Story from Pathik Mitra

Alexandria, Egypt

I can bet that for meat lovers like me there are very few things that are less enchanting than the aroma of freshly grilled kebabs. The aroma of the exotic spices mixed with fresh yogurt used in an unique marination starts radiating its magic once it kisses the fire. As the sun was setting in the crimson horizon beyond the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea the floating aroma of Kebabs coming from the alleys of Alexandria continued enticing us just like the back piper of Hamlin had allured the kids with his music. As the busy city was settling into a cosy weekend on a Thursday evening we decided to answer the call of Kebabs in the streets of Alexandria.

British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had once said “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. I would have hardly connected this much with him if I had not visited Egypt without knowing Arabic. In India being a small town boy who is decently skilled in English, you earn a superficial super hero vanity as if you are truly the cool dude. For me since I was good in spoken English as well as Hindi I had an extra air of confidence. So whenever Hindi failed to support me I resorted to English and in most places in India I was well through. But Egypt & Arabic was totally a different ball game. I mean in Egypt life without an English speaking guide or google translator is real tough. Even the common video player thread which moves from left to right in our phones indicating the video duration, moves from right to left in Egyptian phones.

This evening in Alexandria our Egyptian tourist guide had left us with the advice of ordering Pizza in our apartment. But the call of the kebabs from the Arabic alleys was too hard to resist. So I took some cash in my pocket and decided to go Kebab hunting in the mystic alleys of Arabia (read Alexandria) along with my wife and her father.
As we walked past the Mediterranean Sea beach on our left we got comforted by pleasant sea breeze. It not only got the temperatures down very briskly but it kind of made the atmosphere quite chilled. There were vividly colourful canopies on the beach sand which were getting used as shacks and restaurants. The streets were usually crowded and it had the familiar clatter and weekend vibes amidst the office returning mob. You could hear the evening prayers echoing from some nearby mosque as the street lights and the neon signs were taking full effect. The road side shops mainly sold books, silk, satin and glass hookahs or chandeliers. There was also a number of restaurant chains such Pizza hut and Dominos, but they were mostly crowded with men wearing loincloths or short kilts and women in stylish hijabs. But we were drawn by the bewitching aroma of the freshly grilled kebabs which had intensified more as we approached the alley.

Just as I entered the alley I realized I had made two mistakes. Firstly my mobile battery died and deprived us of the services of the google translator. Secondly the cash which I carried was just a single 100 Egyptian pound note wrapping an Indian 500 rupee note & five 100 rupee notes. The cash would not have sufficed but luckily my father in law had some extra cash. Though he readily offered me the cash, he also exchanged a nasty sarcastic look along with it.

The alley was heaven for any foodie. The enchanting aroma of freshly baked bread and cakes continued to wrestle with enticing fragrance of the kebabs. To add to it they were brewing strong Turkish coffee in some stores which further continued tickling your taste buds. The alley was well lit and had food joints on both sides of the road with delicious looking billboards all in Arabic. People were relaxing with a cup of coffee or soda in the roadside bars watching some football match. In many ways this scene reminded me of my hometown Kolkata where the football fever is usually this high. The people were engrossed in the game and involved in animated discussions with each other. You might relate the scene with a German or English football pub, only the drinks here were non-alcoholic strictly. Though the drinks were non-alcoholic but the energy and intensity amidst the crowd was at its peak. 

But when you are hungry you and accompanied by your wife and her father, don’t have the luxury to watch all these things.  As if walking in a trance we entered the first shop in the alley which had the most spectacular photos of lip smacking Egyptian meat delicacies. But Hold on. This was the first time I realized that my language skills were totally inadequate here. I could have resorted to sign language but alas the menu was in Arabic too. Even the cashier was in no mood to explain and entertain us with the menu. So heart broken and ditched we had to sadly come out of the restaurant bidding adieu to the thrilling aroma of the kebabs from a stone throw distance.
We had a repeat experience in the next three joints and slowly we were growing impatient and hungry. I could sense the hunger and anger soar up tempers in my wife and her father as they kept exchanging irritated glances with me. It was me who had insisted on the visiting this alley so the onus was clearly on me.

