Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Helwa ya balad meen, part two: return to the mother's land

Despite her own aversion to going back my mother was enthusiastic about me holidaying in Cairo – I think she was sending me as some kind of ambassador on her behalf. Inevitably I can’t remember exactly how much time elapsed between Mildred’s visit and my trip to Cairo. What I do recall is that having got the What Not to Wear treatment off Mildred I had removed my eyebrow ring, stopped wearing clothes originally designed for builders and had even purchased heels. I had also grown out my hair which, when Mildred came over, met army regulations. I thought it looked alluring, and ingénue (blame Winona Ryder), but was disabused of this notion in the starkest of fashions as I was riding my bike one day round the local park’s lake. People go there to fish of a weekend, and as I rode past one old bloke casting off he thoughtfully warned me with an exclamation of, ‘look out, sonny!’

Thus when I set out on my adventure to Egypt I was excited about firstly, the duty free and, secondly, proving to Mildred that I was female - Egypt didn’t actually come into it much.

As anyone who regularly travels to Egypt will tell you acclimatisation to the country begins not in Egypt itself but rather at check-in, where accepted norms of orderly conduct start to unravel as Egyptians spot other Egyptians and dormant instincts are suddenly revived. The jostling of humongous suitcases and unending entreaties to just let the extra ton go this one time seemed rather charming somehow when conducted in Arabic and when coupled with excitement about the trip, but soon ended when it came to boarding.

Is any other nationality as competitive about boarding as Egyptians are? Childhood trips with my mother back to Egypt were exhausting simply because the announcement that ‘passengers sitting in rows 20 – 40 are now invited to board’ was heard by her – and every other Egyptian – as the crack of a starting pistol. ‘Yalla – quick! QUICK!’ she would hiss, before beginning the mad dash with her bag on wheels as I followed with 87 plastic bags of duty free and the hair straighteners for downstairs auntie which would not fit in the suitcase. Her eternal fear was that we would not find room in the overhead lockers. She also seemed to think that if we arrived first she would magically guarantee herself that all important extra seat for her newspapers – pooh to seating allocation – and would storm head-down towards the plane, knocking startled English people in sandals out of her path as she went.

It never worked of course since all the other Egyptians on the flight had exactly the same game-plan, and she invariably ended up having a fight with the man she had magically identified at check-in as the individual who ‘would take all the overhead luggage room.’ I would sit horrified as this combative side to my mother was revealed until a surly Egyptair air hostess broke up the fight with the promise of extra pillows. My mother would then exhale loudly until she fell asleep, waking up for the meal and to resume the exhalations until the time came to land. She likes landings because of the time she worked for an airline as an interpreter, and the captain allowed her in the cockpit to watch him land the plane - possibly the last time an Arab person was allowed anywhere near a plane’s controls while it is in the air. She never misses an opportunity to recount to me the thrill of being in the cabin as the captain manfully grappled with his vibrating stick.

She doesn’t put it like that obviously.

All this is to say that the experience of flying to Egypt prepares you for being there, when you will on a daily basis encounter this survival of the fittest attitude towards anything involving people, vehicles and limited space.

Landing at Cairo Airport has always given me a thrill unequalled by my trips anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it is because flights from London almost always land at night, when Cairo from above is a beautiful maze of black mixed with orange and green lights, and minute cars shuttling along Heliopolis’ long roads like crazy Packmen. Once landed there is the inevitable wait while the buses arrive and the stairs are attached, the darkness illuminated only by the blinking lights of the aircraft as a hundred 7amdilellah 3ala salamas echo round the plane. The apex of the experience is undoubtedly the moment when you step through the plane doors. You could blindfold me and put me in a mystery plane (though don’t take this as an invitation please, Mr Heads of British and US intelligence services!) and I’d be able to tell you if we’d landed in Cairo. That combination of heat, airplane fuel, dust and pollution which is so unique, so familiar.

