A strange ode to the Egypt I love so far
What is it that makes us need to write?
I have been feeling the obligation to write for this blog since I arrived in Egypt, given the richness of subjects and new experiences, but I haven’t felt the irresistible urge to write – that is, when words spill around your brain like a moving body of water in an elastic plastic tub that you can’t control, sometimes colliding in masterpiece phrases or collections of twos and threes that you know you have to write down.
This morning I was triggered. I was walking to the metro station from my flat, down the quiet and damp road. I overtook a 60 year old Egyptian man with a soft briefcase concentrating on the need to reach the ominous Mogama building in Tahrir Square to get my visa renewal before the ridiculous crushes of people made it impossible. As he stopped to throw his bag of rubbish into a cart with a donkey at the helm, I walked past.
From there to the metro station he walked just behind me and hummed an Arabic tune, with the difficult twiddles and possible practiced mastery of someone who recites Qur’an on a regular basis. Here recitation is conducted in a singing voice and so if like me you don’t understand the words then it could sound like any Arabic song. Either way, my head left my body walking ahead of him and shifted back to the singing man, I was walking alongside him. For some unknown reason this singing, on this morning, was the kick up the backside that means you are reading my words here.
And what words? What words to put first? What places to describe, people to depict, experiences to relate and news to assess? Its too much to even begin.
I’ll start with this morning. This I remember. And it touches on some of the above.
The metro is quiet. Full but quiet. Same number of bodies as usual, but like the dust has been smothered by the rain this morning I feel perhaps the voices have been dampened by recent events. I identified a similar symptom yesterday as well. I don’t wish to be like those infuriating ‘Western’ journalists that feel like they can authoritatively make sweeping statements on the mood of the Egyptian people, or relate events as they ‘saw’ them just because they were also swilling about amongst them. The cultural differences are big here, and the differences of opinion even bigger, who am I to think I can navigate them when I can’t even communicate substantively? At home I don’t pretend to be able to sense the feelings and opinions of Britons from the homeless man to the moneyed millionaire; so why reduce the senses of those I am amongst in another country to one ‘tone’ or one opinion? I can’t. But I can factually tell you, the metro is quieter. People aren’t talking to each other as much, or harassing me as much either.
On the latter comment, I wonder if its just part and parcel of the ‘dampening’, or whether, more hopefully, the awful reports of rapes and aggressive sexual harassment incidents in Tahir over the last 6 days, have somehow broken through the masks of cocky young men chasing ‘blondies’ with their words. The harrowing testimonies, which make for brutal reading and were far more brutal in reality, have been made public, and the news coverage of it has almost rivaled general coverage of clashes in Egypt. Here are a few:
Testimony 1, some older testimonies here, and testimony of someone trying to help another.
What is significant is that it is likely that these attacks are commissioned by interests who want to decrease the numbers of protestors. One very simple tactic: make the women feel unsafe – easily done when they are outnumbered most of the time and they have vulnerabilities that can be more easily targeted than men – and they generally won’t risk coming to protest. Their tactics are working.
For the many Egyptians that have been shocked by the phenomena within the square, this finding is conveniently cathartic an explanation – its about politics, not the darker parts of us. The commissioning is all the more cunning because it plays on the base of day to day sexual harassment (which is definitely not commissioned) to create a mysterious grey fog hiding whatever the truth is. I hope this fog, which has had so much attention this last week, leads the men to think more about what they put women through, whether on the street or at home.
Sexual harassment flared onto my radar as soon as I arrived in Egypt. I brushed aside warnings from Egyptian friends as I arrived, now I ring them to scream down the phone because I can’t take any more. Actually its not just ‘blondies’ (foreigners), Egyptian women: unveiled, veiled and niqab-ed (also called the burka) suffer from it equally. Putting this aside however, I agree with an Egyptian feminist who is angry with the focus on mere harassment in the streets (i.e just words and the odd brief touching); the focus being attributable to the fact that foreigners and the wealthier Egyptians who aren’t used to it, have the education and social standing to vocalise their distaste and be heard in the media and the outside world. Meanwhile, the level of bodily violence against women in Egypt is immense and comparatively unheard.
Because it is mainly suffered by women in the lower classes where their voice carries less weight, and there is no culture of speaking out; in fact speaking out brands you as an outcast and therefore robs you of what little structural support you have. Nevertheless, I cannot speak for these women, and I am uneducated in advocating for them so I will talk about the verbal harassment.
