Sunday, April 29, 2007

Airport reading ban

On Friday night someone told me that the last book he'd read was 'the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.'

If I hear 'the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' referred to just once more I will personally hunt down Stephen Covey and demonstrate to him how even highly ineffective people can give Chinese burns.

Self-help manuals are not books, they are a blended tasteless smoothie of Oprah, Tyra Banks and Rachel bloody Ray which fill stomachs without providing any kind of useful nutrition and make those who consume them burp codswallop.

And if anyone mentions 'He's Just Not That Into You' in my presence, I will drop-kick them. Emily Davison did not get flattened for you to spend your lives discussing men and their intentions. Here's an easy to use tip: if you spend more time talking to your guuurlfriends about a bloke that you do actually talking to the bloke himself, chances are you wont be waking up in his t-shirt any time soon.

God dammit, and they put that in 100 plus pages and sold it for cash money!

She freed a carload of caftans*

In a workshop today a man’s mobile rang, filling the room with the loudest, most cacophonous, aural riot of a ringtone you could ever imagine. The man was wearing a bottle green blazer, stripy shirt and was working the taxi driver look: slightly longer hair at the nape of the neck – the beginnings of a mullet. Moustache by default, sir, yes sir!

The first time the phone rang the man sitting next to him – who was wearing a beret, and was about 8 foot tall – closed his eyes.

The second time it rang - and while the mobile owner and was looking in the other direction - beret man for the briefest of seconds bared his teeth and snarled at him. Snarled at a stranger! With grrr sound effects! Life surely cannot get better than that.

But hold your bets, because a couple of days ago my father told me about my mother’s recent discovery of Ebay. The background to this is that my intelligent but technophobe mother learnt to operate a mouse in approximately 2002 when she grasped the idea that one can allow the mouse to break contact with the table surface, and that in fact one must do so in order to navigate a computer successfully: until then I would walk in and find her facedown on the table with her right arm completely outstretched before her as if she was doing front crawl, waiting for someone to manoeuvre the cursor away from the edge of the screen (backwards mousing was another level altogether of course).

Once she conquered the mouse there was no stopping her, and apart from the occasional lapse when I would find her about to inadvertently marry a Romanian in a chatroom she thought was the Marks and Spencer online shopping page, it was plain sailing.

She recently decided that she wants to purchase a Mexican-style caftan folk dress like the one that she bought in Los Angeles in 1984 while we were there for an uncle’s wedding. My father was apparently insistent that she wear it to the wedding celebrations themselves because he had ‘put good money into it’ – by which logic we should all sleep in our oak wood coffins before we die in order to get our money’s worth. I vaguely recall the dress - I always thought it was just a galabeyya. In any case she successfully placed a bid which represents a monumental step forward. The problems only came later. She was the sole, and therefore highest bidder, but when prompted by the automatically generated Ebay email to place a higher bid and ensure success, she apparently almost did so – effectively trying to outbid herself. My father managed to prevent this but was unfortunately not around all the time...

She has somehow managed to bid for and buy, not one, but three Mexican-style caftan folk dresses.

She has no idea how this happened, and one can only hope that Croydon stages a fancy dress Frida Kahlo retrospective or my mother is invited to the Mexican Ambassador’s residence (three times) or I decide to have a Mexican-themed wedding or funeral, in order to ensure she gets her money's worth.

*There is an extremely poor standard wordplay joke in this title, for which I apologise. I simply cannot resist these urges.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


While I was sitting in the deserted office today talking on the phone, a small boy of a variety Charles Dickens would have described as a street urchin - such was his angelic poverty - suddenly materialised in the doorway. He was roughly about nine years-old, dressed in torn clothing and with unidentifiable detritus decorating his hair like confetti. He marched in without hesitation and saluted me army style, mouthing salaam 3alaykoo before heading to the two rubbish bins whose contents – two pieces of paper - he extracted, and then once again saluted me and disappeared. I watched all this open-mouthed, wondering whether he wasn’t part of some scam involving a similarly diminutive partner behind me busily and silently stealing the ideas out of my head to sell for noss gineeh [a million pounds] in the Friday market.

After ending the phone call I went out to investigate and saw Osama Twist just as he was leaving the office, hauling on top of him the giant grey sack these rubbish collectors of Herculean strength carry on their backs which give them the appearance of bipod snails.

The kid reminded me of a boy I had seen last week from my balcony while hanging laundry. As part of the decoration for her garden birthday party, Cousin Gombaz had elected to have a black, white and red theme in honour of el watan. She had hung tricolour balloons at various locations which the mostly AUCian party-goers enjoyed looking at as they wondered why they weren’t on a beach if today was the anniversary of the liberation of Sinai, and therefore a public holiday. While most of the balloons had been freed or popped the evening of the party, three lonely stragglers remained tied to the top of the garden’s entrance gate the day after. As I was looking in their direction I suddenly saw the gate shake as a filthy-looking kid hauled himself up in order to untie the balloons. He did so frenetically, clearly desperately afraid of getting caught, and in his haste inadvertently sent the balloons flying up into the sky one after another, his eyes sadly rising with them as the black, the white and finally the red floated away. He then spotted another balloon or some other discarded item worth investigating inside the garden and, cautiously opening the gate, slunk in silently - at which point I made my presence known rather than have him discovered by someone else possibly less forgiving. He froze immediately like a cat, before turning on his heel and scarpering.

