Monday, February 25, 2008

His parents wanted him to be a pimp

Overheard at doctors' protest about wages:

MAN: Ana 3owez afham ya Meneim...enta aih bezzabt...[I want to know what you are exactly, Meneim].


MAN: Maba7ess?...Sa7afy?... [Police investigator?..Journalist?]

MENEIM: La2, doctor lel assaf. [No. I'm a doctor, alas].

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bread & butter II + omm-nipresence

Here I talk about the excellent Metro, Egypt's 1st graphic novel for adults, and its author Magdy el Shafee. Magdy very kindly gave me a lift back to civilisation from City Very Far Stars, but only after we had found his car, which he apparently frequently loses within the bowels of the megamall. Luckily, he found it quite quickly - unlike the last time, when he spent half an hour looking for it.

This is an article about a young man who went into the notorious Omraneyya police station and was dumped, unconscious, in the street two days later. He subsequently died of the injuries he sustained while inside the police station.

Here I eat delicious food while being watched by a psycho elephant.

Also, today I perused the spam on my Amnesiac.inanities gmail account while the matriarch was talking at to me, wearing a plastic shower cap in preparation for her ablutions.

FACT: she put on said appendage at 1 p.m. GMT + 2, and had her shower at 2.30 p.m. GMT + 2.

Now my mother is a wonderfully entertaining, lovely, human being but has the female tendency to go on and on and on about lost necklaces and washing machines while her interlocuteur is clearly engaged in something complex and involved like separating genuine emails from offers of penis extensions or large sums of cash from terminally ill minor dictators.

This aural assault compromised my mail scanning abilities and, as a result, I pressed 'empty spam' just as my eye caught a glimpse of 'Alia' (I think) and 'hi' and 'blog' and no mention of the word penis, and alas away it went into the cyber ether.

Inadvertendly deleting emails from people who have taken the time to write to me gives me a pain similar to that which was produced the time I dropped a mobile down a toilet in Luxor, so Alia (if indeed I read the name right) re-send, bitte schon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Luckily, she didn't ask if they had any Swedes instead

My mother - who is currently lighting up Egypt with her presence – was propositioned only five days into her trip here, which isn’t bad for a senior citizen.

I was not privy to the exchange, because I was slightly ahead of her in a foggy rage after madam refused to get in a flamin taxi and I was forced to carry home industrial size bottles of bleach and General detergent. Apparently, some bloke asked her, “3owzeen 3arab?” [do you want Arabs?] Was it the attractive 45 degree tilt of my right shoulder? Or my mother’s purple duvet coat?

It might have had something to do with the newly polished state of both our heads, for less than an hour earlier we had been at the barbers. We went to one of those super duper extra posh places where woman call their hairdressers ‘cheri’ and don’t take their sunglasses off when they’re having their hair washed.

Getting my hair cut is just above dying in the list of things I least like doing and last week’s visit confirmed its excruciating painfulness. I was given to Ihab, who was a queen of momentous proportions and pronounced his Ts like ‘chee’ without any hint of irony. He lamented my scalp’s sad state of disrepair (which had become apparent when two people were required to comb it. My hair has recently acquired the texture of hangers stuck together). ‘Entchee mohmela sha3rek’ [you’re neglecting your hair] Ihab admonished me through pursed lips, before attempting to persuade me to cut a layered fringe.

I was then forced to stand up and not allowed to move my head while he attacked it with scissors and violently swung my face back into position whenever it moved a millimetre and told me that he had entered makeup artistry and hairdressing because ‘ana fanaan wel wesh tableau’ [I’m an artist and the face is a canvas] to which I had nothing at all to respond with and weakly asked if I could sit down.

