Sunday, March 30, 2008
Contrary to southern Egypt's tourist economy, Cairo is a real city full of real people many of whom are remarkably eager to take time to help confused foreigners. Advice or directions are almost invariably followed by an "ahlan wa sahlan, welcome to Egypt" and if you've been chatting to someone for a while, they may insist on buying you a tea/coffee/bus ticket, refusing any attempt to pay them with the explanation that such a purchase involves only "small money"--never mind that a normal teacher's salary of 300 EL (ca. 40 Euro) will seem like "small money" to Europeans.
Moloch that it is, Cairo is doubtlessly one of the world's great metropolises. A city whose beating pulse you feel as you walk down its jam-packed bustling streets, it has the raw energy and the critical mass to offer sheer endless sights, sounds, and 24-hour mayhem.
Its size is mindboggling. You can easily spend an hour in the car driving from one "central" neighbourhood to another and never get anywhere near the city's perimeter. Indeed, from where I am sitting now it is difficult to imagine it ends anywhere. Even out at Giza, Cairo surges around the ancient monuments, leaving only a long strip of desert to connect the Pyramids to their "natural" habitat.
Its pollution deserves similar superlatives. The second most polluted city in the world, Cairo is working hard to snatch that title from Mexico City. International organisations are so concerned by pollution, that some--such as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung--give its employees in Cairo additional holidays during which they are expectedm to leave Cairo and--quite literally--get a breath of fresh air. With its perennial traffic jams, smog, dust and smoke, spending a day outdoors in Cairo is supposed to be equivalent to smoking more than a pack of cigarettes. Add to that the fact that it can seem as though most people in Cairo do smoke at least a pack of cigarettes every day and you have one of the highest rates of respiratory disease worldwide.
But both of those things are almost invariably forgotten when you walk down one of Cairo's bustling streets, marvelling at the incredible range of neighbourhoods, people, and encounters that make up this city.
Friday, March 28, 2008
After four-thousand miles, hundreds of questionable-quality kebabs, scores of hostel rooms where cleaning was a biennial affair, dozens of buses blaring Islamic dirges day and night, four problematic encounters with military and police forces, three forceful ejections from means of transportation in the backstreets of nowhere, two direct experiences of fervent political uprisings, and one overly-intimate session with an Arab ‘masseur’ (Josh is yet to reveal the full traumatic details), the journey is at an end. Cairo – whose name in Arabic translates as ‘The Conqueror’ – has been occupied in triumph by these weary and quite frankly filthy pair of travellers, and thus our adventures draw to a close.
It is not for me to cast a nostalgic eye back over the past three months: the thrills, the chaos and the moments (of worrying frequency) of pure madness. I’ll leave that to the as yet unseen photos which will grace our final blog post. But I will take a nauseatingly self-satisfied minute to reflect on my new apartment in downtown Cairo, from the balcony of which I am writing now.
Finding a long-term place to live in this city requires a heady mix of excessive patience, a high tolerance threshold for sweet tea, and a gracious slice of divine intervention. One can, in theory, contact ‘simsars’ – local rent brokers who maintain lists of available accommodation – in order to track down a flat. Light-years ahead of their corporate European counterparts, Cairo’s simsars are very much advocates of the paperless economy, in the sense that many of them appear to have never set eyes on a leaf of paper, never mind utilised one for business purposes. A typical encounter with a simsar, of which I have enjoyed many in recent days, follows a fairly predictable path. One turns up in a promising neighbourhood and begins asking the ‘bawaabs’ (doormen) of each building if they know of any free apartments. This immediately prompts a long and animated discussion in colloquial Arabic between the doormen, the local grocery store owner, a passing delivery-man and, invariably, a couple of young boys who appear to be hanging around for the fun of it all, all punctuated with violent gesticulations. At some well-defined but utterly random moment, obvious to all present except yourself, the whole coterie will lapse into silence as everyone takes the opportunity to earnestly smoke a cigarette. No explanation as to the substance of the previous conversation, or indeed the availability of accommodation in the area, is offered at any point. At this juncture one of the young boys will fetch some tea for you and lead you to a different group of doormen where your plight will be explained. This new set of characters will nod sympathetically, call over the local grocery-store owner, and start the whole charade again. This will be repeated several times.
