Thursday, 29 January 2009

On eccentricity

Eccentric - a word introduced into my vocabulary at a young age. When did it get into yours?

"The boy sometimes thinks in an eccentric way," my father commented to my mother. He was speaking in Arabic, but used the English word.

"Do you know what eccentric means?" he asked me, "It's when everyone expects you to think one way, and you choose another. Eccentric circles, unlike concentric circles, do not share the same centre."

Over the years, I got so used to the word, I would roll my eyes when my father rolled it out again. I did not take it seriously; nor did he mean it in an insulting way. He was slightly amused at the observation.

My father told me about his old friend, Ahmed N (another Ahmed!), who would take extreme care when crossing the road. "What if the tram's electric cables were to fall just at the time I was walking over the tram's rails?" the late Ahmed N told my father.

"Ya Ahmed ya N! Why would they fall at the time, of all times, that you, of all people, happen to be crossing the road!" my father said.

My mother teased: "You must have found too much fault in your friend, that God gave you a son like him."

"I never critised him, I used to feel sorry for his eccentric thinking," my father said.

Eccentric thoughts and behaviour continue to come out of me. A friend described my Connect-4 strategy as "assymetric". I bet that's in the thesaurus entry for "eccentric". If not, it should be - take it from me, an authority.

I think my impatience, my exaggerated sense of self, my arrogance and ambition is at the root of my eccentric thinking (if indeed I am an eccentric). Deep inside, I believe I will find a way, a different route that most others have missed - 'I am a law unto myself'. At least, that's what I used to be.

The Eccentric is an old English character; he is obsessed with a pointless hobby, such as stamp-collecting, or knowledge of the coral reefs of the Red Sea.

The Eccentric is typically male and single. (Uncle Ahmed N, may he rest in peace, died single.)

So, when did eccentric get into your vocabulary?

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Tuesday, 27 January 2009

London Mime Festival

Last Friday, I went to see Hotel Paradiso, a play by the German mime company, Familie Floez. What an education it was!

Mime theatre was not something I had ever watched before Friday. The idea that actors wear masks all through a play and 'mime' (act without saying words), brought to my mind silly, clownish theatre. But Hotel Paradiso was an inspirational introduction to this world.

It is a production of very high standards. A lot of work must have gone into the play. It was moving and funny, plus there was lots of detail. While the story was not particularly good, it was very skillfully rendered. We were all stunned to see that the array of 10 or more characters had really just been three guys and a gal (in their 30s).

Here is what I learnt:

  • Body language and action can render words unnecessary.
  • One mask, set in a single expression, can effectively summarise a character.
  • Clothing says a lot. Together with body language, clothing establishes character in seconds.
  • You really can show and do not have to tell. Pick the right indicative actions, and everything is explained.
  • Music can be very effective at conveying atmosphere and emotion.
  • Stillness and slow movement convey seriousness and gravitas.
  • Stillness, slow movement, and bittersweet music move and affect.
  • Repetition and adaptation of strong scenes renders them very powerful.

Check out the Familie Floez company website.

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Wednesday, 21 January 2009

An important point in Obama's inaugural speech

President Obama made a distinction in his inaugural speech (brought to my attention via the BBC): "the makers of things" versus the makers of money. He said the US's spirit lies with the former.

He said: "a nation cannot prosper long, when it favours only the prosperous".

It may be that we have crossed a threshold. I came to England to study Artificial Intelligence, and subsequently Pattern Recognition, yet by the time I was finishing (around 2000), all I wanted was to join the legions of smart people who worked in the money markets in London's City (financial organisations). It was something that baffled my parents back in Cairo.

I had graduated in 1991 at the forefront of a new generation of computer scientists in Egypt. Looking back, my father describes the timing of my graduation as perfect. People in Egypt were just beginning to realise how important computing was going to be, and it was going mainstream, and here I was young, scholastically accomplished, and ready.

His analysis also applies internationally: it was people of my age and of my more-or-less same background who pioneered the Great Internet Expansion of 1994-1998. This was the proper internet boom. (1999-2001 saw a silly anything-goes craze that amounted to clearing of deadwood.)

But I was out of all this. I had gone and buried myself under books for almost ten years (1992-2000). You'd think I'd come out of the PhD tunnel all revved up for the second wave of internet expansion, or something. Nope, exposure to the scientific method and advanced computing algorithms drove me straight to the money men.

