
represented freedom, Wagdi and Kamal had spent the 1980s liberating Egypt.
Kamal chuckled as he described the quantities of tobacco they burnedfields
of tobacco as wide as the Sahara and as tall as the pyramids.
It wasnt just cigarettes, though. There were modest amounts of alcohol,
as well, and some (wink wink) hashish. And there were politics. Wagdi was a
secular leftist, and so deeply principled as to exert a gravitational force
on those around him. He easily indoctrinated Kamal, who recounted with pride
tales of Wagdis struggle with the corrupt Egyptian government and its
foreign backers. Unlike Kamal, who retreated into a stultifying world of domesticity,
Wagdi remained politically engaged. Even after starting a family, he had spent
five years in prison for attempting to stockpile explosives. Wagdi had changed
in only one way: hed quit smoking. Not because anyone told him to, but
because even homegrown Cleopatras were no longer 100 percent Egyptian.
In Kamals Egypt there were four types of men. There were the men over
fifty, who were castrated by the events of 1967, and those under thirty, who
suckled on the weak milk of Lebanese music videos; between them was Kamals
own generation, men who had seceded from society to create inviolable nation-states
of their families. And then there was Wagdi, a category unto himself, the toughest
man in Cairo, a superman who did not know the meaning of the word defeat.
The night ended as abruptly as it began. Kamal issued a brief but vitriolic
attack on USAID. He made fun of my sneakers. He looked around the living room
of my apartment and told me I needed a woman to take care of me. Then he stood
up, thanked me for my hospitality, and tiptoed down the hallway to his wife
Our secret relationship went on like this for monthsthe nocturnal visitations,
the secondhand smoke, the stories about Wagdi. Every few days at one or another
inappropriate hour, Kamal would knock softly but insistently until I woke up
and let him in. Sometimes I tried to stay up to wait for him, but his comings
were unpredictable. He would probably have come every night if he could have,
but he had a whole series of deliberate precautions, designed to hide his perfidy
from his family, and after a while I just accepted it. I still stopped by Kamals
apartment after work sometimes, but less than before; I resented the pretense,
the highly mannered welcome Rania gave me when I came in, the hungry look in
Kamals eyes when I left.
One afternoon I stopped by the Hanafis to drop off a plate of sweets my coworker
had given me; it was more than I could eat myself. The door was open, and I
stood at the entrance for a moment without announcing myself. Kamal and Rania
were having an argument. She wasnt blind to Kamals indiscretions.
Admit it, I heard her saying. Youve been smoking again.
I can tell. You go out at all hours of morning and then come sneaking home, washing
your hair in the dark.
Its the foreigner who smokes, Kamal said. His voice sounded
desperate. He is Hindu, from America. They have terrible habits. And
then, self-righteously, I have never smoked.
This is just like the Wagdi situation. Your friends are a terrible influence
But I stopped seeing Wagdi...
And you will stop seeing this man, too.
But he is a foreigner! He has no family, no friends.
He is not to come into our house.
Darling, dont do this, Kamal pleaded. I couldnt take
it anymore. I left the sweets by the door and crept away, feeling sick to my
I was the bad influence? Two months into our relationship, Id become
an addict. I had begun to smoke on my own, squirreling away a pack of Marlboro
Reds in my bedroom where Kamal wouldnt find them. I had started inhaling.
And I... well, I didnt have many friends, actually, but I didnt
need to hear about it from Kamal, and I certainly didnt need his pity.
A week later I heard the familiar tap-tap-tap on my door. I lay in bed, ignoring
it, hoping he would go away. But he kept drumming his fingers, and despite
myself I let him in and once more acted out the ritual. Looking nervous, he
asked where Id been, why I hadnt come by his apartment. I told
him Id been busy. I couldnt bring myself to tell him Id overheard
their conversation, and he couldnt bring himself to tell me not to come
by. We had achieved a kind of equilibrium. I mostly stopped listening to the
stories he told, chain-smoking the time away till he was done. His visits became
less frequent his precautions had become still more elaborate, I guess.
