Episode IV –
A candle in the political wind
As retold to Khaled Diab
Date: Early in the election campaign
Place: On a soapbox
My election manifesto – cobbled together in 24 hours and printed on lowest grade recycled pulp – entitled The Popular Sympathy Party: sympathetic leadership means following the will of the people was doing nothing to stir the masses to seize power from the jaws of the lion.
“Haflatoun, your candidate for president,” I beamed as I pressed the flesh and high-fived the locals in a constituency I was visiting. “Will you be voting for me?” I asked one trembling kiosk owner as I sipped a soft drink outside his establishment.
“You’re just one of the extras in this state-sponsored theatre production. Don’t think I can’t see through you. You’re just here to test my loyalty to the president. Long live the Rayis,” he chanted as he left his shop unattended and disappeared down the street.
At one impromptu rally, the tide seemed to be turning. All at once, as I stood on my soapbox preaching to the wind outside the popular Zamalek football club, the dams broke and the irresistible force of my message swept the masses along. A ‘rowdy crowdy’ numbering in the hundreds came gushing towards me and was threatening to overwhelm me by its sheer size.
“The power of sympathy,” I declared triumphantly. “The PSP rocks!”
drivel Aflatoun: Plato Haflatoun: Drivelling Plato
Haflata: Talking drivel
Haflatoun: Drivelling Plato
“I assure you I am not Satan,” I tried to explain as I dodged the projectiles. Then it dawned on me that, in my bid to connect with the proletariat, I had dressed in bright red – a bad choice on match day outside the all-white Zamalek club. Ducking and weaving around the flying debris, I went home and allowed Otter, my blind Siamese, to lick my wounds figuratively and lick his paws literally.
Date: Half way through the election campaign
Time: Late evening
Place: Spit and sawdust watering hole
To appeal to an electorate too long accustomed to political stonewalling, I chose the ear as my poignant electoral symbol. But my rousing Van Goghic slogan as the PSP’s presidential candidate – “Give me your vote and I’ll lend you my ears” – was falling on deaf lobes.
The trouble with ears is that they can hear what they’re not supposed to. In Egypt, it is not just the walls that have ears and loose lips sink more than ships – at least that’s what too many people believe. There is a widespread fear that the regime’s eyes and ears are omnipresent. The government’s agents can see your every move and hear your every whisper, sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you actually said or did anything, if they don’t like the slant of your brows.
“What good are your ears to us? Will they put bread in our children’s stomachs or clothes on their backs?” shouted one punter as he got progressively drunker in a spit and sawdust bar.
“You have my sympathy, but the first step to solving your problems is…”
“Spare us your sympathy,” he burped before brutally ripping the skin off a chickpea. “Sweat and tears are the only things that’ll keep our families going,” he said in a melancholy voice, his eyes misting over. He gave the near-empty Stella bottle on his table a wistful and misty-eyed glance as if silently chastising it, too, for abandoning him.
“I worked 16 hours a day to provide for my motherless children and then I lost my evening job. A few beers every now and then help me face up to their pleading eyes,” he said as he rested his head in his arms.
Just as I was about to order him another beer – and myself half a dozen – to drown his sorrows, he said: “You should try doing some ‘real’ work to find out what life is really like.”
“That’s an excellent idea?” I agreed, fetching us the requisite booze to help the night cruise by. “What do you suggest?” I asked upon my return.
Taken aback by my bold political gesture, the man did not have an immediate answer. “How about construction work?”
“What a constructive suggestion,” I agreed.
Date: A little later in the election campaign
Time: Crack of dawn
Place: Mugamaa II building site labour pool
After a stellar night knocking back Stellas, I headed towards Roud el-Farag where I knew that building contractors picked up casual labour for the new Mugamaa II building project. When I arrived there, outside the walls of the one-time fruit and veg wholesale market, I found around 100 or so men crouching along the kerb in the dim light waiting hopefully to be among the chosen ones. But unlike workers in the second-oldest profession, in the construction business, supply of labour far outstripped demand – until now.
Shortly before the elections began, the president announced that the first step on the road to creating the 600,000 new jobs per year he had promised would be the construction of a second Mugamma that would dwarf its giant predecessor, home to some 30,000 civil servants, on Tahrir Square.
“This is a pure stroke of genius by the president,” one of his spokesmen purred to the media. “In one fell swoop, he is creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs, particularly for those young people who have waited until their middle age for a government position, solving the overcrowding problem in the Mugamaa, and serving the citizen who will enjoy a better level of service from the bureaucracy.”
The new monolith would take five years to build and, once working to full capacity, would house up to 250,000 government workers. Furthermore, it would be built out in the middle of the desert to enable upstream and downstream services and infrastructure employing tens of thousands of people to sprout up around it: buses and minibuses to ferry people there, teahouses for citizens waiting for their documents to be processed, photocopying shops, professional queuers who would stand in line for a fee, scribes with the necessary knowledge of the labyrinthine twists and turns of bureaucratic protocol.
