Saturday, September 27, 2008


I went to a place called Establ Antar (‘Antar’s Stable’) on Thursday, a place whose name makes it sound like something out of Aesop’s Fables. It is a slum area located between the Zahraa and Dar el Salam metro stations on one side, and the beginning of the Moqattam mountain on the other.

I was strangely captivated by the place, which I entered from a main road which became progressively narrower – like walking into the horizon – until it was nothing but a dirt track. Lining it was an assortment of constructions: huts, concrete buildings and above our heads houses attached to the cliff face like barnacles on a ship. The effect was of scrambled jigsaw pieces.

Goats, sheep and chickens roamed around between tethered donkeys and this, together with the absence of motorised vehicles (the streets are too narrow), and the sudden and unlikely open spaces dotted with scratching livestock almost lent the scene a sort of rural charm.

The effect was dispelled by the memory of the area underneath a flyover which I passed through, and which had a Armageddon-like quality to it: huge piles of black smoking rubbish dotted the landscape between the flyover’s imposing pillars and a couple of unsaddled white horses. The distant roar of the flyover’s traffic echoed round our heads. Here and there men squatted on the ground, possibly selling something, possibly just squatting. Greyish smoke from the piles of rubbish lazily curled its way up to the flyover above. Impossibly high, a giant fist about to clench..

I went with a colleague from work who, while I pointed out unusual sights, hung on to his bag ever more tightly and mumbled “I never thought I’d come to a place like this”. “Welcome to journalism,” I said. “This is the dark side of journalism,” he replied, morosely. His unhappiness seemed to increase proportionately the narrower the road got, until by the time we reached our destination he was largely silent and tight-lipped.

We were there because the government – presumably stung by the Doweiqa fallout - had decided to knock down unsafe houses. Their former occupants were not congregated in an angry huddle a street away from the site of their former homes, which had been cordoned off by the police. A wardrobe and various belongings were piled up next to them.

They told us that they had been forcibly evicted and taken to workers’ accommodation outside Media City, in the desert. They say that the place is unsafe for women and children, and that it doesn’t have drinkable running water. Furthermore, they say that they have been given accommodation leases, but that the leases are only temporary - for 45 days.

Behind them a tiny child squatted down in a pile of rubbish and defecated.

My colleague took me aside while we were talking to them. “They say that the police arrest journalists who don’t have permission to be here,” he said. One of the residents added, “they let you talk to us, and then they arrest you as you’re leaving.” I wondered how true this was given that 1. I hadn’t heard about any arrests despite the fact that thanks to Twitter (and now Jaiku) I am kept to date with the minutiae of journalistic movements including virtually the toilet variety and, 2. No one from state security had bothered us. Perversely, this made me uneasy.

Fear really is contagious, and as I looked at my colleague’s sweating brow, I felt that old feeling of queasiness and loose bowels which I haven’t felt since I went to see the striking train drivers in Beni Sueif and was offered tea by state security, in the middle of nowhere.

Since he didn’t have a press card, and was obviously uncomfortable, we left. I vowed never to work in a pair again.

“It’s very dangerous to work without permission!” my colleague said as we walked to the metro station. “Under the emergency law they can lock you up and you’ll never come out.”

I protested that we weren’t doing anything wrong, and that if we let the fear get to us we wouldn’t be able to write a single word. He wasn’t convinced.

“I showed compassion to them and everything but it’s 50% their fault, you know,” he then said.

“You what?”

“They come from the countryside when there’s no work to come to. Then they say that they don’t have any money, but how did they build these houses?”

I asked him whether he thought they had woken up one day and decided that it would be a good idea to leave their villages and come and live in a shithole. Did this also give the government the right to forcibly evict them from their homes, I wondered aloud.

“Listen, I’m an Egyptian and I know Egyptians. Nothing works except force. It’s been like this for thousands of years.”

My heart sank as we walked along. I felt like I had been on assignment with Margaret Thatcher - and this is a kid in the 3rd year of university. I’ve frequently encountered this outlook in Egypt amongst my generation and people in their twenties, and it never fails to unsettle me, this complete separation between ‘us’ – middle/upper class, respectable, decent - and ‘them’ – poor, swindling, idiots.

