Saturday, June 16, 2007


AUC hosted a celebration – if that is the right word – of World Refugee Day on Friday, which was attended by assorted members of Cairo’s refugee communities, refugee organisation staff, a smattering of foreigners in athletic sandals and/or scarves and approximately twenty Egyptians (excluding AUC employees).

It is always a pleasure to legitimately gain admittance to the Shangri la which is AUC’s fortified Greek campus, for the Greek campus houses the AUC library, which in its turn holds Cairo’s finest collection of books, alas. I have long lusted after these tomes, and whenever I was actually allowed into the campus - on the pretext of a seminar or film or some other worthy cultural event, - would stand staring at the library entrance blank-faced and transfixed like something from the Night of the Living Dead, the security guard eyeing me impassively as he sat on the corner of his desk smoking while AUC’s beautiful student body bounced past book-less but mobile phone-d. I have tried every ruse possible to gain membership of the place, but to no avail, and have concluded that I would have greater success if I filled out an application form for the Welsh chapter of the International Association of Gay Male Montgolfier Enthusiasts. God did eventually smile upon me recently, and praise the Lord I was granted a temporary reference card in connection with research I was doing while working for The Man at my last job. This actually only made things worse, as once I sprinted into the library I was met with a cornucopia of treasures none of which I could actually borrow, meaning that I would have to retire permanently from society and spend hours after hours in the library reading – which I hadn’t planned to do until I turn 50. I suddenly realised what Patrick Swayze must have felt like in Ghost when he could see and almost feel Demi but couldn’t actually grab her arse.

Having tired of licking the library windows I then attended to the refugee day celebrations themselves, which were in full swing. The Greek campus’ weird architecture – which always makes me feel like a dwarf in a giant’s playhouse – was occupied by stalls selling every possible variation on an ethnically-themed wooden necklace, families picnicking on the grass and music. Kids scrambled up, and slid down, the concrete slope which architects of 1960s education institutions everywhere in the world [evidence: SOAS and Essex University have them] seem to have thought would break new frontiers in design but which are appreciated only by children with and without BMXs. Gangs of girls and brigades of boys roamed about eyeing each other, and watching them parade here and there I suddenly remembered that as a teenager it was forbidden to stroll about nonchalantly and at a relaxed pace: you had to make it appear as if you were perpetually on a mission, rocketing about while making as much noise as possible but never actually breaking eye contact with your target – pigeons employ the same approach, I believe, and it the teenage equivalent of ruffling the finery of your tight jeaned-feathers.

And there was indeed lots of finery. I admire a woman who can carry off white jeans without looking like the Michelin man, an ability to do so being the sartorial equivalent of knowing how to fix a leaking toilet i.e. a skill usually possessed by men. One group of four girls all had white jeans swathing their fabulous endless legs and together they looked a bit like Destiny’s Child since they seemed to have liaised on their outfits before getting dressed and decided on a white denim theme. I was also reminded of my best friend Leith, who is militantly and viscerally anti-weave, and used to go into ten-minute conniption fits of laughter at the sight of some of the occasionally awful weaves parading the streets of London. She would have had a field day here, and while as a white person I suppose no-one gives a crap about my opinion on the ethics or otherwise of black women wearing weaves, I nonethelessfeel compelled to say that the jury is very much in on a bright pink apparition on a woman’s head. Surely. Or has my PC count just plummeted.

The fashion highlight of the day was undoubtedly the appearance of an enormous gang of Sudanese teenage boys dressed in retro 90s rapper attire. Their motif appears to be deceased fit bloke and rapper Tupac Shakur, who appears repeatedly in their garments, including in the form of his face emblazoned on dollar notes splattered all over a pair of those super baggy things which are too long to be shorts and too short to be trousers and are therefore the avocado of the leg-covering world, unclassifiable in any department. The Trousercado.

Look out Versace, I’m on fire.

Some of the boys had also adopted Nelly’s short-lived habit of applying plasters to their faces in the absence of a wound. All wore their baseball hats balanced on the top of their head making the head-gear look like gentlemen’s top hats.