I do not, and I really emphasise this, I do not see the harassment issue in the streets as a character flaw in Egyptian society. And to an extent I do not blame those who do it either. Strangely I feel safer here than I do on the streets of any British or European city. According to many, 10 years ago Egypt was verbal harassment-free. If you were caught harassing a girl or woman, you’d be chased, beaten up, and dealt with by society. Apparently there used to be a joke, if a man shaved his hair short, others used to say “have you been harassing women?!” as shaving their heads was one tactic of public embarrassment. Not now though, something has drastically changed, because on a bad day when you do a lot of walking, it can be every other man says something; from “Welcome!” in an annoying voice, to, “I want to f*** you”.
One thing I do blame Egyptians for is not denouncing it when they see it happening. I have been harassed while waiting for the metro in the ‘ladies section’, where 2 young guys walked back and forth directly behind me saying things to me. No one batted an eyelid. It was massively embarrassing and I couldn’t say anything without the whole metro station looking. Surely that was evident to those around me, so why didn’t they stand up for me?! I know I would have if the same happened to a woman in the UK. Its not so hard to tell them to piss off is it? So much for female solidarity.
Instead, I see the verbal harassment as an indicator of the dis-empowerment of the young population in Egypt (They make up the majority of verbal harassers, others are just dirty old men). They have little control over their lives and economic situation, despite their best efforts so far, but they can control how they make me feel when I walk past them. If you challenge them, they are often mortified, and can’t look you in the eye. It is like when kids who have issues at home, bring them to the classroom and manifest their troubles in being disruptive and naughty.
Similarly, the waves of clashes that repeatedly eclipse Tahrir, Alexandria and Port Said, who are the Egyptian State, the Egyptian people or the international community to call them thugs? They are products of the society you brought them up in; a dictatorship and a society which has fostered its extremes more than its temperate middle – with Salafism in the realm of politics, most women now wearing headscarves, and bad economic decisions feeding more widely spread poverty.
I feel their fight; their dalliances with Security Forces, bullets, teargas and pyromania are in the hope of better participation in the running of a country they evidently will fight for out of nationalism and love, that is belief in their identity as Egyptians, and non-acceptance of how they are forced to lead their lives so far. Whether their tactics serve their ends is up for debate.
Where I cannot even pretend to know how it feels, are in the recent cases in Port Said and Alexandria where the engineered chaos led to the football stadium massacre which killed over 70 people. When the deaths of loved ones or simply strangers from among you are planned and executed with chilling cognisance, who is anyone to say that storming prisons, and harming state property is wrong and thuggish behaviour? Especially when, alternative means of ‘justice’ – for instance a court of law – are equally subject to precise mental corruption through politicisation and strategic appointments of ‘like-minded’ members – though formally speaking, the institutions may not be corrupt any longer. No State institution serves as an alternative means of participation or justice therefore what else have they? Their silence? I think not.
To continue with this morning; I walk out of the metro station in Tahrir, where I accidentally got tear-gassed for a few minutes a couple of days before (I was changing metros not taking part, but as the metro exits are all within the square the gas naturally descended the steps.), and walk through the square to the looming beacon of bureaucracy that is the famed Mogama building.
It has looked the same the whole month I’ve been here: tents filling the raised paved areas; the wide roads devoid of traffic and therefore mostly pedestrianised except for mopeds, motorbikes and the odd opportunistic taxi that breaks through a barrier; the main arteries to the square, connecting it to the Parliament or the Council office are blocked with large square concrete blocks built up into a wall that you can’t climb over or walk around; graffiti adorns the large buildings that make up the circle of the midan, including the American University of Cairo’s walls, the walls themselves, and Mogama; there is a Mosque to one side, and a building site to another; the Egyptian Museum is just off the square; there are street vendors selling food and wares for ridiculous prices (for foreigners); little megaphones on nut carts blaring speeches, recitations or music in conflict with each other; and the beautiful murals, paintings and graffiti of Mohammed Mahmoud street – the scene of many a bloody affair over the last 2 years.
Its a powerful place.
This morning though, I ascended the steps out of the metro to the smell of sewage – no teargas this time – and lots of rubbish.
It felt bruised.
And the singing lamentations of one megaphone speaker didn’t help.
The sight was bleak with vendors trying to set up tea stalls battling against the wind and sugar flying everywhere, the smell of piss hung in the air, and a few young men continued to peer through the gaps in the wall leading to the Parliament, or stand astride on top of the wall – the ultimate viewpoint.
In addition this time however, was a huge Egyptian flag, hanging down the length of a tall building. A feeling of pride stirred, and it flapped triumphantly in the wind.
May the eagle fly freely soon.