Monday, July 30, 2007

Mule at the maul

Cairo’s summers offer few attractions to those without the financial means to escape its relentless mixture of pollution and heat. It does however compensate for the daytime agony in the appearance of a whole new world at night, when pavements fill with people seeking relief in the milder evening air and those of us with nocturnal tendencies can revel in the day turned inside out.

In celebration of this I went to el Ga7sh restaurant on Saturday, in Sayyida Zeinab. Ga7sh is famous for its legendary foul and ta3meyya, allegedly superior to that of any other eating establishment in Cairo. Its unique status is surely also in part due to its name, which means mule, and which is the bonkers surname of the family which opened up the restaurant.

Sayyida itself is a feast for the senses, if you like your Cairo busy and dirty and noisy, as I do. Ga7sh lies on a main thoroughfare behind the mosque which gives the area its name and is a confusion of animals, cars and people. The classical architecture of the older buildings mingles with the newer, squatter, edifices housing food joints, men’s cafes, mechanics’ garages and shops. I hesitate about using the word vibrancy because people in polo necks tend to use it as a synonym for poor and overcrowded, but there is a definite positive liveliness to this area.

I like looking at things and people, and once Sharshar had parked and I had got out I didn’t know where to look first such were the visual feasts on display: the black kitten sitting on a shop counter being stroked by a teenager as the man next to him watched the street, the rows of men in a café staring up at the TV showing WWF wrestling with their arms crossed and their mouths hanging open, a black goat wandering around between cars, the shop display in which there was a single ski-boot, the hopeful men twenty metres down from Ga7sh selling ta3meyya and attempting to lure in customers by banging ladles on pots.

I eventually and unwillingly sat down with the others at a table which is technically in the middle of the road but which has been appropriated by Ga7sh. The external limits of this area are marked by parked cars. The tables are makeshift affairs upon which sheets of newspaper serve as tablecloths, the ground underneath them slightly uneven and littered with rubble and rubbish. The newspaper is kept from blowing away with a pot of salt, and the patrons’ elbows, and eventually a proliferation of dishes. The waiter was a tall, tired looking man with half moon bags under his eyes and one of the best voices I have ever heard: a rich bass which rumbled through the many varieties of fool available. He took our order. I asked whether I could have my ta3meyya sandwiches in Shami bread. From my two eyes, he said.

Umm Nakad talked shop with a mutual lawyer friend of ours who lives in Sayyida while I surveyed the scene. One younger waiter brought us a stack of baladi loaves before returning two minutes later with a stack of chairs – business was brisk that night, and necessitated the expansion of seating arrangements. Another employee carrying a plastic tub briskly sprayed cups of water on the ground in order to neutralise the dust rising from the ground baked hard in the sun. Our waiter mopped tables, a half-smoked fag in his mouth, before covering the table with newspaper. He interrupted this only to bark orders at the younger chair-carrying waiter. When the latter did something which displeased him the older man would contract his brow in a frown, close his eyes and tut, leaving his mouth open while he thrust his upturned hands in front of him in a beautiful symphony of disgust.

Ga7sh itself is on a corner, and lies next to a mechanics’ garage marked by the inevitable artificial tree of exhaust pipes which, if it was in the Tate Modern, would be worth half a mil and represent the oppression of women in the Middle East. While we were waiting for our order a gorgeous black Porsche rolled up, cutting its way through the street with the incongruous sound of the beep beep of the emergency service siren which some ordinary cars have installed here. It parked directly next to Ga7sh, and seeing its sleek elegance underneath the shop sign bearing a cartoon of two mules kissing, and a picture of el 7ag Ga7sh and the words (in English) ‘I love you’ made for a typically Egyptian moment of wonderful oddness.

The diners at Ga7sh didn’t give a toss about the Porsche of course - and why should they, when they were stuffing their faces with the food before them. What was even more remarkable was that they barely acknowledged an enormous noisy street fight which broke out some 100 metres behind them, stopping only to deliver the most cursory of glances before returning to the business of shovelling food into their mouths. Half-moon waiter briefly went to inspect the beef, tray in one hand, cigarette in the other, before returning to the restaurant and attending to the never ending job of spreading newspaper tablecloths down.

The fight eventually died down, only to flare up again spectacularly as it advanced steadily towards us. As I chewed on my ta3meyya I thought how this experience must feel like having a picnic in the middle of rioting football hooligans. A bunch of kids eventually broke out of the fight and noisily marched down the road outside Ga7sh before half-moon waiter reprimanded them, delivering one of his spectacular looks of disgust.

Mutual lawyer friend commented that this fight was nothing, and didn’t compare to the time that he, his wife and his daughter were walking down a narrow street when they were suddenly confronted with a warring group of men armed with two-foot long swords: they sought sanctuary in a block of flats until things cooled down. His blasé attitude towards the war occurring behind his head as he ate seemed to confirm his assertion that Sayyeda was no longer the most dangerous, feared area in all of Cairo which it had once been: word on the street is that Dar el Salaam now has the dubious honour of boasting this title, apparently.

After we paid and left we returned to Sharshar’s car in front of which a crowd of twenty or so people involved in the street fight were still dissecting and debriefing, as a woman nearby watched from her ground-floor window, and a boy swung on an ancient-looking fairground swing still on the back of the trailer presumably used to transport it, and which had been dumped on a street corner. The residential areas in Sayyida are fantastic, with narrow winding lanes and old buildings. Despite being a low-income area, property in Sayyida is apparently becoming increasingly more expensive, due to the charm of its architecture (and possibly because it is no longer a well ‘ard area): mutual lawyer friend’s family had just valued a tiny flat which had belonged to his grandmother at nearly 100,000 LE. If Sayyida was in London it would be gradually gentrified, local people priced out of the area and a bistro selling raw juice for 50 LE replace Ga7sh. Unlikely to happen in Sayyida given that the super hot place to buy property these days is in the conurbations springing up everywhere in the desert like modern-day spiritual retreats.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

7elwa ya balad meen, part one

I was born in winter, in the UK. My mother claims that I cried for two straight months until she took me to Egypt - where I defrosted surrounded by numerous aunties and cousins - while she recovered.

It might be argued that my early fractiousness was due to the fact that for the first years of my life I slept in a carrycot kept on a storage box in a poky flat in Putney, in arctic conditions, and that I was demonstrating early symptoms of 1. a deeply ingrained hatred of the cold and, 2. an aversion to makeshift living conditions. The latter continues to reveal itself in a refusal to sign-up to any holiday plans involving the use of tents.

My father didn’t accompany us on this particular trip, and my mother took advantage of this in order to get my ears pierced as soon as possible (he had forbidden her from doing so, presumably on humanitarian grounds). It seems customary for any female infant born to at least one Egyptian parent to have their ears pierced even before the umbilical cord is cut. The thinking seems to be that if their male progeny can stand the pain of their foreskins being ripped from them forever, girl babies should be able to withstand the mild discomfort of ear piercing - even if they have just recovered from the trauma of childbirth and are still coming to terms with being alive.

