Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sod off 2007, hello 2008!

The fit tannoura dancer while in another space-time dimension, captured by Oosha.
2007 was a turd of a year filled alternately with joblessness, and the low-level torture of working in a job I hated, and poverty, and pointless reflection on the quagmire of life. Overall it was like setting out on a never-ending journey through a British suburb in a car which keeps running out of petrol while not even knowing if you’re going in the right direction because you don’t where you’re going in the first place.

Oddly, many of my acquaintances were also treated badly by naughty 2007 and will be glad to shoo it out of the back door. But life being what it is, things have suddenly started looking up recently, as if a Barry White song has come on in the disco of life after endless Celine Dion. This is due to:
1. Employment does not necessarily equal a living death

My pathological aversion to prolonged sitting at a desk narrows my employment options considerably and, I always thought, condemned me to a career in manual labour, street-walking or working on a chain gang, none of which offer dependable pension plans as required by my father.

Imagine my joy then when I discovered that journalism rarely involves a desk and instead I am paid to write stuff and roam about Cairo talking to interesting people. A round of applause for life please, ladies and gentlemen, and here’s hoping that I don’t balls things up. Or at least not during the 3-month probation period.

2. Weddings

I have been to a record-breaking two weddings in two weeks this December. For an unmarried 31-year old woman with a parent who claims she can hear the hiss of my ovaries slowly decomposing, this is akin to a shipwrecked yet content man watching as two distant boats slowly drift past on the horizon while behind him his mother roars at him about her overpowering need to return to civilisation, and Mothercare.

But moving on.

The first wedding was in fact Mauve Bubble’s second wedding. To the same man. She had her English wedding in August, which was full of country dancing in the rain and Dabke. Her second wedding - planned entirely by, and for, the Egyptian side of her family - was on a boat, and featured a belly dancer with two stomachs and a dwarf tannoura dancer – what else could you ask for!

(N.B. As I understand it the word dwarf is offensive, but I am unable to find the correct, EU-approved epithet. Wikipedia’s dwarf entry goes on about Nordic fairy tales.)

The short tannoura dancer was part of a two-man act featuring another, tall (and well fit) tannoura dancer who span round with glasses of water on his head while making quips at the audience. These two were succeeded by the aforementioned belly dancer who, like a starfish, had two stomachs (i.e. layers of fat separated by a belly chain) but, unlike a starfish, refused to stay still. Luckily for the men, she had a huge rack which distracted them from the quivering flesh underneath and, luckily for the rest of us, she changed outfits for her second dance, sparing us the sight of the unbaked dough.

The second wedding was that of Fully P, a regular guest of this blog who married his lovely bride also on a boat, but this time upstream in Zamalek. Fully P was the hardest-working bridegroom ever, and spent the entire evening dancing his one dance move (pogoing) to the many, different varieties of music played. When he wasn’t doing this (and actually sometimes while doing this) he was remonstrating with the DJ, who insisted on playing tracks twice and, when the cake was brought out, decided to launch a house track at brain-exploding volume. Fully P bounced over and had a word and he and the missus were soon cutting the cake to the lovely sounds of the Beatles.

This was also the tallest wedding I have ever been to, with a veritable forest of lady guests who were all seven-foot and made me feel like the tannoura dancer. Another notable event was the presence of a man who when he smiled looked like our beloved President Hosny in that ubiquitous poster of him when he was 55 years old. Then another guest arrived who looked spookily like my former boss and human rights crusader Hafez Abu Seada. Imagine my, and Umm Nakad’s delight, when the two began a conversation at the buffet by the cheeses: a momentous occasion in Egypt’s political history witnessed only by a piece of Boursin.

I am ashamed to say that like the child that I am I made Umm Nakad stand next to them so I could document this important event (and pretend that I was photographing her) but getting them both in the frame would have required her to sit on their laps.

The crowning moment of the night, however, was witnessing this magnificently rolled hairdo a la Victorian lady, sported by a member of the band which played during the zaffa (it was even rolled at the front, making his hair super tall):

3. Films which didn't make me want to destroy furniture over people's heads

I am still smarting slightly at Heya Fawda but two good films have almost made up for its poorness. El Gazeera, about a Sa3eedi drugs baron, was hugely entertaining and not just because Basem Samra was in it. Having just about despaired of ever speaking Arabic properly, I have decided to start having private lessons in Sa3eedi with Oosha from Assiut who in any case likes to lapse into Sa3eedi on regular occasions.