At some point in proceedings, usually after about the eighth or ninth group of bawaabs and the eighth or ninth cup of tea, you will be given the name of a local simsar who might just be able to help. Enquiries as to the whereabouts of this simsar are met with incredulous laughter, as he is inevitably to be found sitting on his own in the corner of the local coffeeshop, puffing away on a shisha pipe. He will solemnly order you a cup of tea before handing you his business card and ordering you to call him tomorrow. The business card will have four numbers on it. These will all be in Arabic. All of them will be defunct.
If you are ever lucky enough to be actually shown the inside of an apartment, the fun really gets going. Bawaabs are experts at glossing over the flaws of their building and promoting its charms. Before you have even had a chance to look at the place, taps will be eagerly turned to prove they work (they nearly always don’t), satellite TV will be switched on and all 400 channels will be displayed one by one, and the four pieces of rusting metal balanced precariously in the corner of the bathroom will be optimistically pointed out to you as the washing machine. If the landlord is present, he will aggressively try and dissuade you from discovering the apartment’s negative features. In one flat I checked out, which was ‘in need of a bit of a clean’ according to the bawaab (a master of understatement), the owner actually leapt across the room to physically prevent me from opening the fridge door.
Yet despite its potential to be soul-destroying, house-hunting here actually gives you a fascinating insight into Cairene life and showcases a lot of what is most compelling about this pulsating metropolis. Social networks are incredibly strong and informal – everyone knows everyone else, and everything is conducted through word of mouth. Cairenes love spending time together and have a rich sense of humour, and watching them draw together to help you discover a place to live gives a flavour of how intensely personal and friendly this urban world of 20 million people can be. The process is fraught with difficulties but amongst the trials and tribulations, everyone is always laughing, always smoking, always drinking yet more tea and, overall, making you – a foreigner – feel very welcome. Once I’d finally found somewhere and completed the tortuous lease negotiations with the landlady, I realised that I’d enjoyed the whole thing far more than I thought I had at the time.
And the flat itself? It sits at the end of a bustling backstreet which leads down to the ruins of an old palace. In the shadows of this crumbling edifice are a scattering of coffee shops where old men smoke nargilehs and play backgammon. The building around the apartment has three entrances and three elevators, only one of which is working at any given time (which particular one changes by the hour, leading to a merry exchange of pleasantries between bemused neighbours constantly walking in and out of each entrance in confusion). The flat itself is resplendent in kitsch furniture and has a consistent lurid/dirty yellow scheme throughout. The balcony looks out through the back of a pair of giant metal advertising hoardings onto the Nile. The whole set-up is, in other words, wonderfully beautiful and anarchic, and therefore a fitting conclusion to the last three months.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Not only is there no such thing as a free lunch in Egypt, there is no such thing as a free smile. Especially in the south of the country, where tourism is the mainstay of the economy, it can seem as though everyone is out to rip you off. Let me amend that statement. It doesn't seem as though everyone is trying to rip you off. Almost everyone is.
Take the policeman who--quite unecessarily--"helped" me to buy a train ticket and then invited me for coffee. "Nice of him," I thought as he got up to go to the toilet. He never returned, leaving me with the inflated bill he had negotiated with the cafe for his and my drink.
Take the tea I was offered on the bus to Cairo (every bus in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan included free refreshments) that then came with the price tag of 25 Egyptian Pounds--more than 20x the going rate in a cafe.
Take any of countless examples that grow increasingly tedious... Just as every traveller in Syria has a story of out of the ordinary kindness and hospitality, every traveller you meet in Egypt has a story of ridiculous, blatant and wilful extortion--not to mention the dreary and endless encounters with touts, baksheesh collectors, and "guides" from whom one expects no less than single-minded, duplicitous pursuit of cash.
In Egypt, if something seems too good to be true. It probably is.
