The streets would not forgive him. Cairo revealed herself, but at a price. Bert could feel their eyes, pricking his conscience, taking him apart limb by limb. The hawkers carried on their shouting match, but he knew their eyes were on him, the foreign. What were they selling? Was it the piles of plastic combs at their feet or was it something more precious? This man had all manner of plastic toys. Where had they come from? China probably. The new colonialism. We shall conquer the world by exporting plastic toys. First plastic toys, then… The business model worked, incredibly. In this world it worked.
A few others sold sweets wrapped in lurid plastic wrappers. Here and there were traditional food sellers. A man with a rough wooden cart was roasting sweet potatoes. An old woman, fat and wrapped in black was crouched beside a pile of tissues. All their eyes were upon him. Overhead the bridge flew over and down below micro-buses hurled past screaming their destinations. Even the birds stopped their pecking in the dust as he walked through the bus station.
What had brought him here? What unlikely, unnatural turn of events had brought him from middle class rural Germany to a bus station in downtown Cairo? Astonishingly, in this world, it was common. He looked up and could see ahead of him another blond man fighting to board a micro-bus. He had just past a Dutch looking woman heading down the subway. Suddenly he hated that blond, the unknown Dutch woman and, above all, himself. What right had they to be here? Bringing their Euros, easily buying the life that these hawkers could never attain despite working twenty-four hours a day, sometimes more. What sheer fluke, pure chance, unkind fate had bestowed upon them the right to jet into other countries and live it up with scarce a thought to where the next meal was coming from, when they would next wash with warm water or how they would sell enough plastic toys to shelter let alone school their children?
Bert knew where he was going. He was going to cross the road past the bus station, climb the stairway above the hawkers and stroll across 6th October Bridge in the evening air over to Gezira and on to his clean, comfortable hotel in Zamalek. His life was etched out ahead of him, he could see it, plain and clear in frustrating detail. What could go wrong? What event could possibly happen that could not be settled with a call to his credit card company or a visit to a cash machine? Even if he were hit by a car crossing this road now, he would be well looked after in the finest hospitals of Cairo and the man who hit him would doubtless spend the night in jail. His place in this city was cosseted away behind the security at his hotel in the tree lined boulevards of colonial Zamalek. There was no obstacle to his comfort and it was all thanks to pointless, aimless luck. Of course he worked but, in this world, incredibly, one hour’s work in Germany was equivalent to perhaps three days’ work for these hawkers. Probably more. Bert didn’t like to think about it because there was nothing he could do about it.
As he lowered his head a shout and a look caught his attention. A man about his age was waving a flashing elephant in his direction. Bert heard his name in the look. There was a flashing plastic train careering around a yellow plastic track at the man’s feet. Bert walked over, entranced. The man looked at him, “Seer! Mister!”
“Bikem?” Bert heard himself say.
“Da?” the man said, indicating the elephant.
“La,” Bert almost whispered through dried throat, “kull haaga.”
“Kull haaga?” The man’s eyes grew half an inch in diameter.
“Yes – it all. How much for everything?”
The man hesitated, calculating, measuring disbelief against opportunity.
“I want everything you have. The table, the stool, that cloth.” Bert was warming up, pointing at everything the hawker used to hawk with. The man was clearly unnerved by this mad foreigner and glanced across at his neighbour, who was beginning to take an interest. They fired a few sentences between themselves. The other man laughed and said, in surprisingly good English, “You want to buy all Mohammed shop?”
“Yes. I do. I want his entire stall. Everything.”
The man laughed and explained to Mohammed, who stammered a reply.
“Ok mister, Mohammed want 500 pounds.”
Well, eid has come early for Mohammed, Bert thought.
“I don’t have that much on me, but here is 250 pounds Egyptian,” Bert started emptying his pockets, “50 dollars US…and my watch.” Mohammed looked stunned.
“Is that enough?”
Mohammed laughed this time and took the money eagerly, counting it out for himself.
Bert laughed as well and said, “Now go, my friend, go and enjoy yourself! I’ll take it from here.”
