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Deport me!

moniqueelfaizy:

An insightful take on the state of affairs here.

Originally posted on a paper bird:

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several…

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April in Cairo

We’re in that Spring/Summer transition here and I have some serious cabin fever. At least on the hot days. It hit 100 degrees last week and all I wanted was to be on a beach somewhere. A few days later it was freezing and I had no interest in going out at all.

Not that I haven’t been able to get away. I borrowed a generous friend’s house in Greece recently to get some writing done. The trip was logistically challenging and the weather was awful, but it was really nice to be back in Europe. It reminded me of what I have to look forward to in Paris. Yes, the boys and I will be relocating to Paris over the summer, and we will spend at least the next four years there.

I have mixed feelings about leaving Egypt. There’s still so much I haven’t done here, on the work front and on the tourism front. I’ve spent way more time stuck in Maadi than I would have liked, and not for any good reason. There are still a ton of places I’d like to see and people I’d like to interview and cultural events I’d like to attend. Oh, and Arabic I’d like to learn. Really, I could use another year here.

What I have, though, is four months, give or take, and I am working on making the most of them. I had planned with a friend to go to a lovely outdoor roast chicken restaurant out near the Saqqara pyramids last Saturday, but the weather turned cold and windy and it looked like sandstorms were a distinct possibility, so we bailed.

The BF and I are heading to Alexandria this weekend, and the weather there looks pretty nice. I’m really looking forward to it—I’ve been wanting to get up there for years, but have never been. I’m hoping this will be the first of many trips I manage to sneak in before I move.

Our leaving Egypt isn’t all bad —although I am dreading the apartment hunt in Paris. I’m not sure why. I’ve done it a million times before, but this time feels strangely onerous. I keep hoping that someone out there knows someone with an apartment to sublet in the neighborhood I want to live in and I can forgo the logistical nightmare. I guess two years between apartment hunts isn’t enough respite for me.

On the upside, though, it’ll be nice to live in Europe again. My time in Greece gave me a little reminder, and it was pretty great. There are all these little things you don’t even notice when you live in the West that, after being in Egypt, are such delights: orderly traffic, clean stores with pretty displays, organic food, safe and reliable transportation. Life is just less stressful, or at least the stresses there are have less to do with daily survival.

And yet, I’ll miss that aspect of life in Egypt. Life in the developed world is so, well, ordinary—at least for someone like me who grew up there. I’m sure if you were raised in the developing world and moved to the West it would feel pretty extraordinary. I remember when I lived in the Soviet Union hearing stories of Soviets hyperventilating the first time they saw Western supermarkets because they had never seen such overabundance.

Lack of options isn’t the issue in Egypt. It’s the uncertainty that gets to one here. We are constantly waiting for the next power outage, water outage or other imminent inconvenience. And yet…in the West where those things are so much rarer people find worries with which to fill their minds and time, so insignificant things often take on oversized importance. Living here taught me not to sweat the little stuff. I’m going to try to hold on to that perspective, but I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to in the long term.

On the political front, now feels like as good a time as any to be leaving. There’s certainly not much happening anymore that’s Arab Spring-like. Parliamentary elections have yet to be scheduled, members of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to be sentenced to death in Egyptian courts (and President Sisi just declared that anyone who was caught digging tunnels from Gaza to Sinai would also face the death penalty), and a court just ruled that the police could deport gay foreigners. How they’re going to decide who is gay, I have no idea.

Terrorism doesn’t show any sign of letting up, either. The assaults on security forces in Sinai continue, as do random bombings and shootings in the rest of the country. The Jerusalem Post recently published an article querying Sisi’s ability to tackle the problem, and it’s a fair question. It’s possible that the Brotherhood and related groups just have too much support inside Egypt to be quashed. That remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the regime’s repressive crackdown hasn’t had the desired effect.

Dark Days

A sandstorm has had Cairo under a blanket of grit for two days now. It’s pretty awful. Just a couple of minutes outside leaves you with a coating of dust and sand in your hair. Visibility is down to next to nothing and the whole city is cloaked in a jaundiced pall.

