RICH MAN, POOR MAN
I felt, almost all the time I drove around in Kuwait and the Emirates, as if my income and personal status were sadly lacking. In the thousands of beautiful cars that sweep majestically around the wide and curbed streets my little red Mazda 121 would look very out of place. Designer shops full of the real thing and thousand dollar handbags are so far above my touch that I wasn’t even interested in looking.
In Cairo it is almost the opposite. Here I am in one of the better cars on the road. Here I am in a villa in Zamalek, on a leafy island in the Nile. There are people in the streets who ask for money – and I start each day with a pile of single pounds, and use them all up if I go out.
Carrefour is a long way from Zamalek, on a road called the Corniche which hugs the Nile and follows it to Ma’adi – a newer and elite suburb where most of the American population of Cairo lives. Then there is a swing across a bridge over the Nile to the other side again – then you do a U turn and come all the way back as you can’t turn left onto the road to Carrefour, then a long – twenty minutes – of road straight out towards the desert. It took three quarters of an hour to drive there – and it was a quick drive as it was Friday – our Sunday equivalent. The supermarket is in a building that looks like a very large aircraft hangar from the outside and pretty much the same inside. It is a department store and grocery store with out divisions, so you can turn out of the detergent aisle and find yourself looking at garden furniture or baby strollers.
It is extraordinarily well stocked compared to the shops in our area – and there was a lot of different cream cheese too – so I will have to make the pilgrimage occasionally. It is funny that your fundamental needs can come down to cream cheese – I hardly use it at home.
All the way out on the road towards the desert you are driving on a raised road against hundreds of thousands of cheap apartment blocks. They look utterly dodgy – dark red bricks clumped together with a lump of mortar to each, somewhere in the middle and with visible gaps between. The walls are far from straight, corners clump rather than meeting. Many buildings are only half constructed but still lived in, and a lot of a cluster of higgledy piggledy buildings on the roof – cardboard and wood and tin, and whatever could be found. You look at them and just know that one decent earthquake (which is, I guess, an oxymoron) would reduce the lot to piles of bricks and concrete. I was a little reassured when one of the embassy drivers told me that the construction is actually Ok – the floors are all reinforced concrete, and the walls are not actually holding up the building. Many people buy a piece of floor and build their bit of house with their own bricks – which would account for the apparent mismatches and missing walls – perhaps they just run out of money.
Many walls have been decorated with patterns in bright paint, and there are occasional bits of outside wall missing to show choices of room colours in fresh light brights – turquoise and aqua, lavender and purple, yellow, orange and blues of every hue. I felt like a voyeur, peering into homes at upper window level – here a girl with long hair leant over a bright rug airing over the balcony to call to a neighbour below, in another place on a roof a group of women were clustered around a young woman on a chair holding a baby. A man stood in front of a mirror on a tiny balcony seriously shaving with a long, curved, old fashioned razor that would have made me concentrate too. On a balcony three women are pinning an amazingly lurid mauve dress with sequins onto a shop window dummy.
Life for people in these areas would be so hard, and I know they have so little money that it is a real wake up to compare it to life in the Gulf. The most obvious difference is that in the Gulf, the labour force is all Indian. I heard hardly in Arabic spoken in the time I was away. The Emiraties are usually reasonable well off, and have no need of work which could be seen as drudgery. Here in Cairo most of the labour force is Egyptian as they really need the money. The only exception is the group who do housework – many Egyptians employ maids from Sri Lanka or the Philippines, as it considered shameful to work in this way for a Moslem.
Pride has a high value here.