I also love the fact that the stairs on wheels are still used, and have always wanted to dump my bags and just stand at the top waving, like the Beatles did in the old footage of them conquering America.

Mildred and her then fiancé met me at the airport where I learnt that we would all be going on a jolly with her fiancé’s family to a place called Marsa 3alam the very next day. Back at the family’s house that night and Mildred had acquired the room my parents and I used to live in, where she had set up cable TV – no more sitting through the Bold and the Beautiful and Knott’s Landing! The only downside was that cousin Tennis had left Egypt, to attend university in the US, an early introduction to the phenomenon of Egypt's youth chasing opportunities that simply do not exist in their own country.

The alterations in the house were reflected in the changes which had occurred generally in Egypt by the early 90s: it seemed to have caught up, at least in consumerist terms - was brighter and bigger than it had been in the 80s, its shelves better stocked and seemed full of potential as we made the 896 hour drive to Marsa 3alam. It is in any case impossible to regard Egypt as anything other than a little piece of paradise on earth while sitting on its shores seeing nothing but blue everywhere you look - especially if you are from Croydon and have been on perhaps one beach holiday in your life.

I carried this glow back to Cairo where for two weeks I sampled an AUC lifestyle. I was mesmerised by the library of course, and was also charmed by the fact that the campus was full of cats of both an animal and human nature, the latter variety mostly very good-looking indeed. At that time I was also seduced by the type of confidence created by pots of money and an assured position in society, and AUC boasts many such specimens. It was only later when I worked in Egypt that I got a clearer understanding of the complexities of this noxious mixture of power, position and wealth in Egypt. I had however got an inkling after two incidents which occurred in my early teens.

Um Mohamed the cleaner/cook/companion to my grandmother had been working in the house since forever. She was called Um Mohamed (mother of Mohamed) because she didn’t have any children. The things I remember about her are: her gold loop earrings which made her look like a pirate, her high girlish voice, and the smell of her hands when she grabbed my cheek, a mixture of caustic soap, cooking and my childhood in Egypt. I had made some kind of picture at school which I wanted to give to Um Mohamed as a present. When I suggested this to my mother she dismissed the idea almost contemptuously. “What will she do with that??” she spat, “she needs money, not pictures.”

The second incident involved a trip to a shop called Choice, which indeed does offer choice but only in terms of ladies’ leather handbags. My mother never leaves Egypt without a new bag, either for herself or someone else, and is steadily building a mountain of them at home, like downstairs auntie who recently counted all hers and discovered that she has forty. My interest in handbags is approximately that of my interest in atom-splitting, so I chose to stay in the car with a book rather than spend thee hours fondling leather. An ancient-looking old lady dressed in black approached the car holding out one hand while prodding the grouped fingers of the other at her mouth. I gave her ten LE, which I suppose even by today’s standards would be considered a lot. My mother and auntie emerged from the shop with their 150 LE handbags just as the old woman was leaving, and they were horrified when they heard how much I had handed over.

What particularly stuck with me about the incident was the reaction it received and which I only fully understood years later when the ugliness of the class system revealed itself to me once I started making my own friends in Egypt.

When I came to Egypt I of course knew of the existence of the class system and about some people and things being ‘balady’ - mostly because of certain family members who, if wishing to secretly comment on someone or something’s balady status would whisper ‘c’est tres mon pays’, a direct French translation of balady, or ‘my country.’ The word can serve both as a neutral adjective (‘mooz balady,’ locally produced bananas), and as a term to deem something or someone as lower class and without the ‘benefit’ of exposure to the outside world. The term is approximately equivalent to ‘common’ in the British context, but its usage fraught with the mysterious subtleties of Egyptian society.