Now my father suffers from the typically male affliction of not noticing major physical changes in other people other than the loss of a limb. This extends to his wife and child. My father thought I was naturally blonde for the first ten years of my life despite the fact that every six weeks or so ribbons of dark brown roots would appear on my head and then magically disappear. In her quest to have a child resembling Bjorn Borg my mother periodically subjected me to the torture of sitting under a hair dryer with one of those shampoo halo things on my head while noxious fumes drifted up from the Sun In working its way through my scalp into my brain.

While this failure to notice significant changes may seem like a cold-hearted lack of interest on the part of my Dad, it should be remembered that this is the man who can never find that other great love of his life – cheese - in the fridge. I have lost count of the number of times I have entered the kitchen to find my mother standing with her hand on her hip and her I-didn’t-reckon-on-this-when-I-married-you look on her face, pointing at the cheese in disgust while my father mumbles ‘well what’s it doing there?’ - in reference to the container bought specially to house his beloved cheeses.

He may therefore not have noticed the new protuberations in his infant daughter’s ears were it not for the fact that alas they got infected, and I was back to screaming all over again.

My mother never spoke to me in Arabic. When later I asked her why not, she claimed that she thought bilingualism ‘would confuse me,’ which is a feeble excuse if only for the fact that the woman herself speaks mostly in English, sings in Arabic and counts in French. While my father might be right in his assertion that my mother’s life is an unfathomable maze of confusion, I don’t think this can be blamed on the fact that she is a polyglot. My own theory is that the fact that we lived in an entirely British environment, that she didn’t know any/was avoiding Egyptians in London, that her husband doesn’t speak Arabic and that perhaps she didn’t want to interrupt her own immersion into British culture by re-invoking the culture and the world she had left - or was trying to leave – behind, all contributed to her decision. There is also the fact that I look so different to her, so European – maybe at some subconscious level it seemed illogical to speak to this kid in Arabic, in the lonely isolation of a west London housing estate.

When do kids become consciously aware of nationality and language? It took ages in my case, despite the dramatic change in scenery following our move from London to Cairo in the early 80s. I don’t ever remember hearing Arabic and thinking, ‘this is a different language’ even though I never spoke it, save for that year we spent in Egypt. I probably didn’t have time to ponder the issue, since my halcyon days in Cairo were a constant round of swimming, cousins’ birthday parties, watching E.T and the Wizard of Oz and mass family excursions to the north coast. Someone (it must have been my dad who is a librarian and who would document his own farts if he could) taped me speaking Arabic to my mother and a cousin, and the accent was (and still is) bloody awful as expected, but there was no hesitancy or embarrassment as there is now. Cousin Mildred’s daughter Elvis (who speaks more English than Arabic at home) also has a slightly weird accent in Arabic and it makes me wonder whether I would have lost the accent eventually if my mother and I had continued to speak Arabic once we returned to the UK.

Speaking of weird accents and sound recordings, I once found an old greatest hits Dalida cassette at home which I listened to immediately with much enthusiasm. To my horror ‘Helwa ya Balady’ stopped suddenly halfway through for ten seconds or so when Dalida’s heart-rending lament is replaced briefly by the sound of my parents DUETTING, her singing, him humming.

I roamed through our family’s building in Cairo with my younger cousin Tennis, and occasionally Mildred, and we tumbled about freely between the rooms in my grandmother’s flat (where my parents and I lived in one of several rooms occupied by various aunties and cousins) as well as invading the flats above and below us, which housed yet more relatives. I felt a similar kind of freedom in the complete absence of any differentiation between me - with my dad who looked weird in a galabeyya and who wouldn’t let me sit on his lap and ‘drive’ the car when we reached our street like Tennis’ dad would – and my cousins. I knew that my father didn’t speak Arabic, but I didn’t link this with nationality because I had virtually no conception of what nationality was. Dad speaks English, we eat mashed potatoes if we’re lucky (and molokheyya if we’re not) at Tennis’ place and when Om Mohamed the cleaner/cook/companion to my grandmother is prostrating on the rug it is called praying, and you can’t talk to her until she stands up. Straight-forward facts undisturbed by the contemplation of my existence in the bigger world.

The only immediate perceptible difference between life in Cairo and life in the UK was a significant and sudden reduction in aunties and cousins available round the clock. The void this created was filled with the sound of my mother’s radio, which to this day is constantly tuned to BBC Radio 4 or the World Service and on at all times, including when she is asleep and watching television or doing both activities at once. Meanwhile, at school, things were more or less the same (except that I walked there rather than enjoying the exciting journey by microbus) until we moved to a crappy little place in the north of England where there were only two non-white people in my school - and they were brothers. At about this time my mother decided to adopt a huge 80s perm-style haircut, and it was this, together with the time we had to say what our mother’s maiden name was (God only knows why, and if they tried this exercise nowadays it would have to be preceded by an explanation of what marriage is, or was) which revealed that I was very slightly different to my Persil white English classmates. My Aref Ibrahim was a brief ripple in the sea of Farmers, Turners and Smiths. Playground life was made mildly uncomfortable when the Bangles’ ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ became popular, but I was spared anything serious because I looked like them and neither they, nor I, knew what a Muslim was.

My discovery that I shouldn’t say the Lord’s Prayer in general assembly was added to my meagre stock of information about Islam: I knew that there was a certain month when my mother would not eat during the daytime, and I had also observed that she said el7amdelellah after meals. Sometimes when tired, or watching the news about the Intifada, she would exhale heavily and say something which to me sounded like ‘rugby’. When I had been good she would call me ya rou7ee. When I exasperated her she would scream BASS, or say OUFF. My mother would point out Egyptians on TV and I grew very familiar with Dr Magdy Yacoub. There were pictures on our walls of pastoral scenes of men in galabeyyas and framed writing in Arabic which I hadn’t seen in any of my friends’ houses. Sometimes she spent hours mixing sugar with water and at the critical moment would use the mixture to turn her skin an angry red colour with a satisfying fwiiiit sound. Whenever I saw her braced over the stove I knew that she would not be leaving the house for the next five hours. She let me taste a bit before she used it: deliciously sweet of course, but its taste and smell forever ruined by the sight of the tiny ant-like hairs trapped in it. I knew these were things my mum did but didn’t know the reasons for each one, and more to the point whether the sum of these things made an average mother, or an Egyptian mother or just my mother. For a while I simply assumed that all mums did these things as they listened to Radio 4, and remarked that dads seemed much less like hard work.

In the meantime holidays to Egypt continued, where I discovered that I had forgotten how to speak Arabic entirely and that while the music of the language wasn’t strange, individual sounds had largely ceased to convey meaning. All I was left with was a vague recollection of a handful of words. It was rather like going back to a town twenty years after leaving it to find the houses and streets you remembered ripped down and replaced with strange and alien buildings. Occasionally you will turn a corner and recognise a house which has been spared, but you remain lost.

None of my relatives spoke to me in Arabic between the ages of 9 and 25 (the age at which I moved back here) and the holidays I spent in Cairo until I found freedom with cousin Mildred at the age of 18 were miserable, lonely affairs. My mother only comes back to Egypt to visit her relatives, and I don’t think she recognises the country she finds. She is in any case entirely unable to cope here, immobilised by the slightest hint of heat, stupefied by the poverty and desperation and unwilling to re-learn the unwritten rules for navigating her way through this society. She also finds life impossible in a country which does not boast a branch of Marks and Spencer and does not have Radio 4, and during these teenage holidays would cocoon herself within her family, venturing out only when accompanied with one of her sisters. I sought refuge in teaching myself the Arabic alphabet, and in Abdel Halim Hafez and the cassettes with the green labels. I was transported by his voice, particularly the lengthy, tragic, operatic almost songs of his later years, and listening to him was only enhanced by his picture, which revealed that he had been very good looking indeed before Bilharzias ravaged him.

