Sunday, 10 October 2010

The kindness of friends and strangers

I think Egyptians must be among the kindest people ever. I went to Alexandria again at the weekend, as the previous week had been a short one, with the 6th October being a national holiday.

I was in Alex for four days and due to the weekend being crammed with activity and the trains, of course, not running when they were due to run, eight o’clock yesterday evening saw me at the train station, attempting to buy a ticket for either a nine o’clock or a ten thirty train. Nine o’clock or ten thirty? The men at the ticket office were amused. Contrary to what the website and my friends had said, the only train running after eight that evening was a ten o’clock train which was fully booked. No wonder they were amused. In a conversation oddly reminiscent of our Colloquial Egyptian roleplay dialogues at SOAS, I put on my best I’m-reposing-my-trust-in-the-officials face and asked whether they could find me a solution to the problem. The answer? “Just buy your ticket on the train. We can’t sell you one here, but it will work if you buy one on the train”. Simple?

With more than a little trepidation, I sat down at the coffee shop to wait out the two hours before the train left. Though my experience of Egypt tells me there’s a way around almost any rule or regulation if you try hard enough, it’s also common for seemingly simple tasks to become complicated for no clear reason. So, like many aspects of life here, it was obviously going to be a glorious surprise.

9:45 came and I boarded the train, choosing a seat at random and ready to move if its’ rightful owner came along. People entered, many carrying large bags. The train slowly pulled out of the main train station, Mahattat Misr, and cruised along for five minutes to the next station, Sidi Gaber. Here again the carriages were flooded with people, luggage, blankets. I wondered what I was going to do. Clearly the seat I was in belonged to someone else and I had to move but there were people everywhere and knowing I had to make it to Cairo for work the next day, the idea of being thrown off the train wasn’t appealing. My phone rang and Khaled, who I’d seen just a few hours beforehand, wanted to know where I was and how the journey was going. I explained the situation and listened as he lamented my position and then, more helpfully, urged me to call him at any hour if I had any problems.

Before long, the couple who’d booked the pair of seats of which I was occupying one came along and patiently listened as I recounted my tale of woe. The wife patted me on the arm as I made a move to stand up: “No, no. Stay here with us for a while habibiti. Wait till the people have moved and then you can look for another seat.” The husband was already off trying to help other people find their seats, abiding by the principle commonly held to here that if two heads are better than one, ten are better still.

So as the train got moving in earnest and I realised that it wasn’t simply a train to Cairo but an all-night train to Upper Egypt, I made an attempt to move again. Once again this wasn’t allowed and before I knew it two or three other middle-aged men were offering to give me their seats. For the duration of the three-hour journey between Alex and Cairo, these men and others played musical chairs, all of them taking it in turns to perch on arm rests and talk to the others, going off to the area between the carriages to smoke in groups and swapping seats with one another. At one point the man whose seat I’d stolen even came over and offered me a sandwich, as his wife slept next to me with a heavy blanket covering her from head to toe. You can't overstate Egyptian hospitality when you see what a striking part of life it is, how ungrudgingly and patiently those men moved around and shared their seats so that I would be comfortable.

As the train pulled into Cairo train station at 1:15am my phone rang again. This time it was Karim, who had a torrent of questions: “Where are you? Have you arrived in Cairo yet? How are you getting back to your flat? A taxi? What sort of taxi??”. I assured him that I’d take an extra-secure taxi that runs on a meter and send him a message when I got back. Two minutes later and the phone rang again: “Make sure you take the taxi’s number. No, not his phone number you idiot – his license plate! And call me when you get home!”.

A weekend of spontaneous parties, beach trips and feasts topped off by a large act of random kindness. Quintessentially Egyptian.

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