Thursday, 29 October 2009

Our house is Yemen

We've come to the end of our first week here, the Egyptian weekend taking place over Friday and Saturday, and though it would be misleading to describe the last five days as stressful, they've been busy. A weekend of homework, cleaning, exploring Alexandria and hosting at least one thank you dinner for people who've been incredibly helpful to us awaits. But first an update.

We moved into the beautiful flat Khaled (Yousef's brother-in-law) found for us last Sunday and it's starting to feel like home. The decor of the place ranges from tasteful and elegant (lovely Persian rugs, nice dining room table and chairs, pretty ornamental vases) to ornate and slightly over-the-top (heavy, tassled curtains in shades and patterns of gold and bronze) to totally outlandish (some very odd lamps). The first couple of nights we spent here were uneventful and consisted of cooking, talking and watching Japanese animé Aleks had on her computer. But on Tuesday night, a brief phone call from Mohammed, in theory our estate agent, in practice Superman, resulted in a chain of events that led me to the above conclusion: our house is Yemen.

Earlier we'd been told by one of our new teachers, Ansary, that it's becoming popular for Arabic students to go to Yemen to learn the language and to practise speaking with people, as fewer people speak English there than in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Dubai or the Emirates. I was intrigued by this, as Yemen and Oman are places I want to visit, and so I had this conversation in mind as Tuesday evening turned into an epic comedy of people coming and going, communication, miscommunication, bafflement, confusion and throughout it all the Egyptian sense of humour that we'd all heard so much about before arriving and which we are getting daily examples of (British humour too).

It all started with a simple plan to cook soup and garlic bread, which I'd just started to do at 7pm when we received a phone call from Mohammed asking us if we needed anything. We mentioned that we'd like to set up a wireless internet account, which we'd been told would be possible when we'd moved into the flat. Mohammed, ever obliging, tells us that he's sending someone round to talk to us about it and sure enough, ten minutes later the doorbell rings and it's the internet man. In halting Colloquial Egyptian we negotiate a deal and the internet man leaves to go and fetch everything he needs. Meanwhile I return to the kitchen to try to work out how to use the oven in our gas-powered cooker. I'd already been shown how to use the hobs the previous day by the wife of our bewaab, Ahmad, and could see that that part of the operation was straightforward - you turn on the gas by pulling a lever on the wall and then light the hobs normally. So far so good. When it comes to the oven, the switch to adjust the heat settings didn't seem very stable - or effective - and I couldn't see a way of actually getting the thing lit at all. So Ahmad's wife was fetched and arrived, with her small son in tow. Removing the metal piece at the bottom of the oven chamber, she switches on the gas at the wall, grabs a cigarette lighter and puts her whole head inside the oven, looking for the area where the flame will kindle into a healthy fire. I meanwhile am looking nervously at her small child and worrying that perhaps the fire will be a bit too healthy. As it turned out this wasn't a problem at all. A very small flame appeared in the back of the oven but meanwhile the broken switch wouldn't stop the flame from burning so there was no way of controlling the amount of gas released unless it was switched off at the wall. The internet man, having returned, was called in to give his opinion. He too placed his whole head inside the oven for the purposes of examining it thoroughly. "No, it can't be used at all", he stated firmly with a shake of his head. Then, with a shrug and a grin, extinguishing a page of burning newspaper in the sink, "Well, you are in Egypt now!".

Who should appear at the door at this moment but Mr Atif, the man I had previously thought was the owner of the flat (he's not). Slippery and oily, he is a man for whom the phrase "Bokra, in sha'allah" (tomorrow, God willing) seems to be another way of saying "tomorrow, if there's no way I can possibly put it off until later than that". He was duly called in to examine the oven by Ahmad's wife and the internet man, who was fast becoming my personal hero. Calmly he switches the gas on and lights his lighter once, twice, four times, six... "It's no problem!" he says, with what I'm sure was meant to be a reassuring smile. "Just don't use the oven. These hobs: fine!". The internet man argues the case with him in the kitchen as the doorbell rings; it's an engineer arrived to look at the showers, one of which had been producing just a dribble of water, while the head of the other had come away in Julian's hand on our first morning here. As he is shown upstairs, there's a knock at the door and in walks Mohammed. At this point, it's about 9pm.

A brief exchange between Mohammed and Mr Atif results in the latter promising to return "tomorrow, in sha'allah" to resolve any problems as he breezes out (we haven't seen or heard from him since). Meanwhile, clearly sensing that the flat was a bit empty, two of the internet man's colleagues arrive and the three of them set to work in the dining room area, using a huge drill. Mohammed settles down in the sitting room area to ask us how things are going, give advice, answer our questions and generally offer his thoughts on life. Seeing as neither his English nor our Arabic is really good enough to converse fluently it was slow going and the frequently blank looks on our faces would have been enough to irritate even the most patient person. Mohammed remained unruffled and although we may not have understood all the nuances of what he said, we were left in no doubt of his desire that we enjoy our time here and see Egypt at its best and for this kindness, as well as all the practical things he has done to help us, we're very grateful.

Mohammed stayed till 11pm, the internet men until midnight, at which time we settled down to eat our dinner of soup (thankfully made before all the issues with the cooker began) and garlic bread (butter melted over a bowl of boiling water mixed with a lot of raw garlic = healthy immune systems I hope). Although at this point we had a broken cooker, two showers that still didn't work and no internet connection, somehow it still felt as though progress had been made. If nothing else, we had almost doubled the number of people we knew here in just one night.

In fact, in the last two evenings, more tangible progress has been made and thanks to the internet man and the shower engineer returning and quickly sorting out their respective problems and an engineer for the oven working for about three hours on two consecutive nights, everything is now working and safe. Mohammed has taken to passing Aleks his phone when he's in the middle of conversations with people we've never met before (such as his girlfriend and a mysterious woman who may or may not be the wife of the Alexandrian chief of police and who may or may not be paying us a visit over the weekend) so that she can talk to them.

The three musketeers are doing well: Aleks is counting down the days until Arsalan arrives for Harriet's wedding in Cairo. Julian is coping well with excessive girliness - talk about beauty products and hair and always having to carry anything remotely heavy for us. He is considering taking up His Radiance as an honorary title while we're living here, just for the fans.