The Soviet Store

I had a nice, long couch in the kitchen where I used to live, but here, there’s just enough space for a love seat.

Even for me, it’s too short to comfortably stretch out on, but that’s okay: there’s no dearth of spots for reclining in my comfortable, comforting home. When I found my two-seater at Restore for Habitat for Humanity, I overlooked its flaws: The price was right, and I intended to have it reupholstered and restrung. Oh well. Add that to the list of the undone.

My cats care not a whit that it’s lumpy. It’s become their favorite perch, close to their feeding grounds, and to me. (I live way too much of my life in this kitchen.) The love seat’s wings tempt them like tree trunks, and they indulge in instinctive, ritualized clawing before they alight on the back to settle in for a nap or peer out the window that overlooks the curve in my drive.

I understand my cats’ need to sharpen their claws against predators, so I try not to be too harsh in my scolding. I couldn’t care less about the original upholstery: It’s awful; that pale-blue ’70s rec room “fabric” that would probably melt rather than catch fire if one were to drop a match. But I love the sweet floral I’ve tossed over it to hide the hideousness. That cotton’s my version of Proust’s madeleine, and as I obsess over the burgeoning rips, I’m taken back to Cairo, where I bought it, at a place affectionately dubbed “The Soviet Store.”

couch in my kitchen
May May, Jack, and Slim are sweet company.

Traveling with Edward and Anwar was full of private jokes and designations like that, some far sadder than others: There were the “stinkies,” the grimy worn bills of small denomination needed to negotiate any and all transactions – asking directions, for help with baggage (whether requested or not), even pushing the button of the rickety alleyway elevator up to The Lotus Hotel. Anwar directed us to keep this indispensable currency segregated from the bulk of our cash: We needed discrete and frequent access to the baksheesh that smooths the Egyptian economy.

There was Ruth, the “afrita,” an Arabic word for a supernatural, ghost-like being that we bestowed upon the expat Englishwoman whose shockingly white hair and frozen position on a sofa in the lobby of The Lotus earned her the nickname. There was no malice behind the designation, just lighthearted curiosity.

good lotus sign

I assumed the role of Edward’s “Polish wife,” good protection against potential fallout from the violence in Gaza that broke out during our trip. None of us looks particularly American, and Anwar, whose first language is Arabic, also speaks the Egyptian dialect (and English, French, and German as well). The fact I speak not a word of Polish wasn’t an issue: Many women keep silent in back seats in that part of the world.

night cars

And there was the beggar I couldn’t help but think of as “Gumby Boy.” He provided a heartbreaking reproach to me, a reminder to quit bemoaning my far-from-willowy stature. My legs would never have me strutting down a runway, but I have two, and they’ve taken me many fascinating places, including brightly illuminated 26th July Street, where this unfortunate young man used the knuckles of his balled-up fists to propel his legless self through the  crowd of night-time shoppers that thronged the sidewalk. I dropped a few Egyptian pounds into his cup, and tried to erase the sight of his vestigial legs, the sound those flippers made as they flapped against the square of cardboard protecting his bottom from the ground. That cardboard was most likely one of his few possessions, worth the world to him.

Elegant decay
Elegant decay

Cairo: A city that stirs mixed emotions. Utter sadness at the poverty. Amazement at the people’s grace. Gratitude to the military for protecting the city’s Grand Synagogue. (It might have been the police: Like here of late, it’s sometimes hard to tell.) Shock that tourists are advised to forego the ubiquitous juice stands, and delight in the fresh pomegranate-fig juice I downed every day. Gratitude for our proximity to the yummy fast food at Falfela, but bewilderment at the young women casually reaching behind their black veils to ingest their fries. I felt sadness that their dates couldn’t see their smiles, but also shame for carrying my preconceptions into their space.  And there was relief – for witnessing no carnage on the city’s dizzying traffic circles where entire families piled on motorbikes, and making it across seven lanes of speeding traffic, alive and safe.

We went here at least two times a day.
“Our” juice stand, where we went at least two times a day
falfela ?
Lunchtime at Falfela
Edward negotiates traffic near the Pyramids. A fierce sandstorm turned us back that to the Pyramids
Edward negotiates traffic near the Pyramids. A fierce sandstorm turned us back that day.
Even the camel was smiling!
Even the camel was smiling!