A lot of what I did in my early life was in imitation of others - particularly other Egyptians. But by 2000, aged 29, the circle of people I was imitating (modelling, if you like) had expanded to various London-based nationalities of accomplished, ambitious people. And they all seemed obsessed with the City.

Picking just one example: How about the Greek guy who, upon completing his PhD, had transitioned right into an investment banking job at Lehman Brothers (now defunct), and three years later had bought two brand-new flats (which he was renting out)? He was two years younger than me.

The people who were coming to our campus (to sell their companies to us) were all top people. They might have studied Geography, or Literature, but they all were academically distinguished, one way or another. It showed; you could tell. They spoke of how hard they worked and how you have to be ready to roll with the punches, but that they were working with the best people in the world. The kinds of things they did in their spare time were: sky-diving, mountain-climbing, or wind-surfing. They never talked about their salaries, of course.

I heard through a friend that he had wanted to buy one of the new flats that arose like mushrooms throughout London ('new developments') only to find that all the flats had already gone. He'd arrived at 9am. Others were there at 8am. Everyone was paying in cash.

Close friends referred me to and other career-building sites, packed with insider tips, interview preps, etc. I started studying John Hull's "Futures, Options and Derivatives" - considered 101 City. Black-Scholes model and all that.

Fundamentally, a lot of what goes on in the City, and the recent Hedge Fund fad, is speculation. It is dressed-up, mathematically-cool betting. You are trading on other people's trading. Some fools, some schmucks, really were buying and selling goods (currency, oil, metal, financial assets, etc); but you, you betted on them. I bet that schmuck makes a 5 mil loss on that gold transaction; I am putting 2 grand on it.

Despite my academic abilities, and the smarts I supposedly possessed, much to the chagrin of my parents, I craved and desired to be part of that world. My father pronounced me morally bankrupt.

Being Muslim, I felt torn about the desires I had. Muslim teachings are against interest-based loans. They are against betting and gambling. The spirit of Muslim teachings is "do not exploit your fellow man", and "trade things, not money". Still, I remember justifying my interest to work in the City to an old friend thus: "You need to get inside the system to beat the system."

Well, the system beat me. All my interviews went nowhere. For some reason, God did not want me to be part of this "system". It has left an indelible mark of defeat on me. Yet I have to trust in God and believe that He wanted better things for me.

But this struggle, this conflict is not over. Right now, still, there are thousands of people carrying on with speculation. It is called the money markets. It is called trading. Go F yourself.

Update on 9 Feb 2009

George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, called for a fundamental change to bankers’ pay. “The party is over for the banks. You can’t go on paying yourselves 20 times what a heart surgeon earns. That whole culture has to come to an end. I think the bankers, and indeed the Government, have to understand you can’t just reflate the balloon that burst,” he said.

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Monday, 19 January 2009

The air is full with New Year resolutions

A friend attends a self-help seminar. He tells me, "Write your top 10 goals and put them up on the wall so you can read them everyday"; I neglect to tell him I used to have a piece of paper on my wall that said in big, inelegant handwriting: "Finish PhD by June". I finished it four years later.

"He made us write the 10 goals and then asked which would we like to achieve in the next 24 hours. The one you pick, that one, that is your priority, focus on it exclusively. But it is so hard. Distractions!"

"Yeah, check the blonde that just passed."

"I know, I was wiggling my eyebrows, didn't you see?"

"I thought you were emphasising priority."

I am back from Cairo - where I had a slow internet connection via timed sessions at cafes - to my London flat with its decent, untimed bandwidth. In Cairo, my life was structured around my parents' routines. My sisters, relatives and friends gave me no scope for solid blocks of time.

Now I am back to uninterrupted lengths. I don't have to handle drop-ins by my dad wanting to chat, or my mum eager to find out "just exactly what are you doing". I can sit at the computer for hours on end. Unsurprisingly, I find the lack of structure unnerving. I end up getting deluged.

I start my internet check-in with clear goals: reply to Kristof, write a tweet about that mentoring thing, and check my email. Ten minutes in, I'm a zombied-out druggie: "Who is that Chelsy Sullenberger again? I wonder what they're saying about her on twitter."

Five hours later, totally drained, I realise I have not done any of my goals.

Of course, I should learn. Add another goal to the list. "Waste day on internet": tick.

