“Sabah Al Khair” (Good Morning). I’m talking to my Bawaab; well, more like shouting from the balcony above. I know a lot of you reading this don’t speak any Arabic so I’m going to make a point of translating the words. This is my way of pretending I’m helping you while in fact hoping that you will be well impressed with my language skills and sheer mastery of Egyptian slang, or in fact of any other language other than English. Lets face it, chances are if you speak English its pretty much all you speak. It’s an arrogance we have that will backfire one day soon. There are few things worse than two people chatting away in front of you in a language you don’t understand. It makes you paranoid. Well, brace yourself English speakers of the world, because everyone else is learning to speak English, slowly we will be the only ones with that paranoid problem.
A Bawaab is a “Doorman” – literally. In reality he is a kind of informal concierge, every block has one. He helps you with what ever you want. Its 7am. He’s been up since the crack of dawn probably, judging by the number of cars he has washed. Unlike a lot of people I know he takes pride in his work and does it well. Like a lot of people I can see he looks miserable most of the time while he is doing it. Finding paid work that you love to do is one of life’s greatest challenges and very few manage it in a lifetime. Its the same from London to Cairo and my guess is its universal. I certainly haven’t managed it so far, though I’m grateful for the work I have had.
“Sabah Al Noor”, he says back (Morning Light). It means the same thing effectively. I know because I just asked my wife. Her Arabic is way beyond mine but I must make a note not to ask her anything while writing because the answer is often longer than expected and has the tendency to make me forget why I was asking the question in the first place. In fact, I have just this minute decided not to talk to her generally until 9am…ish. That is when she usually asks if I want some breakfast. It would just be plain rude not to speak then…. and stupid.
“Ezayuk?”, (How are you?) I shout quietly from my terrace in the sky. The conversation with my Bawaaab continues. That’s me reaching the end of my Arabic vocab for greetings and general banter, but my Bawaab doesn’t realise this. “Alhamduillah, wa @$£&&, fhhfihfiahifh *&*$$£ hdahqoef abjqewpb afbopqwe fb fbuefb fpfba ya Basha!” He replies. At least thats how it sounded to me. I nod and smile. The only bit I got was the first and the last, but thats all I need to know it was general banter and nothing that requires the continuation of the conversation. He gets back to wiping the dust off the cars of the people who live in my block. I look around me. The Bawaabs are out in force. Its a Bawaab army of car cleaners and porch scrubbers, hose pipe wielders and carpet dusters, floor moppers and… oh you get the picture.
Ah! The morning is glorious in Cairo. Just before the heat and smog kick in. Its a kind of body temperature outside. Not hot, but not cold. You could almost stand here naked, not that you would dare. This is still a Muslim country and respectfully conservative, although extremely Westernised (ever noticed Easternised is not a term ever used? – I wonder if that’s part of the reluctance of English speaking world’s refusal to learn something “different”? Makes me also wonder whether the ‘intolerance’ label dumped on Middle Eastern countries is actually fair, or whether……mmmmm another blog entry methinks). The sun is poking its head round the corner of the clouds and the ground will soon begin to steam as the washing water from the Bawaab Army dries up. Soon that “earthy” smell will fill the air, mixed with the smell of bread, foohl and taamiya (traditional breakfast in Egypt – cooked beans and fried… green… thing). It’s no breakfast really. Although I don’t eat pork, you can’t beat a full English breakfast sorry. Sausage (the Shazams Halal ones, get them from Tooting High Street), eggs, beans, hash brown, toast, tomato, mushrooms…. Then again, one costs about £2.50 to make yourself the other costs just 20p. I wonder if our taste buds are economic or whether we actually would still eat the flavours we like now if all of us could afford anything?
My yawn was bit loud just now and I have caught the attention of the two schoolgirls waiting for the bus below me. I am somewhat of a spectacle here in Cairo. There aren’t that many black people around and certainly none who sit on their balconies drinking hot rose petals (its called Kakadee – its like hot ribena and its one bad aaaaaassss brew) blogging at this time in the morning. They soon lose interest. They’re getting used to the “weird African man who can’t speak the language” now. I yawn again. No audience this time. I don’t know why, but the jet lag never really goes away here. Everybody says it. Well actually when I say everybody I’m being a little facetious, I of course mean the handful of English speaking family I have here. It literally is a handful at the moment. At least it is until I find the rest of the UK massive who I hear are congregating mainly in Maadi (Cairo’s British answer to the Costa Del Sol).
I say I don’t know why the jet lag never sags but there are a few very credible possibilities. To start with I sleep extremely late. Cairo is two hours ahead of London and back home I sleep around midnight on average, here around 2am. Then I wake up for Fajr ( 5am Cairo time – or I should say my wife wakes me up at the moment – we take turns – its been her turn for a while) which used to be so exiting as my alarm clock was the bellowing, deep and rugged tones of the Muazim (caller of the prayer) from the mosque opposite our apartment (fair enough, its a largish flat, but I like the sound of apartment). Its amazing how quickly you get used to it. The first time I heard it I did wonder whether anyone slept through it and if so how? It nearly shook me out of bed. But you hear it 5 times a day, day in day out without fail no matter where you go. I love it. It’s part of our rich heritage as Muslims but….. I’ve managed to sleep through it a few times now. We set the clock on my wife’s phone to make sure we don’t miss the prayer now. You can’t sleep through that. Beep – beep – beep – beep. How did ‘they’ know you could not ignore that sound? Its like some US, Guantanamo torture method, except it actually does the job it’s designed for.
The other possibility is the heat. My mum, who lives in Ghana (West Africa) described it as a “heat, heat” when she visited. Thanks Mum……. as opposed to a “heat cold” you mean? What I think she meant is that it feels like it has no breeze to compensate, like in the hills of Aburi where she lives. Then again she was here in the summer and it does get hot in the summer, boy does it get hot; even first thing in the morning. It’s a thieving heat. It steals from you. First is the enthusiasm for anything else but drinking cold beverages, quickly followed by your ability to walk or sit up straight, rendering you useless. Then it nicks your speech so you end up mumbling things at people between naps. Yes the heat is definitely one of the suspects in this case.
Or…. it could just be that I’m outside my normal routine. In London I have a routine. Wake up, work, come home, pay bills, watch TV, sleep, wake up, work, come home, pay bills, watch TV, sleep. In truth there are events in-between these milestones but I use this handful of repetitive words to reinforce the idea of routine and monotony before going on to show the difference in my now altogether different lifestyle. Now I don’t just wake up; I actually want to write about the morning. About the drivers that use their horn to ‘beep’ the puddle in the road to tell it they are about to drive through it. About the school buses which refuse to give each other way in the narrow residential road below and are forced into a stand-off every morning. About the Bawaab’s wife who has just returned from up the road with a bag which looks like a selection of warm fresh delights from the nearby bakery, probably on request of one of my neighbours.
Truth is I’m the only one not really doing anything and from where I’m sat, perched on high like some black canary, its easy to enjoy the Noor (light). Everyone else has gone to work or is working below. When life is as hard and money as tight as it is for most of the 25 million native inhabitants of this smokey metropolis, I guess you have to start early. But for all the reasons I stated above I just can’t join them right now. ”Sabar Al Noor”. It may well be a good morning and a good light, but I get the feeling I’ll be napping in an hour or two.