Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Of Flesh and Blood

Here is a review what I wrote. It's about an excellent documentary on Gaza. See it if you can.

Stories from the other side

It is telling that much of Egyptian media coverage of the most recent Israeli attack on Gaza focused on a critical examination of Egypt's own relationship with Palestine; on its complicity or otherwise in the hand-wringing, posturing, and conferencing which formed the Arab response to the crisis.

Two camps emerged, broadly-speaking, during this debate. The first decried Egypt's abandonment of its role as defender of Palestine and the alignment of its foreign policy with Israeli interests, while the second posited a suddenly rehabilitated President Hosny Mubarak as peacemaker and defender of Egyptian interests, par excellence.

Egypt's 14 km border with Gaza has come to symbolize this divide. It is variously a bastion of Egyptian sovereignty, an agent of Egyptian complicity in the Israeli attack and, in its incarnation as the transit point for the trickle of injured Palestinians permitted into Egypt for treatment, Gaza's faint pulse.

Ironic perhaps, that a border dividing a single town (Rafah) should have these multiple identities; yet another example of the weird physical realities - the facts on the ground -Israel's existence has engendered.

Palestinians pay the price for the political smoke circles of course - a point Egyptian director Azza Shabaan makes in her moving documentary Of Flesh and Blood when she asks, “Why is this border so different to every other other border in the world?”

A timely question, as both sides claim victory and Gaza attempts yet again to get back onto its feet and aid continues to force its way across the Rafah Crossing. In her 27-minute film Shabaan takes us back to January 2008, when Gazans in Palestinian Rafah – who by then had been under an Israeli siege for a year – breached the border and crossed into Egyptian Rafah.

Shabaan, armed with a handheld camera and a desire to witness Gaza at first hand, made her way through the throngs of Palestinians and Egyptians buying, selling and bargaining at the demolished border fence, and filmed in a “five day sneak” into the beleaguered Gaza Strip. Her aim she says is to “break the silent siege that has been imposed on it for so long, and to present to us a perspective of the people of Gaza different to that which the media presents.”

Shabaan admits that this is “the first time” that she has picked up a camera – a fact evident in the film's naive, unfinished quality. Rather than undermining the film this stripped-down quality (the camera which goes in and out of focus during interviews, the shaking during shots in moving cars) lends it a strange, unearthly power which captures the fragility and desperation of life in Gaza.

A glimpse of life in Gaza – of its day to day hardships and overwhelming tragedies – is presented via the group of Gazan women Shaaban meets and follows.

A sense of quiet anger, resignation and, most remarkably, humour pervades the film. Thus we see a woman struggling to put petrol into a car's tank using a tube connected to a petrol jerkin. Shaaban explains that the woman has insisted on her taking on a car tour of Gaza despite the siege-induced petrol shortages. “Arabs insist on selling us petrol despite the crisis we're in but I give it to my friend for free,” the woman jokes.

Having succeeded in filling up the petrol tank Shaaban and her companion go on a tour of Gaza. What was life like when the settlers were here? Shaaban asks. The woman explains that she used to spend days at checkpoints, that she was forced to sleep in her car at the checkpoints. The worst thing, she says, is that her house would be visible on the other side.

Another woman narrates the history of her family's three forced displacements since 1948 and the grandchildren her father never saw because he couldn't leave Gaza and the children and their fathers, now resident abroad, were prevented by Israel from entering the Strip. She relates this with an impossible equanimity, jokingly asking someone off camera, “Where shall we go the fourth time we have to leave?”

The only music used in the film is a song, song unaccompanied, by the sister of a prisoner of war, Alaa, held in Israel. Shabaan asks her long Alaa was sentenced to. Three life sentences, she replies, seeking clarification from her friend of how long a life sentence in Israel is. It is 33 years.

Israel is the absent but omnipresent villain in this story, but Hamas are also the target of anger. A woman asks why in the coup it was only teenaged policemen who died before relating the story of a man who she says had both arms and legs broken by Hamas members after committing an infraction of some sort.

