By MONA MERHI
Translated by NARIMAN YOUSSEF
The sign outside the shop reads, in big dusty letters, Abu Ramy The Lebanese. In a bid for some familiarity amidst the chaos of this neighborhood, I insist we go in.
“Are you Abu Ramy, the Lebanese?”
“At your service.”
“Are you Lebanese?”
“No, I’m Egyptian. But, you see, I lived in Beirut for more than twenty years. Are you Lebanese?”
“Just like I’m telling you.”
“OK, I’ll leave you both to it now—I have to run,” says my friend Hamdy, who has been silent until now. He’s been showing me around today, and now he withdraws and leaves me at the mercy of the chatty shopkeeper.
Abu Ramy, the shopkeeper, is a round-faced man in his sixties, with a moustache and a soft, melodious voice that accentuates his childishness. He isn’t tall. His eyes twinkle with every word. “I used to be a professor of philosophie et psychologie at Beirut Arab University, Jadideh Road. I came back to Ard el-Lewa when I retired. My kids grew up in Beirut. Beirut, mon amour. Ramy, my eldest, is a pilot, by the way. Qu’elle est jolie, Beirut.”
Abu Ramy’s wife sits silently behind the counter.
I speak to Abu Ramy in an Egyptian dialect, and he replies in a Lebanese flavored with English and French, the indisputable proof that he spent thirty years in Beirut and absorbed the ways of its people. Few Lebanese can produce a full sentence without an English word here, a French word there.
In any case, Abu Ramy seems to be trying everything in his power to befriend me, although it’s also possible that it’s just his nature and he’s like that with everyone. At least that’s what I’m hoping.
“We are your family here in Ard el-Lewa. Anything you want, anything you need, anything you imagine, here’s the shop’s card with my number on it. Do you have an Egyptian phone number?” He crosses out the numbers on the card and writes two new ones, a mobile and a landline. He hands me the card, with its “Cedar of Lebanon” logo, and I put it away. As his wife drops my groceries into a black plastic bag, Abu Ramy keeps talking. “Call me. From your number, so I can save it. Anything you fancy. We are your family here. Call now.”
I pay and prepare to leave, but first I ask the wife where I can find finobread. Abu Ramy cuts in to answer and starts to come out from behind his counter and move toward me to give me directions. His wife starts saying something to him, which I don’t get. Not because I don’t understand the dialect, but because as soon as she opens her mouth, Abu Ramy interrupts. “Just a sec. I’ll show her where the fino bakery is and be right back.”
Abu Ramy darts out of the shop, his walk somewhat unsteady and his head slightly bent by the force that propels him forward, possibly because he is trying to walk with me—like a prize he’s just won—rather than just follow me out.
“We have to sit… and talk. We must, eh? I can’t talk in front of the missus, you know. But we must sit and talk. Call me, so I can save your number. Call now, eh? See that Pepsi truck? You turn left there, then first right—there you’ll find a fino bakery. Call me, so we can sit and talk. Waiting for your call, eh?”
Finobread is the equivalent of French baguette here, so I was told. I wonder why it’s called “fino.” I have to ask about that.
I also have to ask Hamdy about the “Chinese bride” story. Yesterday he told me about a newspaper ad he saw a couple of months ago for a company that procures Chinese brides, with a lifelong warranty guaranteeing obedience and the performance of all wifely duties. Full option. For the good price of 1,500 Egyptian pounds. I tried to locate the ad, or an article about it, online but failed. Maybe my search wasn’t thorough enough. I don’t know.
In any case, fino bread turns out not to be the equivalent of French baguette at all, but more like what we refer to in Beirut as “European bread” or “Franji bread,” which is much smaller and softer than a baguette.
Now the only thing left on my shopping list is vegetables: cilantro and potatoes, also tomatoes. Ah, I forgot aluminum foil. Not a big deal. There must be another shop around here.
I’m always forgetting. My keys, my mobile, an errand. One day in Beirut I was waiting for a taxi, lost in my own thoughts. I can’t remember now what the thoughts were. Just that I was lost in thought. A car pulled up in front of me, and I froze. I had forgotten where I was going.
“A… a… a….” I tried to remember.
The taxi driver waited. Seconds passed while I tried to remember, and the driver looked at me. Eventually I asked him to go on his way. As soon as he drove off, it came back to me: I was supposed to go to Dannawi Station.
My forgetfulness is deliberate somehow. It’s as if I choose to withdraw from the physical space while keeping myself entangled with the details that surround me—as if I incarcerate myself in a transparent layer where I receive everything my eyes and ears can capture. I allow the images and sounds of the space to shape my thoughts and transform them into other thoughts and other states of being. I am totally present and totally absent at the same time until, suddenly, I melt into some specific meaningless spot, maybe a crushed tomato lying on the edge of the sidewalk. I find myself as meaningless as the crushed tomato and therefore totally ready for the next moment.
Here’s a small shop. A bearded man in a white jilbab looks at me and apologizes. He doesn’t have aluminum foil. Back to Lebanon Supermarket it is.
I’m used to forgetting now. I see it as a coping mechanism. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I have embraced my forgetfulness, or rather my impulsive memory. Each is selective in its own way. Maybe they have merged—I mean my forgetfulness and my memory—into a third, hybrid faculty, something that is not just forgetfulness and not quite the remnants of memory.
I ask the wife, and again Abu Ramy responds. He brings the aluminum, and his wife puts it in a plastic bag. He then asks me if I narjel,meaning if I smoke narjileh. I answer that I don’t. He tells me that he and the missus smoke narjileh every day, in case I ever want to join them.
He accompanies me outside and stresses the necessity that I should call him. “Whatever you fancy, we are your family in Ard el-Lewa. Call me. We must sit and talk.”
