April 15-August 2, 2014
Since we seemed to have some time on our hands we decided to see if we could find a replacement for our gas cannisters. We wandered up and down the souk, stopping to ask at every hardware store or any store that looked like it might have what we needed.
The shopkeepers were always helpful, even when they inevitably didn’t have what we needed. In that case they would send us to another store where they thought we might find what we were looking for. The last time we’d seen gas cannisters was in Cairo and it wouldn’t be until Kenya that we’d see them again.
One of the shopkeepers could speak pretty good English. Matta didn’t have what we needed, but he claimed to know someone who did. He made us promise that we wouldn’t go to anyone else and he could help us out. This insistance should have been a warning sign of his true personality, but we agreed.
Matta’s friend didn’t have what we needed, but Matta seemed like a friendly guy and we made it a habit to stop by his store and chat over tea every few evenings. He repeatedly invited us to visit his family. Eventually we gave in.
His extended family lived in a large building a few minutes walk from his store, so one evening we all walked over together. Matta’s family is Christian, a minority in Egypt. None of the women covered their heads and it was a change to see uncovered women.
Even though there were family apartments, everybody kept their doors open, so it was more like one huge house. Cousins would be running up and down the stairs to play together on the rooftop and the adults would all get together in one sitting room.
We immediately felt welcome. Matta had to return to his store while we stayed and visited. We met his wife and her sisters and aunts and countless other relatives. It was hard to keep track of how everyone was related to each other. We were happy to be able to practice our bits of Arabic.
Lola, one of the nieces, was turning 17 in two days and invited us back to her birthday party. It turned out to be a joint party to also celebrate the 21st birthday of her brother, Felo. A total family affair, we were the only people who weren’t family in some way. One of the cousins makes cakes for a hobby. He’d prepared three professional-grade cakes.
When we asked Matta directions to the biggest supermarket in town, he offered to drive us there. Still a pretty small place, it was the biggest around and we took our time walking through the aisles. After we’d finished, Matt invited us to come to his house.
He lived in a residential area, a few kilometers from the river. There’d been some problems between the Arabs and Nubians in a neighborhood close to him. There were still tanks and a strong military presence around. After a quick drink, he took us to see the chemical factory, one of the major employers in Aswan. As we approached the factory we could smell an unpleasant odor.
A final stop in our tour was to meet some friends of his in another neighborhood. Our visit was unannounced, but as soon as we arrived they sprung into action to prepare us tea and a small meal.
After a few weeks of visiting and chatting, Matta confessed to us that he had been in love with another woman. Her family refused his request to marry her, so he settled on marrying his wife. Matta didn’t love his wife. He wanted us to go with him to his church, approach the other woman and mention his name to see what her reaction would be. He asked if we would call her on the phone. He didn’t want this to be traced back to him. We gently refused. Now we understood why his wife always seemed so unhappy when she was around him.
We also learned that he didn’t own the shop, contrary to what we’d always assumed.. He was a worker there and it was owned by one of his wife’s relatives. She had an important job as an accountant and would have made more money than him, a difficult situation for an Egyptian man to stomach, except he made most of his income as a money lender. It was surprising to discover he was essentially a predatory lender, loaning money at a 25% interest rate.
All this began to change our opinion of him, but the final straw came when we’d stopped by to visit one evening. Matta had a customer who was interested in buying a radio that also functioned as a flashlight and he wanted to make sure it worked before purchasing. Matta couldn’t figure out how to make it work and asked Scott to have a look.
Scott told him to let me look instead since I was usually better at tasks like that. Matta did so reluctantly. After he’d figured it out on his own, he started yelling horrible things at me, like how I was only a stupid cake maker. It was surprising to see this other side of him.
I told him that he was being mean, but of course he didn’t listen to me and kept going. Unfortunately, women are usually seen as being inferior to men in Egypt. Even when Scott tried to intervene, he kept going. Finally, I decided I wasn’t going to accept it anymore and just walked out of his store. As a parting word, Scott told Matta that he couldn’t talk to me like that and he needed to apologize. It was disappointing to see his true nature.
We didn’t want to spend time with someone who was so disrespectful. For a few days, we avoided his store when we walked through the souk. Finally, we would walk by his store but try to avoid having Matta see us. When he called out to us, we kept walking. He continued to call us up until the day we left, but we never took any of his calls.