Voting in Zamalek

People in the women’s line at a school in Zamalek had been waiting up to five hours, since 7:30 am, when I arrived.  They seemed happy about the process; the weather was beautiful; things were relatively well organized; some clever people had even brought folding chairs and/or sandwiches. It was unclear how the would-be voters stretched for six blocks along July 26 street, then around the corner and another several blocks on the parallel street, would all get in before the 7pm closing time.  But when I passed by later the line had shortened a lot, and anyway the polls are open tomorrow as well.

The polling place itself was secured by the same type of army guys I’d seen at Maspero last week (olive uniforms, helmets, etc), but all the security and organization I saw outside was taken care of by the young men (and I saw one woman) of the Popular Committees, the (mostly) unarmed neighborhood watch groups spontaneously organized when police were withdrawn from the streets in late January.  They wore no uniforms – in some cases not even a laminated nametag – but people respected them and followed their instructions.  As in: “I’m sorry, ma’am, this line is only for those who are over 60 or pregnant. You’ll have to go down that way, around the corner, second left.”  And the person would immediately go.

Amid the underlying uncertainty over what exactly this Parliament will do, one feels odd playing a role in this scene, running around with a Nikon and taking the sort of photographs that play into the usual narrative, so familiar to newspaper readers and so often leading to disappointment. Not only Iraq (try Googling “purple finger elections”), but even the best cases (like South Africa: who can forget the images of people lining up to vote in the first post-apartheid election in 1996?).  Yet there they are by the hundreds and thousands, lined up and smiling, calling friends and relatives to discuss whom to vote for. The elderly woman emerging from the polling station with her face aglow.  Who can resist?  [Note: having trouble with slow Internet right now, but will try to upload photos in a few hours.  I didnt get the glowing face by the way; didn’t dare interrupt. But Al-Masry Al-Youm and tons of other photogs were on the scene.]

Bottom line is that at least today there’s a free choice, even if its ultimate impact will soon be canceled by gridlock, bickering, continuing dictatorship and dispossession.  At least none of the candidates on the election posters is wearing sunglasses.  A year ago, instead of all those faces of folks who have decided to run for Parliament (some of them quite ordinary people), the banners and posters would have some variation of “Yes, Mubarak!”  Not a lot to be excited about, but people are doing their best.


Vigil at al-Fann Midan (Nov 5)

The Fann Midan on the eve of the Eid, and the first one since the Maspero events, had a political cast (short video overview here). The early crowd was young and motivated (though many families etc. drifted in later for the screening of Youssef Chahine’s film The Return of the Prodigal Son – which was also lovely to see).
Early in the evening, a vigil for activist Mina Danial and others slain at Maspero; a lot of people were wearing “No to Military Trials for Civilians” and “No to Emergency Law” stickers. (Today I saw one of these pasted on the back of the Talaat Harb statue in his square downtown; looked good there.)

Mina’s name spelled out in candles.

This group’s first song was about Mina Danial and others like him, martyrs of the post-18-Days violence. They explicitly compared the 25-year-old Danial to Che Guevara, whom (as Thanassis Cambanis has pointed out) he resembled.
A later song – sorry for the poor quality recording, but you should be able to find more from the evening (including the performance by Iskandarella) on YouTube – insisted on national unity, with quotes about and from the Gospels and Quran, and this utterly persuasive chorus: “We all are one, and our Lord is one, and Love is one.”

The situation is urgent, the sentiment noble. But I think by calling for “unity” – be it wihda or tawhid – these pro-rule-of-law activists are embracing a slippery meme. Not just because they leave out all non-monotheists, all non-believers of any kind. There problem is that other political factions – whether sporting beards or bayonets – will always outdo them at the unity game. There has been too much of the “one hand” business already. My instinct – and probably the instinct of some of these activists as well? – would be to get liberty and equality first, then work on fraternity. Unfortunately it won’t happen that way. In today’s Egypt, would any kind of call to diversity – as an antidote to potential nascent fascism – even fly?

More from the Shooting Club

On Saturday mornings the Tupperware at the Shooting Club playground is replaced by bags and boxes from French-style bakeries; the mommies and daddies run around behind their wee ones, distracting them on the swingset or slide with force-fed bites of chocolate croissant.

