Friday, April 12, 2013

Chickens, Stabbings and Economic Decline

I returned to Alex a couple of weeks ago following a not uneventful month in the UK. My first Friday back at church found me greeted on almost every front by ‘we saw you on TV!’, and from one of the leaders an observation that they would need to find a new church celebrity when I left… But any fears of my life back in Egypt being mundane were swiftly dispelled: riots and gas continued as if I’d never left (though my landlord tells me that they weren’t gassed in all the time I was away); I witnessed a stabbing; I managed to get lost in hitherto undiscovered (by me, at any rate) labyrinthine back streets of the city.

The riots started early last Friday, and with no apparent order. They started over by the train station around 3.30 (or first came to my attention then) with a carelessly thrown petrol bomb coating the wall in flame, and continued on and off through until about 10pm. Things would be calm for an hour at a time, and then suddenly out of nowhere there would be gas and fire. We managed to escape the worst of it: apart from the general tinny smell of the tear gas in the air, only one canister landed particularly close, but the wind blew it all into our neighbours’ building. About 7pm I went shopping with my landlord; in the back streets life continued much as normal, with the melody of sirens, percussion of tear gas launchers, and chorus of yelling and chanting added to the general soundtrack of street sellers and livestock. It was livestock that we were after – chickens, in particular. Now I’ve only ever bought chicken that has already had its doings done to it, so this was a bit of an eye opener. Essentially, the process works like this:

One chooses one’s shop. There are quite a few to choose from, and one knows when one is nearby: they stink. One chooses one’s bird: turkey, pigeon, goose, duck, chicken and more. If one doesn’t fancy bird, rabbit is always an option, and no wild bunnies these: sleek, in a variety of colours and patterns, large, small, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter - one would have thought one had walked into a pet shop. No rabbits for us though. Apparently they’re expensive. The price is determined by live weight, so three chickens are selected, and thrown roughly onto a scale. Oblivious to their doom, poor things, they look around in the inquisitive way chickens seem to have. One caught my eye; I stared him down. Price determined, they’re taken into the butcher’s room, heads held back, and throats neatly slit, before being dropped unceremoniously into a big barrel. I wondered for a split second what the purpose of this was – but then the barrel started to shake violently, and continued to for about three minutes. I take it that the birds were unhappy with their lot… Three blood soaked carcasses are duly taken out of the barrel, and thrown into a big metal contraption in the corner, which starts to whir and gush out quantities of water. When it is done, it emerges that the chickens have, by some act of sorcery, been entirely plucked. They’re then gutted, quartered, vigorously scrubbed with salt water, and bagged. Nothing going to waste, there is a whole army of cats waiting to snatch the scraps. The whole process takes about ten minutes – now that’s what I call fresh chicken.

The next day I had arranged to meet a friend to go exploring the area that best equates to old Alexandria. (It isn’t really an ‘old city’ in the proper sense, mostly because the British, as was their wont, flattened the place in 1882 to teach a local ruler a lesson.) As I walked down from my flat to the seafront a chap started out in front of me across the road. This could turn into an object lesson in looking both ways before crossing the road; certainly there was a squealing of breaks, and something that came very close to the classic action sequence chase involving the protagonist taking a shortcut across a car bonnet. I was preparing to give an internal tut-tut and carry on when I noticed a man and a woman attempting to hide behind a palm tree. Now the classic image of a palm tree as tall and thin is not far from the mark; this would not be an apt description for the couple in question. As a hiding place, it left something to be desired... As the first fellow managed his negotiation with a moving car, the other man let out a yelp, and made a run for it. He slipped, a knife appeared in the hand of the former, and a struggle ensued on the ground – again not dissimilar to a film in which the victim struggles valiantly to hold off the wrist of the chap trying to force a knife in. The victim’s wife jumped on them both, but to no avail – a scream, and the scuffle broke apart. Bystanders came and took the knife from the first fellow, and kept him there; the victim’s wife went off and talked to another bystander; and the victim himself sat on a kerb clutching his blood soaked leg, and letting out frequent shouts. Deciding that the volume of the shouts probably meant that he was okay, I carried on my way. When I came back a few hours later there was no evidence of any quantity of blood on the ground, so I presume all was well.

