Maria Golia: Rebels without a pause
03. November 2009 13:00
As befits one of history’s earliest totalitarian bureaucracies, Egypt also boasts its first recorded strikes. During the reign of Ramses III (1184-53 BC) government supplies for a community of royal tomb builders bivouacked in the desert were delayed for over six months. At several locations the workers staged spontaneous non-violent sit-ins; then again, they may have been too weak to stand up. Prior to the strikes, a scribe wrote the following appeal:
I am working in the tombs of the royal children which my master ordered me to prepare…I am working excellently, I do not let myself go in the slightest….We are in extreme destitution…lacking in every staple …A load of stone is not light!. Truly we are already dying, we are no longer alive.
In those days, workers performed hard labor in exchange for sustenance. They received wheat, beer, onions and other vegetables, milk, oil, fruits and ten pounds of fish per day, though meat was only issued on special occasions. Between hewing and hauling rock up desert cliffs, and working in an Egyptian factory, farm or behind a government desk, it’s a toss-up as to which is preferable – but the ancients certainly ate better.
Six million Egyptians work for the government as civil servants, the bulk of them in downtown Cairo. Given their salaries (less than US$100. per month), they must augment their earnings with a second if not third job. The more enterprising sell sandwiches, cosmetics or clothing to colleagues, while those exhausted from moonlighting catch up on sleep. Quantities of tea, coffee, cigarettes and pumpkin seeds are consumed daily. Some people read newspapers, and the pious devote hours to reading the Qur’an. Since coffee or lunch breaks are not formally scheduled, many claim that prayer offers time out for refreshment. Others suggest that it is a means of escape from a boring job, like a protracted telephone conversation with a relative. By some estimates, the average time spent actually working is between seven minutes and a half-hour per day.
At least 35 percent of the people sharing battered desks in ledger-jammed offices are ‘surplus to requirements’. Yet it’s not enough to point to Cairo’s ungainly bureaucracy and say that the system is inefficient or the people incompetent and lethargic. On the contrary, inertia is a weapon. People make the best of an exercise in futility by rendering each chit-counting process in their charge interminable and opaque. Egyptian bureaucracy is the equivalent of rebellion, its tangled knots tied with the malice of disappointment.
Melville’s short story, Bartleby the Scrivener is about an office worker who refused to work or leave his place of employment, saying repeatedly when requested to do something: ‘I prefer not to.’ Like a three-year old who knows only ‘no’ Bartelby’s refutation of authority seems similar to Egyptian delinquency in the pervasive face of Big Daddy. But Egyptian inertia is more subversive and far-reaching; it recognizes its opponent as itself. Behind it is the consensual, albeit tacit knowledge that for anything to definitively change, everything must go.
Egypt’s ravaged countryside, its imploded cities and ossified ideologies are proofs not of governmental failure but of the people’s success in refuting a failed method of social organization. To make way for the new they must demolish their country, cities and selves from the inside out, and however long it takes, they figure time is on their side.
Egypt, which had a head start in reaching the metaphysical finish line, has turned evolution on its heels. It’s no longer a matter of survival of the fittest, since even they have proved grotesquely unequal to the tasks at hand. It’s now a matter of relinquishing ascendency to the most deficient and unfit as the swiftest path to self-extinction. Only then, from the post-primordial ooze, can life begin afresh.
I grew up in an industry-scarred town, the daughter of first-generation European immigrants. My father was born in America, one of ten children, several of whom had made the trip from Calabria with their parents. He was a construction worker who ran his family in patriarchic Italian fashion. My mother was of Polish origin, a factory worker (until she married), also catholic and committed to her family, but secretly longing for escape.
She died at 44, leaving my father with four children. As the only girl, I inherited many household responsibilities and was obliged to attend mass six days a week for ten years. Whatever freedom was to be had, I gained by stealth. My upbringing was only somewhat less religious or strictly supervised than that of the Egyptian girls, Muslim and Christian, I see around me today.
