My landline has been on the blink for about a month, despite several thousand complaints to the Egyptian Telecom company. It didn’t bother me that much initially, given that I communicate mostly by MSN, text message or even through face to face conversations, though it's becoming unfashionable. However I realised recently that something is missing from my life - apart from a job and a sense of purpose - and concluded that it is my lack of a landline and consequent inability to order sundry items by telephone at 2 am.
So when I opened the door this morning to find a pair of telephone engineers at my door, I received them with the same wonder and joy with which the three wise men must have been greeted in the manger. I ushered them in and they did their thang. I say ‘they’ but in fact what happened was that the slightly younger engineer did all the work while the other boss guy leafed through photographs of Tunisia he found lying about and generally chilled. He also periodically wheezed his way to the back door to smoke a fag, using my cooker to light his cigarettes.. Now, as is customary in our house when workmen come a-calling, Mahmoud the bawwab accompanied the engineers to protect my delicate female honour (regardless of the fact that my auntie upstairs is so fierce she can castrate a man with her voice). Mahmoud is Sudanese. Throughout his sojourn chez moi boss guy had repeatedly referred to someone called ‘Abdallah’ when asking Mahmoud to transmit messages to his schmuck colleague working on the roof (His Excellency being too busy looking through my personal effects to go up himself). As we were leaving I asked him who this Abdallah was, at which he pointed at Mahmoud and asked ‘ommal what’s his name?’ Closing my eyes rather than flick him on the forehead I said, ‘Mahmoud…MAHMOUUUUDDD,’ prompting him to exclaim ‘Mahmoud?!? But the blacks are all called Abdallah’ before buggering off.
With hindsight, I would have turned up the flame on my cooker when boss guy was lighting his cigarette to singe his eyebrows or at least burn off his moustache. His remarks reflect the generally odd attitudes to race I have encountered here . On the whole people don’t see the beauty in black, and there is the same ‘the lighter the better’ attitude which pervades for example black American video clip culture. When one of my Egyptian cousins got married she plastered so much white powder on her face I was convinced that she was going to perform a mime show for her wedding guests. The interesting thing is that I’ve spoken to numerous people who are adamant that no racism exists in Egypt because according to them Egyptians come in a range of colours, and “look how we loved Ahmed Zaki God rest his soul!” But yet a black African friend of mine who lived in Alexandria was constantly tormented by taunts, stares, finger pointing and general rudeness, and her experience is consistent with other anecdotal accounts I have encountered. It seems that what is driving this behaviour is a cocktail of ignorance of the other, combined with these warped attitudes to colour and beauty, and topped off with a garnish of complete indifference to the feelings of strangers. I remember as a teenager getting royally pissed off when, while walking in Cairo, random strangers would point at me and pronounce ‘agnabeyya,’ as if identifying a variety of cheese.
The insularity of Egyptian society can still shock, and attitudes towards ‘the other’ - whether it be me, Mahmoud, a Russian dancer or a refugee – are tiresome to say the least. But such attitudes possibly have nothing to do with race, or even xenophobia, and more to do with Egyptian society’s insistence on compartmentalising the world and his mother into broad categories (Egyptian/foreign/Muslim/Christian…) which both dictate the way individuals are treated and the behaviour expected from them. Hence why even an Egyptian who does not conform to the rules governing the category to which he is allotted will feel alienated within his own country.