Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Anglo-Egyptian-American Telephone Summit in Bed

(none of the names have been changed...)

"This call is expensive", I shouted down the phone, "Will you just hurry up and say 'IT'S FINISHED'".
"What the hell is the matter with you? Repeat after me, 'it's finished Elly'"
Then quietly he said, "It’s not that simple". Just say it Waleed, this is costing me money. "It's finished", he whispered and the phone went dead.

I divorce you, I remarry you. I divorce you, I remarry you. I divorce you.

A friend once told me that every time he encounters another Waleed, he’s a waiter. This Waleed had been a waiter at Dahab, then his native Iskanderiyya. Now he ran his own café come restaurant come hippy hang out in Siwa.

He proved much more difficult to talk to than his new girlfriend, Ann, an overly pedantic New Yorker. I knew she was lying next to him, when I called him at home in Siwa at 1.30am Egyptian time, because he spoke entirely in Arabic to me. Usually he would say a few things in English, but now, even when I had problems understanding some phrase, he just repeated it in Egyptian till I worked it out. "al-humar al iswid, al-humar al-iswid" yes I replied irritated, “the black donkey”, but why are you saying the black donkey – what is the context? It was a private joke I must have forgotten. His donkey, named by me 'Lemonade' after his Tanta Waa restaurant frothy house lemonade, is white I mused.

Put her on the phone, I want to speak to her.
She's tired.
I don't care if she's tired, put her on the phone, put her on the phone, I repeated like a mantra till I heard her voice in the background, shout sleepily, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." I became nauseous.

Look I said to her, in an authoritative tone, this is not your fault, I just want to establish the truth, and distinguish it from the lies; he still sends me dull text messages every day and calls me saying he misses me and loves me and wants me to come back, when I want proper news and conversation, and I need to know if he's repeating the same bullshit to you, about loving you and wanting you to live with him in Siwa or... or what. I felt sure that he at once was, and that he could not be.

I can't remember everything Ann said but she was very articulate and made a point of picking me up on my demeaning use of such words as 'child' and 'immature' and 'not very bright' to describe Waleed, who sat or lay quietly next to her for half an hour while we talked, and she from her moral high ground of his bed informed me that he was an emotional person and “from a different culture.”

Yes I know he's from a different culture, damn it, but he's still making a mess of this, and his air of desperation is going to get him nowhere. I am leaving Siwa soon, she pointed out and I was always clear with him about that from the beginning: “he tells me he loves me and I tell him I love him and he's a very special person but I would have to think hard about having a life with him here. For Waleed his emotions come first”, she again informed me.

Don't tell me about Waleed. I know Waleed; I lived and worked with him for 3 weeks. Yes, Ann said knowingly, he told me about your rocky start. Rocky start? Well, he has obviously told you about that. (I would have said instead that we went through a lot together. She must know about my alleged earlier relationship with Shawqi. This is potentially compromising so I let the subject of rocky starts drop.)

I wondered if they had finished the condoms he had had smuggled in to Siwa for us from his friend Amir via the bus driver on the Western Delta bus from Alex. When we finally got our hands on the brown package, carefully sellotaped up, I noticed it was torn away slightly so you could see the side of one of the packets. Nothing is sacred. We had given up having sex by that time anyway; I'm not sure why. And now, on the phone, I was also wondering what he was doing all this time that Ann talked to Elly. Watching and listening to Ann speak about their temporary, non-committal love. He had asked Elly to marry him, have his children and live forever with him in his garden of paradise. Elly never said yes, but she had not said bluntly, "No". And she had already left for home.

Is she prettier than me? How would I find out. He said no a week earlier, when he told me it was just a sex a few times and companionship because he missed me and was lonely. I missed Siwa and I desperately, mournfully missed us riding our bicycles in complete darkness back along the dirt road through the palm trees after we had closed up Tanta Waa restaurant at Cleopatra springs. Him trying to grab hold of my handle-bars to kiss me and instead upsetting my balance and me narrowly missing falling into the ditches either side that, at points along the path, are wider than the path.

