Wednesday, January 17, 2007


I occasionally get acute attacks of the Egypt blues. During these bouts my head aches in the same way it does when I read books which attempt to explain the size of outer space, while my chest feels like I’ve been inhaling pure, undiluted, sadness. Brief but intense, the only antidote to these episodes is watching Rachael Ray, so that I am reminded that there exist other, worse, realities.

Egypt’s capacity to induce melancholy is, of course, no surprise, and these particular Egypt blues should not be confused with the feelings induced by witnessing particularly heart-rending scenes of poverty, oppression or misery. It is a sad truth that an essential coping mechanism for living in this society is steeling yourself constantly to witness/hear about some hideous event practically off the scale of human suffering. As a result, I - and apparently everyone else around me judging by the levels of indifference - have become inured to seeing crowds stepping over invisible limbless beggars, inconsequential people breathing their last breaths in police stations, and six year old Kleenex sellers.

This protective armour has rendered me (almost) insensible to the daily misery, but cannot prepare me for the less direct, more low-key sadness akin to the water which melted the otherwise indestructible Wicked Witch of the West. Sources of this sadness are many and varied, but are linked by the common element of being entirely mundane. They include; soldiers outside embassies with no shoelaces in their boots; the taxi driver in the beat-up taxi who kept having to push up the car’s sun visor every time the car went over a bump; people wearing shibshib at night, in the dead of winter; tears in the seats of trousers which have been repaired using thread an entirely different colour to that of the trouser fabric; the Nile TV English channel programmes devoted entirely to interviews with foreign tourists, and filmed with what appears to be a mobile phone camera; moneyed people who subject powerless restaurant employees to Abu Ghraib-type humiliation, only verbally, simply because they can; Mohamed Hosny Mobarak plaques on any edifice of any kind, including tram stops in Alexandria; donkeys; bureaucratic officiousness; shops called bookshops devoid of books; people using sports club membership as a key factor governing a marriage decision; sycophancy, particularly of the type witnessed on “el bayt baytak”; radio listeners telling Nagoum FM DJs that they love them “gedden gedden” and DJs similarly declaring their love for people about which all they know is their first name; bridal white face paint; dirty bear/clown costumes during children’s parties at MacDonald’s; long little finger fingernails; the ‘who shouted fire’ manner in which people get on and off metro trains; ‘7ader men 3anneyya el etneen’ and then nothing happening; ‘3addeeha ya Amnesiac’; the furniture used in soap operas and films; prefacing first names with Mr/Miss, even when speaking Arabic; ‘look at me’ displays of piety; schools with the word ‘home’ in their names; people prefacing their name with their occupations in situations where their occupation is entirely irrelevant i.e. ‘ma3k el mohandess Abaza’ or ‘ma3k el fadya Amnesiac’; ‘kol sanna wenta tayyeb’ as an extortion device; soldiers lining the 2asr el nil bridge whenever some minor official is in the environs; when these soldiers relish ordering people to keep to the pavement.

These things perturb me because they are a reminder that Egypt’s social and economic problems have seeped into every single aspect of its existence, and are so interlinked, that attempting to fix one area would be like the time ten of my mother’s necklaces became knotted together, and she asked me to extract one, and I discovered that in order to do so I would have to spend hours undoing the whole bloody lot.

Egypt obviously still rules in a myriad other ways, and I could write a lengthy love letter to her exulting her many virtues, but also advising her that she appears to have fallen in with a crowd of shady types who are leading her astray.


Gayyash said...

excellent list. you had me wincing from soldiers without shoelaces in their boots. you end by saying the crap has touched everything and the big picture is somehow shot to hell. true, it's like there's nowhere to even start. you then mention that egypt still rules. i met this conflict resolution peace activist guy who was vietnamese and had just gone to the states to work with young gang members in messed up situations. i asked how the hell he approached/engaged gang members (him being a foreigner especially), and he said the only way that worked for him was to engage them just as shabab and be sincerely flippant/uninterested in their gangsterness because there was something better. for what it's worth, i find a similar strategy to work in cairo/egypt: engage those things that make the place cool. activism aside, one can fight guerilla style, micro wars, engaging the little things. it's doomed anyway so there's no harm in flushing the everyday with a little zaniness (positivity, ideally), not settling for the city's bullshit but not arguing on its terms either. i have personally found much peace through imposing and demanding the pleasantness i imagine the city to be capable of. that's not to say things don't still overwhelm, which is why in the end i think patience is key. i hope this encourages you to... i don't know, go out and have fun, prod the city, etc. and may the slump you're in pass soon.

zoss said...

