Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hello, England! You're bloody freezing.

It is always a shock to see flocks of British people again after a prolonged absence, wandering exhausted and lost around Cairo Airport like undercooked chicken drumsticks. I felt quite sorry for one teenage tourist who was a tad too hasty in approaching the passport control desk. The spectacularly ill-tempered passport officer pointed his pen at him and ordered him to go to the next booth along with a peremptory ‘henaak! HENAAK!’ [there] – thereby ensuring that the cowed individual’s abiding memory of Egypt is of first-class and friendly service. Apparently fastidiously exact about everything, the same officer ignored me and my passport while he put out a fag before closely supervising his colleague who was making him a cup of tea using tea kept in an old vitamin bottle. The spoonful was not sufficiently rounded.

Meanwhile another officer senior sitting on a desk nearby expressed his disgust about the fact that his minion had brought him falafel instead of fool.

Once inside and remarkably the gate was announced as being open almost immediately, although of course once there I found it deserted save for a solitary officer staring at us while he smoked a fag. I repaired to a ledge in front of a café where a British couple were seated, drinking tea. These two were fascinating. Both middle-aged and grossly overweight, they functioned according to a routine which they had obviously cultivated and refined over many years. The woman talked almost incessantly, and in minute detail, about the most asinine things, while the man occasionally fed her with the fish of a ‘yeah’ or a ‘that’s right’ occasionally – and both seemed quite happy with this set-up. I had passed her while on my way to the gate, while she herself was on her way to the shops selling trinkets at one end of the airport, and when she got back to the café she sat down and proceeded to slowly describe this tiny journey in excruciating detail to her husband.

“It’s just more shops over there selling souvenirs and that.”

“Oh yeah...?”

“There was this one woman selling a bracelet, but it was like three bracelets together but not joined so you could wear them separately sort of up your arm.”

“Oh right…”

“And it was sort of a purple colour it was, but the woman who was sending it she wanted 48 Egyptian pounds for it. Or was it 50. No it was 48 - so I didn’t bother, I just walked away. It wasn’t that nice that bracelet.”


“I can almost close my jacket now, I weighed myself in the morning and I’ve lost some weight and one of my chins has gone down. Look, here.”

“Oh yeah that’s right.”

“Oh look they’ve started queuing up now. There’s no need for us to rush cos the plane aint going anywhere is it and we’re booked aint we.”

“Yeah that’s right we’re booked.”

And so it went, on and on, according to some logic unfathomable to everyone but the couple themselves. Like a game of squash the woman emitted a never-ending stream of thoughts and had them batted back at her.

Couples are a mystery. But not as mystifying as the crass stupidity of tourists. While we were being ferried to the plane on the bus, a woman in a straw hat from what sounded like Northern Ireland asked an airport employee standing next to the driver, “which direction are the pyramids from here?”

“I don’t speak English…Arabic only.” The man replied.

“The Pyramids. Which direction are they?” The woman insisted, her voice getting louder and slower.

“No English. Arabic. Arabic.” At this the man returned to talking to the driver while the woman stared at him momentarily before shouting at top volume to her friends behind her, “he says he can’t speak English but if he can’t speak English how could he understand that I was speaking English and tell me that he himself can’t speak it??” She then shook her straw-hatted head resignedly, and tutted at the stupidity of the natives, obviously pleased with the sheer brilliance of her superior white man logical deduction, while I resisted the urge to push her out of the bus.

Egyptair was shambolic as always, one man with three children including a small baby barely containing his rage at the fact that he had not been given a seat with the cot thing despite apparently requesting it twice two months ago. He inquired whether the only solution to dealing with Egyptair’s incompetence is, in fact, to fly British Airways. Rather than fixing their problems, Egyptair have thrown a purser at them. I had no idea what a purser was before this flight, but soon warmed to him because:

1. After he inquired about whether I had enjoyed my meal and I requested an extra bread roll he gave me FOUR and even gave me extra butter, which caused me momentarily to pass out with stupefaction.
2. He had a side parting/comb-over and big tinted spectacles, and was a huge man who made his eyebrows dance up and down when he talked which I think was a ruse for distracting irate passengers not given cot seats.

