Friday, February 27, 2009


There is an expression in Arabic, 'faqary', which means bringing bad luck. I pondered on it in the early hours of Thursday morning as I watched a diminutive topless Senegalese-American pop singer standing on top of a car threatening to punch members of his own audience.

This is the 3rd mass event I have been to in Cairo which has gone spectacularly wrong. Should I ban myself from attending future events in the interests of Cairo's nightlife?

The diminutive topless individual was Akon, he of 'Smack That' fame. While presumably having a fleeting moment of optimism, I volunteered (!) to cover his concert, thinking that it might be a laugh on some level.

The signs that this was a disastrous decision were all there from the start. When I went to purchase tickets from the Opera House (the incongruous setting for Akon's performance), I was informed that tickets for LE 150, 250, 500, 750 and a whopping 1,000 were available.

Maybe the LE 1,000 tickets offer the chance to be dry-humped by Akon on stage, I thought, silently.

“Will I be able to see anything in the LE 150 area?” I inquired out loud.

“Yes, yes. You'll be able to see...something...” the ticket woman replied, with an unsettling grin.

“Are the LE 150 tickets in the toilets?”

She grinned (knowingly).

I was wrong: the LE 150 area wasn't in the toilets, it was mostly between the toilets. Wady El-Mer7adayn.

Needless to say it was at the very back of the Opera car park which had been converted into the venue for the evening's shenanigans. Screens were vaguely visible if you a. Climbed a tree or b. Were over 6 ft or c. Climbed on top of one of the portable toilet cabins until instructed to get down by toilet staff.

The view was largely obstructed by the strange platform erected for the LE 500 or LE 750 crowd who, being superior beings, had been given SOFAS to sit on. The LE 250 cattle had been herded into an area to the right of this platform, while the LE 150 pariahs stood behind them separated by a barrier reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, guarded by fridge-sized bodyguards one of whom was brandishing a thick wooden stick. He thumped the stick down menacingly on the barrier whenever any of the LE 150s threatened an attempt to escape the colony.

The LE 1,000 section was a distant promised land whispered about but never seen. The only news we received about it came two hours into proceedings, when someone on stage requested the LE 1,000 golden people to “go and get their money back”. How odd, we thought. No explanation was given.

The majority 11-year old LE 150s and their parents milled around the area, the kids in a state of high excitement, the parents looking for anywhere to park themselves (the only option was pavement curbs). Bad boys in tracksuits and baseball hats started impromptu breakdancing sessions while far away on the distant stage an individual called DJ Ahmed Shaker played records and sang forgettable Arabic R n B numbers.

Three and a half hours later, at 11.30 p.m., Akon still hadn't appeared. By this time the LE 150s had got bored of the breakdancing and were milling about the LE 150/LE 250 barrier. The bodyguard with the stick was looking ever more edgier, barking instructions at his colleagues, mountain-sized all.

Suddenly and spontaneously the LE 150s made their move, storming and knocking over the barrier before charging, cheering, into beautiful freedom. The bodyguards were hopelessly outnumbered by pubescent teenagers and a DNE hack, and conceded defeat.

We arrived in the LE 250 area just in time to witness Lebanese chanteuse Melinda start her act. She was wearing gold lame leggings and that is all I have to say on the matter.

There then ensued what felt like years of standing, accompanied to the soundtrack of tunes spun by DJ Feedo. By this time two of the three giant screens had given up the ghost, as if in solidarity with us.

At midnight a man and a woman who I am given to understand are Nile FM DJs appeared on stage. “OK you're not going to believe this...” the woman said. Akon's not coming, I thought, secretly slightly relieved.

“Akon's STUCK IN TRAFFIC!!!” the woman announced, before she and her colleague made witticisms about how it would have better for Akon to get the metro. How we laughed.

“BULLSHIT”, said the crowd.

Just as I was about to throw up from so much standing a gentleman sporting a mohawk and a tartan skirt which wasn't actually a kilt bounded on stage, at about 12.40 a.m.

He went through the motions of warming up the crowd, quite successfully, before roaring, “Akon if you in Cairo lemme hear you say something.”

“Konvict [sic] Music,” a weedy voice said from nowhere.

Akon eventually appeared on stage, without providing any explanation as to why he had kept us standing for two hours – as befits an ARSEHOLE superstar, after all.

He and the Kilt man launched into their act with great gusto. The crowd loved it, pogoing and swaying their way through songs only a few of which I recognised. The rest of his material just morphed into some indistinguishable grey-coloured mush.

The fact that Akon was lip-synching appeared not to bother the crowd.

Akon chatted between songs, muttering on about how happy he is to be back in Africa, and how a man in America once told him that to succeed you need “money, power and respect” and that “no-one's better than anyone else just because they have more money than you”.