Top thing on my list that is not on yours: pretty much any use of the term `basha.'

Forsoothsayer said...

i've grown quite fond of that. in people efforts to avoid recognizing women in any way as women, they have now taken to calling girls basha as well, not humourously either.

Amnesiac said...

Gayyash: Yes, I undertake happiness Jihad every day, and for all its problems I have many more unexpected laughs here than I ever did in London, where - contrary to popular opinion - people are warm and funny, but clothe these qualities in the cloak of decorum until they know you better.

Zoss & Forsooth: I have always loved the use of basha, mi3allem is that right F?)rayes, seedy etc mostly because they make me laugh. My personal favourite is sett el kol. I don't know why, but the music of this combination of words always sounded like a verbal hug.
That sounded really gay. I can't explain it.

Ki said...

Fascinating list. Whats sadder is that I actually spend afternoons at my desk listening to Negoum FM online just to hear the two-way "geddan geddan" love-fest and what must be some of the most affected pseudo-90210-ish Egyptian accents by people all named Mazen and Aya who are students in any of the aforementioned schools with "home" in their names ... I recently relocated from Egypt to London, you do tend to miss hearing "ya sett el kol" ... you do miss Mazen and Aya and yes that did sound awfully gay..:)

Basil Fawlty said...

Really good post, Am. I miss Egypt terribly and yet I can't bear to set foot in it. I've been away for close to 2.5 years. I can't abide the injustice, the disingenuousness, the intolerance and the lack of respect for humanity. I feel about it the way you'd feel about an obnoxious girlfriend: she treats you badly and reflects poorly on you and yet you can't get her out of your head.

Anonymous said...

Great post ....I just have one wish abl mamoot , please write this so-called " love letter " to Egypt extolling its many virtues!
I would rather know that it had some virtues and I chose to be away from these " virtues" than to live with a profound conviction that this alleged list ( if it exists) would be VERY brief!
If it does ,It would be like a black hole, so CONCENTRATED, with indefinite mass that not even light can you dont see it but there is evidence it exists!..may be not!
In any case it would be great if you can give it a try.

fully_polynomial said...

hmmm...someone's packing and going back to London soon?

i have nothing to say that will particularly lift your spirits. not after what gayyash said anyway. that was such a beautiful reply.

i just noticed now that sett el-koll does indeed sound very musical. and one thing remains, the egyptian sense of humor is, in many cases, unparalleled. this helps.

cheer up :)

Mumbo Jumbo said...

I have the same love/hate relationship with Egypt. I cannot help but notice every single detail you mentioned from the bridal white face paint to the rich employer unnecessary humiliation to the interviews with foreigners used on Nile TV where what they translate is NOT what was said! (I like watching those for a laugh)

On the other hand, I love this country.

It's so cool to read that someone else thinks of these things! :)

Amnesiac said...

Ki: YES! the 90210 accents! How could I have forgotten to add those to my list.
During my masters in the UK last year, I was in London one day, on a the top deck of a bus. My daydreaming was suddenly interruped by a distant "mashy ya basha, inshallah." An Egy couple with a baby had got on downstairs. Such was the intensity with which I missed Egypt at that particular moment that I went downstairs just to hear them talk - not speak to them you understand - just get a brief Egypt fix.
Having said that, I could never bring myself to listen to Negoum FM online :-)
My bus anecdote sounded both gay AND slightly psycho, sigh. Basically I was having a '7elwa ya balady' moment.

Basil: Yes Egypt is a Betty Blue type of gf who treats you like a bitch and makes your life hell. Some people however, prefer the pulse-elevating excitement this induces however over more staid, back-massage-whenever-you-need-it gfs such as Oslo.
I hear you on the injustice, intolerance etc hatred.

Doctor: Bezemmetak ya doctor, if I wrote this love letter describing e.g. when I get in a taxi and the driver is playing a cocktail of songs which all somehow relate to fruit, would you do anything other than scoff and guffaw?
The things are like here are all subjective if not odd possibly, so would never satisfy you...I will give it a try, when I feel inspired :-)

Fully: Noooo, just getting these thought down on paper was enough to break the mood. What inspired this post was that the day before I had been with my cousin Mildred and her kids in a nady. Mildred was talking on the phone and lagging behind as me and Elvis walked ahead. Elvis suddenly run off to the kids playarea which was strangely deserted. Suddenly I heard Mildred screaming "fein Elvis?? la la!! kahraba!! KAHRABA!!" and it turned out that the place was full of live electricity wires and that kids had been electrocuted. But, yet, the club's administrators had not seen fit to close off the area.
Needless to say I ran in and grabbed Elvis in a beautiful Magnum PI moment.
This story got me down for obvious reasons, but I subsequently wondered whether it was actually true. This further irritated me because even if it wasn't, Egyptian society's capacity to spread and believe the most ridiculous of rumours is quite frankly annoying.

