Friday, September 28, 2007

Welcome to the Hotel California

Having peered down the slope of Egypt’s dark side in el Hussein yesterday I decided to launch myself fully down it by attending a protest tonight, downtown.

Organised by Kefaya it was a demonstration against torture, against the imprisonment of journalists, against corruption and was also an expression of solidarity with the courageous workers on strike in Mahalla. Essentially, it was against everything and sought to deliver the usual two fingers to the regime.

Arriving in Talaat Harb Square, comrade Sharshar and I found it devoid of all dissent other than the disembodied voice of protestors with a loudspeaker standing on the balcony above Groppi in the Ghad Party headquarters. At ground-level however the pavements had been entirely occupied by the police: battalions of the boys in black, officers in white, plain-clothes officers with their walkie-talkies and pen and paper writing down what was being chanted above, and the rows upon rows of baltageyya, plain-clothed moustachioed soldiers who are called in to dispense order when things heat up. Some of these men were sitting down on the length of the pavement lining Groppi, others were standing outside the Madbouly bookshop. Meanwhile, Thursday evening strolling families cut through this scene of mass mobilisation as if it wasn’t even there, impervious to the yosqot yosqot [down down] Hosny Mobarak being bawled out above their heads.

Word eventually reached us that another demo was being held outside the journalists’ syndicate. Arriving there, we found a scene of much greater animation on the syndicate’s steps: some 150 people carrying banners and led by protest leaders leading the chants with gusto. All was contained by the usual black banner of soldiers standing behind the metal barriers, and on the other side of the road the officers in white uniforms or no uniforms milling about and making notes. We joined the demo, and as we passed through the narrow gap in the barrier I noticed that people already there were not being allowed out, but didn’t give it too much thought. Sharshar helped me to (inelegantly) mount a ledge on either side of the steps which gave an excellent view of the proceedings and which, above the crush of bodies, proved mercifully cool.

The passion on display during the protest was impressive, even if the slogans were largely anti- the status quo without being obviously very pro anything: I have heard this criticism of the Egyptian opposition movement on numerous occasions, and while it does seem to be a serious weakness I nonetheless admired the courage of the individuals leading the chants, men and women, sometimes with their children. To be so publicly visible, to risk all and identify yourself to the men watching across the road with their pens and papers and know that they when the media and the crowds leave you are completely isolated - that requires guts, or desperation, or perhaps both.

Some forty minutes into the protest it became obvious that only camera crews and journalists were being let out of the protest, and with difficulty. Some sixty people were assembled at the exit, arguing with the policemen who were dictating who and who could not be let out. Tensions inevitably escalated and one woman began punching the soldiers trying to force her way out. Down the line a white-haired veteran activist mounted the shoulders of a man and literally tried to climb her way over the soldiers, unsuccessfully of course.

As the situation heated up more soldiers in black were brought in to act as back up behind those stationed at the barriers, and the foreign journalists started to make their exits. It was at this point that I began to realise to what extent we were at the mercy of the police, whose approach to crowd control is to hit anything which moves. And the terrifying thing is that there is absolutely no-one who can help protestors if demonstrations turn nasty, hence the importance of a media presence, and in particular the foreign media, who are able to both publicise and (to some extent) prevent the worst excesses by security forces.

We were kept there for nearly three hours, watching the police mobilise outside and wondering what for. It was an odd mixture of tension and boredom, but the Mahalla workers and Kefaya activists remained undaunted, and if anything seemed spurred on by it all. Eventually however people began queuing up at the ‘exit’ in an attempt to leave, and we joined them.

While waiting I amused myself by taking photos of the soldiers acting as a human barricade. In these unfortunate youths the regime has succeeded in creating automatons, programmed to stand for hours on end or to sit in their furnace-like trucks until required or beat people. But they are entirely uncomprehending of what is going on before them because they are voiceless, disenfranchised, poorly-educated kids without choices. I larked about with them while waiting to get out, took pictures of them. They posed, put their baseball hats on back to front, smiled, laughed, asked for more pictures, complained that they didn’t stand out in the picture, told me I was ‘honey’. These men were exactly like children, emasculated. Empty vessels, and just as at the mercy of the regime as ‘we’ the protestors are.

