Friday, August 29, 2008

Whatever happened to baby Abdel Rahman?

Go to this link and laugh.

Things I like about this webpage:

1. The crack element.
2. The microphone invading the photo's foreground like a drunk prankster.
3. Hosny's shiny Duran Duran suit.

Which is best? Answers - with reasoning - in pencil, on A4 lined paper.

Class dismissed.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Will make no perceptible difference to the legislative process

The view from Dokki

Today I got inordinately excited by the sight of a helicopter taking water out of the Nile.

I then felt slightly nauseous when I discovered that the emergency services’ response to the huge fire in the Shura Council was identical to its response to any event involving the gathering of ten or more people: throw huge numbers of central security troops at them.

7abeeb hearty ya helicopter

I walked to the fire across Qasr El Nil bridge, watching the helicopter scooping up water and throwing it (rather ineffectually) all over the Shura Council.

Arriving outside Qasr El Nil there was the predictable scene of chaos, caused mostly by the police, whose sole purpose in life seems to stop journalists standing still for more than 10 seconds. It is impossible to overstate how irritating it is, when you are trying to photograph something, to have some bloke waving you away like a chicken escaped from its coop.

The strategy tonight was to line the corners of the road opposite the Shura Council with a semi-effective police cordon, theoretically to keep people back. Its effect was to herd the crowds directly into the path of huge fire trucks trying to reverse out of the Shura Council into Qasr El 3ini Street.

We milled around Qasr El 3ini trying to avoid herded away and get photos and then decided to walk round the circumference of the Shura Council.

A bonkers man outside the AUC insisted that the Pig take a photo of him giving the thumbs up against a background of the fire while he shouted “ENTA AKEED FE MASR.”

On the Falaki side the fire was huge. We found a load of kids who had turned the roof of a bus into an impromptu viewing platform while below them a really old policeman roared at them to get down. He then preceded to chase kids who jumped down waving a tree branch at them in a scene which was part comedy, part tragedy.

This part of the evening, in a back street without any security presence apart from the old bloke was slightly anarchic, and slightly intimidating. At least for a lady.

Wanting to get a view from above, we attempted to bribe several bawwabs into letting us up but succeeded in stumbling across the most noble bawwabs in the world. Not for love nor money could we go up. The residents would get angry. We eventually though found a building with a separate fire escape staircase used by the people living on the roof, and an absent bawwab.

Alas we discovered the fact that it is only the fire escape leads to the roof only after climbing seven flights of the indoor stairs, at which point my patience began to wear thin but unfortunately not my thighs, despite the intense workout they were given.

The view from the roof was worth the terror of the ascent: the fire had completely consumed that side of the Shura Council, as you will see in the video if a miracle has happened and I have succeeded in uploading it.

My legs almost giving way, I left the fire at about 11 p.m. by which time it was starting to die down slightly.

I left terrified at the prospect of what would happen if, God forbid, Egypt ever suffered another mass scale disaster natural or man-made: emergency response services simply cannot cope. This is hardly breaking news, but was brought home in a slightly terrifying fashion tonight as fire engines got stuck reversing into anarchic streets and security forces shooed away people mechanically while being annoying and useless and ambulances got stuck in traffic jams.

What was really galling was that they did not even close Qasr El 3ini Street – Qasr El 3ini!! The street they close whenever a minister farts in its general direction. This was baffling, and the decision to leave traffic flowing through it and obstruct the passage of fire engines is testament to an extremely poor emergency response plan. Or, even worse, the complete absence of one.

Note on videos below (because I don't know how to annotate them without deleting them)

1. Shows the excellent helicopter doing its thing. I was standing on Qasr El Nil bridge.

2. View from left-hand side of main gates of Shura Council on Qasr El 3ini. Fire engines fighting their way through.

3. View from roof of building opposite the Shura Council, Falaki side. Shura Council completely in flames.

4. Left-hand side again.

**Special thanks to Zoss, who donated this video camera**

Videos of the fire. Guest appearance by: my finger

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nasr City-On-Sea

A scene from The Shining

I have just returned from Nasr City-On-Sea, where I counted the minutes until my flight back to Cairo.

