Archives for the month of: March, 2011

So, I have been meaning to write something about this before but never quite got round it. I have been leaving abroad now for 7 of the past 10 years. Inevitably, I have gone out with a number of people who are not Italian like myself (I’ll leave it to you to guess how many. If you get it right, I’ll buy you a yearly subscription to the Reader’s Digest. Hint: It’s less than a 3 digit number).

I am always slightly irked by the reaction of some gay people I have met and/or have gone out on dates with. Because Italian men are usually associated with a number of (positive?) stereotypes, I am often under the impression that I am being placed somewhere on the spectrum of potential Italian gay man stereotypes which spans roughly as follows: suave latin man with hairy chest and golden cross meets elitist european meets queer fashionista meets mama’s boy.

Of course self-righteous me is quite horrified at the idea of my ‘self’ being compressed and pigeonholed into a cliché, although I guess it is normal that people try to decipher your identity through some cognitive shortcuts such as stereotypes. I have actually done that to others a number of times without noticing.

Anyways, I was a LGBT mixer (or, as I like to call it, a fruit salad event) in the US last week. I had to go through a bit of the usual Italian Gay Manometer business but in addition, thanks to having survived the Egyptian revolution, I get to add an extra layer of revolutionary je ne sais pas quoi to the equation. At one point I felt people looked at me as if I am some kind of war veteran, almost asking me to lift my shirt so that they could behold the scars and shrapnel wounds. Maybe it’s just me reading too much into it but still I tried my best to explain to people that I witnessed 99% of the revolution watching Al Jazeera in my living room and that I am no suave latin lover meets Che Guevara meets Elton John.

When I feel like people fail to see me as a person and that I am being repackaged into a stereotype, I comfort myself by thinking that this stuff happens all the time to so many people (a friend of mine complains about the frequent emasculation of the Asian male – and do not get me started on the not so positive stereotypes some of my Russian girlfriends complain about).  In fact, I think this poem by Palestinian-American artist Suheir Hammad sums up what usually goes through my mind in such circumstances:

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I have to go to the airport at midnight to make a 5 am flight because of the curfew. Then I have a 5 hour layover. So I am pretty pissed. In total 10 hours of airport and 12 of flights. So I came up with this:

Well, if it makes anyone feel better: Egypt, you are not alone. Democracy means being the victim of your fellow citizens’ idiocy. Trust the Italian on this one.

While theoretically direct democracy (of which referenda are the best example) is the ultimate realization of political participation, in reality there are a lot of things that can go wrong. For one, you have black and white decisions to be made (yes or no – ya3ani is not an option).  Referendum questions can be (and usually are) complicated. In a country where most people hardly ever set foot in a polling station of their own volition, it is safe to assume that the average voter is not well-versed in Egyptian Constitutional Law. Finally, politicians and media play a huge role in how public perception is shaped around the issues, up to the point that the actual crux of the referendum gets lost in political warfare.

Anyways, just to prove that direct democracy fails even in the most advanced (cough cough) democracies:

Of course the disasters of direct democracy are usually corrected by solid institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights (for the minaret ban) or state institution (in the case of DOMA) or auspicious events such as the imminent dissolution of the Catholic Church.

Despite the merit of the vote which I am in no place to comment on, there are two things that stands out: a 41% turnout and a 77% of people voting for yes.

The low turnout means that the majority is silent. More like, deaf and mute.

On the 77%, if any of you ever had the pleasure of taking a political economy class (sarcasm is my second language, did I mention that?) your lecturer would have bombarded with the notion of the median voter’s theorem. I will spare the long boring talk but basically it is a bit of an anomaly how skewed the results of this vote were in favour of ‘yes’. In Italian, we call elections with over 65 % of votes going in one direction as ‘Bulgarian Consensus’. Something just wasn’t free and fair. Not just the procedural aspects, but also how the referendum was communicated to voters. In most referenda I have voted for (and god, don’t we love wasting our tax money on direct democracy in Italy), the split is usually 50-50 or at best 40-60. So this is my shopping list of why I think the vote was so abnormal in its 77-percentedness:

  • The topic was very complex (constitutional amendments, last time I checked it was not bawab’s forte)
  • All the questions were lumped together so it was a packaged deal, take it or leave it. One might argue that constitutional reform ought to be a tad bit more nuanced. The fact that 77% of people agreed on all of those issues is a bit bizarre.
  • Article 2 on the religion and other attributes of the president (hardly Egypt’s most pressing priority at this stage, methinks) was thrown into the lot just for kicks or, if you are a cynical bastard like myself, to play off the secular vs the religious, the christians vs the muslims, the brazar muslimhood vs the salafi, my landlady vs. my bawab etc…
  • And finally, the referendum was organized in 3 weeks, against the backdrop of tanks in the street and media trying to cope with regional politics slowly imploding and various other  shenanigans such as torture of civilians.

So in the end, my impression is that most people were too flustered to concentrate on the essence of the referendum question and interpreted this vote as a vote of confidence in the army. And with generations of Egyptians being raised loving stability even if it means they get screwed sideways from life, one might not be surprised of this Mubarak-like consensus.

But my final question is: does this vote really matter? If the army is committed to democratic transition the yes vote does not matter because in the end they are going to devolve powers to a civilian government and Egypt is going to be the land of milk and honey. If the army is not committed to democratic transition, even if a no vote had won, they would have done whatever it pleased them anyways.

This morning when I woke up, I found that the army had sent me a text with a public service announcement astonishing in its brevity and incisiveness:

Referendum on Constitutional Amendments = Democracy

It seems that they have hired a PR consultant to come up with ways to use social media to patronize their citizens. After the barrage of texts and their facebook page, I am waiting to see what’s next.

Exclusive to Economic Revolution: Berlusconi-Qaddafi love correspondence

Milan, 15 March 2011

Dear Muammar,

I hope you can forgive me for what I said in public about you the other day. I was upset with this underage hooker that is after my money and I was not thinking things through.

I understand you do not want to talk to me now, but I hope we can be still together. I will never forget the night when you taught me how to bunga bunga in your bedouin tent. I hope we can go back to that, one day.

I understand you are going through a lot these days, but please don’t take your anger out on my rich Italian friends. I have always looked up to you, your extravagant taste, your disrespect for humanity, and the passion with which you humiliate your own people every day. I hope I can be like you one day. You are not only a mentor and a soul-mate, you are the man who keeps me warm during the long, cold Italian winter nights.

It is ok if you want to break up with me. You can keep all the gifts I gave you, yes even the 5 billion euros.

Your devoted friend, always,

Silvio.

It doesn’t seem like Muammar has taken it well. He has sent this video as a reply.

PS: This post is meant to be a satirical expose of the hypocrisy of western politicians vis-a-vis Qaddafi. My respect goes to all the brave Libyan citizens who are fighting a ruthless dictator. You are not forgotten.

Last Thursday I was in bed at 7.30 AM checking emails on my phone (was waiting for a good news email) and thinking of the work day that lay ahead (ok, mostly the prospect of my colleague picking up some good coffee and a muffin on her way to the office for both of us). All of a sudden, I heard the sound of a whip cracking and a man screaming. Thinking that it was highly unlikely that someone was being whipped in the street, I thought it was some sort of car accident (talk about selective hearing).

Well, the whipping and screaming continued and then I decided to go and see what was happening. And I saw this:

What you see here is a police man holding a man (he was barefoot and topless) while the army is tying his hands. I thought, oh dear is it another one of these ‘thieves’? In the past two weeks there have been reports of two thieves with knives being arrested in front of my house. Considering that the most shocking thing that ever happened in our neighbourhood was the chronic shortage of tonic water during last summer (all us expats entered severe deprivation from gin&tonic, the horror) this is kinda big news. So i thought, ok it’s going to be the usual scuffle and then all is going to go back to usual.

No.

