The wife of Saladin is portly and plain and dresses western style. She is a good cook. The other night, she made us a terrific salad, good bread tahinah for the bread and grilled fish. She served it all with panache. She never came out of the kitchen.
The wife of Saladin was waiting for him when he got to their home. She was downstairs, in the alley, which is off an alley, which is off yet another alley. This is in a section of the city high on a hill where the houses are very old, some of them still made of mud bricks. In the courtyard, young men play Ping-Pong and in the cafe the old men smoke water pipes.
Here and there a crippled loudspeaker blares out the melancholy music of the region. Dogs run in the alleys and cats scamper around the puddles and high over it all, on the citadel of the original Saladin, a large cat of some kind scampers over the rocks.
The wife of Saladin has no known name. She was never introduced and it was only after a while that I knew she was, in fact, Saladin's wife. She was standing, waiting for him when he arrived with me in tow. She stood back in the shadow of a building when the borrowed car arrived. I got out and all activity ceased.
The Ping-Pong players stopped playing and the old men put down their water pipes and the dogs, I think, even stopped running. Far below, I could make out the lights of downtown, but up here I was in another century. Saladin got out of the car. He waved to everyone and yelled loudly so even those who had noticed the pale man in Levis would see that Saladin had a visitor. Some yelled back and then Saladin led me into the shadows where his wife was waiting.
Saladin speaks no English. He is 39 years old and the father of two children. Once he was a taxi driver, but now he is simply a driver. By Egyptian standards, he is not poor. He earns something like $140 a month. By the standards of the third world, he is a rich man. He is in some ways awesternized man. He drives a car. His clothes are modern. His head, however, is in another century.
Saladin walked in the doorway. I followed and his wife trailed behind us respectfully. We walked aways and then went through another doorway and then up some stairs. She walked behind. The Interior of the building was as labyrihthine as the alley, but finally we came to Saladin's apartment. We went in.
A dog went straight for me. It was a medium-sized mutt and Saladin slapped it down. He made the dog beg and then petted it. His 8-year-old son Ahmed laughed and hit the dog with a leash and then made it beg as his father had done.
In the room were two beds and a refrigerator. On one wall were snapshots of some body builders. a shelf held an old alarm clock, a radio-cassette player and a black-and-white television set. That was all. The room was separated from the other room by a thin wall and a blanket strung as a curtain in the doorway. Behind this curtain the wife of Saladin cooked our meal.
From time to time, a hand would poke out from the blanket. Sometimes the hand held salad and sometimes salt. One time the hand extended some bread and then tahinah in which to dip the bread and the greens of some kind that Saladin shoveled into his mouth the way a donkey feeds. I could hear water running and something sizzling, but there was no sign of the person doing the cooking.
The next day in the Egyptian press, there was an account of a lecture given at the American University of Cairo by Gloria Steinem. She told Egyptian women to do something outrageous within the next 24 hours in the name of feminism -- like refusing to pick up something dropped by a man. In the house of Saladin, just coming out of the kitchen would have been outrageous, maybe even fatal.
In the space between the two beds, Saladin placed the frame of a wooden table. Over the frame, he set down a piece of glass and as a table cloth, he used a sheet of newspaper -- the television page. A picture of Sidney Poitier smiled up at me.
The room was very small. The boy sat on the edge of the couch, sometimes snuggling over to be with his father. They touched hands from time to time. Saladin said the little girl was already asleep. I sat on the other bed. Saladin played the cassette, switching later to the television set. We watched a Spencer Tracy-Frank Sinatra film in English with Arabic subtitles. Translation could not have been easy. "I come from across the river," Tracy says to Sinatra. "Hell's Kitchen. We used to eat punks like you." Saladin laughed.
Saladin's brother-in-law joined us for part of the dinner. He spoke a little English. Aside from greeting his sister behind the blanket, he never spoke to her and when I left, he left, too.
This was not what I expected. I expected Saladin's wife to join us for dinner. I envisioned a real table and I was going to thank her profusely for the meal, make her smile -- a toothless smile, the writer in me would have preferred. Instead, I only caught a glimpse of her and can say nothing at all about her teeth -- only her cooking. It is good; and, for them, very expensive. They are very kind people.
From time to time, the curtain parted a bit. I saw hands and I saw dirty dishes and I could hear the trickle of water running.
At the end of the movie, I stood. The dog lunged at me and once more Saladin had to beat it back. We left. We went through the passageway and the alleyways to the courtyard where the car was parked. It was late. The Ping-Pong game was over but the old men were still smoking and somewhere in that maze of hovels, the wife of Saladin had finally come out of the kitchen.
It was time to clean up the other room.