When a country is in turmoil certain things become hard to find. Courtesy is replaced by rudeness, compassion gives way to selfishness and anger rules many interactions. And that is just on a human level. As the economy happily twirls into a downward spiral, basic staples also become scarce, which does nothing to alleviate the worry and frustration of the people. Enter the place of solace, if you have the cash: the Black Market.
I have always liked that phrase; it conjures up images of smoky rooms hidden at the back of dusty stores selling inconspicuous things like hats, which can only be accessed by hidden passageways and where the only fresh eggs in the city can be acquired for exorbitant amounts.
I imagine walking towards the fitting room with a jaunty beret, raspberry-coloured of course, muttering a secret password that changes every odd-numbered day to the deceptively ancient-appearing attendant who actually holds a black belt in some exotic and rare eastern martial art – the kind that allows her to render you unconscious or break your spine with the blink of an eye and a slight movement of her hand.
Over the years I have adjusted this image to fit the location but not necessarily reality; the hat shop changed into a little foul stand, a shisha hole in-the-wall or an old Peugeot taxi, where mentioning the right destination would serve as the password. Even if I never experienced dealing with it myself, I was sure there was a whole layer of society that worked in mysterious ways.
The first time I heard about a thriving area of the black market was years ago at the Red Sea. Salaries were paid in dollars, which fluctuated once every three months between EGP 3.41 and 3.42. Every end of the month the staff would pool together their resources and someone would make mumbled phone calls to covert converters of currency. At most they would be able to negotiate to get a piaster or two above market rate, but the whole exercise was more for fun than anything else and it made us white folk feel more like insiders.
In Cairo I met yet another example of the flourishing black market in Egypt: alcohol. Those who enjoyed drinking a glass of wine or beer could easily buy their poison of choice in the little stores that the companies that produce alcoholic beverages opened so conveniently around the city. If you preferred a stronger drink, legal options would be more limited; use your allotment in the Duty Free when entering the country or risk the local spirits on offer in the shops, known for their very questionable quality and their headache-inducing properties.
In shadowy corners home brew would be available for those with strong stomachs who could afford to destroy a brain cell or two but there was another network in place that would deliver brand names to your doorstep. In need of some famous hard liquor or well-known wine, or want to celebrate with a good champagne? Dial the number of the less than euphemistically named ‘Alcohol Dude’ and before you knew it you would be popping a cork, I was assured.
Even if his name was disappointingly mundane, in my mind this mystical man presided over a warehouse filled with stacks of bottles and his underground empire included delivery guys wearing a disguise while orchestrating handovers in alleyways. Imagine the letdown when a friend patiently explained he was just a guy with a car that held some bottles in the trunk, who had a cousin that worked at the Duty Free. Now that alcohol may disappear from the tax free shelves I wonder what will happen to ‘Alcohol Dude’ and his cousin.
Having heard about the machinations of the black market in Egypt, sadly I never personally saw it at work but this week that changed – I finally got to see firsthand how something was sold illegally to customers, and it shattered all the movie inspired notions I had treasured for all those years.
Instead of under the cover of darkness the transaction was happening in full daylight and in full view. On the side of one of the busiest roads of Cairo, at the head of a line of eagerly waiting minibuses, a man with a cigarette dangling from his lips was filling up their tanks from a larger-than-life tanker truck. Not even the smallest effort was made to disguise the fact he was selling straight from the truck instead of delivering his cargo to a gas station, one of them only 200 metres away and with a line of waiting customers snaking around the block.
So much for galabeya and dagger, I thought sadly.