Monday, 25 October 2010

Academic Idol

"Professor Johannsen's paper was zippy.  It had robust vocabulary and I almost felt that I could dance to it.  I would give it a 7."

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Saturday, 11 September 2010

Safety First - a fairy tale

Once upon a time there was a Prince who lived in a crowded land where things were not always as he desired and he often felt he was powerless, even as Prince, to change things. He learnt to make do; he shared the streets with the hordes of the masses, and let himself be hemmed in and cut-off like everybody else. For, whereas he knew that everybody loved and respected him (once they recognised him), he also knew that the people carried too many burdens and could hardly have a minute to themselves. They did not mean him any personal offence.

One day, the Prince was visited by a cousin, who was Prince in another land where far fewer people lived and everybody drove four-by-four Toyotas. As a gesture of hospitality, our Prince gave full use of his own Royal Car to the visiting prince. But when it was time for the visiting prince to leave, he told our prince something that brought consternation to his face. The visiting prince said the car tyres were not as they should be; they had indentations and little bulges in them, and although the treads were far from being worn out, the cousin insisted that no man in his land would drive a car with such tyres. “Safety first,” said the cousin prince.

Well, our Prince mulled this matter for days and days, and then one day, he arose and called in his assistants and instructed them to change the tyres. Being citizens of the land, the assistants were themselves a very distracted lot. “Tyres? What tyres, Sire?” “Oh the Royal Tyres – but what on earth is wrong with them, Sire? They’re perfect, there’s nothing wrong with them.”

And the assistants scoffed when the Prince told them that he would no longer tolerate for himself, nor for his people – if he could get them to pay any attention to him instead of walking around looking down all the time – bad tyres. The tyres have 60K of mileage on them, that’s more than enough wear and tear, he said. “But Sire, people up and down the land drive with tyres 90 thousand kilometers old. This change would send the wrong message to the people. They might think their Prince a wuss.”

But the Prince would have none of it. Change the tyres they did. The Prince himself supervised the purchase and installation of two tyres from the land of Dunlop – two, not all four, for he had to acquiesce to at least some of his assistants’ nags.

But while the new tyres were being fitted, the fitting people could not hide their smiles. They showed the Prince the state of his older tyres, barely managing to hide their glee. For the old tyres were really in not that bad a condition. “Of course, Sire would not want to take chance on his safety should Sire be driving recklessly at very high speed, now would Sire,” they said, with glints in their eyes.

The Prince, being Prince of the land, took all this in good humour and tipped them lavishly. “Other-worldy, is the Prince,” they nodded to each other as he drove away, barely managing to conceal their superiority.

For a whole week, the Prince drove up and down the land with four excellent tyres, two of which were so perfect and new, he did not want to dirty them with the earth of his land; for the Prince knew the state of his land and its people, and he secretly despised them all; but still, he loved them – where else could he be Prince.

One morning though, the Prince arose to find a weak tyre. It was not completely flat, but it was suspiciously low. And it was one of the new ones. So, he rushed off to order the tyres filled up with air properly. The tyre-pressure assistant was respectful and all-so-keen to show usefulness to the Prince, and so when the Prince had tipped him, he decided to be that extra bit useful and ran off to get some soapy water. He poured the soapy water on the tyre that had been low and then beckoned the Prince to come and see.

There, right in front of his eyes, were two holes blowing bubbles in the soapy water. The prince could not believe it. At first, he thought the tyre-pressure man had set him up, for the tyre pressure man, as if being given directions by the gods, produced a piece of glass that he claimed was lodged at the site of the bigger hole. Might it be that the man always has a shard of glass in his pocket to produce at the site of a hole, so as to convince a wavering customer, wondered the Prince?

“Not to worry, your royal highness. I can fix it,” said the tyre-pressure man. He ran in and came back with a puncture-repair kit. “I’ll just stick a plug in. You will be back on the road in no time, Sire, with perfect tyres again.”

But the prince refused to repair the tyres. He unleashed a wrath of fury against the land of Dunlop, against the merchants who had sold him the Dunlop tyres of ill-fortune, and against his land and his people.

