Tuesday, October 31, 2006
When I worked as a translator for an Egyptian human right NGO most of what I translated consisted of cases in which an Egyptian had been bullied/assaulted/threatened/harmed/killed by a branch of the government monolith – more often than not the police. I was therefore very much aware that considerations such as culpability, due process, and accountability are minor details in policing strategy when myself and a friend, the Pig, were stopped at a police checkpoint in Dahab. To put this in context I am British and look it, but am also Egyptian and Muslim. The Pig is Egyptian and Christian. We clearly presented something of a conundrum to the police, whose treatment of people is so determined by nationality, religion and gender. The tone in which I was questioned revealed that the state security representative was focussing on one of three possibilities; 1. I am a woman of low repute, 2. The Pig is a subversive/pimp 3. Both 1 and 2. What training the man had had was clearly of the 70s Starsky & Hutch cop type – odd questions, the answer to which would prompt a hmm, accompanied by long lingering stares at my ID card and moustache stroking - his not mine obviously.
To cut a long story short, my ignorance of the subtleties of dealing with the Egyptian police, combined with the fatigue of a seven-hour trip, meant that I responded to his questioning in something of a truculent tone. We were made to wait for twenty minutes while he went to sit down after we refused to let him use one of our mobiles in order to – as he claimed – call his superior and run checks on us. Other cars were waived through as we pondered whether this was mere 3’alaasa or something more sinister. We were eventually let go, but not before state security guy had taken our mobile numbers.
At 1.30 am that night as we were returning from an evening in Sharm, our friend from state security rang to inform me that he wanted me to pass by him tomorrow because he had something he wanted to tell me about the Pig. He also requested that he talk to the Pig, and told him that travelling at night was dangerous and that he shouldn’t do so. He rang at the exact moment we arrived back at the Dahab checkpoint, despite not actually being there in person, and asked me how I am, reminded me that he wants to see me tomorrow, and told me ‘tesba7y 3ala kheyr ya gameela’ in a voice which made me want to vomit on my shoes.
More sophisticated Egyptian citizens would have clocked at a much earlier stage that this was one low-level guy with a bad moustache abusing what little power he had. I should not have answered his phone calls, never mind betray through my voice the discomfort I felt. When I did eventually realise what was going on and ignored his phone calls (which are still continuing), the Orwellian 1984- horror type sick feeling I had been experiencing was replaced by something else; a real understanding of the fact that while this time I was being targeted by one pathetic individual rather than the state, when the state does make prey of one of its subjects, there is almost nothing that individual can do. It isn’t so much the actual violence itself which bothers me once it arrives, but its utterly arbitrary, unpredictable nature, the waiting. Its randomness together with a total absence of rules and accountability mean that particularly when dealing with this branch of the state, an Egyptian has to do a monkey dance to a tune which both he and the official know is crazy and discordant, until either the music ends or the official tells the citizen to stop. Pure humiliation, and purely routine.
Monday, October 23, 2006
There were small clues that things were different from the moment I stepped into terminal 3 – you could almost smell the tension. People were arriving at the departure gate and discovering that no, they could not conceal their laptop bags under their coats, and that if they were unable to perform magic and reduce four items of hand luggage into one, they’d have to say goodbye to three of them. Oh and absolutely no liquids of any form allowed through either. Near mania then, as people tried desperately to fit laptops into mini-handbags, women applied all the lip gloss they had brought with them rather than have to throw it away, and two-litre bottles of water were drunk in 30 seconds before the empty bottles were added to the mountains of stinking rubbish at the checkpoint, and the passenger spent the next hour trying desperately not to wet himself in the queue. The musical accompaniment to all this was; kids screaming as embargoed food/drink/toys were taken from them; mothers screaming back at them; fathers telling mothers they were stupid for bringing the lip gloss; and mothers watching smugly as the fathers wrestled with getting the laptop bag into the kid’s Dora the Explorer mini-rucksack.
I suffered my own indignity at the check-in desk when I had to check all but one of my many hand luggage bags into the hold, and was forced to transfer the contents of these bags into a rucksack. An Egyptair employee (who God bless him was admittedly very generous with the excess luggage fine) watched me trying to cram the obligatory laptop into my bag, together with (amongst other assorted crap) two pairs of emergency travelling knickers I had forgotten were in there. I felt compelled to murmur something about being prepared in case suitcases go missing, but his look betrayed a suspicion that I had an incontinence problem.