Yesterday I saw 7eyna Maysara, and came out wanting to set fire to myself so depressing was it. It’s directed by Khaled Youssef, who co-directed Heya Fawda but 7eyna Maysara confirms that the unctuous sentimentality of that film was all Chahine’s doing.

7eyna Maysara is set in an impoverished informal housing area (I would love to know where the opening shots used during the credits were filmed, if anybody knows) and presents the daily battles and tragedies faced by the film’s main characters. It is full of misery, abandoned babies, street children, violence, theft and injustice i.e. the stuff of daily life. What makes the film so hard-hitting is its realism: while the plot is slightly contrived in places, overall it is hugely (and lamentably) believable. In fact, at the end of the film the director explains that he was unable to present an entirely accurate version of Egyptian society because the reality is just too horrific.

The acting was terrific, the characters humanised (rather than the usual two-dimensional cartoon characters) and even the ending, while it was unsatisfying somehow, resisted lapsing into and-they-all-lived-happily-after.

My only problems with the film were its timing (great swathes of years lapse in one shot while elsewhere a minute seems to last a month) and its treatment of the Islamist terrorist group theme, which was slightly off. Perhaps it’s just Umm Nakad and me who have a bee in our bonnets about this, but comedy torture scenes really irk us.

7eyna Maysara in fact did what Heya Fawda attempted to do, which is show us how badly people suffer when bullies rule the roost.

4. The Egyptian judiciary gives two fingers to litigious morons
I was incredibly heartened by the decision yesterday to throw out the case launched by Abdel Fattah Murad against a group of human rights websites. The court emphasised the importance of freedom of expression within the bounds of public order, and told Murad to sod off. Hoorah! And here’s hoping for more of the same in 2008.

Happy new year to you all, and I hope your 2008 is filled with wowzers blazers things.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Mostafa Mahmoud: 2 years

Two years ago on September 25th a small group of Sudanese refugees began a peaceful protest against the policy of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees' Cairo office. Within days their numbers had swelled to over 3,000 men, women and children who lived in Mohandiseen's Mostafa Mahmoud Square for 3 months.

In the early hours of Sunday 30th December 4,000 Egyptian riot police formed a cordon round the protestors preventing anyone from leaving before charging the camp. By 6 a.m. nearly 30 people had been killed - of which half were children - and hundreds injured.

According to the oracle, Fartbook, there will be a candlelit vigil on the 31st December at 6 p.m. in Mostafa Mahmoud Square in memory of those who died. See you there, and in the meantime here's a piece I wrote about the 2005 massacre:

Two years later, Sudanese refugees are between a rock and a hard place

High on a hill over an hour away from the Cairene suburb of Mohandiseen, and ten minutes from the gilded pleasures of the City Stars mall is Kilo Arbaa we Noss.

Both literally and metaphorically on Cairo’s margins, Kilo Arbaa we Noss is another of the city’s impoverished, informal housing areas. A steep slope covered in rubbish through which women and children sift forms the entrance to the area. The people who pass the bent over figures climb up carefully on the side of a stream of unidentifiable liquid which has turned the path into a turgid swamp.

The labyrinthine, unmade, and unnamed streets, and the crude buildings which line them are home to the very poorest of Cairo’s residents, including a large number of Sudanese refugees drawn to the area both by the low rent, and the Sudanese community already established here.

I have come to Arbaa we Noss because two years ago, in the early hours of 30th December 2005 nearly thirty Sudanese people taking part in a peaceful protest were killed in the middle of Cairo. Hosed with water cannon, beaten to death, asphyxiated in the crush of people trying to escape police batons while, underfoot, children placed under plastic sheeting to protect them from the water canon suffocated or were crushed in the mayhem. In the middle of Cairo and in the shadow of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Cairo office nearly thirty people lost their lives and hundreds more were injured - the victims of violence, poverty, racism and neglect. I have come to Arbaa we Noss because I want to know what, two years later, has changed.

Before the story

Tawfiq and Naama (names have been changed) have two girls, the oldest is two and a half years old, the baby 6 months. The family live in two rooms on the 6th floor of a building in Arbaa we Noss reached by a perilously uneven staircase. The progress is slow, Tawfiq’s eldest daughter navigating her way up the steps with difficulty.

