I was on the metro the other day when there was a kerfuffle; shouts and screams. This was in the women only carriage, so it was a high-pitched mass shriek that cut through the usual human and mechanical cacophony.
A loose circle had formed, concealing something at its centre. Suddenly a furious-looking sweaty youth appeared in the middle, his clothes worn and filthy, his body humped over crutches, his face on the border between fury and tears. He raised one hand and attempted to strike a girl in front of him. The crowd went ooooh. The girl pushed him back, so he raised one of his crutches and bashed her with it, rather unsuccessfully. Each time his crutch went up, the spectators said laaaa2 or oooh or aihhh until it came down, and it was as if he was conducting a choir. Eventually the object of his anger was persuaded by her friend to retreat. As she did so she screeched, “ezzay yemed 2eedo 3alaya ya Shayma!” [How dare he put his hand on me, Shayma!]
When the train pulled into Demerdash Station the women begin banging on the windows and doors and signaling to bemused commuters to apprehend the young man, who was now moving through the horrified passengers Moses and Red Sea style. He calmly got off the train, went along the platform and got in the next carriage. The doors closed on the tragedy and he and the singing ladies were gone.
I had witnessed a happier Metro scene a few months earlier and it stuck with me. I was again in a crowded carriage when a middle-aged man appeared and began talking to no one in particular. I thought he was nuts, because he didn’t immediately to be selling anything (vendors are legion on the metro). He was talking in a strange mix of Arabic and English (“in this bag there is a surprise” and “this is a great commodity”) and picking out individual commuters to address his spiel to. It was completely baffling.
My friend suddenly leaned over and said to me, “3assaleya” [a type of sweet made out of honey].
“Oskot ba2a!” [Be quiet!], the man hissed out of the side of his mouth, barely breaking rhythm, as my friend smirked.
He recommenced the strange sales spiel and then he produced some 3assaleya. It turned out that 3assaleya promotion was his job, and that he had been at it on the metro for years.
There is all kinds of industry on the Metro. In the Sadat station the chaos of the informal settlement above ground in Tahrir Square has seeped down into its tunnels. There is a row of sellers offering commuters white wind up toy cats, tissues (5 packs for LE 10, a good deal) mobile phone paraphernalia and men’s clothing, arranged on blankets or heaped in suitcases. The tissue sellers build tissue walls around themselves and sit in the middle waiting for customers. The wind up cats go round in circles, like the commuters.
Inside the carriages all kinds of shit is sold, from ladies’ tights to hairbands to booklets containing illustrated stories of the prophets’ doings. The other day two men got on the train I was in and one produced a courgette that he held aloft before proceeding to gut, using a coring device. He was a natural born seller, and I bought one with the intention of one day overcoming the skin-tingling disgust I feel during the gynecological stage of vegetable stuffing.
So there is this little thriving underground market in parts of the Metro, operating in Egypt’s famous post-revolution security vacuum, perhaps the only consistent feature of Egypt’s transition. It is unorganised and chaotic and the vendors are usually the poorest of the poor. Despite all the negative aspects, I like that they have reclaimed public space and are using it to good purpose.
I’m going on about this because I want to remember these little scenes, Cairo’s extraordinary ordinariness, when I look back and reflect at these mental two years in Egypt (and wonder how it all went so wrong).
Since February 2011, Egypt has been hurtling down a motorway at night with the headlights off, in fog. It has frequently been an unpleasant, nausea-inducing, journey but we had some good laughs on the way, even during the tragedies, and that is largely thanks to firstly, the fact that SCAF and politicians are clueless, bumbling wankers and, secondly, Egyptians like to have a laugh.
Sometimes things have been really surreal, like when I was In Abbaseyya during the recent clashes and as gunshots echoed around us and a stampede of fleeing protesters charged down a residential street behind us a man on a motorbike said to no one in particular, “the best thing about the Egyptian people is that they like to run”.
Now, of course, everything is elections, and surrealism has reached danger levels. Last month I stood outside a law court as hundreds of jubilant men released fireworks and hugged each other in celebration of the news that the Interior Ministry had no record that Salafi sheikh
Hamdeen Hazem Abo Ismail’s mother had American nationality, and he could therefore run in the elections.
