Friday, July 17, 2009


Be gentle. Taken by a 6-year old.

I was reminded of the relationship between exclusivity and pleasure in Egypt this week when I joined members of my family enduring each other at close proximity, AKA having a summer holiday.

This year it was the Diplomats holiday village, on the North Coast, whose beautiful Mediterranean shores are gradually being cluttered with holiday resorts hidden away behind perimeter fences, security gates and entrance tickets. In addition to being financially off-limits, many of these resorts are in any case physically inaccessible: I caught a Superjet bus to the Marina resort (half an hour away from Diplomats and apparently the only stop between Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria), and saw some microbuses scuttling along, but imagine lugging two weeks' worth of luggage and kids from Cairo in a microbus on a three or four-hour ride.

Unencumbered by kids or much luggage I enjoyed the trip from Cairo, because of the El-Alamein Road's spectacular scenery - big skies and vast, empty plains, only slightly marred by the fact that we were subjected to Tamer Hosny in Craptain Hima for the duration of the trip. An elderly scowling gentlemen of discerning taste seated next to me rested his chin on his hands - which were gripping the walking stick placed in front of him – and closed his eyes throughout.

Diplomats is a labyrinthine warren of bungalows which in places reminded me of Bournemouth. The bungalows are not referred to as bungalows, of course, but rather as chalets, despite being altogether too grand for such a title. I got lost the second night there, attempting to return to our bungalow in the dark. All the streets look the same. Upstairs Auntie advised me to get my bearings through reference to a giant inflatable Pepsi can placed outside the central Social Club. It helped, but not in the dark.

The Pepsi can was an early indication of the extent of corporate sponsorship in Diplomats and elsewhere on the North Coast's exclusive resorts. On the beach we sat underneath Pepsi umbrellas on Vodafone beanbags. Adverts for a particular bank adorned each street corner. Signs on the El-Alamein road announced that drivers in trouble can call an emergency number – courtesy of Mobinil. The state was conspicuous by its absence. Everything was very well done, very well organised, and reserved for 0.5% of the Egyptian population.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I heard more English in Diplomats then I do on the Tube in London. The AUC graduating class of 2020 was apparently holidaying at the same time as me. The preference for English transactions is partly explained by the fact that many of the kids I saw on the beach were accompanied by their nannies, mostly non-Arabic speakers of African and Philippine origin. One exchange particularly struck me: a group of three teenage boys elected to bury a member of their group in the sand. “Let's get cracking on this bitch!” said one of them, in the style of Sid from Last of the Summer Wine meets Notorious BIG.

And get cracking they did, first giving their victim breasts before proceeding to lovingly carve out a penis of frankly obscene proportions - which one of them then violently destroyed in a fit of possibly Freudian anger.

Speaking of knobs, an elderly gentleman decided to get his out in order to urinate – in the showers on the beach – exactly at the moment I was jogging past one morning. I wondered if he had mistaken me for a male, and was cottaging al fresco. My long-held conviction that jogging is evil was confirmed, in any case.

Instructions placed in the showers sadly do not explicitly ban pissing, but do mention that “workers and nannies” may only use the beach “in the designated areas” - a bantustan inside the bantustan. Where exactly these designated areas are remains a mystery. The workers I saw were invisible. Silently collecting rubbish, serving guests or looking after their children.

In Porto Marina I saw off-duty workers seated on the ground, eating, underneath a huge advertising hoarding showing a laughing family frolicking in water.

Nannies were everywhere in Porto Marina (entrance fee LE 10) a complex of shops, a hotel and time-share apartments, constructed around an artificial bay. Running through the mall is an artificial waterway on which punters can take a Gondolier ride (LE 20) past shops selling convertible Mini Coopers (around LE 300,000) and waterskiing equipment. My cousin's kids wanted a ride on the boat which does a circle of the artificial bay (LE 25 per person). “Hatet2elab, hatet2elab” [It's going to capsize] six-year old Elvis insisted, when the boat rocked violently in the wake of a jet-ski manned by an eleven-year old slicing his way through the lake.

One of the nannies I saw in Marina was the same height as her charges, around ten years old, fragile and tiny. In the Andrea restaurant in the Hacienda resort a kid with a raspy, newly-broken voice stood outside the toilets. “Etfaddaly” [approximately, welcome] he said, as I walked in. “Etfaddaly” he said, as I walked out. Back at the table I watched an Ethiopian nanny try to rein in a particular boisterous child wearing a t-shirt reading, “records are made to be broken”. He was amusing himself by collecting, and lobbing about, chair cushions. His mother eventually took notice. “Keda 3abat” [that's stupid] she said, and the nanny attempted to restrain him. He gave her a nasty pinch on her upper arm, discreetly.

I mentioned the Andrea kid manning the toilets to my cousin. She suggested that families will send their children out to work whatever happens and that doing this type of job is better than children being exploited in workshops. At least there they learn skills, I said. Yes, but they're exploited, she replied.

There is – of course – an artificial beach in Porto Marina, to match the artificial bay and the artificial Venice. Booths advertise video games and sell Zalabia. Children and teenagers parade up and down Marina's central strip, while in the kids' play-area sad-eyed women supervise other people's manic children in a fluorescent, bouncy castle, nursery-rhyme, hell.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Like Scooby Doo, without the fun or the flares

Innit funny how certain films are able to strip previously decent actors of all and any talent? Like paint-stripper, whooosh. Gone. I spent Tuesday night trying to find where the director of the Suspect might have hidden Amr Waked and Bassem Samra's talent, unsuccessfully.

