Archive for August, 2011

Letter from Cairo: All is not quiet on the border front

In the poem “Sympathy,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a caged bird, serving as a symbol of African slaves, is struggling to break free, but every time he (that’s how the poet refers to it) tries to get out, his wings slam against the bars and he ends up with wounds all over his body.

Older wounds from previous escape attempts gradually turn into scars, while new ones from recent failures are still fresh. And it is not only the latter that hurt, for with every confrontation with the barred opponent one more injury is sustained existing ones, which apparently have only healed on the surface, are revived or, as the poet puts it, start to “pulse again with a keener sting.”

Well, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that old wounds never heal as long as the reason for their existence still persists, and you don’t need to be a Greek philosopher to realize that there is no better way to blind yourself to the bigger picture than looking at things in isolation from their precedents and their future repercussions. In like manner, you don’t need to have passed your elementary school exams to understand why Egyptians feel the way they feel towards Israel.

Israeli forces were hunting down Palestinian militants who were reportedly responsible for the bus attack in Eilat and Egyptian soldiers at the border got caught in the crossfire, goes the official Israeli story, which I am in no position to judge as true or fabricated.

As important as knowing whether this action was really an accident is, I believe it is the discourse used in explaining it that is the crux of the matter.

Israeli officials have for some reason decided to pretend that five Belgian soldiers were shot dead on the borders with Luxembourg and were, consequently, taken aback by the decision to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv and by the reaction of thousands of angry Egyptians who flocked to the Israeli embassy in Cairo to call for the expulsion of the ambassador and must have thought those people were out of their mind to consider an apology no better than none at all.

There is much more to the matter that Israel fails to see, does not want to see, or does not want to admit it sees.

For Egyptians, Israel is like a Lego building that gets taller with every atrocity the country commits, and with each added brick they take a couple of steps back and see the sprawling structure in its full length and remember what each brick stands for.

In fact, a quick look at the most recent bricks could be enough for those who have not been around to witness older ones. For those Egyptian youths, amongst whom is the man who climbed the embassy building to take down the Israeli flag, the 2006 war on Lebanon, the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, the killing of activists in the Freedom Flotilla, the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank are more than enough to render any act of violence on Israel’s part, whether planned or coincidental, a direct assault on their land and a flagrant breach of their sovereignty.

Examining the lower bricks all the way back to 1917, when the land became “promised,” does nothing but feed this resentment and increase this determination to fight with all their might any sort of normalization with an entity that they view as the main source of their and their brethren’s misery.

But what those people want is impossible, say politicians, strategic experts, and everyone who knows a tad bit about how politics works. There is a peace treaty. Indeed there is. What will happen to it? Nothing, I would say.

However, there is no denying that the peace between Egypt and Israel is one between governments and by no means reflect the will of the people, and that is why while it is neither practical nor wise to breach it in one way or another, it is also neither rational nor fair to prevent the people from voicing their objection to it and reiterating that they have never been part of it in the first place.

Now we come to a very important factor that determines the feelings of Egyptians towards Israel: the close link that has gradually been developing between the regime and relations with Israel.

Since almost all Egyptian people are against peace with Israel as long as the killing of Palestinians does not stop, the refugees are not allowed to return, and an independent Palestinian state is not declared, those diplomatic ties between the two countries constitute another form of repression by a tyrannical regime that has for decades constantly overlooked what the people want.

This association started with the signing of the peace treaty in 1979, but reached its peak in the last years of Mubarak’s rule, and particularly with the export of natural gas to Israel and with the role the Egyptian government played in tightening the blockade on Gaza and endorsing the brutal war on the strip.
In addition, another issue, of course, is the way Western powers supported a president who supposedly stood for everything they supposedly believed in because he preserved the “stability” of the region through maintaining peace with Israel.

That is why many of the slogans chanted against Mubarak during the revolution were about his subservience to Israel and his abandonment of the Palestinian cause, and that is why one of the main demands of that same revolution was the opening of the Gaza crossing and a stop to the export of natural gas.

True, the cancelation of the peace treaty was not on top of the list, and sometimes was not on the list at all; and true, the Higher Council for the Armed Forces announced right after the fall of the regime that Egypt would abide by all international treaties to which it a signatory; and true, very few people made a fuss about that.