Seth Godin tells me that if the marketplace isn’t talking about me, there’s a reason. I'm boring. I need to be remarkable. But remarkable costs time and money and a willingness to be wrong.

Yeah Seth, and so does ordering something off a menu. The next time I take a chance on an expensive item off the menu, I'll call myself remarkable.

Embryonic ideas belong in a personal diary, or in a discussion forum;
much as they seem ours, they are just thoughts fused out of daily events.

Fully-formed ideas are truly ours; we did the due diligence on them.
If I can’t differentiate between the early-life and fully-formed ideas,
others will have to do that for me; and they can be quite moody.

I glance at the title of Chris Brogan's post: "Take Charge of your Career" and I am already turned off. Dude, honestly, show me someone who wants to hate his job, make less money, and have no clue what to do next?

Turns out the post is a book recommendation. Great. I overcome mental obstacles to read the post, only for Chris to add another to-do to my list.

Chris Brogan's "Cultivating a Writing Habit" nails it. He writes with so much ease, he actually writes too much. The guy has been writing all his life: he got writing awards at high school, won a spot at a writers' convention at college, plus he is an avid reader. He says, "Shipping News taught me brevity. Fight Club taught me how not to pull a punch. Slapboxing with Jesus taught me how to really pull raw emotions out of the air. Does this help my nonfiction writing? You bet it does."

Helps it too much, Chris.

Chris Brogan publishes several tweets and at least one blog post, daily. Each loaded with several ideas - embryonic ones.

An argument for NOT cultivating a writing habit!

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Thursday, 15 January 2009

Visions of Step Pyramids

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Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Cairo London. London Cairo.

* Before leaving Cairo, I sent my stuff to a 'recommended' dry cleaners and dropped some shirts at the ironing man. I arrive in London to find the dry cleaners have done a shoddy job (they might have worsened the condition of my clothes than improved them), plus my white shirt is missing its collar button (and the ironing man did not bother to tell me). My first instinct is to do like everybody in Egypt does: blame the country and its shoddy citizens. And I just have.

(I know, I know, it happens all across the world.)

* As if to compensate for the last time I flew out of Cairo Airport, my passage through the airport this time was very smooth and quick. I wished Egypt was like that all the time. Catching some "quiet time" in the airport's departure area, overlooking a wonderfully bright, afternoon-lit expanse of golden-coloured runways, arrays of apartment-blocks filling the horizon a safe distance away, I could almost retrieve the lovely Cairo of my parents' and grandparents' time. The food area on level three is nothing special, but sitting, musing, and doing nothing to the cool 1950s jazz put me in a good place.

* On the BMI flight from Cairo to London, they had placed a copy of the Daily Mail (oh what a wonderful tabloid) on each seat. The first three pages were coverage of the story of a baby born two days after her mother had died. Doctors had kept the mother's heart working even after she went brain-dead - so they could rescue the baby. The father is Egyptian, the late mother was English. What was God telling us?

* I attended my university's graduation ceremony - an event to celebrate the graduation of students of the 2007/2008 academic year. At the Barbican - a distinguished venue by all standards, the auditorium accommodates at least 1000, with hundreds of people in the balcony. They played classical music as we, staff, marched up to the stage to our designated seats.

The first time I attended the event, I was awed: I was nervous and looked only at the floor. Things change! For the past couple of years I have trodden up and down the aisle imagining the audience's polite applause was all for me - because I deserve it.

Our job at these functions is to clap, for almost 90 minutes. You get into a rhythm. "FirstName LastName" - clap, clap, clap - watch as they walk past - "Anothername Anothersurname" - clap, clap, clap, repeat a couple hundred times.

I tried to think whether one could tell anything about the character of a person the way they walked across the stage, after they've received their award and the audience's eyes had moved on to the next person. Could I tell the fake, the self-absorbed, the warm-hearted, the genuine, ... just by the way they walked? Because it is interesting: a student who never cracked a smile all year, now walks with the most genuine, big smile across her face like she was a little child, like it is so easy to please her. Soon, she will be someone's wife and find her husband unsatisfactory in so many ways, soon she will be a mother with very definite views on how she wants to raise her children.

The answer is no. You can't tell anything. Most people looked down. They took the award, they took a step or two, realised the moment was finished and they just had to walk across the stage and down the stairs, and they looked down. 80% of them did that. Only a few people did not look down at all. Only one or two strutting dudes dared looked at the audience and whip it up.

