Thursday, February 26, 2004

# Posted 5:10 PM by Patrick Belton  

A LETTER FROM CAIRO: OxBlog's Cairo correspondent chips in with a witty and insightful letter from the land of Pharaohs and Nasser:
It is very pleasant to be back in Egypt again in spring, without having had to do any of that tiresome business of surviving the summer. Even the traffic fumes seem to be less overpowering than usual - reputedly one is a ten-cigarettes-a-day smoker here just by virtue of stepping outside the front door, which seems rather unfair to me. Anyway, I clean out my lungs three times a week by breathing in lots of steam in the sauna at the hotel gym, which is sheer heaven. I salve my conscience by not allowing myself to go there before making use of the exercise equipment, but even this has its compensations, since it is all positioned facing huge windows with a sunset view of the Nile - or, for those with slightly less elevated souls, large televisions showing CNN. The gym, I must confess, is a ridiculous extravagance, even in European terms, but it is also ridiculously luxurious. Attendants scurry to provide one with fresh towels at every opportunity - while working out, after working out, for the pool, the jacuzzi, the sauna, the (blissfully high-pressure) shower. They just have an awfully large laundry. Actually, if my landlady ever does throw me out, I think I might go and live at the gym. It is open 24 hours and provides every amenity (including toothbrushes, for no adequately explained reason) except food, which I am certain could be obtained by persuading Room Service to go a little out of their way...

Of course, the real reason for my presence in Cairo is not so that I can live the high life, but so that I can research my thesis, and I am doing that too, with grim determination. I have a wistful desire to be able to speak Arabic "properly" - though I know people who have been studying it for five years who still say the same, so I freely admit it is not a very realistic goal in my current circumstances. For the moment, I am compensating by spending quite a bit of time with non-English speaking friends, and improving my command of the colloquial language.

Last week, however, this apparently harmless pursuit nearly got me arrested. My Egyptian friend had phoned me up and asked if I would like to go with her to see the Agricultural College where she studies, and meet her fellow students. "Yes, please!" I said, thinking that it would be a fine way of spending the morning and I could always catch up on my work in the afternoon. So we met up and went on the Metro... then a taxi... then a two hour bus journey... then another taxi... It turned out that the College was in another town entirely. Our trip was enlivened by the film showing on the bus, which was called 'Mafia', all about an Egyptian who is led into bad company in Italy then arrested in Egypt and persuaded by the stern-yet-likeable detective and clever-yet-beautiful-and-yielding female police doctor to work for them. So they take him down the Nile to train him in karate and shooting-things and withstanding-interrogation and one-man-missions, and there is a comic sidekick who is fat and put-upon and nearly has to marry an ugly woman, and there is an eminent singer who explains the meaning of life to Our Hero, to the accompaniment of an all-singing, all-dancing chorus of Nubian peasants - and then we had to stop because the bus arrived. (It showed the same film on the way back, but only the first half again. I think I can guess, though, that Reformed Hero is going to bring down his erstwhile Mafia colleagues single-handed, reconcile with his Aged Father, and marry Beautiful Karate-Kicking Doctor. So I'm not worried.)

Anyway, I am getting distracted by the recollection of these glories from the anecdote at hand. When we finally got to the college, I was introduced to all my Egyptian friend’s friends (about eight of them), and the whole party headed off to explore the town. I was solemnly informed that it was a deeply historic town full of ancient monuments, but sadly we did not come across any of these during the course of our peregrinations - which did, however, take in a shopping mall and a pizza place. But at least they all talked at once with various regional accents, so it was definitely good language practice. After lunch, we headed off again, and were just wandering down a pleasantly shady street admiring the deeply historic trees (or so I was once again informed), when a large, angry plain-clothes policeman leapt out of nowhere and started shouting at us and demanding identification. (He had a difficult accent too, but this time I was rather less gratified at the opportunity it presented, and rather more concerned.) Apparently, the high wall on our left-hand side concealed a critical military installation, and one of our party was in possession of a camera. He wanted the film, the camera, and possibly our immediate attendance at the nearest police station as well. Fortunately, we had not actually been taking photos, we avowed our innocence repeatedly with shouts (from the boys), tears (from the girls) and an occasional demand in Arabic to be told what on earth was going on (from me), and eventually we were sent on our merry way. The phrase "and don't bother coming back" was definitely implied.

Of course from my point of view, this was all rather amusing, and I was certainly never at risk of anything more than inconvenience. But one of the girls was really upset. And it did bring it home to me how much, even in a relatively liberal country such as Egypt, the lack of fundamental legal rights does make confrontation with authority a risky business for the local population. Unless you happen to have credentials of some kind, you can't sit back and enjoy the spectacle of a mix-up such as this, secure in the knowledge that you have done nothing wrong. Because there is always the possibility that this will be the occasion when that is simply not going to matter...
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