Brought to book

This weekend was a fabulous whirl of an unprecedented amount of social engagements and intellectual and alcoholic stimulation.

Things started shakily however as, on Friday afternoon, I spotted a middle-aged couple in Zamalek who were not only riding his and hers scooters (as in kids scooters that you propel along with your foot), but were also decked out in this footwear apparel: [clearly I still have not mastered how to put two images side by side]

The intolerable nonsense equation: clog + adult on scooter = wanker

What do these things mean? I’ve heard that they’re gardening clogs, but the utilitarian wipe-clean plastic of which they are crafted always made me think that they were designed for hospital ward cleaners looking for a shoe which could handle bedpan spills. They should most certainly not be paired with scooters. My mother claims that they are super comfortable, but she lost her right to vote in 1988, when she wore Scandinavian wooden clogs with socks to my school’s summer fete.

I washed the taste of clogs out of my mouth with a house-warming party where on arrival I was reprimanded by Forsooth who, staring incredulously at my waist region, admonished me for apparently committing a fashion faux-pas of momentous proportions by tucking my top into my jeans. She claims that this (sensible, surely) dressing policy was embargoed at some point in the nineties – perhaps during the five years I was lying in a darkened room recovering from the public humiliation of my mother’s wooden clogs.

At the party I proceeded to clear the table of the delicious brownies, Cheez Its and various other North American traditional offerings proffered, before repairing to the nearest corner – as is my wont at parties. I enjoyed sparkling conversation for the duration of the evening, and things only went awry when a person so high that he didn’t realise his cigarette was on fire decided to expound on the politics of steel pipe manufacturing.

After five minutes of sleep I dutifully repaired the next morning to Mubarak Public Library for a seminar on ‘Egyptian women married to foreigners’ which promised to explore the sociological and legal facets of this ‘phenomenon.’ Being myself a product of one of these unions, I was hoping to initiate a discussion about the sociological aspects of Egyptian women marrying foreigners because they have nice na3m hair, but alas was confounded by the fact that the seminar focused on Egyptian women forced/duped into marriage.

Heart-rending cases were recounted, of 15 year old girls more or less sold by their fathers to men fifty years their senior who then proceed to abuse what are children before abandoning them, penniless and occasionally with child. On returning to Egypt these girls/women are at times forced/coerced into similar marriages again and again. The purpose of the seminar was to discuss possible legislative responses to the problem which walk the line between freedom of choice and protection of vulnerable girls. In between the thousand ringing mobile phones some good suggestions were vaguely audible, but one comment really struck me. The chairwomen recounted the case of an Egyptian woman who got engaged to an Arab she met at AUC and wanted a clause in the wedding contract giving her the right to divorce. The husband agreed without objection, but when the couple went accompanied by the chairwoman lawyer to the government office to draw up the contract, the civil servant there swore blind that his ‘own parents would divorce three times’ before he would agree to such a clause. The chairwomen informed him that his job was to implement rather than create the law, but he would not budge. Frightening.

Despite the name, Mubarak Public Library itself is magnificent, housed in an airy, well laid out converted palace overlooking the Nile. The stock selection itself is predictably erratic – the Islam section is approximately a mile wide while the history section numbers roughly twenty books – but there was enough there to make me want to join. I get a bit tired of Egyptians claiming that Egyptians are unable to organise even a sock drawer and that everything fel balad eventually turns to shit, so seeing evidence to the contrary of this was refreshing.

I admit that I am something of a loser when it comes to libraries, and experience a frisson when borrowing books akin to that experienced by a teenage boy discovering his father’s porn collection. I have always been baffled by the dearth of libraries in a country with 80 million people, and put both their mysterious absence, and the rarity of seeing someone reading anything other than religious scripture in the metro, down to the noxious combination of poverty and oppression-induced insularity. I have a private theory that instead of throwing money at trying to fix problems now, donors etc should invest their billions in books for children and young people, because reading about alternative realities gives the inspiration, succour and imagination necessary to question and resist the status quo.

Don’t ask me how books would solve e.g. world debt because my theory hasn’t evolved that bloody far yet.

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