Thursday, February 04, 2010

Guide to writing about Egypt

Authentic modern Egyptians. Bonus point for donkey. Source here

In Egypt, writing an article follows a formula as old as the pyramids themselves*

By: I be earnin big Gs, baby

CAIRO: Your first paragraph, and you will use it to paint a stunningly authentic picture of Egypt for your inferior, under-traveled readers: a pastoral scene of the Nile Delta perhaps, or a portrait of poverty in Cairo’s gritty, urban chaos as described to you by your stringer. There will probably be a headscarf in there somewhere, being gently caressed by the wind of Egypt’s uncertain and precarious future.

Whatever you choose, your first paragraph must mention at least one of four things: the Nile, the Pyramids, overcrowding or Egyptian fatalism.

“At this point, a quote is long overdue,” chuckled Mohamed Father of Eight, who will usually be employed in something sufficiently blue collar-y as to give what he says that all-important authenticity. Make sure however that he is mellow and an exponent of the famous Egyptian sense of humour - despite the fact that he is being fucked over sideways by life.

You will describe Mohamed either cheerfully smoking a sheesha in a sidewalk café while resigning himself to God’s will, or masterfully cutting his way through Cairo’s notorious traffic in his taxi, throwing out colourful expletives at other drivers to the symphony of the capital’s car horns.
“Insha’allah what I say will include a word in transliterated Arabic. The reader will recall hearing this word during the pharaonic dress-up party on the Nile cruise he did in 1994 and realise that he has a deep and unshakable understanding of Arab culture and Islam in particular,” Father of Eight said, inevitably and suddenly looking older than his 40 years.

But you have lived in Egypt for eight months and were once told by a man in Dahab that you speak Arabic better than Egyptian themselves: useful because you attempted to use this expert Arabic at the police station later, after you realized that the disaffected youth had pinched your wallet because he can’t afford to get married in Mubarak’s Egypt.

In short, unlike your cosseted reader, you realise that the seemingly mundane minutiae of Egyptian society are portents of something more sinister, and also a useful way of filing copy when news is slow.

80 million Egyptians disagree. You know however that the double shock of Sadat’s 1980s economic opening – or Infitah [your readers wont know this one. You are superior] – and the Dina video scandal has deeply scarred this nation and rendered the opinions of the general public irrelevant vis-à-vis your theories.

“Another quote at this point, this time by an expert who will gladly come out with any old bullshit in order to see his name plastered all over your international publication,” commented Dr. Bo2ayn Aihkalam, author of El Forsa Betdo2 and a part-time dental hygienist.

“I will hold forth on the downtrodden Egyptian people and gladly back you up on your assertion that a phenomenon which is more or less common to all mankind is unique to this country,” Aihkalam said, speaking in his clinic on a busy Wednesday afternoon.

Now draw tenuous links between all the above. If your story is a political piece suggest that the creation of a Facebook group called “Elboradei lovers” with 312 members one of whom is wearing a green t-shirt means that Egypt is on the cusp of an Iran-style revolution.

Try to squeeze in a reference to Copts, bloggers, the Muslim Brotherhood and bread queues if at all possible. Mention sexual harassment, the African Cup of Nations, succession and Amr Diab and you will have a royal flush, sir.

If however your story begins with either “letter from Cairo” or “Cairo journal” you are relieved of journalistic duties such as fact checking or conveyance of useful information.

Structure your story in ever shorter, staccato sentences.


Make sure to talk a load of bollocks.

After a long and uninteresting journey mostly round your own prejudices the reader will be conveyed to his final destination.

Which is that, in the eternal city, when Egyptians have colds, they sneeze.

* This post is a blatant rip off of this brilliant idea, and was written in rage after reading this.


James Buck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is genius.

marooned84 said...

Your article is brilliant, but I read the guy's article and he didn't see any prejudice in it. what I think is the normal of how foreigners are dealt with is much worse than what he mentioned. for some reason everybody thinks foreigners are walking bags of money, and they deal with them that way.

scribbled said...

Confirming opinions, that's all foreign correspondents do.

Forsoothsayer said...

marooned84, the point is that foreigners are ripped off in all poor countries, and that it has nothing at all to do with the grand conclusions he tries to make.

Mo-ha-med said...

Nice job!

Anonymous said...

First time here, Sarah, and I loved this! Nice one!

moftasa said...

People who liked this post might also like:

How to write about Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina

(Thanks to @alaa for the hat tip.)

Paul said...

love it Sarah, that was great and all too true of the stuff written here (except for me of course :) That Tim Sebastian thing was truly irritating. Traffic as metaphor for why the peace process doesn't work. jeezus.

Scarr said...

Thanks for all the nice comments.

Is that you, Mr Schemm..?

Marcia said...

It would've been a great, amusing start to the morning, except then you made me read this drivel here:

Next time, just allude, please. No links. After all, I only have so many mornings. I cannot stomach ANY MORE pieces about Cairo that begin with a visitor's inane taxi negotiations. Please and thank you.

Marcia said...

Not to mention ending with the "peace process."

Now the morning will be trying to forget that.

Ed Webb said...

The drive-by foreign correspondent syndrome is terrible. Time was, major news organizations had real correspondents in the important places - such as Cairo - not this kind of journo-tourism. Alas, the rot had already set in by my time dealing with media in Cairo, second half of the 90s, when too many major news organizations covered the whole region from Cyprus or, increasingly, Jerusalem (of all places...).

Nicely done, Ms Carr.

Karima said...

I love it !!! Bravo

Sarah said...


James Buck said...

omg, i have to add that i looked up Photo Guy's sets on his time in Egypt (where refers to donkeys as 'burros,' you know, cause they're ethnic) and he actually has galabeya tagged as....


yes. gay balla.


ashraf said...

You forgot that we have to mention Amr Khaled somewhere in there as well.
Otherwise, brilliant and perfect!

Jester said...

Three years down and you still charm my socks off with your wily ways. RESPECT.

BloggingEgypt said...


Gagliardo said...

This absolutely made my day, and I would love to see the look on the face of this kind of journalists after one of them has read this article and realized how things really are and what they are really doing. Respect! Also thanks to Dr. Bo2ayn Aykalam; gaamed mot..genius! :D You have done the world a huge favor, seriously, but idiocy seems to be an incurable disease, writers and readers alike :)
All the best,
Mohamed El-Gayar

Sarah Carr said...

Thanks, Mohamed. This post is part of my long-term campaign to put international correspondents out of business :-p