My apartment’s in a great Cairo neighborhood with all these huge decaying villas, and it has a huge garden in back and the widow of an English Arabist downstairs (whose library I’m eager to see), but my landlord wants to be paid in dollars. I thought he wanted to be paid in Egyptian pounds pegged to the dollar rate, but he wants actual dollars, so he wants me to go out and buy American dollars because he figures it would be easy for me, as a foreigner, to do it. Or maybe he figures that since I’m a spy I have tons of crisp $100s my “handlers” give me to duke my sources with. Actually, it’s very hard to buy dollars because the Egyptian pound is in serious trouble. Moreover, the end of February marks the hagg, the pilgrimage to Mecca all Muslims have to make during their life—if they’re capable, physically and financially—and all the pilgrims want riyals and dollars to take with them.
The tourism economy’s hurting, and now the little bit of foreign currency that there is in Egypt is on its way to Mecca. So, on the black market, you get about 5.6 pounds to the dollar, but my landlord’s son managed to get me a price of 4.8. It’s weird: I withdraw Egyptian pounds tied to the bank’s rate from my American account and then pay them their rate to get dollars back to pay my rent. Maybe I’m being taken for a ride. No wait, I definitely am being taken for a ride, and my only consolation is that the son is taking it out of the dad’s end, too. Actually, I like the son a lot; he’s promised to take me to some soccer games in the next few weeks.
Anyway, it’s much worse for the Egyptians. There are a lot of Muslims who’ve probably been saving their entire lives to make the hagg, and it’s an expensive trip, at least about $2,000 right off the top, and now the additional cost is the equivalent of a typical year’s salary in Cairo. In an ideal world, there’d probably be some George Soros of the Arabs who’d step up and bankroll a whole bunch of elderly Muslims who were looking at what might be their last shot at Mecca. Alhamdoulillah!—or, thanks be to God, which, contrary to the interpretations of the Osama Bin Laden video, is only an invocation of Allah to the extent our very own Thank God! is. It’s from the first sura in the Quran and so popular in the Arabic language that a more accurate American translation is something like, Oh, excellent! And by the way, by the way is my favorite expression in Arabic—ala fikra—and even when an Arab guy is speaking with you in English he’ll keep saying by the way. It’s like a special conjunction reserved for joining one great huge rush of conversation with another—it’s like you’re watching someone compose a diary right there on the spot.
By the way, aside from soccer and the economy, the No. 1 news in Cairo right now is the book fair, the world’s second largest, after Frankfurt. I headed out there for a bit the other day hoping to see Naguib Mahfouz, whose appearance had been advertised as his first since the 1994 attempt on his life. Mahfouz didn’t show up as most Egyptians apparently suspected, but I did find a large panel discussion on Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, which is now translated into Arabic. A writer from Al-Ahram, the country’s largest—and state-run—paper suggested that the Arab world needed its own Durants. It sounds sort of funny, not least because we don’t read our own Durants anymore, and we who did were considered pretty middle-brow for doing it. (Michael Korda has a great chapter on the Durants in his memoir Another Life, where Will is a quiet, little guy bullied around by his wife Ariel.) But the encyclopedic ideal is another matter in Arab culture. Much of classic Arabic prose literature consists of large, sweeping projects, like Ibn Khaldun’s history and any number of scientific and medical treatises. There wasn’t an Arab novel until about 1914, and there are a number of reasons for that; one I think is that the novel is a picture of a particular class’s place in the world and not, as in the Borges story, a map of the world so detailed that it covers the world including the map. So maybe it’s no surprise then that when the Arab world gets its first great novelist, he turns out to be an encyclopedist anyway. Naguib Mahfouz is Cairo’s Whitman, its everyman, and he contains multitudes, all Cairo’s 12 million. Everyone here who can read has read Mahfouz, and those who can’t read know who he is. Best way to go around Cairo is to keep an edition of Mahfouz visible at all times and anyone will start a conversation with you about it, by the way.