My favourite tramp
At first sight "just another beggar", he looks more like himself on closer scrutiny: the sole permanent resident of the curve leading down the 6 October Bridge to Gezira, on the way to the high-income district of Zamalek. He occupies a prime spot with his back to a beautifully manicured horse-riding space, adjacent to the country's poshest sporting club, Al-Gezira. The sight is intriguing and repulsive by turns: though neither white nor foreign, for many passers-by he evokes the Hollywood homeless stereotype, leading to the appellation "the American tramp".
With an English sign saying "Handmade -- Ahmed" above his head, one might assume he sells hanidcrafts. Yet as he eventually explains with a big smile, having stepped out of his wood- box dwelling with a notebook and two byros, blue and red -- his only means of communicating, for Ahmed Mahmoud turns out to be deaf and dumb -- he may like painting but he is only an "amateur", a word he inscribes in English, appending its Arabic translation.
"Hello and welcome," Mahmoud "says", adding, by way of showing his reluctance to be interviewed, "no need to attract attention and cause trouble." A squatter, after all, he could only justifiably have such concerns: homeless people, some of them reportedly released from mental hospitals, have been swearing at pedestrians and soiling the pavements increasingly in the last few years. Objects of sympathy they may remain, but they are hardly welcome. For this and other reasons, Mahmoud says, "I don't like to mingle with people."
Lining the ramp railing with a plastic bag to protect his back from the damp, his belongings neatly kept in a carrier bag, his towel hanging near by, he never asks for money or pesters people. In fact, once you sit next to him, it is Mahmoud who draws you into a world of his own. "I eat very healthy, nice food," he says, specifying flour and vanilla as ingredients; a tiny stove and a pan appear out of nowhere, and you are asked to participate in the process of making crepes by turning them upside down once one side is done. Mahmoud produces what looks like chopsticks and a knife, little jars of jam and ready-cut wrapping paper; as the conversation progresses, he conjures up tasty fare, insisting that you share. It feels as if you are at a typical Egyptian household -- partaking of traditional hospitality.
Only invoking freedom of choice stopped Mahmoud from resuming his pressures on me to eat; this, besides his correct use of Arabic and excellent handwriting, indicated an education. He would not give an interview before he found out my name, profession, education, languages and hobbies, marking "English" and "economics and political science" with particular approval: "Now I can be sure you will understand what I have to say to you." He begins by explaining how life works, strangely enough, from a political-economic standpoint. From which standpoint he always responds, however personal you endeavour to get: all that has happened to him is explained, bizarrely enough, through world events -- the Monica Lewinski scandal, for example, driving him to live here of all places. "How do you expect a country like Egypt to deal with the USA after the US president gets involved with his secretary?"
Before too long, such ambiguity notwithstanding, he produces an Arabic "CV": "Sells fine teas, diamonds, emeralds and gold. Mother's profession: a wandering envoy", in other words, a beggar. Childhood awards, inventions he created, exhibitions around the world are all listed. Mission? "Spreading security and peace." Every general change, he maintains, down to the replacement of Al-Ahram 's editorial board, affects every individual: "Is Al-Ahram now the same as it was under Ibrahim Nafie as editor-in-chief?" He nods enthusiastically to my red "no". Next topic: the decline in culture. "Imagine the thousands of schools and colleges we have in Egypt, and still the level of education is very low; very few people are fluent in a second language. People may differ, but without education they would not be able to work or think or receive the annual Nobel prize for excellence."
Does Mahmoud himself live in peace? He casts a sarcastic look in my direction. "Define peace," he challenges. "How Egyptian are you," he goes on after I drop it. "You must realise that Egyptians are unable to let anyone live in peace." As a homeless person, Mahmoud is warily perceived. As it turns out, though, he perceives the world with the same wariness. "Myself first," he stresses, "then my people, then my country -- but only if the people don't beat me up, and only if the authorities don't jail me." Empathy with Mahmoud is next to impossible. A charging driver shouts out, "what are you doing here?" And it becomes very, very hard to put oneself in his shoes.
My feeling is that Mahmoud is not deaf and dumb, but has invented this ploy to delimit his contact with the world. At least those who are illiterate are kept firmly out of his life. And he held onto to his notebook, too: his thoughts had to be filtered before they were ready for publication; not until the next day did he hand me "One of the Human Pains and Severe Wounds in the Souls of the People", in two parts, photocopied onto the back of his secondary school certificate and the document exempting him from military conscription for medical reasons. In this well structured piece, Mahmoud explains how, attacked by the eagles, the pelicans migrate across the oceans: "It may be biologically natural for that to happen, but the example is crucial because pelicans are among the finest species of bird and eagles eat only the finest fish. The point, however, is that no conflict arises; all creatures co- exist in peace. The goal: the writer must find an answer to the problem society has given way to, on purpose or accidentally." Society has had its toll on Mahmoud; so much is clear.
"Why do sane people leave their homeland and depart?" This is his first question. "Ahmed is an active man," he goes on. "There is no shame in learning. What is shameful is to remain ignorant."
The document is signed, in English and Arabic, by "Ahmed Mahmoud, an amateur of industrial arts".