Friday, March 11, 2016

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo. Mint tea, tarneeb and tales of the city’ by Hugh Miles

In Arab families a girl cannot up and leave home when she is still a teenager; women are not autonomous individuals who can run their own lives independently of the rest of the family. When the family is absent, a boy must be responsible for his sister. She can be flirtaceous and feminine, but its his duty to play the stern loving protector, because if she erred the blemish would stain the whole family. Honour is too fragile for a daughter to be left to handle alone.
Just because the brother and sister fought, it was not a sign that they did not love each other. In fact they loved each other with a deep and blinding love…. While he controlled her physically, her conduct governed his reputation. Loving her meant controlling her; loving him meant submitting to him.

Cairo is the largest Arab city and the biggest city in Africa. It is one of just a handful of world supercapitals and dominates Egypt. …..seventeen million people ….

My local coffee shop ….Nobody else, I noticed, ever read any book besides the Koran, but sometimes I would see men just sitting silent and motionless, prayer beads limp in hands, simply meditating for half an hour or more.

You are almost never alone in Cairo; privacy is a luxury few can afford for any length of time…

Many of the international organisations operating in Cairo are given over to handling refugees, because migration is one African sector that never stops booming. Millions of people flood into Cairo from across Africa, tide upon tide of humanity arriving by bus, by boat or on foot, down the Nile Valley or across the desert. With them they bring dark stories of torture and war. For unknown thousands Cairo is nothing more than a big outdoor waiting room, the biggest metropolitan refugee terminal in the world.

Racism among Egyptians against black Africans is widespread and even the police robbed them.

….the dark undercurrent of religious prejudice that divided the Egyptians themselves…… An invisible line separated the Coptic Christians and the Muslims in the office……tension could be found simmering just below the surface.

Egypt has more Christian Arabs than the rest of the Middle East put together, but exactly how many there are remains the subject of heated debate. Official government statistics minimize the number, while local churches, basing their counts of baptismal records, claim about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population. Christianity in Egypt differs from that found in other North African countries because it is indigenous. When the Muslims first came to Egypt in the seventh century nearly everyone there was a Christian and the Islamic conquerors used ‘Copt’ simply to designate the country’s indigenous inhabitants. This was a corruption of the Greek word aiguptioi, meaning Egyptians, and modern Copts hold that they are the true descendents of the pharaohs.
Relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt have always been mercurial……

Life for most people in Cairo is hard and the city’s infrastructure is stretched to the limit by the sheer size of the population. Unemployment is rife, chronic overcrowding makes daily life a misery and Cairo competes with Mexico City and Bangkok for the title of most polluted city in the world. The average Egyptian gets by on less than a thousand dollars a year and a quarter of the country lives on less than two dollars a day, below the poverty line. Some 98 per cent of Egypt’s population are squished in to the 35,000-square-kilometre strip running the length of the Nile valley, the densest metropolitan population in Africa, and one of the densest in the world. It is an area not quite twice the size of New Jersey but with over nine times the population.

There are undisputable benefits to wearing the veil, most obviously that you do not need to worry about your hair. It also helps keep in check Egypt’s ubiquitous sexually predatory men ….

Women have always worn veils in the Middle East. Way back in the time of the Persian and early Byzantine empires, before there were any Muslims, the veil was a social fixture.In patriarchal agricultural societies, where men are fathers and fighters and women are mothers and homemakers, it was a symbol of man’s authority and class.

In the Arab countries I had visited women had always been almost totally hidden… They were simply a mystery to me.

Almost a quarter of the Egyptian population is under ten years old and when parents die possessions are divided between all the children, which means farms become too small to be economically viable. In real terms ordinary Egyptians are poorer than they were in the 1950s.

Like many Arab women her complexion was flawlessly youthful, the result of a lifetime spent covering up from the sun.

‘……. Qena…Its in Upper Egypt and its men are famous for being stupid and macho.’

Egyptians come in all shades: they can be light-skinned like Europeans, or dark like the Nubians of Upper Egypt.

Cards originated in China but came to Europe from Egypt…..The suits back then were swords, polo sticks, cups and coins, and being Islamic no figures were depicted. Europeans added the jack, queen and king, but Islam is the reason that packs from Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland to this day often do not have queens.

….Arab tourists, who flock to Cairo from the Gulf all year round. In particular they come during the summer months, when the Arabian peninsula is too hot, and during Ramadan, when it is too conservative….tourists from the Gulf enjoying the uncovered women, the cheap prices and the wide availability of alcohol. Cairo’s vastness affords Arab visitors delightful obscurity and respite from the claustrophobia of life in the Gulf, where the religious police patrol and everyone knows your family name… Egyptians by and large are contemptuous of their Gulf visitors, who they regard as uncultured and arrogant. ‘Buffaloes’ they call them, meaning they know nothing.

Cosmetic surgery has been undergoing something of a worldwide boom in recent years and the city has a reputation across the region for quality surgery at affordable prices…..although Islamic clerics frown upon frivolous surgery…..Wives of African diplomats and businessmen regard Cairo’s plastic surgeons as one of the chief perks of the post. ….Cairo’s upper classes have adopted the fashionable Gulf practice of taking second, third and fourth wives, which means more pressure on married women to stay looking good… Divorce …means more women ….turn to surgery to look their best.

