Sunday, July 6, 2008

The plagues of Egypt

From a dossier on Egypt by Wael Abdel Fateh in Al Akhbar (my summary)

Egypt, the land of the mighty Nile, is thirsty. But not all of Egypt: there is a "thirst belt", which overlaps with the misery belt, and there is a "golf belt" where the rich can go and relax in their $millions apartments, and play golf as well. There, the grass is watered freely while the rest of the country has to drink polluted water, when it can access it. In the "Marina" resort, where powerful and rich people meet, a politician was heard saying: "If things remain as they are, the hungry and thirsty will enter the resorts of the rich and eat their livers".

Meanwhile, and after 56 years of the revolution which eliminated titles and imposed equality between all Egyptians, at least in theory, the Egyptian noblesse is making a comeback. Beik and hanem and bachas are titles that are now commonly used to refer to the rich and powerful and to the members of the ruling class.

Elsewhere, a young man asks his father: "why are we poor?" The father answers: "because I am honest". The son answers: "why should I pay for this?".


Leila Abu-Saba said...

Bey and hanum never went out. I lived in Egypt for a year in 1983, when the open door policies were just beginning. My first husband, who was then my boyfriend/fiance, was the son of a (deceased) cabinet minister. The house servant and all the shopkeepers and vendors in the neighborhood called him "bey". He told me that technically his mother was hanum and the family called her that partly out of "fun" - old-fashioned term -but also out of respect. Basha also persisted. All the waiters and car valets and people like that would say "aywa ya basha." But the use of bey was not just a random term of respect - the servants and others of working class knew the late father and therefore referred to the son as bey.

Also - late father had been from the working classes and was a Nasserist at first, so the son (my ex-husband) was sympathetic to the goals of equality. But he couldn't really fight the tide.

We would go to Farouk's former private casino, now the Automobile Club, an exclusive dining club downtown. Mother-in-law was a member. There I was introduced to the head of internal security and other such creatures. We also went to the Gezira Sporting Club - all the rich guys and people from "old" families belonged. And the Automobile Club's Alexandria branch had exclusive beachfront property, etc. etc. Now it's private hotels which were of course springing up then, too.

Nasser didn't bring equality to Egypt. He just opened the door for certain members of the lower or middle classes to push their way into the upper class. The old families grumbled about the nouveaux making all that money in chicken factories or auto imports - but their old, nationalized assets had been acquired by similarly pushy businessmen of the early 20th century, so what's the difference?

My ex's house man was a slender young fellow from Upper Egypt. He told my ex-husband that he still loved Nasser because due to the late president, he, the house servant, could take the elevator and the front stairs (when the power was out). He didn't have to take the back stairs any longer. My ex reported this to me, shaking his head. This is what the revolution had become.

Meanwhile some of my ex's friends from school (AUC) were becoming very very rich due to their fathers' business dealings - meat imports, arms deals etc. One went on to marry the grandson of a notorious British colonialist ruler of Egypt. Others went off to the Gulf to become aides to princes. My ex wasn't interested in such a life and became an obscure computer programmer in NY.

Sadat's "Open Door" policy of the late 70s/early 80s, continued by Mubarak after his death, was the beginning of all this. There was a film that came out in Egypt in '83 that addressed some of the problems with Open Door; I watched it but had to be told what it was all about. Now I can't remember the title... ak. Sorry.

I do remember the ads for Dr. Oetker's custard powder, and how we laughed bitterly that the people of Egypt had no bread but they could look at custard mix advertisements on TV. Lovely.

My ex watched the '77 bread riots from his balcony in central Cairo and remembered them well.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

PS - I had such culture shock going to Egypt. I thought that as an Arab (I thought I was an Arab at least) I would be "at home" in Egypt, but I was immediately pegged as a khawagayya and nobody let me forget it.

Also the class differences staggered me. I became aware of my class privilege as an American for the first time, even though in America I perceived myself as middle class and not privileged.

I was further astonished to discover that by Egyptian upper class standards, my family wasn't "good enough." My father and my ex's father both were poor lower class boys who got Ph.D.s from American universities, and in fact my parents, as American professionals, certainly had more money and property than my ex's family by quite a bit. But my ex's mother was "Turkish" so she thought she was "better" somehow. I had never encountered this kind of thinking. My unconscious ideas of class involved what graduate degrees you have. I also thought that owning farm land in Mieh-Mieh meant that my Lebanese family was just as good as anybody. In fact I became embarrassed as I talked about farming with the housemaid because I realized that my farming family was much richer than hers by a large order of magnitude - just because of property owned and Lebanese standard of living versus Egyptian fellaheen. I could not understand that farming might be considered lower class - because of the American ideal of the famer.

Meanwhile I had these American ideas that anybody who makes something of themselves from humble beginnings is automatically worthy of respect - the Horatio Alger myth. And further, inside Lebanon I had only seen my father treated with deference. Add to this the fact that my American mother came from many generations of "respectable" people, where the women had been college educated going back to the 19th century. So I was completely puzzled that my mother-in-law thought she was somehow of a better social class. I didn't feel insulted even, I was simply amused.

The big insult was that nobody in Egypt accepted my self-definition as an Arab. When I protested that I was a Lebanese citizen they just looked at me. Shemi - Syrian. Khawagayya. Christian (nobody said that aloud but that's what they were thinking). I was so offended. That was when I realized that Arab nationalism was really finished.