I looked up at the LE 500s sitting on the sofas and sighed.

One of Akon's more cryptic pronouncements was, “I can stand in Cairo and know that I'm not the only person from the Ghetto.” Whether this was a reference to the 0.1% of Cairo's elite who had been able to afford a ticket or to Cairenes generally remains a mystery.

Akon then took his shirt off (to the delight of the 50 women in the audience) and from this moment on everything went downhill: it was like a secret code for hell's guards to open the gates.

It started with crowd surfing. Akon did it twice, prompting a horrified and frenzied reaction from the bodyguards on stage who scrambled to fish him out of the crowd.

Apparently spurred on by the success of this endeavour, Akon then declared, “today we're one people, one blood, one world” and that he was going to cross from the front of the stage to the back of the crowd, on top of their heads.

He called it his 'bridge of peace', and instructed everyone to put their hands up so that they could carry him. “This won't work unless we all work together!” he screeched while people started working out where the nearest escape exit was.

Off he went, crawling over the hands elevated over people's heads, like a demented crab. I wondered whether he has some kind of Jesus complex, and this is his version of walking on water.

Approximately halfway across Akon – by this time sounding somewhat tense – had started instructing people not to pull him back, and eventually to "get away from him".

It was at this point that the surge of people moving towards Akon caused a lighting rig on which people had been standing to collapse – on top of other crowd members. Akon was unperturbed - “we can just cut it out of the film,” he said while people started fleeing the area. Prick.

True to his word, Akon proceeded all to the way back of the deserted LE 150 area. 'Mr Konvict' Big Stuff by this time could be heard saying “help me, help me” into the mic, like a girl. I went out to find him standing on top of something, surrounded by bodyguards several of which were now armed with sticks, which they were using to keep people away from Scaredy Pants – who by this time had started throwing punches. Smack That indeed.

He was eventually unceremoniously escorted out of the area on bodyguards' shoulders before the concert came to an abrupt end. Akon was ushered out to his waiting Hummer by the bodyguards.

Akon left in his wake two trashed cars, which he had elected to stand on top of. His fans had done the same and this was the result:

I wonder if Akon will be charged with criminal damage.

I subsequently found out that the reason why the LE 1,000s had been instructed to get their money back was that the LE 1,000 had partly collapsed, causing “minor cuts and bruises” according to one employee I spoke to. Another man standing near the light rig told me that people had been injured by its collapse. I saw several people walking around looking stunned and traumatised, and a kid in an ambulance having his arm wrapped in bandages.

The funny thing is that on the way to buy the tickets for this effin cock-up on Monday, I saw builders in the process of erecting the feeble-looking wooden frame which was the stage and had visions of it collapsing.

Perhaps the organisers and Pepsi (sponsors of the events) who beamed their logo onto the Cairo Opera House dome (which is itself wrong somehow) should have invested more money in safety, rather than using the profits of their extortionately-priced tickets on sofas.

If anyone ever sees me at a corporate-sponsored event again, they have the permission to drop-kick me.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The invisible scarecrow

It is remarkable how little effort the footmen of a police state have to put into intimidation. The mere suggestion of a threat, of danger, is enough. The invisible scarecrow.

The strategy works because of the not knowing, the waiting, which entirely consumes novices. Every act, every decision, every word is suddenly imbued with a new significance. Immediately after the threat is received, things seem to speed up somehow, and the outside world retreats – or is blocked out - a little. External sounds become distant as the deafening fear courses through the bloodstream from the stomach and the heart until it reaches the head, where it sits like spilt oil on seawater, choking hope and happiness and normal thought.

And in that moment they've won.

The knowledge of being watched is suffocating. Its worst, most exhausting, aspect is that after they enter your head, they are in your home, at your work, in your car, in your street, everywhere you look. It is difficult to put into words the feelings induced by receiving a phone call at 1 a.m advising you to leave your house immediately because they might be coming for you. The mad 10 minute rush of getting dressed and putting basic essentials into a bag, waiting, waiting, waiting for the explosion. Your home suddenly transformed into a trap.

And then out into the night, and the comfort – or the illusion of comfort – provided by constant movement.

It's surprising how you can get used to fear, learn to live with it. Gradually it becomes yet another of the million things lurking at the back of your mind - the unreturned library books, the email not sent, the people not called.

The only bright spot in all this is people's support, their solidarity. Solidarity is a word often bandied around in activist statements etc. Its true worth can only be appreciated in situations when it is really needed. It is a life jacket. I will never forget the friends – Moftases, Abadodo, Sharshar - who dropped everything so I wouldn't be on my own, and Aida who unquestioningly gave me a bed in her home in the middle of the night, and Haitham or Umm Nakad who rang up to check on me periodically.