My mother communicated to me her fear of, and disgust at, this strange place which, after a twenty year absence, had ceased to mean anything to her. The lingering stares I attracted in the streets seemed to confirm that I was not wanted in this place while the music of the strange/familiar language seemed to whirl around my ears, its lost meanings taunting me like ghosts. I remember two decisive incidents during these years: in the first, everyone had gone out except for me and my elderly grandmother, who walked with a zimmer frame. We were sitting in the living room, probably watching the Bold and the Beautiful, when she suddenly got up to slowly propel herself to the kitchen. Once there she called for me and repeated a word while gesticulating towards the wall. I didn’t have a clue what she wanted, and tried in vain to understand what it was she needed. After about five minutes of this game of charades, during which she became increasingly more agitated, she with difficulty reached up and hit a switch, managing to accomplish what she had repeatedly requested that I do. She had been saying ‘el nour’ - the light.

The second incident involved a trip to the Pyramids with my parents and Upstairs Auntie. I had last gone when we lived in Egypt, when my paternal grandmother came to visit and Tennis and I descended a narrow tunnel in one of the Pyramids in the adventure to end all adventures. This time we had chosen to go on a national holiday, and arrived to find the Pyramids site swarming with people. I remember it as being an overcast day, and cold, and I was frightened by the immense crowds there, whose attention eventually turned to us. We found ourselves being pelted with stones, the youths who were launching these missiles following them up with a tirade of what I understood from my aunt’s reaction to be obscenities. We made a swift departure, and I left Egypt stung by its cruelty, and heartbroken that it had rejected me.

This event would never happen these days because I would never voluntarily set foot near the Pyramids nor any other site involving large stone blocks and men trying to sell me alabaster turds. But I have subsequent to this incident acquired the knowledge that firstly, teenagers (and especially teenage boys) in groups are generally little shits wherever you go in the world and, secondly, the appearance of these foreigners at the Pyramids, and the youths’ stone-throwing reaction to us, was just an exaggerated version of the stares in the streets allowed to assume corporeal form by youthful bravado and the safety of the mob: but ultimately it was fuelled by ignorance, poverty and curiosity.

For the next four years I rejected the idea of going to Egypt, and all but the most piquant of its sensations (basboussa, 3’oreyebba biscuits, Halim, Dalida, the smell when you first step off the airplane, Aida el Ayyouby’s 3ala baaly, the poverty, getting stared and laughed at in the street, having to go to register at el mogama3a within seven days of arriving, the moustaches, my mother’s constant exhaustion in Egypt, boredom, street sounds) gradually slipped from my memory, aided by the fact that I knew no Arabs in Croydon apart from my mother. It was very easy indeed to carry on being just another English person, and this I did. But while I didn’t want to set foot in Egypt, I continued to harbour an infuriating and irrepressible desire to associate myself in any way possible with an Egypt I could define within my own limits, and control. This I did by reading its most famous authors, listening to its music, attempting to learn its language and waiting to befriend anyone Egyptian who crossed my path.

Egypt’s rehabilitation happened in part thanks to cousin Mildred, who visited us in London (when I was 16) having just returned victorious from an exchange year in Texas where I remember she acquired a leather jacket with shoulder pads and tassels. Upon arriving she had the audacity to promptly tell me off for dressing like a boy, and devastated me when she informed me that a collection of band t-shirts and excellence in musical taste are not enough to lure in a man – a bitter truth I had actually secretly and grudgingly started to acknowledge myself. She also described an Egypt I didn’t know existed, where hot guys with semi-long hair dance with cool chicks with very long hair to the latest hottest dance tunes (I did not let this put me off) in nightclubs and everyone drives a jeep while speaking English and smoking fags and when they are not on the AUC campus discussing their jeeps they are at the beach and yes of course I could walk in the street without people pointing but there is no need to Amnesiac because of the aforementioned jeeps.

Monday, July 23, 2007


It is hard to deny the existence of a deity when one enters a film and unexpectedly finds that is has both Ladies Love Ahmed Ezz AND Bassem Samra on the same bill. Such was my good fortune tonight when I went to see ‘el shaba7.’

It was touch or go whether I would arrive on time - or indeed this century - because I happened upon the world’s slowest taxi driver, who was even slower than Sharshar and my father, both of whom drive as if they are going through an invisible and never-ending very deep puddle. My father says he is a cautious and responsible driver and to prove it wears driving gloves without which his ability to maintain a secure and safe grip on the wheel would be seriously undermined. One of these inevitably gets lost every time we get in the car, and so yes, I suppose he is a safe driver, because cautious motoring doesn’t get much bloody safer than being stationary while you search your vehicle for a driving glove. The taxi driver was about 90 and made odd clacking noises the whole time with his dentures, which sounded like a metronome beating out the rhythm of our excruciatingly slow process.

Once at the Galaxy cinema I was greeted by Sharshar and Oosha who I ignored while I gazed at the poster of Mr Ahmed staring mysteriously into the middle distance and looking fit. It being the eve of a national holiday the cinema was full of families, one of which had been seated in two rows, one at the very front and one at the back in front of us. Granddad occupied the seat in front of me, and seemed unable to bear to be seated apart from his grandchildren, so ten minutes into the film he called their names as if he was in his own living room, and beckoned them with that waggling finger scooping motion which entirely obscured my view of Ahmed Ezz.

The film itself is a film noir thriller type affair reminiscent of 'malaaky iskandereyya', which also starred Mr Ezz. The acting is largely good, with two notable exceptions: Zeina and Bassem Samra. Zeina is extremely good-looking with dimples and cheekbones and pouty lips and a nice rack. She cannot, however, act for toffee, and her acting range consists of conveying fear/anger/disappointment/sadness/happiness by widening her eyes as far as they will go. In this role she was meant to be a lovable, down to earth, slightly silly lass, and spent almost the entire film attempting to reproduce the cheeky balady-woman flirty mannerisms which 50s and 60s actresses (Soad Hosny et al) did so well. Zeina overplayed it with her faux innocence to such an extent that the desire to vomit she induced almost prevented me from concentrating on Ahmed Ezz. She needs to cease and desist immediately.

At the other end of the spectrum Bassem Samra was electric, and the two (what a gross misuse of talent!) scenes in which he appeared were electric. He completely dominates scenes with his presence, but yet is one of those actors who are able to shed their own identity so completely that you can’t believe that this man who looks like Bassem Samra really isn’t a dodgy bloke with a moustache from el Maxx who wants to kill Ahmed Ezz. I don’t know if Bassem Samra speaks English enough to act in this language, but if he does, and if there is any justice in the world, he will be snapped up immediately and school half of the idiots in Hollywood earning millions with their crappy attempts at acting. And why the bloody hell isn’t he in more leading roles in Egyptian films, these roles instead being given to morons who don’t even possess half of his ability? Is it because he looks too Egyptian? Baffling and infuriating.

