Saturday, June 30, 2007

Johnny probably hated oriental jazz, too

I saw the man with the best schnozz in the oriental jazz business - Fathy Salama - yesterday evening, as part of the ‘Fathy Salama vs. Screwdriver Rock Project.’ This was a piece of school homework given to them all where they had to work in pairs and prepare a class presentation in the Sawy Cultural Wheel on ‘fluctuations in jean tightness in contemporary rock: emerging trends after the Bon Jovi apex.’

I wish.

Unfortunately project in this context is a muso word which means lots of people on stage at once, including a fit Swede, a Sikh, granddad on castanets, Fathy, and Screwdriver, who are a band and not useless tools.

Regular readers will know by now my feelings on fusion music but I will repeat again than the collision of e.g. Scottish highland folk and Hawaiian traditional wedding songs is like seeing a British person in socks and sandals newly arrived on the continent who encounters a continental acquaintance and they go to kiss each other on the cheek(s) and the Brit forgets that it’s two kisses and is surprised and flustered to find the face looming in on him again and the process inevitably results in some inelegant and misplaced head bobbing and possibly accidental kissing on the lips if not accidental insertion of tongues in nostrils or other orifices necessitating immediate suicide for the Brit. Fusion music is the audible equivalent of this: not pretty, and slightly awkward.

Consider for example the mighty Tabla which in its natural habitat is the lion of any musical jungle. I challenge anyone to hear a good Tabla soloist and not dance or clap or at least tap his finger on his knee vigorously. And yet when placed in the zoo next to a bass guitar and discordant keyboard solos and friggin China Bells if it is not lost altogether Tabla sounds tired and worst of all annoying. This was the case tonight despite the excellence of the nimble-fingered Tabla player.

But then oriental jazz will suck the feeling out of any instrument (and for only 20 LE - she’s cheap). This was again confirmed tonight: it’s something to do with oriental jazz’s rhythm, and its fondness for making a keyboard and a bass guitar have a race to see who can reach the top of an Arabic musical scale the first upon which the winner is inevitably serenaded by an interminable percussion solo the task of listening to which I lighten by counting the number of hairs on the head in front of me.

Tonight’s proceedings were however made more bearable by the aforementioned Swede and granddad castanets. The Swede, one Frederick Jille or Gille was brought on to play a small pair of drums, because God knows the percussion section wasn’t big enough already with a full drum kit, a Tabla player, granddad castanets and another drummer. He was more perfectly put together than an IKEA store-displayed shelving cabinet what with the cheekbones approximately a millimetre below his eyes and golden tanned skin and shining blonde hair swept back into a Sumo wrestler-type bun. He actually bore a passing resemblance to another fine Swedish export, Freddie Ljundberg, and ladies I advise you to look at this picture immediately, but careful not to cut yourself on his facial bone structure!

In order to take my mind off the music I thought how much Mr Frederick was like Sweden itself, in that you barely noticed his presence but whenever you did were impressed by his beauty and efficiency.

Meanwhile, at the geriatric end of the stage, a senior citizen was knocking out fantastic stuff on the accordion while next to him granddad castanets strutted his stuff. Granddad was dead short, and bedecked in a galabeyya and turban and big gold ring on his little finger. When I went to get tea someone referred to him affectionately as ‘el 3omda,’ and he was indeed very much like a village mayor. He was the most animated of all the hundreds of people on stage, at times performing castanet solos during which he would wobble his head and thrust one arm above his head Flamenco style before spinning and then dramatically dropping to the floor and proceeding to wallop it repeatedly with his castanets like an infuriated child (hip problems meant it looked touch and go whether he would be able to stand back up). His performance was actually slightly menacing at times, and the failure of the audience to whip itself into a frenzy prompted granddad to come to the front of the stage, narrow his eyes, raise his hands to head-level and clack his castanets meaningfully, as if saying clap you bastards or I’ll be castaneting with your balls next.

Another highlight of the night was the appearance of Screwdriver’s male bass player in a black fishing hat whose sides flapped down to his shoulders and whose front almost entirely obscured his face: it was as if someone had thrown a large jellyfish over his head. It’s a look, I suppose. The (very good) lead guitarist meanwhile had chosen to take risks with his outfit in a pair of pressed jeans and short sleeved checked shirt topped off with a side parting. All he lacked were pens in his top pocket. Also, his guitar probably weighs more than him. Many of Cairo’s lead guitarists are extremely slender, I have noticed. Are their metabolisms unable to keep up with their furious nightly renditions of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’?