The police said goodbye to us by letting us out one by one, through a space roughly half a metre wide. It was a petty, pathetic and entirely unnecessary gesture, the act of a bully. It would have been annoying but bearable, if it wasn’t also dangerous. The legendary volatility of crowds is surely known to the Egyptian police, the way they can take on a life of their own suddenly and without warning. As someone who remembers Hilsborough, the danger was certainly very present in my mind. People were frightened, and angry at the humiliation and as a result pushing, and meanwhile at the exit the police were picking and choosing who could leave: ‘known’ faces were turned away, as behind them the crush worsened. Eventually it was decided that women should be allowed out first (which made me briefly feel like I was on the Titanic), and lovely Sandmonkey identified to the police which girls were in his group and held back the police as Umm Nakad and I literally fought our way through the gap. Sandmonkey came out later, followed by Sharshar.

I said salaamo 3aleikoo to the police as I tumbled out of the tunnel, out of curiosity to see if they would respond, and they did return the greeting while they watched me flying across the pavement. One officer said to Umm Nakad ‘aih ya mama, bete3mely aih hena enty, rawwa7y baytek.’ [what are you doing here, love? Go home]. I have no doubt that if given the orders to these same officers would have happily beaten us both to a pulp, but it was nonetheless a reminder that it is not these men who are issuing orders, and to direct wrath against them is to miss the point, somehow. Tonight it wasn’t just the protestors who were humiliated but also the pitiful kids in black and the police, driven by corruption and low-wages to make a mockery of themselves and their profession while doing the dirty work for a regime which has lost all credibility.

Would it be trite to say that Egypt and Egyptians deserve far, far better than this?

Thursday, September 27, 2007


How can Egypt be so spectacularly cruel and yet so alive, so vital? A thousand little deaths - ordinary tragedies – take place every day, unremarkable and ignored. It is as if the dividing line between happiness and misery here is less distinct than elsewhere, almost as if in being forced to find happiness in the midst of never-ending sadness and hardship people have made these emotions co-exist contemporaneously, in the very same moment. Humour dilutes the pain, making disaster after humiliation after endless injustice bearable, but this necessarily works the other way, too: the pain takes the edge off the ability to laugh and forget, even if the famous Egyptian sense of humour is grounded in a healthy dose of bitterness.

El-Hussein is a stark reminder of this paradox, its skyline a wonderful serenade of minarets while down below the scene is chaos. The main square’s mosque and accompanying buildings are imposing, solid, beautiful, but to reach it from the other side of the main road you must descend into one of several airless, harshly-lit underpasses stinking of stagnant piss, dirt and trapped pollution, in the process stepping over the Chinese wind-up toys which spin round like rats at the entrance, mocking the white-clad figures with impossibly shaped legs sitting on the spit-covered ground with the crutches displayed before them like trophies. And all this to the echo of an invisible beggar or a madman lost somewhere in one of the other underpasses, his voice – like him - caught in the underworld.

But come out of the tunnel and there you are, in the midst of history, and you are perhaps briefly reminded of how rich this country’s past is. And the square buzzes with energy, with the voices of a hundred men entreating anyone and everyone to eat or drink in their establishment which has the best views, the best prices, the best fare. Their repertoire consists of jokes, flattery, beguilement and bullying: there is something compelling about the insistence, the assuredness, the momentum of it all. Once inside and customers are subject to a never-ending barrage of vendors, selling assorted motley items such as: plastic toy keyboards, wallets, recordings of the Quran, Golf visors, dolls, belts and henna tattoos. You might see a middle-aged woman in a dirty dress with a drum, beating it half-heartedly and attempting to sing through the space left by her missing teeth. With her is a thin young boy, perhaps 12-years old. He will take over the drumming at some point, and laughingly sing el 3inab el 3inab while a family claps and sings and makes a baby dance in their hands above their heads. During all this the woman is there, but entirely absent, her eyes looking vacuously into the distance. It seems odd somehow that this sad empty woman should be delivering joy, but yet it is entirely normal.