One of the best things about the film was that it was shot in real locations (rather than a studio) in various parts of Cairo and Ismaileyya. Coincidentally enough, Sharshar, Oosha, Um Nakad and I went to Ismaileyya on Thursday night to eat fish, and Sharshar and I elbowed each other knowledgably in the ribs each time a building we recognised appeared on the screen. If you ever feel the urge to go to Ismaileyya to eat fish, go to Fish Land, which is an unassuming looking restaurant which sells the best fish soup known to mankind as well as an assortment of scrumptious seafood and salads, and all for 35 LE. Thirty-five LE!! We were unable to believe how cheap the food was as we sat there snorting and shovelling food into our mouths like pigs at a trough.

Other remarkable things about Ismaileyya include its magnificent architecture and the fact that people stop at traffic lights at night even when there is not a policeman there, which is a phenomenon I have never observed in Egypt. And the people are very nice too, Oosha’s frankly stupid question (given that Ismaileyya is surrounded by water) ‘law sama7t el ba7r fein?’ [‘excuse me, where’s the sea?’] prompted a patient and detailed set of instructions about how to get there. One person asked him, ‘tab ta3araf amn el dawla fein?’ [‘do you know where state security is?’] which we thought was an odd and somewhat alarming landmark to reference, until we saw that the location of state security is even indicated on road signs, indeed on the same road sign which pointed the direction to the beach. I suppose it is useful if one wants to report a spot of political insurrection after having some fun in the sun.

Mention must also be made of Ismaileyya’s magnificent mangoes, whose sweetness is like licking a honeycomb. Upon leaving Ismaileyya, my stomach happily digesting the fish as Oosha expounded on Ismaileyya’s excellence (‘fashee7’a’) we noticed a statue dedicated to another kind of fruit-shaped object at city limits:

Ismaileyya, I love you.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ordering off menu

MSN conversation this evening

Mother: Tried very much to get you married only to fall at the last hurdleband
Amnesiac: With who insha2allah
Mother: Last hurdle!!*
Amnesiac: Yes I had understood
Mother: Met hassan holding court outside a Knightsbridge restaurant . His cousin Zeid was there as well as a childhood friend called Ziad. The latter is half Irish and very like Peter Postlehwaite except more handsome. He is an architect. I leant on Hassan to get the full history of Ziad and decided he should marry you. Hassan went along with this until he whispered in my ear " ZIAD IS CHRISTIAN!!!
Mother: [Various assorted angry emoticons]
Amnesiac: LOLLLLL [silently thanking Jesus for sparing her an awkward dinner in some London restaurant with a Peter Postlethwaite lookalike]
Amnesiac: who is Peter Postlethwaite [unable to believe that she means the potato-faced actor who is about 71]
Mother: You may well laugh, I nearly died the death. Postlewaithe is Daniel Day-Lewis' father in " in the name of the Father".
Amnesiac: He isn't good-looking!!!
Mother: I know his face is like a wedge of cheese but Ziad is quite good looking in a way.
Amnesiac: Did you have a good time?
Mother: Yes we had a good time. It was sunny and quite warm. Hassan then went back to the Millenium hotel and the other two boys went to Harrods for a spot of shopping. I went home WITH DADDY [Assorted angry emoticons]

Monday, July 16, 2007

Kidding around

Tonight saw a particularly action-packed episode of the excellent soap opera ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ in which Dolly, who is going out with Ramy who she met in rehab, died of an overdose. The scene in which she corks it was excellent because the director - who is clearly influenced by Chekhov-type stage dramas - had various loved ones scattered around the hospital room, including a woman who spent the entire scene crying fitfully into a wall, and next to her Dr Youssef (played by Tawfiq Abdel Hamid) who was dead near the camera, staring mournfully at his shoes. Suddenly he bellows ‘MAATET’ (she’s dead) - just in case any of us were in any doubt as to why Dolly’s face had just been covered with the bed sheet – before himself bursting into sudden and startling man tears, which are of the type where tears run freely and proudly down manly cheeks, and broad shoulders convulse in grief, but with none of the chest-beating theatrics of silly women and their frivolous paroxysms of grief.

Aside: Has anyone noticed how much Tawfiq Abdel Hamid resembles Beeker from the Muppet Show during scenes where Abdel Hamid is perplexed/distraught/anxious? I have been unable to procure an image of him in one of these emotional states in order to fully support my case, but take it from me, he looks like the picture below, and I for one have never seen Beeker and Tawfiq Abdel Hamid in the same place at the same time:

Abdel Hamid/Beeker upon being told that his wife forgot to pick his suit up from the dry cleaners.

It’s the mouth.

I went to see the fantastic Black Theama tonight, at my 2nd home the Sawy Cultural Wheel. With customary bad luck I arrived at the ticket window just as a woman had requested THIRTY-FIVE tickets. Which is fine obviously, because we are in the age of computerised instant ticketing, aren’t we. Except that Sawy and his bloody wheel are not, and not only did the cashier have to count out and rip the tickets from one of those ticket books, he then had to write ‘15’ on each and every one of the sodding things. I don’t know why. Perhaps I am unreasonably impatient, but as I stood there, my hair turning grey, it took all my powers of self-restraint not to remind them that I only have roughly 50 years left to live and have yet to find a husband.

I discovered that the 35 tickets were for a school party, or at least a group of children who seemed to have just consumed 87 gallons of coca cola, or done lines of coke, what do I know about modern day kids. I ending up sitting in the middle of them of course, and felt like that plastic bag blowing in the wind in American Beauty when the weirdo with the secret gay dad is going on about there being so much beauty in the world. Not much however on a Sunday night in the Sawy Wheel when its Wisdom Hall is entirely populated by screeching infants.

After a speech by lovely paternal Mohamed el Sawy and his Hamas-style beard about how three years ago today Black Theama performed for the very first time on this very stage, the band materialised behind the curtain. Now I have seen Black Theama perform twice before, and they are a band which adhere to a strict policy of NEVER beginning on time, and employ their own version of the Formula, which means that the audience must sit through interminable sound checks and inexplicable delays while various members of the band just bugger off. The best demonstration of this policy was a couple of months ago in the gardens of the Mohamed Mokhtar Museum when they started playing and then stopped suddenly on the pretext of ‘fixing the sound.’ They then sat down and had a fag and a laugh with their friends/audience for half an hour.

So when the curtain went back and they were seated at their instruments and actually playing, I was seized by the sudden feeling that surely the world is about to explode, and that we have entered into some mythical last-hour universal order before the Day of Judgement. I was reassured to see that in fact the band were missing a singer: he materialised during the second song, smiling sheepishly and shaking hands with the other singers and then apologised for being late. I at least was glad to see that he abiding by the ancient and immutable laws of Egyptian time-keeping and that the world would not end while I was being buffeted by children. He was also forgiven because he was well fit and wearing a pair of particularly well-cut trousers.

