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Open sesame

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Philip Whitfield

Philip Whitfield

By Philip Whitfield

Iftaḥ ya simsim” Ali Baba says, and the mouth of the cave concealing the 40 thieves’ treasure opens wide. The poor woodcutter becomes antiquity’s biggest Lotto winner.

We grow up on myths, glorious fiction, and eternity’s morality story of hope’s triumph over melancholy. The best tales have a beautiful leading lady, a handsome prince, hapless hangers-on, a rags-to-riches plot, and treasure, of course.

Mine, too. Take this true-life experience in Cairo a few days ago.

The stars are The Unflappables—the graceful Sara Khalil, on the corporate side at the HSBC branch round the corner and Mahmoud Gomaa, the prince of customer service. ­­

Looking at the date, I see the rent is due.

Checking my HSBC account online I find the backup dollars and sterling for travelling intact. But the Egyptian pounds for house and horseplay are a tad lower than expected.

No problem.

Plan A. Three clicks on the computer and dollars and sterling magically transform into EGP. Hold the horses, there’s a message: “Currency conversion services are temporarily unavailable on Internet banking whether for overseas transfers in/out of Egypt or internal transfers between accounts…”

Plan B. There’s a cheque in the drawer. I toss it into HSBC on my way to the grocery store.

Plan C. Send a gentle reminder to a client: the fee is past due.

A couple of days later, neither the cheque nor the fee has shown up on the computer.

Plan D. Drop by HSBC.

The handsome prince Mahmoud Gomaa is as efficient as ever, checks the accounts and explains that under the Central Bank of Egypt’s (CBE) new regulations we can fill in some paperwork and British quid and American bucks morph into Egyptian pounds in a few days.

Sara weighs in. There is a quicker way. You can have the cash in a few minutes.

Why don’t we find the cheque you deposited and you can cash it at a branch of the payer’s bank? There’s one a step away.

Thank you, Sara.

I head out with the gem.

In my briefcase I happened to have the gubbins you need to run a legitimate company in Egypt: Passport for ID, red book, eight-page card for memorialising corporate activities, and the all-important registration documents including the commercial registration number.

Unlike the HSBC’s Unflappables, welcoming at their desks, the other bank seems to house The Unreachables, protected from the riffraff by plate glass.

Sourpuss scrutinises the paperwork, the red book and the eight-page card, stamped to jiggery, like my passport, which he studies with more industry than immigration at the airport.

Time whiles away. These won’t do, he says. He needs the originals.

So into the zahma (snarl-up), bag a cab and head to Dokki.

The accountant retrieves the originals, takes photocopies, and I head back to Sourpuss, the lobby forebodingly fainéant when you’re clutching No. 18 and the teller’s dishing with No. 11.

Disconsolate I won’t be able to make the rent on time, I look at the clock. Crikey, must dash. There’s paid work to do.

Returning next day as the doors open, Sourpuss awaits glowering behind the screen. I thread the passport, the cheque, the company card, the red book and the original company registration papers through a slit in the glass.

They’re re-scrutinised. On his computer, Sourpuss checks the cheque’s validity, repeating what he’d done the day before.


No reaction.

He reads the company registration papers.


Not a blink.

He goes off to the photocopier.



Sourpuss gets another rubber stamp out and manages to find space to squeeze a murky impression on the back of the cheque among the four other stamps and 11 official scribbles by clerks.

Sign here, Sourpuss says, pointing to the new stamp.

You’d need a magnifying glass with a three-dioptre lens to read it. Peering, I hold it to the light: Name, Address, Nationality, Date Passport Issued, Date Passport Expires, Phone, Cash (sig).

I begin the test.

Just sign it, he says.

Not on your life, buddy.

I carefully fill in the information line-by-line

Sourpuss calls his boss. Together they verify the information.

I leave EGP 2,449 pounds richer.

Not enough for the rent.

But the client’s direct transfer arrives in the nick of time.

Ali Baba’s fable from The One Thousand and One Nights teaches that good trumps indolence and maidens and handsome princes live happily ever after.

My story is much the same.

Sara and Mahmoud are the face of the Egypt we pray for: crisp, efficient and savvy, observant of HSBC procedures.

Sourpuss is a dour holdover of yesteryear.

Whom do you applaud?

Iftaḥ ya simsim—open Egypt to the treasure trove of Sara Khalils, Mahmoud Gomaas and the millions of young people with the knowledge and talent to restore Egypt’s dignity.

Whom will you boo?

Iqfil ya simsim—close the door on the Luddites trapped in caves, veiled in nescient inadequacy.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator. 

  • Mohammed

    Good analysis

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