Last week was full of omens. First of all my mobile fell down the toilet while I was entering the starter's blocks and it was in my back pocket. This is the 2nd time I have done this, disproving Pavlov.

Then, as I was walking down Abdel Khaleq Sarwat, downtown, I saw a small object convulsing in the road, and realised that it was a cat, hit by a car. I dragged the creature, paralysed at the waist, to the side of the road, where I asked a store owner for a piece of cloth and a box so that I could take it to a vet to be put down. The store owner was very kind. Bystanders looked at me and shook their heads, feeling sorrier for the stupid foreigner than the bloody cat.

The sad thing is, attempting to rescue a cat did feel self-indulgent, in this age when there is not enough humanity to cover humans.

A grocery owner came out and placed a tub of yogurt in front of the cat, which was now frothing at the mouth, in agony. When the box and the blanket eventually arrived he shouted after me “take the yogurt! Cats like yogurt!”

The cat died in the taxi en route. I had never before witnessed a death, human or animal, and was shocked by how stealthy death is. One moment the cat was writhing in agony, desperate to escape the box, the next he was perfectly still. This happened when the taxi driver was asking me where I am from.

“Are you Egyptian or foreign?” he asked.

“Both” I said.

“Where is the foreign part from?” he asked.

“England” I replied.

“Aih? Cameroon?” he asked, inexplicably.

It’s true what they say, live things do look more at peace dead, even when fleas are still crawling over their heads. The cat was smiling.

I left the dead cat with my vet, where I washed death and germs off my hands in his sink. He had a tiny baby kitten corpse preserved in a jam jar of some liquid or other next to the taps. The kitten was standing up, defiantly, with its paws by its head. Roar.

On Thursday I went to Nasr City-On-Sea, for work. I had to get up at 4 a.m., and if life had given me a choice between getting up at 4 a.m. to go to Nasr City-On-Sea, and having my fingernails pulled out one by one, I would have hesitated.

There was no choice, and I found myself in the street wrenched out of sleep at that time when it is dark but technically a new day and only two birds and you are awake in the whole country, and then the next minute I was at the check-in desk, where I had a fight with a queue-jumper. Queue-jumpers are just above homicidal maniacs on my shitlist.

The fight refreshed me, and I was relatively awake on the plane, awake enough to register the safety video.

Just after the do3a2 el rokoob [prayer for travellers], and in the ‘gentleman’ of “Ladies and gentlemen, for your safety…” the electricity went out on the plane. Not just switched off, but a massive cabin-shaking power cut. People laughed nervously.

Being an Egyptair flight, this happened twice, at exactly the same moment. Star Alliance my arse.

Luckily it didn’t happen when the plane was actually in the air, and we arrived, technically alive, even if all of us to a man looked like death warmed up.

I was put in a 5-star hotel in Nasr City-On-Sea because I was there for work, one of those places where fruit is trapped under cling-film in your room and robes bearing the hotel’s initials spy on you from the wardrobe and you are charged for farting and you are meant to feel exclusive.

The bed had 10 pillows. I counted them.

Approximately eight of the TV channels were European. I watched a programme on male gymnasts in Dutch. Male gymnasts require no translation.

On the day I left I watched three hours of ‘Qalb emra2tin’ a soap opera featuring Ilham Shaheen, she of the huge teeth. It was awful, but it was about 420 degrees outside and I don’t dive, which left absolutely nothing else to do. At least 80 percent of the scenes were about nothing, by which I mean this model:

Girl: Allo

Boy: Aywa ya 7abibti [hi darling]

Girl: 3ala fekra, ana z3lana mennak [by the way, I’m upset with you]

Boy: Laih ya noosa!/ya Sooma!/ya Nivi! [why! –insert pet name --]

Girl: Le2an el saa3a ba2at 2 wenta makelemteneesh men el sob7 [because it’s 2 o’clock and you haven’t rang once]

Boy: Ma3lesh ya ro7y, asl ana mott fe 7adset 3arabeyya el saa3a 11 [I’m sorry babe, but I died in a car crash at 11 a.m.]

