Egypt is a class-ridden society. You can see that in this text (published in 2009) if you pay attention. More about that subject will follow in a later post!
Cairo through the looking glass
There are self-appointed parking lot attendants in Cairo. If you pay them an extra tip, they will wash your car. In our building, as in all buildings in Egypt, there is also the “Bawab”; something like a janitor. Usually, he has his family with him, his wife and children. They all live more or less modestly in the building. The Bawab has various duties for which the tenants pay him. In this building, everyone pays 40 Guineas a month. But the Bawab of this building is rather old. “He tends not to do anything”, says Aida. That’s why Basil and Aida often use the services of Ahmed, who is actually a security guard, and makes sure that nothing happens there at night.
Ahmed wears a Galabya. I met him the very first day I moved into the building. He was supposed to clean the staircase. Ahmed also helps bring up the groceries – he gets paid extra every time he does that. That’s actually the Bawab’s job.
One can also get the wives and children of the janitor or security guards to help. The women clean and the children, especially the little boys, do errands. If you can afford it, you don’t have to do very much at all yourself in Cairo. Every morning from my window I see young men cleaning parked cars with old rags. People are dusting everywhere. And rightly so: the city is dusty.
You can also have your laundry ironed. For each article of clothing, you pay a pound; pickup and delivery included. Yesterday evening, a boy about eight years old was standing in front of the door with freshly pressed shirts and pants. He wanted seven pounds. I couldn’t believe he wanted so little. He repeated “seven pounds” and pointed to the delivery note. There was a “V” (Arabic for “7”) written at the bottom. He must have thought I was an idiot. A Tetra Pack litre of orange juice also costs seven pounds.
There are really very many services provided in Egypt. Where in Germany you might find two people working, in Cairo there would be twenty. Gas stations, for example, are very busy. People come up and ask if you need this, that or the other service. Still, says Basil, there is unemployment in Egypt. What this actually means, or how many people this really affects, I could not find out. Basil himself says he is unemployed because he only works twice a week.
When Napoleon was in Egypt at the end of the 18th Century, he brought along a great many specialists to record and catalogue the entire Egyptian world. The Industrial Revolution was going on in Europe at the time. Famous travellers of the Orient, such as Gustave Flaubert and Edward William Lane, have always written similarly about Egypt: they were fascinated by the alleged cultural standstill they found in the country. I don’t have the necessary distance from Germany to determine if something similar to this can be said about the German way of life. What is fascinating about Cairo is the co-existence of the technologically Modern alongside this alleged cultural stagnation. Even if the clothing style has remained relatively unchanged, the stagnation is certainly only superficial. There is a lot going on. I can imagine that even the current Islamism will be short-lived. Depending on how the political alignment develops globally, it could all change. It is always a global balancing act. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything is going to improve. I am thinking about the end of Socialism; the end of Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia; the end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
I have a crisis. I have become quite dependent on the family and it has become boring to report about the household and the like. After two weeks, I’ve come to a turning point. Yesterday evening we met Faris, Ghazi’s brother, who is learning Arabic here. He is my Nr. 3 contact person for Palestinians. Everything seems to be falling apart, this crazy Cairo, Islam, the unbearably stupid hypocritical morality.
We drive from Wakalat al Balah (meaning something like “Dates-Agency”), which lies north of Maadi on the Nile. It is Sunday. When we arrive, the stores are closed. The shades are drawn. Aida asks the taxi driver why the stores are closed. He says because it’s Sunday. This is odd, because Friday is usually the day of rest. We get out and look around the streets. Everywhere women have spread blankets out on the ground and are selling their wares: It’s a kind of flea market. There is second-hand clothing, old curtains, and factory seconds.
One woman is even selling cosmetics that haven’t been used but still seem to have gone through a lot already. It looks like the lipsticks, powders and creams have all blended together into a pile of rusty brown. Next to it is a collection of similarly rusty brown wigs. Aida is still looking for fabric to make into curtains and sofa covers. For me, it is like a crash course on Egyptian home furnishing and its specific vocabulary. As usual, they think we are foreigners, this time from Tunisia. In the few shops that are open, they hardly speak to us – the vendors probably don’t speak English. One tries to pass off his wares as French. When Aida says (in Arabic naturally) that we want Egyptian fabric, the vendor says, fine, then the cloth is from Egypt.
After we find the right cloth in another store (and at a very good price), we drive straight back to Maadi. I tell Aida that the salesman had something very un-serious about him, it seemed to me as if he had been drinking; particularly his eyes, they were slightly swollen and red. Aida commented that he was probably stoned all the time, like everyone else. Exactly, I say. That’s what it must be – but he still looked nice.
