A protest in the Ghazl El-Mahalla spinning factory necessitated another memorable trip in a 7-seater Peugeot on Thursday, this time driven by a man with the world’s foulest mouth.
Short, dishevelled and unshaven in a striped t-shirt, he had a bar-fighting attitude to driving – while the bloke across the room may not have been looking at his bird, he probably was.
The blokey cockiness was probably in part encouraged by the two insalubrious-looking types next to him on the front seat. One of this pair spent the first ten minutes conducting an animated mobile phone call in which he informed his interlocuteur and everyone else in the Peugeot that he had “flogged the car for a grand” and “had Mohamed so and so’s licence” and wouldn’t sell it for less than 50 quid. “Fuck no, 50 quid or nothing” he declared.
He had a dirty laugh of the best kind. The rumbling sort. A filthy old engine starting up.
The journey started with a tape of Qu’ran recitation, to ensure a safe journey. The driver and the dirty laugh man talked up front, exchanging jokes, gripes and cigarettes while the slightly younger and timid-looking man sat between them acted as a buffer for the stream of profanities they emitted.
Listening to the driver was like watching Goodfellas dubbed into Arabic. Nothing escaped his venom. Kossom [fuck*] this and the ebn el weskha [son of a slut] that. It was spectacularly vile language for a Thursday afternoon, particularly given that swear words are frowned on in Egyptian society much more than e.g. England, where one can not give a flying fuck audibly in public without raising many eyebrows.
The Qu’ran was eventually replaced by a tape of sha3by mawwal, which was when the fun really began. This cassette we were treated to was obviously a particular favourite of the driver’s, and he bellowed out the lyrics (sometimes in advance of the singer actually saying them). When not singing, he danced, requiring the use of his torso, and both hands.
“Aho…aho…” [there it is…there it is…] he said to Dirty Laugh while shoulder shimmying with both hands off the wheel, and looking at Dirty Laugh. Dirty Laugh smoked and nodded approvingly, apparently unconcerned that we were going at 90 kilometres an hour on the Delta road and that control of the car had been sacrificed for boogie wonderland.
A particularly rousing chorus suddenly inspired the driver to clap noisily and at length, again while we sped along and vehicles zigzagged behind us and in front of us like video game space invaders. I can’t say I blame him. Sometimes musical needs must.
We stopped three times. The first time all three men got out, opened the bonnet, revved the engine once manually, and then got back in. In silence. The second time the driver parked the car on the side of the motorway, sort of, and then asked whether anybody wanted something to drink before the three men absented themselves for about five minutes. The last time we stopped, the driver didn’t have time to steer to the side of the road because he was too busy going through the A-Z of swear words.
Traffic had almost come to a halt for some reason, and while we crawled along a lorry to our right very slightly cut the driver up.
“YA OSTA! YA OSTA!” [Oi, driver!] dirty laugh bellowed out of his window, prompting absolutely no response from the lorry driver, probably because he couldn’t hear him up in his cab.
Driven wild by this atrocity the driver sprang out of his car and delivered a verbal assault of astounding proportions involving the lorry driver’s mother, homosexuals and pimps. He jumped up and down while clenching his fists by his sides. Dirty laugh looked on impassively, smoking as usual, as if he was at the cinema.
The driver returned to his car eventually (still swearing), opening his door from the inside, and was only pacified by a cigarette.
Another encounter occurred when a microbus driver decided to overtake us at approximately 100 kilometres an hour, on our right. The manoeuvre forced him off the road slightly, into the dust, and a sleeping passenger in our Peugeot was suddenly woke up by a hail of mud and pebbles hitting him in the face.
The microbus sped off in a cloud of dust while in front the driver’s face slowly turned red.
“I’ll get that fucking son of the bitch at the road bumps,” he hissed.
And indeed he did. Traffic slowed down and we were soon side by side with the microbus.
A 3-way conversation then ensued between the microbus driver, our driver, and dirty laugh. Driver ended every literally sentence he said with “ebn el weskha”, e.g. “mesh sama3 bey2ol aih ebn el weskha dah” [I can’t hear what that son of a slut is saying] he said, as he reluctantly turned down his sha3by mawwal and leaned towards the passenger side of the car. This carried on for about two minutes (while we were still moving, and cars piled up behind us) until the microbus driver handed our driver a packet of biscuits, and then it was over.
The driver opened the biscuits and consumed them, while still cursing the microbus driver.
He only interrupted this process to curse the speed bumps we encountered, in the process of being made. He dismissed them as “mattabaat sena3y bent weskha” [fucking speed bumps], before railing against the people making them, who were of course welaad el weskha.
Arriving in Mahalla with my swearword vocabulary doubled, I found a very different scene to the last time I had been to the town. Medan Shoon, the scene of April’s clashes was sleepy, with barely a policeman in sight. Last time I had been here it had looked like a military barracks.
On our way to the factory journalist Per Bjorklund and I saw a stream of people coming from the direction of the factory. Per correctly identified them as workers, who it transpired had been let out early, an attempt by state security to control the size of the protest.
A group of women stopped me, asking if I was a journalist before they caught sight of Per. Who is Swedish and looks it.
“ALLAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 3EYNAYK GAMILA GEDDAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [WOW! YOUR EYES ARE REALLY GORGEOUS!] she cooed/screeched at Per. Who smiled a twinkly smile with his heavenly Scandinavian blue eyes.
I managed to extract from the women that the 3 p.m. shift had been let out early from the factory before they returned to the theme of Per and his eyes.
Outside the factory a group of women waited, flanked by the usual state security men in tight jeans and sunglasses. I recognised one of them from the Mahalla 49 trial. He never ever lets me in to the courtroom until the last possible moment.
I also remembered a state security officer I had seen outside the Doctors’ Syndicate last week. An underling brought him a chair, before wiping it clean for him. After el basha had sat down the underling, a kid of no more than 22, held his coffee for him. But to ensure that it was at the correct height he bent over at back-breaking angle while el basha talked on the phone, just froze in that position. One of the more nauseating sights I have witnessed recently.
I’ve heard that Ghazl El-Mahalla women tend to spearhead protests in the factory, and today seemed to be no exception. “El sa7afa fein?” [where’s the press?] they chanted, as they waited to either enter the factory, or for their male colleagues to join them.
They entered the factory eventually. Their male colleagues were assembled in the factory’s central courtyard. A fight ensued with factory security about whether the women would be admitted into the courtyard. They were, and the women flocked through, journos sneaking through in the middle of them.
Protests have a unique sort of energy, and experiencing them is always inspiring. This is particularly true of Egyptian protests, where participants in them risk so much. Individuals who lead chants know that they will be noted, a mark placed against their name, and yet they risk all.
At one point during the protest I was standing near the gates, and overhead a man saying of the participants “dowl schwayet 3ayyal malohomsh lazma” [they’re a bunch of useless kids] and of a woman protestor, “bent el weskha bet3mel fadee7a” [a daughter of a slut making a scandal]. It wasn’t the Peugeot driver, I checked.
* Commenter Fully P has pointed out that ‘fuck’ conceals the true vileness of the literal meaning of this word, which is ‘your mother’s cunt’. Since this delicate expression isn’t a popular term of abuse in English, I chose the nearest equivalent. ‘Cunting’ might have been an alternative, if that exists outside Croydon. But the absence of the mother from this again misses the gynacological intensity of the Arabic.