Magazine article New Internationalist

Letter from Cairo: Turning Japanese

Magazine article New Internationalist

Letter from Cairo: Turning Japanese

Article excerpt

In summertime Cairo, air conditioned shops are as often frequented for refreshment as purchases. So it was I stopped at my neighbourhood stationery shop on the last leg of a walk home and enjoyed a strange encounter. The store belongs to Ramez, a trilingual, Christian male of around 35. Moustachioed, pear-shaped, with lustrous dark eyes and hair parted neatly on the side, he still wears the kind of buttondown shirts and belted high-waist pants his mother probably dressed him in for school.

When he opened a few years ago, I was excited to see his stock (including real post-it notes, not the Chinese kind that never stick), all the finicky things desk-bound people love. He was anxious to show off his English, which prompted me to show off my French. Once, we locked horns over a faulty printer cartridge that I, as a faithful early client, felt he should have replaced. So I boycotted him for a while until his selection of mechanical pencils and neon highlighters lured me back. Eventually, we made friends.

Ramez had been educated by the Jesuits, perhaps the highest standard of private schooling once available. As is customary, his father, an accountant, helped him choose a career. Ramez was meant to be a doctor, a social step above accountant, but didn't make the grades. He wanted to sell cars, but his father found stationery more appropriate. For 12 years he worked from his father's office selling wholesale to large companies, then decided to expand. Acquiring this shop took money, and although Ramez's father had set aside a sum for an apartment when he married, they still needed to borrow from the bank.

In Ramez's words: 'Banks in Egypt are ruthless, illogical and very mean.' They gave him a 24 per cent interest rate calculated on a monthly accrued basis. The business he hoped would set him free to see the world, for at least a month or so a year, had trapped him in a cycle of debt. He told me he had a schoolmate who wasn't very smart but went to Canada and did well. He said: 'If I had gone there, I'd be a millionaire.' Ramez is understandably cynical about life in Cairo; when's he's old he'll probably be bitter. All our conversations end the same way; with him shaking his head over the sheer wackiness of a passport-holding American choosing a hellhole like this as her adopted home. …

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