Monday, March 31, 2008

El zolm beyawga3

A strange paradox in Egypt is that it is the incredible, miracle-level stuff which works while the ordinary and the routine seem to fail. Maria Golia expressed this well; she describes Cairo as being held together by rubber bands. How is it that the haphazard, logic-defying physicality of this city - with its buildings stapled onto buildings and precarious rooftop shacks and weary working donkeys and perilously overloaded, listing buses – survives and persists while the basics, the ABC, seems to fail?

I was reminded of this on Wednesday, when a court sentenced newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa to six months imprisonment for publishing articles suggesting that Hosny Mubarak might be slightly unwell. He was charged with spreading false information liable to undermine national stability. The implication is that by suggesting that the 80-year old Mubarak might not be in the best of health, Eissa had scared off foreign investors. I had previously attended the court session when defence witnesses were heard. One after the other they repeated the same thing: Egypt’s economy grew at the time the articles published and, in any case, it is impossible to gauge the effect the articles had on the economy, if any at all.

This was confirmed by someone who works in foreign investment in Egypt and who is on a mailing list I subscribe to. He said that Gamal’s succession to the throne is such a foregone conclusion that rumours/facts about Hosny bowing out before the curtain finally falls are neither here nor there. A couple of years ago when opposition movement Kefaya still had wind in its sails ‘no to inherited rule’ was a chant regularly heard at demonstrations and protests. The chants have faded now - perhaps temporarily – but in the silence is a sigh, a tacit acceptance of the unacceptable, of the anomaly made ordinary.

But then how can ordinary be gauged when the reference points have become so skewed, so perverted? In an age when honesty is a liability and policemen are criminals and water is poisonous and truth is fabricated in a closed room somewhere, notions of good and evil are redundant, the accoutrements which are the first things thrown off a sinking ship.

A foreigner resident in Egypt who has been following the AUC 8 trial reminded me of this recently. Seven of the Sudanese defendants were released on bail by a court at the beginning of March until the next court hearing in May. There was hysteria when the judge made the announcement; ululations and screams and a relative of one of the boys passed out flat on the ground in happiness.

They weren’t released of course. They are currently being held in a prison in Alexandria, their detention made “legitimate” by the addition of a new charge concocted by state security after a week during which they were held entirely illegally. The 7,000 LE bail paid by their families and friends has disappeared, as has all hope that they will be released. “It’s not right,” said the foreigner, and I found myself wondering at the foolish naivety, or lofty idealism of such a statement – what has right got to do with anything? Wrong and right have become the Sunday best outfit reserved for special occasions, for religious ceremonies and visits by foreign dignitaries. They have no place in the everyday. How can one win a war whilst wearing the tight collar of respect?

Last week Om Nakad telephoned me and told me to go to Kitkat, where a man who had been tortured by the police was due to appear before the public prosecution office.

The office was in a huge, newly-constructed tower block with mirrored windows and a grand reception area worthy of The Law. The lift does not work of course, and it was a six-floor trek up. Upon arriving, out of breath, we were met by a lawyer who filled us in. Hany had been at home at 2 p.m. with his wife and son when an anti-drugs division had suddenly burst in and demanded that they lead him to a known drugs dealer in the area, slapping him about a bit to demonstrate that they meant business. He did as they wanted, but was held afterwards. When he presumed to ask why he was being held, and why the police broke into him home without a warrant he was whipped with the long glue sticks used in glue guns (used by the police to seal packages of evidence) before charges of drug dealing were fabricated against him.

Everyday in the morning individuals arrested during the night are brought before the public prosecution office for the ‘3ard’, presentation. I arrived at around 1 p.m. that day and the 3ard had still not begun. Instead, two rows of men sat on the ground next to the lifts in a busy hallway. Bedraggled, unshaven, barefoot and shackled the men reminded me of chattels: the poorest, most vulnerable members of a society viewed as criminals not because of the crimes they had supposedly committed but because of their offence of being nobodies and knowing nobody.