The prize for fancy dress must be given to Sam, an ‘Egyptian rapper from New York’ who appeared out of nowhere and took his place amongst jellyfish head and the atrophying Mormon. He was dressed in long 1920s footballer shorts and a vest exposing a nipple which stared out at the open-mouthed crowd like some sort of one-eyed beast. His silver bling sparkled as he rapped (sounding very much like Jay-Z), for about five minutes before spending the rest of the night trying to alleviate his awkwardness by emitting an ‘aywa’ every now and again while the others sang before giving up and sitting down.

Algerian singer Karima Nite was sensational as always. She looks like Fairouz on acid but with massive Mariam Fares type hair, and has an incredible voice – I can’t understand why she’s not more famous. They ended with an ‘Algerian folkloric’ song from Oran called salloo 3al naby which was fantastic. I have always liked hearing the guttural intonations of Algerian Arabic in music, despite not being able to understand a word. It sounds meaty and fortifying somehow. The spring of this last song sort of made up for the acres of arid oriental jazz desert we had to stumble through, but the mostly lukewarm reception of the audience confirmed to me that there is something lacklustre and clinical and joyless about this music.

The heat these days has forced air conditioning-less people out of their homes and onto the relatively cooler streets at night, and walking home from the ba2al last night at midnight was like being the invisible man in people’s living rooms, with entire families sitting on porch steps, women fanning themselves and men in vests drinking tea, while elsewhere all-season gangs of lads held court in their usual positions on the trunks of cars. Nothing compares to walking at night in the summer, enveloped in that sighing heat and everywhere a certain stillness, broken only by the sounds of a distant game of backgammon, conducted in silence by two solitary figures in the darkness. Or am I just easily pleased.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Jungle music

While the joke about there existing two methods of time keeping, Greenwich Mean Time and Egyptian time, is a little tired , I nonetheless feel compelled to comment on the amazing precision with which Egyptians collectively turn up late to events. Late is not actually the correct word, because there seems to be some hidden and unspoken formula for calculating when an event will actually start. While I am constantly 5 – 10 minutes late for everything not involving the chance of future employment, I invariably walk in first to events in Egypt and arrive to find a dark room of empty chairs where I sit and wait until hoards of people (including the event’s organisers) all turn up at once and sniff the air made rancid by the miasma of my rotting corpse.

I have attempted to extract the Da Vinci Code of this formula from my Egyptian acquaintances but get no further than ‘add half an hour to the time it is meant to start,’ which does not take into account other factors at play. Having spent hours waiting for events to commence I have had time to ponder this formula and my findings are as follows:

Event scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

- Add half an hour minimum and don’t ask why = 7.30 p.m.

- If the event is scheduled to start at the same time as a call to prayer add five minutes = 7.35 p.m.

- If the event is hosted by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and is scheduled to start at the same time as prayers, add twenty minutes to allow for prayers = 7.55 p.m.

- If the event involves e.g. a speaker who enjoys mild fame i.e. has appeared on el Bayt Baytak he will add ten minutes to all the above and will prolong proceedings by forcing the chairperson to fill in order to disguise his absence. The chairperson will say that the speaker is stuck in traffic when in fact he is arguing with his wife about curtains in the lobby downstairs = 8.05 p.m.

If the event involves e.g. a speaker of considerable fame i.e. has appeared on el Bayt Baytak twice and the Dream channel and possibly the BBC he will have developed a highly-tuned inner mechanism after years of back-to-back media interviews allowing him to calculate exactly when to arrive at an event so as to avoid the boring waffle and be present for the exciting contentious bits which actually generally involve him (exponents of this technique: the director of any human rights organisation) = add no extra time.

- If the event is scheduled to begin anywhere near Qasr el 3ini street between the hours of 2 and 7 p.m. add forty minutes.

- If the event is scheduled to begin in Zamalek, downtown or Garden City at the same time as the assistant to the assistant of the Junior Minister of Door Handles is leaving the People’s Assembly and is on his way to Qoweidar to quickly pick some Ka7k up for the madame = add 15 minutes for the flotilla to pass.

- If the event is scheduled to begin anywhere in Egypt or North Africa at the same time as a Mobarak is scheduled to leave their house = stay in and don’t bother.

- If the event is hosted by one of the founder-members of the European Community (other than France) subtract two minutes from the start-time.

Note also that the formula seems to be unique to Egypt and does not generally work in other contexts i.e. Croydon, and in particular should not be applied to work situations (not mentioning any names woman who gave birth to me.)

The formula worked beautifully on Wednesday, when Sharshar and I attended a seminar on blogging and freedom of expression hosted by the Muslim Brotherhood. We arrived at 7 p.m. and found the hall still in darkness and deserted, but on this occasion this was because everyone was downstairs protesting on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate (the only place where demos are allowed, it would seem). The seminar itself began after everyone had finished praying and catching up on the latest MB arrests gossip at approximately 8.30 p.m.

