Thursday, May 31, 2007

Parlous times

The curious relationship in Egypt between private life and the outside world is embodied by the parlour, whose function in Egyptian homes reflects all manner of paradoxes. Egyptian society is obsessed with social convention, status and appearances in the public domain; individuality and privacy rarely survive in the quest for cultural and moral homogeneity. And yet zealous efforts are exerted to ensure that certain aspects of life in the private domain remain safely cloistered at home, sheltered from the merciless gaze of the collective Other. The parlour, or ‘good living room,’ is the threshold between these two worlds: a tidy, edited, Sunday-best glimpse of the forbidden inner sanctum, with all the scandals - unveiled daughters and unmade beds contained therein.

It is telling that in Western society, where public and private increasingly overlap, there now remain few homes in which this room exists, guests and strangers gaining direct admittance into the living room and beyond. And yet here in Egypt, even the tiniest of homes will sacrifice a bedroom in order to be able admit the outside world on their own terms. Photographer Ahmed Kamel enters these rooms in his exhibition Images from the Parlour, currently showing alongside Tarek Hefny’s 2-Colour Cities under the heading Cartography at the Contemporary Image Collective.

Kamel’s photographs show Cairene families posed in this space between two worlds, couples and children framed by the near-intimacy of their parlours, with the décor and furnishings providing tiny clues about their lives. The family album mood of the images is belied by the families themselves: the women are veiled indicating an awareness that these images would be viewed by the outside world, and the awkward demeanour of many of the adults could only have been born out of the acute, often uncomfortable, self-awareness captured in posed photographs. Think: passport photos. The children, immune from this malaise, temper the sobriety of these photos with an unembarrassed exuberance, here smiling, there saluting for the camera.

The walls of these parlours meanwhile speak the emotions which the grownups will not allow themselves to articulate publicly: one dour couple sits rigidly staring at the camera, her husband’s arm placed stiffly on his wife’s shoulders. Above them are two framed photographs, one of a matronly, stern-looking figure in black, another of the couple themselves on their wedding day, facing each other but looking at the camera, he with his arms round her waist, she with his arms wrapped round his shoulders. It is a highly contrived pose, the couple again unsmiling, and something about the newlyweds’ expression as they stare down at themselves seems to be saying, ‘I told you so.’ In other images it is the décor itself which constitutes the narrative. The impossibly garish paradise garden scene covering the wall of one room creates a bedlam of colour which almost eclipses the couple and their five children sitting in its midst and which might be interpreted as an attempt to create a utopia missing from their own lives. In other images it is the minimalist, almost characterless, appearance of the rooms which strikes the viewer: a rejection of the kitsch extravagance of fake Louis XV furnishing so beloved of Egyptian soap opera makers, and a public declaration of belonging (or aspiring) to a better, more refined, class.

In 2-Colour Cities photographer Tarek Hefny presents portraits of 15 Peugeot 504 taxis from 15 different governorates. The cars are all photographed in profile, their drivers standing proprietarily alongside them, against a backdrop of the governorate in which that particular taxi operates. Each taxi is a variation on two colours, varying according to location, the one exception being the huge white estate licensed to make the lonely long-distance journeys between governorates and photographed against a stark desert background. As in Images from the Parlour, it is the setting of these images and more specifically the juxtaposition of their anonymous subjects against the often vibrant backgrounds which makes them so compelling. Viewed as a set the pictures are aesthetically striking, and there is something of a pop art quality to the repeated motif of the taxi in its many two-tone variations.

Overall Cartography is an excellent exhibition which presents a fascinating glimpse of these public and private spaces.

Contested space is the subject of the American University in Cairo’s photographic exhibit Searching for Unity: Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel. The exhibit is a collection of photographs taken by students who, led by AUC professor Saad Iddin Ibrahim, visited these four countries over the course of three trips. They met with militia leaders, governments, civil society groups and politicians and their photographs document these journeys through the region’s turmoil. Many of the pictures are visually striking, in others their subject matter serves as a reminder of the tragic absurdity of the situation: ancient olive trees, uprooted by the Israeli army and now symbolically chained to a public building in Bethleham; a display of t-shirts bearing Israeli propaganda messages such as an image of an F-16 Fighter Jet above which is written, ‘America don’t worry. Israel is behind you’; graffiti at a checkpoint proclaiming, ‘God is just too big for one religion’.

It is a sad truth however that many of these images – the wall wending its terrible path through decimated villages, Palestinian stone-throwers, carcasses of residential buildings destroyed by Israeli bombing in Lebanon and IDF soldiers in Jerusalem’s old city - have become almost symbolic through repetition, as familiar and as instantly recognisable as images of apartheid South Africa, Madonna baby shopping and the Starbucks logo – and have therefore lost some of their power. That they are so deeply ingrained in the collective cultural subconscious makes one wonder whether this is in fact why, 40 years after the end of the 1967 Six Day War which precipitated the start of the current never ending conflict, nothing has changed – misery in Palestine being the odd sound in the car engine which the world has trained itself to ignore.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ay Highlife

Look Basil!
Afa (asafo beson)
Omanhene Pozoh ft the godfather CK Mann
Young pretenders in white vests and beanie hats can't ruin it. Ghana rocks!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Speculation on foreign commodititi(e)s

Amnesiac is walking through a deserted Midan Fini on a Friday afternoon.

Man sitting on chair under tree to friend (bellowing):

"Eih dah ya Adel, masry wala mustawrad??" [Adel is that Egyptian or imported?]

Saturday, May 26, 2007

9th June: Global day of action against the Israeli occupation

A British journalist calls for the boycott of Israeli produce in the Guardian's Comment is Free section:

"A boycott is neither self-indulgent gesture politics nor an indicator of powerlessness... It is an international protest against the way in which Israel behaves on a daily basis in an area that will, in all probability, never see peace."

It would be great if such a campaign grew and gained the momentum of the 1980s boycott of South Africa , not because it would influence Israeli behaviour (US economic support of Israel would rule that out, wouldn't it?) but because it would make a small but significant dent in the Israeli lobby's hegemony over public opinion on the issue.

In the unlikely event that the world did embrace such a boycott and it gained momentum, I wonder whether it could conceivably affect the Egyptian economy given that the QIZ agreement states that Egyptian companies must use a minimum of 11.7 % of Israeli produce in the goods exported to the US under the tariff-free arrangement. I find it infuriating when free trade purists claim that political and ethical considerations do not enter into their equation and that the global economy is driven solely by supply, demand and profit: agreements such as the QIZ are patently politically motivated, nanny US promising Egypt the pudding of a free trade agreement if she eats all her dinner and plays nicely with Israel, and all the while trying to engineer an artificial rapprochement between the two countries' peoples through the yoke of Egypt's economic dependency on the US. These arrangements are also arguably politically short-sighted despite the economic benefits which accrue from them, exactly because of the government's moral bankruptcy in the face of campaigns such as a boycott of the Israeli economy.

The article's author also makes reference to a global day of action against the Israeli occupation which will take place on the 9th June. Local events are scheduled to take place across the globe but, according to the website, nothing is planned in Egypt. I would like to be take part in anything happening so if anyone knows of any events could they tell me please? Thanks. I would imagine that a protest in any form other than a small gathering of 40 activists and 500 riot police outside the Journalists' Syndicate is pretty much impossible...If I had a giant catapult I would launch medical and food packages into Gaza from Rafah. Failing that any kind of money-raising event should be held, preferably one which is as much a celebration of Palestinian culture as a condemnation of Israel. Like an all day Dabke-thon or something outside a certain embassy on kobry el gama3a.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Finger clickin' good

Over the past few days I watched a Senegalese Ian Curtis perform and saw singing men being sprayed with perfume.

