Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cairo International Film Farcical

Mysterious sheets of plastic appeared on the railings of the Cairo Opera House on 17th November. The railings separate the Opera grounds from the busy central artery of Tahrir Street, an extension of the Qasr El-Nil bridge popular with ambulant lovers taking evening strolls.

The sheets’ function was revealed the following day when guests of the Cairo International Film Festival made their appearance at the opening ceremony, parading the red carpet in their diamante-studded, perfumed glory. The sheets had been strategically-placed to protect the good and the grand of Hollywood and Spain and Egypt from the unwholesome, hungry stares of Egypt’s hoi polloi.

Rows of security guards along the red carpet, a 100 metre gap and metal railings were apparently not enough to protect the A-listers from whatever mischief the CIFF/Opera organisers feared the no-listers would engage in: they were not prepared to risk the evening being defiled by the uninvited participation of the unimportant in any form.

This attitude – exclusion - seems to be the ethos of the 32 year-old festival. 2008 was my second film festival, and I have yet to understand who, exactly, it is for. Article 1 of the CIFF regulations (available on its lamentably inaccurate website, about which more later) states the following:

The goal of The Cairo International Film Festival is to promote films, to create artistic links between different nations, to encourage comprehension and meetings between cinema professionals around the world and to develop the Film industry in the Arab world, in the Middle East and all over the world

As I understand it, this goal encompasses behind-the-sheets ordinary people of all nationalities, (“different nations”) and actors, film directors and producers and journalists (“cinema professionals”). In short it means everybody.

In theory.

The reality is very different. The most important thing to bear in mind for the uninitiated is that the CIFF takes place in Cairo, which is in Egypt, which – for all its wonderful qualities - remains a class-ridden autocracy of individual fiefdoms where rules are designed to fit wallets and who you know is more important than who you are.

This stratification has necessarily seeped into all areas of the CIFF. Witness Omar Sherif’s remarks in the opening ceremony about Egyptians being poor but “always smiling…smiling at the sun and the blue sky, and knowing that if they don’t get their reward in this life they’ll get it in the next”. Which is perhaps why it doesn’t matter that the smiling buffoons had been kept behind the sheets.

Within the CIFF fiefdom Hollywood has most currency, followed by Egyptian stars, followed by popular Turkish soap opera actors. This year Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, Julia Ormond and Mira Sorvino brought the LA starlight to the Festival, guarded by Amr Badr, a cigar-smoking individual whose job as far as I can tell is to keep members of the lower species known as the press as far away from his charges as possible. We were batted away like flies.

The flights and accommodation of these guests are paid for by the Festival. Is it conscionable that in a week’s stay in Cairo they are brought out for only 1 or 2 press conferences and spend the rest of the time sight-seeing? The question again poses itself: who is the CIFF for?

CIFF’s relationship with the press is a story in itself. I attended ten CIFF events (film screenings/press conferences/symposiums) this year, only five of which went without a hitch. Finding out about the timing of these events was in itself a challenge because I made the mistake of relying on the CIFF website, whose schedule is as reliable as a pubescent teenager.

I went to the Good News cinema on Sunday expecting to watch Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe. Having been informed that it was playing in the main auditorium I waited as a press conference for another film came to an end. It ended, and I was then ejected from the auditorium “so it could be cleaned.”

I went back upstairs to the smaller screen where I located the man who had given me the wrong information. “No, Fawzeyya is playing here, and it’s for the judging committee only.” No apology was offered, no explanation.

I didn’t have the chance to ask why he had chosen to neglect communicating this minor detail to me an hour ago, because next to me an extremely angry Palestinian woman was trying to extract some sense out of a Good News employee.

She had come specifically to watch Palestinian film Salt of This Sea, at the Good News cinema. The problem is, Salt of This Sea had at some point been moved to the Opera Creativity Centre. I had found this detail out entirely by chance two hours before, from the film’s director herself. God knows how many people missed the film because of the organisers’ failure to update the website.

The woman said that this was the second time she encountered this problem. The Good News man said he wasn’t responsible, that the CIFF organisers bore responsibility. But of course.

(Unfortunately, it was crap) I got to see Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe in the end, seated on the cinema floor (no problem, I have a press card, I wasn’t paying) with my friend (who had paid for a seat).

