Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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EGYPT: Merry Christmas, mister

December 20, 2007 |  6:07 am

The vegetable seller glides beneath the magnolia on his bicycle; the burned-face boy washes cars in the street for pennies; the dogs retreat; the cats scatter across corners; men in tunics carry shovels, hoes and wrenches, walking through the neighborhood like a tiny army of the dispossessed, offering to fix whatever is wrong. It is a winter morning in Cairo. The night watchmen head home and the sheep will soon be slaughtered, they fidget and cower in the alleys. The sun is hazy, not its vibrant self. Children wear sweaters. The baker's kiln warms the praying men near the train tracks. A Muslim shopkeeper sells blown-glass Christmas ornaments to tourists, and the street-sweeper's broom raises dust amid the battered taxis. A man will bring you croissants, but it is better to choose them yourself, and to find a seat in the sun at the cafe and read the newspaper, feeling old amid the laptops and wireless connections in this ancient city.

The burned-faced boy wants more money. He wears sandals and a cap. He looks cold; his hands are hard and white with scars. It is not his face that makes you sad, but his pants, they are dirty and frayed and have stayed short while he has grown. He smiles. He wants another pound — 17 cents. A boy in this city can be happy for an extra 17 cents; it shouldn't be this way, but it is. He disappears down the wet street. Another boy will come and want to wash the cars, and another after that. But for now all is quiet, except the crinkle of the newspaper and the whispery voice of a woman balancing a child on her shoulder, approaching with a cupped hand. She takes the money, turns and in practiced English says:

"Merry Christmas, mister."

— Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo