Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What’s left over

Only for a very short time was he on duty: produced to hold any kind of purchases: chips, sandwiches, milk, and an ice cream. He’s not very strong, but firm enough to carry a few gewgaws so that they would not tumble on the street. Now, the small white plastic bag is scrunched up and carelessly thrown onto the street. There, he is curling to and fro, trying to steady himself on a stone or a fence.


There’s a big heavy waste container some distance away. It’s open, there’s no lid, doesn’t need it, since there’s no rain. It’s placed in a stupid location: at the end of a steep street that trails away in the rock. Sand glides down from the hillside, scattered garbage and broken pieces of glass make it difficult to approach the waste container. At nights, roaming dogs watch barking loudly over their playground and food source. In our quarters, there are several of theese kinds of waste containers.

There are also big grey plastic bins: ideally located, never far away from front doors, yet far away enough so that the unpleasant smell would not disturb. Nevertheless, some bins are lying on the ground; garbage is piled up in, on and around the bins. It’s a cats’ paradise.

And there are also those haggard men with fathomless faces of wrinkled landscapes. Their bony figures are covered with dark blue overalls, and their turbans are wound of only a few square centimetres of tissue. They push a bin on wheels and a besom. Or, they leave the bin alone, not too far away. They sweep the streets and collect all debris. You can hardly see them at work, most of the time they sit somewhere in the shade, smoking a cigarette.  


The scavenger picks up the scrunched plastic bag and throws it into his bin. There, he’s lying on plastic bottles, cigarette butts and cans. More plastic bags are gathering around him, glass bottles and pizza cartons are crushing him. After a few days, the bin gets emptied into a huge metal container. Almost could the plastic bag escape – yet, other debris is holding him tight.


Normally, the Zabaleen – the scavengers -  show up once a day. They load some of the garbage on a much too small lorry. The driver remains seated in the cabin while two other men sort out the garbage: one chooses bare handed from the waste container what may go on the lorry. He tears open waste bags, takes out card boards, plastics, remains of clothes, metal and other recyclables and hands them over to the other guy on the cargo area.

Up there, card boards are being folded and carefully stowed away at the edge of the loading ramp – that’s clever since by doing so, the content can enormously be extended. All the rest is distributed into several light blue bags on the lorry. Organic waste, such as cropped branches, withered flowers or palm leaves remain where they are. Also food remains. Since in Egypt there are no more pigs, the Zabaleen don’t see an opportunity to make use of leftovers. After having escaped from the waste bags, the plastic bags, packets and paper shreds are whirling in the wind over the street, entangle themselves in bushes and garden fences and find a way to everywhere where they do not belong to.

Waste containers and bins are usually empty after the Zabaleen’s work; yet round and round there is a big mess. Cats and dogs rummage around in the remains, drag them across the street, and fight for leftovers.


The container gets tilted over with a boisterous jolt; suddenly, the small white plastic bag is free: a wind gust gets hold of him, lifts him up, lets him dance in the air! This unexpected liberty feels irritating… where should he go? Aimlessly, he is dancing up and down, is drifting just above the street, avoiding a tree and is gaining height again. He’s beside himself with joy: it’s marvellous to drift in the wind.

Sometimes men can be discerned in the semi-darkness leaning over the waste container and digging through the garbage… What are they looking for? Comestibles? Once they realise that they are being observed, they lower their look, turn around and leave.

Well-dressed men leave their waste bags in the early morning or late at night on the backside of the buildings or in the middle of the sidewalk! – and walk away as cool as a cucumber…
Yet abruptly, his joy is stalled. The small white plastic bag is caught in a tall tree‘s branches; the wind is pushing his hangers in two different directions. He is on the verge of bursting, defends himself with all his might, shudders, trembles for a while, but the wind is stronger.


Every couple of weeks, a huge excavator temporarily finds a remedy: the greedy shovel loads all what has been left over for weeks on a big lorry: glass fragments, bones, cans, rotten leaves, fabric scraps, stones and sand. After that, the area looks tidy for some hours – only alongside the garden fences and bushes some plastic bags remain stuck.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Just to raise a smile

When I go shopping, I dearly try to express my wishes in Arabic. However, depending on the kind of shop and the sales assistant, most of the time, the answer follows in English. This is how it goes to and fro – the Egyptian speaks English which is even worse than my Arabic, and I answer in a miserable Arabic.

Somehow, all conversations follow a similar pattern:

Me (in Arabic): Good morning, I’d like to buy this or that. Or: is XY there?

He (in English): Good morning, yes, we have. Or: no. Or: I don’t know.

Me (in A): When do you get it or when does XY come?

He (in E): Tomorrow, Insha’Allah.

Me (in A): Could you please speak Arabic with me?

He (in A): Do you live here? (With lots of good luck finally in Arabic)

Me: Yes.He: Since when?

Me: Since then and then.

He: Are you married?

Me: Yes.

He: With an Egyptian?

Me: Yes.

He (again in English): Oh, he is a lucky man!

Me (continuing in Arabic): thanks.

And in future I’ll add: I’ll tell him (my fictional Arabic husband).

I leave the shop with a big smile. Although I have neither got the product nor the information requested, the shop assistant made the most of the situation: he simply raised a smile to my face!

