Thursday, December 28, 2006

Cairo Superdome

Little white lies are as pernicious as big black lies. When they mix together, a great greyness of ambiguity descends, society is cast adrift in an amoral sea, and corruption and rot and decay start to flourish. Such is the time we are now passing through. Everything is disintegrating because details are neglected and nothing is regarded seriously.

Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters.

About the only way in which I allow Christmas to interrupt my life is calling my Grandmother in the UK. Christmas was always fairly ridiculous, but it makes no sense whatsoever when not accompanied by my father’s drunken joviality and the dulcet tones of my mother’s farting over the Queen’s speech. But Gran loves Christmas because Christmas means family - perhaps the reason why I dislike Christmas. Joking obviously, Dad.

While I am the now the proud possessor of a phone-line at home, the line is filled with so much static (a free and unadvertised gift courtesy of Egypt Telecom) that it sounds like the person I am talking to is eating foil in a tornado, and I myself am barely audible. “Kharwasha” it’s called in Arabic, and never was a word more onomatopoeically evocative of the blight that it describes.

Not wanting to spend 30 le on a phone card in order to have two minutes for the privilege of saying, “Hello Gran, Happy kharwasha kharwasha kharwasha” I was forced out into Cairo’s winter streets and to the telephone exchange.

The Centraal is as 1960s Russia as it sounds, and my local one even looks like it should house the Ministry of Truth, imposing granite monolith that it is. During the day people “queue” for hours in order to be told that they are at the wrong window, before queuing some more in order to tell a man who doesn’t care that their phones aren’t working. At night the windows close leaving only the telephone cubicles. This being Egypt it is mandatory for conversations to be conducted at full volume, and the empty hall is filled with the sound of disembodied voices which hang in the air like the cigarette smoke from the bored cashier watching them. Cutting through this is the computerised robotic voice which announces the duration and cost of each and every call made, and which always forms an oddly dispassionate and striking contrast to the dawn chorus of emotions being played out at full volume inside the eight booths.

Anyway I spoke to my Gran who was enjoying doing her Don Corleone thang at the family dinner, and then went to pay the cashier, who seems to be Egypt’s most popular man, if the Yahoo Messenger and MSN sounds coming from his computer are anything to go by. His many contacts obviously haven’t seen his moustache. He printed out my bill, which I misread as 9.50 LE. I gave him ten. He was serving someone else simultaneously, and after I gave him the ten pound note, he appeared to be looking around for something. Thinking that perhaps he didn’t have a 50 piastre note to give me in change, I gave him another 50 piastre note so that he could give me a pound back. He accepted the 50 piastre note, and I waited for the change. He looked blankly at me, and I showed him the receipt and what I thought was the total. In fact I had missed out the final total after the telecom company adds an extra sum of money, perhaps for the privilege of using a chair while we talk. He pointed out that the total was ten. “Fair enough”, I said, “and the extra 50 piastres I just gave you by mistake?” He looked at me impassively and smiled the smile of a man who makes you laugh only so that he can reach inside and steal your gold fillings, while the MSN bonged, bonged, bonged beside him.

Needless to say I was not about to create a hoo-hah about 50 piastres. But as always where the material sum at stake is not big enough to fight for, I was left contemplating the principle involved, which is not that a government employee took advantage of my stupidity to earn himself some quick cash, but that both he and I accepted it as entirely normal. Because deceitful, mercenary, self-interest and palm-greasing is the norm in any interaction between officialdom and individuals, between individuals, even within a family, particularly where it involves money.

This obviously is nothing new, but a question to which I would love an answer is this: was it always like this? Did this behaviour develop in response to corruption (when??) as a sort of survival mechanism and spread? Or is corruption simply the manifestation of something more sinister within Egyptian society’s psyche which regards truth as relative and other people’s pain as a stepping block for one’s own advancement? Growing up I was frequently under orders by my mother to “not tell Daddy” about e.g. a sum of money she had spent which she didn’t want him to find out about while my father himself regarded the smallest of untruths as a moral outrage. And on holidays back in Egypt I was constantly aware of secrets in the house, of double-dealing…Needless to say the unedifying spectacle of relatives ripping each other apart over land and money has been a leitmotif throughout the Egyptian part of my childhood and continues today.Which is not to say that the English are somehow more upstanding and that everything is cricket old chap, and fair play. God forbid.

