Saturday, 20 September 2008

Get married or get old

Two months ago I decided to quit my job and be a full time student. When I was submitting my resignation, the chief accountant, the nicest version of an Egyptian woman in her late forties, advised me to go to the social security department and claim the money that was being deducted every month from my salary. Using what calculators have left me of mathematical abilities I knew that this money would keep me comfortable maybe for the rest of the year. I was told that the whole procedure would take around two months, which is … OK!

Although I’m known to be a patient person, I do have a short tolerance span with nonsense and stupidity and there is no place on earth where you can find a huge amount of both like you would in an Egyptian government department.

I decided to drag myself out of bed one Thursday morning to go to the Social Security department to which my last employer is attached. It occupied two floors of a big residential building in an area located one-hour’s drive away from my place. The offices were simply the rooms of the apartments with desks fitted into every corner. Filing shelves were squeezed in every possible inch and stood tired of the heavy dusty untidy paper and sick of citizens fighting with clerks.

I arrived there around eleven in the morning and after passing by five offices I was directed to Apartment Four on the fifth floor which carried a sign: “Pension”. Although I didn’t see how my document should be with that of pensioners, I was not so surprised. I elbowed my way through the zigzags of people till I finally stood in the middle of a room that had three desks and four frowning employees.

‘Good morning, I would like claim my social security money,’ I told one of the ladies.

She was working on a document and didn’t lift her head. She pointed with her pen to the opposite desk. I turned around and repeated the same sentence. The ladies was sitting behind heaps of files and paper, drinking tea and munching at an oily sandwich. She stretched her arm, took my document, shoved it in the middle of one of the heaps.

‘I’ll investigate. Come back in two days,’ she said.
Because I knew that two days meant more than a week, and because I didn’t know how on earth the oily-sandwiched clerk would remember where she placed my documents and what I needed, I went back after a month.

Last Tuesday I decided to check how things where going. Fifth floor, Apartment Four, Pension Department, the office opposite the main door. I was happy to see the office almost empty. It seems people didn’t want to get angry during Ramadan. The clerk I needed to see was not at her desk and I had to wait for ten minutes and bear with the silent female clerk who kept scanning me from head to toe and the noise coming from the other office; a citizen was shouting at one of the clerks for not finishing his document. ‘Have mercy. The man died six months ago and his wife and children need this pension,’ he yelled.

Good, our lady is back .

‘Good morning. I came a month ago to ask about my social security money’
‘What’s your name?’

She opened the cabinet beside her, pulled a brown folder and got my document out.

‘You have another sum from your previous employer. Go upstairs to Mr Mostafa in the archives and ask him to see if the other department has transferred this money to ours.’

Wow. I’m really astonished. I completely didn’t think about that. Great, the government has kept my money? Interesting. Full of excitement, I climbed the stairs to the archives and I am telling you, this is one job you would never want to do and a room you would not want to stand in for five minutes. But who cares now. I have some more money. I could travel abroad for a week or so. Maybe invest in learning a language. I could also buy a professional camera and take photography classes. Or maybe take my brother’s advice and change the car before GAT is here. No, no. I'll attend the wedding of two best friends in the States.

Back to earth at Apartment Four.

‘No, the money is not here yet.’
‘Ok, I will write you a letter to take to the other department and ask them to … Eh da? What’s this? You’re not married?’ she gasped.
‘No, I’m not married. WHY?’
‘Not even engaged? Good that I looked at your hands.’
‘Well, what has this to do with what we’re doing here?!’
‘You can’t claim your money if you’re not married. This is the law.’
‘You have to be either married of fifty years old to be able to take it.’
‘Fifty? Five zero? And wwwwait! What has my future husband to do with my social security money?’
‘Why are you worried? It doesn’t mean he’s going to take it from you. And this is the law.’
‘What if I told you I’m not actually married and not planning to ever! I left my job and I want my money back. It’s my right.’
‘Then wait till you are fifty. This is the law.’
‘What if I need it now for an emergency, to study, to GET married, or …’
‘This is the LAW. I didn’t make that law, no?’

The lady started to get mad at me and I started to laugh. I tried to explain to her that I do understand it was not her who made that law, and that I was hoping to get the rationale behind it.

For the hundreds of nonsensical laws in Egypt there is usually a made up reason. This time I really could not imagine any reason. Not even a stupid one.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Official Letter deliverd on the Cairo tram

Thirty eight years ago, my dad wrote a one-page ‘official’ letter and put it in a sealed envelope which he addressed to Mister/ Mohamed Salah El-Din. His handwriting has not changes at all, although he thinks it has improved. He has changed his signature, though, which is more beautiful now.

