Archives for category: Cairo

I went to watch the movie “The Help” with some other people in my programme yesterday. The movie is very good, but one scene made my mind wander and would eventually result in this insomnia-induced blog post. The main character’s family (and domestic help) all gathered in the living room to watch the news of JFK’s death.

Being in the States on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 prompted a similar reaction in my head, as I tried to piece together the last ten years of my life in relation to the various events of History I have had the fortune to witnessed.

Italy, 11 September 2001

I am putting on my boy scout uniform (ha, now you know my dirty secret!). In my town the boy scouts are responsible for providing a human cordon for a religious procession that takes place every year. It’s a sticky late summer afternoon and at 3 pm I am watching Ally McBeal on TV. I am already indifferent to the Catholic Church and its obsolete rituals, but for the sake of tradition I just put that uniform on. It is around 15:45 pm and we are late. The Ally McBeal episode is interrupted by news footage of planes flying into the twin towers. I do not think much of it, it all seems distant and surreal to me so I just hurry up and leave the house.

London, 15 February 2003

I was studying in Wales and kids in my (very liberal, tree-hugging, fantastic) school organised buses to join the anti-Iraq war protest in London. The other students are all more politically aware than me and more outspoken against the Blair-Bush decision to invade Iraq. I am really puzzled and do not know what to think. Having grown up in a politically-conservative family, my political journey towards the left had been one of self-questioning a lot of what I had been taught and exercise critical thinking. I was jealous of my friends for their unshaken beliefs. On 15 February approximately one million people went down to protest in London, the biggest protest ever recorded in the history of the city. On that day, it is estimated that between six and ten million people around the world protested against the decision to invade Iraq. I was one of them.

Cairo, July 2007

I finally  managed to get an internship in an international organization. It is my first day and my supervisor is showing me the ropes. As I sit at my desk doing a press review of regional newspapers, I can see the waiting room where five/six families of Iraqi refugees are waiting for their resettlement interview to go to the United States. I suddenly feel like history is not something you just witness on TV. I remember all the doubts I had when I marched in London four years before. I was right, but I did not know it back then.

Benghazi, April 2011

I have always thought of myself as a pacifist. It seemed a pretty obvious thing to me. Whenever asked, I would just say that war is wrong in that it violates the sanctity of human life. It had all been a purely intellectual exercise, that pacifism of mine. I am working in a transit centre for displaced people in Libya. It’s Easter Sunday and we have a bit of a management crisis. The camp is full to over twice its capacity and people are getting edgy. I call my family to wish them a Happy Easter and to tell them that everything is ok. I ask them what they are having for lunch and I secretly wish I could be there. I feel bad my parents are worried about me. A few minutes later my colleague and I are sandwiched in between one hundred angry people and a security man armed to its teeth. We try to talk to the people to diffuse the tension and avoid that the security man starts shooting his machine gun into the air, just like he did a few minutes ago. I am standing right in between them and this man, his machine gun twenty cm away from my face. Unarmed people keep pushing me towards the machine gun. I finally know why I am a pacifist. You put a weapon in a person’s hand and he/she thinks they are God’s gift to the planet.

New Jersey, 11 September 2011

It is the ten-year anniversary of September 11. It’s all over the news. The day goes by in a haze because I have one of the worst hangovers of my life. I am barely able to process things. I quickly look at the walls of my Facebook friends, people I have met in the past ten years. For some of them 9/11 was the day America lost its innocence, they mostly leave in the West. For others it was the trigger of a spiral of death and hate, they mostly leave in the Middle East. My friend C says “Number of people killed on all sides during or as a consequence of 9/11: 131,000 (low estimate). If I had to go in front of God or a Galactic Council as a representative of humankind and justify this, I’d be ashamed“. For me, 9/11 marks the tenth anniversary of the day I became a pacifist.

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Whenever people ask me what it is like to live in Cairo, I always say that Cairo is like an abusive lover: you have every reason to leave, yet you don’t.