I had heard about Senegalese singer Modou Gaye via Fartbook, failing to notice that the event was billed as ‘Sufi-jazz.’ Had I seen the moniker in advance I would have boycotted the whole affair, since hyphenated jazz mixes almost invariably give me a feeling of ill-well against all mankind. As is turned out Modou was amazing.

The first thing which strikes you about him is the extent to which he resembles jazz great Miles Davis (who, this article informs me, happens to be one of his influences): the same hairline, intensity of stare and also facial features while we’re at it.

The second thing you are made aware of is his mad bonkers dancing, which is like charades crossed with aerobics and consists of running on the spot and sudden pointing at the sky and slow motion head swaying and even fifties style twisting. He seems to interpret the hidden emotions inspired by the music through physical movements which somehow go beyond the boundaries of dancing: much in the same way that synchronised swimming isn’t really swimming in the plebeian sense of the word. When a note struck a particular chord with him (geddit – they just keep on a-comin’) he would be transported into a musical frenzy, head thrown back, eyes shut, mouth open and looking for all the world like a hero of the top shelf. Sometimes he would engineer these little raptures himself, banging away at his African xylophone until the Eureka moment struck and he found the right note which he would bang out repeatedly with a violent fervour.

There were inevitably a pair of backpackers in Indian silk scarves coiled around their necks on the sidelines, also getting jiggy with it - self-consciously - as the rest of the audience studiously ignored their whirling in circles like three year-olds at a birthday party. In the same row as me were sat a pair of middle-aged moustachioed Lebanese gentlemen. When they first arrived they had sat in different rows, one in front of the other, bellowing at each in a mixture of French and Arabic about things being mnee7 and pas vrai. Why do people on the wrong side of 50 always sit at least one seat apart? Is it to make room for the colostomy bags? My mother employs the same policy of apartheid whenever we travel on a train together, insisting that I sit opposite her (if that is, I am allowed in the same carriage) or across the aisle from her but on no account next to her – she claims that I ‘make her too hot’ – a complaint never yet elicited from a sober male with all his wits about him, alas. Anyway these gentlemen eventually conceded defeat and sat next to each other once they realised the sheer impossibility of being heard over the music. I looked over at one point and saw them swaying in unison, arms at 90 degrees, balled of fist and smiles all over their faces.

Because the music really was fantastic. Over the course of the evening Modou got a series of musicians on stage and went from acapella Sufi to electronic to Afrobeat. One of the best moments was a duet between him and a Nubian guy, Modou singing in Wolof and Adel ‘Meekha’ Ibrahim singing in Nubian, which was incredibly stirring. The electronic bit was interesting but only because the backpackers attempted to prove that it is possible to dance to the sound of a cat scratching at a door.

The concert’s finale brought together the billions of musicians who had appeared over the course of the evening with some amazing Sudanese blokes on guitars and drums, as well as two bongo players, one of whom resembled a bongo (it's the law) and one called Shams who looked exactly, but EXACTLY, like a young River Phoenix. They jammed their way through some fantastic songs, accompanied by a French bloke on saxophone who was also great despite having a 1970s Joy of Sex type beard and haircut. Listening to them play I pondered what an odd place the world is, that Africa gave the world blues, jazz, funk and soul through its stolen sons in the States and that these rhythms made their way back to Africa to be reinvented once again. Just imagine the world’s music if there had never been an Africa. Wouldn’t be worth getting out of bed in the morning.

Yesterday night there was a celebration of the life of Nubian musician Hamza Alaa Eddin, who died a year ago. I had never heard of him before I went but, having developed a sudden drum fetish after Modou, decided to check it out. It turned out to be a sort of get together for members of Nubian society in Cairo, men in gigantic white turbans and women dressed in a kaleidoscope of colours and covered in yellowy gold greeting each other exuberantly. I don’t know if it was the outfits or the occasion or what, but most of these women were spectacular, and glided in with a finely-tuned self-assurance just short of arrogance which seemed to fill the hall.

The music itself was excellent, delivered by a singing oud player and about six drummers, backing vocals/swaying provided by an ever-enlarging group of men behind the singer. What is distinctive about the music is its odd beat which the audience seemed to be able to pick out of the polyrhythmic sound intuitively. It is nothing like the beat used in Arabic music, but to my uninitiated ears neither did it sound like any African rhythm. Rather, it reminded me of the slightly illogical, undulating, beat of Gulf Arabic music.

Nubian music seems to demand audience participation, specifically in the form of finger clicking. Every so often a member of the audience would make his way to the stage and click the fingers of his right hand at the singer, who would nod his head in acknowledgement. When not clicking some of the audience would clap, a highly complex series of a pair of short staccato claps followed by a single clap. One particularly lively old man interrupted his walking stick-waving in front of the stage to mount it and work his way round the musicians spraying each one of them with what looked like perfume – though it might have been mosquito repellent who knows - they clicking their fingers in return. He made his exit clicking and returned to the audience where he proceeded to dance with an elderly lady, he stick held straight up vertically above his head, she gliding across the floor making tiny, almost imperceptible movements. On stage meanwhile the drummers drummed with gusto: indeed, one with so much vigour that his turban slowly unravelled before our, and more to the point his, very eyes.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Acting out

Rather than being an art form, in Cairo street theatre is really the status quo. The city’s inhabitants transform its streets into the venue for a never-ending epic of disgruntled drivers, inexorable customers, operatic ambulant merchants and lascivious rebuffed Romeos, the audience made up of balcony-dwellers, coffee shop patrons and lost tourists. Both fitting and ironic then, that the Goethe Institute and Austrian Cultural Forum brought tea to China in the form of its street theatre festival held Downtown on Saturday afternoon.

Sponsored by the European Commission, the first Egyptian-European Street Theatre Festival brought together theatre troupes from Germany, Egypt and Austria who braved inferno-like temperatures to put on performance theatre, pantomime and story telling. The festival was also taken to Alexandria, Assiut and Minya.

The faded and pedestrianised old world glory of Alfi Street was an appropriate stage for the proceedings, each side of the narrow street lined with grimy painted shop facades and beautiful, towering, apartment buildings from whose statuesque heights curious onlookers periodically emerged onto balconies. At street level the scene at first resembled a scaled down political demonstration a la egyptienne, with flocks of policemen clad in their dazzling summer whites arranged in rows at either end of the street, while their plain-clothed brethren milled in and out of the small crowd to the music of their crackling walkie-talkies. In addition a group of young men dressed in green t-shirts had been mobilised to act as a mobile human cordon around the festival’s acts, separating them from the crowd – again reminiscent of the plain-clothed spectres omnipresent at protests. Their presence seemed entirely contrary to the aim of the festival, restricting the ability of the acts to interact with spectators and vice versa. It in any case only served to enervate the crowd every time they found themselves trampled on by it.

After opening pleasantries by the organisers, the predominantly male crowd was suddenly confronted with a vision of three Germans on giant stilts wearing whirling dervish outfits who span down the street to the soundtrack of something vaguely Sufi. As the unfortunate green cordon struggled to keep up with them, tempers fraying, the crowd watched enthralled, now staring open-mouthed, now beating a hasty retreat as a stilt-man or woman suddenly lunged at them playfully. At one point the stilt-woman approached a startled bearded man in a prayer cap and coyly took him by the hand, before the two danced together, the man blowing her kisses to the claps of the delighted crowd. Death-defying high leg kicks from one of the stilt-men provoked gasps and exclamations.

