Monday, 11 February 2013

A spy in a family home

This is the test. The first time I'm invited into an Egyptian home, and a minefield of faux-pas potentially lays inside. Before leaving the UK I had a few cultural crash courses from an Egyptian family friend. But she was a Copt, and this is a Muslim household. There are differences. Apparently guests should have taken off their shoes at the door.

The village is Kafr Hamam, just north of an equally inconspicuous town called Zagazig. No tourist beats the tracks here, only the donkeys and oxen whose hooves sink deep into the mud, traipsing the road alongside tuk-tuks and pulling behind them carts of gas canisters delivered door-to-door.

امبوبة / امباويب imbūba (pl. ambawīb) gas canister
بتاع امبوبة bitāʕ imbūba man who delivers gas canisters

Gas supply isn't the only thing these houses lack. Many are occupied only half-built, but where else could the people live? The house I enter is a comfortable one: it has a phone and a small TV. The winter would penetrate its thin brick walls were it not for the small blue باجور | bagūr | primus stove burning away in the corner.

Mr Ashraf, my host, and friend of no more than a few hours, disappears behind a curtain to pray and change into a freshly ironed جلابية | galabiyya | robe. Meanwhile his wife bustles through the front door, making to remove her برقع | burʔuʕ | veil but leaving it as she notices a guest present. I give a few tentative greetings.

As Mr. Ashraf reappears, he strikes up conversation and his wife goes off to prepare food. Before long, a huge platter arrives and is laid onto the floor:

محشى كرمب maḥši kurumb stuffed cabbage leaves
فلفل محشى filfil maḥši stuffed peppers
سبانخ sabānix spinach (stew)

There's a bowl of chicken that can't be avoided too (I'm normally a vegetarian), despite feigning a blood problem and that meat was against doctor's orders.

This is the closest that Egyptian society has allowed me to the traditional side of its spectrum. It would be very forward to address the mother by or even to know her name (this is something kept for her immediate family). Instead the term of address is ام | umm... | mother of... followed by the name of her eldest son, so in this case Umm Mahmoud. (For more terms of address, see this post.)

It's also dangerous to compliment her too much on the cooking, even though it's the best I've tasted in Egypt. It could be interpreted as an expression of envy for her cooking skills - worse, envy for her as a wife. These envious compliments, known as عين الحسود | ʕēn ilḥasūd | the evil eye have the power to bewitch. Safer to utter the formula that thanks God for the situation at hand:

ما شاء الله mā šāʔ aḷḷāh God has willed it

My plate is filled and re-filled and there is no sign of this ceasing unless I do something about it. My mind whirs back to a fish restaurant down a alley in Alexandria, by the name of Sha'baan. During a meal I was arguing with a friend about the meaning of the name. He claimed it was a month in the Islamic calendar; I claimed it meant being "full up". I still believe the latter would make more sense for a restaurant, but when we checked, he was right. The confusion arose because both words share the same three principal letters making up its root, but in a different order:

شعبان šaʕbān eighth month of the Islamic calendar
شبعان šabʕān full (with food), satiated

It seems long-winded way of remembering how to tell the family I'm full, but after several months in this environment this is how my mind works now. This is how it has to work in order to survive in a different language. Words connected to words through association, whether linguistic (in the way that šabʕān is connected to šaʕbān) or contextual (in the way that šaʕbān is connected to the fish restaurant). It's impossible to retain vocabulary without the mind fusing links between it and the network of words that it already holds.

After dinner, I meet Mahmoud's cousins (Mr. Ashraf's nephews) who live just a few houses along. We play a game of guessing each other's ages, until Mr. Ashraf manages to put us in exactly the right order. I ask how he knew my birthday. He reminds me that he'd seen it in my passport.

Earlier in the day, I was detained in a vestibule on a train from Port Said to Zagazig. I had been caught leaning from the train door to snap photos of an impressive bridge over the Suez Canal. The train guards didn't approve. I was made all the more suspect by my skin colour, for no foreigner would visit this area unless they really were an Israeli spy planning a strategic attack from the Sinai.

After an hour convincing them that I was just a study-abroad student who liked bridges, I was reunited with my passport and sent back to my seat, though one of the train guards remained unconvinced and spent the rest of the journey in the seat opposite. As the conversation went on, his interest in me grew friendlier, eventually insisting I became his guest in Zagazig. I took the minibus with him to his village, ate with his family, and there I was, meeting his nephews.

Mahmoud and his cousins take me to explore the fields surrounding their village. They are greener than any place I'd seen in Egypt, being well irrigated by the various Nile tributaries clumped within the Delta. There are orange trees and date palms, but most of all clover fields.

برسيم barsīm clover (used as animal feed)
لارمج lāring, nāring Seville oranges
غيط / غطان ġīṭ / ġeṭān field
كشك / كشاك kušk (pl. kišāk) small wooden hut

This is the environment these guys grew up in. They have little exposure to the places I come from - their idea of a dream holiday might be up to Alexandria on the coast - although they've heard rumours of what the west is like. Away from the village, they have the chance to ask me the usual questions that have been bugging them: Do I drink beer? Am I allowed a girlfriend? Have I had sex? Do Europeans really have carpet in their bathroom?

It's clear there's a lot we don't have in common. It would be a long time before they ever understood my vegetarianism, or what my home is really like. Likewise I will always feel a little uncomfortable to be doted on by a woman whose very presence I have to address with caution. Nevertheless this is a family who really have time for others, and is happy to welcome them into their home, no matter how strange they are.

I become increasingly aware that there's no escape for tonight; despite my best attempts to return to Zagazig and find a hotel there, the family decide to sleep in one room so that I could have the other to myself. After being shepherded from house to house to have photos taken and to drink salep after salep, I sink into the bed exhausted. Extremely grateful, but exhausted.

1 comment:

  1. Fenugreek is a traditional galactagogue, so I imagine the two words are ultimately from the same root.