Tuesday, March 14, 2006

People watching or Girl talk (2 of x)

Now this isn't striclty Egyptian, not the people watching of course, nor the sort of discussion to follow. But it is of relevance to all of us, especially women. The girls have been reading Why Men Love Bitches. I still haven't been enlightened myself but I am getting snippets from each of them and I believe that I already know the gist of this sort of self-help/popular psychology/relationship management discourse. So the theory is this: If a woman is strong enough and confident enough in her self, the man in question will be attracted to her and will do and continue to do whatever is in his power to please her and keep her attracted and interested. So it's basically all about self-confidence and self-esteem. Hence the whole idea behind The Rules and so on. So far so good.

Now people watching: of course it's almost a basic human pleasure, sneeking in on people, watching others, especially unawares. I love watching people in public and making up stories for who they might be. On this particular day I knew the couple in question and had gone out to lunch with them so there was nothing sneeky or kinky in the watching, but enlightening it certainly was.

Let's call them May and Hamada. Hamada is a banker/financial consultant and May has a phd in a scientific field but hasn't worked after obtaining her degree and has been stay-at-home mom since having their second son. They're in their 40s (That's them...) All this is irrelevant really. So we go out to lunch on a weekend to a place which Hamada suggested. Being the modern man that he is he gave us three options, we ruled out Chinese and were left with steak or salad. So he chose the steak option, a newly opened restaurant to which he likes to go for lunch during the week. He was excited about the place and kept telling us about the idea behind it and how it started and so on.

Entrecote Cafe de Paris used to have an outlet in Cairo as well, in Mohandessin, right opposite Nadi El-Sayd where millenia ago there used to be a Wimpy. (Yup, that's how old I am: I actually know of a fast-food chain called Wimpy. But never mind that.) It reminds me of my mother's best-friend, the Lebanese one. She was the one who first told me about the restaurant. It was one of her favorites in Geneva. But she told me this story, which I always remember, about how they had to leave Beirut at one point during the war because it was getting too dangerous, their house had been attacked; some of the staff beaten and tortured and the place itself was burned down. The militia threw all the books off the shelves, into a big pile in the middle of the study, and set fire to them. Only a handful of volumes were salvaged. All the family albums were gone. They went to Europe. It sounds rather luxurious, I know, exile in France and Switzerland. But exile is exile. Her description of her state of mind and soul at the time didn't sound like anything to be jealous of. If I could scream in this letter, she wrote my mother, I would. If I could scream till I die, I would. So she and her husband and son went to Europe, broken and insecure. To cheer themselves up they went to Entrocote Cafe de Paris one Sunday. The maitre d' recognized them from the summer. He was a thoughtful man, apparently. After they paid the bill he did what the maitre d's don't do: he gave them a small box of the secret sauce to take home with them.

See that's the secret behind Entrocote, the secret recipe for the sauce that goes with the steak. That's all they do: entrecote, secret sauce, fries and salad. That's all they offer on their menu. (In Cairo they gave the option of having chicken breasts instead of Entrocote.) And desserts.

Hamada was excited about the place. He told us the story of the sauce and how the owners were originally wine sellers who made up the idea of serving steak and fries in order to sell their wines, to market them. (The website doesn' t mention the wine, but rather how a father and daughter restaurant owners came up with it.) All the pretty Eastern European waitresses smiled at Hamada and recognized him. The maitre d' did his bit as well. Hamada told us that he tried to get some of the sauce to take home once but they wouldn't acccept...

The ambience was pretty casual, mock Parisian, brass, plants, early century Parisian music playing, impressionist prints on the walls.

