Saturday, 3 December 2011

food for thought

There are some days where I can't think of anything but food. Today was one of those days. Waking ravenous at 4pm I had two things on my mind: butternut squash soup and spanish omelette. The problem? No food in the house and no blender either. This was going to take a lot of willpower.

Flash forward five hours, visits paid to two supermarkets, a fruit and veg market, an alcohol shop and Tawhid al Noor (which sells everything), I was finally ready to start cooking.

Two hours later still and I was finally ready to start eating ;) Honey roasted butternut squash soup blended with cream and white wine & spanish omelette (approval given by four Spaniards). Happiness.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

In the blood

I went to give blood yesterday for the first time in my life because I'd heard it was needed for the people injured in Tahrir Square. My friends Ahmed and Moudy took me to the hospital; I later found out they both have issues with blood and needles. I can understand why - throughout the entire process I had to keep my head averted to not see what was going on.

So the three of us arrived at the blood bank and were greeted by a friendly receptionist, who sat with us while we filled out all my information. She asked routine questions - had I given blood before, did I have any chronic health conditions, was I on any regular medication, etc. All pretty standard.

Then she took me through to see a doctor, a lot less friendly. Severe in look and manner, she asked her routine follow-up questions with all the warmth and understanding of a prison warden.

"Do you take any medication on a regular basis?"


"No pills?"


"No injections?"


"Do you drink alcohol?"

"Yes, sometimes."

"When did you last drink alcohol?"

"24 hours ago." (not at the time planning to give blood the next day)


"Is this a problem?"

"No." (to Ahmed, standing next to me) "Is she drunk?"

(Ahmed and me, in simultaneous outrage) "No!"

"Hmmmm. Do you have multiple sexual partners?"


"All right." (once again turning to Ahmed) "She's definitely not drunk?"

Clearly this woman had the measure of me.

Two anaemia tests later - because poor circulation and fear equal icicle hands from which it is difficult to extract the drops of blood needed for an anaemia test and so a ridiculous dance to get the blood circulating was performed in the examining room of this hospital to the amusement of the boys and the (continued) disapproval of the doctor, who by this point must have decided that I was from another planet - and we were led into another room to actually give blood.

Anyone who's thinking of doing this, be reassured that it's not as unpleasant a process as you think it will be. There's a level of discomfort but not actual pain. Having someone there to distract you helps a lot and Ahmed cleverly chose a topic of conversation that he knew would take my mind off everything else: salsa.

The whole thing was over in 10-15 minutes and afterwards I was given some juice to get my blood sugar levels up, I rested for a few minutes and was free to go. We didn't wish the sour-faced doctor goodbye.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

the need for courage

There are small acts of courage and there are large acts of courage. And there are things that may seem small that require great courage and actions that appear huge that actually involve taking the easy way out.


A friend of mine wrote to me today telling me that her very young son was recently diagnosed with cancer and they are now living in Great Ormond Street hospital while he receives his treatment. I didn't know what to say to her. What kind of a world do we live in, really? What gets to me, almost more than anything, is that this woman - my friend - isn't only one of the kindest people you could ever meet, she's also one of the most appreciative. In the three years I've known her she has always just radiated appreciation for all the good things life has brought her - family, friends, education, health...and she continues to do this. Even telling me about the awful experience she's going through, watching one of her children battle this monstrous disease, she was positive - she talked about how hard they were fighting, she said al hamdullilah for everything, she asked how I was and said that she missed me. Maybe inside she is raging against the unfairness of it all, but you would never know it.


Another friend, a professional dancer, had her life turned upside down last year by the news that she had to have major, invasive surgery on her hip or else would be needing a complete hip replacement within 10 years. She is 30 and of course uses her body every day; dance is what she does for a living but, more than that, it's her passion and she's worked hard to make it the centre of her life. She's just had the surgery, after overcoming various insurance complications (she lives in the US; the healthcare system is messed up beyond belief) and is going through the slow recovery process with the grace and humour that she shows in all aspects of her life. That's not to say she isn't terrified about what she's having to face - she's told her friends how frightening it is to realise just how fragile your body is, that you only have one and that if you don't take care of it you could lose the health and mobility that you - we all - usually take for granted. She faces the risk of losing her livelihood and the passion she's devoted her life to, but she's facing it head on - honestly and with as much humour as possible when it would be so easy to curl up in defeat. Not that I expect less of her, knowing her, but I'm still so impressed.


