Baba and the Pontiac

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Nonfiction by Hadil Ghoneim for MQR Online.


I saw the words “Pontiac Trail” on the green street sign and a proverbial chill ran down my spine. I’d just moved to Ann Arbor from the East Coast and didn’t expect to be reminded of Baba on this quiet road on the north side of town. I drove by the sign a few more times for no other reason than to feel that tingle again and think about Baba, his cars, and the bitterness they caused in our family. When I ventured out to Detroit, I found in its defaced grandness something strangely, deeply familiar. Why did my father, who never set foot in America, suddenly reappear to me between the rust and the dust of the once booming city that used to be compared to the gold rush towns of the American West?

When he was a little boy, Baba asked his parents to buy him a horse. He told us this story to back up his rejection anytime my brothers or I requested money for a reason he thought ridiculous. The horse certainly was laughable, not only because his father, who was an Arabic teacher, had seven other children, but also because unless you were a mounted policeman, no one was seen riding a horse in the streets of Cairo, Egypt in the early 1940s. I doubt that he’d ever been to the horse races that took place in some of the elite sports clubs back then. Many years later, while we watched an old Western together, Baba told me that Errol Flynn and John Wayne were his childhood heroes. He even made an impression of the latter by squinting his eyes while drawing on a cigarette. I’m guessing that the horse wish came from those Westerns.

The boy soon grew out of his Hollywood-induced fantasies and understood the limits of his parents’ means. While still studying for his undergraduate law degree, he couldn’t stand to be reined in for four years in his family’s crowded apartment, making do with a small allowance from his father. He studied for a teaching diploma on the side, and in a year, started to earn his own small salary. It was nice to have a little extra so he could go out and have a good time, but it was not enough to gain him full independence.

One day, he read about job opportunities in Kuwait. Not many Egyptians had travelled there, or even heard about the tiny country on the northeastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, on the shores of the Persian Gulf. The massive oil reserves discovered there before the end of WWII generated wealth and a need for all kinds of jobs to build the newly enriched state. Baba immediately joined the oil rush to the eastern frontier of the Arab world, first as a schoolteacher, and then, after finishing his law degree, as a legal expert in the government. He was quickly able to replace his childhood dream of owning a horse with the reality of owning horsepower. He started with a small Mini Austin of about 40 HP that he drove around Cairo when he got engaged to my mother. By the time they married in the early 1960s, he’d bought himself a 1961 Pontiac Parisienne that packed the power of more than two hundred horses.

That Pontiac was a classic American beauty: a long, wide yellow convertible with sparkling nickel and chrome trim, and gray leather seats with yellow stripes running down the middle. My mother remembers the original paint color of their car as “chickpea yellow,” a shade easier for me to imagine than “bamboo cream,” as General Motors lists it. Most of the yellow vehicles I see on the streets have less dreamier shades—usually cabs, tractors, or school buses. On the Internet, I found an old Canadian TV commercial of the 1961 Pontiac in which a slick man wearing a suit asks viewers: “Are you thinking of your holidays? Where would you like to go?” After showcasing every feature of the car, from the twin grill to the six-engine, he urges, “Cross Canada with Pontiac.”

In 1960s Kuwait, there weren’t all that many places to go or much to do for a young couple that, having grown up in a big city like Cairo, needed a little more stimulation. The nearest and liveliest attractions lay north of Kuwait, in Iraq, where the weather was also cooler. My mother said they’d drive up there some weekends, especially the long ones, like when it was an Eid holiday. By the mid sixties, they had two boys and enjoyed driving them around to visit the ancient sites in Babylon, Sameraa and Baghdad. I have an old photo of my mother in her pouffy sixties hairstyle posing in front of a huge statue of a lion that reminds me of the ram-headed sphinxes in Luxor.