Perhaps the poverty and oppression which has assaulted Egypt for so long has, metaphorically speaking, had the same ravaging effect as Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans. Cairo feels like a giant Superdome where ‘normal’ human relations in every single area of life have been suspended - seemingly by consensus - and people will eat each other alive if necessary to survive.

Monday, December 25, 2006


After the heady days of the Masters degree, intellectual stimulation these days is largely confined to:

1. Contemplation of what the point of Robin on Dr Phil actually is (can the man not find his way out of the studio unaided?);
2. Contemplation of reasons to get out of bed
3. Seminars

The seminars I have attended so far have on the whole been excellent, informative and fun, with the exception of a meeting on ‘safety on Egypt’ which was mostly bonkers. The flyer promised to provide ladies with tips on defending themselves against pervs, but we ended up listening to tips by an ebullient Texan on which type of fire extinguisher to keep in the kitchen, and the best course of action when stampeded by a crowd of 5,000 furious Somalis, amongst other things.

Yesterday’s seminar dealt with the situation of the Baha’is in Egypt and, in particular, the recent court decision overturning an earlier decision in their favour which forces them to write ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ on official documents, or forego them altogether. This is tantamount to renouncing their citizenship and effectively paralyses them; attempting to navigate the formidable labyrinth of Egyptian bureaucracy without an ID card or birth certificate is like being lost in the desert with neither stars nor compass to guide you. The Bah’ai without official papers cannot receive inoculations, cannot apply to university, cannot delay military service in order to go to university, cannot receive state benefits, and does not even escape this absurdity once he dies; one speaker described a case where a Bah’ai man was forced to keep the body of a deceased female relative in his house for days because he refused to write ‘Muslim’ on her death certificate and was therefore not allowed to bury her. The authorities were apparently insistent that she convert posthumously.

Similarly Orwellian machinations underlie the origins of the ID card case; until 2004 the Bah’ais were allowed to write ‘other’ in the religious field in ID cards, leave it blank, or write a dash. This changed after a mysterious internal decree was passed within the Interior Ministry banning this, just as ID cards were being computerised. Note that none of the Bah’ais at the seminar yesterday nor the legal group representing them, have succeeded in obtaining a copy of the decree, or even seeing it. The result was that when 3rd or 4th generation Bah’ais attempted to procure official documentation for themselves and their children, they were informed that the computer no longer accepted ‘other’ and that they would have to record themselves as Muslims. And yes Mr Boutros Fanous Girgis Milaad, that includes you, despite the fact that neither you nor your ancestors were ever Muslim

And the tragedy is that despite the extensive press coverage generated by the issue (some 400 articles according to one of the speakers), the general public seem unaware of what Bah’aism actually is. There seems to be a widespread misperception that Bah’aism is some heretical branch of Islam, specifically Shia Islam, and that it has a sinister Zionist agenda. In fact the Bah’ais at the seminar last night were some of the most chill people I’ve ever met, given their circumstances. Upbeat and positive, they explained that they are Egyptian citizens whose beliefs forbid them from opposing the government (except where the government interferes in their relationship with God), that they are not seeking recognition of the validity or otherwise of Bah’aism (which the speaker explained can only be judged by God), and that all they want is the right to official papers without being forced to lie about their beliefs. That this right (to freedom of belief) is recognised in the Egyptian Constitution, Islamic Sharia, international human rights treaties ratified by Egypt, and previous court decisions seems to have escaped the State Council whose decision will force thousands of citizens to lie in their official papers or face bureaucratical paralysis.

But hey-hum...God forbid that the giant fist of religious and cultural homogeniety should release its grip even fractionally to accommodate the basic rights and welfare of Egypt's citizens.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Surrealist harassment


Amnesiac is waiting for a taxi in the cold outside Toot Express, in midan Fini, Dokki, Cairo, Egypt.

Man in car: "Welcome. Welcome to Miami!"


