I have lost count of how many times Egypt has thrown its best and its worst at me simultaneously, in the exact same moment. It’s strangely exhilarating, the clash of emotions this produces; a mixture of expectation and fear and anger and joy.
The day before yesterday the Doctors’ Syndicate cancelled the strike it had planned for the 15th March after Prime Minister Nazif reminded (read: threatened) them that public sector strikes are ‘illegal’. I went to a protest on Sunday they organised at the Doctors’ Syndicate headquarters on Qasr el-Aini which was as usual policed by the men in black with the bling on their shoulders.
One particularly enthusiastic young doctor started chanting, and the others joined in until at one point the four-lane street in front of them suddenly fell eerily silent (from my vantage point I could see that the police had stopped traffic briefly - for a reason which (guess what!) was not clear, but which had nothing to do with the protest). Heyya el shawara3 fadya laih…ento nawyeen 3ala aih? [why are the streets empty…what do you intend to do?] improvised the bright young spark to a ripple of laughter from the protestors and the police while a sudden bolt of tension screeched what if?
Yesterday I went to el-Wosta in Beni Suef to report on a protest organised by train drivers who would like parity in wages and conditions with their counterparts based in other Egyptian governorates. In their honour, I went by train, and yesterday night telephoned Tareq the train conductor to enquire about the train timetable.
Early the next morning I found myself in an office on platform 8 being offered tea by Said and Sergios, heads of something or other train-related, underneath the obligatory picture of Hosny. They deposited me on a train with Eissa the conductor who absolutely refused to let me pay for a ticket because of the article.
After passing through endless anonymous railway stations I arrived in a cold, overcast and overwhelmingly beige el-Wosta, which has the most dilapidated railway station I ever have seen. The footbridge over the tracks is made of irregular wooden slats giving it the appearance of a smiling toothless old hag. Unnervingly, the slats bounce. The footbridge itself leads to what can only be described as a graveyard containing the calcified and rotting corpses of trains and carriages. One of these wrecks has actually been turned into an ersatz office by train drivers.
I found sixty or so train drivers next to the office, waiting with their banners to march on the railway union office. I took pictures as they picked their was across the tracks before we arrived at the union office. A table was brought outside, three representatives sat down, the men crowded round them and I was promptly summoned to talk to the state security “basha” who informed me that I was not allowed to take pictures or report anything without a press card.
Thus began the tedious routine of negotiations and ID production and testing limits. There is a certain arrogance about security officers which I have always found exceedingly irritating, the demonstration of authority. This particular officer was a huge middle-aged man with a round face and doleful eyes. He smoked incessantly and examined my ID as he fingered prayer beads in the other hand. Everything about him was unhurried, including his response to questions addressed to him, and the way in which his minions hopped around him reminded me of the birds you see on hippo backs in nature documentaries.
In the end I was invited to “drink tea” in his office where the very polite negotiations again resumed, my position severely weakened by the absence of a press card - which I have never previously been asked for. It was decided that I wouldn’t attend the union meeting, but that I could interview the train drivers afterwards, and so I ended up sitting on a bench outside his office like a naughty schoolgirl, almost within earshot of the meeting. Yet another absurd situation, the smallest encounter with the snake of unaccountable power whose hissing you can hear everywhere you go.
The men emerged triumphant from their meeting (two of their demands were met) but in their capacity as ‘hosts’ were indignant that I had been given school detention. As is required, they thanked the security boss effusively for his role in their success (refraining from arresting them all perhaps?): the usual ode of it wouldn’t have been possible without you ya basha, while he smiled his lazy smile, looking above their heads. Paying dues. He reminded me of a sheriff, and in fact there was something a bit Western about his office, which was essentially a wooden cabin on whose porch he stood wide-legged, surveying the plains.
I returned to Cairo by microbus in the company of train driver Essam, and the journey was undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating, and terrifying of my entire life. We waited an hour while the microbus driver mafia negotiated passengers. This mainly consisted of an exchange of mother-related insults, and a sudden ya ebn metnaaka [son of a whore, but whose intensity is closer to motherfucker] would suddenly rattle round the microbus where Essam and I sat silently, me writing my article. The need to acknowledge the miscreant in our midst proved too strong for Essam and he tutted through the embarrassment.
After every last seat was filled the driver eventually obliged us and we set off. He veered off the four lane motorway in order to take a shortcut along a two-way narrow countryside road at such speed that my right leg spent the entire first ten minutes of the journey braking a non-existent peddle, entirely involuntarily. It didn’t help that Essam and I were sitting at the front.
Luckily, we rejoined a motorway which cuts its way through the moon-like topography of the Beni Suef desert and raced along to a stirring soundtrack of Sha3by and chillout music recorded off Nogoum FM. The driver was as usual a 22 year-old who looked like he had just imbibed Colombia’s entire annual Cocaine production and who drove accordingly. We came so close to the bumper of vehicles that I could probably have counted the driver’s nasal hair in his rear view mirror if it wasn’t for the sudden velocity with which our microbus driver veered out from behind the car in front and overtook it.
I am not of a nervous disposition when it comes to driving at breakneck speed with boy racers but did experience a slight heart flutter when the microbus threatened to veer off the road at 100 km an hour when the driver fumbled with the cassette player, or when he spurned the steering wheel and expressed his disgust at something by clapping his hands together for what seemed like 89 hours.
The sight of a Volvo full of moustachioed, turbaned Saidis in full uniform, the driver’s hand dangling out of his window clutching a cigarette, all of them looking effortlessly cooler than Robert de Niro in his Godfather days could ever hope to have been, more than made up for this.
And did you know that microbus drivers on the Beni Suef route greet each other during the day by turning their windscreen wipers on?
When I didn’t have my eyes closed Essam and I passed the time by chatting. He told me that he has been a train driver for 16 years, has three children and takes home 450 a month. He told me that he envied my ability to speak English. I asked him whether he has the time to study it and he described his schedule. He starts work at 10 p.m. and finishes at around 8 a.m., takes a microbus back to Giza, where he lives, washes, sleeps, and then gets up again to go back to work. He stated this simply, an explanation rather than a complaint, and it was then that I noticed how bloodshot his eyes were, how dishevelled he looked. He had been at work the previous night, gone straight to the meeting (which finished at 1.30 p.m.) spent an hour in a microbus waiting for it to move and would eventually put me on the metro and wave me off from the platform – before sleeping for perhaps an hour and a half and then repeating the process all over again, minus the journalist.
Essam isn’t unusual, but he is an ordinary hero, as are all the men who endure corruption, poor pay and appalling conditions within the Egyptian railways and challenge this, constantly under the watchful eyes of the languorous, smiling security officer and fully aware of the consequences of disturbing the snake.