Tales from Egypt ~

Story #1- The Thief Finds Religion

“I might have killed you long ago, if you weren’t so darn cute.”

I say this to my husband. I know it’s awful, and of course I’m only kidding — well, kind of. He understands. He laughs.

But, I suppose he might sleep with one eye open now and then.

My husband is from Egypt. I think he’s one of the most handsome men I’ve ever met. He’s got the lips of the Pharaohs, with a regal nose, cleft chin, big brown eyes and dark curly hair. While he’s sleeping, he looks just like an angel. When he and I were younger we could fight like coyotes, and when that happened, he didn’t look very angelic. In fact, he could get really mean. Because of this I sometimes wished that he would just go away. But he never did, and thirty years later, I’m grateful he’s still here, and happy I never off-ed him.

My husband has been a good father to our three children. He’s also a fabulous cook. But one of the attributes I find most irresistible about him is his ability to tell a good story. He weaves incredible tales from his memories of growing up in Egypt, and he offers them here and there as little treats for us to feast on. He’s only three years older than I am, but his childhood was lightyears from mine — as different as our skin color: his so dark and mine so light. The stories he tells are fantastical and hilarious, so much more thrilling than anything I’ve ever experienced, or could ever recount. Randomly, he pulls these stories out at family dinners, or on long road trips, and tells them with incredible warmth and humor. I’ve grown to love the descriptiveness of the Egyptian language. The sounds the words make, and the images they invoke are poetic and sweet. These are some of my favorite Egyptian words: zabeep is a raisin, mish-mish is an apricot, ship-ship is a sandal, yalla means let’s go. I also love the words boomba and zoomba which mean things or people that steer you wrong, as in, “he gave us a big boomba and didn’t show up for dinner.” Some of my favorite words have to do with Egyptian street life — Harami means thief, and Baltagi means thug and Abbas, which is actually a man’s name, is used as slang to mean police. My husband uses these words for joking around; when the kids were little and they’d take his hat or his shoe, he’d say,

“Emsic harami!”

which means: catch the thief! Or when our little dog tries to be very tough he’d say,

“yalla ya baltagi!”

which means: go get ‘em tough guy!

Over the years my husband shared many stories with us. Only a few of the stories were fiction, most of them truly happened to him or a family member. Some of the funniest stories have to do with the misadventures that he and his four brothers experienced once they arrived in America in the 1980s. Inevitably, after the telling or retelling of certain stories, one of our kids will say, “we need to write these down so they don’t get lost.”

So, here I am, like Shaherazad in reverse, writing the stories of my husband, who told them to me in an effort to spare his life — to distract his flighty wife with small treasures of humor and adventure, to give his kids a taste of a homeland they’ve never experienced, and to memorialize an Egypt that no longer exists.

I’ll share them with you here, because I think others might enjoy them too. I’ll tell them as I remember them, in no particular order. I will also say that these are told through my American lens and with a bit of creative license, while trying to be as true to the original details as I can.

Illustration: Queen Shaherazad

Shaherazad married king Shahyar who had killed all of his wives the morning after marriage to keep them from being unfaithful. Shaherazad was more cunning than the first wives. On her wedding night she told a fantastic tale. As she reached the exciting climax, she became sleepy and couldn’t continue. The king was enraptured and wanted more. Shaherazad promised to finish the story the next night, whereupon she also began a new tale. She did this night after night for 1,000 nights and spared her life.

Egypt Stories #1: The thief finds religion

Barakat was a thug — a baltagi of the highest order. Tall and skinny with an oversized mustache, he imagined himself an important figure in the community — he was, after all, the neighborhood Harami. In actuality, Barakat was more nuisance than nightmare. He was known to enter various neighborhood stores and create an overblown scene: yelling and screaming, and waving his knife in the air, until the store owner would give him a small token — some cigarettes, a dollar, a bottle of soda, and then he’d be sent on his way. These antics made great entertainment for the young boys in the neighborhood. They’d follow behind Barakat in small packs, spying on him from the street and laughing as he transformed into a blustering lunatic in front of the store proprietors. The boys would scatter away once Barakat got his small prize. They knew he’d soon be swaggering out, extremely pleased with himself and looking for a new target for his bullying.

