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Livin’ “La Vida Bashawiyah”*

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

[*With apologies to Ricky Martin for the reference to his song “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” The term “basha” or “pasha” is used in Egypt in several ways. In the strict sense, a pasha is an eastern ruler. In current popular usage, the word is a sort of casual honorific, a form of address one uses with a stranger in order to get their attention. A driver needing directions might say, “Hey, Basha!” to the corner cop. In the way I have used it here, I mean the lifestyle of one who has an elevated social and economic position that allows him (the term is masculine, after all) to live a life of ease and luxury which is perceived to be the kind of life one might live if he were, in fact such a ruler. In brief: the sort of life I have been living since I arrived here.]

I could get used to this. Having been “in country,” as the diplomatic types put it, for four months now, it’s easy to see how generations of Europeans found Egyptian life so seductive and appealing. For those of us earning American level wages, even modest ones, the standard of living one is able to maintain is rather posh: Palatial (almost literally) apartments, cheap transportation, inexpensive food, cheap service labor, nice climate (most of the time), deference from the locals. Our presence is generally welcomed, at least from my brief experience interacting with people. The Egyptians are friendly, hospitable, generous, and eager to please. At least outwardly, they seem to be happy that we’re here.

It doesn’t hurt that President Obama elected to visit Egypt last year and make a speech that is widely viewed as a very positive one, from the Egyptian perspective. His autobiography, Dreams of My Father, has been translated into Arabic already. Taxi drivers, almost without exception, smile broadly and say, thumbs way up, “Obama good!” when you tell them you’re an American. The worst criticism I’ve heard—and this only once, so far—is that the Egyptians LIKE Americans; they just DON’T LIKE our government. We are perceived as a flawed but admirable force for good in the world, and if we could just remove our collective cranium from our collective rectum, we might actually be really good. In a country with several THOUSAND years of recorded history, we’re still viewed as naïfs on the world stage and our naïveté is being graciously excused, for the nonce. Surprisingly, when I expressed the opinion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were huge mistakes, the reaction was, generally, “Well, maybe.” War, in general, is viewed by Egyptians as a bad thing and is not considered a viable option for solving the region’s political problems. This from taxi drivers, as well as from members of the educated class. (A point of clarification: many of the cab drivers I ride with ARE educated. They are victims of a stagnant economy that has failed to provide them with work in their chosen fields, so they turn to cab driving as a fairly reliable way to make a living. This is no doubt the main reason I can have so many thoughtful, articulate discussions with them. And a lot of those discussions are at least partially in English!)

Egypt is astounding for it stark contrasts and other travelers have long noted this: The bright green of the Nile Valley against the emptiness of the desert; the bustle and urbanity of Cairo and Alexandria versus the grittiness and poverty of small villages; the suit and skirt attired urbanites versus the galabiya and hijab of the lower classes and villagers. It is a country where a public amanuensis can still be found doing a brisk business outside a government office, completing official forms for those who can neither read nor write, but where everyone, it seems, has a cell phone and internet cafes are common.

Vendors still cry their wares in the streets, “Eggs!” “Clean water!” “Propane!” Subsidized bread is sold on the streets, one Egyptian pound for five or six pitas, so that the poorest will have something, at least, to feed their families. On the other hand, shopping malls the equal of any found in the States or Europe are everywhere, and tennagers are hanging out just like in the States. One of the dismaying aspects of modern Egyptian life is that it is creating a generation of mall rats, just like us.

Many, if not most, people rely on the dilapidated public buses and trains, or on rafts of overloaded mini-buses and scruffy taxis for transport. Many others use motorcycles, if they’re lucky, or donkeys or bicycles. But just last evening, as I walked a street near my apartment, I was passed by a late-model car containing two young Egyptian males, the stereo blasting rap music. Increasingly, I see young women doing the same thing, driving to work in their hijabs with pop music thumping and cell phones glued to their ears.

Car dealers, by the way, seem to be doing a fairly brisk business. There are two or three located in my neighborhood, wedged into Starbuck’s-sized spaces. The new arrivals are prepped for buyers on the street, the white plastic protective film stripped off in pieces, the sale negotiated on the sidewalk or in a cramped corner at the back of the shop. Most people who have cars drive civilian versions of the Lada 2107’s, the ubiquitous taxi cab model of choice, or other Asian or European makes—Peugeots, Skodas, Hondas, Hyundais, Fiats; the newly wealthy or upwardly mobile prefer Nissans or BMWs, it seems, and in Cairo, a lot of the new white taxis are compact Chevrolets.