Girl: Tayyeb…ana mesh za3lana tab3an/m2darsh 3ala za3lak 2abadan/a variation on this. [Ok…I’m not really upset of course/I can’t stand to make you angry]

Nasr City-On-Sea is Nasr City, on sea, by which I mean a huge, ugly, built-up urban area next to the sea. There is absolutely no concession to the beauty of the surroundings whatsoever, unless you count painting buildings white a concession. It is an unremitting visual assault of the type of generic plastic-looking tower blocks indigenous to Egypt.

What is worse is that there is, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do in Nasr City-On-Sea outside of ocean-based activities, and excluding staring at women in micro skirts.

Cheaper than Evian, non??

Attempting to fend off boredom I went for a walk one day, aiming to refuel at Felfela, and from there proceed to a hotel called Merit, which on the map appeared to be next door to Felfela. A concierge in the Marriott hotel (from where I started my promenade) had advised me that Felfela was only 800 metres away or so and that yes, I could walk it.

Twenty minutes later, and slowly getting pickled in my own sweat, I flagged down a taxi and told him that I wanted to go to the Merit hotel. “Ah, that’s behind us” he said confidently, and did a U-turn. Five minutes later he pulled up outside the Marriott. “El Merit” he said. It was that kind of trip.

For three hours on Friday I sat on the beach amongst Serbians and two middle-aged women having a fight in Arabic at high volume. One of them appeared to be foreign, but spoke heavily-accented, passable Arabic, or at least enough Arabic to accuse the other woman of not knowing what she was talking about. She sounded a bit like me, as it goes. A man sat between them and smoked resolutely, looking out at the ocean. He probably would have thrown his cares into said ocean, if he had been able to carry their substantial body mass.

A man from the hotel tried to sell me massages offered in the hotel’s health spa. I tried to stop him, explaining that I earn in LE, but he then said he’d give me a discount, and opened his folder to show various types of body manipulation available for only several hundred pounds.

He asked me where I am from. England I told him. He asked me my name. I told him. “It’s an Egyptian name!” he declared, ignoring its Semitic roots and universality.

“You are married to an Egyptian!” he asked/told me, as is obligatory.


“You are not married!”

“No” I said, wondering if my he was an simultaneous incarnation of my mother and my guilty conscious.

“But why! I see queen before me!” was his stockpile response.

What, Brian May AND Roger Taylor? I wanted to ask him.

On the flight back home I was put at the very front of the plane and then an air steward closed the curtains in the aisle behind me and I realised that for some reason I was in business class.

While I can see the point of legroom and wider seats on long haul flights (but cannot justify their exclusion from economy class), business class seems utterly redundant and a vain display of self-importance on short flights such as these. Still, it’s not about legroom is it. A stewardess came round and threw a big white serviette on our foldaway tables which we were to pretend were table cloths before proceeding to put down a tray of two tired looking sandwiches, and two olives, all wrapped in Clingfilm.

Me and the man in the seat next to me (who seemed equally perturbed by the experience) sat and started at the sandwiches, smothered up to our necks in the serviettes, before we consumed them.

One was some sort of exhausted cheese, the other a sort of vile-looking meat. I also learnt that business class people (all eight of them) get a bus to themselves (although I missed it) while the other 80 plebs have to cram into a bus on their own. Everyone has to wait at the luggage carousel together though, so the upper-class suitcases mingled with their inferior brethren, even if their owners did not.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Doug Gibbs!*

My mother during her days as a ventriloquist

Happy birthday, Mum, and thank you for continuing to keep me in clothes and replacement mobile phones despite the fact that I have not yet kept up my end of the bargain and furnished you with a grandchild.