But that does not change the fact that the Egyptian street is against this peace not because they want to go to war, but because they feel would feel like traitors if they extend a hand of friendship to people they view as the murderers of their folks.

Now we come to another similarity important factor that explains why Egyptians do not budge when it comes to their rejection of ties with Israel, even though there have been no real confrontation between the two countries since the 1973 war.

The Palestinian cause and the history of Palestinian suffering has for long years been part and parcel of the Egyptian psyche, regardless of who lived to see which bit of the saga, and the liberation of Palestine has also been part and parcel of the nationalistic project that began with the uprising against the regime.

That is why getting Sinai back after the signing of the treaty was kind of an incomplete victory, for we can’t live in peace while they are getting killed and kicked out of their land. A flag fluttering on top of a building in Cairo was not to make Egyptians receive the newcomers with a housewarming gift, and whoever thought that this would change over the years must have been either naïve or too self-absorbed to realize that others out there think differently, or too arrogant to understand how important it is to study the psyche of a people before taking it for granted that they will want to be friends with you.

After 9/11, Americans started asking themselves, “Why do they hate us?” Well, a terrorist attack is not justified under any circumstances, regardless of any crimes that might have been committed by the government of the country targeted in this attack or of any hate harbored against it by any entity of any sort.

But the question itself, apart from its timing in this specific incident, is very inspiring, because it implies that some soul-searching is in progress and that perhaps it is time for a few “mirror, mirror on the wall” moments.

I am not sure Israel is interested in such a procedure, or that my voice and those of millions of Egyptians can be heard across the border, even though we know that literally it can. But we have recently learned that a voice is the most precious human asset, and just as it toppled a dictatorship, it will forever scream in defense of justice and humanity and will forever be the most powerful weapon in the face of brutality and tyranny.

Letter from Cairo: Forgive me, General, for I have sinned

“If you exceed the speed limit … ” reads a sign on the Cairo-Alexandria highway. “If you don’t pay the bill on time …” says a recorded message on the mobile phone provider’s automated welcome. “If you don’t declare any newly-purchased electric appliances upon entering the country … ” announces a customs official at the airport. “If you buy tickets from the black market … ” cautions the head of the football federation. “If your cell phone is caught ringing during the performance … ” snaps the opera house manager. “If you don’t turn off that TV right now and go finish your homework,” yells a fed-up mother at the horrified six-year-old. “If you post a tweet that messes with our mood at the start of the day,” warns the Higher Council for the Armed forces.

You go to a military court.

I was almost a child when first I heard the words “military trial.” My cousin, about 15 years my senior, was telling us at a family gathering how devastated he was because in a few days he was supposed to start his military service, which is compulsory in Egypt except for men who have no male siblings, and how it would have been less painful to be detained in a mental asylum than to stand army life for almost a whole year.

I remember how difficult it was for me to see where the problem was. “Just don’t go,” I said, and gave him that “couldn’t you figure this out on your own?” face.

I was sure he wanted to slap me, but looked like he was rehearsing some barracks-like discipline, so he just let out a scornful smile and said, “And face a military trial, right?”

I shrugged, part ashamed after hearing everyone laugh at my stupidity and part curious about this type of punishment that seemed much more formidable than being deprived of your daily intake of Tom and Jerry. However, the first overcame the second and my pride overcame both, so I didn’t ask what that meant.

A while later I saw a movie in which an army commander asked a soldier to shoot on something or someone and apparently the soldier did not want to, possibly because he had ethical issues with the war or something of that sort.

After an excruciatingly long scene in which we get to live the conflict he was undergoing, the principled soldier laid down his weapon and a moment later was arrested by fellow fighters on the commander’s order. The accompanying sound effects and the expression on the arrested soldier’s face made me realize some serious punishment was awaiting him, and from the trial that followed I learnt that his crime is called “insubordination,” not that that meant anything for me at the time, and that this is a serious violation of army laws, since officers are expected to obey the orders given by commanders.

Putting one piece of information next to another, I gathered that a military trial is some kind of penalty imposed by army people against other army people for some kind of offense related to the army and which is judged according to laws pertaining only to the army.