The concert really was excellent mainly because Black Theama have a hardcore fan base who turn up at all their concerts, know all the words and most importantly have memorised the complicated hand clap sequences which accompany all the songs. The songs are a mixture (note that no one mentioned the word 'fusion') of jazz and funk and reggae and Nubian rhythms, which admittedly sounds awful but isn’t. In theory I shouldn’t really like them, because their songs are happy and bouncy and have titles like ‘kon sa3eed’ (be happy) – all stuff which brings me out in a rash, usually. However I have realised that I can tolerate songs in the major key where excellent drumming occurs. There is also the fact that the three singers are great: one of them has a voice like velvet, such is its sonority and smoothness.

The audience loved it, a row of children swayed energetically side to side in front of me, and I have never seen the Wisdom Hall so packed. Large crowds did their synchronised dancing and clapping thing, and one man even danced while he precariously held a small child aloft with one hand, which is an imaginative variation on the handbag as dance accessory.

The next stage is undoubtedly ebay

MSN conversation tonight:

Mother: Daddy is back!
Amnesiac: Why the exclamation mark?
Mother: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Amnesiac: ...
Amnesiac: someone called tonight
Amnesiac: international call he sounded British
Amnesiac: but he couldn`t hear me
Mother: Perhaps something to do with Essex University or your articles. [Bless her, she likes to think that the Pulitzer Prize committee are trying to track down her daughter]
Amnesiac: hmm
Mother: It's a mystery. Do you have the equivalent of 1471 in Egypt? Why did he not call again?
Amnesiac: he did, but I was in a concert so he wouldn't have been able to hear me anyway
Mother: Shame. Let's hope he rings again and proposes to you.
Amnesiac: ...
Mother: [Angry face emoticon]

Friday, July 13, 2007



The radio kept playing. As I hung there, suspended upside down in the darkness, dripping blood into the stillness with that bastard running towards me, the radio kept playing.

And why shouldn’t it, in the midst of that twisted agony of contorted metal and broken bones and an emptied bladder and irreparable damage. Let the last thing I hear be some eighteen year-old girl snivelling about her lost love as my guts drip to the floor, or rather the car roof. Because life was always an absurdity, and in case you haven’t noticed the bitch likes to mock. Like the time my obese ex boss donned his best expression of remorse and told me he was going to have to let me go, and as I sat there all I could see were his flies, which were wide open, and his pants, which were slightly stained, and the way his eyes kept stealing glances at his mobile phone ringing silently even as he assured me that it was killing him to have to do this. Or even better when the doctor came out wringing his hands and exactly when his mouth was preparing to form the I’m of I’m sorry somewhere down the hallway someone started laughing, a huge tsunami roar of a laugh which crashed over everything and meant that I ended up having to hear that my son was dead twice.

Because life likes to remind you on a regular basis that your mountain of aching sadness is trifling and meaningless, and will make you listen to adverts for fridges as you lie dying to prove this.


But ask me why I’m telling you this, and more to the point ask me who the hell I am and who the handsome bastard reaching through the window trying to switch off the engine is.

Let’s start with him because as tragic as it might sound he’s the only thing which gives my life – and death - any meaning and without him I wouldn’t be here and neither, after all, would you. First time I see him, he has his hand up my wife’s top while he attempts to insert his head in her ear, or at least that’s what it looked like from where I stood. She had her eyes closed and her legs open and her head was slightly tilted to one side as if she was trying to itch her ear with her shoulder. And her face…her face had a look I last saw perhaps ten years ago when we were just engaged. In a silent lift full of people I read the Braille of her spine with my finger from the base of her skull to the no entry sign at the top of her jeans, and as we and my finger descended she closed her eyes and smiled an encrypted smile only I could decipher and balled the fingers of her left hand into a fist, and I felt unassailable because of this force field of hope we were generating.

My wife closed her eyes many times after that, but strictly whilst asleep or whenever I reminded her not to rest things against the newly painted hallway wall because they leave marks. And the secret smile and the force field disappeared altogether, gradually.

I see no conflict in having a dead son and caring about marks on a newly painted wall. I might not be able to protect the walls of my soul but I’ll be damned if I let the bastards stain my hallway.

And while my wife smiled that faraway smile the back of that fella’s gorgeous head gnawed away at her ear and his hand strayed underneath her top moving like a cat in a collapsed tent. And the worst thing was that my wife’s shoe-shod left foot was flat on the hallway wall, and meanwhile the other (sweaty) hand of that prince of a man, the one that was not in the tent, rested above her head on the wall, and it was as if they wanted to bear testimony, to testify to the fact that they had sullied a man’s walls as he watched from outside his own front door.


I could give you my vital statistics, I suppose. Age, name, place of birth, time of death (not long) but it’s remarkable how little that information will distinguish me and will in fact sweep me further out into the sea of anonymity. Consider this: my father God rest his soul was a man whose mind was a small abandoned waste ground of original thought bordered on all sides by a barbed wire fence of convention. At the birth of his oldest son it never occurred to him to give me anything other than his own name, as his own father had done before him. Ignoring my mother’s entreaties he sneaked out while she was still incapacitated by the Caesarean and had me officially named Roger.

It’s an ugly name: Roger. Rodj-ah. Devoid of any kind of mystery or romance, and the double entendre only making everything worse. But worse things have happened at sea as they say and I could have plodded through life unnoticed if it wasn’t for the fact that for the first and last time in his life my father stuck to his guns during negotiations about my name. When the local paper announced the joyous occasion of my birth to the indifferent world searching for the TV section it was to proud parents ‘Mr and Mrs Roger.’

Roger Roger. And you will understand when I say that I am rarely pleased to meet you.


Rebellion against parents is all part of the growing process, and fathers - the poor sods - are the emery board upon which their hormonally-charged sons shape out their identities. The instinct is magnified when you share the same first name as your father. I suppose because of the feeling that not only must you engage in the normal teenage quest to discover who are you, but that you are handicapped by the fact that your own identity is lost somehow within that of exactly the person you want to free yourself from the most. And more specifically it was bloody annoying to have to spend the first eighteen years of my life asking people on the phone which Roger Roger they wanted.

This is aside from the fact that it’s a stupid name and proved to be a blank cheque to school comedians wishing to purchase hilarity at my expense. ‘Do you Roger Roger?’ became something of a school motto and drew laughs for five years, things only easing off when Simon Le Bon hit the big time and Duran Duran made it acceptable and almost trendy for things to be repeated twice.

I tried inserting my initial briefly on the front covers of exercise books to give my name some kind of dignity but succeeded only in providing the little sadists with further ammunition: ‘Would you Roger A Roger..?’


When me and the wife were discussing marriage she made it clear that she would not marry me unless I promised that I wouldn’t insist on naming our first child Roger, nor pull a trick like my father and name the kid behind her back. Things looked extremely shaky at one point when she almost forced me to put this promise in writing.

I tried to reassure her by pointing to the mental torment the names had caused me all my life and asked her why in God’s name I would wish to inflict the same on my infant son. She then clarified that when she said child, she meant either a son or a daughter and that as ridiculous as it might seem, she was not taking any chances with our kids, Roger Roger darling. I knew she wasn’t joking because while she was saying all this she was repeatedly smoothing down her skirt with the palms of both hands, which is one of my wife’s indicators that she means business.

She had also come to the restaurant equipped with a pen and pre-written statement ready for me to sign.

I tried to laugh it off and then attempted to distract her by throwing peas down her top, a method which, while it generally induced anger and guaranteed no sexual activity for two days (when such activity did still take place), at least made her change the subject. I used to call it Appeasement, which whenever I said it made me laugh like a drain, but oddly enough she never saw the humour in it.

