My nickname is Pat, but the Egyptians named me Mr. Bat, since Arabic has no “P” sound and they liked to pretend that they couldn’t pronounce the letter.
When I went to Cairo in 1976 to visit my high school friend Ken (known to the Egyptians as Mr. Kent), I was an uptight Catholic working class boy. Although I had grown a beard to annoy my boss at work (and to hide what I thought were my overly youthful features) and although I had long hair like everyone else in 1976, I was no hippie. I certainly wasn’t a confirmed pot or hash smoker. I was very straight-laced for the time.
I expected the Egyptians to be straight laced too. If I can put a word to what I expected, that word would be austere. Although I was aware that Egypt was a more open society than, say, Saudi Arabia, I expected it to be chaste and humorless, rather like Massachusetts in the 17th century.
This is probably why it took me about two weeks to get the first joke that was played on me. The morning after I had arrived, I noticed that Ken was still wearing a gallabiyah (a robe like outfit that most non-Westernized Egyptians wore). He usually did so in the apartment. It seemed cool in both senses of the word, and I asked him if I could borrow one. He readily agreed and he loaned me three of them for my own use. I was delighted and I put one on immediately.
What he didn’t tell me was that the three that he loaned me had belonged to his ex-girlfriend Shelley. There are subtle (to a Western eye) differences between a man’s and a woman’s gallabiyah that I didn’t see and for two weeks Ken and his friends and neighbors enjoyed the spectacle of me dressing up as Ken’s girlfriend. I now understood why I got such strange looks from the postman, the doorman, the garbage collector, and the laundry man.
This joke had other repercussions. Ken had a certain circle of friends who were gay. They had been admirers of Shelley, who had acted as their social queen for several seasons. The core of this circle was an American professor whom I shall call Rick, Rick’s servant Adel, and an almost legendary figure whom I always heard referred to as The Venerable Ustez (Professor).
When I had arrived in Cairo, I had believed myself very open minded about gays, at least compared to the average heterosexual male of my day. After all, I knew many gays personally. Well, I knew two. One was my mother’s friend and hash connection; an elderly nitroglycerine-popping fellow who had introduced her to a new kind of nightlife. The other was a man that I worked with at the grocery store. He was a tubby man who worked the deli counter on the weekends. Each Sunday morning like clockwork he would come dashing in late moaning loudly in pain, head afire with his Sunday morning hangover. Ignoring all greetings, he would charge back to the dairy case where he would pull out a quart of buttermilk and quaff it in one long gurgling draught, streams of milk coursing down his cheeks and chin. This was outrageous behavior in that time and place, but his general outrageousness created for him an individuality that I admired greatly, even if I had no desire to emulate him.
I knew I was not homophobic in the least. I was therefore surprised at myself when I found myself in a panic after Ken told me that we “were going to spend a grueling evening out with the queers.” Grueling? What could this mean? Ken had made some coy remarks in the past about times he had managed to slip the leash with Shelley. And he had already been telling me stories about the gay underworld of Cairo. Grueling?
I think that Ken could sense my discomfort and he took every opportunity to make it worse. The ante was raised a bit too, when Rick sent his gay servant Adel over for something and I answered the door wearing a pretty cotton silk number of Shelley’s in red and silver stripes with gold embroidered trim on the collar.
Adel’s eyes widened when he saw me, and he became very friendly, if not flirtatious. This is what I had feared, of course, so it made my anxieties about the evening that much worse.
I was pretty much a basket case by the time night came, but I tried not to show it. Ken and I were to meet the Venerable Ustez at a coffee shop, then drive with him to pick up Rick and Adel.
The coffee shop was bustling and open to the street. The brightness of its lights against the blackness of the sky made it look like a velvet painting. Herds of cats roamed inside from table to table. We were early, so we settled down to a cup of Turkish coffee and I got to look around. Men played the card game Basra at many of the other tables and small groups gathered around them gossiping and cheering them on. Some tables were occupied by solitary hookah smokers lost in their own thoughts. I was surprised how durable everything looked. From a distance, there seemed to be a certain shabbiness to Egyptian buildings compared to those in an American city and sometimes Egyptian buildings had been known to fall down. But up close, the floors were made of stone, the tables were sturdy and topped with marble, and the patina on the paneling was thick. When an Egyptian made a coffee shop, he intended to hand it down to the next 20 generations.
We sat drinking our coffee until Ken announced, The Ustez, he’s here! I couldn’t see anything other than a rickety ancient white Fiat surrounded by a mass of children. We walked out to the car. Behind the wheel was an immense man whom I judged to be in his sixties and who looked in his beret a great deal like the actor Sidney Greenstreet from the Maltese Falcon.