In addition, civil servants could find lucrative sidelines moonlighting as taxi drivers taking fares on their way to work or after they knocked off early. That’s not to mention the hundreds of architects and engineers and the tens of thousands of construction workers who would be needed to build the government’s version of the Tower of Babel.
Kahka, bureaucracy’s sworn enemy, was naturally incensed by the announcement. It was perhaps her worst nightmare come true. “The incumbent is proposing to solve the unemployment problem by constructing a Bureaucracity in the middle of the desert,” she railed at one of her rallies. “Recruiting a new standing army of bureaucrats will not solve the country’s problems, on the contrary it will complicate them.”
She lamented the creation of a new standing army of “flunkies and wasters”. She criticised the government’s attempt literally to paper over the cracks and mask the ugly face of true unemployment with the more acceptable version of partial employment. “We need decentralisation, not recentralisation,” she barked. “The citizen won’t even enjoy a swifter service since there are bound to be new links created in the bureaucratic chain to provide work for all the rubberstampers and everyone will have to travel even further.”
Kahka received a standing ovation for her speech. As for me, I was ordered to stand up by a contractor looking for solid donkey-workers. “Anyone with a strong back and a family to feed should come here now. I need sturdy men to work on the new building site,” the skinny man in a silk galabiya, who had plenty of ears to lend but did not seem to have the slightest inclination to do so, shouted from the open window of a lorry.
With my soapbox at the ready, I leapt into action. “Are you union members? Have you negotiated proper wages? Hey, that young lad there is a little on the small side. Is he old enough to work?” I asked the men as they climbed on to the open back of the large lorry. Each question elicited a loud pig’s snort of derision from people who had bread-and-butter business to attend to.
“You, standing on that silly box, I still need one more man. You can stand there and preach to the stray dogs or you can come and do something useful.”
Date: A little later in the election campaign
Time: Early morning
Place: Mugamaa II building site
The Mugamaa II building site is truly a sight to behold – expanses of empty windswept desert give way to a sudden hive of activity illuminated by the nightshift’s floodlights that were still blazing when we arrived. Although it is early days yet, an idea of just how colossal the structure will be was already taking shape.
“This will be as big as the three great pyramids of Giza combined,” one of the proud civil engineers on the project boasted.
“And three times as useless,” an anonymous voice full of bright mirth boomed from the gloom.
“Who said that?” the engineer interrogated as he moved the beam of his torch over the assembled faces like a searchlight hunting an escaped convict.
There is an easy bond of solidarity that develops between construction workers. Perhaps the hardships they endure act like quick-drying emotional cement. Whatever the reason, within 36 hours, all but two of the casual workers who had been on my truck had declared themselves sworn ‘salt and bread’ brothers.
We all acquired our on-site aliases within two days. There was ‘Natural Gas Ghazi’ who was a human reservoir of renewable bio-energy and a staunch supporter of sustainability. ‘Frighteningale Farid’ loved to sing but had a voice like a cement mixer, while ‘Smoking Al Jazeera’ was addicted to two things at the café: water pipe tobacco and round-the-clock news.
Smoking Al Jazeera nicknamed me ‘the democrator’. “The regime’s democratic façade is showing some fatal fractures in its foundations. But instead of doing any actual renovation work, they just brought in some cheap contractors with a brush, like yourself, to paint over the cracks. How long do you think it will be before the fractures reappear?” he asked me breathlessly as we strained under 50kg sacks of concrete and 40˚C invisible heat great jackets. Smoking worked in the wrong sector, lived in the wrong city, and loved the wrong poison for his constitution.
Frighteningale tried to keep our spirits up by ‘treating’ us to his encyclopaedic repertoire of songs by Farid al-Atrash (the Druze prince who became a legendary singer – and crap actor on the Egyptian silver screen – between the 1940s and 1970s and whose family name means ‘the Deaf’). “I feel like a member of the al-Atrash clan?” Ghazi complained, punctuating his distaste with one of his famed natural gas emissions induced by that morning’s fuul (traditional beans) breakfast.
“Are you a Druze?” I asked, genuinely fascinated by the possibility of meeting the descendants of a crazy caliph’s chief theologian, al-Darazi, who fled unrest in Cairo to set up a secretive sect in Syria. Only as adults is a Druze allowed to learn the secrets of his or her faith.
“No, I mean deafness would be a blessing right now,” he explained.
For me, the fact that we had a wannabe Al-Atrash (the deaf) was a poignant reminder of how dismally my sympathetic ear election campaign was failing! “Natural Gas, are you going to vote for me?” I queried despondently.
“What’s your position on the environment?” he asked.