After this inspired study, you might be surprised to learn that when it was time for us to leave the stage (at the end of the ceremony), I found myself looking down most of the way from my seat to the exit.

* This year's graduation speech was short and uninspiring. Last year's - by the sponsor of the Ubuntu distribution of the free operating system Linux - was funny and inspiring, and left most staff devastated. 34 year old Mark Shuttleworth is worth about $500m.

* I run into a colleague at the graduation ceremony. She asks after me. I say I am fine. She searches a bit more. I can't find more to say. She tells me I look well, really well. "Happy and contented."

"Happy and contented? That's a tall order," I tell her.

She laughs. There are a few seconds of pause.

We say goodbye and go our separate ways.

Then it occurs to me that I hardly said anything nice to her. Like what clear, bright blue eyes she has.

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From an internet cafe to a living room in Gaza

At the internet cafe I used during my final day in Cairo, there was a racket. It's always a racket in there. Some teenagers yelling obscenities at each other while playing shoot'em-up games. A Somali shouting into his skype. But this time it was a grandmother and grandfather going wild via webcam to their family members in Gaza.

My instinct was to tell them to shut up - which never works, because the whole place looks at me like I am a little weird. So, I set my laptop up and sat in my usual corner, right next to them, and said nothing.

The grandmother was telling her grandchildren to raise their faces so she can see them better, she was sending kisses, praising their beauty, saying all manner of love-words to them. "Here is your grandpa," she told them after about five minutes of sheer emotion. The grandpa sat in front of the webcam and started giggling at his grandchildren; pure affection.

"Oh look, its the apple of my eye, Nadia. Say hello to Nadia," she told him. "Nadia, you beauty, you full moon, may God bring us together again. Keep safe darling always forever," he said.

Grandma took the headset. "Talal, my lovely darling boy. You are a man. Never be afraid. If you hear bombing, just hit your pillow. But don't be afraid. Do you hear me? You must resist and be patient. This evil will come to an end, and God will take care of you."

As grandma carried on talking, a few young men congregated around grandpa to ask after the family in Gaza. He started giving a small lecture on the conflict. Then his wife summoned him to the phone, and she went around the place apologising.

"I am sorry we've been so loud, I'm sorry we disturbed your peace," she told me.

"May God give you strength," I said.

"Thank you son, may God never show you days like these," she told me.

They ended the call with a storm of kisses and goodbyes.

The guy who manages the internet cafe got into conversation with grandpa, and soon they had fired up a map of Palestine/Israel. The guy was asking lots of questions and grandpa was patiently sharing with him.

"I, me, I wasn't a Gaza native. I was born in a place they call Askalon now. But my family moved to Gaza in 1948. This is where we've been since, but I myself am not really Gazan. Most Gazans are not from Gaza, they sought refuge there when Israel was declared."

"Gaza is not the West Bank, or is it?" asked the internet cafe guy.

"No, no, let me show you."

"But people say the Jews were good, like, they were ordinary people when they lived amongst us."

"Yes, when they lived amongst us they were fine," said grandpa.

"People say they were honest. If he gave you his word, he meant it," said the guy.

"In business, yes. In business, they are honest. But outside business, they're ho ho ho."

"Jews," said the guy.

"Look at what the Zionists did to us," said grandpa.

As I was leaving, the internet cafe guy told me - one Egyptian to another: "this conflict, you know, it's complex, so much detail, really complicated."

"No kidding!" I replied.

Grandpa was now chatting with two young women who had sought to show sympathy with him and his wife.

"May God strengthen you," I said to him by way of farewell.

"Thank you, son. Listen, Abdel-Nasser, you heard of him, right?" he asked.

"Of course," I said.

"You weren't even born, so you wouldn't know, but me, I was 14 in 1952, and I remember," he said as he pulled my jacket closer around my shoulders and straightened my shirt collar. He had green eyes, a red face, and a kind disposition. He smelt of either old cologne or old age. One eye was wide, looking straight at me, the other seemed tired. Yes, he smelt of old age.

"Nasser was surrounded in Faluga by the Israelis in 1948. And when his army unit was released, they went to Gaza, which is near Faluga. And from there back to Egypt. And Nasser said that it was after the siege of Faluga that he and his army fellows decided to launch the 1952 coup [disposing of King Farouk and leading to a full-blow revolution that transformed Egypt into a republic]. So you see, your 1952 revolution in Egypt is linked to Gaza," he said.

