Saturday, August 06, 2005

My Madeleine

The bewitching scent of the yellow freesias struck some long submerged chord. A sharp, fleeting image of the tubular, red-orange flower returned with momentary clarity. I remember walking over a wooden bridge, greenery, a gazebo perched high, the texture of the velvety flower with the amazing, pungent, complex scent. Like a lily, it had strong, rubbery petals and I think pistils too, but it was much smaller than a lily and had a much sweeter scent. The walk over the bridge was a daily routine to a mundane destination, but in the corners of my memory it has taken on an ethereal, magical cast. Chronology gets all mixed up, facts are blurred, places are confused; only moods, moments, scents, and sounds remain. In a reminiscing mood, I dig up a trusty “literary” companion of my childhood: Megallet Meeky (Mickey Magazine). I riffle through its delicate, ultra-thin pages, its impossibly colourful cartoon stories, the bantering dialogue in pitch-perfect Egyptian ‘amiyya, the pictures of “Meeky’s friends” at the bottom of the pages, and the addresses of children seeking pen pals. They were from Syria, Iraq, Egypt. I always read their names and the names of the streets they lived on, but I never thought to write them letters. I am eternally grateful that I grew up with Meeky before its new look and patronage by the president’s wife. Even this cherished memento of childhood has not escaped corruption.

“Plants are a joy in every house!” is the title of this story from the issue I found. Meeky is a no-nonsense boss who runs a plant store. “We all have to work with lots of diligence and energy!” he says, and Bondoq and Kooka nod, “Of course ya Meeky!” (Much later I learned that their English names are Goofy and Clarabelle Cow). Kooka says, “I love plants very very much…how lovely they smell!” Later on in the story, she chides the hapless Bondoq for not understanding that plants are sentient creatures: “Plants breathe, they eat and feel happiness and sadness!”

Only now do I notice that every expression ends in dramatic exclamation marks. Back then, I was too absorbed in the tribulations of Bondoq as he tried to deliver the plants to customers and fell prey to the dastardly deeds of the plant thief Dongol (Peg-Leg Pete). But Dongol doesn’t know what he’s up against. A very sentient, huge plant comes to the aid of Bondoq and clobbers Dongol (“Boom!”) As he lies on his back fending off the plant’s blows, Dongol screams, “Kifaya! Haram!” The story ends with Kooka reporting back to Meeky how proud she is, and Meeky exclaims, “Our project was a 100% success!”

Meeky came out at the end of the week on Thursdays. ‘Am Mukhtar, the newspaperman, would pull it out from in between the pile of fresh newspapers he carried under his arm. It was a blaze of color amidst the grey newsprint. In my memory, ‘Am Mukhtar stands at the door in a pool of sunlight coming through the manwar window; the outside light contrasts with the dark interior of our apartment. ‘Am Mukhtar wore a galabiyya with an overcoat and had a meek bearing. Being a bookish child, I was always thrilled to hear his rap on the door, it meant hours of solitary reading fun, and the supplementary “gifts” that sometimes came with the magazine: stickers, colouring books, puzzles. When ‘Am Mukhtar came without Meeky on some weeks, I was so disappointed I wanted to cry, and pestered my father to remind ‘Am Mukhtar to bring it next time. Years later, I vaguely remember hearing that ‘Am Mukhtar had died. I felt a pang of intense sadness. The thrilling scent of fresh newsprint will always remind me of him. His name means “Chosen.”

I fell in love with the haunting sound of cooing pigeons in my childhood. My sister and I woke up early in the morning, put on our maryalas, and walked together to school with our red, box-shaped book bags that looked like miniature suitcases. They were lined with pale-yellow, soft cotton cloth and held our cahiers, crayons, and les gommes, the transparent pink and blue ones with the intoxicating bubble gum smell that we bought from the stationer’s near our grandfather’s house. My book bag always smelled of pencil shavings and bread; we carried our sandwiches of ‘esh feeno in there with our notebooks.

I remember standing in the balacona on a frosty grey morning waiting for my sister to get ready. I felt the intense alertness that comes on early mornings, and watched a cat delicately pick through debris on the rooftop across the way. Pigeons’ plaintive, insistent cooing hung over me like a gauzy canopy. Now, on the rare days when I hear cooing pigeons early in the morning, I stay silent and listen, but they stop after barely a minute. I wonder if they fly away or stand on the sill, silent.