I recalled the balloons and the boy tonight as I watched Ahly get hammered by Barcelona in Cairo, in a friendly exhibition game memorable for goalie al Hagary’s ability to chew gum and explode with fury simultaneously – he is surely destined to be the next Man U manager. Yes it’s only a friendly and of course it’s only football, but I found the whole thing sadly humiliating somehow, watching Ronaldinho et al dance circles round Ahly like Dads playing in the park with their 3 year-olds, only perma-smile Abu Trika redeeming Ahly in any way. It’s the same old song: if only sports (education/hospitals/anything) in Egypt were better funded, and players better paid, and a few big foreign stars attracted to the game, and the abundant home grown natural talent nurtured and Egypt’s immense potential capitalised on. So infuriatingly simple, and yet all this promise is allowed to float away.

On a brighter note, today I stood in a sun-soaked balcony and listened to birds sing, before smelling water sprayed on hot dusty tarmac - which is one of the official smells of summer. And then while I was in a taxi two men on a motorbike went past, the young and dashing driver wearing flip flops, his short-sleeved shirt flapping in the wind . The horn was apparently not working so in between talking to his mate he was instead shouting ‘7AAAAAASEB’ [look out] but with such carefree happiness, gusto and smiling joy that there was really no where else other than Egypt I wanted to be today. I mean other than locked in a Lindt chocolate factory with Dr. Christian Troy but that goes without saying obviously.

* No offence intended, Ahlawy readers!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A word with the headmaster

"Oh Amnesiac! You're so witty and I'm newly divorced!"
Any excuse to publish Hany's picture

The doctor vs. gardener saga took a new twist on Thursday when the very understanding boss called me in to his office for part two of the ‘talk’ began two days ago, in which I resisted the urge to tell him that through no fault of his, or his organisation, my job makes me want to shred a paper effigy of myself and instead told him that I wasn’t feeling passionate about the role. On Thursday afternoon he rested his chin on his knuckles and said, “so…” which usually indicates that someone is about to: tell you that it was great but sayonara and can he have his CDs back; suggest that you examine issues relating to your childhood and/or change your prescription, or; tell you something suggesting that it might be a good idea to clear your internet history so that your replacement doesn’t discover the inordinate amount of time you spent googling your colleagues.

Boss reminded me that he is travelling for two weeks, and that this is an opportunity to reflect on what I want to do while completing the half-arsed colouring-in project I have to do until Daddy gets back and does it properly. He also reminded me that the next two months are going to be super challenging for the organisation and for the human rights community generally and that it might be a good idea to consider before this time whether I am ready to give a hundred percent rather than being a slacker and that he'd be sad to lose me but he wants me to do what makes me happy and don’t worry about leaving and creating problems for the organisation Amnesiac since your absence will make no perceptible difference and also the money used for your salary hasn’t technically arrived and basically it was all a very nice (and I mean that genuinely) piss off.

I am starting to think that I should leave if for no other reason than that the low-level silent rage against my job has started to manifest itself in the form of occult happenings in my presence. Over the course of three days one window blew shut and the pane broke, another window suddenly blew open and banged into an idiotically positioned shelf causing a perfectly formed half circle of glass to be magically cut out of the pane and a water filter fell off the top of the fridge and shattered when I closed the door. It’s all very Exorcist and surely indicates the presence of an unsettled soul.

I took his advice to heart and have scheduled time for reflection next week at some point, possibly while waiting for water to boil for tea. In the meantime I went to see Wust el Balad and specifically lead-singer Hany Adel perform a concert. Like many other thousands of females with beating hearts, the vision of Hany and his underwear catalogue physique and rhythmic head-nodding revives the teenage obsessive fan I thought I’d left behind with Tom Selleck and Andre Agassi. I recently engaged in a discussion about attractiveness and popularity, in which it was posited that Hany is the bait which brings in the girls, hence why blokes and true music connoisseurs think that the band is otherwise a bag of balls. I remembered that conversation last night because it was it the first time (of the three times that I have seen them) that I have seen Wust el Balad sober, and I was slightly troubled on more than one occasion by Hany’s guitar solos, which I have never before remarked on, and which reminded me slightly of John C. Reilly’s guitar playing on ‘You’ve got the look’ in Boogie Nights.

Still, Adham’s mawwals make up for it, as do the ninety-two other string-instrument maestros which make up their number, and of course Hany’s voice is great. And if nothing else hunky Hany’s existence serves the function of confirming that one is still alive. His presence, and the faux Spanish rhythms the band employs, do however have the negative effect of compelling women to simulate playfully coy flamenco dancers, which is always painful to witness and frankly made me want to bitch-slap someone.