The night we had got together, 3 months before, I had helped him take orders from foreigners and Egyptians while groups of young Siwan men in their white gellabiyas, stood slightly apart, against the walls of the spring, watching their own traditional music and dancing. It was a full moon party and the moon was partly obscured. The band of boys and men that now sat on the ground around the fire had been one hour late in arriving and as a tourist with a video-cam and a camera man from al-Ahram circled them, they became increasingly uneasy and sullen. After half an hour they packed up and left in their pick-up truck. The party had been a failure and the restaurant had taken few orders. Careful Egyptian groups would order 3 teas between 8 of them and the foreigners were equally as stingy. I stayed behind to help him clear up.

All night I had watched him move between kitchen and the band outside, prodding people to take orders. He watched me too and touched me on the arm, as we consulted on how best to extract money from the audience to pay for the band. When the guests left for Siwa town, by truck and donkey cart, Amm Abdullah went round the walls of the spring extinguishing the wicks soaked in petrol in the empty coke cans. It was pitch black and freezing, but he still wore just a thick tattered shirt and was barefoot with his trousers rolled up. The cook, Sayed and his assistant, Islam, bedded down in the kitchen, and Waleed brought us 4 blankets as we arranged cushions for our mattress.

We lay close and watched each others lips as we talked and hesitated to kiss. When Shawqi had let with all the others he had guessed we were not a couple, but he was nervous; in Siwa town the talk was of Shawqi and Elly. I told him I was no one’s girlfriend and so we began. And for the next three weeks we stuck close, even when the English woman eagerly told me they were calling me the English whore and when Waleed’s police friend stopped the car when I was in it and told him I had written a blank cheque for any man. I avoided the souq and took out my paranoia on Waleed. He sulked but insisted the alleged report against him in the police station for sleeping with a foreigner was fictitious.

This word sharmouta, 'whore', bothered me; how could I defend myself from it when I was sleeping with Waleed.

My Siwan friend reassured me my honour was intact and no Siwan cared what I did. I had met and helped out his wife in the kitchen when I had visited him several times as a guest. She was a strikingly beautiful young woman of 25 who only ever emerged from the house with her two children to visit her family and their garden, covered in an embroidered blue sheet she clutched between her teeth, and on his computer in the guest reception room, I had seen pictures of him on holiday with his Dutch girlfriend in Greece. On the inner door his increasingly frustrated wife had written out in chalk the exact health warning you find on cigarette packets. Still we sat and ate her food and smoked and he said, “She doesn’t understand me.”

I used to go to Tanta Waa every morning with Waleed and help him take orders and decorate and write new menus. The kitchen staff liked me and no longer thought I was bringing bad luck for sleeping with their boss. Often we sat and listened to my ipod music on his speakers. Tourists came and looked at the spring and drove off without ordering a coffee or taking lunch. Sayed and Islam threatened to leave; two young men stranded out by the spring, away from what little life there was in the souq, and sleeping in a cold kitchen. Waleed built a room for them out of palm leaves on one side of the restaurant. On particularly cold nights I wished we could sleep there instead of cycling back for 20 minutes in the dark. In the morning we arrived five minutes apart at the restaurant, propped our broken bicycles up against the pavement of East West restaurant and ordered the same thing, one Nescafe and one shay bi laban. We were together for everyone to see. This is the way it is with Egyptians and foreigners, the Siwans knew. The Siwan men’s relations with tourists were more discreet; they happened out in the desert on overnight safaris and in their gardens amongst the date, olive and lemon trees. This was brazen and stupid. Stupid foreigner. I know.

In the beginning the idiot chief of police in Siwa, Amr, used to draw up at the ancient spring in his new white pick-up, indecorously clamber down, usually in the company of his stultifyingly dull and bovine brother, and sit down, spreading himself across several cushions as if the existence of this comfortable refuge, Tanta Waa restaurant, was down to some decree of his own. He never tired of talking of his brilliant idea of bringing alcohol to Siwa, of starting a bar. I had begun to miss the freedom of ordering a beer, but his suggestions horrified me and brought to mind the transformation of Siwa into a Saharan Sharm full of Russian beasts and beauties. His pathetic sense of humour left me nauseous and Waleed and I dreaded his visits. He would lounge about interminably, meddling in whatever we might be occupying ourselves with. When he returned from a two week work sojourn in Alex, subdued in a neck brace, I felt vindicated somehow and suddenly lighter. He had had ‘an accident’. Apparently he had once been shot in Alex years ago. I imagined he had it coming to him, the pimp.

