Monthly Archives: March 2006

Cairo: Crave

Zamalek is part of an island that sits in the middle of the Nile, west of downtown, and was in the pre-Nasser days, the Manhattan of Cairo – the area which was most popular with Europeans and featured the best night life. Home to most of the embassies, it still has a reputation for being one of the nicer parts of Cairo, being home to more Western style establishments. As with other parts of Cairo though, it is common to find a stylish, trendy restaurant, as lifted from a scene from Sex and the City, sitting alongside large rubbish tips in the middle of the street with stray cats roaming over them.

S, the journalist whom Fatma introduced me to, invited me for dinner with some of her friends with whom she worked on the student newspaper at her university. T was the instantly recognisable, Westernised Egyptian, sporting a Bart Simpson t-shirt and an easy going manner such that I knew I could insult him freely about working in finance and he would take it with good humour, which he did. We were shortly joined by a quiet, well dressed, though tie-less, fellow called I, who had the neat cropped beard and bruised forehead of a religious muslim. I explains that he is currently working for a management consultant firm so that he can learn about business before he wants to return to AUC to study political Islam.

As ever, politics comes up. In fact, it is usually me who brings it up, but I’ve yet to find anyone who tries to veer away from the topic, and as they were all journalists at university, we discussed the press freedoms and trends in Egyptian journalism. I then ask the standard question: what happens after Mubarak?

I, otherwise somewhat reserved, becomes passionate and discusses the unlikely succession chances of Gamal Mubarak and the role of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood. More than that, he speaks with great detail about them. I quiz him about the fuzziness of the Ikwhan’s election platform and he admits that the party heads are inexperienced and bad communicators, something that he berates them for personally. But more than that he also feels that it is hard to come up with an election platform which has detail, specifically on economic matters, when there are no details about the economy, or when the few details that do exist require security clearance. I ask him about the Ikhwan’s commitment to democracy. If they won, would they stand down if they lost an election? Would they actually even win in a free contest?

I said he believes that under a free democracy, where there might be a chance for other parties to develop momentum, the vote would perhaps be more split than it is currently, given that he recognises that some people vote for the Ikhwan purely as a protest against the government. But should they win, and then lose, yes, they are committed to democracy, for do they not accept pluralism internally? Democracy, he continued, in the west has secularism, capitalism and liberalism as its foundations, people vote on self-interest. The Ikhwan want to mobilise popular involvement in democracy based on the interest of the ummah.

Cairo: Moths

Approaching the Adli Synagogue this evening, the flashing blue lights and large blue metal container trucks, which are used to ferry Egyptian policemen, were visible from the end of the road. I had noticed the synagogue a few days back, on a taxi drive back from the oriental cliche souq of Khan Al Khalili, its prominent star of Davids visible on the front of the building, with two armed soldiers standing lazily underneath them. I had marvelled at such a large Jewish building continuing to occupy a position on prime downtown shopping street.

I had an excuse to visit the building this evening after Emily, a Jewish-American girl from the school, made contact with Carmen Weinstein, the ageing bewigged leader of the Cairo Jewish community, and discovered there was a Purim service being held tonight. This time more than two soldiers were on hand to guard the synagogue, this time aided by metal barriers and guard dogs. Approaching the security barrier, Emily and I were momentarily stunned to have the man at the gate greet and ask us some questions in Hebrew with an Israeli accent. Hebrew, let alone an Israeli accent, is not something one is expecting to hear in Cairo and the soft smiling Israeli dressed in typical casual clothing made a stark contrast to the grim faced, armed functionary to his left.

Inside the shul, chaos reigned. There were about 40 people inside the mammoth shul but the cavernous acoustics of the building made it sound like there were three times as many, aided by the 10-12 vocal children at the far end of the main synagogue floor, running around whilst dressed in Halloween style costumes.

Instinctively I asked for a yamulke. Despite being a secular fellow, I was interested to find I couldn’t be inside a synagogue without wearing one. Eventually one was found and after a greeting by the American accented fellow on the bima, the service started. Not that this stopped anyone talking or the children from running around. Emily and I sat and watched as, if anything, the volume level increased.

