Sunday, October 28, 2007

Copping a look

It is 8 p.m. on a Friday night, everything is monochrome in the darkness and the air is heavy with the sweetly acrid stinging smell of something which is everywhere in Cairo, and which tears at the throat and sits on the lungs, and which they tell me are messages of love sent by farmers burning their rice fields.

Oosha is driving a bunch of us towards the Dokki Corniche. We approach the end of a side street leading to the river and are prevented from going any further by a glut of taxis swarming around something or other. The car in front of us eventually moves us and we are met by a spectacular sight.

A group of smiling, laughing tourists, young ladies all, is gathered around two parked taxis. All have elected to dress as if going to the beach, in halter necks and daisy dukes and the flimsiest, shortest of summer dresses the effect of the wind on which is to make it look as if the garments are experiencing weightlessness. All, without exception, are magnificent specimens with weapons of mass destruction-legs of the type which, even if hidden from the international community in clothing bunkers, would induce a diplomatic crisis in the trousers of any man. Furthering their appeal is their incessant squealing as they are buffeted by the wind and liaise with one another about taxis in a pitch only audible to whales. It makes them appear girlish, and what I imagine is perhaps tantalisingly-silly to those inclined to the Marilyn Monroe-type of woman.

The noise that this pin-up circus is making is only outdone by the incessant beeping of the taxis, and the roar of the Corniche traffic, and above it all the electronic cacophony of those police sirens which, rather than being a straight forward neee-naaaw, is a collection of sounds one associates with toy robots: up and down whoop whoops, and strange guttural clanking noises all interspersed with the voice of the policeman inside telling people to get the bloody hell out of the way. For watching the show is a car full of five smiling policemen, those on the near-side leaning out of the window with their mouths falling open while their less fortunate brethren gawp behind them and the driver works his siren in such a way that it seems as if the car is woof-whistling the demoiselles.

Oosha being the cad that he is cannot resist attempting to make a crack to the police about ‘taxis [wink wink] creating a nuisance’ but is interrupted almost immediately by one of the winking policemen, ‘itla3 ya 3am’ [move along mate] - presumably because we are blocking his view.

As we wade through the testosterone I look back at the twittering birds and see that they are accompanied by a harried-looking young Egyptian bloke attempting to negotiate with a taxi driver while around him unaccompanied distracted drivers crash into the Nile, and those sitting next to their wives carry out surreptitious ogling without turning their heads by moving their right eyeball until it is somewhere in the vicinity of their right ear.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Geneva what, sorry?

The Israeli defence minister has apparenty approved sanctions against the civilian population of that 'hostile entity' Gaza whereby electricity supplies will be cut off every time a rocket is launched into Israel.

That this constitutes a form of collective punishment prohibited under international humanitarian law as usual concerns them not, which means that 1.5 million already beleagured people will again pay the price for acts which have nothing to do with the majority of them and which they may not necessarily support. Israel of course claims that the lands it nicked in 1967 are 'disputed' rather than 'occupied' because when they nicked them they weren't under the legal sovereignty of any State and therefore the 4th Geneva Convention which protects civilians under occupation does not apply to the Palestinians. That the legal community disagrees entirely is neither here nor there. Israel also apparently doesn't give a rat's fart about the fact that its control of Gazan airspace, territorial waters and border crossings renders it an occupying power with an obligation to actively ensure the welfare of the Gazan population.

Legal semantics aside, and assuming that Israel's priority is to ensure the welfare of its Jewish citizens, surely it is in its interests to not impose measures which will increase despair and anger in Gaza, and probably only fuel further violence against it? Or is this designed to spur on factional in-fighting in Gaza and bring about a situation just short of civil war which will justify that Israel re-occupies Gaza fully again? Is it a war of attrition against the Gazan population?

If there is no sensible military rationale for these actions could it be that the Israel government and military and their supporters are actually just law-flouting heartless bastards?