Hany was amongst them, tiny and fragile-looking and handcuffed to his neighbour. I found myself thinking he doesn’t look that bad, he’s only got a black eye…before I realised that I was comparing his treatment to that of deaths and extreme brutality in police custody rather than against the yardstick of what is supposed to happen, which is no abuse at all; the offensive again becoming the ordinary.

I wanted to photograph Hany, to document his injuries. Om Nakad requested permission and the police guards refused so we went to the head of the prosecution office to complain. The offfices of members of the public prosecution office are all in one corridor access to which is granted or denied by a couple of officious individuals whose sole purpose seems to be to make life as difficult as possible for defence lawyers and journalists. Om Nakad is a formidable opponent and we eventually gained access to the district head’s office.

He turned out to be slender, moustachioed and bespectacled man who had one of those small round badges clipped into the hole on his suit lapel where flowers are put during weddings. I couldn’t read what was written on the badge, neatly adjusted and arranged like everything else in the room, but the sparse order of his desk, and his own demeanour, were suggestive of a man who likes rules and, more than that, likes to embody rules.

Om Nakad explained that we were following a case involving the ‘excessive’ use of force by the police. There was the briefest of flashes of something, followed by a silence, before he reached for a piece of paper and asked for the name of the person involved. He then requested that we wait outside, back in the hallway and, for the first time, closed his office door. Om Nakad said that he was calling the police division implicated in the case, that this is always what happens. Who knows.
Five minutes later we heard one of the officious individuals say to a guard ‘haat Hany zeft dah’ [bring that bloody Hany] before Hany himself appeared, stumbling along the corridor with the guard who had banned us taking his photograph before collapsing in the hallway. We were summoned into the office of a member of the public prosecutor office, this time a young man at the beginning of his career still in the process of cultivating the arrogance which seems part of the job description of being a member of the public prosecution office.

I have yet to work out whose side the public prosecution office are on. All of its members I have come in contact with have, without exception, demonstrated an identical, very particular, type of arrogance. It is reminiscent of British public school aloofness and is perhaps the product of being in an all-male environment; a mixture of machismo and privilege finished off with that most dangerous of attributes, power.

In his early 20s, well-dressed and smoking, this member of the public prosecution office fitted the description perfectly. I was allowed to attend the pre-investigation ‘discussion’ during which the accused man has five minutes or so to briefly present his side of the case. I would not be admitted to the investigation itself, which only lawyers may attend. Hany stood in front of the young man’s desk, rubbing his hands together and explaining to ‘el basha’ what had happened. El basha meanwhile looked everywhere except at him, at his desk, at his cigarette, at a package brought in midway through the conversation while Hany, who seemed to shrink during the process, continued talking, seemingly to nobody.

El basha refused to allow us to photograph Hany’s injuries before we were dismissed until the investigation began. Once outside Hany was not returned to the group of men shackled and sat on the ground in the hallway - the guards had got wind of our determination to photograph him. “Ana 7’abayto” [I’ve hidden him] one of them said with a self-satisfied smile. “Search high and low and you’ll never find him.” And Hany had in fact disappeared into the bowls of the building.

The investigation began half an hour or so later, in front of a different, and indifferent, member of the public prosecution office. I went in, tried my luck, but was sent out and prowled round the building’s corridors while I waited. It being 3ish and near the end of a shift, the building gradually emptied of its condemned men and the hoards of women and children who had set up camp in its corridors.

The way in which buildings change when their human inhabitants desert them has always interested me. It is like watching the way a landscape changes during sunset. The cruelty of this building was exposed in its bareness; echoing, impossibly long hallways, dirty walls and corners overflowing with rubbish, all testimony somehow to a legal system fallen victim to the same mixture of neglect, abuse and revulsion which runs throughout this society.

