Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters.
About the only way in which I allow Christmas to interrupt my life is calling my Grandmother in the UK. Christmas was always fairly ridiculous, but it makes no sense whatsoever when not accompanied by my father’s drunken joviality and the dulcet tones of my mother’s farting over the Queen’s speech. But Gran loves Christmas because Christmas means family – perhaps the reason why I dislike Christmas. Joking obviously, Dad.
While I am the now the proud possessor of a phone-line at home, the line is filled with so much static (a free and unadvertised gift courtesy of Egypt Telecom) that it sounds like the person I am talking to is eating foil in a tornado, and I myself am barely audible. “Kharwasha” it’s called in Arabic, and never was a word more onomatopoeically evocative of the blight that it describes.
Not wanting to spend 30 le on a phone card in order to have two minutes for the privilege of saying, “Hello Gran, Happy kharwasha kharwasha kharwasha” I was forced out into Cairo’s winter streets and to the telephone exchange.
The Centraal is as 1960s Russia as it sounds, and my local one even looks like it should house the Ministry of Truth, imposing granite monolith that it is. During the day people “queue” for hours in order to be told that they are at the wrong window, before queuing some more in order to tell a man who doesn’t care that their phones aren’t working. At night the windows close leaving only the telephone cubicles. This being Egypt it is mandatory for conversations to be conducted at full volume, and the empty hall is filled with the sound of disembodied voices which hang in the air like the cigarette smoke from the bored cashier watching them. Cutting through this is the computerised robotic voice which announces the duration and cost of each and every call made, and which always forms an oddly dispassionate and striking contrast to the dawn chorus of emotions being played out at full volume inside the eight booths.
Anyway I spoke to my Gran who was enjoying doing her Don Corleone thang at the family dinner, and then went to pay the cashier, who seems to be Egypt’s most popular man, if the Yahoo Messenger and MSN sounds coming from his computer are anything to go by. His many contacts obviously haven’t seen his moustache. He printed out my bill, which I misread as 9.50 LE. I gave him ten. He was serving someone else simultaneously, and after I gave him the ten pound note, he appeared to be looking around for something. Thinking that perhaps he didn’t have a 50 piastre note to give me in change, I gave him another 50 piastre note so that he could give me a pound back. He accepted the 50 piastre note, and I waited for the change. He looked blankly at me, and I showed him the receipt and what I thought was the total. In fact I had missed out the final total after the telecom company adds an extra sum of money, perhaps for the privilege of using a chair while we talk. He pointed out that the total was ten. “Fair enough”, I said, “and the extra 50 piastres I just gave you by mistake?” He looked at me impassively and smiled the smile of a man who makes you laugh only so that he can reach inside and steal your gold fillings, while the MSN bonged, bonged, bonged beside him.
Needless to say I was not about to create a hoo-hah about 50 piastres. But as always where the material sum at stake is not big enough to fight for, I was left contemplating the principle involved, which is not that a government employee took advantage of my stupidity to earn himself some quick cash, but that both he and I accepted it as entirely normal. Because deceitful, mercenary, self-interest and palm-greasing is the norm in any interaction between officialdom and individuals, between individuals, even within a family, particularly where it involves money.
This obviously is nothing new, but a question to which I would love an answer is this: was it always like this? Did this behaviour develop in response to corruption (when??) as a sort of survival mechanism and spread? Or is corruption simply the manifestation of something more sinister within Egyptian society’s psyche which regards truth as relative and other people’s pain as a stepping block for one’s own advancement? Growing up I was frequently under orders by my mother to “not tell Daddy” about e.g. a sum of money she had spent which she didn’t want him to find out about while my father himself regarded the smallest of untruths as a moral outrage. And on holidays back in Egypt I was constantly aware of secrets in the house, of double-dealing…Needless to say the unedifying spectacle of relatives ripping each other apart over land and money has been a leitmotif throughout the Egyptian part of my childhood and continues today.Which is not to say that the English are somehow more upstanding and that everything is cricket old chap, and fair play. God forbid.
Perhaps the poverty and oppression which has assaulted Egypt for so long has, metaphorically speaking, had the same ravaging effect as Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans. Cairo feels like a giant Superdome where ‘normal’ human relations in every single area of life have been suspended – seemingly by consensus – and people will eat each other alive if necessary to survive.