I gradually learnt that the factors determining balady status include language, wealth, education and appearance. Thus someone who only speaks Arabic may be balady, but not if this person is my grandmother, because we are an excellent family, Amnesiac. If however he only speaks Arabic and he is a plumber, he is almost certainly balady. If the same plumber happens to have got lucky and accumulated wealth he is probably still balady and worse still ‘nouveau riche,’ and one determines this by looking at his shoes and his wife. In contrast if the son of a very rich man does nothing but go to the club everyday and knows mostly nada about nada he is still not balady because he speaks English and comes from good-breeding. Wealth is not a conclusive determinant of balady-free status because the family might be intellectuals, which means that at some point in their family history someone’s father had a full library but an empty bank account: members of these families will almost certainly never be balady. Education is important too: State universities are generally frowned upon, private universities are acceptable, and having attended AUC at some point virtually guarantees that the individual in question is not balady. A university education abroad (in western Europe or the US) means that the individual in question both has money and speaks another language and is decidedly not balady - though not if through his own brilliance he is there on a scholarship and his family live in Boulaq. Observance of one’s religious obligations is necessary and good, but excessive piety/religious conservatism is not, because it may indicate an uncultivated mind.

Speaking of culture, it is not necessary to read or have hobbies - nor indeed have a passion for anything - to escape balady status. Two families, one balady, one not, might have exactly the same interests or lack thereof: the difference lies in how and where they pursue them. The sons in both families might enjoy watching American films for example. The difference is that one reads the subtitles. Both wives enjoy shopping, but one only buys imported stuff from City Stars. While their wives are shopping the husbands might enjoy going to watch the match with their mates. The difference is that one drives to a coffee shop with a 30 LE minimum while the other walks to a local ‘ahwa and pay 6 LE maximum for a sheesha and a tea. Both families enjoy Arabic pop music, including sha3by music occasionally in films, but the better-off clan would not tolerate it at their daughter’s wedding.

Foreigners do not fall within the balady classification system and are judged according to nationality and/or colour. This does not however apply to a person born abroad of Egyptian parents who does not speak Arabic and has never visited Egypt: he will nonetheless be judged according to where his family lay on the balady scale. According to popular belief foreigners are notoriously unable to detect whether a person is balady or not, and I have frequently heard self-described upper-class Egyptians attribute relationships between foreign women and ‘balady’ men to this lack of awareness on the part of the poor deluded foreigner.

I once asked an aunt her opinion of Egypt before and after the revolution. Unhesitatingly she said that the country was better off by far before because ‘everyone knew their place.’ It is this attitude which I think underlies the class system in Egypt, a system I have never been able to stand and have grown to detest the more I am exposed to it. Apologists for it argue that in a society as socially stratified as Egypt’s class is an important indicator of whether someone is on the same level as you intellectually and socially, whether you are likely to share a similar outlook on life, have similar backgrounds: unlike more culturally homogenous societies, the influence of the wealth gap in Egypt is tangible.

What is so troubling about it is not that people use clues about a person’s background and appearance to determine whether they should get to know them or not (since this happens everywhere in the world), but that in Egypt an individual’s class is so entrenched. Class mobility simply does not exist, and this has huge repercussions, socially and professionally. A relative of mine recently complained that a candidate for a job she was advertising satisfied all the academic and professional criteria but that his suit looked poor. I suggested that a suit could be changed, but she wasn’t convinced, and he didn’t get the job.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of it all is that class rules have been internalised, seemingly unquestionably, and it is terrible to witness the way people curtail their hopes and ambitions according to the station they perceive for themselves in life. The office boys I worked with in my second to last job were in their late teens, at an age when they surely should have been plotting a variety of fanciful schemes to conquer life and the world. But they seemed beaten somehow already by the universe, contained by the invisible ring of their rank. One of them, Ahmed - who is incidentally the best dancer in the world – was constantly trying to devise a successful money-making scheme. These schemes included a night job in some kind of fool and falafel partnership which lasted two weeks because he kept falling asleep while at work in the day job. He was also briefly involved in a net café, and a mobile phone shop, and the last I heard was enrolled in an IT school to get a diploma of some variety. He is streetwise and bright but lacks experience or support and, fatally, his dreams are limited to the miniscule portion of the world to which he feels he has a claim.