If something seems reasonable. It's probably too good to be true.
Adopt this dictum as a mantra (written as a sign upon your hand, doorpost and wherever else was available).
Monday, March 17, 2008
It all feels rather sick; at the beginning of the week we were crisping ourselves in the salt of the Dead Sea and hitchhiking with spliff-passing, beer-drinking Jordanian rich boys. Now we’re reclining in sleek Tel Aviv bars and cafes, sipping coffee and reading papers; the scary thing is how easy it is for the injustices and oppression we saw in the West Bank to slip the mind once you re-enter a comfort zone. For what it’s worth, here are a few images taken over the last few days – together with the ‘Palestine Burning’ post below, they offer a unsatisfactory, but possibly interesting insight into life in occupied Palestine.
Typical alleyway, Balata - some residents complain of skin conditions resulting from lack of access to natural sunlight
Sunday, March 16, 2008
As with so many things in occupied Palestine, what began as mere routine quickly gave way to ruthless humiliation. In a ramshackle yellow service taxi we had soared into the West Bank’s fertile green hills, leaving Jericho behind us. The Israeli controlled highways are fast and smooth, effortlessly slicing through a rural patchwork of valuable farmland (often walled off from its Palestinian owners), and Jewish settlements, where columns of drab pre-fabricated suburbia stare down at the cars below. Only when you veer off towards ‘Area A’, Palestine’s nominally PA-controlled network of urban communities, viciously severed from each other by chains of IDF-monitored checkpoints, does the reality of your surroundings begin to impose itself.
At this particular roadblock, a pair of young army conscripts barked at the driver to pull over and switch his engine off. We were ordered out of the creaking vehicle and lined up at gunpoint by the side of the road. Plucked out at random by the glaring soldiers, I was told to unpack the boot. Sweating in the midday sun, they continued to spit angry instructions at me in Hebrew even after it became obvious that I couldn’t understand what was being said. Our motley crew of fellow travellers, including an elderly Palestinian lady and a teenage child, watched on helplessly as I was made to virtually dismantle the back of the taxi. With the bags on the ground, struggling to simultaneously hold up the door and pull out the spare tyre, I appealed to one the Israeli men for help, but was met with an angry dismissal. Then, with a contemptuous nod, he demanded that the baggage be reloaded. As the other passengers, now released from their open-air military line-up, came to help me, an Israeli van – distinguishable by its yellow number plates – roared up to the checkpoint, horn tooting and music blaring. The door swung open to reveal a gang of tanked-up Israeli youths returning from a day-trip to the Dead Sea, beer cans in hand. Laughing raucously they waved at the soldiers, who ran over with smiles on their faces and greeted them cheerfully. A teenager proffered a camera, and one of our weapon-toting subjugators obligingly snapped away before grinningly bidding the boys farewell. Behind him, our own Nablus-born teenager, of a similar age but a different universe, looked on incredulously before climbing back into the car. Under the glares of the soldiers, we rattled off.
After three days in Palestine – the briefest and most unsatisfactory of glimpses into this multi-layered world – the one thing that struck me more forcefully than anything else was the relentless banality of military occupation. In Balata refugee camp in Nablus, a key centre of the armed resistance to Israel, I sat sipping tea in the family home of a local PFLP 'martyr', assassinated during an IDF incursion into the city only a fortnight before. In Nablus city centre, I watched a mournful demonstration by local mothers, as quietly dignified as they were smouldering with anger, holding up framed photographs of sons currently locked away in high-security prisons beyond the 1948 border. Many of them were struggling under the weight of three or more such pictures, each of a different child. And in the northern town of Azzoun, I saw men and women who live half their lives under military curfew, incarcerated in their own houses and terrified of opening their own front doors, lest a bullet from a sniper or a rocket from a helicopter gunship be dispatched without warning towards them. Yet despite being confronted with these moments of high-intensity trauma – a trauma ingrained so widely and deeply throughout the Palestinian community, a trauma which consequently finds no natural outlet through the sympathy of those around you (who can effectively comfort you when a family member is killed, if everybody else has already gone through a similar wearying experience?) – the real shock, from an outsider’s perspective, is the grinding, ceaseless small-scale degradation and inconvenience of daily life in occupied Palestine.
