Sunday, December 09, 2007


As I was coming out of the lift in the Journalists’ Syndicate on Friday the boy who they put in a uniform and make press buttons called out to the man at the entrance who they don’t give a uniform to and make sit at a desk:

“Howa Ahmed – “ [Is Ahmed -]

His sentence was interrupted with:

“Arba3a.” [Four]

“Ahmed – “


“Ahmed beta3 el buffet illi el mafroud fow2 – “ [Ahmed from the buffet who’s supposed to be upstairs - ]


“Bass – “ [But - ]


By the fourth four I had reached the man at the entrance desk. He was leaning over his desk, his chin resting on one balled fist while in the clutch of the other hand was a busy pen. I looked: he was colouring in the letters on a flyer.

Outdoors those not lucky enough to get a task-less job indoors were directing traffic and steering donkeys and selling socks and parking cars in the bitter cold.

I bought take-away Koshary for 1.50 LE and wondered how something so cheap can be so delicious. That evening, Umm Nakad and I went to a fussy coffee shop in Mohandiseen. I had a supposedly Greek salad for 15 LE, although as I understand it the defining feature of this dish is the Feta cheese which was present, but in miserly proportions – perhaps the Feta was on a study year abroad at Essex University, which is full of Greeks. The salad wasn’t half as filling - nor as good - as the Koshary not least because at the table next to us a bald man was smoking a cigar and filling the closed room with its poisonous fumes. He was however, sitting with a man who had a white Kenny Rogers-style beard, which compensated for the choking somewhat.

Umm Nakad requested of the waiter that he ask the bald man to extinguish his cigar, at least while we were eating. 7ader, 7ader, [OK, OK] he said, looking worried. He couldn’t risk doing so because he probably would have lost his job – the cigar smoker turned out to be a friend of the coffee shop’s owner. He didn’t say anything and when I got home my clothes were a rich bouquet of bonfires mixed with old socks.

Outside in Mohandiseen’s neon jungle the silver crocodile crushes the black and white Shaheen, which fights with the yellow beetle, which collides with the dirty donkey, while pedestrians dart in and out like birds. In Doqqi the hero Ahmed Abdel Aziz is hosting a young man with a leg brace up to his groin who skilfully navigates his way through the parked cars on his crutches, offering tissues. A girl makes her one minute pitch to the closed windows while the numbers count down to zero and the lights turn green and she is left behind.

Back in the Journalists’ Syndicate the next day a Professor of Medicine on a panel considering the steady privatisation of Egyptian education paints a sorry picture. Once upon a time he says, education in Egypt was the way out of poverty, was one of the only means of class mobility. No longer. Language schools with their astronomical fees and their all-English education have created a generation of kids who don’t know how to write Arabic, often cannot speak it properly and know nothing about the lives of the average Egyptian. These kids go to university in the States, come back, join big corporations, become even richer, become cronies of the ruling regime and then, eventually, end up ruling a country they know very little about, but get glimpses of occasionally in the form of the woman who cleans their floors. In the future, cabinet meetings might be conducted entirely in English, he (half) joked.

And free education is a myth, he says, not only because of the necessity of paying for private tutoring but because of the Qesm Memayyez system which, if you can afford it, gives you smaller classes and air-conditioned rooms and the best professors – within public universities. And of course the professors are fighting each other to get appointed to the Qesm Memayyez so that they can teach in a cool room while at the end of their four years two classes of students emerge, the graduate with the shiny degree from the Qesm Memayyez and the ordinary, poorer student with the ‘shahada ta3bana’ [crappy degree]. And the joke is that because education is now a business neither of them stand a chance against that infinitely more attractive consumer item, the graduate of a foreign university.

The doctor thinks this system can’t go on for much longer, that it will collapse, that the microbus-riding student will one day crack at the sight of his moneyed, chauffeur-driven peers, and rise up.

On Thursday night I went to Ramsis railway station and spoke to railway safety technicians who were protesting about pay and conditions, and about being ignored and cheated. They crowded round all speaking at once so that the world would know about the injustices committed against them. “Hanebted2y edraab 3an el ta3m!” [we're going to start a food strike!] they proclaimed. “Hana7’od 7o2o2na! Ekteby dah 3andek!” [we'll take our rights - write that down!] And the vehemence and desperation made it easy to believe that they might just do that.

One of them, Ahmed, called me the next day, Friday. “I have news, “ he said. “We had a meeting with the management and they agreed to 70% of our demands. Come and get a copy of the decision.”

I met him outside the Journalists’ Syndicate and he handed me a photocopy of a handwritten document which he spread over a car bonnet with his broad, calloused hands and jabbed at the demands which had been accepted by the management. I read it later while eating the Greek Salad and inhaling the cigar smoke. Only four of their demands had been accepted and what’s worse whoever it was who had recorded the minutes had disparagingly written homomhom el taqeela [their important concerns].

Ahmed impressed on me the importance of writing an article thanking the senior management one by one – he was troubled by the ‘fedee7a’ [scandal] they had made for their managers in the previous day’s articles published in the Arabic press. I told him that I couldn’t do this, but I would describe the outcome of the meeting. He asked for the newspaper’s website address and got out his diary to note it down. The page fell open on a picture of the President at the front.