May was quiet, slowly digesting the place. When the burners arrived for the steak, she quickly made an issue of turning them off because of the smell. She was PMSing, I happen to know, so she might've been extra sensitive to the smell. In a while the meat had cooled down, so Hamada called the waitress to put the burner on, and almost as soon as she'd left they were off again. May hardly ate. We sat discussing the film she and I had watched the day before, Capote. At the end Hamada asked us how we liked the place. I was excited and smiling and saying it's nice and simple and at the back of my mind I was thinking that I should really write to my mom's friend. I like steak and cream sauce myself. May was quietly dismissive: "I don't really like it, the sauce is too heavy, it's too full of cream and butter. I could only have three bites. I like mustard sauce with steak. And this steak is very dry. It didn't feel medium but rather well well-done. I'm surprised you like it more than the fillet I get from M&S," she told her husband, "the one I served with pepper sauce." I don't like pepper sauce, he countered. "I associated steak with mustard," she said. "But this meat is very dry. And the fries are very heavy and greasy. The decor is very boring. But the salad is very good, I must say." What salad, he asked, it's just greens with dressing. "And I like the coat hanger," she added. It was indeed of an interesting shape, the coat hanger, because its wood curved from wall to ceiling and so could take extra coats that way. That's all she liked about the place, the coat rack. She too must've been following some popular psychology advice: don't just mention the negatives, also find something positive to say. Don't put your criticism in negative terms but in positive ones: so rather than saying "I hate this sauce" say "I prefer mustard sauce with steak" and "I prefer fillet to entrecote" and, of course "I like the salad and the coat rack" implying that you don't like everything else. Always formulate the sentence in the positivie.

Of course you might read this and wonder what's there to wonder about. A couple go to a restaurant, one of them likes it, the other doesn't. So what?
Yes, of course. But it just struck me the casual, quiet way in which May dismissed the restaurant. And how Hamada did not seem at all discouraged or snubbed or annoyed, having suggested a place he likes and all that. Probably, the next time they go out he will make more effort to choose a place she likes. He will be still trying to please her. And she expressed her opinion, about this and other matters, clearly without alienating or antagonizing him. That's the lesson.

The whole dynamics inadvertently reminded me of the first lunch I had with a friend who later became "more than just a friend." He took me to a small restaurant in Cairo which is usually not so full for lunch. They had just reopened after closing for a few days for having sprayed the place with insecticides. It smelt a bit of DDT and the like. We were the only customers. It was the first time we'd talked intimately, about our best friends, relationships and families and the like. I genuinely didn't mind the horrible insecticide smell; I thought the fish we had was the best fish ever, the tastiest, loveliest, best-cooked fish ever. And in my utter ignorance, actually said that, or something along those lines. The relationship took different, not all happy turns later, but he wasn't always trying to please me, perhaps because I was in fact so easy to please! We've gone separate ways now. And we've each learned a lesson or two. Mine is not to be unnecessarily critical, but to be sure of one's opinion, to be not afraid to voice it, to be confident of saying what one wants to say and what one believes, without unduly hurting others. I don't think I'll ever reach May's self-assurance though, simply because I recognize when people are making an effort and don't have the heart to snub them so obviously. I wonder if men can be persuaded to love a not-so-bitchy bitch, or do we have to go all the way?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

عندما تكون المدينة هي العالم، يكون تغير المدينة هو نهاية العالم

في أخبار الأدب يكتب الفنان عادل السيوي عن حسن سليمان وعن أمه وعن القاهرة التي لم نعد نتعرف عليها في المدينة التي نعيشها.

لم أقابل عادل السيوي ولكن أشعر أحياناً أنني أعرفه. منذ سنوات ذهبت الى معرض له في قاعة مشربية التي تملكها وتديرها زوجته. وقتها كنا أنا وصديقتي نلتهم الفن ووسط البلد. نذهب الى المعارض ثم نعرج على شيزا بحثاً عن أومليت بالجبن والمشروم وكابوتشينو، طقوسنا التي تخلت عنا وتخلينا عنها وربما عن جزء من صداقتنا معها. اشتريت بوستر المعرض وعلقته عالياً على حائط غرفتي في المنزل. اسم اللوحة المصورة على البوستر <<صباح الخير>>. عندما أقصى عن غرفتي لفترات طويلة وتوحشني أتذكر تلك اللوحة البوستر وأفكر بها وبالسجادة المفرودة في وسط الغرفة. اللوحة مليئة بالحركة، وبها جني يخرج من القمقم. ألوانها داكنة وحالمة، تذكر بالنوم ولكن في نفس الوقت الفوضى والحركة العارمة والجني يذكرون باحساس القيام من النوم، الهبًّة التي تعتري المرء عندما تعود له روحه، ربما، عندما يعود للحياة مرة أخرى ويصحو على هذا العالم. والجني جني بالطبع؛ كبير وعظيم وقوي، ينفجر بقوة هي قوتي وقوتك عند القيام من النوم. كلنا نصحو من النوم جن، ولو لثوان، ثم يحدث لنا شئ ونصير بني آدمين مرة أخرى؛ شئ ما يحدث في المكان/الثواني تلك التي تقوس النوم والصحيان- فترة الما بين. أن تتذكر الجن الذي بداخلك هو أن تخاطر أن تحلم وأن تنفجر بكل طاقتك المحفوظة داخلك. والجني هو أيضاً الرجل الذكر في كامل قوته وهيبته وانتصابه.عندما أحن إلى حياتي التي كنت أعرفها، أفكر في اللوحة المعلقة على حائطي وأفتقدها و — أحياناً — أبكي أيضاً.

