Friday fracas

Illustration: Sarah John

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.

A world apart

Illustration by: Sarah John

Back in the 1980s, Cairo’s upper class fêted lavishly, as often in their flats and villas as on feluccas, the sailboats that ply the Nile, or moonlit desert caravans culminating in dinners beside the ruins of lesser-known pyramids. Nowadays outdoor parties are problematic, the flaunting of booze and wealth being increasingly unwise. People mostly meet at the pretentious restaurants and clubs that have multiplied in the last decade. So when my friend Kamal, a superb host, invites me to his home, it’s hard to refuse.

Despite his aristocratic background, Kamal nurtures a lively curiosity in lesser-born humans. He’s gay, older now and generally philosophical. When I chide him for being so enamoured of beauty – his house is crammed with costly oriental _objets d’art_ – he quotes Nietzsche, saying ‘the Greeks were superficial out of profundity’, except he adds a ‘darling’ at the end. His guest list invariably includes representatives from the worlds of power, glamour and art. I suppose I fall into the last category.

People tend to arrive late at Kamal’s, embracing, exchanging extravagant compliments, and displaying an almost unhinged pleasure at seeing one other. By tacit agreement, they’re always pleasant, or if moody, attractively so. They never share deep concerns, only witty anecdotes, never lean too hard on an argumentative point, and never, above all, demonstrate any sort of need. Aside from the local moguls and vamps, Kamal’s foreign guests included a maharajah visiting with his polo team, and a Kuwaiti gentleman, wearing a diamond ring so large that even without my glasses I spotted its prismic gleam from across the room.

At around 1.00am, Kamal’s liveried Nubian servant did a little dance to indicate that dinner was served. The party of around 30 trickled into the dining room. I sat on a huge damask-covered throne, a painting of a rosy nymph wearing flowers and a strip of leopardskin behind me, and Cairo’s incoherent lights spread out in front, through a series of high windows. The table was strewn with gilded leaves and acorns, Lalique butterflies, and brass pomegranates filled with geode crystals, the whole lit by candelabra attached to the wall in brackets shaped like muscular forearms and hands.

I assisted a woman called Nazli into the throne to my right; at nearly 90 she’s a fixture at these gatherings, the last of a long line of Ottoman princesses and a living compendium of Cairo’s players and scenarios throughout its various _belles époques_. An Egyptian telecom tycoon took my left. The hot conversation topic was the son of the President, who had recently moved to Kamal’s neighbourhood, and the distinct possibility of his succession.

‘He’s not a bad-looking fellow, but too serious by half,’ someone said.

‘If only he had a sense of humour, people would like him more,’ said Nazli.

‘He lifts weights to ease the tension,’ Kamal added.

‘The people don’t want him,’ I said. ‘They’re fed up. Why bother having a revolution to end up with another king?’

‘I don’t know why they bothered either,’ said Nazli. ‘The monarchy was paradise compared to this.’

‘I share your nostalgia, dear, but don’t forget you grew up in a harem and had to bribe the eunuch to buy your cigarettes,’ noted Kamal.

‘At least we dressed well, and entertained in style.

These poor girls in their black tents…’

‘I suppose nothing ever changes in Egypt, not really. Isn’t that why we love it?’ asked Kamal.

‘But it is changing, always has been, you just can’t see it from up here,’ I couldn’t resist remarking.

‘Darling, I know what the countryside is like.’

‘Sure, because you’re landed gentry.’

‘No, because I’m interested. When was the last time you got your hands dirty with the _fellahin_ [peasants]?’ ‘I don’t have to go to the country for that. I’ve got them living six to the room on my roof, not to mention all around me.’

‘I don’t see what the problem is,’ said the telecom billionaire. ‘The son is a smart guy, and besides, he’s my friend. It’s not his fault that his father is the President.’

I laughed at this convoluted gem of logic – alone – and Kamal gracefully changed the subject. Then Omar Sharif arrived, looking marvellous, with a pan-Arab mega-diva on one arm and a Hollywood star on the other; and all else, for the moment, was forgotten.

*Maria Golia* writes for _The Middle East_, the _Times Literary Supplement_ and is the author of _Cairo, City of Sand_ (Reaktion Books, 2004).

Empire's exiles

Illustration by Sarah John

‘Never heard of it,’ well-informed people from all over the world used to say when I asked them if they knew about Diego Garcia. Some even asked, ‘Who’s he?’ And when I embarked on telling them how the British and US governments in the late 1960s forcibly removed the 2,000 inhabitants of the islands of Diego Garcia in a genocidal mass kidnapping in order to install an exponentially expanding military base, then people just used to look at me as though, having thought up to that point that I was perfectly nice, it was now dawning on them that I was in fact stone mad.

If such things were true, they thought, how could they possibly not have known about them? Such was the success of the conspiracy to hide the operation. People worldwide didn’t know.

How did they find out? Some may have heard that B-52s were taking off from there to bomb Afganistan or Iraq. But it didn’t mean much to them.

