Monday, November 14, 2011


    As of today I have been in Alexandria for two months, and Egypt a little over that. For this post, nothing outstandingly exciting having happened, I shall simply recount two things that have occurred since my last one.

    My first story is related to school, and my difficulties rather akin to dyslexia in reading and writing Arabic. The problem is apparently common in those learning the language: in both reading and writing, though I know the spelling, I substitute letters that for the one I need. For example, the letters ‘ب’ (ba) and ‘ن’ (noon) look very similar (despite appearances – when one writes Arabic letters by themselves they look different compared to when they’re in a word), and I will frequently read or write one when I mean the other. This also happens with ‘ت’ (ta) and ‘ث’ (tha); ‘ص’ (saad) and ‘س’ (seen) (which sound similar), and so many other letters that I don’t know why I’m choosing any in particular as examples… It happens frequently enough that my teachers don’t tend to say anything except to point out that it’s wrong. As I wrote in my last email, my fus’ha teacher’s daughter is just learning to read and write as well, and makes many of the same mistakes I do. (In fact, she makes one rather impressive mistake that I haven’t made: she’s learning French as well as Arabic, and E (the teacher) told me that she’s started writing her Arabic from left to write. She brought in an example, most easily read by holding it up to a mirror!) One example of my usual error cropped up in my homework this week, however, that caused my a’mir teacher to collapse in fits of giggles. I asked her what it was. “You’ve forgotten the dots,” she gasped. I protested that this was a common occurrence, and not really cause for such mirth. “No, but with this word you’ve written something else!” I asked what it was. “I can’t tell you, it’s a bad word.” She giggled again, then “no, I’ll tell you exactly what it means. It means… it means…” At this point she apparently lost her nerve: “It means a very bad woman!” I’m unconvinced as to quite how ‘exact’ this definition is…

    There is shortly going to be a change of personnel at my flat. D is to return to England (he’s been here a year now, and says that is quite enough. This seems to be a common reaction to prolonged residence among expats that I’ve met, though as I found in Yemen, a large proportion of such expats can’t bring themselves to leave either!), and in his place H and I have asked E, a Swede who also studies at our school to join us. As part of the getting-to-know-you process we all (including D) went on a trip to Alemein on 5 November.
    Meanwhile, D had been very keen to celebrate bonfire night in semi-traditional fashion, by making and burning a guy (something I had never done). So on the fourth the four of us got an old shirt and ripped trousers, stuffed them with newspaper, and knitted them together with paperclips in lieu of pins, and resolved to take him into the desert during the trip the next day and burn him. H posted a picture of the evening on Facebook, with the caption “Upside of living with the Brits: the chances are that you’re going to see something you’ve never seen or heard of every other week”.
    The next morning our driver got a bit of a shock when I walked out holding a life-size dummy in my arms, and asked him if I could put it in the boot. We rather failed to dispel his initial impression of our being rather strange as the day went on… The journey to Alemein from Alex is about 90 minutes, along the main coastal highway that essentially stretches all the way across North Africa. It’s through the desert, though on the coastal side there are continuous resorts all the way to Alemein and beyond – as far as we could see, mostly deserted. Our first stop was a museum that appeared to be about the whole war in the Western Desert. The displays seemed to be quite interesting, though it was hard to tell what they contained, as the English descriptions (where they existed) were incomprehensible. The management of the museum clearly were also of the view that any foreign language translation of the Arabic descriptions would do: so some displays had English, some German, some French, some Italian and, bizarrely, some Chinese – but no display had more than one of those languages.
    Our next stop was the Commonwealth Cemetery. As with all Commonwealth War Graves Commission controlled cemeteries that I have visited, it was hauntingly beautiful. As one enters the gate one can see nothing but desert, both immediately in front of one and, as the ridge that the gate is on drops away, in the distance. Then one moves forward, and sees the memorial gate rise up as if out of the ground as one does so. Inside the gate (a big, light-coloured sandstone affair that blends very well into its surroundings) are engraved 13 000 names of those whose bodies were never identified or recovered. This is put into perspective when one reads that there are 8000 graves in the cemetery (not solely from the Battle of El-Alemein, though largely), and many of them are ‘Known Unto God’. On the far side from the gate is a very large cross, and half way between an altar below which had been laid a freshly picked wreath of local flowers. In fact, the place was full of flowers, though the soil was very sandy, and clearly very well cared for. It compared favourably with the cemetery at Silent Valley in Aden, where the cross has been shot down by an RPG.
    We went from there to the German memorial, which is an imposing castle-like structure built to look as if had been hewn whole out of the rock. It stands on top of a hill which stretches down to the sea. Inside, however, it felt dark and claustrophobic, with large, cast iron, gothic lettering, and great sheets of iron with the names of the dead packed so small and close together that it was almost impossible to read. The caretaker told us that the ashes of the dead were interred below the memorial.
    The Italian memorial was a similarly imposing affair, though much lighter. From the road one has to walk up a long straight drive, uphill, for about half a kilometre. At the top is a very dramatic marble tower that wouldn’t look out of place in The Lord of the Rings. Inside, however, it was very moving. The ashes of the dead are interred inside the tower, each one separately, with a plaque with their name on. The walls are covered with these plaques up to about three metres, and then there are a series of rooms off the main tower that are also full of them. Particularly striking were two rooms full where there was only one word on every plaque: ‘Ignoto’.
    So ended our battlefield tour. We were all feeling rather sombre, and were rather relieved when our driver, who’d been talking to a policeman, told us that we’d have to drive about half an hour inland to get to somewhere suitably uninhabited to burn our guy. We decided that this was too much effort and went home, where with some savagery he was hung, drawn and quartered, with a blunt and rusty Bedouin knife…