But my family was more interested in the local food in Iraq than in the antiquities of past civilizations, or at least it appears this way due to how they still recall certain culinary memories in detail. My mother says that on every trip they’d buy fresh meats and dairy straight from the farmers and carry it back to Kuwait. I know from my old geography school textbooks that water buffaloes are raised only in a few countries, including Iraq and Egypt, and they produce rich butter and ghee and creamy cheeses. According to my picky brother, the milk of water buffaloes is tastier than cow’s milk and is not as smelly. That picky one still remembers the date syrup he had in an Iraqi village a long time ago. The black honey made from dates is believed to be the reason why Iraq was called the land of milk and honey. Yet the real highlight of those trips, I’m told, was masgouf, which entailed not only a special dish of delicious grilled fish, but an entire afternoon riverside outing spent in any of the casinos serving it on the banks of the Tigris.

I was told that later on, Baba decided to take the Pontiac to Egypt. It meant that instead of the annual two-hour flight from Kuwait to Cairo where our family spent summer vacations, he had to make a road trip from Kuwait, across Iraq, and through a part of Syria to Lebanon, where he shipped the Pontiac from Beirut to Alexandria. The car had to complete the last leg of the trip in that little Mediterranean sea cruise, because otherwise Baba would have to drive through a Palestine that was increasingly becoming Israel, via a scalding regional conflict.

The Pontiac crossed the whole Fertile Crescent in about three days. Baba made that road trip a few times in different cars, with the boys joining him on only one of them in 1973. They still remember how the heat of the arid dry desert of western Iraq was unbearable, like the hot air coming out of my mother’s hair dryer. Baba drove while they slept, snacked, and listened to a tape recording of the comic Egyptian adaptation of  To Sir, With Love. The desert frightened them in the night; they dreaded the fierce dogs when Baba stopped once to nap in the car. They were not dogs but Arabian wolves. Once they reached Mount Lebanon, it was like the AC had been suddenly plugged in, and a totally different scene emerged, one with white-tipped mountains and an evergreen carpet of cedar trees. Driving through the mountains on narrow roads at nighttime was exciting only for the boys. It was a terrifying ordeal for my mother, who recalls nothing of the scenery, because she would be busy praying and reciting verses from the Quran with her eyes nervously shut. She did have fun in Beirut, though, where they would visit Lebanese friends who were also fellow expats in Kuwait, and they’d go out at night in the swinging city of the Arab world. She recalls that once they were about to ship a car when the port workers went on strike, and so they spent the extra day boating around the caves of the Jeitta grottos.

The Pontiac arrived in Egypt in the late sixties and stayed there. For their annual summer vacation, my family of  was joined by extended family, and the Pontiac would squeeze in as many aunts and cousins and grandparents as it possibly could, and they would all drive north from Cairo to the beaches of Alexandria. After a few days, they would head westward along the southern Mediterranean coast, almost all the way to the Libyan border. It was worth the extra drive, because the farther west you go to the beaches of Marsa Matroh and Sidi AbdulRahman, the whiter and finer the sands become, and the deeper the azure color of the sea, trimmed with sparkling streaks of turquoise.

One day Baba was sitting in his Pontiac, stuck in Cairo traffic, when a man dangling from a nearby streetcar yelled at him jokingly, “It’s a socialist country now, and tomorrow we’ll all be riding like you!” Baba laughed and shot back in true Cairene street spirit: “It’s a socialist country now, and tomorrow I’ll be riding with you!” Despite the fancy cars Baba bought, we really weren’t the kind of people that were hurt by nationalization, for we were neither landowners nor industrialists in the ancient regime. Baba actually supported Nasser and his socialism, his pan-Arabism, and his anti-colonial battles. I think he would have been amused to know that the Pontiac was named after an American Indian chief who, like Nasser, revolted and fought against British occupation. In any case, things started to get bad for us as a family around the time I was born in the mid seventies, and it was not because of state socialism.

