Monday, 12 December 2011


View from the window of Egyptian poet, C.P Cavafy
Within these dark chambers, where I live through 
oppressive days, I pace up and down,
trying to find the windows. - When a window opens, it will be consolation
But the windows are not to be found, or I am unable
to find them. And perhaps it's better that I don't.
Perhaps the light will be a new tyranny.
Who knows what novel things it will reveal.

C.P Cafavy

Thursday, 8 December 2011


Alexandria's Revolutionary dead

Alexandria's Victoria Emanuel square  once served as a field hospital for the injured and dying in the recent demonstrations against the ruling military. The recent  elections have preoccupied  protesters  and now only a hard core of activists remain, sleeping in tents  pitched in the square (which is actually round)  – several hundred yards from the police headquarters.

Egyptian flags have been placed in the hands of two large statues. They flutter above the clutch of six tents and the   traffic circulating around the square. Drivers honk their horns in support. 

Ahmed walks around the tents, taking photographs. 

'I’ve got 8GB of photos already, “ he says and slumps when I suggest he edit them.

We walk across the grass looking for Abdul.

'I’m worried about him,' Ahmed says.  'He looks terrible. He has no money. He breathed in a lot of  toxic gas during the demonstrations.’

He rings Abdul’s number but there’s no reply.  He tries again but is diverted by an approaching woman.   Like the other women in the square, Zainab will not be camping all night, although she is there everyday, and intends to stay until the military step down. She and her friends are very keen to know what the British  think of Egypt's  25th January Revolution.  Uncomfortable with my role  as spokesperson for the UK, I say  that the Egyptian people  are an inspiration for us,  and that one day Trafalgar Square could be our Tahrir. 

‘You’ve never had a revolution, and you never will,' someone scoffs. Zainab looks puzzled.

'Everyone should have a revolution,’ she says.

Zainab brings  tea and Mary joins us.  She’s a slight figure in her twenties and  is dressed entirely  in black.  Unlike Zainab, her hair is uncovered and hangs in a loose bunch down her back. Ahmed whispers in my ear.

‘She’s been in prison for three days. She was demonstrating and the  police accused her of murdering  someone – I don’t know who. “

Mary overhears and says  the charges were dropped.

“Close shave,” Ahmed says.

‘How were you treated by the police?” I ask.

Mary  looks up at me with wet eyes. Zainab casts me a warning look.

Suddenly there’s a loud explosion  and the clattering of what sounds like guns. Zainab jumps and turns white. She clamps her hands over her ears.  She begins to shake.

Ahmed tries to convince her it’s a wedding party, but Zainab walks away from the noise.

'I was in the crowds outside the police headquarters and they kept firing toxic gas at us. We ran, but you can never get away.  The noise was dreadful. I can’t bear to hear loud noises any more.'

Zainab is a widow and has a small daughter.  Her husband was killed  while working in Iraq during the  American and British occupation 2003.

'I’m sorry “ I say and she claps her hands together and laughs.

'Didn’t you like him much?”  

She shakes her head. ‘If he was still alive I wouldn’t be allowed to come here on my own like this. The Revolution is my life. It is dangerous but I have made many friends. We are equals here.’

Ahmed  points across the gardens  to a hunched shadow passing through the trees. Abdul is wearing a reverse baseball hat  and his computer is, as usual, slung around his back.   When he lifts his head to greet us, I am shocked  at how thin he has become and by the grey yellow tinge of his skin His eyes are dark  and glazed. He fixes me with an unnaturally bright stare .  Ahmed takes him to one side, and they stand whispering to each other.

‘Money has been stolen from the funds,' Ahmed tells me later. ‘We are trying to find out who it is. We have our suspicions. ‘

Abdul  sits outside  the management tent and clicks through his various Facebook accounts. I express concern at his appearance.