Tawfiq and his wife came to Egypt in 2004 fleeing persecution in Sudan but, Tawfiq told me, the reality of life in Egypt is in many ways worse than what they left behind. On arriving in Cairo he registered with UNHCR, and was given the yellow card now automatically handed out to all Sudanese refugees since the UNHCR suspended individual interviews for Sudanese nationals in June 2004 (after the ceasefire between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army). Yellow cards - which offer temporary protection - are given to asylum-seekers, blue cards to individuals recognised as refugees. It is only blue card holders who may be considered for resettlement abroad in for example Canada or Australia.

Three years after registering with them Tawfiq has heard nothing about his case from UNHCR, and in the meantime has had to navigate his own way through what is often, a merciless city.

Education and employment

“It’s my children that I worry about the most. My oldest knows nothing – if you gave her a pen she wouldn’t know what to do with it. Our children are sent to these nurseries and come out at seven years old not knowing how to write, because there’s real neglect in these places, children are just left to sit there for hours. And in any case, a lot of these nurseries are church-funded, which means that the children are taught about Christianity and taught hymns - which is a problem for Muslim parents like us who would like our children to learn about our religion.”

While a 1992 ministerial decree affords refugee children the right to attend Egyptian schools, in practice overcrowding in public schools and bureaucratic obstacles prevent Sudanese children from exercising this right. Costly private education is out of reach of most refugees, which leaves Sudanese parents with no option but to send their children to charity-funded institutions which, even if they do provide a semblance of an education, do not award nationally- or internationally-recognised qualifications which will allow access to higher education.

The problem is compounded by the dismal employment prospects for Sudanese refugees in Egypt who are forced into the informal sector; Egyptian law requires that employers wishing to employ foreigners must secure a work permit. Amongst other conditions, the work permit will only be granted if an Egyptian cannot fill the post – an impossible condition to fill in a country suffering from huge levels of unemployment.

“There’s no work in the country for anyone, Egyptians or foreigners, but somehow it’s worse for Sudanese people because when we do find work we are always paid less than Egyptians,” Tawfiq told me. “We work as cleaners or delivery men or as security guards working 15-hour days in jobs that never last while women are forced to work as cleaners in people’s homes leaving the children in the street. The average Sudanese earns no more than LE600 per month if he’s very lucky. I pay LE150 rent – how am I meant to survive?” he continued.

In the absence of their parents some Sudanese youth have turned to street gangs for companionship and protection. These gangs emulate the American rap lifestyle in the music they listen to, the clothes they wear and the inter-communal violence which, in June of this year, resulted in the death of a Sudanese teenager when a fight broke out after an AUC-organised celebration of World Refugee Day. This tragedy has itself resulted in another injustice; according to ‘Fair Trial for the AUC 8’, a website created by supporters of the eight Sudanese teenagers currently on trial for the murder, the men were detained for six months before being charged with a crime which even the victim’s mother is adamant they did not commit.

“Gangs are a normal situation in an abnormal situation,” Yassir, a Sudanese refugee who has been in Egypt since 2003 told me. “To be a black African in Egypt is hell because of the is very deep racism and hatred you face everywhere you go - in the street taxis don’t stop for us, we are racially abused by Egyptians…it never ends.”

In 2005

Destitution, desperation and frustration at the perceived failure of UNHCR to protect them are what prompted twelve people to begin a protest in Mohandiseen’s Mostafa Mahmoud Park in September 2005. Over the course of three months this number steadily grew to between 3,000 to 4,000 people who transformed the park into a camp.

According to the people I spoke to the camp was well-organised with separate living quarters for men and women and guards who stopped anyone drunk from entering the camp. “I felt safe, I enjoyed being amongst my own people who all treated each other with respect,” Yassir told me.

The protestors issued a list of demands in which they expressed their fear that UNHCR would return people from the south of Sudan against their will, called for the reopening of closed files (rejected asylum applications) and urged UNHCR to resettle the most vulnerable cases abroad as soon as possible because “Sudanese refugees are faced daily with discrimination and violence and a denial of their human rights.”

In a press release UNHCR labelled the demands as “self-serving” and “allegations unsupported by any piece of evidence.”