And yes, it is wrong for Palestinian groups to target Israeli civilians, and it probably doesn't help their cause internationally, but what the bloody hell would you do if you were trapped in a giant prison with your kids, who if they haven't been killed by Israeli gunships or Hamas-Fatah crossfire are terrified by sonic booms, and if they aren't terrified by sonic booms, they're hungry, and if they're not hungry they're dying of some illness which can't be treated in hospital because it lacks supplies, and they can't be treated outside Gaza because the Israelis have closed the border crossing and even if you could take them abroad you wouldn't necessarily be able to get back in because Israel might decide to close the border again while you aren't inside Gaza. But then you probably wouldn't be able to afford to go abroad anyway because if you're a public employee you haven't been paid for months. Probably best not to attempt to leave Gaza anyway, at least not destined for an Arab country because it's unlikely you'll get a visa and even if you did and decided to go to say, Cairo, you would be the unwilling guest of its airport for 24 hours for no reason other than the fact that you are a Palestinian. To reiterate, I don't condone the targeting of any civilians but this is very easy for me to say from my comfortable bed in Cairo. In that situation God knows what the insanity and endless humiliation would drive me to.

Note that Egypt supplies some of Gaza's electricity. Does anyone know if - obligations under military aid agreements with superpowers aside - it would be physically possible to somehow increase electricity supply to Gaza at times when Israel imposes a blackout? Or is this just fantastical.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Tempestuous passions

One of the unexpected perks of living in north Africa for a person from Croydon is the love I have developed for autumn and winter, the significance of which can only really be understood by other persons subjected for multiple years to the hell of England’s incessant drizzle and slate skies. The problem with English weather is that like the English, it dislikes exhibitionism and showy displays of emotion, with the result that its winters are bitter and miserable but lack the beautiful and lusciously deep snow of say, Scandinavian countries. The British summer is a shy woman who will occasional make an appearance until beaten back inside the house by her domineering husband, Mr Pissing Down McCloud.

There is nothing quite like winter in Egypt when everything shines in an ethereal light and colours seem more distinct as if someone has adjusted a giant world aerial. Even the pollution seems to dissipate, to a limited extent, and that delicious combination of crisp, cold air and warm sun is like eating ice-cream with hot syrup.

I also always associate winter with the magical year I spent in Alexandria, much of which was spent steeling myself against the salt-infused wind while on the back of a motorbike. One particularly memorable trip on said vehicle was to Agamy, beloved of summer teenage sun-seekers who in winter leave its empty beaches to the roaring waves and high winds. We made an exciting if bumpy journey there, and I arrived windswept and invigorated by the speed and sense of adventure, a glow which lasted for approximately five minutes until my companion pointed out that the Vaseline I had applied to my lips before we set out had now turned my mouth into a resting ground for insects who had involuntarily networked with my face whilst we were en route.

Having stagnated in the stupefying summer heat, my brain has started working again with renewed energy and I am back to useless rumination. Today having bought the usual basic rations from Seoudi Market, I was walking home when I noted a wealthy-looking woman alighting from an expensive car (or can one only alight from a train?) with her two sons, aged approximately 8 and 12. The younger of the two lads was particularly lively, taking pictures of stuff with his camera and hopping and skipping but without making any noise whatsoever, which I thought was odd. While walking in front of his mother he was looking everywhere but in front and nearly stepped in a puddle. Suddenly she stopped him. In the weirdest, scariest voice ever, (somewhere between ET and the exorcist) she hissed in English ‘if you don’t look in front of you I’m going to kill you. I’m serious,’ while shoving her pointed finger in the poor bleeder’s face. Her tone really was terrifying and put me in mind of the scene in Goodfellas when Robert De Niro threatens to kill Maurice and, while Bob is in the process of garrotting him, Maurice’s wig falls off.

I felt so sorry for the kid, issued a death-threat for being a tad lively - which after all is surely part of a kid’s job description. He seemed used to this treatment however, and was soon back to skipping – albeit looking resolutely in front of him – while his mother, looking harried and exhausted and unhappy, skulked off leaving me with a cloud of her exceedingly fragrant, rather lovely, perfume.

She seemed on the cusp of a nervous breakdown somehow did this woman, the wisps of hair poking out of her messy hegab seeming to reflect a barely-contained frenzy, an unravelling. I wondered what life had thrown at her to make her go gangster on her son, and this reminded me of a theme I have been reflecting on at length in my acres of free time, that of Egyptian woman in Egypt, and marriage and rumpy pumpy.

