Downtown Cairo is preternaturally quiet on Fridays, at least until the imams rev up for their earsplitting weekly sermons. I was out walking when confronted with a fairly typical scenario: police rounding up an unlicensed sidewalk vendor, a scrawny kid of around 15, piling him and his goods (some cheap Chinese scarves) into the paddy wagon. They must have a quota to maintain by municipal order, as if ridding the shambolic streets of these vendors would improve their function or appearance. The absurdity of depriving otherwise jobless people of an honest living is enhanced by frequent headlines decrying high-level corruption and entrepreneurs who abscond with bank loans to the tune of millions of pounds. The afflicted street vendors can only wonder if they shouldn’t start stealing themselves.
This boy was howling, begging for mercy, throwing his arms and legs in every direction to escape the police grasp, while an officer seated inside the truck looked on. It was too much, and as the only witness on the nearly deserted street, I intervened.
‘What big men you are!’ I told them. ‘Five of you for one child – shame on you, shame!’ They tried to ignore me but I am tall, foreign, and under the circumstances, quite theatrically loud.
The officer emerged from the truck and looked me in the eye. We were of a height, and around the same age, my righteous indignation a match, I felt, for his authority. But I wasn’t quite in my right mind that Friday. Foreigners command a certain deference in Cairo, owed to their status as guests and the protection assumedly afforded by their embassies, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be hauled to the station myself. Yet with the officer’s face mere inches from mine, the issue became a show of male versus female strength, and I wasn’t backing down.
‘Let him go!’ I repeated imperiously, ‘and give him every single scarf back or, so help me god, I am a journalist and will make this a story that will cost every last one of you your jobs!’ I took out my camera and aimed it at the scene. This was particularly rash, since the camera could easily have been confiscated, but we’d meanwhile attracted a crowd – 5, 10, then at least 20 passers-by – and I sensed I had the upper hand.
Just then the officer made a snap decision and told his men to stop. He suddenly transformed into the good cop, urging the boy to stop crying, making him promise he’d never sell his things on this street again. The boy started kissing the officer’s hand; it was awful.
‘And his things!’ I chimed in excitedly, ‘Give them back! Every one!!’ At this point the officer lost his temper; we were so close in the now pressing crowd we might have kissed. He shouted at me, in English, ‘This is not your business!’ and I could feel the heat of his breath.
‘It is my business,’ I told him, ‘I am a human being!’
He blinked, then shouted, ‘I also am a human being!’ even louder. By now the crowd was large, the boy was grovelling, pulling his scarves together into a large tattered cloth. The cops were back in the truck and the officer squeezed past me into the drivers’ seat. I said ‘Thank you, Officer’, but he drove away without looking up. The crowd, mostly men, began to disperse. Some gave me admiring thumbs-up but I kept quiet and did not meet their gaze. I wanted to ask why they didn’t stop the police themselves, though I knew they couldn’t risk it, whereas I, the foreigner, had clout.
Walking home, as the adrenaline subsided, I felt less triumphant than ashamed. It’s possible I might have prevented the boy’s arrest by calmly interceding on his behalf, but I’d humiliated the officer before his men and the crowd and bullied him no less surely than he and his men had bullied that kid.
Shaken, I entered a store selling household goods and purchased a frying pan, even though I have three of them at home. It struck me that before the day was out, the officer would likewise pass his confusion on to someone or something else, and that the ripple of anger I’d tapped into and fed, would move inexorably on.
Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) and the forthcoming book Photography and Egypt.
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