But after my snarky previous post about the Shooting Club, I want to clarify. We don’t pay membership dues for the irony value. I am one of those mommies, though usually found chasing my kids around with a camera rather than a fork. Multilingually educated (عقبالنا!) and preppily dressed, the little Janas and Malaks we meet might be the nearest demographic equivalent of my own overprotected towheads: organic milk only; bike helmet for the tricycle. I’m no more a participant-observer here than at home, at the beautifully maintained playground near our house in a near Boston suburb.
Of course, it feels more liberating (dare I say democratic?) that the playground at home is not a club, has no guards at the gate. It is “free” and “public” for those who can cough up the equivalent of a membership fee in the form of a down payment or rent, or who can drive there and make their children look and act like they belong. That means everyone has to share – no swiping little Emma’s truck or pushing little Liam in the sandbox. (Hey grownups who tell kids to share: would you lend a stranger your iPhone? How about your car?) By the way, with no one haranguing them about sharing, lots of kids at the Nadi El Seid playground have been incredibly generous to mine, sharing their toys, blocks, snacks, turns on the slide, even pushing them on the swings.

Egypt’s class system is a major drain on productivity, but the U.S. East Coast’s also has its pitfalls. We can have a conversation later about how property taxes are collected and allocated, but it’s necessary to note, American allergies to it aside, that the nadi system has its strengths. There is an element of social support. Our neighbor says they organize heavily subsidized trips for members over 70 – e.g., a weekend at a seaside resort in Suez for under 150 pounds (like $25). They show films and have discussion groups etc. They host various exercise classes including a seated-in-a-chair ankle-wiggling exercise for sedentary older ladies. And of course all kinds of things for kids.

But you want to hear about the parents, right? Here’s a sample, quite skewed probably by who is drawn to me as an English-speaking opportunity (though I try to stick to Arabic unless it’s impolite) or whose kids seek out mine. I should emphasize in case it is not clear from the capsules below that all these people (except maybe the first) seemed really very bright and had good, respectable reasons for living or thinking the way they did. I mean no disrespect by quoting them here.

– The flirtatious young mom, sitting poolside to keep an eye on the private lessons of Mimi (Amina) and Kookoo (Karim), amusing herself by having a halfhearted argument with the swimming instructor: This revolution, really! He [Mubarak, it transpires] wasn’t that bad of a guy, was he? And it isn’t fair to blame one man for everything that’s wrong in the country! Look, they got their revolution, and what did it produce? Traffic jams and piles of garbage in the street. The country was cleaner before. (The instructor, from his position down in the water, vigorously disagreed.)

– The very clean-shaven, nattily dressed middle-aged gentleman pushing a three-year-old Malak on the swing (Malak = girl’s name, means “angel,” he said she looked like one at birth so they decided to name her that) is a cosmetic surgeon. He has spent time in the US and Saudi Arabia (duh, of course there’s cosmetic surgery in Saudi Arabia). Upon returning, in view of the Islamization of Egypt, he hired two female doctors to join his clinic. But they get less work than he had hoped: 2) the clients assume a male doctor is more experienced; 2) they don’t feel comfortable showing a female doctor their boobs and (pointing to various sometimes-fleshy places) so on. The outward Islamicization, though, is real. Years ago you could hardly see a higab in the Shooting Club, and now it’s rare to see a woman without one! His female employees all cover up for the commute, then take off their scarves when they get to work, though he doesn’t tell them to. (I’ve seen the assistant teachers at my daughter’s school do the same.) His wife works – a physiotherapist – so on Saturdays when the private schools get the day off they split the day; she finishes work at noon, and he starts at noon.

– The guy built like a tank, whose 2-year-old is throwing sand in the sandbox, turns out to be an officer in the Egyptian Special Forces (القوات الخاصة). He was supposed to go to West Point to train 14 years ago, but the permission was suddenly yanked; he graduated in Egypt instead. Upon learning that I am American: “Oh, I’ve been spending a lot of time guarding the U.S. Embassy these past few months. Since January 28 we’ve been there. At the time, no one knew it was a revolution, just some protests. Whenever there’s any disturbance we are sent to guard the sensitive embassies: you know, the US, Britain, France, Canada, Israel. Bibo, stop throwing sand! Saudi Arabia? Yes. And Kuwait. Also the Egyptian Museum, the ministries, things like that. Interesting? No, it’s hard actually. Is there a culture difference between the Special Forces and the rest of the military? Well, yes. In your country, the ordinary soldiers have missions, experience: Iraq, Afghanistan. Here we have only training. Personally I have worked for the UN, so I have some experience: I’ve been in Somalia, Darfur. But that is not true of the Egyptian military as a whole.” Will I see him at the club again? Perhaps by the pool. He coaches the swimming team!