And they scan virtually everything now, including shoes. Dazzled by the bright lights of the Duty Free, I of course left the bloody laptop on the scanning machine, but fortunately fellow passengers were too busy fighting each other, shouting at their kids, putting their shoes on etc, to steal it.
The flight itself was in what felt like a toy aeroplane which transmitted even the smallest currents of turbulence to its green-faced passengers. A mysterious technical error meant that while I could listen to the pre-film Ministry of Tourism programme on exciting new ancient Egypt archaeological discoveries, and enjoy a 20 minute item on whirling dervishes, I could not actually hear the (luckily crap) film once it started - unless I chose to listen to Harvey Keital in Japanese. After attempting to read the subtitles on the three inch squared overhead television (which was some four metres away) I conceded defeat and decided to read, but obviously the overhead lights weren’t working. Fortunately the food arrived at that point, and face-stuffing closed the potential conversation window that might have been opened by the fact that me and the old man a seat away were both sitting in the dark doing nothing (my anti-social tendencies become particularly pronounced when I am trapped in a window seat and the gun of polite conversation is held to my temple.) Luckily the guy also seemed of a morose, unfriendly nature similar to my own. This impression was confirmed when, as he was drinking coffee, a man walking past was propelled into him by a particularly violent burst of turbulence, causing coffee to spill all over his shirt and glasses and making him look like he was going through a carwash. The old guy spent the rest of the flight giving the most spectacular Wicked Witch of the West type evil stares to the back of his tormentor’s head, which at least provided entertainment and more than compensated for the lack of a film, or light.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
I love this shop’s name, makes me laugh every time I pass it. No clear idea what it sells, though it appears to be filled with incense, spiritual guides and the other assorted crap found in hippy shops. Needless to say it has nothing to do with Egyptians or modern Egypt, but rather is some kind of Nubian/Pharonic/spirituality/roots trip.
Anyway Egypt is also on my mind, as I’ll be back there on Thursday. Virtually all my friends, family and acquaintances are inevitably advising against going back, citing impending Islamic revolution, gradual economic collapse, pervasive corruption (Egyptian ex-pat friends) and a smaller range of hair conditioners (Mother) as factors advising against such a foolhardy move. Unsolicited advice was also proffered by the travel agent girl who looked aghast when I informed her I wouldn’t need the return half of my ticket, and urged me not to forget to take the pills. I assumed she meant an anti-malarial preparation, though she may have been talking about anti-depressives.
Like a battered wife I unfortunately love Egypt and keep going back - no matter how many times it punches me in the face. I think it must be the knowledge that I can leave which allows me to enjoy it, because the single-nationality Egyptians I know in Egypt mostly regard it with a mixture of contempt, despair and nostalgia at what has been lost. Egypt-love seems particularly unfashionable at the moment, in Ramadan, when tempers are short and hem-lines have to be extra-long. Egypt’s faults have been comprehensively documented at some length in the blog world and in UN human rights reports, and anyone who needs a reminder of them can also consult Umm Amnesiac who will tell you about the glory days when Dokki was allegedly a village, and will remind you of the difficulties of life in a country which does not have a branch of Marks & Spencer in it. To extol Egypt’s virtues would make me sound like a deluded fool, so I wont do that. And in any case, individual economic conditions, background and situation dictate and shape each individual’s unique experience of Egypt to such an extent that my droning on about my own version of Egypt – good and bad - is ultimately pointless.
Aside: can anyone tell me why it is so easy to identify men of a certain age in Diaspora as Egyptian? Is it the high trouser waist bands? Or the small gentlemen’s handbags? I was reminded of this on two occasions recently; Firstly, as I walked behind a bloke whose belt was somewhere in the region between his belly button and his nipples (and who lo-and-behold I encountered ten minutes later in the travel agent buying a ticket to Cairo), and secondly, when my Mum and I were at a market stall which sells gorgeous Kashmiri shawls and kaftans etc. No sooner had I caught a glimpse of the gentleman’s handbag then I heard a woman’s voice asking ‘eih da???’ and the handbag owner responding ‘galabeyya ya3ni’ with dismissive contempt as they both looked scornfully at a particularly exquisite example of Kashmiri embroidery. Not that it didn’t look like a galabeyya, mind.
