Greetings from Cairo part XV
Published in Ishtar 1/2010

Falling Ill Under the Pyramids

translated by Anu Toivonen

Every patient needs sympathy – in different countries it is presented in different ways. If, to quote a Finnish children’s song, milk and a biscuit are not enough, heavier measures are needed.

Microbial orgy

According to my own, completely subjective experiences the Egyptians ail a lot. Bad hygienic conditions favouring microbial growth and a dense population provide a favourable environment for illnesses. The Egyptians also have a number of customs and practices that help the diseases to spread.

There are drinking fountains all over the city and these are being extensively used, especially in the hot summer weather. These mechanical fountains paid for by various benefactors provide longed-for relief for all the thirsty. In practice, they are water containers situated on the streets and being refilled from the water pipes or by special order. At the fountain you drink the water from an aluminium cup and rinse it after use – but mere water does not destroy the bacteria. A similar system recycles bacteria in the popular juice bars where the glasses are rinsed with water after use but where no soap is used.

Finger food

The meals are often eaten with the fingers alone, and small pieces are broken from a bread to carry food to the mouth. Compared to Finland, the hands are washed after the meal and not before, which of course is necessary as the fingers get stained when eating. However, this practice ensures that the microbes thriving on the fingers get eaten with the meal.

Irrespective of country or place, the bed houses a universe of minuscule life forms. In Egypt, each member of the family sleeps in the most convenient place when they become tired and in any given night, any number of family members can share a bed, only to share a different bed with different family members the following night. As the families consist of several generations there may be as many as ten persons in this nightly carousel, and occasional visitors increase this number. As the sheets are not changed every day, the same microbes circulate in the respiratory systems of many different sleepers.

When need is great the help is near

There is a pharmacy practically on every street corner in Cairo and it is not uncommon to find several on the same street; in fact, there are at least five of them within a hundred meter radius of my home. Even though there are a lot of ailing Egyptians and they dose themselves frequently with medicine, you can’t help but wonder if all these pharmacies are economically viable.

It is usual to contract a flu, sore throat or stomach-ache several times a year and relief for these and even larger health problems is sought directly at the pharmacy. The pharmacist will prescribe medication wit the assurance of an expert and most of the medicines are prescription-free. Usually, both the pharmacists and doctors have a list of several preparations for any given trouble and it is usual to receive anything between four and six different pills, preparations or drops for a common flu. Antibiotics are prescribed very lightly and they are usually taken only as long as the symptoms last, that is, for a few days. Even though medicines are can be very cheap many people are too stingy to continue taking them after the symptoms have passed. However, only medicines produced in Egypt are cheap. Most vary in price between £E2 and £E100 (€0.25–12.50). Special imported medicines are out of reach for most people even when they would be necessary for their health.

It is surprisingly difficult to find vitamins in Egypt. Vitamin C can be found everywhere at £E4 per package (€0.50 per a pack of 20 pills). Some other single-vitamin preparations can be acquired and many of these are imported goods. There are very few multi-vitamin products and it is quite impossible to find magnesium pills, which are an essential nutritional supplement for athletes to improve muscle recovery after training –a piece of information which, here, has failed to be noticed even by the professionals. The pharmacies sell expensive magnesium in packages of a few pills whereas I would welcome a container of several hundred pills. I also have to import Omega-3 fatty acid capsules and the essential fish-oil preparations.

In addition to medicine, the pharmacies sell hygiene products such as deodorant, toothpaste and shampoo. Various herbal tees are also included in the selection of every pharmacy. Baby-care products – bottles and breast pumps – can also be found in a well-equipped pharmacy and big ones also offer a wide selection of European make-up products and hair dye. Some pharmacies strongly resemble a perfumery whereas others carry a very limited selection of products.

The more the merrier

The Egyptians abhor being alone – even when ill. The Finns will rather suffer alone lying well tucked up in their beds or on their sofas armed with a sufficient store of food and drink for several days’ needs. Egyptian patients will also want to be well tucked up but they prefer to be accompanied by at least half the family and even some more remote relatives, holding court on the bedroom throne – the bed – while the visitors sit along the walls, the children climb on the bed and a multitude of people coming and going.

It is very poor behaviour not to visit a sic relative or a close friend, the minimum requirement being a phone call to inquire after the patient’s health and wish a speedy recovery. And it is not enough to visit just once: several visits are expected. It is appropriate to make inquiries at least every other day and even more often if the patient is a close relative.

Fruits, especially oranges rich in vitamin C are good gifts when making a sick call. If you are the host, it is enough to offer the visitors tea and the fruits brought by them.

The sick calls are relatively short, and the usual several-hours- or a day-long visits are shortened to quick pops lasting only an hour or two. You need not provide food for the visitors unless they happen to arrive at a mealtime, in which case they are asked to share the meal.

Folk remedies

The Egyptians are experts in everything – especially in illnesses. If you happen to complain of a sore throat or shoulder in a company, you will soon get a diagnosis and a list of remedies as if ordered by the doctor – and also the appropriate prescription of medicines. You can always find a relative who has suffered from the same ailment and after recovery is eager to recommend for and share with the others the same treatment and medicine.

Lemon is by far the most popular folk medicine good for the flu, sore throat, cough and similar congestions. The lemon is washed, split and boiled in water for a few minutes. The juice, flesh and water are then poured in a mug and sweetened with honey. This bitter drink is recommended especially before going to bed, and you are supposed to sweat the disease off during the night under a number of covers. From my own experience, I can assure you it works – at least with the small Egyptian lemons.

Mint is the preferred herb for stomach trouble whereas singers are recommended to take aniseed and cinnamon, as they are beneficial for the throat. Chamomile soothes and eases the stomach. These are all consumed as herbal teas.

Whatever the method, all of them aim for the same thing – making the patient well. And who would like to be ill?

I wish you all well for the incoming year 2010!

P.S. A visitor to Cairo will immediately notice the new white taxis in the traffic. These will little by little replace the old familiar black ones and in these, you pay according to the meter. However, it is good to know a few basic facts about these meters. The same device with the same software is sold also in Kuwait. In Egypt, the starting fee is £E2.50 after which the sum will increase in even 25-piaster steps whereas in Kuwait, the starting figure is 6.00 units and the increase occurs in 0.60-unit steps. Even when the driver may initially engage the Egyptian programme, at £E6.00 a clever driver may switch to the more productive software version. Thus, the unaware tourist may suddenly end up paying a double fare if not clever enough to check which programme is running in the meter.




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

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