I thought the mental and physical torture would end when I eventually did sit down. Alas not. While using his hairdryer to give my scalp 3rd degree burns he asked me ‘entchee 3arfah laih lazem takhchee balek men sha3rek?’ [do you know why you should take care of your hair?] ‘3alashan atgowwez?’ [so I can get married?] I mumbled thinking that any old crap would end the conversation. He looked at me in the mirror scornfully and said ‘Maho ana mesh 3owez atgowwez wana wakhed baaly men sha3ry’ [I don’t want to get married and I take care of my hair] – which was debatable because he had the beginnings of a mullet. It turned out that we should take care of our hair because if we don’t take care of our hair the split ends creep up and up entangle themselves round our brains while we sleep and we are cast out of respectable society as a result and forced to live with woman who have moustaches.

Ihab got his revenge in the end, when I made the fatal mistake of allowing him to blow-dry my hair as he saw fit. The result is not something I wish to dwell on, but suffice to say my mother’s comments were: “did you mean it to look like that?” and “hello, Farah Fawcett gone wrong!”

She herself ended up with a Hilary Clinton helmet-style hairdo and serves her right.

I recovered from the hair experience by going to watch a Nubi vs. Sa3di soundclash in Wikalet el-Ghoury. It was DOUBLE WOWZERS BLAZERS and involved loads of drumming and mawwal and Nubi dancing and bafflingly, all this wickedness was for zero pounds and null pence.

Here are some pictures what I took with my camera. Notice the 4th picture, where the man in the foreground with his back to the camera is about to take a free kick, and the bloke on the right is protecting the crown jewels.

Monday, February 11, 2008

We're Ghana party*

I have never, ever seen anything as bonkers as last night’s post-African Cup glory celebrations, which I (forcibly, given that we couldn't move the car for two hours after the match) enjoyed in the vast boulevard of Nasr City’s Abbass el Akkad Street.

The game itself we watched on a TV on top of a fridge in a Shisha den with pretensions of being a Parisian café. It was called Excellan, and wasn’t at all.

But who cares about pizzas which made Umm Nakad vomit and orders which never arrived when one is watching the pride of Egypt win! It was a fantastic game, despite Metaab’s appalling miss. I have always previously turned a blind eye to the fact that Metaab is actually quite a poor player because he has such lovely hair, but can no longer continue to do so with a clear conscience.

Superstar Abu Trika! Wael scary Gomaa! Zedan and his 90s rapper hairdo! Hagary and his fantastic bum reactions! And, of course, Hassan Shehata. I love Hassan Shehata, there’s something reassuring and solid about both his constant, scowling curmudgeon and his mullet + moustache combo. I am beginning to wonder whether I missed my calling as a top international football coach because as far as I can work out all you need is 1. a short fuse, 2. a liking for chewing gum 3. a surly disposition - all of which I possess.

It was during the awards ceremony that an uprising without the violence or regime change erupted outside. In the space of approximately ten minutes the four lane street was brought to an absolute halt, choked with flag-waving, roaring madmen, a bit like 7eyna Meysara without the misery. I had thought that - being of British heritage - I knew everything there was to know about post-match frenzied lunacy, but yesterday’s celebrations were of a different nature altogether.
There was a surreal quality to it, the black, white and red of hundreds of flags drifting through the darkness, suddenly illuminated by the flame from the impromptu torch of an aerosol can’s spray set ablaze upwards into the sky. And through these lights thousands upon thousands of people walking and dancing and singing and charging through the streets to a symphony of ole ole ole, and masr…masr.

I saw women sitting on car roofs clutching babies as the cars paraded through the streets, a young man dragged along the ground behind a speeding car until he conceded defeat and released his grip and rolled to a halt, six children sitting in the boot of a car while in front an entire family clapped and cruised their way through the crowds, a topless man dancing to sha3by music on the roof of a car, two men smoking on the top of a 50 metre high advertising hoarding, a man sitting on the bonnet of a car as it sped along October Bridge at at least 50 km per hour.

It is not an exaggeration to say that yesterday the populace took over the streets in a night of organised and markedly police-free chaos. I didn’t see a single policeman yesterday night, not even a police car. Compare this with the protest I had attended earlier that afternoon, when a doctors’ protest (which was attended by perhaps 60 mostly middle-aged, extremely sedate, protestors) apparently required some 300 plus riot police.