Then a judgement of the High Court in London in 2000 hit the front pages of British newspapers. Once the 30-year censorship of the British Official Secrets Act expired and the official papers that prove the whole murky deal became available, the Mauritians from Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos Archipelago could put in a legal challenge about their forcible removal from their native islands. The judges exposed a hideous plot where ‘the British authorities [were concerned] to present to the outside world a scenario in which there were no permanent inhabitants on the Archipelago’ and followed a policy of what one memo at the time described as ‘quiet disregard – in other words let’s forget about this one until the United Nations challenges us on it’. And the people won the right to return.

But the Blair Government promptly issued two Queen’s ‘Orders in Council’ to override the judiciary. Earlier this year, judges threw out the Queen’s decrees and the right to return was won again.

The people of Diego Garcia and Chagos hadn’t just been sitting around waiting all those years. They never stopped struggling. To get back to their islands. To reunite the country. To get the military base that was the cause of all the problems closed down. And it was the women especially who acted. ‘Two of my children died of sadness when we were left stranded here,’ Marie-Magdalene told me, ‘and my heart has been left heavy because I couldn’t tend my grandmother’s grave on Diego Garcia. From this suffering, I got my strength.’

The first time I met women from Diego Garcia (and became lifelong friends with some of them) was when I went to an all-night candle-lit vigil in 1978 alongside a hunger strike in a poor suburb of Port Louis. Then, in 1981, we held big street demonstrations three days running to highlight yet another women’s hunger strike. Eight of us were arrested, during a confrontation with riot police, and faced a long trial for demonstrating without police authorization. The trial became a further focus for protest.

From 1997 onwards we attempted to get hold of a boat so as actually to go to Diego Garcia. At one point Greenpeace had one of its ships in line, but it fell through. In 2004, at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, yachters offered to join a ‘Peace Flotilla’ if we got hold of a main boat. But in the meantime, the right to return has been won.

In the women’s movement we received a gift from the women of Diego Garcia who had lived in a matricentral society and worked for equal pay on their home islands. They showed us how to face up to patriarchy in one of its worst forms: the police. The women from Diego Garcia felt no fear of them. I remember one police officer who made a quietly spoken ‘proposition/threat’ to one of the women during a protest stand-off, only to have her reply loud enough for everyone in the crowd to hear: ‘And what’s so special about your dick, then!’ The man crumbled.

In a million ways they shared with us that there’s nothing special to fear about any men – or their State hierarchies. Somehow they know that women hold the power. And this knowledge has in turn given them power. And with the recently won right to return, the womenfolk of one of the smallest communities in the world has succeeded in calling to task the biggest power of all, the empire of the US-UK military alliance. They know that empires are not eternal.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist. For more on the Chagos  Islanders, see Paradise Regained.

Charmless change

It used to take me a good 20 minutes to reach my car, parked a few metres away from my home in Gemaizeh – one of the few quarters of Beirut to retain its original pre-civil war charm. There was the grocer to greet, the butcher to chat to, the old Armenian shopkeeper to shake hands with, and the cobbler who would insist that I admire some newly repaired shoes. I always ended up being late for appointments.

But these days it takes me only a few minutes. Most of my friends are gone, replaced by restaurants and pubs.

‘I can’t keep up with the businessmen coming to my shop,’ says Nimr, who has run his herb and spice shop for over 30 years. ‘I have been doing this all my life. I don’t want my shop to become a restaurant. But they keep coming and pestering me.’

Most of the shopkeepers do not own their shops but rent them according to the ‘old rent’ system of the 1970s which has not been adjusted for inflation. Because the Lebanese pound plunged in value from a couple of Lebanese pounds to the US dollar in the mid-1970s to the present rate of 1,500 to the dollar, many landlords receive a tiny rental income and are eager to be rid of their tenants. But eviction requires the landlord to pay the tenant 40 to 60 per cent of the property’s value as compensation.

Entrepreneurs come to Gemaizeh offering to pay the evacuation fee to tenants and modern rental rates to the landlord, theoretically keeping everyone happy.

But some shopkeepers are renting under the modern law – and they are far from happy.

‘I was paying a fair sum of rent before Gemaizeh was “discovered”,’ says Anwar, my local grocer. ‘Now, the owner keeps raising the rent. It has almost tripled in less than two years. I can’t afford it. He wants to push me out so he can turn this place into a pub.’

It all started three years ago when a traditional coffee shop was renovated. For years it had been the meeting place of old men. They would spend the entire day smoking, drinking coffee, playing cards and backgammon and spending very little money. One day I arrived to find dozens of them standing on the sidewalk looking lost. Their shop had suddenly been closed. A month later, a fancier-looking coffee shop opened. I still bump into some of the old men just walking aimlessly up and down the street, unable to afford the new café prices.

Shortly afterwards, an upmarket patisserie and restaurant opened up and became popular with chic Beirutis. And before long, investors descended with open wallets.

Gemaizeh was once an important Roman road, linking the city centre to villages further up the coast. It later became a souk where farmers set up stalls and sold their goods. The stalls became shops with homes above them.

