As I was coming out of the lift in the Journalists’ Syndicate on Friday the boy who they put in a uniform and make press buttons called out to the man at the entrance who they don’t give a uniform to and make sit at a desk:
“Howa Ahmed – “ [Is Ahmed -]
His sentence was interrupted with:
“Ahmed – “
“Ahmed beta3 el buffet illi el mafroud fow2 – “ [Ahmed from the buffet who’s supposed to be upstairs - ]
“Bass – “ [But - ]
By the fourth four I had reached the man at the entrance desk. He was leaning over his desk, his chin resting on one balled fist while in the clutch of the other hand was a busy pen. I looked: he was colouring in the letters on a flyer.
Outdoors those not lucky enough to get a task-less job indoors were directing traffic and steering donkeys and selling socks and parking cars in the bitter cold.
I bought take-away Koshary for 1.50 LE and wondered how something so cheap can be so delicious. That evening, Umm Nakad and I went to a fussy coffee shop in Mohandiseen. I had a supposedly Greek salad for 15 LE, although as I understand it the defining feature of this dish is the Feta cheese which was present, but in miserly proportions – perhaps the Feta was on a study year abroad at Essex University, which is full of Greeks. The salad wasn’t half as filling – nor as good – as the Koshary not least because at the table next to us a bald man was smoking a cigar and filling the closed room with its poisonous fumes. He was however, sitting with a man who had a white Kenny Rogers-style beard, which compensated for the choking somewhat.
Umm Nakad requested of the waiter that he ask the bald man to extinguish his cigar, at least while we were eating. 7ader, 7ader, [OK, OK] he said, looking worried. He couldn’t risk doing so because he probably would have lost his job – the cigar smoker turned out to be a friend of the coffee shop’s owner. He didn’t say anything and when I got home my clothes were a rich bouquet of bonfires mixed with old socks.
Outside in Mohandiseen’s neon jungle the silver crocodile crushes the black and white Shaheen, which fights with the yellow beetle, which collides with the dirty donkey, while pedestrians dart in and out like birds. In Doqqi the hero Ahmed Abdel Aziz is hosting a young man with a leg brace up to his groin who skilfully navigates his way through the parked cars on his crutches, offering tissues. A girl makes her one minute pitch to the closed windows while the numbers count down to zero and the lights turn green and she is left behind.
Back in the Journalists’ Syndicate the next day a Professor of Medicine on a panel considering the steady privatisation of Egyptian education paints a sorry picture. Once upon a time he says, education in Egypt was the way out of poverty, was one of the only means of class mobility. No longer. Language schools with their astronomical fees and their all-English education have created a generation of kids who don’t know how to write Arabic, often cannot speak it properly and know nothing about the lives of the average Egyptian. These kids go to university in the States, come back, join big corporations, become even richer, become cronies of the ruling regime and then, eventually, end up ruling a country they know very little about, but get glimpses of occasionally in the form of the woman who cleans their floors. In the future, cabinet meetings might be conducted entirely in English, he (half) joked.
And free education is a myth, he says, not only because of the necessity of paying for private tutoring but because of the Qesm Memayyez system which, if you can afford it, gives you smaller classes and air-conditioned rooms and the best professors – within public universities. And of course the professors are fighting each other to get appointed to the Qesm Memayyez so that they can teach in a cool room while at the end of their four years two classes of students emerge, the graduate with the shiny degree from the Qesm Memayyez and the ordinary, poorer student with the ‘shahada ta3bana’ [crappy degree]. And the joke is that because education is now a business neither of them stand a chance against that infinitely more attractive consumer item, the graduate of a foreign university.
The doctor thinks this system can’t go on for much longer, that it will collapse, that the microbus-riding student will one day crack at the sight of his moneyed, chauffeur-driven peers, and rise up.
On Thursday night I went to Ramsis railway station and spoke to railway safety technicians who were protesting about pay and conditions, and about being ignored and cheated. They crowded round all speaking at once so that the world would know about the injustices committed against them. “Hanebted2y edraab 3an el ta3m!” [we're going to start a food strike!] they proclaimed. “Hana7’od 7o2o2na! Ekteby dah 3andek!” [we'll take our rights - write that down!] And the vehemence and desperation made it easy to believe that they might just do that.
One of them, Ahmed, called me the next day, Friday. “I have news, “ he said. “We had a meeting with the management and they agreed to 70% of our demands. Come and get a copy of the decision.”
I met him outside the Journalists’ Syndicate and he handed me a photocopy of a handwritten document which he spread over a car bonnet with his broad, calloused hands and jabbed at the demands which had been accepted by the management. I read it later while eating the Greek Salad and inhaling the cigar smoke. Only four of their demands had been accepted and what’s worse whoever it was who had recorded the minutes had disparagingly written homomhom el taqeela [their important concerns].
Ahmed impressed on me the importance of writing an article thanking the senior management one by one – he was troubled by the ‘fedee7a’ [scandal] they had made for their managers in the previous day’s articles published in the Arabic press. I told him that I couldn’t do this, but I would describe the outcome of the meeting. He asked for the newspaper’s website address and got out his diary to note it down. The page fell open on a picture of the President at the front.
“Meen dah?” [who’s that?] I joked.
“Dah ra2eesna” [that’s our president] he said, stony-faced.
I told him that I know, I was joking, but asked what he was doing in the diary. Ahmed explained that he got it from work, hence the picture. “Not because of your love for him” then, I said, again expecting him to join me in the not terribly funny joke.
“Ba7ebbo tab3an, we ba7ebb balady” [Of course I love him, and I love my country] he said, without a hint of irony, and I wondered what exactly it will take to make the love affair end.