Catch 25

The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion

wpid-img_8023-2012-10-11-10-14.jpg

At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.

        Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.

        Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.

        So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.

        Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.

        The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.

        If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”

        Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.

***

October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.

***

At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.

        One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.

        The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.

        It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.

        Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.

        Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.

        By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.

        With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.

***

Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.

***

Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.

        Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.

        As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.

        The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…

        Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.

        B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.

        Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.

        Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.

        For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.

        That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.

***

It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.

***

Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.

        Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.

        This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.

        It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.

A testimony from the siege

wpid-img_2614-2012-05-18-17-251.jpg

.

The Gaza Spring

.

At the time I had Islamist tendencies. I was still a schoolboy when the inqilab happened in 2007. (Thus spoke Amin, which is not his name: 22, author, activist, affiliate of Fateh, lifetime resident of Palestinian Rafah. We spoke on the roof of a mid-range hotel in Gaza City late last week. By inqilab, the accepted term—literally: “overthrow”—Amin was referring to the post-democratic, forcible overtake of power in the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Now I notice that, every time he said “they” in the abstract, “Hamas”, especially its security apparatus in Gaza, was what he meant.) At first they blew up all the security agencies; it’s unclear why, the buildings were empty. But they did. And they arrested everyone who said ‘I am Fateh’: all the militias, of course, but also civil servants, citizens, students…

        We thought it was an overthrow of the Palestinian Authority but it was really an overthrow against Fateh; and it was driven by power hunger… I happened to have relations in Fateh so I could see how they dealt with people. They would give you something called “the acquittal”: ‘Hand over your weapons and you can go, but don’t engage in any activity of any kind whatsoever.’ Sometimes they kept you under house arrest. That was the earliest period. Later President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision that everyone should stay at home: all the Authority employees. He never called it that but it was a form of civil disobedience—a general strike. Everyone did stay at home, more or less. And so we discovered that they already had a full team of professionals in every field imaginable: security, health, education, everything; it was predictable that they should have security forces since they were a force of the resistance but they turned out to be ready to replace the Authority in every aspect of life.

        The next day people just accepted the situation, with unexpected equanimity. We were thinking there would be explosions or attacks, that life would be disrupted as a result of the sudden substitution—nothing happened. Maybe that was the result of people’s discontent with the Authority, because the Authority was somewhat corrupt even though we had lived well under it and you can tell it wasn’t very repressive by the fact that Hamas, its greatest opposition, was allowed to grow, and grow.

In time I slipped out of the crucible of the Islamists. I had no political interests per se but I decided to question what I had believed about Palestine, and I watched from outside. Eventually I became an organised member of Fateh through friends from university. They told me what was Fateh, who were Fateh. I was convinced; maybe because I’d seen the injustice against Fateh, I liked it. But then I also began to understand what was Oslo which at the mosque, within the crucible, they had taught us was wrong, the way they taught us that Fateh were all Zionized: traitors and apostates.

        I began to understand the meaning of peace, the different forms the struggle could take, things we used to consider haram (or prohibited by God) without thinking. It may be true that many members of Fateh really did collaborate with the Zionist occupation but the way the security-coordination terms of the Oslo agreement were misrepresented and the way you were supposed to dismiss all of Fateh as godless traitors—that was hugely exaggerated and manipulative, a lie. My first ever political activity was to join a gathering commemorating Arafat on the anniversary of his death. On campus. And I was beaten up: Islamist students from a number of universities attacked and cut it short.

        That day I ran away and got on a bus. They stopped it and searched the passengers for the black-and-white kufiya, which they associate with Fateh even though it’s a symbol of Palestine; but I wrapped my kufiya around my torso, underneath my shirt, and I got away. Before that I was neutral—I am not with you, guys, but I’m not against you. Now I am against you. Because something is seriously wrong. We commemorated Abu Ammar (i.e., Arafat) again, and we commemorated Abu Jihad (i.e., Arafat’s comrade in arms, the fidayeen leader and cofounder of Fateh Khalil Al Wazir, who was assassinated in Tunis in 1988); and every time we were subjected to verbal abuse as well as physical attack, and then arrests and summons as well. For a while I even stopped going to university because I was under pressure from my family who didn’t want me involved in any political activity, realising what could happen. So I started reading and finding out about things—what is Hamas, why Hamas, what is Fateh, whatever—and gradually developing an opinion and orientation of my own.