“UNHCR’s reaction to the protestors was hostile from the very beginning,” Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, a distinguished professor at AUC told me. “They alleged that they were of no concern to them because they were not refugees or asylum-seekers - when in fact a survey we carried out in the first two weeks revealed that over 2/3rds had yellow or blue cards.”

Negotiations between camp leaders and UNHCR produced an agreement on December 18th in which UNHCR agreed to interview yellow-card holders and give a one-off payment to protestors to help them with housing costs (many had lost their homes since joining the protest) in return for the protestors leaving the park after their cases were processed. Many of the demonstrators were suspicious about the lack of written guarantees surrounding the agreement and refused to leave the park until all cases had been processed.

On 30th December between 5 a.m. and 5.30 a.m. the protestors were forcibly removed by some 4,000 riot police who shut down roads leading to the park and formed a cordon preventing anyone from leaving. The protestors were told at 1 a.m. by the police that they were to get on buses which would take them to camps where they would be provided with shelter and food. Scared of the violence endemic in Egyptian police stations, and concerned that the buses would take them to the airport to be deported, the refugees asked that a delegation of them be taken to see the camps. Their request was refused, and further talks were interspersed with fifteen-minute rounds of water cannon fired at the protestors until the police charged the camp.

Who is to blame for what happened? Harrell-Bond is adamant that the primary responsibility lies with UNHCR: “I feel very angry that the Egyptian government got the blame. Everyone in Egypt knows that the Egyptian police are not trained to break up demonstrations peacefully and despite this, UNHCR sent three letters to the Egyptian government requesting that it end the protest.”

Both Tawfiq and Yasir feel the same way: “I blame UNHCR more than I blame the Egyptian government – UNHCR betrayed the refugee,” Yasir said.

The aftermath

For its part, in a report submitted to a United Nations committee in April of this year on the rights of migrant workers in Egypt, the Egyptian government says that it shelved the investigation into the events of December 30th because “the identity of the perpetrators could not be established” – not an unusual response, given that the culture of abuse which characterises the treatment of detainees by the police is rarely challenged. In the same report the Egyptian government states that deaths which occurred during the protest were caused by “asphyxiation resulting from pushing by the demonstrators who were under the influence of drugs and alcohol” and denies that any of the deaths were due to the violence employed by the police - violence testified to both by the victims’ injuries, and eyewitness accounts.

The protest - and its bloody end - received huge international media attention, but did it succeed in improving the lives of Sudanese refugees in Egypt? And what has changed since then – apart from the fact that UNHCR have moved their offices from Mohandiseen to 6th October City – which means a lengthy, time-consuming commute by unreliable microbuses for most refugees. (Harrell-Bond told me that the office was moved because “they didn’t want all these refugees spoiling Mohandiseen.”)

Mohamed, a Sudanese man who participated in the protest, thinks that things are as they were: “When I arrived Egypt I had lost my family, my country and my identity and I found that life here is in many ways just as hard. The protest didn’t change anything. UNHCR policy remains exactly the same.”

Yassir telephoned UNHCR out of desperation and anger, after a friend told him that he and his wife had been separated at the end of the protest and that he was now searching prisons for her, in vain. “They invited me to a meeting where I met with an officer. I told her, ‘you abandoned these people, you left them to die. You take these huge salaries, and for what? You do nothing!’ She started crying – she had no response,” he said.

Tawfiq told me that he thinks the protest had an impact on Egyptian society: “At least Egyptians were made aware of the situation of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, that was important. But in terms of daily life, in many ways things are worse than they were two years ago. Nothing has changed about UNHCR policy and I’m so worried about the future of my children that I have on many occasions thought of going to Israel to find work - or even back to Sudan. I’m between the sky and the earth - I have nothing here and life in Sudan is just as hard.”

The Israeli option

Increasing numbers of Sudanese refugees are crossing the border illegally into Israel – some 1,400 in the past month alone according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The journey is extremely dangerous and those intercepted before they enter Israel often disappear. “A group of 46 Sudanese refugees tried to enter Israel recently and were detained by the Egyptian authorities. We don’t know the whereabouts of over 40 of these people while one person has apparently been deported back to Sudan. He risks the death penalty there – going to an ‘enemy state’ is punishable as treason,” Harrell-Bond told me.

