In Cairo, the familiar and the exclusive mix into a steady beat. The melodic honks of outdated cars mingle with the purposeful clunk of donkey hooves. Without a second glance, women in business suits pass old men in galabeya’s relieving themselves in narrow alleys. Dirty street children beg for money in perfect, plaintive English while tourist ruffle through the pockets of their expensive clothes and mumble salutations in comical Arabic. Young men leer and jeer at women, eyes twinkling with mischief as older men spread out their prayer mats in any space available and begin salat. Flies, stray dogs, and ally cats battle for scraps in the piles of trash in the street beside expensive condos and 5 star hotels. Women in burqua's expertly navigated Mercedes Benz's down debilitating streets. A line from Shantaram describes my initial feelings upon first sight of Cairo: “I was a little unnerved by the density of purposes, the carnival of needs and greeds, the sheer intensity of pleading and scheming on the street.”
Unfortunately, surrounded by contrasts, one becomes desensitized to the human condition. The street children, the lewd young men, the pious Muslims, the ghastly poverty all become common and unexceptional. The sights and sound all mesh into a steady melody of daily life. Like someone living in any other big city dweller, I’ve found myself becoming standoffish and abrupt no longer taking time to smile or greet other passersby’s or take notice of the unfamiliar. My steps are purposeful and important. No longer do I have the luxury of staring in astonishment at the contrast around me or to yearn for casual human contact to make sense of the unusual or disconcerting.
A few weeks ago, I met a butcher that and reminded me to stop and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. It was midday when I stepped outside my old downtown apartment to take a few pictures of the regular daily scenes. The butcher across the street had just received a huge leg of an animal I can’t even begin to name. He hung it proudly in his doorway, hoping to lure customers to the otherwise empty shop. From across the street, I snapped a photo of the meat while he was gazing proudly up at it. He looked over at me, smiled and waved. I nodded cooly at him, not wanting to attract unwanted advances, and continued taking pictures.
Eventually, I crossed the street and took more pictures of the neighborhood from different angles. I stood outside of his shop to take a particular photograph and, pudgy and balding, he came outside to watch me. In Arabic, he asked me what I was taking pictures of and why. I pointed to this and that and mumbled a few words. He smiled broadly at my half-hearted response and proceeded to fire off a dazzling array of questions as if we were old friends. Not wanting to be impolite, I tried to answer as best as I could until he far exceeded my Arabic vocabulary. Unperturbed, he returned to a more elementary vocabulary and introduced himself to me and then dragged his young son, Muhammad, outside to greet me. I glanced down at Muhammad, a child no older than 6 or 7 who should have been in school that day instead of helping his father at the shop. At first glance, Muhammad looked like any other street kid- dirty and barefoot, in tattered hand-me-down clothes complemented by a wise beyond his age expression. As I stared at him, he gave me a shy, dimpled smile that made his thoughtful features look radiant. Instinctively, my heart melted. I’d never been much of the unapproachable, big city type anyway...
Watching as Muhammad stole curious glances at my digital camera, his father asked me if I would take a photograph of them. Muhammad’s eyes lit up at this request and I happily obliged. There, on a busy Cairo street, I stopped being so self-absorbed and took a picture of the butcher and his shy son standing next to the meat that would earned their livelihood. I showed Muhammad the picture and he giggled and skipped away to hide shyly behind his father.
Jolly and talkative, the butcher continued to talk to me about his shop and ask me about myself. When I couldn’t understand a question, he would frame it in another way or just ask another. Happy for the company, he didn’t much mind it if I couldn't form a response to his question or if I didn’t quite comprehend what he was saying. On several occasions, he made me laugh with his flurry of language or he would laugh at my quizzical expression as I tried to keep up with what he was saying.
The next day, I went to a film store and printed the photo of Muhammad and his father to give to them as a thank you for just being kind and welcoming towards me. When I presented it to the butcher, he gave me a disarming smile and proceeded to show it to every person in his shop before storing it safely away to give to Muhammad later. Since then, every time I walk by, he shouts my name and waves fervently and I wave back with just as much enthusiasm.
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