I hate flying, but this flight was almost painless apart from the fact that when we arrived over London the plane immediately turned round again before proceeding to draw a series of circles on the flight path thingie they show on the TV screens to distract passengers’ attention from the surliness of the cabin crew. The screen ended up being covered in five circles in an Olympic Games logo-type formation, and in between bouts of hyperventilation I managed to ascertain from the woman seated next to me that the plane was waiting for a landing slot, and that these circles were ‘holding patterns’ - which is a term I liked very much.

I will not detail here the fiasco that happened at Heathrow Airport which involved me and my luggage heading home on a bus while my distraught parents waited in arrivals for three hours. My father reads this blog, and I fear that should I recount this incident he may spontaneously combust into flames.

England is the land that summer forgot, as usual, and yesterday I was in a hat and gloves. I am more and more convinced that the climate really does account for the (in)famously dour, reserved British character: it is hard to generate warmth of any kind in these conditions. The worst thing however is the silence, which truly is deafening, and the forbidding slate grey of the sky, which induces a sort of claustrophobia as if it is closing in on my head. It is of course wonderful to see family and friends, and there is a certain attractiveness about the fact that life here is in many respects so much easier than it is in Egypt: I have almost forgotten what heat feels like, but the pain and misery of Egypt’s everyday oppression and poverty feels equally distant. However life is so smooth here, and so easy, and so ordered (apart from the frequent acts of random street violence obviously), that I feel constantly asleep, and trying to find the ordinary everyday madness that I like to look at is like attempting to surf in a paddling pool.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Perhaps this will distract her from the fact that I couldn't afford a decent present.

A relative once told me that she and the rest of the family always knew that my mother would never stay in Egypt, that she would leave for good. I remember feeling surprised not by the fact that she wished to cleave herself from the bosom of her family and homeland, but that she actually managed to organise herself sufficiently to do so.

Her life has always been a chaotic whirlwind - if a whirlwind can occur extremely slowly that is. This is because her journeys - whether from bedroom to bathroom or London to Cairo -are always encumbered with an unlikely and baffling array of items. It is her version of an outdoor survival kit and includes: a radio of some variety, wet wipes, hand cream(s), tongue wipes, 89 toilet seat plastic covers, at least two newspapers one of which will date from last month, mountains of Kleenex, various printed off email jokes, cuttings from newspapers, chewing gum, plastic cutlery, wipes for spectacle lenses, a pair of glasses, an extra watch, occasionally a plant, and a life-enhancing gadget of some variety such as a portable inflatable lumbar back support which she will leave on a bus within ten days of purchasing it. Note that the forgotten door key rarely figures amongst these items.

Since she is essentially a mobile chemist/newsagent she was always very useful to have on trips. The problem is that all the above items must be transferred to the particular handbag she is using each time she leaves the house, a process which generally takes 15 minutes and which usually begins after the time she has told my father she would be ready. This results in my father isolating himself and his rage in the car until she arrives, when he will put on his driving gloves in a marked manner.

He does occasionally get his own back though, by deliberately developing a sudden need to commune with nature in a seated way just as she is doing her seat belt up.