        As I fell on the wrong side of them, in the end, the main question was, Eish fih (or, “What’s wrong?”) We wanted to know where they thought they were taking things, what the purpose of the division was (between the Fateh-dominated Authority and Hamas): what is your issue with peace if you are not waging any resistance? Why do you even have a problem with Fateh if you’re adopting the exact same policy? Eish fih

.

First we staged a protest against the closing down of Sharik, which is an NGO for young people and creativity and such; it was closed down on the pretext that prostitution went on in there, and that the activists and artists and civil society developers who worked there were in the employ of Israel. The second time I was arrested was on 29 January 2011, the day after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution (i.e., Angry Friday, as opposed to the 25 January demonstrations that led to it) when we staged a march in solidarity. I was abused. Not beaten up, just insulted, questioned, told, “You are supporting people who are American agents. And what do we have to do with it anyway?” I was held for four hours.

        The way it happened was they would send you a summons and you would turn up the next day. You were a prisoner of course but you were treated with relative respect. There were no beatings though the questions were extremely personal and probing… They would shoot us with their cameras, and during the questioning they would review the images and if you were sitting next to a girl you would be asked who that girl was and why she was dressed provocatively and, whatever your response, called all sorts of names. Even when you went to Egypt for a holiday—everyone in Gaza spends part of the summer in Egypt—you could be filmed there and questioned about what you were doing on your return. But no matter how hard you try to cooperate with them they never believe what you tell them. That’s what I discovered the first time I was under clear-cut political arrest, on 27 February, 2011, when I was held for two days.

        Already at this point something called the Dignity Revolution has attempted a Fateh overthrow of Hamas. It was a disastrous failure and the suppression was truly stupid, heavy-handed and humiliating; I was among those arrested but I had been interrogated before and they quickly realised I had nothing to do with it… I was arrested again on 11 March and they wanted to keep me till 15 March to prevent me from joining the protests planned for that date, because they believed I could be an influential party. In the end they released me and told me to come back on 14 March before anything happened; I did not, I went to the demonstrations, which on purpose we staged a day earlier than planned.

        Anyway, people who were arrested on those occasions formed the core of the group who staged the 15 March protests last year (i.e., Gaza’s mini-revolution and principal contribution to the Arab Spring, which went almost entirely unreported here as elsewhere); the demonstrations were staged simultaneously in coordination with protests in the West Bank. Our purpose was to end the division; we didn’t care who was to blame, we wanted national unity. It’s clear to me now that a party who stops me from pursuing this aim is a party that’s against national unity, maybe even a party who has a vested interest in Gaza’s isolation considering that goods are smuggled in from Israel despite the siege.

We went out on 14 March. We gave a press conference and announced we would start a sit-in then and there; we wanted to stage a carbon copy of the Egyptian revolution. We had the support of all the political factions including some Hamas figures—Ghazi Hamad and Ahmad Youssef, for example—though at this point we were all in the 18-25 age bracket; no one was older than 25. So we stayed the night of 14 March; we had said that no flags would be raised apart from the Palestinian flag.

        On 15 March the biggest march we had ever seen arrived in buses and they raised flags that were the Palestinian flag on one side, the Hamas flag on the other. When we argued with them they said the shahadah on the Hamas flag could not be dropped, it was the statement of our faith—”There is no God but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God”—the usual religious discourse, that is.

        In the West Bank it was a slightly different story: after very slight encroachments on the protest, President Abbas ordered the distribution of shawerma sandwiches and drinks to the protesters—I’m sure he was trying to contain the situation but it made him look good.

        So on the spot we invented the slogan: ‘Al katiba ya shabab, khalli ej jundi lal ahzab: “To Katiba, young men. Leave the [Unknown] Soldier to the [political] parties.” Katiba is a spot near the university campuses, which are very close together, while the Unknown Soldier you could say is Gaza’s answer to Tahrir Square. What we didn’t have time to think about was that Katiba was a very bad choice from a security standpoint: it’s very easy to be surrounded and controlled there. Anyway, we headed over to Katiba where we put up posters and slogans to make it clear that we had withdrawn from the protest that was misappropriated by the government. They sent people who told us we had to leave by five pm; we said we were not leaving. People went off to bring over tents and supervisions and transported the stuff we had installed in Unknown Soldier the previous day. All was set for spending the night.

