This time around in her weekly misadventures, Monica Gerges sets out in search of Haj Mohamed, the blind carpenter of Gesr El Suez. Over the course of her (long and chaotic) journey, she realises you can learn a lot between Giza and Gesr El Suez, including when to ask a TokTok for help...
What happens when a foreign local grabs her camera and laptop, hops in an Uber with a very confused and soft-spoken driver, and attempts to reach uncharted territories as per the directions of a blind man? While this sounds like the makings of a very unfortunate and cheesy joke - most likely to be told by someone named Danny - this is actually a true story. Among the first lessons I learned here in Cairo - shortly before the ones about renting an apartment - was the startling reality check that I subscribe to this crippling thing I've termed 'Cant Culture'. It took a long conversation with a blind man for me to learn this lesson; it took even longer circling the streets of Gesr El Suez trying to find him. So, what actually happened when I grabbed my camera and laptop, hopped into an Uber, and spent half a day following the directions of a blind man?
I jumped on the idea of interviewing Haj Mohamed, the blind carpenter of Gesr El Suez, not only because I was fascinated by his story, but also because he was close to home - or so I thought. Laptop and DSLR in hand, I hopped in an Uber at 10 AM and set out to find this man based on his directions, which went along the lines of "go down Gesr El Suez until you pass the train tracks and find a toktok stop, then turn on Share3 El Arbe3een and ask about me." The following hour and a half consisted of the Uber driver going down Gesr El Suez and occasionally stopping to ask locals about train tracks, toktoks, and Share3 El Arbe3een. In the meantime, I observed how the culture changed with every passing area along this rather long road. From La Poire and Vodafone stores to ahawy balady and kababgeya, to fruit vendors and streetside vendors of anything you can imagine, to little girls with pigtails sticking their heads out of microbus windows and boys on bikes with stacks of bread atop their heads, to a sandy neighbourhood bedoon malame7, accented only by a toktok stop and men in galaleeb - watching the culture change so drastically was fascinating, but there was a blind carpenter to interview and no train tracks to be found. After driving in literal circles - because God bless Cairo's one-way streets, U-turns, and the constant fatye of people we asked for directions - we finally found a toktok stop and turned onto the street. Driving downhill on a dirt-and-sand road, into a neighbourhood symbolically buried below the main street and tucked into its own crevice of society, my Uber driver looked around in confusion. We asked one toktok driver who gave us directions to Share3 El Arbe3een; when we arrived to where he had directed us, someone else gave us directions going back the opposite way. Landmarks were limited to a heaping pile of garbage, the toktok stop, and two buildings between which we found a man carrying a gas tank and a dog headed in the opposite direction. People and landmarks were scarce, and we were on the receiving end of directions from a man who hadn't actually seen the neighbourhood in over twenty-something years. My poor Uber driver grew flustered, rolled down his window, and stopped a toktok driver asking him to lead us to Haj Mohamed's shop after dropping off his passenger. As we followed this toktok driver, we were led through an area of this 7ay sha3by that was abuzz with people on a weekday afternoon. However, I couldn't find a single taxi in sight, and there was no way that Uber's GPS was going to locate me in there. As if he knew what I was thinking, the Uber driver asked me how I planned on getting back after I was done my interview - I had no idea. Thankfully, he agreed to wait for me until I was done and take me to wherever I needed to go next.
"Part of me loves this place and how different it is," I chitchatted with the Uber driver as we followed the toktok toward Haj Mohamed's shop. "I mean, I'm from El Daher but this here still feels like a whole other world." He wasn't quite sure what I meant, and I remembered that not everyone understands my appreciation for all things ghetto and the beauty I find blooming in seemingly wilting areas. I elaborated: "I work in Giza for an English publication that caters to English speakers and I guess a certain type of lifestyle; that doesn't feel like Egypt to me. El Daher, Ramses, Downtown, Shobra, El Korba…these are the places that feel like home. Do you know what I mean?" My humble Uber driver nodded; "everyone now has 3o2det el khawaga," he responded. I asked what he meant as I stared in awe at the whole other world around me. "Not everyone has the chance to travel but everyone wants to be a foreigner," he explained. "So you get people who live here in Egypt but are living as though they're abroad." 3o2det el khawaga - the foreigner's complex; an interesting thought that had previously crossed my mind but had never found its articulation in words. It plagued me as we followed the toktok through the winding streets of Share3 El Arbe3een, pulling up in front of Haj Mohamed's shop with no name.The Uber driver waited outside as I shared a cup of tea with the man who challenged my self-imposed sense of disability; he also waited outside as I walked out and took the above photo while nearby workers heckled me to take their photo, too. Headed back out of Share3 El Arbe3een, I embraced the sights, sounds, and scents that felt familiarly like home in an area I'd never before explored. But, if I count as a khawagaya, how does this feel like home to me? Why would a demographic of people be so caught in 3o2det el khawaga while others, in the same city and along these very streets, are content with the scent of freshly baked balady bread accented by the fume of cigarette smoke? An overthinker through and through, these thoughts carried with me for several weeks, particularly every time I found myself sitting in a car and gazing out the window at the world around me. Or, in the case of my trip back to Giza that day, at the chaos around me. We passed Malahy Badr - the one landmark Haj Mohamed had constantly referred to and we had never found - and shared a laugh at the iconic fairground that was once home to children's laughter and screams of delight, now home to nothing but dirt and buried stories. In hindsight, this was probably ironic foreshadowing of the scene yet to come.At this point I had been in Egypt for a month and barely knew how to get to Giza, but I definitely knew which exit to take off the bridge - the one we had just missed. Great. The driver proceeded to take the next exit and drive around Giza at around 2 PM - that iconic period of time when all of Egypt's schools and government jobs release the kragle - hitting every one-way street he could possibly find. I imagine this guy was terrible at Minesweeper as a child. One dead-end route after another, we found ourselves stuck in traffic on a street with a local elementary school that had just unleashed all of its children as though monkeys at the African Lion Safari. Cars parked on either side of the street; school busses loading as many children as they could; a cotton candy vendor here and a popcorn vendor on a bike there - so much happening in such little space! Somewhere trapped between all of these things sat the Uber driver and I, with children bumping up against the car, climbing over its hood, and peering through the windows as though discovering a fascinating new species through a magnifying glass. Chaos. I laughed as I mentioned to the driver that I had considered teaching English before landing the job I have now. "Teaching children takes special talent," he replied - a talent I clearly do not have.Stuck in an endless pit of traffic and reassessing my life choices – that’s what normal people do when stuck in traffic, right? – I pulled out my laptop and began to write about how I’ve subscribed to a Can’t Culture of disability. All the while, another thought ran rampant in my head: where do I fall in this culture of 3o2det el khawaga? Where do we fall, as a culture? Is Egypt moving in the direction of supporting 3o2det el khawaga while leaving behind the simple folks who embrace the beauty of all things ghetto? I wonder.