She thus never travels light, neither in the literal nor metaphorical sense. Around every corner lurks a disaster of some variety, in response to which she claims to have developed a sixth sense that ‘something awful has happened/is going to happen.’ It is uncannily accurate – but only by virtue of the fact of it being permanently switched on. Luckily this permanent pessimism about life is usually offset by her sense of humour, which is of the best kind – scathing and cynical. She is always willing to help anyone out in any way she can, but thoughtfully informs the person in question that this is on condition of my mother still being alive in the morning, having not died in her sleep. When my father’s desire to watch a BBC adaptation of Bleak House interfered with her Sunday schedule of Songs of Praise and Last of the Summer Wine she posed the insightful question of, ‘why do we need to watch a bleak house if we live in one?’ She will also ‘joke’ about her entire life going downhill after the ‘black day’ she met my father - though this is usually after he has just requested that she gives him her receipts for that week. We still all recall with fond memories the time that we and some friends of hers celebrated her birthday in a Thai restaurant, and during consumption of the slightly odd, glutinous desert, she loudly declared that it was ‘like licking your own knickers.’ How we laughed!

My mother comes in two flavours, hilarity or newspaper-reading silence, there is no middle ground. While my father complains that she lacks ‘a sense of decorum’ (to which my mother replies that he himself is ‘stiff’), she is never dull – except when describing in nauseating detail the latest events in the Big Brother house. The silence does however come at inopportune times, such as during a school trip to Liverpool, which she spent buried in a newspaper while the other mums warbled on about packed lunches and daytime TV. But rather this any day of the week because of the compensation of the humour – even if at heart it is predicated on a sense that life is a series of unmitigated disasters waiting to get her.

She is equally black and white in terms of energy levels, and can survive on virtually no sleep when for example preparing for a trip (during which the packing is of course, formidable.) She unfortunately subsequently makes up for this with approximately 72 hours of continued unconsciousness which begins on the plane. Her sleeping habits in any case drive my father to distraction, since she tends to come alive at night, at approximately 9 p.m. Suddenly super alert, she develops an urge to tickle my dad who by that time is catatonic. The interesting thing is that both of them have the same remarkable ability to be asleep and snoring and yet detect activity of a channel changing nature.

My fondest recent memory of her dates from last year, when we went to visit my grandmother in Dorset. An auntie was visiting at the time and it was proposed that lunch be taken in a pub. My mother protested vociferously of course, since her suspicion about levels of cleanliness anywhere other than in her own home has apparently persuaded her that chefs stir soup with their genitals. We eventually convinced her to go by promising her that she wouldn’t actually have to consume anything.

Once there my father rubbed his hands together and asked everyone what their poison would be. While she spread napkins on the table to lean her elbows on my mother told him that she would have a VIRGIN Bloody Mary – her tipple of choice for as long as I can remember. My father proceeded to the bar, where I saw him convey the orders to the barmaid. At one point he cupped one hand behind his ear which is a sure sign that a breakdown in communication of some nature has occurred, and sure enough there was the faintest sound of a car stereo going past on the road 1000 miles away which no doubt impeded his hearing entirely. He brought back a drink of something red and gave it to my mother who took a sip and then paused thoughtfully, before voicing her suspicion that the drink was not, in fact, virgin. I took a sip and tasted vodka levels of a strength to strip paint and, predicting a scene, offered to take it back and swap it. Upon attempting to take the glass from her I found it secured in the vice-like grip of her clammy hand. Snatching the glass away she chucked it down her throat while mumbling something about it being a shame for things to go to waste before holding the glass at a 90 degree above her head in order to ensure that she got every last bit of hussy Mary. She spent the rest of the afternoon red–cheeked and jolly.

Happy birthday, mum, and may you always to be a beautiful mixture of bonkers contradictions. See you later.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Helwa ya balad meen, part two: return to the mother's land

Despite her own aversion to going back my mother was enthusiastic about me holidaying in Cairo – I think she was sending me as some kind of ambassador on her behalf. Inevitably I can’t remember exactly how much time elapsed between Mildred’s visit and my trip to Cairo. What I do recall is that having got the What Not to Wear treatment off Mildred I had removed my eyebrow ring, stopped wearing clothes originally designed for builders and had even purchased heels. I had also grown out my hair which, when Mildred came over, met army regulations. I thought it looked alluring, and ingénue (blame Winona Ryder), but was disabused of this notion in the starkest of fashions as I was riding my bike one day round the local park’s lake. People go there to fish of a weekend, and as I rode past one old bloke casting off he thoughtfully warned me with an exclamation of, ‘look out, sonny!’