*It has been drawn to my attention that this post seems to be implying that somehow the organisation I work for might be the source of my current work dilemma. I would like to point out that nothing could be further from the truth, and that indeed it is because the organisation and my colleagues are so fantastic that my dilemma is made doubly harder: if the organisation, my boss and my colleagues weren't so great there wouldn't have been a dilemma in the first place. What I meant by a 'very nice piss off' was just that: the boss is doing everything he can to make my decision easier but he has of course got to think of the interests of his organisation too, and is basically giving me a limited amount of time to think. Which is excellent of him.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Cairo Rhapsody

Cairo undergoes a character transformation in the mercurial spring weather, cautiously emerging from its winter cave only to be pummelled by sudden and intense attacks of wind, sand and downpours, during which the collective gasp of its inhabitants – human, animal and struggling mechanical – is virtually audible. The schizophrenic, inclement weather which battered Cairo this week was a particularly appropriate backdrop for Armenian-Egyptian painter Anna Boghiguian’s chaotic images of the city, in her exhibition at the Safar Khan Gallery.

Boghiguian’s bleeding of colours into each other, the depressing drabness of some of these colours and the naivety of the buildings, objects and figures represented combine to create paintings which, while they are messy, chaotic and dark, pulsate with energy and movement – and which therefore pretty much capture the soul of the city.

One composition, ‘Cairo at night,’ is particularly apposite, given the Big Brother nature of recent Constitutional changes. Boghiguian presents a maze of roundabouts and streets swarming with cars which encircle, and threaten to choke, the houses in their midst, all of which is topped off with a menacing thunderous-looking sky. In the bottom right hand corner stands what appears to be a grey giant wearing a toga, his arms raised above his head. Next to him, written in Arabic, is the word ‘Egypt’ and before him stand two miniscule figures, entirely dwarfed by the chaos of their surroundings and the monstrous apparition looming over them. Another particularly touching image shows an old man against a backdrop of his life in the form of symbolic images: the Ka’ba, a football team, “I love you” scrawled in English, a wedding photo…Like Cairo, Boghiguian’s paintings are not immediately aesthetically pleasing but, also like Cairo, interest and beauty lies in the details.

On the other side of Brazil Street Egyptian life is presented in an altogether different form in the Zamalek Gallery, which is, incidentally, the best-smelling art gallery in the world. Alexandrian artist Rabab Nimr’s ink drawings of fishermen, fellaheen and fishes are beautifully rendered, her use of black and white to create shadows making the images seem three-dimensional. The figures themselves are almost cartoon-like, with disproportionately huge hands, identical square faces and richly-textured Don King-style hair. Creatures, fish especially, are a constant theme, as are playing cards and boats. In one especially striking image, seven heads rendered in metallic grey, black and brown are shown against a white backdrop, all inexplicably with birds perched on their heads, something like Mount Rushmore meets Dr Seuss. The recurring themes and colours in these images and the identical and inscrutable expressions of the figures shown, create an exhibition of elegant unity.

From unity to unison at the Sawy Culture Wheel, where on Friday I kept it real with an evening of Arab rap, courtesy of Palestinian duo Jaffa Phonix, and Asfalt, an Egyptian ensemble. Rap music is arguably one of America’s most successful exports after Coca-Cola and wars of liberation, offering one-size-fits-all clothes, attitude and lingo, adaptable to any culture. The black empowerment message associated with it has also been appropriated and adapted to local causes by rap adherents globally, as is the case with Jaffa Phonix, refugees living in Egypt who use their compositions to call for justice for Palestine.

They delivered a startlingly enthusiastic performance, at times jumping so high vertically that I feared they would do themselves a mischief involving their heads and the 26th July bridge. Members of the tiny audience were encouraged ‘not to smoke if they want to be rap stars!’ and ordered to ‘put their hands up!’ (in the Puff Daddy rather than LAPD sense) which they obligingly did, swaying side to side in their ‘Allah’ bling and giant trousers. Jaffa Phonix made way for Asfalt who, I am happy to report, perform in matching t-shirts bearing their name, a la George Michael & co. in Live Aid. Their repertoire consists of a mixture of social commentary (‘Unemployed Generation’, ‘Stay Strong Country’) and teenage boy angst (‘Give Me a Chance’) accompanied by a live band. Their performances was polished and enthusiastic, and generally fun to watch. Periodic guest appearances were also made by a rapper from another band, Arabian Knights, who (once microphone distribution had been sorted) rapped very fast, and very fluidly indeed.

Seeing them all up there gazed upon by the small but committed group of bandana-sporting devotees made me wonder whether a rap scene has already, or is in the process of, emerging in Egypt, and whether in fact rap really works in Arabic: Palestinian Arabic’s mellifluous languidness (“waaahed, ithnaaan, taleteee”) is perhaps just too nice for rap - the aural equivalent of a cuddly grandmother trying to hit you over the head with numchucks.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tante Amnesiac

Cousin Mildred has engaged the services of one Captain Mohamed to equip three year-old daughter Elvis and her friends with the essential life skills of karate, chess and Qu'ran. He is an excellent pedagogue, managing to maintain the elusive equilibrium between discipline and fun without the kids either fearing him or feigning the need to pee in order to sneak out and steal cars.

