I was born in winter, in the UK. My mother claims that I cried for two straight months until she took me to Egypt – where I defrosted surrounded by numerous aunties and cousins – while she recovered.
It might be argued that my early fractiousness was due to the fact that for the first years of my life I slept in a carrycot kept on a storage box in a poky flat in Putney, in arctic conditions, and that I was demonstrating early symptoms of 1. a deeply ingrained hatred of the cold and, 2. an aversion to makeshift living conditions. The latter continues to reveal itself in a refusal to sign-up to any holiday plans involving the use of tents.
My father didn’t accompany us on this particular trip, and my mother took advantage of this in order to get my ears pierced as soon as possible (he had forbidden her from doing so, presumably on humanitarian grounds). It seems customary for any female infant born to at least one Egyptian parent to have their ears pierced even before the umbilical cord is cut. The thinking seems to be that if their male progeny can stand the pain of their foreskins being ripped from them forever, girl babies should be able to withstand the mild discomfort of ear piercing – even if they have just recovered from the trauma of childbirth and are still coming to terms with being alive.
Now my father suffers from the typically male affliction of not noticing major physical changes in other people other than the loss of a limb. This extends to his wife and child. My father thought I was naturally blonde for the first ten years of my life despite the fact that every six weeks or so ribbons of dark brown roots would appear on my head and then magically disappear. In her quest to have a child resembling Bjorn Borg my mother periodically subjected me to the torture of sitting under a hair dryer with one of those shampoo halo things on my head while noxious fumes drifted up from the Sun In working its way through my scalp into my brain.
While this failure to notice significant changes may seem like a cold-hearted lack of interest on the part of my Dad, it should be remembered that this is the man who can never find that other great love of his life – cheese – in the fridge. I have lost count of the number of times I have entered the kitchen to find my mother standing with her hand on her hip and her I-didn’t-reckon-on-this-when-I-married-you look on her face, pointing at the cheese in disgust while my father mumbles ‘well what’s it doing there?’ – in reference to the container bought specially to house his beloved cheeses.
He may therefore not have noticed the new protuberations in his infant daughter’s ears were it not for the fact that alas they got infected, and I was back to screaming all over again.
My mother never spoke to me in Arabic. When later I asked her why not, she claimed that she thought bilingualism ‘would confuse me,’ which is a feeble excuse if only for the fact that the woman herself speaks mostly in English, sings in Arabic and counts in French. While my father might be right in his assertion that my mother’s life is an unfathomable maze of confusion, I don’t think this can be blamed on the fact that she is a polyglot. My own theory is that the fact that we lived in an entirely British environment, that she didn’t know any/was avoiding Egyptians in London, that her husband doesn’t speak Arabic and that perhaps she didn’t want to interrupt her own immersion into British culture by re-invoking the culture and the world she had left – or was trying to leave – behind, all contributed to her decision. There is also the fact that I look so different to her, so European – maybe at some subconscious level it seemed illogical to speak to this kid in Arabic, in the lonely isolation of a west London housing estate.
When do kids become consciously aware of nationality and language? It took ages in my case, despite the dramatic change in scenery following our move from London to Cairo in the early 80s. I don’t ever remember hearing Arabic and thinking, ‘this is a different language’ even though I never spoke it, save for that year we spent in Egypt. I probably didn’t have time to ponder the issue, since my halcyon days in Cairo were a constant round of swimming, cousins’ birthday parties, watching E.T and the Wizard of Oz and mass family excursions to the north coast. Someone (it must have been my dad who is a librarian and who would document his own farts if he could) taped me speaking Arabic to my mother and a cousin, and the accent was (and still is) bloody awful as expected, but there was no hesitancy or embarrassment as there is now. Cousin Mildred’s daughter Elvis (who speaks more English than Arabic at home) also has a slightly weird accent in Arabic and it makes me wonder whether I would have lost the accent eventually if my mother and I had continued to speak Arabic once we returned to the UK.
Speaking of weird accents and sound recordings, I once found an old greatest hits Dalida cassette at home which I listened to immediately with much enthusiasm. To my horror ‘Helwa ya Balady’ stopped suddenly halfway through for ten seconds or so when Dalida’s heart-rending lament is replaced briefly by the sound of my parents DUETTING, her singing, him humming.
