Thursday, November 29, 2007

Life, but not as we know it

A film double-bill yesterday evening confirmed that less really is more, especially if you are Youssef Chahine and you insist on scenes featuring staring-eyed women dancing in dining rooms while clutching pyjamas.

The Cairo International Film Festival is currently delivering its wares to mostly empty cinemas (apart from the obligatory Otv crew), and I went to watch a film from Chad, mostly because I have never seen a film from Chad before. And it was free entry.

Daratt was an excellent film, about a young man whose father is killed before birth during the civil war, and who goes to find his father’s killer after a general amnesty for war crimes is announced (intending to kill him), and who ends up baking bread with his father’s assassin and who then gives him a mock execution. The best thing about it was its realism; the acting wasn’t overplayed and desert shots were mixed with what seemed to be real life scenes of a poor neighbourhood in which the events unfold. There was also no music score, streets noises instead serving as the soundtrack - which again had the effect of sucking the audience, or at least me, into the film.

I’ll admit that I’m a bit puritanical in my film tastes sometimes, but there really is something appealing about these stripped-down, simple, films: they allow a strong plot to shine. I like a yarn, and while I don’t insist on a beginning, middle and an end there has to be a semblance of a plot - hence my dislike of artsy fartsy films where we are shown a man cutting his toenails in a toga for two hours. But above all what counts for me is realism; yes I like to be entertained, and yes I like to escape into other worlds, but an inaccurate portrayal of another world just doesn’t interest me. It’s even worse when it’s an inaccurate portrayal of not another world, but my world.

Which brings me to Heya Fawda, the second film I saw last night. I had been super-excited about this film for numerous reasons: firstly, one of my favourite actresses is in it (Hala Sedky), secondly, it discusses torture and thirdly, I bumbled questions at some of the cast and crew last week for work*, and had come away feeling that finally, perhaps, we would have the chance to see something real, as opposed to choreographed dancing on Gouna’s beaches. The excellent trailer seemed to confirm this.

But no, dancing with pyjamas. Chahine Chahine Chahine. A quick summary of the plot outline before I begin railing:

- Hatem is a balding low-ranking police officer, an amin shorta, based in Shubra. He is a crook and a bully, and is universally despised.

- Nour (a teacher) lives opposite Hatem with her spunky mother, Baheyya. Hatem loves Nour. Nour doesn’t love Hatem.

- Hatem makes ever bolder advances towards Nour. Baheyya the mother hen defends her daughter.

- Sherif the attorney general falls in love with Nour, bringing him into inevitable confrontation with pervy Hatem.

- Sherif’s mum is an idealistic, ex-militant student, a school headmistress in the same neighbourhood as Hatem’s police station who spends most of her time standing up to authority in a bouffant which looks like a loaf of bread.

On paper we have the makings of a good – if unoriginal – film exploring universal themes of love and violence through these interweaving relationships. It is the Egyptian setting, and the greater context in which these events play out which could, and should, have made this film stand out from the thousands of other films on the market with the same good vs. evil plot.

Chahine’s heavy-handed directing put pay to that. I’m not a Chahine fan, and haven’t seen all his films, but even an amateur like me can see that there are certain trademark Chahine touches which run throughout his films, including this one. In crafting his films he imposes his character on them to such an extent that it dominates them. Why must he shoehorn one or more dance scenes into his films? There were three in Heya Fawda, including one where we see Mena Shalaby dancing with her beloved’s mother while clutching her beloved’s pyjamas, which was quite simply, nauseating (as were all the romance scenes). He is also possibly the only living director in the world to still use blue screen during car scenes: there was a particularly atrocious shot face-on of Youssef el-Sherif (Sherif the attorney general) driving. Not only was a fuzzy white line around his head visible, but the street scenes projected behind him appeared to have been captured in 1985. I can only hope that this was tongue-in-cheek, or a homage, perhaps, to silver screen days gone by.

Another thing that annoys me about Chahine are the annoying little oversights which spoil his films. In Alexandria…New York, in a scene set in New York, I was surprised to see that in the 1950s Americans painted their pavements with the same black and white stripes that mark Egyptian pavements...In Heya Fawda while Hala Sedky (Sherif’s mother) is showing Nour family photos we see a photograph of her son which, funnily enough, is the same publicity photograph of Youssef el-Sherif which was sent out in media packs. And how often have you seen fights and demonstrations where everyone chants in perfect synchronicity, and people hit each other in an orderly fashion? Chaos my arse. These small details are irritating, but weren’t enough on their own to ruin the film. This was accomplished through the film’s treatment of the torture/brutality/conditions of detention themes, which I found unforgivable.