“You don’t want to drive off with a leaking tyre, do you Sire?” said the tyre-pressure man as if the Prince’s fury was only a passing grey cloud that would soon be impossible to find.
But the Prince was serious; he left his land and emigrated to the land of his cousin, where he became a commoner and got himself a four-by-four Toyota like everybody else. One day, while visiting his cousin at his palace, he inspected the state of the Royal Tyres. And do you know what, they had indentations and bulges.

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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

On the Run

"On the Run" shop
Mobil gas station
Cairo Ring Road
Near Mirage City

I've parked my car and am getting out. Someone pulls up and parks to my right. He flings his door open and it hits my car.

"Sorry, I do apologise. Wasn't paying attention," he says. It's a young voice, sounding husky and well-brought-up.

I am about to give him a cutting look, then I notice he is wearing police uniform (all whites) and the trademark Ray-Bans.

"Fine. Okay," I say.

By the time I am walking into the shop, he is coming towards the entrance. An attendant greets him, the other attendant calls out after him: "Hope you had a pleasant journey sir."

"Hooda! [Nickname for Mahmoud.] All good?" He acknowledges his fans. His pistol is in the holder, hanging off his belt, and he is sauntering into the shop.

Inside the shop, at the espresso counter, the guy behind the machine says: "Sire Kareem, the usual for you sir?"

"Yeah ..." he oozes, John-Wayne-like.

"I waited for you yesterday Kareem Pasha [a bigging-up] for two hours, but then I had to go," says the espresso guy.

"Dude, I am so tired, I've literally just rolled out of bed. I'm not seeing straight. I need that espresso pronto. I swear to god, I was driving dazed just now," the cop says.

"Coming right up, [King] Kareem," the counter guy says. [The tone is deferential.]

"Naah, I couldn't come in yesterday to see the stuff you told me about. We were ON DUTY." the cop says.

"God give you strength, sir. No problem, just let me know when you want to have a look at the stuff, and I will bring it over from the hotel," the espresso guy says.

Whereas the cop had paid for some food at the main counter, something told me he was not going to pay for his coffee. And sure enough he didn't.

"Everything the way I like it, eh? Sugar, everything?" the cop says.

"Of course, yeah," the guy says. But he actually had not put any sugar - it is not part of his job. He was just deferentially agreeing, letting the cop correct the shortcoming himself later. [This is a common attitude in Egypt: people do not like to say no, they will lie and say yes, just so as not to disappoint you. You can fix it yourself later, they reason.]

The cop, Ray-Bans still on, goes off to stand at one of the waist-height tables. He lights up a ciggie, gets on the mobile to natter, and starts sipping his coffee. He notices the lack of sugar and casually reaches out for a pack. He cuts quite a handsome figure against the bright blue skies behind him. He certainly has presence.

Employees from the shop pass him, and everyone throws a smile or a hello. He acknowledges them with small nods.

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Thursday, 13 May 2010

It's all written

I wrote this on 5th April but forgot to post it.

The roads are empty because of a run of four days of holiday (Egyptian Christian Orthodox hols and "Smelling the Breeze" Day). We're in a bubble of good weather here in Cairo, transitioning from winter to summer. Soon, I will be complaining about 40C days and constant sweating. But for now, it is under 30C by day, and over 15C by night.

Driving around parts of Heliopolis and Medinet Nasr, I cannot believe how charming this city can be. Just remove people.

This sort of holiday begs for visits to Sharm El Sheikh or Ein Sokhna (both by the Red Sea). But everything is full-up; I should have booked a month ago. I have been forced to stay in Cairo, without the daily work routine, and with a pile of things to do.

Still, it is nice to be out and about. Last Saturday, a distant family relative died. In accordance with convention, a member from my family should have gone to her burial. But my dad was at the clinic together with my mother. Should I go?

My mother said: "Well, it is a national holiday so there is no at-work excuse and our family should be represented, so you should go." I got a little upset and said that I don't know the way to the burial site, am not a close relative anyway, etc. My kind mother told me to leave it and not bother.

Eventually guilt got the better of me and I did go. Grandma Kareema (my sister's mother-in-law's mother) had always been very sweet to me. "He's prettier than either of his sisters!"

