We have our men

There was something different about Dokki police station after the revolution, or perhaps it just changes at night, when the civil servants dispensing ID cards leave the building to the police.

From the outside nothing has changed, there are still a group of men at the gate identifiable only as policemen when they ask you where you’re going. The police are in the service of the people, a sign says. There is a momentary smell of piss from an unidentifiable source in the courtyard.

Inside the villa that houses the police station the same never-ending stream of young men dressed in cheap clothes walk up and down the corridor, knock on closed doors, or just lounge, waiting. Their superiors intermittently emerge from offices, strut and stare, stare and strut, handguns pointing out of jean waistbands like a shark’s fin.

We are eventually admitted into an office containing two desks, a sofa, a television, a picture of Mecca, a screen concealing a bed and five men doing nothing. A young, well-dressed officer sitting behind a desk, after consulting our IDs and availing himself of a diary, asks us to tell us what the problem is.

**

My cousin came home from work on Monday and found that someone had drawn, in pencil, a Star of David and written next to it, ‘there is no god but God’ on the wall next to her front door. I photographed it and she immediately rubbed it off.

We don’t know who did this, or why they did it. The writing was a sort of childish scrawl, but the star was drawn at a height a young kid wouldn’t have been able to reach. While the graffiting of Islamic expressions is common in Egypt, a Star of David never accompanies them, and has only one meaning.

There is a background to this, and that is that my grandfather was Jewish and converted to Islam while in his teens. He raised his family as Muslims and I’m told was liked, that he took care of his family, friends and employees. My mother casually mentioned a month or so again that they had some trouble during the 1967 war, but other than that his religious origins don’t seem to have been an issue.

There are people in the neighbourhood who know my grandfather was Jewish, children of people who knew him. Maybe that’s relevant. Or maybe the fact that I am foreign and my house was the venue of a very celebratory and very loud party the night of Mubarak’s ousting attended by Egyptians and foreigners is relevant.

About a month ago there was a fight over parking in our street and my aunt swore she heard a man refer to our house as “that house of Jews”. Someone else though says she misheard. So the art on my cousin’s wall might be the first or second incident, we don’t know.

In any case my friend Noov sought the advice of her lawyer friend and they all advised filing a ma7dar waq3a with the police, something like opening a file and recording an event, just in case. I resisted vehemently, since the police are useless and hating the police is one of my favourite activities. She and others insisted this was the correct course of action, and that there is no alternative. So we went to the police station.

**

We told the young officer all this. He demanded to know who lives in our building and when he discovered that the ground floor is rented out by one of my aunts to people who are not family became fixated on them, insisting that they might be involved simply because they are not related to us. I had to repeatedly state that he was wrong several times.

I thought that generally I was being very polite and congratulated myself on behaving while talking to a popo. When we were waiting outside the office Noov told me that I was in fact behaving in a surly and rude manner towards him.

Next was the senior officer’s room and when I walked in I almost walked out immediately. I recognised the officer as the cop who had physically attacked a Dostor journalist during a protest last year outside the Kuwaiti Embassy. He had screamed in my face to leave during the protest, and generally been a shit.

Today though he was a model of professionalism, sitting at his big leather desk in his office with its paneled walls and high ceiling. He didn’t recognise me. The whole room smelt of an expensive aftershave, in fact several expensive aftershaves. All of the policemen looked confident, at home. One man came into the office wearing slippers. They all emitted a sort of quiet hubris.

It was decided that the young officer accompanied by three others would “inspect the scene”. I tried to explain that there was nothing to see but they insisted. I told the young officer that I don’t want the issue to escalate.

“What do you think we’re going to do? Go to everyone in your neighbourhood and tell them your grandfather was Jewish?” he said.

“We have our men – on every street, in every area. We’re just going to ask questions.”

We got in our car, they got in the officer’s Volvo Passat, and off we went.