Bert had never done anything so reckless. He felt like a new man. He had a vocation, he had comrades in the fight for survival. He and Mohammed had swapped places. Now Bert was the plastic toy hawker under 6th October Bridge. Mohammed was free, without a care in Cairo. Bert slipped into the world of a real Cairene. He grabbed the flashing elephant with zeal and started hawking. The other man, who introduced himself as Mahmud, was laughing heartily. Mahmud had never seen anything like it.
Bert hawked all that night, all the next day and into the night again, shouting himself hoarse. He stayed there twenty four hours straight, high on the intoxication of freedom. He didn’t sell a thing, but he didn’t care. Egyptians wouldn’t buy from a foreigner and foreigners would never buy the rubbish he was selling, certainly not from a mad German. He drew a lot of stares, but he didn’t care one bit. He was a Cairene hawker.
The police arrived after about eight hours and tried to get him moved on. They asked him where his hotel was and threatened to call the embassy, but Bert held firm and the hawkers, his new friends, argued his case in impassioned Arabic. The police moved to a respectful distance but stayed watching, clearly suspicious of this extraordinary foreigner. A gang of baladi kids came up to him and started teasing him, “Mister, mister! How much mister!”, delighting in this reversal of fortunes. Then they started trying to steal from him, mobbing him with their strong little hands. But Mahmud had eagle eyes and whipped a length of knotted rope at them. The kids fled, screaming in delight.
After about fifteen hours of non-stop hawking, Mahmud offered Bert half of his sweet potato to keep his spirits up. Bert gratefully accepted, they were equals, sharing food like true comrades. A few ragged looking men shuffled past on their way back from sweeping the roads, most just stared at him with dull eyes, but a few hissed. The police tried to get Bert to leave again, stating that it was against the law for him to work. Again Mahmud defended him by arguing that Bert hadn’t sold anything so technically could not be working. The police moved off again, buzzing into their radios.
About twenty hours in, an old lady shuffled up to Bert. It was clear that she was very poor and as she got closer Bert could tell that she was half blind. She used her hands to rummage through Bert’s collection of plastic and finally selected one, a chicken with furry feet who played a banjo when you twisted its neck. Bert looked into her darkened, unfocused eyes and felt his heart plunge. He was still far from equal. He could not sell her the chicken and shooed her away before his weakness showed. Mahmud noticed but said nothing. They watched the old lady shuffle off the kerb onto a bus, the chicken merrily banjo-ing the tune to Achy Breaky Heart.
The old lady had shaken Bert and he began to feel increasingly uneasy about shouting his wares into the night, increasingly self-conscious. He grew quieter and less eager for customers, fearful they would expose him for what he was. As his twenty-fourth hour approached, Bert started panicking, he started seeing the desperate eyes around him, he no longer saw comrades. How Bert had wanted to join them just twenty-four hours before. Now he could not imagine anything more claustrophobic.
As the twenty-fourth hour passed Bert saw a familiar face approaching his stand from across the bus station. Mohammed was returning and he did not look in the mood for conversation. Halfway across the road he started shouting at Bert. Bert couldn’t understand most of the words, but gathered that he was not welcome.
“Imshi! Get out! Get out! Thief!”
Mohammed was waving his arms around the stand of plastic toys. He picked up the flashing elephant and waved it in Bert’s face. Bert sensed the other hawkers closing in, forming a circle around him. The night was dark, lit from the fires of potato ovens, reflected in the dark eyes of his former comrades, the men he had spent the last twenty-four hours side by side with. Loneliness struck him in the chest. He lifted his arms as Mohammed started to beat him with the flashing elephant.
“Go! Get out! Thief! Steal my life! Get out!”
Mahmud raised his knotted rope and bared his teeth in the gloom. The cars and taxis raced overhead and Bert eyed the staircase. He ran. The mob chased him out of the bus station, out of the market and up the stairs, where they watched him flee across the Nile into Gezira. They watched him run until he was swallowed up in the night among the tall trees of Zamalek where he could do no harm.
6th October Bridge shook with traffic as the hawkers carried on their shouting match and a flashing plastic train careered around its yellow plastic track. The streets had forgotten him.