I saw a movie – a documentary, actually.
It was called Fire at Sea.
(Which is just the name of a song.)
A little boy on the island of Lampedusa was feeling anxious.
He had a lazy eye and he threw up when the sea underneath his father’s fishing boat got too rough.
Less than 10 years old, but he didn’t have the manly qualities he felt he should have.
Though his slingshot never missed, he needed to stand on the pontoon during rough weather to train his legs.
And learn how to row.
“Everyone on Lampedusa knows how to fish.”
Meanwhile, we heard the dj playing melancholic love songs from mothers and wives for sons and husbands at sea.
Or stuck on land, when the storm whipped up the waves so high that no one would go into the water.
They were in the kitchen preparing the food.
In between were the calls for help from the ships arriving from Libya.
As if they were normal features of daily life.
They are. They have become a regular part of life.
Eighty, one hundred and fifty, two hundred and forty people on a ship.
Divided in layers according to price, with no air at the bottom and only some on in the middle.
The ship just floats, no petrol no steering wheel no direction no possibility.
Out at sea.
I saw the coast guard get to a ship in time.
Wobbly legs going from the wooden vessel into the rubber speedboat onto the big ship.
“There’s one with chicken pox, he’s coming on board last!”
A friendly pat on the back, almost unnoticed.
I can tell the Eritreans from the West Africans from the Syrians and I wonder why I am looking at them this way.
I saw the coast guard get to a ship too late.
Dehydrated bodies are pulled out first, handed over by arms and legs still strong enough.
They fall into the rubber boat as if life has left them already.
Only breath is left of them.
Maybe a heartbeat.
I can’t tell.
The others climb out by themselves until the boat is empty.
It’s just a metal hull now, surrounded by waves, until the camera moves inside.
We don’t see whole people, only parts.
Stacked together in death like they were in the dream that got them in this ship.
They died like this.
Maybe we should see their faces to know who we did this to.
Maybe it is a last act of dignity to not expose them in their last suffering.
Once on the ship the men sit still and the women cry openly.
Once on the island, the men play football and the women watch.
The machine continues -
The little boy with the slingshot has a patch on his eye and trouble breathing.
The doctor listens to his lungs and heart and says he will be fine.
I’m not sure the little boy believes him.
There is a Fire at Sea.
The Mediterranean is burning.
I saw a movie – a documentary, actually.
At the Vodafone store, to buy my pre-paid internet bundle for next month.
Me: Please remind me what packages you have, it’s something like 3GB or 7GB per month, right?
Employee: Yes, but all the prices have gone up. So we have the 60 EGP* bundle which is now 65 EGP and the 100 EGP bundle which is now 110 EGP.
Me: You mean the 3GB bundle is now 65 EGP and the 7GB bundle is 110 EGP?
Employee: No, the 60 EGP bundle is now 65 EGP and the 100 EGP bundle is now 110 EGP.
Me: Uh, ok… I’ll have the 7GB bundle, as usual.
Employee: You mean the 100 EGP bundle.
Me: … ok. I’ll have the 100 EGP bundle.
Employee: Great! One 100 EGP bundle. That’ll be 110 EGP, please.
*EGP = Egyptian Pound
It’s been almost three years since I moved to Egypt, and I still can’t write about it like I used to write about Lebanon. When living in Beirut, it felt like life just kept presenting me with scenes, images, stories that could represent bigger things that were going on in the country. I could also write about little things that were not necessarily representative, but at least in some ways typical or extreme versions of usual occurrences. In Egypt, I hesitate to take anything that happens and write it up to highlight a bigger underlying issue. I live my daily life in Cairo, I encounter people and situations like I would anywhere else, and yet I come home and nothing stands out enough to be able to use to it explain or illustrate any description of Egyptian life. And I wonder: why is this?
With great regularity, Lebanese people would tell me to give up trying to understand their country and society, because I would never be able to. I never felt like that was true. Sure, I probably misunderstood some (or many) things, or have explained or interpreted things in ways that many Lebanese would not agree with, but that just makes me human - it doesn’t mean that there is something inherently incomprehensible about Lebanese society. It helped that I was mostly hanging out with thoughtful, analytical people, who weren’t generally fazed by my many questions as to why, why, why certain things are done a certain way (and not another). It also seemed that even if different groups in society completely opposed each other’s (political) views, they were never baffled that anyone could, in fact, hold such views. It was as if their differences were on the extreme end of the same plane, somehow.