* Had this man somehow discerned that only ten minutes earlier I had been watching the Miami based genius of Nip/Tuck? Did he want to keep the magic alive for me? Was I supposed to pretend that he was in fact Dr Christian Troy (he resembled Saddam Hussein) and jump in the car with him for a quick bottom lift?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A recipe

Egyptian cinema souffle

- 150 people
- 140 mobiles, all turned on with ringing volume on ‘loud’
- 140 Moustafa Qamar ringtones (if it is not the season for Moustafa Qamar, this ingredient may be substituted with Amr Diab at any time, and Hisham Abbas’ el asmaa el 7osina ringtone during the Eid)
- 1 six year old, preferably one with the capability to concentrate on the film but unable to comprehend anything without constantly questioning baba what is going on in the loudest voice possible
- 1 newborn with colic
- 2 toddlers (for added piquancy the toddlers should just have drank drunk [correction by Abu Amnesiac] three bottles of Cola each)
- 6 teenage boys going through puberty
- 6 teenage girls going through puberty. Important note: because these last two ingredients do not mix well together, they should be seated as far apart as possible. You will find however that they will still try to communicate either through giggles, or ringing each other.
- 3 ushers, ushers should have the stamina to be able to hover next to customers who have been shown their seats and whisper ‘ay 7’edma tanya ya bey?’ until they have extracted at least pound. This should go on until the end of the film if necessary.
- 1 pair of women ‘whispering’ about how Nancy Agram is ‘3assal’
- 1 pair of men ‘whispering’ about how Nancy Agram is a ‘mozza’
- 10 people who arrive twenty minutes into the film, and force an entire row to stand up as they pass
- 1 woman forced to stand for the 10 people trying to get past her, who loses her mobile in the process, and after noisily looking for it makes her husband ring her in order to locate it.
- 1 argument between this husband and wife
- 1 film projector, preferably mounted at a 40 degree angle
- Subtitles. Note that any subtitles will do, they do not necessarily have to bear any relation to the film itself. For a special flourish, why not try adding French subtitles? This will ensure that both Arabic and French subtitles combined take over half the screen and completely obscure the film.
- 1 intermission, preferably at the most crucial moment in the film.

A film.

Method of preparation
Combine all the ingredients and leave to stew for 90 minutes if making the soufflé American style, and two and half hours if you prefer the Egyptian version of this dish.

**Note: Regardless of whether you are making the American or Egyptian version of this dish, in no case should you add scenes of a sexual nature, since this risks making the entire soufflé collapse and could possibly bring about the moral ruination of your kitchen. Should you discover something of an adult nature in your raw ingredients, make sure to extract it even if in the process you ruin the film.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Have lemon will travel

My very touchy feely friend Mauve Bubble (who is in the UK) says that she likes reading my blog ‘because she feels very close to me.’ This inexplicably makes me feel like I have died, and that the blog is in fact fulfilling the same medium function as Whoopi in the supernatural-sexual pottery frenzy which was ‘Ghost.’ Mauve Bubble means well of course: she is perhaps the only person I know who never holds a grudge, never allows the conveyance of news about other people to descend into fishmonger’s wife gossip, and has an innocence whose city limits border dangerously close on Naivety Ville. She has also got a unique left-field way of looking at things with the result that when listening to a story about how so-and-so is a complete bastard and I should never have taken up with him in the first place because he’s insane, she will ask “yes, but does he like tangerines?” without any trace of humour or irony.

Her nom-de-guerre on this blog is inspired by the fact that when she is told of future events of any conceivable risk or danger, she will instruct people to wrap themselves up in an imaginary ‘mauve bubble’ so no harm can come to them. I cannot tell you how I spluttered and guffawed with ridicule when I first heard her say this. Now, as in everything with Mauve, it seems entirely reasonable and in any case has its origins in the lush oasis of kindness and goodness which is her heart.

I remember once in a class we were immersed in some very earnest discussion about the situation in Palestine, or the origins of World War II, and I looked over at Mauve who was clearly formulating a question about the role of polystyrene in war or similar. Waiting for a pause in between the talk of capitalist tyranny and ideological conflict, she asked “yes but why do wars happen?” - and genuinely wanted an answer. That year - which was ostensibly spent learning fos7a Arabic in Alexandria - was largely dominated with Mauve’s bonkers non-sequiturs. One afternoon there was a well-attended and at times violent demonstration on campus about some injustice or other, complete with roaring voices and placards. While discussions about the disgraceful twenty-year state of emergency were held around her, Mauve looked out from the building in which we the expensive foreigners were locked and said “look at all their black hair,” before photographing all the black hair and producing a very fine, dramatic picture.

