Wondrous little shits

Children live in a world free of niceties or convention. Spending time with a single child is a bit like petting a semi feral cat, and being a in group of children is like walking through a safari park with a steak stapled to your arse.

In Alexandria my friend, her son, we’ll call him Pompom, and I visited two schools. My friend went to talk to the school admin while Pompom descended on the playground, where he started building a wall out of multicoloured bricks. Behind him minuscule children were being drilled in vaguely militaristic physical exercises by a woman and her whistle.

Break-time, and a flock of squawking children arrived. Michael came over. A ginger-blonde boy with translucent eyes and blue thread veins in the diaphanous skin of his face. He had an old fashioned look. The type of kid they put on oatmeal boxes in 1951.

Michael politely tried to assist Pompom with his construction activity. Michael and I started shooting the breeze. I asked him whether he liked the school.

It’s alright, he said, adding that what he doesn’t like is a certain kid who dobs people in to the teachers.

“But he’s got more gooder recently”.

Then he volunteered the information that his mother has put him on a special diet: “i’m not allowed to eat potatoes”.

I attempted to enquire why but that subject no longer interested him and was dropped. Why can’t we do this as adults. why must we yack away at each other while one of us wants to blow our brains out. Why can’t we just discard a conversation that has clearly died instead of frantically blowing at its dying embers for fear of upsetting people.

Later by the sandpit a group of boys were maniacally digging. One of them hit the other on the head with his plastic shovel. Frantic screaming for about 3 minutes and then they resumed. Michael showed me a cap he had procured from somewhere with a badge with something indecipherable in gaelic on it. “Irish” he announced and then walked off.

Pompom meanwhile was busy with an operation involving the transport of sand in small trucks. A girl came over and wanted to assist him, and was rebuffed without any formalities. Adult life would be much easier if we operated similarly. Meanwhile another girl with a triangular haircut came over and muttered something at me in a language I could not decipher. I saw her later stuck on a climbing frame, hanging off it by one leg of her culottes. Two girls above her were paralysed with laughter.

There is a sinister undercurrent to children’s interactions, a quiet menace behind the curls and the big eyes and the plump smiles. These are untamed wild creatures not yet bridled by dull convention. Which is good because you know exactly where you stand but in all other respects is like being in a tank of piranhas.

Adults can be and are mostly horrible too though. At the second school we visited the teachers sing a song at the end of break time while the kids stand in line. One of the teachers was a harried, scowling woman who alternately barked and shrieked instructions at her tiny charges.

STAND IN LINE! ___ WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!

As they filed off back to classroom she roared out a song, unsmilingly:

“love is something that when you give it awayyyyy, you get more in returnnnn” she alleged, while glaring at the world. it was like being serenaded by a concrete mixer.

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What is your occupation

pal

I am lucky enough to have been invited to the 2015 Palestinian Festival of Literature. Here is a despatch from days two and three.

On Sunday the improbably named Ray Dolphin gave us a crash course on the occupation at the headquarters of the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs for the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The headquarters is a beautiful old building with a verdant garden in which there is a pagoda well-manicured borders. It is where Moshe Dayan and his Jordanian counterpart drew out the Green Line, so called because they used a green pen. Ray says that the table they used to do this wasn’t level, causing inaccuracies of inches on the map which translated into kilometres in reality.

Ray bombarded us with a litany of depressing facts. He told us that almost a year after Israel destroyed 12,000 homes in Gaza during its war on the Strip there has been almost no reconstruction. Some families have simply returned to the ruins of their homes and pitched tents. In October 2014 countries loudly pledged millions for the reconstruction of Gaza during a donor conference in Cairo. Not much of it seems to have translated into anything of substance. And in any case even if did Israel hasn’t let construction materials into the Strip since 2007 because, it says, Hamas would use it to build bunkers. The tunnels between Egypt and Gaza on which the latter’s economy depended are now all closed, as is the crossing between the two countries thanks to a certain busy ex-field marshall and his combover.

The occupied West Bank meanwhile houses 556,000 settlers (20% of the Palestinian population), 150 settlements and 100 outposts. The difference between a settlement and an outpost is that a settlement is authorised by the Israeli government while an outpost isn’t, but the government is perhaps too busy to object with any force because it is preoccupied with furnishing said “illegal” outpost with roads, water and electricity supplies etc.

Almost 43% of land in the West Bank is controlled by settlements. In 2014 there were 221 cases of settlers damaging Palestinian property and 110 cases of incidents involving settler violence that resulted in physical injury to Palestinian victims. There does of course exist a legal mechanism allowing Palestinians to report such crimes but who are you kidding. The result is that settlers routinely intimidate Palestinians and take over their land with virtual impunity.

The wall meanwhile continues to snake its way through the West Bank. It will be 700 kilometres long upon completion. Flipping through a powerpoint showing diagrams illustrating the various, cumulative, physical insults inflicted on the West Bank since 1967 Ray said the wall’s main effect will be on agriculture.

Are your eyes beginning to glaze over? Offences against agricultural aren’t very sexy, after all. But consider the example of the village of Jayyus that Ray told us about.

Most of Jayyus’ land and water wells are on the other side of the wall from the village. This means that farmers need a special permit to access their land as the area has been deemed a military zone. Many applications by farmers are refused for security reasons. Farmers must also prove a connection to the land, something to show that they own it. This is a problem because most of the West Bank has not been formally surveyed (surveying started under the British Mandate and continued under Jordanian rule but Israel suspended it all in 1967). In addition you also have to have a minimum amount of land. The result of all this is that less than half of West Bank farmers obtain permits to access their own land.

If you’re a farmer that does obtain a permit you must engage in a farce in order to tend to your land.

You wait at one of the electronic gates controlled by the military until army soldiers show up. You are let through and locked in until midday when the gate is again opened. In the early evening the army returns and closes the gate for the final time that day. Farmers are not allowed to stay overnight on their land meaning that you have a maximum of 10 hours each day to cultivate it. Also, you can’t irrigate your crops in the evening when it makes most sense to do so. Satellite imagery shows that lots of land has been abandoned. Wheat is often grown instead of other crops, because it needs less attention. But it makes farmers less money.

Note also that of these 85 electronic gates, only nine open on a daily basis; the majority of them only open during the six weeks of the olive harvest in October of each year.

Some other facts about the West Bank:

- 18% of the occupied West Bank is a military area. Palestinians are not allowed to enter these areas without permission.

- 10% of the occupied West Bank is a nature reserve. Palestinians are not allowed to cultivate these areas or graze animals there.

- 60% of the occupied West Bank is controlled by Israel, which means that virtually every aspect of a Palestinian’s life is mapped out by Israeli diktat.

- Between January and November 2014 only one application by a Palestinian to construct something on territory in the West Bank controlled by Israel was approved. One. You will recall that there are a combined total of 250 illegal settlements and outposts whose inhabitants build and construct freely.

Things get truly mental in East Jerusalem, which is governed by its own nightmarish legal framework.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem do not have Israeli citizenship. They have permanent residence. What this means is a separate, blue, ID card which allows Palestinians to live inside Israel and Jerusalem, but not inside the West Bank. Live abroad as a blue card holder for more than seven years, or acquire citizenship from another country, and you automatically lose your residency. This has obvious implications for marriage, and for the children of unions between Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem because Palestinians from the West Bank need a special permit to enter East Jerusalem (incidentally if you obtain such a permit you cannot enter East Jerusalem with your car ?????). The result is that there are 4,000 unregistered children in East Jerusalem who cannot go to municipal schools.