        At seven pm I was standing with a young man with a beard who was raising the Palestinian flag and I was handing him a glass of tea. I was saying, “You want some tea?” and he was saying “Yes”—and the next thing you know is this surge of bearded civilians with sticks. I won’t even pretended they were just ordinary people because we knew some of them and they were Hamas. (Those are virtually identical to the pro-Mubarak and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens” who attacked demonstrators in Cairo.) Anyway, the first person to hit me, across the chest, was the young man I was handing the tea. Afterwards we found out there were many such infiltrators.

        It was like an charge of the Mongols, the most brutish attack you can imagine: beating, insults, abuse of women, even some of our mothers who were there. Some of my friends were so badly hurt they could not move. An activist friend of mine and I escaped and spent the night at a friend’s in Gaza City, and apart from brief appearances on campus we never went home; we stayed hidden for a week because, as we heard, they had distributed our pictures to security so that we could be arrested at checkpoints.

        The next day there was a demonstration on campus and it was brutishly suppressed. On 17-19 March we tried again but the numbers had dwindled and many were arrested. Until 30 March, Land Day, when we were arrested on the charge of raising the Palestinian flag to spread sedition.

.

This is my experience with political suppression. Intellectual suppression is another story. In the briefest possible way: whoever is not with them is against them; and this is hardly unusual for Islamists. I am not the only the example. A female blogger was arrested because of what she wrote on her blog—nothing to do with politics. The first time I was arrested because I had written about my arrest in the Egyptian revolution solidarity protest. Another time, also because of something I had written, on the charge of “spreading secularism and falsifying (not simply misquoting) the Quran”.

        After the second arrest we were released to find we had turned into atheists on the street. I even had trouble with my own family. It was a systematic defamation of character. What happened was—I stopped writing poems and articles; and when I started writing again I did it in a different way, not just to protect myself but to protect my family. Later, after a long bout of depression—for weeks I didn’t even step out of the house, I would ask my brother to buy me cigarettes—I decided I wanted to leave Gaza altogether. That was perhaps the strongest effect all this had on my life.

        It happened after a visit to Cairo, I was arrested a while after my return on the charge of collaborating with foreign intelligence and being an agent and things like that. This created problems with my friends and even with myself… I stopped undertaking any activity: neither political nor civil nor literary nor intellectual. Once again on my brother returning from Egypt while I was still there, they wanted to arrest him because of me. I couldn’t sort out residency in Egypt and I had to cut short my stay and come back to deal with it.

        On all these occasions I was insulted, maybe even pushed around a little, but there was no beating as such. It was nothing compared to people we heard about: someone detained for 180 days; someone forced to stay standing for 40 days; someone suspended from their hands or feeds for extended periods. But the last time I was arrested was after talk of unrest because of the lack of electricity—you know electricity is only available for a few hours a day in Gaza, but if you object you are spreading rumours and perpetrating sedition. There was talk of another attempted overthrow and I had nothing to do with that either but I was arrested again. And this was my worst experience of humiliation and beating. It was only one day, but I went home passed out.

        But it was being accused of working for foreign powers that affected me the most. Family relations intervened and negotiated on my behalf until my release was finally secured, but I fell into a long depression. You try to serve your homeland and this is what happens to you? I won’t deny it, it was then that I started thinking, and I continue to wonder about it now: “The homeland is the thing raises you up, that is why you hold it sacred. It is not the thing that humiliates you.”

.

Interview by Youssef Rakha

..

wpid-img_2731-2012-05-18-17-25.jpg

Banipal piece

An enlargeable satellite image of the lower Ni...
Image via WikipediaThe automotive monologues

The bus is more than half empty when I get on…

An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.

Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?

Not until we’ve reached Almaza Station, the last stop before the Ismailia highway, do the holidaymakers arrive in droves. (Beyond Ismailia itself, you have only to cross a bridge over the Suez Canal to be on your way to Gaza). With permission from the driver, this is my chance for a last-minute cigarette. All my possessions are neatly bundled in a small vinyl “manbag”, so it’s easy enough to take everything along on my smog-infused stroll round the vehicle. I leave only my book, open face down where I was seated: a very common indication that the seat in question is occupied.

Outside, the upper half of the driver has disappeared into the baggage dungeon that makes up the underbelly of the vehicle, where cases are no doubt being cast into the East Delta Company’s shadowy geometry of departure. Passing his contorted rump, I must dodge more bag-bearers in the heat. Finally, back on board, I’ve shoved my way to where the prayer-dispensing woman first materialised. An extended family fills up the aisle like revolving stalactites.