It is the artist’s eye in her I suppose; she is dotty but highly intelligent in that way that left-handed people sometimes are. Frequently when she and I walk down what I understand to be an entirely nondescript street, she will suddenly stop and spend twenty minutes photographing a bin, while I try to resist throwing myself in it. When we first arrived in Alex she insisted that five baffled people (who didn’t yet know her or each other) stroke the bark of a tree to which she was particularly drawn. She also makes homemade cards, and while I tease her about being too tight to shell out two quid for a proper card, her cards, like her photographs and all her art, are always breathtaking in their creativity.

Not that her dreaminess and war rationing philosophy is always easy to live with. Mauve and I twice went away on holiday together in winter, and never again. I am somewhat ‘high- maintenance’ about cleanliness (read OCD) and also have an extreme reptile-like aversion to the cold. In Paris I tried to make her stay in at least a one-star hotel on the pretence that it had a TV and would therefore allow me to improve my French. In reality I was trying to steer Mauve away from the bomb shelter to which I suspected she would lead us given half the chance. Sure enough I shivered for two long days in a youth hostel/dungeon which I believe was once used by the Gestapo to interrogate members of the French Resistance. Never before had I sought shelter in a shopping centre to keep warm, it was like being homeless without the free soup. Mauve simply could not understand how I could resent blankets with the consistency of stubble, and no central heating, when we were afforded such a generous breakfast – what a bargain!

In Syria the film repeated itself, this time with Mauve’s friend Och Aye Yum Kippur, who was our host. Incredibly Syria was colder than Paris, or perhaps my stony heart made it seem so, and I endured three days of Siberian prison cell type youth hostels and crying in the snow, yes snow, while Mauve and Och Aye talked about dabka and looked at old ruins in the middle of nowhere. Just before I caught frostbite I hauled the icicle which was my body to the Egyptair office in Damascus and changed my ticket, flying out the next day and practically kissing the tarmac upon arrival in sunny Cairo.

Trips with Mauve in summer are another story entirely – a real pleasure. Our last was to Mount Sinai and St Catherine's monastery in 2002 and was wonderful apart from the fact that there was no running water at the summit (can’t they attach pipes to the clouds???) and I had inexplicably forgotten the Wet Ones without which I don’t move (yes OCD). I was therefore coaxed into cleaning my fingers with a lemon Mauve had brought (she travels with these sorts of things) upon the promise that it would make my nails nice and white. And it did. But it also made them stink. And sticky.

On the descent from the mountain we were discussing my career plans (ah late lamented youthful optimism) and I made reference to an NGO. Mauve commented that she, too, would like to work in an NGO. After a pause during which I tried to wipe off the sand which had stuck to my fingers and which made me look like I was wearing gloves, Mauve got the Question Look and inquired “what is an NGO?” before I ran screaming to the monks.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Things I wish I’d known then:

1. Instincts should be followed.
2. Preparation of Ma7shi koromb should not be attempted without supervision.
3. Nothing is worth worrying about too much.
4. Excessive sharing of problems is like breaking wind; you feel better for it but it makes those around you nauseous eventually.
5. Writing should be saved every 30 seconds in Word. And in comments windows.
6. Tartan and mittens is not a good look.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Parental love/plea to an errant child

Splendid Arabic neologisms no.1

backub verb
To back up files on a computer.

-Lazem tebackubby el hard 3ala el combuter beta3ek ya Amnesiac.
School of Strife Life

30 year report card: Amnesiac

Dear parents/guardians,

As your child is now approaching the halfway mark in the marathon which is her life, we are issuing you with a report card which details her progress and marks so far. We hope you will find it both informative, and an improvement on her last assessment 15 years ago when you were told by Amnesiac’s geography teacher that she was “a pain in the behind.”

Mathematics - D
Since Amnesiac is barely able to count we are pleased that she has made it this far without inadvertently entering into a fiscal agreement reneging on which would result in her house (your house Um Amnesiac), her parents, or herself being seized by the bank in forfeit of such an agreement.