All this can seem a bit remote when you just read it. But to occupy is to possess, to fill up space or time with a presence, to dwell inside something, to contain it from within and without. There is a brutal physicality about it. In Egypt when Cairo’s authorities wanted to shut down protesters they built giant, disfiguring walls of huge blocks in the centre of the capital that reshaped the way that traffic moves and blocked the city’s arteries. The walls were an aberration, monuments to the regime’s failure to control the people through popular approval, through dialogue, and an admission that it has no interest in winning this approval.

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It is the same story in Israel. At the Qalandia Checkpoint Palestinians from occupied Ramallah wishing to enter occupied East Jerusalem queue up for hours underneath hulking watchtowers surrounded by shit and burnt rubbish and resolute graffiti and go through a turnstile reminiscent of the machinery used to control cattle during the process of inoculating them.

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When we went through there were two young female soldiers manning the checkpoint, which was empty. One was lying on her flak jacket on the floor, apparently asleep until she jumped up to look at the x-ray machine monitor. Another was chatting on Whatsapp. People crossing the checkpoint must hold their document up to the glass for inspection. If the soldier requires a closer look the traveller must put the document through a tiny slit in the counter.

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I struggled to put my passport through so narrow and cumbersome is this slit and was once again struck by how separated we were, the soldier and me, despite our physical proximity. Which is the point. When dealing with Palestinians Israel puts the gloves on in every sense of the word.

Ray took us to Sheikh Jarrah, an area of East Jerusalem. The street is home to Palestinian refugees who fled Haifa in 1948 and were re-homed here by UNWRA in 1956. The Council of Sephardic Jewry claims right to the area on the basis of an ancient Ottoman document. In August 2009 the Israeli police evicted the residents of two homes and literally threw them into the street. Within half an hour settlers had moved in to the houses. In the el-Kurd home on the same street a Palestinian family lives at the back of the house while settlers have occupied an extension built on the front of the house which a court has deemed illegal. You can watch the very distressing video of the men taking over the extension here.

On the day we were there the street was quiet. An elderly man drew up in his car, parked it, took his shopping out, unlocked his front gate, went inside. A girl played in the street. And then there were the houses occupied by settlers. That sudden violence again, the street’s symmetry interrupted by their chaos; makeshift structures erected on the balcony covered in bits of fabric and cardboard, a sofa cushion strewn on some unidentifiable makeshift structure, the visual assault of the graffiti, the jumble of it all. And above all, that separation, that deliberately pronounced other-ness, the knife in the fork compartment.

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In Hebron the excellent Sami from the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee commented that Israel likes to dominate with its architecture. You will have probably heard of Hebron, the West Bank city where the settlers throw shit out of their windows at Palestinians and Palestinians have to use ladders to enter their homes through windows rather than the front door because the Israeli army has sealed it shut.

In Arabic Hebron is called al-Khalil which means bosom friend. It is so named because of its association with Abraham, who was known as khalil el rahman, or beloved of God.

Khelwa, which comes from the same root as al-Khalil means to spend time with a dear friend. The nomenclature has a dark irony, because Hebron sums up the occupation, of two peoples in close proximity who are linked by mutual contempt rather than love. In 1968 Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of Israelis pretended to be Swiss tourists in order to rent rooms in a main hotel in Hebron. They then refused to leave. They were moved to what would eventually become the settlement of Kiryat Arba in east Hebron. Since then four other settlements have been established, one in the building that formerly housed a Palestinian boys school. The settlements have sucked the life out of Hebron’s old city; there are 1829 shops in the area and only 200 are open.

The settlers are obviously motivated by the idea that they are resurrecting a Jewish claim to the city, and as usual the Israeli state supports them in this project. 2,000 soldiers protect 400 settlers living among 40,000 Palestinians. Walk through the old city and you will encounter machine-gun carrying soldiers on patrol in the market’s not very busy alleyways. Above your heads in one street are Israeli flags and the netting that stops the rubbish that settlers throw out their windows from landing on people’s heads. The Beit Romano settlement, the one built over the school, is a monstrous, imposing presence that towers over the streets below. It looks like a government building, with its army watchtower.

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The establishment of a settlement in Hebron means the demise of anything immediately near it, like gangrene spreading to surrounding cells. Rooms are deserted, windows boarded up. In addition to the permanent edifices, makeshift barriers of coiled barbed wire and bits of detritus stud entrances to streets leading to settlements. And then there is the gold market, entirely shut down by military order in 2000. Shop owners were not given any warning before the closure and had to leave behind their wares, which were subsequently looted. Since the street is directly under a watchtower Sami suggested that the only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that it happened under the army’s eyes and was certainly not carried out by Palestinians.

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I just know that some wit possibly called Samer will comment on the posterior on the right, so I’ll do it first. There is a bottom.

The occupation goes full throttle on Shohoda Street. This is accessed via a security checkpoint overlooked by a watchtower. The shops on this street are all empty; it is a ghost town. Palestinians are allowed to walk for about 800 metres on this street before they must turn right off it or risk arrest or worse, because this is where the settlement starts. Once, in another part of the town with a similar restrictive policy, a 6-year-old Palestinian boy carrying a box was shot dead for failing to stop when a soldier shouted at him to do so. The problem was that he was deaf.

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The Gold Market

At the end of Shohoda Street, underneath the Ibrahimi Mosque which sits on an elevation above it there is a Jewish guest shop (also a settlement) that sells religious trinkets whose WiFI Sami told us was once “kill the Arabs”. They’ve changed that now and the authorities have also allowed a couple of Palestinian-run souvenir shops to open opposite it, Sami says because a deserted tourist site gave tourists the wrong impression. Beyond the shops there is a small, well-cared for green with picnic benches and leafy trees under which a large group of soldiers reclined. Rob Stothard photographed a soldier praying at a picnic bench, the soldier gave him dirty looks. Jewish tourists, the women all with their heads covered staggered through the merciless heat towards the synagogue. One middle aged woman waved at the soldiers under the tree, uttered some words in Hebrew enthusiastically. The soldiers waved back languidly.

There is nothing else on this street now, just the settlers, the eerie shuttered shops and a few Palestinian families who have held out and refused to leave despite the fact that they are forced to access their homes using ladders. The place is reminiscent of a disused film set in its silence and stillness, an effect compounded by the stories settlers have spun in the from of posters describing Hebron’s distinctive Jewish character and history (to the exclusion of anything else). There is the usual shrillness about it all, the repeated mentioning of the Arabs and their terror and the turning inside out of the truth that is so characteristic of (and infuriating about) hasbara. Here’s an example of that.

The lies and propaganda are a part of the occupation’s architecture as much as the concrete and barbed wire, since not everyone can be contained in a tiny bit of land and physically controlled.