It was Christmas, and for free entertainment we wandered into many of the big Western hotel lobbies to admire the holiday decorations. It didn’t feel like an act of bravery at the time, but in retrospect, it seems kind of crazy. Perfect targets.

santa sign
No “War on Christmas” there, not then!
what does this say?
A commercial establishment wishes Merry Christmas to Copts, and promises surprises to customers.
Memories of multiculturalism
More signs of multiculturalism

We walked almost everywhere, and on the streets radiating from Talaat Harb Square we’d pass the windows of a store that piqued my curiosity. Edward and Anwar consistently ignored my hints, my remarks that unremarkable places like these often held surprises inside.

One evening toward the end of our stay, they relented, and we entered the department store. It was cavernous and quiet, and like its window displays, dusty with years of poor patronage. Edward set off disinterestedly, and I made my way up a wide and creaky central stairway as if beckoned by some sixth sense to a floor-to-ceiling wall of fabric. I didn’t worry about Anwar: He was engrossed by nearby baby clothes, choosing carefully for his not-yet-born nieces and nephews. It didn’t matter to him that the clothes were made in China, he just wanted to provide for the sisters who, pregnant or not, didn’t get to travel from their homes in Tunisia. Edward wandered the quiet, empty floors, graciously trying to conceal any impatience.

Not wanting to push Edward’s generosity, I narrowed my options to a floral, and “calculated” yardage for some unknown future project in two equally charming color ways; yellow and aqua, and aqua and brown. The cotton, which was stained along the rarely opened folds, was measured and cut by one shop girl, priced by another, wrapped and sent downstairs by dumbwaiter by yet another. It finally landed with the man my friend James would call the “Big Dog,” the store owner or manager, who took our money, and in exchange, offered us leisurely, halting conversation and cigarettes after we’d paid. The establishment’s atmosphere was so stifling, its process so bureaucratic, that even though none of us had ever been anywhere near Moscow, we named our source of souvenirs “The Soviet Store.”

Looking toward Talaat Harb Square and The Soviet Store from my balcony at The Lotus
Looking toward Talaat Harb Square and “The Soviet Store” from my balcony at The Lotus

Six years have passed since my journey to Egypt. Since then, the world has witnessed the Arab Spring: the faltering Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia; and not long after, the hot, brave brilliance of Tahrir Square. What’s become of them all in Cairo, I wonder?

Has Ruth reconsidered her expat status, left her perch in the Lotus’s lobby for her former home in England? Has she returned to peaceful, cooler climes?

Where did Gumby Boy go to do his begging with the city so upended? Did his fists carry his partial body to safety, somewhere off the fiery streets?

Did the Big Dog succumb to cancer from all those smokes, or did he live long enough to pick shards of glass from unsold appliances, wail over shop windows smashed by horse hooves, exploded by Molotov cocktails hurled in rage. Did “our” Soviet Store suffer spillover from nearby Tahrir?

Did the docile girls who sold me my cheerful cotton make their way to join the fray in that teeming hotbed only to have their faith betrayed – not just by yet another fetid government jailing journalists and opposition alike, but by the very men with whom they stood shoulder to shoulder, demanding dignity for all Egyptians? One minute they’re fighting alongside their countrymen, ousting their oppressors; the next, they’re being harassed and humiliated, rewarded for their bravery with “virginity tests,” administered by ignorant ingrates with filthy minds and filthy fingers. Talk about betrayal!

I hope those shop girls somehow emerged from behind the counter to a stronger, freer place, but I fear they’re trapped and beaten by the oblivious men for whom they may have risked their lives. Don’t those men love the mothers who bore them and fed them? The big sisters who wiped their shitty asses clean? Please, I pray: Let those shy girls sometimes smile. But if they do, God, who will witness? Tell me, who will know?

What the Sphinx sees
What the Shpinx sees

I wish I’d had the foresight to buy enough yardage to adequately cover my love seat, but what I really wish is that I could perch, unmoved, on the disheveled little sofa in my (for now) safe and cozy kitchen with the equanimity of a Pharaoh’s cat. I long to swallow a lotus blossom, have my flamed-out hopes for Egypt’s revolution obliterated, replaced by oblivion, replaced by bliss. An ancient civilization that seems to have once defied the laws of physics now just slides toward the abyss. We’ve all heard of pyramid power, but I fear that’s just another lie, a myth.

pyramid sky