Amnesiac is making no attempt whatsoever to complete the basic numeracy exercises we have set her, and it is this we think which explains her apparent nonchalance about the fact that she has 3 pounds L.E in her Egyptian bank account, and 5 pounds sterling in her UK account. We are beginning to have concerns that she does not understand the concept of money.

Economics - E

We have been using pictures to explain the idea of ‘saving for a rainy day’ to Amnesiac, but the idea remains alien to her. She justifies her habit of buying books with the last ten pounds in her pocket by claims that they are an ‘investment’ and necessary for work. When asked how these books translate into an ability to pay bills, she attempts to dodge the question by pointing out that she never buys shoes or handbags ‘like other women.’

We are hoping that the concept of saving will become clearer to Amnesiac once she actually finds employment.

Foreign languages
- C
Amnesiac puts 100 percent effort into her language lessons, but despite this her performance remains poor, and she is barely comprehensible. She has not been discouraged however, and gamely practises her pidgin Arabic with anyone who does not escape fast enough. She is generally attentive and alert in the classroom, and is not discouraged by her classmates’ sniggers.

Amnesiac finds pronunciation particularly challenging, but when corrected claims that she is not in fact speaking Arabic, but ‘Sarabic’ and that in fact it is we (fellow pupils, teachers and the world generally) who are wrong, rather than her. She also relies on this excuse to justify her frequent lapse into profanities which we discussed with you after her latest detention.

History -
Result still outstanding pending resolution of challenge to last result initiated by Amnesiac
Amnesiac’s complete inability to remember dates and events of any sort would not be a problem were it not for the fact that she insists on making reference to past events in support of points she makes during arguments. This has proved particularly problematic with one of her classmates, the Pig, who displays a level of obstinacy equal to that of Amnesiac. We are frequently forced to seat them at opposite ends of the classroom because their bickering has proved to be a disruptive influence. Even when separated however, they continue to argue in a loud stage whisper, and we were forced last week to make Amnesiac stand outside the headmaster’s office after the Pig accused her of fabrication, and she retorted by saying that it wasn’t fabrication, but rather ‘historical revisionism,’ and if George Bush can do it why can’t she? She then punched the Pig.

Physical education - N/A
Amnesiac now refuses to do sport of any kind claiming that it would exacerbate her rugby knee injury – which as we understand it, was comprehensively dealt with two years ago. During P.E she watches the boys play football in their shorts and ranks them in order of best legs, while eating Marmite sandwiches.

Logic and moral reasoning
Amnesiac has yet to pass the entrance examination necessary for acceptance on this course.

Note from headmaster
Amnesiac has at times demonstrated signs of her potential over the past 30 years, but it is still not yet possible to say conclusively that these incidents were not mere blips in an otherwise consistent pattern of mediocrity/disaster.

She is generally a pleasure to teach, but we have noticed that her behaviour becomes erratic, odd and at times quasi-psychopathic during one week of each month. We have discovered that allowing Amnesiac to watch episodes of Nip/Tuck in the school basement with the lights out while ensuring zero contact with human beings of any description relieves these symptoms.

Targets for the next 30 years

1 – Amnesiac should strive to find a job before the age of retirement.
2 – We have suggested that if she didn’t insist on being so obstreperous and insisting that pink is grey when it is in fact pink, she would improve her chances of finding a husband and giving her parents grandchildren, which as Um Amnesiac has made clear to her, is what she was put on this earth to do.
3 – Amnesiac should work towards being a grown-up instead of acting like a teenage boy. We have suggested that she attend class 101 ‘life skills’ which cover such things as; receiving money and taking it to the bank without spending it en route, hosting dinner parties for more than one person, talking to strangers without causing great offence, and removing wine stains from other people’s white sofas without being caught.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

If I told you that you've got a lovely bosom, would you hold it against me?

AUC today held its discussion on the Eid downtown sexual harassment, and it was lots of fun. There were four speakers, flanked on one end by a veiled woman, and on another by a decidedly unveiled woman wearing a racy shirt and skirt number. They were the moderators. Why two moderators were needed I don’t know, but the contrast between them made me wonder whether this was an attempt to Represent the Full and Rich Spectrum of Egyptian Womanhood in all her manifestations.