We spent most of the seminar waiting to see if and when an MB speaker would mention Kareem Amer, the blogger imprisoned for four years for ‘insulting religion and the President’ who ideologically and theologically is obviously the antithesis of all that the MB (slogan: ‘Islam is the solution’) represent. He was mentioned, and one (non-MB) blogger who writes under the name Wa7da Masreyya spoke engagingly about her visit to Kareem in prison. Prison visitors are asked their name, age, their relation to the prisoner and the offence for which he has been imprisoned. Wa7da wondered how she would describe the charges and settled for saying that ‘Kareem wrote things which the government didn’t like on the Internet.’ This prompted an ‘aih??’ from the prison officer before the colleague sitting beside him said ‘2asdaha shuyuu3y’ [she means Communist] and the recording officer responded ‘a3uuzo billah!’ [God protect us!] before admitting her. You can read the rest (in Arabic) here.

Alaa from made the interesting point that in (rightly, of course) dedicating all their time to release campaigns for imprisoned activists, bloggers and others risk neglecting the issues which landed these people in prison in the first place. Abdel Moneim Mahmoud and Omar el Sharqawy spoke about their recent experiences in prison. Many of the faces which usually turn up to anything concerned with rights, and particularly blogging, weren’t at the seminar and Sharshar and I concluded that this was because of the MB connection.

When not considering these things I spent the time reading the description of the drug Sharshar is taking to lose weight. It has a list of spectacular side effects which read like something out of the Old Testament. He has indeed already lost some of the weight piled on after he was released, skeletal, from army service and made up for a year of food deprivation in two months, but I am not entirely convinced that a svelte figure should be at the expense of one’s lower intestine.

In other news, I discovered an unlikely little piece of heaven on Thursday in the form of Dokki’s Orman Gardens which until then I didn’t know existed because I mistook its lush greenery for an extension of the Giza Zoo. A dizzy and weakened Sharshar and I went there for a Sawy Cultural Wheel-organised concert in celebration of World Music Day (Modou! Hany Adel!), and found ourselves surrounded by skyscraper trees of every variety and a pond covered in a carpet of giant lily pads. According to Wikipedia the gardens were designed by grandson of Mohamed Ali and prodigious spendthrift the Khedive Ismail, who imported trees from Sicily for the garden which would surround his palace. Orman apparently means ‘jungle’ in Turkish, which is a slight exaggeration despite the fact that the garden boasts 100 varieties of plants. While I listened to the frogs in the pond, Sharshar admired the bridge which crosses the water – it frequently made guest appearances in old Arabic films, apparently.

The Gardens really are gorgeous. The only downside is that their gates close at 4.30 p.m., presumably to prevent teenagers engaging in hanky panky in the darkness. The concert itself was alright, though the audience was tiny because the world and his mother were all at the Citadel watching Soad flamin Massi. I installed myself against a tree and almost stayed till the bitter end, throwing in the towel two songs into Wost el Balad after they started whistling: whistling in popular music I find unacceptable and annoying even when the sound is emitted by sweet lips Hany.

I leave you with these low-quality mobile phone images:

Outstanding natural beauty

Outstanding natural beauty

Outstanding natural beauty

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Reel Independence

The global phenomenon of enlightening the world through instant pontification on sundry matters - AKA blogging – has not escaped those with access to the internet in Egypt: the Egyptian Blog Ring, an inexhaustive directory of Egyptian blogs, lists 1481 sites of which 874 are written in Arabic and 590 in English ( Of this total 320 blog authors categorise their musings as political. It is impossible to exaggerate the critical importance of the role which political bloggers have cut out for themselves in Egypt: the French Resistance of the information age, they exploit the speed and anonymity of the Internet to bear witness to, and publicise, the transgressions which the mainstream media – emasculated by draconian laws and self-imposed red lines – can or will not touch. Hyperbole? Not when one considers that this role has rendered them something of a Fifth Column in the eyes of the powers that be and blogger arrests have become sadly and inevitably routine: only last week blogger Omar el Sharqawy was arrested while covering the Shura Council elections in Mansoura and, according to, (a blog at the frontline of the battle for freedom of expression, one of whose authors has himself been previously imprisoned) his whereabouts remain unknown.

Downtown Cairo’s Goethe Institute sought to build alliances between bloggers and another marginalised group in Egypt, independent film makers on Sunday evening. Bloggers were invited to a screening of one hour-long, and four short films by Egyptian independent film-makers with a question and answer session with the film makers themselves afterwards. The organisers explained the rationale behind an event aimed uniquely at bloggers: both bloggers and independent film-makers are concerned with artistic self-expression, and address (intentionally or not) an alternative audience to that drawn by mainstream artists, writers and production companies – thus it is logical that bloggers will want to watch films other than those belched out onto the conveyor belt of mainstream cinema. This deduction seemed somewhat shaky given the low numbers who turned up to the event, which is a shame, given the excellence of nearly all the films shown, and may be attributable to the low-key nature of the event’s publicity.

