Death makes angels of us all: Fragments

Jim Morrison died on 3 July, as young as most of the casualties of the Egyptian revolution of 2011-13 (let’s assume it’s been one string of events for simplicity’s sake). Play a few Doors songs to honour him while you think of bloodied corpses and try as you might not to, at some point you will begin to picture the killers. And going through who they have been — police, military, thugs, honourable citizens, Islamists — you will soon end up blaming everyone and everything. Not without reason. While comforting at first, the discourse of martyrdom (and it has already been sullied in many ways and on various occasions) does not detract from the absolutely unforgivable horror of unnecessary loss of life. And while death of protest may not be exactly murder, it is.

The reason I’ve been thinking of Jim Morrison is that death of protest has been happening again recently, this time at the hands of Islamist militias or quasi-militias: totalitarian theocrats defending democratic legitimacy against Egypt’s second coupvolution in three years. Such Kafkaesque insanity is perfectly normal in Egypt. But second indeed: considering the army’s role in 25 January, there is no sane reason to set 30 June apart from that initial, equally military-facilitated uprising. Death’s made angels of some more young (and old) people — notably in the Cairo neighbourhood of Al Manyal and the Alexandria neighbourhood of Sidi Bishr – but this time it’s made murderous demons of a new and thus far “revolutionary” sect.

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The Parable of the Riots and the Intellectual: On the Ministry of Culture Protest

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First there was a riot, a kind of street fight with the police. Killings led to a sit-in that led to power changing hands. No one took issue with the hangman’s noose swinging symbolically at the maidan, though the riots were supposed to be silmiyyah. The killers never hanged in the end, and no one took issue with that. Only the rioters vowed to take revenge unless the courts hanged someone, but when the courts said not guilty it was all they could do to start a new fight. And in every new fight more rioters were killed. It became something of a national fetish to riot, and riots sprang up everywhere in the country, sometimes for no reason at all, often because no one was hanged.

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City of Kismet

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Unconsciously, it seems, I had waited a lifetime for Kismet. This was not my first attempt at a family of my own but, though I never resisted the idea, one way or another, fatherhood had eluded me. And for some reason I never thought I would have a daughter. When the sex of the foetus emerged relatively late in my wife’s pregnancy, I was unaccountably emotional; for the first time since childhood I experienced a desire wholly voided of lust. Life seemed to be coming together, albeit only once its setting had been transformed.

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Arabian Ants

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Image via Wikipedia

My own private Emirates

Youssef Rakha clicks his heels together three times and says, ’There’s no oasis like home.’

It had been nearly a week since I slept in my apartment – and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary on my return. Enervated by my tour of the Emirates, I resolved to retire for as long as possible. Dream images of my family home in Cairo saw me through; I fell into a deep, regenerative slumber filled with journeys – to Ras al Khaimah, to Alexandria – shorter trips by car which, enabling a brief departure from everyday living quarters, offer a variation on the usual urban domicile, a temporary escape from Abu Dhabi or from Cairo. But by morning, the itching was impossible to ignore.

Some unpleasant sensation in my limbs had momentarily but repeatedly woken me through the night, yet the REM sleep was so absorbing I did not register what it was. Eventually, sitting up in the light of my bedside lamp, I could just make out a familiar creature trudging determinedly from underneath my torso to the edge of the mattress: a tiny brown ant, the kind that, back in Cairo, would be infesting said family home at this time of year if not for regular visits by the exterminator. Yet the ants were never entirely vanquished, especially when the scheduled visit of the exterminator was slightly overdue. They would be practising their infantry drill, individually or in small groups, inside the bath tub or on a door handle, marching alongside invisible tanks across a windowsill, launching minuscule rockets into the ceiling; sometimes they managed to build settlements near the sugar hoards in the kitchen, putting up imperceptible flags.

Amazingly, even as I scratched vigorously now (ensconced in my insulated Abu Dhabi environment) I was overjoyed by the presence of those reviled occupiers. For once my air-conditioned living space – like so much else in the Emirates: cordoned off, polished and seemingly impenetrable to the substance of real life – felt like my idea of a home: a place where, in midsummer, ants have to be dealt with no matter what.

It occurred to me that, even in the perpetual state of transience in which the UAE’s migrant labour force lives (and I too, willy-nilly, am part of that labour force), small details can generate a stable atmosphere, slowly but surely breaking the seal of impermanence. This belated realisation should have come to me earlier – it did not actually require the presence of these arthropod madeleines – had I only given it some thought. It seems that even the most unattached nomad, in the most mercurial quicksand, will of necessity imbue the space he occupies with clues to who he is.