What a lovely drive it was to 6th October city. The sun was bright and the colours vivid. Roads that would normally take half an hour to pass through, I shot through like a bullet. I passed patches of countryside green by the highway; the trafficmen had switched to their white uniforms - everything was fresh.

The mosque at which Grandma Kareema's funeral prayers were held was big and impressive: Sheikh Al-Hosari Mosque. I greeted my sister's husband, who is Grandma Kareema's grandchild, and went off to do my wodoo' (ritual wash).

The 'asr prayers were spritually nourishing - perhaps because of the newness of the whole experience, perhaps because of my affection for Grandma Kareema. I was "there" during prayer, not away on my usual going-through-the-motions reveries. I reconnected - for fleeting seconds here and there - with young me, more faithful, more pious and devout. After 'asr prayers, the imam said we would offer the Prayer for the Dead.

People - volunteers, all of them - brought forward Grandma Kareema's coffin and placed it in front of the 200-odd congregation (people who just happened to be in the mosque to do their 'asr prayers). There was also another coffin, a dead man; his coffin was placed near that of Grandma Kareema's. Then we did the Prayer for the Dead.

Afterwards, men - random, unbidden volunteers - carried the coffin to the minibus where it would be transported to the graveyards. Men would run from afar just to carry the coffin a little of the way, mentioning God's name and saying personal, spiritual things that no one else really listened to.

I went with two mourners I had never met. We went in the beat-up Fiat 128 of one of them, then we switched to a cool 1970s Mercedes belonging to the other guy. Both men, in their mid to late forties, lit up ciggies and discussed whom they'd spotted and who didn't come. I felt very much at ease with these strangers.

One of them, Khaled, had a full head of gray hair. "Mummy wanted to come but I told her don't worry about it," he said. Something funny about a grown man with a distinguished mane of gray talking about "mummy". The other man, Tarek, did not have a speck of dust or grime on his black shoes.

"What do you do, Ahmed?" Khaled said.

"I work at university," I said.

"Yeah? Like you're doing a masters or something?" he said.

I mentioned a relative of theirs who had died in a car accident. Tarek told me that had I seen how unscathed his car was, I would have thought: "He must have survived. But poor Ahmed died instantly."

"Yes," I said.

"But then I had an accident, which if you had seen the state of my car, you would have said the driver must have died horribly, and here I am, I survived. Times. Everything has a time. It's all written," Tarek said.

We arrived at the burial site. The entire area was narrow dirt-roads with small buildings (graves) lining each side. The gravekeeper laid out plastic chairs for us and he a couple of helpers dug up the "underground room" where members of the Wardani family are buried and motioned for the coffin to come up. We hoisted it up. Everyone was mouthing prayers and Qur'anic verses.

At some point, the cover of the coffin fell off and I could see Grandma Kareema's corpse fully wrapped in crisp pink-on-white sheets, beautifully fragrant. The keepers got the corpse out and went down into the chamber with it. They took about 15 minutes down there.

I asked what they were doing. Someone said: "They're tidying up. Checking after the remains of the others, and finding a place for her."

We sat on the dark brown plastic chairs, surrounded by the golden colours of desert: the colour of the land, the walls of the graves, of the dust, of everything.

Everybody fell silent, looking down.

I noticed Tarek's shoes again. How can he walk through this sand and still have spotless shoes! He had his hands pressed together, at chest level, a little in front, fingers interlocking and playing with each other; it made him look very contemplative. Every now and then, he cleared his throat.

Someone's mobile rang. He got up and quickly silenced it, but took the call, walking away.

A donkey - I don't know what it was doing there - blew wind through its lips, making a loud, disrespectful noise.

Grandma Kareema's daughter, Aunt Mona, was in a state. She sat inside the grave-building, by the underground chamber, sobbing. I turned around to an older mother and her daughter and said: "Aunt Mona is very affected."

The mother-daughter pair looked at me like I was mental: "It's her mother who just died."

The gravekeeper now put the stones back and shut the underground chamber. They started shovelling earth on top of the stones, completely hiding them.

It was now time to leave.