In the evening we make our way into the city to Midan At-Tahrir. This time we take the Metro. We have a date with Faris later at the Greek Club. He tells me on the phone that he is going to the movies to see the “The Yacoubian Building” at the Grand Hyatt. The Greek Club, called Nadi Junani in Arabic, is directly above Groppy, a famous café in Cairo. After paying five guineas at the door you arrive at an open-air terrace. You can hear Greek music from the street below. In the women’s restroom, there are mothballs in the sink. A waiter greets Aida with a handshake, as if she were an old acquaintance, even though she doesn’t know him. He does the same with nearly all the guests. He is very sincere as he does it, like a nice old lady. We drink Stella Beer again and snack on lupin seeds and beans.
Faris arrives. The film had run overtime. Actually, I don’t really know Faris. I’ve only met him once before; but he is not such a stranger. His mannerisms and speech are quite similar to those of his brother, Ghazi: their speech is slightly nasal and mostly in monotone. He starts telling us straight away of his impressions of Egyptian society. He says everything is worn out and he wouldn’t be surprised if it would explode sometime soon. Seeing “The Yacoubian Building” confirmed his impressions.
At first he thought that he was looking at things from a bourgeois European point of view – at for example, in his opinion, the double morality that is behind Islamism. When he was here five years ago, only 30% of the women were veiled. Now it is certainly 90% and the level of sexual frustration is immense. I can’t say so much about this, because I spend most of my time in the world of Aida and Basil.
Faris tells us about “The Fifth Pound”; a short film he has read about. The film takes place during Ramadan. It’s set shortly before the fast has ended, when the streets are nearly deserted. A couple is riding the bus; the back seat is the only place where they can be undisturbed. They don’t have sex but they take it pretty far. The bus driver gets an extra pound for his silence. The situation also stimulates the bus driver’s sexual fantasies. Faris thinks that it’s out of desperation that many men are gay, or at least have sex with other men.
The film “The Yacoubian Building”, in which the famous Egyptian actor Adil Imam also plays a role, addresses this issue. When Basil arrives later, he maintains that the fact the film was shown at all is indicative of complicity between the Egyptian government and the director. Even though the film is so critical of contemporary Egyptian society, it wasn’t censored, because the government wanted to display their democratic inclinations. Basil hasn’t seen the film himself, and has heard mostly negative criticism about it so far.
Faris is still curious as to why it wasn’t censored and why it was shown at all. He tells us about how he was taking a walk with a friend through Islamic Cairo and a man invited them to his home for tea. When the man’s son came home, apparently stoned, it came out that the man had put on the whole performance, even theatrically making accusations against his own son, just as a pretence to sell hash to the two foreigners.
Another time, said Faris, a school social worker invited him to tea. The social worker told him unhappily that even 12 year-olds would come to school stoned and could hardly participate in class or learn anything at all.
Yesterday, I was sick. I had a strong headache. It rained so hard early in the morning that it woke me up. Then it was cloudy for half of the day. Didn’t Aida say that it only rains once a year in Cairo? I must have been really sick because at Café Greco here in Maadi, I wasn’t even able to fish out the 16.25 guineas from my wallet. I had to examine each bill about ten times and still gave the cashier two bills too many. At Greco, I wanted to read the newspaper and catch up on current politics, but with the exception of the usual death toll, the only thing that the newspapers reported on yesterday was the bad weather. There are storms in Germany right now, there is already snow in Harz and Italy’s Mount Vesuvius will soon erupt again.
At Greco, four Lebanese women were sitting next to me and drinking café latte. Their conversation distracted me from my reading. They were speaking in Arabic, English and French. They greeted each other with three kisses (that made twelve kisses in all). And they had coloured highlights in their hair. They must have been Lebanese; I could understand the dialect.
On October 31st it’s Halloween — here in Cairo as well – but only in places like the Marriot Hotel in Zamalek, which is the diplomat’s neighbourhood. I meet Faris in Café Riche on Talat Harb Street. I come by Metro, this time in the women’s car.
At first, I was the only one not wearing a headscarf but then a few others “without” got on. At least four young women were reading the Koran. They were mumbling the verses to themselves. When I told Faris, he said that many of the women probably wear headscarves just so they don’t attract attention. His 70-year-old aunt who lives in Jerusalem also started wearing a scarf because, as an older woman, she didn’t feel like being stared at on the bus.