The cafes which line el-Hussein’s narrow lanes provide a unique atmosphere created in part by the bustle of people, the movement, the colours and the smells, and in part by the fact that the gender segregation common to most (non-fancy) coffee shops in Egypt does not exist and you will see women, families and men sitting together. Couples whisper while groups of young men will suddenly burst into clapping and song to the accompaniment of a tabla they have brought with them while one of them launches into a spectacularly sensual belly-dancing routine in the middle complete with shaking hips and hands twirling like birds in flight. His friends will laugh and clap, delighted, while elsewhere men smoking shisha look on impassively and coffee shop staff go about their business. Look down at your feet however, and you will see the apparition of a young woman with flip flops on the palms of her hands propelling herself slowly on the ground, her thin, lifeless legs splayed uselessly in front of her covered in the filth she has picked up dragging herself around. Her appearance only very slightly disturbs the atmosphere, causes the briefest of pauses before the merry-making continues because after all, everyone has their pain, carries a burden, visible or not, and God will provide.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The elderly and informed

The British Council, God bless them, hosted a free concert in their lovely garden yesterday as part of a season called ‘Ramadan Nights’ which when you see it written down actually sounds rather like the name of an American person who has converted to Islam, and is possibly a wrestler. We were treated to everyone’s favourite clappers, Black Thema, who have a ditty whose lyrics read roughly as follows:

Ana 3andy sirr/3andy sirr 7’ateer/el 7ayat lazem tet3aash/welly yekraaha mayestahelhaash* (I have a secret/a dangerous secret/life has to be lived/and he who hates life doesn’t deserve it)

Now amongst our party was Sharshar, and upon hearing these lyrics all of us immediately turned to him and gave him a pointed look. For Sharshar - while he is fun and lovely and impossible not to like – has views on life which make Ingmar Bergman productions look like Carry On films, and which are the product of reading books on Gnosticism and spending a year in the Egyptian army and frankly thinking too much. It’s not that he mopes, or spends his days lying down in a darkened room with his arm over his eyes or doodles coffins while at work – in fact quite the opposite, cos he’s a right laugh. His is a highly-detached, peculiarly cerebral type of misery which is almost scientific in nature. As far as I can make out what happened is that he read about the lost scrolls found in Nag Hamadi, became at loggerheads with God and then declared himself Gnostic/absurdist, to the general apathy of the world. Now every time one of life’s routine mishap happens he seizes upon it as evidence supporting his theory, for example:

Hubcap falls off while Sharshar is parking = life is an impenetrable maze of absurd delusions.

Sharshar is drafted into the Egyptian army = life is a series of foregone conclusions and minor tragedies, and the agony we endure is the warp to the weft of fleeting happiness in the cloth of life. (That he is amongst zillions of other young Egyptian men with brothers also drafted into the army is neither here nor there).

Sharshar sees a pretty girl for five seconds in City Stars but she does not notice him because he was in fact 800 metres away on the other side of the shopping centre = life’s sole objective is to make us taste its exquisite cruelty, to slowly burn in the flames of its bleak passions, to spin on the kebab of a celestial plot to grill me alive, oh, cruel mistress! etc etc. (He will in addition immediately go home and begin writing a diwan of poetry for her and their lost love, a project which will last for ten years).


The burden of this immutable truth does not appear to weigh heavily on Sharshar at all, but rather acts as a sort of ballast preventing his ship from tipping over into the playful but treacherous waves of unmitigated joy. It centres him.

After the hormonal turbulence of my teenage years I have largely concluded that introspective self-interrogation about the point of the existence of the universe should remain the purview of philosophy students and Oprah’s Book Club, since no good can possibly come of it. I am in any case satisfied if I have at least one reason to get out of bed every day, and mostly confine explorations of identity to Googling myself.

Having said all that, I am not a turnip, and there is alas an irresistible draw towards rumination about the point of life not in broad terms, but rather the purpose of individual existence. This draw has become slightly more powerful recently because my elderly grandmother, now in her 80s, who was widowed in the sixties and has lived happily on her own for the last thirty-odd years, is finally succumbing to old age.