For an actual flat – even a company-procured specimen, in a newly constructed assembly-line building, which looks and feels more like a dorm room than a house – is more than a glorified hotel apartment. Partly to ensure that it would be different from places where I have lived in the past, and partly for the sake of interior-design innovation, but mainly to cut the start-up costs, when I first moved in, I decided to furnish only one room.

The idea was to divide up the space along the lines of UAE territory, mimicking those architectural models you keep bumping into at public venues in a symbolic way. The kitchen and entryway would stand in for the more remote Northern Emirates; the bathroom, being wet (one Arabic word for bathroom – dawrat al miyah – translates as “revolution of the waters”), small and different from anywhere else in the house, would represent the island of Abu Dhabi.

The unfurnished, thus far-unused lounge – designed, or rather left blank, to house parties and punish renegades – is my Empty Quarter, while the Oasis, the hub of my very own miniature Trucial Coast, located as it should be adjacent to the revolution of the waters, is both bedroom and study; it has the TV, the DVD player, the books – everything, really.

At the time, I had not realised that, in so conceiving of the apartment, I was not so much invoking the Emirates as recreating an introverted loner’s archetype of a place to be comfortable in. With few exceptions, I have always occupied a single room, a combination bedroom and study, where the entertainment system would also be installed.

Like Proust, I like to work in bed; like Quentin Crisp, I try to minimise housework. And being cooped up in a manageable space with everything I required in the immediate surroundings must have instinctively felt like the right choice. The Oasis can be depressing when I have stayed there too long, but it answers my needs at every level. Interestingly, the room in its present state has something to say about what it means to live your life as part of a migrant labour force — all the more so in the presence of Cairo-style ants – after a week spent in hotels of widely varying quality.

What the Oasis reveals — in addition to my conscious, ultimately lame map of the Emirates and the subconscious notion of comfortable living space — is the enduring power of subjectivity. Whether they mean to or not, even when they have worked actively against it, transients will unload their baggage wherever they have arrived: their mental, as well as physical baggage; their attitudes and assumptions, their sense of right and wrong, their tastes and, perhaps most tellingly of all, as in my seemingly insane joy on discovering the reason my limbs were itching, their intricately accumulated responses.

In my case, to give a few examples, the kitchen is well-stocked with Turkish coffee, the bedside table has its own, large extension, its drawers equally well-stocked with cigarettes, so as to accommodate ashtrays, coffee cups, books, notebooks, pens, alarm clocks and variously useful trinkets: my life. To the side of the TV table there is a tabla, a walking stick, a traditional Arab flute. A pile of the Arabic books I have published stands beneath the drawing of an Upper Egyptian horse. There is a map of the Ottoman Empire and, next to the pop art case containing my stationary on the desk, a miniature Quran. In the drawers are Egyptian CDs, Lebanese films, Indian incense sticks acquired in the popular Cairo market of Moski.

A hotel cleaner arrives once a week to sort things out; he arranges a load of clean laundry into the wall cupboard and, shaking his head sorrowfully at the ants, says, “I spray now, sir?” To which I am nodding, admittedly with some reluctance.

After six months in Abu Dhabi, something changes in your outlook. It is not that you belong more. Rather, you become more open to experience, more painfully exposed, more willing to engage with people who once seemed irrelevant to you. Most crucially, in this context, your living space — and that includes the public as well as the private — begins to look like you. After six or 60 years, the space forcibly reflects those who reside – however briefly – within.

One of my favourite pastimes in Abu Dhabi is to depart the Oasis in the middle of the night, venture into the Empty Quarter and make a long-distance phone call. “Why is your voice so strange,” my interlocutor will invariably ask. “There is a huge echo, it’s like you’re calling from the middle of the desert.”

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On wasta for The National

Knowing me, knowing you
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While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale. The National, 2009

When I joined my last workplace, back in Cairo, it was on the recommendation of an influential acquaintance of my father’s. I had gone to meet him in one office to enquire about an opening in another, but he misunderstood my purpose and introduced me to some of his colleagues at the office where we met.

A month later, I had completed one task to the satisfaction of said colleagues, but it took another two months and maybe five more tasks before I was finally invited to meet the boss, who was so impressed with my work he offered me not just a job but an actual position. Having a position meant that, unlike many of the competent staffers who worked there “on a contract”, I would become, officially, and for life – yes, for life – an employee of the government-affiliated institution of which my new-found workplace was part. Circumstances were forthcoming, I suppose, because once I had crossed a few mountains of red tape, I did become, as people with positions are generally known, a true appointee. Competent staffers did not have such positions for one of two reasons: either they were not Egyptian citizens, a legal prerequisite for employment in the government, or the procedure awaited “approval” (which could take months, years, sometimes decades, depending on the humours of an all-powerful but invisible chairman).