‘….he needs to convert so we can marry, otherwise our marriage wont be legal in Egypt. Marriages between Christian men and Muslim women are not recognized under Egyptian law.’

……such racy magazines are not easily available, so women are obliged instead to turn to their friends for answers to life’s most important questions. Besides friends, religion supplies the framework by which most people make their important decisions in life. For many Egyptians, Islam is often the solution. Except, frustratingly, the Koran is not specific enough to provide guidance for every dilemma of modern life because things have moved on since the seventh century, which is why online Islamic chat rooms are filled with questions like, ‘Is it OK to pray wearing nail varnish?’
Many young Muslims expect Islam to supply a complete practical guide to how to live their lives, guidance which if followed closely will provide the key to happiness and success. ….The problem is that Islam is so fragmented no single religious authority can provide such detailed guidance, so Muslims tend to pick the interpretations and individuals that they admire or that fit the situation they find themselves in at any given time.

….in the Arab world there is one universally understood gold standard for moral behavior and by Western standards it is very conservative. Although this standard is rooted in religion it is not exclusively Islamic, because despite their antipathy towards one another in Egypt Copts and Muslims live by a very similar moral code.
Religious recordings and books are a sprawling industry in the Arab world; the Web is littered with Islamic chat rooms and at the Cairo annual book fair I found that over half the publishing houses deal exclusively with Islamic-oriented literature.

….the few Egyptians who do read books usually choose ones they think are useful, which typically means either the Koran or a computer manual. The range of foreign books available in Arabic is pitiful, and if the West ever wanted to make a sincere and significant difference to the average Arab’s world view, a good way to start would be by mass-translating dozens of liberal classics into Arabic and distributing them as freely and widely as the Koran.
The most popular radio station in Egypt is the Holy Koran, with well over half the population tuning in each day……Islamic evangelism ……the cranky old sheikh ….is a thing of the past. Islam today issues from youthful preachers wearing coloured headgear or designer suits.….

Family pressure to conform to impossible rules had turned all the women I knew into polished liars years ago. It was the only way to cope with the massive gulf between their private lives and the face they were obliged to show their families and the rest of society. The girls covered for each other artfully and usually successfully, but if a man’s voice could be heard in the background no amount of explaining would save them from a severe punishment when they got home. ….each went her separate way, always by car so as not to be harassed, flashed at or groped on public transport, as happens almost daily to women travelling alone in Cairo at any time of day or night.

….he smoked….Most Egyptian men I knew did – sometimes it seemed that inertia brought on by smoking hashish all day was the only thing preventing a revolution in Egypt.

…military service. This is compulsory in Egypt and has a notorious reputation as an intensely degrading experience…….Although the Egyptian army is generously subsidized by the United States, most of the cash seems to disappear into certain important people’s pockets or goes to finance elite units. Ordinary soldiers are dismally equipped, routinely going without shoelaces and eating food months or years out of date. Dysentery is a way of life and over the year of conscription everyone experiences drastic weight loss.
Typical training activities include diving from a great height into a trench of raw sewage…..or lining up in the infamous ‘sun queue’, where soldiers stand facing the blazing sun from dawn till dusk, without moving or drinking water, sometimes for several days on end …..Accidental death by heatstroke or during live firing exercises is commonplace. The military regards fewer than one in four men killed in training as an acceptable fatality rate. …..Enduring psychological trauma is normal. Many soldiers also leave with large debts, run up by bribing their poorer comrades to do the really dirty or dangerous jobs for them.
….Naturally the rich and well-connected can normally wriggle out of it …..

Officially Egyptian unemployment is about 9 per cent, but in reality about 25 per cent of young men and as many as 59 per cent of women are without work. No work means no money and no money means young people cannot afford to get married. Since marriage is the only legitimate way to obtain sex that means frustration ……and despite Islam the daily bombardment of erotica has never been more intense. …..most young Egyptians ….live at home with their family and struggle to scratch enough money together to look after themselves, let alone anyone else. There are seven million women over the age of twenty in Egypt who have never been married, half of whom are over the age of thirty-five. There are also eleven million unmarried men ….increasing number of young people are turning to a controversial Islamic practice. ….an urfi marriage …..a special kind of union ….under Sunni Islam …it can take place in private and need not be registered at a government office. …the state is not involved at all….an imam willing to perform the ceremony ….the bride and groom each keep a signed copy as proof…. Entered into …. by young people who want to have sex …..In extreme cases urfi marriages can even be a way for poor families to sell their daughters into prostitution under the guise of marriage. …When the man wants to move on, the pair can easily divorce. ….since Islam sanctions urfi marriages, they cannot easily be outlawed.

