Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mare Nostrum

Warning: this is by far the least politically correct post on this blog so far, so enter at your own risk. Mare Nostrum is Latin for "our sea", a term used when Roman domination extended from Spain to Egypt; an alternative title for this post was "Ramblings of an Angry Mediterranean Woman" just so you'd get an idea.

Relaxing on a green and beige bean bag inside a livingroom overlooking a tiny garden, I take in the view and admire the colorful items I have thrown here and there to make the place resemble me, there's noise coming from the street and I apply my tested Cairenne method: focus on the birdsong and filter out the honking. I realize as I sip my decaf café con leche (yep decaf I'm clean now) that I am again enjoying the "bel fare niente" (Italian for "the beauty of doing nothing" but I just like the sound of it).

Where did I get this? From the Mediterranean culture I suppose. Where did I get that? From the North of the Mediterranean, not from the South definitely. Being natives of a land that's in the corner between two continents overlooking a river and two seas, part of ethnic groups that spreads across two continents and more, Egyptians sometimes define themselves as Arab (I personally am very adamant about writing classical Arabic properly) African (I had Afro braids and share African values) Muslim (Ramadan will soon have Christmas' fate but anyways) Middle Eastern (that's where our roots are) and Mediterranean (even though we share a sea, I don't share this view).

It is true that people of the Mediterranean basin express themselves with loud voices and hand gestures and hang out in streets, markets, balconies and on sidewalks, but that's typical of any warm weathered developing nation - I do not mean this pejoratively for I was never nor will I ever be a fan of super organized cold efficiency.

However, this laid-back nonchalant elegant lingering on sidewalk cafés with a café latté in one hand and a newspaper in the other hand only exists in Southern Europe never in North Africa, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be born a woman in a men's land. No
lèche-vitrines for you and stopping at the local bookstore or market while holding your shopping bags or just sitting cross legged on a bench enjoying the sunshine warming your shoulders while you devour a pecan and caramel ice cream. You should just try to stay covered and safe in any gringo style mall in Cairo so you could suffer less from dusty sidewalks and get less harassment from those assholes (people would still stare at you though), you should park very close to your destination and learn not to linger on in the streets, oh and don't think you're safe in your car either, some hijo de puta will try to keep following you for a few kilometers just to spite you. One more word of caution, if you're unfortunate enough to look like you don't belong there and people start addressing you in English, prepare your most colloquial line instructing them to zip it.

I don't know what got me into this mood, probably because I was reading another travel diary describing how people live
con gusto in Italy and feeling that I can completely relate because I have been getting the occasional breath of fresh air by spending time in my adopted home. Grabbing a snack anywhere in calle Arenales or calle Mayor to eat in the moonlight near the Palacio Real...Going for a picnic with friends in any park or mountain and just laying on the grass with not a care in the world...Not minding that the guy who sells me a veggie piadini in Bologna calls me bella because he does it in a civilized way unlike many on the other side of the sea who can manage to throw a sabah elkheir at you with a quite distasteful way. Wandering aimlessly in la Latina, stopping for pastries in Le Marrais, browsing posters at kiosks in the heart of Rome to find the best Godfather poster to bring back to a loved one, all while breathing in the shabby elegance of the city without a care in world, commenting the current political situation at the local delicatessen, sitting at the barra for your espresso or coke while you share the bartender's outrage at foreign summer tourists who think they own the coast in Alicante.

You can enjoy the simple pleasures of life without feeling bad for others who work to serve you, you can go buy stuff where everybody buys them, you don't hear your own conscience calculating how what some spend in one evening can feed others less fortunate probably for an entire week.

Can you find all the simple pleasures in stratified classicist tribal societies? Can you help feeling self conscious in male chauvinist supposedly-religious countries? Would you be able to ignore the unkempt streets until you set foot inside the spotless shiny restaurant or shop? Can you deny that yes you can have great coffee, but not anywhere, you need to go to a semi-exclusive place that charges you the triple of what it should but what you're actually paying for is your well deserved peace of mind ? (which there's no guarantee of you getting)

And they wonder, why are women in this part of the world more prone to osteoporosis, simply because the street is not theirs! And why do young people grow up with consumerist quasi-gringo values? Because they have to buy the partial exclusiveness, all of them at each level of the society, they consume to identify with something.

People who have worked here always accuse us of not working enough or doing nothing, but I beg to differ, for wherever I go I see people overly consumed in something, not exactly pretending to do something of use, but probably convinced they are actually doing something, saving the world or something. I feel that soon a certain sector of the society will follow the Japanese model of beggars carrying a briefcase and walking the walk just so no one would accuse them of doing nothing -I'm talking here about "busy, tied-up, swamped" young executives just generating more profit and consumerism for the society and digging their heads into work ostrich style. Also on the other front government employees are actually doing nothing (those computers? oh...they're for Solitaire). In spite of all that you don't find many who just enjoy doing nothing and feeling good about it, not guilty, because they know they have worked and paid their dues and they couldn't care less how society weighs them.

You may or may not like this post, you may find it offensive, self-indulgent or downright negative. All that I can say is that this is post is anything but hypocrite and that my anger is directed at a clear target: those who deny others their right to the street and to unpretentious fun. Rest assured that I still love my city and am
quite aware of how privileged I am; in spite of all the above I am proud to reclaim the streets when I can -dude I cycle in Cairo I can't ask God for more!- and enjoy the simple pleasures of life with a few cherished friends who know how to enjoy life and make great moments out of nothing at all- I love you all (fancy sushi fans please stay away, downtown cafés' regulars ahlan-wasahlan).

I thank God for having sent me all the special people in my life, I am also thankful for finding comfort zones and ending inner struggles, for finding circles of light within my groups of friends, for having found the courage not to conform, simply I'm thankful for who I am today, 10 years later*

* conversations with school and university friends revolved around whehter we were satisfied with what we have achieved in the past 10 years -calculated since we graduated or since we started.

Photo: door overlooing the Mediterranean - Morocco (taken by me, finally a decent photo!)