My aunt was wrong in her assessment that the revolution freed the masses of the yoke of class, spurning a nation of troublesome individuals who ferment social disharmony by having the impertinence to regard themselves as equal to others. Everywhere you look in Egypt you see subservience of the worst kind, the type which allows employees to swallow a stream of the most insulting and degrading publicly-delivered insults centred on the stupidity deriving from their rank in society. It renders women cleaning houses invisible as within earshot madam discusses with her friends the difficulty of finding an intelligent maid and how dirty they all are, and unreliable, and stupid. I remember noticing for the first time as I was going past it, two distant specks on either side of al-manassa, the grandstand where Anwar al-Sadat was shot. The specks were the forms of the two soldiers whose duty it is to stand immobile on either side of the steps for hours at a time. Now every time I pass these solitary figures I wonder at how they stand (geddit) such a God awful duty.

Dire economic circumstances dictate the choices of the majority of Egypt’s population of course, but there is nonetheless a certain and conspicuous surrender to the fate these circumstances hand them. It infuriates me when I hear people say that Egyptians are a ‘patient’ people, who uncomplainingly put up with forever deteriorating circumstances. It is more accurate to describe the majority of people here as alienated, and like the soldiers guarding al-manassa, condemned to serve Egypt without ever having a stake in it.

Answers on a postcard to whether this social hierarchy has always existed, or is the legacy of colonialism, but whatever its origins it has proved awfully useful to the ruling regime who can count on a people who either do not regard themselves as suitably qualified to be masters of their own fate or are waiting for the next world or are unaware that they deserve better.

The well-worn paradox is, of course, that hatred of Egypt almost always comes accompanied by a fierce loyalty to it. A friend of mine, who has represented Egypt internationally in volleyball, once lamented the complete lack of investment in, and support for, Egyptian athletes. Having warmed to this theme he then expanded to condemn Egypt generally with a stream of colourful invectives which made frequent reference to the moral conduct of Egypt’s mother. Some five minutes later he was talking about a foreigner in Cairo who insulted Egypt and Egyptians within his earshot at a kiosk, causing my friend the upstanding citizen (and he is very upstanding at 6 ft 4 inches tall) to assert his physical presence and advise the mouthy foreigner to shut up immediately, or else. He compared Egypt to his mother, and said that while he himself could insult her, those not closely related to her did not share this privilege.

If you are into patriotism then yes, there are plenty of reasons to be proud of Egypt, but I have become a little tired of apologising for British actions in Egypt. Any mention of Egypt’s glorious past will eventually touch upon the routing of the British from Egypt during which meaningful looks are always directed at me, daughter of Sir Kitchener. Another perennial question is “which is better, Egypt or England?” - as if we were discussing makes of blow torch. I am also the unwilling official spokeswoman for all things British wherever I go, and am constantly buffeted with questions and statements such as “in England You (plural) don’t like Muslims,” or “why don’t English people believe in God anymore?” or “English people are very cold.” This has to some extent forced me to wear an ill-fitting coat of Britishness with which I am not entirely comfortable. I have giving up trying to explain that I am not from Britain, I am from London, and there is a difference, and long ago realised that mothers cannot confer Egyptianness on their offspring – even if the law now says otherwise.

This was made clear to me in the most galling manner when Mauve Bubble and I were applying for Syrian visas. Mauve’s father is Egyptian but she had virtually no contact with either him or Egypt while growing up. At the Syrian Embassy in London she casually mentioned that her father is from Alexandria and was immediately relieved of the need to pay for a visa and welcomed like a lost daughter. All that was missing was for Assad himself to adorn her in a lei. I on the other hand, the daughter of imperialists and pigs, was made to wait in line and pay for a visa with all the other scum.

