I woke up early next morning. Not out of choice and not exactly refreshed. Having slept only four hours thanks the camping arrangement where I was sharing room with my mother. My father opted for the room with no air conditioning type, but mother definitely was the air-conditioning type as was I. So after 3 decades and a half, I went back to sharing a bed with mom. Not only did I have to go to bed fully clothed, I was also treated to a vast repertoire of mom’s finest symphonies which I would have shared for you if i can find a format that allows. Never mind, it was beyond human and lets leave it at that.
I have a brother who who still lives at home. He’s very attached to her. They share a bedroom wall. When she’s not snoring at night will go into our parent’s bedroom out of worry to prod her. Just to make absolutely sure that she hasn’t died in her sleep. As long as she’s snoring, he can happily go to sleep. The problem is I can’t go to sleep. And I am not happy. I have probably had 9 hours sleep in these last 3 nights in Cairo. Shuffling between the kitchen and the balcony drinking one coffee after another, I conclude that something has to be said and done. This can’t go on another night and there’s around 40 to go. I can see clearly how sleep deprivation is effective as an interrogation tool and why its a form of torture. Somehow in spite of the caffeine, the nicotine, and the snarling cacophony, I pass out. Not sleep. Pass out. Only to be awoken by mom.. Prayer time..
“Come on.. come on so God can bless you.. Come on ya rouh galbi..”
A spasm of rage, but its only momentary. It’s all right for her, she’s only slept about 9 hours.. I get up stagger to the bathroom, which, you guessed it, didn’t have water, and improvised an ablution, semi consciously did my prayers and rush back to sleep before she does. However, her excitement filled the room.. She wandered around inspecting the flat and presumably decided it was a good time to give the kitchen a top to bottom deep cleansing.
“Mom, we need to talk.”
Dad was up already. So this was as good a time as any.
“Mom, we have a problem here.. I couldn’t sleep a wink and here’s the reason why.” I said, promptly playing her the recording on my iPhone.
“ See that bit there? That is not healthy. That’s crazy snoring. Sounds like you’re having a heart attack there. I can’t believe you get a good night’s sleep, I certainly didn’t. In fact I’m nearing irrationality. I need to find 8 hours of sleep somewhere or I really will just go nuts.”
The recording just makes her laugh and scream both out of sheer joy and mock horror. Dad is also amused. He dispenses some of his experience: She only snores when she sleeps on her back. If I give her a nudge then she usually rolls over.
“Actually that’s not true. Once you wake up mom then that’s her night sleep over for the night and boy will she let you know about it next morning. You’re supposed to sleep next to your husband anyway. Go snore next to him. I need to sleep in my shorts and roll around. It’s a bit odd sleeping next you now..”
I was on a roll with the grumpiness. It’s my nature. Take my liver but leave me my sleep.
To make up for the grumpiness, I fix them an amazing breakfast and pull out the gifts I bought them. A handbag for mom which she loved, hated, and loved again and hated again just to make sure. She loved the perfume even though she asked for something else, which I disagreed with because she kept saying Coco. That’s Coco, right there on the label, see? She definitely liked sweaters although she had reservations wearing orange. I was safe with the face creams that she specifically named and asked for. You will use it regularly right? Not just on special occasions that never comes right? She loves being frugal with everything even though most of the time it doesn’t really make sense. She covered me with kisses which made me feel like an unreasonable bastard for not revelling in her snoring. Dad loves a bit of luxury. So I bought him an expresso machine and about 4 packs of Lavazza coffee. And some expensive bone china expresso cups and saucers.
“ I dare you to tell me this isn’t better than Yemeni coffee.”
“ It won’t be. Does the expresso machine work if I use Yemeni coffee?”
“Should do. Come here I’ll show you how it works.”
After breakfast, I force myself to do the dishes. I know housework makes my mother tired. There’s no point telling her to leave it and that I’ll do it later. Mom will do it now. She will do it now if her back hurts, if she’s depressed, if her arthritis is killing her. As much as I hate washing up, I push her out of the kitchen, and do it myself. Only to find her working on the bathroom.
“Mom. We are on holiday. H-O-L-I-D-A-Y.” I say exasperated.
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m just doing a quick once over.”
“No. No. “ I make a grab for the mop.. “holiday means a chance to break from the routine. You’re here to see doctors, have a different kind of month for once in your life, and relax. Relax as in take it easy. How am I supposed to relax if you’re cleaning all the time. It’s either I join you or ignore u in guilt, none of which I want to deal with on holiday. See? ”
I spend hours on the phone from London letting her unload how depressed she is. How no one helps her with the housework. How she still does the shopping, saving the pennies taking public transport, and carrying bags of shopping up 5 flights of stairs. Then there’s the cooking, the cleaning, the washing, the ironing. This was her retirement. None of my siblings including myself earn enough to help her out. In fact it was only recently that they gained a degree of financial independence when they lucked out with employment. I’ve always been financially independent but never in a position to say: here dad and mom, here’s a regular amount every month.