Amr Khaled’s ten-minute Path of the Young was a spirited, if somewhat oblique, look at children’s lives in Cairo’s omnipresent slums. We watch a frenetic game of street football which comes to an abrupt halt when the ball lands on the balcony of a curmudgeon old Scrooge who slits the ball open in order to stop their incessant noise and clamour. In revenge the boys acquire a new football which they fill with plastic bags of their own freshly produced urine before binding the ball with a black stocking and sending it to its inevitable messy death on the balcony. Vituperative recriminations (primly rendered in the English subtitles as scoundrels!) ensue from behind the shutters as we watch the boys running away, laughing and triumphant, before the film inexplicably cuts to a young kite-flyer who falls off a ledge. The film’s message was not entirely clear - the film’s kite motif particularly confused and confusing beside the football game - but it compensated for this with lively and enjoyable acting (by non-actors).

Can Bassem Samra do no wrong? After his excellent portrayal of the unwitting gay lover in the Yacoubian Building he was once again in top-form in Mahmoud Suleiman’s Blue and Red. Samra plays Hema, who fears that he may have got his girlfriend in the club after not being as careful as he should have been during their coital relations. The entire film takes place in one room, and the sense of claustrophobic desperation is therefore intensified as we watch Hema and his girlfriend desperately ringing around their friends in their quest to find the morning after pill (“a friend of mine needs it cos the bed broke at exactly the wrong moment”). The girl also rings a family-planning clinic pretending to be married and tells the woman who answers that she and her husband do not wish to add to Egypt’s over-population problem in the form of another child. She is met with mocking guffaws by the woman who informs her that “one more child won’t do any harm – I myself have seven!” All this is punctuated by frequent mobile phone calls from the girl’s mother, enquiring where she is and warning that her father has got home, during which Hema plays taped street-sounds on a cassette recorder in order to fool her parents into thinking that the girl is outside, and on her way home.

Having failed to get the morning-after pill they meet in the room ten days later in order to carry out a pregnancy test. Hema sits on the bed, smoking and wracked with anxiety, calling out to his girlfriend, “what are you doing? Giving birth??” While he waits he has a mental image of the girl coming out and announcing that the result is blue – negative – before leaping into his arms, both of them spinning around the room joyfully. This is contrasted with their reactions when she does eventually emerge and inform him that the test is in fact negative: they are subdued and disappointed. Blue and Red is a brilliant and frank study of a theme – extra-marital sexual relations and the consequences thereof – rarely presented in this manner in mainstream Egyptian cinema as well as being a touching exploration of the dynamics and complexities of love within the framework of the demands of society.

The excellent Boutros Ghali appeared in both Ibrahim el Batout’s superb Ithaki and Tamer el Said’s Monday, a touching tale about a woman who remembers how to whistle and in the process re-ignites passion for her pipe smoking enthusiast husband. Ithaki, which takes its name from the verses composed by Greek Alexandrian poet Cavafy (and whose lines are a motif running throughout the film) is a complex semi-autobiographical drama in which actors appear next to people playing themselves (both famous and not, and including director el Batout’s father). The plot loosely revolves around a war cameraman (el Batout is himself a cameraman who has spent many years in war zones) who is planning a film in which several characters will appear, including Ghali’s reformed alcoholic, a white witch and a classical music enthusiast. Musician Fathy Salama makes an appearance as himself, and drew an involuntary laugh from the Goethe crowd when, during a moving speech by Algerian singer Karima Nite about a film director friend killed by Islamists in Algeria, the film cuts to an extreme close-up on Salama who says nothing and looks as if he is about to fall asleep.

The film’s themes are war: both personal and global, and the impossibility of comparing and quantifying human suffering. The work is outstanding on numerous levels: the freshness of the acting, the innovative and unusual non-sequential approach to the storyline and above all the score, a haunting soundtrack sung by Karima Nite whose pathos perfectly evoked the sadness in these ordinary lives but also reflects the hope in Cavafy’s Ithaca: Arriving there is what you’re destined for/But don’t hurry the journey at all…so [that] you’re old by the time you reach the island/wealthy with all that you’ve gained on the way.

During one of the Q & A sessions with the director one member of the audience urged film makers in the Middle East to carry on making films such as these in order to present the richness of Arab culture to the West and highlight all the good things the region has to offer. This prompted another member of the audience to comment that actually, he was at a loss to which good things she meant because he felt as if this country is “clobbering us around the head with shoes on a daily basis.” He then promptly took his leave - followed by the woman who made the original comment - and their voices were audible still arguing the point outside as the organisers explained that they hoped that this event would be the first of many unifying and strengthening the independent cultural sector.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly.