Last week was a chess session and since I firstly, have forgotten how to play chess, and secondly, like to watch small people interacting (they limit their conversation to stuff which can be perceived by one of the five senses), I went to observe.

Elvis was in fine form as usual, and was so caught up in the chess that she resisted asking me repeatedly whether I can smell either poo or pee – currently and bafflingly the most pressing item on her agenda. I sat on the sidelines and ate, and also amused myself with Elvis' brother Boosa who, being too little to understand the concept that karate must not be used on cats, was exiled to the sitting room harem with the mothers, and banged on the glass door shouting my name. I tuned in back to Captain Mohamed & co. just in time to hear him saying 'the kids are all watching tante eating her dinner.' Looking round to see who this tante was, I was horrified to discover that he was in fact referring to me.

This reminded me of a high school friend who came in one day and told us that her mother had experienced a rather unfortunate incident the previous evening. She had been browsing in the lingerie department of our local Marks & Spencer wearing a Dr Clouseau style detective Mac coat thingie with the belt dangling loose. Upon attempting to leave the store she was accosted by a security guard who informed her that unbeknownst to her, a thong on a plastic hanger had somehow attached itself to her Mac’s belt, possibly as part of some ancient sartorial mating ritual.

Being referred to as tante, and therefore being placed in a certain age bracket bewilders me in the same way I imagine my friend’s mother must have felt upon discovering that her Mac was abducting a thong. I have never feared aging: my problem is that I still feel, and conduct myself, like a teenager. Thus when the world outside says hello grown-up I genuinely wonder what the buggeration it’s going on about.

The knowledge that I am intensely juvenile is something I am particularly conscious of lately whenever I stop break dancing alone in my room long enough to consider like, my career, and like, the future. Regular readers of this nonsense will know that I started a new job some months ago. On paper this job is perfect: my field, plenty of opportunities for travel and career development, great colleagues, fun boss, toilet paper in the clean bathroom - which is something I haven’t experienced in a professional context before...

The problem is that when I wake up in the mornings it feels like someone has dressed me in concrete pyjamas overnight. The thought of having to go to work manifests itself in a huge feeling of lethargy which can only be dispelled with the thought of ten minutes of reading in the taxi on the way to work, or eating Rolos, or both simultaneously. And the work itself, while it is important, and worthwhile, and varied, and interesting, just…isn’t me. Which is unfortunate given that I’ve just dedicated a year to getting a masters in the bloody subject. But the thought of the office routine for the next two months or twenty years fills me with dread: office life is something I've never adapted to. But yet if I give up my current job I am effectively barring myself from the field, perhaps forever.

The best analogy I can make is to a woman who marries a charming, intelligent, kind doctor, and for want of passion finds herself sneaking out to the gardener for a quick bonk. The gardener in my case is writing, and I am now faced with the decision whether I should stay married to the doctor while cavorting with the gardener, live dangerously with the gardener and give up the doctor entirely or stick it out with the doctor and wonder what could have been with the gardener.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

People of Egypt

...the Stand Up Cairo auditions are tomorrow. Funny people please come. Unfunny people please tell your funny friends to come.

Note that these are closed auditions i.e. no audience.

The rules:
Individual acts only
Performances shouldn't exceed 5 minutes
Only Arabic and English performances please
Come prepared
Bring a picture
First come first served

What: Stand Up Cairo auditions
When: 15/16 April 2007 from 6-10pm
Where: CiC (Contemporary Image Collective)20 Safeya Zaghloul St. off Kasr El Aini St., Mounira

Friday, April 13, 2007

Love lift me up where I belong

Today I danced with a man over 300 feet above my head, which gives new meaning to the term flirting from a distance.

The day had started badly however when, looking at the internet even before I got out of bed, I consulted Facebook and was informed that “[cousin] has added ‘doughnuts’ to her interests,” which briefly made me lose the will to live.

This evening however a different cousin, Gombaz, celebrated her 22nd birthday in fine style by transforming the patch of concrete at the bottom of our building into a Miami style party. She went all out and included: a DJ, disco lighting effects, high stools and tables and a drunk girl crying about a bloke on the stairs - which is of course mandatory at any party. Proceedings began early, so while the kids downstairs listened to variations on an alarm clock synchronised with a drum machine, Amnesiac the old hag debated whether the party was worth wasting a two quid pair of disposable contact lenses on. Things have reached the point where I assess whether or not to use a pair of lenses using a cost/benefit differential involving number of hours and book reading men presence as factors.

In case you are wondering, I lived dangerously and went with the lenses, which turned out to the be the right decision, but only because my glasses would have got steamed up with the smoke machine.

The proximity of the party to her domicile meant that even cousin Mildred made a brief surprise appearance, and revelled in the fact that she can still turn heads despite having produced two kids. Her jeans did indeed seem to have a hypnotising effect, as did the intense Baba Ghanoug smell she emitted each time she spoke until I informed her in no uncertain terms that if she uttered another syllable, I would pass out.