How is it that thousands of young men in a state of heightened excitement can take to the streets without at least a few acts of major vandalism/physical assault occurring? Is it because alcohol is (mostly) taken out of the equation? I couldn’t help but compare with the UK, where football matches require major police mobilisation to control and contain the inevitable fallout afterwards.

Perhaps it’s because Egypt’s young people are so used to being watched and patrolled by an intrusive and controlling state apparatus that simply descending into the streets en masse and shouting and dancing is enough to placate the stifled instinct for rebellion which surely must exist.

Or perhaps it’s because last night we could for once say that we love Egypt because of something, rather than despite everything.

*Post title is unabashed recycling of an earlier post's title. Inability to resist poor wordplay yet again prevails.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Bread and butter

Here I get back on my hobby horse and go on about half Egyptians, while here I destroy all chances of ever marrying Hany Adel.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


I like watching films, which is a problem in Egyptian cinemas when it comes to foreign productions because the concern of Baba Raqaba and his busy scissors that we shouldn’t be exposed to breastage, or nooky, frequently takes priority over the film actually making sense. (See: American Gangster, where huge swathes of crucial scenes were cut because of female topless cocaine cutters).

This has driven me to seek out alternative sources of film entertainment; Sharshar, and the British Council.

Sharshar has a huge stock of pirated films but alas is rarely these days in the country because of his new hobby: ‘safarayaat lel sho3’l ma3andahaash aih lazma khaaaaless’ or seeking out work-related conferences/training/workshops abroad. In the space of approximately four months he has been to Uruguay, Morocco, the United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Greece in transit, Qatar and Lebanon (about 87 times) - and already has trips planned to the UK and Lebanon again (surprise surprise). I asked him about his trips to Beirut, whether he enjoyed the conference etc and his comment was that all Lebanese women are “mozaz gamdeen ta7n” [really fit] - which may be true, but does little to enlighten me about the peace process in the country.

The British Council is more reliable in that it doesn’t tend to lust after Lebanese women, but its downside is that it has an odd, and restricted selection of titles on offer. The one criterion governing which DVDs are selected for inclusion in the library is some kind of link with the Fatherland, and the result is a weird collection of crappy 70s sitcoms, Ealing Studio comedies, Fawlty Towers and independent arthouse films, only some of which are endurable.

On the plus side desperation has driven me to choose films I would never otherwise have gone for (I once applied a similar policy to gentlemen friends) and I have found some right gems (didn’t work with the boyfriends). Last month it was Alfie, with Michael Caine, which I had thought was a cheerful Cockney bonk-romp but which turned out to be a really quite sad, if not sinister, reflection on the pointlessness of life and loneliness and other cheerful themes. Last week I borrowed Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer, which I had thought was a cheerful Cockney bonk-romp – only kidding!

The film is a documentary directed by Nick Broomfield and is excellent but disturbing, mostly because Aileen was very clearly a sandwich short of a picnic and they executed her anyway. Broomfield aired the interesting fact (? – is it? I don’t know) that contrary to claims that it acts as a deterrent, murder rates are higher in US states which have the death penalty than those which don’t.

Death was the theme of another film I watched last week, this time in a special screening which director Ibrahim el-Batout kindly organised for journos. I was approximately 39 hours late but luckily so was someone else because Cairo’s traffic circulation had ground to a halt in the catastrophic weather of a spot of rain, and they waited for us.

We watched the film, Ain Shams, round a narrow table. I sat opposite a woman journalist and my muddied shoe accidentally and ever so lightly grazed her trousers while I was in the process of uncrossing my Amazon warrier-like 6 ft foot-long legs. I apologised but she very pointedly looked at her trousers, and then silently looked at me as if I was an untouchable who had just wiped his nose on her face. Why are women like this???

