I won't pretend to have an extensive understanding of Egypt's political history and I definitely won't feign insight into the situation, but having said that, I visited Cairo about three years ago and, although I was only there for about a week, I did get a sense of some of the unease and frustration that Cairans had with their lot in life. The many people I met were tired, over-worked and resigned to poverty. The pace of life was manic for Cairans and, from the stories I heard, the fruits of their labour barely fed and kept families from the streets. The seeds of this anger were visible then, in January 2008, even to the untrained eye of a despairing and lost tourist.
I kept a journal while I was over there and, fortunately, I kept it with me. With Egypt unraveling, I had a little read of what I'd jotted down and, alongside the rantings and cravings of a lonely, wannabe writer, I found some passages interesting and others even urgent. Not urgent in an important and critical meaning, but more an immediate sense, like my eyes were opening to a world where life was improvised, where things always felt real and where people lived on the fly.
Since I didn't have a blog at that time, I figured I might as well share some of the more relevant parts here. Like I said, there is nothing revelatory here, but just some observations I made during my eight or nine days in Egypt about the lives of some of the Cairans I met and what everyday life was like through my eyes. Maybe reading this after looking at what's happening in Egypt will help someone gain a particle of a smidgen of an idea of how life was before the uprising, although that's coming from someone who definitely had an outsider's perspective.
A quick note: I took the trip on a whim. I was working for an airline and was dealing with a break-up, so I got as far away from home as I could for as long as possible (A WHOLE TEN DAYS!!!) without making any plans. (I got into Cairo at 4 a.m. without a Visa or a hostel booked. I really was at Cairo's mercy.) I only pass this little tidbit along so that, if I sound like a sad sap and - even more sadly - a little like a solipsist, you'll know why. It was just me and a notebook.
January 11, 2008:
Cairo, man! What a place! What an entirely different world! We, in the West, have sacrificed culture for civility. Where do I start? I'm smoking a sheesha on a side street. I go into the cafe to get it and put my sandwich down on a table outside. When I return, the sandwich is gone. I see a cat running away with it. I've got a mad head rush now from this stuff; it's much harsher than what I'm used to smoking back home.
I wish I could speak Arabic. I feel very ignorant walking around without ANYTHING, but everyone so far has been helpful, even if I'm somewhat weary of the help. I do feel very safe in downtown Cairo, even if I'm the only white face. I've never felt like this: I'm not an intruder, but just an observer, and it makes me very self-conscious.
No one walks empty-handed. Kids are pita couriers; men rush past with long rubber tubes, hoses, bathtubs; they weld without glasses on street corners; they peddle fruit on donkeys. If they're not walking, they're chatting on corners, smoking sheehsa.
If you walked the city, you would think Cairo is comprised entirely of men. No women to be seen. Crowds of men talking at 3 or 4 a.m., wandering the streets with purpose, like there is nothing unusual about doing so at such an hour.
Prayers over speakers at 5:23 a.m. A harmony of hums from various spots, ringing over the city, a holy morning, praising sunrise. Where am I? I wonder in bed, heart-beating out of step with how I want to feel.
I'm an observer. I speak no tongue here. Thank you is all I have. I have already spoken this many times.
I wandered the streets of Cairo with no destination. I found many. And I found my way back. A homing pigeon almost, walking in long lines, getting away and then turning back, down another road, circling and spiraling back among the humanity, and magically, I was back at the hostel, like I knew I'd get there.
The sheesha made my head spin. I stood up and stumbled, walked for ten minutes like I was on wooden limbs, teetering and tripping on cobblestone.
Baskets dangle down on strings from windows, looking for money. Others contain money, which is exchanged for products from stores. Does this explain the lack of women? Are they at the ends of these strings?
There is no mice problem (that I've noticed.) No pigeons either. It's cats. Cats everywhere. Some hungry, searching for food in trash cans. Some meagre, weak, cowering against buildings, dying.
No rules on the road, either. Transmissions, tires, turning signals are of no importance. Only the horn: the horn is master. Taxi driver pushing 80 mph, flickering lights, honking, pulling past cars a piece-of-paper's-width away, doubling back, backing up, people barely noticing that we almost squish them. This is the norm. Every second is important. Every movement is too. Cars parked with their bumpers touching. A North American mother would have a fit with her kids running around these streets, but kids do here and they're smart because every one of them is paying attention all the time. Life is immediate here.