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Thursday, 6 May 2010

When visuals strike

I am driving around Cairo and I notice this red bus that is of exactly the same type as the (new) red busses serving London. It even has the same iconic drawing on the side, just behind the driver (imported from the same company, I bet). For a second, my brain merges Cairo with London, superimposing our streets on theirs. But another part of my brain rejects the image. I like them separate.

Another such incident occurred a half hour ago. I have just parked, I open the door and there's a light breeze to relieve my heat. I have Four Tet's remix of "Roads Become Rivers, Rivers Become Oceans" by Rothko on my car system. Perfect music for a hot, 40C day and for me to spot two lizards climbing a wall. They're not exactly the same type of lizards I grew up with in northern Nigeria, but close enough to cause a superimposition, a type of dislocation.

Somewhere out there, everything is still the same.

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Mamma Mia!

One of my favourite 30 Rock scenes. End of episode 21, series 3. Delicious.

Jack Donaghy is a fictitious head of NBC who meets his biological father for the first time.

I am Jack Donaghy, Colleen's son. I was born around nine months after that.

Prof Milton Green:
Oh my God. Wait a minute. Is this contest some Mamma Mia thing?

Milton, I'm your son.

Prof Milton Green:
(overcome by joy)
Of course you are. I shoulda known the minute I saw you.
(gets up and embraces him excitedly)

I have a son! A beautiful son!

And I have a dad!

Prof Milton Green:
Fate has brought us together Jack. To open a whole new chapter in my life.

Isn't it amazing!

Prof Milton Green:
You don't know the half of it. I need a kidney.
(yanks Jack into his embrace and hugs him forcefully)

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Saturday, 1 May 2010

Fragments of London

At times, I have strong visuals of London. I remember sunlit roads, or aspects of buildings. Today I happened to remember the approach to a restaurant that my ex-wife and I used to go to almost every weekend. Shepherd's Bush, parking the car, crossing the road, the interior, ... Fragments of visuals from the many scenes that have been imprinted over the years.

I listen to a piece of music and it brings back the spirit of the people who live in London, with all their nationalities. But especially the youthful, trendy variety who made a point of going out to the cool places. Chilled out music, glasses of something or other, cups of coffee, people standing outside pubs talking loudly, puffing cigarettes. There is a certain quality to London's distance: Nobody knows you and nobody wants to, and yet somehow we're all party to the same culture, the same society.

I think of London when I want to go out in Cairo. I find the choice and variety limiting, here. My friends' priorities, their talking-points, ... ugh ... suffocating sometimes. And, even if I did go out in London and come back empty many a time, and lonely too, sometimes seething and bitter at this coldhearted city, still the London I spidered (like google) was a London of ideas, aspirations and endeavours.

Even though age and appearances do matter in the UK, there are lots of 40+ year olds wandering the streets, wearing the same sorts of clothes as the younger people, and enjoying life similarly - with adjustments. But in Cairo, one feels ridiculous if one does not act one's age. I am 38 (still!) and I am constrained already.

London life is indulgent - especially when you earn a good living and have made peace with the indignity of public transport. You tend to have money to be in nice-looking spots, eat out at new restaurants, meet lots of people, dress well, buy books, attend plays, support new acts, hang out, ...

I miss London, but I am sure when I go back it will be the same. Anyone can plug in. In fact, long after I am gone it will still be the same: a hub.

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Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Becoming a nobody and Ahdaf Soueif

I am in agreement with J D Salinger:

I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.

I suppose my appreciation of the Salinger quote is a sign of impending middle-age and my lack of satisfaction with myself: I don't have a "life project".

Or you could say it is wisdom, slowly seeping into my consciousness.  I suppose that in the flatter world of today, where class, culture, race, even nationality, barriers are declining in influence, a world in which we increasingly grow up believing we can be anything, that absolutely anything is possible, I suppose in a world like that we all end up having the same dreams, wanting the same things.  We all want to become millionaires, have big houses and the best amenities, to leave traces, to have influence, to be renowned.

What about that alternative of dying a complete unknown?  Remembered only by a close circle of children, siblings, and friends - and perhaps a few colleagues here and there.  Outside of that circle of, say, 20-odd, no one has ever heard of you and no one ever will.

