Monday, February 20, 2012

The Ahwagy and the Intellectuals


The Zahrat al Bustan Café is one of Cairo’s old literary haunts. The acerbic novelist Sonallah Ibrahim counted this cafe as one of three downtown points in the “Triangle of Horror,” where literary scandals and gossip would swirl among intellectuals and socialites in the 1970’s over tea, shisha, and sahleb (a warm creamy drink made from orchid root). Although there is a proper indoor room of smoke-grey walls and a few laconic old men playing dominoes, the real bustle happens in the open-air alleyway, where turquoise plastic chairs sit under a flickering string of lights curved into the shape of a candle, like a left over and kind of pathetic Christmas decoration.

In November, when the year’s constant mist of rallies, demonstration, sit-ins, and marches became a whirlpool of tear-gas, rubber bullets, and rushed political compromises, Bustan was a popular place to take a break from Tahrir and the war zone of Mohamed Mahmoud Street. It was far enough away to feel safely distanced, but close enough so that the journalists and the activists trading their stories could, if the chanting that wafted over the buildings was enticing enough, run out and seek some new ones.

It was here in late November, that I sat with several friends smoking shisha and people watching. A young man with a thick scruff of beard seamlessly joined to his head of curly hair zipped around the alley with a long-handled bowl in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, replacing the coals on shisha pipes when they turned to ash. He would wipe the remains into the bowl, and then lift the tobacco holder and blow a quick puff of air to clean out the top and get rid of the unpleasant flavor of charcoal. Swinging the bowl casually from side to side to air the coals, he would pick out small crumbled chunks and arrange them with a slightly over-performed care on the circle of tin foil and tobacco.

He watched me watch him. “The shisha’s good?” he asked proudly, already knowing the answer. I nodded and smiled. I pronounced “Moo-rees,” the Arabization of my name, and he reached out his hand for a shake I’d learned well by then, a combination of a slap and a grab. “If the shisha’s good now,” he told me, “then a good tip later.” He said his name was Ali, and taught me the word for his job, ahwagy, which combines the Egyptian word for coffee or café, ahwa, with the Turkish/Ottoman suffix –agy, which refers to occupations.

I would go to Bustan once or twice a week, pulled by the space’s balance of relaxation and excitement. A street magician pulls rabbits out of a hat, and vendors go from table to table. Usually they sell tissues or newspapers, but one night a man was clearly selling guns and I did not get the courage to ask if they were real or not.

On Valentine’s day, months later, Bustan was unusually quiet. We had not been by for several weeks, and Ali had to stare at us and shake his head in a cartoonish way before recognizing me. He walked over and leaned in for a greeting you do when you’re a friend, rather than an acquaintance, where you kiss the air next to each others cheeks, right and then left. His three-day scruff brushed my three-day scruff, though I suspected the reasons for our lack of a clean shave might be different.

He spotted an Arabic newspaper I had just bought because Muhammad Hassenein Heikal’s face took up a massive portion of the cover. Heikal was one of Nasser’s closest friends and advisors in the 1960’s, and worked as Editor in Chief of Al Ahram throughout much of his rule. His weekly columns were widely seen as Nasser’s thoughts and policies translated into in polished prose, and were translated instantly into English and French for diplomats to interpret as code from the conspiratorial President. After a falling out with Sadat, Heikal continued to write and speak widely about his former glory days, publishing numerous books about the major events of the latter half of Egypt’s twentieth century. Recently, he had been issuing a new account of Mubarak’s rule in daily installments.

Ali recognized him immediately, and challenged me to read the headline, correcting my pronunciation while skimming the article. “He’s very well-known,” Ali said of Heikal, “very famous,” holding his hand at an angle towards himself and sticking out his chest. “Heikal is like [Naguib] Mahfouz or Chahine [a famous film director] and so he can write his opinion every day about politics and people read it and take it seriously.”

I asked Ali if he ever wrote down his opinions or told them to others. He shook his head. “I don’t have opinions about these things. I just work at a café.”

“But you’re right by Tahrir,” I reminded him. “You must hear what everybody here says about politics.”

“I get so confused,” he answered. “First they say ‘this’ about the Muslim Brotherhood and then they say ‘that’ about the Salafis or the SCAF or the liberals, and I just do not agree. I don’t disagree either. I just stay out of it.”

“But really the problem is money. Every day you get paid, but then it goes to food and clothing and my son and daughter.”

I had no idea Ali was a father. He looked no more than twenty-five years old. It turns out he is thirty. He’s been working at this same café downtown for seventeen years, which means he started at thirteen. He works here from 3pm to 3am every day.

Another waiter shouted “Hey Ali, Muhammad is here!”

“Muhammad who?”

“Muhammad al hag [an honorific]”

Ali skittered off. He apologized later and explained that Muhammad was the café owner’s son.

When he returned, he started as if in mid-sentence.

“My son, Ahmed, is very sick. He has anemia, because he only ate fava beans for so long and he has been back and forth to the hospital for four months. Everybody said he was going to die.”

“It costs seventy pounds [about eleven dollars] every day,” he explained, to keep Ahmed at the hospital, “and so we have to get money from his mother’s family and my brother and father and a neighbor.”

“But then,” he told me, “my brother’s son got sick too.” He mentioned the name of the illness and I didn’t recognize it, though he motioned to his chest. I nodded and felt very uncomfortable. My mind flashed to all the accounts you hear of cabdrivers giving trumped up tales of woe for a big tip, but of course I was too far in not to believe him.

“But then, the doctor; he took his own blood and gave it to Ahmed, and now he is feeling much better. Tomorrow, I will wake up early because I’m going to see him at the hospital.”

Some customers arrived and Ali sprinted off again, waving the coals in the wind to make them glow. 

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