Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Falling into place

I attended a family Iftar this week, attended by a cousin who has just completed a masters. She told me that she was thinking about working in real estate for a couple of years to make enough money to start a business in her field of expertise. “I want to make enough money to live at a certain level," she told me. She meant the Gouna and yacht level. I asked why she didn’t start out at the bottom of the ladder and work her way up, within her field. She complained that in the United States her qualifications would allow her to jump in halfway up, but that here she has to start at the bottom and, to top it all off, work with people “who are not my level.”

I pointed out to her that 98% of Egypt’s population are not her “level”. She said she realised this, but that she is determined to stay within her world, the bubble of privilege in which she has grown up.

Given that only one of the dinner guests was fasting, post-prandial discussion was lively and uncompromised by the post-food stupor fasting induces. I have always wondered what the husband of one of my cousins does: my aunt told me that she wasn’t really sure, but that he was a businessman of some sort.

“What do you do?” I asked him.

“I’m a businessman,” he said.

The vastness of this title, its ability to encompass the drug dealer, the cheating politician and the charitable change-maker, always makes me slightly suspicious. He clarified, slightly, but then I saw that he was wearing suede slip-on shoes without socks, which was another red flag. Turns out that he has spent enough time in Italy to acquire its nationality, which explained this.

The boom in the luxury housing market in Egypt is going to come to an end, was the consensus at Iftar. Supply has exceeded demand, apparently, and in 6 months we’ll witness a nose dive. Discussion of the housing market naturally led on to Hisham Talat Mostafa, property mogul turned inmate, which prompted slip-on man to share his theory about how those in charge at the top keep order.

Every 15 years, he claims, “they” topple prominent figures so as to remind them, and the rest of us, who’s steering the ship. He claimed to be able to list off the men who have fallen in these periodic waves…Nobody asked him to. He had another theory as well, which is that for two years Susie, rather than Hosny, has been running the country in concert with Gamal and his gang.

While he was out smoking a fag the rest of the Iftar guests murmured amongst themselves and poo-pooed his theories, before insisting that we all sit down and watch the mosalsalaat in order to stop him talking.

Conspiracy theories, gossip and rumours are a national sport in Egypt, but there was something chilling about this discussion, the idea of all these hidden strings pulling and controlling everything which happens here. The worst thing is that I came away feeling more than ever that indeed everything is stage-managed: the victories, the tragedies – everything, and that perhaps what we perceive as pushing boundaries is in fact just the momentary drawing back of the slingshot.

An example: on Monday I went to downtown Cairo, where homeless victims of the Doweiqa rockslide had spent the night in a public garden between the grandiose buildings of the Abdeen palace complex.

There were about twenty families there, the vast majority of them women and tiny children. They had come to Abdeen after being forcibly ejected from a makeshift camp by the police, who used sticks and dogs, rendering them homeless for the 2nd time in a week. They had come to Abdeen protesting the failure of the authorities to give them the housing they had been promised (in a letter) would be given to them “upon production of the documents establishing their legal claim to it.”

As usual this promise wasn’t kept, the authorities using various ruses to break it from claiming that the letter-bearers didn’t have the correct documents to ripping up the letters containing the promises.

And so there they were, in a public garden sleeping on donated blankets, their children running around indefatigably. I spoke to a pregnant woman about what had happened to her. As she spoke she absent-mindedly wiped grass off my jeans. I looked down and saw that her arm was a maze of orderly i.e. self-inflicted, cut mark scars.

There was a heavily-pregnant woman there, she was huge, and confirmed that she was due any day. Why aren’t you in hospital? I asked. I’m scared that they’re going to take my husband away, she replied.

Another woman was there with her 4 year-old daughter. She told me that she hadn’t been in her room at the time of the rockslide because she – and her daughter – leave for work at 6.30 a.m. She cleans houses. She built her single room using loans. The authorities are denying her replacement housing because, she says, she has not proved to their satisfaction that she is a resident of the affected area. Her ID says she is, but there we are.

While we were talking her daughter started crying. She was hungry. “Shall I get you a piece of bread?” she said. Yes, the child nodded. “7ader, hageeblek takly” [OK, I’ll get you something to eat].

A boy carrying empty mineral water bottles was given instructions to sell them and buy food with what he got for them.

A doctor friend arrived and examined those who needed medical attention, which included a young baby vomiting non-stop and numerous cases of diarrhoea. I asked people what I could get them to help, food, nappies, anything. I had to ask several times, to insist - which surprised me.

Amongst other thing I bought Pampers, and made the mistake of handing out the packets at random. A truly ugly scene followed - women accusing each other of hoarding and hiding at high volume – the pent-up frustration of a life of crushing violence and desperation (of which the rockslide is merely the latest instalment) suddenly erupting. An NGO woman told me to direct donations to one of them.

While all this was happening, a police officer summoned me, for the second time that day. I approached him.

“Yes? Is there anything wrong?” I asked him.

“Why are you so defensive?” he asked.

Could it be because of the tendency of the police to arrest journalists, I wondered silently. He asked me whether the nappies and food etc I was giving out was bought using my own money. You bastard, I thought, sitting there waiting to break your fast in your ironed jeans and designer glasses while you watch children run around in clothes stained by their own excrement.

He asked me for my journalist ID again, for the second time in two hours. I think they’re trained to do this as part of the process of wearing away at our nerves.

I had noted when I first arrived in the public garden that there was practically no security presence apart from a couple of uniformed officers and a smattering of plain-clothed men. Which was weird, and unsettling, particularly given the tiny numbers present during the protest some of the women took part in this morning.

It turned out that the plan, the grand design, was to remove the families, suddenly and without warning – hence no need for large numbers of police officers. They were taken away by the police in microbuses, and dumped in various areas of Cairo, forcibly removed by events beyond their control for the 3rd time in just over a week.


Anonymous said...

"Every 15 years, he claims, “they” topple prominent figures so as to remind them, and the rest of us, who’s steering the ship. He claimed to be able to list off the men who have fallen in these periodic waves"

This is Greek mythology.

Safiya Outlines said...

I've just been catching up with your latest posts.

You blog is absolutely heartbreaking, but someone needs to bring the suffering of these people to light. Keep up the good work, you're a Paul Foot in the making.

fully_polynomial said...

Would you please declare defeat and move back to England? The feelings I get from reading these things are indescribable. I'd really rather not know.

Q said...

i worked with these bastards that you talk about when i was an accident and emergency doctor in the police force hospital. i can tell you that these bastards rule each other in the same way that they rule the rest of the country. except for the Big Bastard at the top of the food chain, they all experience the defeat and loss of control that the poor woman, her child and family, felt. and it breaks the bastards' hearts too, literally. they have the highest rates of myocardial infarctions i have seen anywhere and at a very young age.

i have listened to spin offs of slip man's theories, and having been close to the lion's den, these rumours tend to percolate downwards with some atom of truth in them, in my opinion. but just as there is the crushing tyranny of the zeus-like figure and his omnipresent, all seeing apparitions, there is also your work and of many thousands and thousands like you on whose goodwill the life of most egyptians is kept afloat. that utterly evil moment when each homeless resident is evacuated, is drowned by the innumerable other moments of kindness that they will receive. it is they, the bastards, who are encircled. it is they whose time is running out.

if you do not have this hope would you be there?

thanks for the post. im still reading.