I have started walking to and from work, for two reasons:
1. It is an effort to counter the physical stagnation induced by continuous sitting at a desk
2. A eunuch’s underpants sees more movement than does Cairo’s traffic between 3 and 9 pm, and walking is therefore faster.
My walk is actually enjoyable, as everyday I gaze at the magnificence of the Nile and also get to see a man in shorts wearing a bum bag (or “fanny pack” as the Americans insist on calling it with no sense of irony) speed-walking his two Labradors.
One soup stain on the tie of today’s walk was the vision of a youth sporting a James Brown type hair helmet who appeared to have borrowed his girlfriend’s hair straightener. Straightened man-hair is deeply disturbing, it upsets the cosmic order of things somehow.
When they are not focused on other people’s barnets my thoughts eventually end up at work, usually about ten minutes before I actually physically arrive at the office. I am happy to report that I have survived the first week, can now get out of bed like a pro and am enjoying it immensely. I often reflect on how different the human rights NGO for which I currently work is from my last place of employ. Before I sentenced myself to a year’s exile in the chav-infested oblivion which is Essex University I worked in another of Cairo’s human rights NGOs. This establishment did, and continues to do, some good work. It is unfortunate however that the values it seeks to disseminate in Egyptian society are apparently not applicable to its own staff.
That this organisation has scant regard for the happiness of its employees was immediately obvious the first time I visited its office, where it looked like someone had spread glue over every available surface area before emptying the contents of a giant vacuum-cleaner bag on top. The toilet was of course a different category altogether, and suffice to say that I became a dab hand using my elbows to turn on taps and open doors. The place was literally black with years of accumulated dirt and neglect, and everything – the paint, the plants, the people – seemed to sag under its weight.
That people actually continued to show up for work I always found amazing and commendable, because the place was run like a cross between a family grocer store and a minor department in, say, the department of agriculture. In practice this meant an entrenched hierarchy, endless and needless bureaucracy, petty backbiting and nepotism.
The regime employed was like this: big kahuna boss guy – who we’ll call el 7ag – sits imperiously at the top of the pyramid and – when he is not attending international conferences – appears on television and is quoted in newspaper articles. While he himself sits outside the metaphorical family shop smoking shisha, he delegates the day-to-day running of the shop to Kirsh, a distant family member who cannot believe that he has been given power over the lives of others, and spends his time devising ways to torture those under him. His obsequiousness towards el 7ag is rivalled only by that of 19th century indentured servants, and is characteristic of individuals who understand that they are where they are thanks to blood, rather than brains.
Kirsh is threatened by those he knows are more able than him – who are many – and responds firstly; by directly fermenting dissent amongst the unfortunate unit under his direct control by pitting members of staff against each other, and, secondly; by doing everything in his power to quash and contain the threat of individual talent. He is helped in this by the organisation’s recruitment policy which, by keeping it in the family, means guaranteed support and a steady stream of the most mediocre of the mediocre and hence nothing which might conquer Castle Kirsh. To illustrate: one of the few talented lawyers there, Umm Nakad, was given the brief to go to Alexandria to interview the family of a man who had died inside a police station. This was in winter. When another supposed lawyer (yet another relative of the grocery shop owner) learnt of the trip she exclaimed, “bass el donya shita ya Umm Nakad! Hatebredy! Esstanny tayyeb we rou7y fel sayf.” [It’s winter and you’ll get cold. Wait and go in summer.]
At the bottom of the pyramid were the office boys, who were expected to work from 8 a.m – infinity. When I first started this was six days a week. These boys were the most maligned, exploited, cheated people I ever met: youths in their prime paid a pittance to empty waste bins and act on Kirsh’s every whim when they should have been in college or out bothering girls or something, anything rather than this. He went through one phase of making one of them go into a grocery store and buy biscuits while he waited outside, after work. Why did he do this when he could buy them perfectly well for himself? Simply because he could.
Only one person was treated worse than the office boys, Ustaaz Damyaat, a journalist/researcher. When I first arrived at the organisation I shared a room with him and Lion. Ustaaz D had a thick Damietta accent, and struggling to understand his interminable stories about his beloved hometown made by then newborn Arabic come on leaps and bounds. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Egyptian history and politics and culture in general, and a thirst for culture which might have been satiated by the internet if only he knew how to operate a mouse. (We agreed that I would give him internet lessons in return for his endlessly providing me with friendlier synonyms for archaic Arabic legal terms. The plan died at birth, when Kirsh came into our office once and summarily ordered Ustaaz D to get off the computer.)
Ustaaz D was extremely poor, and like most of the staff received an appalling wage. At the time I joined he was getting 250 LE a month (to put this in perspective I started on 1500 LE a month) and never ate lunch. Instead he would come in reeking of meat and onions, having consumed some kind of starchy, carbohydrate filled concoction which, together with his cigarettes, would sustain him all day as he sat at his desk writing copious notes on the particular research issue given to him. He was also extremely old-school and proper about the use of titles (despite only being in his early 30s), and still unfailingly refers to me as Ustaaza Amnesiac. Kirsh made a particular point of never referring to him by the formal, polite title of Ustaaz(a) which prefixed all the staff’s names bar the office boys. Instead, whenever he wanted him he would bellow out his name – and expect Ustaaz D to go to him rather than himself coming to his desk. On one occasion Kirsh’s unit required an extra chair, and Kirsh didn’t hesitate to instruct someone in the unit to take Ustaaz Damyaat’s chair, leaving the cripplingly polite Ustaaz D himself to stand at his desk, bewildered and humiliated.
Ustaaz D received this scurrilous treatment from Kirsh not only because both men are weak but because Ustaaz D is a reminder to Kirsh of who he is. Both are from outside Cairo and in different but equal ways condemned by their circumstances, and both feel reduced by this fact. Kirsh knows and has admitted to Umm Nakad that he is living on borrowed time, and that when the grocery shop owner retires his replacement will not retain Kirsh’s services.
The biggest losers in this farce are ultimately human rights themselves. In order to do a good job of advocating for and defending human rights in the depressing and disheartening Egyptian context you need at least a bit of passion, and heaps of dedication. Most importantly you need yourself to feel respected. Combining half of an extended family with one or two gifted individuals (whose talent is eventually snuffed out by the mogamma3 type mentality which will kill or drive away any talent) is the best illustration of how uncivil Egyptian (civil society) can be.
*Paragraph breaks are by special request, for everyone’s favourite advertising mogul, Mr Fawlty.