Waked himself has disassociated himself from the film: in an interview with the Al-Shorouq newspaper he says that he walked out halfway through an advance screening such was his disgust at how awful it is, and demanded that certain scenes be re-shot. Director Mohamed Hamdy – whose cinematic capabilities are “extremely limited” according to Waked – agreed, but did not keep the promise.

Waked told Al-Shorouq that he has abandoned the ugly bastard child of the Suspect, and considers that he only has one film out this summer, the well-received 'Ibrahim El-Abyad'.

Two of the friends I saw the Suspect with also attempted to escape the film. They spent the film looking for pretexts to escape its direness, getting popcorn and going to the toilet, bobbing up and down like life buoys. Meanwhile, I laughed, as before me this monstrosity of a film blundered its way towards the final credits.

The signs that something was wrong were there from the very beginning. Respected musician Waguih Aziz was brought on to provide the score, but he got the paint-stripper treatment too. The result is the world's most intrusive, most inappropriate, most ridiculous film score, ever, with which we are barraged from the very start. The Suspect is supposedly a thriller. Why then, as we watch cars in flames and people fleeing death, do we hear muzak, an odd, interminable, very vaguely oriental mush? Imagine watching Goodfellas listening to Kenny G and his fucking saxophone covers and you'll get an idea.

So there we are, Waked and Sawsan Badr about to go tete-a-tete in a potentially tense scene, and suddenly an instrumental Jingle bloody Bell Rock or something akin to it bursts forth. Whoever is responsible for musical direction in this film has an approach similar to deaf sign-language subtitles, namely that everything, every emotion, every gesture, should be translated into music.

Unfortunately the music and and the emotion rarely coincide. The musical director was apparently blindfolded when he directed the score.

Perhaps they could have just turned up the music really loud, and turned the Suspect into a silent movie, or a musical, it wouldn't have made much difference. At least this way we would have been spared the dialogue. Much of the film is, in any case, physical, by which I mean that people never stop running.

In case you're wondering, they're running away from a mysterious killer. Waked (who, to add salt to the wound of his embarrassment at the film, appears twice, in the form of twin brothers) is Maged. Maged's brother Motaz was killed in an unexplained road accident. Ever since the accident Maged, his mother Sawsan Badr, Motaz's widow Sahar (played by Boshra) and daughter May have been terrorised by a masked, knife-wielding maniac who repeatedly succeeds in entering their villa without, apparently, any of them considering a review of home security.

We see the family burying Motaz, who was last seen motoring away from the villa in his BMW, incandescent with rage at the possibility that Sahar might be having it away with another bloke. The funeral is interrupted by police officer Sherif Beih (Samra), who arrives in a customised Jeep Wrangler of the type favoured by lothario diving instructors, wearing horrid I-give-you-good-price 1980s plastic sunglasses. We subsequently discover that Sherif Beih is an upstanding, principled, and dull police officer, despite his sartorial gigolo tendencies.

To remind us that Badr is An Old Woman she has been giving a streak of white hair Corella De Ville style, making her look like a couple of pigeons with Dysentery have wiped their bums on her head.

Seven year-old May gave the film's best performance, mainly because her role was limited to saying two lines and being carted about by the adults.

The film is essentially a tiresome murder mystery. What secrets lurk in Sahar's past? Could Motaz still be alive? Why is Maged so cagey? Will May ever speak? Why does everyone's name begin with M? In the middle of all this Murad floats around, making sudden appearances in the villa, uninvited, without anyone minding. Who he is exactly, or where he has appeared from is never really explained, but he has great big fucking red arrow pointing at him throughout the duration of the film.

In case we weren't able to pose these questions ourselves, the villa's bowab and his wife did it for us, slapping their cheeks in a distraught, country bumpkin manner about their employers' plight while the audience wondered what exactly was the point of these characters.

The knife-wielding murderer sequences were largely tedious, as expected, with the exception of one hilariously-bad scene conducted in the hospital where May has been taken, possibly in shock at only being given two lines. Remarkably, the family have checked May into the emptiest hospital in Egypt. Pointless, lingering shots of empty ward corridors thoughtfully let the audience know that a chase scene is in the offing, and that it will be long, since this is apparently a hospital which functions without patients and only one nurse, who Sahar witnesses being strangled by the man in black. She decides that the best thing to do would be to 'hide' May in the bathroom while she herself legs it.

The ruse works because the killer is clearly stupider than Sahar, and there then follows an endless chase scene, Sahar dashing around at approximately -0.5 miles per hour in stiletto heels like a snake on stilts, the click-clack of her heels echoing around the empty hospital, but apparently insufficiently loudly enough for the killer to locate her.

Interestingly, the hospital basement car park to which Sahar flees was full of vehicles, despite being uninhabited above, we noted in between almost expiring from laughter.

Needless to say all this was accompanied by the lift music.

Further guffaws were drawn from the audience when Sherif Beih drew a gun on someone with such stiffness, at such a 90 degree angle, that it was like watching a bridge being lowered. Better still was when, at the film's denouement after a 'dramatic' shoot-out, Sherif Beih asks Magdy whether he's OK, and Magdy replies “I'm OK”, with the emotion of a catatonic mushroom.

Ultimately viewing this film was surreal. I kept asking myself whether it was all an elaborate tongue-in-cheek send-up, or a tribute to Egyptian 1980s kitsch, in the manner of Tarantino's Grindhouse – particularly when during the screening I went to, the lights went up during the intermission, the film stopped, relieved audience members were gratefully lifting themselves out of their seats only for the film to suddenly and without warning start five seconds later. It would seem that even the projectionist wanted the pain to end as soon as possible.