At twenty-four I came to Cairo, apt testing ground for the limits of my daring: unknown, at first glance harmless, a respectably bohemian address and less taxing than places like Paris and Rome where I had already lived. To be shod and pressed was the height of fashion in Cairo. It was also cheaper and safer; I’d had my fill of being bounced off the sidewalks of so-called first-world cities.
Here, I could walk the streets fearlessly at all hours of the night, and live on virtually nothing. Strangers were welcoming and generous, inexplicably happy to see me. When I told them I wasn’t visiting but lived here they thought I must have lost my mind. For the first time anywhere, I felt free.
My hosts, meanwhile, were living under martial law.
The irony of having chosen to express my independence in a police state has only lately become apparent to me. I discovered it one day while writing yet another tart, insightful editorial about Egypt’s systemic corruption, injustice and penury. I realized I’d grown attached to being pissed-off at powerful males, so I quit my job, left my Arab boyfriend and, coincidentally, stopped menstruating.
Coca-Cola is Cairo’s beverage of choice. At tens of thousands of ramshackle sidewalk kiosks, youths gather with streaming bottles in hand. The streets are embedded with a mosaic of discarded bottle caps, welded to the asphalt by heat and the passage of cars.
In mid-2000, the rumor circulated that the Coca-Cola logo read backwards said in Arabic, ‘No Mohammed, No Mecca’ and that anyone who drank it risked apostasy. When or why this rumor originated is uncertain, but it was taken seriously enough for the Cairo municipality to have Coca-Cola signs in stores along a center-city boulevard removed. The immense billboard that had been pouring red neon coke onto Liberation Square since 1993 might have been next, were it not, paradoxically, for the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar. Having carefully examined the logo he issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, declaring it was designed in Georgia in 1886 by a chemist with no knowledge of the Arabic language.
The Mufti’s pronouncement did not prevent thousands of Cairenes from holding bottles up to a mirror to see for themselves. Doubt had set in and soda sales plummeted. Public censure in Egypt is a greater force than religious authority, since survival is only possible as part of the group, and individuality itself is akin to heresy.
A bearded young man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt came to my flat to repair the internet equipment. He was competent, curt, had neatly clipped fingernails and introduced himself as Mohammed. Names are generally meant to differentiate things and people, but so many are called Mohammed here that it is less a name than a metaphor for faith and goodness, so common that were you to call it out on any street you’d find yourself surrounded within seconds.
I gave Mohammed tea and chocolate cookies. We talked a little about computers, but not much. When he left I gave him my hand, but he refused it.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘I am Muslim’ he said.
‘So what?’ I asked.
‘It is in haram (forbidden) for me to touch your hand.’
While there had been no local fatwa to my knowledge, controversy about unrelated men and women touching hands had left its mark on many young Egyptians for whom piety is the only permissible badge of achievement. Conspicuous religious dress and practice is also a form of rebellion, an unassailable means of saying fuck-you to a corrupt secular regime. But in this boy’s case, I was bound to wager, it was merely a matter of following the herd.
‘Come on- take my hand’ I urged him.
He blinked, was understandably uncomfortable, as I am a tall commanding woman with pictures of naked blue goddesses wearing wreaths of bloody skulls hanging above my desk. My outstretched hand looked awkward, but somehow threatening. My fingernails, I noticed, weren’t clean.
I asked Mohammed how old he was (22) and proceeded to lecture him about how long I’d lived in Egypt and how many hands belonging to people no less good or god-fearing than him I’d shaken; how his behavior denied fellow Muslims the dignity of their more tolerant, yet time-honored traditions and convictions; how his insistence was prideful, elitist and disrespectful to his elders.
He finally touched my hand with two very stiffly extended fingers. Then, head bowed, he fled.
A few years back, Egypt’s Grand Mufti cited Qur’anic verses about preserving one’s health, and declared smoking haram (forbidden), even encouraging women to divorce their husbands if they refused to quit.