    Meanwhile, in Alex, the winter is setting in. It has been tipping it down today, and apparently will again tomorrow. ‘So what?’, I hear you say with some derision – well it doesn’t rain here very much, and the system isn’t very good at coping with it. The roads flood, and rainwater is the least of what one might be stepping in!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Archbishops on House of Lords reform

I've been reading the Archbishops’ submission to the Parliamentary Joint Commission on House of Lords reform (found here). Generally it seems good: the gist is “we believe an elected House of Lords would be damaging to the proper function of Parliament, though some reform is necessary. However, if you insist on having an elected House of Lords, here’s what we think about the proposed legislation”. A couple of points to note:

1 – They refer to the ‘political consensus reflected in the 2010 General Election manifestos’ (paragraph 7). This fails to see a crucial argument against an elected Upper House on the basis of the manifestos and the Salisbury Convention[1]: the voters were not presented with a choice at the 2010 election, as all three main parties included it in their manifesto. Thus, whilst the 2010 General Election demonstrated a party political consensus, it did not demonstrate a general political consensus. It seems a bit odd to speak of the necessity of those who help to make our laws being democratically elected when advocating a policy that has not, in any meaningful sense, been put before the public.

2 – They miss an opportunity to strengthen the general case for an appointed Upper House by opening themselves up to accusations of self-interest. I happen to support the place of bishops in the House of Lords, as strengthening the general spiritual discourse of the country at a time of increased secularisation. However, I would be perfectly happy to sacrifice the bishops if it meant keeping an appointed Upper House, and I believe that they should be willing to do that too. The effective functioning of a bishop is not dependent upon their membership of the House of Lords; the effective functioning of our parliament does require an appointed House of Lords, as the Archbishops’ arguments help to show.

3 – Finally, and perhaps least contentiously, I was very pleased to see the key point in paragraph 12: if the role of the Upper House in relation to the Commons is seen as desirable, then “the argument that such a chamber can only be effective and have proper legitimacy if it is wholly or mainly elected is no more than an assertion”. Nick Clegg, in introducing the draft bill in the Commons on 17 May made the statement that it is a fundamental principle that a body that has a role in making laws must be democratically elected to be legitimate as if there could be no further argument to such an obvious statement. Not true: the statement is not obvious, and even if Clegg is right, there is plenty of scope for argument. I happen to think he’s wrong (apart from anything, we don’t elect our judges, but one doesn’t hear many mainstream complaints there), and that so long as the dominant body of government has democratic accountability, efficiency and expertise should be the driving factors in the other bodies.

[1] Attempts by the government to argue the Salisbury Convention here also fail to note the Lib Dem objection to the Convention itself. See page 6, here.