Baba’s enterprise based on buying cars in Kuwait and shipping them to Egypt wasn’t a very good idea. Other families were investing their petrodollar savings in real estate or other businesses. Baba would not admit to himself that he just loved shopping for a car and driving it across borders and spending time customizing it. He told himself (and his wife) that his affair with cars was a business investment, and that the plan was to rent the American cars out to the police force and the film industry, and the Ladas and Fiats to the taxi drivers. However, an operation like this needed to be overseen, and Baba was in Kuwait most of the year and not that interested in business management. He probably rented out one or two cars per year, and he didn’t resell them.

At one point he had eight or eleven cars (my parents debating the correct number usually resulted in a long shouting match). Baba’s cars became a money pit, or a curse, as my mother prefers to describe it. They all met their demise one way or another, one of the more painful losses being that of the fancy 1971 Oldsmobile. The Cairo municipality removed it in the early eighties while replacing gas pipes in the street where it was parked. Its papers were missing, and somehow Baba never saw it again.

The recreational road trips stopped, too. Wars were breaking out, and the days of open borders between Arab countries came to an end, as did the ideology that proclaimed it. The last road trip Baba made across the Fertile Crescent was when my mother was pregnant with me. Her water broke as civil war erupted in Lebanon, and a few years after that the Iraq/Iran war started, followed shortly by the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. From then on, the invasions and wars never quite ended. That is why I never went on any of those legendary trips; I never got to eat masgouf on the banks of the Tigris, nor drive across Syria and reach Mount Lebanon.

It’s not fun to be born during the years of decline and only hear stories or look at pictures of past glories. It made me relate to Detroit in the way I’d like to slow down when passing through its decay, hoping to capture a trace or hint from its golden years. Another war much related to the wars that ended my family’s road trips caused the oil crisis that cast a dark spell on the Motor City. It became impossible to continue manufacturing cars like the Pontiac and the Oldsmobile. The gloom started to descend on both parts of the world around the same time.

Baba left Kuwait altogether when I was six. My brothers followed him to Egypt, one after the other, to attend college or boarding school in preparation for college. I stayed on for a few more years with my mother, who had started covering her hair like most women there at the time. She taught math in a middle school and was quite happy at her job. I thought there was something particularly wrong with my family, divided like that between two countries and only getting together during summer vacations. Recently, though, I realized that it was not just us. Many expat families living in Kuwait were similarly dispersed. The rush to the Gulf was not for permanent settling. Even if their kids were born in Kuwait, expats didn’t have the right to send them to the public university unless one of the parents was on the faculty there. Also, no matter how much experience these expats had at their jobs, there were some positions that could only be filled by Kuwaiti citizens.

Expats also weren’t allowed home ownership. Apparently, a lot of guest workers adapted to these conditions or didn’t mind them, including my mother, who defended Kuwait, saying, “it’s such a tiny country!” On the other hand, the only thing a disgruntled expat could do was to turn his back on the high salary and the things it could buy and opt for a poorer lifestyle, an uncertain restart, or an early retirement back home. And that’s what Baba did when he was about forty-five.

Back in Egypt, Baba spent most of his time and savings decorating his private law office in downtown Cairo, but he never quite practiced law. In the eighties and nineties, all of Baba’s cars were old and outdated. American cars were not popular in Cairo. Egyptians preferred European and Japanese cars. We mostly drove the humble Fiat or the Lada, and I didn’t like them. They looked like a small fridge or a stove on wheels because they were white, boxy, and pretty basic. Our big red Vauxhall was better looking, but still way past its prime. As a teenager, I was embarrassed by our old, ugly cars. I often wondered why Baba did not sell them all and buy just one new car, even a small one. A car that would be less chunky, less noisy, and that would have a little more padding. I was so used to slamming our heavy car doors shut with such might that I terrified the owners of newer, lighter cars.

Yet instead of selling his old cars, I saw Baba spend considerable amounts of time and money going from one mechanic’s garage to another, fixing this car and repainting that one, and even replacing whole engines. He still had the Pontiac, but it was probably not very sensible or practical to drive a 1962 convertible around in 1980s Cairo traffic (even though it was repainted into a mood-appropriate grayish white). So he didn’t, as far as I remember, except for once, and it was the only time I was ever in the Pontiac.

