Illegal Hospitality (2 of 2)
Alexandria & Beni Suef, Egypt
Abu Sa’ud – Rasha’s father – had his youngest daughter Heba fix me a quick meal of canned tuna and whole wheat flat bread which I gobbled down in minutes. Abu Sa’ud sat across from me in a white turban and djellaba. He greeted me in the only painted room of his modest adobe house.
In this room, the dirt floor had been covered with straw carpets. On the bright green walls hung a few black and white family pictures along with a poster of a Muslim-style mosaic. A verse of the Koran had been painted in black directly on one of the walls and a vase with plastic flowers had been set on a low side table. Three long, hard couches, a bare light bulb and the house’s only ceiling fan made the simple room surprisingly cozy.
Abu Sa’ud watched me eat without a word, leaning back in his hard couch and resting his big dark hands in his lap. Heba took away my empty plate and I in turn leaned back in my hard couch, with a sigh of satisfaction. Abu Sa’ud gave me a fatherly look and smiled. I smiled back, and realised I now had to make conversation.
“This your wife?” I inquired in Arabic pointing to a black and white picture of a woman hanging on the wall.
I cleared my throat. Abu Sa’ud sniffed loudly. I coughed.
“This was my mother,” he said.
“And, how many children you have?” I pursued, feeling bold.
“Five,” he said showing me the palm and five outstretched fingers of his right hand.
“Ah, big family.”
Once these important facts had been established, Abu Sa’ud and I sat in silence, nodding and grinning at each other.
At last Rasha came home from school. When she saw me, she clasped her hands together over her heart and shrieked with joy. She ran over and threw her arms around me. I hugged her back, overwhelmed by her enthusiasm.
Rasha immediately insisted I make myself comfortable and change into a djellaba. A djellaba? She laughed at the look of panic on my face and ran out of the room giggling and clapping her hands. When Rasha came back with a patched orange and purple robe, Abu Sa’ud slipped out of the room, the left side of his thick moustache pulled up above a mischievous smile.
I attempted to stress how much bigger and taller than her I was, that her djellaba would never fit me, but Rasha wouldn’t hear it. So I graciously gave in, knowing from past experience that refusing to obey this custom wouldn’t fail to offend my hosts.
My legs got to see the sun for the first time that year as Rasha paraded me through town in flip-flops and the dreaded orange and purple djellaba which barely covered my knees. She – and a half dozen other giggling teenage girls – insisted I show off my fellaha look to every living relative of theirs. And so I went from house to house, slipping and sliding through the village’s steep muddy alleys, setting a new record of self-embarrassment for myself.
After our round of visits, the girls took me back home for a well-deserved nap. I could rest before they took me out again, this time for a walk along the Nile with what seemed to be all of Beba’s female population.
I was left alone exactly five minutes. Just long enough for Rasha to round up a new group of friends and burst back into the room with all of them. Twenty new girls, all equally excited to shake my hand and be introduced to me, asked me the same questions over and over. What’s your name? Where are you from? What is your religion? How old are you? Are you married?
I quickly tired of their routine questions and, just for the sake of diversion, made a joke to one of the girls questioning me about my marital status. I answered that I wasn’t married yet because my hand had been promised to Ahmad – Rasha’s shy 16-year-old brother. The girl’s face lit up and she rubbed her two forefingers together, beaming. “This means we will be sisters!” she explained, “because I will also marry Ahmad!”
I kept my reservations about polygamy to myself and played along, shrieking and clapping my hands. I gave my “sister” a bear hug and winked at poor Ahmad across the room who turned scarlet and sank deeper into the couch.
It seemed obvious I would not get any sleep, so I opted to get dressed again, ready to go on my stroll along the Nile. Just as I was buckling my belt, Abu Sa’ud – who had disappeared for a few hours – entered the noisy and crowded room. At once, all the chatter, hand clapping, shrieking and giggling stopped. I turned around and saw the sad and ominous look in Abu Sa’ud’s eyes.
He took a seat across the room and signalled for me to do the same. He pulled a string of worry beads out of his pocket and played with it as he searched for the best way to say what he had to say.
“Fi mushkilah,” there’s a problem, Abu Sa’ud announced gravely.
Like everyone else in the room, I held my breath. A problem?
“With the government,” he continued. “You must leave now. I cannot have a foreigner in my house. The police is giving me trouble.”
That afternoon, while I was busy showing off my white calves to the entire village, Abu Sa’ud had been taken in and interrogated by the local authorities. Was he running any illegal tourist operations, they wanted to know. What was that big blonde adjnabiya doing in his house then? Where was his permit for entertaining foreigners?
I just sat there, livid, wishing for the ground to open up and swallow me.
At that instant I remembered the notorious tourist police I had seen stationed everywhere around the pyramids and at Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo; and I remembered the mandatory police escorts for tourists wishing to travel overland from Upper Egypt. Following the fatal bombing of a tourist bus in Upper Egypt a few years earlier, every villager had turned into a potential terrorist. In the eyes of the tourist police, a white girl’s spending money is worth much more than a suspicious villager’s freedom. To them, there is no such thing as free kindness in a land of misery.
It was as painful for Abu Sa’ud to tell me to leave as it was for me to hear him say it. Egyptians are intrinsically warm and welcoming people. It horrified me to think I had come that close to causing so much grief to this nice humble man and his family.
Five minutes later I hit the road again to catch the next minibus back to Beni Suef. Abu Sa’ud, young Ahmad and a silent red-eyed escort of 30 or so teenage girls accompanied me down the muddy streets of Beba. Abu Sa’ud led the way with Ahmad, who carried my backpack. Rasha and Heba each held tightly to one of my arms, not daring to look at me.
Rasha felt bad and I felt bad for having made her feel bad. What had I done? Where would I go now? It was already so late.
When we reached the main road, Abu Sa’ud shook my hand, wrapping me one last time in his warm fatherly gaze. He insisted on paying for my fare back to Beni Suef (worth about 10 cents). I didn’t have the heart to argue with him. I thanked him for his kindness and generosity. He smiled and put his open hand over his heart. I wanted to apologise, but I didn’t know the words.
One by one, I kissed all the girls goodbye. Fighting back tears of sadness and exhaustion, I hugged Rasha tightly one last time.
“Will you come back?” she asked. I glanced at Abu Sa’ud and then stared at my feet.
“No, Rasha, I don’t think I will,” I replied. She frowned.
“Masha’allah,” I quickly added, as blaming God always seemed like the easiest way out any uncomfortable situation. Rasha nodded.
I got on the minibus and rode away, waving until I couldn’t see them anymore. We reached Beni Suef less than half an hour later where a tall middle-aged villager in a blue djellaba escorted me to the bus station. I found out I had missed the last bus to Cairo and met a pestering boy who claimed he could help me.
“Woman! Yes please! I find taxi to Cairo for you! Hello!” the boy yelled at me six cars away, waving his skinny arms above his head.
Yes, the pestering boy kept his promise. He found me a quick, cheap ride back to Cairo that night when I thought all hope was lost.
I reached into my pocket for bakhsheesh, but he stepped back, shaking his head. Stunned, I stood still, my hand in my pocket, waiting to see if he would change his mind. He didn’t. I got in the taxi and he closed the door for me.
“Take care, woman,” the boy simply said as the car pulled away.
As we drove off in a cloud of dust, I sat back and smiled, shaking my head. “Woman, you’re just as bad as the tourist police,” I thought to myself. For there is such a thing as free kindness in a land of misery.