Times are hard and things have changed, or so I learned this week in a patisserie in my neighbourhood. My best friend in Egypt does not live in Cairo but for many years now it is a tradition that I bring her kahk on Eid. It started after a shipment of homemade crumbling delicacies, big enough to feed a family of twelve, was sent to me and my then companion. So in a neighbourly gesture and to avoid gaining a lot of weight, we brought her a box of assorted crumbling cookies and this has continued ever since. If I cannot travel to the Red Sea town she lives in I send it along with someone else. It is a tradition and I am a fervent fan of those. They appeal to my old fashioned side.
Every country has their longstanding traditions that have seeped into the collective consciousness to become part of the very fabric of the society and Egypt is no different. As a foreigner it takes time to understand the social mores of a country, in the beginning the differences are overwhelming. But with the passage of time you adjust to what is furthest removed from what you were used to and before you know it you lull yourself into a smug sense of security, smirking at new arrivals that have not yet learned the proper dress code, way of greeting, or courtesies.
Yet this is when the fun actually starts; foreigner failure is hidden in the social subtleties and to this day I still, if rarely, stumble over unexpected details and land unceremoniously on two big, white European feet. Usually the locals that witness these trespasses are kind; they laugh a little at my expense, shake their heads good naturedly and generously explain where I went wrong. Yet when I get it right and know which phrase to use in particular circumstances, bring the appropriate gift for the occasion, or know what food to eat when, I have been proclaimed to be at least half Egyptian by proudly beaming locals. Being made welcome had become so normal that the opposite sentiment that prevails more and more these days always comes as an unpleasant surprise.
When I made my biannual pilgrimage to the land of powdered-sugar-covered trays of Eid delicacies last week, I ended up in an unseemly shouting match with a middle aged Egyptian woman in the middle of the teeming store. It was an unexpected, rude and ridiculous conversation that conveyed a sad message that has increasingly has become the norm of late.
Now buying kahk is always a hassle. As it is best when fresh, everyone waits until the last moment to buy it and so the day before Eid turns pastry shops into buzzing beehives. Shop attendants bustle about, bakers carry enormous trays of different kinds of cookies in an endless rhythm from the back and customers place their orders by the kilo. Add to this that it is probably that last day everyone in the store is fasting and it is not surprising that tempers get a little frayed, patience is tested and the occasional nasty aside is exchanged.
Any of that I would have gracefully accepted as par for the course but what happened last week was of a very different order. In the forty minutes that I had been waiting I realised that the real kahk was in short supply this year. One tray at a time it was carried into the store and it took an average of two customers to empty the gigantic tray out completely. All of us waiting our turn followed each new tray arriving with worried eyes, trying to calculate if there would be something left for us when our turn came.
Finally the bow-tied attendant turned to me and at that exact moment a fresh tray of kahk arrived. Heaving a sigh of relief I told him my comparatively small order when the lady standing next to me raised her voice and told him to stop. Nodding her head vigorously at our surprised faces she pointed out that there was obviously a lack of kahk and that he should not be selling me any. After a moment of silence I decided to ignore her and repeated my order which drew her attention to me and away from the busy hands surreptitiously piling the kahk for my friend into the cardboard box.
Putting one hand on her hip and waving the manicured index finger of her other one in my face she proceeded to explain, to me and the rest of the store, that kahk was a traditional treat for Eid, which was a feast for Egyptians. Adding with a triumphant smirk: “They should not be selling kahk to foreigners like you.”
Suffice it to say some choice words were exchanged and having provided the waiting crowd with a prime example of how times have changed I left the store carrying my friend’s Eid gift for all to see.
Despite the powdered sugar though, they tasted a little bitter this year.