Then there's a girl I barely know, who I met shortly before she left to go and work in Kazakhstan. Two days ago she posted something on Facebook that really moved me - about how just before leaving the UK her sister had given her a card with a copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem If written inside. 8 months later her father had read the poem aloud at her grandfather's funeral; 2 months after that it had been read aloud at her father's funeral. Now, a year later, this girl is being evacuated from Kazakhstan at very short notice, due to political problems. She's devastated at leaving a life and people she cares about because of circumstances she can't control. So she shared the poem because, she said, to her it means "I love you. Have courage. Goodbye." Here is the poem:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!


Egypt - I don't even know where to begin with Egypt. Parliamentary elections are coming up: the whole process is due to start in a week and people are afraid. 3000 people went to Tahrir Square yesterday - some to protest against an announcement made by the ruling military party that they (the military) would have the power to overrule the new constitution that's due to be established (effectively retaining absolute power, as many people feared would happen); others went to give their views on how Egypt should be governed. Apparently there was a small group of Salafists (50-100) there, chanting fundamentalist religious slogans and refusing to even acknowledge Laura, a journalist, when she tried to interview them (because she is a woman).

Well today I think the different religious and political groups had left and it was the revolutionaries who were camped out in Tahrir Square. And then things got ugly. Apparently the military opened fire on them (rubber bullets I think) and used tear gas to try and get them to leave. This led to clashes, vehicles and buildings burning - all very localised but frightening because they point to the larger problems everyone is afraid of. Everything suggests these coming elections will be very difficult - even if they are free and fair in the sense that many different parties and candidates will be able to run, most of the candidates are ill-prepared for government. You can't have decades of dictatorship and then smoothly transition into a fair political system that actually works. But I think everyone knew this would be the case. What alternative was there after Mubarak stepped down? Of course Egypt's future should be determined by her people - we can all agree on that as a theory. Whether democratic elections will prove the best thing for the country, or the best for it right now - that's another question.

When I look at how easily the illiterate members of the population, the ones with low education and little political knowledge, can be manipulated by community/religious leaders and local, aspiring politicians, it makes me angry. Particularly in rural areas, clan rivalries and sectarian divisions are exploited to control people. Some people in positions of power will attempt to increase conflict between Muslims and Christians; some local religious leaders in rural communities will tell illiterate members of the population to choose a party or party member with a green mark over one with a red mark because green is the colour of Islam. Many people in these communities, much more conservative than their urban counterparts, will believe - as they are told - that voting for an unknown party member, or someone who appears to have some liberal ideas, will cause a breakdown of traditional values.

In short, a huge section of the population are potentially uninformed and though they have as much right to have their voices heard as anyone, they also deserve to know who they are voting for and why. The danger at the moment is that people could get into power for the wrong reasons, or people could stay in power through manipulating the system. And whether you think it's right or wrong for people to take to the streets, whether you think the Revolution was good or not or was prompted by good impulses or not, the country is amazing and has the potential to be even more amazing. And that is why everyone who cares about it needs to show courage right now - like the friend of mine who despairs at what he saw yesterday in Tahrir but is unwavering in the love he feels for the country. He is angry, he is disappointed - he had a lot of faith in the Revolution and what would follow and he feels let down at the moment, but throughout it all he's determined not to give up and in his own way - through talking, through voting, through his work - he's still fighting to create the future he wants for his country.


There's so much more I could say on this whole subject - it has been on my mind a lot lately. I was sent on a training course with colleagues last week to learn how to communicate better in conflict situations and the stories they told, the small acts of courage, moved me a surprising amount (I know I'm ridiculous - it's the way I am; deal with it :D). But really when you think about it, when your job is what you focus on for maybe 60-70% of your time (as I think it is for most of my colleagues), things that may seem small - challenging a superior, following a course of action you believe to be right even when everyone around you is saying it's wrong, admitting that you've made a mistake and asking for help - require enormous courage.

And I think of the people I know who have lost people very close to them - sons, brothers, mothers, girlfriends - and carried on when they must have gone through agony and it makes me speechless, that level of bravery and strength. It is amazing.


"Come to the edge."
"We can't. We're afraid."
"Come to the edge."
"We can't. We will fall!"
"Come to the edge."
And they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.