Barakat enjoyed his reign as the neighborhood thief, and was mostly uninterrupted until a family of Sayeedis moved into the neighborhood. Sayeedis are the people who come from the countryside in the southern part of Egypt. They’re the brunt of many jokes because they’re known for not being very street smart. In actuality, Sayeedis are great at business, although they get into trouble because they’re simple and gullible. A typical Sayeedi joke goes like this: “Did you hear about the Sayeedi who wanted to kill his wife? He put a gun in her tea.”

The other thing to know about Sayeedis is that they are often big people. The men are tall and burly. The Sayeedi family that moved into the neighborhood was no exception — all of the sons had massive muscles on tall bodies. The family opened a cafe on one corner of the block and directly across the street from the cafe, they set-up an herb shop.

Apparently, no one warned the Sayeedi family about Barakat. When the neighborhood thief brought his small knife into the cafe and started to bluster, the Sayeedi men jumped on him at once. The neighborhood boys watched with glee as those huge Sayeedis took the spindly Barakat and folded him in two. Then they took their big hands and scrunched him into a ball. By the time they were through with him, Barakat was a broken, bleeding mound of flesh. It’s amazing he even survived the severe beating. He spent months in the hospital, and was limping badly when he finally returned to the neighborhood.

The neighbors were appalled at the treatment of one of their own. They explained to the new family that Barakat was mostly harmless and they had overreacted by nearly killing the poor man.

The family felt awful, especially thinking that this might not sit well with their new customers, so they built Barakat a sandwich stand that he could operate as a way to make an honest living. They placed a little cart out on the street in front of their cafe and checked on him from time to time. The women of the family also talked to him about turning his life to God, hoping that Barakat would be interested in redeeming his thieving ways.

Barakat listened, and as he was in no shape to continue in his old profession, he gave the sandwich stand a try. The neighborhood boys watched from afar to see which one of the neighbors would be brave enough to order sandwiches from Barakat. They watched day after day, but business was slow for the reformed thief. Everyone remembered his small knife and didn’t dare approach the sandwich stand of Barakat.

Things went on like this for some time, and Barakat must have felt a need to show the neighborhood that he had truly reformed. When a traveling moslem sheik came to town, Barakat made a big show of letting everyone know that he would be visiting the mosque to hear this man speak. Kishk had a reputation for being quite eloquent and drawing big crowds with his impassioned sermons concerning the moslem religion.

That day Barakat wore his cleanest white robe and his newest skull cap. He hobbled through the neighborhood announcing to everyone that he was on his way to the big mosque. The community was happy to see Barakat turn to religion. The wives out shopping and the men in the barber shops, waved at the eager Barakat, and hoped they might finally be rid of their neighborhood nuisance.

There was a huge crowd at the mosque that day as Kishk opened his sermon. He started speaking softly, but soon his voice was booming as he rallied the audience. With his words he was reaching down deep, admonishing the people to follow God’s laws instead of man’s laws — to challenge their government, and to remember that moslem meant “slave to God.” The sheik’s words were powerful and Barakat began feeling it was a good thing he was getting religion. His head was bowed, and for the first time in his life he thought it might be helpful to find conviction in spiritual matters. Just as Barakat was relaxing into his new religious life, and as Kishk’s voice got louder and the people more enrapt, and as Barakat’s longing was soaring, just at that moment the homeland security agents were surrounding the mosque. Seconds later, hundreds of officers stormed into the sanctuary and descended on the congregation. Large crowds of moslems posed a threat to the current political regime, so the agents moved in. They pulled men off of their prayer rugs and slapped handcuffs on anyone they could catch. Many of the younger worshippers were able to escape, but not Barakat.

They took him and the others to the national prison. Barakat was appalled to learn that this prison included torture of unspeakable kinds. He was familiar with the local jail where they would take the petty thieves, but this experience was something else altogether. Barakat tried to tell the guards at every opportunity, “There’s been a mistake! I’m actually a thief — I’m not a moslem! They tricked me! It was my first time! I’m a thief, I’m not a moslem!”

Of course his pleading did no good and Barakat was tortured in heinous ways. When they finally let him out, he returned to the neighborhood like a ghost. Both his mind and body were ruined. He spent his days in front of the mosque’s doors, warning everyone who entered, “Don’t go in there! Don’t do it! They’ll put a stick in your ass!”

The boys of the neighborhood found great humor in Barakat’s warnings. From his story they understood

crime doesn’t pay — yet, it was a much safer bet than religion.