‘What do you expect?' he says. 'I’ve been hit with five different gases….mustard gas, nerve gas, CS gas. You name it - I've inhaled  it. ‘

When I ask if he is taking the medicines and vitamins necessary to counter the effects, he says he was, but has  run out of money.  I offer him some money so that he can  buy more. He  instantly  doubles the amount. I agree. We cross the road  to  a patisserie to change some notes.  Abdul stops in front of the shop window and  stares at the display of  gateaux glistening  in phosphorescent light. He fixes his eye upon the eclairs. 

‘Two people died  where we are standing,’ he says. 


Sunday, 4 December 2011


Alexandria is beard city – it is  the headquarters of  the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and the Al Nour party of the ultra-conservative Salafi. Beards have  been sprouting on chins  like weeds. There's   the uncut version, the running-wild look, the trimmed bush and the beard that can't seem to make up its mind whether to come or go.  

Posters and banners still  festoon  the city like decorations left in a room long after the party is over. The  Islamist candidates continue to gaze at us with benign  authority and reassuring smiles. Not all of them are bearded, but  all of them have the  middle of their foreheads  marked by the zebeeba which means ‘dehydrated grape.’  The dark mark indicates the amount of times their foreheads have hit the floor praying.
The  Islamist’s campaigning was slick, pumped with money and included free handouts in the name of charity. Their success  in the first leg of Egypt's three-stage parliamentary vote has surprised and alarmed those Egyptians worried about what this might mean for freedoms and tolerance.  The Muslim Brotherhood party and the  Salafis are likely to emerge as a vocal bloc in the first legislature since Hosni Mubarak was deposed by the Egyptian people. The Salafis are predicted to come second to the  more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

Many Muslim scholars do not believe beards are compulsory.  Mohammed never stipulated facial hair was must for his followers in the Quran, although he himself is believed to have sported one – probably   because  he was so busy  being a prophet he didn’t have time to shave.

Sayings of Mohammed reported  after his death give the impression he was a militant beardist. ‘Trim the moustache closely but let the beard flow,’ he is reported to have said. One Muslim scholar states, No one has called it permissible to trim it (the beard) less than fist-length as is being done by some westernized Muslims and hermaphrodites.'  In a statement that could   put barber’s out of business, he stated ‘It is  forbidden for a man to shave another’s beard.

Beards themselves are not the issue. George Clooney looks great in one. The 25th January Revolution was led by young people most  of whom wanted to see Egypt become a  modern leading nation  in the 21st century. Instead, a large group of bearded men (and a few covered women) will be a major influence, viewing the world from the 8th and 9th centuries.

When Salafist leader and Alexandrian parliament candidate, Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat  recently described the literature of the late Egyptian Nobel prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz, as ‘inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism,’ he sent shivers through the artistic community.

In a television  interview, El-Shahat  (who looks like a gnome with a third eye) said, Mahfouz’s novels ‘are mostly set in areas involving brothels and drugs,' and that his  acclaimed,  Awlad Harretna (Children of our Alley),  was a novel 'whose symbols promoted atheism.’

The  beardless bartender at the Four Seasons Hotel says he voted for the Salafis and for the Muslim Brotherhood as they  ‘will be fair and just.’

When I pointed out that he would be out of a job if the Salafis   succeeded in banning all alcohol, he merely shrugged his shoulders.

‘I’ll find another job,” he said, apparently  oblivious of Egypt’s high unemployment rate.  

 When asked if he knew what Al Nour  would do for the economy, he shook his head. In conservative Egypt, moral rectitude is taking priority over economic sense.

I recently watched a television  interview with  a Salafist who clearly had his eye on the Ministry of Tourism. He said that all female tourists arriving in Egypt should be given a uniform on arrival which would cover them from head to toe. The Pharonic statues they had come to see, would also be covered. He also promised to increase the revenue coming into the country from tourism.

Mahfouz once said, ‘If you want to move people, you look for a point of sensitivity, and in Egypt nothing  moves people as much as religion.’ He also said, ‘It is clearly more important to treat one’s fellow man well, than to be always praying and fasting and touching one’s head to a prayer mat.’