Yes Egy humour is awesome.

But really I'm not down now at all but in fact am feeling zippity doo dah - I was a little down when I first came back last year and Egypt seemed to have changed, got sadder somehow.

Many sankes though for your cheer ups, y'all.

Amnesiac said...

Mumbo: Thanks :-) I can't think of anyone connected with Egypt who doesn't have a love/hate relationship with her.

Ki said...

Amnesiac: I think I was on the same bus and hounded the same couple..:). The truth is that since being here, I find myself actively seeking to include parts of Egypt (that I would not normally be drawn to had I been there) in my life. Negoum FM, bad Egyptian pop,the Mobinil Ad and of course, the occasional 3asaleya (the list gets a lot worse and a lot gayer). Yet I find that I have no will to go back there even for a break. It boggles the mind....

Amnesiac said...

"The truth is that since being here, I find myself actively seeking to include parts of Egypt (that I would not normally be drawn to had I been there) in my life." - Very true.

Your lack of any desire to go back, even for a break is perhaps explainable by the fact that you haven't been away long enough yet?

V said...

all i have to say ain't much fun since i quit drinking! :)

Gayyash said...

Amnesiac: good to hear you're tamam. catharsis indeed, i guess. about Nugoom FM... forget the lame daytime shows, like that one with those two guys. the good stuff comes on osama mounir's midnight 'ana wenta wl nugoom we hawak' show. 10 minute long phone conversation between osama and semi-whispering young women talking about sultry urban love stuff. pure gold. i'm just waiting for someone to put together a 'best of' audio collage. i want to do it myself but am lazy. maybe everyone should make their own. what wealth the city holds...

Ki said...

Amnesiac: "Your lack of any desire to go back, even for a break is perhaps explainable by the fact that you haven't been away long enough yet?" Its been over a 15 months. I don't think its the time as much as it is any or all of the things on your list. So, here I am romanticizing about it from afar....

Gayyash: I usually log on/tune in early enough to catch the (quite patronizing) Pampers (TM) sponsered doctor segment on Nogoum.The things I do to myself...

Amnesiac said...

V: I know you've been waiting for an excuse, any excuse, to quote me that line.

Gayyash: Even the title of Osama's programme is purely five star quality. I love listening to it and your audio collage idea is first class.

I was really disappointed to see that Osama is like, a regular bloke. I had imagined him with a curly perm, big gold jewellery and open shirt etc, like an Egy Barry White allah yer7amo. In fact if I was to pursue your audio collage idea I would turn it into a visual project by accompanying the soundtrack with images of Osama the Love Meister (as a Barry lookalike) silently going about his everyday business...riding a microbus, 2a3ed 3ala el 2ahwa with the guys, met7'aane2 ma3 el madame, waving an Ahli flag out of a car...all while we hear him dispensing his advice in the background.

Ima go 'head and say straight up that I listen to, and enjoy Karim el Hamidi, in a non-ironic way.

Ki: That's a long time, and explainable only by the fact that you live in London. Anywhere else would have driven you back for a visit faster than you can say geddan geddan.

Basil Fawlty said...

Betty Blue? The odds of hearing a Beatrice Dalle reference today were outweighed by the chances the president will step down and order free elections. No telling what could happen now.

N said...

brilliant post! horrible timing!! i am moving back in two weeks isa... leh el rubbing in dah bas?


Jester said...

Here, before all, before God, I profess my undying love to Amnesiac.

Amnesiac said...

Basil: I make a point of making at least one Beatrice Dalle reference every week.

N: Tab super!

Jester: :-)
Suddenly I feel like Michael Jackson circa 1988!
Sending you mad zannouba love bro.

LouLou said...

I won't comment because I think this post is for Egyptians only to comment on.:)

Seriously though, I don't know Egypt well enough to agree or disagree but I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

And I would enjoy reading that love-letter too.

Amnesiac said...

Thanks Loulou :-)

Hany said...

And the words "e7tefaleya", "manzooma" and some other dorrars used by the pseudointellectuals.
Hypocrites filling the mosques every friday, though they've just backstabed friends, taken bribes or just for heavens sake not done their jobs honestly.
El konestabl el ghalban in his ya ard ethaddi attitude.