These groups when they are not invisible, are making pests of themselves with their collapsing homes and beggar children or duping the state into giving them public funds. They seem to be regarded as children, or morons, and the attitude would be paternalistic if it wasn’t for the complete absence of any kind of concern for their wellbeing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Falling into place

I attended a family Iftar this week, attended by a cousin who has just completed a masters. She told me that she was thinking about working in real estate for a couple of years to make enough money to start a business in her field of expertise. “I want to make enough money to live at a certain level," she told me. She meant the Gouna and yacht level. I asked why she didn’t start out at the bottom of the ladder and work her way up, within her field. She complained that in the United States her qualifications would allow her to jump in halfway up, but that here she has to start at the bottom and, to top it all off, work with people “who are not my level.”

I pointed out to her that 98% of Egypt’s population are not her “level”. She said she realised this, but that she is determined to stay within her world, the bubble of privilege in which she has grown up.

Given that only one of the dinner guests was fasting, post-prandial discussion was lively and uncompromised by the post-food stupor fasting induces. I have always wondered what the husband of one of my cousins does: my aunt told me that she wasn’t really sure, but that he was a businessman of some sort.

“What do you do?” I asked him.

“I’m a businessman,” he said.

The vastness of this title, its ability to encompass the drug dealer, the cheating politician and the charitable change-maker, always makes me slightly suspicious. He clarified, slightly, but then I saw that he was wearing suede slip-on shoes without socks, which was another red flag. Turns out that he has spent enough time in Italy to acquire its nationality, which explained this.

The boom in the luxury housing market in Egypt is going to come to an end, was the consensus at Iftar. Supply has exceeded demand, apparently, and in 6 months we’ll witness a nose dive. Discussion of the housing market naturally led on to Hisham Talat Mostafa, property mogul turned inmate, which prompted slip-on man to share his theory about how those in charge at the top keep order.

Every 15 years, he claims, “they” topple prominent figures so as to remind them, and the rest of us, who’s steering the ship. He claimed to be able to list off the men who have fallen in these periodic waves…Nobody asked him to. He had another theory as well, which is that for two years Susie, rather than Hosny, has been running the country in concert with Gamal and his gang.

While he was out smoking a fag the rest of the Iftar guests murmured amongst themselves and poo-pooed his theories, before insisting that we all sit down and watch the mosalsalaat in order to stop him talking.

Conspiracy theories, gossip and rumours are a national sport in Egypt, but there was something chilling about this discussion, the idea of all these hidden strings pulling and controlling everything which happens here. The worst thing is that I came away feeling more than ever that indeed everything is stage-managed: the victories, the tragedies – everything, and that perhaps what we perceive as pushing boundaries is in fact just the momentary drawing back of the slingshot.

An example: on Monday I went to downtown Cairo, where homeless victims of the Doweiqa rockslide had spent the night in a public garden between the grandiose buildings of the Abdeen palace complex.

There were about twenty families there, the vast majority of them women and tiny children. They had come to Abdeen after being forcibly ejected from a makeshift camp by the police, who used sticks and dogs, rendering them homeless for the 2nd time in a week. They had come to Abdeen protesting the failure of the authorities to give them the housing they had been promised (in a letter) would be given to them “upon production of the documents establishing their legal claim to it.”

As usual this promise wasn’t kept, the authorities using various ruses to break it from claiming that the letter-bearers didn’t have the correct documents to ripping up the letters containing the promises.

And so there they were, in a public garden sleeping on donated blankets, their children running around indefatigably. I spoke to a pregnant woman about what had happened to her. As she spoke she absent-mindedly wiped grass off my jeans. I looked down and saw that her arm was a maze of orderly i.e. self-inflicted, cut mark scars.

There was a heavily-pregnant woman there, she was huge, and confirmed that she was due any day. Why aren’t you in hospital? I asked. I’m scared that they’re going to take my husband away, she replied.

Another woman was there with her 4 year-old daughter. She told me that she hadn’t been in her room at the time of the rockslide because she – and her daughter – leave for work at 6.30 a.m. She cleans houses. She built her single room using loans. The authorities are denying her replacement housing because, she says, she has not proved to their satisfaction that she is a resident of the affected area. Her ID says she is, but there we are.

