Monday, August 31, 2009

Emcees, Junkmen, Bakeries, and Supermarkets

We have entered our second week of Ramadan and noting some changes outside our compound. The sounds of fireworks and kids playing soccer in the street behind our housing has lessened after midnight. The emcee (aka M.C.-master of ceremonies) in the mosque outside the front gate has been broadcasting freestyle at random hours and often he lets guest speakers, including children have free reign at the mic. Sometimes there is a little reverb coming out of the speakers and I’m not sure if it is the sounds bouncing off the concrete buildings, but it almost sounds like a Rastafarian gone wild, I expect to hear a “Jah” followed by some bass. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.

Last week when I was introducing a project to my high school art class we were interrupted by the sounds of a loud voice over a megaphone on the other side of the wall behind my classroom. I asked my students if it was the onion man, negative, it was the robabikya (a junkman of sorts who travels by donkey and cart around the neighborhood buying broken appliances and electronics). The other night the director of our school was telling Ana and I how the school sells stuff it no longer uses to the various kinds of junkmen. It appears there are robabikya specialists, immediately remembering the guy who hits up the butcher for the remains of recently slaughtered sheep. (I need to investigate what he does with the bones in a future blog) I do know that the ones who collect the electronics eventually repair and resell the unit for a meager profit. Unless something is decomposing organic matter, the concept of throwing something away doesn’t appear to be a common practice in Alex.

In relation to Ramadan, it has been stated and noted that fasting and heat (as in a hot day) is not the best of combinations and can result in patients being tested and cause tensions to flare up with little provocation. So far I have confirmed two types of places that are “sure bets” where one is guaranteed to encounter an exchange of hostilities served with a side of pushing and shoving.

Bakeries. In Egypt Aish (bread lit. meaning life) is not only a central and staple food but importantly it symbolic and has religious implications much like the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. In fact prior to our arrival here, there has been a bread shortage and the government stepped in to regulate the distribution of flour. It is rumored that a portion of the flour usually makes it to the black market. During our first day in Egypt, Ana and I tried to stand in line to buy bread. Unknown to me I accidentally stood in the female line and was gestured, shouted, and hissed at to get in the correct line. After that, all was cool, if fact just to demonstrate how friendly and kind Egyptians are, the man in front of the long line turned to us and asked how many we wanted, I held up two fingers and he motioned me over to where he was standing. He handed me two pieces of steaming hot bread and I tried to hand him money, which he refused, as did the baker. It is said that people stand in line for over an hour to buy 5 or 10 pieces of bread. The dean at our school told us a joke after we mentioned our adventure. He asked if we have seen the warning labels/pictures of dead babies and people dying on the cigarette packages in Egypt. We stated that we have and he went on to explain how effective these images have been in curbing the country’s smoking problem. He then said that the government is thinking of putting similar warning labels on the bread. The act of buying bread isn’t intended for the novice consumer, be ready take your fellow man down. 

Supermarket. Another place that can lead to fisticuffs is the line at Fathalla (the supermarket where the locals shop). Be prepared to have people cut in front or shove you out of the way. Fortunately most people behave and adhere to the concept of forming a line, but there are those who feel entitled to walk up to any open gap and plant themselves there. If you have ever crossed the boarder from Mexico to the United States you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about, imagine people at their worst, fighting their way to the front of a line. Most people here just suck it up if the person has one or two items, but sometime someone is hell-bent on ramming their cart to the front. This will definitely ensure a discussion pushing 100 decibels. I can usually discern a word or two in the argument such as “Allah” (God) and “shukran” (thank you), playing the "God card" typically calms matters down a bit and puts Ramadan back into perspective. What you want to avoid is call someone a kharoof (sheep), that might get you into a headlock type of fight we’ve seen around town. 

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