The most poignant moment in the film – and its masterstroke – are scenes of a wedding party complete with guests, cake, music and bride. The only thing missing is the groom himself: he is studying in Spain and has not been permitted to reenter Gaza. The families decide to go ahead with the wedding anyway, an act of defiance and desperation. There is perhaps no more powerful symbol of Gaza's plight than this, the abandoned bride of Palestine sitting alone and surrounded by well-wishers unable to do a thing to help her.

Originally published in Daily News Egypt.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Watching Hosny's tough man 'red lines' speech about foreign troops on the border with Gaza reminded me of another preposterous, lightly obese, combative Egyptian gentleman with dyed hair and delusions of grandeur – retired wrestler, CAPTAIN MAMDOUH FARAG.

While staring unseeingly at TV ads one day some months ago I was suddenly confronted with this:

Captain Mamdouh's 'HEY sa3ba geddan bass sahla geddan' [HEY very difficult but very easy] ad for his weight-loss programme.

What I like most about Captain Mamdouh is his look, which is Goodfellas meets a hirsute Frank Butcher out of Eastenders:

A former British soap opera actor

A retired Egyptian wrestler

A look which cannot be faulted.

The other day, while caught in traffic in Mohandiseen, and on my way to a possible fight about a washing machine, I saw an advert announcing that Captain Mamdouh will soon be appearing in a film called 3AL2ET MOOT or SLAP OF DEATH. I almost passed out with happiness.

Serendipitously, someone also directed me to the short interview below.

There are too many good things to list about this item but here are some of them:

1.El Capitaine's rigid, at the dentist smile at the very start.
2.0:16 - The rich bass with which he emits 'wallahy'
3.0:27 – no explanation needed.
4.the 'mafeesh 7ad a7san men 7ad' fighting talk.
5.Mr Nefa3 Abdel Hady
6.A well cooked dish.
7.Full professional wrestlers with no solution.
8.Herman za german, el woria, Hogan el so3'yyar beta3 ingleterra.

And so on.

Loose change

Qandeel mentally drawing up a list of his top 10 fav thrash metal artists

Kefaya leaders are currently trying to breathe life back into the corpse of the opposition movement and held a press conference this week to present their new coordinator, Abdel Halim Qandeel.

It was held in a dodgy-looking building in Mounira. One of those splended pre-war edifices which have been left to go to seed, all broken windows and stained walls. I was initially convinced that I had got the address wrong.

Having neglected to observe the golden rule regarding press conference timing I waited 45 minutes for the effin thing to start, despite arriving fifteen minutes late. I used the time to watch the organisers put the finishing touches to the setting. This largely consisted of hanging up zillions of banners and pieces of cards bearing anti-Zionist and anti-regime slogans, until the place looked like a giant library notice board gone mad. A huge Palestinian flag had been affixed above the speakers' heads while Hassan Nasrallah looked out beneficently from the front of the speakers' table, to which he had been pinned.

One restless organiser decided that it would be a good idea to clean the table while waiting for proceedings to begin, and did so using a tissue moistened with a mineral water bottle containing tap water. He apparently tired of the table halfway through the endeavour and instead switched to his head, wiping the bald pate with a circular motion while in discussion with another organiser.

The table the organisers selected was a mistake. Qandeel is a small man, and the table's elevation/shortness of his chair/both had the effect of making him look even tinier. The effect was only intensified by the chaotic collection of huge banners which surrounded him above and below: Kefaya has always been dwarfed by (rather than exploiting) the issues around which it rallies, and Qandeel seemed the embodiment of this, shrunk and lost somewhere in the midst of the slogans. And Nasrallah.

A political movement must have an identity independent of the issue(s) around which it rallies if it to endure, innit. As has often been pointed out, this is/was Kefaya's critical weakness: it based its existence on opposition to the presidential elections, succeeded in capitalising on the momentum generated by popular opposition to inherited rule, and has since been busy playing Swingball with itself now that it apparently doesn't have an issue to lob at the regime.

Interestingly Karima El-Hefnawy told the press conference that Kefaya came into existence to oppose the regime, and will cease to exist once the regime ends. Qandeel meanwhile said that as part of Kefaya's makeover, they will cease merely to be an anti, 'no' movement and will instead be a force for change - a la Obama, perhaps?? This he says will be carried out via the 'Coalition of Egyptians for Change' which will apparently unite in one group Egypt's political and social forces. I don't know why but I thought of the Travelling Wilburys.