I was holding in a lot of guilt. This holiday, was for me, a chance to talk about all this out with my parents face to face. How do they feel about me permanently living in the UK? How is our family holding out? What are their worries? What are mine? How are we going to move this forward? My main concern is my parents’ quality of life. I’m very protective over them now. I find myself holding both their arms when we cross the streets in Cairo. Even with my dad, who oddly enough, was quite happy to let me do it. Which is really odd. Odd that my dad gives any inclination that he needs us to rely on. Guilt guilt guilt. Guilt mixed with love. Guilt mixed with self interest. Self interest because I have made it clear that I am no longer cut out for the particular way of living that’s needed in Yemen.
“Remember when you said that after the first year in the UK?”
“Yes, we still have the letter..”
“There was a letter?”
“Have you forgotten? Don’t you remember the 10 page letter?”
My parents are a forgiving lot. A lot of parents from Yemen wouldn’t put up with a fraction with what I get away with. A member of a family abroad is an asset in Yemen. Could be used to help other members move out of Yemen, or send a regular some for the parents, or come back home and get a job and start the 2.4 routine. I can barely put up with my own expectations. Having the expectations of an entire culture? Just go jump in the pool.
My parents don’t want money off me. They want me happy, settled, with direction and kids and seemingly they will give me all the time in the world. As long as I’m healthy and see them as much as I can and call as often as possible, then they are happy. But this isn’t sustainable anymore. They have done enough to secure themselves and to have enough to sustain my siblings. My mom retired into a daily grind of household chores and Dad still works. He loves what he does. It keeps him alive and young. It is clear however, that they miss me. That at least they want to see me more often. They will never say it outright. It’s just there right underneath the surface. We definitely need to talk.
We finally leave the flat into the bleached white light of a sunny mid day in Cairo.. Mother has made it clear that frugal will be the word of the day. My dad and I have other ideas. We laugh at mom’s idea of frugality. Well, to be honest, I don’t understand her concept of frugality. If the three of us can take a taxi for 6EL to Tahrir Square why on earth would the three of us take public transport to save 3EL? Why? In the end, we walked it. All the way to Tahrir. And what a wonderful walk it was. Just.
For starters, I felt like I was taking school kids on an outing. If mom stops to window shop, dad walks on. Or dad would cross the road and mom would obstinately decide that was uncalled for.
“Dad, could you just wait there for a second. Come on mom, let’s cross over. No, you can’t go into that shop if you just want to get an idea of prices.. It’s sightseeing day today.. come along. Let’s stay in one group. Mind the curb. Dad there’s a manhole coming up stop talking and mind your step.”
We would have gotten to Tahrir Square sooner but there wasn’t a traffic warden, a concierge in front of a building, or a vendor that my mom, in particular, didn’t stop talking to. Of course, everywhere we went, we found a consensus that Yemenis are ,indeed, the best people.
My mom relished the walk. My dad and I weren’t so keen. Dad wasn’t a walker and I was sleep deprived. I always had a hunch that retirement didn’t suit my mom. In fact all this household chores stuff she took up was a distraction from an emptiness that suddenly enveloped her life. What a horrible soul destroying distraction. While dad turned his little hobby into a modest business that just about broke even, mom wasn’t even doing something she loved. I wanted to put her in a position where she could see that. In fact, I can see a change in her already. She didn’t just walk, she strode. She was looking outward, not inward. She wasn’t focusing on her aches and pains. In fact, when I asked her how she’s feeling, she said she feels fine.
“Well, this is the Tahrir.. “ dad says.
I look around. I hardly recognise and feel slightly annoyed for not recognizing. It was eerily empty and quiet as the public holidays had just started for Eid.
“That’s the building that the baltagia were throwing the rocks and molotovs from. They killed at least one person here. Look! There’s the graffiti that memorialises it. See? It’s this building. And that’s where the tents were but they cleaned it up and covered it with grass recently. Saw that on TV. Those are the flyovers where they dropped stones on people splitting their brains on them, poor souls. “
And on and on she went. How did she know all this, I wonder? Wasn’t the electricity meant to have been off in Yemen all this time? She not only knew the flashpoints, but she also knew which waves of protests started from where and ended where. She knew about maspero, she knew about who burned the churches and why, she knew names, positions, parties… I was a bit gobsmacked. She must have been watching the events in Cairo as diligently as the events in Sanaa as much as the electricity in Yemen would allow. My aged mother, more Arab sprung than I?