I particularly loathed Amr when he stood in his shapeless leather jacket, slightly towering over Penny at the end of one of Tanta Waa’s Thursday night parties, and told her she should be worrying about Sasha or Shasha as she was called. Penny was an English woman who with her husband Duncan had over the last two years renovated two houses in Siwa and now lived there all year round with their young family. Sasha was their eldest child, a girl of 14- resourceful, mature, friendly, independent and cautious. Indeed an example to all of us failed adults. Although she dressed in football shirts and in surfers hoody tops and bicycled and moved in a somehow boyish way, arriving by donkey cart and diving into the spring in tracky bottoms and long t-shirt, she was pretty with long blond hair. It was an enigma to Siwans that she was not by now engaged to be married. She must be ‘broken’. It was her younger chubby sister, Claudia, who at 10, and still playing with Lego, received offers of marriage, while her beautiful younger brother with his shoulder length platinum hair was pursued by greedy, admiring male eyes.

One young man, who played and danced in the Siwan band Waleed hired for his parties, and seemed to turn up anywhere I happened to be in the souq or zooming past on his motorbike with a bomber jacket over his gellabiya, on the roads leading out of Siwa town, was purported to be madly and stupidly in love with Sasha. Waleed considered him a donkey, and at 28, a childish pervert to be lusting over precious shasha. Amr greatly enjoyed telling Penny that her daughter was attracting unwanted male attention, if not actual advances, and people were talking about her. So god damn what, I wanted to say; you Iskanderani pimp, stay out of it. Penny heard him out and did her best to appear the concerned parent, but she looked uninterested. The Egyptians in Siwa were terrible meddlers in any ‘moral’ matter. Whilst themselves taking foreign girlfriends if the girls were stupid enough to have them, they delighted in piously and knowingly informing foreigners about Siwan cultural conservatism and insatiable sexuality. I admired Waleed for staying out by the Spring in Tanta Waa away from the insipid, vicious gossip of the town’s malingerers, Egyptian and foreign.

I told Ann he had promised me that no one saw the two of them together, but it is clear now that instead of Waleed and Elly as it used to be, it is Waleed and Ann. This means I can never come back now, it would be humiliating for me.

"It doesn't matter what other people know. It is about whether you two love each other." Here was a woman sleeping with my boyfriend, telling me to come back to him. You are wrong Ann, I said, other people do matter, this is Siwa, not London. He is asking me to live with him and begin my life amongst a tiny community. I do care what people think. They will laugh at me for coming back. And it is not at this stage about whether I love him. I am very fond of him. That is the word I always think of to describe my feelings for Waleed. Fond. VERY fond. I had considered, I told her, coming back in a couple of months for a few weeks to see how it went. Then I could make a decision. Not before. I didn't tell her I can't afford to go back.

It does matter what people think and say. In Siwa it does. I know. And so do you, Ann, I thought, who clearly know about Shawqi, the guy before Waleed. Both boys are from Alex and they still don't talk in the square-km that is Siwa town. Shawqi confronted Waleed the night after the full moon party. It was the last night of Siwa’s annual three day festival of reconciliation, Eid as Siyaha, and the men gathered in a large circle for dhikr at the foot of gebel Dashur. Directly behind the men were groups of Siwan men, many with camera mobile phones, and children with their festival spoils, plastic guns made in China. In the outermost broken circle hovered Egyptian and foreign tourists, and Waleed with his workers, who had the night off, all of them leaning on their bikes.

I watched helpless and seething from the biggest tent as Shawqi approached Waleed and led him off, affecting a brotherly embrace. I knew they would talk about me and I hated stupid Shawqi for interfering, claiming possession of me, the big ugly humar. To reassure his friend, Waleed later admitted to having lied to him that I was a slut he had met ten years earlier who slept with anyone in Dahab. Why did I ever forgive Waleed for that false accusation? Perhaps even now they talk about my promiscuity, my disloyalty and Waleed’s insistence that they are sworn enemies is another small pragmatic untruth on his part. But Ann and I are from big cosmopolitan cities; we don't give a damn about other people and their idle gossip; we are emancipated women and free to do as we please. Stupid foreigners.