Hany spent over an hour inside, while outside I argued over a chair with one of the officious individuals who tried to force me to stand up until a policeman explained that he had in fact allowed me to sit on it. Om Nakad eventually emerged and told me that they had taken so long because the public prosecution official had insisted on taking periodic breaks – that is when he wasn’t settling up playlists on his laptop, which had apparently provided the soundtrack to Hany’s interrogation. Before the interrogation started Hany had again provided a brief summary of what had happened to him, prompting the public prosecution office person to say “hangeblak 7a2ak” [we’ll see that you get justice]. “El zolm beyawga3” [injustice hurts] Hany replied, but even pain can become normality.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lahazaat gamoosa*

I have recently watched two films with nearly all-female casts, Caramel, in which four women in Beirut subject us to their various trysts with men, and the appallingly-named Lahzaat Onootha (‘Moments of Femininity’ for crying out loud) in which four women in Cairo subject us to their various trysts with men.

There was no better celebration of International Women’s Day this March than watching adult women cry, fret and whine their way through the man-related trials which apparently dominate their entire existences. My invisible corset got tighter and tighter inducing an insurmountable feeling of nausea as around me various suffragettes raised themselves from the dead and clapped their hands in horror as their years of hunger-striking and chaining themselves to railings was undone by a woman in leggings crying over her boyfriend.

While Caramel compensated for the sophomoric storyline with excellent art direction, elements of humour and a highly-entertaining bonkers old woman, Moments of Femininity increased the already excruciating pain of its insufferable plot with acting so wooden I wanted to whittle a club out of it and beat myself to death.

But then there was not much that lead character Ola Ghanem et al could have done with a script this poor. A sense of camaraderie developed amongst the ten people in the audience watching the film when I went - much in the same way that people trapped in a sinking ship band together - and much of the film was spent exchanging mirthful comments about the quite spectacular direness of the film. It was a sort of group therapy. Midway through one man loudly declared “a failure of a scene from a failure of a scriptwriter,” which just about hits the nail on the head.

The film was essentially a series of disjointed and poorly-crafted scenes lumped together one after the other with little thought given to minor considerations such as plot credibility, continuity and the audience’s sanity.

Rather than trouble themselves with thinking up credible events, the film’s scriptwriters propelled the plot - for want of a better word - forward by engineering chance encounters in public venues so unlikely that we can only conclude that these characters live in a town with a total population of 6.

The first of these encounters occurs when Joumana Mourad – who suspects her bouffant-haired husband Wael (played by Ibrahim Yousry) is having an affair - busts him when she walks in on him schmoozing a woman in a bar. We have no idea at all how she deduced that he would be there but that is apparently little import.

This encounter is eclipsed by another bar scene, this time involving Nabil El-Hagrassy.

El-Hagrassy and his sideburns play the role of uncle to Amira, a widow with a young son who has started dating Mahmoud. Unbeknownst to Amira however, Mahmoud has started dating Amira after making a LE 200 bet with his work colleagues, which is understandable. He professes to genuinely loving her, which is not.

I have been unable to find out the name of the actress who plays Amira, which is a shame, because she should be commended for her unique ability to strip lines of any feeling or humanity entirely. She delivers lines in a tone similar to that of my mobile phone, which has a voice function and announces the identity of incoming calls. Only Amira does it with less passion.

In the bar scene Mahmoud’s colleagues are having a tipple when a scantily-clad somewhat bovine woman - who we are to believe is irresistibly seductive – walks past and the men consider making a bet to see which man can convince Ms. Bovine to go out with him, “like Mahmoud did with Amira.”

The camera pans to the table next to their and lo and behold! It’s Amira’s uncle and his sideburns sitting open-mouthed with Amira’s brother-in-law. The extremely camp El-Hagrassy prances over to the men’s table and starts a catfight before in the next scene preceding to drop the bombshell to Amira, who manages to cry while looking bored.

This chance encounter allows the director to waste five minutes during which we see Mahmoud pining for his lost love against flashbacks of him and Amira doing coupley things in various venues, to music.

These are the exact same scenes which we had to sit through when they first got together, and this happy event was conveyed to us through scenes of Mahmoud and Amira doing coupley things in various venues, to music.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Hussein El-Imam makes a prat of himself playing the role of a playboy company manager constantly shadowed by two assistants, one Russian, one Thai.