يكتب عادل السيوي عن أمه وعن حسن سليمان. بالطبع لن ألخص هنا ما كتبه. فهو يستطيع أن يرسم بالكلمات أيضاً. ولكن من الأفكار الملفتة التي يشير اليها في مقاله، فكرة تولدت في نقاش مع حسن سليمان وهي أن <<من يشاهد زوال عالمه يعتقد أن الكون كله لابد وأن ينتهي معه.>> فكرة ربما ليست جديدة ولكنها عبقرية. تقرأها وتحس أنها فكرة خطرت لك من قبل، تعرفها بديهياً ولكنها فجأة تفسر لك أشياء اخرى كثيرة، كالمفتاح المنسي في درج المكتب؛ يفتح صندوقاً منسياً بدوره في مكان آخر.

ترتبط هذه الفكرة بأفكار نهاية العالم بشكل عام، والتي تتكرر في الثقافات المختلفة من آن لآخر. عندما يشعر جمع من الناس، مجتمع ما، بعدم الأمان، يشعر بالتهديد، يشعر أن حياته التي يعرفها تتغير بأسرع من قدرته على التكيف، يشعر أن عالمه ينتهي. وهنا، ربما، تبدأ أفكار القيامة ونهاية الدنيا في الانتشار. الأفكار قديمة ولكنها تتكرر في دورات متعاقبة. هل نمر بفترة شبيهة الآن؟ هل يجعل التغير السريع الذي يحدث في المجتمع الانساني الناس يشعرون بعدم الأمان ويتجهون لأفكار <<خذعبلية>> في مجملها عن القيامة وعذاب القبر ونهاية العالم التي ستأتي غداً؟ ربما... عندما تتغير المدينة التي هي عالمنا، القاهرة التي نسميها مصر ونسميها البلد ونسميها البيت فنقول <<حروَّح في الأجازة>>بمعنى سأذهب إلى القاهرة، عندما تتغير هذه المدينة المحورية، هل ينتهي العالم؟

يضع عادل السيوي سبابته على نبض المدينة في هذه المقالة. التغير الذي يحدث في القاهرة ليس فقط تغير في المعمار والشكل، على صدمته وقباحته. ولكن التغير الأكبر هو في أساليب الحياة داخل المدينة، ما يشير اليه الناس عادة بالقيم. يقولون القيم تغيرت والدنيا لم تعد بخير. القيم تغيرت فعلاً بمعنى أنك لا تستطيع أن تعرف بحق ومسبقاً ما يمكنك أن تتوقع من الآخرين، المعايير المتفق عليها وأساليب فعل الاشياء تتغير دون أن تدري. فتفاجأ، مثلا، الست أم عادل أن جارتها ممكن جداً أن تقترض منخلاً ثم لا تعيده لها بل وتنكر أنها اقترضته. <<عادي جداً>>، أصبح <<عادياً جداً>>. وتفاجأ أنت، مثلاً، أن الاشياء كما فهمتها لها معان أخرى عند الآخرين لم يفسروها لك، أن الوعد والحلم ورقص الاصابع في قبضة اليد وقيادة السيارة الى كورنيش المعادي لها معانٍ غير التي تخيلتها عندما فعلت هذه الأشياء، أن معاني الأشياء تتغير وأنت تفعلها ولا أحد يقول لك! تفاجأ أن القيامة على وشك أن تقوم فعلاً. عوالم تموت وعوالم أخرى تحيا مكانها.

