I have been in Cairo for about a month and I am now Mr. Bat. I have been named Mr. Bat by the Egyptians, who make fun of my name because there is no P sound in Arabic. Of course, most of the Egyptians I associate with can speak English perfectly well and can certainly pronounce the P sound. This is simply one of their jokes.
The friend I am staying with is Ken. Ken is known as Mr. Kent, after the American cigarette.
Mr. Bat and Mr. Kent.
So I have been in Cairo for about a month. It is evening and I am sitting in a chair wrapped in a blanket. I have a fever. My glands are swollen and my urine is a festive rust color. I believe I am dying. One of the reasons I believe this is that Mr. Kent’s best friend Khaled has greeted me for the last week every time he has seen me with a hearty
— Mr. Bat. You are going to die in Egypt. We shall bury you in the desert and the sands shall suck up your blood.
He then laughs. Is he joking? It’s hard to tell.
Khaled is visiting this evening with two friends; Mustafa and Dr. Mahmoud. The three of them and Mr. Kent are playing Basra on a table outside on the “summer” balcony, laughing, slapping the cards down, and talking a mixed babble of Arabic, English and French. The legendary singer Um Kalsoum is playing on the cassette player. I was playing cards with them a few minutes ago, but I bowed out after I took the medicine given to me by Dr. Mahmoud, a trained pharmacist.
Dr. Mahmoud has heard about my condition. He is concerned.
— I am concerned about your condition. Here, take these pills.
He pulls two pill bottles out of his briefcase. He gives me three brown ones and four white ones.
— Wash it down with this.
He takes out a bottle of Egyptian brandy and pours me four fingers, neat.
— What is this? Brandy?
— Of course it’s brandy. Good Egyptian brandy. Now take the pills quickly and drink it down to the last drop.
— But, um, my mother has always told me that I shouldn’t take medicines with alcohol.
— And was your mother a trained pharmacist? No, I didn’t think so. So drink up. You will feel better.
— What are these pills?
— These pills are medicine that I have prescribed for your condition, which appears to be deteriorating as we speak. So take them now.
Who was I to argue with a trained pharmacist? I took the pills and washed them down with the brandy.
And Dr. Mahmoud was right. I felt much better almost immediately. They dealt me a hand of Basra. I couldn’t see the cards very clearly and I mostly threw them down at random, capturing nothing.
— Hey Dr. Mahmoud. I do feel much better. What was in those pills?
— Well, he said a bit petulantly, since I was throwing off the play, the brown ones were vitamin B. Becoforte.
— How about the white ones?
Oh lord!. I had just washed down a double dose of codeine with half a bottle of brandy. No wonder I felt good. The tattered remains of my conscience told me that I should be feeling bad. But I couldn’t work up the energy.
So instead, I passed at the next deal and moved to another chair away from the table.
Suddenly, Um Kalsoum began a new song and everyone at the table stopped playing.
At the time, I did not see the appeal of this, the most famous Arabic singer of her time. I simply found the music exotic and focused more on the sounds of rioting and the smashing of furniture that seemed to occur at the end of some of her drawn out phrases.
— What’s that noise? I asked Khaled.
— The audience. They are rioting and smashing the furniture. Um Kalsoum was that good. Wait.
He put up two fingers.
— What was she singing about?
— My eyes.
— Your eyes?
— No, not MY eyes. She was using the expression “my eyes”. Ya aini. This is a very versatile expression in Arabic. If you learn little else, you would do well to learn this one. It will take you far. In this case, spoken softly to a lover, ya aini. You are my eyes.
— Or Ya aini! I can’t believe my eyes! The vendor cheated Mr. Kent out of 2 piastres!, said Dr. Mahmoud.
— Or Ya aini! said Mustafa, slapping himself on the forehead. I forgot my keys!
— Or Ya aini, did you see what Mr. Bat did to the bicycle deliveryman on Tahrir Square?
They all laughed even though Mr. Kent was the only one who had actually been there to see what I had done to the poor deliveryman. A few days after I had arrived, Ken and I had gone by taxi to Tahrir Square to register me as a tourist in the government building. On the way, the driver had picked up two more people, so there were five of us crammed into the rickety Renault. I was uncomfortable and afraid as the driver rolled through the streets of Cairo like a ball falling through a pinball machine. I was so relieved when we arrived at the square that I popped the door open without looking – directly into the path of a fully loaded bicycle deliveryman. He hit the door so hard that he and his bicycle seemed to flip over the top of it, along with about 60 pounds of meat that jettisoned its paper wrappers. I jumped out and stared in awe at a meat-covered Tahrir Square. I looked at the deliveryman who was rising painfully to his feet before getting down to giving me a well-deserved ass-kicking.