The external drabness fits the mood here. People in Egypt seem more despondent than they have been in a long time. It’s been clear for a while now that the government under the nation’s beloved President Sisi is as repressive as any that came before it. Random bomb attacks against military and police still take place in Cairo and its environs, and the insurgency in Sinai against the security forces there continues. Militants dealt a particularly debilitating blow at the end of January in coordinated attacks that killed at least 26 people. And on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, the mother of a 5-year-old boy was killed by police birdshot while marching to lay a wreath of flowers in Tahrir Square.

That’s not the end of it. This week at least dozens of soccer fans were killed when police fired teargas at a crowd trying to storm a stadium. The victims were almost all young men, between the ages of 19 and 23. The senseless deaths seemed to be more than many here could take. One friend of mine said his cab driver was fighting back tears while talking about the tragedy the next day. For the moment, the love affair between the people and Sisi’s government is cooling.

There was one positive development: the release of Peter Greste, one of the three Al Jazeera journalists who have been in prison here since last December for, well, doing their jobs. They were accused of being in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt, and of reporting false news that damaged national security here.

The charges were preposterous. Greste and his colleagues were well known among the press corps as reputable, mainstream journalists who had worked with a number of international news outlets, including BBC and CNN. And while much of the Egyptian public believed the three were guilty (why would they have been arrested otherwise??), plenty of those in power here knew the case against them was nonsense. Prosecutors were unable to produce a shred of credible evidence against the trio. And yet, Greste languished in jail for 400 days and his colleagues are still there.

The pressure to free them was constant and considerable, and Sisi felt it. Eventually, it paid off for Greste, an Australian citizen, who was released under a recently passed law allowing for the deportation of foreigners charged with crimes. His colleague Mohamed Fadel Fahmy is Egyptian-Canadian; there were reports that he will renounce his Egyptian citizenship so he, too, can be deported. The rumor mill was in full force earlier this week, predicting that he’d be released within hours, but as of this writing he remains in jail.

The most worrisome case is that of the third journalist, Baher Mohamed. He is an Egyptian citizen with no other nationality, so the law allowing deportation doesn’t apply to him. His fate will be decided during his retrial, which is set to begin tomorrow. If Fahmy isn’t out by then, and it looks like he won’t be, he, too, will be retried. Amal Clooney (yes the heartthrob’s wife) is one of the lawyers defending Fahmy and is reportedly coming to Cairo this week to push for his release. Given how things have gone for them with the Egyptian legal system so far, I can’t imagine either man is feeling particularly positive about their prospects in court, but at least Fahmy has a possible get-out-of-jail card in his Canadian passport. And a higher court said this week that it had ordered the retrial because of a lack of evidence in the earlier proceedings, so that could be a good sign.

The whole thing has been a PR disaster for Egypt, leaving many Westerners scratching their heads as to why the government didn’t find a way to release the three a long time ago. From a local context makes more sense; it has little to nothing to do with the men who were arrested, and far more to do with a feud between Qatar and Egypt. Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, supported the former Islamist regime in Egypt, putting it at odds with the current government here, which outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and is doing everything it can to suppress the group. What’s more, Al Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar, operated an Egyptian channel, which was sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Given that, in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians, the three men were guilty simply by association.

Recently, though, relations between Egypt and Qatar have thawed a bit, and Al Jazeera shut down its Egyptian channel—a move that some believed paved the way for Greste’s release.  One can only hope that the other two men will be freed soon as well. Sadly, there are plenty of other journalists languishing in jail in near anonymity.

UPDATE: They’re out on bail. Good news, at least for now.

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/retrial-remaining-al-jazeera-reporters-open-egypt-28911884?via=newsletter&source=CSAMedition

Wonderland on the Nile

So this is what it feels like to slip down the rabbit hole.

I mean, I’m assuming that’s what happened here because, struggle as I may, I can’t find much connection at all between reality and what’s going on in Egypt these days.

Egypt’s transformation to Wonderland has been in process for quite a while, but the country seemed to have finally completed the process the week before last, when all outstanding charges against former president Hosni Mubarak were dismissed, including the murder charges relating to the killing of protestors during the 2011 uprising.

After nearly four years of waiting, the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets to demand his overthrow and, more saliently, the families of the people who gave their lives fighting for a new, better Egypt, didn’t even get their day in court.