He seemed annoyed and he grunted a greeting to us and barely glanced at me as I climbed into the back seat, while Ken climbed into the front. I was amazed to see that the rear window was equipped with Venetian blinds. I had never seen anything like this before.
The Ustez leaned out the window and said something to the children. About ten of them gathered at the back of the car and started to push it down the street. Another half dozen ran alongside, laughing and shouting as the Ustez popped the clutch and the engine coughed, sputtered and started. (The Ustez’s battery had died about three years earlier and he had not yet gotten around to replacing it.) He crawled down the street at about two miles per hour while he fished out some small coins from a threadbare black silk change purse. He handed these out randomly to the children nearest the window, then he hit the gas.
We drove in silence for a while, and then the Ustez pulled over to the curb. Standing there was Adel, leering at me and licking his lips, and Rick, tall and well dressed with flamboyant blonde hair. Rick mumbled a greeting, and then leaned into the window to discuss the plan with the Ustez. They he nodded and stepped back as the Ustez pulled away from the curb.
--- We shall require some food, said the Ustez.
His voice was rich, with a beautiful cultivated English accent. Later, when he spoke, he sprinkled his talk with Shakespearian and other quotations that told of deep draughts of British culture. I found out later that he had acquired much of this during the war. He had served on a British supply plane flying supplies to China over the Himalayas. At one point the plane had crashed and then been snowed in for months. All he had had to amuse himself was a copy of the Collected Works of William Shakespeare and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
--- We require food, and it must of course be the best available. I shall obtain the bread from Abdullah’s and the pickles and olives from Feisel’s. I have dispatched Rick and his servant Adel to get the cucumbers and tomatoes from Fouad’s and the tahini and condiments from Abdel-Basset’s. I expect that we shall be able to supplement these at our destination Insha’Allah.
He said this to Ken and continued to ignore me. And I was rather glad. We were going to a bar with the wonderful name of Tout Va Bien, but we were going there just to eat and drink.
We stopped here and there to get the groceries and then we parked. The bar was approached down a dark alley. We went inside. Apparently the Ustez had “his table” and the barman forced some tourists to move for us. The bar looked very old. It was decorated in what seemed to be layers of paneling thrown up by different generations. There were some low dividers about elbow high to a seated drinker that looked as though they had been placed randomly. Aside from a few lost tourists, there were the surly looking solitary Egyptian working class drinkers that one always sees in a neighborhood bar in Cairo.
Ken and I sat down. The Ustez did not really sit down as much as lower himself slowly as if into a tub of hot water. He ignored both of us on the other side of the table and simply set himself to unpacking the food, which seemed to be enough for ten. I was confused. I had been afraid that something might happen and now I was afraid that nothing might happen. But a moment later, Rick and Adel came in. Rick sat to the Ustez’s right and Adel sat to my right, pretty damn close I thought. While Adel put out the food that they had brought, Rick and Ustez exchanged some idle chatter in Arabic for a few minutes until the beer arrived. We poured each other’s and made some sort of toast. The Ustez took a long deep drink of his beer, then he put his glass down and looked across to me. He gave me a very long look, then he said
--- Mr. Bat, welcome to Egypt.
He put a grim, serious look on his face and reached over and took a loaf of Egyptian bread off of a plate. The loaf was about 12 inches long and 4 inches around. He held the loaf up and I thought he was handing it to me. I started to reach for it.
--- Mr. Bat, this is a loaf of Egyptian bread. It is for eating, not for inserting into your….
I gasped, but Rick, Ken and Adel burst out laughing.
--- Ustez, you could fit four of them in yours! said Rick. He reached over and grabbed the Ustez’s large man breasts and gave them a hearty squeeze. The Ustez giggled and reached over and attempted to goose Rick in his chair.
--- Ah, Mr. Bat. Don’t be nervous. Eat! Drink! And if that is not enough, then later I would be more than happy to take you home. And usher you through the Gates of Paradise.
I told him, no thank you, I am not interested in being ushered through the Gates of Paradise.
--- Some other time, then.
Ken opened a pack of cigarettes (Cleopatras) and started to hand them around. He started with the Ustez and Nick, but before he got to Mr. Bat, Adel whipped out a pack of his own and pressed one on me.
At this point, I had only been in Cairo about 3 weeks. Before I came to Egypt I had never, ever smoked. But in less than two weeks in Egypt I was up to about a pack and a half a day. One reason was that I was now smoking a lot of hash, supplied in baby fist sized lumps by Khaled one of Ken’s straight friends. We would take cigarette papers and roll bits of hash into our cigarettes. I had only tried hash once or twice in America, and found it too harsh. But I liked Egyptian hash. It seemed different.