These elevated antics gave way to the far soberer Du und Nichts Panotomimentheater from Austria, who unintentionally demonstrated how an Egyptian audience are capable of putting on a far more entertaining show then the planned event. For fifteen minutes three men painted white head to toe and dressed in safari type clothes walked silently and painfully slowly down the street stopping periodically to theatrically examine something visible only to themselves on the ground, all to the accompaniment of what sounded like Chillout Classics Volume 7. After one particularly lengthy episode of ground-staring an elderly Nubian woman in sunglasses suddenly burst through the green cordon in a blaze of pink and green and proceeded to perform a rhythmic shoulder-shaking jig to the roar of the crowd. As the three men continued to look into the middle-distance, as impervious to her presence as statutes, she extracted money notes which she flung at the men before shimmying off. Her impromptu show entirely destroyed the inexplicable and self-conscious solemnity of the strange performance and, in the process, made it ten times better.

Egypt’s first contribution to the festival was by raconteur Ramadan Khater who mesmerised the crowd with humorous stories and folk tales of the Beni Hilal tribe to the accompaniment of rababa and tabla. He recounted the story of a petty fraudster who goes to the house of a beneficent and wealthy old man and asks him to interpret a dream: in it he had seen a well which, he discovered as he went down, was incredibly deep. The fraudster went on to say ‘I went down and down and down’ for a week - during which time he was of course fed and watered by his generous host. After a week of this mantra he eventually arrived at the bottom of the well where, he told his despairing host, he discovered a strange looking rock around which he tied a rope in anticipation of dragging it up and up and up – but was interrupted by the old man who said to him knowingly, ‘you spent a week going down the well without a rock, how long are you going to spend coming up? It’s better if you stay down there.’

As the shadows lengthened the Zebra Steltzentheater stilts came back out, this time in the form of what resembled arachnid aliens and a beautiful creature from the deep. The monsters’ tentacle-like arms and bulging eyes sent some people scattering disaster movie-style, as the creatures battled it out to win the heart of the mermaid who herself watched from her promontory underneath that other venue for romantic conquest, Alfi Street’s New Arizona Super Night Club. The festival closed with the excellent Egyptian Wel ya Wel puppet theatre who put on an el leyla el kebeera type spectacle featuring singing donkeys and a little boy with an eating disorder. Children, parents and policemen watched transfixed and laughing as the audience were instructed to eat breakfast so that they can do their sums and dazzle everyone during sports lessons.

The success of this festival demonstrates that street theatre - with its emphasis on audience participation - works perfectly in the Cairene context where everything is already turned into a Roman Colosseum type spectacle anyway. One can only wonder however - given the security presence on Saturday and in light of the their suspicion of any organised masses - whether if the street theatre idea took off, the authorities would be willing to turn over control of the streets for even a purpose as innocuous as this.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

We put the royal in royalties

I went to sit with Upstairs Aunt the other day and found her watching one of those programmes where wealthy producers low on ideas persuade a member of some obscure European royal family of dubious heritage to whore himself out on television. The idea is that ten female speaking corpses with shapely bosoms and fixed smiles peacock-it out in ball gowns and swimwear in order to persuade Prince Who? of Italy that he should pick them to drive off with him into the sunset, via the bank. This being America, the show’s producers attempted to add a touch of ‘class’ to the proceedings by giving everything a faux English aristocracy vibe. Cue cards were handed to the presenter by the ‘butler’ who, despite looking like a Chippendale, was of course called Smedrington-Pervis or something of the like. You could practically smell the baseball, fanny pack and American way on the presenter and yet he too insisted on rolling out that strange, mangled attempt at an English accent for which Hugh Grant will one day pay a heavy price - if there’s any justice left in the world.

The highlight of the show was when the ladies were requested to strut up and down the podium in swimwear (and sarongs - sense of decorum dahling) while their lives were reduced to a series of bullet points, consisting of name, interests, likes and dislikes. One woman’s selection was deliciously absurd:

Name: Candy or Tiffany or Harmony or something
Interests: Working out
Likes: Laughing
Dislikes: Mothballs. Hyper dogs.

Laughing! It’s a wonderful thing of course, but of all the likes she possibly could have mentioned she chooses this? Just imagine it:

Erin: Hey Harmony. This is like, totally random, but me and Sunset are going to the mall today to get our earlobes waxed. Wanna join?

Harmony: Aaahhh that’s too badddd Erin, I already made plans.

Erin: Oh yeah I forgot, tonight is mothball therapy, right?

Harmony: No that’s tomorrow. Tonight me and Houston are laughing.

Erin: Awesome.

The second best bit was the final section when the girls wore horrendous Gone With the Wind style ball gowns with a Mormon feel, such was the extent to which they left absolutely everything to the imagination. The women then got a minute to persuade the prince of their virtues. One woman employed garden sprinklers planted in her eyes, another sighed a lot, but the common denominator in all their addresses was the desire they expressed to ‘really understand your country and civilisation and traditions (Your Highness).’ Ladies, it’s Italy. The prince may be obscure, but last time I checked Rome wasn’t. We are hardly talking about the customs and traditions of Stykkishlmur.

Evidence that the prince might well be of genuine royal ancestry was provided by the signs of in-breeding he bore: his head was too big for his body, making him look like a fork-impaled potato. But his head matched his princess’ fake breasts in a way, ensuring a sort of universal harmony.

In other news, Yoda is advertising:

Spotted in Zamalek, but let's hope that this is some postmodern AUC student prank, rather than found art.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Art by occident

My British father possesses a book entitled Understanding Arabs. As a kid I always wondered whether it was presented to him upon his marriage to my Egyptian mother as part of some all inclusive package including a user’s guide to wasta and instructions on dealing with mothers-in-law, or whether he acquired it subsequently after years of the my world-your world cultural trysts created when east meets west. This often thorny relationship between the two is currently being explored in two independent exhibitions showing in Cairo.

Occidentalism, curated by Karim Francis, is a ten-day extravaganza featuring exhibits by nineteen Egyptian artists, open forum encounters with the artists and evenings of music. Collaborating artists were asked to create works of art in answer to the question “how do you see the West?” In a series of meetings with the curator and other participating artists which began in April 2006, they explored themes such as dialogues between the cultures of east and west, dualism and double-standards and hegemony and cultural identity which produced the paintings, installations and video art on display at the many-roomed Hotel Suisse.

Politics is inevitably a recurring theme in the exhibit. Khaled Hafez’s ‘Revolution’ (tagline: ‘Every revolution comes with a bag of unfulfilled promises’) is a video installation in which a split screen divided into the white, red and black of the Egyptian flag shows a military officer, a business man and a man in white ‘Islamist’ clothing. We see the officer turning a gun over in his hands while the businessman clasps a hammer and the Islamist languorously fondles a Barbie doll before decapitating it with a butcher’s knife. In the other screens meanwhile, the businessman uses his hammer to pound nails into wood before the officer turns his gun on both of them. The themes of military junta betrayal, market neo-colonialism and religious intolerance - while hardly subtle - are here given a witty, highly-stylised touch.

