Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bella ciao

Note loads of foreigners, friendly copper cordon, absence of riot police

Egyptian government has been busy recently adding new chapters to its part-time project of an equivalent to ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ aimed at despots, called ‘How to Shaft People Within (and beyond) Your Jurisdiction While Not Giving a Shit About Popularity Ratings’.

Earlier this month pictures emerged of what is allegedly an underground steel wall along Egypt’s border with Gaza, designed to put an end to the smuggling tunnels which as we all know are used only to smuggle in weapons and artillery and not food and other basics which Israel (with Egypt’s help) has prevented entering Gaza since it imposed its siege in 2007.

Egypt is extraordinarily obsessed with asserting its sovereignty, in the same way that some short men feel compelled to prove to the world that an absence of stature in no way comprises their masculinity and virility. A better analogy is perhaps a bald man. My mother always told me to never trust a man with a comb-over. Egypt’s eastern border policy, with all its sovereignty chest-thumping, is clearly that of a bald man attempting to conceal the fact that he doesn’t have autonomy over his own border.

I might be wrong of course. Perhaps Egypt’s decision to restrict opening of its border with Gaza and prevent activists from the Gaza Freedom March and Viva Palestina from reaching the crossing is just serendipitous coincidence, a case of Israeli and Egyptian interests overlapping. Perhaps Egypt decided that it is in its national interest to prevent hundreds of foreigners from entering Gaza and instead have them wreak protest havoc in Cairo, thereby ensuring a double whammy of steel wall + foreigner-sprawled-in-front-of-traffic-outside-French- embassy bad guy international media spotlight.

The other theory is that this is all a vendetta against Hamas, that the Egyptian government is putting pressure on it to come to a deal about Gilad Shalit.

Whatever the reason, as usual it’s the Arab man on the street who’s being fucked over in all this. As I wrote this on Monday night there were reports on Twitter that journalists – Egyptian, obviously – were detained for a couple of hours in a police van during their coverage of a protest by 100 or so Gaza Freedom March members who have been camping out on the pavement outside the French Embassy since Sunday evening.

Anyone familiar with Egyptian protests will understand what occupation of a bit of pavement means in Egypt. This afternoon, I was at a sit-in outside parliament by workers from the Ahmoseto company. They were protesting for severance pay. The company owner – deeply in debt – has legged it, leaving the factory closed and them in the shit. As usual. When I arrived there were about 100 men occupying one stretch of pavement with another 500 or so penned in by security bodies around the corner.

About five minutes after I arrived the men began chanting Allahu akbar – negotiations with the government had finished and the men had been promised severance pay. Almost immediately an officious little man of about 25 in a blue blazer with gold buttons began telling them to leave. They’d got what they wanted, now bugger off.

When the man told me to push off I asked him who he was and he said state security. State security have apparently issued instructions to their staff ordering them to dress like the air stewards of a budget airline.

But to return to the theme, Egyptians have very little public space in Egypt and it is therefore expected that if anyone is going to get arrested during a protest attended by 100+ French activists and three Egyptian journalists covering it, it sure as hell wont be Serge and Pierre. Because in addition to being brutal arseholes, Egyptian security bodies are perfidious, ball-less scumbags just like their bosses.

I haven’t been following the Gaza Freedom March with much enthusiasm because if I wanted to join I wouldn’t be allowed to; people with Egyptian or Palestinian Authority (!) passports can’t, according to the website. The justification for this is that “it has been difficult for Egyptian citizens and people with Palestinian Authority passports to enter the Gaza Strip…So unfortunately we cannot take [them]”. I object to this policy. In addition to protesting the siege and torment by one people of another, this is a march against discrimination, and individual demonstrators of any nationality who want to try to enter alongside their more privileged European and American counterparts should be allowed to.

However, it’s always good to see the Egyptian government be given a hard time, and I hope that at some point in the future it is held to account for its actions.