When I say “competent staffers”, I should explain that there was at that office a much larger contingent of true appointees who took up space, time and (some) money though they were completely incompetent. If they were indeed competent, you did not see the vaguest sign of it. This, I figured, must be what economists mean when they talk about hidden unemployment. Anyway, there was evidently nothing anyone could do about the incompetents. The only action ever taken against them was that, unlike the competents, who were appropriately rewarded for doing good (or any) work, they received only the official government salary, unenhanced by a very substantial supplementary “bonus”. Such bonuses are the only thing that makes it viable for qualified professionals to work for the government, considering the absurdly low salary levels that continue to prevail. Incompetents were of course nominally equally qualified, but they had been placed permanently at the office against the better judgment of the boss.

They had been given positions there thanks to wasta, that untranslatable social vice: the sine qua non of all professional dealings in Egypt, a very mild case of which was involved in my introduction. Not that I would dream of absolving myself, but my case really was mild: this man was neither a personal friend nor a relative, and I was not offered a position until I had done some work.

Etymologically based on the root word for “middle”, wasatah – from which the colloquial term wasta is derived – refers to an act of mediation or intervention intended to help someone achieve a specific goal. It is closely related in tone to the word shafa’ah, or intercession, which is what the Prophet Mohammed will do for all Muslims on the Day of Judgment: in short, have a word with God.

Wasta means having a word with the person in charge to make something possible for someone, usually a job, or rather a position. In feudal times, wasta could actually be a positive form of upward mobility within a far more tightly prescribed space. It was more stringently applied and its beneficiaries were bound by a strict code of honour, with an imperative to do their utmost to prove that efforts on their behalf had not been wasted. The more power was decentralised, however, the less of a role honour had to play in anything.

Today wasta is in many instances synonymous with nepotism, but there is so much more to wasta: it would be extremely short-sighted to reduce its scope to nepotism alone. A catastrophe of the highest order: wasta implies waste, mismanagement and financial misconduct. It leads to various modes of corruption, obstructing upward mobility, narrowing the professional outlooks of the vast majority and perpetuating class boundaries.

Wasta is the magic dynamic by which a spoilt fresh graduate with neither credentials nor experience arrives at an office already appointed while a perfectly able candidate who has been working at the same office for five years continues to await appointment in vain. But it is equally the attitude whereby, while discussing professional prospects and the obstacles in their way, people will suddenly turn to each other with a hopeful twinkle of the eye, asking, “You don’t know someone, do you?” It is the crime almost everyone is routinely accused of, but also the quality of which braggarts are by and large most proud: “No, no, no. We would never get arrested. The deputy Minister of the Interior is a good friend of my father’s.” It is what mothers consider when, thinking about solving their children’s professional problems, they reach the end of their tether.

Wasta, over and above nepotism or corruption, is a life form. And it is a life form whose territory is being encroached on. Like smoking, like national identity, wasta is a species increasingly endangered by globalisation. While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate and more and more Egyptians become aware of the dictates of the World Bank, wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale.

Some day soon, privatisation will put an end to hidden unemployment altogether; then something terrible will happen: a bloody revolution, a civil war, collective screaming summoning up the most destructive earthquake in human history. All are possible consequences.

Still, no matter: fresh graduates, however well connected, will have to stop being spoilt. And the introduction I received, mild as it appears to be now, will eventually become the only form of wasta left.

Then we will all gather round, hold hands and celebrate our newly born American-style integrity – that profoundly protestant combination of idealistic morality and dog-eat-dog ambition believed to produce some form of “meritocracy”, which rarely functions as touted – wondering where on earth tonight’s dinner will come from now that we have neither a job nor the wasta to get us one.

Already, with wasta required at every turn, the process is collapsing under its own weight. With virtually everyone enjoying some kind of wasta power over everyone else (without a self-employed valet, for example, you will be unable to find parking outside your workplace), with so many economic and political variables involved (the valet must bribe the relevant traffic policeman, who must in turn accommodate his superior, etc.), wasta is fast turning into a vague promise or a hope, unreal as a prayer in the dark. “I know someone, yes,” you say to your relation. “Let’s hope they will do something about it.” But even as you utter the words, you know the chances are they won’t – because they can’t. And then you think of the good old days when you could actually have helped, and integrity – well, the aforementioned kind of integrity, at least – doesn’t seem all that appealing after all.