The hard-man image which goes with the look was significantly undermined by the fact they were polite and orderly (despite roaming about the place at great speed as is mandatory for teenagers: see above) and apologised to small children whenever they bumped into them. I found it hard to reconcile this group of laughing, lovable lads with the image I had formed of the terrifying Sudanese gangs of lore (the Lost Boys and the Outlaws, I believe) who are allegedly wreaking havoc in the Sudanese community with their violent gang wars. Maybe east and west coast have put the guns down, wot wot, or perhaps the east coast wasn’t in attendance yesterday or perhaps they just didn’t want to risk ruining their lovely nicely-pressed Trousercados © with fighting, who knows.

This being a celebration, the festive mood was not dampened by too many reminders of the issues which had created some of these refugees and the difficulties of their lives in asylum countries, particularly Egypt. There was one stall however manned by Ethiopians who spoke to anyone who would listen about the terrible abuses going on in their country, the November 2005 crackdown on the estimated 30,000 (30,000!!) people arrested following national elections and the three journalists and four publishers currently facing life imprisonment or the death sentence after being convicted of “outrages against the constitutional order” (or in other words writing about the way in which the government handled disputed election results). I had recently read this excellent article on the US media’s virtual silence on the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and the strategic interests being pursued in the horn as Joe Ordinarys pay the price, as usual. How ironic, that these Ethiopian men were raising awareness of abuses committed by their government as the same government sent the troops in to unleash even more hell in Somalia. And that Ethiopia has also previously and frequently sent troops into Eritrea in its irredentist quest to control that country, and that Eritrea was represented yesterday by a stall selling very nice Eritrean food, and that an American institution was so very kindly hosting all this, allowing it all to happen so to speak.

Life in Cairo frequently feels like a series of non-sequitors because of the many worlds housed in its streets and yesterday was no exception as, after refugee day I found myself (spectating) during karaoke night in Harry’s Pub.

I must have been to Harry’s Pub before - during the 90s with cousin Mildred, probably when we were both wearing tassled leather jackets and turn-ups on our jeans. I have no conscious memory of it however because the name Amnesiac describes an affliction rather than being an affectation. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to discover a venue which on first entry feels very much like a British old-man pub, being dark and full of ye olde oak furniture and what with the groups of largely middle-aged male punters sitting huddled in groups, serenaded with barely audible 80s and 90s hits. This changed around 11 pm however when, in an attempt to create wild frenzied anticipation for the karaoke, the DJ turned up the music to a frankly inhumane level and every time people opened their mouths it appeared as if they were lip synching to Luther Vandross. I have apparently inherited my father’s affliction of being unable to hear people speak when subjected to loud music (a double edged sword on certain occasions) and we were forced to seek refuge as far away from the stadium-sized speakers as possible, somewhere in the Marriot’s car park. This self-imposed exile was well worth it however, as the entertainment provided by the karaoke was first class.

Proceedings were dominated by two parties of extremely animated Americans, and hosted by a man who had obviously taken a course in How to Speak Like a Radio DJ enunciating in that weird undulating cadence which elongates certain syllables unnecessarily and weirdly, and all in a very deep voice. Thus he declared that “we’re alllll gonna have a GREAAT time” and had us all in stitches when he introduced the first singer (named Mike) by quipping that “there are two MIKESS tonighhttt! Ha ha ha” while brandishing the microphone aloft. Oscar Wilde and no mistake.