When I went to the Creativity Centre to watch Under the Bombs on Wednesday I was accompanied by the same press pass-less friend. Not a problem since the CIFF website announced the screening as open to the press and public.

They refused to let my friend in at first on the pretext that attendance was by invitation only, and that we had to go to the press centre to get an invitation. Tired and frustrated by a week of similar incidents I must admit that I lost my rag with the Creativity Center official who told me that in fact no, I had not seen an (American) friend admitted into the Creativity Center without an invitation earlier this week to watch Salt of This Sea. I had. He wasn't having any of it.

Voices were raised, as was blood pressure, until another Creativity Center official took my friend aside, took an invitation (for an entirely different film) out of his pocket and gave it to him saying “this is my fiancee’s but I’m giving it to you”(!) before admitting him.

Is there an equivalent word for ‘je m’en foutisme’ in English? Its literal translation is not giving a damn-ism, and should be the CIFF’s motto.

On Friday I turned up at 11.30 a.m. for a symposium on human rights. A CIFF official appeared at 11.45 a.m. and announced that the symposium would begin at 1 p.m. “as had been stated on official invitations.” Some of us lower-level amoeba hadn’t received this invitation. Who cares. Our time isn’t important, after all.

The not giving a damn extends to guests, too. Annemarie Jacir, director of Salt of This Sea told me that some of the actors and crew involved in her film had been invited to the Festival, and that visas would be waiting for them at Cairo Airport.

Then, she told me via email, this happened:

Then they 'suddenly' couldn't help us and told us 3 days before flying that there would be no visas for them at the airport nor would they help get them one. So it was urgent because Ossama [Bawardi, the Palestinian producer] had a flight landing him in Cairo airport and suddenly was told he had no visa to enter. The festival wouldn't even help us change the flight or give any solutions so I ended up paying myself for a new ticket since Cairo fest refused to take responsibility for it. I am of course totally broke and it cost us a lot of money that we simply don't have.
CIFF had “discovered” that Jacir’s Palestinian crew members hold Israeli passports and summarily dropped them.

This is aside from the fact that upon arriving in Cairo Jacir was hustled into a symposium at the last minute. She had no prior idea what the symposium was about or what was expected of her. Aleya Hammad, the symposium’s moderator (who in an urgent whisper asked her who she was while she was on the podium), described Jacir’s feature film as a documentary.

At the beginning of Charlize Theron’s press conference, as photographers and cameramen fought in front of her to get the good angles, press conference moderator Ezzet Abo Auf said (in Arabic) “let’s have some order, we don’t want to look bad in front of our guests.”

This obsession with image. With makeup, and fireworks, and revolving stages that spin out their startled occupants as the crowd claps and the music plays and ugly reality is kept at bay outside, 100 metres and a million miles away behind a plastic sheet.

I reject the argument that because CIFF is held in Egypt, we should forgive it the incompetence of its organisation, the constant screw-ups, the continual late starts, the complete absence of a relationship with the press…etc.

That stuff (independent political parties, World Cup bids, independent film festivals, historical parliamentary buildings, police-citizen relations) is repeatedly messed up in Egypt is clearly not because of some entrenched incompetence within the fabric of Egyptian society. Rather, the problem is twofold: firstly, talent is usually inextricably linked with creativity, and original thought, and is therefore a potential risk. Secondly, raw natural talent lacking the benefits of wealth and connections is necessarily crushed by poverty and its associated concrete ceilings.

Which means, inevitably, that many of those at the top are dullards, and all take care of interests other than those of the many million they are meant to represent.

CIFF - like everything else in Egypt - is the embodiment of these factors, the embodiment of this calamity. Its mistakes therefore aren’t just minor errors, or the product of good ole Egyptians and their quaint time-keeping. Rather, they are the manifestation of a sickness.

On a lighter note, Yosra in her 'Faith' George Michael redux cap and science lab goggles was one of the Festival's few highlights.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tanta French-style

I went to Tanta four times this week, which meant a daily dose of Peugeot. On Wednesday at the Aboud bus station I said to one of the drivers there, ‘Tanta, two people’ and he led Per Bjorklund and me to a microbus. I told him that I wanted to go by Peugeot.