عزاء

كيف سيمكن لكل منهم أن يتعرف على وجه الآخر، هؤلاء الثابتين على قواعدهم باختلاف درجات الململة؟ الأنكى أن عليهم أن يتذكروا الأسماء. بين وصلات النحيب ستفتش الثكالى عن زوجات لأبنائهن. سيسترق الصغار نظرات إلى بدلاتهم المنعكسة في الزجاج. سيتردد المدخنون لحظة إشعال السيجارة. ربما ينسى واحد ويسأل عن الفقيد: ما الذي أخّره عن أداء الواجب معنا هنا؟ وقبل أن ينفض الجمع تقرقع القبلات على الخدود، ولا أثر للموت على وجوه العائلة

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Not just a river in Egypt

originally written for The National

On the flight back from Cairo to Abu Dhabi, I watched a recent Egyptian comedy about a young man who lives in a tin pitcher.

Not literally – but that is the way he describes himself. Because rather than buying all the unaffordable beverages of which he and his little brother keep dreaming, he fills his vessel – the traditional poor man’s drinking cup – with tap water. Then, holding the wide end carefully to his mouth, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and, quaffing, invokes the coveted taste and pretends to relish it.

The scene is a metaphor for the life of the hero, Zaza, played by the comedian Hany Ramzy as a variation on his trademark role: the young Egyptian everyman who, through some implausible accident, ends up brushing shoulders with the powers that be, has irresistible temptations in the process, and ultimately chooses good over evil. Dispossessed but tenaciously contented, almost masochistic in his capacity to embrace misfortune, Zaza , like many real-life Egyptians, resolutely refuses despair. These limitations seem inherent to the Egyptian psyche, and while Egyptians are sufficiently aware of the problem to joke about it, they seldom attempt to transcend it.

One Egyptian legend tells of a poor man who missed meat so much that he bought a loaf of bread and stood by the kebab seller, next to the grill. Before each bite of bread, he would inhale the aroma, filling his lungs with kebab, allowing the flavour to seep into the bread as he chewed it.

It was the next best thing. And it worked (so people will tell you, a wry expression on their faces, barely concealing their bitterness).

But Zaza’s kouz, the aforementioned tin pitcher, takes the idea even further: instead of making any such attempt at approximating the experience of which he has been deprived, the subject stays systematically clear of it. He chooses to depend solely on the power of his mind. So the link between dispossession and contentment begins to seem deliberate.

This disavowal of fulfilment is not confined to the hungry, and in the case of those who don’t lack for food and beverages, we could just as easily illustrate the condition by reference to citizenship rights, financial means or political participation.

The film Zaza is no different from dozens of star-comedian vehicles which, having introduced a good idea in the opening sequence, fail to develop it in any meaningful way. Though the hapless young man goes on to run for president in a wildly doctored election, winning voters’ hearts by speaking truly as one of the people, his preference for passivity – the tendency to favour the kouz over the struggle to obtain mango juice – is nevertheless depicted entirely as a consequence of his poverty.

No action or reaction gets to the bottom of the pitcher, where dishonesty and inertia have been brewing for centuries to deliver a debilitating draught. So it was ironic that I should watch Zaza on the way back from my first visit to Egypt in six months, with an overdose of that potion still coursing through my veins.

Homecomings are always difficult, but this one was particularly unsettling; for the first time I saw Egypt with a clarity I can only describe as disturbing.

After a week of driving through the streets and catching up with friends, reading the newspapers and debating regional affairs, settling legal matters and spending time in cafes, offices and the houses of relations, I spent a day at my former workplace. And that was enough to convince me that the country’s inviolable problems, which I saw anew at every step, in every possible form, were not merely the result of either unfortunate circumstances or moral and material corruption. They had Zaza’s kouz written all over them.

It was not so much the palpable dilapidation of the place, its broken machinery and cracking furniture, nor the idle atmosphere, the absence of so many employees in the middle of the day, nor the profusion of evidence that the quality of the work being produced was irrevocably in decline.

What struck me far more than any of these things was the sense of utter complacency with which the concerned parties accepted them, together with the realisation that, were I still among them, I too would be complacent. Knowing in my heart that there was little to be done, I would whip up the kouz in which the office appeared, magically, as a perpetually busy and adequately equipped workplace. (“As busy and as adequately as one could reasonably expect!” I would have reassured myself, adding: “under the circumstances”). And quaffing, I would do what I had to do, for as long as I had to do it, feeling inefficient, disengaged and worst of all, content – as content as Zaza.