* This is how my mother greets me on MSN.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Keeping it in the family

While waiting for a bus at Gesr Soueis the other day I saw a man’s foot get run over by a microbus. A sudden screech of brakes and I turned round to see the unfortunate foot owner using both arms in order to extract said extremity out from under the wheel of the microbus which had elected to stop, rather than keep going and possibly reduce the damage. There was a certain gracefulness about it all, somehow.

In other news I came home yesterday to find four fire engines parked in the street perpendicular to ours and Upstairs Auntie amongst a bunch of people looking up at the sky.

“Where were you! I rang you a million times and knocked on your door to tell you to come and look at the fire! The smoke was pouring out and the smell was terrible!” she said, almost screeching with excitement.

“Where is it?”

“It’s out now but it was on that floor up there where that boy is standing. The firemen had to use the lift: their ladders weren’t long enough.”

The inevitable exchange then developed between Upstairs A and a bystander about the lamentable lack of equipment in Egypt and, where there is equipment, the lamentable lack of knowledge about how to use it.

On a related note, I watched an item on terrestrial telly the other day in which the authorities feted themselves on the purchase of X number of new ambulances on a stretch of highway somewhere in Egypt. There will now be an ambulance stationed every 50 km we were told – in between the billion LE luxury gated-community compounds overlooking these roads.

I can’t find anything about this new ambulance scheme other than this from our friends in the Egypt State Information Service: (I copy pasted. All spelling mistakes are theirs).

One billion pound was earmarked to carry out a comprehensive strategy to develop ambulance service in Egypt, Health Minister said Wednesday 4/7/2007.

In press statements, Hatem Gabali said the service will be equipped with 3,200 new ambulances, 1,000 of which will arrive in Egypt in 2007.

Money coming from selling lands for investors in the new communities will go to this purpose, he said.

He said the strategy aims at providing one ambulance for every 25,000 people in accordance with international criteria.

The plan will be finalised by July 2008. He called on businessmen to boost the ambulance service by offering money to buy 500 mew ambulances and train ambulance teams on the latest pre-hospital care methods.

The government is thus selling land to private investors and then generously investing the profits from these sales in the purchase of ambulances because the health sector is so screwed by the reduced public sector spending implemented under the conditions surrounding loan packages that the purchase of ambulances doesn’t just happen, it’s news.

And then after all that the government still has to go cap in hand to businessmen to pay for 500 new ambulances, the most basic and most important of a state’s obligations towards its people, keeping them alive, having again been reduced to – and reduced by – business, and chance.

Gated community dwellers unlucky enough to require one of the shiny new ambulances stationed every 50 km when it is already in use should remind themselves as they expire that the impressive economic growth due in part to slashed public sector spending and reduced state interference in the economy and increased foreign investment has allowed them to enjoy their desert kingdoms and its golf courses unencumbered by anything as inconvenient as meaningful taxes or a duty to others.

Poor people taken out on one these highways should be glad that they are no longer making a nuisance of themselves and being a parasitical burden on the entity formerly known as society and remind themselves that it’s all fate.

Speaking of roads and traffic, I saw a propaganda advert for the new traffic law the other day, the one with Yosra going on about safety belts in it, and at the end it said “the new traffic law: following it is no longer optional” or something along those lines. Which means that some drivers in Egypt have been needlessly abiding by the previous traffic law for all these years when they could have been doing handbrake skids into pedestrians with abandon.

It also made me wonder whether other laws are only optional. I believe this to be the case with legislation concerning gross criminal negligence and ship-owning members of the NDP whose ships sink killing 1,000 insignificant powerless people but who manage to turn potential criminal convictions into extra slices of cake at lunch: “not for me, thanks, I’ve had quite enough!” before buggering off to London.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Feeling devotional

My camera can't keep up

My father, a librarian from Croydon, is a formidable collector of data, and will hunt down figures for e.g. total annual pencil production in Tajikistan with an assiduity last witnessed during the first NASA moon space landing.

I was therefore unflustered when I recently received an email from said parent with the subject heading: ‘moolid Sayyeda Zeinab’ and ‘When is it?’ in the main body of the text.