Leave the West Bank and enter Israel and there are no more army watchtowers, no more checkpoints, no more walls. You are surrounded by well laid out motorways and tasteful homes on top of spectacular rolling hills. In Haifa the sea laps at the shore while people enjoy drinks in pavement cafes overlooked by the spectacular Bahai Gardens. Here, on first impression, the occupation ceases to exist and Gaza is on another planet. This oasis of pleasantness, where women can wear what they want and people can love who they want and live in nice homes and have access to good healthcare and beautiful beaches. But all of this is built on names wiped off the map, on memories of villages destroyed and people killed and who are still being killed, on families swept around the globe like leaves on the wind, who are forced to put on the coat of another nationality but will never be entirely comfortable in it, who if they don’t acquire another nationality live a precarious existence spent between airport detention rooms and police stations and refugee camps while a stranger enjoys a breeze on the seafront of Haifa without giving it a second thought.

Occupation fills space and time beyond walls and borders, beyond the farmer waiting for the military gate to open, beyond the worker who spends hours at the Qalandia checkpoint, beyond the schoolboy in Hebron arrested because he has dirty hands and therefore might have been throwing stones. To swallow Israeli propaganda about the endless terror and the homemade rockets justifying a bottomless pit of hell is to allow the occupation’s brutality to endure. To fail to challenge the Israeli state’s narrative while three hours away from you people live under military law and are humiliated, detained and worse is to allow the’s occupation’s brutality to endure.

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Lego state

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I am lucky enough to have been invited to the 2015 Palestinian Festival of Literature. Here is a despatch from day one.

Israel happens so suddenly.

There we were one moment on the coach in Amman. Our tour guide, Ruby, started talking about crossing the border into the West Bank at exactly the same moment as the coach suddenly started reversing, a possibly inauspicious sign. Then we sped through Amman and its pleasant emptiness into the Jordanian countryside as Ruby gave us an introduction to the country that lasted about 5 minutes.  “Jordan is the ‘safety bulb’ of the region”, she declared. It is the only Arab country that has peace with Israel other than Egypt.

“When people visit Jordan for 8 long days what do they do?” she asked cryptically. Ahdaf Soueif, equally cryptically, described us as “moving down vertically” from Amman to the King Hussein Bridge and then immediately abandoned all descriptions of geography.

Ruby pointed at distant inconsequential green things and mentioned that they were the site of amazing biblical happenings, happenings of huge moment that would produce new physical realities all these thousands of years later; the River Jordan, pumped dry, and the bridge above it, reluctantly patching together the two entities on either side, a conduit for all that sadness of terminated returns, and about turns.

Over we went and joined a queue of coaches. We stopped alongside a watchtower covered in the cobweb of camouflage netting. Two armed soldiers – who looked about 19 – stood having a laugh, elbows resting on the railing.

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And then, suddenly, virtually all the Arabic disappeared, replaced by Hebrew and its spikiness. We got off the coach and fought our way into the scrummage.

So chaotic, so hot, so hellish, so reliant on pushing and angled elbows shoved in obstructive ribs was this checkpoint that Sinan Antoun and I both wondered out loud at the same moment: had we got things wrong, is in fact this checkpoint under Palestinian control? Did not the Zionist state after all make the desert bloom? And is it not an island of calm and order in the sea of barbarian anarchy that surrounds it? What then is this almighty hell.

This is how it works: first you dispense with your luggage at a counter via a functionary who will barely look at you and who processes your bag and sends it on its way on the belt into the arrivals hall directly behind him.

Next you queue up again, alongside: Chinese Christian pilgrims. A solitary nun in her holy starched white. Huge tourist groups from Malaysia wearing matching blue bags. Palestinians carrying their blue travel documents. In what seemed to be a concession to our discomfort the authorities have thoughtfully erected a large roaring industrial fan that belches out air and water droplets but which also blows cigarette smoke in everyone’s faces as well as raising noise levels . When you eventually reach the counter you are met by a young woman or man who smiles in your face and asks you how you are and then reads the name in your passport and says, “Sarah?” or whatever your name might be. If you were born somewhere unsavoury she or he will ask you about that. And she or he will put a green sticker on the back of your passport with 1-4 written in English and four characters in Hebrew. Like this:

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Next you go into the actual border crossing building and must queue up again. Here you compare stickers and try and guess why some of you have numbers circled on it and others don’t. “Danger squiggles” Rob Stothard called them. He was born in Bahrain and the sticker official had commented on this. Ismail Richard Hamilton had the same. Born in Saudi Arabia. The x-ray machines meanwhile were manned by yet more pubescents, one of them in a t-shirt emblazoned with HOLLYWOOD. Here there was another mad scramble for the trays in which bags are placed on the x-ray belt.

Having gone through this stage you are at the final hurdle and enter a large hall where you see yet more ginormous queues and your heart drops. Two irascible women manned the counters where we queued up, variously talking to each other in Hebrew and barking at travellers in heavily-accented Arabic. At one point a verbal altercation broke out amongst passengers and one of the woman stood up and clicked her fingers and made some vague sounds of approbation reminiscent of a teacher dealing with difficult children.

At this counter the real questions begin. I got:

- what is your mother’s name

- what is your father’s name

- what is your father’s father’s name (twice)

- where do you live

- what is your job

- how long did you stay in Lebanon

- why did you go to Lebanon (twice)

Having established that my father’s name is Richard and his father’s name was Edmund the counter lady then made a phone call, maybe to the dangerous Christian names hotline, and then handed me a badly printed out form. she instructed me to piss off and fill it out. “Somebody will come and get you”, she said. Of note here is that they did not ask me whether I have any other nationality which surely would have been the fast track route to establish my potential persona non grata credentials rather than climbing up and down my family tree.

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Lucky git and also priest Giles Fraser meanwhile sped through by virtue of busting out some basic conversational Hebrew and hung around outside eating falafels while we endured inside.

I joined the other Palfest participants lingering in this purgatory. Here the routine is that you fill out the crappy form while waiting for someone to call your name. And then you are asked more questions about your basic information – usually ones you have only just been asked – and so the effect is like when you sign up for a website and fill out all the boxes and then the net crashes and you have to fill it all out again. Like a sort of human Zionist Amazon My Account page. Then you are asked to sit down, and a little while later someone else calls your name again and (if you’re lucky) hands you your passport and off you go. By the time I joined the others people were trickling out one by one and these jokesters were already going on about people being voted off the island.

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My name was called after an interminable amount of time by a short woman/girl who truly looked about 18. With each layer of interrogation the official gets younger seems to be the rule. If they keep you are overnight for questioning you are probably cross-examined by a toddler. Anyway this young woman took me aside and asked me the same questions about my father’s father’s name (still Edmund) but this time she mixed it up with what is your mother’s father’s name which unfortunately for me is Aref Ibrahim and which no matter how Croydon you try to pronounce it is inescapably Arab. Having established that my mother was born in Cairo she then pursued a line of questioning that revolved around trying to establish that I am from Hamas.

- do you ever go to Gaza

- do you ever go to Rafah

- do you have family in Gaza

- etc

I decided to cut to the chase and informed her that I am not of Palestinian origins if that’s what she’s getting at prompting her to respond with: “Yeah OK but you know borders change a lot round here ha ha ha”. I was so gobsmacked I could not reply, but she had finished with anyway so I trundled off and sat back down. Sinan meanwhile when they discovered he was of Iraqi origins was asked “and how are things in Iraq?” The only conclusion to be drawn from all this is that they are taking the piss.

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Our time waiting was brightened up considerably by two revelations by Daniel Hilton:

1. he once lost his passport in Belize, and the temporary passport he got to replace it could not accommodate all his names so they just shortened one of his middle names and dispensed with his actual surname and now all his official documents list his surname as WILLI.