I'm writing on the toilet now. I cannot throw the paper into it. It must go into a garbage bin. I've been on an airplane or in an airport for the past 48 hours and that takes its toll. I hope I won't be judged by what I'm dropping into that bin. I feel ashamed.
I spent three hours today with the people of Cairo on a Friday, their least chaotic day, their day of rest, and I am worn out.
* * *
The smells on the street... I can only say that each new step brings a new odour: spicy meat, shit, fruits, solvents, perfumes, piss. It's a buffet of smells and a lot of them I haven't smelled since working at the mill at Con. Solvents from paints, car work, welding, polishing. The sidewalks, cobbled stone, look like the wood planks in the [60-year-old] mill in some places, like they have been eternally coated with a pasty, chemical dust. A toxic cosmetic foundation.
The streets are smorgasbords too. You'll have a shop selling fruit beside a pharmacy and a clothes shop and then a guy fixing a car. He'll be pumping tires, working paint off with scrubbing solvents, welding steel right beside a cafe. People will sit drinking a NesCafe with all this heavy mechanic work going on next to them. It's surreal.
Everyone helps each other with directions, with work. It's a fraternal place. Lots of father/son activities, work-related. Lots of male relationships at play, like I said, because other than later in the days, there are really no women walking around.
Some kids sprayed my book bag with some stinky ass spray and followed me around for a while. Funny little dudes.
I don't want to say that the sidewalks are dirty, because that's lazy. Yellowknife's streets are dirty because people just toss shit like wrappers or bottles onto them. Here, the streets are different. They are alive: they are the public forum, the public space. Each day, they get dirty, crowded and crowned with the detritus of the day, then they're washed, scrapped and the day is carried away down the road in a mucky river. The layer of skin is shed and the streets are ready to be lived again. They are anew the next day.
January 12, 2008:
I've hired a driver to see the pyramids today.
Yesterday, I was very self-conscious with my camera and I didn't want to demean any of the authenticity around me by snapping pictures like a tourist. I stopped only when there were absences of people and so I think I only took about 10 pictures or so.
* * *
So if yesterday was unbridled enthusiasm, excitement, optimism and explosions of meningeal juices from the limitless hustle and bustle of Cairo life from the invisible - or we'll say ghostly pale or translucent - observer, then today was the sober real: I was the walking-wallet participant.
It got me down. It really did. It was everything that I was hoping it wouldn't be: Pushy, fake, insincere. I felt I was treated like a baby, being coaxed, bribed and sweet-talked for a piece of that sweet cheddar in my back pocket.
Hosam, the driver, was not a bad guy, but he just wouldn't listen. I didn't want to go to the tourist carpet place or the perfume shop. Seriously, I'm a single guy. Why would I want to go to a perfume shop? I got pressured into buying a piece of papyrus at this one shop.
Anyways. Here I am, I just saw the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx and I'm ranting about the pushiness of the tour guides. But it just bugged me. I couldn't enjoy myself unless I was by myself. These guys had me thinking too much about the tip. Like that greasy camel guy that held me hostage in the desert asking for a tip then and there. What an asshole.
But the pyramids were unreal. We're driving through Giza, weaving, banking, dodging ubiquitous humanity, and behind half-crumbled buildings and garbage piles, you see these three mysterious, mathematically-precise beacons of the surreal. And we get there and I hop on a camel (which I thought would just keel over and die at any second) bribe a tourism guy who lets us through a barbed-wire fence and then the desert is our playground, on the inside looking out at all the bus tourists, while my black market guide leads me to the destination with no line. I went up and touched the middle pyramid, touched it with my hand, the same one clutching this pen. It didn't sink in until now, as, at that moment, some pushy fucker on a horse was bugging me for money. Some guy was climbing the third pyramid. How wild is that? They let him climb the fucking thing? What a country!
So Cairo and its suburbs are like 25 million people. Too many. People everywhere. Donkeys pulling people down freeways. Bombed-out-looking brick buildings for miles along the highway, buildings never to be completed so their owners can evade paying taxes. Kids playing in trash. People everywhere. We're heading back on the freeway, pushing 100 kpm and a truck comes up beside us. It carries bags of rice packed as high as the cabin, and then there is a guy sitting backwards on top of the rice, his coat over his head. If dude driving hits the brakes, this guy is a human projectile. It's absolute madness. It's Crazy Taxi. Grand Theft Auto. No rules. Might as well not paint the lanes.