The torture scenes were a farce: gothic-type cell filled with detainees, some strung up on the wall receiving electric shocks while others lay prostrate on the ground contorted in agony. It looked like a circus, and I understood why the film had not been censored – the scenes lacked any power to shock, so divorced were they from the reality we are all now familiar with thanks to Youtube. The female cell meanwhile was a fantasy boudoir of scantily-clad buxom ladies who spend their time belly dancing, and preening themselves and each other. One catfight did break out, which Hatem broke up using his belt, but the scene was mere titillation rather than being a serious treatment of police brutality.

Now Chahine is not of course obliged to present the reality. It’s his artistic vision and his production company’s money. The problem is that the film attempts to explore and present political themes, has pretensions to do so, but fails miserably. As a result it fails both as a commentary on Egyptian society and as a romantic comedy, and ends up being Chahine’s usual hackneyed mess of fetishised young men dancing lots. Incidentally, the conversation I had with the scriptwriter, Nasser Abdel Rahman, leads me to believe that the problem lies in the treatment of the idea, rather than the idea itself: Abdel Rahman spoke eloquently about the issues which inspired his script, and which are mostly smothered by the dancing and the cartoon characters in the police cells. I had no sense of the chaos, corruption and lawlessness which is supposedly the nucleus of the film’s plot.

On a positive note there were a few strong scenes; Mena Shalaby’s staring eyes finally came into their own in the post-rape scene, which was extremely moving. She also had a couple of good lines in a scene where she explained to a school inspector that she can’t actually speak English despite teaching it because when she was at school the teachers who taught her English didn’t speak the language and she couldn’t afford private lessons at university. Other than that, I spent most of the time Shalaby was on screen attempting to contain the dormant Shingles which always threatens to erupt whenever I am forcibly exposed to her little-girl lost school of acting.

SPOILER WARNING: The next paragraph sort of gives the plot away, but surely you already know how the film is going to end?

I did experience a strange feeling of release and satisfaction when at the end of the film the neighbourhood stormed the police station and Hatem is set upon by a huge crowd, but left the cinema annoyed, irritated and insulted that Chahine had not only failed to cash in on the huge leeway he has as an Egyptian institution in order to take risks with this film, but bungled his treatment of these important themes so immensely. Only this week a bunch of police officers were sentenced to sentences ranging from three to seven years for beating a man to death in Mansoura. This man was not wanted for a crime, but rather was the brother of a suspect. A lawyer friend involved in the case says that he was dead an hour after the police went to his house. These things are happening and Chahine chooses to distort them into some black comedy-background for the tepid love story which is of greater concern to him. This is the problem with being a legend, it mostly acts as a smokescreen for mediocrity and absurdity.

If it wasn’t for the excellent Khaled Saleh (Hatem), this film would have fallen on its arse.

* I am back working for The Man, but this time a Man who is going to give me money to write stuff, doesn't expect me to sit at a desk all day and who will hopefully leave me time to churn out my own writing/nonsense. Zippity doodah.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A load of hot air

While attending a training session this weekend I discovered that I have a thing for wind farms, which makes a change to my usual obsession with Cairo-based actors and singers of above-average height.

The training session was held in a hotel in Zafarana, which lies between Ain Sokhna and Hurghada. Sharshar, Umm Nakad and I had planned to set off early on Thursday - which of course didn’t happen because Umm Nakad and Sharshar suddenly developed a pressing urge to dine at Mohandiseen-eatery/dustbin ‘My Queen’, and arrived to collect me two hours late. I went down to the car encumbered with a ridiculous amount of luggage and the mild rage which always forms when people are excessively late and leave me fiddling my thumbs when I could be doing something more useful e.g. sleeping or dusting my eyeballs.

Umm Nakad thoughtfully placated me with a prawn sandwich from My Queen, which I didn’t eat of course and which spent the entire journey putrefying on the back shelf, filling Sharshar’s car with an aroma reminiscent of a festering wound and which proved too much of a challenge for his Black Ice air freshener tree.