"That is true," I said and wished him goodnight.

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Friday, 9 January 2009

Watching old video clips with family

Everyone expressed surprise at the three-year old kid. How differently my nephew looks and talks today! My sister commented on her son: "He was lovely with that round face, I wish he'd eat more". We started remembering the boy's catch-phrases and idiosyncratic pronunciations from April 2004. He'd say a word on tape the funny way he used to, and everyone would remember.

The camera panned to my sister's husband (the boy's father) and it was obvious: he had aged. Back then, he looked a guy in his twenties. Now he has a rash of white hair and looks 'thirties'.

My sisters were surprised at how much weight they carried around back then. My parents had lost weight too, but we all took it well. In their old age, they have to lose weight.

Then I put on the "Jul 02" tape and caught a glimpse of my dad, the healthy, rotund, expressive man he is. I was surprised; he now looks skinnier and more frail. Everyone seemed to think I should fast-forward because it would hurt him. But my dad was a picture of contentment: "What would not please me about looking healthy and good?"

My mother hadn't changed very much. Sure, her face was younger, and she was fatter, but it didn't strike us as a big difference.

I had recorded on the tape various segments from our daily lives. In one clip, while the living room TV played to no one, I panned around the room zooming on various things - slices of cake left on the table, my parent's wedding photo ... In outdoor clips, I took in the settings for minutes on end. They said they were bored. My youngest sister said that whatever the merits of my filming, I was the only one to appreciate it - so perhaps I can fast-forward?

My clips were greeted with silence. Then my mother led the charge: "Hamada has aged!" Then everyone joined in. "Oh my God, he had hair!" "He was thinner and so much younger." My dad teased me: "Everyone's aged a little, but Ahmed, I would say 40 years at least."

I couldn't see that much of a difference. But I guess I was in the minority on that one too.

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Thursday, 8 January 2009

The solution to the Gaza situation

The bombing of Gaza by Israel, in retaliation for Hamas's rocket attacks, is a clear indicator of the decay of the Arab world. We watch wall-to-wall coverage on Al-Jazeera - complete with disfigured bodies, dead babies, and wailing men and women - but we do nothing. Our leaders condemn and deplore, and that's about it.

President Mubarak had to acknowledge the public's sentiments. A press interview was arranged last week with Egyptian TV news crews. He spoke informally, complete with the odd hint of fellaheen phrasing (reflecting his parents' peasant background). He told the Egyptian public that while he deplored the Israeli attacks, we should remember that Hamas was an intransigent party. The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza was not under independent Egyptian control, he said. It was governed by a treaty involving EU, US, Israeli, as well as Egyptian partners. "Gaza is occupied territory. I do not deal only with Hamas, I deal with the occupiers of Gaza - the Israelis." He reminded us of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian lives lost in the conflict with Israel since 1948. "No one can say we have not sacrificed," he said.

Few people watched - because our president has lost so much credibility over the years - but those who did watch were torn. I would estimate that about half fell for the charm of his Egyptian dialect, and his "I am a responsible deliberator" tone. Inter-Arab rivalries are common and many Egyptians do not feel motivated to sacrifice for other Arabs whom they feel are not grateful enough.

But the other half of the Egyptian public spat at the TV. They yelled "liar", "traitor" and many other insults over their president's pronouncements. How could we abandon our Palestinian brethren in this cold-blooded manner? Why aren't we at least kicking out the Israeli ambassador, stopping our gas supplies to Israel, opening the Rafah crossing unconditionally?

Everybody knows the answer. We have a government that is scared of its people. It sees its security in limiting its own people's freedoms; not in standing up for them. Particularly not when nuclear-armed Israel is involved, this charmed child of the USA and the rich EU countries.

No one is calling for all-out war with Israel. But the government's spokespeople are hinting that the minute we annoy Israel, we can kiss our infrastructure goodbye. All the amenities we enjoy will be bombed. Our economy will straitjacketed by the West. And we will be issued membership with the Axis of Evil the day after.

It's horrible.

But I do not blame my people and my government alone. I blame the powerful, rich West and its indulgence of Israel. When will they get it? You cannot, repeat can not, impose a foreign presence on other people. Israel is foreign presence in the midst of Arabs and Muslims. Until it apologises sincerely and seeks to genuinely connect with those peoples that it grabbed the lands of, it will forever be unacceptable to them. No amount of killing, bombing, and destroying will change that.