Commonalities between east and west is another prominent theme. Hoda Lotfi has constructed giant replicas of tongs used to handle sheesha pipes’ hot coals which are shaped in the form of two women, one eastern and one western. The objects are joined by a chain in order to represent the common ties which bind women together regardless of cultural differences. Mohamed Abla’s exhibit, Men In War explores the humanity which persists despite the barbarity of conflict. He juxtaposes 1950s film poster-style painting featuring soldiers, their sweethearts and heartfelt lines such as “my thoughts are ever with you” against a nightmarish grey wall mural depicting the hell of war. The work represents Abla’s complex relationship with the West: his self-professed admiration of its culture and technology sits alongside its “long history of pain and injustice.”

One of the most striking exhibits was Heba Farid’s Atlas of a Geneology, in which she presents migration as a phenomenon precluding the division of the world into separate and polarised entities. She uses her own family’s experience of migration in the 1960s and 70s to illustrate this, via a slide show of images from the family album taken in the United States, Canada and Egypt. The pictures are accompanied by music of the period and sound recordings - or ‘oral letters’ - made by members of her family at the time. While the work is innately personal, it also inevitably documents the history of Egyptian society. Watching the slightly orange images of early 1970s sparkling buildings, clean Downtown streets and empty bridges I experienced the usual jolt at seeing places which are so known and yet which look so strange: like passing through an area in daylight for the first time, having previously only seen it at night. In addition to documenting one family’s relationship with the west, the exhibit is a moving evocation of a lost Egypt.

While the overarching curatorial vision generally ensures a sense of continuity, there were nonetheless a few pieces which slipped through the net. Amal Kenawy asks the novel question ‘Mum? Do Angels Shit?’ and explores the issue in a video installation set in a bedroom complete with twin beds and wardrobe. In the short film we see a naked obese woman with a bag on her head, a model pig, toy jockeys on horses and briefly a child playing piano in a batman costume. All is set to the soundtrack of a slightly demonic variation on Three Blind Mice. This bewildered viewer failed to gain any insight into how the motley assortment sheds light onto the artist’s perception of the west, but this installation is an exception to what is an excellent exhibition.

Perceptions of the east-west relationship are explored through the photographic image at the Goethe Institute in Youssef Rakha’s exhibit Berlin-Cairo/Alexandria. Rakha explores what unites and separates these metropolises by juxtaposing similar images next to each other: the Egyptian staple of cigarettes, lighter and tea sits underneath its German counterpart of a bottle of wine and an ashtray, while in another image we see a night-image of a deserted Egyptian street, the pavement semi-unmade, what tiles there are broken and dirty. A shop-sign abastre and pharonic status [sic] can just be made out. In the German image above it we see the profile of a statue overlooking the perfectly laid out street, the immaculately clean cobbles mocking the poverty of their Egyptian cousins below.

The power of these images lies in the way in which Rakha combines them to create what appears to be a single photograph by for example, extending a single line from one image into the next. Thus in one photograph the edge of a pavement on which a German youth practises his BMX skills imperceptibly seeps into an Egyptian pavement on which sits a forlorn, aged shoe-shiner. In another the Mediterranean sea appears to be lapping against a wall in Germany against which a man reclines. The result is a collection of beautiful, often melancholy images which testify to the fact that neither wealth, chaos nor overcrowding can disguise the essential loneliness and desolation of all big cities.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It's acceptable if it doesn't actually resemble a cow

MSN conversation this afternoon:

Umm Nakad: Hi ya gameel

Amnesiac: Hi

Umm Nakad: Teegy tekly goulash bel la7m el mafroum? Ana 3amelt seneyya to7fa ya benty [Do you want to come over and eat Goulash with minced meat? I made a really great dish.]

Amnesiac: Ana mabakolshi la7ma [I don't eat meat.]

Umm Nakad: Ah bass deih la7ma mafrouma [Yeah but this is minced meat.]

Amnesiac: ??

Umm Nakad: Bardou? [Still?]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Germane sneer

Being a half-breed and therefore neither here not there has always had the curious effect of inducing a longing to ‘fully’ belong to some(any)thing while simultaneously preventing me from signing up 100 percent blood and soul for anything. It is the Wizard of Oz effect: intimately belonging to two worlds somehow means that it is impossible to see the wonders of one without seeing the feet underneath the curtain of the other.

The quest for identity has taken me has taken me through some interesting scenery, including: a brief spell at the local Croydon mosque where I watched, baffled, the Qu’ran teacher bark orders at the kids in Bengali; my mother’s horrified reaction when I came home from school and proudly announced that I could recite the Lord’s prayer; being mildly taunted with the Bangles’ friggin ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ dance in the playground; being informed that I have inherited the English coldness; being the only kid with special dietary requirements in a school full of English northerner rednecks; being the only foreigner in a family full of Egyptians…and so on.

The above isn’t meant to be read with the sound of distant violins, I mean being half half is hardly like, only having one leg, or being forced by economic circumstances to appear on the Tyra Banks Show (every time, without exception, that I have the misfortune to stumble across that woman she is boring people with anecdotes about her weave.) But there are nonetheless times (1990 World Cup/upon being asked by Egyptians about the English/upon being asked by the English about Egyptians) when it would be nice to be able to back one horse without mild but nagging inner conflict and the feeling that I am either faking an identity or denying the existence of a parent. Oh and my spiritual life would undoubtedly be in a healthier state as well, as would my ability to fully endorse political and social movements and tick ethnic identity boxes on questionnaires (I resent ‘white – other.’ I am not a variety of wall paint.)

I pondered this the other night as I endured the mostly purgatory-level agonies of the Boussy production at the American University in Cairo, where for an hour and a half I listened to women complaining (the play is a take on the Vagina Monologues). To be fair, and to get it out of the way now so that I can go on to rail bitterly against it, Boussy does have some good moments, explores interesting themes and is undoubtedly something of a pioneer in the Egyptian context.

But bloody hell they didn’t half go on, those women, and about what! The good stuff which was presented was almost undone by two, particularly odious, scenes: in the first we are treated to a ten minute sigh by a furrowed-of-brow woman who, we understand, has been propositioned by a married colleague. This has apparently torn through her soul, heart and mind! And cheapened the meaning of love! And destroyed three lives! (how exactly given that the wife hasn’t found out I don’t know) And done away with all her trust in men and love and everything! And set back the race for a cure for cancer by ten years! And oh oh oh Mr D'arcy!

In the second, unbearable, scene during which I lamented the fact that I was ever born we were forced (the theatre was packed, I wouldn’t have been able to leave without making six seated people, and five people sitting in an impossible formation on the floor, get up) to listen to a furrowed-of-brow woman essentially moan about being dumped, in that whiny high-octave undulating voice reminiscent of a car alarm that devastated dumped women often assume: he was a bastard…but it was my fault too AND I LOVE HIM…and I don’t care that he sold my eyes for crack while I was asleep cos HE’S GOING THROUGH A TRANSITIONAL PHASEEEEEEE.”

While exploring the female condition fully is in theory acceptable, airing every single gripe possibly attributable to a male surely undermines the strength of the argument: it is rather like charging some despot with genocide, crimes against humanity and forgetting to put the toilet seat down. All I know is that I and at least two other women emerged out of that theatre wanting to smack sense into a woman, any woman, even each other. Or ourselves.

But then I have always had problems with the way in which the feminist argument is framed anyway, and for a long time thought that it might be due to the inability to sign up to anything described above. The problem is I think, that feminists are often accused of being humourless and frequently rightly so - or at least their public campaigning is just so serious.There is also the fact that many of my self-described feminist friends have a what I consider Where’s Waldo-type approach to female oppression, seeking to define anything and everything in gender terms. My wonderful friend the Thespian with whom I lived last summer banned me from using the words ‘tits’ in her house, not on the grounds that it was crude (fair enough, I have similar problems with the C word) but because it was ‘denigrating to women.’ She applied the same ban to the word ‘bird’ when used to describe a living creature which does not possess wings.

