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.