We sped along to the sound of Sharshar singing Abdel Halim at full volume, as is his wont, surrounded by the impressive but intimidating topography of the hilly desert on one side and the black expanse of the Red Sea on the other. Twenty minutes after passing Ain Sokhna, Umm Nakad and I expressed our concern that we might have passed the hotel without noticing. Sharshar reassured us that we had not, because he had in fact driven on this same exact road in the morning, when he gallantly went to pick up a Lebanese friend with no other means of getting to Cairo Airport. He had unfortunately taken the road we were on by accident, only noticing the error 30 kilometres later.

While impressive, this doesn’t compare to our involuntary promenade in the Port Said area last week when we got lost for THREE HOURS. On leaving Port Said we made the error of thinking that we should disregard signs marked ‘Port Said’ (what fools!) and instead followed signs for Ismailia. The signs suddenly disappeared, and we found ourselves en route to Damietta, in some kind of twilight zone. This happened twice, until we concluded that we had entered the Bermuda Triangle. We left Port Said at 7 p.m. and arrived, skeletal, in Cairo at 11 p.m., feeling like cretins.

We did not enter our hotel in Zafarana on first attempt either, as is inevitable, but mainly because the entrance was obscured by a mountain of earth.

I opened the patio sliding door thingie of the hotel room the next morning and stepped out into the unbeatable gorgeousness of a Red Sea winter. The air is so crisp and clean that inhaling it was like giving my olfactory organs a colonic irrigation. I was further invigorated by the sight of the aforementioned wind farm.

While elegant, there is something slightly menacing about these huge monopod triskelions. The infantry of them opposite the hotel reminded me of the man-eating Triffids which I had been so terrified of as a kid. It’s their scale, the way they’re arranged and their silence – at night they disappear completely, lurking inaudibly and invisibly in the night

So taken was I by them that once back within reach of the Internet I googled them, and was happy to see that the scary monsters are doing their bit to delay the end of the world, particularly given this:

However, the current Egyptian power generation setup is not a model for the future. Eighty-six percent of the power plants are thermal, mainly gas-fired, while some still use heavy oil. Various hydroelectric power plants on the Nile - in particular, the major Asswan Dam power plant - deliver a further 13% of the country's power. Apart from the serious localised pollution caused by sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and dust along with heavy carbon dioxide emissions, the high proportion of fossil fuels fired in power generation is eating away at Egypt's export income, a third of which is currently accounted for by oil and gas.

Apart from that, the country's oil reserves are dwindling. If the amounts drilled stay constant and no new reserves are discovered, the country's reserves will be exhausted in fourteen to fifteen years. With domestic power consumption increasing at around 7% per annum, the country will already only just be able to cover its own domestic oil consumption. But the main problem is drilling, which is an expensive process. Intensive exploration and increasingly complicated technologies - all of the more complex instrumentation equipment has to be imported from abroad - are extremely capital-intensive.
Good to know that if we haven't all been obliterated by someone pressing the wrong button in a nuclear-power station we'll have an alternative energy source to rely on in the future.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Business Assiut-ial part 2

The next morning I tore myself away from George Wassouf music clips and went down to the hotel lobby, where a fractious Swedish Lawyer informed me that upon attempting to leave the hotel to buy water she had been stopped by the plain-clothed (tourist) policeman stationed at the entrance who had told her that it was forbidden for her to go out alone.

Umm Nakad immediately launched into lawyer mode, and a compromise of sorts was reached when she agreed to leave her mobile phone number. The main problem was that the policeman wanted to know where exactly we were going; we unfortunately had no idea because none of us had any clue what there was to see in Assiut’s town centre, and just wanted to walk about until Sharshar & co. arrived. I am in any case incapable of rational thought before 11 a.m. and would have been unable to provide a cogent response.

Having escaped, we wandered around aimlessly in the gorgeously crisp weather looking at Jesus statuettes in shop windows and trying to find somewhere to buy coffee. The strange thing is that I didn’t see a single shop selling touristy knick-knacks of the type which proliferate in Cairo – Assiut apparently doesn’t receive tourists of any kind other than groups passing through on their way to religious sites, and it is this which explained, in part, the slightly puzzled response of the hotel staff to us. Our desultory walk was soon interrupted by the arrival of Sharshar and his coterie, who whisked us off to the magnificently-named Baloot, and el-Moharraq (the Burnt Monastery).