Foreign activists organized a demo this afternoon outside the Journalists’ Syndicate. While trying to get the attention of a woman from Code Pink a state security officer who I am on nodding terms with asked me, “which group is she from?” having seemingly failed to notice that she was wearing a fluorescent pink t-shirt with the words CODE PINK emblazoned on it (and he speaks some English). He also seemed not to have heard of Code Pink, despite the fact that hundreds of foreign women dressed in pink are currently giving him lots of overtime. Stupidity seems to be part of the job description.

Later that evening there was another protest, this time organized by Egyptian activists and attended by some of the GFM members. I was tickled to notice that because this was an Egyptian-organised event, riot police and steel barriers were deployed, despite the fact that numbers were less than the earlier demonstration – when a row of ‘friendly’ plain-clothed policemen formed a loose cordon and chatted with the foreign women.

Overheard from a copper to one woman, while he chewed gum vigorously, smiled and winked: “Why you no talk about Afghanistan? Why you no talk about Guantanamo?”

Inside the journalists syndicate itself a press conference was being held, attended almost exclusively by hundreds of serious looking men and their beards.

After we left the demo and as we were walking down Champollian Street, Moftases and I heard the insistent thumping of a Tabla. It was coming from a side street. Looking down it I was stunned to see two veiled women dancing exuberantly inside a ring of chairs. A mechanic told us that we could approach them, and that it was a soboo3, the celebration of the birth of a baby. The baby was nowhere to be seen, which was good considering the volume of the music being played on the sound system.

We were invited to sit down, before bags of popcorn and sugared almonds were thrust upon us by a child. The dancing continued apace, with unbelievable sensuality, given that it was about 8.30 p.m. and less than ten metres away was a street full of mechanics. Barefoot and dressed in black, the women were exemplars of belly dancing its best, watched idly by a young man next to the decks who spent the entire time resting his chair on two legs against a wall. A group of three boys meanwhile watched transfixed the women’s arses talking sex, left right, left right.

As is inevitable Moftases and I were dragged up in turn to dance. Our arses said very little at all.

Egyptians often ask me why I choose to live in Egypt. I often ask myself the same question. Cairo is an exhausting, perplexing, cruel, bitch of a city. On some days it quite literally stinks; it gets in your nose and burns your throat and wraps itself around your lungs. On clear days there are still moments you feel you can’t breathe.

But then there are moments like tonight, when you turn a corner and find yourself in the middle of a giant Fuck You at Egypt and its iniquities. A stretch of pavement taken over by women, public space (finally, temporarily) owned by the people, a gasp of oxygen.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Uptown downtown nowhere ville

I spent this weekend getting knocked over the head by the many worlds which exist in Egypt, again.

A relative of mine is an event organiser, and she invited me on Friday evening to the launch of recently released new Land Rover models. My interest in 4x4s doesn’t extend beyond avoiding getting hit by them but two compelling factors persuaded me the evening would justify the need to get out of my pyjamas and leave my house: firstly, the high probability of an open buffet and, secondly, the fact that the event was being held in Uptown Cairo.

Uptown Cairo is on top of the Moqattam Hill. The last time I went to Moqattam was to photograph a police station where a man in police custody had been defenestrated. On the way back, Moftases and I decided that it might be nice to have a look at Uptown Cairo.

Now Uptown Cairo is not so much a gated community as a $4 billion fortressed community. A series of flapping flags bearing the insignia “Emaar” (an Emirati property development company) at the corner of a road announce its existence. The road leading to the development is long and windy and makes getting there without a car tricky if not impossible. Which is the point. When Moftases and I arrived at the gate that day posing as potential real estate buyers we were told that we weren’t allowed in unless a company representative takes us around, and that none work on Friday. Moftases has a 10 year-old Fiat with engineering issues which may or may not be material to the matter.

I wondered why they didn’t just build a moat and ask people to send copies of their bank statements via Bluetooth on their iPhones at the gate.

So on Friday night Moftases and I went back to the fortress. Moftases gaily called out “Land Rover” as we breezed past the gate, the security guide waved us through with his walkie-talkie like it was a wand, and we carried on further down the yellow brick road, eventually reaching the obligatory fountain next to a car park where we stepped out into a cold whose level of bitterness was someone between Tiger Woods’ wife and Egypt after That Sudan Match.