In addition to beginning to sympathize with my conscripted cousin, I was intrigued by the way the military was treated as a different species, with a separate set of laws that do not apply to “normal” people; you definitely don’t stand trial if your father decides you’re grounded and you decide you’re going out — well, not until now, at least!

The same goes for running away from an angry dog, deciding to break up with your girlfriend, or snapping at your demanding boss.

In the army, these offenses are called “cowardice,” “desertion,” and “contempt,” and no wise officer would want to surrender to the enemy while under orders not to, abandon his post without permission, or call his commander a son of a bitch.

Regardless of how shocked I was to see how army officers are not treated as human beings, people susceptible to all kinds of weaknesses and prone to all sorts of mistakes, I once read an analysis that explained to me – without convincing me, however – why what seems commonplace for civilians can be a fatal crime in the military: the vast difference between civilian and military lifestyles explains the equally vast difference between the guidelines according to which each of them is governed.

I can’t say that this exactly fair, but it isn’t totally devoid of commonsense, for when you come to think of it, military mistakes can change the fate of entire nations or turn an imminent victory into a shameful defeat.

When, after the January 25 Revolution, calls for trying Mubarak and his family and members of the former regime in a military court gained momentum, the Higher Council for the Armed Forces decided that as part of being the civilized country we are aspiring to be we should grant the former president and his henchmen all the rights to which a civilian defendant is entitled – including the right to defense and the right to appeal – even as aware as we were of their horrible crimes and which could, in fact, be much worse than any of those listed in the military code.

I kind of agreed, because even though Mubarak was a military man, the crimes for which he is tried are civilian ones that he committed against civilian Egyptians, and since the rest of the gang were civilian, too, then that looked like the most reasonable approach.

But, of course, this should not be the case all the time, since, as we all know by now, there are certain crimes that might not be committed by a member of the military nor within a military context, yet are far more dangerous than making your country fall in the hands of the enemy because you decided to chicken out at the last minute or disobeying an order that might have won your army the war or quitting at the time when the dignity of your country is contingent upon the likes of you.

Here’s the newest addition to the military offenses that jeopardize the stability of the nation and compromise its sovereignty: “tweeting.”

The crime of tweeting, usually committed by a group of outlaws referred to as “activists” or “bloggers” and now “revolutionaries,” revolves around the offense of voicing your objection to the performance of your military rulers owing to the similarities you are gradually detecting between them and a former regime you paid a very dear price to get rid of and to the provocative slowness with which justice is taking its course in a country in which a revolution had just happened to put an end to tyranny and oppression and to your ability to predict the grave consequences that are bound to happen if things remain the way they are.

The crime of tweeting has destructive repercussions, for it spreads chaos, incites violence, and calls for mutiny. It doesn’t stop at that, though, for sometimes it even involves engaging in acts of blasphemy, such as defaming a group of people who, we just got to know a couple of days ago, are untouchable and infallible.

Well, if a post of 140 characters has now become the noose we tighten around our necks, let us all gasp our last breath rather than see Egypt go back to the time when we were slaves and they were gods. The Dark Ages are over and you are no longer in possession of our one-way ticket to heaven, so keep your indulgences and leave us our country or kill us all and rule over a wasteland inhabited by the ghosts of martyrs who will never give you a moment of peace!

Letter from Cairo: Sorry is indeed the hardest word

From the moment I set foot into Heathrow Airport I had been inundated by an endless torrent of “sorrys” and “excuse mes” and “I beg you pardons.” The reasons are numerous: somebody was about to bump into you but managed to avoid it in the last minute; somebody was blocking the way and to his or her own fright discovered that they unintentionally delayed you for something between 30 seconds and one minute; somebody accidentally put a bag or a newspaper or a jacket in a place where you were supposed to sit and therefore was the direct reason for keeping you standing an extra five seconds; somebody’s umbrella touched the tip of yours while you crossed the street and might have caused you to start for half a moment; anybody who at any given moment believed that he or she did or were about to inflict some kind of harm upon you or at least give the impression they were going to do so and therefore might have caused you a considerable amount of fear and/or insecurity or might have been an obstacle in your way towards something that could have been life-changing. In a city as crowded as London, where everyday hundreds of thousands flock into underground stations, wait at bus stops, come in and out of department stores, or try to do all the sightseeing they can during a few days’ stay, you can imagine how many times this type of situations can happen and how many apologies you might receive, bearing in mind that each situation does not necessarily trigger one apology so you might end up with apologies double the number of situations.