Yassir says that while he as a Muslim has ideological problems with the idea of going to Israel, for many Southern Sudanese it is their only way out of an intolerable situation in Egypt: “My friends working in Israel tell me that nobody ever insults them because of their colour, nobody calls them names. They are able to work and people leave them alone.”

I had wanted to talk to UNHCR’s Cairo office about the events of December 30th but was told by a spokesperson that everyone based in the office at that time has since been moved on rotation. When I told Yassir this he replied, “so it’s not just refugees who find it impossible to access UNHCR.”

Originally published in Daily News Egypt.

Friday, December 21, 2007

New year resolution

I was thrilled to read today that this New Year's Eve there is an alternative to Mounir singing in the Opera car park, or Shereen warbling in a hotel; the residents of the island of el-Qorsaya are having a party and inviting people to go and 'express solidarity with el-Qorsaya.'

El-Qorsaya is an island community of 5,000 farmers and fisherman in Giza who are being threatened with eviction so that some money-grabbing bastard can build some golf course or equally horrid and unnecessary complex on the land. Read more here and here.

I went to a fantastic solidarity meeting last Sunday at the Journalists' Syndicate, where various speakers condemned the plans for el-Qorsaya. There was a contingent of tax collectors (heroes!) there - still basking in their victory - and showing support for the islanders, and their presence really added momentum to what is already an empassioned and inspirational resistance movement.

One comedy moment was provided by a tiny and ancient lady dressed in black melaya who mounted the podium and, barely visible behind the mic, spoke with great gusto about the iniquity of the planned evictions and the resolve of the islanders who would "not be moved". She then thanked a doctor who lives on the island who provides free healthcare for its inhabitants, and in the same breath said "we 3owza ashkor el-sayyed Mohamed Hosny Mobar-" [and I'd like to thank Mr Mohamed Hosny Mobar-"]

She was unable to finish her sentence because of the tsunami wave of NOs which broke forth from the audience (mostly from the tax collectors behind me) which almost knocked her over, and which looked something like this:


Most people at the meeting would probably like to spank rather than thank the president, and I can only conclude that this rogue thank you was the result of a nervous tic, or delivered automatically out of force of habit, like an 'out of office' reply to an email.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sworn enemies

Amnesiac is walking past a stationary middle-aged man who suddenly bursts into life when a big car rolls up and parks.

Man: [said exuberantly while putting both hands to temple in salute, smiling broadly and inclining slightly towards the driver]: Itfaddal ya basha! Saba7 el-fol! Ezzay el se77a! [Top of the morning, sir! How are you!]

A milisecond later after righting himself and out of view of the driver:

Koss ommak. [Fuck you].

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.


Pecuniary dire straits meant that at an early stage I was forced to go out and work in order to fund my mother's Marks & Spencer habit. When I was six months old I was giving the choice of either working as a chimney-sweep, or freelancing as a journalist. Being unable to walk I chose the latter option. In this picture we see an article about obesity in small infants which my father forced me to screw up and start again because of misuse of the semi-colon.
Today I am 31 and can still not peel my own oranges properly but on the plus side I wake up wanting to go to work, which is a rare gift indeed.
Mum, re. the marriage and grandkids situation, I promise you I'm working on it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Give the prime minister 40 lines

Here's an article about Egypt's long-suffering higher education teaching staff.

The people I spoke to were a sharp, impressive and trilingual bunch and I wish they were running the country.

Note that the article contains a small error. It says that professors earn 3,000 LE per year. Obviously this should read per month; we are not in the year 1925.

Note also that the Faculty of Mathematics in Cairo University has MARBLE FLOORS and high ceilings and is clean and airy. I was impressed because I'm a product of British higher education institutions which were mostly built in 1960 and are made out of cardboard and polystyrene.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

How to be Matt Dillon at a Cairo International Film Festival press conference in just 14 easy steps

Mr Matt Dillon and a floating head. Shortly after this picture was taken Mr Matt Dillon was lost in the darkness of the Good News cinema. He was last seen in the environs of row K, covered in barnacles. All future projects have been shelved until his whereabouts are established.

1. Arrive jet-lagged and slightly perturbed, as if you have just had a run in with an Egyptian bureaucrat after a ten-hour flight about the legitimacy of the font size in your passport.