Internationally recognized scholars and professionals were educated, live and work here, but the ability to read is limited to about two-thirds of the population. Libraries are still relatively rare, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina notwithstanding, and while booksellers stalls are not uncommon, few Egyptian homes have bookshelves. Men sitting in cafes drinking coffee and sucking on water pipes rarely seem to have their noses in newspapers or magazines as Americans or Europeans would. At the same time, the seams of the universities are bursting from the huge numbers of students attending classes and I have to assume that they are reading. The street adjacent to the University of Alexandria’s Business and Tourism campus has at least four bookstores which carry textbooks as well as more mainstream fare, and they seem to be bustling, or at least not going out of business any time soon. On any given day, the Alexandria Library, which can accommodate two thousand readers, is at least half full of people studying. But books are expensive and the poor probably have better things to do with their money.

It is the educated class to which one looks to for a better future for Egypt, but there are quite a few problems attached to that hope. High school graduates with the requisite grades are guaranteed a place at a university, so qualifying grades are wheedled and cajoled (when they aren’t earned) by those who would not otherwise be admitted. Quality of instruction has therefore fallen. The public universities are packed with students; Cairo University alone has more than 100,000 students enrolled; the University of Alexandria several tens of thousands. Private universities are beginning to sprout as well, promising a higher level of academic rigor, smaller classes and better prospects for their graduates than that provided in the overwhelmed public institutions. It seems everyone—at least every city dweller under the age of forty—has a BA and many have advanced degrees. But you have lawyers working as bank clerks, elevator operators, and sales people. The universities seem to be used as social pressure relief valves, keeping young people, who would have no work otherwise, occupied and hopeful for the future. With Egypt’s economy stagnant, however, most of these young people will get low-level skilled jobs, at best, and be stuck there for their working lives.

The public universities pay their faculty very little—2000-3000 Egyptian Pounds per month (about $500-$600)—if they’re lucky, so many professors hold two positions just to make ends meet. The most talented are recruited by the private universities, leaving the publics with a few dedicated teachers and a large pool of mediocrity. The graduates of the better schools, I’m told, like the American University in Cairo, are themselves children of privilege, coming mostly from Egypt’s upper crust, and have no plans to remain in Egypt after graduation. They see their futures in Europe or the United States. One of my Fulbright colleagues who teaches there had to explain to one of his classes the concept of “brain drain.” His students had no grasp of the consequences for Egypt’s future of their choosing to live in another country. These students’ ability to feel at home in two languages—many of them have attended a French, American, or German private school—means that they have the option to leave and find a better life for themselves elsewhere.Their less fortunate, less well-trained or less well-connected colleagues will stay.

In general, the economic division between the Egyptian elite and most of the population is growing. On the one hand, this is a country where farmers still sell their produce on street corners; bunches of parsley, carrots, mulukhiyah, and other vegetables lie wilting in the sun as the farmers, who have arisen before dawn and ridden a decrepit commuter train into town, wait for itinerant customers to buy something from them. I buy the tastiest little bananas from a guy on a corner between my apartment and the Muzak-filled San Stefano Mall, which even featured a two-story live Christmas tree in the central hub earlier this year. I prefer his fruit but, because of the concern for hygiene, I don’t buy root vegetables from him. I can find veggies wrapped in plastic in the local mall, just like in the States and those Egyptians who want to be “modern” buy theirs there, too. My banana man’s days are numbered, I’m afraid. What will happen when he loses his livelihood? More fodder for the Islamists who blame all this change on “westerners?”

Many, if not most, small farmers in Egypt still farm with draft animals, donkeys, horses, and “tuktuks,” the water buffalo one sees in fields all along the Nile. Tractors are here and there, but they are still a relative rarity, except in the larger farming villages. In the meantime, industrial farming is making inroads. I’m told that virtually all the milk consumed in Egypt comes from one dairy. Okay, so the Egyptians aren’t big milk drinkers, but even so.

The land along the Nile is very fertile. On our recent trip to the pyramids at Saqqara, I saw cauliflower being harvested. Donkey carts groaning under huge piles rolled along dirt roads toward the city. The cauliflower heads were the size of pizzas! But the farmland is under threat from urban sprawl, as it is in much of the world. One sees apartment buildings sprouting everywhere in farming communities, occupying ground that once produced food. One person told me that Egypt spends more each year on importing eggs and dairy products than it cost to build the Bibliotheca Alexandrina ($200+ million…)! The growing population demands living space, though, and many of these buildings are occupied even before construction is completed.

While in Egypt, I have occasionally expressed the view that Egypt seems to be balanced on a knife’s edge, politically and socially. Those to whom I have voiced this opinion, both Americans who are more familiar with the country than I, and Egyptians, have tended to agree with that assessment. As far as I can tell, there is no overt social or political tension among the people I speak with. Rather, the mood is one of resignation and sadness; not quite despair, but a longing and a disappointment over the state of affairs in the country. Egyptians know that they could—and SHOULD—have better lives and feel a great deal of resentment toward a government that has failed them on so many levels. Elections are widely considered a joke, but everyone participates anyway. A justifiable fear of being scooped up by the police if you publically criticize Mubarak and “disappeared” for an indeterminate period of time keeps political discourse mostly private. The relative anonymity of a conversation between a cab driver and his (obviously NOT Egyptian) passenger creates something of a safe space for open expressions of opinion, however.