At this point my parents were remembering roads and directions. Instead of stopping strangers now, they bickered with each other over who’s memory is more intact. We started to come across places that even I can recognise from the intensive coverage it received during the events.
When we came to the now famous wall of graffiti my parents literally came to a stop. Like at an art gallery they took the time to stop, consider, read and discuss every single one. Growing up in the 50s and 60s made politics and dissent something that is in their blood. It even reflected in their tone. They weren’t laughing. Just studiously going over each letter and image and talking about it and Egypt. Then a curious thing happened. Something I’ve never seen them do. They were arm in arm. I’ve never seen them do that in Sana’a. Maybe because it wasn’t the done thing? When I commented on it they immediately unhooked. Insisting that I want to film it, I make them link arms and walk as I slip behind them as they sauntered ‘engage’, as the French would say. I really loved seeing them like that. The body does age, the vision blurs, and the vitality diminishes. But the person inside doesn’t. That’s how I saw them then. The same young man and woman who might have walked these streets 35 years ago.
That wasn’t the last time I saw them linking arms. I think they lost their inhibitions and remembered their youth. Not that you need reminding in Cairo. I wasn’t struck by how young the population is over here. Yemen’s population looks even younger. What struck me was that love seemed everywhere in Cairo. After grafting all day, Egyptians seem to have two other main preoccupations: One was food. The other was love. It was the latter that surprise me the most. You don’t even get a whiff of it in Yemen, but in Cairo it was everywhere. But more on that later.
Leaving the Grafitti, we walked down this road that I forgot the name of. My mom said this used to be the posh part of Cairo. It definitely looked it. The buildings around me surprised me. Yemen has a way of absorbing the little outside influence that its had architecturally, and culturally, to make it its own. Even motor bikes and trucks get customised in Yemen so that they are unmistakably Yemeni. To an outsider, Yemen looks like its entirely indigenous, which for the most part, it is. Yemen is made up of a variety of different subcultures. Each distinct from the one sitting next to it. But each subculture stands on its own. Sort of monolithic . Cairo isn’t like that. Cairo is layered. It’s a patchwork. A mosaic. A tapestry woven of all influences and ages that comes together to make something entirely else. Yes I was looking at Victorian French buildings and walking through Italian looking neighbourhoods with Turkish mashrabiyahs, but they were Egyptian French looking buildings and Italian neighbourhoods. Egypt seems to have the capacity to absorb without being diluted. It takes a strong sense of nationhood to be able to do that. Not that a few centuries of colonisation were ever really a threat to at least 4000 years of continuous existence. Yemen is similar in that regard. But Egypt doesn’t assimilate as Yemen does. Egypt collects. It preserves. It keeps.
There’s a shabby chic quality to Cairo. Like a fine Persian rug worn wafer thin. Cairo wears it very well. It embraces you but not too close to suffocate. It invites you without making a fuss making you feel instantly comfortable.
At one point we were at a juice bar and served by a guy who just didn’t look Egyptian to me. The palest of skin and the bluest of eyes.
“He’s probably Sharkasi.” Said my dad. (or at least that’s what I thought he said)
“Isn’t that a way of cooking chicken?”
He then proceeded to tell me where his origins could come from, which I forgot, but I think it was something like Albania or something like that. Or Armenia. My dad said there were many Greeks who emigrated to Egypt when Greece was an economic ruin, much as it is now. Only now they have EU bailouts and are busy taking their rage out on their immigrants, but I digress. There seem to be many Greek families who made it big in Cairo. They kept their language, their customs, their religion yes, but they also took up the Egyptian thing. Like the juice guy here. That made me remember Dalida. An Egyptian born of second generation Italians. Egypt seems to take a hold on you somehow. I can totally understand why although fraught with economic and political issues, Egypt is a big deal, not only to Arabs, but to non-Arabs as well. Israel has gained a lot by yoking Egypt into the Camp David Peace Accord. Israel gained as much as Egypt lost. Not just because Egypt nearly wiped Israel off the map during the Yom Kippur war if it wasn’t for an air bridge of military and sattellite assistance from the USA, but because, as the cliché goes, if Egypt is strong, then the Arab world is strong.
And for the record, I had no idea that Egypt could have won the Yom Kippur, I put that down to orientalist propaganda too. Dad told me all about that later. And what a story it was. Didnt know that military schools around the world look at the Egyptian military’s tactic in the Yom Kippur War as a classic to be studied.