It was also suggested that I cannot empathise fully with the suffering depicted in Boussy because I am not an Egyptian woman who had a conservative Middle Eastern upbringing. To which I say I am not a 70-year old male retired army veteran, and I still cry at Platoon every time. And as a female but of course I have experienced sexual discrimination. One memorable occasion was during an English A-Level History class for adult learners at some dustbin of a college in Croydon. The teacher was a windsurfing enthusiast with a penchant for shell suits who, we girls noticed, never picked a female to answer questions. Eventually someone asked him why this was to which he casually responded, “d'ya know, I just never see girls’ arms when they go up!” I wondered silently whether he would see my arm as I pushed him off his windsurfing board into shark-infested waters.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Like the best high-maintenance broads, You Tube cooperated eventually

The video of George which that cow You Tube refused to let me post immediately.

I resisted using the naughty Arabic B word!

Succumbing to hunger at 4.30 p.m., I just embarked on the preparation of the no.1 cooked meal of all single lazy people with no other foodstuff whatsoever in their fridge, the omelette.

It was all going swimmingly until I cracked open the second egg directly into the frying pan, and was horrified to be confronted with the partially-formed fossilised foetus of the shell-owner, a kaleidoscope of aubergine purple and black swimming in a viscous white liquid.

Mortified, I attempted to extract what I could of the baby bird’s solid messy mass while its albumen seeped into the good egg like an oil tanker spill painting an ocean.

Halfway through and I was hit by the most putrid, rotten smell I have ever encountered: a sharp mixture of dead dog and rotting corpses and gone-off fish and rancid milk turned adolescent cheese and French fromage and unwashed feet and tramp’s armpit and dark metropolitan alleys cum pissoirs. It was the smell of evil, and sent me dry-retching for the next five minutes such was its venom, before I summoned up the courage to look the beast in the face (while breathing through my mouth) and throw away the angry chick and its goo.

I have slightly OCDish tendencies about anything related to my phobia (or one of them), which is rubbish (‘garbage’ in American), but luckily urges to wash my hands 78 times are overpowered by an all conquering tendency towards extreme laziness.

I then lay down in a darkened room, my mind’s eye seeing nothing but eggs and zombie chicks as my stomach churned like that of a teenager's whose affair with her best friend’s boyfriend has just been discovered.

I will never eat eggs again.

Speaking of rotten eggs, time for a Stand Up Cairo update.


Our first auditions brought us the excellent George Azmy, part of whose act you can watch here, if You Tube has cooperated:

Surprise surprise, You Tube is being a bitch and won't cooperate unless I have dinner with her Ma. I'll post George in the next post if the cow lets me.

George is rather good doncha think, Arabic speakers? And English speakers: his body language is A1, no?

Many-stringed George also designed the Stand Up Cairo logo, as well as the posters, leading me to conclude that the whole malarkey should be renamed Stand Up George Cos You’re a Stand Up Guy.

We have had some mild press interest: a Daily Star article in which uncomfortable feeling words are inserted into my mouth and a two page spread in Egypt Today.

Even bad publicity is good publicity as the adage goes, but I think this is debatable in the case of a front cover headline of a magazine which reads thus:


As regular readers will know, I am unable to resist wordplay and have therefore inflicted many an excruciating title on you all, dear friends. I like to think however that my attempts to torture the English language until it confesses where the wit is, and occasionally take Arabic hostage as well, at least has some context. Which is why I resent this editor’s choice of headline: failure to uncover hordes of talent immediately within an art form which hasn’t been witnessed in Egypt for twenty years should not be dismissed as a flop, I don’t think. And what is most annoying is that the headline does not reflect the encouraging tone of the article – again confirming my suspicion that the person who came up with this annoying line 1. Didn’t read the article properly and, 2. has the same mania for wordplay as me.

The article itself, like I say, is positive. And I am possibly the last person who should complain about press coverage.

Ahem moving on.

Our two rounds of auditions have revealed that actually, monolingual Egyptians either don’t understand fully what stand up is, have dismissed us as a bunch of chancers or are too shy to audition, which is why we are currently debating going back to zero and introducing stand up comedy to Egypt before local comedians introduce their take on stand up to us. We concluded that it might be a good idea to invite Arab American comics over to host a workshop, or perform a show, and lo and behold this morning we received an unsolicited email from an Arab American comic expressing interest in bringing a bunch of Arab American comics to Cairo. A sign? Coincidence? A mirage in the desert sighted by a desperate thirsty man? Who knows!

In any case we shall see if this 101 in stand up bears tastier fruit than our attempt to plunge straight in with auditions. If anyone has thoughts, comments or advice I would most welcome it as long as it in no way makes mention of the ovum which comes out of chickens.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


The Chinese Gardens are a brief interlude in the Cairo International Conference Centre’s otherwise uncompromising concrete uniformity, offering sculptured lawns, shady copses and ponds. They were a fitting setting for the 4th SOS Music Festival, whose ‘let’s go original’ ethos is centred around providing an alternative to the mass-produced mediocrity of much of contemporary Egyptian mainstream music and, according to the SOS website (, aims to “promote originality and creativity” by encouraging musicians “to dig deep into their own culture and keep an open mind to experiment with different elements of music.” In keeping with this philosophy the seven acts (six Egyptian and one international) were therefore only allowed to perform original material.

The first acts onstage performed to an audience of feeble numbers - all the sensible people arrived later, just as the sun was putting on its coat and leaving, rather than risk sunstroke. Those that were there sought refuge underneath the trees – some 300 metres away from the stage – while a handful of hardcore fans sweltered and swayed in front of the stage. Idle Mind soldiered on through the virtually empty desert, belting out standard heavy metal compositions with a few nice melodic touches and startling everyone with their Megadeth-style roaring. Two-piece Arab Rap Family had to do battle with both a low turnout and technical problems, their backing track repeatedly and suddenly coming to an impromptu stop with a loud microwave-like beep. Their act was undoubtedly undermined by the billing, rapper MC Monadel urging the audience to approach the stage so that the band could “feel their energy.” His attempts to create momentum through the standard “when I say X, you say Y!” incantation also fell flat and would have undoubtedly worked better with a larger, less hot, crowd. The two rappers were accompanied by a female singer with an impressive vocal range but whose operatic-style falsetto warbling was contrived, if not baffling. Overall however, the group’s performance was an enjoyable enough Arabic language take on the Black Eyed Peas formula.

One of the highlights of the day was undoubtedly Basheer. Mohamed Basheer, a native of Aswan, combines the rhythm and heart of Upper Egypt with funk and soul sounds to create excellent and exciting music. He was joined by members of funk troupe Vybe on this occasion and the set, which included trumpet, synthesiser and Tabla, was fantastic: think Stevie Wonder meets Mohamed Mounir. Basheer will inevitably draw comparisons with Mounir because of their shared Aswan heritage and identical choice of haircut if nothing else, but while there is a certain and similar joyful rhythm to both singer’s music, Basheer nonetheless has a unique and distinctive sound.

Even after 5 p.m. it was still sweltering, prompting Basheer to urge members of the audience to retain their enthusiasm and not expire from the heat -“we’re all Egyptians and we all love the sun!” he declared, the veracity of which statement was directly challengeable by firstly, the presence of several distinctly un-Egyptian looking specimens and, secondly, the hordes of Egyptians still seeking refuge under the boughs miles away. This prompted me to think that the SOS organisers should have perhaps made some concession to the sun, by either starting and finishing later or reducing the number of acts if necessary.