I roamed through our family’s building in Cairo with my younger cousin Tennis, and occasionally Mildred, and we tumbled about freely between the rooms in my grandmother’s flat (where my parents and I lived in one of several rooms occupied by various aunties and cousins) as well as invading the flats above and below us, which housed yet more relatives. I felt a similar kind of freedom in the complete absence of any differentiation between me – with my dad who looked weird in a galabeyya and who wouldn’t let me sit on his lap and ‘drive’ the car when we reached our street like Tennis’ dad would – and my cousins. I knew that my father didn’t speak Arabic, but I didn’t link this with nationality because I had virtually no conception of what nationality was. Dad speaks English, we eat mashed potatoes if we’re lucky (and molokheyya if we’re not) at Tennis’ place and when Om Mohamed the cleaner/cook/companion to my grandmother is prostrating on the rug it is called praying, and you can’t talk to her until she stands up. Straight-forward facts undisturbed by the contemplation of my existence in the bigger world.
The only immediate perceptible difference between life in Cairo and life in the UK was a significant and sudden reduction in aunties and cousins available round the clock. The void this created was filled with the sound of my mother’s radio, which to this day is constantly tuned to BBC Radio 4 or the World Service and on at all times, including when she is asleep and watching television or doing both activities at once. Meanwhile, at school, things were more or less the same (except that I walked there rather than enjoying the exciting journey by microbus) until we moved to a crappy little place in the north of England where there were only two non-white people in my school – and they were brothers. At about this time my mother decided to adopt a huge 80s perm-style haircut, and it was this, together with the time we had to say what our mother’s maiden name was (God only knows why, and if they tried this exercise nowadays it would have to be preceded by an explanation of what marriage is, or was) which revealed that I was very slightly different to my Persil white English classmates. My Aref Ibrahim was a brief ripple in the sea of Farmers, Turners and Smiths. Playground life was made mildly uncomfortable when the Bangles’ ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ became popular, but I was spared anything serious because I looked like them and neither they, nor I, knew what a Muslim was.
My discovery that I shouldn’t say the Lord’s Prayer in general assembly was added to my meagre stock of information about Islam: I knew that there was a certain month when my mother would not eat during the daytime, and I had also observed that she said el7amdelellah after meals. Sometimes when tired, or watching the news about the Intifada, she would exhale heavily and say something which to me sounded like ‘rugby’. When I had been good she would call me ya rou7ee. When I exasperated her she would scream BASS, or say OUFF. My mother would point out Egyptians on TV and I grew very familiar with Dr Magdy Yacoub. There were pictures on our walls of pastoral scenes of men in galabeyyas and framed writing in Arabic which I hadn’t seen in any of my friends’ houses. Sometimes she spent hours mixing sugar with water and at the critical moment would use the mixture to turn her skin an angry red colour with a satisfying fwiiiit sound. Whenever I saw her braced over the stove I knew that she would not be leaving the house for the next five hours. She let me taste a bit before she used it: deliciously sweet of course, but its taste and smell forever ruined by the sight of the tiny ant-like hairs trapped in it. I knew these were things my mum did but didn’t know the reasons for each one, and more to the point whether the sum of these things made an average mother, or an Egyptian mother or just my mother. For a while I simply assumed that all mums did these things as they listened to Radio 4, and remarked that dads seemed much less like hard work.
In the meantime holidays to Egypt continued, where I discovered that I had forgotten how to speak Arabic entirely and that while the music of the language wasn’t strange, individual sounds had largely ceased to convey meaning. All I was left with was a vague recollection of a handful of words. It was rather like going back to a town twenty years after leaving it to find the houses and streets you remembered ripped down and replaced with strange and alien buildings. Occasionally you will turn a corner and recognise a house which has been spared, but you remain lost.
None of my relatives spoke to me in Arabic between the ages of 9 and 25 (the age at which I moved back here) and the holidays I spent in Cairo until I found freedom with cousin Mildred at the age of 18 were miserable, lonely affairs. My mother only comes back to Egypt to visit her relatives, and I don’t think she recognises the country she finds. She is in any case entirely unable to cope here, immobilised by the slightest hint of heat, stupefied by the poverty and desperation and unwilling to re-learn the unwritten rules for navigating her way through this society. She also finds life impossible in a country which does not boast a branch of Marks and Spencer and does not have Radio 4, and during these teenage holidays would cocoon herself within her family, venturing out only when accompanied with one of her sisters. I sought refuge in teaching myself the Arabic alphabet, and in Abdel Halim Hafez and the cassettes with the green labels. I was transported by his voice, particularly the lengthy, tragic, operatic almost songs of his later years, and listening to him was only enhanced by his picture, which revealed that he had been very good looking indeed before Bilharzias ravaged him.