Little can be said about the unedifying spectacle of the middle-aged El-Imam suddenly bursting into song and dance during a company meeting while holding a golf club and wearing sunglasses except that it will haunt my nightmares forever.

Whoever directed Moments of Femininity appears to think that it is perfectly acceptable to replace substance with salaciousness. This is the only explanation I have as to why a scene of three of the female leads asleep in bed wearing little other than full makeup is suddenly thrust upon us, before we then see Ola Ghanem and her bosoms showering to a soundtrack which sounds like it is borrowed from a 1980s light porn movie.

The scene is entirely unrelated to those which precede and follow it and serves no purpose whatsoever. Unless you are a 13 year-old boy without access to the Internet.

On the plus side, there were a few moments of high comedy, such as when Mahmoud in his grief bellowed “Amiraaaaaaaa!” underneath her balcony and sounded like the Incredible Hulk.

Also, one of the character’s hair moved backwards and forwards when he talked giving him the appearance of a man with a live mammal on his head.

In fact if it didn’t take itself so seriously Moments of Femininity could very easily have turned into a spoof.

This was a painful to endure film which could have addressed interesting issues such as women’s right to divorce, social perceptions of women in Egyptian society etc but instead chooses to take the path of fluffy, puerile and un-entertaining light entertainment.

Originally published in Daily News Egypt.

*Title courtesy of Sharshar.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


The week I have just spent at the Doctors’ Syndicate sit-in was an interesting first-hand lesson in Egyptian union politics, the weakness of a fragmented labour movement and the dangers of temperamental Shattafaat.

The sit-in was organised after the Syndicate unilaterally ‘postponed’ the strike doctors had voted for with an overwhelming majority during an emergency general assembly meeting in February. Doctors voted to hold a two-hour strike on the 15th March in order to draw attention to their demands for a 1,000 LE minimum wage – senior doctors working in ministry of health hospitals are paid an average of 600 LE per month. Samia, who cleans my house three times a week, takes 720 LE per month.

Syndicate head Hamdy El-Sayyed had publicly expressed support for the strike, taking part in two protests outside the People’s Assembly during which he went on at length to the media about the iniquity of current wage scales. El-Sayyed is a tiny man with a big voice whose emotions are impossible to fathom behind his impenetrable and unchanging gaze. During one of the protests he was given a placard to hold up for a photo op and looked – as far as it was possible to tell – thoroughly uncomfortable, like a tourist on a Nile cruise forced against his will to don a belly dancer costume.

But then there has been an element of masquerade about the Syndicate’s handling of the strike generally. A week before the strike was meant to take place Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said during a radio interview that strikes in ‘vital sectors’ are illegal (a position refuted here, in Arabic). The Syndicate reacted by announcing that the strike had been postponed ‘out of concern that striking doctors would suffer legal repercussions’, only a few days before it was meant to go ahead. I find it impossible to believe that during the continuous negotiations between the Syndicate and the ministry of health in the lead up to the 15th the necessity of telling El-Sayyed that the strike he had endorsed was supposedly illegal slipped ministry officials’ minds…Was this move planned by the government from the beginning or was it a response to growing support for the strike? Was it orchestrated in concert with the Syndicate? Who knows.

On the first day of the sit-in El-Sayyed arrived at the Syndicate in his chauffer-driven car, got out and walked past the protestors as if they did not exist, with that inscrutable mask of his – just as he had done during a previous protest at the Syndicate. I was disconcerted by this, and contrasted it later with his sycophantic reception of a government figure of some sort during the Doctor Day ceremony held at the Syndicate.

I made friends with an eccentric, pleasantly odd, unemployed middle-aged doctor who appears to use the Syndicate as his office and seems to know everyone employed in anything medical-related in Qasr el-Aini and its environs. The first time he spoke to me after seeing me at the People’s Assembly protests he asked me for the address of the newspaper’s office. “Maybe I will write you a letter,” he said - which broke the ice in fine style.

We once found the chauffeur sitting in the Syndicate’s reception once, jiggling his keys and wearing sunglasses. “You remind me of Gamal Abdel Nasser in those sunglasses of yours” eccentric doctor said. The chauffeur smiled, said nothing, continued shaking his keys, as impenetrable as his guvnor.