Among them are three stunning female teenagers; only one wears a headscarf: having closed and cast aside the book, she is plonked happily in my stead. I protest weakly, addressing myself to the nearest grown-up man. Immediately he obliges, but, as if in a punitive gesture, he selects the largest of his male children to position firmly by my side.

YOU CAN generally judge your distance from greater Syria by the taste and texture of Turkish coffee: the more satisfying the beverage, the closer you are. We have barely passed Qantara East, the first major stop on what would be the shortest ground route to Palestine — and, thanks to its identity with Qantara West, a vital link between Sinai and the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya — but the coffee is already superior to what you would get at the offices of this newspaper.

The “rest-house” here is more modest than its Alexandrine counterparts, which makes such quality all the more remarkable. Watching the sun dip lower and lower on the horizon, I make phone calls from the edge of the highway, some distance away from the din of the buses and their patrons. Then, determined to chat up the waiter, I walk back to the cafeteria, make my order and sit down.

Back on the bus the prayer pamphlets have already disappeared. Was it the pretty girl in hijab ? The impending darkness renders watching the video a kind of tunnel vision. Now that the dialogue is English, the volume has thankfully been turned down.

But the second film is Speed, the action flick about a bus with a bomb on it. When I start watching, the driver has been shot in the arm; to avoid an explosion, the woman who takes his place must charge ahead at more than 60 miles an hour irrespective of traffic. Under the circumstances, one vehicle will inevitably be confused with the other as we charge ahead in the dark. It is dizzying.

I’VE BARELY broken into a run on the asphalt when the truck swerves violently, braking a few steps away from me. In a typically North Sinai automotive idiosyncrasy, one half of the highway just outside Arish is set aside for pleasure cycles and promenading; the other, where I’m rushing towards the white Mercedes taxi after what feels like a long wait, is consequently a two-way road.

“I was going to die trying to get in next to you.”

“You might as well admit it: you’re in too much of a hurry.”

I am. The brevity of my stay is weighing on me and a plan spontaneously forms in my head — so I gush it out to the red-faced Bilei tribesman at the wheel:

“I have a booking with the Coral Beach but I’m told that’s too far from town. Can you take me somewhere closer? Will there be rooms available, though? Listen. I want to go to Rafah in the morning, come back in a few hours. Can you do it? How much would it cost?”

Arishi Arabic is a surprisingly organic mixture of Bedouin and Delta dialects very much like the Palestinian colloquial spoken in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a result of the same tribal roots stretching across the border or of more recent, politically vexed exchange, it makes a pleasant counterpoint to the Hollywood English of the film. They say a Bedouin lives up to his word. By the time I have settled in my mosquito-infested “chalet room” at the “Ubarwai” (as everyone here refers to the former Oberoi, the venue’s present name being Arish Resort), I feel my plan is truly under way.

Ten minutes later another truck is swerving, but this time I’m out of its collision course. The silent, perfectly metropolitan taxi driver will charge me LE4 instead of the LE3 quoted by the Bilei but I don’t mind. He is silent. As I edge out of the Mercedes, winding an improvised path through a crowd that could have been anywhere urban and poor in Egypt, my concern is rather to find someone to talk to.

It hasn’t occurred to me yet, but in the 36 hours I am away from Cairo, it is drivers who will be my salvation. For half an hour at the café I can’t bring myself to approach anyone without feeling too intrusive. I just observe: young backgammon players with interesting hair-dos; middle-aged civil servants drawing on their shisha as they affectionately exchange news; old sheikhs meditating…

My close-cropped hair can’t be helping, I know. Then again, this is hardly a question of my appearance alone. There has to be a convincing excuse for making conversation — a context both fleeting and intimate as well as, crucially, informal. I finish my Coke and find an Internet café. Phenomenally tired by now, I just stand there, roughly adjacent to the high street, waiting to catch a ride back.

A cigarette is all it takes to engage this driver. He is young, slight and pissed off: had he bought cigarettes in his present state of mind, he says, he would have smoked three packs by now. “When I feel suffocated, I just switch on the Qur’an” — the same Saudi recitations are booming all through the five- minute journey — “and drive along.” He only ever smokes this brand, he says, smiling.

What is bothering him?