--- Khaled, this hash is really good. Very smooth.
--- Thank you Mr. Bat.
--- But it looks different from American hash. American hash is green. This is almost black. Do you know why that is?
--- We use a different binder in Egypt.
--- Really? What do you use as a binder?
Yikes! That would probably explain the hallucinations. The dozen or more of these that I was smoking a day had turned me into a real cigarette smoker. But in any event, I probably would not have had a choice. Every man I met in Cairo smoked, and in true Arab style, when someone took out a pack he passed it around. Since I was told that I should never refuse anything, I started to accumulate vast quantities of loose coffin nails. I thought about re-gifting them, but this seemed offensive and in any case I couldn’t just put a rubber band around them. So I started buying my own cigarettes in order to have a pack of my own to pass around. But I still had the loose cig problem. I’d look like an idiot stuffing the gift cigarettes back into my own pack like some sort of miser, so I decided that the best thing to do would be to just smoke them myself. This sounds stupid now, but my mind worked differently in those days, what with my youth and inexperience and all of the opiated hash I was smoking and the beer and brandy I was drinking.
So Adel gave me a cigarette and he offered to light it. Sure, why not? But instead of a manly heterosexual lighting, he gently put his fingertips on the top of my hand as he gazed longingly into my eyes.
I felt like I had been assaulted, and the warning bells that went off in my head were so loud, I half thought that the patrons were going to evacuate the bar. Homophobia is a sad, sad thing. But I knew that I was not going to let him light me up again. I tried to ignore him after that, but he just pushed his chair closer.
The conversation was witty and rich. Rick was interesting and the Ustez positively brilliant. Rick admitted that he has a wild physical crush on Muammar Khadafy and we discussed the potential world political repercussions of this. The Ustez traveled in some rather high political circles where the air was thin. Ken had told me that the Ustez was descended from the former Turkish gentry, but that his personal connections had nonetheless brought him a certain amount of good luck over the years. For example, on a whim he had converted most of his government bonds into hard cash a week before the coup that had toppled King Farouk. He had also, by purest coincidence sold the family’s ancestral landed estates just three weeks before Nasser had nationalized them.
Such a lucky man had interesting insights into his country’s politics.
--- In Africa (he said with his rich voice) the masses are disgruntled and restless. They are unable to oppose the relentless power of Western commercialism. So they turn to --- religion. Would you mind terribly if I licked the rest of the catsup off this plate? Mr. Bat, I offer you a toast. Although you are doubtless a rogue and a bounder like your friend Mr. Kent here, and are no doubt an American spy, we Egyptians are hospitable people and you shall bask in the warm glow of our beneficence and hospitality. See here, now, a worthy vendor. We shall buy from this man. Mr. Bat, you are in for a rare treat indeed. I did advise that we pass on the other vendor with the shrimp. I love shrimp, of course. What man does not? But a wise man does not buy shrimp from a street vendor in Cairo. Like as not those shrimp were caught five days ago and have spent the last half-week in the hot trunk of a taxi rolling across the desert from Alexandria. Hard on the digestive tract those shrimp would be. Shrimp to die for, so to speak. But these, Mr. Bat, these are baby birds cooked five to a skewer and captured locally I can assure you. There are five of us, so we shall purchase, what, fifteen skewers so that each of you can have two. There Mr. Bat, as our guest in Egypt you must have the first one. No, no Mr. Bat, these are not to be treated as chickens. You do not nibble on a leg or a wing. You pop several into your mouth at once. I admit that the crunching of their tiny little skulls can be a bit disquieting at first, but quite rewarding in the end. Why Mr. Bat, you look a bit ill. Perhaps if you swallowed it you would feel better. There. No? Would you mind if I took your second skewer? It would be a waste to leave something behind so delicious and besides, I have already almost finished mine. Mr. Bat, are you all right? Do you need some brandy?
Mr. Bat was not all right. A vegetarian friend once told me that there is a fine line between a chicken sandwich and eating a dead bird. I had laughed then, but I wasn’t laughing now. Baby birds were supposed to be fluffy and cute, not roasted five to a spit, little baby bird eyes bulging out from gray plucked skulls, plump tummies extruding. The heads were the worst part. I spit the first one out and tossed it on the floor, but the ubiquitous cats went for it and in their fighting moved my chair back a full six inches. Ken hissed a warning at me. But what should I do with them? Should I just stick them in my pocket? No, I was being watched too closely. And besides, could I stand to walk around Cairo with a pocket full of bird heads? So I ate the next one whole and almost forty years years later I can still feel the head popping between my molars. So yes, I did need a brandy, and damn quick.