Friday, October 13, 2006
FO's human rights report omits attacks on Lebanon
· Beckett blames deadline as Israel escapes criticism
· Lack of casualty figures to 'play badly' with Muslims
Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor
Friday October 13, 2006
The Foreign Office came under fire yesterday after omitting any criticism of Israel's attack on Lebanon in its annual human rights report.
Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, told a press conference the omission was because the timing was "a little bit tight" for publication. She said she anticipated the war being dealt with more fully in next year's report.
But the authors did find sufficient time to include criticism of the Lebanese-based guerrilla group Hizbullah, and one of its backers, Syria, over attacks on Israel and to provide a figure for Israeli, but not Lebanese, casualties.
Although Mrs Beckett said timing was a problem, the report includes a colour photograph of a Lebanese woman amid the rubble of Beirut, and refers to the ceasefire that ended the 34-day war on August 14, and a speech by the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, two days later.
The omission row overshadowed publication of the 356-page report, which lists countries the British government views as being of major concern with regard to human rights, including Burma, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Israel, although only in the occupied territories, not in Lebanon. Israel was accused of various abuses for attacking civilian areas, including the use of cluster bombs. Well over 1,000 Lebanese civilians died in the conflict.
At the time, Tony Blair and the US were suspected of bias towards Israel by refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire. The report's omission will raise further suspicions in the Arab world.
But a Foreign Office source said yesterday that, having spoken to one of the report's authors, the omission was an oversight. He said the British embassy in Damascus had sent information on Syria and Hizbullah for inclusion in the report but there was no such communication from the British embassy in Israel.
Tim Hancock, UK campaigns director of Amnesty International, said the organisation welcomed the report as a valuable tool for tracking human rights, but was concerned that key issues were omitted.
He said: "It is absolutely right that the government strongly criticise Hizbullah's rocket attacks, but deeply worrying that this report makes no specific mention of Israel's illegal targeting of Lebanese infrastructure - anything from roads, bridges, supermarkets and petrol stations, to water and fuel storage plants.
"Soon after the Israel-Hizbullah conflict, Amnesty International published reports on possible war crimes committed by both sides - and it's surely right that the UK government should be equally even-handed in assessing all human rights issues."
Tom Porteous, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said the war was "one of the biggest human rights stories of the year".
He added: "I think the omission is very serious and is going to undermine what is quite a strong report. I think the Foreign Office attempt to say it is because of a publication deadline is quite possibly true ... [but] how did they include the stuff on Hizbullah and casualty figures in Israel? I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt that it could be a mistake but it will play very badly in the Muslim world."
By contrast with the absence of Israel's conduct in Lebanon, the report says: "We remain deeply concerned by Syria's ongoing support for Hizbullah. Hizbullah's role in the major outbreak of violence this year with Israel included abducting and detaining two Israeli soldiers and firing unguided rockets into Israeli towns and cities. In total, Hizbullah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israeli territory."
It also noted that the rocket attacks had killed about 40 Israeli civilians.
At the press conference, Mrs Beckett delivered the clearest denunciation yet of Guantánamo Bay, describing detention without trial as "unacceptable in terms of human rights" and "ineffective in terms of counter-terrorism".
Monday, October 09, 2006
My father has a fantastic inability to judge headroom, with the result that growing up I would regularly hear a distant bang - ‘shit!’ or, bang - ‘fuck!’ in the house. I noticed however that equivalent personal injury to my mother would merely prompt a ‘yeeee-EE’ or an ufff. When I asked my mother how people swear in Egyptian Arabic she informed me that no swearwords exist. I think that she might actually have believed this, she being the woman who has managed to live in England for over 30 years without learning the meaning of blow job, bless her.
Needless to say when I escaped the clutch of the family in Egypt, cousin Mildred and her cohorts quickly exploded my mother’s naivety with a platter of profanities which made my head spin. Not directed at me you understand, but sprinkled liberally all over their conversation. I was particularly impressed with a7a, the 7 of which seems to me to convey more disgust than a thousand bloody hells. Then of course there are the more complex compound swear words in which Arabic excels, consisting of various pejorative epithets for parents. I was particularly delighted when I discovered that these parent bashing insults could be made more florid by the addition of a numeral – ‘he is the son of 60 dogs!’ etc which seems to have an almost Shakespearian ring to it. It was when I translated swearwords for non-Arabic speaking friends that I realised just how much swearwords embody the language and the culture which created them. British friends simply could not appreciate the impact that ‘son of a dog’ has in Arabic - perhaps because parents don’t have the same hallowed status in Britain which they enjoy in Arab culture, or, more likely because there are virtually no taboos left in Britain to break.