It's an ambitious endeavour given the fragmented state of Egyptian politics, the crippling apathy gripping the street, and the regime's WWF approach to protests. Qandeel has promised some kind of earth-shattering 'surprise' in February concerning the Coalition. Short of the news that Hosny Mubarak will be joining the Coalition of Egyptians for Change I can't see what magical political alchemy they have in store.

I overheard a comment made just before the start of the conference, while the bald man was busy polishing his head. It was saddening somehow, in its delusion. Someone who had just arrived said to the organisers, “I thought I had got the wrong place: the street is completely empty! There's no police at all – during a Kefaya conference!”

Almost as an afterthought, he to reassure himself he added, “Perhaps they're all on Qasr El-Aini Street [the main street perpendicular to the street in which the press conference took place]”.

He may have been joking, but seemed not to be.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


This week an American gentleman in full military uniform and wielding a rifle in a tiny fenced-in compound with a basketball court in the middle of Sinai's dog teeth mountains threw up a peace sign as we drove past. Some days later, in the middle of the thirsty, flat desert between Taba and Suez, we were met with another lonely compound. Someone had scrawled “bienvenidos!” on a white board and drawn a smiling face.

What I can only imagine are very bored members of the Military and Foreign Observers (MFO) force are deployed in these compounds, part of Sadat's legacy. Eleven nationalities are involved, including the friendly Columbians and the basketball-playing Americans we saw. Their job is to "supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and employ best efforts to prevent any violation of its terms."

Approximately a minute after passing the compounds we would be met with a checkpoint, manned by a couple of bored Egyptian soldiers. To remind us that this is still Egyptian sovereign territory, perhaps.

I was struck by the disconnect between the theoretical threat of mobilisation by the Egyptian army in Sinai - which the MFO are meant to ward off - the massacre going on in Gaza three hours away, and the political emasculation which means that Egypt, the 2nd biggest recipient of US military aid will never meaningfully challenge the 1st biggest recipient - militarily, diplomatically or otherwise - under the current regime. Even when the latter sprays shrapnel all over its neighbour's side of the border, injuring four people in the process.

There's something slightly menacing about Sinai, a sort of latent threat. This despite – or perhaps, because of – the beauty of its vast emptiness, its mountains like monsters which seem to move and change shape as they are enveloped in the usurping darkness.

It is the weight of history though, rather than its topography, which makes Sinai so imposing. As we moved through it I wandered whether Israel mapped out the road we used, whether it lay the foundations of the hotels we stayed in, whether Sharon had taken this very same route when he and his troops rolled through the Mitla Pass. In the gruesome Taba (which has a spirit similar to that of a kitchen showroom) we stood and looked at Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and then stood at the border with Israel looking at their flags flying in the very near distance, and the army posts on the hills above us, and the shocking normality of it all.

A Russian teenager playing pool in a Taba hotel had a T-shirt bearing the inscription 'Israel' against a backgrond of brightly-coloured pictures.

A Bedouin man at Saint Catherine told us (as my father and Dr Moftases bounced up Mount Moussa and I ascended in a state somewhere between cardiac arrest and respiratory failure) that business was slow, that he only goes up the mountain once every ten days at the moment. Because of Gaza? Dr Moftases enquired. No, the guide said. Because of the global economic crisis.

Gaza is in such close physical proximity to Egypt and, yet, so removed from it. When the 1st Intifada broke out in 1987 I was a 10 year-old in the north of England. My mother is strongly pro-Palestine, bitterly anti-Israel, and she transmitted that partisanship to me emotionally before the injustice of Israel's colonisation of Palestine and the atrocities committed in its name became apparent on an intellectual level.

I was shocked - and saddened - when I came to Egypt in 1996 on a visit and discovered that there wasn't straightforward support for the Palestinian cause. Or even straightforward sympathy. The issue came up amongst a group of AUC student friends of my cousin, and what have now become familiar accusations of Palestinians having 'willingly sold their own land to the Jews' were bandied about, accompanied by the usual charge that 'one cannot trust Palestinians' because they're 'disloyal'. I wondered if I had arrived in the wrong country from the UK, where people didn't give a toss about Palestine but at least they (mostly) didn't demonstrate this odd venom.