While we were talking her daughter started crying. She was hungry. “Shall I get you a piece of bread?” she said. Yes, the child nodded. “7ader, hageeblek takly” [OK, I’ll get you something to eat].

A boy carrying empty mineral water bottles was given instructions to sell them and buy food with what he got for them.

A doctor friend arrived and examined those who needed medical attention, which included a young baby vomiting non-stop and numerous cases of diarrhoea. I asked people what I could get them to help, food, nappies, anything. I had to ask several times, to insist - which surprised me.

Amongst other thing I bought Pampers, and made the mistake of handing out the packets at random. A truly ugly scene followed - women accusing each other of hoarding and hiding at high volume – the pent-up frustration of a life of crushing violence and desperation (of which the rockslide is merely the latest instalment) suddenly erupting. An NGO woman told me to direct donations to one of them.

While all this was happening, a police officer summoned me, for the second time that day. I approached him.

“Yes? Is there anything wrong?” I asked him.

“Why are you so defensive?” he asked.

Could it be because of the tendency of the police to arrest journalists, I wondered silently. He asked me whether the nappies and food etc I was giving out was bought using my own money. You bastard, I thought, sitting there waiting to break your fast in your ironed jeans and designer glasses while you watch children run around in clothes stained by their own excrement.

He asked me for my journalist ID again, for the second time in two hours. I think they’re trained to do this as part of the process of wearing away at our nerves.

I had noted when I first arrived in the public garden that there was practically no security presence apart from a couple of uniformed officers and a smattering of plain-clothed men. Which was weird, and unsettling, particularly given the tiny numbers present during the protest some of the women took part in this morning.

It turned out that the plan, the grand design, was to remove the families, suddenly and without warning – hence no need for large numbers of police officers. They were taken away by the police in microbuses, and dumped in various areas of Cairo, forcibly removed by events beyond their control for the 3rd time in just over a week.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Bread & butter IV

Here I talk to Palestinian students of foreign universities stuck in Gaza cos of the Israeli siege.

This is my article on the effects of tourism on marine wildlife in Nasr City-On-Sea.

This is an article about EIPR winning a court case which freezes government plans to privatise health insurance.

This and this are articles about sit-ins by workers from subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority.

Coverage of the Mahalla trial is here and here.

And this is an article about press coverage of the power cut in the El Matareyya Hospital.

Here's a link to a pop music video by a gentleman from Turkey called Tarkan. Mr Tarkan dances like an accountant called Steve at a Xmas office party before the consumption of alcohol has taken effect. The grey suit does not help in this regard. He nonetheless appears to think he is Justin Timberlake and is apparently one of the biggest grossing singers in Turkey, so what do I know.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The Mahalla trial continued today, for the fifth consecutive day.

It’s being heard in Tanta, and I went there by Peugeot, one of the 7-seaters. I enjoy road trips generally, but there is something particularly mesmerising about travelling solo, and in an antique Peugeot, which remains one of the most comfortable cars I have ever deposited myself in. Today’s vehicle was no exception: it felt like we were being pulled across ice.

The last time I went to Tanta (on Saturday, also for the trial) I had gone by train and my introduction to the town had been a row of jumbled concrete tower blocks standing opposite the train station. I was happy to see that inside the town are narrower streets which, while they are not breathtaking architecturally, are kinder on the eye than the visual assault of the drag outside the court house.

I attempted to enter the court house from the entrance I had used last time, which seemed to me to be a logical idea. State security thought otherwise, and told me to use the staircase further along. No reasons were given, mostly because there weren’t any.

Low-scale harassment continued later, when the defence team retired to a screened-off cafe to enjoy a secret fag and a coffee, unseen by Ramadan’s everywhere eyes. On their way back, a relative of one of the defendants told one of the lawyers that the defence witnesses weren’t being allowed into the court house. He spoke to the state security officers, who were sitting on chairs opposite the court house in their tight jeans and open shirts. Things escalated after a security officer asked one of the lawyers when he graduated (!), again for no apparent reason.