School - 17 October 2011

As of this morning, I have completed my first module of Arabic (only twenty three to go!). So I thought that this might be an appropriate time to write a little of what I’m doing here.
My course is for a rather vague mixture of Arabic called Modern Standard. Though this is mostly fus’ha, or classical Arabic (as one will find on the news channels, in books, newspapers, or any religious or educative context), it is also partly a’mir, or Egyptian colloquial Arabic (as one will find on many entertainment programmes, or spoken on the street). They have a partly shared vocabulary, but they pronounce certain letters differently, and the grammar is also slightly different. I attend school for five days a week, of which three are fus’ha and two are a’mir, with different teachers. The vocabulary is really the sticking point in all this: at the start of the module, I was being given around 60 words a day to memorise for fus’ha, and another 30 or so for a’mir. Of course, they all sound Arabic, so of those that I did learn (I confess to not managing them all…) I was constantly mixing them up, and using the wrong ones in the wrong classes. This doesn’t particularly matter when one is using fus’ha vocabulary in an a’mir context – most people will understand fus’ha, even if they don’t speak it. It matters much more when using an a’mir word in a fus’ha context: though Egyptian a’mir is useful, due to the dominance of Egyptian satellite channels across the region, it is not spoken outside Egypt (every country has their own a’mir, and some have several).

I’ve done pretty well with my teachers. My fus’ha teacher (E, one daughter, age five, whose homework seems very similar to mine!) is very good, and quite demanding in what work she wants me to do, but friendly too. My a’mir teacher (N) is also good, and has a degree in linguistics, which is quite helpful for learning the sounds of the letters. They do as much of the lessons as they can in Arabic. At the moment, ‘as much as they can’ is frankly very little, though it has increased marginally over the past month. They have their peculiar characteristics in teaching too. There are certain words that prove very difficult to remember (with no apparent logic in which words they are), and I stumble frequently when I reach them. E’s response is generally something along the lines of “you haven’t forgotten this again! I will kill you!”. This can sometimes be quite menacing… N, on the other hand, doesn’t change her demeanour at all, but simply makes me repeat the word over, and over, and over, and over. It remains to be seen whether my death will be by irate teacher, or sheer boredom.

So, enough of the lessons themselves: time for a story.

I should start by stating that my teachers, when they express a view at all, tend to be quite moderate and careful not to offend: one of the things that makes what I’m about to recount worthy of note. The other is that this story covers two separate conversations, with different teachers, on different days, which led to them both expressing very similar views. The first conversation was with N. We’d finished a lesson, and she was asking me whether I had yet visited the Library of Alexandria (a very impressive building, with approximately the same selection of books as your average village library). She told me that when I did I should be sure to visit the Anwar Sadat exhibition, which included such things as the blood-stained clothes that he was wearing when he was assassinated (indeed, there is nothing I like more than to see a blood-stained shirt…). I asked her what she thought of Sadat, to which she was initially evasive: “Well, some people think he is a hero, and the people that assassinated him were traitors, and some people think that he was a traitor, because of the Treaty [with Israel], and the people that assassinated him were heroes”. I pressed her. “Well I think at least he was a leader, whether you agree with what he did or not. Mubarak wasn’t a leader, he was just a thief.” I asked her whether she agreed with what Sadat did. There was a long hesitation, then: “I’m going to tell you what I really think. They say [I’m not sure who ‘they are…] that we shouldn’t talk about politics with foreigners, but I want you to know what we really think. Israel is our enemy. Israel will always be our enemy, and I hate them”. She responded by asking me what I thought; I made some non-committal answer about having Israeli friends, but understanding that there were injustices on both sides. As non-committal answers go, it was clear from her face that I had fallen far short of the mark! She felt she needed to explain further: “The thing is, Muslims believe that one of the signs of the last days is a big war between Muslims and Jews, and the Muslims will win. So they must always be our enemies: how could we make peace with them? But”, she smiled wryly, “if the Muslims will win, at least we know that the last days are a long way off!” I did some asking around: it seems that this ‘sign’ comes from the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet, and other early Islamic leaders). The person I asked said that whether this particular saying was genuinely from the Prophet was a contentious issue. It is, however, hard to tell if I was just being told what it was thought I wanted to hear…