Even Appeasement didn’t stop her and so finally I asked her what she would do in the event that I temporarily left my senses, gagged her, and went and named our baby daughter Roger Rogerina Ha Ha! Roger on the birth certificate. She replied that once sufficiently recovered from the trauma of childbirth she would castrate me, kill me and then divorce me, and did I Roger, Roger? She knows bloody well that that quip enrages me and there followed a period of tense silence during which she smoothed down her skirt, tight-lipped, and I silently cursed my father.


I wonder if she ever gave him the tight-lipped look.

I negotiated myself out of having to sign the pledge by asking her if she remembered the first time we met, and I introduced myself to her. She did of course. Not because I was the man she would go on to marry but because we spent approximately five minutes establishing my name.

I asked her how many people a person meets in a lifetime, how many persons ordinary people like us meet. She said she didn’t know and what was I getting at, but I persisted, let’s say two a month minimum, which makes 24 new people per year. She closed her eyes, yeah yeah what’s your point, and I said okay let’s multiply 24 by five which is the length of time in minutes I spend explaining my name to people. That’s two hours per year, multiplied by fifteen years for the length of time I had been in the world outside school actively getting to know people, makes a total of at least (and probably more) thirty hours. Thirty hours. That’s more than a day that I have spent speaking to people not telling them who I am, not sharing with them what team I support or how I like my eggs done or what my favourite film is, thirty hours just spent explaining my bloody name badge.

She countered that it makes me memorable, makes me stand out. I said so does severe dermatitis, and I tried to tell her that sometimes a name can engulf you, that you can become lost in it, to which she responded, aren’t you getting mixed up with the DIY warehouse we went to last weekend? and fancied herself a great wit.

She relented, she put away the pen and paper and stroked my ankle with her foot under the table, but I don’t think she ever realised just how anonymous I have always been, was fated to be.


I can’t say that our wedding was the happiest day of my life for several reasons, not least of which is that my shoes were too tight and made a sort of farting noise which echoed round the church when I walked down the aisle. And beyond that, for all that I loved my wife when I married her, a particular moment of the day’s proceedings sticks in my mind. We left the wedding disco while it was still in full swing and stepped out into the evening air – it was April and yet that particular night was icy almost for some reason. I’d got quite pissed of course but by the time we got home the combination of the cold air and the pain my shoes inflicted on the way meant that I’d sobered up considerably. She insisted that I carry her over the bloody threshold - which I obligingly did despite the state of my feet - and then I put her down and we were both smacked in the gob by the most terrifying silence.

It was that ringing in your ears kind of silence, the kind where you can hear the blood coursing through your veins, and we stood there for the briefest of moments and I knew she felt it too, crushing her head like it was crushing mine - though she would deny it if you asked her. I looked at this woman and in that instant I experienced sheer terror, the terror you feel when you wake up at 2 a.m. and think you can hear a burglar downstairs. It wasn’t that I thought that I’d chosen the wrong person, or that I suddenly decided marriage wasn’t for me or that I fully appreciated the risk of our unborn children inheriting her slightly bulbous nose. It was the realisation that we, two ordinary people, had all this endless silence to fill, years of it. And as I looked at her I thought to myself if it wasn’t her, it could have been someone – anyone – else and she in her turn could have chosen someone else. And she was undoubtedly thinking the same thing - if she wasn’t thinking what the hell have I done marrying a man called Roger Roger.


One of life’s few compensations is parenthood, nothing beats it, it’s like a second chance. I’ll admit that when my wife told me she was pregnant I wasn’t enthusiastic at first, I was working a dead-end office job in a company you’ve never heard of, money was tight but I at least had few responsibilities other than putting the toilet seat back down after I’d finished.

She was ecstatic of course and this little unborn being took over her life and by default my life right away, what with morning sickness and swollen ankles and swollen boobs and the thorny business of choosing a name - which I left to her entirely rather than have the tight lipped treatment.

Her labour lasted for what seemed like years, I remember stepping out for a breather half way through and it was the same feeling as when you go to the cinema in the mid-afternoon sunshine and by the time the film’s finished it’s dark and the world seems to have aged in your absence.

But bloody hell it was worth it, every minute of it, because it doesn’t get better than holding your kid for the first time and having the past just melt away in that very instant.

Moore Roger


That year was the happiest of my life, for the first time I felt like my existence had a semblance of some meaning and that terrible silence disappeared altogether – even if it was filled with the sound of the missus telling me to go and buy nappies. He was a right little bugger at times my son, naughty, always wanting to examine everything and everyone and complaining to high heaven if he wasn’t allowed to, but the bad moods never lasted.

He was so happy and tiny and pathetic that sometimes I used to look at him and the idea of anything happening to him used to break my heart, I don’t mean some remote mental anguish, I mean a physical pain, like a strangulation of my chest. All that innocence and vulnerability and it could be crushed in a second.


I don’t want to talk about when he got ill. For one thing, what’s the point? Unless it’s happened to you attempting to describe the pain would be like trying to make a man understand what childbirth feels like. Someone tore my heart out and my end of the world is your bedtime reading and it’s nobody’s fault.


I was sad, she was sad, but we weren’t sad together. The problem is that when it comes to grief your kid can’t just die and it’s nobody’s fault. I had to pick a tie out for my son’s funeral, and wear a suit, and brush my hair while inside I felt like I was falling off a never ending cliff. It’s so unnatural that you feel there must be someone to blame, and there isn’t, I don’t have a God to blame or to cling to, so if you’re me you ending up blaming me, and if you’re my wife you end up blaming me, too.

The day of the funeral when I was putting on my suit and trying to hold it all together for her sake, I caught her looking at me in the mirror. She was still in bed and didn’t know that I had noticed she’d woken up. My wife could never disguise her emotions, the expressions on her face change almost by the second, it’s like watching a patch of grass blowing in the wind. When I saw the look she was giving me I knew that it was over for us. See she couldn’t handle the grief, she had so much of it and she didn’t know what to do with it, where to put it, so she turned it into blame and threw it at me.

I looked back at her in the mirror. She seemed to age ten years when he died, she was still beautiful but her face became more fixed, her eyes hardened and people looked at her and saw the inevitable grief waiting for them in the future. It just came early for us, and to stop herself from falling my wife blamed me. I didn’t kill him, nobody did, but her son was dead and this useless man with the stupid name was standing in front of her, doing up his tie. Her son could have done incredible things but instead she’s left with her husband, who long ago confirmed that he would never be anything other than ordinary. Who could blame her: she felt cheated.


The sadness doesn’t end, but it stops being strange. I adapted.

I lost my job almost immediately after that – that fat heartless bastard let me go when it was the mindless routine of work which I needed the most. I couldn’t stand the idea of being at home in that silence with my wife, her eyes hardening every time she looked at me, and the weird, silent encounters in the hallway when we would accidentally meet and our bodies would brush against each other with the old familiarity but yet she was completely absent.

I wanted anything which would take me out of the house and away from her, and while I waited for something to come up I threw myself into DIY, doing all the things I’d been putting off for years and finding new jobs to occupy myself. I would spend ages painting a wall, replacing the tiles in the bathroom, I used to spin out any job for as long as I could, filling the house with paint fumes. I wanted to exorcise the place of its sadness, I think.