My father laughed when I moved here six years ago. ‘It’s like a village,’ he said, as he walked along a street filled with traditional Lebanese townhouses in desperate need of renovation. Dozens of dusty family-run shops lined the street, most of them small. I immediately fell in love.

Before long, I got to know all the shopkeepers. Many times, one or the other would run over to carry my grocery bags to my building or escort me home under their umbrella when I was caught in a sudden rainstorm. My first pregnancy was noted early on and I received endless winks and conspiratorial smiles. When I reappeared on the street after giving birth to my daughter, Yasmine, they rushed to praise and coo.

Two years later, my son, Alexander, was born. Very few were left to admire him. Most of my shopkeepers were gone. Since most fell under the ‘old rent’ category, they were handsomely paid. So I suppose I should be happy for them.

But I’m not. I miss my butcher who would take his time cutting the meat to my strict specifications. I yearn to buy the wrinkled tomatoes that the old Armenian man displayed every day. I’m lost without the tailor and the newspaper shop. Even my three-year-old daughter seems disturbed. ‘Where are all the amous?’ she asked, using the Lebanese expression for ‘uncles’.

I had no answer but took her to have lunch at Le Chef. Once Gemaizeh’s only restaurant, it is a family-run business that has been operating since the 1950s and serves traditional Lebanese food. I was glad to see that it remains filled with customers. I’m not the only one who prefers the old Gemaizeh.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Dangerous times

Illustration: Sarah John

I hesitated. But the commonly asked question in Lebanon still hung in the air and needed an answer.

‘I am, uh, a Protestant,’ I replied softly. ‘Evangelical.’

And before a frown appeared on my inquisitor’s face, I quickly denied any link with American Evangelicals. It was imperative that I was believed. In these sensitive days, a falsely perceived link to US Christian fundamentalists – better known as Christian Zionists – could easily cost lives.

I remember first becoming aware of them a few years ago during a visit to the US. I was scanning radio broadcasts when a voice boomed out: ‘It is our Christian duty to get those Arabs out of Palestine.’

Those Arabs? What Arabs? Did he mean the residents of the land – the Palestinians? The sermon continued with such venom and hatred towards Palestinians that I had to find out who the speaker was. I was shocked when the broadcaster thanked an Evangelical preacher for his sermon. It was so far removed from any Christian sermon I had ever heard and certainly unlike any of the peace sermons from my own pastor in Beirut. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The Protestant church in Lebanon was founded in the mid-19th century when American missionaries came to the Middle East to convert Catholics. They opened schools, universities and printing shops. Education for girls and women, a relative novelty back then, was introduced and encouraged. In Arabic, the community became known as ‘Enjelieh’ – those who adhere to the Bible. The direct translation in English is Evangelical. And thus our church was called ‘The Evangelical Church of Beirut’.

But as US Evangelical fundamentalism grew stronger and more vocal, our small Lebanese community began encountering raised eyebrows.

Christian Zionists believe that Jesus cannot return to reign on Earth until Jewish people return to the Holy Land where they would destroy the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. The Battle of Armageddon will then kill millions of people and convert the Jews to Christianity.

Such beliefs sounded harmless enough (everyone has their own beliefs, after all) until I found out that the group is willing to mobilize cash and lobby US politicians in order to support Israel in its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

‘To stand against Israel is to stand against God,’ said Jerry Falwell, one of their leading figures. ‘We believe that history and scripture prove that God deals with nations in relation to how they deal with Israel.’

In 1980, the Israeli Government allowed the establishment of an ‘International Christian Embassy’ in Jerusalem. Among its duties is to enlist worldwide Christian support for Israel, defend Israeli policies, and assist in the establishment of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

If that weren’t enough, their US preachers like Falwell became quite vocal in insulting Arabs and Muslims. ‘Muhammad was a terrorist,’ declared Falwell two years ago in the American television programme _60 Minutes_. His comments sparked international Islamic protest and a _fatwa_ calling for his death.

Horrified, Middle Eastern churches issued their own statements. ‘Those people (Christian Embassy) do not represent either Christianity or Christians,’ said Father Raed Awad Abusahlia, the Chancellor of the Catholic Church of Jerusalem. ‘They are in no way related to the official local Christian Churches or linked to the Palestinian Arab world but they are groups that claim Christianity and are an American dollar importation. Therefore, we explicitly declare that they do not belong to us and that we have no links to them or their views.’

One US Evangelical missionary was shot dead two years ago in the mainly Sunni Muslim city of Sidon in southern Lebanon. The killer was never found but the motive is thought to have been anger at her attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity, a dangerous endeavour in the post-9/11 world.

So you will see why we make great efforts to distinguish ourselves from the Christian Zionists. While so far we have not been harassed, the small Protestant community is keeping its eyes open.

‘Most Lebanese know that we have absolutely nothing to do with those crazy Evangelicals,’ said one church member. ‘But there is always the fear that one insane person will think that we are linked and try something violent. So I think it’s best at the moment to keep a low profile.’

Others just keep their fingers crossed.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

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