There is something spectacularly cruel about old age, not because it is mortality made incarnate or even because it portends death, but rather because it has the potential to nullify everything and anything that has preceded it. My gran has had what I suppose would be considered an ordinary life with the usual allotment of good and bad and had five children along the way. But sickness and debilitation and their psychological effects are so overwhelming as to almost obliterate the past: it’s like spending 50 years painfully writing out a manuscript by hand only for a drop of water to fall on the page and for it to spread throughout the whole bloody thing, making an inky, illegible mess.

It is perhaps this which explains why the elderly are so often focused inwards on their infirmities, infuriating those around them with a litany of never-ending physical complaints. It isn’t merely that they feel unwell, because younger people in more pain do not complain in the same fashion. In the absence of the mundane pursuits of earlier days (work, kids etc) this obsession with their physical malaise seems to ground them in temporal matters, preventing the mind from wandering into a contemplation of what has, and hasn’t been, and of past events which once seemed so momentous but have now been rendered miniscule by the passage of time - and which by extension risk exposing the fatuousness of their entire lives. And there is a strange and terrible logic in these endless reports by the elderly about their physical ailments, since growing old is inevitable and natural and expected. Old people seem to relay details about a painful knee or a dodgy bladder in much the same way that new parents share news of a child’s first step or words: they are all marks of progress, or at least of advancement.

Old age renders the most brilliant of individuals at best cantankerous, at worst, self-obsessed bores, bringing into relief characteristics which were always present, but tempered by a sense of perspective which is obliterated once the body begins its steady decline. Exacerbating this in the UK is the way that old age is treated there: there is no established tradition of generations of the same family living together and property sizes and prices would in any case render this infeasible in the majority of cases. While it is incorrect to say that the British value the elderly less than in other cultures, shunting old people off to homes like lepers to a colony is not the healthiest of practices, even if it is borne of necessity, and must induce feelings of resigned guilt in those forced to do it. It is a strange irony that in Egypt, where lives are often so cheap, the twilight years are afforded an unusual respect.

* Please feel free to correct my feeble transliteration liberally.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tom and his features

I attempted to attend the launch of a new publishing house, Malame7, today, but was driven out by poetry.

In a suicidal move I arrived fifteen minutes early, and during the over forty minutes I waited outside for the thing to begin, played with two kittens – which proved to be one of the evening’s two highlights.

The other was provided in the form of someone involved with the launch who, in case he Googles himself, shall remain anonymous. We shall call him Tom here, because both he and Mr Jones share a similar amount of chest foliage.

Tom is super, super fit – of the standard which would enable him to join a boy band provided he shaved off his Hamas-style beard. I cannot work out if this advanced-only-enter-if-wearing-a-hard-hat level fitness is due to excessive personal grooming and lycra-clad self improvement, or whether our Lord in his infinite wisdom made him like that in order to test women’s willpower. Today’s venue was very dark indeed, but I actually saw Tom yesterday in an extremely well-lit place during a noisy meeting of a new popular movement, ‘Egyptians Against Torture’ (the meeting was shambolic but let’s hope that these were teething problems. I shall convey news of their activities here once they – or even I God bless me, for I hath offered to translate for them - start doing stuff. ). During the course of proceedings he leant over the podium on several occasions in order to hand something to one of the speakers, making me feel quite faint as his taut muscles were etched out underneath the straining fabric of his shirt. The effect was similar to that produced by putting a piece of paper over a coin depicting the male form and running a pencil over it. When not doing this, he bestowed winning smiles on all and sundry - but reserved an extra-special razzle dazzle look for those of the female persuasion. At one point after the proceedings he was chatting with a woman who is a friend of mine while standing very close to her and at the same time absent-mindedly playing with the strap of her satchel, which she had about her person at the time. Everything suddenly went slow-motion as he ran his fingers up and down the supple leather, and a saxophone seemed to start somewhere in the distance.

Tom’s interlocutor remained entirely immune to, nay incognisant of, the testosterone fuelled-steam seeping out of his pores and the fingers fiddling right under her nose or to be accurate her naval, and I can only assume that this is because she is a self-declared homosexualian.