Midpoint through the party two ladies of an uncertain currency arrived, both dressed in super short daisy dukes, one all in pink the other in denim. Pink lady was wearing what appeared to be a blond platinum wig. Denim woman was brunette. Their arrival and installation next to the buffet caused quite a sensation, and I have never seen so many men suddenly develop such a ferocious hunger. I am ashamed to say that my feminism briefly left me and I made many references to money, but can you really blame me when they were dancing hand in hand and chest to chest, mouthing lyrics to each other, while men skidded around on their own saliva? Sharshar - whilst ogling their thighs - remarked that there is something wrong that minxes such as these are allowed through police checkpoints and are left to roam the country.

Apart from amusing myself (and only myself) by wearing two conical party hats in a devil style, I ventured to the toilet in order to procure chilled beverages from the bath, which meant waiting for people to finish throwing up or snogging or even urinating. On one of these occasions I was set upon by an intoxicated gentleman who claimed he was called ‘Solo.’ I of course objected to this since he was not carrying a light sabre, at which point he conceded that his name was Mohamed, which made me think of Bono and his boring real name, so I buggered off tout de suite.

Back in the garden I remarked that a silhouetted man in a suit in the block of flats opposite was dancing in the window in a conspicuous manner, like a grounded child watching his friends play outside. I proceeded to do the arm movements which resemble those of the lollipop men who guide taxiing aircraft, and which I call dancing, and was delighted when Window Man copied me hundreds of feet away. This continued for some time until blood circulation to my hands was compromised by their continued elevation, and until I realised that Window Man lives opposite me, or at least visits there, and may expect the YMCA routine every time our respective window opening coincides.

Shortly after that the soundtrack switched to Salsa, which is guaranteed to kill any party with a less than 90 per cent South American quotient. I left at the point, surprised that none of the neighbours had called the police, and armed with the empirical knowledge that any party at which you have been watched sporadically by your cat on a balcony, and in which you have only danced with a shadow, is unlikely to be the best.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Art with a heart

In the extended family of Cairo’s districts, Mohandiseen is the glamorous high-rolling cousin who pretends that her illegitimate children do not exist: cross certain invisible dividing lines and giant concrete skyscrapers, sprawling neon highways and estival Arab tourists disappear suddenly to be replaced by Bantustans of donkeys and tuk-tuk filled poverty. The contrast is as striking, and as immediate, as Cinderella’s midnight.

Take the bridge at the Sudan Street end of Gamaat el Dowal and you will suddenly find yourself suddenly in one such area. Ard el Lewa is a maze of criss-crossing streets and tightly-packed grey concrete blocs whose poverty is obvious not so much by what is visible, but by what is missing: the streets are noticeably cleaner than in other areas of Cairo, but unmade; the children playing boisterously are seemingly happy, but barefoot.

Tucked away in these streets is Artellewa, a visual arts space created three months ago by artist Hamdy Reda, himself a son of Ard el Lewa, and German Verena Liebel. The converted 2.5 m² workshop open to the street serves as the exhibition area on the ground floor. It is currently showing ‘Human Being,’ a collection of photographs by Hany el Gowely. While I enjoyed the exhibition, I was more intrigued by the Artellewa project itself, particularly why its creators would choose to locate it so far from the traditional haunt of Cairo’s independent art scene, Downtown, and in this isolation risk condemning it to obscurity.

Reda says that the location was a deliberate choice: Artellewa’s creators wanted to avoid the Downtown and Zamalek areas already saturated with galleries and cultural centres, and instead serve a different audience, the residents of Ard el Lewa for whom art is a luxury. The space is a vehicle for cultural education offering – in addition to art exhibitions - lectures and film screenings on the topic of the exhibition showing, ‘meet the artist’ opportunities, independent Arab and foreign film screenings on Artellewa’s rooftop space and jamming sessions bringing together professional and amateur musicians. Support and training is given to burgeoning local artists in the form of Egyptian and foreign artist-led workshops where Ard el Lewa’s children and young people are taught photography, film making, video animation and painting. An open atelier is offered to young artists during the summer break, and every year one young Egyptian artist is given the opportunity to hold a first exhibition in the space. Musicians perform at each opening.

Artellewa is clearly driven by a passion for art and commitment to widening the artistic horizons of the Ard el Lewa community, and succeeds in fulfilling both objectives without compromising on either. Viewing art in the tiny exhibition area as the sounds of the street float in from outside is a unique if odd experience, which gives a sense of connection with the local community. The Artellewa office/flat in which Reda lives is in itself worth a visit in order to see his own amazing artwork which lines the walls.

It would be unfortunate if Artellewa’s relatively out of the way location has the effect of deterring potential visitors unwilling to make the trek through Ard el Lewa’s labyrinthine streets. One can only hope that as its reputation grows, more visitors are prepared to cross the divide, and visit what is an excellent project.

Why, in a city full of music and young people, are there so few bands performing original material? The question posed itself yet again on Friday evening when I found myself watching 4 Stix in action at the Sawy Cultural Wheel, in an audience composed almost exclusively of the AUC graduating class of 2012.