On top of that, Mubarak and his sons were also acquitted of corruption charges against them, which heightens the Carrollian atmosphere, because I’ve never met an ordinary Egyptian who didn’t think they were corrupt. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have jury trials.

Egyptians reacted, of course. A few thousand of them took to Tahrir Square, but security forces shooed them away with tear gas and birdshot before too long. There have since been some more demonstrations at universities and other sites around the country but the massive show of popular will we’ve seen in the past is notably absent.

Apathy wasn’t the most visible response. When the verdict was announced, the courtroom erupted in sustained cheers. Television presenters extolled the decision. Dalia Ziada, the head of an organization called, without intended irony, the Liberal Democracy Institute, told the New York Times the country needed to “move on.”

It certainly seems Mubarak has. Within hours of his acquittal, a picture tagged as his first selfie was making the rounds on social media. And while he’d made all his court appearances on a stretcher because of his supposed poor health, in his own photo he was sitting up and looked surprisingly good for a man of 86.

So here we are, four years after the revolution, if we still want to call it that—although now, apparently, we will have to, because last week President Sisi said he is preparing a law that will make it illegal to criticize either the January 25, 2011 revolution or the revolution of June 30, 2013. I suppose that’s one way to finally silence the debate over whether the 2013 events constituted a coup or a revolution, at least inside Egypt.

I’m not quite sure how the proposed law squares with the constitution Egyptians passed amid much fanfare less than a year ago that guarantees freedom of speech. Or how those enshrined freedoms are reflected in another new law that forbids government employees from talking politics at work.

It’s all part of the confusion here. There’s plenty to go around. For example, Egyptian officials insist that homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt—and it isn’t—but at least 25 men were arrested in a bathhouse this week for “debauchery.” So being gay and saying what you think are officially legal—but if you are or you do, you get thrown in jail.

And it gets even more perplexing. Three people were arrested on a Cairo subway for simply speaking English because, as everyone knows, if you speak English you are, de facto, a spy. That same day prominent U.S. scholar Michelle Dunne, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the current regime, came to Cairo to attend the conference of what she tweeted was a pro-government organization, only to be detained for hours at the airport and denied entry. The Egyptians seem to be trying to minimize the fallout but so far have succeeded only in digging a deeper hole.

While there’s a growing undercurrent of disillusionment about the state of affairs here, Egyptians aren’t saying much about the dismal developments, nor are Western governments. It’s not difficult to see why—the West needs a stable Egypt from which to fry bigger fish in the region and Egyptians are tired of unrest and upheaval. All of that is understandable, but one has to wonder how long the subjugation of people’s rights can continue without repercussions.

Dining with History

Autumn has come to Cairo.

Looking at all the glorious photos of fall foliage in the Northeast of the U.S., it feels a little silly saying that, but there’s been a little nip in the air. Sure, the daily highs are still in the mid-70s or low 80s, but at night it’s been dipping into the low 60s. That feels colder here than it sounds. Air conditioners are off and it’s too chilly to walk barefoot in the house. Last night on the way to dinner I left my sweater in the cab, and I regretted it the rest of the evening.

I’ve been following through on my resolution to get out of the bubble more, and last night’s dinner was part of that. Friends of a friend from New York were passing through Egypt on a three-month round-the-world trip, so we met up at a storied establishment in the heart of Belle Epoque Cairo called Café Riche. It opened in 1908 and has been a haunt of Cairo’s intellectuals ever since.

The whole vibe is very un-Cairo. With its wood-paneled walls; its faded black-and-white photos of Cairo’s most influential cultural figures; its scattered disarray of books, papers and random memorabilia; and the klatch of old men gabbing over steaming plates, Café Riche feels a bit like a cross between the Friar’s Club and Barney Greengrass, for those of you who know New York. The night we were there, it felt like almost everyone else in the restaurant was a regular.

Café Riche has been the backdrop of many a seminal event in Egyptian history. An assassination attempt on the Prime Minister was staged from its doorway in 1919 (he survived). That same year, revolutionaries used the basement as a secret meeting space from which they agitated for the overthrow of their British rulers, and in 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his own coup from the comfort of a Riche table, this one against King Farouk, who reportedly met his wife at the coffeehouse. And Egypt’s favorite songbird, Umm Kalthoum once held a concert there.