Nagham Masry fuse eastern and western musical traditions together and top it off with lyrics drawn from Egypt’s best-loved popular poets (such as Amal Donkol and Salah Jaheen). The audience loved lead-singer Sherbini’s cheerful and upbeat delivery and were wowed by Ousso’s incredible guitar solos. Vybe followed shortly afterwards, preceded by their reputation for performing excellent renditions of funk, soul and R’n’B classics. Their own compositions were disappointing, and while lead singer Shady Mohamed Gamal El Din Hamza was in good voice, the music itself was humdrum and uninspiring and – according to audience members who have seen them before - their performance apparently lacked the energy they usually conjure up when doing covers.

The star of the night was incontestably Iraqi guitar virtuoso Elham el Madfai. El Madfai, who strongly resembles Winston Churchill without the jowls, performed with an insouciance which epitomes cool and which was undiminished by the fact that he was wearing a fishing hat. He seems to produce heavenly Segovia-quality ripples on his classical guitar without being conscious of actually doing so: while talking to the crowd, or looking back to issue instructions to his band. He and his group of superb musicians seamlessly turned out tune after great tune to the enraptured crowd, pausing only to affix an Iraqi flag given to him by a member of the audience to his guitar stand. He played for an hour and a half - outplaying half of the crowd itself which dutifully left to take sisters and girlfriends home once the clock approached midnight.

Music festivals are a rarity in Egypt, and SOS is therefore fulfilling a crucial function in giving a platform to music which would otherwise not be heard by people who would not otherwise hear it. While it is great that there was free entrance, the whole rigmarole surrounding actually acquiring tickets left much to be desired: it was necessary to complete an online questionnaire, including a question as to the applicant’s opinion about having to complete a questionnaire in order to obtain tickets - which called for much self-restraint. Successful applicants were then sent an email instructing them to go a cafe in distant Heliopolis in order to pick up the tickets. The SOS website claims that this system is designed to restrict access to “the right crowd, who want to be there for the music and the good time, and to prevent any misbehaviour.” While this may ostensibly be the case, I noted that the website, and the questionnaire, did not offer an Arabic language option. The SOS organisers would therefore seem to have (presumably unwittingly) employed an elitist audience selection policy which had the effect of excluding monolingual Egyptians.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Dance of life

Until I came to Egypt I had been to a total of two weddings in my life, both of which I have no recollection (due to infancy rather than inebriation, mother). Despite having a relatively small social circle I have been to a total of five weddings in the last five years in Egypt, been invited to more I couldn’t attend, and am constantly aware of some friend of a friend about to tie the rope to his neck knot.

Like everything else in Egypt the nature of one’s nuptials is determined by social status and spending power, but all weddings regardless of whether the groom was born in a silver spoon or a rusty ladle are variations on the same formula. I recently had a conversation with a young man who complained that while he would prefer to invest the extravagant amounts of money spent on this formula (hiring a hotel, feedings guests, DJ etc) in a house or a car, the idea was inconceivable to his family for whom the complete works with bells on is mandatory. Another example perhaps of the way in which individuality in Egypt is smothered by the rigidity of tradition, but luckily, this tradition is Egyptian weddings’ finest asset.

Last night I went to the wedding celebration of a woman I once worked with. Coming from a relatively modest economic background, she and her fiancé elected to hold the party in the club of the romantically named ‘public accounting authority.’ The club was on the Nile, and was the standard concrete patio with utilitarian tables and chairs overlooking what was at this time of night the intense blackness of the Nile. When Sharshar, Umm Nakad and I arrived the party was already in full swing, an enormous undulating crowd of people surrounding the throne on which the bride and groom were presumably sitting, the whole scene immersed in sha3by [popular] music played at a deafening volume, the DJ bellowing something incomprehensible about el 7ag Abaza.

We surveyed the scene from a dark corner, attempting to hide from the camera which would occasionally be taken round the seated guests and pointed at startled individuals like a gun. The dance floor was a heaving mass of bobbing heads and raised arms which resembled sunflowers swaying in a field. On the fringes were the obligatory small children zigzagging about like errant missiles. What was interesting about the scene was the unconscious gender segregation: one side was a sea of brightly coloured hegabs, the other a mass of hair lacquered heads. The bride and groom took their first steps in unison in the middle, aglow in the light of the camera.

At one point the shabka (gifts of gold for the bride) was brought round for inspection by the crowd, the camera following behind it, before the sharbat (a hideously sweet drink traditional at weddings) was filmed for about ten hours by said camera. Later, a group of young men performed an impressive and impromptu synchronised dance routine, Take That style, including Justin Timberlake foot moves.

Something should be said about the music. It is generally the case that the less affluent the wedding, the less ‘sophisticated’ the music – which is not meant in a condescending manner. The play list at rich, 5-star hotel weddings mixes Arab and western music, Arab music generally limited to the dulcet tones of Elissa, Fadl Shaker, Amr Diab and whichever respectable Egyptian singer is flavour of the month at the time. When people do dance to the odd sha3by song at these affairs, it is in a self-conscious, almost ironic manner, much in the same tongue in cheek way that English people dance to ‘Come On Eileen’ or ‘I Will Survive.’ Sharshar even told me that at the wedding of one of his best friends last week, the bride had threatened to walk out if just one sha3by song was played, prompting he and his mischievous friends to request that the DJ play sha3by song par excellence ‘el 3anab’ [grapes] by Saad el Soghayer, in which Mr el Soghayar compares women to fruit.

But put on a sha3by song at a wedding and the mood changes, because there is a sort of unrefined, raw, sexual energy in this music which has always fascinated me. Yesterday was a case in point. The dance floor was segregated as has already been noted, but in each section the shoulder shimmying and hip wriggling was breathtakingly and unabashedly sexy, as was the music which at times was limited to a tabla and guttural bass sound which gradually and rhythmically built up and up to its climax, interrupted sporadically by the DJ’s ‘aywa!’ I observed the crowd - which consisted of veiled girls in cling film tightness clothes, matronly women in galabeyyas, women in full neqab, bearded men and lads wearing open shirts and cheeky smiles - and wondered at this strange schism in Egyptian society as a result of which the beast of sex is locked in a dark basement and brought out in certain controlled conditions, but whose roar is constantly audible. As I watched the bride dance for her entranced groom, a stick held aloft over her head Saidi-style, I also wondered if a society at the core of which pulsates this fantastic, life-affirming rhythm would ever allow itself to be subjugated completely to the joyless dogma of extreme conservatism.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Hair-d it all before

This weekend was a musical frenzy, what with yesterday’s all day SOS extravaganza where I relived my Glastonbury and Reading festival days (only without alcoholic beverages or mud) and tonight yet another concert at the Sawy Cultural Wheel.

I will save a review of the bands who performed at SOS for my article, so that when I receive the weekly love letters from these ever so precious artistes and their handbags I will at least be comforted by the knowledge that I am getting paid for it.

One event of note which I shall not inflict on the English-language newspaper reading public but which shall be shared with you is that I saw FIT HANY FROM WUST EL BALAD. One minute I was enduring some band playing something vaguely oriental jazz, the next I had been descended on by a breathless N who, aware of my infatuation, informed me that Sir Hany of Hotness was standing in the crowd unguarded, like a normal bloke. Unbelievingly, I looked in the direction she indicated and there He was, all slow motion white teeth smiling, illuminated by a celestial ray of light from the heavens, and wearing a crappy beige t-shirt.