Every time I finished a job I’d ask my wife to come and have a look and explain in great detail how I’d done it, and why I’d chosen that colour and how we should try our best not to make any marks on the walls! I wanted to fill the silence with noise. She would listen without saying anything, looking at me with her arms crossed and all those years of pain etched in her face, the faintest of smiles on her lips. And when I finished talking she would nod, and then go back to what she had originally been doing leaving me with my freshly painted wall, and the silence.


I got a job as a taxi driver. I chose to work nights, the money’s better and it meant that me and my wife operated a shift system in relation to the bed.

I liked driving around in the darkness, listening to the radio and picking up the odd drunk every now and again. One night a young city-type in a suit who had obviously been on the piss for hours flagged me down. He stopped and staggered to the taxi and rested his left arm on the top of the car and his forehead on top of that and stared at me with his mouth open. I said what is this, a mobile peep show? and he just kept staring in an alcoholic haze. So I asked him where to? and he said home.

I said that unless he was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II he’d have to be a bit more specific. He ignored me and moved to the back of the taxi where he fought with the door, attempting to open it with one arm while he put the other vertical above his head so as to stop his laptop bag slipping off his shoulder. I watched all this in silence, laughing to myself, and he eventually hauled himself in head first and lay down in the back.

He passed out as soon as he hit the seat, and I was left with the choice of either dumping him where I found him or trying to find something on his person with his address written on it. He’d have been stripped bare in under a minute if I’d have left him, he reeked of money, so I went through his pockets and as luck would have it found something with his address on it.

I arrived at the house and rang the bell and thankfully what turned out to be his flatmate was at home, or God knows what I would have done with his corpse. We pulled him out by the legs and I helped get him indoors and just after we threw him on the sofa he woke up briefly and looked at me and said, you’re a good man, and then proceeded to belch several times at high volume before passing out again.

I’m embarrassed to say that I found tears running down my face back in the cab, and all because of what some inebriated stranger said to me. You’re a good man. I often asked myself afterwards why his words affected me so much, why they prompted me to do what I did, why the kindness of a stranger made me stop and rethink everything. For that brief moment I realised that what me and my wife had been through wasn’t normal, it was terrible, but we had made it, and as I raced home I thought that maybe I am a good man, and more than that a man who has survived the reversal of the natural order, who has buried his son. I wanted to go home and waft away the smog of grief and make my wife see that we must be extraordinary.

But it was too late, because as I was about to put my key in the front door I looked through the side window and saw them both, him and my wife with that absent smile, and realised that death and loss and sadness is as about as ordinary as it gets.


If she ever discovered that I’d found out, it certainly wasn’t from me. I didn’t even mention the new marks on the walls. I got back in the taxi and drove around without stopping until the sun came up and then went home and went to bed without saying a word to her.

I didn’t blame her. The madness wasn’t in her cheating or our son dying, it was in that moment when I raced home and almost told my wife that our son’s death made us special, made us an unbeatable team. What a twat. How stupid of me to forget what she and her gentleman friend reminded me of, which is that I was right all those years ago on my wedding night: everything about life is completely arbitrary and meaningless, including who you wake up next to, and trying to impose any kind of order on it all is like trying to lasso your own shadow.


My feelings towards my wife didn’t change because what happened – the growing apart - was inevitable. If my son had lived or if we had more kids then perhaps it wouldn’t have happened quite yet, or maybe I would have been the one with the time and opportunity to stray, or maybe the kids would have cemented us together in a way that death couldn’t. It’s not that I didn’t love her, or that I was indifferent to her, it’s that the idea of some indestructible unit, me and her was always an illusion. Why did I marry her? Because I happened to meet her, and happened to love her, and you might call that fate but it was bloody hard work that involved convincing both myself and her that marriage was a good idea and then trying to make it work, and her getting past my name, and both of us engineering this great bloody myth of the Big Love. And ultimately getting married is what you do, isn’t it, you have to fill a life somehow and pints and kebabs every night gets boring. But us being together wasn’t fate in the same way that my kid dying was fate. We were a little manmade fiction.


All my resentment was channelled against him because every time the image of them came into my mind I saw his greasy hand on my wall.

I didn’t engineer it so we’d meet, like every other bloody event in my life, it just happened. A man flagged down a taxi in the early hours one morning, the taxi was me and the man was him. I only recognised him once he was inside and I got a proper look at him, and I realised that the spot I’d picked him up from was only a few streets from my house. He looked knackered. I asked him if he’d had a long night.

‘Something like that’ he said, and went to light cigarette.

‘No smoking, mate’ I told him, just to piss him off, and he looked round for the signs like punters always do before putting the pack of fags away.

‘Sorry about that. See I never take taxis but my car’s in the shop and Christ knows you can’t get a bus for love nor money at this time of night.’

I didn’t reply, I kept driving, looking at him occasionally in the rear-view mirror. He was a handsome git, all chiselled chin and dark eyes and powerful looking hands. I noticed them because he had the restless, searching hands of smokers denied a cigarette. He found a bit of paper - looked like an old bus ticket - in his pocket and rolled it and unrolled it endlessly. He was younger than me, and arrogant with it, with his legs splayed apart and a half-grin on his face. It gave me a mild, petty satisfaction to see that his bulk was of the type that would turn to fat the minute he turned forty.

‘You been in the taxi business long then?’ he asked, and didn’t wait for an answer. ‘I just started a new job, myself. Basically I go round people’s houses, people who’ve expressed an interest in digital telly, and I try to sell them the most expensive package. It’s brilliant, I spend most of the day drinking tea and eating biscuits with nice old ladies.’

‘And sometimes nice young ladies, I’ll bet. Or are they not interested in your expensive package.’

He gave a short, knowing laugh.

‘A bloke at work, Jason, got himself in a right pickle the other day. He was in some old lady’s house giving her the spiel when she excused herself because the phone rang. She left him sitting there with his tea and biscuits, all cosy, the electric fire going, and he fell asleep.

He wakes up and the electric fire’s still on, his tea’s cold, the house is silent and it’s got dark outside…He panics of course, doesn’t know where the hell he is at first, can’t remember where the front door is, runs around the house until he finds it and then can’t open it cos the old girl’s double locked it, hasn’t she. All he’s thinking is that he was meant to meet his girlfriend half an hour ago, she’s switched off her phone because she’s had it up to here with Jason and he’s always late or has to cancel at the last minute cos he’s accidentally fallen down a drain or something and basically she can’t be bothered with him. He’s proper useless, but he does actually love her - he’s got a photo of her on his computer desktop and she is well fit.

Anyway, he’s desperate now so he decides to try and get out burglar-style, by prising open a window at the front of the house. He pulls back the net curtain and in front of him is this huge bodybuilder bloke built like a brick shithouse about to put his key in the front door. Jason freezes, the bloke’s face slowly starts turning red and the best thing is that being the prat that he is, Jason waves, while this mountain of a man can’t get the key in the door fast enough.

See it turns out that the old girl – who’s a bit dotty – went out and completely forgot about Jason. So then her son, the big bloke, is ringing the house and gets worried because she aint answering, and Jason can’t hear it cos he was asleep and nothing wakes him, and so her son comes round to check on her and finds what he thinks is a drug addict-robber in his mum’s house, blatantly waving at him.

