The Jewishness of Cairo (Ctd.)

The Jews' fading love for FranceHere is the proof that the Jewishness of Cairo is everywhere and not confined to any specific site. To me, for example, a totally Jewish place is the Sa'ad Zaghlul underground metro station and Al-Falaki Street that passes above it, because on Al-Falaki Street is the library of the French Cultural Center, an institution that in my mind is as Jewish as they come, even if not a single Jew still uses its services. After all, the deep and sometimes tragic bond that Oriental Jews once had with French culture is well known. And sadder than that is the slow fading away of this love that Jews once had for everything that France represents, and its replacement by hostility. Lost in such dreary musings, after coming out of the metro station, I mistakenly walked in the wrong direction and instead of getting closer to the French Cultural Center I moved farther away from it, and when I realized my mistake, I had to retrace my steps. I was holding out a sliver of hope of finding a book there that I had been searching for for quite some time: a novel entitled "Les Couleurs de l'Infamie" ("The Colors of Infamy") by Albert Cossery, a French-Jewish writer from Cairo, who writes novels about Cairo (and excellent ones at that, apparently), though he lives in total anonymity in France. I wouldn't have known anything about him either had I not taken the bus to Be'er Sheva one winter and sat next to someone who was reading a book of his that he warmly recommended. So I thought that this might be my chance to take a peek at it, if it was really on the shelf there.

I noticed that the area around Al-Falaki Street is a government center, with high-rises and gated luxury buildings on all sides, but the street itself is a typical Cairo street, where life flows with a pace and noise all its own. The aroma of frying falafel wafts from a little hole-in-the-wall where people are crowding around, most likely the secretaries and clerks of the government complex eating a quick lunch. Pitas are sold on trays made of reeds. Some are made of coarse dark flour while other, lighter, ones are sold wrapped in plastic. Next to the falafel seller is an upholsterer, whose workplace is half-underground: The chair he is working on sits on the sidewalk above his head and he works on its insides like an auto mechanic tinkering with a car. Opposite the main entrance to the parliament building stands a vendor of plastic bags, displaying all of his colorful merchandise on his arm. Next to him, a seller of tea leaves puts his merchandise down on the hood of a car that isn't his and looks annoyed that all the dust from the street is penetrating the cellophane bags holding the red hibiscus leaves. Who buys this man's goods? Had I tarried long enough I would have seen that in the end,everything passes from hand to hand in this city, and that when a customer shows up wishing to buy, the poor seller fills with pride and names a higher than average price to compel the customer to enter into some brief haggling and to feel that he put some effort into earning his keep.

The kingdom of a tyrannical womanThe library of the French Cultural Center was closed. The Egyptian clerks informed me of this in the kind of French with the rolling r that gives me pleasure because it reminds me of the French of my Turkish grandmothers. France had let me down again. So, just to be spiteful, I walked north until Parliament Street, made my way to Nubar Street, and then turned left on Mohammed Mahmoud Street until I reached the American University of Cairo, which has a giant McDonald's branch facing it. Is there anything more anti-French than McDonald's? I went in and ordered a Big Mac meal and sat down by a side window that overlooked an alley, in the corner of which was a stall selling used books and magazines. I watched as a girl stopped and bought a big stack of old French fashion magazines. A couple of tourists rummaged through the piles of books in English and chose four. From afar, among the English books, I noticed the white bindings of the French Gallimard Press. Suddenly, a chubby, scruffy boy in a torn shirt obstructed my view; he was pointing at his mouth as if to say, "I'm hungry, too." I turned away stiffly in the hope that he would disappear. He moved off, only to return a few minutes later and repeat the same gesture with his finger, but he ran off again when he saw a McDonald's employee approaching the table where I was sitting and signaling to him with the rag in his hand to beat it.