As much as the contexts in which you receive those apologies differ, there is one thing in common between them: they all revolve around situations that are by no means threatening or fatal and therefore the apology neither saves you from any imminent danger nor offer you a compensation for an unconceivable loss and therefore again, it would not have made such a difference had it not been said at all. Nevertheless, there is not one single time that the so-called offender misses seeking forgiveness for the role he or she played in making your life an ounce less happier than it was before the incident.

Sail across the Atlantic and set anchor in north east of Africa and you will find an utterly different scenario. You are not only faced with all the above-mentioned “misdemeanors” with almost every step you take, but you also become the “culprit” in case, God forbid, you might expect an apology and anyway if you decide to be realistic you will never seek one partly because having it granted is next to impossible and partly because you are smart enough to learn that what is a misconduct in one country can be part of the daily routine of another country. You come to realize that those things people apologize for over there are too trivial to be noticed right here and in fact become by time unnoticed as they are forcefully overpowered by a whole plethora of other much more “violating” actions that, surprise, you also never get an apology for.

You can be hit in the back with a grocery store cart by someone who for some odd reason decided he has to reach the breakfast cereal aisle in half a second; you can feel a heavy foot that carries the weight of a 100 plus kilograms step on yours then a moment after you see its owner walking away and never looking back; you can see a car deciding to speed up the moment you cross the street and after divine intervention the driver looks at you scornfully either because he regrets not killing you or because you got on his or her nerves by deciding to be there at the time when he was in no mood for stopping; you can be leveled to the ground by a passenger who wants to catch a train last minute and is resolved to crush any obstacles in the way. These are just a few instances. Getting to know the whole list requires that you come and stay in Cairo for a couple of days, yet for the time being these should be enough to offer you some of the most exemplary highlights.

Anybody who is not a citizen of the so-called “third world” will assume that we live in a jungle and that each one of us goes out in the morning thinking about how much blood is out there to spill. I am sorry to disappoint them, but this is not what it actually is. Egyptians are not violent by nature and like any civilization born by the banks of a river, they have always been a pleasant people and this is how they had been perceived by all sorts of outsiders regardless of the reason for their presence in the country. It is only recently that they have started displaying a hostile behavior that is not directed towards a specific target, for it is not necessarily related to anything they see as their source of misery, but rather seems to be sprayed indiscriminately at anything that stands in their way. This is not only demonstrated in their reluctance to apologize upon committing any social faux pas, but also in the pleasure they usually take in not doing so and the resentment they make no effort to hide in case you happen to expect an apology.

For years—centuries and millennia in fact—Egyptians had been an oppressed people. They had never actually gotten a proper chance to choose who governs them and, with the exception of a few sporadic uprisings that had no substantial impact, were hardly able to effect a change to this status. However, within the past 30 years, the country had been in the grip of the worst of its dictators. Oppression as well as feeling the brunt of it had reached unprecedented heights and that was when they gave up the amicable qualities for which they had been renowned possibly as they realized that friendliness is the luxury of the dignified and that the abused cannot be blamed for doing otherwise. As part of this new improvised and rather unconscious ideology, the adherence to which grew more adamant the uglier the face of the regime turned to be, they decided they owe no one any sort of apology and realized that they indeed are the ones who deserve one. It didn’t matter if that apology was indeed required and if they had done some wrong that made it necessary; you might as well have grown feathers while waiting to hear the “sorry” you want.

Before January 25, if anyone had told me that more than one million Egyptians will be packed in a place where you can hardly move or breathe and you would still hear “sorry” when one shoulder brushes against another or if one foot is about to step on another, I would have just laughed till I was out of breath in the same manner as if another someone had told me the regime was oust-able. Yet, this indeed happened. At the time when you expected a massacre any minute, you got apologies for things that might have mattered at the grocery store, yet had no significance whatsoever in Tahrir Square. I personally only realized my foot was stepped on or my shoulder was brushed against after I heard the apology and after I stared in disbelief for a few moments at the person who made it. I thought it was a coincidence, but it was not, and for 18 days I kept counting the “sorry”s I got and was seized by a strong desire to immortalize every moment I heard one and with every “transgression” on the part of my fellow protestors, I felt like celebrating the return of the Egyptian even before knowing that the revolution will bear fruit.