– The middle-class-looking conservatively muhaggaba mom of a kid taking semi-private swimming lessons: “We drive in from al-Haram, by the Pyramids. Yes, it’s a long way. Does your son only do swimming? Mohammed – he’s five – is about to start soccer next month. Three times a week. Yes, I work – I’m a pathologist. Yes, it’s very hectic sometimes. But…!” I forget where she told me his school was, near home or not; some parents go to incredible lengths (or send their kids to incredible lengths on school buses, across the city or out into the new desert towns, more than an hour each way) to reach the private school of their choice. From talking to the kids I can testify to the strength of these schools’ foreign language programs, at least.

– the super-sweet, outgoing, and well-mannered nine-year-old girl whose family lives right on Kasr El Ainy Street, near Tahrir, repeating what she must have heard at the dinner table: “Oof. They keep demonstrating. All they want is their demands. They don’t want the country to quiet down. It makes so much noise I can’t get to sleep at night. We have another apartment, in Maadi, but it’s still being redone so we can’t move there yet.”

Have you had enough yet? Want me to go spend a day somewhere else? 🙂

Sketches of a new/old political stasis

Just went to see this show, “The Last Days of Umm Dina,” at the Rawabet Center with my friend Maha. It was fun: not the sexy bellydancing promised on the poster, and not in fact a history of prostitution in Egypt, but an amateur sketch show (is this the Egyptian genre known as political cabaret?) with some songs satirizing the next-oldest profession, politics. The performers looked a lot like the audience: 20-something, wearing jeans and t-shirts, three women (of whom one muhaggaba) in a troupe of about 10 performers. There were funny numbers on the elections (ElBaradei made a brief appearance, spoke a few words, and beat a hasty retreat promising “the rest on Twitter”… Amre Moussa pretended to be the inevitable candidate doing various gymnastics to distance himself from the old regime… various old-regime leftovers and Islamists stumbled around dispensing violence or bribes and promising a “transitional period of 30 or 40 years or so,” as the three girls sang exaggerated backup to each candidate:
كلام جمييييل، كلام معقووووووول، ما اقدرش اقووووووووووووول حاجة فيه) and related phenomena. One young man deadpanned that after the revolution he decided not to be part of the old regime anymore, but to be part of the new regime (with a military salute showing exactly who Egypt’s “new” rulers were).
Lots of pointed jokes at state-run TV and SCAF and the ongoing military regime, lots of playful saluting, some slapping around of dissidents and would-be-independent journalists and such.
On the poster the show was labeled “a comedy, to a certain extent” – and that’s about right. Some things are hard to laugh about right now – the wounds are too fresh. (At the end the director came out and dedicated the show to Alaa Abdel Fattah.) There were definite moments of collective depression among the audience as well as applause and general hilarity at the SCAF send-ups. Regardless of the quality, it was good to see the downtown theatre crowd out in force, basking for an hour or so anyway in the warmth of shared political disillusion.
If even cardboard-man Tantawi is being readied for a personality cult (witness the celebrations of his birthday yesterday, appropriately coinciding with All Hallows’ Eve and marked by SCAF’s sticking the World’s Tallest Flagpole into the soil of Egypt), then the time will soon be ripe for satire again.

“Show me what democracy looks like”

Is Cairo boiling today? I’m not there. People there must feel that this is a last chance to drag the revolution out from under the wheels of the Egyptian Army’s tanks; today is probably the day that will decide whether or not the army’s massacre of civilians at Maspero last Sunday, with the associated state-media-incited sectarian violence, is or isn’t forever considered an inexorable turning point in Egypt’s post-Mubarak history, a turn into something slimier and darker than the nice “transition period” people had been talking about.  (Remember the Eastern-bloc “transitions to democracy”? Like pre-Putin Russia?)  A line in last Tuesday’s front-page Al-Masry al-Youm editorial put it succinctly:

الفطرة الانتقالية لم تبدأ بعد  The transitional period has not yet begun.

