Trini in Egypt: Winter comes to the desert
By Natalie Williams
Life these days in my new homeland of Egypt can best be described using the one Arabic word I am growing terribly fond of – Inshallah.
Literal translation of this beautiful Arabic word means “God willing” or “If it is God’s will”, or the truncated localised use of it often means “hopefully”.
Daily life under the curfew and this ongoing state of emergency imposed under military rule since July has, however, thrown up a myriad of new meanings and uses, depending on who you meet and what you are attempting to do or achieve at any given time in Cairo.
Take yesterday’s conversation with my local upholsterer, a cheery Egyptian who loves talking about his children.
The beauty of textiles is his calling in life, but his poor eyesight means that looking at dozens of fabric samples for any kind of upholstery work is an experience on a whole new level.
“Um, Mahar, it’s been 15 days since I sat down to a proper meal with my family. Any chance our dining chairs could get the fabric I chose 20 days ago or any idea when the reupholstering process will be finished?”
“Inshallah you eat soon soon. Inshallah,” he replies.
“Ummm. Mahar, you think I could get one sofa back any day next week?
“So far, so good. Inshallah, Inshallah.”
Normal home life?
I spend a painful 10 minutes trying to gesticulate and explain that, in fact, Allah approves wholeheartedly of my family and me sitting down at our rather lovely mahogany dining table to commune with each other, sharing love, good food and ital vibes.
I give up at the first sign of throbbing temples and go with the flow, hoping that Inshallah, I will soon reclaim some semblance of a normal home life and at the same time persuade the Wise One to finally unpack airfreight and to release the 40ft container from the shippers.
Now, the Wise One is intrinsically a calm, patient chap.
It’s one of his finest qualities and what I have always loved about him.
Not much flusters him and he’s definitely the team member you turn to in a crisis.
Cairo is changing my man.
“Hi honey, I’m home (big smile, warm, loving eyes). Getting a taxi home was hell, the taxi ride itself purgatory. My head is throbbing. I swear my lungs are shrinking and I see we still have no sofas.”
“Inshallah honey, Inshallah tomorrow.” Smile fades. Eyes look toward heaven.
Blame it on the revolution, everyone says. Which one? I am a stickler for the details.
Every Egyptian you meet talks about life before and after the revolution. And there have been so many over the decades in Egypt’s history that respectful pauses must be granted for wonderful discussions about the generational divide between the peoples’ uprisings and modern-day revolutions.
Still, life in Cairo is rich, vibrant, dynamic and, I personally feel, worth the stresses, despite constant reminders that the simple things in life that one takes for granted in so-called developed societies can never be the case in Africa’s oldest city.
It’s been four months of living and working under a curfew in Cairo and Alexandria and many other districts.
In practical terms, it means restricted movement, staying close to home, curbing your exploratory spirit (tough when you’ve just arrived in a new country and write for Caribbean Intelligence), living with a heavy military presence and cramming a full day in to a few hours to get home by 7pm as the weekend starts.
That’s no easy feat for us fun-loving people of the sunny Caribbean who invented a special word for hanging out: liming.
In any society and under the auspices of any religion, weekends are for long, uninterrupted evenings of joy, merriment and having a gaffe (as a Guyanese colleague would say) over food and drink with friends and family.
It has not been easy curbing these desires, as we have always been a couple who enjoy hosting family and friends - old and new, weird and wonderful.
There is a decaying beauty everywhere in Egypt.
It shines out from the beautiful mosques, the bustling, crowded market squares, the local buildings and the ancient architecture of Cairo’s districts and suburbs.
And in a strange way, this decaying beauty becomes a metaphor for life here and perhaps the evolution of Egyptian history.
In my neighbourhood and in the district of Cairo where the Wise One commutes to work, beautiful old villas, once home to kings and pharaohs, lie largely untended, in a state of ruin and disrepair, but shrouded by ancient trees.
They are also shrouded by the pride of ordinary folk, who take the trouble to stop the hustle and bustle of daily life to tell a bit of history here and a tale there if they catch you looking at the city’s infrastructure, whatever you think of Cairo as a whole.
It is reflected, too, in the national politics.
It is taking months to iron out the Egyptian constitution, with no agreement in sight amongst the esteemed men attempting to reshape and rewrite it.
When news spread that the curfew was being relaxed a little, I headed to the infamous Tahrir Square.
The experience was underwhelming.
Physically, it is a small roundabout teeming with major traffic jams – cars flowing in all directions, every driver with his hand permanently attached to the car horn.
But it is a small location with a giant history that became palpable the longer I lingered and the longer I let my mind think back to the millions of people who saw the square as a symbol of their struggle for a better life for all Egyptians.
But army men and their military tanks are now permanently at Tahrir Square, so lingering is not the thing to do.
The population - 19 million Egyptians in Cairo alone - remains divided since the ousting of the first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, with his supporters from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood adamant that he will one day be back in power.
On the other side of the coin, many, many Egyptians tell me that Egypt was going down a dangerous path under Muslim Brotherhood rule.
They tell me strange laws were passed and Egypt’s legendary passion for all things arty and cultural was being crushed.
If you believe the talk of the “man on the street”, the professional classes were heading out of Egypt in droves, tapping into the resources of family overseas, leaving behind a gloominess over the mighty Nile.
These days, the nationwide protests, though smaller in numbers, are still going on all over Cairo, bringing an ad hoc, almost spontaneous quality to daily life in Egypt.
The posters with the two men who remain uppermost in the hearts and minds of Egyptians are still being printed and posted everywhere.
But life goes on.....Inshallah.
Lucky for this Trini in Egypt, a lifestyle dictated by “vikey vie” planning and last-minute decisions is a treasured, moveable feast.
Winter is fast approaching in Egypt.
A different kind of weather will soon wrap itself around the great pyramids.
Already there’s a steady cool breeze that signifies time for cashmere and pashminas of Middle Eastern flair.
Cairo’s trees are shedding their leaves and our beloved ancient Bayan trees will soon ready themselves for a long deep slumber.
There’ll be no snow of course, but a cold spell is coming.
Inshallah (God willing) Egypt will find its way through it, and Inshallah, Egypt’s people will journey in peace and harmony.
Journalist and children's writer Natalie Williams has been writing for Caribbean Intelligence© about life on the move in Europe and Africa. For more from Caribbean people abroad, check out these pages.
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