The second conversation was the next day, with E. We were looking at a map in the textbook, naming countries (this is the kind of exciting thing that learning Arabic can bring you!). Israel is almost always labelled Falestine on Arab maps; on this map, however, it was labelled Izreel-Falestine (the textbook is American). E made a disapproving noise when I read this. I looked at her questioningly. “This is usually a good textbook, but I don’t like using it because of this.” She paused. I asked her what she thought of the whole issue. “I hate them as my enemy. I hate the country, not the people.” Another pause. “No, I hate the people and the country. My friends tell me I should be generous in my thoughts, and I should not hate the people, but I cannot help it. I hate them, and what they do.” My impression is that this is a pretty common feeling.

It may be worth noting that in history lessons all children here are taught of Israeli aggression since Israel’s foundation – and incidentally, they’re taught of the great Egyptian victory liberating the Sinai in the Yom Kippur War, with no mention of how that war ended.  For those who worry about the limited breadth of history that is taught in British schools, be thankful that things aren’t generally taught that never happened.

I was going to write about the excitements of getting my visa, but I fear that to add that to an already long post would try your patience. Maybe next time!

Alexandria - 26 September 2011

     Where to start? The news in brief, perhaps: one journey from Cairo to Alexandria, complete; one course in Arabic, started; one apartment, found.

     The journey was uneventful, once I’d made it to the train. Cairo has a large railway station, which, if one believes what one reads on the internet, used to be a prime piece of architecture in the centre of the city. One can only say this on the basis of what is found on the internet, given that one can’t actually see the building. It’s covered in ply-board hoarding, as it undergoes a Mubarak-vintage vanity project restoration. And it has been for the past two years… I went there the day before I was due to travel, in order to buy the ticket. There are no signs in English, and initially I ended up in the Metro system. This was a mistake – but it was so clearly a mistake that I quickly left without attempting to ask directions. I found the ticket office by the other entrance, chose a window, and joined the queue. This was another mistake: but this time it took three people pushing in front of me whilst giving me strange looks (‘why is he just standing there?’) before I realised that I wasn’t in a queue (this appears to be a rather alien concept), and rather standing behind someone who was just having a conversation with the ticket man.

    The next day I went with my bags to catch the train. Once again, the lack of signage proved problematic, but not nearly as problematic as the refurbishment itself. The core issue was that, though there were hoardings outside the building, inside there was no separation between the refurbishment work, and the passengers trying to get to their train. In my case, trying to get to my train with about 50 kg of luggage, passing over rubbish, sand, what appeared to be sewage, and some paving that the builder was desperately trying to lay neatly with passengers such as myself pulled up the stones as quickly as he could put them down. Once on the train, however, I was very comfortable, even if it did arrive an hour later than it was meant to! I was met in Alexandria by the friend of a friend (more on him later) who had allowed me to stay at his apartment while I looked for one for myself; I spent the next few days doing various vital things such as registering at the school, and starting lessons – the Arabic is, perhaps, the subject of another post.

    Apartment hunting was something of an ordeal. The friend who met me at the station (H; he has a housemate, D, who had just moved in a week before I arrived) lives in a lovely, well-equipped three-bedroom affair, on the ground floor of a small apartment building dominated by the much larger buildings on either side. It’s location is perfect, apart from the proximity to a main road, and it has a brilliant landlady: all this for a total of 3000 L.E. (about £320) per month. I was told that I wouldn’t find anywhere of a similar standard, quite so cheap, but, thinking that my standards are not so high, set about trying to find things. What I thought was my first breakthrough came when Mr Saleh arrives with a French girl called J – who is looking for apartments - in tow. Mr Saleh is an agent, who found this apartment for H back in May. H is, perhaps understandably, somewhat confused as to what Mr Saleh is doing showing someone around his apartment. Mr Saleh: “You arrive at start of May”. He pauses expectantly, as if requiring independent verification for his statement. H agrees. Again: “You signed six month contracto. June, July…” (he counts off the months on his fingers) “…August, September, October, November. So you leave here at the start of November”. He makes the statement, and then again waits for confirmation. It isn’t forthcoming – H points out that this is a matter between him and his landlady. Mr Saleh disagrees, and insists that the now very embarrassed J looks round the apartment. She does so in a very cursory fashion, apologising to H as she peeps through the door of every room. Meanwhile, I take Mr Saleh’s number, stating that I am also looking for an apartment. He promises to call me the next day, and leaves with J still in tow.