P.S I am of course aware that there are more like 3 - 4,000 Egyptian blogs in existence but was unable to find a quotable source.

P.P.S Omar el Sharqawy was released this week you'll be glad to hear.

P.P.S.S If you in Egypt make sure that you have a look at the printed version of this so that you can gaze upon the glory of a topless Bassem Samra. Am I the only woman in the world who fancies him?

Monday, June 18, 2007

If Cavafy had a green book, it was for noting down his musings on Trojans

Amnesiac and her laptop are upstairs at Upstairs Auntie's place.
As Upstairs Auntie walks past she sees the picture of the great Alexandrian poet and bad spectacles-chooser Cavafy which crowns
the last post.

Upstairs auntie: [Squinting and frowning] Dah meen dah? [Who is that?]
Amnesiac: Cavafy.
Upstairs: Meen? Gaddafy?? [Who? Qaddafy?]
Amnesiac: ...
Upstairs: Sbelleeh keda [Spell it]
Amnesiac: C-A-V-A-F-Y
Upstairs: Cavafy...aaaahh [a lightbulb seems to light up]
Amnesiac: [Encouraged] Te3rafeeh? [Do you know him?]
Upstairs: La2. [No]

Shout out to Egyptian cities and her scholars, yo

Cavafy demonstrating that the legendary good taste in clothes possessed by gentlemen of a gay inclination does not extend to spectacles: an occurrence subsequently confirmed by Elton John and Yves Saint Laurent

I am a complete philistine when it comes to most poetry, possibly because of having developed an aversion to Seamus Heaney poems about turf in 6th form college, and also because I usually fail to understand

how something

entirely pedestrian

can suddenly be infused with depth


hidden meanings

when the words are arranged oddly,


However, the beauty of certain verses does occasionally penetrate my thick skull, as was the case yesterday when I watched a fantastic film by Ibrahim el Batout called Ithaki during an independent films screening which I will tell you about in my article later this week if you can bear waiting that long without the excitement inducing a mild stroke. The film uses Cavafy's poem of the same name. I vaguely remember it (the film) saying that the poem is about a Trojan warrior who instead of taking days to reach his home (the island of Ithaca) takes years, possibly because he was travelling on the London Underground. The poem itself raises a glass to the wondrous journey which is life, and if a morose cow like me is attempting to sell you a poem by combining the words wondrous and life in the same sentence then you know it must be good.

As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure,

full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:

you'll never find things like that one on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbours you're seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfumes of every kind -as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you're destined for.

But don't hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you're old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you've gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.

Without her you wouldn't have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become,

so full of experience,

you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean

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.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Could it be magic? No! It's physics!

Above: Galileo, the father of modern astronomy

Above: Barry Manilow. Oh Mandy!

Let it be known:
Mishearing 'Manilow' (as in Barry) for 'Galileo' while vaguely listening to a programme on Renaissance astrology radically - if fleetingly - changes world perceptions.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Suds duds

Vile TV is currently showing an absolutely fantastic soap opera from two years back called Friska, a Dynasty type extravaganza following the fortunes of two rival families over the course of fifty years which has got me enthralled. It's got some brilliant acting, terrific music and wicked story lines and - even better - it uses the same actors for the main roles, meaning that we watch a 50 year old man 'mature' over the span of half a century into a 50 year old man. All the classic markers of age are rolled out including: pigtails to indicate youth (on a middle aged woman), jumpers swung over shoulders and petulance to indicate youth (on a middle aged man) and very high waisted men's swimming trunks to indicate the Nasser years. The best thing about is its use of documentary footage of Nasser abdicating, and Sadat in the Knesset and old newspaper headlines from the era: it's like a fun history lesson.

This being Vile TV, the second best thing about it are the subtitles which are as entertaining as the soap opera, mostly because the translators seem to use a dictionary of 1950s American idioms for the more colourful language. I have been watching avidly and have thus far noted three corkers which I share with you here:

Actual dialogue: Fekra heyla!
Meaning: Great idea!
Vile TV translation: Hot dog!

Actual dialogue: Ya ibn el kalb!
Meaning: You son of a bitch!
Vile TV translation: You s.o.p!

Actual dialogue: [said to man very clearly asleep, mouth open and snoring] Enta saa7ey ya Riyad?
Meaning: Are you awake, Riyad?
Vile TV translation: Are you up, Riyad?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


A friend of mine, let’s call her Shams, recently went to a doctor specialised in women’s complaints. Without wishing to conjure up too graphic an image, she had an intimate examination by the female doctor, and was suddenly surprised to hear:

mabrouk ya benty enty lessa 3ezraa2. masha2allah el 3’eshaa2 3andek gameela gedden!’ [Congratulations dear, you’re still a virgin. Your hymen is in excellent shape!]

