Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I was woken up today by a phone call at 2.30 a.m., which I was expecting. It was a woman’s voice, which I wasn’t expecting. It was bad news, which I was half-expecting.

“They’ve stopped Per. I’ve got through but they’re not letting him through.”

I digested this as sleep softly beat me around the head. Swedish journalist Per Bjorklund (he of the heavenly Scandinavian eyes) and his girlfriend, A (who rang me), were meant to be staying at my place for a few days while looking for a flat, and looking after the cats in my flat, while I go to Dahab. They had just arrived at Cairo Airport.

A was eventually able to give back Per back his mobile phone and the next time I rang it he answered.

“Hey,” the familiar, phlegmatic voice answered. “My name’s on a computer apparently. I’m being held in a security room and waiting to see a security officer. This looks like it could take some time.”

I’ve never met anyone as self-possessed, at all times, as Per, and this is saying something as our working relationship largely consists of me watching him nearly getting arrested at protests, having his camera memory card stolen by the police (more than once), nearly getting run over while trying to stop a police car kidnapping someone, and dealing with the sinister after-effects of that decision. I’ve never once seen him shout, seen him be rude to anyone. In fact I largely have to attempt to interpret his emotions through the speed at which he says stuff.

I tried to text and call A on her Swedish mobile while Per was inside. All I got was dead air. I then promptly fell asleep :-s

The next message I got was from Hamalawy at around 4.40 a.m., informing me that Per was going to be deported on a flight to Prague.

Per – or Bar as I and virtually everyone else call him - is a blogger, but more importantly he is one of the few journalists I know who actually gets off his arse and goes to situations which he knows won’t make headline news, rather than relying on phone calls and/or Twitter. He was one of the few journalists (Egyptian or foreign) who covered the Mahalla 49 trial with any consistency, having to contend with me at 9.30 a.m. for two and a half hours in a Peugeot.

He was always great company too, and always seemed to be able to analyse – and analyse well – situations very quickly.

In short he gives a shit.

I’d like to think that Per was deported because they’ve been following his Swedish-language reports on the labour movement and street protests in Egypt and decided that he is a threat – at least they’d be a chain of thought there.

I suspect though, as usual, that the decision makes as much sense as a rat in roller skates. I don’t want to waste the few functioning brain cells I have at 8 a.m. on considering reasons why he was stopped because what’s the point when actually there probably isn’t any kind of logical bloody reason for it. As there wasn’t when Travis Randall was deported, and a Palestinian mother was kept in Egypt for a week, supposedly for “being a security threat”.

Per was one of the people involved in the To Gaza march – as was Travis Randall – but other foreigners on that march have been in and out of Egypt since then without problems. No, there’s no great plan. This (“your name is in our computer”) is just yet another instance of what they do best: bullying disguised as bureaucratic procedure, as thought-out policy.

The last call I got in this whole sorry saga was an hour ago, when A rang me, still at the airport. No-one had bothered to tell her that Per had been deported (or at least told that he was going to be deported. His phone was switched off after Hamalawy spoke to him). She had been waiting there, alone, all that time. She broke down in tears.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


" و لماذا بتعين علينا عندما نكتب ألا نتحدث إلا عن جمال الزهور و روعة عبقها ، بينما الخراء يملأ الشوارع و مياه الصرف الملوثة تغطى الأرض ، و الجميع يشمون الرائحة النتنة ويتشكون منها؟"

صنع الله إبراهيم

Monday, September 14, 2009

Obla dee

One of the harder things I had to do while in the UK this summer was visit my grandmother, who was recently put in an old people’s home.

The last time I saw her, in 2008, she was in sheltered accommodation, having moved there roughly a year before. She had had a heart attack, was increasingly frail, was gradually becoming less and less mobile and more and more anxious and depressed. The move to the sheltered accommodation didn’t help, or at least didn’t slow down the inevitable. After thirty years of visiting her at the house she had lived in for forever (I think since the 1970s) seeing her, and her antique furniture in this new place was eerie, like the time I came across an old newspaper from 1970-something in an abandoned house announcing that the post office was to become computerized. Trapped history.

My dad and I had a huge fight when we went back to gran’s almost empty flat in the sheltered accommodation this year, after she had been moved to the old people’s home. We were there to pick some of her stuff up, and the fight was ostensibly one of our usual inflated spars about nothing very much at all. I freely admit I was a pain in the arse, and part of the reason was the almost empty flat, with its bits and pieces of her stuff almost all of which I recognised and which now lay abandoned, and forgotten. Some of her belongings Dad and his siblings are storing in their homes. A lot has been given away. It got to me that 90 years of life can be fragmented, and lost like that.