The problem was examined from socio-economic, legal and advocacy perspectives with a view to formulating possible solutions. Galal Amin, professor of Economics and a man who doesn’t like to be interrupted, spoke engagingly about the rampant unemployment strangling Egypt and the concomitant despair, disillusion and alienation which he thinks explains the lack of respect for anyone or anything (including themselves) amongst Cairo’s disaffected youth. He was going to explain how the situation in Egypt mirrored the Latin American pattern of development or lack of it, but was interrupted by not one, but two pieces of paper (from the two moderators) telling him that his time was almost up. I assume that the second piece of paper concerned his time limit, but judging by his indignation and petulant announcement of “THAT’S IT!!” (after which he folded both his notes and his arms and lapsed into a sulk) the missive might have had “you’re rubbish” written on it. He perked up subsequently during questions, with jokes and insightful observations.

After an awkward silence during which the panel regrouped and pretended that Amin’s tantrum wasn’t happening, Mariz Tadros pointed out that the conspicuous absence of a police presence during the events downtown reflects a general policing policy of suppressing individuals and groups perceived as a threat to the regime, rather than a ‘protect and serve’ philosophy. Hence, if one of the women attacked had shouted anti-regime political slogans during her ordeal she would have found herself instantly surrounded by an intense and unremitting security presence. Tadros also pointed to the fact that reporting an assault to the police is not an option for many women given that in entering a police station a woman is exposing herself to a further risk of assault or mistreatment at the hands of the police. Law professor Amr Shalakany also pointed to the difficulties inherent in the complaint process; the need for the victim to identify herself and the low to zero chance that the complaint will be pursued where the victim is unable to identify her assailant. ECWR representative Rebecca Chiao made the plain as the hand on my arse nose on my face observation that sexual harassment is not perceived as a problem by some men, but rather is seen as a demonstration of their machismo, and harmless fun.

Predictably, things became heated when questions were invited from the audience. After a series of questions, an American woman objected to what she perceived as women collapsing into the role of the victim rather than asserting themselves. This provoked Shalakany to suggest that women respond to verbal sexual harassment rather than staying silent, prompting another audience member to explain that nothing works - answering back, not answering back, hitting them – the harassment just keeps on a-coming. She also startled all those with a reasonable command of Arabic by saying the very rude equivalent of the C-word (which translates into ‘private parts of your mother’ and whose very mention makes me reach for the smelling salts). She used this word in the context of charming things addressed to her in the street, rather than directing it at Shalakany, but subsequent comments made by the professor clearly left many audience members wanting to say it to him himself. He put forward a weird ‘sexual harassment as empowerment’ theory, suggesting that women should enjoy the power of their sexuality and bask in the warm glow of compliments they receive in the street, blushing coyly and laughing like playful kittens behind their hands. He suggested to one woman complaining of her experience just to ‘get over it.’ He appears to think that sexual harassment consists of the occasional wolf whistle and well-mannered assessments of the beauty of, for example, the female shoulder. I wish! I wish that all Cairo’s sexual predators looked like the man with the green eyes who pursues Nancy Agram on a moped in the ‘Ah we Nuss’ video, and that their harassment was conducted in a calm and silent manner (while wearing vests) like the fit builder bloke in her 'Yay Sehr Ayono' clip. But I will heed his advice. Next time an overweight man stops picking his nose long enough to grab his crotch and compare me to a foodstuff of some variety (in front of a crowd of people) I will make sure to thank God that He made me a woman.

Relentless day after day comments are exhausting. While it might be the first time the bloke makes a spontaneous random comment that day, chances are the woman has heard it a thousand times before, and at least ten times on that day. These comments are at the relatively harmless end of a spectrum of offensive behaviour which includes at the opposite end violent sexual assault; hence why seemingly innocuous remarks are so threatening - because (apart from being bloody annoying) they are so intimately linked with more threatening and sinister behaviour.

Having said that (and this is where the sisters will disown me) I personally find the occasional imaginative compliment welcome. Note that this does not include mere lascivious humiliation. The best one I have received so far was ‘meen mass2oul 3an el 7alawa deih’ [who’s responsible for this sweetness’] because the context was harmless, the bloke said it with a cheeky glint in his eye, and most importantly it made me laugh. But it is all about context and the way it’s said…most men lack the panache to pull it off without causing offence but, sigh, the buggers will insist on trying.