“The way things are, no one has the luxury to think of politics or the political situation and so begin to do something about them; no one is in any position to do anything but feed himself and his family. Someone says, ‘Come along to a demonstration,’ and all you can think of is the time you’d be wasting there when you’d rather be doing some lucrative work. So there is no activism, though God knows we need it. There is only this breathless running around, and where does it lead to?”

A TRUE PILGRIMAGE is best preceded by a fast. That way the senses are heightened, the body purified; the soul becomes more receptive to the presence of the (political) sacred.

I forgo breakfast too often to claim that this is my intention when, as per my agreement with the Bilei, I set out for Rafah the next morning. I could hardly have thought of it as a pilgrimage, either. But the fact that my driver, Akhdar — a “relation” of the one I contracted — is quick to say, “I am Palestinian”, and the sight of prickly pear-flanked sand dotted with olive groves… the smell of sea air, entirely distinct from that of the western Mediterranean, which I’m used to, and the vague sense of danger as the checkpoints become more frequent — all imbues the experience with a sense of transcendence, a feeling of crossing over into a space both rightful and forbidden, suddenly too close to ignore.

Akhdar is young and serene, subdued. “I’ve got a passport and everything,” he explains with remarkable calm. “But for years now they won’t let me in. I’ve been many times, of course, to see my family. People want to come in here to see their family; sometimes they’re working in other countries and, stopping over in Gaza, they have to come here to travel back to their work places. More often they just need to go to hospital… No, no, I was born here. My mother is [a Bilei?] from Sharqiya. When you have residence you can go anywhere you like, just like an Egyptian citizen, but in other ways it’s not the same.”

He is about to marry, he tells me, but his wife won’t be a Palestinian. Marrying an Egyptian — a girl from Sharqiya, in his case — can raise your chance of obtaining nationality, according to recently introduced laws; that way you can leave the country if you want to, you can claim social and health care; you can feel, as he puts it, “in one piece”. Turning slightly to identify the local headquarters of the country’s most notoriously influential plain-clothes police force, the State Security, Akhdar switches his 1970s Egyptian pop back on. No one cares any more for the Palestinians, he says.

A string of stories about sneaking family members from the other side in through Rafah’s automotive waterways — once, he reports, he was surrounded by no less than 12 machine guns, their muzzles all over his vehicle — is interrupted by a low-rank policeman gesturing for us to stop.

“What is that you’ve got in there?”

His head half inside the window on Akhdar’s side, the policeman nods accusingly towards me, apparently confident that I can’t understand what he says.

” Essalamu alaykom,” I intervene in perfect Arabic, watching the sheepish smile that forms on his lips gradually dissolve into an expression of welcome while I explain who I am and what I’m there for. He nods knowingly to “the opening of the maabar “; I can see him waving in the side-view mirror.

“When people have hair like that, they tend to be Jews,” for which read “Israelis”. Akhdar smiles apologetically while he removes his seat belt again, now that we’re clear of checkpoints; he accepts yet another cigarette, looking ahead. Had he known what I was after, he says, he would have taken me to his paternal uncle, back in Arish; the old man knows a lot of border-passage stories. As it is, speeding, we will wend our way to the maabar first, seeking what relations we can find later in Rafah.

“So what did you do?” I am sounding increasingly disjointed as I take in the surrounding sights. “When you were stopped by those armed policemen, what did you do?”

By now the landscape is more or less identical with film images of the Gaza Strip stored away in the global memory; that strange, green gateway — not a frontier, not a tollbooth — comes within sight. I expected car-studded crowds raising an energetic cacophony. As we approach, slowing, except for a handful of policeman lounging in the shade, the place is in derelict stillness.

“Nothing,” Akhdar is saying, still perfectly calm. “They got us out and searched every nook and cranny of the car. In the end I just left him standing there on the sand — what else? I headed back.”

SINCE the outbreak of war in Lebanon — Israelis levelling Beirut in response to Hizbullah taking two hostages in the south — I have been tormented by the dilemma of how to support the resistance while opposing political Islam, an ideology I take issue with regardless of creed. Still, while people are resisting the insane excesses of empire, can you really reject their driving force?

Akhdar will take a shortcut before slowing down a narrow lane outside his cousin’s house, explaining that this is one of the roads he has used for people smuggling. The maabar is behind us as we turn. Gesturing derisively in its direction, he will point out, again, that it would be pointless listening to the advice we got there… On seeing my press credentials, one uniformed low-rank policeman had started to explain what it means to work at the maabar, day in, day out, when another, plain-clothes one interrupted the conversation, insisting that, before I can speak to anyone, I must have State Security permission.