I wonder which of the women in the subway might have been wearing a headscarf just for this reason. Perhaps the dark one in the Mickey Mouse t-shirt and jeans – the others looked like schoolgirls that want to get good grades (and get married, of course, as well). One girl was biting discretely from a piece of bread, always only just a bit. I’ve seen that kind of behaviour a lot in the Berlin subway on the line that goes to the university from Wittenbergplatz to Dahlem.
Faris sits in Café Riche with two other students in Cairo to learn Arabic. One is a French guy from Africa and the other a visitor from Munich. Otherwise, the restaurant is nearly empty. Talk turns again to the film “The Yacoubian Building”. Faris recounts how his father told him some unbelievable stories about it. That the film was adapted from a novel and was partially based on true stories. That, for example, there really was an editor of Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram who was gay. That the servants too, were based on real-life cases of servants from villages or Upper Egypt who were so mistreated they sought vengeance on their employers by luring their children toward homosexuality. Exactly what happens in the film. At the neighbouring table, there is a man who obviously finds our conversation very interesting but says nothing. However, as we leave the café he asks the young man from Munich, in German, where he bought his scarf.
We decide to go to the Citadel. It is 4:30. By the time we get there, we aren’t allowed to go in. It’s too late! I’m relieved because I don’t really feel like sightseeing. Because I’m in the company of three young men, we are approached again and again by other young men who just want to speak some English, as they say. Most tourists in Egypt know these conversations well: you are asked where you come from and what your name is and no one really feels comfortable throughout the whole thing. Faris thinks the questions about where you’re from have something racist about them.
I enjoy the change, being seen as a tourist. The guys aren’t really tourists either. They have plans for the Near East. They want to learn Arabic. Young Karl from Munich is only 18 and has quite a good idea of what he wants to do. I’m surprised.
He has the right background, explains Faris. Karl is half American and his grandfather was a general or something in the military. Karl then tells us a bit about himself. He attended a good school in England for two years and he was planning to study at Oxford or Cambridge. It made me think of Benjamin Disraeli who said in the 19th century that “The East is a career”.
When I was doing Arabic Studies, it was considered quite exotic. But Karl, I can well imagine, is going to make a very pleasant career for himself. First, however, he must put up with his teacher Ahmed, a strict teacher whose students have to memorise the names of some 50 kinds of birds before even being taught the verb “to be”.
When I tell Faris that I was at the point again yesterday of being disgusted by Arabic culture – the television with the cutesy girls and their piercing voices; the dances that exude smugness despite all attempts at eroticism – Faris says that he’d just about had enough after two weeks.
When a girl in Arabic class sneezed, the teacher Ahmed lectured the class on what to say when someone sneezes. The word “Allah” was in every sentence that he used as an example. The Arabic language makes it very difficult to leave the word Allah out of it. The non-Islamic youth in Ramallah try to get around using Allah in their greetings and sayings entirely.
Aida and Basil explain that people take every opportunity to say in-Sha-Allah, which means “if God wills”. You ask the workman if he’ll finish the shelf by tomorrow and he answers in-Sha-Allah. You ask someone in the Metro if he also has to get out at the next station and he will answer in-Sha-Allah. George Bataille writes that the idea of the Fatherland in fascism may be found in Islam as Allah, represented by Mohammed and his successors. […]
I tell Faris how I recently saw four men squatting around a large basket full of fresh guavas next to the Al-Azhar Mosque. They probably spent the whole day like that, I say. One was probably selling the guavas and the others were keeping him company. We look out the window and see an old shoe-shiner; another old man is sitting next to him. You see this a lot: someone is selling something, and while he is doing so, he has a visitor drinking tea. There is hardly ever a traditional store where someone sits alone, bored. Most people don’t seem to be under any pressure to do anything at all, although many naturally work non-stop. But those who can afford it do nothing and let others do the work for them instead. There are exceptions, like the young man we met in Café Greco. He was so irritated by the Egyptian way of life he wanted to move to America. Permanently.
Life here in Cairo is still not very structured as far as spare time goes. When someone says let’s go into the city tomorrow afternoon, it doesn’t mean that he is really going to do it. It is also not a definite date that needs to be cancelled ahead of time unless you agree on a meeting place.
Within the family, these things are dealt with very casually. Aida says that this is because the Arabic family is very large and not restricted to Father, Mother and Child. If the father doesn’t have the time or desire to do something with the son, the uncle or aunt will do it. Here one wouldn’t understand why, in American films, the children are always so disappointed when the father doesn’t go to the baseball game as planned. There are so many others to take care of the children, including, naturally, the siblings. Basil says that it’s enough for him to go to work regularly and on time. Why should he have to do this in his spare time as well?