I'm so happy that Philip was released, but feelings of happiness have almost been obscured by anger: anger that this happened to him (would it have happened to a foreigner?), anger that these people have interrupted my and others' lives, anger that their sickness is allowed to spread through our society by the people in charge and their supporters abroad, anger about the people still in detention.

One day this will end, and hopefully it will be soon. When it does, it will because of people like Philip, whose first public statement on being released from his incommunicado detention was that the marches in solidarity with Gaza should continue.

To people reading this: next time you hear about someone in danger and are requested to join a protest or sign a petition or send a letter, don't hesitate. Please do it.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The kidnapping of Philip Rizk

This weekend revealed that justice can be undermined in many ways, including in a white Suzuki microbus.

On Friday journalist/masters student/filmmaker/blogger Philip Rizk and others organised a march as part of their 'To Gaza' campaign and I went along to cover. I hadn't taken the word march very seriously, but we ended up walking what felt like one million kilometres to the neighbouring governorate of Qalubeyya, through the countryside.

Against all the odds we (15 of us) managed, almost, to complete the 10 kilometres of the march without being apprehended by the po-lice, despite the fact that, firstly, the group included foreigners caped in Palestinian flags and, secondly, part of the march's route went through a village where we were accosted by a group of extremely animated kids. It was only near the very end of the route that I heard the chittering of a distant walkie-talkie and knew that the game was up.

State security decided to stop us after we had got into a microbus. It subsequently transpired that this was a deliberate strategy: they stopped the microbus driver, too, and used his bus to hold us in rather than the consulate-inducing alternative of a police van.

Bureaucracy is the trademark of all areas of Egyptian officialdom, and its police department is no exception to this rule. Parked on the side of the road, we were immediately surrounded by members of the police and state security who set about gathering and writing down our names, ages, addresses and occupations with a tedious assiduity. The process was make doubly excruciating because of the large numbers of foreigners involved, and the necessity of spelling out their names in Arabic.

Aside: While the police are always equipped with a clipboard for this task, I have never yet seen a state security police officer with one. They favour small pieces of paper procured from God knows where, making them look like trackside bookies. The suits and general dodgyness only adds to this impression.

When we inquired why we being held, we were told that this was normal procedure carried out with all foreigners who find themselves in Qalubeyya. They ensured us that we would be released in 20 minutes or so, though the three police vans and some 10 – 15 police officers surrounding us wasn't reassuring.

The activists had decided to conceal the political nature of their march, and instead told the police that we had come to Qalubeyya “just for a visit”, prompting guffaws from one state security officer who asked, “why would anyone visit here?!?” I understood this sentiment because I'm from Croydon.

We were stopped at around 5 p.m., and kept there for four hours in the ever colder weather. Juice and biscuits were supplied for us by the police, who all the while insisted that, “another 10 minutes and you'll be on your way.” The food and drink was brought by car, by two blokes wearing gallabeyyas. I overheard a police officer say to one of them, “enta taba3na?” [are you one of us?] to which the man responded in the affirmative, and wondered what exactly was the nature of the relationship.

I informed Moftases about what was going on and, in what turned out to be an excellent decision, he subsequently arrived in his car, with a lawyer in tow, God bless them.

While there are many worse features of dictatorships and oppression, I am always reminded that one of its defining aspects is tedium, and that it involves hours of standing around waiting with that awful mixture of boredom and fear in your chest.

While waiting I shot the shit with a state security officer who told me that they are not allowed to travel abroad, not even during their holidays. I wonder if there is any way to establish the truth of this.

At around 8.30 p.m. We were informed that we had to photocopy our I.Ds and that the nearest photocopying shop was near the Abu Zabal police station, conveniently. We went, in a convoy of a police car in front, the microbus, Moftases' car and the police general's car behind us.

Further waiting took place outside the police station, until state security suddenly requested that Philip go inside the police station “just for half an hour to answer some questions.” He declined, of course, saying that he would not go inside until the lawyer came back from overseeing the I.D photocopying. Negotiations took place, with the state security officer getting ever more impatient and aggressive. In the end they agreed to wait until the lawyer came back, before going inside. They were subsequently joined by another lawyer, Ahmed Ezzet.

Possibly the saddest thing about this part of the whole sorry episode involved the microbus driver. After Philip went inside we were told that we were free to go. We didn't leave of course, and took shelter from the bitter cold inside the microbus. The driver, a man in his 60s called Said was desperate to leave, to make some money and return the bus to its owner but said that he couldn't leave us in the cold. He stayed with us.

Lawyers informed us that the officers were “waiting for a phone call”... Below we bought food. While five of us were sitting outside the police station, eating, some kids on a bike went past and shouted out “el Ingleez e7telo el balad!” [the English have occupied the country!] providing what turned out to be that last moment of humour that night.