Baloot is approximately half an hour from Assiut, and is reached by a pothole-filled narrow road which cuts through endless seas of green. The village itself is a collection of ramshackle buildings surrounded by sheesha-smoking men, buffalos, donkeys and scampering children. As usual I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the surroundings and how hard life must be within them for those who wish to escape them but lack the means to do so.

Coca-Cola makes the same claim, I believe

Surrounded by an enormous fort-like wall, el-Moharraq consists of a monastery and churches. Its gardens have the feel of a 5-star resort, with shrubbery bordering wide, clean, tiled paths. The altar of the Church of the Holy Virgin is a sort of closed-off area, visible through square windows at which people stood and prayed (the Holy Family apparently lived in this exact spot for six months). The scene reminded me exactly of the Sayyeda Nefissa Mosque, where people also stand and pray while they look through small windows at something inside. I do exactly the same thing at the mogama3.

The faithful make up for what this photo lacks in resolution

While waiting for the others to come out of the church and put their shoes on I wandered round outside until an Abouna (Coptic priest) swept towards me waving in his black robes waving his finger back and forth and informed me that I had apparently trespassed into el-2alaaya, or monks living area. Another awkward moment when, after he asked me where I was from and I told him London, he said “ta3rafy Anba Anthony tab3an!” [“you must know Anba (ecclesiastical title within Coptic church) Anthony then!”]

I developed a penchant for Abounas while researching el Zeft, or my masters dissertation, which dealt with religious minorities in Egypt. In order to escape the boring old law I spent hours reading about Eastern Orthodox saints and their exploits in the desert, and was particularly fascinated by the ‘reward and redemption through hardship and suffering’ doctrine endorsed by the Orthodox Church (possibly because this credo gave me hope during the writing of el Zeft). Modern-day Abounas are the incarnation of these hundreds of years of history and mystery, and with their black robes and long beards and starred capes look excellent, too. Another bonus is that the monks at el-Moharraq answered the phone with ‘Agapy,’ which is Coptic for love, and which I am thinking of adopting.

At el-Moharraq we sat with an Abouna friend of Sharshar’s who turned out to have served in a Coptic church in Rotherham, a town in Yorkshire, which made me splutter because of the unlikelihood of the association between the two; it’s rather like hearing about the construction of a ministry of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Tehran. Abona impressed on Sharshar the importance of getting married while Sharshar told Abouna about Fartbook applications (Abouna has brought his spiritual presence to that addictive wasteland of sin, and his photo album is filled with smiling Abounas and their beards). While this was happening Oosha and Abou Fathy (another member of the crew) were in discussions of their own with amn el-dawla, who wanted full reports on who they were, how they know Swedish Journalist and how Swedish Journalist knows Haidar Wahm whose engagement she was attending the next day (she in fact had never met him) amongst other questions.

The telephone call concluded with instructions that our party should not move until the arrival of the police cars which had been sent to escort us wherever it was we were going next.

We waited for an age until we figured that since there was only one road out of el Moharraq we would meet them en route, which is indeed what happened. Two police cars holding three policemen and an officer each met us just after we had left the monastery one of which shot in front of Oosha’s car (in which Swedish Journalist was sat) while the other positioned itself behind Abou Fathy’s (where Umm Nakad, Sharshar and I were riding) and we raced through Baloot’s fields in this fashion until the officer in the police car behind Abou Fathy’s car realised that since it only contained Egyptians he shouldn’t waste national resources on protecting it and immediately overtook us, bringing up the rear behind Oosha’s car.

My thoughts on the police escort debacle

Our convoy raced along the road back to Assiut at full speed and sirens blaring in a quarter of the time it taken us to reach el-Moharraq. In the hotel reception we were met by 3amm Mostafa, the policeman who had taken Umm Nakad’s number in the morning and who informed us that allowing Swedish Journalist to go out this morning without police escort was strictly against the rules. Umm Nakad and Swedish Journalist by this point had had enough of what they regarded as harassment by the police and were responding to their questioning with a surliness which only aggravated the situation. The funny thing is almost exactly a year ago to the day I was in virtually the same situation when the Pig and I went to Dahab and was stopped at a police checkpoint for an hour and the police officer of course took my number and then proceeded to call me eight times a day. In Dahab I had been almost apoplectic with rage at our treatment, but in Assiut I parked myself on a sofa in the hotel lobby and just watched, having learnt the lesson that taking a combative approach or even resisting them in any form is like attempting to swim against the current of a stormy sea and will result in nothing other than your own exhaustion. But I was impressed nonetheless that in only a year Egypt’s security bodies had managed to make me regard what is wholly abnormal as routine.