Except that she did, and so then he was out. And then there is that dimwit Ahmed Shafiq, who we could ignore if he didn’t actually have a fan base of individuals who think that he will take them back to the good old days when you could walk down an Egyptian street without fear of crime because somebody, somewhere was having the shit kicked out of them in a police station.
Last week I went to a Muslim Brotherhood rally for Mohamed Morsi, the man chosen to replace Khayrat El-Shater when he was eliminated from the presidential race. It was full of families on a day out buying Morsi badges and Morsi caps and Morsi flags.
The noise and crowd were intolerable so my friend Adam and I buggered off early, but before we did, we recorded a video of Adam doing his 7ag Fakhry persona, in which he imitates a middle-aged man who mostly has no clue what is going on but attends political rallies in the hope of getting LE 50 or free food. So far el 7ag Fakhry has been to rallies for Morsi, Mohamed Selim El-Awa and Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotooh. El-Awa actually did have a free open buffet but alas he still doesn’t have a hope in hell. El 7ag Fakhry is voting for Amr Moussa because his men hand out cash most regularly.
Anyway at this rally we finished recording the video and were set upon by a gentleman brandishing a mobile phone who accused Adam of “imitating the Muslim Brotherhood” and threatened to put his image online, presumably so that unsuspecting members of the public do not entrust him with their votes, or their souls. After establishing that the man was not taking the piss, Adam told him to do as he pleased and an altercation developed until it was interrupted by a man in white trousers and deck shoes who repeatedly kissed Adam on his forehead and led him away.
The man in the white trousers turned out to be an MB organiser, disguised as a liberal. He apologised profusely for what had happened, and there then followed half an hour of apologies and discussion. I was accosted by a woman called Madame Marwa, who was also very nice and emitted a series of apologies.
She gave me a little flag bearing Morsi’s image, and wanted to write on it “with best wishes from Madame Marwa” but neither of us had a pen. She made me promise to remember her; Madame Marwa, who wishes you all the best in the world.
The funnest election experience so far however has been at the hands (ahem) of Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahy. Hamdeen has an open top double decker bus that he has converted into a Hamdeenmobile. He invited journalists on it on Sunday.
First there was endless hanging around in his headquarters (mostly painted green, apparently his favourite colour) as his campaign staff ran up and down stairs. There was a sign hanging on the stairs reading, “going up is absolutely, categorically prohibited” and I hoped this wasn’t somehow a statement about his election chances.
We eventually got on the bus and it was lovely to feel Cairo’s clean air rushing through my hair as the not at all too hot sun pounded down on my cranium. The campaign kids immediately started playing this song, which I liked at first but had reservations about three hours later:
I asked a young man why he was voting Hamdeen and he said because he is honest, and decent and has always made sacrifices to defend people’s rights. He thinks that labour lawyer and presidential candidate Khaled Ali is too young and inexperienced for the job but is otherwise a good geezer.
Loads of people I’ve spoken to have echoed this idea that Hamdeen is decent and honest and politically clean. The man himself eventually appeared an hour into the trip and was followed up to the top deck by a pack of about 7 thousand photographers who immediately raised some physics questions about the bus’ stability.
Hamdeen was his usual, smooth self, all smiles and winks and waves. In addition to being impressed by his activism (although not his partiality to certain Arab dictators), I have a teeny weeny little crush on Hamdeen, who is arguably the most charming presidential candidate. At least his trouser waistband is at a normal height, Doctor Abdel-Meneim Aboul-Fotouh.
I ended up (god knows how but it might have involved me requesting this) having my photo taken with Hamdeen but this mutated into me becoming the future first lady:
Out of a concern that this picture may be used by remnants of the former regime against Hamdeen (he keeps company with female foreign spies) let it be known that that hand which may or not be my hand was on Hamdeen’s arm because I was being crushed against the bus’s stair rails and Hamdeen was leaning in dangerously close in the crush of the crowd which wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
I will likely vote for Hamdeen, but this is largely a vote against (felool, Morsi) rather than a positive vote for anything. Democracy is crap and unsatisfying and the army will likely bollocks something up again, but every time I see an election poster, or a debate, or people arguing over which candidate is least crap I feel genuine excitement at the possibility that at last, now, there is the possibility of something different. Maybe even something better.*
* Although it looks like Moussa or Morsi will win.