He indicated the Peugeot in front and said to another of the drivers, “Fransaweyeen dool. El fransaweyeen mabye7eboosh el yabaany, beye7ebo el faransawy.” [They’re French. The French don’t like it Japanese, they like it French].

Ah bey7ebo el faransawy” [yes they like it French] the other driver replied conspiratorially.

While this may have been an innocuous commentary on the vehicular preferences of the Europeans, to “like it French” is also slang for - ahem - enjoying teeky-teek on all fours.

I was depositing myself in the back seat of the Peugeot, face-first arse-last (which somehow increased the trauma of it all), when this was being said, and was thus unable to fully gauge the tone of the conversation by scanning their no doubt smirking faces.

I explained the double entendre to Per, who said it had made him feel dirty before explaining that while they of course have a lexicon of dirty jokes like every nation, Swedish people are embarrassed by toilet humour - which I found astonishing coming from the representative of a people I have always associated with the frequent and untroubled removal of clothing in public areas.

I then asked how Swedish people swear at each other, given that profanity is one of the keys to understanding a national psyche. Apparently, Swedes do not involve their parents in the cursing of others, surely one of the few nations not to do so? Per said that if one Swede imputed lax morals to another Swede’s mother, the latter would probably ask why the first Swede is involving a 3rd party in proceedings which have nothing to do with her.

Which is surely the sensible response to be expected of a people which gave us elegant yet functional self-assembly furniture.

We then lapsed into silence as the Peugeot pulled out of Aboud, and my mind drifted to the trial, and yesterday’s proceedings, and miscarriages of justice etc.

“COCKSUCKER,” Per suddenly and violently exclaimed from nowhere, before explaining that said expletive is a popular term of abuse in Sweden.

(Aside for linguists/swearword enthusiasts: In Swedish it is Kojsoger or something approximating that. Probably with testicular umlauts somewhere).

The Mahalla 49 trial concluded on Thursday. The final verdict will be delivered on December 15th, but two of the defendants were released on Thursday. The police attempted to stitch Essam Ibrahim up by claiming that he’d stashed stolen goods in the address listed on his ID card. Alas the stupid lazy buggers neglected to check that he actually lives there: he hasn’t, since 2001, and this was proved to the court.

Essam Ibrahim

Ahmed Farhana had started shouting at the judge during Thursday’s session, in a slurred, distressed, drawl. “Ya 3am el 7ag el mo7ameyeen dool ana ma3arfhomsh. 3owez arawwa7…3awez arawwa7…” [Old man (I am stumped as to how to capture the meaning of 3am el 7ag here) I don’t know those lawyers…I want to go home…I want to go home…] Many of the people in the courtroom laughed at his outburst, including the judge. I found this unfathomable.

He was clearly mentally disabled – the lawyers say that he his mental age is much lower than his years - and unable to understand what was happening to him, never mind willingly and knowingly participate in a criminal conspiracy. Shame on the judicial/prison system for keeping him locked up for seven months.

Ahmed Farhana

A reader of this blog has inexplicably requested my thoughts on the Ghad party headquarters incident, possibly having confused me with that other legendary political pundit, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal.

I have very little to add, other than I woz there, but alas arrived 10 minutes after the fire was put out.

I arrived to chaos in Talat Harb Square, chaos of much lower proportions than it could have been because of the distinct and strange absence of a police presence to ensure complete pandemonium (see: the Shura Council fire. See: the April 6 clashes in Mahalla. See: any gathering of more than 15 Egyptians other than for a wedding or football celebrations).

When I arrived Moussa Moustafa and Ragab Helal Hemeida were standing in the square looking sheepish and telling everyone that Gamila Ismail had set fire to the Ghad HQ. I confess that before I arrived in Talat Harb Square I didn’t know who Moussa was, and was stumped as to why he would suggest that Ismail had torched her own flat. Which perhaps indicates the transparency of Moussa’s lie. Even an idiot could smell a rat.

On a side note I took an instant dislike to Hemeida because of the way he had done the buttons of his leather jacket right up to the neck, which gave him the look of Nehru crossed with a Croydon drug dealer. This is aside from the fact that he was spouting a load of shite about Molotov cocktails landing on his head, obviously.