Late one summer night when I was about eight, Baba and Mama for some reason went out in the Pontiac and I happened to tag along. The top was open and I sat silent in the distant backseat while Baba drove away from the city, upwards to the much quieter Muqattam hills. I just sat there staring at the vastness of everything: the backseat of the Pontiac, the night sky above and the limestone ridges we were driving along. We stopped to have dinner at a restaurant called The Black Horse on the corniche, at an outdoor table that felt terribly close to the cliff despite a protective fence. From up there, we could see the glimmering lights of Cairo, the Citadel, and the minarets.

I remember that I just hovered between the table and the fence, never quite sitting in my chair, and that I ate all the pickled cucumbers, which to me were tastier than the grilled quail my parents were having. It must have been a rare, spur-of-the-moment date night at this point in their deteriorating marriage and, weirdly, I was there to witness it. On the drive back, Baba sang loudly. He was a heavy smoker with chronic asthma. He used to give a disclaimer whenever he was about to sing while driving: “I sing because it loosens the phlegm in my chest and helps me to cough it out.” I don’t know why he couldn’t just admit that he liked to sing. That evening he sang a song by Abdel Wahab called “Cleopatra,” a romantic poem written in standard Arabic about nighttime, a boy whose skin is the color of beer, the queen he’s in love with, his boat made of dreams, and the river Nile.

My very last memory of the Pontiac is from the early 1990s, when it was a dirty, abandoned relic parked in front of my late grandfather’s house. Even though the house had a garage, no one thought the old Pontiac deserved to be kept inside. Instead, it was left on the curb, half covered with a ragged discolored canvas, the way people like to do in Egypt; they cover their cars with canvas the way they cover furniture in their homes. In this case, it was fitting because the Pontiac did become home and bed for many families of stray cats and dogs. There were always little animals scurrying around it, and sometimes one big dog sitting very authoritatively on its top, guarding God-knows-what inside.

This was around the same time that most of our Egyptian friends returned from Kuwait in the wake of the Iraqi invasion. On TV, the images of Iraq were so different from what had settled in my mind from the stories of the road trips my family used to take. From CNN and Al-Jazeera war footage to more recent films like The Hurt Locker, I never saw a trace of the water buffaloes, green fields, clear rivers, or boats. As if my family’s life before me belonged to a long-gone mythical past.

Living in automobile land for the past few years constantly reminds me of Baba, who died from one of his asthma attacks in 2004. I am sure he would have liked to come and visit one of the heritage car fairs they have here. I would have stood beside him, translating his conversations with the exhibitors and car owners. He didn’t know a lot of English, but he used the little he knew impressively, almost theatrically, delivering lines like those from classic Hollywood movies. One particular line he recited a lot was from The Ten Commandments, when King Seti, who loved his adopted son, Moses, had yet to banish him to preserve his reign over the kingdom, says, “What I did I was compelled to.”

The last car Baba drove is known in Egypt as “The Monkey.” It was a secondhand 1960s Fiat 1100 that he bought from a friend for a very low price. It was so quirky that it was cute rather than pitiful. Its doors were hinged at the center, also known in the industry as “suicide doors,” so every time I’d open the front door I’d do a little twirl to get in. The gearshift was a stick mounted on the column of the steering wheel. I broke it once when I was still learning how to drive, and it was the first and last time I tried to drive one of Baba’s cars. He defended his odd little car, saying, “It’s an old car for an old man,” and he liked to point out its original light blue paint color and interior that were in “fabbrica” shipshape.

Having learned from his horse lesson, I never asked Baba to buy me a car. After a few years in my first job, I saved up for a down payment on a new 2001 Fiat Uno. It was a budget supermini car, manufactured in post-communist, post-socialist Poland. Baba liked to drive it sometimes, too. I liked having a car as a single woman living in Cairo because of the independence and the protection it provided me, but I was never too attached to any car I bought. Strangely, it was Baba who advised me to be practical when choosing one, saying, “it should be no more important than a shoe.” I think he was afraid that I might fall under the spell of a beautiful car that would eventually control me through debt or devotion.