You lived in a rundown home in an undistinguished neighbourhood, you drove a below-average car, you took the occasional above-average holiday, you went out to ordinary places.  And you were proud, and you felt great.  You lived it: Life.

Ahdaf Soueif (of Map of Love fame) was on Egyptian television tonight (Dream2).  I was surprised when she said that a book that no one reads is a failure.  She said the art of the writer is to make the reader keep reading.  She mentioned several writers who took part in PalFest and she qualified each of the names with how famous, how big their readership is.  She certainly seemed pleased with her million plus readership in Britain alone.

It brought to mind the little chats I had with avantcaire about whether the appreciation of the multitudes is important for art (I think so), or if a niche of ten-odd was sufficient (avantcaire thought so).  Ahdaf Soueif seemed to agree with me.

Yet, because of that little Salinger seed that I mentioned above, that may or may not grow, I was less respectful of her achievement.

FYI: The secret to keep the reader reading - according to Dr Soueif - is Detail.

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Friday, 16 April 2010

Good/Bad/European/NonEuropean/Capped/Regional: IMMIGRATION in the UK

I did something different the other day: I recommended someone go to the USA instead of the UK. A young Egyptian tech guy had asked me about going to the UK for postgraduate studies, and I suggested he think of the States instead. This guys represents the differential between countries. His leaving Egypt is a loss to it, his entering another country will be a gain.

I am becoming more certain about it: the UK is not an immigration country. The British people say they are open and tolerant, but my years of living in the UK tell me that they may say so, but they are in two minds; their heart isn't in it. The faces walking down a typical city street are very mixed, but they do not own the land, and those who do (the 'natives') are unsure of this new state of affairs.

The number one consistent concern of the UK public, according to the polls, is immigration - for years. Under that word is a whole set of issues: jobs, fear, "Britain is a crowded island", the decline of British values, etc.

When the first-ever UK Election debate took place between Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats), what was the first question on? Immigration!

But there was a new twist. The political leaders (except Clegg) made a distinction between European and non-European immigration. It is very tricky stuff. Their words are chosen carefully and I like to think that they personally do not have a racist motive. Yet the fact remains: the distinction was made, in front of nine million viewers on live television.

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Friday, 2 April 2010

The Baradei Buzz

What do I think of the buzz Mohamed ElBaradei has injected into the Egyptian political scene?

ElBaradei has handled well his campaign for change.  He has cast the process as reform of a bad political system, instead of becoming president - which is what some figures wanted.  He has asked for bottom-up support; he wants members of the public to sign petitions, he wants the youth to join his facebook page, he wants grassroots organisations to pop up in support of the Call for Electoral Reform that he has inspired.

He knows that requesting these changes may not cause actual change by 2011 (next election), but it may contribute to long-term change in the country.

Whereas I personally want him for president by 2011, I know it is a rosy scenario.  I do not feel the Egyptian public is completely on-board with shoving the current system out.  The neuroses we as a nation have, due to generations of authoritarian rule, I do not think these can be overcome easily.  Lots of people in Egypt believe everything is orchestrated by hidden powers; they fear the ruthless tactics of the ruling regime; they are used to disorder and callousness, they find it hard to believe in alternatives.

On the other hand, it is clear that a big part of middle-class Egypt feels ElBaradei is the man who can unite the opposition and move Egypt on.  The situation is not surprising; the guy with the least connection to the stale political game is the guy with the best chance (remember Serbia's Kostunica?).  ElBaradei's outsider status, together with his undisputed competence and international stature make him an ideal choice for reformer.

Who is Mohamed ElBaradei?

ElBaradei's father was a distinguished lawyer.  Soon after studying international law at Cairo University, ElBaradei the son joined the Egyptian diplomatic service and was posted abroad.  He eventually obtained a PhD in law from New York University.

At some point later, he was able to join the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA); he relocated to Vienna.  (The IAEA is an international body that promotes peaceful use of nuclear energy.)  ElBaradei rose through the ranks of the IAEA and by 1997 had become its chief, succeeding Hans Blix.

