Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dance monkey dance

My induction course on Egyptian citizenship continues. Over the Eid holiday I completed the ‘shoes treatment and coping strategies’ unit in Dahab, which I wish I’d had much earlier.

When I worked as a translator for an Egyptian human right NGO most of what I translated consisted of cases in which an Egyptian had been bullied/assaulted/threatened/harmed/killed by a branch of the government monolith – more often than not the police. I was therefore very much aware that considerations such as culpability, due process, and accountability are minor details in policing strategy when myself and a friend, the Pig, were stopped at a police checkpoint in Dahab. To put this in context I am British and look it, but am also Egyptian and Muslim. The Pig is Egyptian and Christian. We clearly presented something of a conundrum to the police, whose treatment of people is so determined by nationality, religion and gender. The tone in which I was questioned revealed that the state security representative was focussing on one of three possibilities; 1. I am a woman of low repute, 2. The Pig is a subversive/pimp 3. Both 1 and 2. What training the man had had was clearly of the 70s Starsky & Hutch cop type – odd questions, the answer to which would prompt a hmm, accompanied by long lingering stares at my ID card and moustache stroking - his not mine obviously.

To cut a long story short, my ignorance of the subtleties of dealing with the Egyptian police, combined with the fatigue of a seven-hour trip, meant that I responded to his questioning in something of a truculent tone. We were made to wait for twenty minutes while he went to sit down after we refused to let him use one of our mobiles in order to – as he claimed – call his superior and run checks on us. Other cars were waived through as we pondered whether this was mere 3’alaasa or something more sinister. We were eventually let go, but not before state security guy had taken our mobile numbers.

At 1.30 am that night as we were returning from an evening in Sharm, our friend from state security rang to inform me that he wanted me to pass by him tomorrow because he had something he wanted to tell me about the Pig. He also requested that he talk to the Pig, and told him that travelling at night was dangerous and that he shouldn’t do so. He rang at the exact moment we arrived back at the Dahab checkpoint, despite not actually being there in person, and asked me how I am, reminded me that he wants to see me tomorrow, and told me ‘tesba7y 3ala kheyr ya gameela’ in a voice which made me want to vomit on my shoes.

More sophisticated Egyptian citizens would have clocked at a much earlier stage that this was one low-level guy with a bad moustache abusing what little power he had. I should not have answered his phone calls, never mind betray through my voice the discomfort I felt. When I did eventually realise what was going on and ignored his phone calls (which are still continuing), the Orwellian 1984- horror type sick feeling I had been experiencing was replaced by something else; a real understanding of the fact that while this time I was being targeted by one pathetic individual rather than the state, when the state does make prey of one of its subjects, there is almost nothing that individual can do. It isn’t so much the actual violence itself which bothers me once it arrives, but its utterly arbitrary, unpredictable nature, the waiting. Its randomness together with a total absence of rules and accountability mean that particularly when dealing with this branch of the state, an Egyptian has to do a monkey dance to a tune which both he and the official know is crazy and discordant, until either the music ends or the official tells the citizen to stop. Pure humiliation, and purely routine.


FreudianSlip said...

Staring in total disbelief when faced with illogical and nonsensical requests set forth by said officials is my thing and I do it so well...I can't seem to master that dance and often wonder if I ever will so the system and i can both coexist in a perfect harmony. scary.

Anonymous said...

Monkey dance indeed! A friend of mine was phone stalked for weeks by a state security officer after he accosted her near the US embassy for taking pictures of the Nile. The incident itself was entirely demeaning as she was detained up to three hours while he and his fellow pigs exchanged taunts about what they would do to her if she was arrested and sent to the infamous Lazoghly station. They eventually let her go but took her film. A similar routine to the one you were subjected to ensued; he called and asked her to come see him in his office to give her the film. I advised her to not answer his calls and he eventually stopped calling.

I’m not sure if there’s anything you can learn from this experience, but the saying goes “Ma7addish biyet3allem bilsahel”… here’s hoping you never ever have to go through another incident like this one ever again!...Oh wait did you say you’ve moved back to Egypt…!

Scarr said...

Freudian: I discovered at subsequent checkpoints that playing the dumb me-no-speak Arabic blonde really works a treat..

Jester: Yes I have moved back, so I fear this will be the first of many similar experiences. But then Egypt always did feel like an ongoing learning experience, both good and bad.

Q said...

there is a code that police officers recognize immediately.
dont look them in the eye but into the distance. talk to them as if they are not physically present and stay extremely calm. what will unnerve them even more--and u feel it is necessary--is if u ask their complete name and right it down then and there.
but i hope u never have to do any of that in the first place.

Scarr said...

Yes, make them feel that you're scared and they'll walk all over you, be too assertive and they'll take umbrage and make your life hell just for the fun of it.