Naturally I sprinted over but did so in a crouching guerrilla soldier style, concerned that I might seem uncouth should I launch myself onto him and knock him over. It was therefore something of a circular beeline, reminiscent of the time a 17 year-old me and my friends positioned ourselves so we could giggle and gasp behind hooligan turned family man Liam Gallagher of Oasis as he did a peculiar hip wiggling dance during the support act at his concert. I ended up at the perfect promontory to observe all six foot plus of Hany in his beige t-shirt, and am absolutely devastated to report that without a stage his aura is dimmed, and considerably so. It could have something to do with his extreme hairiness: I like heavy-set features but Groucho Marx eyebrows caused by lax personal grooming is asking too much. Also, there are cool ‘fros, and there is geography teacher/Art Garfunkel-style hair miscreancy, of which difference hirsute Hany is apparently incognisant. After basking my eyes in him while trying not to appear like a psycho I returned to the group, another dream shattered slightly and all the world a bit beige. N and I nonetheless agreed that we would not chuck him out of bed for farting, which is South London for ‘he is rather attractive’.

SOS was otherwise largely uneventful, at least in blojjing terms, which is remarkable given the fact that I was there for like, a million hours. I put political considerations aside and hugged a dashing US marine in order to be able to check that box on life’s list. I saw the masterful Ilham el Madfai who was of course gamed ta7n [solid grinding]: anyone who plays classical guitar flamenco style so the instrument is somewhere near his nose while also wearing a fishing hat automatically gets my vote.

I saw Limouzine in the line of duty tonight, despite my policy against bands and individuals who keep it real dyslexia-style by replacing the letter S with a Z. I have a theory that these ridiculous and wilful misspellings will gradually become entrenched, and that eventually the English language will go back 360 degrees to Chaucer so weel awll bee riting englishe lek dis againe. People in polo necks term it language evolution when it is quite clearly banditry.

Limouzine play inoffensive, rather insipid, MOR guitar music of the Christian rock variety – rock in a shirt and tie which is polite to your mother. They actually did perform a song ‘dedicated to all mothers’ which featured the lyric ‘I love you mummy.’ As if this was not appalling enough, the song began with China Bells sound effects, which is that percussion instrument made up of metal rods which produces a sort of rippling sound beloved of love song composers and Disney. It also produces a feeling of nausea in me, particularly when introducing a song eulogising mothers written by teenagers who should be singing about glue sniffing or petty theft or something.

The music was in places a poor imitation of Wust el Balad, in others just a mixture of any old malarchy. One song featured a change in rhythm and style so sudden and so illogical that it was the musical equivalent of suddenly talking about earwax in dung beetles during a discussion of the Lithuanian stock exchange – I was literally startled out of my seat such was the change in tempo. Another queer thing was a percussion solo slot, during which the bongo player and then the drummer wowed the crowd in the style of 80s heavy metal sticks men with technically proficient but pointless banging. The bongo player himself actually physically resembled a bongo, being barrel shaped, bald and having a tan-coloured scalp.

Good points about the performance included the booklets containing the song words given out free to the audience (and which made me feel like I was once again in school general assembly singing We Are Climbing Jesus’ Ladder), and the lead guitarist. He was simply outstanding, but also tiny and adorable and made me want to make sure that he had tucked his vest in in case he caught cold. Instead of the arrogant posturing and weird face-pulling common to most guitarists, this kid went around his business with a sort of vaguely worried expression, becoming truly rabbit-in-headlights startled whenever he looked up from the frets in response to the audience’s applause. He also gave shy smiles to his fellow band members whenever they commended him on his digital dexterity which again just made me want to give him a kiss and a packet of sweets.

The evening was only marred by the post-concert trip to the Rip Off and Tea Leaf or whatever that godforsaken place on Abul Feda is called which, in contravention of all trade description acts, doesn’t actually serve tea. I requested a cup of tea with milk which resulted in a five minute bonkers conversation consisting of the cashier saying ‘Chai’ and me saying ‘shai! Shai!’ and him repeating ‘Chai?’ and me saying ‘TEA’ and wanting to deck him. Eventually he produced a small pot of what I can only describe as garden weeds with cardamom seeds which he alleged they sold and people drink, and in that moment I would have sold my right kidney for a Lipton teabag after setting light to the whole ridiculous chi-chi, or chai-chai, place.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Angling away from everlasting idiocies

I briefly took time out from winning hearts and minds in Cairo’s music community this week to quit my job on Wednesday – a decision which should have been taken two months ago I realised, as I tap-danced my way out of the office into the arms of the gardener. And semi-unemployment.

Tuesday was a public holiday because of May day and Forsooth and I profited by paying exorbitant amounts of money so I could sit by a hotel’s pool and create a glare visible from outer space with my whiteness. While eating a 50 LE nouvelle cuisine-sized portion of fish and chips in such a way so as to ensure that not even its aroma escaped consumption (but drawing the line at licking the plate) I read Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, and came across the passage below, in which the protagonist reminisces about his abandoned childhood love of fishing. It resonated with me hugely. And Seneferu, who requested a review of the book: it is wicked.

Here I’ll make a confession, or rather two. The first is that when I look back through my life I can’t honestly say that anything I’ve ever done has given me quite such a kick as fishing. Everything else has been a bit of a flop in comparison, even women. I don’t set up to be one of those men that don’t care about women. I’ve spent plenty of time chasing them, and I would even now if I had the chance. Still, if you gave me the choice of having any woman you care to name, but I mean any woman, or catching a ten-pound carp, the carp would win every time. And the other confession is that after sixteen I never fished again.

Why? Because that’s how things happen. Because in this life we lead – I don’t mean human life in general, I mean life in this particular age and this particular country – we don’t do the things we want to do. It isn’t because we’re always working. Even a farm-hand or a Jew tailor isn’t always working. It’s because there’s some devil in us that drives us to and fro on everlasting idiocies. There’s time for everything except the things worth doing. Think of something you really care about. Then add hour to hour and calculate the fraction of your life that you’ve actually spent in doing it. And then calculate the time you’ve spent on things like shaving, riding to and fro on buses, waiting in railway junctions, swapping dirty stories, and reading the newspapers.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Drawn to music

Listening to incredibly loud music outdoors in a residential area is always intensely pleasurable, not only because music seems to sound better in the open but because of the staying-up-on-a-school-night-naughtiness of being allowed to deafen the neighbours within a half mile radius.

Dokki’s Goethe Institute was the stage for such splendid anti-social behaviour on Friday night, when it played host to the 100 Live electronic music festival which showcased artists signed to the Egyptian-based electronic music label, 100 Copies (so named because only one hundred copies of each release are available abroad). Live performances by individuals and groups such as Ramsi Lehner, Omar Kamel and Bikya were accompanied by visuals beamed onto three giant screens. The music, the visuals and copious amounts of alcohol were consumed by the festival’s punters as they reclined on the grass (grass! In Cairo!) in the Goethe’s gorgeous palm tree-filled garden.

I arrived after dark just before Bikya’s set, and in the interim the audience were entertained with visuals including jerky overhead images of taxis roaming the streets of Alexandria…close-ups on women’s posteriors as they walked forwards, and then backwards and then forwards again…a man sitting on a bench, pondering…a duck’s brisket, and so on. Aesthetically these images were mildly engaging in rather the same way that it is sometimes interesting to watch scenery change from a train window: in both cases it is pointless to ask what the meaning of anything is; best just to bathe your eyes in it all.