The state security officer stood up, squared off to the lawyer as his colleague held him back. “Don’t try to make problems with me because I won’t let it happen,” he said. I was reminded of English pubs on a Friday night at closing time.

I noted that the other security officer had in his hand a load of ID cards, which appeared to belong to the defence witnesses given the way he shuffled through them when the subject was brought up. Why? Who knows.

Inside the court things were tenser than on previous occasions, partly because the lawyers are tired and disappointed that the media didn’t show up. They wanted cameras in court. It creates pressure.

Seven defence witnesses testified on behalf of their friends today, almost all of them were poorly dressed, unemployed or employed in modest trades – for this after all is a trial of the weakest, poorest and most ignored of Egypt’s population i.e. the majority.

One woman came clutching her tiny baby, which stared back at the court wide-eyed as she told the judge that her neighbour wasn’t even in Mahalla at the time of the demonstrations.

As she walked away her baby vomited lightly all over the floor, which I think, was the best statement on today’s proceedings.

Things exploded when the prosecutor began his pleadings before the court. He initially refused to speak into the microphone (which has replaced the loudspeaker used during Saturday’s session) and I soon understood his reluctance to do so.

After speaking at length about the political motivations behind the events of April 6th and 7th he went on to say that half of the 49 defendants have previous criminal convictions and, in the same breath, quoted a Quranic verse about individuals who spread depravity throughout the world (mofsedeen fel ard).

The effect was like dropping a match in hay. The defendants began screaming, shouting, tearing at their clothes while plain-clothed state security officers rose up from the benches and surrounded the cage in which defendants are held, some of them standing on benches, apparently trying to intimidate the defendants into silence.

“Kafara? KAFARA?!? [infidels] What else are you going to do to us?” they screamed at the officers. “He knows that we’ve been wronged” one defendant said, pointing at the prosecutor. “How can a Muslim label another Muslim an infidel?” another defendant shouted.

The judge adjourned the session while the shouting and the screaming got louder. An officer threatened to remove the defendants who were still shouting. “La2, e7na wa7ed” [no, we’re together] a defendant said.

It was extremely distressing to see their fury. In quoting this verse the prosecutor had attempted to harpoon what for some of the defendants is the only lifebuoy keeping them afloat in a sea of poverty, oppression and general meaninglessness – their refuge in faith. It was a dirty trick.

A state security officer stopped me photographing them beating their heads and tearing at their clothes inside the cage. Did I have permission from the judge, he asked, ignoring the fact that I had been photographing two metres away from the judge for the past three hours, in front of the whole court. Yes, I said, on the basis that silence amounts to tacit approval. He took me to the judge’s room. “Did you give her permission to photograph?” he asked the judge. “No,” the judge replied, annoyingly.

That ruse having failed, he demanded that I get rid of the photos. He asked me for the memory card. I gave him the battery. A policeman said “that looks like a battery,” not unreasonably. I said that I didn’t know where the memory card was.

N.B. This is not technically a lie. I do not, in fact, know where the memory card is stored.

The state security admitted that he didn’t know where the memory card was either, after I told him to remove it. Which is what I was counting on.

There are times when speaking the Arabic of a 10-year old, and being a 99% foreigner pays off, and this was one of them. Take the camera, I said. He closed his eyes and laughed and looked exasperated and basically said be off with you and don’t take any more pictures. A lawyer bundled the camera into his bag before the officer changed his mind.

The thing that will most stick in my mind about today’s session, concerns the defence witnesses.

Two of them were illiterate. They signed their statements with a thumb print. The woman with the baby, when she was asked how old she is, said, I don't know.

“Well when were you born?” the judge asked.

“I don’t know that, either” she said. “Look at my ID card, it’s written on there.”

It turned out that she was born in 1986. Mubarak had had five years - a presidential term - to give her half a chance by the time she was born. Twenty-two, a mother, and illiterate. Testifying on behalf of a man facing imprisonment because he doesn’t know the right people and can’t buy his way out.

There are some disposable Egyptians who can’t be got rid of through falling rocks. This, I suppose, is what the courts are for.