The bloke crashes in and Jason the prat is trying to get his ID out of his pocket which makes the bloke think that he’s reaching for a knife or something so he just literally jumps on Jason – who weighs about as much as my left hand – and squashes him. Meanwhile the burglar alarm - which the bloke didn’t stop to turn off of course - has gone off and all hell breaks loose with neighbours rushing in and someone’s called the police and Jason’s arrested on suspicion of breaking and entering. The old girl comes home in the middle of it and she can’t remember who Jason is. My boss has to cancel a golfing weekend he was going to go on and come down to the police station to vouch for him. He’s in a right nark of course, is my boss, and for about a week afterwards whenever Jason tried to open his gob he’d say, ‘shut up you! Shut up your face!’ He’s foreign my boss, comes out with some funny phrases in times of stress. Oh yeah and Jason’s girlfriend dumped him. Again.’

I wondered why he is was telling me all this, whether it was post-sex exuberance or whether he was just naturally a talker, and thought that knowing her, it probably wasn’t his looks which lured my wife in, but the way he filled space with his stories, made you forget about yourself. And the thing is the longer I listened to him, the less I thought about the way he’d entered my house and left marks on my hallway wall. Instead I thought about my wife, and the look on her face when I saw her with him, and thought that it’s no bad thing to be able to forget.

We arrived at what I suppose was his house just as the sun was coming up, and as I drove off I looked back at him in the rear view mirror, searching for his cigarettes in his pockets, and I thought of my wife at home adjusting back to reality in her cocoon of silence, and my son, and my dad who gave me my ridiculous name because he didn’t know how to be anything other than ordinary, and I conceded defeat - which is how you found me.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


The uneasy Arab-African dichotomy in Egyptian identity is nowhere more evident than in Egyptian popular attitudes towards their black African “brothers”. Egypt’s pride in its African identity on the international and diplomatic level - as demonstrated in its 2006 African Cup victory celebrations – seems to dissipate amongst the ranks of its ordinary citizens, and people of black African descent in Egypt - whether refugee or tourist - are regularly exposed to racism. Xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes are obviously not restricted to those of black African heritage: a certain insularity in Egyptian society means that almost anyone perceived as belonging to another culture (including Egyptians born and brought up abroad) is regarded with curiosity if not suspicion. What exacerbates racism towards black people however are popular conceptions of beauty as packaged and sold by the media and embodied in Lebanese singer Nancy Agram’s white-skinned and green-eyed artificial perfection: the maxim is the lighter the better, and this perception is blind to the beauty in black.

Where does that leave young black Sudanese refugees stranded in Cairo? Ibrahim el Batout’s disturbing documentary, ‘I am a Refugee Living in Cairo’ shown in Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery last week explored the devastating consequences of these exclusionary and racist attitudes. The sense of alienation and anger they induce has recently manifested itself in the form of inter-gang war amongst the Sudanese community, which forms the subject of the film.

It follows members of Cairo’s two most prominent gangs, the Lost Boys (whose members are the sons of community leaders and which is rumoured to have the backing of the Sudan Popular Resistance Movement) and the weaker Outlaws. The gangs represent surrogate support networks if not families for the young men who join their ranks: they often live together, share food and money and provide protection from frequent racially-motivated physical attacks by Egyptians. The young men who appeared share a sense of hopelessness: refugees in Egypt are denied their right to work and frequently encounter bureaucratic, financial and other obstacles in pursuing their education. The inability of most Sudanese refugees to find work legally has pushed them into the informal sector, frequently into domestic service. This has upset the traditional distribution of roles within Sudanese homes by forcing men to stay at home while women act as the bread-winners, exacerbating the sense of frustration. This noxious combination of absent mothers, a feeling of abandonment by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees in Cairo (UNHCR), constant hostility from Egyptian society and an inability to plan for the future has created young men who in the film speak bitterly of their lives in Egypt, going as far as to describe them as worse, in some ways, than the war they had fled in Sudan.

In one particularly disturbing scene we are shown the Sudanese victim of a racist assault who, attempting to escape his tormentors sought refuge in his flat, which they set on fire, trapping him inside. He survived, but with horrific burns. Another youth describes hearing verbal racist insults on a daily basis, saying that if he responds the situation descends into violence. In another scene we are shown a Sudanese gang member attempting to pass through security in a social club of some description. It is not clear whether he has already passed through the metal detector, but the guards require him to go through it whether he has already or not. He objects, is edgy and frustrated and clearly regards the treatment as yet another instalment of daily humiliation - the tension quickly escalates.

Little wonder that young men seek refuge in these gangs, whose defining feature is their mimicking of black American rap culture. Gang members have adopted the rap lifestyle wholesale, dressing in the baggy trousers, sports shoes and heavy jewellery beloved of their rap heroes, and each gang has hand signs and other symbols unique to it – again in emulation of US rap culture. In adopting this identity these youths seem to be consciously rejecting Arab culture – which after all, they perceive as having rejected them – and embracing a world in which black is beautiful, successful and rich.

Empowerment perhaps, but at a price of internecine violence which, just as it wreaked havoc on America’s rap community, seems just as essential an accessory. The film shows gang members who have fallen victim to this meaningless violence: broken limbs, stabbings and even fatalities, the most recent of which occurred when violence erupted after the AUC’s celebration of World Refugee Day last month. Speaking after the film AUC Professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Barbara Harrell-Bond pointed out that gang violence intensified after the 2005 three-month Mostafa Mahmoud protest held by asylum seekers and refugees outside the UNHCR was violently broken up by police on December 30th leading to the deaths of some 30 people. The government has rejected calls from rights groups and a United Nations body (the Committee on Migrant Workers to which Egypt recently submitted its periodic report on the implementation of the Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families) for a re-opening of the inquiry into the deaths, claiming firstly that many of the protestors were under the influence of drugs and alcohol (and yet, half of those who died were women and children) and that investigators were unable to establish the identity of police officers who failed to follow orders.

That such violence could have occurred with impunity will inevitably have fuelled gang members’ anger and sense of vulnerability. One youth in the film spoke of his sense of being unprotected, by either UNHCR or the Egyptian government. And yet the violence and delinquency in which these gangs indulge while it is senseless and gratuitous, is demonstrably attributable to gang members’ loss of hope and the simple fact that that those without jobs have nothing to do all day: in the question and answer session after the film Harrell-Bond pointed out that when English classes were organised for young refugees including gang members incidences of violence fell dramatically – and rose again when the American volunteers who had been teaching the classes left Egypt and the classes ended.

‘I am a Refugee Living in Cairo’ is a starkly depressing film which gives a sense of the desperation palpable amongst Cairo’s Sudanese refugee community, and which has fuelled this search for an alternative, increasingly violent, identity.

Originally published in al-Ahram Weekly.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ears to you, Ibrahim

Best typo encountered so far in 2007

Those days she and I were both spending a lot of time with Ibrahim. I didn't see her with him the day he left. At the airport Ibrahim and I embraced affectionately and our eyes welled up with ears.

Bahaa Taher, Love in Exile, AUC Press, 2001, pg. 131