After taking all our names and telephone numbers 3amm Mostafa & co. received further instructions by telephone that we had to provide a written itinerary of what we planned to do today and tomorrow, i.e. 2200 hours: eat dinner in Happy Dolphin, 2300 hours: make jokes and laugh 2304 hours: Swedish Journalist will visit toilet, 0100 hours: back to hotel…and so on. This Umm Nakad did using her own bile as ink. There still remained the problem however that Swedish Journalist could not leave the hotel without police escort. We now faced the choice of either waiting for the police cars to come back or have policeman 3amm Mostafa accompany us in one of our cars. We elected for the latter, and ate dinner in Cook Window under police guard, 3amm Mostafa resisting our invitations to join us and sitting a few tables down. While we were there Haidar Wahm passed by briefly and was introduced to the policeman, who he asked whether he had any children. 3amm Mostafa replied that he had three. “Ana saydaly we hazabbatak be talata kaman” [I’m a pharmacist and I’ll fix you up with another three”] was Haidar Wahm’s response.

3amm Mostafa himself was a quiet man with a constantly worried look who was embarrassed by the situation and repeatedly expressed his hope that we were not too annoyed by it. It was in any case him who paid the price ultimately; he had been on duty when we met him in the lobby at 10 a.m., and he was not allowed to go home until Swedish Journalist went to bed at 1 a.m. having to walk behind her at a discreet pace when she fancied a stroll and spend hours sitting in Happy Dolphin while we ate and drank. He did finally agree to sit with us after repeated entreaties, but was sent away by Swedish Journalist after his never-ending loud-volume phone conversations disturbed something she was doing on a laptop.

We concluded our evening with deliciously rich Feteer, which was consumed at midnight and which made a encore appearance at 7 a.m. when I woke up vomiting. The plan was that we would all be in Dironka Church watching Haidar Wahm take the first steps towards his life sentence at 9 a.m., so I concentrated on making the world stop spinning enough to go downstairs to the lobby where a suited and booted Sharshar & co. were waiting for us.

The general consensus was that the combination of nausea, dizziness and wanting to fall over which I was experiencing was “a cold in the stomach” – a term which I have never understood and sounds as credible as “a broken leg in the brain”. I would be hugely interested to know if such a complaint does actually exist. I didn’t give it much thought at the time as I was too preoccupied with not ruining car upholstery with the contents of my stomach while we (accompanied of course by the police escort) made our way to Dironka.

I have been wanting to visit Dironka every since I read about the pilgrimage made there each August and the fantastic views from it. Alas all my memories of Dironka are waist-level and largely confined to its car park: when I got out of the car I immediately sat down on the nearest available wall rather than fall over and roll into the path of the happy couple. I did attempt to venture into the church at one point because the engagement ceremony sounded so fun from outside (very loud, lots of castanet type thingies) but the strong smell of incense proved too much and I am not sure of the rules regarding expulsion of stomach contents and desecration of holy buildings. I conceded defeat and Abo Fathy took me back to the hotel, where I eventually fell asleep to the excellent el-Tareeq (I think), starring Roshdy Abaza in a wife-beater.

I was woken up by the kind Granddad at hotel reception who had seen me arrive back at the hotel in lamentable condition and who rang every now and again to check if I was still alive and whether I needed anything. I discovered this kindness in most of the people I encountered in Assiut, who are mostly lovely.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Business Assiut-ial* part 1

My sporadic tour of Egypt’s governorates continued this weekend with a visit to Assiut, where I vomited under police escort.

I had been waiting for an opportunity to go for ages, so was delighted when a member of Sharshar’s Assiut crew alternatively referred to as ‘Haidar Wahm’ and ‘el majnoun’ telephoned me.

“HELLO! I AM HAIDAR WAHM,” he bellowed in English - sounding, for some reason, very German. My confusion was compounded by the fact that his real name is that of one of the four disciples, with the result that the person deafening me on the other end of the phone could conceivably have been a Teutonic tele-marketer attempting to sell me floor tiles.