Friday, April 16, 2010


It’s evening. It’s already dark outside and Ahmed, my German student is sitting opposite me. He is an excellent student, almost always does his homework – at least, when he’s on the ball. In the evening, he is exhausted because he works as a diving instructor and is giving the sunny boy. That’s why he has many regular guests and they all love him.

In fact, he has studied law in Alexandria. He could work as a lawyer there, but then, his French wife would not be able to find a job. So he works on the Red Sea as a diving instructor and so does his wife.
We are practising auxiliary verbs. Today, it’s the verb “to want” (“möchten” in German). We conjugate I want, you want, he wants, … Then we build sentences with a choice of given words.

And then, I ask him to build sentences on his own with the verb „to want“!

Ahmed’s eyes turn to a faraway place und articulates slowly word by word:

We… want… democracy!

(April 2010)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Taxi Trip

The yellow-reddish desert landscape is passing by. Air, sky and sand glimmer at the horizon and form a strange, blurred picture.

It’s hot. The air flow tumbles my hair, twirls it around my face and into my eyes. Why do I always forget to take a hair tie with me? Meanwhile I should know it well enough since I prefer to drive in the heat with open windows instead with air-condition switched on.

The sand shines yellowish, the mountains in the background emerge clearly from a bright blue sky. In a distance, a blue stationary ribbon can be seen: the sea.

Oh, how much do I love this heat, this hot wind, the desert! I wouldn’t mind if this trip lasted for hours. The road is good. Now and then, we are passing a checkpoint and Mustafa is an excellent driver.

In a sense, he drives in the same way as I do: no powerful acceleration, gently ganging gears, no abrupt braking. He steers the car cautiously so that I don’t feel any movement. We are quietly and silently gliding through this apparently bleak landscape. It’s a fascinating landscape: the colour of the coarse sand, the wind-shaped hills rolling in gentle waves towards the mountains, the meagre, dark and frail rocks. Now and then, there’s a tiny bush here, a bunch of grass there, a lonesome, dishevelled tree.

Arabic or English? Mustafa is holding a music cassette in his hands. Arabic, please! As the music starts to play, I turn my eyes to the desert so that Mustafa can’t see my face. My eyes are filled with tears. I wish I could drive on like this forever.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The only desire

The young taxi driver is steering an old, dented, black-yellow Fiat through the streets of Alexandria which are full of holes. Traffic is fast, aggressive and dangerous; the battle for passengers is tough, income is mean. He spends up to twenty hours daily behind the steering wheel. When he feels tired, he parks the car in a side-road and tries to sleep.

One customer gets off, another one gets in. Egyptian women normally prefer to sit in the back seat, foreigner women prefer to sit in the front. This gives him the chance to ask questions:

„Where come?“

„From Europe.“

He glances at her and then at an inexistent distant place. It bursts out of him full of craving: “Europe, I want go also. Cause here, is sooo bad!” His voice is almost choking.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Christmas Eve

It has already been dark for a while, only a gentle breeze is blowing, the wind has gradually declined during the day. At times, there was even no wind at all and until long after sunset it was mild, around twenty degrees maybe. But now, it is cold.

Ahmed, Naguib, Magdy and Mohammed are sitting side by side on dusty, grey, two-step marble stairs. The stairs lead to a line of new shops: two boutiques with ladies’ fashion Western style, a pharmacy, a toy shop, a flower shop with cut flowers in beautiful colours, an appetizing juice shop. More shops will be opened within the next couple of months, because this place here is still a construction site.

Ahmed, Naguib, Magdy and Mohammed are sitting in front of a well-known Egyptian-Arab Bank that will soon open. Through the dusty windows, precious dark wooden panelling and an elegant reception desk can be seen in the brightly lit room. Yet around the corner and upstairs, it is still under construction.

This is where Ahmed, Naguib, Magdy and Mohammed work during the day: they shovel sand, carry it to the upper floors, shovel stones, carry them to the upper floors, throw bricks into a pushcart, drag it by means of a block and tackle to the upper floors. They pile bricks, mix cement, fetch water and attach trembling scaffolds. Day by day, in the cold of the winter and in the heat of the summer. And this is where they live as well: right beside their work.

Naguib has wrapped a huge turban of white fabric around his head. It’s that big that it protrudes over his head by 10 centimetres. It’s also larger than those of his friends. They are all wearing heavy caftans, shirts and long trousers underneath and warm scarfs slung around their necks. Mohammed is wearing knee-high white rubber boots, whereas the others are only wearing rubber sandals. These are the same clothes that they wear during the day at their sweaty work and at nights curled up in heavy blankets. In the background between concrete pillars, the flames of an open fire in a barrel cut into halves are warming Sameh’s naked feet. He prefers to stay beside the fire because the night will get cold enough.

Naguib, the one with the huge turban, is propping his chin on his crossed arms over his knees. His eyes are closed. His face is a landscape of rugged wilderness with ditches, wrinkles and bumps created over years by the sun, wind, pleasures and privation. Yet right now, his face seems somehow relaxed. He and his colleagues are sitting closely together, in a straight row like schoolboys that are receiving a special reward.

Today is Christmas Eve. On the other side of the street, in a big tent in front of the hotel, there is music. Oriental music. Ahmed, Naguib, Magdy and Mohammed are enjoying this music as if they were sitting around a fire in their family. This chance is given only today. Maybe once again at New Year’s Eve. But most probably, they will have moved to the next construction site by then.