I finished my meal and went out. The chubby boy was sitting a short distance away in the s hade and didn't look up at me when I passed by. I was on the way to Tal'at Harb Square, the center of "downtown Cairo," from which six streets emanate like the points of a star, but woe to anyone who doesn't know the names of the streets by heart. He is doomed to get lost. I meant to continue to the eastern part of Tal'at Harb Street but I mistakenly turned onto Qasr an-Nil Street. When I realized my error (street names sometimes only appear a good distance from the beginning of the street, and this cannot be relied on with any regularity, either), I kept on going anyway because I remembered that at the end of the street there was an old book store called Livres de France. Maybe there I would find the books of this Cossery fellow.

Livres de France is the kingdom of a tyrannical woman who hasn't aged a bit in the past 20 years. Every time I set foot in there, I heard her barking orders in Arabic to her male employees, and the orders as well as the employees' replies included the names of French books and writers, which flashed like sparkling gems within the Arabic sentences. This queen has no time to wallow in romantic nostalgia; she's more like a slave-driving queen bee. "20 'L'Avare,'" she'd call out to a worker on the middle floor that serves as a storeroom for textbooks. "Ahmed, where's the Intermediare Cours for the lady who's been waiting here for 15 minutes?!" The proprietress also does not like browsers. Instead, like a counter-woman in a deli, she asks, "What do you want?" as soon as you come in.

On the northern, shadier side of Qasr an-Nil Street, I passed the display windows of old department stores with French names like Le Salon Vert. This "green salon" was a terribly dreary place. The wooden counters were arranged squarely by department; a lazy ceiling fan whirred overhead and the merchandise cannot be touched except when the salesman opens a case upon request and spreads it out on the glass counter as in days of old. If you wish to purchase something, you are issued a receipt that you must take to the cashier and return with it signed in order to be handed the wrapped goods. By the entrance to the department store, two peddlers sat on the sidewalk with plastic tubs full of water and tried to convince passersby to buy a painted tin toy in the form of a swimmer when you turn the key in his back, he does the crawl. Then there are the young peddlers of tissues, who lurk in the shadows near the sidewalk and pop out whenever they discern a potential benefactor, and proffer a packet of lemon-scented Flora tissues (though when opened, no scent is noticeable) with a pleading look in their eyes. I also saw a handicapped boy being pushed along in a wheelchair in his mother, as she cried out for help. I'm pretty sure I saw them a few days ago in the flea market in Basatin.

The green and white awning of the Livres de France shop was visible from afar. I steeled myself for an encounter with the elderly proprietress who strikes terror into all, and rehearsed what I would say to her in French if she accosted me and demanded to know what I wanted and didn't let me browse through the books. But when I entered the store, it wasn't as I'd expected. It wasn't that scowling woman sitting behind the black desk heaped with papers and books, but a man, one of the store employees, who was speaking a mixture of Arabic and French with his coworkers. The atmosphere was relaxed. No one asked what I wanted and I started to scan the shelves without interference and to search for books by Albert Cossery. And the whole time, the man behind the desk was issuing orders to the other workers, but in a pleasant tone, saying things like "Please pack up 20 Andrei Gides for me" or "It says here 12 Derrida and there are only 10."

I couldn't refrain from asking him where the shop owner was. He pointed to the wall behind him. On a large bulletin board were photographs of her just as I remembered sitting bent over the black desk. Her name was Yvette. She died about two years ago. Now her nieces were running the store. He handed me a business card and underlined the place's Internet address. And yes, I found the Cossery novel without any trouble.

But from the moment that the salesman notified me of the lady's death, all the old wooden shelves and dark cupboards in the store took on an air of ordinariness and all the books sealed in plastic cases to prevent curious browsers like me from enjoying the books without buying them all at once lost their allure, now that the spirit of the scary woman who had held onto them for half a century or to be more precise, since 1947, as the salesman explained to me no longer hovered over them. He also informed me that in the late 1990s, the French ambassador in Cairo had awarded her the medal of "Knight of the Arts." The photographs on the bulletin board were from that ceremony, which was held in her home in the Garden City neighborhood. And she wasn't Jewish, even in part. But as someone who tenaciously defended the Livres de France from something perhaps from the hostility that France arouses in the hearts of all those who have gone over to the American camp of McDonald's and destructive wars on terror I will forever consider her a preeminent Jew.