‘HAIDAR WAHM! SHARSHAR’S FRIEND,” he clarified, before proceeding to inform me that he was getting engaged and inviting me and Umm Nakad to attend this historic event. I accepted of course, and he went on to describe the way in which Assiut would positively light up like a faulty nuclear power plant with our presence, while I replied that this light of course has its origins in Assiut’s residents. This went on for some 5 days, as is customary, until our mobile phones exploded.

Friday afternoon found Sharshar (in his Mossad sunglasses), Umm Nakad and me at Giza railway station which smells like it has been doused in tobacco because of the cigarette factory nearby. With us was a Swedish journalist friend of Sharshar’s who he had invited along, and who possibly would have chosen to put her head in a food mixer rather than board the train had she known what lay ahead.

It is always a shock to watch the pastoral filmstrip unfold outside the train window after being entombed in Cairo’s chaos for months on end, the endless concrete gradually giving way to idyllic swathes of green. Cairo’s dominance of the Egyptian identity makes it easy to forget that its uncompromising modernity and urbanity is the exception to the rule of agriculture, and desert. Watching men on donkeys leading buffalos through fields and silhouetted women feeding goats inside houses and girls pumping water out of a communal cistern I wondered how the migrant workers who leave villages and commute to the metropolis in search of work are affected by life in an often merciless city, and in turn how their presence influences it: I’ve always found it interesting that the Egyptian countryside is regarded as a cradle of ignorance and stupidity (see: jokes about Saidis, the fallguys in Egypt’s version of an Englishman, a Scottish man and an Irishman) and at the same time the source of all things pure.

These reflections were interrupted by sleep, which in its turn was disrupted by two brothers both under six who appeared to have snorted lines of Coke washed down with 45 cans of Pepsi before boarding the train. They were quite literally climbing over passengers’ heads, to the despair of their mother who made up for what she lacked in parenting skills with patience. They roared their way through the six-hour journey covering the compartment in lib and spilled drinks and various articles of clothing before their mother diverted their attention away from swinging on the luggage racks by making them count in English. This they did for the final hour of the journey, and we entered Assiut to a never-ending symphony of fourteen, fiveteen, sixteen…

Assiut is tiny, and extraordinarily clean, perhaps as a result of the public notices announcing that ‘cleanliness is a human behaviour.’ Upon arriving at the station we were met by a delegation composed of a small contingent of Sharshar’s crew who took us to our hotel, the staff of which seemed astonished at the appearance of guests in their establishment, particularly guests of a non-Egyptian persuasion. Having made urgent deposits of a luggage and bladder nature upstairs we were then given the grand tour of Assiut.

The city has the sleepy parochial feeling of a small town; streets are emptier, and therefore seem wider than those of Cairo, traffic is of course less, and both people and vehicles parade around the city sedately. It should be borne in mind of course that this impression was in part due to the fact that we were arriving from the neurotic mania of big sister Cairo, and that had we been air-dropped even into the middle of the Battle of Waterloo we probably would have remarked on the calm and quiet and order.

Aesthetically Assiut reminded me of Ismaileyya, with elegant white plantation-style houses buried in between the newer, but well laid out buildings. It also has an impressive, immensely long bridge, upon which we of course took group photographs against a backdrop of the magnificent Nile while I tried not to expire from the cold. This formality completed the tour continued, mechanical engineer Oosha pointing out each and every water-related edifice constructed by Amnesiac’s Grandfather, the British.

Since I feel no great fervour for either water engineering or British exploits in the colonies I concentrated my attentions on watching Assiut’s streets go past out of the car window. The most noticeably different thing about Assiut is its demographics: it has the largest Christian population (outside Shubra) in Egypt. I saw very few veiled women while I was there, and most of the female population was very obviously Copt. I think it can safely be said without fear of generalising (although please tell me if you think I am) that there does exist a specifically Copt look in Egypt; it’s something about the style of dress, and the hairdos. I spotted many a magnificently dyed female head in Assiut coiffeured a la Charlie’s Angels or rolled into a 1950s bouffant ponytail. I’ve often wondered why many (but of course not all) Egyptian Coptic ladies of a certain age seem to favour this very specific look. It has nothing to do with the fact that they don’t wear the veil, or that they sometimes wear shorter skirts than their Muslim peers, or that older women often don black for years: is this style the product of community influence? Or is it simply a fashion statement, or an expression of identity?