She then left a flabbergasted Shams momentarily to share the wonders of this magnificent hymen with her female colleague, going so far as to draw a diagram of the specimen.

In her infinite wisdom the doctor recommended that Shams be tested for diabetes which (possibly after examination of her hymen) the doctor suspected she had. Shams spent a nightmarish eight hours waiting for the test result which – surprise, surprise - proved the doctor wrong. Needless to say her original purpose in visiting the doctor was entirely unrelated to her virginity.

This incident is an example of the generally strange world that Shams inhabits, a world she navigates according to a complex guidebook of moral, religious and social obligations some of which she has chosen herself, some of which are imposed on her and many which were so deeply ingrained so long ago that attempting to source their origins in either volition or imposition would be like asking her to remember and recount her first ever dream: an impossible feat of stripping away layers of fact from perceived reality, and perceived reality from the world and the word created by others, and the world and the word created by others from her own consciousness until she arrives at herself.

As a result of or perhaps despite her circumstances she is luckily not given to much introspection, and is content to regard the occasional imposition of moral standards controlling her behaviour as nuisance encumbrances and the family members imposing them well-meaning fools. She finds humouring them the best possible approach, yes sir no sir…listen to them until they stop talking. And she loves them, her family, after all. Her widowed mother who left her father long before he departed this planet, leaving behind him six children, all of whom bore his name but only one of which could tell you what he liked for breakfast, and a wife who would have spat in his eggs given the opportunity.

Moral guidance, school fees and new shoes were provided by her older brother Ahmed, who spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia with his father, the only one of the children to have done so. When he returned to Egypt he brought back with him a set of fierce morals, a strange accent and a beard, much in the same way that backpackers come back from Goa with stinking dreadlocks and a sense of having visited a higher plane. He discovered that while Egypt welcomed her wandering son his beard was persona non gratis and, after being photographed with it for his national ID card, he received an unannounced visit from a pair of polite men who greeted him warmly and spoke in a roundabout way and in semi-hushed tones about the necessity of not wearing one’s convictions on one’s face, or at least not in a government document. The words national and personal interests and unwanted attention were mentioned and Ahmed returned once more to be photographed for his ID, this time his face stripped bare and with a sense that the dangers and devils around which his existence was shaped had assumed a corporeal form, and that he had been vindicated, somehow.

Ahmed lives apart from Shams and the rest of them, but is near enough to be able to make frequent visits necessitating a modification of Shams’ wardrobe if she plans on going out while he is there. While she was at university he would convey her to and from classes, so concerned was he to protect his sister’s, and by extension his own, reputation. Shams dresses modestly, but in university she was veiled, and is the only one of the three sisters to have subsequently chosen not to wear it. She puts it back on during Ramadan, not because she is compelled to do so but because she adores the spirituality of the month and the sense of being subsumed into something greater and nobler than herself. She is able to lose herself and find meaning in the rites associated with Ramadan, and wearing a veil is both a mark of submission and a declaration of a brief freedom from her own existence. Ahmed of course cannot accept her rejection of the veil the rest of the year round, and seeing her uncovered hair is a constant provocation. But then Shams is a provocation, the family renegade, the maverick, constantly battling, refusing, demanding life on her terms.

And yet in so many other ways she is so compliant, so unquestioning. It has to do with her complete absence of curiosity in anything immediately beyond the limits of her world. I have never met anyone so uniformly and fiercely hobby-less. She does not read for pleasure nor watch television actively. She is only very remotely interested in a narrow range of music. She occasionally likes going to the cinema to watch Arabic films and will tolerate foreign films if the majority outvote her. She is not interested in the consumption of food beyond purposes of sustenance unless she has cooked it (I asked her when she travelled abroad whether she was enjoying eating the food and she replied ‘I am mostly eating fish and cheese’), and uses the internet only to check email and chat. This is a woman who will sit, arms crossed and statue-like in a room full of magazines and books for hours. It would not occur to her to pick something up and read or at least peruse it: books and magazines offer Shams about as much stimulation as rocks in a field. And this fantastic indifference is not attributable to a lack of intelligence. Shams has ambition, is witty and is rarely dull. It is rather that the art of passion for something rarely develops organically, it must seemingly be inculcated in a child in the same way that he must be taught to walk and speak. While Shams is deeply loved by her family they apparently did not put a high premium on anything beyond her material and spiritual wellbeing, and I have only witnessed Shams become unabashedly enthusiastic about anything on two occasions: once, when a visit to a moulid was proposed and secondly, whenever reference is made to her cooking: she inevitably makes ‘the best, the most sumptuous’ food the world has ever tasted.