Martyr's poster, Balata refugee camp
The checkpoints, subjecting Palestinians to hours of queuing each day simply in order to move around in their own land, constantly under remorseless and unfriendly scrutiny by Israeli soldiers, are just one example. The stranglehold they have inflicted upon Palestine’s economic hubs, of which Nablus was once the most prominent, has forced unemployment to spiral out of control; in some parts of the old city, the figure is as high as 80%. But they are only the tip of the iceberg, and it is only by being here that one can appreciate how extensively the brutality of Israeli policy stretches into people’s day to day existence, and consequently how multi-faceted the resistance to the occupation really is. There is not just one struggle for liberation, but rather hundreds and thousands, being played out every day by everybody from armed brigades to groups of shopkeepers, from trade unions to tired and desperate individuals.
A single day can provide a typical snapshot. On Thursday, near Qalqilya, over four hundred protesters gathered to oppose the demolition of a children’s playground on Palestinian land, which had only just been completed two years ago when the Israeli bulldozers moved in. At the same time, in the village of Deir Al Ghusun, locals assembled at the ‘security’ fence that runs like an ugly scar through this land and, here, cuts off village farmers from their own fields. Farmers have to apply to Israel for permits to access one of three agricultural gates in the fence, which open thrice-daily for an hour at a time; despite repeatedly submitting applications, the majority of farmers have seen their requests for permits rejected without explanation, depriving them of their only source of income. And in the nearby town of Tulkarim, an Israeli chemical factory was pointed out to me. Originally built in Israel proper, the factory’s neighbours petitioned the courts to shut it down as its fumes were destroying their land and poisoning their air. The courts complied, and the factory has now been rebuilt on the outskirts of Tulkarim, the judges of this democratic nation having given their de facto consent to the choking of Palestinians instead. Play areas, fields and factories; beyond the smoke-trails of the Qassam rockets that dominate Western media coverage of this region, Palestinian civilians struggle ceaselessly day-in, day-out against the encroachment of the occupation into every corner of their lives.
On Friday I witnessed a more direct illustration of the violent nature of the occupation, this time at a regular action in the village of Bil’in. Palestinians and local villagers march ever week here to the concrete wall that divides Palestine from Israel, swooping off from the 1967 Green Line into the former to scoop up the most valuable land and reliable water supplies for the latter. The demonstration is an interesting one because it highlights the complex tiers of the mass resistance to Israel. On the one hand, it is one of the most high-profile scheduled protests, often attracting a high level of support and media coverage (not least because it regularly provokes an aggressive response from IDF soldiers). On the other hand, some feel the protest has been hijacked on two fronts – the first by ‘resistance tourists’ eager for their own taste of tear gas (the day I attended, international activists easily outnumbered Palestinians), and the second by the local municipal elite, who use the demo as a fundraising exercise to extract money from foreign donors. Consequently some committed campaigners spurn it altogether, evidence that internal contradictions within the struggle extend far beyond the much publicised divisions between Fatah, Hamas and other organised factions.
Aside from all of this, my experience of Bi’lin showed me simply how institutionalised a culture of violence has become within the Israeli military, which, it must be remembered, constitutes an illegal occupation force and as such has both judicial and moral obligations to those it is suppressing in Palestine. The protest was small by recent standards; some believe that the non-violent resistance movement has slipped to its lowest ebb just as the realities of occupation have reached their fiercest, a state of affairs which, if genuine, represents a worrying vortex of despair amongst Palestinians and suggests there is little hope for a stable outcome to the latest rounds of peace talks. As we marched towards the fence with Palestinian flags held aloft, we could see IDF soldiers bunkered up in their positions through the wire. Protesters spread out along the perimeter, forcing the army forces to do likewise, and they begun to shout warnings in Hebrew. The shebab – young boys who throw stones across the fence – launched a volley from their slingshots and, in response, the Israelis unleashed hell. Canister after canister of tear gas screamed over the fence, scattering the crowds, followed by rounds of ammunition – rubber bullets – being fired through mesh. Another attempt was made to get close to the gate dividing the Palestinians from the Israelis; the IDF responded by charging through the narrow militarised strip and into the olive groves where we were huddled, firing at will and setting off sound bombs. One protester was hit in the head and retreated behind a tree, blood pouring down his face. Another was maced in the eyes; a third shot at close range in the leg, gouging out a huge chunk of flesh from his thigh. An international activist was set upon and dragged back to the Israeli side, certain to face deportation; several more were nastily beaten up trying to stop the arrest.