On a personal level the four and a half years I have spent in Egypt coincided with a happy and exciting transition into adulthood. I always joked about my very bourgeois lifestyle in Cairo: brunch with friends on Friday morning, trips to Sinai at the end of each month of Ramadan, improvised karaoke sessions and various forms of drama exclusive to Cairo such as walking in on your cleaning lady having sex in your house to Delta airlines and Cairo airport misplacing and eventually “losing” your cat. I don’t think you can meet so many interesting people in such a stimulating (over stimulating perhaps?) environment and the people you meet are the main reason you survive Cairo’s relentless abuse.

I cannot explain where Cairo gets its charm from. But I will forever remember the buzz of racing in a cab over one of the bridges on a summer night and feeling like the city is a living being, cars moving in the streets like blood flowing through a person’s veins, the constant throbbing of life and chaos as you negotiate a pedestrian traffic jam. Looking at the motorboats on the Nile and the glittering lights of the buildings reflecting on the Nile, you have the impression that the city is making love to you. In a somewhat sloppy and abusive yet charming way.

I am writing this on my last day in Benghazi. I was supposed to leave on a flight at 8 am but I am stranded here because my flight has been, ehrm, delayed. So delayed I might end up driving back to Egypt tomorrow instead. The flight operation was managed between Italy, Malta and Egypt – the only way this could get worse is if the flight attendants were French. Of course none could have seen this cock-up coming.

I wish I could blog about my five weeks in Benghazi – but partly because I do not feel that a blog is the best platform to bitch and moan (or boast) about my work and partly because I am drained I do not think I will. Or maybe in the future I will, who knows. So you will not hear me talk about being given a morality check by a petroleum engineer; or sitting through endless coordination meetings that look like this; or having the pleasure to be on the receiving end of some 20 phone calls every day from journalists that cannot take no for an answer or being called a misogynist racist over-paid aid worker by a Spanish journalist that then called me a faggot.

So what I am going to talk about is the reactions I have been getting from people when I tell them that I will be leaving Egypt in August. Reactions from foreigners who just got off the boat but also some well seasoned expats that have been marinating in the region since Anwar El Sadat was in elementary school.

When I say that I will be taking unpaid leave from my job and thus leave Egypt in June, jaws drop and I am usually asked why I would live the region right now when things are getting ‘real exciting’. The same way you would tell someone who is leaving the cinema room in the midst of a gory murder scene to go buy pop corn.

I do not know why but I get slightly offended by these comments, by the superficiality of it. I feel like people are saying: why would you voluntarily give up a front seat as angry Arabs try to fight for their freedom? Maybe you will get to take a snap shot as the tanks roll into Deraa and get to post it on flickr or maybe you will be telling the grand-children that you watched the revolution as it took place on twitter and conversed with the local activists over Turkish coffee and shisha, part Robert Fisk part Lawrence of Arabia.

If you are enjoying watching churches being burnt down on TV in your flat in Zamalek and then blogging about it for the friends back home, than darling please call yourself by your real name: a free rider. Not paying any of the costs yet enjoying the benefits. (Sorry if this offends anyone – maybe I am also an opinionated, holier than thou free rider, but at least I am ok with it).

So here it is my thoughts on why I am not dying of fear of missing out:

  • Things are not just getting interesting. The region (and the world even, shall we say) is an interesting place even when things do not make headlines.
  • In my personal opinion, the real revolution has not even started and probably it will not start until a few months down the line. The symbols of power have been taken down, but the link between power and money has not been severed (let’s think large monopolistic interests linked to strategic industries such as the military). Ahmed Ezz maybe in prison, but I did not see many headlines on how the steel monopoly in Egypt is going to be open up to free and fair competition. Never been a fan of economic liberalism nor I am arguing that it is a cure, but I feel that if things change they will change when resources (especially public ones) are more equally redistributed and this is one of the issues that could be a litmus test – more so than democratic elections that can be used as a way to pacify outsiders and insiders’ anxiety about democratic reform (read: psychosis of a take-over by the Muslim Brothers) without really creating a shift in they way a country is run (again, not saying elections are useless, just they might end up being more of a symbol rather than a real process until they become an established pattern).

So let me get on with my life for a year or two and maybe come back when things will get even more interesting, yet they most probably will not be making the news (also, on a slightly different topic, a screenshot of what’s hot on aljazeera today, bonus material just for kicks).

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.