As the opening chords of his song rang out, Mike declared that he was dedicating it to his beautiful wife Tina, whose 25th birthday it was today. Now Mike had chosen teen heartthrob Usher’s song ‘Let it Burn,’ which opens with Usher breathily speaking, rather than singing, the following words: Girl, understand why…see it’s burning me to hold onto this [loud sigh]…I know this is something I gotta do…and so on… as if he is actually addressing his beloved. To my delight not only was this included in the Karoke, but Mike earnestly spoke it STRAIGHT-FACED as at the table next to him a bunch of American contractors in their 50s ignored him. Things only got better when the song – which is spectacularly unsuitable for karaoke - actually began and feet planted squarely on the floor, Mike (who was extremely short) began an odd hip-rocking motion side to side as he stared at the screen and admirably attempted to reproduce Usher’s kicked-in-the-balls-falsetto. This continued for some time, the hips swaying as the two Mikes produced a weird squeal reminiscent of recordings of whale song until Tina stepped in and, smiling with clenched teeth, attempted to wrestle the mic out of her husband’s hands - and presumably have a word with him about why he had chosen to dedicate a song about relationship break up to her. From thereon in things only got better, and the host introduced Azeem or rather Azeeeem! who delighted us with Elvis’ Fools Rush In and reminded us that ‘zome zings are meant to be.’ Indeed.


Basil Fawlty said...

Love it.

Forsoothsayer said...

numerous remarks to make - you seriously found anything worth reading at the auc library? in the years when i was recklessly permitted to borrow books from there i never found anything much i wanted to read. then again, i don't read non fiction and i was 16-17.
also, it wasn't white denim, but cheap-ass lycra shite. still, v. hard to pull off. i also can fix a leaky toilet.
i think the other Sudanese gang is called tupac, or notorious BIG. i attended a seminar on this back in the refugee days, and i was trying to tell you about this but you couldn't, as noted, hear me over the music.
tab3an Eritrea are even bigger assholes than Ethiopia in their own way, if what my clients (and amnesty) said was to be believed.

Harry's pub is, it is said, a gay bar.

Amnesiac said...

Bazza: Cheers, mate.

Forsooth: Book selection in lib. - I looked beyond the bodice section (teasing you) and I also read non-fiction, and a very thirsty man will attempt to drink a gnat's tears.

Denim/lycra - we have discussed this and I must insist that it was an elasticated denim type substance cos of the boot leg cut.

Loo first aid - well done woman. But that doesn't change the fact that you are perhaps the only female I know who does know how to attend to these things.

Gang names - report I sent you lists names as Outlaws and Lost Boys, and also states that Tupac is a big influence. If the other gang is called Tupac, why would the gang we saw be swathed in Tupac stuff? He's fit and all, but I don't think that's the idea.

Eritrea arseholes - I presume you mean the government. Yes, Eritrea has, for example, an appalling freedom of expression record.

Homosexual Harry: Yes even my upstairs Auntie who has not been out after 8 pm for twenty years confirms that it is a well known cruising ground. Karoake night obscured this somewhat as the place was full of girls in leggings and what appeared to be nightgowns. I believe they call it fashion.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious as usual and very visual.

Now by leggings and "nightgowns" are you referring to the 60s fashion trend of wearing a mini colourful dress with jeans/leggings etc? I'm hoping to grace Egypt with my presence soon and always thought that the clothes that work here wouldn't really be apt for Cairo but hey you may have proved me wrong. Or right actually, not sure which one yet!

Amnesiac said...

Anon: Thanks :-)

It's no good talking to me about trends - I haven't got a clue because, 1. I am not interested and, hence 2. certain persons would give themselves a hernia laughing at me dispensing fashion advice and 3. the parts of Cairo I frequent are thankfully fashion backwaters where it is acceptable to wear anything, including very high waisted 90s jeans and brown slip on shoes with a blue bag at night -the same certain persons advise me that this is unacceptable elsewhere.

Having said that, it has been reported to me that leggings are very much de rigeur at the moment and I do see pairs of leggings occasionally here, coming out of chichi clubs etc. The nightgown thing I am shocked by: the specimens I saw were all white, and exactly like Victorian night dresses. Think: Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Also, they all appeared to have ballet pumps on. What shocked me was that all these girls looked the same, it was like being in P.E again.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious as always. You absolutely have to write a book about being in Egypt, dedicated to all of us with British-Egyptian backgrounds. The British sense of humour and outlook on life as applied to Egypt is just sidesplittingly funny!

Amnesiac said...

Thanks, Anon.