Saturday, December 12, 2009

Uptown downtown nowhere ville

I spent this weekend getting knocked over the head by the many worlds which exist in Egypt, again.

A relative of mine is an event organiser, and she invited me on Friday evening to the launch of recently released new Land Rover models. My interest in 4x4s doesn’t extend beyond avoiding getting hit by them but two compelling factors persuaded me the evening would justify the need to get out of my pyjamas and leave my house: firstly, the high probability of an open buffet and, secondly, the fact that the event was being held in Uptown Cairo.

Uptown Cairo is on top of the Moqattam Hill. The last time I went to Moqattam was to photograph a police station where a man in police custody had been defenestrated. On the way back, Moftases and I decided that it might be nice to have a look at Uptown Cairo.

Now Uptown Cairo is not so much a gated community as a $4 billion fortressed community. A series of flapping flags bearing the insignia “Emaar” (an Emirati property development company) at the corner of a road announce its existence. The road leading to the development is long and windy and makes getting there without a car tricky if not impossible. Which is the point. When Moftases and I arrived at the gate that day posing as potential real estate buyers we were told that we weren’t allowed in unless a company representative takes us around, and that none work on Friday. Moftases has a 10 year-old Fiat with engineering issues which may or may not be material to the matter.

I wondered why they didn’t just build a moat and ask people to send copies of their bank statements via Bluetooth on their iPhones at the gate.

So on Friday night Moftases and I went back to the fortress. Moftases gaily called out “Land Rover” as we breezed past the gate, the security guide waved us through with his walkie-talkie like it was a wand, and we carried on further down the yellow brick road, eventually reaching the obligatory fountain next to a car park where we stepped out into a cold whose level of bitterness was someone between Tiger Woods’ wife and Egypt after That Sudan Match.

Because we have legs and are plebs, Moftases and I soldiered on through the inclemency, ignoring the group of men shouting out something behind us, until a lovely man informed us that a fleet of Land Rovers and Jaguars were conveying guests from the car park to the event location, approximately 1 km away. In we popped and 40 seconds later were deposited at the event marquee on Uptown’s “Street of Dreams” which reminded me of Brookside a bit.

The Facebook invitation to the event had what I now realise was a warning, rather than a recommendation: “Dress Code: GLAMOUROUS”. I had made the concession of putting on a necklace, but as ladies in mini skirts and fur coats floated in on clouds of rich perfume I realized that a brown wool cardigan affair with a stripey scarf and pink socks rendered me sartorially-speaking a badly coordinated Before to their After.

Luckily I didn’t care, and neither did the cheese smorgasbord buffet which Moftases (wearing a blazer) and I proceeded to demolish until we were made aware of the existence of a bar.

We watched the guests file in while coating our innards with cheese. Most were wearing my monthly (if not yearly) salary, they killed me. Cigar-wielding men greeted each other effusively. I was pleased to see that one man was wearing a Del Boy camel hair coat. Music played and drinks flowed and Egypt seemed far, far away.

Halfway through the proceedings Moftases and I went to have a look at the Emaar show home, a two-storey, four bedroomed villa offering lovely views over Cairo. This wasn’t the most expensive finish available we were told, if were prepared to shell out more than the LE 9 million that this particular villa costs.

LE 9 million will buy you a four-storey block of flats in central but ordinary areas of Cairo such as Dokki. The ‘disadvantage’ is that in these areas you are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of Egypt by a road and gate which keeps the unwashed carless and the car-driving undesirables respectively, away.

On Saturday I went back to Egypt for a Kefaya demonstration outside the high court, apparently to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the group’s first protest. As in 2004, Saturday’s protest was to do with impending elections. Kefaya leader Abdel Halim Qandil announced that Kefaya would be boycotting the 2010 and 2011 elections. With the usual bluster he declared that “the Public Group for the Egyptian People” would be created, composed of 500 “former and current opposition MPs, public figures and strike and protest leaders” who will form a “popular parliament” and elect an “alternative president”.

A series of civil disobedience actions like strikes and protests and a signature campaign, Qandil said, will convince the incumbent president to bugger off “freeing Egypt” from his presence, and leaving his seat to the alternative president.

Qandil, tired of thinking about thrash metal, now thinking about alternative rock

Qandil said that Kefaya was “extending its hand” to Mohamed El-Baradei, who is hanging up his Nuclear Atomic Agency hard hat and given the Egyptian media lots to write about now that the football saga has run out of steam by hints that he might run for the Egyptian presidency.

There is something a bit sad about Kefaya protests; perhaps the knowledge that with its protests and grand gestures, the group is pissing in the wind, and like Ayman Nour’s travelling circus, has become a joke. While the reasons behind the decision to boycott the elections are noble, it was probably in no small part taken because Kefaya does not have a credible candidate for the presidential election (even if the election rules allowed it to field a candidate), and understands that someone of El-Baradei’s stature would be unwilling to associate his name with the movement because that would mean instant death.

A mass movement without the mass is reduced to a collection of friends meeting up now and again to do a bit of chanting and remind the world that they are still alive. On Saturday, they were even bickering about whose turn it was to chant, which only deepened my despair. As I watched them I thought about Egyptians who possess the means to buy LE 9 million homes and LE 1.5 million cars, and wondered for the umpteenth time how change is possible in this morass where wealth (both extreme and absence of) ensures that political self-determination is either irrelevant or a luxury to the happy rich and the fed-up underfed who are both too busy chasing a dime to try to stop Egypt imploding.


Ahmed said...

Aww, great post!

This sentence "Egypt seemed far away" very much remind me of what I've seen last night on my way home. I live very near to Sawiris's Nile Tower which harbors a very fancy night club/bar which seems to be very upbeat and en vogue lately.

I watched all those BMW 7 series cars and those posh Egyptians hanging outside the club with their pints of alcohol bitterly. Just next to it were slums of dire poverty!

7aga fe3lan teganen!!!

Thanks for this interesting post. :)

Anonymous said...

why do i keep hearing lux aeterna (the theme from requiem for a dream) every time i log on to your page!

this is not norway, social injustice is part in parcel embeded in our genetic fabric! shedding light on our lysergic reality is futile!

gamal will be president and life will get better :) for the rich that is! so quit your bantering and fire up a fairy tale so we can forget our worries!

maurice_louca said...

Brilliant post


Ghafari said...

A big LOL @ how you described the scene in the first event! I couldn't stop laughing at certain sentences.

Aly said...

Awesome, awesome blog. Just discovered it.

Just a note about Kefaya: I really can't think of a legitimate reason to justify that it has become a fringe movement. I know, however, that it set the stage for what's hopefully going to happen.

It seems Baradei's campaign is gaining momentum, and attracting the key demographic Kefaya failed to attract in big numbers: young non-politicized people. We'll see!

Scarr said...

Thanking you one and all.

Hebe said...

life in Egypt incessantly befuddles