An unpleasant discovery I made during the sit-in was the exact extent of security body involvement in the everyday workings of the Syndicate, which might be termed insidious if it weren’t for the fact that there is nothing stealthy about it. The officer assigned to the sit-in was a man who looked like a cross between American TV chef Emeril Lagasse and James Gandolfini, if both were mixed together and then struck with a bus. State security officers seem to spend 90% of their time talking into mobiles, and this bloke was no exception: during the daily protests at 2 p.m. his job was to repeat into his mobile the slogans chanted by the main chanter. He did this at the same times as the other doctors repeated the chants, so it looked like he himself was joining in the protest.

When not doing this he ate lib, scowled or smoked, or did all three at the same time. At the very beginning of the sit-in (when I suppose he didn’t know what to expect and had to show them who’s boss from the getgo) he had an altercation with a protestor who was filming the crowd with his mobile phone and filmed the officer – who he had no way of knowing was an officer (and even if he did, so what?). The men grappled over the mobile before they were separated and tempers cooled, but in his anger in the immediate aftermath he pointed at one of the sit-in’s leaders, Dr Mona Mina and, his face contorted with fury, bellowed “YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING SAID HERE TODAY” like a petulant dictator on crack.

It soon became obvious however that the small group of mainly middle-aged doctors who gathered on the Syndicate’s steps everyday and who hushed the chant leader every time he strayed into politics were not about to start the revolution. The police presence at protests gradually grew less and less. The officer spent his time wandering around the Syndicate, smoking, talking to staff and drinking coffee. I went into an administrative office in the Syndicate once and found him there, slumped in a sofa and chewing gum, and immediately buggered off. Outside a lad from the buffet was wandering around with a tray of Turkish coffee saying, “fein Osama basha” [where’s basha Osama] before someone directed him to the administrative office.

This was apparently an entirely normal state of affairs. And of course it is – imagine the power wielded by an unchecked group of over 100,000 individuals with an independent leadership, and imagine the threat posed if this group coordinated with other large bodies. So unions are emasculated using various means, including freezing the elections of Syndicates whose members predominantly belong to an opposition political bloc i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood, as is the case with the Doctors’ Syndicate, whose elections have been frozen since the early 1990s.

And it is for this reason why any organised challenge to all this is so exciting. The sit-in organised by Doctors Without Rights was tiny, never really gaining momentum despite the commitment of the doctors who attended. Protestors called off the sit-in for one day during the Doctors Day ceremony at the ‘request’ of the Syndicate (= security bodies) and on Tuesday rugs were laid on the steps where previously the protestors had been standing, and not a single protestor came. I think this was a fatal mistake, but then I haven’t got children to worry about.

The sit-in was nonetheless a rare expression of dissent against both Syndicate hegemony and the state, both of whom are shafting doctors.

I was disappointed that university professors – who are striking tomorrow and who have more or less the same demands as doctors – did not show support to doctors during the sit-in. I am told there was an appearance on the first day by members of the March 9 university professors lobby group but that was the extent of it. I went to a press conference on Wednesday by university professors ahead of the strike, returning to the sit-in afterwards, and was given to understand that members of the university professors strike committee would join the protest. They did not, even though three of the university professors who spoke during the press conference are themselves doctors.

I noted the same lack of coordination within a single profession when I covered a couple of strikes within the Egyptian National Railways recently. The protest by train conductors was incredibly impressive; they turned out in huge numbers, laid down on train tracks, were noisy, organised and determined, and won. But two months later when I told one of them about a protest by train drivers I was covering in Beni Suef, he had no idea about it.

This fragmentation is a natural consequence of political repression I suppose. The Doctors’ Syndicate demonstrated its appreciation of how useful the divide and rule formula is during the emergency general assembly meeting held yesterday. After an electric two-hour session during which Syndicate leaders were interrupted by doctors shouting out slogans and tempers rose and El-Sayyed threatened to walk out the Syndicate ‘voted’ to continue negotiations with the government and to hold a two-hour protest outside hospitals on the 23rd with regional syndicates permitted to organise their own protests. This decision was ‘approved’ by Syndicate members despite the fact that for two hours speaker after speaker from regional syndicates voiced their support for strike action.

