Sharia El Aziz Osman street sign, Cairo, Egypt

This large, cobalt blue Cairo street sign with white lettering comes from El Aziz Osman street in Zamalek, on an island in the Nile, where I used to live.  The street is only a couple blocks long, lined with colonial-era villas (now mostly used as embassies) and larger Art Deco apartment buildings, but a lot happens on this street: in the novel I am writing, the protagonist’s family lives on El Aziz Osman and, according to his memoir Out of Place, Edward Said grew up in an apartment at the street’s southern end, near the Fish Garden — his sister Joyce attended Cairo American College and was a classmate of my mother, who lived in the southern district of Maadi in the 1950s.

I came by the street sign semi-honestly: in the mid-1990s, Cairo was in the process of replacing all these beautiful antique signs, which are enamel on metal, with cheap, ugly new signs so this one was going to be thrown away before I decided to rescue it.  Still, the rescue took place under cover of darkness and the size and weight of the sign came as an unwelcome surprise — they look so much more manageable when attached to the side of a building — but the unattractive new light blue sign was already in place at the time, a silent reminder that I was engaged in an act of improvisational historic preservation.  There was no smuggling this out of the country: when I finally left Cairo a couple years later, it took up most of the box I used to transport it and the metal base set off every baggage screening x-ray at the airport.  But remnants of early- to mid-20th century Cairo life were a history with no perceived value, so they were happy to let me take my souvenir which has been a favorite possession ever since.


Here is a strange little video of two winking men in a restaurant.  The woman shooting it asks the first man whether everything is good and when he is slow to reply she volunteers the answer “yanni,” which is one of the most versatile words in Arabic and a beloved element in Cairo conversations.  It means “I mean” but depending on inflection can be a simple pause, equivalent to “um” or “like,” or can be taken to suggest agreement, ambivalence, or disagreement; hence the smile and the thumb’s up, for clarification.  The date of the video is uncertain and though it is labeled “5 El Aziz Osman Street” that is the address of the Polish embassy and I know of no restaurant anywhere on the street whose interior resembles this.  If any reader recognizes it, please leave a comment and let me know.


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