In Egypt, no one has ever told me it is impossible to understand Egyptian society, but many have shaken their head at my attempts to do so. My questions have been met with sighs and ‘well, I don’t understand it either.’ Sometimes I feel it’s a matter of scale – can you ever truly feel you understand a country of 80 million people, a society where people are as baffled by each other as they are with things they see on National Geographic? With a country of this magnitude also comes a tremendous variety in terms of language, traditions, ways of living and positions in society that make it hard to take anything as a vignette for the rest.
But even if I take ‘just’ Cairo and leave regional differences aside, there is still something else at play. It has something to do with the way Egyptian society can be overwhelming and intrusive in its massiveness that makes every encounter with it disappear into a blur after it’s over. Its noise, the way it demands your attention at all times (a short bike-ride is 50% tiring because of the physical effort required and 50% because of the constant barrage of words and cars and honking horns and scooters and stares, for example), that makes it so that nothing particularly stands out once you retreat from it. A retreat that is only partial, because even in a beautiful apartment on the third floor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, the soundscape of daily life still enters, and that makes it hard to step back and analyze it.
I’m forcing myself to try though, this month. Maybe I’ll be a little wiser by the end of it.
I live in a side street of a side street of a side street, in an area with very little high rise and even less traffic, and yet my street is really only quiet on Friday mornings. All other days I can tell the time by the sounds that come up to my third-floor apartment.
First it’s the vegetable guy with his younger brother and their horse-drawn vegetable cart. They have voices like I’ve only once heard before, in Yemen. Potatoes! Tomatoes! Cauliflowers! More potatoes! Even if you weren’t in the market for some fresh greens, you almost want to run down to get some just to get them to stop screaming.
An hour or so later, it’s an old man uttering a loud string of religious words, as per the holy book in his one hand, alternated with a cry about the lemons in his other hand. No one in my house has ever been able to really understand him – I’m not sure if he’s cursing or blessing us, or if that depends on whether or not he sells any lemons (if indeed they are for sale).
For a while it’s just the usual soundscape of dogs barking, cars honking, the whizzing of the neighbor’s water pump and the occasional clacking of horse or donkey hooves pulling carts with squeaky wheels. Sometimes, if the rest of the world is quiet enough, I can hear the little bells that decorate their bridles.
Then the old lady arrives. She’s probably not taller than a meter and a half, and takes her about 20 minutes to get from one end of the street to the other, all the while moaning and wailing incomprehensible ahhhs and ooohss. She carries towels over her right arm, of different sizes, and it may be that she sells them, too.
In the afternoon, the vegetable man and his brother reappear. This time, their voices often clash with those of the men on old cargo bikes who collect used goods like broken chairs, furniture and appliances, making their presence known by screaming ‘roba vecchia’ – the Italian term for ‘old stuff’, as far as I’ve understood (although many of them don’t seem to know what they’re saying either).
By now, it’s time for the children to come home. They’ll quietly do their homework on the hood of a parked car until it’s dark. Dark is when playtime starts. Their football teams battle until late at night, and I often go to sleep by the sound of their disputes about goals scored (or not).
I don’t mind the noise. I know the potato-guy will wake me up on time the next morning.
Yesterday a friend (Egyptian, woman, veiled, in her twenties) told me she doesn’t know if she could live in Europe or the USA because she’s afraid she’ll stand out too much. I told her there are many areas of Amsterdam where she’ll stand out less than I do here. Yes, she said, but you are white, so standing out here only gets you better treatment, isn’t it? White people always get treated better in Egypt, right?
Well, I said. Sometimes we do, but sometimes we don’t. On the benign side of it, standing out means I always get overcharged. A lot, and shamelessly. I get pointed at, whispered about, and stared at, always and everywhere.
On the more vicious side, I get stones thrown at me. I get punched in the stomach. I have had supposedly feminist Egyptian women tell me that it’s less bad when a white woman gets raped, because she has sex all the time anyway.
My friend was shocked. Why do I never hear about this? She asked.
I don’t know.
Part of it is the knowledge that I do have it better (at least financially) than most Egyptians. Part of it is the fact that other people who stand out face worse as a result of their difference. And part of it is the ultimate argument: then why don’t you leave. The hideousness of this argument is that it presents the consequences of standing out as being my choice. I choose to live in Egypt = I choose to live with people spitting and screaming at me for my skin color. This is not true, and comes dangerously close to victim-blaming. The truth in this argument is that the difference is indeed that I can leave, even if I don’t want to, and many others can’t. So ultimately, I won’t complain, but I would love to have a chance to be invisible sometimes.