The paper also called on Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (the name means “honor”) to “have the sharaf to resign.”  He hasn’t. Instead, an unabashed cover-up press conference by SCAF, some dithering by the main political parties.  The intelligentsia immediately started doing its thing, sometimes with great wit.  This is a mock film poster for a feature called “The Ministry of Interior is Still in My Pocket,” starring Hosni Mubarak:

The artist known as Sad Panda proposes cutting off the tower of the State Radio and TV building rather than cutting the bells and domes off of churches in Upper Egypt (More from Sad Panda here):

And another artist, Abdallah, highlights the contrast between 1973 and 2011 in a cartoon titled The Maspero Slaughter. “I sacrificed my life on 6 October on top of a tank,” says the skeleton on the right. “And I sacrificed my life on 9 October, under a tank!!” responds his friend on the left.

Where am I as all this unfolds? In Boston, home of the original Tea Party and still showing traces of its founding by a band of salafist reformers called the Puritans.  Having a great time hanging out with a hyper-talented theatre director and his company, but also homesick for Cairo. Since I can’t be at Tahrir or Azhar Square, maybe I’ll go visit the sleep-in near South Station this morning – this is the Boston chapter of the Occupy Wall Street folks, showing us all what democracy sounds like.

And maybe I won’t. Here’s an excerpt from the FAQ posted on the official Occupy Boston web site – doesn’t really suggest a vibrant and unified opposition to capitalist hegemony, does it?:

“Where can I park my car?

There are plenty of parking lots in the area. Daily parking lot rates can be as high as $30/day on weekdays.  Rates of $9-$12 are more common for weekends. Street parking is available all around the financial district, Chinatown and the waterfront. Meters cost a quarter for 12 minutes and you can only get up to 2 hours at a time. Meters are shut off at 8:00 pm and are off all day on Sundays.

I went to Dewey Square but I didn’t see an occupation there.  Where are you?

We are tucked away behind some small trees. Look harder, we are definitely there.  We are directly across Atlantic Avenue from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which is this large silvery building.  …

I don’t like the food at Occupy Boston, or I don’t need free food.  Where else can I buy food nearby?

South Station has a small food court.  Quincy Market / Faneuil Hall is an 8-10 minute walk north on Atlantic Ave, and there is a wide variety of restaurants there.  Chinatown is a 2-3 minute walk south on Surface Road, and there are a lot of inexpensive restaurants and delis there.  Really, it’s downtown Boston; you can walk in any direction and find a lot of places to eat.”

Okay, in fairness, these are the FAQs intended for visitors and clueless fellow-travelers.  The protests are gaining momentum, spreading to different cities, and will probably get more interesting. But you know what I mean. These Bostonians can sound a bit whiny.  The physical courage of the Egyptian protesters, standing their ground in the face of unimaginable state violence, is just somehow (and thank God no one runs us over with APCs here) of a different moral stature.


So far, the defining experience of our time in Cairo has been the traffic jam.  No longer.

Over the past three days, while I have been in Boston for some events surrounding Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Arab Shakespeare Trilogy (on which the other blog should have more to say soon – it all went great), my husband has quickly and good-naturedly relocated our kids and all our stuff to a different apartment, in Dokki rather than the Za(ح)malek. Friends have taken over out old lease. Now we are walking distance to the kids’ school.

I do hope to write something soon on the commuting thing.  What I’ve been claiming to do over the past month is research for a new book on a century of Arab-Russian literary and cultural ties, but what I’ve been doing in fact, for at least an hour a day and more like two, is picking up the kids from school, i.e., conducting Socratic dialogues about Egyptian politics with taxi drivers.  No, not trying to be Khaled Al-Khamissi, let alone Tom Friedman; just curious what happens when you draw people out and see what they say, where and why they contradict themselves.  For obvious reasons I have never recorded these, though I believe they could be interesting.

Should be a pretty smooth trip back from the airport though; I get back on Sunday at 4:15 am.

“And all the barriers broke down”

How totally lame is it that even Sean Penn made it to yesterday’s protest in Tahrir, and I didn’t? What was I doing, exactly? Staying home while my toddler took a nap? Nursing an intense (and intensely undeserved) sense of bitterness about this whole “revolution” thing?

On Thursday morning I visited my son’s primary school. The Irish-born teacher put on a somewhat surreal little impromptu concert for me; the kids sang along to a YouTube recording of post-revolution triumph songs and then a few Muzak Christmas carols (she saw no tension here).  Part of her civilizing mission, I guess: teach her little charges to stand up straight, sing out loud, snap their fingers and sway to the beat, etc. “It gives them confidence,” she declared, happy to have me as a captive audience. It was sweet to hear this motley crew – the teacher announced their countries as they took solos: kids from Indonesia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and one newly arrived from Poland, plus my son –  sing  “Bladi, Bladi” (which means “My country, my country,” contrary to how it might sound to Russian speakers!), a song dedicated to the fallen heroes of the revolution.  But it was downright moving, as in almost made me cry (granted I had pulled an all-nighter to meet an article deadline, on which more later, so was probably feeling more emotional than usual), to hear them sing a song released shortly after Mubarak fell, its lyrics based on posters carried by triumphant demonstrators in Tahrir: “I went down [to protest] and said I’m not going back. And all the barriers broke down.”