Guillaume Apollinaire

"Never, never, never, never give up."

Winston Churchill

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Saturday, 8 October 2011

all the things that came before

I'm feeling restless tonight, with a lot of different thoughts swirling in my brain. And they say that restlessness is bad because it unsettles you; and they say that restlessness is good because it stirs your soul and makes you pursue the things that bring you to life. But often in my restlessness I just want to get lost in music and dance, escape from the weight of words and ideas and just float in sensation. Or travel to a place where I know no one and there are no expectations; everything is new and so fresh. No associations, no memories. No trying to make sense of how everything is supposed to fit together in the disjointed life that you live when you move around a lot.

Chris, who left Cairo during the Revolution, described the group of (expat) friends he had here as misfits, all looking for our place in the world. It's true that many people I've met here seem to be searchers - questioning, seeking to understand a different culture, other ways of seeing the world, another perspective on history. Not in a cheesy "I've gone travelling to find myself" kind of way; just that people you meet in Cairo who've chosen to live here for a while seem to share certain characteristics. Usually curious about the world, open minded, adventurous...and a little lost.

I can't understand the opposing instincts that coexist in me - the desire to stay and the desire to go. People find it easier to interpret the side that settles; they look at how attached I get to places and people and find it hard to understand how I can get up and leave to go somewhere completely different. I find it difficult to understand too. Salisbury, Nong Khai, Oxford, Paris, London, Alexandria, Cairo. A lot of hellos and goodbyes.

And really I think that Cairo is somewhere I could stay for a while; there's a lot about this city to love. But still there's no escaping the fact that you occupy a strange space when you live outside your home country for a long time. You'll probably never fully belong or understand how things work the way you understand the country you were born in. It is intriguing, and part of the pull of living abroad, the intoxication of getting to know a country bit by bit - but it can be lonely. There will always be things that challenge how you see the world - call them cultural differences or whatever you like. It's so obvious, but living here as a foreign woman it gets so tiring being constantly on your guard to make sure your behaviour doesn't get you into situations you don't want to be in. At the same time, being viewed as a guest in the country means that usually you are treated with an incredible amount of kindness and generosity. I've been here nearly two years and people still welcome me to Egypt on a daily basis.

There is little to anchor you to a place when you're on a short-term contract and could leave at any moment, but I treasure that freedom; my awareness of all the things I love about here is kept sharp. Life is lived more intensely, I seize more opportunities, my emotions are stronger and more vivid.

There are a lot of smart, passionate, interesting, funny people out there. And I've met many here, Egyptian and expat. We're all on our different journeys, coming from different places and aiming for different destinations. And though this makes me sad sometimes, this brevity, it is a beautiful thing too.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Caecilius woz 'ere

Basant recently returned from a month-long work trip to Washington DC feeling restless and dissatisfied with the state of Egypt today. As she put it "A lot of people are depressed at the moment. We think the country is fading and falling from corruption and problems and we don't know how to stop it". But what made her really sad, she said, was visiting war memorials in the US: "Here is a young country, and most of their history is built on wars. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Civil War...I respect people who give their lives for their country, or to protect the people they love, but I watched all these tourists walking around there and I thought of how empty the airport had been when I left Cairo. I imagined the pyramids without tourists and wondered how it had all come to this."

It's been an obvious side-effect of the Revolution, this loss of tourists. Figures indicate that there was a 28% drop in people visiting for more than 24 hours (definition of a tourist, apparently) in July 2011 from July 2010. For a country where tourism is one of the main sources of revenue, this is no joke. Its impact is felt in the economy, as more and more people feel their livelihoods squeezed, but also I think in national morale. I go on about Egyptian hospitality but there's a reason for it. People here love to show you the best of what their country has to offer. And if there is one thing that Egyptians and Americans have in common, it is a very proud and direct patriotism (so different from British self-deprecation or French nonchalance; we too may think our countries are the best in the world, but you'd never, ever hear us just say it). Despite all other differences, I have never met an Egyptian who wasn't bursting with pride at being Egyptian. And I mean this in a good way.

One of the extraordinary things about being here is the way that you have layer upon layer of history just resting on top of one another and sometimes a layer is peeled away unexpectedly to show you a glimpse of all that came before. In a place so vibrant and teeming with life, reminded that you're just a spark in the roaring fire of its history, it's a strange feeling. A bit like looking at one of those cross sections of a giant sequoia tree where they label how big the tree would have been at the time of major historical events: the Spanish armada, ok- the tree was two-thirds of its current size; here you see how big it was when the Battle of Hastings took place; and here, its size when the Prophet Mohammad was alive, or when Jesus was born. It messes with your head, believe me.