2. his hair is so very long in his very old passport photo that when he went to Syria the gentleman at passport control said to him, “but this is not you. This is a woman”. Behold:

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Nearly six hours after we reached the checkpoint a uniformed soldier called my name and this exchange took place:

Soldier: How are you?

Me: Fine

Soldier: Are you well?

Me: Yes

Soldier: I have some bad news and some good news.

Pause

Me: Oh

Pause

Soldier: You want the bad news or the good news first?

Me: ha ha the bad news

Soldier: [as he handed me my passport with the paperwork indicating I had been allowed entry] enjoy

Me: thank you [tosser]

Was this some supremely arch, dark commentary on Israeli society? Or was it just a dickhead toying with someone he knows is powerless.

I cannot begin to imagine how it must feel to be Palestinian to have to endure that kind of treatment, that humiliation, at the hands of an occupier in order to enter your own country. One of the Palfest participants whose father is a 1948 refugee said that he was able to visit Palestine in 1997 and that she has never seen the kind of pain etched on his face as she saw in pictures of him there. He felt that Palestine belonged to the Israelis by then, that they put down roots too deep to dig up.

And they’re still putting down those roots. When you leave the crossing two of the first things you really notice are illegal settlements sitting on top of the hills of the West Bank like mushrooms in a field at varying stages of maturity and the separation wall which separates not Israel from the occupied West Bank but the occupied West Bank from the occupied West Bank. There is a brutal absurdity to it all, these Wizard of Oz type settlements (some are the size, and have the permanence of a small town) gleaming in the distance, the Bedouins and their animals living in squalor below, the kaleidoscope of the number plates and the roads they will and will not allow you to travel down according to what colour it is and all of this glued together by the military, present everywhere you look.

There is a piece of graffiti near our hotel that I really like and which says: dawlat el lego, lego state.

Nothing built is immutable, everything can be taken apart.

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Past it

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Which one are you??

I went to the Agricultural Museum in Dokki this week. it was my first visit despite the fact that it is approximately 4 minutes from my house. in fact the only time I have been inside its premises was in 2011 when i voted in a democratic referendum hahahahahahah was it all a dream.

The museum has attained something of a cult status because it is quirky and trapped in time.

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This was not sideways before I uploaded it. Treacherous technology

My friend Amira, her 3 year son and I were given the customary bureaucratic welcome upon arriving: a functionary informed us that we were at the wrong door, despite having just been instructed to go to that very door by the people at the other door. DOOR DOOR DOOR. We persisted and were let in after paying only LE3 each other than the kid. A blonde tourist in front of us, her face flushed by the heat and Egyptian officialdom was arguing with a man, apparently about her camera. She was telling the man that what he was saying is rubbish or something along those lines prompting him to spin around sniffily and leave a young man, a visitor, to attempt to placate her.

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More treachery

Having battled our way in we found ourselves in a wide expanse of empty green space surrounded by the various buildings that collectively form the museum complex. We went into one that had life-size models of people (or “natives” as the museum refers to them) in various parts of Egypt doing ye olde everyday things: a bride being carried on a camel in a marriage procession, mahomedans in flowing robes in a market scene selling their wares or doing fortune telling. I expected Ralph Fiennes to appear at any moment and mumble something in terrible Arabic at them. A real life caretaker type person (also in a flowing robe) came over and switched an exhibit’s lights on whenever anyone came near it and turned it off when they left.

There were some gorgeous black and white portraits in the middle of all this (of natives, naturally). Upstairs were rows and rows of dead insects and animals, an exhibit devoted to eggs and another to mammal skeletons including a massive one of a whale. Many of the captions were handwritten, and the printed ones had that distinctive clipped style of the 1930s; I imagine that a British gentleman with a thin moustache, possibly nicknamed Pip, penned them one afternoon before he popped out for a jolly good game of croquet at the Gezira Sporting Club with Sir Harold No-Chin and Admiral Reginald Farquahar-Fruity Voice.

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My new wrestler name

A different museum attempted to tell us all about varieties of cotton in an impressive two level building with a massive staircase and Nasserist-era decor. In fact the building dominated the actual exhibits, of which we able to see very little because we were turfed out by a woman who smilingly informed me that this exhibit is closed to the public even though the door was wide open and we were greeted by a man seated at its entrance when we walked in.

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Should be on billboards in all of Cairo’s streets

Amira likes anything old and was positively swooning over the exhibit devoted to wheat production in Egypt, which featured intricate miniature models of wheat factories and a glass case housing all the varieties of bread, seemingly in all the world. Everything was dusty and neglected and some of it falling apart. Some wings stuffed with stuff were shut and off limits for no discernible reason while one ginormous high-ceilinged room was open and entirely empty of anything except a thick layer of dust. There was no pattern to anything other than the overarching theme of busy neglect and moribundity common to most Egyptian presentation of its history (although here the history is being presented by foreigners for foreigners).

But there is so much potential there, which could be salvaged if someone with a bit of vision and a light touch was let through the red tape; the garden alone is an oasis. However it is perhaps better forgotten about, given that it risks being given the Ramsis train station treatment if officials remember it and decide to spruce it up. There are quite enough inverted gold pyramids in Egypt thank you very much.

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I left thinking about Egypt’s very recent past, and how that will be remembered and presented, if it ever is. Once upon a time there was vague talk about using the former headquarters of the National Democratic Party to house a museum about the revolution. If it ever existed that idea has been shelved, alongside the revolution.

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Soad and Bardees

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I have previously bored you several times with my musings on this blog about sexuality and notions of respectability, and now i am going to do it again.

One of the Egyptian media’s favourite topics is female licentiousness presented in the form of moral outrage, because it allows readers to consume material of a sexual nature under the veil of condemnation.

Persecution of minorities presented as sexual deviants has also proved to be a useful political tool for regimes with no real sense of who they are or what they stand for. It allows them to both define themselves in terms of what they’re not (rather than what they are) and claim the moral high ground against a bespoke threat from perverts and degenerates. Usually this is a threat that exists only in their heads, and on newspaper front pages and it proves useful when trying to deflect attention from incidents of torture and rape committed by the police against members of the public.

In the tumult of recent years the Egyptian media has, even more than it did during the Mubarak years, appointed itself a moral guardian whose job is to hold the general public – rather than those in power – to account. This is not restricted to the state media; private channels have also espoused this philosophy, most shrilly during the hysteria following June 30 2013 when – having been brought to the precipice of the abyss of Brotherhood rule but rescued at the last moment – Egyptian society decided it was all hands on deck against the Islamist threat.

Media outlets that criticised the army, or the police, or flagged human rights abuses confirmed the nagging suspicion harboured by some members of the general public that the media is indeed a fifth column and part of the grand, evil plot against Egypt. Television presenters openly – and proudly – declared that it is the media’s role to support the government in its fight against terror; Egypt had given democracy a spin and look where it took us. Good governance through accountability be damned.

This paternalism is not restricted to the media. Members of Egypt’s artistic community have also taken upon themselves the job of protecting Egypt from the array of ills threatening it, in the process trampling all over what the point of art actually is, or rather assigning to it a purpose that it doesn’t have. The result is a clarion call for the ugly thing that is el fan el mowagah – “guided art” – or art with a message. In practice this translates into long phone-ins on chat shows where irate pompous personages from the world of cinema and television lament Egyptian society’s moral dissolution and the expression of this disintegration via the bouncing tits and gyrating bottoms threatening to burst through our screens and destroy public morals. As a society filmmakers and artists should be more concerned with the body politic than the body, is the message. Egypt after all is at war; with Islamists. With Shi’ites. With homosexuals. With Atheists.