All hell broke out at 11 p.m. The lawyers rang down to say that Philip had been kidnapped: state security officers had told him that they wanted him for questioning without the lawyers in a room next door. They took him downstairs and put him in a Suzuki microbus which, when it appeared at the police station's exit, we attempted to prevent moving by blocking its path. It forced its way through while state security officers frenziedly threw us out of the way.

Moftases meanwhile had started his car. Droubi and I got in it, Moftases put his foot down and the police attempted to stop us moving by standing in front of it. Moftases drove anyway. Per Bjorklund subsequently told me that they were pulling the police officers off the car. Good for them.

There then followed a car chase, Moftases establishing that if he ever tires of Psychiatry he should consider a second career as a rally-driver. The microbus – whose rear number plate had been obscured by a piece of cloth – moved at great speed through the busy main street before suddenly veering off into a neighbourhood of narrow alleys where it attempted to lose us. They hadn't reckoned on Moftases.

Should have removed the water bottle from the dashboard.

Philip was sitting at the back of the microbus, with roughly four or five men including the driver in front. At one point he turned around, saw us, and smiled. I hope we provided some comfort, however fleeting.

This – extreme speed, dangerous overtaking, sharp turns - went on for about 45 minutes. I don't mean to make it sound exciting. It wasn't. It was sickeningly absurd and unglamorous (a Suzuki microbus for God's sake), frightening, dangerous, and I needed the toilet throughout.

After about half an hour it turned around and went back the way it came. Playing with us, we thought.

It turned out that they had been waiting for a police general who had been at the police station to get himself and his assistants to a police checkpoint building where they extended barriers across the road. We were done for: the microbus – and Philip – disappeared into the night.

The general, beside himself with fury, descended on us with his men. Moftases was ordered out of the car and taken into the police checkpoint building, a crappy looking one-storey, one-roomed block. Me and Droubi were ordered to stay by the car, on the other side of the road. I could hear the general's voice as he bellowed at Moftases even from there. Worse still, I overheard two men coming from the opposite direction saying, “beyedrobo 7ad gowa” [they're beating someone inside].

It turned out that general did punch Moftases – a psychiatrist who works with victims of violence and torture - but “only” once, in the shoulder. This is of course totally unacceptable, but one of Egypt's greatest tragedies is that the sheer volume of suffering and injustice means that a sort of spectrum has emerged. The myriad, “minor” injustices such as a punch by a policeman are overlooked. Goes without saying that it is exactly the fact that these minor injustices are ignored which allows the truly gross violations to take place.

Moftases was also subjected to a lengthy and tedious bellowing by the general about how he (Moftases) is his son's age, and a respectable individual who should know better etc etc which - peppered as it was by supposed witticisms - was arguably more painful than the punch.

A police officer told me that “what Philip is involved in is bigger than you think”. Whatever. The only explanation we have come up with so far is that his two-year stint in Gaza (as a humanitarian and political activist) is what has made him of interest to the authorities.

Ezzet appeared at the police checkpoint and interceded. Car keys (and my and Droubi's mobile phones) were returned to us, and we were allowed to go, at around midnight.

Needless to say we all went home feeling devastated. I won't go on about what a lovely, passionate, caring bloke Philip is because it's irrelevant. Even a total shit doesn't deserve to be kidnapped.

And this was a kidnapping: on Friday night Philip Rizk could have been anywhere in Egypt. There wasn't a hope in hell of establishing his whereabouts because usually when a kidnapping occurs recourse is sought to the police and/or the ordinary judicial system.

This kidnapping occurred with the complicity of the police – the laughing general – so the police are out of the picture. The judicial system meanwhile has been entirely emasculated by what is a mafia given a legal licence to operate freely. They are above the law in the sense that they have trampled, spat and shat all over it, reducing it to the crumpled up betting forms which litter racetracks after bets gone wrong: yes in theory there is a remote chance that the law might protect you, but your odds depend on who you are, and where you're from, and who you know, and the mood of the state security officer holding you.

Like me, Philip is half-Egyptian, half-another nationality which carries some weight, and I truly hope that this both protects him while he's in the custody of this gang and ensures his release.

But think for a moment of the Egyptians without another nationality and the protection is affords, without foreign friends. What a truly sorry state of affairs, Egyptians in state security custody who are turned into ghosts, the odds of their escaping this mafia intact - physically, mentally and in terms of their dignity – virtually impossible. Unreachable and lost.

On Saturday morning, outside the public prosecution office an unpleasant state security officer said to Philip Rizk's father, “rabbina yetamminak” [may God comfort you]. He may of meant this genuinely, but coming from him it sounded like a warning, or a joke.