Hosam almost died today. My guide had high-blood pressure. When he talks, his eye lids slowly fall as his eyeballs roll back into his head.
The awe, the shivers of reverence, never came today when I saw the pyramids. Awe is difficult to feel when you're busy whipping the shit (literally, nasty, burning-hot, wet poop) out of an old grunting camel that you're sure is going to crap out on you and send you flying ten feet down to the ground, as it hobbles up rocky inclines, while you make small talk with a overtly fake swindler who just wants to make you happy so you give him more money. The pyramids are getting pimped shamelessly.
I don't mind tipping But don't ask for it. Don't demand it. I worked in tourism. You don't do that. It's disrespectful. It's not honest. Why did I let it slide then? Fuck it, no more... I'm going to enjoy the rest of my time, not spend it spending worry and energy about how I'm spending my money.
You know, Mr. Mohammad, my sheesha smoking pal in the restaurant this morning was my favourite guy: he talked to me like a person. I felt like a person then, not a talking-ATM. Good man.
* * *
(written while "half in the bag")
So tonight... ooh boy. It started out well. A Nile cruse. I'm waiting for the guide, who shows up and walks me to the end of the street. "Sight." I point to my eyes, not knowing what's going on. He shakes his head. A cabbie jumps out and some random guy waves me toward his car. "Said." I still don't know what's going on..
We jump into the cab and madly - MADLY - take off. We serve through spaces you wouldn't dare attempt in North America at 80 kpm. Yikes. And we're supposed to be heading to a relaxing buffet cruise. I swear, I thought he'd roll the cab about ten times or smash into the back of another car or some pedestrian. We almost clipped like ten ladies in the shopping district and I'm sure we got one lady's handbag. She didn't even flinch. We didn't hit one person or get into a collision or anything. How?
In Cairo, you don't just rely on your own intuitive, prophetic, magician-like ability behind the wheel, horn, gas and brake. More importantly, you rely on the rest of the 25 million residents' driving talents and walking dexterity.
We get to the cruise and the cabbie smiles. I shake my head and I can honestly say I wasn't freaked out, but impressed. More in awe of his driving than I was from the pyramids.
The night was fun. I met up with the tour guide, Said. Starting to make sense. After working a 16-hour day, Said got called in to escort me to this cruise. How bad do I feel seeing how tired this guy is and hearing how his six-year-old son wanted him to stay home.
We had a good time and some laughs. The belly dancer jiggling and us giggling. A really goofy band played out their karaoke dreams. Then a traditional twirling dancer and a midget get up. (The whole schtick was that the midget was trying to dance like the stoic, twirling dancer and he kept messing up.) I didn't want to just up and laugh at the midget. Political correctness tells me not to. When in Cairo though. Said was cracking up, smacking the table.
I get back to the hostel and go out to smoke a sheesha before bed, and...
run into a pack of crazy Cairans, who become my friends immediately. It's not hard to make friends with the locals here.
They convince me to go to a club with them, and...
we walk six blocks, then through a parking lobby, into what looked like an abandoned marble building lobby. We go up some stairs, through some doors and...
A red-walled joint, streamers everywhere, lamps, colourful hanging ornaments, table with suited men and hookas, HAPPY NEW YEARS and MERRY CHRISTMAS signs still up, handshakes with smiling suits and mustachioed serious dudes, girls hanging around tables, band on stage, live music, make-up, tight dress girls, dancing, suited young man singing, keyboard player, drummer and two bongo players.
We get a table, two hookas and some beers.
The boys introduce me to these girls. Barely speak English. They say the same, same, SAME things over and hover. The girls kissing me, winking. Me refusing their company politely. No one seems to understand. I spend the next hour repeating this.
"She good..." one of my friends says.
"Yeah, she's pretty, but no thanks."
He nods. Talks to her. Whispers something. She looks at me coyly. He turns back.
"Her..." he points. "She good." Nods, content with his judgement.
"Uh... no thanks."
The room is so smokey. So bizarre. I'm dying. Too much smoke.