Members of opposition parties in Egypt cannot fart without the immediate imposition of a security cordon. Which is why the occurrence of a near-riot in central Cairo involving flying rocks and the vandalising of buildings using blowtorches in the complete absence of a police presence is such a give-away. There are plaques all over Egypt - on university gates and tram stops and hospitals - proclaiming that Mohamed Hosny Mubarak opened this, or oversaw that. Moussa should have stapled one to his back. Organised crime indeed.

On Monday evening a DNE colleague and I went to Talat Harb Square to cover a solidarity protest with the Ghad party. The contrast in terms of a security presence couldn’t have been more marked. It was awash with plain-clothed policemen and security trucks.

We saw two women sitting on the pavement surrounded by about 10 men who then bundled them into a (police) microbus. When we stopped for half a millisecond to try and identify the women an extremely unpleasant policeman shooed us away. When we slowed down he proceeded to shove my male colleague, quite forcibly. Even Scandinavian Per said he was subjected to the shoving treatment when he tried to stand still and interview an activist. Needless to say, the protest never happened in Talat Harb, and was re-located to the (easier to contain) steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Peugeot-rative language

A protest in the Ghazl El-Mahalla spinning factory necessitated another memorable trip in a 7-seater Peugeot on Thursday, this time driven by a man with the world’s foulest mouth.

Short, dishevelled and unshaven in a striped t-shirt, he had a bar-fighting attitude to driving - while the bloke across the room may not have been looking at his bird, he probably was.

The blokey cockiness was probably in part encouraged by the two insalubrious-looking types next to him on the front seat. One of this pair spent the first ten minutes conducting an animated mobile phone call in which he informed his interlocuteur and everyone else in the Peugeot that he had “flogged the car for a grand” and “had Mohamed so and so’s licence” and wouldn’t sell it for less than 50 quid. “Fuck no, 50 quid or nothing” he declared.

He had a dirty laugh of the best kind. The rumbling sort. A filthy old engine starting up.

The journey started with a tape of Qu’ran recitation, to ensure a safe journey. The driver and the dirty laugh man talked up front, exchanging jokes, gripes and cigarettes while the slightly younger and timid-looking man sat between them acted as a buffer for the stream of profanities they emitted.

Listening to the driver was like watching Goodfellas dubbed into Arabic. Nothing escaped his venom. Kossom [fuck*] this and the ebn el weskha [son of a slut] that. It was spectacularly vile language for a Thursday afternoon, particularly given that swear words are frowned on in Egyptian society much more than e.g. England, where one can not give a flying fuck audibly in public without raising many eyebrows.

The Qu’ran was eventually replaced by a tape of sha3by mawwal, which was when the fun really began. This cassette we were treated to was obviously a particular favourite of the driver’s, and he bellowed out the lyrics (sometimes in advance of the singer actually saying them). When not singing, he danced, requiring the use of his torso, and both hands.

Aho…aho…” [there it is…there it is…] he said to Dirty Laugh while shoulder shimmying with both hands off the wheel, and looking at Dirty Laugh. Dirty Laugh smoked and nodded approvingly, apparently unconcerned that we were going at 90 kilometres an hour on the Delta road and that control of the car had been sacrificed for boogie wonderland.

A particularly rousing chorus suddenly inspired the driver to clap noisily and at length, again while we sped along and vehicles zigzagged behind us and in front of us like video game space invaders. I can’t say I blame him. Sometimes musical needs must.

We stopped three times. The first time all three men got out, opened the bonnet, revved the engine once manually, and then got back in. In silence. The second time the driver parked the car on the side of the motorway, sort of, and then asked whether anybody wanted something to drink before the three men absented themselves for about five minutes. The last time we stopped, the driver didn’t have time to steer to the side of the road because he was too busy going through the A-Z of swear words.

Traffic had almost come to a halt for some reason, and while we crawled along a lorry to our right very slightly cut the driver up.

YA OSTA! YA OSTA!” [Oi, driver!] dirty laugh bellowed out of his window, prompting absolutely no response from the lorry driver, probably because he couldn’t hear him up in his cab.

Driven wild by this atrocity the driver sprang out of his car and delivered a verbal assault of astounding proportions involving the lorry driver’s mother, homosexuals and pimps. He jumped up and down while clenching his fists by his sides. Dirty laugh looked on impassively, smoking as usual, as if he was at the cinema.

