Seven thirty and it’s already dark, time to go looking for Ramadan decorations to photograph. This evening is hotter than previous nights; there is no breeze. This will keep lanterns from swaying, allowing my camera to better capture them in the faint light. Out my door, down the street, past a mall and square, I drop into an up until now unknown lane, and find a nestled bookstore. How do they stay in business, so hidden?
Looking for lanterns I don’t find much. I’m sweating, no wind to fan my neck. I skirt a familiar area, using known roads as boundaries, exploring the unknown in between. For a moment I’m not sure where I am. There is a scattering of decoration, nothing distinct. Am I getting too picky?
Past a tire shop, I wave to the owner who, in his blue coveralls, sits quietly inside, bathed in a harsh fluorescent white. Why isn’t he at Iftar with his family? He waves back. Moments later I hear someone calling. I turn and the man in blue is motioning me toward him. He’s noticed my camera and is gesturing for me to take his picture. I am quick to accept his acquaintance. We shake. Esmak, eh? Ana esme Kevin. Enta esmak eh? Emed. His raised palms tell me to stay where I am. He enters the shop and poses. I snap. He strikes another pose. He springs into action, waves me in, mimics taking a picture, then picks up a wheel with tire attached. He wants to demonstrate his prowess at removing a tire from its rim and starts right in. As he places the tire on his machine I slide into the shop, find a vantage, and begin to shoot as he first breaks the seal on one side, and then the other. Seal broken he lifts the tire onto a round metal bed to remove the rubber from its hub. A compressor fires, “badadada”, a “splish” of air as his flip-flopped foot steps on the activating peddle. “Splish” again as he slips a pry bar into the rotating disk. Flip, “splish” once more with the bar and he’s done. The tire is thrown into a pile and the silver hub is placed on a stack just outside the door. Emed turns and grins. On the camera monitor I zoom in so he can see his expressions; posed, focused, self-satisfied. I sign my intent to develop the photos and return them to him. I’m not sure if he understands. We shake hands good-bye and I return to the mystery of the street.
Many Egyptians sleep during the day and stay up all night during Ramadan. Fasting is hard enough, and the heat. So, the day becomes night, night day, and the streets of a city that normally lives at night become even more crowded.
After leaving Emed, I continue down his street, and come to a scene that piques my curiosity. My gut tells me to turn around. I listen. I’m an outsider. I’ll take another way.
I cross into a neighborhood that’s familiar, though I take an unfamiliar path through it. A boy, his age indeterminable in the dim light, walks up beside me. I’m wary. Is he one of the many beggars? He asks my name and I ask his. “Mohamed,” like so many. But that’s it. He doesn’t beg, just walks next to me, a short foot away. One hundred, two hundred meters, for a stretch he is simply my kid, and we walk like two people well acquainted, silent. I feel bad that I am suspicious, but remain so, hand in the pocket facing him, protecting its contents. I detour toward a colorful lantern thinking Mohamed will follow, but without a good-bye he continues as if we had never met. I watch him. He doesn’t look back.
I reach the main thoroughfare but decide not to wade through traffic. Around the block, and turning back into the neighborhood through which I have just been a gathering of men drink tea, smoke sheesha, and watch television at an outdoor café. Four young men nearly asphyxiate me with their cologne as they strut by.
Into the quieter streets again, I find more lanterns, but strangely, and unlike other nights, I am shooed away from photographing several. I encounter boys, aged 10 or 11, using the width of the road to play soccer. As I walk through their midst they are unperturbed, shouting, the ball passing between them. But I don’t get through them. The ball follows me, and they play soccer around me. I am either unnoticed or just disregarded. At the end of the block the ball flies in the opposite direction and they slip into my past.
Left, right, left, along a well known street I stop into the place we call the “dive bar,” where I have a beer and watch three guys play pool at the lone table I’ve played at a time or two. “Play the winner?” I decline. Finished, I walk, instead of hailing a cab, toward home, regretting it for the moment I attempt to twist my ankle in a pothole. I’m relieved there’s no injury.
At 10:30 I ascend the two flights of stairs to my flat. I turn the key twice, open and close the door, kick off my shoes, walk to my bedroom, and turn on the air. I pull the card out of my camera. I want to see how those pictures of Emed turned out.