It used to be owned by a Lewa, an army general, and consisted of a palace surrounded by agricultural land. Ard el-Lewa is completely different today. A slum area of haphazard housing like many others. Narrow, unpaved streets. Tuktuks everywhere. One can hardly see any sidewalks. Where they exist, they are either very narrow or taken over by things spilling out of shops—a fridge for soft drinks, a bread cart that extends beyond the sidewalk to block part of the street, a spread of women’s shoes, furniture giving off a bad smell.
In Ard el-Lewa there is no separation between humans and things. Everything coexists in a jumbled space too small to contain all three dimensions. Ard el-Lewa appears to me for a moment as a gigantic cooking pot in which buildings, people, cars, tuktuks, and vending carts are thrown together, blended and battered into what resembles the flattened layers of a heavy Egyptian dessert, a gigantic bowl of Umm Ali.
When you walk down haphazard streets, you have to protect yourself by invoking haphazard thoughts, embracing the unfamiliarity and embracing the haphazardness of the place. Or maybe I should do the opposite: give my total attention to every little detail, every encounter… observe the little boy who is voraciously drinking mango juice from a plastic bag. He has lost his front teeth. He is wearing huge flip-flops. He keeps on smiling. When a tuktuk stops near him, the boy starts dancing in the middle of the street. An old man hits him on his neck.
I move forward.
Haphazard thought #1
Champollion Palace.¹ A palace that King Fouad had built for his wife. When she didn’t like it, he turned it into a royal school. During Gamal Abdel Nasser’s reign, the royal school was turned into a state school. Later the building fell, for years, under dispute between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education.
In the nineties, the Ministry of Culture won the dispute and had plans to turn the building into a cultural center. Then, out of nowhere, a new owner appeared: an Alexandrian businessman with title deeds supporting a claim that Anwar Sadat had sold him Champollion Palace.
I haven’t verified all that I heard, but I listened to Hamdy and his friends with my eyes fixed on the abandoned ruins of the palace’s arresting architecture.
Haphazard thought #2
Yesterday I forgot to take two magnesium tablets in the morning and two Colchicine tablets in the evening.
Haphazard thought #3
I need to recite all these details more than once in order to not forget them. Maybe I should write them down.
Haphazard thought #4
“Cairo in the year 1925, the cleanest and most beautiful city in the world.” Cited today in Al-Masry Al-Youm daily newspaper.
Haphazard thought #5
Dialects are the salt and bread of cities.
Haphazard thought #6
A joke to remember—or perhaps a true incident, both more tragic and funnier than a joke: Libyan TV is showing a popular series at midnight every night during the month of Ramadan. On one of those nights, transmission is interrupted by the Libyan president Moammar al-Gaddafi, who suddenly appears on the small screen and barks at the people in his very particular intonation and in a Libyan accent I cannot reproduce: “What you all doing? Why you still up? Damn you, go to bed already!”
Haphazard thought #7
I’m craving Egyptian feteer.
Haphazard thought #8
A Lebanese theater group performs at a festival in Amman. The organizers demand the omission of obscene words from the show. One actress asks why and receives the answer, “Out of respect for the portrait of His Highness.” The actress naively replies, “Can’t we just remove the king’s portrait and put it back after the show?” She has no idea that the price of her suggestion could be days in prison, or even her life, according to some. I prefer not to believe that.
Haphazard thought #9
There is a natural gas crisis in Cairo. It seems that the Egyptian authorities have for years sold the gas reserve to Israel for a quarter of an Egyptian pound per liter. The same authorities are now researching the possibility of buying gas back from Israel for many times the original cost.
Haphazard thought #10
The thing I love most about Cairo are these downtown cafés where you can find poets, vegetable sellers, sales executives, schoolteachers, and foreign tourists, all sitting side by side. But why is it that I always find myself compelled to assert my love for Cairo?
I take out my keys and open the door to my room. I step in. The chain of my haphazard thoughts is broken. I throw them aside and lie on the bed.
I close my eyes and try to visualize the scene on the metro that my friend Zeina told me about.
A man and a veiled woman on the underground train, engrossed in an erotic exchange for over half an hour, with Zeina overhearing every word. She is not the nosy type, but the crowd forces her to stand too close to the couple. Out of respect for their privacy, she turns her back to them and resolves in advance to erase from her mind every word she will have heard by the time they reach their destination. Can they not wait until they get to the privacy of their home?
They reach the next stop. The train slows down, then comes to a standstill. The couple stop talking. The automatic doors open.
The man and woman stand silently side by side. They leave the carriage by different doors and walk in different directions, proceeding on their way without saying goodbye.
Zeina stood frozen to the spot, suffering from a mild shock as she realized that they’d been complete strangers.
I suddenly remember that I’ve forgotten to buy mushrooms. I rush back out to the street.
I bump into Abu Ramy, but I keep walking.
“Hey. Why haven’t you called me?”
 The palace was built by Prince Said Halim, the grandson of Mohamed Ali Basha.
This story is part of an installation created by the author in Cairo in November 2010, when she was invited to an artist residency at Artellewa Art Space. The theme of her installation evolved around shaping one’s writing within the special physicality of the space: the informal neighborhood of Ard el-Lewa in the suburbs of Cairo.
Mona Merhi is a writer, producer, and a cultural operator. She holds a diploma of higher studies in theater. She has published two books, Festivity Under Water/Tabula Rasa (plays) and Out of Service (short stories and flip-book). Merhi is finalizing her master’s degree in cultural mediation and is preparing for her third publication.
Nariman Youssef specializes in literary and cultural translations between Arabic and English. She has translated poetry, short stories, art reviews, song lyrics, and one published novel to date. She is also translation manager for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership’s digital archive. Nariman holds a master’s degree in translation studies from The University of Edinburgh.