Anyway, the truth is that most of the time in Cairo I'm too busy living my life/complaining about the traffic/dancing salsa to get all dreamy about the amazing history we're surrounded by. But that definitely wasn't the case when I went with my parents on a cruise from Aswan to Luxor last year. I probably spent the entire five days we were there marvelling at the roots of this place and how deep they are (when I wasn't being entertained by the sight of Dad in a galabeya). As if the colossal, beautiful temples you see when you visit Upper Egypt weren't impressive enough on their own, you then have to think about the fact that they were built without any heavy machinery, in suffocating heat. And that's before you even start to contemplate their design, the intricate calculations that went into constructing buildings that have endured for thousands of years, according to precise estimations of light and space, or the meaning and beauty of the hieroglyphics you see on them.

And here is something amazing and funny and just plain odd. We were in the Temple of Karnak, within which there is a smaller temple dedicated to Amon Ra, the God of Fertility. This, our guide Selwa explained, was said to be the reason for... ...the picture of a man, god or Pharoah with a giant erection. See how the area around the erection is much darker than the rest of the temple structure? This is apparently because so many people come and touch it in the hope that it will bring them fertility, and children. What remains a mystery, even to renowned Egyptologists today is what you see when you look closely at the giant erection:

There it is, clear and unmistakable - a sperm. The question is, how? How could a civilisation without microscopes possibly know what a sperm looks like?? It's mysterious, intriguing and really funny.

Similarly, visit one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, pass through a long corridor filled with hieroglyphics telling a partially understood story - some faded, others still stunningly vivid - in the centre of which is housed the sarcophagus that once contained the mummified version of the Pharoah for whom the tomb was built. Then, it's pointed out to you. Scratched onto the wall with the same mixture of painstaking care and surreptitious haste that any graffiti carries. Latin letters conveying the desire of a forgotten Roman soldier to partake in history, that same desire that we all feel when confronted with the immensity of the past. It was not "Caecilius woz 'ere" engraved on the wall (that just would have been too good to be true) but it might as well have been.

There's more of course, so much more. I think again it was Karnak temple that was buried under sand for so many hundreds of years that a community settled on top of it and there remains a mosque resting next to the very highest point of the temple complex - the only building allowed to remain in place after the temple was discovered and excavated. And on one of the entrances to the temple's main chamber, signs of its later appropriation by Roman soldiers - the remains of a Roman fresco, covering the temple's original engravings. Layers of history.

The Greek legacy still felt in Alexandria; the great Islamic civilisations of the early Middle Ages and onwards; the heritage of Egypt's Coptic community; the Nasser era, beginning in the 1950s and running until his death in 1970.


Layers of human history - bizarre, beautiful, often inexplicable. Swirling, living history.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Reflections on my first stampede

An unsettling thing happened last night.

I'd gone for a Friday night shisha with Ben and some friends of his in the stock market area of the city (Boursa), in or near Downtown (not very far from Tahrir Square). We were sitting out on the street, beside the road which was lucky, but on the outskirts of the cafe. The place was packed and lively, groups of people enjoying shisha and tea or coffee.

It was still early - maybe 10pm - when there came a ripple of shouting and motion. Cries tore through the buzz of conversation and people scattered in what seemed like a perfect slow-motion domino effect.

The reality of course was not poetic at all. Everyone responded as you would in such a situation - with panic. Tables were overturned, glasses and shisha pipes smashed, phones and bags abandoned as people scrambled to get out of harm's way. Ben had grabbed me and pulled me behind a parked car before I even fully realised what was going on. We snatched our things, located the other members of our group, and walked away.

In fact the incident passed very quickly. After the initial wave of fear, which must have uprooted and dispersed 200 people sitting outside the cafe, it wasn't clear what was going on. We'd walked down a side street by the time we heard gunfire. To be honest though, that's not such an unusual sound in Cairo. Just the other day I was playing tawla in the well heeled area of Zamalek when we heard gunshots. "It will be a wedding" my friend Dawood said casually. "Remember in Egypt we like to celebrate with a bang". Cue accompanying cheeky wink.