The band itself delivered a workaday if enthusiastic performance distinguished only by lead singer Waleed Mansour’s strong vocals. The set was predictably eclectic and drawn mostly from the play list of a traditional British pub band, including the mandatory No Woman No Cry complete with backing singers swaying in a synchronised Rita Marley manner. T-shirts and other goodies were dispensed to the crowd who were in raptures, but it was altogether a disconcerting experience to watch Armani-clad pre-pubescent youngsters rocking out to Blue Suede Shoes. While it is clear that there exists both a strong interest in rock/pop music and talented individuals with the musical ability to knock out covers, something appears to go wrong in the creative process when it comes to original music. As a result the music ‘scene’ is limited to bands such as the dormant Track 6 and the omnipresent Westelbalad, both of which perform original material, and a plethora of cover bands who ensure that Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Dire Straits will live on and on and on in Cairo.

I have no idea about copyright, but my father's incessant doom-filled warnings of court cases, apoplectic editors and being cast out of the Egyptian journalistic community five minutes after 'arriving' compel me to mention that the above was published in al Ahram Weekly. No trumpet blowing intended.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sham el naseem

On my way to Heliopolis by taxi today, the driver came off the 6th October Bridge at Abbassiya and we were confronted by a man lying spread-eagled on his back in the middle of the road, which is unusual even by Egypt’s standards.

It was sham el naseem, and the roads were relatively (and mercifully) quiet, but there was still enough traffic to create a minor queue as drivers navigated round the star-shaped apparition lying unconscious, asleep or dead in their path. Their apparent unwillingness to get out of their cars and help the man prompted the driver of the taxi I was in to do so, and I followed rapidly behind him.

It was the contrived position that the man was in which first made it clear that this was a automaton rather than automotive incident: the perfect symmetry of his limbs, the palms turned upwards to the sky, the feet splayed outwards. His blue shirt and cream-coloured trousers were dishevelled, but only slightly, and above all his face was perfectly composed and entirely at peace.

The driver’s taps failed to elicit a response prompting him to attempt to lift him at which point I assisted him. The man, still unresponsive, allowed himself to be picked up and dragged to the concrete strip separating traffic coming off the bridge from the road running parallel to it. It is hard to say whether the man had been unconscious or simply willingly absent while he was lying on the road, but once seated he suddenly came to and, head in hands said, “I want to die.”

The driver, a paternalistic and practical sort of man, patted the young man on his shoulder and extorted him to have faith in God. “My family have ruined everything. I want to die” the man repeated. His expression betrayed a sort of wild confusion, but the deliberate certainness with which he spoke made me conclude that this confusion might in fact have been caused by the interruption of his suicide attempt rather than the blows that life, and his family, were inflicting. The one thing I was sure of was that this man was not delusional, nor drunk, nor insane. He was simply broken.

After asking the man whether he could help him in any way and failing to get a response, the driver said, ‘have faith and go home, son’ and we resumed our journey. The driver and I naturally started talking, and naturally the conversation turned to Egypt and the myriad ways in which it tortures its children, prompting the driver to tell me this story:

‘There was once a boy who said to his father, ‘I bet I can rule a country better than how it’s being ruled now.’ His father laughed scornfully and said ‘you think it’s that easy, do you? I’ll set you a challenge: look after these fifty birds and make sure they don’t escape. And if you succeed, then I’ll agree that you would be a good ruler.’ So the boy took the cage and the fifty birds in it and lovingly watered and fed them. He then opened the cage’s door and they all flew away.

The father then himself got a cage, also filled with fifty birds, and said to the boy ‘watch and learn.’ He immediately set about pummelling and torturing the birds in indescribable ways and, when he opened the cage’s door, not one of them moved.’

I had looked behind me when I got back in the taxi and saw the man get up, walk across the road and, without a moment’s hesitation, lie down in the middle of the road opposite as the traffic sped towards him. Reflecting on this, and the driver’s story, I later remembered a television programme I had seen years ago about birds raised in battery farms who, driven mad by the torture of their confinement and the conditions in which they are kept, attack themselves viciously. I wondered about the hell in the man’s head, and the hell of existence – his family, life itself – as he perceived it, and wondered at what point the world outside had started mirroring the despair inside his head to such an extent that he had simply given up.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Court in the act

Not having enough funds to join Cairo’s beautiful people in Sinai and Sa7el, I did the next best thing and diverted myself by attending a court hearing this morning.

I had never previously set foot in a courtroom anywhere in the world, despite possessing two virtually unused law degrees in pristine condition, which are available to the highest bidder. (This is, I admit, rather like being a bank robber who has never been to a bank: in my defence I saw the light early on and realised that I would rather pickle myself alive than qualify to be a solicitor, instead gravitating towards the decidedly courtroom-free human rights.)

The State Council (magliss al dowla) has all the requisite features of a legal institution, including: a vestibule with an enormously high ceiling useful for instilling awe of the law, Rocky-style steps useful for hosting protests and a couple of riot vans parked opposite useful for quashing nuisance over-ebullient protestors. On entering I was immediately struck by the fact that the building has an identical feel to that of that bastion to torturous bureaucracy, the mogama3 in Tahrir Square. Both institutions are characterised by a sort of silent hum of energy and movement which feels something like watching leaves dancing in the wind through a window: chaotic, busy and distant.