Egypt has thus presented numerous questions of identity. The main motivations behind my move to Egypt were 1. because I like it and, 2. to learn the language. On the language front I still sound weird, and am having to reconcile myself to the fact that I will probably never sound entirely normal in Arabic, it’s just too late and vowel sounds are beyond me. I still love Egypt, but it is only through living in Egypt that I was able to see and understand its cruelty. The burden of this knowledge means that I will never be able to recapture the Egypt of my childhood. But Egypt is rather like having a genius, but insane friend: experiences are always intense, and vivid, but alas this applies to both the good and the bad. You will however, never be bored.

I have given up on trying to work out where I fit in Egypt. Now when taxi drivers and others ask me where I'm from I always want to say, you tell me.


ZeRoCoOl said...

lol you just gave me flashback from when I was 12 ...My Mother's clever attempt at not dealing with the crowd was to avoid Egypt air.......Pure Genius mom take a foreign carrier to the same destination that will ameliorate your flying experience...Oh ya the first breath taken off the plane frighteningly lucid although I always picked up a hint of BO and farm animal in the bouquet of that classic vintage known as Egypt.

Will E. said...

So Egyptians can criticize Egypt but foreigners can't.. I just hate that monopoly on the truth, it's so racist.

Every country has its own class system, Egypt's is simple, good job documenting it.

Anonymous said...

We are a family of ex-Londoners living in Egypt (not Cairo, quiet remote place)over 5 years. Your comments about intense vivid experiences and never being bored ring so true. But I can never quite figure out why that should be so even in a quiet place...Cairo is hectic and crowded so it makes sense, but I wonder why this a necessary condition of Egyptian life even for the relatively privileged living far away from the crowds. Good work, interesting observations well put.

Safiya said...

A very interesting post, but as a Brit, I found the line "I'm from London not Britain" a bit odd. A council estate in London feels like a council estate anywhere and it's the same with the suburbs.

Apart from the extortionate prices, I don't feel London is that different from the rest of the U.K, or certainly not compared to the difference between somewhere like Bethesda and Birmingham.

Amnesiac said...

Anon: I think it's because the shops stay open later and more, and louder, noise is tolerated than in England. There is also just a certain warmth here by which I don't mean that people are all lovely to each other, but just a certain spirit.

Safiya: I've lived in the north of England, Essex, Dorset and London in the UK and there is definitely a different feel to London. It's noisier, dirtier and more cosmopolitan than most (but not all) other cities and towns in the UK which I why I like it. Whenever I spent any time out of London I would breathe a sigh of relief when, on the drive back, I spotted the first London Transport logo.

As for the council estate thing, I don't know having never lived on one. We have however always lived on housing estates and again the one in London was more interesting. And the thing about London is that one can escape the suburbs, and not to a shopping centre with a Marks and Spencer and a WH Smiths and that's it.

I like big cities and chaos and interesting (as in varied) visual landscapes and London is about the best the UK can offer - in my experience. I don't think I'd survive anywhere else in England.

Cairogal said...

Great commentary on the class system. My husband and I drove to Vancouver BC to catch up with a Canadian friend of mine that I know from Cairo and her husband. Her husband is from Shoubra, mine from Giza. They come from different backgrounds, are both college educated, yet there seems a sea between them when it comes to relating to one another.

Anonymous said...

yes amnesiac, the warmth of the people...even the very reserved Egyptians have great warmth when you get to know them. Also, the fact that everything is arranged last minute, we were an hour late for our dental appointments last week (not our fault) and when we arrived, the only remark was mafeesh mashkila. Try doing that in London (this is a very successful, excellent and busy dentist who has patients traveling from Europe to see him because he is so good). What about 'face'? I still find this concept presents huge cultural-gap type challenges.

Safiya said...

I have the opposite reaction, whenever I enter London, my heart sinks, but I can understand why you might prefer it to Essex and Dorset and, (depending on where you lived) the North, too.

Amnesiac said...

Anon my mother has requested the name of the dentist you mention - she collects dentists. Would you mind sharing it with her? If you don't want to write it here, perhaps you could email it to

Anonymity guaranteed of course.

Also, what do you mean by face? Keeping face?