Meanwhile on the other side of the lawn another giant screen had been set up in front of an overhead projector and members of the audience invited to let their imaginations elope with a pen - with predictably erratic results. Watching them I was reminded of a 1980s British television show called ‘Rolf Harris’ Cartoon Time.’ Rolf, an Australian cartoonist, would draw a picture as we, the mesmerised kids at home, watched Daffy Duck or Tom or Jerry materialise before our very eyes. Rolf’s catchphrase was ‘can you see what it is yet..?’ and mostly at the Goethe alas I could not. At one point someone replaced doodling with a series of earnest questions such as, ‘what is an experience?...If “this” is an experience, does it matter? This maybe [sic] experimental art, a bridge between two points. Artists and experiences. Do you care?’ Indeed.

Ducks and doodling gave way for the no-nonsense excellence of Bikya, a three-piece ensemble composed of 100 Copies owner Mahmoud Refat on drums and electronics, Mahmoud Waly on bass and Maurice Louca on guitar, keyboard and a sampler reminiscent of an air raid siren. It is difficult to find a superlative adequate to describe the excellence of this group, who harness the intensity of electronic sound and combine it with soulful, melodious guitar to create really beautiful music – even the aforementioned air raid siren device was utilised to stunningly plaintive effect on their opening song ‘Betrayal.’ There is arguably a certain emotional inaccessibility about electronic music of this kind - at least for the uninitiated - which Bikya successfully avoid and then some: their compositions are soulful, fresh and haunting.

Bikya gave way to a brief interlude featuring Ramzy Lehner when I began to see the point of the visuals: the critical flaw in live electronic music is that there is almost zero audience interest in watching a man sitting behind his laptop nodding his head slightly. Turning back to the overhead projector the audience were offered a picture of a ship with ‘Titanic’ written above it before the pen was appropriated by a small child who spent the rest of the night drawing Superman. The idea of audience participation is commendable but unfortunately did not on this occasion draw (boom boom) many interesting results.

Omar Kamel, the evening’s final performer, played electronic with an oriental slant complete with qanoun and violin. The music was upbeat and the group gave a tight performance but the material did not add anything new to the beats/Arabic music formula – although the group of dancers in the audience who went from voguing to body popping to dabke during his performance clearly enjoyed it immensely. He was in any case forced to conclude his set early because the powers that be decided that it was past everyone’s bedtime. The group finished with a song of frenetic energy over which Kamel read aloud something vaguely political. He stated before starting that this was the first occasion on which he had tried this idea, and the general consensus within my immediate circle was that it would be best if it was the last.

From the electronic noise of the Goethe to the tranquillity of Zamalek’s Gallery Extra, currently exhibiting Said Abou Seada who uses a variety of media to explore the theme of depth. He uses alternatively broad and thin tightly-packed pencil strokes to form stunning three-dimensional shapes which almost appear to move and morph into each other as you look at them. His innovative use of glass stained yellow and red and combined with melted lead on leather create textually-rich images the vibrancy of whose colours contrast strikingly with the black and white images of the pencil drawings. I profited from Abou Seada’s presence in the gallery to ask him about one piece in particular, a stunning collage which uses newspaper clippings on a black background. The newspaper clippings refer to the public and private sectors – was this deliberate, I wondered. Abou Seada informed me that it wasn’t, and that the newspaper print happened to fit the particular aesthetic vision he had at the time he crafted the piece. How the observer interprets it however, he told me with a smile, is up to them.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

F is for forgotten

People disappear a little when they enter huge corporate buildings. Like small planes on juggernaut aircraft carriers they are swallowed up in the vastness and then eventually spat out. It is perhaps this immense physical scale of the structures in which they work which induces, or exacerbates, the feelings of a loss of identity in employees of big companies.

The offices of a state-owned corporation I went to this week typify this. The building is vast and, like a castle under siege, just manages to hold its own despite being situated on one of Cairo's main arteries and being under attack by bridges, traffic, people and other buildings. It is of course impossible for it to remain untouched by the frenzy of the street and, stepping inside the building, the blare of the traffic and car horns outside seems to transmute into a sort of palpable nervous tension which swirls around and surrounds the building's inhabitants like some sort of phantom.

In the lift on the way up, up and up people periodically rushed in and out clutching papers and dispensing a curt greeting to strangers and a hearty handshake to colleagues. I arrived early for my meeting, and was ushered into a small, narrow waiting room containing a prayer cubicle at one end and a wall lined from floor to ceiling with square wooden locker type things at the other. A man finished praying just as I went in and nodded at me as he sat opposite and put his shoes back on, laboriously doing his laces up with a studied exactitude. Above his head was a slightly weird blown-up photo of a silhouetted horse grazing by a tree at sunset in what looked like the American desert. The photo was presumably meant to convey a sense of harmony and freedom, but this was negated by the fact that the horse had been left with a bloody saddle on even during its coffee break, and as I watched the man below frowning at his shoes I suddenly truly understood the import of the phrase saddled with responsibility.

Waiting, I listened to the sounds of the corridors outside: footsteps approaching and disappearing, doors opening and closing, a recording of Qu'ran recitation, the ding dong which preceded the lift doors opening, one hundred phones ringing, the bass of a man ribbing a woman, the screeching violin of her response, glasses rattling on trays…The usual Egyptian office aviary.

A faraash periodically came in and opened one of the wooden lockers extracting various objects from it, all the while talking at the loudest volume to someone at least three rooms away.

Eventually I was taken through the corridors to a tiny cubicle office where I waited for the boss man. In the meantime his colleague and I chewed the fat as I watched the office outside through the glass door, people talking and drinking tea and laughing in silence like a fresco come alive. We discussed boss man, the organisation, boss man within the organisation and the unlikelihood that he would grant me the employment break I was seeking, as boss man’s colleague smoked cigarette after cigarette.

Boss man arrived, and we made our way through the anarchy of the corridors to the green zone of his sumptuous office, huge and awash in leather and polished wood. Boss man was neither huge, nor awash in leather thankfully, but he was polished as most successful corporation men usually are. He was most pleasant and accommodating, but in the way that business-class airplane travel is pleasant and accommodating - it only makes sense at high altitude. Once the plane hits the ground you’re suddenly struck by how cramped it in fact is, how artificial the attempts to dress everything up with champagne flutes and a choice of desserts - sending you screaming to the nearest grimy café for rude service and real food and something human.

Boss man and I took the usual brief saunter through the countryside of my professional life, compared notes on London as is compulsory, and then turned to the last thing I had written.

“I liked it,” he said, hesitantly, “but I thought the F word was a bit unnecessary.”

I looked blankly at him, wondering whether ‘the F word’ was a euphemism for something seemingly banal but taboo within these circles.

“Fucking,” he mumbled with obvious discomfort, while gesticulating with his hand as if trying to bat the disgraceful word away.

“Erm…But I don’t recall using…the F word.”

Boss man was briefly troubled by this mix-up, his eyes darting right and left as he pulled on his chin, but eventually acknowledged that he had, in fact, been thinking about someone else entirely. We moved on after this brief spell of turbulence as if nothing had happened at all, discussing the transitional phase the corporation is currently going through, the people ahead of me in the queue, financial constraints – the scenic route to Sorry No Can Do.

At the end of the meeting as he saw me to his office door boss man said, “we’re happy to have you with us,” which was hugely ironic given that the F word saga had revealed that he did not, in fact, know who I was. But then I wondered whether in fact he knows who he himself is anymore, and whether he reclaims his identity at the end of a working day as he would collect a coat from a cloakroom.