But back to the film. Regular readers will recall that I enthused about el-Batout’s last offering, Ithaki which was inventive, exquisitely sad and made me almost choke on my snot and tears - which is one of the highest accolades I can give a film.

Ithaki was a short film, Ain Shams is feature-length, and fantastic. As he did in Ithaki, el-Batout uses a layered approach to the film’s central theme by gradually putting together the inter-connected stories of the film’s protagonists a la Babel, or 21 Grams; the effect is like watching someone sketch a portrait before your eyes.

Set in the Cairene district from which it takes its name, the film revolves around a family who live in the impoverished area. The father works as a driver for a millionaire drowning in debts. The millionaire’s niece is a doctor who was in Iraq and witnessed the incidences of Cancer caused by the chemical bombs used by the Allied forces during the first Gulf war. She returns to Egypt and is confronted by a similar picture of illnesses caused by the assorted toxicants which Egyptians are forced to imbibe through their food, water and oxygen.

These (and other) events are presented by a cast of both professional and (excellent) first-time actors, and the acting had a naturalness which is often missing from contemporary Egyptian mainstream productions, where certain actors deliver dialogue as if they are reading an optician’s eye chart. A scene in which two of the characters chat over a coffee is so real, so unaffected, that watching it is like eavesdropping on your neighbour. This naturalness is only enhanced by both the film’s set –Ain Shams – and el-Batout’s creative use of various media such as news footage, documentary extracts and fantastic scenes from a real-life neighbourhood wedding complete with sha3by MCs and the beer-drinking, joint-rolling guests.

Despite its realism there is a certain dreamlike quality about the film created by the voiceover narrator we hear and never see (and who himself asks ‘who am I? It doesn’t matter who I am’). The narration is almost fairy tale-like, and the soundtrack only adds to this. (In Ain Shams El-Batout again collaborates with Egypt’s own Enrico Morricone, the fantastically gifted Amir Khalaf, who wrote the score for Ithaki.)

Annoyingly, Ain Shams cannot be released in cinemas at the moment. This is firstly because 1. Egyptian censors require Egyptian filmmakers to present a script for approval in advance of shooting. Ain Shams wasn’t filmed with a script, and to me demanding one seems a bit like requiring a cook to produce potato peelings for mashed potato he has made out of a packet, but what do I know, and 2. because anyone who appears in an Egyptian film must be members of the Actors’ Union or else the film’s producers are fined hefty amounts. Some of the actors in Ain Shams are not members of the Union.

Read this for more details.

Here’s hoping that the excellence of Ain Shams and the warm reception it will hopefully receive in the Cannes Film Festival will persuade the bureaucratic dinosaurs of Egypt’s film establishment that imposing inflexible, nonsensical rules about scripts and so on is like forcing filmmakers to tap-dance in flippers.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Prison break

When I came to Egypt in 2003 I lived with Upstairs Auntie for the first four months or so because my mother’s flat downstairs didn’t have any furniture in it apart from approximately 23 sofas.

While Upstairs Auntie is lovely, and welcoming, and put up with sharing her bedroom for four months, my sojourn chez her coincided with an unfortunate and overdue teenage rebellion. Which occurred in my mid-20s.

I was at this time walking out with a young man who was eminently unsuitable on numerous levels. That this was the case was plainly obvious to everyone but moi, and the family’s opposition had the inevitable and unfortunate result of bolstering my conviction that this is a man who is misunderstood by the world and is being denied his chance, and other nonsense. While the rest of the world saw lunatic and childish, I saw passionate and eccentric, because I had my love blinkers on.

(I saw this individual at the Cairo Book Fair last week. He had turned up his jeans in a Salafi manner, but I think this was probably because of the torrential rain – he was standing in the French section, after all.)

After days of tension caused by my coming back at ridiculously late hours – which was borne with incredible patience by Upstairs A – she finally made a remark which I interpreted as a huge slight. I declared that I would not tolerate such injustice and was LEAVING and began putting together my items of personal belonging in a dramatic and haphazard manner like they do in films, when they empty drawers of drawers into a suitcase and never take a toothbrush.