On my way upstairs I caught a glimpse of an empty courtroom whose door had been left ajar, and sad to say but the sight of the polished wood made my chest contract with excitement in the way it does when I receive emails from attractive book-reading men whose acquaintance I have just made. The effect is as if someone has just injected a liquid dose of possibility into my left ventricle.

Waiting for the case to be heard was inevitably far duller, and the tedium was only made bearable by watching the apprehensive tête-à-têtes of the black-gowned defence lawyers who all appeared to be smoking three cigarettes at the same time. The tedium was broken abruptly by a small man bellowing MA7KAMAAAAA [equivalent of all rise] with a ferocity which made me hope that the poor love doesn’t have any as yet undiscovered hernias. After some minor commotion at the bench it was announced that the case I had come to see would be heard an hour later.

Back an hour later and we discovered a scrum of approximately fifty persons surrounding the bench, at the centre of which were the barely audible lawyers battling it out. It is at times like these that I curse my luck at being born short, not only because I couldn’t hear a bloody word, but because my face is at armpit level, forcing me to imbibe a rich pot pourri with emphasis on the pourri.

The case itself (which has been extensively reported elsewhere) can be summarised in the style of a man in a pub as follows: this judge bloke, he decides to write a book on blogging in the Arab world which is dead good innit, but unfortunately he allegedly ahem goes and nicks fifty pages from a report written by one of them human rights non governmental thingies, and when they say ere knock it off guv, he goes and accuses them of defamation and raises a case accusing them and twenty-one other websites of defaming him, and insulting religion and the president and whatnot, and accuses them of having suitcases of dollars cos they’re all spies innit, and basically the case is against the government because he wants the government to shutdown these websites in case he is tempted to steal from them again because they are the devil’s spawn. And would you like some sour grapes with your steak and kidney pie?

One of the best arguments was ironically put forward by the government lawyer, who pointed out the impossibility of blocking sites given the existence of proxy servers, meaning that in order to effectively block these sites the government would have to take the unthinkable step of completely shutting down access to the entire internet (kill me now). More exchanges followed which ended as abruptly as the session had begun, and five minutes later it was announced that the case would be yet again adjourned to the 5th May. It can only be hoped that the judges realise the stupidity of attempting to silence the internet.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Stand Up Cairo

A group of us all separately thought that it would be a marvellous idea to put on a stand up comedy show in Cairo, but unfortunately never actually got off our arses and did anything about it. Then fate brought us together at that party where I wore very high-waisted jeans and Forsooth told me off, and I met lovely Hair, who has the biggest best hair in the world, and her very tall fella Two Names Kay. Hair and Two Names Kay are like Cairo's Brad and Anjelina, with marvellous contacts in the worlds of culture, entertainment and coffee shobs, and we gave each other high fives and then simultaneously pointed at each other with both hands and said 'let's get this show on the road!'

That last detail was made up unfortunately.

Together with Huge Tool and the Pig we managed to put it all together - despite there being about 68 cooks in the kitchen and lengthy 'discussions' about the name taking place - and we are proud to announce that Stand Up Cairo/Karkara fow2 el neel is officially habbening. Details below.

**Please could anyone with a blog/a notice board/friends be a love and help to publicise this? We can provide you with posters to stick to your friends - email us. Ta, and if you're in Cairo in May, please come**

Cairo is a comedy cow and we’re milking it.

Stand Up Cairo is reviving the lost art of Egyptian stand up comedy. We will be holding auditions on the 15/16 April from 6-10 pm during which talented individual performers will be invited to perform a two - five minute skit of original material in Arabic or English. We are talking here about classic stand up: one (wo)man and a mic. We are not interested in theatre troupes, nor do we want re-enactments of 1960s monologues. We are looking for the accountants, students, waiters and doctors who can find the comedy in Cairo’s craziness.

What: Stand Up Cairo auditions
When: 15/16 April 2007 from 6-10pm
Where: CiC (Contemporary Image Collective)
20 Safeya Zaghloul St. off Kasr El Aini St., Mounira
Tel: 02 - 3377535

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Streets apart

Some sort of secret pact seems to have been signed between the worlds of Egyptian Bohemia and car mechanics, with the result that independent art and cultural centres sprout in Cairo’s Downtown auto mechanics’ areas like fungus on trees. While the incongruity of these centres’ settings is palpable each time one passes from the grimy caustic chaos of exhaust pipes and engines into their airy sedateness, there is nonetheless a certain logic in the location and the urban vigour and vitality which is perhaps lacking from the gentrified order of Cairo’s wealthier suburbs.

As a blonde female in jeans I experienced this vitality at least three times as I battled my way through Maarouf Street and its super-friendly mechanics en route to ‘Cairo Talking Heads: the City as a Soundscape,’ an experimental blog project which promised to address issues such as ‘cultural hybridity’, ‘intranslatability’ and other concepts unknown to Microsoft Word’s spell checker, using a technique described as ‘speech imitation’.