I give homeboy 50 Egyptian pounds to pay for the drinks. He goes on stage, makes a speech about how much he loves Canada. Pours money over one of the dancing girls. Everyone claps for me: All the girls, my friends, the staff, the suits. Great. Girl comes over and we walk onto the stage. She's actually very attractive. I second-guess my earlier stance. She drags me to the front of the stage. I don't dance well at all. Not sure what to do. Can I touch her? My friend Monkey comes up on stage and dances like a maniac and saves me.
We sit down and cheers. I want to leave now, though. Sick of refusing women over and over and over. I think I stuck around so long to see if maybe I'd say yes.
But no, I'm tired from the smoke. We bounce and we spend my money tipping the girls. Is this why I have made these friends? I don't know.
They walk me back, make plans for a sheesha tomorrow. I swear, I had to repeated things 1,000 times and still I don't think they understand me.
"I go to Giza tomorrow. A.M. No problem."
"I went already today."
"We party tomorrow."
"No, I'm going to Luxor."
Cool experience, but I'm glad I'm leaving tomorrow.
* * *
January 14, 2008:
Well, I missed getting anything in here yesterday, because people like Mr. Said Mohammad Ibrahim were too busy serenading me out of 25 pounds for some cigarettes, 20 more pounds for some eye medicine with flattery and cheap commissary. He even finagled the pen out of my hand. These guys are good. Very good. Being an expert in persuasion (I graduated with a BA in Comm Studies with a specialization in Persuasion and Rhetoric) I should be able to see these types of things coming form the "hello," but I don't, because I want to be friendly and return their insincere goodwill.
It starts off with a "Hello, Welcome to Egypt."
How do you ignore that? "Thank you."
"Where are you from?"
"Ah, Canada Dry. No woman, no cry. Good people. I know _________ from Montreal."
Small talk ensues. Canadians are great. Generous, they say. They invite you for tea, because you are such a great man.
You have tea. They flatter you and offer small gifts like an orange or some coins. They act way over the top with these gifts, like they are being supremely generous and putting themselves out. The flattery continues.
Then it is time to pay for the tea. You pull out your money and reciprocate. You feel indebted and almost like you have a duty to respond and validate their claims that Canadians are great, generous people. This flattery makes you do some silly things and they know this. This act is repeated. After a while, you realize that everyone in the street has an angle. It's a hustle.
I've learned. Today, I walk. I don't talk. Sure, people make you feel like an asshole for not acknowledging them, but it's all a hustle. You need to remember that they are the ones being assholes.
But those Cairans are clever: Clever as a Cairan, people should say. Life is a hustle. It's a struggle. They are amazing salesmen. They find something in anything. The mark of a good con is that they make it so the mark doesn't know if he's been hustled. Thinking back on this week, I don't know how many times I've been had.
A supposed Palestinian man came to me in tears claiming that his family had been killed and he needed to get back to see them. I didn't know. His accent was different. His story was elaborate. His tears seemed genuine. He was the most amazing actor if this was his game. And you know, if it wasn't a hustle, on the off chance, I feel alright knowing that I helped him out. How could I turn him down a few dollars as a human being, if it was true? Fuck him if it wasn't, but he put on a good and convincing show. Maybe I've spent too much time in small-town Canada and I need some hardening.
But in a place where 50 out of 100 people don't have a job, the people have to do something to live and the few that got a few pounds out of me these last three days have been very good at what they do.
* * *
Everyone works ridiculous hours. Said, the guy who came on the falluka cruise with me, works 16-hour days. He's sleep deprived. "Oh well, my God will take care of it," he says. People in Cairo work this much just to eat. Hosam was looking rough, like he was going to pass out the entire day we spent at the pyramids. He didn't sleep that night because he'd been working.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
So those were the most relevant and least pathetic passages from my journal. I don't know what purpose they serve at all, but in the spirit of this blog, I figured why the hell not?
Hopefully, for the Hosams, Saids and even the swindlers in Cairo, the events of this past week - and whatever happens in the near future - will help improve the quality of their lives and the lives of their families. I don't know if anyone even knows what to expect or what kinds of changes are being sought, but after spending a week in Cairo, wandering around lost, even I recognized that people were working hard and weren't happy with the little that earned them. I definitely stand in support of the demonstrators in Egypt.