…Egyptian prisons have a reputation for deprivation and cruelty….Thousands of Islamists rotate through Egypt’s hellish prison system. Many are never charged with a crime, nor even referred to a court or prosecutors office. ….prison cells …are concrete…without windows or ventilation ….There is no electricity, water or sunlight and to make life as miserable as possible the walls are kept soaked in kerosene, which contaminates the air and eats away at the prisoners’ lungs, causing lifelong respiratory problems.
Torture using electricity ….is common…nowhere to urinate or defecate, except on the floor or into the same plastic bottle in which water is provided …..The ruthless prison system helped drive Islamic Jihad out of Egypt …’s prison system has become an attractive destination for the American military, looking for somewhere suitable to interrogate Arab and Muslim captives taken during their ‘war on terror’.

Conspiracy theories are the bread and butter of the Arab world and you hear them everywhere you go. I had heard stories so outlandish …the number of times people told me no Jews died in the twin towers on 11 September …. No plot is too improbable, no ruse too far-fetched for many Arabs…

‘As many of 20 per cent of all Egyptians suffer from hepatitis C, an untreatable, chronic debilitating liver disease. Most of them contracted it in the 1960s and ‘70s when the government immunization campaign against bilharzia repeatedly reused needles, infecting huge swathes of the population.

Seldom found are Islamists with a background in the liberal arts. Subjects like literature, music and drama lend themselves badly to extremist interpretation. Unfortunately, in much of the Arab world these subjects are viewed as a waste of time.

Each year more than seven hundred thousand new graduates chase an estimated two hundred thousand jobs. Even students from Cairo’s most prestigious colleges struggle to find employment when they graduate. The state is the largest non-agricultural employer in the country, providing about 40 per cent of job opportunities, and the more educated you are, the more likely you are to work for the government. The best most young Egyptians can hope for is a position in an overstaffed and unproductive public sector company, Egypt’s disguised welfare system. The state-owned sugar, textile and steel businesses are some of the biggest employers. So heavily protected are these industries from market forces it is quite normal to find three or four people doing one man’s job. ….Many young unemployed choose to go into further education in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty …..For the lucky few who do manage to get jobs, pay is still torturously low …

… on the streets of the capital sexually harass women at any time of the day or night. Parts of town …even the veil offered no protection …..according to the prevailing national logic sexual harassment is the fault of women since their very presence is regarded as constituting a provocation to men, the real victims, whose self-control melts ….when exposed to a woman. …Women are essentially viewed as either married, virgins or prostitutes….

Doing business in Egypt during Ramadan is a bit like trying to do business in France during August….a long and extremely bad-tempered traffic jam snaking through the city ….the interminable recitation of the Koran on the radio

….the Sixth of October bridge, a river crossing so long and important that if the Israeli air force ever needed to reduce the great country of Egypt to her knees with a single bomb, besides the Aswan High Dam this would probably be the best place to drop it.

… Beirut lovers are free to kiss, canoodle, hold hands. Romance flourishes in Lebanon because history and geography have combined to make it the most liberal Arab country. When you have been through a bloody civil war you come to understand that there are more important things in life than bothering lovers holding hands in the street…

….in Nordic countries …the rudest insults you can hurl at someone pertain to the devil. ….Mediterranean society ….insulting someone’s mother is just about as low as you can go, particularly if you are speaking to a man. …many ways you can insult someone’s mother around the world ….In Spain you can threaten to shit in her breast milk. In China you can call someone’s mother a turtle…

Youth from across the Arab world ….are drawn by Beirut’s heady sensuousness and fragile liberalism – a beautiful city atop a political volcano. The precarious sectarian balance, approximately one third each Sunni, Shia and Christian, makes for infernally complicated domestic politics and an unsteady governmental system that looks set to collapse at any moment.

In Cairo people often seem to regard it as their social or religious duty to interfere in other people’s relationships, usually under the guise of protecting the virtue of a girl..

Being obliged to convert in order to marry sits oddly with the Egyptian constitution, which stipulates the equality of ‘all ….but …as I was growing to understand, a conservative interpretation of Islam reigns…..people in Egypt care a great deal what religion you are ….Many Egyptian Muslims regard it as their personal responsibility to check that other Muslims are observant, not least because it might be jeopardizing their own afterlife if they do not.

Although women are sometimes beaten at home and even in police stations in Cairo, it is shameful for a man to attack a woman in public….

…..bad weather, speeding, poorly maintained roads and a total disregard for both the law and personal safety make Egypt’s roads the most dangerous in Africa..

The president has total immunity from criticism and routinely steamrollers the Supreme Court. The number of death sentences and civilians tried in military courts has spiraled and torture is widespread in police stations across the country.

Conversion to Islam …In most Arab countries conversion brings about substantial social advantages; in some other states, like China, Russia and Myanmar, Muslims are persecuted and the opposite is the case. In the West most people and governments regard belief as a private affair; you can change your religion on a whim and intermarriage between people of different faiths is an everyday occurrence. In Egypt, however, switching religion is a deadly serious business, particularly for Muslims who want to become Christian….

…Egypt….generations of misrule have sapped her spirit until today the air is no longer safe to breathe and the water so polluted even the fish suffer kidney problems. Corruption and stagnant bureaucracy pervade life’s every corner …..

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