هناك حزن ما في النوم، أليس كذلك؟ استسلام ما... يسلم المرء وعيه ويستسلم للعالم الآخر. ما يهون النوم ويجعلنا نَحِنُ له أحياناً هو القيامة؛ هو وعد القيامة وانفجار الجني من قمقمه مرة أخرى
تصبحون على مدينة جديدة، وأصبح أنا على مطر...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Suffocating space

One reason I love the idea of balconies, and find them an ingenius archetecturial invention, is that they provide a space for "in-betweeness", in between in and out, in between private and public, thye maneouvre, they play, they stick their noses out and into other people's business perhaps.
In the first edition of Balconies we'd discussed Cairo Azhar Park as a new space for urban gathering and togetherness that navigated many differences. I found that the park pushed open such a space for city people to get together on a quasi class-neutral ground, a space we've been lacking for decades now. Some of the readers who commented on the bloc disagreed. On the contrary, they argued, the place made them feel uncomfortable as it charted such differences. We go to the same places and we feel different things. I pesonally felt quite comfortable there and not alienated, I didn't feel that the park was rudely imposed on the urban fabric of the area - perhaps with the prominent exception of the 5-star restaurant which doesn't provide good value for money.

Anyway, this long, long introduction is by way of explaining why it is that I am dismayed to read in Akhbar al-Adab that the small theatre inside the park might be closed down by order of the governor.
The theatre shares with the Saqiya of al-Sawi its being an affordable, open, tolerant urban space for people, especially young people, from all walks of life to share good times, their art and their ideas. During the summer several music festivals were hosted at the park's theatre, itself called "El-Geneina." Most of the bands and troupes that performed there weren't famous, mostly were composed of young women and men, often college students or right out of college. All had very affordable tickets. It was quite cheering to attend open air concerts at Geneina. One felt part of an urban space that wasn't contrived or alienating. The people who attended and performed were the remnants - some would say first buds - of that elusive Egyptian middle class. There was no ostentatious consumption there, no particular showing off. People spoke Arabic, mostly, to eachother in the intermission.... I felt I was in Cairo. And at night in summer it was a breath of fresh air, to be out, feel a hint of a breeze and listen to live music. Same thing with Sayiya on the Nile... who can imagine, under the bridge, but on the banks of the Nile, and finding such an urban oasis...

So now the governor wants to close down Geneina. And I suspect precisely for those reasons I found it comforting, cheering, and inspiring of hope. The article above mentions some objections to the poetry of Ahmad Foad Negm being recited or sung there by some band and it being inciteful or objectionable or whatever. Inciteful to what one doesn't particularly know although I suspect it's the mere presence of such an urban space that threatens some. Instead of banning that particular group and because, of course, we have no censorship in our free country, the whole theatre will be deemed a threat: to the environment, to public morals, to the neighbours, whatever. It's a threat.

I hope they live up to their undecided reputation and change their minds on that one...

Good morning, and, Good Luck ...

Since the Akhbar al-Adab story does not have its own url, I'll paste it in a separate posting below.

Geneina theatre might close down

The following item was reported in Akhbar al-Adab:

بعدعام من تشغيله:محافظة القاهرة تعترض علي مسرح الجنينة
-->-->تلقت ادارة حديقة الأزهر التابعة لشركة الاغاخان للخدمات الثقافية اتصالا هاتفيا من مكتب نائب محافظ القاهرة أبلغهم فيها بإلغاء الحفل الخاص بفرقة نغم مصري والذي كان مقررا تقديمه علي مسرح الجنينة مساء الخميس 23 فبراير، وذلك قبيل ساعات قليلة من بدء الحفل، وقد أكد نائب المحافظ أن قرار الالغاء جاء بناء علي اعتراض الأمن علي محتوي الأغاني التي تقدمها الفرقة.وفي اليوم نفسه أبلغ نائب المحافظ شفهيا ادارة حديقة الأزهر باعتراضه علي وجود مسرح بالحديقة وعلي اقامة اية أنشطة موسيقية فيها، وفي صباح السبت 25 فبراير ترددت أنباء صحفية عن قرار المحافظة تعليق انشطة المسرح لأنه يؤدي لتجمعات ضارة بالأمن، وتم قرن الأنشطة الثقافية التي تقدم علي المسرح بتدخين الشيشة في المقاهي، وهو ما يتعارض وفق أدعاء المحافظة مع جهودها لمكافحة التلوث!وتؤكد ادارة حديقة الأزهر انها لم تتلق حتي كتابة هذه السطور اية تعليمات مكتوبة من قبل المحافظة والأمن، لذا تهيب شركة المورد الثقافي للانتاج والتوزيع الفني والتدريب والتي تتولي تنظيم الأنشطة الثقافية في مسرح الجنينة أن تصدر المحافظة تبريرا لقراراتها الشفهية وأن توضح موقف المسرح بوضوح، خاصة أن المسرح أعد برنامجا ثقافيا متنوعا ينطلق من منتصف مارس وحتي نهاية شهر أكتوبر، مؤكدة أن الخطر المقرر علي انشطة المسرح سيضر حتما برسالته التنويرية والحضارية وستزيد من انعدام الثقة بين المواطن وأجهزة الأمن وزيادة حالات الاحباط المنتشرة بين الشباب.يذكر أن مسرح الجنينة قد تم افتتاحه في ابريل 2005 وقد قدم منذ ذلك التاريخ ما يزيد علي 50 عرضا مسرحيا وموسيقيا كان أخرها عروض لفرقة مسرح الحارة الفلسطينية أواخر يناير الماضي.
ملحوظة--> -->تقرر اغلاق مسرح الجنينة بالأزهر. والسبب هو أشعار احمد فؤاد نجم التي قيل أنها تكدر 'الصفو العام'! فهل اغلاق هذا المسرح ستتبعه اجراءات أخري واغلاق مسارح أخري؟! أغلب الظن أن هذا هو ما سيحدث!
كمال عبدالجواد