IDF soldiers storm the fence to make arrests, Bi'lin
As with the non-violent struggles described above, the shock for me came not in the details of what happened, but in the ways in which these details have become such a jaded part of life here, such an essence of Palestinian existence. And with it, a depressing realisation that a generation of Israelis and Palestinians are growing up with no experience of each other except through the prism of violence, hate and condescension. Young Palestinians are faced with gunshots and abuse from their tormentors, verbal and physical; young Israeli conscripts at Bi’lin are confronted with a simmering rage against them that erupts in a hail of rocks. This is not to propose any moral parity between the two – the Israelis are annihilating this land with advanced technological weaponry, and its occupants are resisting in self-defence in whatever ways they can (I refer to those struggling against Israeli incursions into their territory, not those who travel into 'Israel proper' to attack civilians). But it does suggest that a particularly dangerous path lies ahead if – or perhaps when – the current attempts to mediate between the two sides fail.
Which, finally, brings my point to a close. Under the grim blanket of occupation, the machinations of high politics – Abbas and Olmert, Haniyeh and Barak – seem strangely distant. But one thing is clear – any peace reached through the Annapolis talks will have no legitimacy on the streets of Nablus or elsewhere in Palestine if the PA continues doing its utmost to sideline those who command the respect, albeit often grudging, of huge swathes of the Palestinian population (through their rejection of Hamas and effective condoning of Israeli repression of the Hamas government – and the civilian population – in Gaza), and equally if the Israeli government does it best to brush away the last crumbs of credibility Abbas is still clinging on to by undermining him at every opportunity. And if the 'peace' has no legitimacy amongst those who crave it most, the PA will never be able to deliver the security guarantees Israel is demanding from an independent Palestinian state, with the result that the infrastructure of occupation will continue to blight this land. Hence the irrelevancy one attaches to the peace talks at the checkpoints, the farmland and the playgrounds. This occupation is not just about Al-Aqsa 'martyrs', Islamic Jihad missiles, and huge military incursions. It encompasses a far greater sphere of penetration into Palestinian society than anybody, including myself before I came, can comprehend without visiting this place first hand. And yet whilst politicians fiddle, Palestine is ablaze – not always with the pyres of violence, but rather with the flickering flames of daily, banal repression. Those at the top seem to be showing little interest in quenching these flames; if the current talks continue to remain so fraudulent, they too are liable to get burned.
A mother holds up a picture of her imprisoned son, Nablus
Monday, March 10, 2008
The divisions running through Beirut and Lebanon have taken different forms over the years, the Sunni-Maronite conflict of Lebanon's founding years eclipsed by the influx of largely Shi'ite Palestinian refugees after Jordan's "black September" and the concomitant erosion of the sectarian checks and balances written into the country's political system. These days, political violence has regrouped around two symbolic dates. The March 8th coalition commemorates the Syrian national holiday (when Hafez, once upon a time, dispatched his Baathist competitors) and the Hizbullah rally held on its anniversary in 2005 asking the Syrians to stay in Lebanon. The March 14 coalittion takes as its namesake the counter-rally that sparked the Cedar Revolution.