After his hands were tied, and while the policeman was holding the guy down, the army guy pulled out a whip and started whipping the poor man again. The crowd that had gathered was gleeing with joy and was cheering. Why the army would carry a whip when their job is to defend the country from foreign invasion is a mystery to me (maybe the intelligence is worried that untamed lions may be parachuted by Iran, so this is why they have whips ready at hand).

Call me a softy, maybe even a humanist, but the sight of a man whipped in broad daylight on the street was too much for me to handle. If you want to see the video shot by a journalist from El Pais:

So I went back in, decided to take a shower, while hearing the whipping continuing every now and again and the sound of people talking and the man screaming.

By the time I was out of the shower, the guy had been put in this little alley in between my building and the garage that the army has requisitioned since January 25 (so now we have a permanent check point and army presence right next to my building, a sort of  ‘revolution bonus track’). I thought ok, they gave him a whipping and now they are putting him away from the crowd who seemed one little step away from lynching him. Then I heard the man screaming again, so I looked through a different window in my bedroom which is 5 metres away from where the guy was held. He was being whipped by the army even though he was restrained and had been whipped for the previous 30 minutes. Just when I thought it had turned into the worst possible nightmare, the army went back in this alley and started electrocuting the guy with a teaser. After the first three shocks I was in such a state that I did a thing I thought I would have never done. I reached for my Ipod and played music at high volumes to cover the sound of the teasering and the man cry for help.

When I went out of the house around 8.40 the show was wrapping up. A truck came and the guy was entrusted in the gentle and loving care of some more army personnel (who, by the way, thought they might as well pull off a good finale by wearing bullet proof jackets and carrying guns, perhaps to reiterate the point to the crowd that the half-dozen of them were dealing with a serious criminal). My neighbour and me were in shock when we saw the signs of the whipping and teasering on the man’s body – who in the meanwhile was crying and in utter state of shock and had soiled himself because of the electric shocks. Meanwhile most of the by standers were quite pleased with the show of the army flexing its muscles and showing these model citizens that they were on top of their game. Apparently later in the same morning a small group of people who had been apprehended were also given some whipping before being spirited away.

It has taken me a couple of days to process all of this (also due to work commitments). But I have a few observations to make now:

  • If the rumour that the guy was a murder or a criminal caught by the crowd in Garden City were true then he would have had to be crazy as it is impossible to do anything even vaguely violent in Garden City and think one could get away with it, surrounded as it is by tanks and soldiers. That makes me wonder if the guy was just some guy that was caught somewhere else, kept in detention in Garden City and brought to the army so that he could be escorted to prison and the soldiers decided to entertain themselves/have a go at impromptu justice. Incidentally, the night before the army had dismantled the sit-in in Tahrir and arrested, detained and tortured peaceful protesters in the Egyptian Museum. This is the account of a musician tortured on that night. You may wish to do some compare and contrast of torture methods.
  • While the gratuitous violence in and of itself was shocking, the collective psychology of the event was really disturbing. The crowd was galvanised because some poor guy who was reportedly a murderer (or an untouchable of any sort) was elected as scapegoat of the day so that people would find someone to blame for the spike in insecurity of late (if you ask me, the presence of an army check-point in front of my house seems to be correlated with the spike in people being arrested with knives and machetes and now I am convinced it is not just due to enhanced surveillance). I will never forget the wide smile on my bowab (doorman)’s face that morning. Basically the army was enacting a role play where the audience was being entertained and the guy was the script of an hour-long horror show.

Which leads me to this conclusion: in the past weeks Egyptian public opinion seems divided as to whether protests should continue (to ensure that the revolution is not betrayed) or if they should just stop to give the military government a chance. Meanwhile, anyone who is involved in any demonstration of sort should expect they might be met with scorn, if not worse (or worse).

From what I have seen, there are instances in which the army’s divide and conquer tactics are succeeding in shifting the perception of people and making people unable to understand right from wrong. When 6 weeks ago the police shot on protestors, people were outraged – now that a person is tortured in public by the army people are ecstatic.