Please don’t get me wrong and assume that the word “sorry” is now going hand in hand with “good morning”—not that the last had not for a while been frequently skipped anyway—because with the president’s resignation and after the entire population rocked the country with cheers about freedom and democracy, it was “finita la musica, passata la fiesta” time and everyone went back home leaving behind that dream-like era when sorry seemed to be the easiest word.

That was indeed quite baffling. It turned out that Egyptians did not have the apology center in their brain surgically removed or irreversibly damaged. They just use it selectively, when they see fit that is, and for some unknown reason, they don’t see it fit at the moment. Well, the reason is not that unknown, for apparently they are now going by the Arabic epigram that you can’t give something you lack and apparently the consecutive disappointments Egyptians have been getting since the fall of the regime are making them feel once again robbed of that restored dignity that made them feel willing to apologize simply because this was preceded by a feeling that they have received their long-awaited apology. Freedom turns you into the gentlest of philanthropists and oppression creates of you a beastly misanthropist!

I will consider this a little message to the Higher Council of the Armed Forces and to any official and/or institute currently in charge of charting the course of the new Egypt: You are also assigned the mission of making Egyptians say “sorry” when they mess up. No, that’s not a stupid gesture we can live without; that is how people learn to respect the sanctity of their fellow human beings’ territory and that is how we become a nation at peace with itself.

Letter from Cairo: King Mubarakses the 2010

Artwork: Muhammad Labib

Artwork: Muhammad Labib Born in 1984, Egyptian artist Muhammad Labib had known nothing but Mubarak and with the dawn of every day in his 27 years, he grew more and more certain that the incumbent ruler was by no means susceptible to deterioration, demise, or even death –the last being the only way people hoped would rid them of the power-obsessive tyrant. Surviving on the hope that no member of the human race is immortal, Labib took refuge in ancient Egypt where kings lived with the illusion that they were gods and that their life on earth was just a transient stop on the way to eternity. With a tongue-in-cheek approach, he seems to be teasing both Mubarak and his ancestors by telling the first he will end up like the second and by demonstrating to the second the failure of their modern reincarnation as represented by the first. He gives this portrait of a figure that combines the historical and the contemporary the title King Mubarakses the 2010. Made to rhyme with Ramses – the name given to several pharaohs from the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, the most celebrated of whom is Ramses II – Labib adds the “ses” he makes into a suffix that denotes belonging to a pharaoh-like system of governance. Then following the tradition of identifying pharaohs with numbers, basically with pharaohs of the same name to distinguish one from another and indicate chronological sequence, he also adds a number after the name, this time in a different manner. 2010 is the year in which this work of art was conceived and is also when 29 years had passed since Mubarak came to power. However, adding the number after the name also gives the impression that Mubarak comes at the end of a long line of pharaohs that number 2009 and that he is the 2010th. Labib, therefore, establishes the hypothesis, or rather the fact, that Egyptian rulers since ancient times have only been different manifestations of the pharaoh figure and that Mubarak was none other than a continuation of a long tradition of authoritarian regimes in which one single man had the first and last say and in which people were allowed to exist only if they stick to the margins. The subtitle he adds—“Ruling since the Dawn of History”—accentuates this idea as it merges all those rulers into one person so that it becomes hard to assert that it was not Mubarak who was ruling in the thirteenth century B.C. or that it was not Ramses II who ruled in the twenty-first century A.D. When he produced this artwork, the artist was not sure Mubarak will not follow Ramses’ suit and stay in power for 67 years as scientifically and biologically impossible as that was.