Because we have legs and are plebs, Moftases and I soldiered on through the inclemency, ignoring the group of men shouting out something behind us, until a lovely man informed us that a fleet of Land Rovers and Jaguars were conveying guests from the car park to the event location, approximately 1 km away. In we popped and 40 seconds later were deposited at the event marquee on Uptown’s “Street of Dreams” which reminded me of Brookside a bit.

The Facebook invitation to the event had what I now realise was a warning, rather than a recommendation: “Dress Code: GLAMOUROUS”. I had made the concession of putting on a necklace, but as ladies in mini skirts and fur coats floated in on clouds of rich perfume I realized that a brown wool cardigan affair with a stripey scarf and pink socks rendered me sartorially-speaking a badly coordinated Before to their After.

Luckily I didn’t care, and neither did the cheese smorgasbord buffet which Moftases (wearing a blazer) and I proceeded to demolish until we were made aware of the existence of a bar.

We watched the guests file in while coating our innards with cheese. Most were wearing my monthly (if not yearly) salary, they killed me. Cigar-wielding men greeted each other effusively. I was pleased to see that one man was wearing a Del Boy camel hair coat. Music played and drinks flowed and Egypt seemed far, far away.

Halfway through the proceedings Moftases and I went to have a look at the Emaar show home, a two-storey, four bedroomed villa offering lovely views over Cairo. This wasn’t the most expensive finish available we were told, if were prepared to shell out more than the LE 9 million that this particular villa costs.

LE 9 million will buy you a four-storey block of flats in central but ordinary areas of Cairo such as Dokki. The ‘disadvantage’ is that in these areas you are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of Egypt by a road and gate which keeps the unwashed carless and the car-driving undesirables respectively, away.

On Saturday I went back to Egypt for a Kefaya demonstration outside the high court, apparently to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the group’s first protest. As in 2004, Saturday’s protest was to do with impending elections. Kefaya leader Abdel Halim Qandil announced that Kefaya would be boycotting the 2010 and 2011 elections. With the usual bluster he declared that “the Public Group for the Egyptian People” would be created, composed of 500 “former and current opposition MPs, public figures and strike and protest leaders” who will form a “popular parliament” and elect an “alternative president”.

A series of civil disobedience actions like strikes and protests and a signature campaign, Qandil said, will convince the incumbent president to bugger off “freeing Egypt” from his presence, and leaving his seat to the alternative president.

Qandil, tired of thinking about thrash metal, now thinking about alternative rock

Qandil said that Kefaya was “extending its hand” to Mohamed El-Baradei, who is hanging up his Nuclear Atomic Agency hard hat and given the Egyptian media lots to write about now that the football saga has run out of steam by hints that he might run for the Egyptian presidency.

There is something a bit sad about Kefaya protests; perhaps the knowledge that with its protests and grand gestures, the group is pissing in the wind, and like Ayman Nour’s travelling circus, has become a joke. While the reasons behind the decision to boycott the elections are noble, it was probably in no small part taken because Kefaya does not have a credible candidate for the presidential election (even if the election rules allowed it to field a candidate), and understands that someone of El-Baradei’s stature would be unwilling to associate his name with the movement because that would mean instant death.

A mass movement without the mass is reduced to a collection of friends meeting up now and again to do a bit of chanting and remind the world that they are still alive. On Saturday, they were even bickering about whose turn it was to chant, which only deepened my despair. As I watched them I thought about Egyptians who possess the means to buy LE 9 million homes and LE 1.5 million cars, and wondered for the umpteenth time how change is possible in this morass where wealth (both extreme and absence of) ensures that political self-determination is either irrelevant or a luxury to the happy rich and the fed-up underfed who are both too busy chasing a dime to try to stop Egypt imploding.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sometimes she remembers my name

My mother says: (5:30:39 PM)
Happy birthday!

Carah Sarr says: (5:30:51 PM)
Hiiiiiiii thanks :-)

My mother says: (5:32:00 PM)
You were born at 4.05 pm. I remember it well

My mother says: (5:32:20 PM)
Or was it 4.13?

Related links: This ridiculous article.