15 - 21 August 2002
Issue No. 599
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
The appearance of limbs
It may be just one of the side effects of the current heat wave, though I suspect it has rather more to do with fashion than with the fact that temperatures during the past four weeks have, according to the meteorological office, been eight degrees higher than the monthly average. But once upon a time legs appeared to be restricted to the pool side, or the beach, or to occasional stretches of Maadi, where they seemed perfectly well and good. This summer, though, they have been appearing everywhere. Negotiating the aisles of the supermarket, concentrating on navigating between the fish and cheese counters, there they are, sticking out of a pair of cotton shorts and into leather sandals. They are by the vegetable counter, purchasing bags of pre-mixed salad. They are by the cat food stand, perusing ocean fish flavoured croquettes. They line up at the tills, trolleys full.
In the good old days guide books to Egypt, the Let's Go and Lonely Planets with which the back-packer invariably accessorises, included short sections on dress, usually somewhere near the front, in the orientation sections. Women were advised to cover shoulders and to dress modestly. Men were advised not to wear shorts. Of course, there were always those that failed to heed the advice, and there was a time when, as an expatriate living in Cairo, it was almost de rigeur to be at least a little sniffy towards those of your countrymen who spurned such sartorial advice. Not any longer.
It is not that the sudden appearance of legs has been restricted to the kind of supermarkets that sell packets of dried cat food at a vastly inflated price. They do not just go in search of pre- packaged, pre-washed salad mixtures. You find them everywhere, in vegetable markets in the least likely parts of town, buying water melons off Mohamed Ali Street, strolling nonchalantly down Souk El-Saleh, roving the back streets of Khalifa. The leg has been unveiled, and having seen the light, looks as if it might remain so, at least for the rest of the summer.
The evidence is everywhere. The street vendors that line the major thoroughfares of downtown, where once they would have sold sunglasses, or socks, or covers for cellular phones, now specialise, almost exclusively, in cotton shorts. And they appear to be doing a roaring trade. What was once deemed suitable for the club, or resort village, or the relative privacy of home, has now made it into the streets, and not just those frequented by the aggressively, self-consciously Westernised. Cairo's male population, regardless of age, appears intent on uncovering.
Things have reached a particular pitch when, at the door of your discreetly positioned house, tucked away in an anonymous alleyway between the Sultan Hassan and Refa'i Mosques and the Citadel, there comes a knock. You glance from the window to discover that it is your neighbour knocking, and he is knocking, in this supposedly most traditional of neighbourhoods, wearing shorts and sandals and nothing else. The purpose of the knock is to discuss rubbish collection, or rather to complain about the inefficiencies of those responsible for such collection. A dilemma ensues: do you invite your mostly naked neighbour in to continue the discussion, or do you leave him on the doorstep? It is the kind of quandary of which adult board games are made.
It is a careful path that must be trod by those foreigners lucky enough to be resident in Egypt. One of the privileges, one of the great joys, of being a resident in this city is that a vast number of doors are open, and it is one of the great paradoxes of Cairene life that few inhabitants of the city will be allowed the kind of social mobility that is heaped upon the foreigner. A single afternoon can span hole-in-the-wall back street eateries in the parts of town the habitués of five star hotel bars would never be seen dead in, and the hangouts of the city's self-appointed smart set. Because you are outside the hide-bound class-consciousness that dictates the manners of the place -- the class position of the foreigner, or at least the white, European foreigner, remains of minimal interest, and the signs not easily read -- a range of social contacts opens up that would be inconceivable otherwise. The most common prejudices are placed on hold, and the kind of split-second sniffing out of the signifiers -- it seldom takes more than a minute -- that forms a major part of the city's social interaction, is forgotten. All of which can lead to a difficult set of options.
Upstairs, in the sitting room, is an articulate, intelligent and amusing former colleague, her background solidly professional, solidly middle class. Downstairs, knocking at the door, is an articulate, intelligent and amusing neighbour, who happens to be in a state of some undress, and whose background is solidly working class. Do you: a) introduce them, and assume that mutual good sense will prevent any social discomfort, b) introduce them and decide to ride out any darkening in the general atmosphere or onset of embarrassment or, c) keep them separate, assuming that ne'er the twain should meet. You go for the easiest, the most obvious, answer, of course, and opt for c. The privileges that accrue to you, as a foreigner, are non-transferable. Your social contract is with individuals and their peers, and must not be abused. A very small dilemma, perhaps, and not one, on second thoughts, that could constitute a fully grown up game, even in the absence of trousers.
Meanwhile, legs look like they might run and run.
Letter from the Editor
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