At school, we would stand in our class queues and sing the national anthem, biladi biladi, and then a French song; the only lyrics I remember are “Une fleure pour maman, une fleur pour papa.” We had to turn to our right and left with hand outstretched as if proffering the fleure to each of our parents. I never understood what it means to feel mortified more than I understood it then. My parents insisted that we wear pants under our maryalas, to keep us warm in the winter. So there we stood in our class queues, with flaring bell-bottom pants under our maryalas, while all the other girls looked normal and happy in their sleek stockings. We looked like two clueless frumps desperately trying to pretend that it was completely normal to wear toasty pants in Egypt’s mild winter.

My parents also refused to give us pocket money to buy ‘asaliyya at school like all the other girls. ‘Asaliyya is a delectable stick of hard brown candy wrapped in plastic and made from molasses. Our parents thought that our constitutions were too delicate for the street sweet, which they damned as mish nedeefa (unclean). They tried to console us: I remember my mother standing in the kitchen with her arms elbow-deep in a bowl of thick molasses trying to churn out homemade ‘asaliyya so we wouldn’t feel deprived. Of course, she didn’t know what she was doing, and the final product was a colossal disappointment to both of us, bearing absolutely no resemblance to the coveted ‘asaliyya.

My manipulative younger sister would stop at nothing to get her fix. She actually browbeat me into going around asking random girls in our schoolyard, "ma’aki ersh? ma’aki ersh?" (Do you have a piastre? Do you have a piastre?) I will never understand how she reduced me to begging so we could buy ‘asaliyya. Now, I am attracted as if by a magnet to street hawkers selling odds and ends and the magic, uncouth ‘asaliyya. I buy five at a time and happily crush my teeth on the atrocious candy. It tastes more watered down than I remember, but everything pales in comparison to the happiness I feel at the taste of hardened, cheap molasses.

When school let out, my grandfather waited for us at the entrance, his hands atop his heavy, smooth, onyx-like cane. The distance from school to his house is extremely short, I discovered as an adult, yet he insisted on picking us up anyway. We walked past a store selling faded and chipped China teacups and saucer. I always turned to look as we walked by; they looked like toy tea sets and I wanted one badly. The store is still there today, as faded as ever, but it turns out the teacups are not for sale but rental, for large parties and weddings.

My grandfather had a commanding, purposive gait and walked briskly. We always had to be super-alert and not daydream while we trotted along beside him. He always nodded at and salaamed storeowners and passers-by, and they called out to him with affection and respect. Once, to my utter embarrassment, he sternly chided a complete stranger for dragging her toddler by his overextended arm instead of holding him firmly by the hand. To my shock, she accepted his instructions with deference and said, “hader ya ‘ammi” (yes, uncle).

When we got home, my grandparents’ small apartment would be filled with the smell of my grandmother cooking lunch, on the generic locally made two-burner stove in every Egyptian household before the advent of European imports. Half an hour later, my aunt would come home from work and we would all sit down and eat. Except for my grandfather. He never sat, he hovered.

As we dug into my grandmother’s delicious macarona with chicken or garlic-laced mulukhiyya, he would be wiping down the kitchen counter, getting the ice-cold watermelon ready for dessert, or putting out on the table his perfectly pickled cucumbers, which he kept in old sharbat bottles in the refrigerator. I’ve never tasted pickles like my grandfather’s, always green and crispy, with just the right hint of vinegar. He also made the most perfect karkadeh.

When we got up to wash our hands, he started the sacred daily ritual. He would pile up all the leftover bones and meat scraps, add rice and bits of bread, and put the mixture out in two bowls for the stray cats on the landing. They would already be rubbing up against the apartment door as we ate. When he opened the door, a litter of 10-20 famished felines would surround him as he set down their daily meal, then devour it in silence and quiet cooperation.

My grandfather finally ate his lunch standing up in the kitchen, after all God’s creatures under his care had eaten, had dessert, and settled down to nap or read. After eating quickly, he allowed himself to sit down and doze off, listening to the afternoon tamthiliyya on his antique Philips radio. In the summers, when we would stay with them all day, he would rise with the sun to buy fresh bread and feteer, the thick, buttery, crêpe-like Egyptian pancakes we loved to have for breakfast. The feteer would always be warm and flaky; we’d tear off pieces with our hands and dip them in rich molasses, leaving behind beige flakes of pastry floating in the dark puddle of syrup. I can never eat this, my favourite dessert, without remembering and missing my grandfather.

But the feteer is now greasy and heavy, and the molasses are thin and cloying. The cats are all gone, though one or two still linger in the corners of the landing, emaciated and drawn. Every time I visit my aunt, as I go up the steps and walk down the hallway to my grandfather’s apartment, with the round black plaque on the door bearing his name and profession, the cats follow me shyly, hoping for a glimpse of their beloved keeper.

*Inspired by Proust’s passage on the madeleine in his À la recherche du temps perdu.