This video from Egyptian TV, translated and shown to the world last week absolutely blew my mind.
Anyone who has read my blog posts knows that I have been arguing in favour of peace and equality at every possible opportunity but to be confronted with this forced me to change my perceptions, quite how much remains to be seen.
I couldn’t just leave it there, I had to find out more about the country so I got in touch with someone who has lived and travelled extensively in the region to get his take on it. His letter to me painted such a graphic picture of Egypt that I decided to share it on the blog.
My friend describes himself thus:
“By day I am still a mild-mannered teacher of English; but by night I am the scourge of bars across Cairo and Heliopolis. It keeps me from going completely insane.”
He then wrote the following to me:
“I have a love-hate thing with the entire Arab world. I was in Damascus a few years back (on holiday, believe it or not – East Germany on Hummus) and I felt the same way there – why are people doing that? What on earth is this for? I felt the same way in Khartoum, where I lived for five whole years and in Tangier (of which I have suitably hazy and slightly psychedelic memories).
Yet, Egypt seems to concentrate all the ills and good things about Arab life.
It distills these into a bubbling lethal cocktail that fights with one’s sanity: the boys shouting abuse with shelves of bread balanced on their heads while riding on rusty bicycles the wrong way down ring roads. The taxi drivers of a certain age who know all the words to songs by Umm Khalthoum and think Nasser was the best thing since Hitler. The bigots in man nighties and huge zealot beards, tutting at the world as Cairo sings oblivious, like some giant, deranged nightingale.
Sometimes the slums of Alexandria, or the “sheds” of Cairo make me angrier than I have ever been. The sheer poverty and despair to be found there is medieval – and the views of too many of its people are similarly backward, if not outright barbarian. The truth is that Egypt is one great big, seething mass of issues that it is largely having with itself. It tells itself otherwise: everything from massacres at football matches to the appearance of menacing sharks off Sharm el Shayk are put down to the machinations of Zionism.
I have been reliably shouted at (by a bus driver) that Jews are poisoning the food in order to turn the entire population gay, the fiends! He had a finely attuned gaydar, did that driver of the microbus that roared at speeds approaching Mach 9 down the unlit side streets of the City of the Dead. It’s always someone else’s fault in Egypt – and that person is usually Jewish.
Prejudices that have been long ago put on the back burner of history elsewhere in the world are up front, alive and goose-stepping, boiling and nasty in the Land of the Sedge and the Bee, Egypt is a bigot’s paradise. There is not a box your average Egyptian does not leave unticked: anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Black racism… you name it, Egyptians have it in [cough] spades. If these sorts of things were Olympic events, Egypt would be bringing home shed loads of golds. We could all forget about the counterfeit Nike sports gear with which the crooks at the Egyptian Olympic Committee unashamedly equipped their team.
Mind, it is not just Jews, Blacks, women and homosexuals also get it in the neck! Palestinians are widely loathed and distrusted – but then this is true across the Arab speaking world. A world which seems to work on the premise that all other Arab nations are bastards apart from one’s own.
I am unsure why any Arab ever thought pan-Arabism was a workable or feasible idea, it simply falls to bits in the face of the fact that one Arab nationality has nothing but dripping contempt for all others; and takes considerable pleasure in watching their Arab “brothers” get into hot-water.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that the Arab world is effectively doing nothing about Syria. They are all sitting on the sidelines, playing with their prayer beads, rather pleased that Syria – an important Arab competitor state – is falling to bits.
Despite the fact that it’s now Ramadan, around the back of many a shop, apartment building and in the security of their own homes, ciggies are being illicitly smoked, the sandwiches of apostasy are being consumed – and in some places, a quick shot is being knocked back, followed by the guilty mento to hide the smell mento.
At this time of year the entire population goes about life with the sort of furtiveness of schoolboys nipping to the bicycle sheds for a quick one before double Maths. They may trundle down the mosque on a more regular basis during Ramadan, they may be even more prone to persecuting some passing Copt, Greek or Armenian, but it’s like dressing trees for Christmas and taking them down on Twelve Night in Western Christian homes – tradition – but these customs are so much more for keeps.
And yet, there is another side to this maddening, whirling place by the river that runs through and through every Egyptian’s heart. It strikes me like a slap across the face as I return one evening from the ciggie run after Maghrib prayer, when the streets are deserted and the families sit down to break their fast, out a high window I hear a recording of Umm Khalthoum singing:
Inta Omri illi ibtada b’nourak sabahouh – You are my life that starts its dawn with your light.
Her voice breaks and soars and the Egyptians in the house yell with praise for a singer dead over half a century past. It stops me in my tracks. A sobbing sadness and a longing fills the hot, smog-laded air… And it breaks my heart, as it should.
Egypt could be so much more, if only she wanted.”
Cairo, July 29, 2012