Reading Carmine Cartolano’s debut Masriyano, a collection of short anecdotes about the daily life of a foreigner in Cairo, written in Egyptian slang, one can not help but wonder: who is making fun of whom in this extremely witty collection? Cartolano’s sharp pen is aiming at Egyptians and Italians alike, but most of all he seems to mock himself, the Italian who speaks Egyptian (but remains a foreigner nevertheless).
With a vivid description of the hassle to find a taxi for a reasonable price, the collection starts off with a contemplation that is probably all too relatable for any tourist arriving in Cairo for the first time: “In Egypt it is the taxi driver who chooses the customer, not the customer who chooses the taxi.” However, soon, Masriyano’s wittily depicted scenes of the daily life in Cairo and its struggles turn towards a more specific issue, that of the foreigner in Egypt. More specifically, Masriyano deals with the foreigner who does not want to settle in his role as a foreigner. As an Italian who knows Arabic, Cartolano himself takes up a much more ambiguous role than an observer of the Egyptian culture from a foreign point of view, for he stands in between two cultures, loving both, mocking both, simultaneously an insider and an outsider.
Hence Cartolano describes how he breaks with the conventions of Egyptian phone conversations by bluntly asking “what do you want?” instead of indulging in mutual flattery for minutes at end. However, he is quick to point out that although he ignores the custom of reciprocating the elaborate courtesies during a phone conversation, he does not do so out of ignorance, but because, as he sarcastically notes, telephone companies in Egypt make money on empty flattery alone. In this way he deliberately depicts himself not as a foreigner who does not realise he is being impolite but as an insider, who is well aware of the Egyptian customs, yet mockingly decides to ignore them. On other occasions however, Cartolano admits to being an outsider, describing his own struggle to understand customs which are unfamiliar to him as an Italian with as much sense of mockery as he displays when talking about Egyptian customs he does know. This is the case in ‘al-hagg’, a chapter in which the doorman keeps disturbing Cartolano in his apartment, congratulating him with the phrase ‘kol senna wenta tayyib’ (typically used for birthdays, official holidays or other special occasions). Desperate to get back to his work, Cartolano ends up giving the doorman money and afterwards wonders: why did I give him money? The same kind of self-mockery can be found in the chapter on the ‘riffle’, sarcastically used by Cartolano to indicate the hygienic hose that is installed inside many Middle Eastern toilets for cleaning purposes after using the toilet and where Cartolano finds himself in a completely ruined suit just before an interview, all because he used the wrong handle, hence ending up switching on the nozzle spraying water directly out of the toilet, instead of flushing the toilet.
Especially the last two chapters, entitled respectively ‘alphabet of the foreigners’ and ‘alphabet of the Egyptians’ consist of a once again extremely precise and funny observation of the vocabulary of both native speakers of the Egyptian slang and those trying to be fluent in it. Cartolano makes fun of stupidly smiling foreigners, nodding that they “understand” what has been said in Arabic as well as Egyptians enthusiastically burying foreigners in “bravo!’s” even if they only know two words of Arabic, and once more he succeeds in putting the finger exactly where it hurts.
Sarcasm clearly functions as a common thread connecting the different chapters of the book. Even in the chapters that have a more sweet tone to them, Cartolano cannot resist a sarcastic note to finish on. In the chapter ‘’asl wa lamoun’ (Honey and lemons), the author remembers how, at a moment of sickness, a huge amount of friends all came over to bring him all sorts of food. What follows is a pleasant evening after which our Italian writer temporarily seems to let go of his wit, realising that he has in fact a lot of friends he can rely on in Egypt. However, immediately after this rather touching contemplation, he notes that the doorman must be pretty happy that he is sick at home.
Thus Cartolano, clearly familiar with Egyptian culture and language, making references to Arab TV-figures and using Cairene expressions effortlessly, is able to mock Egyptian culture from within while maintaining the eyes of an outsider. Residing in the grey area between two different cultures, he moreover touches on Taiye Selasi’s very interesting proposition to ask people where they are a local, rather than where they are from. This idea implies that one is not bound to a single nation, but can be a local in many different places. Cartolano is a local in Italy, but additionally becomes a local of Cairo too in this book, enjoying the benefit of seeing both cultures from a different perspective than an Italian, or an Egyptian could. This position enables him to observe both cultures in a different light and uncover similarities and contradictions between them, something Cartolano achieves through poignantly sharp observation and sarcasm.
Some readers might accuse Cartolano of creating very stereotypical characters and images that are not dealt with at a deeper, critical level. Yes, Masriyano talks, without much further ado, about the Italian government being the mafia, Egyptian married men who are not able to control their sexual desires and cheat constantly on their wife, Italians who cannot speak English and Egyptians who think all foreigners are idiots. One might say Cartolano is, by touching on relevant matters but not contextualising them, choosing to leave stereotypes intact. However, Masriyano does not claim to be a critical discussion of social issues, but instead consists of a very sharp observation of daily reality. And that exactly is its quality, deflating one stereotype by using yet another one, and making the reader – whether he is Egyptian or a foreigner learning Arabic – laughing out loud without a doubt. And maybe, the core of the encounter between two different cultures lies exactly within these hilarious misunderstandings, frustrations and quarrels between Arabic and Italian.
Moreover, when we put all these reflections aside, it remains important to take into account Cartolano’s own guideline regarding the intention of his book. Observing this guideline, that is materialised through several simple questions in between the chapters, the author himself might not have wanted to complicate matters to this extent. The questions are a play on Egypt’s well-known nickname ‘umm id-dunya’, or, in English, mother of the world. They all revolve around the same notion: if Egypt is truly the mother of the world, like they say, what about the father? Who is he, where did he go and why and will he ever return? In the last chapter, Cartolano enlists all his previous questions, explicitly putting the reader’s attention to them once more and, more importantly, singling out the one question that for him, is most important of all: “And if there was a father, why would he leave her [Egypt]?”. Thus he asks his readers, Egyptians and foreigners alike: why would anyone leave Egypt? Bearing this urgent question in mind, maybe the best solution is to read Masriyano as the author himself described his first book later in an interview: a love letter to the Egyptians.