It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Originally Published on St. Olaf's Term in the Middle East Group Blog.
It’s become second nature on this trip, especially in unknown areas, to stare at the ground when I walk around, avert my eyes from passerby on the street. Any attention I may draw tends to come from men sitting on the sidewalk, and if I make myself invisible, I don’t have to worry about feeling exposed.
But the moment I step into Zamalek, our little island neighborhood in Cairo, everything changes. My step lightens, and I’m not afraid to enjoy the community around me. Our time in Egypt is coming to a close which means, of course, that we’re finally becoming exceptionally comfortable here, and finding our own little niche in this corner of the world, surrounding ourselves with friendly people and familiar places.
Across the street from our dorm, in a small corner stand, there is one such friendly face. Many times I stop in to buy a soda, and my adorable old friend, his face sprinkled with age spots and carved with laugh lines, greets me with a wink and a smile as I buy a Diet Coke. “Tamam?” He asks (the regional term for “okay?”). “Say you’re Tamam!” He refuses to take my two pounds (read: thirty cents) until I return his happy smile and tell him that, of course, I’m tamam.
Sometimes, I eat my lunch at AlexTop, an inexpensive koshery stand just around the block, popular with locals and AUC students alike. I can sit and overindulge on the mixed noodles, rice, lentils and tomato sauce (for only five pounds!) while listening to the workers yell back and forth to Mustafa up in the kitchen. Dishes rattle, school girls chatter crammed up in the table next to me, and Mustafa dutifully drops someone’s tagine from the upstairs kitchen down the spiral staircase via a plastic bag attached to a hook on a string.
The TIME group has also been healthy patrons of a store called Sahara, to the point where we go back time after time even wearing their clothing items while we pick out souvenirs for loved ones at home. Imagine fancy shirts, luxurious Egyptian cottons, but mostly just the same store owner constantly giggling behind his hand as we clear him out yet again of beautiful t-shirts.
The workers at Munch & Bagel have come to know us well. I can walk in and they’ll immediately pull out a black seed bagel. John and Amy can spend hours there, loading up on free refills of authentic American coffee. They roll their eyes when all fourteen of us stop in for lunch at a restaurant that seats, at the most, four. The owner teases and heckles us, and then will happily jump into discussing Israeli politics. It’s another small place where we have, for a moment, made our mark.
As we weave in and out of the thousands of double parked dusty cars, wandering from lentil soup at the eclectic Zooba to a handmade ceramic mug at the “camel bowl” store to a magnum sandwich at Al Omda or a Lebanese burger at Gourmet Burger to milkshakes at Cafe Mex, we consistently run into familiar faces. Katrina has become quiteclose to the popcorn man. Ben and the workers at the zalabiya stand share a moment. I’m sure Mike’s on a first name basis with every coffee store worker in the area. I have even begun to recognize some of the children who attend school across the street. And then, to top it all off, we wander into our AUC dorm and are enthusiastically greeted by an assortment of desk workers, cleaning attendants and doormen who ask us how are day was and what exciting plans we have for tomorrow.
It’s weird to think that, while we integrated ourselves so quickly into this community, we’ll soon be gone. However, I know that the people I’ve met here – the cashier at Metro Groceries, the lady who hands me stamps at the post office, even the armed security guards in front of the Algerian embassy – have made my experience here profound and exciting, and I’ll remember them forever for it. Perhaps, just perhaps, we too have made some small influence in their lives. We may be leaving Zamalek tomorrow, but I know there will be a small mark we’ll leave behind.
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