The dramatic effect was only slightly reduced by the fact that 1. I was LEAVING to the flat downstairs and, 2. Upstairs A kindly provided me with bedding and sandwiches.

The move was made possible by the acquisition of a mattress given by another auntie, but the flat was otherwise empty apart from the aforementioned sitting devices, which seem to breed when I’m not around.

I will never forget that first night as long as I live (said the old man of the sea). I inevitably chose the world’s windiest night to flounce out, and spent the night paralysed with terror in the big, empty, and unfamiliar flat listening to voices and footsteps and jinn opening and closing doors for no apparent reason while fear played squash with my palpating heart.

I have never believed in the supernatural but came super close to it that night, as I recalled Downstairs Auntie’s various accounts of hearing footsteps in the unoccupied flat above her. When I woke up after two hours of sleep I experienced Dorothy Wizard of Oz level-feelings of gratitude that I was still alive.

The jinn theory is of course stuff and nonsense. Like a tedious whining woman this flat just doesn’t ever shut the hell up, and creaks and rattles incessantly. I have slept soundly ever since – especially after I acquired a bed, though this is about the only progress I have made on the furniture front in four years.

All this is a painfully long-winded introduction to a visit I made recently to a prison where I confronted irrational fears of a claustrophobic nature.

I have always had an odd fascination with prison life but, at the same time, am terrified by the thought that being locked up (even for a visit) will bring out the lunatic claustrophobic tendencies in me. I had an opportunity to test when I visited two men in el-Qanater Prison.

The men (Nezar and Salah), who are from Sudan, have been in prison since April 2007 – a court had ordered their release but they are being held in administrative detention (without legal representation) on claims that they pose a threat to national security (but have not actually having been charged of any crimes) – think Guantanamo. Essentially it boils down to their (non-violent) involvement in the 2005 Mostafa Mahmoud protest, which has apparently been referred to on numerous occasions during interrogations; the events of December 30th remain a highly-sensitive source of embarrassment for the People Up Top.

A UNHCR officer visited them in el-Qanater in July, deportation to Chad or Kenya was discussed, and she then buggered off until last week, apparently reminded of their existence by their lawyer. An offer was made to resettle the two men in the States. They’re back to waiting to see what happens, again.

The lawyer who was acting on the men’s behalf in April was not actually aware that they were still being detained – he thought that everyone had gone home and lived happily ever after in April when the Court found them innocent (they were taken directly from the court to state security headquarters until an administrative order was issued) - which is bonkers and slightly scary, but hey hum now that it’s been brought to his attention that his clients are actually still doing porridge he seems to have launched into action. I went to see them in early January to find out why the bloody hell they were being held and why nobody was doing anything to get them out.

El-Qanater is in Qaloubeyya, which is roughly half an hour by bus outside Cairo and is spectacularly verdant after the capital’s industrial grime. The area is named after the aqueduct or weir or whatever that massive man-made thingie which does stuff with water is called. It was inevitably brought to my attention that the thing is British-built (the veracity of which statement I cannot vouch for) - continuing the theme began in Assiut of pointing out colonial water engineering feats to an individual whose interest in, and knowledge of, water dynamics begins and ends at turning on a tap.

The prison itself lies on a river, and if it wasn’t for the locks, high fences and frisking on entry, it could pass for a health spa, such is the picturesque-ness of its surroundings. A woman in the visitors’ queue seemed to share this opinion; while we were all waiting to be admitted she uttered to her companion the immortal and unforgettable words, “wallah el-3azeem a7la ayaam fe 7ayaaty kaanet gowa el segn dah” [“I swear to God the best days of my life were inside this prison”].

