23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Debate Focus Profile Living Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Malcolm XBy Fayza Hassan
Malcolm was one of my husband's young Australian colleagues. He was endowed with several typically British idiosyncrasies, including the slight hesitation in speech (um, um) that preceded his perfectly enunciated words. His other mates sometimes made fun of Malcolm's clipped accent and impeccable manners, but my husband liked him and was always ready to rise to his defence. Malcolm's girlfriend, Jenny, was an absolute gem, a lovely little thing who wore miniskirts so short that I always wondered why she bothered. She was given to prattling, but had a terrific sense of humour. She was also an invaluable friend, always willing to baby-sit, cat-sit or help with the cooking of a meal at a moment's notice.
It never occurred to me to probe into their personal status. I may have known their family names at one point, but I promptly forgot them, since Malcolm's was something as unremarkable as Smith and we had always referred to his girlfriend as Jenny Malcolm, in order not to confuse her with the other Jenny, who was Michael's girlfriend. Growing up in Cosmopolitan Cairo and living in Australia had prevented me from developing the kind of curiosity that prompts one to investigate people's past. I had learned to take friends and acquaintances at face value. Those who want to hide or alter their history usually have very good reasons to do so, which should not concern anybody. In Malcolm's and Jenny's case, I had a vague notion that he may have been Scottish (he would have looked fine in a kilt) and she Irish, mainly because of the freckles on her nose and because she had eight brothers and sisters. I never pursued the matter any further.
Consequently, I was totally unsuspecting when, one day, my husband told me that he had invited Malcolm's parents to lunch for the following week. As a good housewife should, I only asked if they had any allergies to particular foods. After a lengthy consultation on the phone with Malcolm, I was told that his parents had neither allergies, nor food fads and would eat anything, just like him. I knew exactly what Malcolm's preferences were, and therefore went ahead confidently, preparing a large steamed lobster with fresh cream sauce, a mountain of prawns with garlic butter, jacket potatoes, a whole ham en croute and a crème brulée for desert. As a special gesture for the guests I did not know, I even went so far as making the dough for the ham from scratch, instead of using puff pastry from a packet.
Malcolm's parents did not look anything like him. They were aggressively provincial and quite solemn. Malcolm seemed ill at ease. It transpired after a while that they had just arrived from England and that he had not seen them for over fifteen years. Mrs X sported a rather assertive hat, adorned with a bush of cascading berries, to top her black dress. Mr X wore an old-fashioned suit buttoned up to the neck. Things were not looking up, and the prospect of a meal with such killjoys was not something I sought to contemplate in any detail as I carefully slipped the ham onto the serving dish.
Every now and then, the elderly couple would whisper to each other in a foreign language. During those instants, their son would glare at them and they would stop at once. They drank water and did not touch the appetizers that I had painstakingly prepared beforehand, but since Malcolm and my husband made it their business to polish off whatever happened to be in their reach, I stopped paying attention.
When I bore the steaming lobster to the table in one hand, balancing the prawns and the garlic butter in the other, Mrs X stared at me, seemingly aghast. "Don't worry," I reassured her gaily, "I won't ruin your hat." Meanwhile, Mr X, who was donning a small white cap, fixing it at the back of his balding head, turned around and, pointing to the food, uttered in a choked voice: "Shellfish." Personally, I preferred their chic designation, and referred to them as lobster and prawns respectively, but I was not about to quibble with the little man. I simply nodded. He stood protectively behind his wife and informed me curtly that they never ate shellfish. "Fine," I said, "Malcolm will take care of the lobster and prawns. You two can have the ham."
If I had waved a red scarf in front of a bull it would not have reacted differently. The old man turned positively purple, while his companion's complexion took on ashen hues in the afternoon sun pouring into the dining room. He gabbled to his wife and I made out the word schweine, which I knew well, having been called that often by my Austrian grandmother. Suddenly it dawned on me. "Malcolm, are your parents practicing Jews?" I asked, trying not to burst out laughing, the ridicule of the whole situation having finally hit me. "I did not know," stammered Malcolm, "or maybe I had forgotten." I noticed that his accent was less clipped. "And what are you, then?" inquired his father, surveying us suspiciously. "Egyptian Muslims," I told him, trying to stifle a giggle. We never broached the subject of the crème bržlée, so I never found out if it was kosher or not, and we never saw Malcolm, Jenny or Mr and Mrs X again either. That evening, we invited our next-door neighbours over for an impromptu dinner, which they thoroughly enjoyed.