What is saddening is that a lot of smart people in Israel already know that.

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The difference between Arabic and English

I should not be writing this to you. You should not be reading this. I should not want to write to you in English; I should be writing in Arabic. I am writing in your language, when I should be writing in mine.

In Arabic, morals and values come naturally. The Arabic voice is a voice of principle and emotion. The English voice is a voice of self-fulfillment and individual experience.

Still, my Arabic is inside my English. You can find it in all those "should"s of my first paragraph.

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Sunday, 4 January 2009

The rotten state of Egypt

Robert Fisk summarises bluntly the situation in Egypt (and its Gaza connections). He speaks the way Egyptians speak to each other. Fisk is a little too sweeping (he is more of a Lebanon expert than an Egypt one), but he hits the nail on the head. His closing paragraph says it all:

Egypt's malaise is in many ways as dark as that of the Palestinians. Its impotence in the face of Gaza's suffering is a symbol of its own political sickness.

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Saturday, 3 January 2009

Counter-arguments against the existence of widespread racism in Egypt

-- Part 3 of my response to Mona El-Tahawy's Arab World's Racism post. See my Are you racist? earlier post.

Mona El-Tahawy says that Racism is the Arab world's dirty secret. On her side, stand pronouncements by newspaper editor Abdel-Bari Atwan who, on Obama's election, said Obama would be referred to as an 'abd' [slave] in some parts of the Arab world. Indeed, the witness accounts of people who commented on Mona's blog post indicate that, in Egypt for example, southern or Darfurian Sudanese people (pure Black Africans) are seen as inferior outsiders.

There are counter-arguments against the existence of widespread racism. The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s mother was Sudanese (daughter, herself, of a man from Central African Republic). Sadat was quite dark. I have never heard anyone say "how can that dark man rule Egypt!" Indeed, many people revere Sadat as a great Egyptian nationalist.

Many Egyptians are dark, "black" by European standards. The Nuba region - which has been Egyptian territory for millenia - is populated by quite dark people. Nubians who have migrated to northern parts of Egypt have married other Egyptians with ease. Perhaps there might be early questions when a Nubian proposes to (say) a Cairo family as to the merits of giving their daughter to a man who comes from a social group that is widely perceived as poor and without advantages. But have a look around Egypt and you will see tens of thousands of families who took that leap of faith.

If we're going to be sticklers on prejudice, why should we not discuss the strong bias against the "fellaheen" (peasant farmers) amongst middle-class Egyptians. Why, some fellaheen women are blonde, blue-eyed but would never stand a chance against a middle-class, educated, dark Cairene. "Marry your daughter to a crocodile but not to a fallah." How's that for bias?

Mona brings up Egyptian bias against Darfurian Sudanese (causing deaths at the makeshift refugee camp, which Egypt's notoriously aggressive authorities gave ample warning to before they stormed). The BBC news article that reported on the story commented that the Sudanese refugees should not have expected hospitality in a country with 30% unemployment (if not more).

And how about Sudanese-Sudanese bias? Surely the Darfur conflict would not have come about had there not been intra-Sudanese issues! Mona mentions the shooting of Darfurians at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Recent events show that Egyptian border police has instructions to shoot at any unauthorised movements - at Palestinians even, not just Darfurians.

My personal experience shows that there is _some_ casual disregard for non-Egyptians who are perceived to belong to the less powerful of the world: Black Africans, Indians, and indeed other Arabs. Egyptians _may_ differentiate between themselves and others in an unpleasant manner. The discrimination is not only a black/white thing; you find Palestinians, Saudis, etc, also being discriminated against. Whereas many Egyptians will treat “white” people favourably, they do not hesitate to distinguish between “them” and “us”.

I was once walking down the road with my ex-fiance (who was white) in Cairo, and two girls of about 10 started bad-mouthing my companion (in Arabic). They were saying things like: “Yeah so what, you have blue eyes”, or “What, are you too good to cover up?”, etc. Essentially pointing out differences in a negative way. Does this mean Egyptians are racists? Does this mean Egyptians dislike white people? I think it reflects those kids' mothers' fear of the allure of white women to their men.

But there is something very important here: Egyptians do not treat each other well. They are constantly judging and discriminating against each other. The way you dress, the way you talk, what you drive, who you know, … these are all direct factors in how easily you live your life in Egypt.