Having been lightly scanned and frisked separately according to gender, Umm Nakad and I joined Nezar’s brother and his friends on the other side of the security check. An obese and somewhat truculent woman who brought to mind Jabba the Hut was sat on a chair arguing with one of our party, Spring, who was himself shouting something about “el toc-toc beta3ek dah” [that toc-toc of yours”] at high volume. Now a toc-toc is a small three-wheeled taxi vehicle which is what you get if you cross-breed a vespa with a dustbin. A whole fleet of them arrived in Egypt a couple of years ago and now they charge around Egypt’s backstreets at alarmingly high volume and speed.

Spring was denigrating the noble taf-taf, which is a vehicle composed of a tractor pulling people in a carriage of the type seen in public leisure spaces where people are too lazy or too knackered to walk. It is also used in el-Qanater prison. It transpired subsequently (after we had all been herded into a huge waiting room where we vegetated for days) that visitors are not allowed to walk the 600 metres from the waiting area to the prison wing, possibly lest this result in the chaotic frenzy of everyone descending on the wing at once and for example, forming a large crowd outside the huge and impossible-to-breach fortress-like doors. Instead, when summoned, visitors must mount the bloody taf-taf at twenty minute intervals, and pay for the pleasure of doing so. Jabba the Hut was selling tickets for it, and had inspired the wrath of Spring with both the insistence that he purchase a ticket, and the surly prison cell warden manner with which she did so.

I whiled away the time in the waiting area with tea-drinking and people-watching. El-Qanater holds women, foreigners and (I think) male prisoners serving short sentences. The big cheeses – members of political Islamic organisations being held in administrative detention, leading political opposition figures locked up on spurious charges after presidential elections – are held elsewhere. The majority of the visitors with me at el-Qanater were women and children and, if the demographics of the visitors is anything to go by, el-Qanater’s prison population conforms to the international rule that it is mostly a State’s very poorest, most uneducated citizens who resort to crime – or who get locked up for it.

A woman next to Umm Nakad accompanied by three children under eight told her that the kids were her grandchildren, and that her daughters were both inside serving sentences for “powder”. She swore that they had been stitched up, and that the reason they had been imprisoned was because they had been involved in a fracas with a police officer during which one of the sisters had punched him in the face.

Most of the women were tough-looking, weathered women in black dragging behind them or on their heads huge bundles of food and uncooperative children at whom they screamed obscenities at regular intervals. They in their turn were shouted at by prison guards whenever they attempted to wait outside for the taf-taf.

Riding the blessed taf-taf was bizarre because the squeal of excited children and people sitting on each others’ laps, and the surrealism of it all while the tractor trundled along against the spectacular backdrop of the river turned everything slightly festive, and again proved the general rule that Egyptians will find the fun in any situation, no matter how bleak.

Ten seconds later, having arrived and disembarked from the taf-taf we waited to be let into the prison wing before being admitted into a big rectangular cage bordered on all sides by benches on which inmates and their visitors sit. Opposite me was sat a family of three; a prisoner, his wife and their daughter, who looked roughly 8 years old. I have never seen anyone listen to anything as intently as the prisoner listened to his wife, who talked uninterrupted for ten minutes while her husband leaned forward and absent-mindedly stroked the hair of his daughter, who was sitting between them, eating.

Visit completed, Umm Nakad and I left and had a fight with a man in a kiosk outside the prison gates who sells Chipsy and fags and makes money on the side by holding mobiles for prison visitors who cannot of course take them inside. Nezar’s brother had deposited all our mobiles and taken a receipt from kiosk man; he was still inside, visiting, and Umm Nakad and I didn’t have a receipt and would be stuck until Nezar’s brother emerged. I described my mobile (which is distinctive because of its lamentable state of disrepair) in detail, offering to list for him my contacts and last calls made but he staunchly refused to surrender our mobiles to us even when we offered him our national ID cards - which in Egypt is akin to offering someone your kidney. He possibly had right on his side, but was so smug in his refusal that both Umm Nakad and I had to remove ourselves from him and his kiosk in case we committed an act which necessitated our conveyance to el-Qanater prison, and this time not by taf-taf.