Wednesday, April 17, 2013

An Egyptian Childhood - Heliopolis Summers

I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Egyptian immigrants. When I was seven, my parents decided to move back to Cairo, Egypt. We lived with my maternal grandmother in Heliopolis area. Our apartment was on the third floor in a building sandwiched between a local park, The Merry Land, and the municipal court house. It was also adjacent to the sole supermarket of the nineteen eighties, Supermarket Express. This establishment more resembled a bodega than supermarket, as it occupied the lower two levels of an apartment building. Although small in size, Express was large in stature. It stocked a plethora of imported goods. Every Heliopolis resident knew Supermarket Express. Anyone who was anyone shopped there. My sister and I would save up our allowance money for weeks in anticipation of our scarce shopping sprees. We would waste it all on candy and bubble gum. We couldn't find the familiar Hershey bars, so we satiated our chocolate cravings with exotic European flavors of Lion and Smarties. My family couldn't afford to regularly shop at Supermarket Express, so it was always a treat to roam the store and reminisce about our memories of the US.

Our weekly groceries list was replenished from the local produce vendors who roamed the streets of Heliopolis , pulling wooden carts and singing their daily offerings in a voice so proliferating it radiated to the far realms of tenth story apartments. My mother would stick her head out of the window and shout out her order. The goods were delivered by an ingenious transportation device that comprised of a green nylon rope tied to the handle of a deep round basket. The rope was long enough to allow the basket to gingerly descend three stories to the street where merchants took their payments and placed the goods. Retrieving the basket wasn't always an easy assignment, depending on the size of the order. My mother was tasked with the obligation of fighting gravity and pulling her purchase up the very same three floors the basket had descended earlier. I spent many hours running to and from the local grocery story, Al Gameeya. My mother would send me on hunting expeditions to gather pantry items. We'd often run out of tomato paste, garlic, and onions. I would concede to her demands, often numerous times a day as she discovered missing ingredients with each step of the recipe. I always ran the entire distance, flapping my arms and raising my knees as high as they'd go. My long braids danced around my head and smacked me in the face. The fresh air would enter my lungs as I gasped for breaths through smile-parted lips. To this very day, every time I walk along the familiar path, I dream of running the whole way as I did in the past.

It was customary for the neighborhood kids to congregate during summer afternoons and play along the surrounding back streets. They rood bikes around the block and had impromptu soccer matches with stacked up debris marking the goal posts. Between the hours of two and four PM, mothers scooted their children out the door to play in the street while they enjoyed their afternoon siesta. My sister and I were not allowed to join these daily get-togethers. We spent the afternoons quietly cooped up in our glassed encased terrace, listening to the animated screeches and squeals emanating from the street. We laid on the floor and stared at the ceiling, daydreaming and reading Little House on The Prairie, with brief interruptions from the cable cars passing by at irregular intervals bringing with them the sound of metal chugging on gravel  and the toot of a whistle signaling the station right across our bedroom balcony. I was always amazed that my mother could nap despite all this ruckus, yet the sound of our hushed footsteps would awaken her in fits of angry rage.


  1. Good morning how are you?

    My name is Emilio, I am a Spanish boy and I live in a town near to Madrid. I am a very interested person in knowing things so different as the culture, the way of life of the inhabitants of our planet, the fauna, the flora, and the landscapes of all the countries of the world etc. in summary, I am a person that enjoys traveling, learning and respecting people's diversity from all over the world.

    I would love to travel and meet in person all the aspects above mentioned, but unfortunately as this is very expensive and my purchasing power is quite small, so I devised a way to travel with the imagination in every corner of our planet. A few years ago I started a collection of used stamps because trough them, you can see pictures about fauna, flora, monuments, landscapes etc. from all the countries. As every day is more and more difficult to get stamps, some years ago I started a new collection in order to get traditional letters addressed to me in which my goal was to get at least 1 letter from each country in the world. This modest goal is feasible to reach in the most part of countries, but unfortunately it’s impossible to achieve in other various territories for several reasons, either because they are countries at war, either because they are countries with extreme poverty or because for whatever reason the postal system is not functioning properly.

    For all this I would ask you one small favor:
    Would you be so kind as to send me a letter by traditional mail from Egypt? I understand perfectly that you think that your blog is not the appropriate place to ask this, and even, is very probably that you ignore my letter, but I would call your attention to the difficulty involved in getting a letter from that country, and also I don’t know anyone neither where to write in Egypt in order to increase my collection. a letter for me is like a little souvenir, like if I have had visited that territory with my imagination and at same time, the arrival of the letters from a country is a sign of peace and normality and an original way to promote a country in the world. My postal address is the following one:

    Emilio Fernandez Esteban
    Avenida Juan de la Cierva, 44
    28903 Getafe (Madrid)

    If you wish, you can visit my blog where you can see the pictures of all the letters that I have received from whole World.

    Finally I would like to thank the attention given to this letter, and whether you can help me or not, I send my best wishes for peace, health and happiness for you, your family and all your dear beings.

    Yours Sincerely

    Emilio Fernandez

  2. Emilio,
    Thank you for your comment, although you didn't actually comment on the post. However, I promise to send you a letter from Egypt, once I get back home as I am currently living in the US. Nevertheless, once in Cairo, I promise to mail a post card.

    Take care and good luck on your postal scavenger hunt :D