You learn how to pass a balled-up 5 LE note into the palm of the cop at the traffic signal while appearing to cruise past with an arm casually extended out of your car window.
Inshallah Bokra Malesh (God willing — tomorrow — sorry) is something you will hear a lot from Egyptians at the most random of times.
Plumbers will leave bathroom repairs unfinished and will effortlessly commit to “IBM” each time you call to enquire why he hasn’t shown up. Ask your taxi driver if he knows the address you need to get to and he will leave it to divine intervention: “Inshallah.” Request extra cheese on your well-done burger — which will invariably get messed up — and the response will be a “Maalesh” (never mind).
Or that the front seat of the 1966 Peugeot 504 is held upright with a bar of wood wedged at the back or that the seat belt is actually a trouser belt strapped across the driver’s belly.
Cairo is indeed a city that never sleeps and the traffic builds up from 11pm to 3am when people finally return home. The gardens around roundabouts are packed with parents, grandparents and kids picnicking well after midnight with food and football or whiling away the hours in idle talk. Soon you, too, begin to schedule errands, shop for groceries or pick up laundry after midnight.
The matronly woman you hired as help will decide how your furniture needs to be arranged, at first. Later she will wrinkle her nose at the food you cook and instead give you detailed recipes of Egyptian food cooked with meat and lard. She will interrogate you about your health, the medical status of your husband, and decide it is time you had a child immediately.
Like many Middle Eastern countries, the weekend in Egypt is Friday and Saturday. People start leaving for their weekend trips so early that no work usually gets done on Thursdays. Likewise, Sundays are usually not productive, as most people drive back straight to work, tanned and red-eyed.
Egyptian weddings are a very chaotic affair. The roads are taken over by a procession of cars with people sticking their torsos out of open windows, waving and shouting to the cacophony of horns and popular Arabic music thumping from the cars. The party of men dancing ahead of the cars leave a narrow space for motorcyclists, also part of the entourage, to perform daring stunts.
If this upset your appointment, it doesn’t faze you anymore. The person/s you intended to meet will understand when you tell them you were held up by a ‘zaffa.’
A thick brew of dark coffee served in a mini cup and saucer, you learn to sip carefully to leave the scum at the bottom. Egyptians need no excuse to hang out at the local ahwas, puffing on sheeshas all morning, all night or through the afternoon, and soon enough, you find that you won’t either.
Every city has a smell, in Egypt it’s the heady aroma of Turkish coffee percolated with the fruity essence of sheesha, filtered through the smoggy air. Initially, it leaves you with a heavy head, then you start leaving your windows open, trying to ignore the smell. Finally, you find yourself expertly swirling strawberry or cantaloupe-flavoured smoke, amused by the tourist trying unsuccessfully to get a puff from the long water-pipe.
Every apartment and most villas in Egypt will have a resident caretaker who supervises the running of the apartment, car washing and so on. But in addition to general upkeep, they decide whom to let in, which delivery boy to turn away, whether a guest can use the elevator, etc. This depends on how well you pay him, in addition to how often you tip him when he accompanies a guest.
For women, the bawab takes on the role of a moral guardian. You sneak past his room at the bottom of the elevator if you intend to go out late, or face the gossip that will make its way among your neighbours, whether you were sober or not. He will block all males from entering your domain if you are single — it doesn’t matter if you are a grandmother.
But like all things Egyptian, you can make a friend out of a foe by doling out enough baksheesh and a cigarette.
The average Egyptian on the street will have a quick-witted retort in reply to yours and most of the fun is in the way it is told. If it offended you in the beginning, you will realize they are equally magnanimous in laughing at themselves.
You begin to see that the only way to truly cope with the genuine eagerness to please is to learn their language. You may not be able to come up with a wisecrack like them, but you will be able to laugh from your heart like them.