One night Kamal appeared at my door in a state of extraordinary agitation.
I was already smoking; in fact, I was marinating in smoke.
He sat down next to me. My wife is leaving tomorrow, he said. She
was going to Beni Suef, to visit her family. Freedom, he sighed.
Then he leaned across the metal spring and put his hand on my arm. I
need your help, he said, his voice dropping conspiratorially.
Sure, I responded. I was mesmerized by the smokes languorous
ascent through the air to my ceiling. My dignity and I had parted ways some time
ago. I probably would have agreed to anything.
He had made plans to see his old friend Wagdi. The toughest man in Cairo, remember?
I nodded. It was to be a reunion of sorts. He wished I could meet him, he said,
but it was not in my destiny; I had my own, very important, role to play. He
needed me to watch his daughters while he was out.
I saw it all in my mind right then, the whole arc of our relationship: my courtship
of Kamal and his family, Kamals courtship of me. Kamals betrayal
of me. And now, suddenly, my betrayal of Kamal. My hand shook. They can
stay in my apartment, I promised, hoping my voice did not betray my excitement. It
will give me great pleasure to welcome your daughters, I said, in exceedingly
When he left, I lay in bed, sweating through my sheets. It was a hot night,
and it was almost impossible to sleep. I lit cigarette after cigarette and
stared at the light cast on my ceiling by the street lamps outside. I woke
up covered in ash.
My recollection of the next day is hazy, filtered as it is through my guilty
conscience. I remember running to the corner store and the look on the cashiers
face at the sum I spent. I remember slowing my sprint to a walk when I passed
a security officer, as though he could see my intentions or, worse, what was
in the bags I was carrying. I remember closing my curtains because the sunlight
hurt my eyes. And I remember hearing Kamals familiar knock at an unfamiliar
time of day. He stood in the hallway, dressed in a suit, with his hands on
his daughters heads.
Good morning, he said, beaming.
The girls must have sensed something was wrong. They looked into my dark, drab
apartment with trepidation. Kamal was oblivious. Go on, my ladies. Uncle
will take care of you today. He noticed the cigarette in my fingers and
said something vaguely disapproving, but he hurried away with a wave before
I could respond. The girls filed in, reluctantly.
I should say that my intentions were not evil. I did not intend to hurt the
girls. They were merely pawns in a game their father had set in motion. I swallowed
hard. Sit down over there, I said, gesturing toward the couch with my cigarette
hand. I told them not to be frightened, that we were going to have a special
English lesson, that we were going to have a good time together. Ash fell on
the floor as I spoke, my hands moving dramatically with my words. Were
going to play now, I said, smiling.
I was calm at the time, but in retrospect I must have seemed kind of crazy.
I was dimly aware of how things must have looked through their eyes: the precipitous
ceiling fan and the bare light bulb, the couch with its rusty spring, the bizarre
cherub carvings, the spinning shadows. I saw myself: wild-eyed and disheveled,
shouting things in English, waving my arms in the air while holding a lit cigarette.
The older girl, Reem, held a protective arm around her sister Haneen, who looked
like she was about to cry. I wanted to stophonestly, I didbut I
couldnt. Their fear made me feel crazier. Is this what it feels like
to be dangerous, I wondered? Well, then, I was dangerous. I was Dracula, bizarrely
accented creature of shadow. I was Shaitan, my apartment a trap for the unwary.
I was Hindu, my gods many and many-armed, my habits terrible. I was the darkness,
the ugliest American, the lord of imports. I was the terrible Zionist vegetable.
My glasses slipped down my nose. I pushed them back up with a talon.
Ill be right back, I said. Dont move! The girls looked at each
other in fear. I returned with the plastic bags from the corner store and placed
them on the coffee table. Whats in the bags? I asked them
in English. They didnt respond. What do you think is in the bags? I
asked again, in Arabic this time, pointing at one especially bulky bag. Nothing.