    He called and arranged for me to meet him after a couple of days. I duly did, and he took me to an office to get some keys for some apartments. Alas, the manager wasn’t there: “you come back tomorrow, 3 o’clock, he will be here then!” I protested that the arrangement had been 3 o’clock that day. I was put on to the phone to the manager: “I’m very sorry, but I am signing a contract with two Italian girls”. I expressed my view that this wasn’t a reasonable excuse. He tried to be conciliatory: “We will do any time that is convenient for you”. I suggested that later that day would be convenient. He isn’t free. We arranged to meet at 3 o’clock the next day, and I went home. When I arrived the next day, I expected to see a variety of apartments: instead, I was shown one, and it’s a building site. I was assured that it will be ready within ten days, but I’d seen enough, and went home.

    A couple of days later, Mr Saleh calls again, and says that he has seven apartments to show me, so we arrange to meet on Thursday, the first day of my weekend, at 11. We didn’t see seven apartments, we saw three, all of them either too expensive, or both too expensive and too shabby – and I didn’t get home until 4…

    At this stage I gave up, and arranged to stay in the apartment I was in already. I now think that this was the best decision I could have made – I have flatmates who have been in Alex for longer than I have, and I’m saving a lot of money by sharing the rent. It’s well located, and it has been established that the landlady is very good. So all’s well that ends well, and at least I know for next time not to be in such a hurry!

Arrival - 10 September 2011

Here I am, in Cairo, and very warm it is too! Compared to Liverpool, at any rate. According to the BBC, Egypt is on a state of alert due to the riot at the Israeli Embassy. I can't say I've noticed anything, last night or today.

There isn't very much to report at this stage beyond the fact I made it. This is more remarkable that it might seem, given my reintroduction to Middle Eastern driving was worse than I remember (or indeed, looking out of the window as we alternately hurtled round blind bends and dawdled up long straights, worse than most other drivers appeared to be). I was caught at the airport by a representative of Egypt's tourism authority, who offered me a taxi to Zamalek (the location of the Guest House) for 100 LE (Egyptian Pounds). This was more expensive than I might have expected to pay on a metered taxi, but given the advantage of having someone else carry my bags and being taken to a waiting car, I was willing to pay the premium - the first mistake! I was handed over to a porter, who led me to the other side of the airport car park (a big car park) and to the car that was meant to be taking me. At this point there was a twenty minute argument between the porter and the driver, complete with phone calls back to the representative who'd caught me in the first place. Though I couldn't understand them, the gist was clear: the designated driver didn't want to drive. Eventually, though, he grudgingly put my bags in the boot, I got into the car, and off we went - my second mistake! He might have been drunk or high, but I'm willing to go with the assumption that he was simply a bad driver in what appeared to be bad health. I suppose he could have been described as large, he was sweating excessively for the temperature, and periodically he would sort of groan, cough and rub his heart (the combined result of which was a weave through the lanes, and many angry tooting of horns from other drivers). He also appeared to be constantly on the verge of nodding off (and again, this resulted in some weaving). And then there was his erratic speed, which appeared to bear no relation to the condition of the road, the volume of traffic or anything else I could comprehend. 

I'm probably being very uncharitable - after all, we made it, which in Cairo seems to require more skill than one would think! Maybe it's a defensive mechanism: if one behaves like an awful driver, perhaps other drivers will give you a wider berth. Or maybe not.

The Guest House is very pleasant. It's situated next to the Cathedral, and just down the road from the Marriot Hotel. This means that as a pro, I have a wonderful view of the Cathedral from my window. As a con, taxis round here charge extra...

Welcome to Alexandrian Notes!

Just a quick note to explain what is going on. The majority of the posts here will be edited versions of emails that I send to friends and family - so the next three posts will be the last three emails I sent. I have no agenda when writing about Egypt except to report what I see. I might have an agenda when writing about British politics, though I tend to think my views pretty inoffensive (but then, who doesn't?). Please enjoy!