Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Zaga wut wut? Part 1

Zagazig, Egypt

'Haythem, we're coming to Zagazig. Ok?'
'Ok.' He seemed distracted. 'You come Zagazig?'
'You come Zagazig visit me?'
'Yes, is that ok?'
'Yes. Ok. Welcome welcome.'

After a day of riding, asking a broken down taxi driver to draw a map of Zagazig, and having our Arabic laughed at by a few local youngsters, I found a phone shop.
'Haythem, we're here.'
'Where are you?'
'Ah, you come Zagazig! You where?'
'We're at a tea shop on El Nil street. You come?'
'Ok ok. Welcome welcome.'
How Haythem found us, I don't know. There were tons of tea shops on El Nil street.

The local youngsters had taken us to a tea shop and offered us tea while we waited. That's what people do in Egypt--they drink tea, with family, friends, and strangers alike. We joked around, with Nate and I gesturing and reciting the 20 most-important-words-in-Arabic hoping to be understood--men ayna? (from where?), janube africa (south africa), beh agala (with bike), sabat jahor (7 months). Of course, we only became the subject of mockery when they couldn't help but find our Aarabi very funny: janube afrique?! be agala?! sabat jahor?! On the edge of their seats, their eyes nearly popped out in excitement, Really??!!

'Haythem!' I immediately recognized Haythem as he walked down the street. He had combed back hair and wore a clean, sleek button down shirt with jeans. He greeted us, then turned to exchange hugs and handshakes with the youngsters. 'You know them?,' I asked. 'No,' Haythem replied with a smile. That's the way what people do in Egypt--they greet each other, family, friends, and strangers alike.

We chatted away as he walked us to his home; his phone was ringing nonstop. 'You must be popular, Haythem,' I said. He looked up from entering a text on his phone, and broke the news: 'I'm getting married in two days.'

'TWO DAYS! You didn't tell us you were getting married!'

'Yes, two days.' His phone rang again. 'Phone phone phone phone,' he laughed, pretending to chuck the phone away.

He led us through a maze of narrow, dirt alleyways between rugged brick buildings. Arriving at his house, he left us with his family and went to oversee the construction of his new house. He needed to make sure it was finished by the big day, because in Egyptian tradition, that's when newlyweds move in.

On the roof with the family, Nate and I stood in an awkward silence. We exhausted our 20-most-important-words-in-Arabic , and now resorted to avoiding eye contact. Hmm...let's look at the tv flickering in the apartment across the alleyway...or how about that tied up cow entranced in its musings...

A stream of relatives and friends came by to visit the family. As they all hugged and kissed and chatted happily about the wedding, Nate and I look at each other hesitantly. Maybe we shouldn't stay. Everyone was obviously busy with the wedding, and it was unfair that as guests, we imposed ourselves on them.

Just then, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned around to see Nourhan, Haythem's sister. 'Haythem...umm...umm...' she stammered, looking for the English words. Finally, she pointed to her ring finger, ''
'Yes, Haythem, marry two days.'
She nodded frantically. 'You come?'
'No, I don't think so.'
'Lee?! (Why?)'
'Thalatha yawm. Al-Quahirah (3 days. Cairo).' I made plane flying noises, 'Ee-ee--errrr...Amreeka.'
'No,no...You must come!' She turned around and blurted out to the whole crowd of family that we would be absent for the wedding. Suddenly, swiftly like the wind, every person stood up and looked at us with their puppy eyes. 'Lee?! Come!'
'Ok, ok, ' I replied reluctantly, and everyone was in bright smiles again. Going to their wedding meant we wouldn't have time to see the pyramids at Giza, but I couldn't bear to see sad faces on our wonderful hosts.

Hence began, three days of musings around the city of Zagazig, the beginning of the end.


In the morning, Haythem's father, dressed in a loose white ragi, led us through town. With one glossed lazy eye, Daddy Haythem was an easy going man who spent most of his days lounging around with friends, drinking shai and smoking, at his favorite tea house. And naturally, it was here that he brought us. We sat down and met Sadeeq Uncle, who was Daddy Haythem's best friend and apparently, a taxi driver extraordinaire. Through cup after cup of shai and fresh lemonade, Sadeeq Uncle and Daddy Haythem chatted away like old friends, while Nate and I basked in the luxury of sitting back and observing everyday life, without having to talk to anyone. Months of repeating ourselves endlessly to people along the road, and still not being understood, had clearly worn us down.
After some time, Daddy Haythem turned to me and said: 'Sadeeq Uncle best friend. Taxi. Good driver. Go Zagazig.'

'I know,' I said, thinking he was reiterating that Sadeeq Uncle was his best friend. Apparently I didn't know, because just then, Daddy Haythem and Sadeeq Uncle stood up. They went over the the kebab stand, bought 3 kebabs and lemonades, forced them down our throats, and told us Sadeeq Uncle was ready to take us on a tour of Zagazig. Sadeeq Uncle was indeed a good driver, and in just under an hour, was able to drive us past mazes of fruit stands and people through all corners of town, past the canals irrigating from the Nile, the Nile itself, and even an archaeological site they were building in the center of town. I'm sure there was not a road in Zagazig we didn't traveled that day.

We returned to Haythem's house to find music blasting through the windows into the narrow dirt alleyways of the neighborhood. Wedding music, I thought. Stepping inside gingerly, I found Mommy Haythem sitting in her room. And there she sat, with her bangs pulled back with a blue headband, smoking a hookah. Her mouth formed into a wide grin as she saw me, 'Hello... Eh?' Did I want some? I shook my head: No, it's ok. 'Shokran, shokran,' she chuckles, cordially mocking the only words I know how to say to her. In a mode of revelation, I walked out of the room: I didn't know women smoked hookahs!

In the evening, Daddy Haythem brought us back out into town. This time, the city was a whole new place. After sunset, Egypt came to life with the exuberance of Time's Square. Rambunctious honking from wedding parades filled the streets, brightly colored lights flashed everywhere, kids crowded the counters of irresistible Egyptian sweets, and endless rows of clothing shops bustled with people.

Weaving our way through the exhilarating alleyways, we end up next to a row of shops along a canal. Without warning, Daddy Haythem tugged my sleeve: 'My sister. Big...'
'You're big sister?'
'...Everyday, eat ice cream. You like ice cream?'
'Yes, we love ice cream!'
'...Everyday, sister Eat ice cream. Big. My sister.' He smiles and points to an exact spot on the canal wall. I imagined a short, plump woman sitting there alone, unmoved by anything around her, delightfully slurping her ice cream. I wondered whether in my old age, I would be able to enjoy life as much as she.

Finally arriving back at the house, we found Mommy Haythem sound asleep downstairs. Nate and I climbed upstairs, and, without other sets of clothes to change into or the need for blankets, we plopped ourselves onto the our respective couches.

'Allah Akbar...' To the 5 am call to prayer, we fell asleep.


  1. So how it all ended like ?? I'm an Egyptian studing in Germany for sometime and would like see more of ur stories ... Great Blog btw :D :D