Often, someone will ask a storeowner the name of the street his store is on and the storeowner can’t answer. It doesn’t mean that the person is ignorant. Street names just aren’t important. You orient yourself according to other things. It’s the street with the movie theatre so and so; the plaza next to the gas station. With Europeans, there are always misunderstandings. They often get impatient because they are expecting something else. Egypt, it seems to me, is more extreme than Damascus or Beirut in this respect. Here you get the feeling that people are interested only in the things that actually affect them; nothing more is needed.
Maybe this is the same all over the world. Poor people and servants are always treated like dumb, irresponsible children by the rich. This is sometimes tragic. The boy who delivers the ironed clothing from the cleaners, for example, seems very smart and alert. He seems to observe everything carefully. We were recently at the cleaners to ask about some clothes. And there he was: one arm stretched holding the ironed shirts high. He can’t be more than eight or nine years old and for most he is just the delivery boy.
It got me. I don’t know exactly what – the Arabic flu, influenza, the chills and painful joints. On the night my head and joint aches were strongest, there was an earthquake. I was lying on the floor, because I had suddenly found the bed uncomfortable, and awoke in the middle of the night to a truck was driving across our roof. The walls and the floor swayed. I went back to sleep. When I mentioned it the next morning, I found out that it had been an earthquake.
I go to the movies with Aida to see “The Yacoubian Building” at last. It is also the day of Saddam Hussein’s verdict. In the taxi to the movie theatre, we get stuck in an endlessly long traffic jam. The taxi driver suspects that the people of Cairo must be gathering to talk about the verdict – hence the traffic jam.
If they are pro-Saddam they should die like him, says Aida. The taxi driver agrees with her and calls her “binti”, my daughter. The movie theatre is in the Hyatt Hotel. Every car that drives in front of the hotel is checked and scanned with a machine that I have never seen in my life before. A German Shepherd sniffs the trunk. The theatres are on the fifth and sixth floor. Ours is very small, but the sound has been turned up to the maximum. Next to us sits a family with three small children. The woman is veiled in black and the man has a full beard. The latest fashion one could say.
Aida is upset that such religious people would take their children with them to the movies. The film is mostly about sex, betrayal, drugs and rape. Just because most is not shown explicitly doesn’t make it a children’s film.
Adil Imam, the famous Egyptian film star, is absolutely convincing in his role. It was as if he were playing himself. And maybe he is. In the film, he says that he returned to Cairo from Paris because Cairo was much more beautiful than Paris. The Talat Harb Street is shown like it is today, accompanied by a song by Edith Piaf. Later there is a Strauss waltz that I know from Kubrik’s film “Eyes Wide Shut.” The story is like a round dance as well. It’s a nice film with really good actors. Actually, it is a fairy tale, an allegory. Aida says that everything in the film is correct and appropriate – only that reality is much worse.
It becomes clear to me how Islam is misused by the bigoted bourgeois. And alongside this exists the other Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood; which is radical and revolutionary and is aimed against the bigotry of the ruling class. Recruits come from the lower classes. They are intelligent and otherwise have no chance to climb the social ladder.
The Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak met with the Chinese head of state. Africa is bargaining with China about commodities and resources to the exclusion of Western powers, write the Arabic newspapers.
My illness has gotten worse. I had to sleep for 12 hours. The flu is dry like the drought of the country. It is as if the juices have been squeezed from my bones. My head hurts, my back, arms and even knees. I’m taking four Panadol a day. It helps the pain but I still feel weak.
Yesterday I was with Faris and his colleagues in the Christian quarter Mar Girgis. Again too late: the churches and cemeteries were already closed. Karl explained that he had bought an illegal copy of “The Yacoubian Building”. The film quality wasn’t even that bad, even though it was probably filmed from the screen in the movie theatre. The only thing was that all the scenes dealing with the radical Muslim Brotherhood had been edited out.
Aida, who is now going to go to Beirut after all, needs a visa from the Lebanese Embassy. She’s told that it will take two to three weeks. She’s angry, because from Syria she could travel without a visa and with only her identification card. She’s angry about Cairo, about this country, in which nothing functions properly and where you need three hours to get from one part of the city to the next, where the air is dirty and you feel sick. Susan, who has been living in Cairo for six years, answers:
“Aida, you have to learn that you can only accomplish one thing a day, and even if you don’t get that done, you do it the next day. The first years I was only going in circles. But you get used to it – as well as to the weather and to the air.”
this essay was published 2009 in:
Cairospace: Images, Imagination, and Imaginary of a Contemporary Mega City