In my swearing days I used to sound like Goodfellas on speed, I blush now even to think of it. Even the most innocent of objects had to be prefixed with an obscenity – “Shit I’ve left my fucking coat in the friggin bastard car etc” I allowed the odd Arabic expletive to escape at work, obviously not in front of the boss, but amongst people of my own age, and good lord! It was as if I’d offered to lap-dance them. The female reaction was best: “Amnesiac, we don’t use language like that” they informed me demurely. Charlotte Bronte eat your heart out. I eventually learnt that Girls Don’t Swear, but my experiment did reveal a kindred spirit in Lion, a female colleague who likes to expound on the copious amount of bedan in life, but does so with wit.
I gave up swearing for last Ramadan and for a week or so was virtually unable to produce a sentence such was my addiction to obscenities. I also made the dramatic discovery that huge amounts of Anglo-Saxon profanities actually sound ugly, especially the C word which I can’t even bring myself to write, but whose better-mannered cousin is twat.
Anyway the reason I’m banging on about swearing is that I came across this interesting article about British attitudes to swearing http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1889732,00.html The author points out that in Denmark there is no such thing as a forbidden word while in Britain a fuck uttered before 9 p.m. on telly will land you in serious hot water. It always seemed rather anomalous that a documentary about transsexual prostitutes who like to film themselves having group sex should be preceded by a surely superfluous warning that ‘this programme contains strong language’ (fuck) or ‘very strong language’ (C word). But then the Brits are an odd people who like to simultaneously convince themselves that they are the guardians of Victorian manners and modesty in a degenerate world, while losing themselves in an orgy of sex, drugs and swearing.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
The Turner Prize for those of you fortunate enough to be in blissful ignorance of its existence is an annual event when six
1. Phil Collins ‘They Shoot Horses’ [people working in an office]
First of all no it’s not bald Phil ‘Against All Odds’ Collins, but rather some bloke who has transferred a production company and its staff to an art gallery, and got them answering phones, sending emails and generally doing stuff people do in offices. The idea is that saddos who have taken part in reality TV (Big Brother and its ilk) and got burnt by the experience ring up this production company and tell all. According to the Turner Prize website [prepare yourself, bollocks ahead] “Phil Collins’ art investigates our ambivalent relationship with the camera as both an instrument of attraction and manipulation, of revelation and shame.” Right. I saw him interviewed on TV, and the interviewer asked him what the final piece of art actually was; the reconstruction of an office, or the testimonies of the losers who call in? Collins the pseudo intellectual twat said (with this knowing “I really have duped these morons” smirk) “I dunno…what do you think is the final piece of art?” Goddamit.
And what’s more how dare he appropriate the title of a great, great book (by Horace McCoy. Read it people) for his stupid meaningless nonsense.
No this isn't something the cat coughed up, this is art
2. Rebecca Warren [clay sculptures that look like bits of poo]
This woman is an absolute genius. She is the art equivalent of conmen who dupe pensioners into investing their life savings into pyramid schemes. Except that the pensioners on the Turner Prize Committee think that she’s hot stuff. What is particularly impressive about Warren is that she does not even attempt to disguise the fact that she is passing off glass as diamonds. Our friends at the Turner website tell us that “she re-works and intentionally misappropriates existing images by the accepted masters of figurative sculpture, including Degas, Picasso and Rodin blah blah blah”
Isn’t misappropriation a synonym for theft?
Wait it gets better. This is how she made her masterpieces: “After receiving the clay originals back from the foundry, bashed and misshapen from the casting process, Warren revised and added to them before returning them for recasting. Repetitions can be detected between works as well as traces of rubber from their extraction from the moulds, thus showing disregard for the traditional connotations of the material.”
And surely also showing complete disregard for the intelligence of those who look at these objects. For the love of God, ‘traces of rubber?!?’ It took all my powers of self-restraint not to put my foot through the television when I saw these monstrosities. She has basically taken a lump of clay, or poo, or whatever it is, smacked it about a few times to make an amorphous mess, baked it, seen that it is still an amorphous mess, and thought to herself “hmm…how can I pull one over on the tossers on the Turner Prize Committee and win me some green… I know! I’ll put a nipple on it!” And that is indeed what she did, for the Turner website proclaims that “ideas of self-expression, gender and the nature and purpose of sculptural form converge in Warren’s work.”