Two months before he died, Baba sold his Pontiac for the equivalent of $500. It’s a mystery why he waited that long to sell it, and why he finally got rid of it like that. My brother, who inherited Baba’s passion for cars, had helped Baba fix the Pontiac and clean it up, but he too was caught by surprise when Baba suddenly sold it. My other brother developed an aversion to Baba’s cars early on; he swore never to touch one of them and he never did.

I don’t care much for cars, but I do love road trips. It is what I think I’ve inherited from Baba: the way he would suddenly decide to take the slower countryside road from Cairo to Alexandria, rather than the faster desert highway like most other vacationers. The way he would stop at crummy roadside hash houses to try truck drivers’ food, and the way he would suggest going into one of the small villages to pay a visit to an old distant relative and look at old buildings. My mother tagged along on those unplanned visits either reluctantly or because he appealed to her sense of social duty, but Baba was never able to convince her to leave the car and join him in his culinary adventures. Maybe that’s why I haven’t made as many road trips as I would have liked; I’d either have to go alone, or hold others captive to my desire, depending on the kind of power I hold over them.

During Egypt’s short gleam of revolution in 2011, I was easily convinced by friends to start planning for a roadtrip across the Arab countries newly liberated from dictatorship. Our freedom caravan was supposed to start out from Tunis, where they had toppled their dictator first; then head to Libya, where the dictator was hiding in a hole; drive through Egypt, where people were still dancing in Tahrir square; and make it all the way to Syria, which we thought would be the next dictatorship to fall. I imagined the time had come for me to drive across borders the way Baba once did, but the idea was as short-lived as the revolution that inspired it. The road trip plan never went beyond the social media group where it was incepted. Sometimes I trick myself into consolation by touring the Arabic restaurants and grocery stores in Dearborn as if they were living souvenirs from Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. At least I got to taste the black date molasses that my brother raved about.

~

Last summer in Ann Arbor, I discovered that “old car smell” at a heritage car fair. I was struck by how a familiar smell could linger on inside a car for decades and become the starkest difference between new cars and cars like Baba’s. Every time I stuck my head through an open car window, the car owners thought I was admiring the interiors of their classic cars and proudly described how they maintained all the details and accessories. The truth was, I didn’t notice any of these details. My eyes were shut while I caught whiffs of hazy memories.

I walked through the fair scanning the cars hurriedly, as if I were on a mission, asking if someone had brought a 1961 Pontiac Parisienne. Then the rain forced me to sit behind the glass window of a cafe on Main Street, and my gaze shifted to the old wrinkled faces of the exhibitors. I wasn’t interested in the specs of their cars. I just wondered if they had stories similar to Baba’s. Maybe there’s something near universal about how men from that generation loved their cars. I wished I could ask them why they kept their cars for so long, and what it had cost them, or what Detroit was like when it was the rich car capital of the world. Baba’s cars had seen a rise and fall too, and because of that unglamorous retirement, we got to spend time together, and I listened to his stories. The stories were free, and they outlived the cars.


Image of Baba and his Pontiac courtesy of the author.

Hadil Ghoneim is the author of several books for children and young adults. Her book Sana fi Qena (A Year in Qena) was on the 2016 IBBY Honor List and was shortlisted for the 2014 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature. During her time as a senior editor at the Cairo based publishing house Dar El Shorouk, she translated and localized many books for children into Arabic including the series Geronimo Stilton. Prior to that, she was the assistant editor of the book review magazine Weghat Nazar (Perspectives). Ghoneim’s essays, profiles, and interviews have appeared in numerous Egyptian media outlets such as Mada Masr and Al-Shorouk newspaper. She holds an MA in Culture and Society from the London School of Economics and a BSc in Political Science from Cairo University. When not writing, she is busy with community projects and initiatives revolved around culture and dialogue. She is currently based in Michigan with her husband and young daughter.

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