Mona Mina asked the gathering whether they supported the idea of a two-hour protest outside the hospitals on the 6th April. The response was overwhelmingly yes, and yet Syndicate heads picked the 23rd out of the air and pushed the decision through in a noisy and chaotic vote during which half of the assembly could not hear what treasurer Essam el-Erian was saying. One doctor in the audience shouted out “enta faashel zay Fathy Sorour!” [you’re a failure like (People’s Assembly speaker) Fathy Sorour].

Towards the end of the meeting the call of nature I had been ignoring for an hour became too strong to resist and I made my way to the water cabinets. While I was doing the necessary I was suddenly aware of an intense feeling of wetness on my calves, and discovered that the Shattaafa – the bidet function installed in toilets in progressive countries – was apparently an automaton, and had decided to switch itself on.

Alas so lost was I in reflecting on the emergency general assembly, and what I would have for dinner, that it took me some moments to register the ocean of water gathering at my feet - by which time my trousers were almost entirely saturated.

I contemplated standing outside in the sun for half an hour rather than walking back into a room of 1000 doctors who would all think that I had had suffered an incontinence-related mishap, but unfortunately at that exact moment El-Sayyed threw a tantrum which was not to be missed.

There is a big screen in the Syndicate reception showing the events inside the main hall, and just as I walked past it, bow-legged, all hell broke loose. One of the speakers had apparently suggested that health minister Dr Hatem el-Gabaly be stripped of Syndicate membership. I didn’t hear why but I would assume that it’s because el-Gabaly has done bugger all for doctors. NDP member El-Sayyed took fierce umbrage at the mere suggestion of this, standing up and attempting to walk out in a demonstration of impressive obsequiousness.

Having shown where his loyalties lie he was eventually placated and returned to his seat before the Syndicate ‘voted’ and everyone went home, many with a feeling that they had just witnessed a farce, one of them in very wet trousers indeed.

Monday, March 17, 2008

We taught the Americans everything they Guantanaknow

AMNESIAC: So are these men whose release was ordered by a court 12 days ago and who are still in detention being held legally or illegally?



Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In training

I have lost count of how many times Egypt has thrown its best and its worst at me simultaneously, in the exact same moment. It’s strangely exhilarating, the clash of emotions this produces; a mixture of expectation and fear and anger and joy.

The day before yesterday the Doctors’ Syndicate cancelled the strike it had planned for the 15th March after Prime Minister Nazif reminded (read: threatened) them that public sector strikes are ‘illegal’. I went to a protest on Sunday they organised at the Doctors’ Syndicate headquarters on Qasr el-Aini which was as usual policed by the men in black with the bling on their shoulders.

One particularly enthusiastic young doctor started chanting, and the others joined in until at one point the four-lane street in front of them suddenly fell eerily silent (from my vantage point I could see that the police had stopped traffic briefly - for a reason which (guess what!) was not clear, but which had nothing to do with the protest). Heyya el shawara3 fadya laih…ento nawyeen 3ala aih? [why are the streets empty…what do you intend to do?] improvised the bright young spark to a ripple of laughter from the protestors and the police while a sudden bolt of tension screeched what if?

Yesterday I went to el-Wosta in Beni Suef to report on a protest organised by train drivers who would like parity in wages and conditions with their counterparts based in other Egyptian governorates. In their honour, I went by train, and yesterday night telephoned Tareq the train conductor to enquire about the train timetable.

Early the next morning I found myself in an office on platform 8 being offered tea by Said and Sergios, heads of something or other train-related, underneath the obligatory picture of Hosny. They deposited me on a train with Eissa the conductor who absolutely refused to let me pay for a ticket because of the article.