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Girl talk (1 of x)

So many of the girls I know, my friends that is, are single women in their 30s. It's a phenomenon in Egypt. At least that's how I'm beginning to see it. It's not just that the particular women in question are somehow perpetually in search of a Mr. Right (or even a Mr. Would Do). There must be something more than that. And it's not just our particular idiosyncratic problems. It can't be! We're all so different. We come in different shapes and sizes, political and intellectual inclinations, accents, interests, social backgrounds, professional backgrounds, educational backgrounds. We really are very different. The one thing we have in common (aside from our friendship, yes) is that we're single. (There: z cat is out of z bag ;) )

But seriously, why is it that one doesn't meet whole shellas of single Egyptian men in their 30s? Where are the men that correspond to those women?

One of my favourite intellectual occupations is to come up with theoretical answers to these questions.

A friend, let's call her Layla*, once wondered how it was that she often met very interesting, different, (by which she probably meant "creative") women, with very boring, traditional brothers. That blew one of my theories right away: surely the families that brought up women like us, must have brought up men, also like us, and we just had to meet them. Layla's remark blew it. The corresponding men, our brothers, are - sadly - often quite different. The single 30-something woman often has a brother who is in a traditional profession, an engineer or a doctor, and who got married to a bitch (sorry, sisters-in-law but...) who has him firmly under her thumb and whom he more often than not met the "traditional way." So, perhaps, the same families brought up their sons and daughters differently. Somehow, men like our brothers are not attracted to women like their sisters... hmm. The girls are pushed from day one to be independent and strong in a particular way, to achieve in school and college (yes, often pushed to achieve in school more than the boys, especially among the middle and upper middle classes). Women have to work extra hard to achieve. And they have to be serious and not rely on their looks and all that crap. And the boys in the family get the traditional treatment: never mind ya habibi that you didn't get imtiyaz this year, don't depress yourself. don't worry ya habibi about helping mummy in the kitchen; your sister will do it... etc etc.

So that's one problem with Egyptian men of our generation: the poor things are getting confusing messages form family and media and society and they can't handle the challenge. All they want is a warm bed and a hot meal after all. So they just marry the bitch.

That's one theory.

A second theory that I've become quite interested in of late is the demographics one. I think there is a demographic problem. You hear of single women but the phrase single man - in Egypt - is getting to be an oxymoron. And I think the problem is a numerical one. It's as simple as that: there are more women than men. Of course I need to dig out the relevant statistics from CAPMAS which I don't have access to at the moment, but in most modern socieites, women outnumber men by varying degrees. If the percentage in Egypt is high then surely that explains why it is that the special, different, women are the ones last to go into a socially sanctioned pair.