The old people’s home is a two-storey converted detached house, which in the entrance smells like a million condensed British lunches. The smell intensifies and mutates the further you go inside, along a hallway from which residents’ rooms branch off. Their names are written on the doors. One was a “Mr & Mrs ____”, their door was slightly ajar. A television blared loudly.

The heart of the house is a dining area adjoined to a living area, a room lined with high-backed chairs along three of its walls. Of all the other areas on the home, this room hit me the hardest the first time I went.

In the centre there is a big cage, and in it there is a single grey parrot. In the chairs there are mostly women, asleep, or just sitting and looking at each other, or at nothing. When I went to see Gran we sat opposite a slightly obese woman. She was joined by a woman with a false shoe using a Zimmer-frame, who spent ages maneuvering herself into her seat. The slightly obese woman watched her throughout, in silence, continuing to stare even once she had sat down.

It was the staring that intrigued me. It was the type that babies and cats do.

Unembarrassed. Virtually none of the residents greeted or spoke to each other and when they did it was a few words about nothing, about objects, such as a stray handbag.

The first time I went I found Gran in the middle of the room on her Zimmer-frame. The minute she saw me she told me to put up my right hand and declare, ‘”I am Sarah Carr”. She was proving a point to the nurses – most of whom she mistrusts and suspects of being out to get her – that her granddaughter had come.

One of the nurses responded with, “don’t be silly, we never said she wouldn’t come”. I noted a One Threw Over the Cuckoo’s Nest iciness. Paranoia is a feature of Gran’s illness, which explains the Me vs. Them mentality vis-à-vis the nursing staff.

Another feature of her illness is that she has lost, or been liberated from, the trappings of convention. It is perhaps this which is most different about her; throughout her life gran was always very proper, correct, never forgot a birthday or anniversary, was an expert at small talk and manners and enduring people she didn’t like very much without letting them realise the effort involved. A good Christian, a church-going woman.

Although I love her, the politeness was always a barrier to getting as close to her as I would have liked. She was at home in the hello – how are you – fine thanks – lovely weather routine - the conversational signposts which prevent interlocutors straying into the woods of talking about themselves. Just once, I would have liked to hear her say something along the lines of “actually, I couldn’t give a fuck” – preferably to me. So that we could really parlay.

Which is why I was astonished – and pleased – when I saw her reaction to a particular nurse in the home. For a change of scene Dad, Gran and I had moved out of the grim social room with the parrot in it and onto a sofa placed in the hallway area. Nurses, and lost residents went past every so often, including a young nurse dressed in green. I noticed that every time this particular nurse went past gran would clench her teeth and quite literally snarl, like a wolf, at the nurse’s disappearing back.

Apparently, the nurse was a spy or a thief – I forget which now. The new honesty may have been symptomatic of an illness but for me it was a change for the better. The small talk, the chit-chat has simply been obliterated - replaced by weird fantasies and persecution complexes yes, but during the periods when she is lucid at least I know the truth about what gran is actually, truly, feeling.

And the truth, surprise surprise, is that she’s not happy. I see no reason why she should be. It’s difficult to express this without it somehow sounding as if I am pointing a finger of blame at the people responsible for putting her in the home (my father and his four siblings). I’m not. I understand that no other options existed short of gran living with one of them (extremely difficult if not impossible) There’s no certainty in any case that she would have been any happier there. If it was me however, and if I had 90-odd years of life under my belt and kids and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I wouldn’t want to end my days in a place which smells of lunches and piss with a parrot and strangers.

In a very bleak moment in the social room during the first visit I looked around and breathed in that peculiar scent of food and excretions and catatonia and wondered why begin if this is the end.

During a lull in the “conversation” Dad had got up to harangue the parrot, and began whistling and making duck noises at the creature. Behind him, a woman who had been wheeled in on her wheelchair shortly before watched him intently. Her head was framed in a halo of crazy, unbrushed white hair and she was stick thin, apart from her torso. She looked like a deflated balloon.

What struck me most however was her expression. I wondered if she had modeled for Edward Munch. I would call it despair, except for the confusion. Torment is the closest description.