Thus when I set out on my adventure to Egypt I was excited about firstly, the duty free and, secondly, proving to Mildred that I was female - Egypt didn’t actually come into it much.

As anyone who regularly travels to Egypt will tell you acclimatisation to the country begins not in Egypt itself but rather at check-in, where accepted norms of orderly conduct start to unravel as Egyptians spot other Egyptians and dormant instincts are suddenly revived. The jostling of humongous suitcases and unending entreaties to just let the extra ton go this one time seemed rather charming somehow when conducted in Arabic and when coupled with excitement about the trip, but soon ended when it came to boarding.

Is any other nationality as competitive about boarding as Egyptians are? Childhood trips with my mother back to Egypt were exhausting simply because the announcement that ‘passengers sitting in rows 20 – 40 are now invited to board’ was heard by her – and every other Egyptian – as the crack of a starting pistol. ‘Yalla – quick! QUICK!’ she would hiss, before beginning the mad dash with her bag on wheels as I followed with 87 plastic bags of duty free and the hair straighteners for downstairs auntie which would not fit in the suitcase. Her eternal fear was that we would not find room in the overhead lockers. She also seemed to think that if we arrived first she would magically guarantee herself that all important extra seat for her newspapers – pooh to seating allocation – and would storm head-down towards the plane, knocking startled English people in sandals out of her path as she went.

It never worked of course since all the other Egyptians on the flight had exactly the same game-plan, and she invariably ended up having a fight with the man she had magically identified at check-in as the individual who ‘would take all the overhead luggage room.’ I would sit horrified as this combative side to my mother was revealed until a surly Egyptair air hostess broke up the fight with the promise of extra pillows. My mother would then exhale loudly until she fell asleep, waking up for the meal and to resume the exhalations until the time came to land. She likes landings because of the time she worked for an airline as an interpreter, and the captain allowed her in the cockpit to watch him land the plane - possibly the last time an Arab person was allowed anywhere near a plane’s controls while it is in the air. She never misses an opportunity to recount to me the thrill of being in the cabin as the captain manfully grappled with his vibrating stick.

She doesn’t put it like that obviously.

All this is to say that the experience of flying to Egypt prepares you for being there, when you will on a daily basis encounter this survival of the fittest attitude towards anything involving people, vehicles and limited space.

Landing at Cairo Airport has always given me a thrill unequalled by my trips anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it is because flights from London almost always land at night, when Cairo from above is a beautiful maze of black mixed with orange and green lights, and minute cars shuttling along Heliopolis’ long roads like crazy Packmen. Once landed there is the inevitable wait while the buses arrive and the stairs are attached, the darkness illuminated only by the blinking lights of the aircraft as a hundred 7amdilellah 3ala salamas echo round the plane. The apex of the experience is undoubtedly the moment when you step through the plane doors. You could blindfold me and put me in a mystery plane (though don’t take this as an invitation please, Mr Heads of British and US intelligence services!) and I’d be able to tell you if we’d landed in Cairo. That combination of heat, airplane fuel, dust and pollution which is so unique, so familiar.

I also love the fact that the stairs on wheels are still used, and have always wanted to dump my bags and just stand at the top waving, like the Beatles did in the old footage of them conquering America.

Mildred and her then fiancé met me at the airport where I learnt that we would all be going on a jolly with her fiancé’s family to a place called Marsa 3alam the very next day. Back at the family’s house that night and Mildred had acquired the room my parents and I used to live in, where she had set up cable TV – no more sitting through the Bold and the Beautiful and Knott’s Landing! The only downside was that cousin Tennis had left Egypt, to attend university in the US, an early introduction to the phenomenon of Egypt's youth chasing opportunities that simply do not exist in their own country.