In 2002, Blix and ElBaradei were asked to lead the UN inspectors sent to Iraq to look for WMD.  Whereas Mr Blix tried to manage the US administration's expectations, ElBaradei's report to the UN was unequivocally forthright - something that did him no favours with the George W Bush administration.  So, when it was time to renew his term, the US maneuvered to get him out.  But with the Iraq-WMD debacle in full swing, the world community was determined to snub the USA, and ElBaradei won a second term.

ElBaradei proved a timely choice.  One of his main tasks after 9/11 was to mediate between Iran and the Western powers, and who better to do so than an Egyptian Muslim.  The Iranians were bound to listen more sympathetically - so reasoned the international community.

ElBaradei did not disappoint.  He was able to tell the Iranians that since they singed the Non-Proliferation Agreement, they must abide by its rules, and at the same time he was able to restructure the more extreme or alarmist requests from the USA.  He won all parties' trust and marshalled his organisation's workforce effectively.  Of course, this highly-sensitive task continues after his departure.

In 2005, ElBaradei and the IAEA were the joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.  This was a message from the Swedes; the work of this man and his organisation are of subtle and deep importance to world peace.

In Egypt, despite not being close to the ruling circle, ElBaradei was awarded the Nile Collar.  This bestowal of honour is very rare; the medal is given to only the most distinguished of distinguished Egyptians.  People in Egypt were now fully aware of who he is; he had become a role-model.  His carefully-worded pronouncements, his patience in dealing with the most aggressive of US administrations, the world's appreciation of his competence, all these factors increased his standing.

The international community then extended ElBaradei's term as chief of IAEA a third time - expiring only a few months ago.

What would he do next, asked everyone in Egypt?  Would he be interested in coming back to Egypt (after an absence of about 26 years) and engage in politics?

The Baradei buzz

As the Egyptian opposition press questioned his future plans, ElBaradei dropped a couple of hints that he may explore the political arena in his motherland.  He was so disappointed with the status quo - he said - that he felt it was his duty to do something about it.

As the Egyptian press hounded him further, he stated his position.  Yes, he would be interested in running for president.  But, he suggested a list of conditions that were necessary for anyone wanting to do political work to not feel that their efforts would be in vain.  Foremost amongst these conditions was the rewriting of the constitution so as to drop the very strict rules on presidential candidates (designed by the ruling regime to eliminate serious opposition).

As the situation gathered momentum, and ElBaradei returned to Egypt permanently, he increased his newspaper interviews and appeared in a couple of television interviews.  He now wanted to:
  • reform the constitution,
  • make sure the next presidential election was fair through proper judicial supervision and international monitoring,
  • and also to simplify the election process so that it would be more transparent, less easy-to-rig.
All the opposition figures of Egypt went to him.  Together, they signed an agreement formalising his list of requests.  This move was highly symbolic; it meant that in theory they accepted his leadership - even if he has not been in the country for more than 26 years.

Of course, the pro-government press did not stand by idly.  They booked a return trip of character assassination on his account.  What does this outsider, this career diplomat, this opportunist, know about politics?  How dare he think he can come in and take over?  Has he no respect for the constitution?  Does he think he can manipulate the institutions of government because he has a Nobel Peace Prize?  So he met Condi Rice a couple of times, so what, how is that going to help him reform education or improve healthcare?

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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Words I like

Numchucks, or nunchucks




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Friday, 12 March 2010

Never be a Bridge

In the late forties, the one-time president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš, passed by Cairo on his way to Moscow. A young Egyptian journalist went to interview him at the prestigious Mena House Oberoi hotel.

Beneš (pronounced Benesh) had been leader of Czechoslovakia until Hitler fragmented and invaded his country. President Beneš then went into exile in London and was never able to return to power. But throughout world war II and afterwards, Beneš negotiated with the British, the Soviets and various other powers, hoping to engineer the liberation of Czechoslovakia.

Mohammed Hassanein Heikal - at the time a young reporter for "Egyptian Gazette" - was asked by the much-older Beneš how things were in Egypt. By way of presenting a compressed narrative to the exiled leader, Heikal described Egypt as a "bridge between East and West".

"My son," said the statesman, "don't let your country be a bridge between one thing and another." Beneš then recounted how the founding father of modern Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, had told him that the biggest mistake the country had ever made was to propogate an image of itself as a bridge between Germany and Russia.