This unpleasant little episode is a small example of a widely noticed decline in security over the time that I’ve been here. This doesn’t include the riots – they’ve been going on all the time I have been here – but rather individual petty and violent crime. Egyptian friends, and others who have lived here for a long time talk of pick-pocket gangs, drug crime, and muggings on the increase. This could have various causes. One is that the police are feeling bereft of support since the revolution, and have frequently been on strike – with the obvious consequence that fear of consequences of crime declines. Another would be that it is a response of individuals to an insecure feeling in the country: all the old certainties have toppled, and very little has replaced them. This kind of thing can conceivably lead to societal breakdown. A third could be the fact of the revolution itself. The driver of the revolution was a sudden falling away of fear of the authorities, including (indeed, largely) the police. One of very few advantages of an authoritarian regime is that only the really desperate will run the risk of incurring its displeasure. Apart from in cases of more general social breakdown (authoritarianism combined with incompetence or pure rent-seeking), this generally equates to low crime rates. Of course, the disadvantages of authoritarianism may be said to counter this.

The decline in security accompanies a continuous and increasing decline in the economy. There are constant queues at petrol stations; it becomes impossible to get hold of dollars, pounds or euros from official sources; the black market in both thrives. The state can’t afford the subsidies it offers on fuel or food, but nor can the government afford to stop them if it wants to survive – and yet if it doesn’t move some economic reforms, it won’t be eligible for the IMF loan it has negotiated, which would in turn open up loans from other sources. The government instead turns to the rich Gulf states, appealing for loans and aid in the name of Muslim unity. Qatar has stepped in offering large loans and a guarantee of a natural gas supply, but this itself arouses suspicions among Egyptians, with a rumour, among others, of their demanding a twenty year lease of the Suez Canal in exchange for their help. (I am certain that this is untrue. Given the British acquired it in a not dissimilar way, a government that acquiesced to such a deal would be risking their lives as well as their posts.) All together, this contributes to a depression in the country, destroying the optimism that I found post-revolution.

On that rather pessimistic note, I shall leave this edition of Alexandrian Notes. I shall be leaving Egypt for good before the end of the month, and will endeavour to write another before then. But no promises…

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Room with a View

I moved to a new apartment last week. The son of my previous landlady wanted the flat (so that his children could play in the garden); good tenants as we were, we didn’t stand a chance. My flatmates and I went our separate way – one to Morocco, and one back to an old housemate. I moved in with an Egyptian family that I know from church. The rent is higher and the living space smaller; this countered by the total immersion in Egyptian Arabic and the fact that someone cooks for me. Another consequence is that I have ended up opposite the main train station, overlooking a large open space that is ideal for protests. Whilst I have seen such things previously (they’ve been hard to avoid over the time I’ve lived in Alexandria), this Friday was my first opportunity to watch one from beginning to end.

I’d been warned earlier in the week that a big protest was planned for Friday. It wasn’t terribly surprising: they happen most weeks, to a greater or lesser extent. People started to gather early in the afternoon, after the Friday prayers. For their numbers and demeanour, they might as well have been waiting for a train as a protest. For a couple of hours they were simply sitting on convenient pieces of street furniture; the only real clue that there was any political motive to the gathering was a girl spinning round and round holding an Egyptian flag. Her, and the tea seller who set up shop on the other side of the road, evidently expecting something bigger.

Around three, this warm-up act for the main event started. They numbered about fifty, and there was plenty of space for them to protest without disrupting daily life, but they decided that the road (one of two arterial routes running the length of the city) was the obvious place. The whole thing was peaceful, and rather lacklustre. It spluttered along for a couple of hours, before the participants, deciding that the real stuff must be going on elsewhere, drifted off in different directions.

About eight o’clock the main body of the protest arrived. They marched down the road holding a very large flag between them and chanting anti-government slogans, coming to a halt in front of the station. It was hard to estimate in the dark how many there were, but it was a fair number. The organisation degenerated fairly swiftly, and something of a street party commenced, with everyone hanging around in gaggles, several of which had music playing at loud volume. History does not relate who claimed the flag… The tea seller had clearly been anticipating this, as he had not packed up his stall from earlier in the afternoon, and had, indeed, been joined by a hot sweet potato seller (that is, a seller of hot sweet potatoes. I make no claim to an opinion on his looks…). These two appeared to be doing a fairly brisk trade.