Evidently, all it takes to appreciate kouz theory is six months away. Then the fragile scaffolding holding together the fiction of an alternative to advanced capitalism suddenly collapses. You understand that dispossession, contentment, dishonesty, inertia, Zaza’s tin pitcher and the inviolable problems of Egypt – once seen as the inconvenient side effects of a beloved and particular Egyptian uniqueness – all come back to the kouz.

The secret thread that weaves the fabric of society, the alpha and the omega of present-day Egyptianness, that is what they are about: denial.

Even now it is hard to understand how Zaza could put up with this situation, but once you consider the power of denial – over and above intellectual weakness, moral flaccidity, general laziness and openness to dependency at every level – the process makes perfect sense. It also becomes clear, sadly, why there is no way out of the Egypt’s current political and economic dilemmas. The nation of Zazas is happily ensconced in their kouzes.

This cold reality became painfully clear only a few hours before I departed. One of my former colleagues, an intellectual and former left-wing activist, had devoted her life until age 45 to opposing the regime. At that point she began her present job, a move not without some considerable compromise, as my former workplace is a department of that regime.

When I saw her at the office, she explained that while she had just been offered a desirable job in the private sector, she had refused.

She had refused, in spite of her dissatisfaction with the present situation, in spite of the sizeable pay raise.

Why? She had rejected the job offer, she said, because she had moral integrity. She was too old to compromise her clear oppositional record now. After all, she explained, invoking a Nasserist paradigm that can only turn your stomach if you are Egyptian, she was working for the country – the same country on whose behalf she opposed the regime. That working for the country necessarily entailed working for that same regime seemed not to trouble her conscience.

Never mind that the government was systematically selling out to the private sector, never mind that it was infinitely more corrupt and inefficient than any private-sector company. Never mind that the prejudice against the private sector had emerged in part because of the profitable alliance its leaders forged with the government.

No, my colleague would not compromise her integrity.

Towards the end of the flight to Abu Dhabi I fell asleep and had a dream. In it Zaza appeared in my colleague’s office holding his kouz. She was lying back in her chair sipping hot chocolate and exclaiming in praise of the cocoa that went into it. He was telling her that the cocoa he had in his kouz tasted even better.

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Strange congress

Taxi in Abu Dhabi / U.A.E.
Image via Wikipedia

Few things can be more humiliating than making your way into a public toilet only to find all the cubicles occupied. You can immediately tell, not by the locks on the doors, but by the small congregation of fellow journeymen in need, waiting their turn in tense silence by the sinks. In such situations — and such situations, I must say, have only ever happened to me in Abu Dhabi Mall and, more recently, at the Abu Dhabi Airport — the urinals will tend to be all free: an additional, frustrating irony, for, when you end up thus helpless and distressed, it is not a urinal that you are looking for. Normally I would just turn around and leave, thinking I would come back at a later time or find an alternartive venue. But then, realising the gravity of my situation — and believe me, I no longer even consider going to the bathroom in Abu Dhabi Mall unless the situation is very, very grave — I am forced to wait, against my will, cursing overcrowding and statistics under my breath.
In the ensuing experience, battling with my ever more terrible urge, I have on many occasions had the opportunity to meditate on the human condition while watching the unsavoury procedure of one man emerging, a wide smile of relief splitting his face in two, and another impatiently disappearing into the folds. Punctatued by the little South Indian cleaning man’s brief entry into each cubicle to quickly wipe the floor, spray air freshener and re-flush the toilet just in case, the cycle is endless. At some point, while he heads for the sink, the man who was just inside looks at the others, perhaps noticing the frangrant memento he has left behind or realising the pain to which he has subjected them, and an expression of intense embarrassment takes over his face. For their part the others will fidget or mumur, making way for that latest champion, almost cheering as they see yet another person just like them successfully concluding his wait, and a sort of shameful complicity spreads through the atmosphere. Against my will, I too am party to that atmosphere.
But it was not until this present long weekend, when I was disappointed to find the airport overcrowded on arriving there at eight in the morning, that it occurred to me that this predicament is very like the predicament of waiting in vain for a taxi on the streets of Abu Dhabi. It must be one of the side effects of speedy development: there are far many more people than you have counted on, and so far fewer taxis — and toilet cubicles — than needed. And looking on the bright side, I concluded, this gives you access to experiences you would never have dreamt of having, whether or not you deem them all that humiliating. Who would have thought I would ever be a member of that strange congress?

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