I went to a place called Establ Antar (‘Antar’s Stable’) on Thursday, a place whose name makes it sound like something out of Aesop’s Fables. It is a slum area located between the Zahraa and Dar el Salam metro stations on one side, and the beginning of the Moqattam mountain on the other.
I was strangely captivated by the place, which I entered from a main road which became progressively narrower – like walking into the horizon – until it was nothing but a dirt track. Lining it was an assortment of constructions: huts, concrete buildings and above our heads houses attached to the cliff face like barnacles on a ship. The effect was of scrambled jigsaw pieces.
Goats, sheep and chickens roamed around between tethered donkeys and this, together with the absence of motorised vehicles (the streets are too narrow), and the sudden and unlikely open spaces dotted with scratching livestock almost lent the scene a sort of rural charm.
The effect was dispelled by the memory of the area underneath a flyover which I passed through, and which had a Armageddon-like quality to it: huge piles of black smoking rubbish dotted the landscape between the flyover’s imposing pillars and a couple of unsaddled white horses. The distant roar of the flyover’s traffic echoed round our heads. Here and there men squatted on the ground, possibly selling something, possibly just squatting. Greyish smoke from the piles of rubbish lazily curled its way up to the flyover above. Impossibly high, a giant fist about to clench..
I went with a colleague from work who, while I pointed out unusual sights, hung on to his bag ever more tightly and mumbled “I never thought I’d come to a place like this”. “Welcome to journalism,” I said. “This is the dark side of journalism,” he replied, morosely. His unhappiness seemed to increase proportionately the narrower the road got, until by the time we reached our destination he was largely silent and tight-lipped.
We were there because the government – presumably stung by the Doweiqa fallout - had decided to knock down unsafe houses. Their former occupants were not congregated in an angry huddle a street away from the site of their former homes, which had been cordoned off by the police. A wardrobe and various belongings were piled up next to them.
They told us that they had been forcibly evicted and taken to workers’ accommodation outside Media City, in the desert. They say that the place is unsafe for women and children, and that it doesn’t have drinkable running water. Furthermore, they say that they have been given accommodation leases, but that the leases are only temporary - for 45 days.
Behind them a tiny child squatted down in a pile of rubbish and defecated.
My colleague took me aside while we were talking to them. “They say that the police arrest journalists who don’t have permission to be here,” he said. One of the residents added, “they let you talk to us, and then they arrest you as you’re leaving.” I wondered how true this was given that 1. I hadn’t heard about any arrests despite the fact that thanks to Twitter (and now Jaiku) I am kept to date with the minutiae of journalistic movements including virtually the toilet variety and, 2. No one from state security had bothered us. Perversely, this made me uneasy.
Fear really is contagious, and as I looked at my colleague’s sweating brow, I felt that old feeling of queasiness and loose bowels which I haven’t felt since I went to see the striking train drivers in Beni Sueif and was offered tea by state security, in the middle of nowhere.
Since he didn’t have a press card, and was obviously uncomfortable, we left. I vowed never to work in a pair again.
“It’s very dangerous to work without permission!” my colleague said as we walked to the metro station. “Under the emergency law they can lock you up and you’ll never come out.”
I protested that we weren’t doing anything wrong, and that if we let the fear get to us we wouldn’t be able to write a single word. He wasn’t convinced.
“I showed compassion to them and everything but it’s 50% their fault, you know,” he then said.
“They come from the countryside when there’s no work to come to. Then they say that they don’t have any money, but how did they build these houses?”
I asked him whether he thought they had woken up one day and decided that it would be a good idea to leave their villages and come and live in a shithole. Did this also give the government the right to forcibly evict them from their homes, I wondered aloud.
“Listen, I’m an Egyptian and I know Egyptians. Nothing works except force. It’s been like this for thousands of years.”
My heart sank as we walked along. I felt like I had been on assignment with Margaret Thatcher - and this is a kid in the 3rd year of university. I’ve frequently encountered this outlook in Egypt amongst my generation and people in their twenties, and it never fails to unsettle me, this complete separation between ‘us’ – middle/upper class, respectable, decent - and ‘them’ – poor, swindling, idiots.
These groups when they are not invisible, are making pests of themselves with their collapsing homes and beggar children or duping the state into giving them public funds. They seem to be regarded as children, or morons, and the attitude would be paternalistic if it wasn’t for the complete absence of any kind of concern for their wellbeing.