Fortunately I was saved when one of the evil cats jumped up on the partition next to Ken, perhaps to see what the next thing was that Mr. Bat was going to throw on the floor. The drinker on the other side of the partition threw a pitcher of water at it and hit Ken in the side of the head instead. Ken jumped to his feet, fist clenched. But it was apparent that all the tit grabbing and giggling at our table had upset the disgruntled Egyptians in the bar, and when they all started rising to their feet, Rick and the Ustez made a quick general appeal for sanity and order. In the meantime, I was able to toss my remaining bird carcasses.
Things quieted down and Adel offered me another cigarette. He had been offering me smokes at the steady rate of one every three minutes. I had eventually started throwing them over my left shoulder for the cats, but this made him more insistent. He really just wanted to light my cigarette. He seemed to think that his lighting of that first cigarette had established some sort of deep bond between us. His left foot was getting larger too. It kept brushing up against my feet; even though I had mine so far over they were almost in Ken’s lap.
We finally ran out of beer and conversation. It was time to go. We filed out of the place and went down the alley; the Ustez, Rick, Ken and me with Adel trailing behind. I slowed down to glance into a doorway and at that moment, Adel pounced. He gave my bottom a great brotherly grope. I remember yelping like a dog and high tailing it to the front of the line. No one said anything until we got into the car. Adel looked sheepish and I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say myself.
But then, the Ustez didn’t start the car. He sat for a moment, then slowly turned and addressed Adel in Arabic in slow, measured, enunciated tones for a full ten minutes. No one moved.
I felt bad for Adel. I was angry at him, but how much trouble was he in? He was Nick’s live in servant. Would he be fired and kicked out? Had I overreacted? I mean, what was a little goosing in the Great Scheme of Things? Adel had confided to me at dinner that his life’s aspiration was to become a professional transvestite belly dancer at one of the illegal gay nightclubs down by the slaughterhouses. Would this ruin it for him?
I wanted to object that it was no big deal, but the Ustez was speaking in a tone of quiet, absolute authority that I had seen in every nun, professor and father figure I had ever had. So I kept my mouth shut. The Ustez finished, then without further comment told us to get out and push.
Ken and Rick sat open mouthed, and then they went out. I could hardly bring myself to look at Adel, but I did. He appeared to be in awe as well, but as we were getting out of the car he turned to me and said
--- That was wonderful.
The Ustez had indeed ripped Adel a new one. But he had apparently done so in beautiful classical Arabic full of poetry and references to the Holy Koran on the proper treatment of guests and the weak by Muslims. Adel had been initially stung and humiliated of course, but then he and Rick and Ken had sat back and enjoyed the magnificent performance.
I had read about this sort of thing before, and with skepticism. About how these people loved this language that could be so refined that its own poetry could wash away other emotions before it. We knew nothing like this in English any more. We had lost the last of this sensibility sometime in the 18th century. Americans thought that English was a beautiful language because ‘that’s what we speak in Texas’. The most that a verbal ass kicking in English could now aspire to was perhaps the level of its violence.
So Adel was happy. He had inspired art. What had happened to him still looked to me like Heifetz bludgeoning someone with a Stradivarius. But then, what did I know? I was an infidel.
We dropped Rick and Adel off. Then the Ustez headed back to Zamalek to drop off Ken and me. He seemed to be taking side streets all the way. Maybe he needed to cool off. He stopped at a small deserted square. A boy who looked to be about 11 appeared from the shadows. How the Ustez had noticed him I do not know.
As the boy approached the car, I could see that he was poor. He wore sandals and a dirty pair of white cotton pants and a dirty button down shirt with some white embroidery on it. For some reason, he had undone a button near his stomach and he had his hand and forearm up inside his shirt.
The Ustez rolled down his window (summer nights are cold in Cairo) and began to speak to the boy. As they conversed, I could somehow hear the sound of a distressed chicken clucking and cackling. The boy moved his hand under the shirt as he perfectly imitated the chicken. The Ustez laughed.
--- This boy is looking for alms. He says that he does not want them for himself, but for the benefit of the pet chicken under his shirt, which seems to be in some sort of distress. This boy is marvelous.
The Ustez chuckled again and took out his threadbare old-fashioned black silk change purse; the clasp kind like I remembered my grandmother having. He held it up in his left hand, pinkie extended like an English matron drinking tea. Then very gingerly, with the tips of his fingers, like he was picking up a small diamond from a silver tray, he took out a silver 20 piastre piece and dropped it in the boy’s palm. Ken translated.
--- Here my boy. May Allah have mercy on you. This is for you.
He then took out another coin.
--- And this, my boy, is for your chicken. May Allah have mercy on him too.