After passing through endless anonymous railway stations I arrived in a cold, overcast and overwhelmingly beige el-Wosta, which has the most dilapidated railway station I ever have seen. The footbridge over the tracks is made of irregular wooden slats giving it the appearance of a smiling toothless old hag. Unnervingly, the slats bounce. The footbridge itself leads to what can only be described as a graveyard containing the calcified and rotting corpses of trains and carriages. One of these wrecks has actually been turned into an ersatz office by train drivers.

I found sixty or so train drivers next to the office, waiting with their banners to march on the railway union office. I took pictures as they picked their was across the tracks before we arrived at the union office. A table was brought outside, three representatives sat down, the men crowded round them and I was promptly summoned to talk to the state security “basha” who informed me that I was not allowed to take pictures or report anything without a press card.

Thus began the tedious routine of negotiations and ID production and testing limits. There is a certain arrogance about security officers which I have always found exceedingly irritating, the demonstration of authority. This particular officer was a huge middle-aged man with a round face and doleful eyes. He smoked incessantly and examined my ID as he fingered prayer beads in the other hand. Everything about him was unhurried, including his response to questions addressed to him, and the way in which his minions hopped around him reminded me of the birds you see on hippo backs in nature documentaries.

In the end I was invited to “drink tea” in his office where the very polite negotiations again resumed, my position severely weakened by the absence of a press card - which I have never previously been asked for. It was decided that I wouldn’t attend the union meeting, but that I could interview the train drivers afterwards, and so I ended up sitting on a bench outside his office like a naughty schoolgirl, almost within earshot of the meeting. Yet another absurd situation, the smallest encounter with the snake of unaccountable power whose hissing you can hear everywhere you go.

The men emerged triumphant from their meeting (two of their demands were met) but in their capacity as ‘hosts’ were indignant that I had been given school detention. As is required, they thanked the security boss effusively for his role in their success (refraining from arresting them all perhaps?): the usual ode of it wouldn’t have been possible without you ya basha, while he smiled his lazy smile, looking above their heads. Paying dues. He reminded me of a sheriff, and in fact there was something a bit Western about his office, which was essentially a wooden cabin on whose porch he stood wide-legged, surveying the plains.

I returned to Cairo by microbus in the company of train driver Essam, and the journey was undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating, and terrifying of my entire life. We waited an hour while the microbus driver mafia negotiated passengers. This mainly consisted of an exchange of mother-related insults, and a sudden ya ebn metnaaka [son of a whore, but whose intensity is closer to motherfucker] would suddenly rattle round the microbus where Essam and I sat silently, me writing my article. The need to acknowledge the miscreant in our midst proved too strong for Essam and he tutted through the embarrassment.

After every last seat was filled the driver eventually obliged us and we set off. He veered off the four lane motorway in order to take a shortcut along a two-way narrow countryside road at such speed that my right leg spent the entire first ten minutes of the journey braking a non-existent peddle, entirely involuntarily. It didn’t help that Essam and I were sitting at the front.

Luckily, we rejoined a motorway which cuts its way through the moon-like topography of the Beni Suef desert and raced along to a stirring soundtrack of Sha3by and chillout music recorded off Nogoum FM. The driver was as usual a 22 year-old who looked like he had just imbibed Colombia’s entire annual Cocaine production and who drove accordingly. We came so close to the bumper of vehicles that I could probably have counted the driver’s nasal hair in his rear view mirror if it wasn’t for the sudden velocity with which our microbus driver veered out from behind the car in front and overtook it.

I am not of a nervous disposition when it comes to driving at breakneck speed with boy racers but did experience a slight heart flutter when the microbus threatened to veer off the road at 100 km an hour when the driver fumbled with the cassette player, or when he spurned the steering wheel and expressed his disgust at something by clapping his hands together for what seemed like 89 hours.

The sight of a Volvo full of moustachioed, turbaned Saidis in full uniform, the driver’s hand dangling out of his window clutching a cigarette, all of them looking effortlessly cooler than Robert de Niro in his Godfather days could ever hope to have been, more than made up for this.