Knowing that he has no particular devotion to dried chickpeas, large crowds or saints, I concluded that the General Knowledge Database was being updated and promised him that I would find out. Serendipitously, the Sayyeda Zeinab moulid was this week, and I went - out of curiosity, and to collect statistics for Wikipedia my Dad.

The last time I was in a human sea of these dimensions was in Nasr City after Egypt’s triumphant win of the African Cup, when I watched people narrowly avoid setting each other’s heads on fire with improvised blow torches. Out of happiness.

The Sayyeda Zeinab moulid, while it also featured large numbers of young men, was a different vibe altogether, although as with the African Cup madness, I noticed a distinct lack of a visible police presence. This was made all the more obvious by the fact that I had gone straight to the moulid from a protest where about 60 protestors were policed by rows of riot police and the usual characters from the interior ministry.Funnily enough, this is the exact inverse of the situation in the UK, where football-related joy necessitates an army while political protesters are more or less left to get on with it.

During the moulid the street outside the mosque is necessarily closed to traffic. In its place are people. Thousands of them - mostly men - but families, too of course. Lining the pavements are hawkers - of chickpeas, masks, hats made out of biscuit wrappers, posters (Nasser, Mubarak, Shereen), sweets, masks, toys and pirated cassette tapes of popular Sha3by singers.

Children ride on ancient looking, battered fairground swings of the type which can turn a full 360 degrees. Amour informed me that where he lives ‘it’s half a pound to swing and a pound to go all the way round. But we don’t pay.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because the man in charge is bent and we know it,”

He didn’t expand.

The air reverberates with a million and one sounds from above and below and around; sounds of firework bangers, chanting – devotional and mercantile –, shouting and bass-fuelled pop music. Olfactory senses are equally bombarded, with the smells of donkey shit, rubbish, dust, Sheesha and cooking - the scent of an Egyptian summer.

The crowds making it virtually impossible to move in the vicinity of the mosque, we moved further out to a parking lot area which had been commandeered by a troupe of singers and musicians. Their presence was announced by a line of gallabeyya and 3emam-clad men peering into the parking lot, where a makeshift café had been set up.

Men and a few women sat around the perimeter of a small patch of scrubland within the parking lot, smoking, sheesha-ing and drinking tea. At one end a traditional band of Mezmar players stood behind the singer who alternated between modern pop classics, shout-outs and commentary on the dancers.

"Photograph el 7agg 7efnawy" the man on the left said. "OK" I said.

Needless to say, the dancing was A1, exuberant, carefree and best of all involved props (the inevitable sticks but also scarves – coquettishly tied round waists – and chairs – hoisted above heads). The Michael Flatley of this Riverdance was the gentleman to be seen here clasping a stick:

If it was up to me I would have stayed all night, but alas my companions were not seduced by the din, overpowering smells and suffocating crowds in quite the same way that I was. All showed forbearance, with their arms crossed and a tight expression on their faces. All except Amour who had arrived halfway through and whose first words to me were, “what the bloody hell is this nonsense you’ve dragged me to?”

Happy (me) and feeling slightly homicidal (everyone else) we retired to Gad, where Amour cheered himself up by indulging in a discussion of his two specialist subjects, Hashish and street-fighting. He taught us all a new word when he said on the phone to someone picking up a supply for him, “ha7ezak b3dayn” which apparently means “I shall reimburse you later.”

We were then regaled with tales of encounters between the police and the hardmen in the area where Amour lives and which were essentially an unwritten Human Rights Watch report involving the cops knocking people about in public. Amour regards it all as very normal. “law nezelto 3andy delw2ty mesh hatla2oo 7ad faye2. Kolo dareb.” [If you came to my area now you wouldn’t find a single sober person. Everyone’s stoned.]

“Yes but the police don’t have the right to beat people up”, I reminded everyone, thinking that I was stating the obvious.

“No but the area in which Amour lives is really rough, they’re vile, and nothing else works with them,” Umm Nakad the human rights lawyer informed me.