On Friday I went to meet some family friends who are visiting Cairo. On the way back I got in a huge strop with the taxi driver because I accidentally told him the wrong turning in Zamalek and we ended up in an hour-long taxi jam. (The link is for those unfamiliar with British slang who don’t know what a strop is.) We’d been about four blocks from my house and suddenly we came out on a one-way street going away from where I wanted to be and we had to go ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE ISLAND in order to turn around. Being Friday night, every single other person in all of Cairo wanted to be in the same place, so there were four-ish lanes of traffic all doing the same thing. (Lanes in Egypt are largely notional.) The taxi driver had the good sense to turn his engine off while we were dead stopped which was at least half the time, an example not followed by the majority of the traffic around us.
At one point while we were sitting in the bowl of fumes that was the traffic jam, just as I was realizing I should’ve gotten out and walked fifteen minutes before because I would’ve been home already, the driver turned to me and said, “It would have been five minute wait to Zamalek, now forty minutes.” He smiled enterprisingly. “You pay like forty minutes?” I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of the idea that I should pay more for a service that I could walk myself for free. I’d already been planning to give him extra for the idling time – would you expect a New York taxi to turn off the meter while stopped? – but to have him ask for it so bluntly really galled me. If Egyptian taxis want a fair rate for time spent idling, they should damn well get some working meters!
As I expostulated on this theme, the driver shrunk down in his seat in the front. “Maybe?” he squeaked. “Maybe you pay like forty minutes?”
I realized this taxi driver had no idea where 26th of July Street was
after we finally got turned around and actually started moving again. The biggest street in Zamalek. The only street in Zamalek that some people know. I started shouting the directions in Arabic. (And Arabic is a really good language for getting annoyed at people in.) Oh, I wanted to spit dragons at him. I hate that Cairo taxis can’t be relied upon to know where they’re going even if you give them an address. But it’s not like I didn’t know this when I got in, and it was really my own fault for turning us the wrong way. Mostly I
was mad at myself for not reacting sooner to get myself out of the mess.
When I at last told him to where stop I slammed the door of the taxi, shoved the money in through the front window and stalked off back down the street, turning the corner so he couldn’t follow and complain about his fare – not that I deliberately shortchanged him, or would ever do so. Such arguments are common even when there isn’t a huge traffic jam involved. But how sad is it that I would expect one?
I could feel the rage pulsing off me, little arrows of indignation and resentment pointing out in every direction. I felt, and often in Cairo find myself feeling, like a three-year-old who is unable to get what they want and so takes it out on the world, screaming and kicking and biting and bellowing, pummeling whatever comes near. The thing is, at three you really can’t do a whole lot of damage, so if you have a tantrum people pretty much ignore ignore it. At twenty-four you might actually hurt somebody, so translating violent fantasies into action isn’t allowed any more. But never in my adult life have I been so tempted to perpetrate acts of random violence as I am in Cairo.
I decided to go to the Pottery Cafe for a take-away chocolate frappe to soothe my ruffled feathers. As I was walking I could hear somebody – after I passed by, of course, it’s always behind your back – hissing and making kissy noises after me. (Note: both these things are actually just a perfectly acceptable way of calling someone’s attention in Egypt, in and of themself they aren’t actually sexual in nature. But the muttered comments I could hear were.) I really wanted to turn around, pick up one of the many spare pieces of concrete from the sidewalk and bring it down on his head until he cried for mommy.
I could never, would never do this. For one, there’s no way I could lift the concrete (though there is an abundance of spare chunks around.) But really, it’s because what triggers my rage in Cairo is being treated like an object – either a walking piggy bank or a prostitute – and in feeling that I’d be justified in injuring somebody just for behaving in a way I don’t happen to like I’d be dehumanising them. If I ever did it, aside from self-defense which isn’t what I’m talking about here, I’d be just as bad as they are.
Fortunately I do have an excellent non-violent weapon at my disposal, my infamous “stop invading my personal space or I will kill you with death rays from my eyeballs” stare. I once used this skill at a concert for a band called the Gallows, whose lead singer’s opening gambit was to feign having his throat cut and spurt blood at the audience. Some fans were attempting to thrash about in a wildly unpleasant manner a little too close to where my friend and I were standing. I stared at them pointedly. They rapidly moved away, closer to the safety of the rest of the crowd.
Today I got to use my particular talent again, when I got charged a “payment in advance” fee on receiving a FedEx package. (That’s the WHOLE POINT of paying in advance, so the people receiving the package DON’T HAVE TO PAY.) I did pay the fee – but not before staring at the man until I could hear the hair on the back of his head sizzling.