My sister (who wears higab) was once standing in line at a nice bakery in Medinet Nasr, only to notice that an un-higabed Egyptian woman looking rather elegant got preferential treatment by the attendants. What annoyed my sister was the attendants did not even respond to her queries. They served the supposedly-elegant woman, got her out of the way, and then served “the rest of them”.

Many Egyptians are passed over, ignored, etc, on a daily basis. If you’re wearing a 3emma (the traditional hat of fellaheen) in Cairo, some people will automatically assume you unimportant. If you’re a se3eedi (traditional southerner), some people will tease and harass you mercilessly. (I once saw a se3eedi worker get into a fight with Cairene workers who were making fun of him - their boss quickly stopped the nonsense.)

Now, let’s flip it another way. I grew up in Nigeria. Was this Egyptian kid picked on, bullied, smelt, pinched, envied, looked down on, etc? Oh, yes sir! As a kid, I was routinely given lectures about “Black Power”. I was picked on and shoved around regularly. Derogatory comments on my skin colour were made all the time.

It is really important to confront the “bad side” of this human nature of ours: make sure it is clarified as wrong and immoral. But WHY do Egyptians not respect each other, why do they deal with each other as if some are “welad naas” and some are “welad kalb”? This - to me - is the root of the problem. If we can get Egyptians to respect each other and treat each other equally, discrimination against foreigners would fall by the wayside.

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Friday, 2 January 2009

W approves of the Israeli shelling of Gaza

Understanding others and sympathising with them is hard for most of us. It would be a lot easier if we just did not sympathise with others; we tried _not_ to understand other people's point of view; we decided with certainty that "our's" and "our side's" worldview is the right worldview. Ignore and scorn all others; feel good about ourselves; feeling torn is for losers!

How about that W: the president of the United States for a couple more weeks! A month ago, I saw a tweet (a twitter message) about GWB being at an international conference and avoiding eye contact with the other leaders. They were trying not to shake hands with him. There was a piece in the NYT the week after Obama won demanding W resign. "Let's have Barack already!"

I watched "W (Dubya)" - the movie by Oliver Stone. I enjoyed that movie a lot. The actors were good and the end sequence was artistic and touching, almost tragic. Dubya is portrayed as a lover-of-life, a man who partied a lot, drank a lot, ran a lot. The actor playing Dubya hit on a really nice device to convey W's personality: eating.

Almost through the whole of the film, Dubya is munching on something. I thought the device nailed the man. Always enjoying himself, doing something else while talking to you. Whatever you and him maybe talking about is not more important than eating or drinking or going all touchy-feely on you. You can see it as disrespect, but it brings a dynamism to his character. It worked on Laura! In the scene that they first met, he does not stop munching on his burger, or taking swigs of some drink.

The film mines an often-mentioned theme: W's relationship with his father. GHWB (the father) excelled at school and in sport, he was decorated for his military service, was an elected member of Congress, was ambassador to China and the UN, was director of the CIA, was Vice-President, and then President. His mother, Barbara, while a strong personality of her own, deferred to her obviously impressive husband.

W on the other hand, was never good at his studies, could never hack it as a star sportsman at school, and more or less stumbled through his twenties and thirties. His father (whom he calls "poppy" and occasionally "sir") was clearly an overpowering presence in his life. He was clearly under his shadow. More than that, Jeb, the younger brother, soon became his parents' pick for successor to Bush Snr - which must have hurt W.

And to Dubya's credit, he found his way. He picked a good match in Laura, sorted his drinking problems, found God, stumbled through a few career crashes until he found the right calling, and, having learnt from his father's loss against Clinton, amazed his family by running for Governor of Texas and winning.

The only thing is: he should not have run for president. And he should not have won. He was not qualified to be president.

It says a lot about the corruption of the US - corruption in an embedded, seeping-out-of-every-pore sense - that he ran for and became president. His father, the man who had criticised him many times, now worked the phones like a suave marketing man selling an exclusive, high-end product - his son.

And it worked!

The repercussions are tragic.

The obvious, direct corruption found amongst the poorer people of the world is inconsequential to most other citizens of the world. The corrupt people are the ones who pay its price. But the corruption of the wealthy and powerful has deep, deep impact. It leaves scars that need generations to heal - around the world.

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