The days when famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz could be found loitering over Turkish coffee are gone, but the tables are still populated with a cast of fascinating characters. We were having an entertaining conversation of our own at our table, but I would have loved to have been able to talk to some of the other guests. I have a hunch many of the same people would be there if I ever manage to make a repeat visit. That is definitely now on my to-do list.

I fear I may have to erase another item on that list, though. I’ve been wanting to go camping with the kids in the White Desert, which looks absolutely stunning. A while ago one of the embassies issued a warning about going there, and this week Egypt’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS. That can’t be good. The desert may well be perfectly safe, but I’m going to watch this one play out for a while before I dust off my sleeping bag.

We never did make it up to Alexandria, and with the holidays coming up our weekends are pretty packed. It looks like we might have to wait until spring. That’s okay. There’s plenty to explore in Cairo in the meantime.

The Perfect Year-Two Week

Last week was a fantastic week—and exactly the kind that fuels my belief that one year in a foreign country is not enough. It was the kind of week that comes only after you really have your bearings in a place.

The fun started on Tuesday night, when I went to meet a friend for drinks at a rooftop bar in Dokki, a neighborhood across the river from downtown Cairo. I hailed a cab off the street to get there, and the driver didn’t speak a word of English. Nevertheless, we chatted—in Arabic—the whole way up. That marks a milestone for me, although in truth I didn’t understand half of what he said. Still, I spoke enough to be able to have a conversation entirely in Arabic, which felt great

The bar was lovely. It was on top of a hotel, but not one of the fancy Western hotels, so there were plenty of Egyptians in the mix, including a woman who was wearing hijab and smoking shisha and drinking beer. Talk about mixed signals.

I guess that’s to be expected, though. Mixed signals are everywhere here. I’ve been watching more Egyptian TV, and the more of “real” Egypt I’m exposed to, the more confusing this place becomes, especially around anything involving sexuality.

Take the advertisements. During one commercial break there were two ads. In the first, a woman peddling water coolers was dressed in head-to-toe white satin, including her hijab. In her snowy, sparkly dress she looked like a very modest bride, although as far as I could tell there was nothing bridal about the ad. I suppose she was meant to be the picture of purity. The second ad, on the other hand, was for a fruit soda of some sort, this time being peddled by a group of buff, shirtless young men and attractive bikini-clad women splashing around together on a beach—a scene you would never see in Egypt.

And then there was the show itself, Heba Regl el-Ghorab, which my Arabic teacher told me means Heba, Crow Legs (although articles about the show say it means “Unfortunate Heba”). It’s the Egyptian version of Ugly Betty. I watch it because I can understand more of the Arabic in it than on any other show, which still is only about half. Even if I understood every word, though, I’d still find it confounding.

The show is set in a fashion house, and the women dress like they would anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. They wear skirts that hit above the knee and sleeveless tops—clothes that certainly don’t resemble the attire of ordinary Egyptian women, even the most Westernized. If you go to a party here you’ll see sexy dresses, and women will often wear sleeveless tops if they’re not walking on the street, but you don’t tend to see a lot of short skirts.  I find it interesting that the media here doesn’t reflect the reality of daily life—not even the lives of the privileged. Yes, television in the U.S. is aspirational, but the idealized world depicted there still has some connection to reality. That’s much less the case here, at least from the little bit of television I’ve watched.

General attitudes about sex are no less confusing. There have been a few articles of late dealing with the topic (including this fascinating one by the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler), and they portray a country utterly obsessed. At the same time, I’ve never lived anywhere so repressed. It makes the evangelical community of my youth look downright libertine.  And yes, I realize that we’re looking at cause and effect, although you’d meet a lot of Egyptians here—probably even a majority—that would argue the opposite.