Presently, it became apparent that the real action was still taking place elsewhere. The mosque directly below my new apartment had been turned into a makeshift casualty clearing station, and there was a fairly regular stream of motorbikes coming in with the wounded. These agile ambulances were clearly organised: the driver would weave his way through the crowds with his finger permanently on the horn; behind him would be the casualty, and at the rear would be another chap holding the casualty upright. Occasionally a real ambulance would arrive to take someone away. There was also a scent of tear gas in the air: from a distance, this is manifested by a tinny tang, and a slight propensity of the eyes towards watering. Not exactly pleasant, but not sufficient to drive me inside.

Meanwhile, aside from the casualties in the mosque and the gas (neither of which have featured heavily at most parties I’ve been to) the party atmosphere seemed to continue. The police were nowhere to be seen (though occasional cracks from their gas launchers could be heard in the distance). The tea and potato sellers continued to do a roaring trade. This all changed very suddenly, and with no apparent provocation. There was a general panicked surge in the crowd which turned to flight as gas canisters started to land among them.

The protestors regrouped very swiftly, and the mood became rather grim. The chanting started up again, and rubbish bins were set alight and rolled (with little success: most fell over) in the direction of the police lines. Rock throwing prompted another police advance, this time past the mosque-cum-hospital. At this stage, it was apparent that anything in front of the police was fair game (apart, curiously, from the tea seller, who manfully stuck to his post); an ambulance backed away from the mosque under fire, and a protestor who’d been hiding behind it was shot in the leg. From my distance, it was hard to tell what he was shot with, though given the general lack of bodies I suspect it was a gas launcher. He managed to limp away.

The protestors regrouped again and, galvanised by the latest advance, launched a counter attack armed with fireworks, rocks and petrol bombs. The police retreated, and the protestors proceeded to ransack a police station attached to the mosque which had hitherto been ignored. There was an attempt to burn it, though another police charge put a stop to this (something I was rather glad for, not particularly wanting the smoke to fill my apartment). This charge revealed an interesting fact: namely, that the ‘police’ were not all in uniform. There were a number in ordinary clothes, covering their faces with scarves, and armed with machetes, clubs and other makeshift weapons (including the apparently ubiquitous plastic crate). Some friends have suggested they were plain clothes police; others that they were pro-government militia. Either way, they were destructive and indiscriminate, and had no regard for the wounded in the mosque.

A curious feature permeated the charges and counter charges. As the police prepared to charge, there would be a banging of the shields, designed to strike fear into the hearts of the protestors. A charge from the protestors would be preceded by an animal-like shrieking, presumably designed to do the same to the police. The strategies seemed to work, up to a point; certainly, each charge would cause the opposing side to fall back in some disarray. But neither side really followed up on the advantage, or turned retreat into rout.

However, the tide gradually turned against the protestors, and though there remained some surges back and forth, the tea man’s trade was now dominated by those behind the police lines. However, things grew a little too close for comfort for me at this stage when a tear gas canister, whether misdirected, fire deliberately, or hurled back by the protestors, landed at the foot of my apartment building. I was on the balcony at the time, and got a face full of the stuff; even having beaten a retreat inside, it seeped through the window frame, and filled my bedroom and the sitting room. We withdrew to the kitchen. For those of my readers who have not previously experienced tear gas up close, I shall try to describe it. Imagine that you have chopped some chilli, and that it is frying and filling the kitchen with smoke. Meanwhile, you’ve taken the most pungent onions you can find, and chopped them (perhaps, for good measure, wiping your eyes with your chilli and onion soaked hands). To while away the time while the chilli continues to cook, you create lines of ground black pepper on the table top, and snort them. And to complete the picture of eyes, nose and throat, you go into the garden where a bonfire is burning, and take a few good deep breaths of the smoke. Now combine these sensations, and multiply them. You probably haven’t quite reached tear gas (which also produces a slightly burning sensation on the more sensitive skin of the face), but I’ll warrant it sounds quite unpleasant… (For reference, if one is unlucky enough to get caught by the stuff, one should put a couple of drops of vinegar on a wet flannel, and hold it over one’s nose and mouth. And get out of the gas.)

Once the gas had cleared from my bedroom, I decided it was time to go to bed. Curiously, the whole protest finished fairly promptly at midnight, leaving me with relatively undisturbed sleep. For those of my readers concerned that I may be in great danger, I should point out that the closest I got to death or serious injury yesterday was when I fell down the stairs in the morning thanks to my attention being directed at my phone. Fortunately, my landlord was below me, and caught me just before my head careered into a wall. The worst I had to show for it was a couple of grazed knuckles. And that could have happened anywhere…

(For pictures, please take a look at my twitter account: @pdcwelby)