One important part of my experience in Egypt has been missing, and that is the opportunity to interact with Egyptian women. While the social barriers between Muslim men and women are breaking down, specifically among young, educated people, they were still palpable to me as a foreigner. Most of the librarians I have worked with at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina are women, but there was little chance that a conversation over coffee—much less a drink at a bar—would be possible. I did manage to have some brief, but revealing, talks with a couple of librarians, but nothing as substantive as the talks I have had with Egyptian men. As I have noted, the number of women from all social classes who wear hijab is overwhelming and that physical barrier is like a big STOP sign to someone who has been taught what hijab “means,” regardless of the reason for any given Egyptian woman putting it on.

Appearances, as the old saw goes, can be deceiving but I did not feel comfortable testing my theory that in many cases, donning the hijab is a simple way of deflecting social opprobrium while preserving a degree of personal autonomy: you’re wearing the hijab, ergo, you must be a good Muslim woman. So you can wear tight jeans and high heels and make-up as long as your hair and chest are covered; you can hold hands with your boyfriend as you walk to class—as long as you wear hijab. You can even sit on a bench in a public park with your arms about each other—as long as you wear hijab. One of my informants, a young Muslim man, told me of a New Year’s Eve party he attended where men and women mixed freely; alcohol (specifically gin) was served and when inhibitions, as a consequence, were diminished, a lot of kissing ensued. Much more interesting than MY New Year’s Eve…

A woman colleague at the library, responding to a comment I made about the number of women students I saw in the reading rooms, expressed her unhappiness about the gender imbalance, saying that finding a worthy partner was a daunting prospect; women still had to marry according to a societal code and to meet certain expectations while Muslim men “could marry anyone they wanted to.” Men in Egyptian society are certainly the more privileged gender, both outwardly and in their personal lives. Rarely does one see couples sitting in the numerous coffee houses of Cairo or Alexandria; most of the patrons are male and many of them spend hours of time there, smoking and talking with their friends. Where are the women? Home taking care of the kids, cleaning, washing, cooking so the “basha” will be happy when he decides to come home. Women have their female friends, of course, and one frequently sees women walking arm in arm on the street, but their social lives, it appears, are much more circumscribed and limited than the men’s. One sees younger women in the malls, shopping and working as clerks in the stores. One also sees older women sitting on the street corners, an overturned cardboard box piled high with packets of facial tissue or pens or bottled water, attempting to make a living.

Having said all this, I have to acknowledge that these are only impressions. What the true state of affairs is is beyond my knowing and it varies, no doubt, according to social, economic and family conditions. The situation is almost certainly much more complex than I have been able to indicate. What is certain, beyond a doubt, is that the society is undergoing profound change on several levels and that these changes will result in a society that is quite different than the one that now exists. The big question is whether the forces for progressive change will win out over the reaction of religious “literalists” and other conservatives who see salvation in stricter social controls and enforced adherence to a particular moral code. Events of recent days, including the Orthodox Christmas Day murder of more than half a dozen Coptic Christians by three Muslim men in the town of Naga Hammadi (near Luxor) does not bode well for a reduction of social tensions, nor for positive future. My Egyptian friends would no doubt say that this is a problem, yes, but we have to believe that things will get better.

So, here I sit, in my grand apartment, trying to make some sense out of this experience and realizing that it will take more than five pages of prose to work through it. The sun is out after a foggy night and the city is coming to life. I’m going to take advantage of my privileged position, go downstairs, find a cab and visit a museum, one of my last cultural events in Alexandria. I’ll pay the driver mare than an Egyptian would for the same trip and he’ll be happy. Then I may take myself out to lunch with a cup of good Arabic coffee afterward. I’ll be served politely and asked where I come from and complimented on my Arabic (undeservedly, IMHO), I’ll give the waiter a generous tip when I leave, and he’ll be happy. I’ll take another cab back to the apartment. Another generous compensation for the driver’s trouble and he’ll be happy; the doorman will jump up and call the elevator for me when I climb the front steps. I’ve already given him a small sum in celebration of the New Year. He’s already happy.

“Thank you, Osman, you are too kind, really.”

He’ll smile because I always ask how he is and exchange a few pleasantries with him. Bashas are expected to do things like that and I wouldn’t want to disappoint. I like him and he has done me several favors during my stay. Besides, I have a tradition to uphold. Happy to do it.

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