In the event I and the other bemused attendees found ourselves listening to recordings of two non-Arabic speaking Swiss men speaking Arabic with an excruciating accent, sometimes against a backdrop of the sounds of an Egyptian street. The duo - a writer and a Liam Neeson lookalike musician who call themselves Teeth and Tongue - explained that the point of the project was to listen to the sounds of Cairo and the language of its inhabitants without making value judgements, by having Egyptians send them voice recordings of things said in Arabic, which Teeth or Tongue would then repeat, without understanding a word. They also recorded snatches of conversation overheard in the public space, on streets and in the recent downtown demonstrations.

As a Cairene it was an entirely odd experience to have to listen in reverential silence to the city’s unremarkable everyday sounds, and the process was only made odder by the addition of the sound of Teeth and Liam Nee-Tongue mangling Arabic in their weird Yoda-like voices. This exoticisation of the ordinary I found vaguely troubling, because in asking us to join them in their wonderment at the new and unusual sounds they have discovered, Teeth and Tongue demonstrate an indifference to the culture which supposedly forms the object of their study, but which in the process is reduced to the servant bringing tea to the master doing his bizarre vocal exercises.

The collision of two worlds was given a very different, and arguably more successful treatment at the Townhouse, which on Sunday launched On the Street, its exhibition of paintings by street children. The project originally began in the late nineties, when artist Huda Lutfi was invited to a drop-in centre for street children run by Kamal Fahmy. There she discovered the children drawing “the pyramids, the sun and the Egyptian flag,” and asked them to instead use their own experiences for inspiration. These weekly encounters produced art which was displayed at the British Council, the French Cultural Centre and the Townhouse, until the drop-in centre was closed by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2001 and all the paintings were lost - but not before some had been scanned and saved.

I have a low tolerance for children’s art, and generally prefer that the little darlings’ efforts be confined to their parents’ fridges, but many of the images on display at the Townhouse are deeply affecting, and the sadness and terror conveyed jar uncomfortably with the crude naivety of the compositions’ form. The emotional impact of the paintings is made even more intense by the description, in the children’s own words, of the experiences which drove them to homelessness and how the opportunity to paint has affected their lives, related in the book accompanying the exhibition. Fourteen year-old Rami describes the effect that seeing his paintings appreciated by others had on him by saying, “when I see the foreigners looking at them, and the Arabs looking at them, saying they are beautiful, I feel a strong happiness. I sit aside alone and think, why do they say it’s beautiful? Why did they bring them here?”

Accompanying On the Street is a photographic exhibit by Hesham Labib. Cut Short, a collection of portraits of five street children, is inspired by Tahani Rached’s 2006 documentary film ‘al banat dowl’ which presented a harrowing glimpse into the world of Cairo’s street children. Despite their vulnerability and the misery of their circumstances, Rached’s homeless girls demonstrate a proud resilience which defies pity, and it is similarly this which defines Labib’s photographs: the cinematic quality of these images, their pared down simplicity and above all their subjects combine to make beautiful images. Even the infuriating and presumably deliberate absence of any kind of background information about the photographs and their subjects only contributed to their enigma.

I left Cut Short impressed and moved only to be depressed and confused by the exhibit in the Factory space downstairs. Being decidedly lowbrow and dense when it comes to installation art, it was only the presence of a sign explaining what the bloody hell was going on that stopped me mistaking it for e.g. a building site. Monument X, by Tarek Zaki consists of concrete blocks and other objects identifiable as pieces of a dismantled monument, all laid out on the ground like giant grey Lego.

The objects themselves are devoid of any kind of beauty or, dare I say, interest, so I sought recourse to the blurb which told me that the replacement of the ‘traditional vertical apprehension of a monument’ by a ‘new horizontal perspective’ makes for ‘a puzzle which only the viewer’s imagination can solve and complete.’ None the wiser, my imagination and I took our leave.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Revenge is a dish best served from My Queen

"Wa7ed kofta law sama7t"

The Pig and Amnesiac are in the cinema watching the moving men’s underwear catalogue which is 300. Both are entranced, the Pig by the decapitation and sword action, Amnesiac by the thighs and thong-tha-thong-thong-thongssss.

The film has reached the climax of its penultimate scene: King Ridiculous Beard has finally realised that his attempt to take on Persia using a battalion of 300 men wearing thongs and capes was possibly slightly misguided, and has thus decided to make the best of a bad situation by fighting to his inevitable death in a deluge of Persian arrows and bloodied glory, thereby ensuring that his memory lives on, on

Before he expires, King Ridiculous Beard’s thoughts inevitably turn to her indoors, the missus. He is of course unaware that her Highness has had it away with the fit bloke out of Something New while her man was busy chopping Persian heads off (she did it for Sparta however, so that’s alright). He is consumed with anguished love for el madame and, arms aloft, bellows:

King Ridiculous Beard: MY LOVE!!!!!!!…MY QUEENNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!*

Amnesiac: [whispering noisily and breathing popcorn breath all over the Pig] Howa ga3aan wala feih aih?

The Pig: [Closes eyes and adopts the expression of a man with haemorrhoid problems.]

* An eating establishment (that is, a trailer) in Mohandiseen.