2. Be wearing a badly-knotted tie which is approximately three centimetres below your top button.

3. But still look ruggedly handsome despite being clothed in the dreaded suit jacket and jeans.

4. When you arrive stand at the front of the auditorium for a photo opportunity and then immediately be pounced on by five teenage girls who stick to you like barnacles on a ship.

5. List sideways as a result while smiling the smile of a man who has fallen into the cobra cage at the zoo.

6. Go away for two hours while the audience enjoy your very good film about a man on the run in Cambodia. It is four years old but never mind, we have to justify your presence somehow.

7. Come back and mount the stage on which a podium is being hastily assembled. An identical table and chairs are strewn behind you. They look like they’re having a brawl. Ignore them.

8. Field questions from fans and film critics. One question should be from a bouffanted gentleman with sunglasses on his head who appears to be in Austen Powers fancy dress. He is wearing a VELVETEEN jacket, and should be informed that only Barry White RIP could wear such an item and not be punished in the prison yard. He should claim to be a Canadian actor but not exist on IMDB. His question should be as follows:

Obscure actor/charlatan: “Hi Matt, and welcome to Cairo. You say that you gained inspiration for your film when on holiday in Cambodia. When you went there was it some kind of spiritual journey..? Were you looking for something in particular..?”

Matt: [Avoid urge to say ‘Hookers.’ Notice an odd British girl with eyebrows in need of tweezer attention mouthing just this. Ignore her and proceed.]

“Well I –“

(Interrupted by chairman with rebellious comb over)

Comb over: “I’ll just translate the question Mr Matt Dillon, please.”

9. Next take this question from a man at the front about the scene at the end of your film where you put your dead father in a small craft in the sea and then shoot it so it sinks. That you did this so that the body is not discovered is, one would have thought, obvious:

Man at the front: “Hi Mr Matt Dillon, and welcome to the 31st Cairo International Film Festival. At the end of the film you shoot the boat in which your father is placed after sending it out to sea. Why did you choose to do this?”

Your answer will be very slightly mistranslated by the chairman provoking a woman in the audience to roar out: "EL TARGAMA 3’ALAT " [THE TRANSLATION IS WRONG] which slightly disturbs both you and the chairman’s comb over.

10. The next question is from a woman at the front:

Woman at the front: “Hi Mr Matt Dillon and welcome to Egypt. I have two questions. Firstly I read in an interview that you say that Cambodia has a ‘nightmarish quality.’ Why is that? And sec –“

(Virtually swallow the microphone in your attempt to interrupt and correct her, but not before the chairman translates into Arabic, while you loosen your loose tie and do that agitated face you do when you act.)

11. Next take this question from the moustachioed man with long hair:

Frank Zappa in the 70s: “Hi Mr Matt Dillon and welcome to Egypt. Cambodia is a country with problems. Palestine is a country with problems, too. Are you going to make a film in Palestine?”

Matt: “Uuhhhhh –“

(Loosen your collar and stare at the ceiling.)

12. And here’s a question from a bouncy woman with an indeterminate accent, possibly from the antipodeans.

Antipodeans: “HI MATT!!!!! I’m Rachel from Dubai blah blah blah. Have you ever been to Dubai???”

Matt: “Pardon?”


Matt: “Uuhhhm…No…”

Antipodeans: “Ok will you come?? Will you? WILL YOU?? PLEASE?? FOR ME??”

(Both you and the room will lapse into a terrified silence interrupted only by the clunk of Antipodeans’ dignity on the floor. As well as that of a mic which falls off the podium. It was possibly Antipodeans’ mic, performing Seppuku).

13. The chairman and his comb over (which is now resting, exhausted, on his left shoulder) will end proceedings violently and suddenly while a forest of arms are still up on the pretext that continuing would delay the next film. You started half an hour late but never mind, this will give you time to go home and iron your wife-beaters.

14. You are of course descended on by a huge crowd when you leave the stage, which inhibits your ability to progress forward. The cinema will suddenly descend into pitch black darkness when you are only halfway down the room, meaning that you risk death through the risk of e.g. tripping in the gloom and impaling yourself on a boom. Take courage, and remind yourself that pour le cinema one must be prepared to sacrifice one’s tout.

n.b.: For added authenticity you should ensure that Omar Sherif refers to you as Matt Damon at the Festival's opening ceremony.

Mr Matt Damon