I feel this is a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby the captives start empathizing with their kidnapper because of token gestures of niceness (‘well, the army has not shot anyone’ as if an army is supposed to shoot at its own civilians). The moment you find the jailmaster to be a rather exquisite person, you will be turning to your fellow captives for a scapegoat.

So, I am putting off finishing a boring presentation for work and partly playing with this blog idea, since, to be honest, I did not expect to receive such encouraging feedback.

Well, here is where the blog doubles up as ‘gastronomic revolution.’ With a friend who recently came back to Cairo and her roommate we went out to get Chinese in the most awesome Chinese place west of China.

The place is run by Chinese Muslims and caters mostly to Asian student from Al-Azhar University, a few Egyptians from da hood (Abbasseya) and of course the curse that is Cairo’s foreigners.

After reading this article on the Thai restaurant nearby, I decided to go on a little gastronomic discovery trip. On that day the Thai place was shut (and since then I never managed to get there when it is open, the restaurant has now turned into a sort of food unicorn) so we ended up at the Chinese place. And since then it has been love at first sight. I even took a friend visiting from Hong Kong there and the restaurant passed the authenticity test.

The business concept is pretty simple: serving an untapped market and doing it well and cheap. Tofu noodle salad, caramelized chicken and spicy tofu with meat are the recurring themes of my visits there (also featured in the picture below). It usually ends up being a rather unedifying spectacle of me and friends gorging ourselves as if we had never seen food in our lives.

Well, the staff of the restaurant is actually what makes it such a cool place. It’s a family run business, with this guy and his wife. I am always tempted to ask about their lives as I am really curious to know what their lives in Egypt are like (and I don’t mean it in a patronising way,  more like ‘let me stick my nose into your business’ way). For one, they speak mostly classical Arabic (even to each other) and a little Egyptian Arabic and some English. Thank God the menu has got pictures because I don’t think my classical Arabic stretches as far as ‘We will have the cabbage salad and the caramelized chicken with the very nice soup that comes with ravioli like things inside.’

And most of all, I love the kid of the owners. Little Mustapha. Never thought in my life that I would meet a Chinese kid called Mustapha.

Random stat: on average, each human being has one breast and one testicle.

On International Woman’s Day I like to remember that the fight still goes on. The fight about your life not being dictated by what is in between your legs, but rather by what is in between your ears.

On the fight for equality and of James Bond in drag

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Last night I was at a house party in Cairo. I believe the way house parties have changed after the revolution deserves a fully fledged ethnographic study. Suffice to say that the usual trite ice-breakers now feature a new acquaintance’s in-depth analysis of the scenarios for the military rule and/or the possible implication of this and that on the future of Egypt. Well, maybe it’s better than the usual ‘ohwhatdoyoudohere, howlonghaveyoubeenherefor, wheredoyoulive and sodoyouspeakarabic conversation combo.

Anyways, I am digressing. Since everyone is onto this revolution bandwagon I thought, what about me??! For sure I must have some half-arsed ideas I can share with the rest of humanity on this.

So here’s the thought process. I have no idea what is going to happen to the constitution, the military rule or the incumbent minister of water and irrigation. What I am really curious about is whether this revolution will eventually end up into decent-paying jobs, not having to struggle with double-digit inflation, not having to pay for private care because public hospitals are in shambles and why not, having the luxury of attending a protest where protesters are not out-numbered by police and/or harassed by misogynist fuckers.

A lot could be said about the dismal performance of the Egyptian economy. Let’s start with income inequality. According to the CIA factbook Egypt page, the poorest 10 % of Egyptian families hold 4% of the total income of the country, versus the top 10% who holds 28%. Of course there are worse cases.  In the US, the 10% of poorest families hold 2% of the total income, while the highest 10% hold 30%. What is interesting is to look at trends in the past 30 years. Data from the World Bank shows that in the past 30 years, despite economic progress on paper, the situation has not changed. If anything, the situation has marginally in terms of the wealthier becoming slightly more wealthy.

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