Tom’s allure is further added to by his involvement in political activism and worthy causes and this, combined with the fact that he wears his shirt almost open to the navel (but in a non-affected manner so that it appears he has been busy fighting the class war), lends him a certain Che Guevara type of appeal.

I am not particularly qualified to reflect on the launch itself given that I fled after one qasida too many (and one is one too many). I will say this though: it was chaotic, as has been every event I have attended in this particular venue, whose ethos seems to be that organisation is for the bourgeoisie. The place has a very communal grass-roots, comrades in arms feel about it, which is nice in some respects but unfortunately whenever I have been there this spirit has translated into bedlam, with excessively late starts and audience members flocking in and out and noisily stumbling around in the darkness and sound problems. The author who recited his poetry tonight kept pausing and closing his eyes in a teacher manner until the constant wall of noise abated and everyone shut up, before then repeating the line he had just said - which as you can imagine only doubled my pleasure. This went on for twenty minutes or so until he recited his last verse, a reflection on childhood: ‘I was never bored…Even in times of boredom…I was never bored,’ quothed he. By this point I had finished my pretzels, and this line was so far removed from my own reality that I foutred le camp.

Allow me to once again clarify that I am a philistine, an ignoramus, a dull-witted beige prosaic pedestrian of a plastic chair when it comes to poetry (and assorted other subjects), and my dismissal of this particular gentleman (or to be more accurate his dismissal of me) therefore reflects poorly on moi, rather than him. He read very nicely indeed (although why so serious, chaps!) and members of the audience who were actually listening seemed to enjoy it. In any case Malame7 is a worthy initiative, in the words of one speaker it seeks to ‘create a new culture in the Egyptian street.’ They’re putting new books on shelves, so high five to that, fellas.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Imadge-ine that!/Saken fe 7ayy el Sayyeda we 7abeeby saken fe Wiltshire

Umm Nakad and Amnesiac are in Sayyeda Zeinab. They have just been to the mosque, where Umm Nakad prayed, and Amnesiac watched a cat rolling around on the carpets. They are now strolling through Sayyeda's animated streets, deep in conversation.

They pass a group of lads holding congress on a car bonnet:

YOUNG WIT: Shereen* we Madonna ya lahwy, meshyeen fel share3! [Blimey, it's Shereen and Madonna walking down the street!]

*Shereen is a popular young singer, a contemporary of Tamer 'being a guest of State institutions wont stop me making music' Unibrow Hosny. Shereen's head is too big for her body, but she sings good songs and has an impressive collection of weaves. Umm Nakad bears a passing resemblance to Shereen, to the extent that once, when she went to represent two handcuffed suspects being held in a police station, they both burst into a rendition of 'ah ya layl' upon seeing her.

I look nothing like Madonna. Let it be known.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

'Asian Babes' beats Dostoyevsky to top of list

Brian Whitaker warms my cockles with the news that an Abu Dhabi prince is diverting some of his money away from yachts and Philippino maids and investing it in a scheme called Kalima whereby 'high-quality works of classic and contemporary writing are translated from other languages into Arabic.'

As regular readers of this nonsense will know, the absence of libraries and decent bookshops in Egypt pains me in a way comparable to listening to Celine Dion on repeat while being force-fed broad beans, and I will eulogise to anyone unable to escape me about books as a force for good and for brain-widening change and also as entertainment while on the loo.

Hence the Kalima scheme does, on the face of it, seem very wowzers blazers indeed. Note however the irony of Whitaker's reference to the Da Vinci Code, of which both the book and film were banned in Egypt (though the book is now available I think, or am I imagining things?) How such a scheme would work in Egypt - where God bless them the censors routinely seize books which they judge are bad for us children - remains to be seen. It would doubtless involve official launches by Mr Prince of some harmless translated text which - once His Highness is safely ensconced in his limousine en route to the airport - would immediately be pounced on by the gatekeepers of our moral sensibilities and all copies of said tome used as the foundations for a new gated community in the desert.

Note also some of the odd readers' suggestions for works worthy of translation.