Tour over and having stuffed our faces at Happy Dolphin we returned to the hotel where upon entering Sharshar was accosted in a friendly fashion by a member of the tourist police, who asked him who he is and what he does and who the blonde girl is and why the girl with the Egyptian identity card has a bonkers name and looks British. It would have been nice if Sharshar could have come out with a simple answer, but his response included the words “journalist” and “foreign” and “human rights” which are all phrases guaranteed to make any representative of the Egyptian security apparatus’ head explode.

Sharshar left his business card and went home and we the ladies went up to our rooms, where we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the lift which made creaking sounds like those of the Titanic when it was sinking in that God awful film of the same name.

*Sort of works if one feigns a speech impediment. Very poor indeed, nonetheless.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

When Sally met Hany

My attempts to persuade him to accompany me to the ma2zoun failed

Regular readers will by now be familiar with, and bored of, my mild obsession with singer Hany Adel. I was finally given a legitimate reason to be within a 5-metre radius of him yesterday evening when the editor of the local rag for which I now freelance asked me whether I would like to cover an event entitled 'Hany Adel and the Unseen Beatles' and whether it would be possible to get a quote off him afterwards. 'Yes it would be possible' I told him, but I am not sure he heard me over the tap-dancing.

I thus accosted hirsuite Hany and attempted to comport myself professionally. This proved a challenge because of his staring eyes, which are a peculiar green yellow beige colour. Also cos of his general fitness and tallness.

He was friendly and modest and happy to answer my stupid bumbling questions, God bless him. As you can see, I wore my special Ringo Starr head in honour of the night's theme.

Funnily enough, cousin Mildred met AHMED EZZ at the opening of Youssef Shaheen's new City Stars theatre last night, striking a double victory for our clan. Pictures of her salivating next to dreamy Ahmed (who is looking in another direction entirely) are now gracing every and any computer appliance which will allow her to upload a photograph. 'I'VE GOT AHMED EZZ ON MY DESKTOP' she roared at me.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Procrastination is the teeth of time

Apologies for turning za blog into a community noticeboard, but I need a dentist. I have been ignoring wisdom tooth pain for the past week because addressing the problem would involve effort. However, the pain now includes a bonus gift of earache, which is bonkers, and I probably should get it sorted out before I develop gangrene of the brain or similar.

I fondly recall the last dentist I went to here every time I bite into anything cold - and he came recommended...

Can denizens of Cairo recommend a dentist who (in addition to being hygenic and knowing what s/he is doing) fulfils the following requirements:

1. Is in the Dokki, Mohandiseen, Zamalek or Downtown area.
2. Isn't super duper expensive.
3. Is handy with the analgesics given that it looks like teeth extraction is on the cards.

Thanking you!

UPDATE: I am now swimming in dentists what with the recommendations kind people sent to me. Thank you! Needless to say, the acquisition of these names coincided with the pain mysteriously lifting. I am still going to go if for no other reason than to put an end to my mother's incessant nagging, which is almost as painful as the toothache.

P.S Should anyone wish me to email them my list of recommended dentists I would be happy to oblige.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Check out the sepia effect

What is the bloody secret to posting a Youtube video at the end of a flamin post?

This post is sponsored by PMT

I involuntarily went to a fundraising do at the teen disco AUC yesterday evening which was in aid of the fight against breast cancer in Egypt. The whole shebang was entirely organised by a class of some 30 marketing communications students who were all there, sashaying around in their black outfits and high heels and straightened hair and looking for all the world like stray and shorter members of the Pussycat Dolls. There were some male student members of this class, approximately three. Do boys not like marketing communications, then?

The Pussycat Dolls were clearly extremely excited about the event and much squealing occurred whenever one of their number appeared on stage in order to painstakingly thank anybody and everybody involved in the event, including parents who were thanked until the cows came home. It felt like I had walked in on a high school prize-giving. As the interminable thanking and squealing went on myself and my spirits sank further and further down in my (bloody uncomfortable) seat and I found myself wanting to flick them all on their foreheads. This was possibly due to one or all of the following causes:

a. I am of a churlish disposition generally
b. I had and have toothache
c. The American woman behind me kept answering her phone in a sing-song voice and saying ‘Hi! Stay in shape with Curves. ____ speaking, how can I help you today?’ She herself was hugely curvy.
d. High-pitched female voices outside the context of opera bring up the bile
e. I was surrounded on all sides by the dark arts of corporate sponsorship - I don't want a Mercedes, Alonso
f. Khaled Abul Naga ‘actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador and medium eye candy’ was scheduled to show up but was prevented from doing so by ‘flight delays.’ I bet he was at Thrust.
g. Being in AUC set off the old longing to have graduated from this establishment and to have had a beach and coffee shop lifestyle with minimal educational commitments and been in a gang whose other members would have been called Pussy, Meezo and Soosou. Me and Meezo - a bookish cat-loving sort with wide shoulders, real name Hassan - would have got hitched and after ten years travelling the world with Medecins Sans Frontieres we would have returned to Egypt and settled down in an ecolodge in Mohandiseen, with some goats.

