Archives for posts with tag: Cairo

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.

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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.