“You’re a driver, right?” The uniformed officer said to Akhdar, through a window in the gate itself, feigning a helpful tone for my benefit. “You know where it is.”

If I want information I must go to State Security.

In the shade of a tree on the other side of the road, another uniformed officer was dozing off when the plainclothes policeman who had intercepted me went up to him; he raised his head from the table, he put it back down. His plainclothes companion — himself State Security, I suspect — didn’t bother to remove his leg from the seat on which it was placed when he shook my hand. “Nothing at all happened here,” he said, his tone verging on the intimidating. “Nothing worth reporting on, anyway. Do you see any activity around you?” He looked behind him. “A real pleasure meeting you, though…”

Breathing Palestinian air, now, the Islamic resistance dilemma no longer seems to bother me. We have stopped momentarily by an olive field, and it’s hard to believe that the poles in the distance are actually in Palestine. (“I saw Palestine,” I will keep telling friends on coming back to Cairo. “Yes, the country.”) But as we take our seats on the floor at Akhdar’s cousin’s — an older taxi-driver whose large one-storey house might as well be in a refugee camp — it dawns on me with unprecedented intensity that here are the people on the ground, that their lifestyle and beliefs are in no way undermined by Islamism, and that no one, not a single force except for the militants of political Islam are fighting on their side.

Over 500 families are supported by taxi trips from the maabar to Arish, my gracious host explains — his language is even more like Palestinian than anything I’ve heard so far — making at least 2,000 people dependent on the maabar being open, the only time when “there is work”. The Egyptian authorities have nothing to do with it, he insists. “It is the Jews, the Jews,” he says, over and over, “may God bring down their houses.” (There would be no point opening the maabar while the border is closed, and the border, however indirectly, is controlled by the Israeli authorities). The other day when it was open, he tells Akhdar, sipping the fresh mango-and- guava juice he has offered us, the work flowed “like honey”.

Before we leave — just in time for the camel races, back on the outskirts of Arish — he has made two separate points that bring the resolution of the dilemma to a safe harbour in my head:

“People are too concerned with having enough to eat to think about politics, whether or not they would support Hamas if they did;” and “Egyptians get along with Palestinians in Rafah, of course they do, because they are all Muslims; why should Muslim neighbours have problems with each other?”

After so many years of liberalism and enlightenment, I am born again.

The cousin ends up coming along part of the way to ask at the mechanic’s whether a particular spare part is available; there would be no point bringing the relative who needs it all the way from Arish if it wasn’t. (Many such commodities come straight from Israel; and trading in things like clothes and electronics originating there forms a significant part of North Sinai’s informal economy). At one point we take a sharp turn and he taps my shoulder from the back seat:

“See that building there?” I’m wincing in the sun. “That’s Palestine.”

THAT morning when I woke up, there were so many Arabian head-covers in the Ubarwai lounge I couldn’t help suspecting a Gulfie take-over. Only on speaking to one of their wearers — he turned out to be a camel breeder from Aqaba — did I discover what this was about: the Mahrajan Al-Hijjin, one of several three-day “camel festivals” held annually across the country, which draws together tribal Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa — all of whom wear the Peninsula’s trademark uqaal. (Several sources pointed out that the colour of the headscarf is a matter of personal taste, nothing to do with tribal affiliations: the blue, Tuareg-like varieties are increasingly popular among the young).

Finding out there would be races this afternoon, I’ve been looking forward to attending them all day — a relaxing denouement to the strain of Rafah — grateful that an unexpected gift should crop up just before I go. Arab nationalism aside, camels are among my favourite animals; and what better way to unwind than standing on the dunes watching them accelerate majestically in the sand, with beautifully decked out child jockeys bouncing in rhythm on their backs — or so I think.

They too will have had no breakfast, according to my Aqaba interlocutor, having spent the last two weeks eating and drinking half of their usual diet in preparation — something that intensifies my empathy now that hunger is wringing my stomach. By the time Akhdar puts on a Bedouin tape — also from Jordan — the horrors of “security” have been cast away.