As I was approaching the edge of my desperation we located a shop on the edge of the alley which was selling delicious kebabs and fried meat in an open glass counter. This was my last opportunity to redeem myself. As we approached the shop they seemed interested to serve us unlike the other counters. But the man was clueless in English, so I had to resort to hand signals to complete my ordering. Though he had the most hospitable euphoria and zeal to help me, our communication gap was too wide to be bridged. Somehow by using the calculator and finger pointing I concluded my ordering & he confirmed it would take 10 minutes to prepare. As I witnessed the chef across the glass counter weave magic by frying the crispy chicken pieces and kebabs along with exotic Egyptian herbs and sauces, my wife and father were becoming increasingly impatient. It was then that Abdullah greeted us in English, ”Hey you Indian- Shehrookh kahnn, Carrrinna Kepoor”

The spellings of Shahrukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor though purposefully written wrong will still not be enough to explain to the reader the rustic, rugged accent of Abdullah and this pathetic pronunciations. He was seated in a big armchair in one corner of the alley besides the shop as if he was the Sultan of the alley greeting some weary travellers from India. He was tall and huge like a gummy bear. Must be comfortably more 200 pounds in weight. He was dark in colour and dawned a white turban on his head. The light from the street lamps reflected against his face and shabby moustache, creating a mystic aura around him. He wore the grey coloured traditional robe commonly called “gallebaya” in Egypt. My father in law would mockingly call it a Maxi or nighty referring to similar night robe worn by women in India. Though the comparison is not the best, but still it will suffice to give a correct imagery. In his heavy husky voice Abdullah announced, “I love India! Great country! I love Gandhi”

From the day we came to Egypt we had being frequently greeted as Shahrukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor without having the slightest resemblance in shape, size or appearance with them. It was pretty dumb for me to accept that our entire identity will be summed by these two actors. Amidst all this, the sudden reference of Gandhi from this gummy bear was a pleasant surprise. But my hungry father in law was not at all intrigued by his advances. In fact he exchanged anther disgusted stare with me and hissed through his clenched teeth, “Drunk Case! Non sense”. But I was highly fascinated to know how this man in far off lands knew Gandhi.

Abdullah got up and started explaining animatedly. “Your Gandhi great man! Swear to Allah what a man! Gem of a man”. His showering adjectives kept me interested and I was forced to asked him why he thought Gandhi was great expecting a crisp socio political point of view. But Abdullah again stumped me with his hilarious answer that forced all of us to break into instant laughter.
“Man Gandhi did not sleep with his wife for 30 years!! Man what a man he was!!” Abdullah replied excitedly.

I had heard and read many things about Gandhi but this was certainly not one of them. In fact I doubt even Gandhi himself wouldn’t have imagined that this feat of his would earn him such accolades in Egypt so many years down under. Amidst all his glorious revolutionary feats and ideals, this fact about his conjugal life earning him brownie points wouldn’t have pleased the great man himself. As we were splitting into laughter, my father in law had his signature grin and snarled “I told you drunk case. Bloody Idiot”. I could visualize Gandhiji nod his head in his support and appreciation!

At this juncture Abdullah came close to us to bid goodbye. He hugged me gently and I swear I could not smell anything alcoholic in the man. This kind of made me more intrigued about Abdullah. But my father in law continued with his xenophobic glances and avoided his hug to shake his hands from a distance. Abdullah gently obliged and greeted us saying “mae alsalama” or goodbye before disappearing briskly into the darker part of the alley. Honestly I was thrilled by this encounter with this Egyptian who honoured Gandhi for the weirdest reason I ever heard.

Soon our chef announced that our dinner was ready and packed. Just by the look of the enormous parcels I guessed that my sign language has messed up big time. We ended up paying about 600 Egyptian pounds for the food which served for our breakfast too the next morning. Yet we had to waste one third of the food. As we took the parcels and kept walking back to our hotel, my father in law kept expressing his disgust on my excess ordering.
Right at that moment the crowd in the bars erupted in joy in unison. 

The local team had scored a goal. People hugged each other, cheered and danced running across the road. Few guys started singing aloud. All of a sudden the alley in Alexandria become a lane in Kolkata where the East Bengal club has scored a goal against arch nemesis Mohan Bagan. Out of sheer joy and love for the game we also started clapping our hands. Truly the love of sports had breached our international barriers.

It was then I realized that the 1000 Indian rupees in my hip pocket were missing. Probably Abdullah had removed them with surgical precision during our goodbye hug. I felt foolish but not really unhappy. Abdullah too will not be very pleased with the Indian currency. Probably he will take out the notes and will be greeted by the same Gandhi grinning at him. I trust he will have face a few tough questions from our Father of the Nation. May be he will sleep with his wife that night with Gandhiji under his pillow. With all these random thoughts, we returned to our hotel with the deja vu of delicious kebabs, Mahatma Gandhi & our new friend Abdullah.

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