Home   About   Contact Us  


By Selma Cook

With these words arguments are prevented, fights are stopped, engagements are cancelled and traffic jams begin to move. These two small words can change the course of inflexible obstinacy that indeed reflects the hard rocks, crumbling stone and shifting sand of the land of the Pharaohs.


As the pressures of modern Cairo life twist and turn upon its inhabitants the foreigner is somehow forced to adopt the notion, in fact, the mentality, of Maa'Lesh. It is easy to learn because he hears it all the time. At first, the foreigner will scratch his head in puzzlement as a variety of situations come and go before his eyes with the echoing response a resounding 'Maa'Lesh!'


Nothing compares to the beauty of the ocean crashing upon a sandy shore, but when the beach is a forest of beach umbrellas, unstable chairs and circles of families with picnic baskets and coolers; wall-to-wall humanity masking the picturesque view of the sea, the astounded foreigner will complain in vain of not being able to sit and see the sea. Standing on tippy-toes he can see some waves; enough to make him sigh with delight as he remembers the traffic jams of Cairo he has just left. Seeing the sea and hopefully swimming in it is, after all, the very reason he came all this way. The man hiring out the chairs, tables and umbrellas to this sea of humanity; who are also hastening away from the rush of city life, can see no wrong in his flourishing business and smiles wryly at the complaints of the perplexed foreigner of not actually being able to see the sea from where his umbrella has been planted in the sand. In a moment of joyful economic boon, the seller snaps out a sprightly "Maa'Lesh, you can have this chair too." He holds up a well-worn stripy beach chair and holds his other hand out to receive the cash. My oh my, he does love summertime. "Maa'Lesh?" echoes the foreigner, reaching into his pocket, after all what else can he do.


Now back to the city. If you close your eyes you will feel the rhythm of Cairo, even though its pulse may well be blanked out by the screeching of bald tires, the honking of horns and the shouting of enraged drivers. If you were stuck on a bridge in one of the daily traffic jams you can actually feel the swaying of the bridge in time with the movement of its traffic. Sitting at the steering wheel trying hard not to nod off in the boredom of bunged-up passage you could well feel you are at sea bouncing and bobbing over rolling waves, but alas, you will be awakened from your pleasant dream by the honking of car horns telling you to get a move on as the traffic jolts into activity. The swaying of the bridge can no longer be felt beneath you as you inch your way homeward. Back to reality, Maa'Lesh.


Traffic congestion in Cairo is not the only problem to face the frantic foreign driver. First, he has to weave his car like a carpet weaver's fingers through the traffic, with everyone jostling to be foremost in line; with the faces of drivers set in a steady grimace or extending into a twisted smirk as they push and squeeze their way in between cars, buses and trucks all in an attempt to be ahead of the other. Having braved the traffic and been scraped and bumped down the side of his car, the foreigner looks in dismay at the culprit with a casual wave of the hand shouts out with a gesture of friendliness, "Maa'Lesh!" What can the foreigner do? He can't make a squabble about it all; by the time he stops and gets out of his car the guilty party would be far away. "Oh well, Maa'Lesh," he mutters to himself. At last, he is beginning to understand.

Now, our foreign friend has arrived at his destination. He checked the street name and it is the right one! Moreover, there really is a number on the front of the building he has been looking for! Now he turns his attention to parking his car somewhere until he runs his errand. He sees a space up ahead. This is his lucky day! Just as he is parking his car in the narrow space an old gentleman wearing a long worn-out looking galabeya and a small white hat smiles a broad brown-teethed smile, and says in Arabic, 'Maa'Lesh ya Pasha! You can't park here."

"Why not?" insists our frazzled foreign friend.

"This space belongs to that building."

"But I'm going into that building," demands the foreigner with white knuckles grasping the steering wheel in a frantic bid to take the space.

"It belongs to an important gentleman living there. I have to keep it for him or he will be angry."

Our foreign friend doesn't like the thought of getting anyone into trouble so he scratches his head and asks if there could possibly be another place?

The old man smiles and points a long bony finger to an empty space with a huge cement brick blocking the way for anyone to park there.

"But it's barricaded!" says the foreigner disappointed.

"It only costs LE 5," nods the old man squinting his eyes in expectation.

"But hang on," said the foreigner, "this one is not blocked but that one is, so if this one is reserved, shouldn't it be blocked?"

"I don't need to block this one because I'm here," says the old man laughing, holding out his hand for the cash.

Not quite sure what to do and nearly late for his appointment the foreigner hands the old man the cash and waits til he pushes the cement brick out of the way then parks his car and races to his appointment with a distinct feeling that he has just been ripped off.


Just as he enters the building and disappears up the stairs, another car drives along the street and starts to back into the empty space that the foreigner has just vacated. The old man approaches him shaking his head and telling him, "You're not allowed to park here!"

The man, an Egyptian, just smiles, turns off the motor and says, "Maa'Lesh."

First published Africa Perspective newspaper, South Africa