So what if I moon the Turner Committee? Doesn’t that combine ideas of self-expression, gender and the nature and purpose of sculptural form? Uffffff indeed.
To anyone who chooses to wheel out the tired old argument that art is whatever the artist terms art, I respectfully say bollocks. Double bollocks. There has to be a degree of objectivity here surely, in the same way that it is possible for a broad consensus to exist about the merits or otherwise of a film. The problem is that since most modern art is quite literally a load of rubbish it has no objective value; neither in terms of the material used nor the skill employed to create it. It is the Nike shoe of the art world; produced for 50p and sold for 100 quid. While Nike relies on marketing (oh demon craft), modern art employs middlemen to convince us that by playing white noise on a radio in an empty room the artist is conveying the complexity of life – and should be paid 500,000 big ones for his trouble.
And no, it is not enough that a piece of art generates controversy, or that people rail against it on blogs - it's still no substitute for ability and genuine creativity. Just because I am shocked by the fat woman in pink spandex leggings lap dancing on the bus, don't make her an artist.
I honestly did give modern art a chance once. I went to Tate Britain when it first opened (free entry obviously, like I’d pay). I was impressed by the architecture of the building itself, which is pretty spectacular – shame it’s being used for something so rubbish. It all went downhill pretty soon after I went in obviously, and I wandered forlornly from room to room looking at televisions showing a man running on the spot, and giant clothes hangers etc. I eventually went into the final room, which was cordoned off and filled with painting and decorating materials. Obviously not ready yet I thought, until my heart sank when I saw a small card in the corner on which was written ‘in this work the artist Haraamy McFraud explores the ease with which it is possible to take the piss out of the general public by convincing them that what looks like their living room when it is being redecorated, can in fact constitute art.’ Clearly some pretentious old rubbish was written rather than that, and when I read it I immediately ran outside and threw myself in the Thames.
Monday, October 02, 2006
This is the latest in a succession of random attempts by
So apparently the pain of the single woman is a scourge which must be combated globally - like terrorism, or rabies - and means that I am not spared the efforts of their take it or take it dating services.
The first time a potential suitor was hoisted on me the situation was this: I was opening a bank account, and an aunt who uses the same bank, and who herself is an incorrigible flirt, put me in touch with – guess what! – a young single guy with swimmer’s shoulders. Fearing that Cupid’s inevitable magic would not take it’s course without her mystical presence, she accompanied me to the bank and presented me to the helpful young man, before proceeding to inform him in the loudest voice she could muster ‘this is the one I told you about’ *wink wink* while the poor boy shuffled papers. The bank actually happened to be in one of Cairo’s omnipresent
The next target also worked in a bank funnily enough, but this one I refused to meet because, not requiring yet another bank account and not wishing to enquire about low-interest loans, I could think of no pretext to present myself at his window. This is an addition to the fact that I totally object to these manufactured encounters of course. I did briefly consider scandalising my family by appearing at his window in thigh length boots and asking him whether he’d like to make a deposit in my checking account *WINK BLOODY WINK* but realised that even this gesture would be put down to Western eccentricity and interpreted as a sign of interest.
I got an insight into the criteria el familia use to gauge a man’s husband suitability when one of the aunties – who just happened to be looking out of the window/was doing her Alfred Hitchcock Rear Window impression - spotted me alighting from the car of a very platonic rugby friend. Her keen eyesight/binoculars/satellite imagery had provided her with the intelligence that rugby friend was Wearing a Suit, and Driving a Good Car. When I was later interrogated about who he was, I attempted to burst her balloon by telling her firstly; that he was slightly younger than me, secondly; that he was kind but dull, thirdly; that we had nothing in common, fourthly; that he was probably moving abroad anyway (stupid me, this only made him even more desirable) fifthly; that he liked Celine Dion and (the killer argument I thought) sixthly; that he wore his stripy jumper nonchalantly slung round his shoulders in a ‘going on my yacht’ style – unforgivable surely! Apparently infinitely forgivable when it's slung over a suit! I eventually resorted to besmirching the poor boy’s character through mild fabrications such as claiming that he wore women’s underwear while forcing cats to break-dance at gunpoint, but even this elicited the memorable reply ‘but ya Amnesiac! He drives an Opel!’
As a result of these experiences I now have an unreasonable and almost visceral aversion to bank tellers, and force male acquaintances to give me lifts home in donkey carts whilst wearing prison garb.