I cleared my throat and was all set to ask them again when I realized that
with each question, spittle was leaking from the corners of my mouth. I was
foaming. The girls were trembling. This had to stop. I had to stop it. So I
jumped up, took hold of the bulkiest bag and turned it upside down. Suddenly,
the table was covered in... chocolatescandies cookiescrackerschipssicecream-deliciousness!
MERRY CHRISTMAS, I bellowed in English. The girls were in shock. MERRY CHRISTMAS,
I shouted again. Reem stopped crying and Haneen looked slightly less anxious.
I yelled again, louder this time: MERRY CHRISTMAS! I pulled open a box of Raisinets
and threw them in the air, laughing as the American chocolate rained down upon
us. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!
Amazingly, all of the tension disappeared. Reem replied Merry Christmas rather
matter-of-factly and smiled, and Haneen rolled her eyes. Pretty soon we were
all sitting on the floor, tearing open candy wrappers and eating bite-size
Snickers bars. I taught them to say candy bar and ice cream and whatchamacallit. After
a little while they asked if we could have music, and the girls went through
my MP3s. They jumped around the tiny room, mouthing the sounds to Britney Spears
songs. I helped them. It was a fine English lesson. Then they developed a synchronized
dance for Im a Slave 4 U, spinning until they fell giggling
and flailing into twin nests of discarded candy wrappers.
Get it get it get it get! they laughed.
I started to feel self-conscious. Maybe we should be quieter, I
said. Reem smiled a gigantic smile. I mean it. Lets make this our
secret, OK? We should be careful.
Aiwa! They agreed. Secret!
But we werent careful enough. I lost track of time, and when the door
to my apartment opened without warning, the girls were spinning madly again,
mouths smeared with chocolate and nougat. I was clapping my hands out of time,
pausing occasionally to toss candy wrappers in the air like confetti. It took
us all a moment to register Kamals dark, angry face in the doorway. I
tried to sweep the candy wrappers under the cherub couch with my foot. Its
not what it looks like, I stammered. Its nothing. I was teaching
Kamal grabbed his daughters by the wrists. Haram aleik! he yelled
at me. You have betrayed me! He turned and slammed the door, leaving
me standing alone, Britney Spears still playing on the laptop, a half-eaten
Dove Bar melting in my hand.
Kamal never forgave me. And there remained a part of me that wished things
had ended on a more graceful note. After our mutual betrayal, our shared hallway
continued to reverberate with ill feelings, and at any other time of my life
I might have dreaded leaving my apartment on the off-chance I might encounter
him or his family. But thanks to Kamal, I was a changed man. I was shameless.
I wore shorts in the hallway and t-shirts in the street. I smoked a pack a
day. I started drinking. And whats more, I was obsessed with Wagdi Lewis.
One tale in particular fascinated me. Kamal and I had been driving from the
airport to our apartment building. I was returning from a short visit to the
United States and had thought it very kind of him to make the hour-long drive
on my behalf. When I came out of the terminal, luggage in hand, I looked around
to find Kamal standing by his car, a gleam in his eyes and a pack of cigarettes
in his hand. He had missed me.
On the drive home, Kamal refused to open a window. I puffed and he vicariously
inhaled until I grew dizzy and Kamal, drunk off the smoke, began de-claiming. The
toughest man in Cairo, he announced, and I knew what was coming. One
time in the 1980s, Kamal told me as he pulled his rusty Fiat into a gas
station, when Sadat was in power and everyone was being arrested all
over again, the police tied Wagdi to a chair and beat him with their fists
until the chair broke. Then they took the chair and tore the legs off and beat
him with the legs of the chair. I tried putting the cigarette out in
the cars ashtray. Kamal intercepted it and began waving it up and down
in a chopping motion to demonstrate the violence of the torture. And
after they broke the legs of the chair on his body, the police looked down
at Wagdi Lewis, lying on the concrete floor of the police station in a pool
of blood. There were splinters everywhere. They squatted down and yelled at
him. Are you ready to talk? they yelled. And you know what happened? Kamal
stopped and stared intently at me, like I was one of the cops. His eyes were
wide and distorted behind his thick lenses. Nothing. Nothing happened.