As usual, in the majority of cases moral condemnation is usually directed at expressions of female sexuality (the exception is where the subject matter pertains to homosexuality). This condemnation rests on two central untruths:

1. As god-fearing upstanding citizens, Egyptian men do not consume sex in any form outside of the bedroom with their spouse(s).

2. Women are sexual objects who do no and should not enjoy sex and do not have agency over their involvement in any aspect of it.

The reality is something else entirely of course. Like every normal community of human beings Egyptian society is dripping with sex despite its conservatism; film producer Ahmed Sobky has not made his millions through films about knitting. Tamer Hosny did not become a pop superstar because of his voice; there is a market for hirsute men singing about endless devotion. One hit wonder Ruby’s song “laih bydary keda” went viral because men are not opposed to gawping at a crisp 20 year old riding an exercise bike. Like young people everywhere teenagers – male and female, veiled and unveiled – prowl the streets of Cairo in spray-on denim and clothes so tight that if it is true that god resides in the hearts of the god-fearing we’d be able to see his outline through their jumpers.

The problem of the untruths remains, however. The solution lies in blame. If the purpose of art and culture is to edify and educate and protect morals then any infringement of that is a crime against society, and this includes women who are overtly sexual in the public realm without permission (we’ll go back to permission later). Consumers of this “filth” are thus victims rather than villains.

The separate interviews of two women on television this week aptly illustrates all this. In the first Bardees, a woman who describes herself as a belly dancer, appeared on Tony Khalifa’s “Secrets from Under the Bridge” show. Khalifa has built a career on sensationalism and this episode was no exception. Bardees has made a cover version of “ya wad ya te2eel”, a song penned by legendary poet Salah Jaheen and sung by darling of Egyptian cinema Soad Hosny in the 1970s.

The video is a garish nightmare; Bardees is not a singer (as she herself acknowledges in the Khalifa interview) and attempts to make up for that with turbo-charged dala3 (in this context the closest translation is coquettishness) and sexually suggestive movements involving telephones and mops.

Bardees in her interview gives an impassioned defence of her oeuvre against intense bullying by: Khalifa, an art critic, Soad Hosny’s sister, composer Kamal el Taweel’s son and Salah Jaheen’s son. Khalifa’s problem with her clip is that it is a cover of a song written and performed by two revered cultural institutions. The art critic condemns the fact that every instant of the video clip is sexually provocative. He has faith however hat the general public that will reject such offerings and that Bardees will enjoy her 15 seconds of fame and then disappear like so many before her. Both men argued that Soad Hosny’s brand of dala3 was a different (more respectable) animal than Bardees’. Salah Jaheen’s son declared that the song has no connection with art and that it is sex presented in the basest of ways. He informed Bardees directly that she has “committed a crime”.

There was a strange – and telling – moment in the interview when Khalifa tried to force Bardees to reveal which Egyptian governorate she is from. Bardees deflected the question coquettishly with much hair flicking and batting of eyelids but Khalifa persisted in the manner of a police officer conducting an interrogation. After Bardees refused to reveal her origins Khalifa suggested that this is because either she is ashamed of her hometown or it is ashamed of her. “I’m asking so that anyone who wants to demand your hand in marriage knows where to go”, he said. But the truth is that he is asking because a woman’s honour is like jelly, and requires an exterior mould (of sanction and approval) for it to remain upright and intact; in pressing her on where she is from Khalifa is obliquely suggesting that she lacks this, that her family and familiars have spurned her. In short that she is a whore. I tried to imagine a similar line of interrogation directed at a male guest and failed.

None of this is to suggest that Bardees’ offering has any artistic merit: it doesn’t. She cannot sing and dances badly. The video is crude and ugly and painful to watch. Household items are abused in it. But this is a song, an act, a pretence. It offers a world of fantasy just as Soad Hosny and her band of belly-dancers in the original version of ya wad ya te2eel did, albeit in a more tasteful fashion. It should not be used as a yardstick to measure Bardees’ moral value, or to beat her with.

Ultimately Soad Hosny’s little girl act is selling the same thing as Bardees: dala3/sex. I wonder if a contemporary female artist made a video in which she twirled around her bedroom in an above the knee skirt and threw herself on the bed and then danced with half naked belly-dancers what the reaction would be. There is a strange disjoint between the past and the present that allows the same people who vocally condemn overt displays of female sexuality today to fondly remember the golden age of Egyptian art when you could not move for legs and boobs and wobbling waists. It again goes back to this idea of a women’s honour being defined by others and thus, by extension, for her being given permission to demonstrate her sexuality. Soad Hosny had this permission, Bardees does not. But that does not stop broadcasters like Khalifa from titillating viewers with her video; he just has to package it in an interview in which he bullies and humiliates her so his viewers can watch with a clear conscience.

I enjoyed watching this interview with Mona Hala, a Youtube comedian who was big a couple of years ago and who is currently pursuing an acting career in the United States because she rejects all this nonsense.

Mona seems to have been invited onto chat show el bayt baytak for no other reason than she posted pictures of herself in a bikini with her boyfriend on Facebook. The pictures were shown on the show and they are remarkably anodyne. Think about that for a second: a woman invited onto a prime time television show for an almost 30 minutes segment because of some holiday snaps, and then – again – interrogated by the presenters about her choices.

There is a glorious moment when Mona mentions her “friend”, using a term that could mean a platonic acquaintance but is often used to refer to an amorous relationship. The presenter asks her to clarify and Mona confirms yes, her boyfriend, without missing a beat. There is a hugely (9-month) pregnant (possible out of wedlock) pause before the presenter says ok, and laughs the laugh of the quietly morally astonished and outraged.

The other presenter then – NEWSFLASH – informs her that Egypt is a (conservative) eastern society [and that she is thus breaking numerous rules of probity]. Mona responds by telling him that she is no longer living in that society and that just as she does not judge others morally, she would like not to be judged.

Using the Khalifa method, the female presenter then questions her about her family’s reaction to the pictures, noting that Mona’s sister wears the neqab, the implication being surely their reaction was to condemn her to hellfire [because she is a dissolute woman]. After being pressed, Mona says that her sister’s reaction was to say “may god guide you [to the right path]”. The presenter pounces: “so your sister thinks that you are not guided [by god] then” she says, lingeringly. Later, she asks why Mona has not thought about marrying her boyfriend, to which Mona replies that she is.

“The problem is that eastern society has a problem with any woman who lives her life freely,” Mona correctly says, after being subjected to yet another condescending lecture by one of the presenters. Would a male actor be invited onto a television programme because he posted pictures with his girlfriend on the beach? Would he be interrogated about his family’s reaction to these photographs? Would he be subjected to a sanctimonious lecture about eastern society and its morals? Would roughly 5 minutes of a 25 minute interview be devoted to what that actor is actually doing, his projects and future plans after a tedious inquisition? These are all rhetorical questions.