And historical examples of societies where women outnumbered men abound. Usually war was to blame for killing off a large percentage of the adult male population; plagues and famines generally affected both sexes equally. But this demographic problem was behind the rise of such phenomena as women heading to convents in droves in the middle ages in Europe, or the construction of a social entity called "the spinster" (see: there is no male equivalent in English. Single man does not have connotations of spinsterhood. Adult single man at "worst" could be gay, that's all). I think Muslim societies solved the problem by multiple marriages and remarriages. It was very common in medieval Egypt and Syria for women to marry at least 3 times in a lifetime and for men of privlege to have more than one wife simultaneously. And rather than blame Islam and culture, I believe it was demographics. Because at other times in history, polygamy and remarriage were not as common. I think culture provided an answer for a real social issue. What do you do with all those women?

An aside: the Asians seem to be experiencing the OPPOSITE problem, believe it or not. They have all those men they don't know what to do with. Apparently they've been persistingly choosing the sex of their babies and boom: before they knew it, in one generation, men outnumber women. As my wonderful friend F often threatens me: The Chinese are coming! And they're followed by the Indians! And there you go: not only your clothes, your sneakers, you computers but soon, your men (not to mention your cars) will be imported from China. Heaven will be renamed China :) [Of course the above link was forwarded to me by my good friend Juhayna*, also a member of the club.] But, if you don't want the Chinese or Indian model, we'd better find some other outlet. Let's see.

Just this week a new report explained how evolution also provided an answer for European women. Researches have found evidence to suggest that women in northern Europe evolved with light hair and coloured eyes at the end of the Ice Age in order to stand out and atrract men. Competition has always been tough and you needed the added advantage, an edge as marketing pros know only too well. You need to stand out in a crowd. [I wonder how Arab women evolved... do you think, perhaps, perhaps, the hips, wel... do you think perhaps the Arab hips are the remnants of an evolutionary attempt to stand out 10,000 years ago? hmm...]

But, also as marketing pros know, the first thing that stands out is the packaging! It's all in the packaging, mind you. And what defines packaging? I think the old age criteria seem to apply.
The article went on to suggest: "Experts said that as relations between men and women have evolved, men may have become more attracted by brains, represented in their psyche by brunettes, than the more physical charms of blond hair." [my italics] I like the "may" in that sentence. I don't think our guys have evolved that far (national pride notwithstanding and all due respect to EGYPTIAN MAN).
The solution is this my luvs: go for it!

Seriously? Well, ok, we can't ALL go blonde at the same time (God knows enough women in Egypt have gone for it and, ehmm, well, gotten away with it? Witness the nation's latest bride, for one example.) But is it simply the packaging? Many of the women I have in mind, who belong to our exclusive club, are quite attractive. They just attract the not-so-right guys! Malak* refers to this phenomenon as "magnet for losers." We've all used the phrase at one point or another. Why is it that the men who are attracted to us (and, perhaps later we can turn to that, the one's WE ARE ATTRACTED TO) happen to be bad, bad news. (I mean really bad news: psychopaths, nosepickers, unshowering, chronic commitment phobics, drug doers, chronic unemployds, etc.)
One answer lies in this thought: a recent Channel 4 programme argued that in fact ugly, unattractive men had more confidence in chatting up beautiful women because... well, because, unlike attractive guys, they're used to rejection. They don't really fear it. So they just say, what the heck, I'll give it a shot and they approach pretty, attractive women. Wheares attractive guys are used to women drooling all over them, they fear rejection and don't want to take a risk of rejection and so play is safe. Yes! Yes! That's how, perhaps, the bitches get the great guys!
Do you like that one? ;)

I have a few other ideas up my sleeve. But perhaps another day. Today is Saturday after all and a little bit of repackaging is in order :)

Good morning, and, good luck :)

* Names have OF COURSE been changed... what were you thinking? You DON'T know any of those women, so forget about guessing. Return to reading.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The scents of my mother

When she was sick and not doing well, disappearing into herself, curling up her body like a snail and hiding her head inside, I knew that we didn't have much time left. I would try to draw her out, to fish for a sign of the old Mummy inside this heaping woman I didn't recognize. I used to provoke arguments sometimes just so that we would fight like the old days. I would hurt her hoping she'd hit back and then I'd know she was still there. Other times I would come up close to her and stick myself against her body: I consciously wanted to store up her warmth and her smell. Even then, what I feared the most was forgetting the smell of my mother. When we did our daily, silent, ritual of bathing, I was conscious of how ominous it all was, of the uninvited guest hovering around our bathroom, possibly wagging his tongue at us. I tried to store up Mummy and have my fill of her. To remember the curves, the folds, the contours. The way her eyes smiled before her mouth, or indeed the way her eyes shouted before her tongue. I wanted to have the mark of Mummy on me, in me, for future reference as it were, when the original signifier wouldn't be there anymore... I believed I could store her inside somehow.

