Get with the programme

On Sunday I went out with a colleague to get reactions to the Bassem Youssef investigation. In a taxi on the way to Imbaba we asked the driver his opinion and in a serendipitous convergence, the taxi driver declared that he had worked with B. Youssef last week. It was a moment that would have made Thomas Friedman self-combust: a taxi driver who is also a primary source.

As was obvious from his appearance, this juggernaut of a man – who was called Maged – had been employed as a bodyguard during the recording of the previous week’s show downtown, “one of 150 bodyguards”, he claimed.

His bald head reflected the street lights and his immense bulk spilled out of the driving seat. In a baritone so deep it made Barry White sound like a Jimmy Summerville he described the world of bodyguards, young men and their biceps plucked out of sweat and sawdust gyms and paid LE 200 a day to look hard. This figure comes out of a long chain of deception: a senior bodyguard (“kebeer el bodyguardaat”) is asked to recruit say 200 bodyguards and is offered LE 3,000. He then asks someone else to do this for LE 2,000. This person in turn takes a cut for himself and so on and so on until Maged and his brothers come out of a night with a few notes and maybe a rumble.

If they’re working somewhere classy and aren’t required to fight then some of them forgo the payment in return for a meal and drinks.

Maged said that he had been asked to work the following Wednesday, but wouldn’t for two reasons. One, the money is shit. Two, many of the vendors selling clothes and all varieties of crap on the street near where B. Youssef films his show are from Shubra – tough kids just like Maged, except God made them skinny – and Maged objects to fighting his own.

In Imbaba there was a wedding and next to it a fight. Men and women in suits and dresses sat in cars while next to them a youth did continuous, manic wheelies on a 120cc motorbike followed by another youth on a BMX who did nothing except ride in a sedate fashion while next to them a topless youth appeared dabbing at an injury to his face and strutted in the manner of a man looking for action.

We asked people in Imbaba what they thought of the B.Youssef investigation and the answers were predictable. Here are some of them:

“During the revolution we kept within the bounds of good manners. The problem is the language Bassem uses.”

“You can criticise if you want but don’t say that religion says this or doesn’t say that…we all know what religion says.”

“He says what we’re all thinking.”

“Morsi deserves this language”.

“The problem is that he makes us look bad internationally. Imagine if your father was humiliated. The way that he makes fun of Morsi takes away from the Egyptian people”.

“Opinions should be expressed in a way acceptable to God. I shouldn’t knock people or use bad language.”

“I used to watch Bassem Youssef during the revolution and I used to love him.  But I don’t like the opposition’s style now. I’m not with Morsi but I don’t like the opposition.”

“He is constantly attacking Islamists. Before he used to attack everyone but now he is constantly attacking Islamists”.

Note that all of these people watch B.Youssef’s show regularly and enjoy it, even one man who agreed that the satirist should be taken to task for crossing the line. This apparent contradiction is important and symptomatic of a greater moral schism in Egyptian society that isn’t so much private licentiousness/public prudishness as is the case everywhere in the world as it is about safety in numbers and a dull conformism. The result is this (and it is not safe for work):

For those of you with weak hearts or in polite society the video opens to the scene of a gentlemen manhandling on the floor a lady in not very much green lycra. This spirited wrestling mercifully stops when the man’s microphone cord gets caught up in the lady’s foot. Alas there is worse to come and various acts of sexual simulation take place, one of which involves a chair.

The nadir is at 5.30 when green lycra lady drags a middle-aged man in a galabeya out of the audience and proceeds to molest him before he gets a taste for things and spends most of the time attempting to nuzzle her chests. She responds by pulling up his galabeya to reveal his “calcyon” or Dolce & Gabbana underwear before everything goes south again and she sits on him while he lies prostate on the floor.

While the show itself is unremarkable what is bonkers is the location and the audience. This is a wedding in a tent erected in a residential street in a modest neighbourhood. A brief glimpse of the bride reveals that she is veiled. The sex show audience/wedding guests are ordinary civilians; men, woman and children. The men stand around and clap while the women spectate like they were at a conference on agricultural engineering and the kids scamper across the stage. The only point at which anyone acknowledges that something crazy is happening is when galabeya man’s friends are whipped up into a frenzy of excitement while he is preyed on.

El Sheikh Adam, who considers himself an authority on fellaheen by virtue of being one (where fellah means coming from a rural area north of Cairo rather than being familiar with rice cultivation) had a look at the video and after he had picked himself off the floor his expert eye said that the people in the video look like his peoples.

What is certain is that this is a group of people who all know each other, perhaps an extended family/families or a small village, and they have given each other permission to suspend normal service for one evening only. It is similar to when a veiled woman takes off her higab on her wedding day and puts it back on again the next day.

Another parallel is traffic in Egypt where there are virtually no rules other than the law that drivers are allowed to swear at each other in the bluest language they can think of for any reason whatsoever, with the result that Cairo’s cacophony hums with a baseline of kosomaks and ebn el maras. Even cars themselves can swear via a tattoo of ebn metnaka beat out on the car horn.

Contrast this with the narrow limits of acceptable language in “polite” society, Victorian in its prudishness and propriety. While riding in women’s carriages on the metro I see strangers tap each other on the shoulder and alert them to a tiny strand of hair that has come loose from their hegab. El Sheikh Adam tells me that in his village there is zero sexual harassment because it is taboo for a man to talk to a woman he is unrelated to, but some of these same young men come to Cairo and turn into disgusting, lascivious Don Juans on Qasr el-Nil Bridge, lost in a crowd that at some point in recent history deemed sexual harassment in certain geographical locations acceptable. It’s the old story of Egypt and its boxes.

There is a point to all this and you will be glad to read that I am getting to it now. The cases against B. Youssef filed by private actors absolutely NOT affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood accusing him of insulting religion and insulting the president are unambiguously political and about silencing him, but if the Imbaba sample and other anecdotal stories I have heard are anything to go by, there is a sense that Youssef has crossed a line of respectability that has nothing to do with politics, and the idiots behind these charges are banking on that.

That for me is the most interesting part of this case and not the dreary, Mubarakist attempts at censorship. Maybe it will force Egyptian society to challenge these staid ideas of “respectability” and the inconsistencies in the strange moral code that doesn’t so much govern as strangle its behavior. Maybe it will be the first step towards its accepting that foul language deployed intelligently does not detract from a person’s moral standing and that sex continues to exist even in the presence of one’s mother or sister because we are all adults and that, as Max Rodenbeck wisely quoteth, “the words art and should don’t mix”.

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14 Responses to Get with the programme

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