My mother communicated to me her fear of, and disgust at, this strange place which, after a twenty year absence, had ceased to mean anything to her. The lingering stares I attracted in the streets seemed to confirm that I was not wanted in this place while the music of the strange/familiar language seemed to whirl around my ears, its lost meanings taunting me like ghosts. I remember two decisive incidents during these years: in the first, everyone had gone out except for me and my elderly grandmother, who walked with a zimmer frame. We were sitting in the living room, probably watching the Bold and the Beautiful, when she suddenly got up to slowly propel herself to the kitchen. Once there she called for me and repeated a word while gesticulating towards the wall. I didn’t have a clue what she wanted, and tried in vain to understand what it was she needed. After about five minutes of this game of charades, during which she became increasingly more agitated, she with difficulty reached up and hit a switch, managing to accomplish what she had repeatedly requested that I do. She had been saying ‘el nour’ – the light.
The second incident involved a trip to the Pyramids with my parents and Upstairs Auntie. I had last gone when we lived in Egypt, when my paternal grandmother came to visit and Tennis and I descended a narrow tunnel in one of the Pyramids in the adventure to end all adventures. This time we had chosen to go on a national holiday, and arrived to find the Pyramids site swarming with people. I remember it as being an overcast day, and cold, and I was frightened by the immense crowds there, whose attention eventually turned to us. We found ourselves being pelted with stones, the youths who were launching these missiles following them up with a tirade of what I understood from my aunt’s reaction to be obscenities. We made a swift departure, and I left Egypt stung by its cruelty, and heartbroken that it had rejected me.
This event would never happen these days because I would never voluntarily set foot near the Pyramids nor any other site involving large stone blocks and men trying to sell me alabaster turds. But I have subsequent to this incident acquired the knowledge that firstly, teenagers (and especially teenage boys) in groups are generally little shits wherever you go in the world and, secondly, the appearance of these foreigners at the Pyramids, and the youths’ stone-throwing reaction to us, was just an exaggerated version of the stares in the streets allowed to assume corporeal form by youthful bravado and the safety of the mob: but ultimately it was fuelled by ignorance, poverty and curiosity.
For the next four years I rejected the idea of going to Egypt, and all but the most piquant of its sensations (basboussa, 3’oreyebba biscuits, Halim, Dalida, the smell when you first step off the airplane, Aida el Ayyouby’s 3ala baaly, the poverty, getting stared and laughed at in the street, having to go to register at el mogama3a within seven days of arriving, the moustaches, my mother’s constant exhaustion in Egypt, boredom, street sounds) gradually slipped from my memory, aided by the fact that I knew no Arabs in Croydon apart from my mother. It was very easy indeed to carry on being just another English person, and this I did. But while I didn’t want to set foot in Egypt, I continued to harbour an infuriating and irrepressible desire to associate myself in any way possible with an Egypt I could define within my own limits, and control. This I did by reading its most famous authors, listening to its music, attempting to learn its language and waiting to befriend anyone Egyptian who crossed my path.
Egypt’s rehabilitation happened in part thanks to cousin Mildred, who visited us in London (when I was 16) having just returned victorious from an exchange year in Texas where I remember she acquired a leather jacket with shoulder pads and tassels. Upon arriving she had the audacity to promptly tell me off for dressing like a boy, and devastated me when she informed me that a collection of band t-shirts and excellence in musical taste are not enough to lure in a man – a bitter truth I had actually secretly and grudgingly started to acknowledge myself. She also described an Egypt I didn’t know existed, where hot guys with semi-long hair dance with cool chicks with very long hair to the latest hottest dance tunes (I did not let this put me off) in nightclubs and everyone drives a jeep while speaking English and smoking fags and when they are not on the AUC campus discussing their jeeps they are at the beach and yes of course I could walk in the street without people pointing but there is no need to Amnesiac because of the aforementioned jeeps.