What inspired this was a recent conversation I had with a friend who told me about a friend of hers who had required some sort of medical treatment downstairs in the women’s department involving a laser (yikes). According to my friend, this treatment had apparently rendered the woman ‘mesh bint’ – not a virgin. I spluttered my objection to this, protesting that Madame Hymen can take her leave in several ways none of which involve a man or the removal of clothes. My friend insisted that the absence of sexual activity was irrelevant, which leaves the ludicrous situation that a woman who has never had sexual intimacy of any kind is not a virgin.

What struck me is how mechanical it is, how superficial, that in certain social circles a woman’s character, goodness, purity and ultimately future is determined by an inch of her being. A woman may have clandestinely engaged in all manner of illicit behaviour not involving penetration, but as long as the precious hymen remains inviolate and she herself is not caught she remains in the clear. At the other end of the spectrum a woman who has never so much as been alone in a room with a man not related to her may, through no fault of her own, have been parted from this precious indicator of her marriageability. In the case of my friend’s friend, her brother and mother had been notified by the doctor of what had happened, so that they could explain the situation to her future groom and exonerate the woman of all potential censure.

While I support women’s (and men’s) right to do with their own bodies as they bloody well wish, I personally dislike the untrammelled voracity with which both men and women consume sex in the UK, and the way in which sex is now used to sell anything and everything, because it has been cheapened in the process. There is something attractive about restraint, about selecting and limiting as long as this remains a choice rather than an imposition. My issue with the hymen-obsession is thus not primarily about the fact that this reflects the denial of women’s right to sexual equality - although this certainly bothers me. Rather, it irks me because it is just so stupid that otherwise logical and right-thinking men (and women) believe that a female can be reduced to this. It is also an example of Egyptian society’s unpleasant habit of measuring people by these fixed standards, as in marriage when prospective partners are gauged by a long checklist at the very bottom of which comes personality, if at all. Yet again the cult of appearance, and, more pressingly, of appearances.

But then of course female sexual appetite is regarded differently to that of men’s everywhere. In the UK women who sleep with multiple partners continue to be regarded with disdain by many – no matter what the media say. Women who flaunt their sexuality are labelled sex kittens, while those who demonstrate an unabated enthusiasm in bed are referred to as ‘tigers’ – excessive female physical lust continues to be regarded as animalistic, if not atavistic, or perhaps this is just blokes confusing feline with female, I don’t know.

In Egypt, women having sex outside marriage remains the ultimate taboo in the majority of social circles, and this is in itself reflected in the popular word for virgin - bint - which speakers of Cockney will know also means girl. I have always found this term spectacularly vivid as a demarcation between the worlds of 'innocence' and sexual maturity. And think about its implications: an unmarried woman of 35 who has never had sex (nor been involved with a laser) remains a ‘girl’, while a girl married off at 14 is not. And the associations one makes with the word bint - of innocence, youth – to link these associations with a mature woman I find unsettling somehow.

It is interesting to note how within the confines of marriage a wifely appetite for sex is regarded as slightly perverse, but ultimately a joke – see numerous Egyptian films. I was reminded of this by a male friend who told me about a recently-married mate of his, let’s call him Gargeer. This Gargeer works in the Gulf but is originally from one of Egypt’s governorates. He was in Egypt for a two-week holiday, staying with his wife in her mum’s house but had come alone to Cairo (where my mate lives) on business of some sort.

At the end of the day he arrived at my mate’s house looking wan and exhausted and pleaded to be allowed to spend the night there. This would have involved the sharing of a bed, and my mate was obviously reluctant and perplexed about why Gargeer wanted to stay in Cairo, and the Arabic equivalent of bugger off was sounded. Gargeer entreated him, telling him that he hadn’t slept since he had got back to Egypt. My mate at first didn’t understand, thinking that perhaps some sort of maintenance work where he was staying was waking him up in the early hours until, with a desperate look in his eye, Gargeer wailed ‘IFHAM BA2A!!’ [for the love of God and all that is good understand me, you clot! ] and it transpired that the sleep-preventing nuisance was not mechanical, but rather madame-ical, for in her lust for her husband Gargeer’s wife had quite simply worn him out.