So there she was, head in hand staring bewildered at my dad making his noises at the trapped bird while the overweight woman and the lady with the false shoe gazed and a woman inhaled oxygen from a machine and in a corner I noticed that what I thought was a pile of blankets was actually a tiny, slumped-over old lady, asleep.

I experienced one of those terrible moments of what pessimists call clarity and optimists call pessimism, when the scale of life and existence is simultaneously huge and tiny, and you are reduced to nothing, and that nothing is everything. Without wanting to go all Paulo Coelho, what I mean to say is that in that moment life sits on your heart like a bag of rocks.

But life goes on and there is always the blessing of practical matters to attend to. For the first time in her life Gran’s fingernails were long and someone had painted pink nail varnish on them. It was now chipped. Gran asked me to cut them. We borrowed a pair of scissors from the woman with the oxygen machine. She had a pair in her handbag. Gran’s handbag had always been a mobile office filled with everything you could possibly need, but now was an extension of herself: confused and messy. She requested that we buy her a pair of nail scissors, and some cheese. Dad agreed to only one of the requests.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Somewhere over the rainbow in Nasr City

I attended a public discussion about a book on gays in a petrol station on Tuesday. Egypt.

The book is a novella called 'Fe Balad El Welad' (“In the Country of Boys”) by journalist Mostafa Fathy, and the petrol station as I recall was Ta3owen. It was held in a bookshop (located inside the petrol station which, God help us, is located in Nasr City) called the J.C bookshop/cafe. Sharshar unhelpfully kept referring to it as Jesus Christ.

We arrived 10 minutes late, which meant we arrived 50 minutes early. We bought books, we drank tea, we stared at a man sporting a bouffant mullet.

By the time Fathy made his arrival the place was reasonably full. He got the ball rolling by inviting questions, and then effectively rolled said ball into a discussion ditch by (inadvertently) inviting a question from a man who on the basis of scripture regards homosexuals as malevolent aliens but decided, what the hell, he'd come along to the discussion anyway we yebden 3alayna shwaya [enrich the discussion with his contribution].

The inevitable discussion ensued, the man’s (“Engineer Mohamed”) first argument was that rather than discussing homosexuality, writers should be covering other “more pressing” issues in Egyptian society. His true agenda was revealed the more he talked, and talk he did, informing us that if he discovered that his boss was gay he would “seriously consider” leaving his job, and that he feels compelled to encourage homosexuals who cross his path to repent and denounce their satanic practices of falling in love and organising parades and enjoying musicals.

Fathy responded by suggesting that since bedroom activities aren’t any of your business Engineer Mohamed, and since you’re not God, and since your complete absence of a sense of humour and human empathy places you beyond advances of any kind, gay or straight (I made that last bit up. I said that inside my head), perhaps you could live and let live and treat people as human beings rather than obsess about their orifices.

This back and forth continued for approximately 29 years until Moftases could stand it no longer and, in an unorthodox move, asked a question about the book. This instigated a trend, and more discussion which did not mention the word Lot ensued until a man who announced himself as a lawyer started on some spiel the point of which none of us could understand. He declared that God has “forbidden relationships between a man and a man” at which point Moftases playfully interjected “and between a woman and a woman” knowing that it would throw the lawyer as indeed it did. He stopped briefly, mouth open, either flummoxed by the idea of Sapphic desire or reminiscing about his last download.

Like a wriggling queen drawn to an Abba revival party the conversation inevitably ended back with Engineer Mohamed and his dull religious crusade. By this time Moftases was doodling and Abadodo was off smoking fags (I mean having a cigarette, not out on a homophobic rampage) every five minutes and me and Sharshar were writing childish things on the sugar packets.

Interestingly though, books periodically fell off the top shelf behind Fathy for absolutely no reason at all, and we all wondered whether a higher power was trying to smite the sexual deviants in the room but had missed.

The book in case you’re wondering reads a little bit like Gays for Beginners and is a collection of angst-ridden trials endured by an Egyptian man coming to terms with being gay. None of the characters identified as gay are entirely at ease with themselves and all except the protagonist are at some point subjected to some form of violent gay bashing. All in all it had the feel of a plea for tolerance masquerading as literature – and Fathy made no secret of the fact that the idea for the book emerged from his original plan to write a series of articles on the subject.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it - I did. And, as a friend remarked, it’s a brave first step towards open discussion of a subject which rarely receives sympathetic – or indeed any - media coverage.