Misanthropic tendencies aside, as a result of their fundraising efforts the kids have managed to donate a breast cancer early detection unit to Benha University, which is fantastic, so high five to that.

The evening itself was a night of music featuring performances by Wust el Balad and legendary songwriter Marwan Saada, about which more in a mo. As usual Wust el Balad started 39 hours late, during which time certain Anglo-Egyptian members of the audience were forced to sit on a low concrete ledge thingie under a tree through lack of chairs which resulted in loss of feeling in the posterior. What was infuriating was that the stage had been set, the sound check done and Hany et al were just sitting there. On the plus side Hany had a white top undone to nipple-level. Once they eventually started they were alright I suppose. There was one dodgy moment when, during a reggae track, Hany elected to jog on the spot a la Bob Marley which made him look like a buffoon, but this was made up for in an excellent song which I hadn’t heard before, and which I recorded so that I can enjoy it over and over again until my ears fall off.

Back to Marwan. He is a legend because he is the man who wrote Helwa ya Balady, the anthem of Egyptians in Diaspora. I was actually introduced to him by Upstairs Auntie very briefly in 2004 in the Gezira Club, but was so involved in eating a sweet potato at the time that I barely registered his presence. All these pivotal moments squandered!

Marwan is my favourite type of middle-aged crooner. For one thing he was wearing a businessman grey suit and an 80s style tie which I think he might have borrowed off my father. He was also wearing ginormous navigator-style glasses, had a rakish red handkerchief in his breast pocket and had the BEGINNINGS OF A MULLET. The look said: I have money, but I still might pinch your arse, lady! Secretly I was hoping that he had left a gentleman’s handbag backstage.

He sang with enormous gusto and had a voice like a hybrid Frank Sinatra/Charles Aznavour. He banged out old French and English standards of the type you would hear in a Los Vegas hotel lobby. He was so loud that the backing singers standing next to him were barely audible, and did that thing which old timers always do of giving it so much vibrato that scientists mistake the air disturbance this causes for some kind of freak weather condition. As a result of this, during ‘Girl from Ipanema’ the following happened:

Girl backing singer in sweet, angelic tones: que fisca impanema ronaldo bossa nova zeeo i lookatthearseonthateo [e.g. something about a fit bird in Portuguese]

Marwan: [insistently bellowing, while girl is still singing]: TALL




The effect was of a B52 bomber flying over a meadow.

I personally cannot fault a man who does that old-school thing of banging his mic in time with the beat like a baton while looking at the drummer, and whose French accent makes him sing ‘eetz a wanderfal wurld’. During one impressively long vibrato-filled note he also stood legs slightly apart and gradually raised his arm until by the time the note, and the song, finished, he was standing there with his finger pointed in the sky which for me sealed the deal.

The one fart in the evening’s underpants occurred when one of the Pussycat Dolls and a male classmate were going around with a donation box. The boy approached me and rattled it in my face and I’m afraid to say that I told a little white lie and said that I had already donated. In my defence, I had paid 60 le for a bloody ticket and I am skint. Upon hearing this Pussycat (without even attempting to mumble) said ‘no she hasn’t’ before flouncing off. If it wasn’t for the fact that she was in fact right (although she had no bloody way of knowing that!), and that I was unable to move because my knees had seized up through prolonged sitting, and that I was scared of her stupid extra extra-pointy Sex and the City slip on shoes which looked like knives I might have challenged her to a dual. As it was I added my bile to the existing stock where it will no doubt make a surprise appearance in the form of a stroke when I am 60.

This post contains a free gift of Dalida singing Messieur Marwan’s king of songs. I have chosen this particular version because it features two Dalidas for the price of one, and at the end she does that right-angled elbow dance beloved of middle-aged women. Upstairs Auntie dances in exactly the same way.

OK as usual Youtube is being an arse. Dalida follows.