The alterations in the house were reflected in the changes which had occurred generally in Egypt by the early 90s: it seemed to have caught up, at least in consumerist terms - was brighter and bigger than it had been in the 80s, its shelves better stocked and seemed full of potential as we made the 896 hour drive to Marsa 3alam. It is in any case impossible to regard Egypt as anything other than a little piece of paradise on earth while sitting on its shores seeing nothing but blue everywhere you look - especially if you are from Croydon and have been on perhaps one beach holiday in your life.

I carried this glow back to Cairo where for two weeks I sampled an AUC lifestyle. I was mesmerised by the library of course, and was also charmed by the fact that the campus was full of cats of both an animal and human nature, the latter variety mostly very good-looking indeed. At that time I was also seduced by the type of confidence created by pots of money and an assured position in society, and AUC boasts many such specimens. It was only later when I worked in Egypt that I got a clearer understanding of the complexities of this noxious mixture of power, position and wealth in Egypt. I had however got an inkling after two incidents which occurred in my early teens.

Um Mohamed the cleaner/cook/companion to my grandmother had been working in the house since forever. She was called Um Mohamed (mother of Mohamed) because she didn’t have any children. The things I remember about her are: her gold loop earrings which made her look like a pirate, her high girlish voice, and the smell of her hands when she grabbed my cheek, a mixture of caustic soap, cooking and my childhood in Egypt. I had made some kind of picture at school which I wanted to give to Um Mohamed as a present. When I suggested this to my mother she dismissed the idea almost contemptuously. “What will she do with that??” she spat, “she needs money, not pictures.”

The second incident involved a trip to a shop called Choice, which indeed does offer choice but only in terms of ladies’ leather handbags. My mother never leaves Egypt without a new bag, either for herself or someone else, and is steadily building a mountain of them at home, like downstairs auntie who recently counted all hers and discovered that she has forty. My interest in handbags is approximately that of my interest in atom-splitting, so I chose to stay in the car with a book rather than spend thee hours fondling leather. An ancient-looking old lady dressed in black approached the car holding out one hand while prodding the grouped fingers of the other at her mouth. I gave her ten LE, which I suppose even by today’s standards would be considered a lot. My mother and auntie emerged from the shop with their 150 LE handbags just as the old woman was leaving, and they were horrified when they heard how much I had handed over.

What particularly stuck with me about the incident was the reaction it received and which I only fully understood years later when the ugliness of the class system revealed itself to me once I started making my own friends in Egypt.

When I came to Egypt I of course knew of the existence of the class system and about some people and things being ‘balady’ - mostly because of certain family members who, if wishing to secretly comment on someone or something’s balady status would whisper ‘c’est tres mon pays’, a direct French translation of balady, or ‘my country.’ The word can serve both as a neutral adjective (‘mooz balady,’ locally produced bananas), and as a term to deem something or someone as lower class and without the ‘benefit’ of exposure to the outside world. The term is approximately equivalent to ‘common’ in the British context, but its usage fraught with the mysterious subtleties of Egyptian society.

I gradually learnt that the factors determining balady status include language, wealth, education and appearance. Thus someone who only speaks Arabic may be balady, but not if this person is my grandmother, because we are an excellent family, Amnesiac. If however he only speaks Arabic and he is a plumber, he is almost certainly balady. If the same plumber happens to have got lucky and accumulated wealth he is probably still balady and worse still ‘nouveau riche,’ and one determines this by looking at his shoes and his wife. In contrast if the son of a very rich man does nothing but go to the club everyday and knows mostly nada about nada he is still not balady because he speaks English and comes from good-breeding. Wealth is not a conclusive determinant of balady-free status because the family might be intellectuals, which means that at some point in their family history someone’s father had a full library but an empty bank account: members of these families will almost certainly never be balady. Education is important too: State universities are generally frowned upon, private universities are acceptable, and having attended AUC at some point virtually guarantees that the individual in question is not balady. A university education abroad (in western Europe or the US) means that the individual in question both has money and speaks another language and is decidedly not balady - though not if through his own brilliance he is there on a scholarship and his family live in Boulaq. Observance of one’s religious obligations is necessary and good, but excessive piety/religious conservatism is not, because it may indicate an uncultivated mind.

