Much is often made of the vitality of Cairo’s street life and its grimy, insistent, animation, its business of 24 hour people, cars, donkeys and drama. A never-ending presence has not however, lent Cairo’s population ownership over the capital’s streets which – like every other aspect of Egyptian public life – remain under the strict control of a regime afflicted with a mania for micromanagement and heavy-handedness.
Which is why I was nonplussed when I heard that singer-songwriter Shady Ahmed had decided to busk in Cairo’s streets. The decision was made in the same week that an author faces a trial for writing a comic book in which , amongst other things, the events of May 25 2005 are described. On that day – Black Wednesday – females journalists and protestors were sexually assaulted in downtown Cairo as members of police looked on. Next week, on April 6, demonstrators will again take to Egypt’s streets a year after Egyptians in Mahalla had the temerity to take to their own streets and protest rising food prices; three people were killed in the ensuing confrontations between the crowd and police.
Shady chose to start out in the foreigner-enclave of Zamalek, outside the Diwan bookshop. I was there with a DNE colleague, Jon Jensen, who apparently used to inhabit the island. A Maison Thomas delivery guy walked past. “Thomas!” Jon Jensen shouted. “Baaasha!” Thomas replied.
Within four minutes of Shady opening his mouth in song a gentleman in an ill-fitting dull brown jacket, and an ill-fitting dull brown mustache appeared. Unmistakably a mokhber. He was accompanied by Thomas, and one of Thomas’ colleagues. The mokhber proceeded to ask the usual, boring questions about Shady’s identity, address and alta mater before buggering off. He hung around, looking uncomfortable, for the duration of the performance.
The law’s second appearance came in the form of an 3askary ta2meen – a low-ranking uniformed policeman – again accompanied by Thomas – making me wonder whether Thomas gives tips as well as receiving them. The policeman, an officious pompous type requested that Shady stop singing because “people have complained about the disturbance”. (All this was said as the roar of 26 July Street’s traffic practically drowned him out).
He was immediately surrounded by two passers-by and a traffic cop. I then apparently had a brief out-of-body episode, because I heard the traffic cop say, “leave him alone, he’s not doing anything wrong, this is about personal freedom.” Like Ban Ki-Moon. It was a beautiful moment.
Shady was mostly resolutely ignored by the people at the bus stop in front of which he was performing. The majority of passers-by cast a furtive glance. The exception to this was a bloke carrying a bag of bread. He stopped for a spot of improvisation, delicately picking the right notes out of the air with his thumb and forefinger.
This feeling was quickly dispelled as Dr Moftases and I sat in a queue of traffic waiting to join the October Bridge. After ten minutes of non-movement we decided to get out and walk, and discovered the cause of the delay; a mawkeb, or flotilla. One side of the October Bridge was almost completely empty save for three angry-looking policemen shouting instructions into their walkie-talkies, holding up traffic trying to join the bridge and angrily moving a group of kids on off the bridge, where they had been looking at the Nile.
If ever a reminder was needed that your country is being held hostage by a group of thieving, redundant, gangster pimps, you need look no further than these flotillas. The idea is that 894,000 cars should be forced to wait, sometimes up to two hours, because ma3aaly el wazir Mr. Prick minster of bribes wants to get home in time to watch himself on 90 De2ee2a, or do a spot of pilates, or polish his forehead. Or because he just doesn’t want to mix with the hoi-polloi. Entire districts are cleared of traffic for these morons. Here’s some empty road at rush hour right here:
Interestingly, Moftases sent me this, describing an accident involving a flotilla which may possibly have been the same one we witnessed on Wednesday night.
A car forming part of the Interior Minister’s security detail hit citizen Mohamed Gamal while the minister’s flotilla was passing through Gamat El-Dowal El-Arabiyya street on Wednesday, amidst a noticeably tightened security presence.
Gamal found himself thrown on the ground next to his flattened mobile phone. Security men in the area didn’t lift a finger to help him. Rather, they showered him with blame, saying, “why don’t you open your eyes?”
The matter didn’t stop there. The security men then became suspicious about Gamal – who works in a computer store on Gamat El-Dowal El-Arabiya Street – and demanded to see his I.D and work cards, without displaying the slightest concern about his injuries.