Here, in the middle of an Arabic country, like moths drawn to the sun, the expat community of American Jews and Israelis had come to give support and affirm the ties of community with the local Jewish community. Yet even amongst us huddled masses, protected as we were by our Arabic soldiers, we had to engage in what we do best: argue with each other.

The perennial tragi-comedy of Jewish people everywhere was played out, as the Israelis started doing their *own* reading from their *own* scroll right next to the guest Rabbi from America who was reading from his. This naturally invited a request from the American Rabbi, in Hebrew, to be quiet and let him read to the congregation.

“Lo,” comes the reply. No.

An argument ensues, the natural habitat of modern Hebrew. The rabbi comes down from the bima and raised voices ring around the stone building, marking a disagreement over how the service should be conducted. The Israelis want a more traditional reading. The arguing goes on for 5 minutes, until in a huff, the entire delegation of Israelis grab their mewling kids and leave, whilst arguing with each other.
Perhaps the Egyptian army are there to protect us from each other rather than from Islamic terrorists?

The service, in relative quiet, continues.

I couldn’t help but laugh. We are all the bloody same the world over.

Later, at a kiddush held after the service, I get to find out who the people that attended and remained at the service are. One fellow, Terry from Stanmore noch, is heading up an office that is part of a Tel Aviv/New York firm of consultants who are assisting Egyptian-Israeli companies do business; Larry, is a PhD student from UCLA doing a thesis on Egyptian foreign policy, having spent some time in San’a in Yemen, where he also made contact with the local peyot clad Jewish community; Sariel is a Professor from the Weizman Institute heading up an Academic Centre which helps Egyptian and Israeli academics to share and develop research together. He invites me to his centre to see an example of “humanism” at work and he regrets having to leave Cairo to head back to Israel for financial reasons in 6 months time

One of the Israelis tells me he was embarrassed by those Israelis who left:

“They are not even the civil servants. They are the assistants to the civil servants. I dislike this type of Israeli. They get invited to someones house for dinner and tell their host what food to serve. It is a trend in Israeli society I don’t like. At least the vice consul and the consul had the education to stay behind.”

Terry meanwhile tells me how most businessmen are more than happy to business with Israel. The example of the Israeli-Jordan trade agreement is proof that a rapid increase in trade is possible even under a cold peace. He tells me most of the businesses he deals with are in textiles.

“You’ve come to Cairo and ended up in the shmattes business,” I tell him.

Emily, Larry and I grab some food before sitting in Cilantro, the local equivalent of Starbucks, for a coffee and tea. We sit and discuss politics and history in a style which I can’t but help notice as being so very Jewish, our interaction so easily transportable to a coffee shop in New York or North London.

Argument and debate. A very Jewish evening.

Cairo: New City

My friends Fatma and Omar have bought two plots of land in an area called New Cairo which is being built north east of Cairo. In area which was desert a few years back, New Cairo is the Dubai of Egypt, a mega construction site spread over a vast tract of land, where everything is new. Townhouses, apartment blocks, villas and a new campus for the American University lie in discrete islands amidst the desert, connected by brand new roads whose pot hole free surface is currently only enjoyed by the massive trucks and lorries.

Fatma and Omar's plot of land
Fatma and Omar's new town

A new gated compound of the distinctly American variety, now hosts the top 1% of Egyptian society, ironically protected by a surrounding wall with security check points located at judicious locations for which only the correct ID or license plate will allow you entrance. My boss believes the trend in the world is for those that have to protect themselves and ring themselves off from those that do not have, and the gated compounds, of which my friends hope to belong to in a few years when their house is finished, are a clear sign of this.