My mate and my mate’s mate recounted tales of Gargeer joining them at 8 p.m., having already fulfilled his matrimonial duties for the umpteenth time that day. His consumption of copious amounts of fish and other phosphorous-containing food products would be interrupted at 2 a.m. by a fully alert Mrs Gargeer on the phone: ‘ta3aala ya 7abeeby, ana sa7eyt’ [come back darling, I’ve woken up]. When they inquired about how she gets up for work at 8 a.m. and indeed, how she stays awake, Gargeer said that he had no clue whatsoever, while pulling his hair out.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

On 'air

Prompted by a comment made on the previous post by dear reader Hebe, I here present to you the spooky similarities in the head coverings of three men from three ages, so that you can decide for yourself if Nero modelled his hairdo on Nour who was inspired by Friar Tuck* etc etc.

Nero, the dastardedly tyrant who fiddled while Rome burned, pictured here with his squeeze, Poppaea Sabina (R), before he knocked her up, and his mum, Agrippina (L), before he knocked her off.

Companion to Robin Hood, Triar F, about which I have very little to say indeed.

Celebrated Egyptian actor Nour el Sherif, who has enjoyed a career spanning three decades during the early part of which he sported very wide trousers and very wide sideburns, the latter of which are here obscured by his hair.

* My habit of swopping the first two letters of words produced unfortunate spam-like results here and was thus shunned on this occasion.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Call me Mr Kink

A scene from yesterday night’s Nafeza 3al 3alam, shown on Vile TV:

Beeso and Hamosto are sitting in Beeso’s new office, on his new red leather sofa. The sofa matches Tamer Hagras’ face, which looks like it’s taking the Hussein Fahmy route, complexion-wise. He more than made up for this yesterday however in the gym scene, during the watching of which I remembered that I was a woman.

A theme running throughout the series has been Beeso’s unfamiliarity with the English language and consequent confusion whenever girlfriend Hamsa - ‘Hamosty’ to Beeso – insists on peppering her speech with beginner’s English, for purposes of this storyline. It is also so that we know that Beeso, while he is a fine strapping figure of a man and king of the alley and a geezer, is also a commoner, thus preparing for the Heathcliff and Catherine-type storm which will erupt when he asks Hamozto’s dad, ‘Dr Shams’, if he can marry her. We all know that Dr Shams will eventually agree, if for no other reason that no other right-thinking man would marry his daughter, the woman who only speaks in exclamation marks such is her delight about being alive.

Beeso and Hamosto are engaged in a discussion of which colours suit him/his face which began after Hamosto criticised Beeso’s long red pride and joy, which she is now sitting on.

Hamosto: !Sa7ee7 ya Beeso!! Pink laye2 3alayk awi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Vile TV translation: It’s true Beeso, pink really does suit you! (i.e. it matches your face)

Beeso: [Pause] Bink? Aih bink dah?
Vile TV translation: Kink? What’s kink?

Hamosto: [Laughs demurely and delightfully] !Mesh bink ya Beeso! PINK!!! PINK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Vile TV translation: Not kink, Beeso, PINK, PINK!

Kink for bink? This seemingly deliberate 1984ish mis-translation of what was actually said can only mean one of four things:

1. Vile TV translators are under the impression that bink is actually a valid alternative to pink in English. A horrendous proposition, and improbable, but not that improbable if - being dishless as I am and therefore exposed to copious amount of terrestrial television - you are cognisant of the frequent and remorseless onslaught of imposter Bs with identity crises in subtitling.

2. This was some sort of highly ironic, arch humour cocking a snoop at the p/b confusion.

3. Foreigners would not understand the joke if bink was rendered as bink (see 1, above).

4. It was a typo.

Vote now.

Nafeza 3al 3alam remains the undisputed king of this year’s Ramadan soap offerings. I gave up on Hanan we Haneen or whatever that vehicle for Omar Sherif is called after the 2nd or 3rd episode, after the scene in which he recited Salah Jaheen on the steps of a NY library while gesticulating with one arm. 3agaby! my arse. 2adeyet ra2yee 3am is no good because it has Yosra and her teeth in it, while el Daaly would be bearable but for Nour el Sherif’s odd Friar Tuck hairdo. Yehia el-Fakharany as 7amada is always fun to watch, but the oedipal nature of his relationship with his mother, and the H sewed on all his pyjamas and galabeyyas I find disconcerting.

In defiance of convention, Tamer H wears hand-me-up trousers, given to him by small children once they have grown out of them.