On August 8th, 1970, my dad was sitting on the tram with uncle Salah, my mom’s brother. They had been friends for over seven years. They were also members in the same hockey team. Throughout those eight years, my dad used to visit my uncle regularly and was always welcome.

It seems during that time that my dad grew in love with his best friend’s sister, my mom. He sometimes managed to take a glance of her walking around the apartment. Or got lucky when she answered the door with her hair rolls mass up around her head. He was also there when my mom was eighteen and my uncle was bossing her around to wash him a pair of socks. She had had enough and ended up punching my uncle in the face and this is how he learned to wash his socks himslef.

Back on that tram my dad handed an envelope to uncle Salah and asked him to open it after he left. My uncle agreed. When my dad got off, he read the letter and kept smiling to himself until he arrived home.
It read:

Cairo 8/8/1970
I am writing to you to tell you about a matter of a special nature, which I expect to be unexpected. Therefore, I decided to write this letter fearing confrontation, and allowing you time for discussion and consultation without any pressure. In short, I would like us (to become in-laws).

I believe you clearly understand what I mean and that I am talking to you as the man of your family, with all due respect to your brother Gamaal. My family and I hereby officially propose to you:
Kamaal (my dad) : BSc physical education. 25 years old
Father: BA law. Clerk at the Military Personnel Department. Vice president of the Filing Department
Hussein Middle brother. Lieutenant Pilot in the Air Force.
Ahmed: Student in high school

I would like you to consult those who may be concerned after making sure no one else has proposed.

Please keep this matter as a secret between you, Gamaal, Samia (my mom) and your mother until it is announced in due time.

In case someone has proposed, please do not disclose my request as I would be embarrassed and would not be able to visit you at home any more.

Finally, I will be waiting for you at home on Saturday 15/8/1970 at 7 pm.

If you need any further information or clarification you are welcome to come on Monday or Wednesday.

Kindly note and execute these steps with extra care.


Two years later, my parents got married. The whole family knew about the letter which has been a successful way of teasing my dad in big gatherings. I personally use it often on certain occasions, such as when I need my dad to do me a favor. He would rather do it than hear me read the letter.
Baba, did you talk to her brother without asking her opinion?
How could I talk to her about that matter? Of course not. I followed the right channels. I couldn’t cross her brothers.
Oh, I wish you'd had cell phones. At least you'd have texted her to know if she agreed.

It has been thirty eight years and thirty one days since my dad proposed in this letter, which explains how he could put up with such a difficult person as my uncle and which is one reason I like old yellowish letters.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Things that make me HAPPY

Hmm .. there are many of them actually .. Do you have time to read this?

It feels great to find money in a jacket or pants I don't wear often. Even greater if I'm broke :)to remember someone's name, to go through my grandpa's photos and documents (usually hidden by dad and dug out by me), to walk on a wooden bridge, to wash my mom's feet and give her a pedicure, to meet people who are out of this world, to hear someone sincerely praying for me, to go faster than sixty km/hour in Cairo, to smell cappuccino and eat warm brownies topped with vanilla ice cream, to chat with a good friend, to sunbathe (discovered lately), to sleep on a fresh pillowcase, to roll lie down on grass, to hear a policeman say 'thank you', to try to cook and it works, to see my brother's wardrobe tidy, to pass by my elementary school, to watch cartoon, to unpack, to buy someone's some flowers, to receive a letter, to help a child do their homework .. once, to hear a talkative person say "I'm in a hurry", to wade in the water, to write with a fountain pen, to go snorkeling, to stand on stage and act for a great audience, to go cycling for twenty minutes, to read a page turner book, to pass by a warm bakery, to go home to find my mom had made my favorite dish (stuffed grape leaves and yogurt salad), to attend an unexpectedly good concert, to sing a baby to sleep, to lose weight without going on a diet, to wear silver, to travel to a new country and get quiet people next to me on the plane, to know someone really accepted my apology, to smell one good cigarette being smoked in a car, to see my parent's wedding photos, to feel the wind in my hair, to forget a bad memory, to remember where I parked, to take a nap in winter, to be able to say 'no', to eat chocolate, not to be followed by a shop assistant offering help, to get a non-smoking silent taxi driver, to talk to a friend on the phone and think of a name for her unborn child, to visit a place I used to play at during school holidays, to buy stationery, to forgive someone, to open the window when it's raining, to pray and know I'm heard, to be busy, to eat good new salad, to look at my nursery ID and school record, ...

I'm sure I'll remember some more later. I'll keep you updated ... in a different color.

Oh, the sound of a typrwriter, yellow paper, drinking tea with milk, strumming a guitar, ...