However, New Cairo is not merely a gated compound, it is a gated town, comparable in size to some British towns. Even the clean, quiet air of the area seems to have been specially reserved for those that can afford it, the halo of smog still visible in the distance over Cairo to remind the lucky few of what they have escaped. As if to underline the mission statement of the area, porters already are in attendance outside areas where buildings have yet to take root on their empty plot of land, their families huddled into small one room brick shacks, no doubt to be moved on once people move into the area. Despite the embryonic status of the site, some families have even appeared to have moved into their new dream homes, a testament to desperation or the robust ability of people to build a life for themselves even when there is none around them.

view of construction
university colloseum

Less than 3km from New Cairo, with its clear aspiration of hope for a new life, is one of the many Necropolis’, or City of the Dead, that Cairo has. Unlike the flat, tombstone dotted graveyards of Europe, Cairo builds entire towns for its dead; towns with roads, junctions, dead ends and city blocks, taking up huge areas, where what would otherwise be houses instead feature tombs. In common with New Cairo, for the moment, these Necropolis’ are totally silent. As the tombs are defacto rooms, with walls and doors, the feeling of a ghost town is overwhelming. The construction implies that there should be life here where there is not, the cities having clear main avenues or main streets which run the length of the towns but there is no traffic of any kind. Yet amongst these cities, people do in fact live. Some urban poor decide to live amongst these cities, hanging out their washing lines across the streets, living amongst the tombs, surrounded by the dead members of their families. As I turned one corner, I found three men washing their hair in a trough of water, next to a large open tomb. Their reaction to me suggested that seeing living people walking down the street was not that common an occurrence, though they still had the default reaction of a Cairene in responding formally to my greeting to them in Arabic.

city of the dead high street
city of dead

Omar could not understand my fascination with the cities of the dead but accustomed as I am to the discreet, unassuming green fields of European graveyards, where an oversized or florid tombstone still stands out for criticism, building such expansive spaces for the dead amidst an overcrowded city provides, yet another, sharp contrast with the narrow, cluttered streets where the living live. One can’t but ponder on a city which gives as much comfort and space to its dead as it does to its living.

Cairo: Academics

My flatmate is a medieval European historian, who reads original sources in Latin and he is usually accompanied by a Greek-Italian Egyptologist that he befriended at the school who lives nearby and can read, naturally, hieroglyphics.

Our dinner conversation this evening consisted of discussions on:
– the extent of Tamurlane’s empire and his brutality
– Charlemagne’s empire and his attempts to impose a uniform currency
– the comparative longevity of world empires
– just how much Lawrence disliked the Arabs
– the ages and development of Semitic languages
– the dominance of Franco-Teutonic epics in European history
– the utility of Farsi for writing poetry
– quotes from Team America
– the use of dialects in dubbing English speaking films for European audiences
– the varying use of Greek dialects in Homer’s writing

It is interesting to note that the topics of conversation amongst academics is not that much different than with geeks, other than the people contributing to the conversation have read much of the body of knowledge about various topics in the language of first hand sources rather than from Wikipedia.

Cairo: Spice

Getting into a conversation about politics or culture is as easy as getting tooted by a taxi here. Like the fine layer of dust and sand that coats every surface, politics and culture permeate every aspect of day to day living and all introductions, all personal histories, all observations about life in Cairo or the Middle East, come back to politics and culture.

In the past 3 days I’ve had an American, who has gone native and gained an Egyptian accent after 20 years living here, impress upon me the importance of the army in the post-Mubarak Egypt at a birthday party full of Germans I didn’t know, a South African freelance writer harangue me with 9/11 conspiracy theories 2 minutes after meeting me in a cafe, a hejab clad reporter for the Herald Tribune discuss modern Islamic thinking in Egypt in a restaurant in the leafy suburb of Ma’adi and Anglo-Egyptians girls relating endless tails of “concrete-headed” obstinacy exhibited by Arab males over cups of tea in one of the many Cairene coffee shops.

Everyone complains; everyone gets frustrated by the lack of logic and Kafka-esque thinking and everyone finishes a discussion about politics or economics or business by shrugging their shoulders and asking “How do you change a culture?” That Egyptian culture is broken, inefficient and hobbles along with a poor work ethic is obvious to them all. Twice I’ve heard the zen joke about the scorpion riding on the fox’s back in a river, as a fatalistic example of why things can’t be changed here.

Yet they all stay out here in this dirty, polluted and noisy city, living amidst a stalled culture when they don’t have to. It is a testament to the gravitational pull that the energy of the city has and the ripeness for change that the Middle East has pent up inside it that everyone is aware of.