And did you know that microbus drivers on the Beni Suef route greet each other during the day by turning their windscreen wipers on?

When I didn’t have my eyes closed Essam and I passed the time by chatting. He told me that he has been a train driver for 16 years, has three children and takes home 450 a month. He told me that he envied my ability to speak English. I asked him whether he has the time to study it and he described his schedule. He starts work at 10 p.m. and finishes at around 8 a.m., takes a microbus back to Giza, where he lives, washes, sleeps, and then gets up again to go back to work. He stated this simply, an explanation rather than a complaint, and it was then that I noticed how bloodshot his eyes were, how dishevelled he looked. He had been at work the previous night, gone straight to the meeting (which finished at 1.30 p.m.) spent an hour in a microbus waiting for it to move and would eventually put me on the metro and wave me off from the platform – before sleeping for perhaps an hour and a half and then repeating the process all over again, minus the journalist.

Essam isn’t unusual, but he is an ordinary hero, as are all the men who endure corruption, poor pay and appalling conditions within the Egyptian railways and challenge this, constantly under the watchful eyes of the languorous, smiling security officer and fully aware of the consequences of disturbing the snake.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Fe baytoona regl

Having a mother in the house has proved highly inimical to blogging, and in fact to all and any activity outside:

Watching the Fatafeat cookery channel
Listening to complaints about dust
Listening to complaints about lack of grandchildren
Listening to snoring

She watched Bored at the Ring one night while I sat behind her, trying to block it out, and for two hours she delivered a series of remarks addressed to no one. I noted them down, for posterity:

Look at the power of the ring.

Oh no! Haye7’osho el myya! [They’ll go into the water]

Quick! Quick! Quick! Quick!

Dah ye7’awwaf sheklo dah [He’s frightening, that one]

Ya boy. [Jesus he’s ugly]

Yeeee. Oh my God. Look what he’s doing to him.

Ah look a bird took him away. That’s good.

“The Shire”


She’s got a marvellous voice.

Ya ommy. [Yikes]

No, it’s evil.

Yeeee 7aram. We23oo. [Poor things, they fell]

Fatafeat in particular has been the soundtrack to this state visit, and the mother has been particularly delighted with Chef Andrew, a corpulent, Chavvish, red-haired individual who announces during trailers that he is ‘masry-canady’ [Egyptian-Canadian] and that ‘el 3araby beta3na mkassar bass el 2akl mesh mkassar’ [our Arabic is crap but our food isn’t]. He also addresses his mother, saying ‘insh2allah enty mabsoota men el 2akl’ [I hope you’re happy with the food] which always sends my own mother into paroxysms of laughter mixed with choked comments about skipping the country because of the embarrassment of having a red-haired son who speaks appalling Arabic, which, quite frankly, is rich coming from her.

Her second favourite channel after Fatafeat is, inevitably, Rotana Zaman [Rotana Yesteryear]. For the first two weeks whenever she put it on she would cry out in delight ‘Allah! Bossy ya Amnesiac, film 2adeem!’ [Oh how nice! Look, Amnesiac, an old film!] until she proved Pavlov right and noticed a pattern.

We had another houseguest during my mother’s visit, a long lost cousin who was born in Egypt but left decades ago and now resides in Miami. He wore slip-on loafers without socks, which I thought was only allowed if one is a member of Wham. He also sported a variety of violently-hued V-neck sweaters one of which, he remarked, is the exact same shade of orange as the uniform sported by employees of a rubbish collection service in Cairo.

My mother shares with me an urge to create codenames for people, and the cousin did not escape this affliction. She recycled an old joke which revolves around the film ‘fe baytoona raglun’ [there is a man in our house], replacing homograph ragl (man) with regl (leg). The cousin became known as regl, as in ‘howa regl fein?’ [where’s leg?] and regl kharrag [leg’s gone out]. It was all harmless fun and we thought that he had forgotten all his Arabic anyway until my mother witnessed him conversing with a gentleman from west Sudan. Sudanese Arabic to my ears often sounds like it is being spoken underwater, but alas Regl demonstrated an alarming proficiency.