Soon after Waleed and I became a Siwan fixture, an Egyptian-English couple arrived in town. Nina was pregnant. “I am pregnant” she announced at the start of each conversation which was invariably about herself. I both hated and pitied the dumb English woman. I think many people in Siwa felt the same way about her. She had lived in Egypt for 5 years and could not make one grammatically correct sentence in Arabic. I noticed her English was poor too. During the cold evenings she wore one thick shawl around her shoulders and I worried about her health and why her dull, morose husband, Alaa, didn’t buy his pregnant wife a jacket. I kept offering mine. She said they were leaving soon. They stayed 10 days, mooching around Abdo’s restaurant, which the ageing Patriarch Abdo nonchalantly presided over, making business deals that never came to anything. I couldn’t help but notice that for old friends of Waleed, Nina and Alaa stayed away from Tanta Waa and even avoided us in the souq. Once when I sat down at their table in Abdo’s, two of the men stood up and left, one was the young police man who had ‘warned’ Waleed about me.

I remained sitting and no one talked to me so I mumbled goodbye in Arabic and went to look for Waleed. Later in the internet café I found her talking loudly in English to one of the employers. She treated the souq as if it was an all-inclusive resort and she the proprietor’s wife. Why, I asked her, did she not visit us in Tanta Waa more often? She gave me a look that was both combative and pitying and said we better go outside so she could explain. Evidently there was something I stupidly didn’t know and must be told. I didn’t know Waleed I was informed. She knew Waleed; she knew what kind of a boy he really was. They had taken him in when he was homeless. They had done everything for him, but he never learnt from his mistakes. Did I know that Tanta Waa restaurant was her idea that he had stolen? He was ruining everything for them with his behaviour. Did I know there had been a Korean girl before me? Yes I did. She was sick of people coming up to her and saying, control your younger brother. Did I know there was a report against him in the police station for sleeping with a foreign woman? Her piece de resistance was that people were saying there had once been a French whore and now there was an English whore. She looked at me triumphantly. She destroyed Waleed in front of me and she had no right. He had shared with me many things about the past and the rest was his own. I told her they could call me a whore, I didn’t care. I was shaking and all I could think to say was, feebly, did she have nothing but ill-will towards him, in which case she couldn’t really be a fair judge of him? But she was pregnant and a business failure and bitter as hell. I defended him. Then I confronted Waleed full of my own humiliation and sense of betrayal. He was sickened she had told me all she had and so together we were sickened, and our togetherness was never so fragile.

Something Ann said at the beginning of the conversation still unnerves me. When I said I wanted the truth, she replied immediately that she would never repeat anything bad that he might have said about me. Why would he say anything against me? This was not what I was looking for. She says nothing more about this.

When she put him back on the phone I began to speak to him like a child, slowly and loudly. I wanted to get some 'sense' out of him. He was monosyllabic and gloomy. This was not going well for him. I felt sorry for my Waleed but I needed Answers. I wanted in the end to rationalise him and his 'love' into nothing.

"You love Ann and are happy with her. Is that correct? Repeat after me...I LOVE ANN, I AM HAPPY WITH HER AND IT IS FINISHED WITH YOU ELLY" I boomed

But she is leaving, he whined.

Waleed, I already left.


Shawqi said...

What an interesting story which I just read it, even I am one of the heros of the story which she described. Elly you have no reason to describe me as stupid, you know yourself well and how you was unfair to many people.
Just to say: the people she described are better now without her, me and Zanussi are very well and we still close friends and became more successful.
I will write more one day about the complete story, when you love someone from your heart but the other part do not know if they do or no.

Anonymous said...

Elly you're right, Waleed can't be trusted and has continued to treat many women this way, and much much worse. Because of his patterns of cheating, lying, manipulation and stealing, i hope other western women won't ignore this blog and will find out what he's really like before exposing themselves to too much hurt.

Madny said...

We must remember that he is not very bright, that he is lonely and desperate, so one should not be hurt by his actions.