So good for Mona for not buckling to these patronising dullards, imprisoned by societal norms and their lack of imagination. And while Bardees’ brand of entertainment is not my cup of tea, and leaving a discussion of artistic quality aside, she, in her own way, is fighting a battle similar to Mona’s – with the caveat that I wonder what degree of autonomy in her choices the entertainment industry allows her – but that’s a separate discussion. If her sexuality is crudely expressed that says more about the debasement of cultural output in modern Egypt than it does about Bardees. Without wishing to present her as a feminist trailblazer the fact remains that she is asserting her sexuality and refusing to be shamed for it as society chastises her – without being able to drag their eyes away.

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A walk through Tamer Hosny

 

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Tamer – back in the days when he did not possess the funds to deforest between his eyebrows – alongside his old mucker Shereen.

As part of my interest in pop culture I have a minor obsession with Tamer Hosny, Egypt’s answer to the Kiwi fruit, all small and hairy.

I have watched his films and videos and was even thinking about him while Egypt fought its noble battle against dictatorship in that unsavoury 2011 business. During that business Tamer was ejected from Tahrir Square after prevailing on protesters to go home. We saw him in a video crying. But he and all the other true patriots came out triumphant and Tamer fought back by duetting with “stars” such as Shaggy, Akon, Pitbull and Snoop Doggy Dogg for some conferred coolness, like a man desperately wafting another man’s newly sprayed parfum pour homme onto his face. His Wikipedia page tells us that, “by this international Collaborations Tamer Hosny will be the 1st singer in Middle East to have all this collaborations with International singers”. We can only hope he used birth control.

Recently, Tamer has only collaborated with himself, and in March released a touching video called 180° which I will study here via the medium of the screenshot and also unemployment.

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1. Tamer comes off stage and discovers that My Love has called.

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1a. In fact she has called a total of 39 times. Compare with Yasser who similarly to My Love does not seem to be cognisant of the fact that one missed call is sufficient to alert an individual that a caller has attempted communication with said individual. He is however at least not a complete lunatic and has only called 3 times.

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2. Tamer chooses to call My Love back while speeding towards a red light.

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2a. …and is startled by the existence of traffic.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 18.40.182b. We are subjected to Tamer’s crotch and his ill fitting leather trousers.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.36.552c. Interestingly, Tamer is able to cling on to his mobile phone despite just having been knocked off his motorcyle by a range rover while both were travelling at high speed. This is only right, since My Love did put in the effort of missed calling him 39 times.

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3. The inevitable shot. Is the “not admitted” at the top a reference to Tamer or what exactly. Apparently Tamer has had 14 events. Whether or not they involved a washed up American performer is not stated.

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3a. The budget did not allow the video makers to hire an actor doctor with a normal sized mouth because…

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.38.543b….the entire mouth budget was spent on My Love.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.37.573c. My Love is confronted by her new reality; Tamer is comatose and his hair is a mess. We understand this because he has the standard Egyptian symbol of infirmity, the head injury sweatband, and also his eyes are closed and his hair is a mess.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 17.37.083d. In case any dull minded viewers haven’t understood the events of the previous scene the director considerately spells it out for them.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.10.524. Tamer receives a double blow: 1. Never again will he receive almost 40 missed calls from My Love. 2 His mobile phone is still working and he is not.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.15.494a. A lingering shot on a blue-collar worker can only mean one thing: romance.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.21.014b. Well that moved fast.

 

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.25.055. It is not for you to say whether your family is lovely or not you cunt.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.17.195a. Even while bedridden Tamer does not neglect his makeup.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 17.39.565b. Left to his own devices Tamer contemplates his Wall of Me.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.30.525c. Future My Love inspects Tamer’s Wall of Me.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.17.595d. Future My Love realises she’s saddled herself with a right wanker.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.33.185e. Exhibit no. 1

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.34.325f. “Tosser”

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.19.136. The phone rings; it’s Mahmoud. Tamer doesn’t answer it because Mahmoud has not fulfilled the mandatory number of missed calls. In Mahmoud’s case this is six.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.38.066a. Tamer goes into a reverie; a flashback about his superstar days when he was photographed by paparazzi with not very good cameras…

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6b….in Carson City?

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.21.077. There is an unidentified woman hanging about in Tamer’s house helping Future My Love with menial tasks.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.21.417a. Ignoring the first rule of caring for the paralysed which is not to strip them of agency Future My Love attempts to spoon feed Tamer who tells her she can shove it with his eyes.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.46.577b. But then oh alright hahahhahhhaa go on then stuff it in me gob luv.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.22.388. Future My Love takes Tamer out for a walk. Tamer is wearing his Tudor sports collar and sports cardigan because he correctly anticipated that he would be in the vicinity of youths playing basketball.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 19.50.268a. Expert at balls.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.23.208b. The youths feel sorry for Tamer and let him play and score baskets.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.23.488c. Future My Love and Tamer share an embrace after he is allowed to score a basket. A single strand of hair comes loose so frazzled is he by their electric touch. It’s been an action-packed day.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.24.368d. Back at the homestead Tamer is celebrating his birthday with his friends. Only bearded men with V-necks and women with long dark hair are allowed into Tamer’s house. The friends celebrate with a traditional ritual of faeces throwing at the birthday boy.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.25.138e. Future My Love embarrasses Tamer while Andrea Pirlo standing in the background pretends not to notice. Notice that Tamer has got Future My Love wearing turtle necks for he has recruited her to his turtle neck cult.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.25.318f. Oh no. There is a wistful look in Tamer’s eyes and also he has on a sombre turtle neck which can only mean his mind is drifting.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 20.00.138g. Here we are inside Tamer’s head. He is remembering.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.26.308h. What the fuck is Pinstagram. BOMBSHELL. My Love has taken up with a fittie who wears the absolute opposite of turtle necks. Her forehead has doubled in size also.

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8i. Close up on Tamer’s chest accompanied by some disturbing acapella panting.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 20.09.218j. RIGHTEOUS FURY

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.26.578k. RAGE

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 20.12.048l. Future My Love comes rushing in, Tamer is having none of it. He needs to be alone.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 20.13.428m. Future My Love has a flashback about all the sacrifices she has made for Tamer including the wearing of turtle necks and realises what a dick move that was and that she should have scarpered when she saw his Wall of Me. She correctly buggers off.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 20.15.468n. But only momentarily because women aren’t allowed to have sense in music videos.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.29.168o. The couple embrace.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.31.148p. ALLAHO AKBAR. Tamer regains movement in his crippled hand through the love of a good woman.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.31.558q. Tamer plays air guitar to double check.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.32.048r. Future My Love, a trained medical professional brings Tamer his guitar in order to correctly assess the extent of his regained movement. This is a standard procedure used by doctors and usually involves a guitar or bongos.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.32.168s. Mojo.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 17.32.388t. Tamer is cured. Which is good because I was about to run out of letters.

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An Interior Ministry runs through it

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Note: this is a patriotic felucca not the Nile Taxi.

I used the Nile Taxi service for the first time yesterday. Boarding the boat involved two fights and the near arrest of one of the crew.

The Nile Taxi is a boat that ferries people up and down the Nile so that they can avoid Cairo’s congestion. For those that have never visited Cairo (and may never do so) Cairo excels at traffic problems and when I say congestion I mean Elvis Presley’s arteries in his white jumpsuit days. The Nile Taxi is thus a very good idea, allowing people to zip up and down the river between Shoubra and Maadi on a speedboat type craft and not expire in their cars.