The driver returned to his car eventually (still swearing), opening his door from the inside, and was only pacified by a cigarette.

Another encounter occurred when a microbus driver decided to overtake us at approximately 100 kilometres an hour, on our right. The manoeuvre forced him off the road slightly, into the dust, and a sleeping passenger in our Peugeot was suddenly woke up by a hail of mud and pebbles hitting him in the face.

The microbus sped off in a cloud of dust while in front the driver’s face slowly turned red.

“I’ll get that fucking son of the bitch at the road bumps,” he hissed.

And indeed he did. Traffic slowed down and we were soon side by side with the microbus.

A 3-way conversation then ensued between the microbus driver, our driver, and dirty laugh. Driver ended every literally sentence he said with “ebn el weskha”, e.g. “mesh sama3 bey2ol aih ebn el weskha dah” [I can’t hear what that son of a slut is saying] he said, as he reluctantly turned down his sha3by mawwal and leaned towards the passenger side of the car. This carried on for about two minutes (while we were still moving, and cars piled up behind us) until the microbus driver handed our driver a packet of biscuits, and then it was over.

The driver opened the biscuits and consumed them, while still cursing the microbus driver.

He only interrupted this process to curse the speed bumps we encountered, in the process of being made. He dismissed them as "mattabaat sena3y bent weskha” [fucking speed bumps], before railing against the people making them, who were of course welaad el weskha.

Arriving in Mahalla with my swearword vocabulary doubled, I found a very different scene to the last time I had been to the town. Medan Shoon, the scene of April’s clashes was sleepy, with barely a policeman in sight. Last time I had been here it had looked like a military barracks.

On our way to the factory journalist Per Bjorklund and I saw a stream of people coming from the direction of the factory. Per correctly identified them as workers, who it transpired had been let out early, an attempt by state security to control the size of the protest.

A group of women stopped me, asking if I was a journalist before they caught sight of Per. Who is Swedish and looks it.

ALLAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 3EYNAYK GAMILA GEDDAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [WOW! YOUR EYES ARE REALLY GORGEOUS!] she cooed/screeched at Per. Who smiled a twinkly smile with his heavenly Scandinavian blue eyes.

I managed to extract from the women that the 3 p.m. shift had been let out early from the factory before they returned to the theme of Per and his eyes.

Outside the factory a group of women waited, flanked by the usual state security men in tight jeans and sunglasses. I recognised one of them from the Mahalla 49 trial. He never ever lets me in to the courtroom until the last possible moment.

I also remembered a state security officer I had seen outside the Doctors’ Syndicate last week. An underling brought him a chair, before wiping it clean for him. After el basha had sat down the underling, a kid of no more than 22, held his coffee for him. But to ensure that it was at the correct height he bent over at back-breaking angle while el basha talked on the phone, just froze in that position. One of the more nauseating sights I have witnessed recently.

I’ve heard that Ghazl El-Mahalla women tend to spearhead protests in the factory, and today seemed to be no exception. “El sa7afa fein?” [where’s the press?] they chanted, as they waited to either enter the factory, or for their male colleagues to join them.

They entered the factory eventually. Their male colleagues were assembled in the factory’s central courtyard. A fight ensued with factory security about whether the women would be admitted into the courtyard. They were, and the women flocked through, journos sneaking through in the middle of them.

Protests have a unique sort of energy, and experiencing them is always inspiring. This is particularly true of Egyptian protests, where participants in them risk so much. Individuals who lead chants know that they will be noted, a mark placed against their name, and yet they risk all.

At one point during the protest I was standing near the gates, and overhead a man saying of the participants “dowl schwayet 3ayyal malohomsh lazma” [they’re a bunch of useless kids] and of a woman protestor, “bent el weskha bet3mel fadee7a” [a daughter of a slut making a scandal]. It wasn’t the Peugeot driver, I checked.

* Commenter Fully P has pointed out that 'fuck' conceals the true vileness of the literal meaning of this word, which is 'your mother's cunt'. Since this delicate expression isn't a popular term of abuse in English, I chose the nearest equivalent. 'Cunting' might have been an alternative, if that exists outside Croydon. But the absence of the mother from this again misses the gynacological intensity of the Arabic.