But then a miracle happened. The other four occupants of the taxi, including the driver and the two strangers, jumped out, and surrounding the man, began to yell ma’alesh!, ma’alesh!, frantically, then soothingly. The deliveryman stopped and as they repeated this, I saw him take his anger and physically pull it back inside of himself. He them composed himself, looked me in the eye, and with a slight nod said, ma’alesh. We all then got down and helped him to retrieve his meat.
Ma’alesh. I had heard of this expression even in the United States and had been told that it meant, “It doesn’t matter”. I had also been told that the expression exemplified the sloppy and lazy Arab attitude towards life. But did it? I saw the expression used in many, many different contexts in Cairo, as in “it’s all right”, “it’s no big deal”, “what can one do?” “Lighten up!” The man I hit was obviously not lazy; he had been ferrying a large load of meat on a bicycle. He wasn’t sloppy, because I saw him gain control of himself though an act of will that would have been beyond most Americans that I knew. It took me some years to realize that ma’alesh was a perfect expression to have available if one completely believes that everything is the Will of God. Believing in the Will of God does not make one sit around and wait for apples to fall out of the sky. One still has to work – hard – and anyone who thinks that Egyptians are lazy has never seen them build an eight story building by hand, hauling the rebar and cement piece-by-piece and bag-by-bag and mixing and pouring it by hand one pillar and one wall at a time. But when something unexpected or unfortunate happens and you need strength, ma’alesh. Mysterious are the ways of God. The kneecap you smash at work might pay for a plane ticket to Cairo, where you find yourself wrapped in a blanket and pissing blood and learning about the Egyptian sense of humor.
My Cairo illness itself had to be a joke played by God, when I tempted Him by showing off. I had taken a deep drink from a public cup while slumming with Mr. Kent. The cup was a can on a string dangling inside of a four-foot high semi-porous pot sitting outside a police station door. Everyone who walked by took a drink out of this can; peasants, the poor, the diseased, and Mr. Bat. Mr. Kent had laughed at me (although he had taken a deep draught himself) as he predicted that I would have the bloody flux within 72 hours. He was wrong — it only took 24 hours and when it was over I wished that it was the worst thing I caught. But ma’alesh.
I am roused from my reveries by the boys jumping up and pulling me to my feet. They have decided that midnight is just the time to go out drinking at the pyramids. I find this somewhat odd. I had this irrational assumption that the pyramids closed at a certain time in the evening, like they were some sort of Disney attraction. My tiny conscience whispers that I should be resting in bed. Perhaps this little voice comes out of my mouth, for through my narcotic haze I hear Khaled say, do not worry, Mr. Bat. You are going to die in Cairo anyway. Why not die close to the desert, so we won’t have to travel so far to bury you?
So in a few minutes, I find myself and my blanket bundled into the back of Khaled’s car, heading towards the Great Pyramids of Giza.
Have you ever seen the pyramids under a full moon? This was my first view of them. The pyramids no longer have the facing of rose quartz that they did in olden times. But a bright moon in a cloudless sky still reflects off the sandstone and the pyramids in the distance look perfectly smooth with a slight metallic glitter.
There was no one there. We pulled up next to the Great Pyramid of Cheops. We had stopped on the way for some bottles of beer and brandy and some fresh hot loaves of Egyptian bread. We set this stuff out one some stone benches that the British had nicely installed for us in the 1920’s. Between the pyramid and us was a deep trench. A funeral barge had been excavated from this several years earlier. The archeologists had apparently left the hole as a teaching aid.
I had recovered my energy enough to get into the spirit of things. We drank “Cairo Cocktails”; our name for 6 ounces of brandy poured into 12 ounces of beer. When we finished a bottle, we would take turns seeing how high up the pyramid we could smash it.
While we were goofing around, a group of armed men on horseback appeared. They were the desert police and we gave them a polite greeting. They politely greeted us back, but they give Mr. Kent, who is blonde, a rather close look.
— They looked like they recognized you, I joked.
— They may very well have recognized him, said Khaled. Mr. Kent, why don’t you tell Mr. Bat what sort of things you have done on this very bench on moonlit nights.