There are different theories as to what happened, and why. Ben, a journalist, later went back and spoke to some people who said that a fight had broken out in the area and that the police had been called to break it up. A report from a well-regarded Egyptian newspaper claims that the cafe was attacked by people with knives and that the police were sent to rescue cafe-goers. This could be true, but it's interesting that just two days previously there had been clashes in exactly this area because the police and military had raided cafes trying to clamp down on outdoor seating (theoretically illegal, in practice widely accepted, as the cafes' main source of revenue comes from large numbers of customers being able to sit outside, especially at weekends).

Here's the link to the Al Masry Al Youm article:

What I find interesting but frightening is how quick people are to panic. It surprised me that I didn't panic more than I did, especially watching the reactions of all the other girls in the group. The whole incident showed how something small can provoke a huge and disproportionate reaction in a group of people on edge. Understandably, because the whole of Egypt is on edge at the moment. No one knows what will happen when the elections take place. Everyone is a little scared; many fear the worst, even as they hope for something better.

What can we do but watch, wait and try to reduce the scaremongering? Especially the non-Egyptians, who would have to leave if anything went badly wrong.

Monday, 19 September 2011

An answer to a question

I didn't expect to like Cairo as much as I do. It's often a difficult city to live in - hot, dusty, polluted, so full of people and vehicles all trying to get from one place to another it can make you boil with frustration. As with all capitals, it has a lot of stressed people working, jostling on the metro, doing their best not to be worn down by the daily grind. Sometimes I wish there was a mute button for me to press and I've never had to clean a flat so much in my life.

But still. Still. There's a reason this city is called Om al Donia, the Mother of the World. It is majestic, life affirming, heartbreaking, mysterious and can often in unexpected ways reveal a beauty that makes your head spin. Sunset over the Nile. The winding old streets of Islamic Cairo evoking images straight from a Naguib Mahfouz novel; houses, shops and the city's most famous market crouched beside the two towering mosques of al-Azhar and al-Husayn. The churches of Coptic Cairo, adorned outside and in with mosaics and intricately carved words in Arabic and the Coptic alphabet. Elegant post-colonial French style buildings in Nasr City, out towards the airport - an area I'd always considered functional and charmless...I was so wrong. Out on the river in the evening you feel encased in a calm, still bubble though the ripples of the sleepless city wash over you. Ceaseless car horns; snatches of music from passing cars or boats - rhythm and beat demanding to be listened to whether you understand the lyrics or not - your senses are seized and you want to dance.

Driving fast at night, everything is ablaze with life and colour. Or sitting in a coffee shop having lost track of time, cocooned by shisha smoke and conversation. I've become addicted to tawla (backgammon) recently, accompanied by the voices of other cafe goers, low and humming or loud and raucous.

My relationships with places are as intricate as my relationships with people. And I was talking last night with an Egyptian friend who asked me whether I still noticed all the things I had liked about Egypt when I first moved here, an insightful question. I went to Alex ten days ago to see Khaled, Karim and the others and spent my first hour there blown away by how beautiful it is. After a few months between visits, I'd forgotten.

And though I don't always look on Cairo with fresh eyes, or fully appreciate it all the time, it has taken me hostage as it has charmed, perplexed, enticed and baffled visitors for centuries. The dirt, the lack of systems, the bureaucracy, the overcrowding are very real but Cairo still gets under your skin.

I can say all this as someone who has the luxury of choosing to be here. There is danger in romanticising a place, especially when as an expat in Egypt your life is often marginalised and very privileged. I have people I care about a lot here who I see not being given the opportunities they deserve because of circumstances they can't control and the unfairness of it eats away at me. They deserve better. And the country deserves better.

In the run-up to the elections my posts will become more political. And anyone who cares about the region will be waiting to see what comes next and whether these problems, which seem so entrenched, have a short term solution. I don't have any answers.

But this is a country that has gone through huge changes but never descended into anarchy. With police gone from the streets and (theoretically) no law and order, the country still functioned in an almost normal way. During the 18 days of the Revolution, people took matters into their own hands in a very visible way; for weeks after Mubarak stepped down everything from safety on the streets to regulating traffic still depended on ordinary people and it worked.

You could just say that what makes this country special and so intriguing is its contradictions, that you may spend years here and not get to the bottom of all of them. But somehow it still matters to you enough to keep trying.