Speaking of culture, it is not necessary to read or have hobbies - nor indeed have a passion for anything - to escape balady status. Two families, one balady, one not, might have exactly the same interests or lack thereof: the difference lies in how and where they pursue them. The sons in both families might enjoy watching American films for example. The difference is that one reads the subtitles. Both wives enjoy shopping, but one only buys imported stuff from City Stars. While their wives are shopping the husbands might enjoy going to watch the match with their mates. The difference is that one drives to a coffee shop with a 30 LE minimum while the other walks to a local ‘ahwa and pay 6 LE maximum for a sheesha and a tea. Both families enjoy Arabic pop music, including sha3by music occasionally in films, but the better-off clan would not tolerate it at their daughter’s wedding.

Foreigners do not fall within the balady classification system and are judged according to nationality and/or colour. This does not however apply to a person born abroad of Egyptian parents who does not speak Arabic and has never visited Egypt: he will nonetheless be judged according to where his family lay on the balady scale. According to popular belief foreigners are notoriously unable to detect whether a person is balady or not, and I have frequently heard self-described upper-class Egyptians attribute relationships between foreign women and ‘balady’ men to this lack of awareness on the part of the poor deluded foreigner.

I once asked an aunt her opinion of Egypt before and after the revolution. Unhesitatingly she said that the country was better off by far before because ‘everyone knew their place.’ It is this attitude which I think underlies the class system in Egypt, a system I have never been able to stand and have grown to detest the more I am exposed to it. Apologists for it argue that in a society as socially stratified as Egypt’s class is an important indicator of whether someone is on the same level as you intellectually and socially, whether you are likely to share a similar outlook on life, have similar backgrounds: unlike more culturally homogenous societies, the influence of the wealth gap in Egypt is tangible.

What is so troubling about it is not that people use clues about a person’s background and appearance to determine whether they should get to know them or not (since this happens everywhere in the world), but that in Egypt an individual’s class is so entrenched. Class mobility simply does not exist, and this has huge repercussions, socially and professionally. A relative of mine recently complained that a candidate for a job she was advertising satisfied all the academic and professional criteria but that his suit looked poor. I suggested that a suit could be changed, but she wasn’t convinced, and he didn’t get the job.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of it all is that class rules have been internalised, seemingly unquestionably, and it is terrible to witness the way people curtail their hopes and ambitions according to the station they perceive for themselves in life. The office boys I worked with in my second to last job were in their late teens, at an age when they surely should have been plotting a variety of fanciful schemes to conquer life and the world. But they seemed beaten somehow already by the universe, contained by the invisible ring of their rank. One of them, Ahmed - who is incidentally the best dancer in the world – was constantly trying to devise a successful money-making scheme. These schemes included a night job in some kind of fool and falafel partnership which lasted two weeks because he kept falling asleep while at work in the day job. He was also briefly involved in a net café, and a mobile phone shop, and the last I heard was enrolled in an IT school to get a diploma of some variety. He is streetwise and bright but lacks experience or support and, fatally, his dreams are limited to the miniscule portion of the world to which he feels he has a claim.

My aunt was wrong in her assessment that the revolution freed the masses of the yoke of class, spurning a nation of troublesome individuals who ferment social disharmony by having the impertinence to regard themselves as equal to others. Everywhere you look in Egypt you see subservience of the worst kind, the type which allows employees to swallow a stream of the most insulting and degrading publicly-delivered insults centred on the stupidity deriving from their rank in society. It renders women cleaning houses invisible as within earshot madam discusses with her friends the difficulty of finding an intelligent maid and how dirty they all are, and unreliable, and stupid. I remember noticing for the first time as I was going past it, two distant specks on either side of al-manassa, the grandstand where Anwar al-Sadat was shot. The specks were the forms of the two soldiers whose duty it is to stand immobile on either side of the steps for hours at a time. Now every time I pass these solitary figures I wonder at how they stand (geddit) such a God awful duty.