"What happens to bridges in war times?" asked Benes. "They blow them up. Each nation, each side, goes into lockdown and destroys the links it has to the other."

"Even in peace," said Benes to the impressionable journalist, "even in peace, what do people do with bridges? They use them, they walk over them to go from one side to the other. Never be a bridge."

Recounted on the "With Heikal" show (on al-Jazeera) by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal on 12th March, 2010.

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Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Next Level

Egypt lost to England 3-1 in a football friendly last night.  Before the match, my friends joked that I was a winner either way: whether Egypt won or England did.  As it turned out, Egypt's loss annoyed me.

When I am in England I support England - except when they play really badly and they do not deserve to win.  But put against my native country, my instincts were to support the underdog.

The first half of the match was excellent for Egypt, ending it one goal ahead and looking firmly in control.  England looked a weak team on their home turf in Wembley.  For a while, it seemed Egypt was going to make headlines the next day.  But the second half saw England make deft changes, score three goals seemingly effortlessly amid the Egyptian team's total acquiesence.  Hasan Shehata, the Egypt national coach put on our best strikers, throwing all we got at England.  But it seemed the fighting force had gone out of Egypt and England relaxed even more, basking in the warmth of its home crowd.

What really annoyed me was the Egyptian team's refusal to put the game beyond England in the first half, when England looked vulnerable.  And the team's collective psychological meltdown in the face of clinical, fast-paced English raids in the second half.  By the last ten minutes, the Egyptian players looked like they might want to take up a career in fishing.

I watched the match with my mates in a public spot in Cairo.  To start with, I noted almost all of us talking down our chances: "We are playing in Wembley, for God's sake, it will be well nigh impossible to win."  Most everyone just wanted an honourable performance and a decent result.  But after the match started and we looked like we weren't cowed by England, people's emotions shot up.  At Mohamed Zidan's stunning goal, we jumped up and released an amazing amount of pent-up aggression.  "Yes, that's how you do it.  You take the game to England and you do not fear them."

After the goal though, the Egyptian players started taking their time.  They remained in control but rather than keep up the attack, they dallied about.  In the second half, it began to seem obvious: our team was slow.  They kept taking ages to build up anything.  A friend kept pointing at an invisible line that we seemed unable to go past; England consistently frustrating us. 

The England coach, it turned out, had instructed his players to be more aggressive and to play faster.  He reasoned Egypt would crack under more pressure and speed.  He also put on new blood in the form of substitutes Crouch and Wright-Phillips.  The changes paid off.  The Egypt team went into some form of shock.

I know football is not a microcosm of the world.  I know that Egypt's problems on the pitch last night have nothing to do with its problems elsewhere.  But I feel that it is all part of the same narrative somehow.

Here we were the African Champions (three times in a row), the best footballing generation Egypt has ever produced, and yet we went and lost 3-1 to England.  Sure, England is a fine team, ranked 8th in the world, and quite possibly the next World Cup holder, but why could it not have been an upset?  Why could Egypt not have taken the game to England, why did we not put up the pressure, why were we slow, why did we go into some psychological state of loss?

Needless to say, everyone left on a low note.


Egypt manager Hassan Shehata said: "It was a serious game. An open game and we gave a good performance.

"The English team were successful in the second half. The second goal was offside but the referee was fair in the match.

"It was our first match since the African Nations Cup and we are preparing our team for a new system and a new style. We missed some chances which could have changed the result.

"Our changes were not as good for us as the England team's were. Also we have come from the African Nations Cup and our players were exhausted."

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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Pecuniary Anxiety

I am poor.

I have friends who started out at pretty much where I started, perhaps from a worse start, and they are far wealthier than I am.

It is painful to be in this situation. Perhaps if they'd "made it" - by rolling around in millions and millions - I'd be more philosophical. Such spectacular success is usually down to luck.

There was no luck in their stories. Not great luck anyway, just the usual run-of-the-mill lucky-to-be-alive luck! My friends are not "rolling in it"; they are self-made comfortable people. They may have passed the million mark, or they may have not (they won't tell, and it depends on the currency), the important thing is: they don't need to work anymore.