The schism in public opinion towards Israel's invasion of Gaza, the reaction to protests, reminded me of this. The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated both its ability to mobilise large numbers and its capacity to impose strict discipline: demonstrations were segregated according to gender (which might have occurred naturally) and observed a strict policy of No Domestic Issues (which was orchestrated). Chants of 'down, down Hosny Mubarak' were quickly replaced with cries of 'with [our] soul, with [our] blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Palestine' initiated by energetic men standing in front of the crowds.

Leftists in these protests were outnumbered by the MB and didn't stand a chance of getting their voices heard.

The authorities' policy towards protests steadily became less tolerant during that first week. Seven days later and a terrifying number of police officers, central security forces members and state security investigations officers were deployed in Ramsis outside the train station on a Friday morning. They surrounded the men performing prayers on street corners while passers-by looked on, waiting.

The end of the prayer was like a starter's pistol. The crowd immediately began chanting and the police responded, forcing them into an alley before pummeling them with batons and picking them out one by one and taking them to police vans.

At another mosque further down the street men shouted zalem [oppressor] at a plain clothed police man chasing a protestor. The police man stopped and began walking towards the group, his fists clenched. He then picked up a wide slab of concrete from the floor, raised it above his head and broke it at their feet, before cursing them and walking off.

I think that if it was possibly diplomatically to do this, Mubarak might do the same thing to his detractors. Except on their heads. Egypt's role in facilitating/ignoring the deaths of nearly a thousand Palestinians is currently a topic of much discussion. Numerous media articles have presented this a simple case of The People vs. The Regime, which is not strictly accurate.

There do of course exist many, vocal critics of the regime's ball-less, shameful response to the issue, but equally, many have come out strongly in support of the continued closure of the border crossing and as little involvement as possible with it. Formally, the reasons for this include the heavy loss of Egyptian life for the Palestinian cause over the years. There is also the frying pan and fire theory, according to which if the border was opened thousands of Gaza's population would come flocking through it and take up residence in northern Sinai. I'm particularly baffled by this: it hasn't happened in the three decades that Israel has been tormenting Gaza, so why should it happen now?

There has also been a backlash to the backlash against Egypt prompted by protests outside Egyptian embassies demonstrating against Egypt's policy in general, but its failure to open its border in particular. Funnily enough, many of the people I know who have taken umbrage at the attacks from abroad and are now banging the nationalist tub are the very same individuals who are most critical of the way that domestic issues are handled by the current regime.

Interestingly, after I left the protest on Friday, shortly after I had seen a protestor beaten unconscious by the police, I got into a taxi driven by a man with a huge beard and shaved head. Without any prompting he launched into a monologue about his eight years locked up in an Egyptian prison because of his membership of an Islamic group (“they were the best years of my life”) before he held forth on the uselessness of these protests, suggesting that they do nothing to either influence government policy or help Palestinians.

Per makes an interesting point on his blog, that oppressed working class Egyptians identify with Palestinians not just because of their shared language, culture and religions but also because they share “a common experience of colonialism and dispossession.” Per points to the numerous times he has heard Egyptians say (of the government) “they're treating us like Israel treat the Palestinians.”

My own feeling is that this tells us more about Egyptians' relationship with Israel and their own government, than it does about their relationship with Palestinians and Palestine - rather in the way that Germany remained a bogeyman for several generations of British people after the 2nd World War. The attitude lingers on in expressions such as “so and so is a right Nazi”.

That Israel has become a metaphor for oppression explains both the extreme governmental sensitivity surrounding anti-war protests in Egypt (the ever-present threat of protestors who have not received the MB memo vocally making the association between Israeli aggression and domestic repression) and the moral bankruptcy of the current regime in the eyes of many Egyptians. The worst thing about this bankruptcy is that – like everything about this government – it isn't based on any discernible and defendable policy or moral stand but, rather, is a mixture of unimaginative pragmatism, opportunism, and bending over for the masters.