Anonymous said...

yes the preoccupation with 'keeping' and 'losing' face which is completely alien to most westerners.Hiding when a problem arises etc. Sure you know all about it. Will send dentist details to your email tomorrow -rushing out now mafeesh mashkela.

Basil Fawlty said...

Wonderful piece, Amnesiac: always a great combination of anecdote and insight.

A couple of points about class: my mother, it has to be said, is not as bad about it as other people, meaning she won't turn her nose up at people or talk about them as being 'balady' behind their back; she'll simply cut them out of her life. But...and this is a big but (and I cannot lie):

She lives in mortal fear of being perceived as balady because of her lack of criticism of those so-labelled. It's exactly like high-school: a hateful group of small-minded inadequates dictate who's cool and who isn't. She also spends a lot of time 'covering her tracks' and purging her recent history (cookies, for anyone of a tech bent) of anything that can remotely be perceived as balady.

Secondly, while the class system is appalling, don't you think it's a bit of an intellectual problem with few day-to-day ramifications? My point is, it only means anything to third party observers. Were I to be discriminated against because of class, that would mean little to me aside from a tone I didn't like or twitter behind my back that I'd probably do well to ignore. I'm not saying I'm right here, just that I'm not sure a semblance of social egalitarianism can ever exist, simply because it's such a basic human trait to look up at some and look down at others. My question is, is it really hurting anyone on a practical scale?

Also, there's substantial reverese-class resentment going on, for anyone who's ever dealt with a government authority. I recall, with enraged vivideness, the time I went over to pick up my government ID and the man behind the window took perverse pleasure in assuring me he wasn't going to hand it over until I went home and shaved my goatee, so it would match my picture. It bothered me, but just like classism, should I have let it?

Answers on an unwashed serf, please:)

Forsoothsayer said...

yeah, it doesn't bother me much either, because i think it's part of the human condition. besides, in egypt the differences really are of a significant, genuinely life-affecting nature.

in other words i'm a huge snob.

Amnesiac said...

lol @ unwashed serf.

See a point I was going to raise in this post but forgot was that a novel I started recently describes the caste system in India, and on several occasions I was reminded of Egypt. The class system bothers me hugely because unlike in the UK where it is now largely intellectual, in Egypt it still has ramifications. The thing which bothers me most is that it is so very divisive.

Doctor said...

Since I recently moved to the US, I have had more insights into how universal this phenomenon is. A friend of mine who is Nepalese is actually having a hard time getting married to his nepalese sweetheart because she is from a higher "caste". He explained to me that in Nepal ( as well as in parts of India) your caste determines your social status and there is very little in terms of your education or wealth that can change that. The lowest caste were called the " untouchables" , in other words people who do menial jobs and thus are so despised that someone from a higher caste can not even touch them!
That was completely awkward! At first I was like : ok so you are Nepalese , she is Nepalese so what is the problem? but I became painfully disillusioned by his lecture on the " caste system"
It seems this is so ingrained in Human nature! that we need to differentiate ourselves from other humans to give ourselves a psychological edge or to exploit them! That is just the way it is!

Amir said...

I still feel like there are many examples of friends of mine and of others (thru the gossip of the entirely empty lives of many mothers, husbands, friends, and me alike) who are now percieved as quite rich and looked up to, while people talk about how their grandfather was simply a butcher or a civil servant, and was a cheat to make the money that his grandchildren now enjoy to such extremity. Its internal even within actual classes, where one become successful, his descendants as well, and others are resentful because they could have been something with their family name but are perceived as inferior.

Education as also now emerged as a new and positive class conquering aspect of Egyptian Society. Having attended one of the "international" schools of Egypt, I can say from first hand experience that if I or friend of mine have perceived someone as one who cares for his/her education, is passionate, interested, or driven by a certain cause that we have almost certainly looked past their familiar heritage. This may not be true for my father or mother when I bring this above mentioned person over for lunch as they tirelessly grill me on who's his/her father and mother, but I feel that within this new generation, its not as rigid.