Letter From Egypt: Looking for nostalgia in a glass of juice

There appears to be a particular way to drink sugarcane juice. Standing outside the most popular sugarcane shop in Cairo, customers carefully hold the tall, slim glass between their thumb and forefinger, examine the milky green liquid as though eyeing something valuable, then chug it down.

There always seems to be a crowd hovering around the one-room open storefront on Salah Salem Street in Old Cairo. No line, just a crowd: men, women and children, Muslim and Christian, veiled and unveiled, poor and rich, all day long.

“I am born here,” said Ali Muhammad, 52, as he wiped white foam from his top lip. “Everything has changed in this neighborhood. But this juice shop, it is still the same.”

This little juice shop, with its dust-coated fan blowing from the wall and the rumble of a crushing machine extracting juice, somehow embodies what Cairo was in simpler times, and what it is becoming in modern times; patient and impatient, tolerant and intolerant, hopeful and exhausted.

The parallel is partly a result of the product, nothing but the cool, raw juice pressed out of the long, bamboo-like sticks of sugarcane, just as it has been done since the shop opened in 1945.

But the atmosphere is mostly a reflection of the people, who literally come from all over Cairo for a glass of the sweet elixir, which costs 50 piasters a glass, a bit less than 10 cents.

The juice man, Gamal Farag, methodically rinses and pours, rinses and pours, takes money, gives change, rinses and pours. He said he had been at it since 1968.

“I don’t like this job,” he said with a sarcastic bitterness while pouring juice one recent afternoon. “I am sick of it.”

His hands are pink and swollen from years of rinsing and pouring, his fingernails discolored and misshapen. He says he never drinks the stuff.

Rinse, pour. Rinse, pour. Like a machine.

“So who is not sick? Everybody is sick of their work,” shouted a customer. “Everybody is sick of their lives.”

It seemed to take Farag all his energy not to hurl a glass at the customer. “You stand here for five minutes, and then you can talk,” he said, never once breaking his rhythm. Rinse, pour.

Egypt is legendary for its patience, its stability. That, at least, is what admirers of President Hosni Mubarak like to say: that he may not have been a leader of bold vision but can claim a legacy of stability.

But Mubarak’s Egypt, while still stable, and still patient, feels a bit less of both. Rather than convince people with their ideas, the authorities increasingly rely on state security to defeat those they do not like – bloggers, Islamists, strikers, democracy advocates.

“We have been known since the Pharaohs’ time as tolerant,” said Hussein Amin, chairman of the department of mass communication at American University in Cairo. “But we Egyptians are exhausted. Look in the streets. They are overwhelmed with pressures. What happened to this city? It should be a city of joy.”

Indeed, people do look to Farag and his beverage for a bit of what was, a bit of nostalgia.

“When you find a place like this, with good people, with a conscience, it makes you happy,” said Abdo el-Mawla, 57, a taxi driver who stopped for two quick glasses of juice. “Before, people were different. Now, all people are after is money. It’s very rare to find a place like this.”

Sugarcane, as its name suggests, is supposed to be a treat. The stalks of cane are grown in the fertile fields along the Nile in Upper Egypt, which is in the south. (The Nile flows north, so down is called up.)

Once inside the juice shop, they are run between two steel rollers, each stalk making at least five trips through. The mixture of milky green juice and pulp flows into a metal bucket containing a large block of ice. Farag leans down, fills his battered metal pitcher and then fills a dozen glasses at a time, pouring the juice through a battered metal funnel.

“Everything today is hard,” Farag said as he filled a dozen glasses lined up along the stainless steel countertop.

His customers nod yes, their lives have grown more difficult. The streets are insanely crowded and dangerous. Prices are rising, but salaries are not. Jobs are few, the rich grow richer. Each day, it seems, Cairo’s donkey carts are edged out by more and more Mercedes-Benz sedans.

It is a laundry list that Farag’s customers run through.

“Look at the faces of the people,” said an Egyptian playwright, Aly Salem, in an interview by telephone. “You feel they are pained, sick and exhausted. You see this in every face, even though before you could hardly see one man with a grumpy face.”

From Farag’s spot behind the counter, that is what he sees. They come from around the city, grumpy, tired and stressed out, for a respite and a glass of juice.

The shop is called The Sons of Saad Afifi. It was opened in 1945 by Saad Afifi. His sons don’t work here anymore, not regularly, at least. Raouf Afifi, a son and owner, is a university professor. Farag is a cousin.

His uncle had been a partner, but bailed out years ago – another source of aggravation for Farag, who complains that he is merely a salaried worker. “I don’t make as much money as you think,” he said.

The shop has one room with a stainless steel countertop that slopes gently for drainage. There is a spout, pointing straight up, which Farag uses to rinse the glasses. No soap. No hot water. But they are rinsed, and by local standards that is a plus, because many shops do not make that effort.

The crowds start building early and tend to reflect the rhythms of the day. Schoolchildren stop on the way to school. Adults on the way to work. Later it is women out shopping. Students on a midday break. Drivers passing through. Then men out after work.

Always, it is the same, though. A glass of juice to ease the burden of the day. That, at least, is what customer after customer said over two days of visits to the shop.

Farag offers an occasional smile, but mostly sticks with his rhythm. He is not much for sharing his thoughts, but offers an occasional insight, often in the form of a complaint.

“Every day the people change, times change, everything changes,” he said.

“How have the people changed?” he was asked.

“When I’m light-minded I will talk to you about it,” he said.

“When will that be?” he was asked.

“When I die, I’ll be light-minded,” he said.

And then he was back at it. Rinse, pour. Rinse, pour.