Dire economic circumstances dictate the choices of the majority of Egypt’s population of course, but there is nonetheless a certain and conspicuous surrender to the fate these circumstances hand them. It infuriates me when I hear people say that Egyptians are a ‘patient’ people, who uncomplainingly put up with forever deteriorating circumstances. It is more accurate to describe the majority of people here as alienated, and like the soldiers guarding al-manassa, condemned to serve Egypt without ever having a stake in it.

Answers on a postcard to whether this social hierarchy has always existed, or is the legacy of colonialism, but whatever its origins it has proved awfully useful to the ruling regime who can count on a people who either do not regard themselves as suitably qualified to be masters of their own fate or are waiting for the next world or are unaware that they deserve better.

The well-worn paradox is, of course, that hatred of Egypt almost always comes accompanied by a fierce loyalty to it. A friend of mine, who has represented Egypt internationally in volleyball, once lamented the complete lack of investment in, and support for, Egyptian athletes. Having warmed to this theme he then expanded to condemn Egypt generally with a stream of colourful invectives which made frequent reference to the moral conduct of Egypt’s mother. Some five minutes later he was talking about a foreigner in Cairo who insulted Egypt and Egyptians within his earshot at a kiosk, causing my friend the upstanding citizen (and he is very upstanding at 6 ft 4 inches tall) to assert his physical presence and advise the mouthy foreigner to shut up immediately, or else. He compared Egypt to his mother, and said that while he himself could insult her, those not closely related to her did not share this privilege.

If you are into patriotism then yes, there are plenty of reasons to be proud of Egypt, but I have become a little tired of apologising for British actions in Egypt. Any mention of Egypt’s glorious past will eventually touch upon the routing of the British from Egypt during which meaningful looks are always directed at me, daughter of Sir Kitchener. Another perennial question is “which is better, Egypt or England?” - as if we were discussing makes of blow torch. I am also the unwilling official spokeswoman for all things British wherever I go, and am constantly buffeted with questions and statements such as “in England You (plural) don’t like Muslims,” or “why don’t English people believe in God anymore?” or “English people are very cold.” This has to some extent forced me to wear an ill-fitting coat of Britishness with which I am not entirely comfortable. I have giving up trying to explain that I am not from Britain, I am from London, and there is a difference, and long ago realised that mothers cannot confer Egyptianness on their offspring – even if the law now says otherwise.

This was made clear to me in the most galling manner when Mauve Bubble and I were applying for Syrian visas. Mauve’s father is Egyptian but she had virtually no contact with either him or Egypt while growing up. At the Syrian Embassy in London she casually mentioned that her father is from Alexandria and was immediately relieved of the need to pay for a visa and welcomed like a lost daughter. All that was missing was for Assad himself to adorn her in a lei. I on the other hand, the daughter of imperialists and pigs, was made to wait in line and pay for a visa with all the other scum.

Egypt has thus presented numerous questions of identity. The main motivations behind my move to Egypt were 1. because I like it and, 2. to learn the language. On the language front I still sound weird, and am having to reconcile myself to the fact that I will probably never sound entirely normal in Arabic, it’s just too late and vowel sounds are beyond me. I still love Egypt, but it is only through living in Egypt that I was able to see and understand its cruelty. The burden of this knowledge means that I will never be able to recapture the Egypt of my childhood. But Egypt is rather like having a genius, but insane friend: experiences are always intense, and vivid, but alas this applies to both the good and the bad. You will however, never be bored.

I have given up on trying to work out where I fit in Egypt. Now when taxi drivers and others ask me where I'm from I always want to say, you tell me.