The channels of energy which would usually be directed into supporting a football team or devotion to a singer or hiking instead flow into Shams’ two major emotions: pride and jealousy. Shams’ confidence and belief in herself is unfailing and dazzling – which is fortunate, given that bad luck and unfavourable circumstances seem to be just as routinely consistent. Her sense of outrage at a slight, whether perceived or actual is usually out of all proportion to what really happened and is always attributed by her to the fact that the miscreant in question ‘does not know Shams’ true worth.’ A sense of her own value is clear in her bearing, in her manner, which men find attractive and which inspires in many women a visceral dislike of Shams resulting in them dismissing her as a snob. But to call her a snob would be wrong simply because Shams’ self-confidence is not of the variety which is based on the belittlement of others. Rather it is self-sustaining, and drawn from the bubble of her own existence.

Which is not to say that Shams is indestructible or invulnerable. She has alluded to desperate times, to razors bought, marks on wrists and moments of hesitation with pill bottles in bathrooms. Contiguous with her unfailing self-confidence is an expectation that things must logically go her way. When – inevitably - they do not, her only explanation is either that she has a cursed existence or there is a conspiracy against her or both. Shams is quite unlike naturally depressive types with low self-esteem whose negativity - if it doesn’t actually precipitate it – at least prepares them for mental crisis. The flipside of Shams’ dazzling self-esteem is that she has much further to fall when despair seizes her and consequently strikes the ground much harder - she being so unequipped to deal with the emotional demons released upon impact, so unused to self-analysis, particularly analysis of her own existence within the wider context of the outside world.

The deadly combination of pride and jealousy makes Shams get out of cars while they are still moving, leave chairs suddenly vacant in restaurants and – the old favourite – guillotine telephone conversations. These tendencies are only made more acute by the fact that she is vaguely romantically involved with the world’s most forgiving - or stupidest - man. Watching them in action is like being outside on an intensely close, warm day when a storm is brewing and the airless climate makes you feel like someone has your head in a vice of steadily increasing pressure. He will unknowingly make some offhand remark and Shams’ whole being immediately changes. Her eyelids flutter, her mouth hardens, and she will begin jigging her foot up and down, slowly at first, but gradually faster and with each movement the vice’s grip intensifies. Suddenly and without warning the storm breaks and Shams is up and gone in mid-traffic or mid-sentence. The interesting thing is that her good upbringing does not allow her to raise her voice or swear or even use an overtly disrespectful tone (she speaks in a semi-whisper usually anyway), and I have often wondered whether if she were a little less polite and able to release tension verbally her man would spend less time chasing after her through Cairo’s streets.

Shams’ two closest siblings are her older sister Rania and younger brother Hassan. Rania is as timid and as withdrawn as Shams is outgoing, nervous even of leaving the house alone, and moves like a woman apologising in advance for her existence. Maybe this is because, as Shams suggests, she has been affected by her brother and father’s influence – the influence which Shams and Hassan were just young enough to avoid. Shams talks about Hassan constantly, particularly these days: he is currently in an army prison having been foolishly (if not recklessly) remiss in checking that his term of military service had actually ended after recovering from the car accident-induced injury which initially interrupted it and accepting work in a hotel on the Red Sea.

Shams has been to visit him, and was reassured by the fact that on the day she went a birthday party was being held for another inmate, complete with DJ, family members and cooing fiancée. She was also suitably impressed with the fact that at the sound of all five daily azans the officer in charge apparently rounds up Muslim inmates for obligatory prayer. As we sat in a chi-chi bookshop Shams assured me that it was necessary to temporarily divest these wayward youths of their right to refuse in order to instil in them some kind of discipline and put them on the right path. I argued that ultimately the effect might be quite the opposite, and that the experience risks sullying their relationship with their faith forever. She accepted this risk, but said that of the twenty who abandoned religious rites upon their release, five will have been edified by it, therefore justifying the exercise. This despite the fact that she is a human rights lawyer. It is yet another example of the complexity of her system of - sometimes overlapping, often not - morals and ethics which must accommodate social, religious and human rights values. She interprets and applies these values as she sees fit, and is indifferent to whether this interpretation satisfies others or not.

Her relationship with authority is more ambiguous. For the reasons discussed above, most of her friends are male. She enjoys a particularly close – but strictly platonic – relationship with a former work colleague who happens to be Christian. Their friendship came to the attention of the powers that be and Shams started receiving anonymous phone calls warning her of the inadvisability of seeing so much of her friend. This culminated in a phone call from an individual who identified himself and warned her that if she insisted on not heeding these warnings he might have to call her in for a little chat. She immediately volunteered to go to the police station and did in fact go, accompanied by a male friend - just in case. When she told me I asked her, “but weren’t you frightened?” having heard about the risks for women of entering a police station. She responded with a classic Shams look: the barest hint of a smile, eyelids slightly lowered disparagingly and said, “of course not. Why should I be scared of them? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

And I believed her, because for five years she went to police stations all over Cairo, alone, and at all hours of the night, in order to represent clients. Her bravery and dedication were legendary. So legendary in fact, that in a meeting once a boss, when he was for some reason discussing male and female lawyers according to gender, put Shams in the male group because she is “braver than any man.”