Because the thing is, this may be a cheap shot, but they are going back, and the barriers are coming back fast.  Many Egyptians are starting to feel – as in this clever sign that Walter Armbrust photographed yesterday and posted to Facebook – that the revolution is being strangled in its crib.

A salutary rejoinder to the gloom was Steve Negus’ recent piece arguing that the revolution has made subtle but crucial gains that have (in his cautious phrase) “so far survived the counter-revolution.” It isn’t all or nothing.  And much has changed.  Maybe some barriers have broken down inside Egyptians themselves, maybe the political landscape has opened up a bit (though not at the top), and slowly, slowly, there can be an improvement of the political situation?

If the government hasn’t changed, at least the surface of the society (all I get to see, unfortunately) has gotten more interesting. Tomorrow we meet our “fuSHa (literary Arabic) conversation” teacher to talk about the possibility of “coexistence”  تعايش between people of different beliefs and cultures in Egypt, taking as an example the Costa Salafis سلفيو كوستا  and an astute (but decidedly non-fuSHa) film they produced, “Where is my Ear?” So, at least we get to spend our morning basking in the basic civility of Egyptian society. These guys are hilarious!

The clothes’ new emperor?

He changed his clothes.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a well-preserved 75, appeared downtown on Monday wearing a civilian suit rather than his military uniform. State TV gave him the glowing coverage you might expect for, say, a presidential incumbent seeking re-election. You can read in on the whole “incident” here and view a video here.
So for the last two days the Photoshoppers have been having a field (marshal) day; my Facebook feed has been buzzing with hilarious caricatures like these, which I reproduce for the convenience of those of you not on Facebook.  This one has him saying, essentially, “Don’t like the civil/ian? Let’s make it Islamic!”:

(from indefatigable Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff)

and best of all, this, which shows Egyptians all their electoral options (#s 7 and 8 allude to the “workers” and “farmers” who play a big role in politics, since by SCAF decree members of these groups must make up half of all party lists):

Not everything is about costume politics here, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it.  Today’s newspapers also ran a photo of the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, wearing a huge scarf wrapped around her head as she endured a prickly meeting with the Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb.

You will find quite a few photos from this series with a a Google image search for  “آن باترسون الأزهر حجاب ”  But curiously, searching for any English variant I can think of, like “anne patterson egypt azhar hijab [or higab],” turns up nothing. Why – is the English-language press more focused on the substance of the meeting?  (But the costumes were the substance.) Or just shy about showing their ambassador in a position that could be construed as disempowering?  Donning the headscarf had been El-Tayeb’s precondition for the meeting.

Mini-officers in Tahrir

In front of the building I used to live in (on which more later!), I came across a family picnicking. Mother, father, two girls, two boys. The girls had black-white-and-red headbands (pretty typical – there was all kinds of face painting and costuming, like at a sports game), but the boys were in full regalia. What’s up with the miniature military uniforms? I’m not sure I understand the semiotics here.

Their father was very proud of them, delighted to have me interrupt their lunch for a photo opportunity, even more delighted to show me the front-page newspaper coverage he and his son had received during the 18 Days.


My friend in Tahrir

My friend works in H.R. for an international company and speaks fluent English. She never gave much of a damn about politics before last January. Then she was in Tahrir almost every day. Her Facebook posts went from English to colloquial Arabic. We met up this afternoon.  I was so happy to see her again, after only communicating online since my last visit in 2008 – she looks great!
(The sticker on her shirt says “civil state” — part of the Dawla Madaneya campaign. I was given one too, though no one for a minute mistook me for an Egyptian.)

And apparently my friend is starting a project to help educate rural Egyptians about political decision-making and electoral rights. Didn’t catch all the details this time (as she hurriedly explained them to the representative of a group of fellaheen, peasants or farmers, who had come to the square to counter the government’s attempt to coopt them by creating a new holiday and holding an official Farmers’ Day celebration) but I’ll keep you posted