Five weeks ago, I bagged my high hopes together with some doubts along with some books and presents, and shadowed by my wife, we flew to Egypt for the first time after the Revolution to see my daughters, my grand-children, my sister and my nephews. But the real purpose was to experience first hand the new winds which are blowing over my awakened nation. In a first glance, Egypt seemed different than the one I left behind several decades ago.. Apart from the long trail of buildings and appalling useless and ugly structures, standing big and tall like monuments giving tribute to the commanding “Culture” fruit of poverty, ignorance and corruption which made Egypt what it became over the past 59 years.. We saw a lot more happy smiling faces, serene looks, calmer voices and much lesser noises.. Could the absence of uniforms from the streets be the cause? I can’t tell for sure..
As the days went by, and as we got in contact with many fellow Egyptians, the hidden doubt lying underneath the smiles came to surface and kept me company until Cairo International Airport from where I flew back to where I came from.. To uncertainty.
Laila, my sister’s hardworking “analphabet” maid and cook, whose devotion and continuous sacrifices would make of her a typical “Hassan El Imam’s” melodrama lead character: keeping an exhausting job for a middle class household and making ends meet for her own family of two boys (of course unemployed) and three girls all by herself, just because she’s divorced and abandoned for a younger and “richer” widow (richer so to say).
When Laila saw the protests processions on January 25th, she walked along asking the young demonstrators about what is going on and why. When she realized that they demanded the end of a régime and the change of a system, she simply turned back and went home.. Not because she was afraid, but rather because it just wasn’t what she expected and hoped for: “Hesham Talaat pays twenty pounds a month, a kilo of deboned meat and a woolen blanket every feast for our votes..”, she said innocently in the most sincere and crystal honesty, “..and they go to demonstrate for what?? It would have been better if someone promised a minimum guaranteed retirement pension to my likes.. Something like six or seven hundred pounds..” (a little more than a hundred dollars..nfa) “..a months to help us keep the blood of our faces and not to turn us into beggars when the time will come and we can’t work anymore.. Don’t you think?”
Obviously Laila has a point.. And we soon discovered how useless it is arguing with her or even trying to make her question the origin of that being’s wealth. It would definitely be a waste of energy to ponder with her over the demerits of selling one’s vote for whatever personal benefits, because simply she will not absorb the destructive consequences over the collectivity from such an unfair trade: once you compromise your vote for money, you limit your relation with your deputy or senator only to occasional gifts and crumbs.. You will never be leveled to ask for a decent place in the bus, or a clean bed in hospital with professional nursing, or adequate education for your children and so on.. You just freely and willingly give away your only tool of control over well governance, thus opening the doors wide open for corruption and other socio-economic chronic deceases, which will consume several generations age to heal.. If ever it will be left to heal.
However, while she was talking to us with such enthusiasm, I couldn’t help recalling the figure of another woman I encountered in my youth some forty years ago, in Alexandria during those unforgettable glorious and magnificent high-school days.
As I was performing with my jazz band in one of the nominated clubs of the city till late way after midnight, and while going to look for a taxi to share back home, she was always there.. The suntanned face and décolleté, left partially to be seen from underneath a closely fit “galabeya”, the “Taheya Karyoka” style, the seducing smile on her round lips holding firm a lit cigarette, and blowing the smoke slowly in the night’s cool air by the seaside; wrapped up all together made her unforgettable trade mark..
That beautiful young woman, was always there.. Selling her flowers, jasmines and roses.. Cracking a joke here and a sarcastic out loud cheerful laugh there, and so forth until there is no one left to buy her flowers.. Only then she disappears into the darkness of the night going to God knows where.
She was always there.. Year after year.. In summer like in winter.. Sweating under the burning August sun just like soaking wet underneath the January rain.. By days in front of schools and universities urging us students to “..buy a flower for the girl to conquer her heart” as how she used to say, and by nights in front of exclusive clubs like the International Seamen’s , the Rotary, the Yacht or the Automobile, and later at night in front of the various sea-side restaurants and cabarets.. Her smile, the laugh, the cigarette, but most of all the dignity of a single woman who gently accepts a customers’ compliments, but never concedes or allows anything more.
I kept seeing her till I left the country.. Well, you will not imagine how glad I was, and even nostalgically happy, to see her two days ago in front of my old school near my home.. Narguis.. Yes, now I remember.. Her name is Narguis!! Shades of that old smile are still there.. But the cigarette disappeared, as the years and sea winds bent her back, broken her lungs and weakened her legs, yet though she still walks the streets selling the few flowers her weary hands could collect from the public gardens.. Dignity.
Will Laila end up like that?
Will Egypt end up like that?