Anyway, I digress. Back to last week, which was topped by a magical night at the Cairo Opera House. The boys’ violin teacher had given us tickets to a concert by Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra. I had seen him before and had been mesmerized by his skill, so was looking forward to seeing him perform again. I was happy the boys were going to hear such a virtuoso, and was hoping Kremer would inspire them in their own violin practice.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much fun the performance would be and how much the boys would enjoy it. The first piece was a movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (Summer) with an incredible vibraphone solo. That was followed by Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” a delightful and amusing set of four tango compositions (this according to Wikipedia) that incorporate themes from Vivaldi. Finally, after the intermission, we were treated to Philip Glass’ “The American Four Seasons,” which was accompanied by a beautiful avant-garde video, rendering the experience reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi, which I happen to love.

The whole thing was profoundly moving—so much so that I was almost brought to tears. I say almost because it was impossible to entirely lose myself in the experience when half the audience was on their smartphones the whole time. The woman next to me was chatting until I glared at her, but throughout the concert hall you could see the glare of blue screens. A guy a few seats down was playing video games. Absolutely maddening. Like so much in Cairo. And yet, somehow that is part of its charm.

Routine Drama

We’ve been back in Cairo for just over a week and Paris already seems a lifetime away. I think adjusting to the difference in food was the toughest for all of us.

Not that we’re not happy to be back. We are, very much, but I’m glad the trip—as wonderful as it was—is behind us. Now we can focus on life here. I keep thinking about how little time we have left, but I came across a photo of the day our boxes arrived from New York and realized that was only six months ago. It feels like ages. So there’s plenty we can do and experience in the 10 or so months we have left. I’m looking forward to it.

We’re in the midst of a typically Cairene experience, and one we’ve had before. We’re in deep with another stray kitten. He’s adorable, but would have been impossible to ignore anyway, circling my front yard with the loudest and most incessant meow I’ve ever heard. I got the vet to come examine him, because I was worried he was going blind in one eye (you’ve gotta love a vet who makes house calls). He said the kitten, a little ginger fellow who the boys call Rocky and the gardener calls mesh mesh (apricot) was about 5 weeks old and has a type of herpes virus in his eye that is common in street cats, and gave me a prescription for drops. The vet also said that the non-stop mewling was an SOS call, and that Rocky must have lost his mother. Poor little guy.

We set up a little home for him in our laundry shed. There’s a pipe that he can go through to get in and out. So can the other two kittens I’ve been feeding, who are a few months older than Rocky. At first I was worried they were going to take his food from him, but they seem to have taken him under their wing. And not only for the good. The first couple of days Rocky stayed close to the house, but then we found him wandering down the street with one of the bigger kittens. They’re already taking our sweet little guy out on the town and teaching him the ways of the world. They grow up so fast these days.

Trouble is, now it’s been two days and he hasn’t come back. O swears he saw him at the house across the street, where they put out tons of food each day, and the bawab tells me the same thing. I hope they’re right. I just want to give him his eye medicine.

Things in Egypt continue as usual. Life continues to feel pretty normal, but there are tensions bubbling below the surface that seem destined to flare up at some point. There was a bombing downtown, and 12 people were injured. The bomb went off at midnight, so I suppose it could have been much worse.

The government continues to keep the Al Jazeera journalists and many activists in jail, and some of them are on a continued hunger strike. One young man, who has dual Egyptian-American citizenship, is seriously ill and it seems as though he could die soon. The government doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. So the military regime is back in full force.

On the other hand, Egypt does feel considerably more stable, although with the current levels of repression you have to wonder how long that can last. In any case, foreign companies are showing renewed interest in expanding here. There’s a delegation of US businesses set to come next month to explore opportunities for investment, and the word is that tourism is picking up. Egyptians, for the most part, are just happy to have a return to normalcy.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the as-yet-unscheduled parliamentary elections. I saw a news story today predicting that the new parliament will be dominated by military types; I see no reason to assume that won’t be the case.  There is still no party nearly as powerful and as organized as the Brotherhood was, so with them out of the picture Egypt is looking at a political vacuum.

CAT UPDATE:

After nearly two days with no Rocky sighting, I think I saw him across the street last night practicing climbing trees, although it was dark so I couldn’t be sure. The kitten I saw was with what appeared to be its mother, and when I approached him the mother growled at me. I tried to get a look at his eye. It seemed to be okay but I couldn’t really tell. Some locals had staged a TNR (trap, neuter, release) campaign recently, so it’s possible the mother got caught up in that and just found her way home.

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