In The English Patient Ondaatje writes about something similar, although in a very differenct context:
“[w]e die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography — to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.”

I copied the quote and hung it on my wall. We will always be together, I told her. You will always be inside me.

Crap, mostly, yes. But sometimes when I'm alone I can feel her. I can almost speak to her. I argue with her yet. When I first came to England, she was with me. I was certain she was with me. And when I burned with the need to phone her and tell her all the new things that were going on and the things I was discovering, things like finally understanding the characters Dickens was describing - or the queues, my God the queues! - when the tears were flowing unnecessarily, I reminded myself that she probably knows, on some strange metaphysical level - maybe she knows.

I remember Mummy with scents like these:

1. Coffee. I first knew coffee from Mummy's breath in the morning. She would wake up before us, my father and I, and have her "alone time" in the balcony of our home. She would make a cup of instant coffee and drink it from her big, English, green mug. On Fridays we would go out together, that was our special time every week for shopping and errands. But there was always time for a special coffee and a snack. I'd have a hot chocolate or an orange juice. Later it was cappuccino at one of the few places in Cairo that served cappuccino in the 1990s. When she died, and the day after the 'aza was done and the aunts had returned to their provincial setups, I went to our latest coffee hangout: The Marriott Bakery. I sat and had my coffee. They were very nice, 'Abdo and the pretty woman who sat at the cashier. They didn't take my order, they just brought out the cappuccino, sans croissants that time. A few months before my mum was officially diagnosed, I went to the US for my first (and so far last) big conference. Chicago was great! And on Friday I made a point of having a proper coffee in a coffee shop on Lake Shore Drive if I remember correctly. I told her when she phoned to check on me, I said I went and had our coffee today. She said: I didn't, I waited for you. But I could tell she was glad I remembered. And in a way it was our pact. When I miss my mother, I go out for a cappuccino. It's one of my rituals of remembrance. Some people visit graves, I visit coffeeshops. Secretly I keep hoping this time she'll join.

2. Jergens and Vaseline Intensive Care. The classic lotion with almond oil or else the cream colored VIC in the bottle with a pump. This is what motherhood smells of. I spread a generous amount everyday after my shower of either of those lotions. When I walk into the room later, it's as if she were here. I don't know if I do it intentionally, but when I walk into the room later the familiar scent comforts and reassures.

3. Chicken soup. The smell of the pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove invariably reminds my of Mummy. That is even though she rarely cooked the chicken herself. But it was one of those things she directed at times of sickness and fever. She oversaw that chicken soup would be cooked and she made kishk out of the broth and she put it on a nice tray and brought it all to my bed. She would feel my temperature with her cool, lotion-soft, hands and somehow one knew that everything would be alright. In the long nights spent writing papers and studying for exams, she would prepare some special supper. Once she had to improvise with what she had in the fridge: there was left over chicken from lunch and white cheese and boom; the chicken and white cheese sandwich on baladi bread with cucumber on the side was invented! And it became the late-night-studying dish.

4. Baking. The smell of baking reminds me of my mother. Not because she baked. But because she loved the smell when I did. Perhaps it reminded her of Teta. She would be excited as a child when I decided to bake them a cake. She would lick the remaining batter out of the mixing bowl and eat it with the spatula. And she would come every few minutes to ask about the cake in the oven, is it done yet? When I bake a chocolate cake and the smell fills the house, I remember my mother.

5. Fresh printing. On newspapers and magazines and books. She was in publishing, my mother, and she respected the actual, physical newspaper. She would fold it neatly after she'd read it. And she was happiest being the first reader of anything. Unlike me, she couldn't really do second hand books. Fresh ink on paper is a smell she appreciated. I do too. I love books. Old ones and new ones. But the ink of fresh print on new books and new magazines is a pleasure unto its own. If I miss my mother, I pick up a magazine to read while drinking the coffee.

Not only sights and sounds, but scents, as well, carry their memories. And memory is definitely a grace from God on human beings. We live and we remember, we live as we remember, we live that we may remember, we live because we remember.

I remember. May you live and remember...