It would be an even better idea if it operated in another country lucky enough to have the Nile run through it. Or on Mars, or basically anywhere to which the Egyptian Interior Ministry does not have access.

I rang up to book two spots for me and my mate Linda to go to Maadi. A polite voice told me to proceed to a certain eating establishment on the Dokki corniche where the boat would meet us. Off we went to said establishment where a man in a moustache and tie standing at its door denied us passage on the grounds that this is a restaurant not a port and they have argued several times with Nile Taxi about this and kindly bugger off.

We trundled up river to the nearest access point to the water (the entire length of the Nile within Cairo is fenced off so that poor people can’t gain access to it enjoy it) where a man at a boat rental place informed us that the Nile Taxi comes nowhere near here. I got on the blower again with Nile Taxi and the polite voice told me return to the eating establishment. At this point the idea of hopping to Maadi on my tongue was seeming like the better option but Linda remained quite zen while eating nuts so I battled on.

At the eating establishment I asked moustache and tie whether he would speak to polite voice. “Yeah i’ll talk to them why not” he said with his eyebrows raised and his chest puffed out.

There then followed the usual type of conversation that men have during these types of imaginary battles that mostly focus on form rather than content. Lots of “I am talking to you politely” and “ok I’m shutting up now so you can talk” with that bullish, big swinging dick tone that ensured that his ancient forefathers got all the best cave real estate. And then the call ended abruptly and polite voice – by this time sounding a bit frayed – instructed us to wait opposite the police hospital in Agouza. Off we went and – as was inevitable as the sun rising or Habib el Adly being released from prison – a rozzer soon appeared.

We were standing on the other side of a busy four (sometimes six depending on drivers’ moods) lane road from the hospital, which is surrounded by blast barricades. There we were, two foreign looking women in fashion stretch leggings and large sunglasses one of whom was shoving nuts in her mouth (stop it). The Interior Ministry never sleeps, and is always on alert against potential acts of sabotage by state enemies (except apparently when real genuine state enemies want to carry out an act of sabotage, of which there are many).

So this rozzer (a minion in the riot police) was despatched to have a word shortly after I had been pointing at the hospital and moaning to Linda how the police hospital is all swanky and handsome while general public hospitals are decrepit pots of shit. Perhaps they can lip read.

Fortunately, the Nile Taxi appeared at the same time as the minion. I made him look at the taxi and attempted to communicate to him nicely the fact that we would be boarding said vehicle in less than 30 seconds if only he would fuck off. Out of nowhere (the popo have an almost vampyric ability to swoop in on you out of nowhere) three more men appeared, this time plain clothed. One of them had a small moustache, a large belly and a leather jacket a combo which indicated authority, and he did all the talking.

A young man got off the Nile Taxi and instructed us to leap over a low wall onto some steps below like the agile mountain goats that we are. Linda bless her stood on the wall and stared at the steps giving her backside to the cops in what I hope was a deliberate move before declaring the impossibility of this great leap, and decided instead to slide down on her arse. All the while the young man was busy in conversation with leather jacket who demanded to know the meaning of this Egyptian boat freely using the Nile and this Egyptian man clambering on its Egyptian bank.

The tone got ever more irate and then the inevitable words were spoken to the young man, “come with us please”. He however proved an expert at stalling and had pulled out his mobile phone and mentioned what was presumably the name of some big cheese somewhere. He then instructed Linda and me to get on the boat, which we did, while he continued negotiations for his freedom with Starskey and Hutch, almost imperceptibly moving a yard further away from them every three seconds or so. Maybe the sight of a load of women and a man with a briefcase in the boat had persuaded leather jacket and his bozo friends that we were not the Muslim Brotherhood. Or perhaps they just couldn’t be bothered to climb over the wall. In any case off we jetted while leather jacket scowled at us, his face becoming lost in the boat’s wake as we were pleasantly buffeted by the wind.

As we sped along past the river’s verdant banks I wondered how it is any small business in Egypt survives when it has to deal with Interior Ministry dimwits. And I thought about the Egypt the Future investment conference and how wonderful it is that they attracted all that investment and everything but at the end of the day if a person can’t stand unaccosted on a pavement for 40 seconds then what’s the point.

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Progress

There is no doubt some bloke sitting in some distant corner of Egyptian bureaucracy who genuinely believes that building a new capital city is the answer to Egypt’s problems. He’s probably the same genius who suggested building walls in downtown Cairo to make protesters go away and traffic congestion be damned. The same visionary who proposed that the best way to deal with a sit-in is to physically wipe it off the face of the earth; tents, humans beings and all.

Making intangible problems physical is an attractive proposition to dullards.

Rather than address Cairo’s dazzling array of economic and social disasters, close your eyes, pick a spot on the map and start again. Build a city in five years or less. Delight the populace with this announcement in the manner of a man surprising his girlfriend with a marriage proposal in a car gently rolling off a cliff. Don’t ruin their joy with nonsense such as prior consultation or asking them for their opinion. Build your city, because the answer to the housing shortage and the water crisis is to construct a giant gated community in the desert, just as the correct way to deal with the individuals in Rab3a Square who opposed Morsy’s removal was to physically eliminate them, to make them disappear. The alternative would have required discussion, negotiation, ideas, thought.

Reduce the problem to residents’ complaints about noise and disturbance and be home in time for dinner.

Make the focus the protest, rather than the reason for the protest, and criminalise it and those who take part in it. Make this about a 10 metre stretch of pavement and 15 minutes yesterday afternoon rather than your broken promises and the future you destroyed.

Organise a two day conference in a tourist resort and then crow about it for the next month as if the country won a war, when in fact all that happened is that someone successfully organised an event, an uncertain amount of money was pledged, and Abdel Fatah was involved in a selfie. Measure progress through promises. While grave, existential problems should be made solid and pedestrian, keep progress as intangible, as ephemeral as possible; a cure for AIDS in 6 months, a shiny new city in 5 years. Keep them busy grabbing at clouds above their heads.

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Cheesed off

I had a mildly sectarian incident caused by pasta on my flight to England.

I had requested a vegan meal while booking my ticket online and knew even as I ticked the box on the website that the chances of it appearing were 1 in 80 million but there we are.

At check-in the bloke miraculously confirmed that the Egyptair kitchen gods had received my supplication. Mealtime rolled around and I interrupted my viewing of Stephen Hawking’s hanky panky with his nurse to watch as other passengers tucked into their various animal fleshed feeding bags and the aromas filled the cabins. My tray remained forlornly empty.

An air host rolled up with his trolley and enquired what type of animal I would like to consume. I informed him that I had requested an alternative meal so he demanded my boarding pass (to establish that I am not a liar or perhaps a nutter who rides planes to deliberately meddle with their meal lists) which of course I had lost as is customary. By this time I realised that I would probably have to eat the in-flight magazine to survive, like the time on another flight they forgot my meal and I went round begging people’s bread off of them. Anyway the air host buggered off and returned with a tray of grub whose centrepiece was a tray of pasta covered in cheese. By this point my blood sugar had entered the cross me and I will be a cunt zone.

I politely called the air host over and pointed at the cheese and informed him that I had requested a vegetarian meal. I said vegetarian because nobody knows what vegan means. Of course he said but that is vegetarian yaffandam so I had to resort to spiritual intervention.