He was asleep. Snoring. Kamal rolled down the window and tossed the cigarette
out onto the ground of the gas station. I cringed. Now thats courage, he
Maybe he was right. Maybe that was courage and not just psychological trauma.
All I knew now was that I wanted to meet this man who had yawned in the face
of torture. I wanted to see just how tough he was, how strict his principles
were. If they were anything like Kamals, I was pretty sure I could break
Finding the toughest man in Cairo was remarkably easy. My Arabic tutor knew
him and arranged a meeting: 3:30, Saturday afternoon, Midan Orabi. Deciding
what to wear was more difficult. I initially thought about wearing my suit,
the same one Id worn to meet Naguib Mahfouz a month earlier, but thought
better of it. A suit was meant to impress, or, at least, to insinuate. I wanted
to intimidate. I found my most shameful possession, a shirt so embarrassing
I had repressed its existence by wadding it into a ball and burying it in the
deepest crevice of my bureau.
The shirt belonged to my father. Hed bought it when he came to visit
me, during a trip to the beaches of Dahab, on the Red Sea. Id lied and
told Kamal we were going to Aswan, to see the treasures of ancient Egypt. I
knew that if I told him the truth he would scoff. Prostitutes and Israelis,
he always said, those were the only things that existed in Dahab. He was wrong:
There were shirtless Australians as well, and a class of Egyptian salesman
evolved specifically to seduce my father. They called my dad Amitabh Bachchan,
and he was flattered; he thanked them in Hindi, and they complimented his Arabic.
Within hours of our arrival, my dad, giddy with the attention and the power
of the dollar, had bought three t-shirts, two with a camel and a pyramid, and,
more humiliatingly, a third emblazoned with an image of the Stella beer label.
He wore the shirt for the weekend. He wore it proudly, smiling and waving every
time someone would yell Hey, Mr Stella as he walked past.
I pulled the t-shirt on and stood in my bathroom in front of the mirror. I
rehearsed talking points to my reflection: The war in Iraq, I said, was necessary
to disturb the unproductive stasis of Arab politics. I turned so I could look
at myself in profile. Opening the Egyptian markets to foreign goods was necessary
to shock a stagnant economy into action. I sucked in my stomach. It was Hayek
who said it best. Or Milton Friedman. I shrugged. It didnt matter. Liberal
interventionism would trump Oriental despotism.
I was ready.
I arrived early for our meeting. Wagdi was two hours late. I waited for him
in a coffee shop and got a table in the center, strategically located underneath
a ceiling fan and next to a giant plastic bust of Umm Kulthum. Her impressive
head gazed impassively at the hordes of teenagers roaming outside. Most of
them were playing Amr Diab ringtones on their phones and sweating; others were
buying bodybuilding magazines and tabloids with news about Hollywood celebrities
from a group of old men who seemed to despise their customers as much as their
wares. I had a hard time knowing what Umm Kulthum was thinking. Each lens of
her iconic sunglasses was the size of my face. I dont think she was happy
with what she saw.
It was warm in the coffee shop, and I dozed off. A rough hand on my shoulder
woke me up. It was Wagdi. His broad, ugly, pockmarked face was inches away
from mine. He smiled.
Sleepy Mr Stella, he said. He roared with laughter.
I looked down at my watch. I guess I should have assumed, I said,
as coldly as possible, that everything in this country will be two hours
Wagdi seemed stung by my insult, which boded well for the afternoon ahead.
He apologized and promised to make it up to me by giving me a walking tour
of Cairo I would never forget. Outside, Wagdi grabbed a poorly dressed sheb
by the shoulder and pointed to a large sweat stain on the mans underarm. Thats
where we are. And that... He ran a thick and calloused finger along the
mans sternum, following the outline of his slightly distended belly. That
is the Nile.