Deserted as the pyramids were, I could not imagine that even Ken would be making love out in the open on a stone bench. But that’s not what he had been up to.
The bench had been one of his “artist” ex-girlfriend Shelley’s favorite venues. She used to use it to perform sacrifices to the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet. She would decorate the bench as an altar with her 20-inch cat statue and lots of candles. She made “pharonic priest” costumes for Ken and a blonde gay friend of theirs whom I shall call “Rick”. She herself wore an elaborate high priestess costume and would carry out mock pagan religious rituals that involved a lot of moaning and arm waving. It was this sort of thing that had made her the toast of the Cairo expat gay community. Now drunken boys on a little spree at midnight were one thing. But paganism was something altogether different and I wondered why the desert police had not simply shot them for blasphemy. But instead, they would just spit over their shoulders and mutter prayers against Satan.
— We positively freaked the desert police out! said Ken.
— Ya aini! I replied.
— You’re getting the hang of it, said Khaled.
After we had smashed the last bottle on the pyramid, we decided to go back into town. The others decided that they were hungry, and a very animated discussion ensued in Arabic about where to eat. Eventually, they came to a conclusion and we piled back into the car.
By this time, the combination of cold desert air, my illness, the toxic chemicals in my system, and Khaled’s reckless driving was making me feel a bit nauseous. I wanted to sleep, not eat. I was about to suggest that I just sleep in the car, when Khaled started talking up the meal we were going to have.
This was a bad sign. Ken had told me that I should always accept any hospitality offered by an Egyptian, no matter what the cost or risk giving serious offense. I was skeptical about this at first, but he categorically insisted that this was the case. This advice got me into more trouble than anything else when I was in Cairo. It wasn’t until several years later that I discovered that he was basically lying and that Egyptians, while wildly generous to guests, were also, not unreasonably, focused on the welfare of the guest and would certainly have been understanding of any refusal. What had really been going on was that Ken had lived in Cairo long enough to no longer be considered a visitor and he had lost his own guest status, with all its privileges. So he was taking advantage of my “guestness” to slip-stream behind me and he believed that as long as I kept taking, his friends would keep giving.
But I didn’t know this at the time. So when Khaled announced that we were headed for the best all night shwarma stand in the city (shwarma being the Egyptian equivalent to gyros – hot pieces of sliced ground lamb dripping in fat, served on a piece of flat bread) I almost puked all over the back of his head. But I knew that I was going to have to eat it.
The stand happened to be on a street that ran by the Nile. The street was deserted when we pulled up and the old man who ran it seemed happy for the company. We all got out of the car, with me lagging to the rear, hoping they would forget about me. But no. I was the fucking guest, so I got the first sandwich. It was served wrapped in a newspaper. It was literally dripping and the smell of it, normally so delicious, was making me see spots. I thought about just dropping it, but within seconds we were surrounded by a hoard of Cairo cats; earless, tailless, three legged, mangy, half blind, scrofulous street cats that are everywhere.
— Don’t you dare feed the cats, whispered Ken.
No. What was I going to do with the sandwich? Then I had a brilliant idea. I would pretend to eat it. I would watch when the others were finished. They would naturally crumble up their newspapers and I would also crumble up mine with the sandwich in it as small as I could. Surely they were too stoned to see that my lump of paper was larger than theirs. Then I would simply toss it like they did.
The moment of truth approached. Could I carry it off? The cats were a bit of a problem. There were like 20 of them now and they could somehow tell that I had the biggest sandwich left. They were crowding so close to my ankles that I felt like I was standing in choppy surf.
When Dr. Mahmoud crumbled his paper, I crumbled mine. Then I casually tossed it over the low embankment wall towards the river. Immediately, all the cats took off after it, jumping in a pack over the wall.
It was then that I discovered that there were about a dozen beggars sleeping on the other side of the wall. The yelling that my sandwich caused when it hit them was nothing compared to what I heard when the cats landed. The first five angry men came over the wall like paratroopers jumping out of an airplane.
Khaled only had time to yell out a frenzied, Mr. Bat, did you just throw your sandwich over the wall!?!, before we ran to the car. Khaled had it moving, rubber peeling, even before we go the doors closed. I looked out the window at the mob of angry fist waving men receding behind us. Khaled sped along for about two miles. Then he pulled over and turned off the engine. The four men stared at me. Grimly.
— Ma’alesh? I said, hopefully.