And yet…and yet. Shams on other occasions obeys authority blindly, dismissing as fantastical the idea that she could challenge, or even ignore, the advice of certain individuals who she has adopted as mentors and elevated to the position of virtual gods. One such individual once saw fit to publicly humiliate Shams through a severe ticking off which had her in tears. This is exactly the type of behaviour which her pride would ordinarily not allow to tolerate, but which instinct is overrode by an almost cult-like devotion to these few individuals. The relationship is rendered even more complicated by the fact that the individual in question is old enough to be her father and yet Shams barely conceals her feelings – a mixture of filial adoration, respect and sexual attraction – from him. The man’s narcissism fuels this symbiosis, and it infuriates me (and her other friends) that she cannot appreciate that her role is merely to act as a mirror in which he can gaze upon his glory. But then Shams’ approach to her sexuality and how she uses it like everything else in her life: an ongoing negotiation between duty, desire and disappointment.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Fierce competition between God and Dan Brown**

Top 9 (rather than 10 - presumably because all conceivable variants on the spelling of Quran were exhausted) books in Fartbook's Egypt network:

1. Harry Potter
2. The Alchemist
3. The Da Vinci Code
4. Quran
5. Holy Quran
6. Angels and Demons
7. Qur2an
8. I Hate Reading*
9. Quraan

*A UNESCO study of reading habits described in this article found that people in western Europe on average read 35 books a year, and in Senegal 4 books annually. In the Arab world meanwhile there is one book per 80 people, meaning that if a book contains an average of 300 pages, Arabs read roughly four pages a year.

But the economic hardship which lurks between the lines in these figures doesn't explain the depressing Facebook statistics. I can understand the repeated appearance of the Qu'ran of course, and Harry bloody Potter gets in everywhere, but what is the obsession with Brown? And where is Naguib Mahfouz, beloved of virtually every Egyptian I know? And how the hell did Alaa 'Yacoubian Building' el Aswany not make it in there? Who are the people who completed this survey?? I can only hope that in selecting their favourite fiction they employed the same method they use for choosing their mobile phone: which is to choose the latest, most fashionable model. Or that they failed to realise that Facebook is not an airport in the US and they are in fact allowed to mention stuff written in Arabic.

* Today's guest title contributor is Zoss.

Monday, June 04, 2007

This is my life

Assorted MSN conversations this week

1. A grave undertaking

Mother: Hiya
Amnesiac: Hi
Mother: I haven't got much news apart from wanting you to come home at the earliest possible opportunity
Amnesiac: ?
Mother: I have to go now, there is a programme on telly about Muslim undertakers in London I must watch. You never know when we might need one
Amnesiac: ...
Mother: I'll speak to you in an hour

2. Pilot project

Cousin Mildred: I have the perfect prospect for you!
Amnesiac: who!
Cousin Mildred: he is a pilot.
Amnesiac: does he read books?
Cousin Mildred: Amnesiac reading books is not the most important thing. I will introduce you to him casually in the club when he comes back from NEW YORK
Cousin Mildred: he is tall
Cousin Mildred: with fair skin and dark hair keda
Cousin Mildred: very quiet, very well educated
Amnesiac: I don't think pilots are known to be big book readers. Apart from flight manuals I mean.
Cousin Mildred: very good family and he drives a BMW
Amnesiac: Is it possible to ask him if he reads books beforehand?

3. She can see the train pulling out of the station and on it are her unborn grandchildren

Amnesiac: Hi Mum
Mother: Hiya
Amnesiac: Mum, I met a bloke the other day who looks exactly like my ex boyfriend Jon
Mother: Oh! Snap him up immediately!
Amnesiac: He is 22
Mother: Shame
Amnesiac: Mum my blogger mate Basil is moving to London from New York. We are just friends. Do you have any ideas about reasonably priced places to stay while he looks for a place? We are just friends. He can afford something decent cos he works in advertising. We are just friends
Mother: How old is he?
Amnesiac: [dread starting] his mid-thirties I think? Why?
Mother: Is he Egyptian?
Amnesiac: Yes and also American and we are just friends
Amnesiac: Mum we are justttttt friendsssssssss. Anyway I thought you wanted me to marry a "nice Englishman"?
Mother: I do, but I'm beginning to despair of you