At the rink we must wait; some say for an hour, some for two. One foj — that is how a single group of competing camels is referred to — is finished; the next hasn’t started yet. Akhdar and I consider the possibilities, setting off for the Ubarwai only to retrace our steps five minutes later: the cars are converging on the area, he says; the foj must be about to start.

Back on the sand we bump into Rabi, the brother of the driver who took me to the Ubarwai in the first place; without changing significantly, Akhdar’s speech appears to emphasise Bedouin over Palestinian inflections when he speaks to him. Rabi is in one of the sedans in which he deals, as he informs me, bringing them back and forth from Cairo. He invites me to sit in the back; later, when the action starts, thanks to his brother’s hospitality, I move next to him in the front.

My right arm will go on stinging for many days from exposure to sand bursts while sticking the camera out the window. The way you watch the race is to speed after the camels alongside the rink, mostly in Toyota pickups bearing up to 20 people in the back, taking pictures where you can — camera mobile phones are incredibly plentiful — and egging along your stud.

Afterwards, in the open space adjacent to where the single, circular lap starts and finishes, the onlookers perform car stunts, competing in daring and aptitude.

That the sedan, also a Toyota, was not meant for sand stunts doesn’t stop Rabi from joining in the show, at which point I’ve been in the car for more than three hours and am desperate to get out. For a long, long time before the foj started, he was crawling around making phone calls and looking for friends, never stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. For a traffic-suffocated city dweller it seemed counterintuitive to call this fun; but for everyone else it was a perfectly natural pastime.

No chance of a contemplative time on the dunes, then. Instead, this adrenaline-pumped ride round and round, with only a few moments to stretch my legs every so often. All the while the slow sundown is doing creative things with the sky — and not a single stationary camel to spend time with so far.

When Rabi disappears in the ring of vehicles waiting for their turn at a stunt, leaving the three of us near the rink to watch, I notice the lone figure of an evidently defeated competitor tethered unpleasantly to the wood. He is performing strange movements with his neck, looking like an ostrich and a bloodhound in turn, apparently unsettled by the presence of so many motor vehicles in the same place. He won’t give me a chance to touch him, though he poses for a few pictures willingly enough, from a distance. At least I step over and exchange a few words.

RABI is Arab to the bone; that means he badmouths other Arabs, making fun of the dha sound with which South Sinai tribes replace the more city-like da of the north (something I remember his red-faced brother doing too). It also means he will do anything for a guest — anything but listen carefully enough to realise that that guest would really like to go now, please. Instead he points out people firing guns into the air, carried away by the all- male, sand-and- uqaal excitement.

On a day like this, no guest or policeman will prevent him from driving on and on in circles, racing ahead like a madman to make sure “those water buffalo” don’t get ahead of him alongside the rink, and identifying tribes by facial features — a process that involves the most outrageous statements: “They will sell everything to buy a car for the mahrajan, come over in it, then sell it off once the mahrajan is over”; “The black ones are Arabs too, but they are black; they’re the worst killers, the black ones”; “Those guys you see over there, each of them has three to seven life sentences to his name, but they go on as before and there’s nothing the police can do to stop them; the police are scared of them”…

When he bumps into a group of resident policemen, indeed, he treats their practise of extortion as a given — a way, for him, to assert generosity or withhold favour. For a similarly long time he complains of not having any cannabis on him; the same goes for water. A need, though pressing, is never pressing enough; it just persists. And the concept of solitude doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Always people are coming and going, sometimes summoned by mobile phone, insulted when they fail to answer. Like a true stoner, Rabi has the shortest concentration span.

“The nicest thing is to get high and go round like we’re doing now,” he tells me at one point. And at another: “Do you get high?”

I know I have answered this question before now, so I insist, firmly but gently, that I must go; and following another 15 minutes of pleading on the part of both his brother and Akhdar he finally drives us back to where the taxi is parked.

“You’ve seen enough of this anyway,” he says as I edge out. The real fun is up on the mountain. Over there, there is neither police nor outsiders; people are completely wild…”

FIVE minutes later Rabi phones to say that he is going to Cairo tonight and would I like to go along with him, now that it is too late for a bus. We exchange phone numbers and he promises to phone in an hour. “An hour?” I ask incredulously. He is still at the rink.

“An hour.”

Several hours later — I am at another “rest-house” beyond Ismailia, almost at the end of my journey, and the coffee tastes like excrement — Rabi still hasn’t phoned.

“Why in such a hurry?” I remember him saying.

Enhanced by Zemanta