Monday, March 3, 2008
Syria welcomed us with moustachioed bureaucracy and heart-warming hospitality. In Palmyra, we had somehow managed to acquire a pair of creaking Chinese motorbikes from a man who owned a grocery store and headed out into the sand. Nothing lay between us and the Iraqi border except a hundred miles of empty dunes and a few scattered Bedouin encampments. Naturally high on our customary sense of self-congratulation, we sped off down a single strip of tarmac that led into a completely empty expanse of yellow wilderness. As we’d already established, the Syrians are a friendly lot, and so we weren’t surprised when a distant figure on the horizon waved over to us and we quickly turned towards him, looking forward to the delicious spread of mezze and hot drinks this rustic sheep-farmer would no doubt lay on for us.
The fact that he was carrying an AK47 did not immediately trouble our elated minds – after all, the desert is no doubt a dangerous place at night with wild dogs and man-eating geckos and god knows what else. It did seem slightly strange, however, that he was clad in military fatigues. “Army surplus”, Josh whispered to me reassuringly as we drew near. “It’s all they can afford.” As we came to a stop our affable companion unceremoniously pointed his gun at us and, in an unexpected move, demanded our passports. This, we reluctantly accepted, was not the standard behaviour of lone sheep-herders. Only when a further soldier came over and ordered us off the bikes with a moody scowl, gesturing with his weapon that we should stand back whilst he removed the keys, did the situation stop being pleasantly amusing, and instead took on a rather alarming tone. Without a word of explanation the first soldier drove off with one of the bikes, leaving the other to guard us under the baking heat of the mid-day sun.
Miles from any other human habitation, it appeared that we had unwittingly stumbled across a Syrian army base. Although I have long expressed a strong wish to experience all facets of Middle Eastern society first-hand, I had to grudgingly acknowledge that this was not an ideal introduction to the military forces of one of the world’s supposedly most dangerous states. Matters took a turn for the worse when we attempted to utilise our pidgin Arabic and engage our captor in conversation. Clearly well-trained in resisting subtle psychological subversions by foreign spies like us, he refused to answer any questions. Nor would he have one of our cigarettes, which he looked down on with a mixture of suspicion and contempt before lighting one of his own. The weather was scorching. Our phones didn’t work. Our passports and means of transport had gone. A man with a gun was holding it angrily towards us. All in all, our circumstances left a lot to be desired.
After a good hour, the first soldier returned with a higher ranking officer. Delighted that we would have a chance to explain our case to someone senior and offer our apologies to the Syrian armed forces for trespassing on their secret nuclear facility/desert gulag, we surged towards him. However, he too was not in the mood for polite discussion, and promptly confiscated our phones and camera before disappearing again. I tentatively suggested to Josh that we make a break for it and flee towards the Iraqi border in the hope we would be picked up by some kindly American marines. Josh didn’t dignify that with an answer and we relapsed into apprehensive silence. I decided that if I was going to be summarily executed in the middle of the desert, I would do so with the national anthem on my lips, as a last defiant act of patriotism. Then I remembered that I was unaware of the words of the national anthem, and depression engulfed me again. I turned to Josh for some consolation but the poor chap was lying on the floor playing with some dung beetles, and had obviously given up all hope.
Finally, the ‘general’ returned again, this time with a veritable platoon of footsoldiers. Rather improbably, he was carrying a kettle. By gum, we thought, is this how they kill prisoners in these godforsaken wastelands? He then produced some cups, and swiftly poured us several cups of tea. We sipped them hesitantly, but they did not appear to be laced. A few moments later, our passports and electronic equipment (with photos wiped) was handed back, along with the keys to the bikes, and all the soldiers gathered around us jovially, wishing us well. We will never know which impenetrable layer of army bureaucracy had deemed us, with good reason, to be idiotic tourists and not a major threat to national security, but wherever he is we thank him from the bottom of our hearts. With cheerful waves the whole gang bade us farewell; we drove sharpish back to Palmyra and pondered a valuable lesson. It seems that even when pointing guns at you, these lovely people can’t help but offer you some tea.
P.S. Apologies for the lack of updates recently – the Syrian government periodically blocks access to a load of websites they deem dangerous, and our blog, apparently, is one of them. Hence we have to do a lot of funky technical wizardry to get on to it…
P.P.S. Shout out to Nabeel.