“Meen dah?” [who’s that?] I joked.

“Dah ra2eesna” [that’s our president] he said, stony-faced.

I told him that I know, I was joking, but asked what he was doing in the diary. Ahmed explained that he got it from work, hence the picture. “Not because of your love for him” then, I said, again expecting him to join me in the not terribly funny joke.

“Ba7ebbo tab3an, we ba7ebb balady” [Of course I love him, and I love my country] he said, without a hint of irony, and I wondered what exactly it will take to make the love affair end.


fully_polynomial said...

What a great post for December 9th.

I am glad that, even though you can walk now, you still choose to write. Its our good luck. Happy birthday.

Forsoothsayer said...

there's no need to vilify the rich kids...why not the government that pays educators too little to offer decent education?

Amnesiac said...

Fully P: Ta luv.

Forsooth: Is this directed at me or the doctor who made these remarks?

If you're asking about my opinion then of course the state is failing in its obligations to provide a decent education. As for the rich kids, my problem is the complaceny and complete disregard for the fact that someone else is paying the bill for their privileged position, as evidenced by the prevailing attitude of the ultra-rich towards the people who clean their houses and help them park their cars, and whom they seem to regard as sub-human.

Also, many of these rich kids grow up into rich adults who benefit from the economic and political situation in Egypt, ensure that it persists and don't give a crap about people less fortunate than them - even when they're in a position, financially and in terms of influence - to make a difference.

I'm not suggesting that rich kids enroll themselves in state schools and don haircoats and shun the good fortune they were born into. It would just be nice if more than the odd one used his position to make a positive difference instead of sitting back and counting his money while shitting all over others.

And yes this phenonemon is everywhere, and yes it's human nature not to care but that is not an excuse.

La Gitana said...

You're absolutely right, it's not an excuse. And just to add insult to injury, these private schooled kids can neither speak/write Arabic properly, nor can they write/speak English properly, at least not at the level of a "native" of either one. It's an absolute tragedy. I've seen people say "I don't read or write Arabic at all (in slightly Egyptian accent)" and upon seeing their English writing skills I wanted to gauge my eyes out with a fork. Unreadable. It's just a complete lack of desire to do anything productive at all (read: LEARN something and do something with that knowledge)

Forsoothsayer said...

you know very well i would never use a popularity or 'human" nature defence...but nevertheless the remarks were directed at the author.

i find that all the rich kids i know do give a crap...but are not currently in positions of much influence. maybe i know some nice kids tho.

Amir said...

great post. Egypt's education system is indeed poor, its much cheaper to educate then it is to generate jobs. I would just hope that this "economic boom" egypt is going through will eventually trickle down in the form of more jobs, a larger upper middle class, which can then employ more, etc etc. Most people in Egypt i've met do not care, a few are starting to realise the benefits of giving back, volunteering, etc. which i do not think was ever a concept for the generation before. On an interesting note, my roommate's girlfriend is in Egypt at this moment on a project with the world bank in trying to set up a student loan system in Egypt. Unfortunately, she told me it will be a very difficult endeavor as most universities are funded by tuition (not like grants and such as here) and what with the ridiculously low salaries that graduates receive, it would be difficult to pay these loans back in a reasonably profitable time for banks. And yes, your right, most people do not appreciate, acknowledge, nor care that their parents are paying so much for their education and revelries abroad. Any insight or suggestions on how the government can slowly better the system back home?

Amnesiac said...

Thanks, Amir.

Am going to research the education system. Will get back to you.

gayyash said...

jarring post.

anyone interested in an quick overview of the education system should google 'Egypt Education Sector Assesment'. There's one from 2002 and one from 2004. naturally, these reports tend to be biased in how they're structured (what they choose to look at) and in their recommendations but they do provide useful information and suggestions. personally i think the problem with education has a lot to do with other problems and that the solution isn't simply a better run bureaucracy with better technical capacities (more 'good' education experts). i think at this point we can either keep shooting for the india-shining model (educating for industrial development-style economic growth), which involves investing more in schools and/or helping more ghalaba get a taste of the expensive privatised 'good stuff'. i personally have little faith in neither (despite some hope that small changes are possible and that things can be made less horrible), because our state is curmudgeonly and paternalistic and self-important and overburdened, and because the private sector does whatever the myopic state regulatory bodies (themselves outdated) will let it. so say we get the state to develop efficient systems of its own and solid regulatory frameworks with relevant good criteria (for any sector, really)... in that case i'm all for 'education reform'. till any of that happens, though, i'm personally betting on work that's closer to the ground and more horizontal. all people have are their crap public sector jobs and crap education and that's tragic and i think it's a large part of why so many people can't help but love rayyesna. the state is all they've been allowed to have. i think this is as good a time as any (in our history) to take questions of education and livelihoods and well-being 3ammatan outside the whole state framework and just explore what communities can do for/by themselves other or collectively. yeah, so i'm taking suggestions if anyone has any.

end soapbox.