Looking at the way Mubarak is depicted makes one realize that the decadence with which the face is afflicted is obviously not due to a defacement attempt like the ones to which several pharaohs were subjected at the hands of their successors – Akhenaten being the most vivid example. The cracks seem naturally induced rather than externally inflicted, which conveys the artist’s belief that the regime carried within it the seeds of its destruction and that the inner rottenness was starting to transpire outwards. Each of these cracks can be seen as an epitome of the various aspects of tyranny and corruption that plagued Egypt during Mubarak’s reign – the emergency law, torture to death in police stations, persecution of freedom writers, plundering the resources of the country, the bequest of power, and the list goes on forever. Some cracks are deeper than others, not because some of Mubarak’s crimes were more forgivable or less damaging, but possibly because some played a more crucial role than others in bringing about the annihilation of the regime. The fissure –quite a deep hole – in the nose is the most obvious not only by virtue of being the biggest but also for its location right in the middle of the face, an indication that the regime had received an outright blow that is likely to turn fatal. In fact, it is from this position that one gets to feel that the whole face is about to collapse. Few remnants of the past haughtiness can still be traced amid the wrinkle-like cracks that are obviously struggling to hide the overtly conspicuous signs of rapid aging and crippling frailty. Mubarak is still lifting his head up high in an attempt to maintain the “I am above all” posture that had kept intensifying with every year he spent in power. In another display of the unrelenting intransigence for which he had been known, Mubarak was trying to escape the inescapable through a semblance of strength that ran contrary to the truth on the ground. However, all signs of life have been washed off the once vibrant eyes so that the face is stripped of its human attributes as it turns into that of a corpse ready for the mummification that precedes the trip towards the illusory eternity. The absence of an eye pupil and the flatness of the surface of the eye can also suggest blindness not in the sense that it can no longer detect the light, but rather demonstrating an absolute lack of vision as far as the wellbeing of the country and the imminence of his end are concerned. With an ego-centrism that bordered megalomania, Mubarak was unable to see outside himself, so he neither gave himself the chance to contemplate the disastrous impact of his rule on Egypt nor to foresee the abyss towards which he was walking with steady steps. The eyes also look as if they had been gouged a la Oedipus, which implies an act of violence that induced a fast and eternal plunge into pitch-black darkness. Mubarak had indeed chosen to blind himself in an act that he assumed would shelter him from anything he perceived as a threat. Little did he know that this same self-imposed blindness would play a decisive role in speeding up his downfall as overdue as it had already been. The stiff upper lip, which according to body language studies conveys restraint and an attempt to maintain dignity in the middle of a mortifying situation, serve to intensify the exertion of an arduous effort to sail against the tides and resume the charade till the end. The continuous strain which his lips had undergone had over time formed the longest and most branched of the cracks, thus creating another weak spot from which the face might disintegrate, especially that this multiple crack had crept to the neck and was likely to extend to the entire body. The yellowish map in the background is typical of history books depicting conquests in ancient times by emperors who expand their reign across continents and assert their power through the subjugation of as many territories as possible. Even though Mubarak had no conquests in the proper sense of the word, he was the tyrannical colonizer of his own people and the conqueror of a land that resisted his presence as much as it did that of a foreign invader. While such maps might have been hung in royal courts as a source of pride, they are in this context a symbol of the shame Mubarak has brought to Egypt through ruling it by force, taking its people captive, and effecting an unequalled destruction upon both. Like the maps of an ancient era in which occupation was commonplace, Mubarak was soon to become history and like every colonizer he was bound to be kicked out from a land that yearned for freedom. One can see that the right side is starting to fold, hence heralding a turning of this page and the beginning of another. When Muhammad Labib first showed me this artwork at the end of 2010, I asked him, “What possessed you to do this?” He was silent for a few seconds as if desperately seeking a logical explanation for a purely artistic impulse that requires none. “The man’s days are numbered,” he said. “I know it.” I was thrilled, yet felt a chill run down my spine. I so much hoped this will prove true, yet was unable to figure out how and was terrified at the price this might entail. I smiled with a little bit of apprehension and said, “Fingers crossed!” A month later, we were both marching side by side among hundreds of Egyptians that grew into thousands then millions, all screaming at the top of their lungs, “The people demand the fall of the regime!” and “Down with Hosni Mubarak!” Eighteen days later, the cracks had already spread all over the ailing body and in a moment that changed the face of history, the colossal bulk crumbled into a heap of dust at the feet of the brave Egyptians who then realized that the blood of their compatriots had not been shed in vain. The newly-liberated freedom fighters flung away the remaining particles and as they saw the wind carry them away into eternal oblivion, they finally bid farewell to the era of the pharaohs. * Both article and artwork were displayed at the exhibition Voices from the Levant (July 7- July 22, 2011) in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom.