Writer: Michael Karam
We shall call him ‘The Lawyer’. Tall, slim and urbane, and from where I stood, sporting a pencil thin moustache, he wore a black suit, white shirt, navy tie and the obligatory tarboush. He was a picture of patrician respectability, even if the tarboush gave him a whiff of rakish charm. He was irresistible and I had to have him.
“Tell me about the painting,” I asked the man wrapped in an anorak and scarf. I was in a poorly lit antique shop in downtown Cairo, stuffed to the gills with deco furniture – much like you would find in Beirut’s Basta – rescued no doubt from the period houses and grime-stained apartments that look down on the busy streets
“Lo7a. It’s a painting.” Pause. “It’s old”. What was I expecting? A potted biography of the artist? And so with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm, I asked him how much he wanted for ‘The Lawyer’.
“Five thousand pounds”. Now, I know he said pounds because I asked what that would be in dollars. “Around 850 USD.” My friends were waiting outside and were clearly uninterested. I said my goodbyes and rejoined my friends, but ‘The Lawyer’ stayed with me.
At home, I would have bought it on the spot at that price. But this was Cairo one year after the revolution, a Cairo where the free flowing joy that had swirled around Tahrir Square had ossified into disillusion and frustration. The tourists were staying away and times, I imagined, were tight.
At the Windsor Hotel, Lawrence and I were the only guests and the decrepitude that normally masqueraded as distressed colonial charm had been exposed by the emptiness. The barman, a slight man with a clipped moustache who you feel was born to serve gin and tonics to British officers, sat wearily at the bar, defeated by a revolution that had promised so much victory.
So, surely now was not the time to drive a hard bargain. ‘The Lawyer’ had to be mine. Once back, I texted Dana: “Offer 400 USD.” A few days later, she wrote back. “He’s not budging from five thousand but I have a friend who lives above the shop. Will try again in a few days.”
Days later, another text. “We got it for two thousand. Mabrouk!” That was 333 USD. Oh unbounded joy! The texts were coming in like news tickers. Dana: “I may have to remove the frame to fit it in my suitcase.” Me: “Yes, yes, what ever you need to do”. Dinners were promised and texts – mine at least – were signed off with effusive kisses and (to my embarrassment) “you are a remarkable lady”. Dana: “Oh don’t thank me. Thank Moaz.”
Ah yes, the friend who lived in the same building. What luck. This had been more than just a purchase. It was a souvenir of the Arab Spring. “Dad got that in Cairo after the revolution,” my son or daughter might say one day, adding “actually there’s a funny story behind it.”
Two days later came another text. Dana: “Crap! Just found out the guy wanted 2,200 USD not pounds. Says the original price was 5,000 USD. Sorry. Looks like I’m buying you dinner :-(”.
The Egyptians may be down but clearly, they were not out.