“Deeh feha gebna wana talabt wagba vegan [this has cheese in it and I asked for a vegan meal]. ya3ni seyamy ["fasting" food. the context here is that Egyptian copts are currently fasting lent] ya3ni men gheyr gebna wala – [without cheese or – ”

“3ala fekra ana esmy andro [by the way my name is andrew i.e. christian],” he retorted, to shut me up. In my low calorie, addled, state I also interpreted this to mean: we are on the same heavenly team.

“ana mesh mese7eyya ana bas b7awel ashra7lak el far2 bayn vegetarian w vegan! [I'm not christian I'm just trying to explain to you the difference between vegan and vegetarian!] I blurted out – like a dickhead – in disgust (at Egyptair, not Jesus) because Egyptair regularly balls up my meal requests and I’d had enough. (I stick with them though because they tailor their luggage allowance to Egyptian passengers’ fluid definition of a kilogram).

Andro’s face shifted ever so slightly and I of course immediately felt like a prize arsehole/Yasser el Burhamy/is there a difference. There was a noticeable cooling the next time we interacted when I requested a cup of water. I cursed Egyptair and cheeses and veganism and everything and just wanted to shout out some of my best friends are christian! And then throw myself out the plane.

In case anyone has read this far: they did eventually furnish me with a meal, some pasta sans cheese which maybe Andro scraped off and replaced with a layer of imprecations.

Note: In Egyptair’s defence my friend Linda was presented with tofu – TOFU!!!!! – on her flight to Cairo from London. I live in hope.

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He promised you a war

eagle and bum

the worst thing you will ever see in your life

At lunch yesterday with members of my family the subject inevitably briefly turned to ISIS. Some of them argued that the group is a foreign (intelligence service) creation, and one of the reasons given was that its members are too well built to be Arabs.

They were referring of course to the video of the beheading of 21 Egyptians by the sea in Libya in which some tall, broad, masked blokes appeared. I try to spend as little time as possible thinking about ISIS but it seems obvious that if you’re a murderous paramilitary group spending an arm and a leg on producing a high quality propaganda video you’re probably going to give your portly 5 ft 6 and under members the day off. Also well built arabs do exist although none of them are on Egyptian Tindr.

Unsurprisingly the beheadings really shook Egypt; there was a palpable sense of sadness and shock. The state immediately swung into action and wheeled Abdel Fatah Sisi out to televise a promise of action. The military jets emerged only hours later as did the media platitudes about our brave leader and his courageous troops. Satellite channel CBC was able to recycle its “Egypt fighting terrorism” onscreen badge while wacko Faraeen temporarily suspended its Suez canal countdown counter for a badge reading “Egypt’s war” superimposed on top of a black band of mourning.

Sisi is of course now the hero who has “embarrassed America” with his swift and decisive action, who has stood up to ISIS where others are vacillating. Sisi himself appeared in a video wearing a fashion jacket and tapered trousers surrounded by troops saying that through this action in Libya the air force is defending “our country, our security and our religion”. He even repeated this sentence twice and made the officers and pilots complete it in a pedagogical fashion. “this is a sacred mission,” he declared. The alternative is “hundreds of thousands of refugees…ruin and destruction”.

I don’t know enough about libya to forcefully contradict that statement (two more informed gentlemen do so here, sensibly suggesting that Egypt should limit involvement in libyan affairs) but it strikes me that if limiting ruin and destruction is a priority then engaging in warfare might not be the best way of avoiding it. And where does it end? Libya is a lawless mess. Will Egypt bomb armed groups into behaving themselves every time they get out of line? And if security is a major motivation behind this bombing action should not the immediate priority be shutting down the routes by which weapons are brought into north Sinai from Libya to equip the insurgency there?

However Egypt’s foreign policy motivations for this action don’t interest me as much as its domestic considerations do. Sisi’s election platform largely consisted of two bullet points:

he will save egypt from the islamist threat
we are the light of his eyes

During the period when Sisi was pretending not to be in charge while Adly Mansour was president the regime dispersed the Rabaa Square sit in killing hundreds of civilians and then launched a massive crackdown on: the Muslim Brotherhood, anyone they suspected of being Muslim Brotherhood, non-muslim Australians they accused of being Muslim Brotherhood and just about anyone who is a nuisance politically. Since Sisi’s coronation in May 2014 Egypt has continued and stepped up its battle against insurgents in North Sinai in the process evicting hundreds of civilians from their homes to create a buffer zone.

Sisi has a brand, and it is brave defender of Egypt against terrorism. Rather like Hosny Mubarak who took over cockpit controls when Sadat was gunned down by his beardy opponents, Sisi is a man who hurriedly packed for this assignment but forgot to put any politics in his suitcase with his casual sports jackets.

In the months he has been in office he hasn’t forged much of a political identity despite passing a slew of legislation, some of it authoritarian and inimical to civil liberties. TIMEP have made this useful thing listing all the presidential decrees passed since June 24 2014. The tone was set with the decree passed on that date: it grants the president the right to appoint university heads and terminate their employment. In November 2013 the protest law effectively killed off most demonstrations, and has been used to imprison hundreds of people.

It was reported today that new legislation makes the hearing of witnesses in court optional and dependent on the volition of the presiding judge. I’m hoping that these reports are wrong but deep down i know that in two years’ time court verdicts will be decided by the flip of a coin both of whose sides are tails.

In just a little under a month ago the news was dominated by the murder of a protester, Shaimaa el Sabbagh, shot dead in downtown Cairo. The conspiracy machine swung into action, as did the public prosecution office, although the two are largely inseparable these days. Zohdy el Shamy a member of the political party Shaimaa belonged to was detained and questioned on suspicion of her murder. He had been standing nearby when she was killed and some individual with altogether too much time on his hands put together a 6 minute video to prove his case that el Shamy shot Shaimaa with a gun he had in his jacket pocket.

Two weeks ago there was more needless tragedy, when some twenty football fans were variously crushed, or choked to death when the police fired teargas (and according to some reports birdshot) at them as they were trapped in the metal structure meant to organise their entrance into the stadium.

And all this happened against a backdrop of weekly protests by supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi during which people were regularly detained, sometimes injured or killed during clashes. And irritating leaks, allegedly from Sisi’s political affairs office continue to find their way to the Internet.

War dominates everything. Domestic affairs have largely been forgotten about since the Libya business started as the media rolls up its sleeves for the war effort, eager to help. It is only enemies of the state or ungrateful pissants who would take to the streets now to clamour for their petty little demands, making a nuisance of themselves and distracting security forces from their noble mission.

This is not to say that sisi is rubbing his hands together in glee. He is presumably aware that Libya is a quagmire and that its intractable problems will not be solved by a couple of military jets. He and his advisors must also be aware that bombings that lead to civilian deaths will increase animosity against Egypt and might even recruit people to the very cause Egypt is trying to extinguish (and meanwhile Egyptian migrant workers are still being kidnapped in Libya). And it is highly doubtful that the flow of illegal arms from Libya into Egypt will stop.

But domestically Sisi has already won. Here finally Sisi and his public have their real war on terrorism requiring no messy killing of civilians in public squares or uprooting of Egyptian civilians from their homes. They have in ISIS a bone fide bad guy with none of that pesky equivocating about so called democratically elected leaders and their supporters. And as Sisi himself said in the video linked to above finally he can defend the (correct version of) the faith against this band of eschatological nutjobs. He promised them a war, and now they have it

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