Whatever advantage I might have gained with my putdown was lost in this disturbing
That makes his stomach Zamalek, laughed one of the old men who sold
newspapers off a mat made of newspapers. Our human map wriggled like a fish caught
on a hook.
Well head here first, Wagdi pointed at a small island of sweat
that had accumulated, oddly, below the mans left nipple. The Mugamma.
So, whats that, then? The old news man pointed to the mans
back, soaked with sweat, the sopping, nearly transparent fabric outlined by a
thin, white line of salt. I thought it looked like the African continent. Wagdi
thought it looked like Israel, which was, after all, behind everything. Were
not going there, he laughed. He let the kid go.
Wagdi ploughed his way through the crowded streets of Cairo. I followed in
his wake and tried to keep up as people scattered before his intimidating bulk.
As we walked he told me about his life. He was born in Shubra, to a poor Coptic
family with too many children; his dad was a butcher; he was precociously literate;
he went to Cairo University in the mid 1970s, where he was politicized, secularized,
met his first girlfriend, went to his first protest, and got arrested for the
first time. His life from that point on followed a dogged pattern: join underground
cell, plot era-appropriate destruction. 19771980: Assassinate Israeli
officials operating in Egypt; 19851988: Assassinate Israeli and Saudi
officials operating in Egypt; 19931996: Assassinate Israeli, Saudi, and
American officials operating in Egypt.
He never actually assassinated anyone. He never even got close. He held meetings,
penned pamphlets, organized rallies, smuggled weapons, and then, like clockwork,
the police would descend, and he was back in prison. When they released him,
the cycle began again. It would continue, he said. It was a question of principle.
We stopped in front of the Mugamma. Wagdi put his arm around my shoulder and
guided me to the very center of the plaza. Wagdis arm was solid. Extremely
large. Strangely comforting. In comparison, my own arms felt soft and weak;
they dangled uselessly at my sides. I stuck my hands in my pockets, tried not
to slouch, and we stood like father and son in front of the Mugamma, our shadows
stretching away at an angle towards Sharia Tahrir. This is the glory
of the Egyptian state, he said. A thousand bureaucrats trapped
in an unassailable fortress. I waited in silence for Wagdi to continue.
I started counting the windows from the topleft of the building, and when I
got to one hundred and twenty-four, began to think that Wagdi had nothing left
to say. I looked up at him. His body almost eclipsed the afternoon sun; a blinding
corona met the edge of his silhouette. Turning back, I blinked at pinpricks
of light that danced between the Mugamma and myself.
I tried to make a noise that would express condescension or knowing skepticism.
It came out as a croak. He was so large! And as to the corruption of the third-world
bureaucracy, Wagdi and I were in agreement. I knew I had to say something.
I could show no weakness. For had not TE Lawrence (or was it Thomas Friedman?)
taught me that Arabs only respond to ostentatious displays of strength? I tried
I think the building looks like its reaching out to give us a hug. The
building had two wings that jut out, four window-lengths, on either side. They
looked like arms extended in friendship and in love to the traffic of Midan Tahrir.
Wagdis face turned hard. The Mugamma is a fortress. It embraces
nothing. It crushes the life out of those who work inside, and of those of
us who live and work outside, as well. The weight of his arm on my shoulder
was heavier now.
We began walking down the Corniche. I took the offensive, complaining about
the traffic, the dirt, heat, the crowds, the noise, the poverty. Look
at other developing countries, I instructed Wagdi. India, South
Africa. There is hope for those countries. They have industry, a growing middle
class. There is nothing here. I tugged on my t-shirt. My sweat had made
it stick to my skin. Wagdi was quiet. I continued, National pride means
nothing without real economic progress. That progress can only come through
liberalizing the economy.
I looked to see if any of my words had registered with Wagdi. I looked at the
scar that extended from just below his right eye to the corner of his mouth. Mr
Stella, he said, you should meet my son. You remind me of him.
He is an idiot. He held my hand in his calloused mitt, and as he led
me off the Corniche and into the city, I began to wilt.