Silently we went up the door of my cousin’s flat and looked at the blank wall. Stared at nothing, with the assistance of a mobile phone light. Then they left, and briefly questioned Mahmoud our bawwab (janitor) about what he had seen and why he doesn’t have a passport (he is a refugee from Darfur and hasn’t renewed it) and then left.

We returned to our cars while I had visions of Mahmoud being deported and wanted to die.

Back at the police station we returned to the junior officer’s room and waited while he dealt with a man who was going to get him the names of all the taxi drivers who worked at the Pyramisa Hotel. A complaint had been filed. The man was clearly an informant. The junior officer asked him if he would be able to get him this list of names and the man paused mid-sentence and his expression said say for your eyes anything. They both smiled, the man left.

Behind us Hala Sarhan was on television presenting her show “Naas Book”.

We were sent downstairs to write the ma7dar in an almost empty basement room filled with an esteefa (reception) desk and empty barred cage. There was a man with a young boy still in school uniform at midnight but noone else other than the uniformed officers.

A jolly middle-aged man began writing the ma7dar. “You have an Egyptian ID so you’re Egyptian, but where are you from?” he asked. I explained that my father is from England.

“England is Britain, isn’t it?” he asked maybe making a joke I couldn’t tell. He wrote Egyptian-British in the ma7dar.

Several dad-like jokes were made during the writing of the ma7dar, we battled on nonetheless.

I explained about my grandfather. “This is news that makes me happy, to hear that someone has converted to Islam,” he said. Noov tried to put the graffiti incident in context; there is currently suspicion of all things foreign and so this needs to be viewed in that context – foreigners are regarded as spies, as a threat.

Something clicked in his head. “Just like people think that all police are bad!” he exclaimed, and set about writing the ma7dar with a renewed sense of purpose. I felt sick, again.

**

A sad thing about this whole sorry episode is the discovery first hand that the police still don’t know how to police. There is still the same reliance on informants, the lack of imagination in the detective work, the bullying lad culture of it all.

This experience comes at a particularly low point in Egypt’s transition, one filled with confusion and violence and a sense that we’re being robbed.

I try to avoid watching scenes from January 28 – February 11. It’s like looking at a photo-wedding album with the knowledge that the bride is killed on honeymoon. Even if sensibly speaking I know that what happened was immense and historic there is still this awful sense of what if, what could have been, and that now that door has closed.

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4 Responses to We have our men

  1. strangetown says:

    I don’t want to say ‘I told you so’ but I did or words to that effect, via twitter back when it all looked like it may be that you (collectively) had a chance to really change things. Maybe I was far too optimistic at the time as well as it’s easy to get caught up in the euphoria even at a remove. But please don’t give up hope eh? I reckon there’s big changes afoot worldwide…… :)

  2. eunice says:

    what a sad & sorry state of affairs i have been in lots of Muslim countries but realy thought Egypt would get its act together,felt sick to read your story ,but must say this sort of thing does happen in varying degrees in every country ..its not what you know but who you know. unfortunately ..still feel sick & angry…

  3. Constant reader says:

    The graffiti troubles me. By one person or two? Acting together or apart? Is this an effort to say “we know all about you people, watch out, etc.,” or is it just random meanness? I’m with you, I’d have stayed away from the police. But I like reading your tale of visiting them. It takes a long time to dismantle a police state. Surely the door isn’t already completely closed, locking the police in with everybody all over again. Wishing you better words on the walls.

  4. Didi says:

    That is so unpleasant and I’m sorry you had this experience.

    There’s a thought I can’t get out of my head though. If the two piece of graffiti are related, the thought they are expressing is pretty problematic. It should be pretty clear that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are based on the same God. The Quran explicitly references the prophets and stories of both the Old and New Testaments. So, if the sign was trying to say that Jews don’t worship the same God as Muslims, they are contradicting some pretty darn important teachings. Then not only are the people who wrote it aggressive, they seem to be pretty stupid.

    Not a great combination.

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