My sample of comfortable friends _chose_ to go after money from a young age. Within a year or two of their graduation, they'd angled for the high-paying jobs in the wealthy sectors, and in due course, with careful monitoring of their expenditures and savvy decision-making, they reaped the gradual rewards.

I was seen as someone with possibly more potential than them. Perhaps each had excellences that I could not match, but they certainly expected I was going to be very successful.

Unlike them, I chose a zero-paying initial career path. Afterwards, I chose to be a low-paid academic.

I did so because of my upbringing. Both my parents prized education and saw that its value was in civilising mankind, not in money-making. So, when one of my friends went after a well-paid job only for its money, I scorned his behaviour. And my father attacked me for not scorning him enough!

As it dawned on me that I was not getting the career I'd expected, rather than change it, I dug my heels in even more. It's paradoxical; it doesn't make sense except in my head.

But it hurts now. I sit with my peers and they're talking about their villas, their cars, "100 dollars - you know - nothing," and then they stop themselves.

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Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Telling stories with you as hero

Your stories about yourself tell a lot about you. People listen to personal stories easily, naturally. So long as you do not inflate your stories to exaggerated boasts, or deflate them to excessive and irrational anxieties, people respond to you. They learn from the stories, and they also place you in their mental maps.

You may be skilled at picking the type of story that would place you somewhere favourable on pretty much anyone's mental map. But I am not.

So, I am going to start curating a "my stories" collection; a pick of the best from my life so far that will make anyone I tell the stories to, do whatever I want them to. Now that would be something. And it seems quite an easy task too.

But looking through my blog archive, I am already having doubts.

Let's start with the most common story of all: My Life So Far.

Age : Tagline
00-23: Fantastic, pretty pleased with it.
23-30: Fundamentally disappointing, but with some rays of light.
30-37: "Wet double espresso machiatto with whole milk please."

Oh dear. This is not a story that belongs in the collection.

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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Why the world's most advanced people are also its biggest suckers

Everybody ought to read this carefully and reflect: A $500 brand-name watch on the highstreets in the West, costs $50 in China - with healthy profit margin for Chinese manufacturer.

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Wednesday, 27 January 2010


My first glimpse of the genius of Naguib Mahfouz's literature was a short story that he wrote as a young man - and I read in my late teens. I have not traced the story since then; I don't know its title.

Two dirt-poor pavement vendors sell their wares at a remote train station out in the Egyptian countryside in the 1940s. They are around 16; a boy and a girl. The boy has the hots for the girl, but she is not responsive. One day, a train full of World War II Italian POWs stops at the station. Both boy and girl are sat on the platform floor, selling. The Italian prisoners extend their arms out of the train windows, gesturing for cigarettes. But the vendors know the POWs have no money so there is no point in selling to them.

Then, a soldier offers his shirt to the boy, for a pack. The boy starts bartering ciggies for parts of uniform. He makes a roaring trade: belt, shoes, beret, etc. As soon as he gets something he puts it on to impress the girl; and she loves it, she laughs at his antics and is very amused. The British train guardsmen notice the commotion. They mistake the boy for an escaping Italian POW. They shout at him to get back on. The boy doesn't get it, he continues doing tricks for his girl, dressed in full Italian uniform. The guardsmen shoot him dead.

I have always taken the story as an excellent example of how to surprise the reader in about two pages. I also took it to indicate Mahfouz's abiding interest in chronicling the lives of the not so important in Egypt.

But it has now struck me that the story works at a more symbolic level. Mahfouz, after all, has a reputation for deft symbolism.

The train station with the dirt-poor vendors represents Egypt. The train that stops at the station for a rest, only to carry on, represents the foreign occupier, using the facility, on his way to other things. The boy's mingling with the Italians represents how dealing with the outsiders is fraught with danger: wearing other people's clothes costs you your life.

Naturally, the story is consistent with the concerns of the 20th-century Egyptian elite; they felt deeply unhappy with the uninvited presence of the British. It also captures how Egypt was, during WWII, a battleground for two foreign armies: the British and the Germans (not Italians).

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No Reservations - Egypt

No Reservations - Egypt

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