Wagdi took me to Midan Attaba, where he lived in an apartment on the eighth
floor. We went up. His apartment was empty, except for a mewling mass of cats.
Wagdi gave me a glass of ice water and directed us all onto the balcony.
Wagdi picked one cat up by the scruff of its neck and trained its eye on the
Tiring Building, a decrepit Viennese-designed department store languishing
in Midan Attaba. On the top of the building was a sculpture of four Atlases
holding up the world. I thought that the Atlases were somewhat ugly, and the
globe, disproportionately small. I made one final attempt at critique.
I dont understand why it takes four Atlases to do what one Atlas
can do anywhere else.
It is simple, Mr Stella. The weight of the world is heavier here in Cairo. And
with that, I gave up. The man, like the Mugamma, was a monolith. I was crushed.
I squatted and started playing with the cats. Wagdi looked down, pleased to see
that we were making friends.
Then a door slammed inside. Startled, I stood to see Wagdi shifting his weight
from foot to foot. My son, he said. My son has come home. The
cats were perturbed. They started clambering on one another, as though attempting
to form a feline pyramid. Wagdis son, a scowling, insouciant fourteen-year-old
wearing tight, torn jeans and a black Metallica t-shirt, walked onto the balcony.
The cats darted past him into the apartment.
Dad, Wagdis son yelled. The cats are inside. How many
times do we have to talk about this. The cats live in the street. People live
in the apartment.
Wagdi began apologizing to his son. Dont apologize, the son
said, take the cats downstairs. Wagdi began apologizing to me.
I made what I thought were reassuring gestures with my hands. It was a strange
scene. The toughest man in Cairo, pleading with a teenager. Wagdi seemed to
feel it, too. He followed the cats, leaving me alone with his son on the balcony.
God I hate those cats. He looked me up and down. Are you American? he
asked, and when I nodded, he began to speak in English.
What the shit are you talking for to my dad? I smiled.
He is a motherfucker. I hate him. He produced a pipe and a crumpled
cigarette out of a pocket. Like Sherlock Holmes, he said. He pronounced
the L in Holmes. He broke the cigarette in half and poured the tobacco into the
bowl of the pipe. He struck a match and almost lit the scraps inside, and then
leaned against the wall, sucking on the pipe with exaggerated pleasure.
Damn, that is smooth. He passed me the pipe. I played along and sucked
air through the pipe. The faint, faraway taste of the tobacco reminded me of
a more innocent time, now long past, when I didnt smoke at all.
After a few seconds, I passed the pipe back to him. It was dark out, a development
that clearly irritated him. He grumbled and turned on the light on the balcony.
A moth began to attack the light bulb. It was a losing battle, but the moth
was tenacious, throwing itself mindlessly against the glass again and again.
The fluttering shadow cast by the moth just made Wagdis son angrier.
That moth is stupid, he complained. Egypt is shit, he
said. He pointed the stem of the pipe at the Tiring Building. That is shit. He
pointed at the green lights of the mosques in the distance. Religion is
Religion is shit? I asked, feeling like I should say something.
I hate God.
You hate God?
He looked at me meaningfully. I hate America more than I hate God.
You hate America more than you hate God? I felt stupid repeating
his words but I wasnt quite sure what to say. I was beginning to empathize
with the cats. I hate Britney Spears more than I hate God. But I hate Amr
Diab more than I hate Britney Spears.
And the cats?
Those cats are pimp motherfuckers. I hate my father more than I hate Amr
Diab more than I hate Britney Spears more than I hate Egypt more than I hate
God. He looked satisfied with himself, like he had just solved a puzzle.
He passed me the pipe, and I obediently took another puff.
So what do you like?
He lifted in a fist in the air and made the devils horns. I love
metal. He stuck out his tongue and thrashed his head around. Just as
suddenly, he was still. Stop smoking. The pipe doesnt work, you
Anand Balakrishnans The Toughest Man in Cairo vs the Zionist Vegetable originally
featured in Bidoun magazine : Art and Culture from the Middle East.