“If you elect me, I promise that, within a decade, all vehicles in Egypt will be running on biofuul,” I said.
“How is that possible?” he quizzed, “there’s hardly enough fuul in the country to feed the poor masses, let alone run the transport system.”
“Yes, but with my plan to boost prosperity, demand for fuul will collapse because everyone will be eating kebab,” I explained and I could see Ghazi’s mouth begin to water (despite his environmental credentials, his almost-complete vegetarianism was forced upon him by his circumstances). “I also plan to invest heavily in research that will make biofuul a viable option.”
On the 38th floor, Al Jazeera was seized by an asthma attack that threw him, kicking and lashing, to the ground. I ran to his aid but, unfortunately, owing to the fact that he hadn’t worked much this week, he had not purchased a new aspirator, and an old one lay uselessly in his pocket. “It’s a placebo,” he explained, smiling weakly, as he clawed for air. “It gives me psychological support,” he wheezed.
My brain in a spin, I recalled the childbirth classes I’d attended long ago with a friend who thought she’d ticked the box beside yoga when she signed up at a nearby health club. “But you’re not pregnant,” I’d pointed out. “Well, if they won’t give me back my money, I’ll stuff a pillow up my blouse.” Calling on the training I received, I coaxed Smoking to try to take long, deep breaths.
After regaining his normal breathing, he leaned sheepishly against an anaemic pillar to clean the caked sweat and cement dust on his wire-rimmed spectacles “If this section of building comes tumbling down, am I also to blame because I knew it was a charade and kept quiet or am I just an innocent bearer of substandard cement?” pondered Al Jazeera.
I started pacing in deep contemplation. “I’m doing this to push the system to its limit,” I reflected. “It’s only by going to the edge, through calculated brinkmanship, that we can reach new heights of…”
“Haflatoun!! Watch out,” Al Jazeera boomed. I snapped out of my ponderous daze and realised that I was balanced precariously at the point where the insubstantial building ended and real thin air began.
In an attempt to save me from myself, Smoking performed a heroic flying tackle that succeeded in knocking me off my perch and taking him with me. Luckily, because the floor we were on was incomplete, we only dropped one storey before we landed in proverbial shit – i.e. on the foreman.
“The two of you are fired,” he yelled from the impromptu stretcher he was being carried away on. Before returning to the campaign trail, I tried to convince the fearsome foreman to keep Smoking on. But he refused to give me a sympathetic ear and the last time I saw Smoking Al Jazeera, he was dragging plumes of comfort from his shisa while hypnotising himself with the stream of images beamed by his favourite news channel. He seemed to be contemplating his radical students days when he’d believed he could make a difference. When I waved goodbye to him, he looked blankly past me and, I don’t know if the tobacco-thick air was playing tricks, but I suspect he was sobbing behind the smokescreen enveloping him.
Date: Late September
Time: Post-election twilight
On election day, sympathy for my sympathetic ear was in short supply at the voting stations. Rebranding the Popular Apathy Party and transforming it into the Popular Sympathy Party did not, at the end of the day, make the massive difference we’d hoped for.
The PSP garnered only 0.53% of the vote – one-hundredth of a percent for every year of unconsummated democracy in the republic’s history – leaving me in much need of a sympathetic ear and perhaps even a shoulder.
The former Popular Apathy Party’s Secretary-General Salim Amrak Ilaallah could do little to console me. “Sorry, I couldn’t be more help during your campaign. I had to take the kids to the north coast – you know it’s quieter and cheaper at the end of the summer,” he explained. “But I was certain you could handle it by yourself.”
Hardly able to credit the apathy of the man, I stormed out of the coffee shop. “‘Touny, how awful for you,” Kahka’s voice consoled distantly through the receiver of my mobile phone. “But did you really think you could win?”
“No, but I expected a bit more of a sympathy vote. You know, I stuck my neck out to run in this election. I expected more people would come out and help me defy the status quo.”
“The idea of defying authority is tough enough for a lot of people,” she reflected. “But defiance during office hours is a little more than most can handle.”
“How did your campaign go?” I asked, changing the subject. “Imagine if you’d won. Egypt would have a woman president!”
To temper my enthusiasm, she noted: “‘Touny, you know that wouldn’t have lasted long. I had plans to abolish the presidency.”
“But would you have stuck to them once you’d entered office? Would you not have been even a tiny bit tempted or dazzled to hold on?”
“Haflatoun, I am a woman of principles!” Kahka barked angrily. “Anyway, I’m busy with our campaign demanding a Fayuum recount.”
“Well, we only pulled in 3% nationally (my heart sank when I learnt she’d done so much better than me), but our exit polls indicated that we’d won the oasis city by a comfortable majority. But Dead men voting was playing at every polling station in Fayuum and there was a lot of ballot stuffing. In the end, we were left with 2.2%.”
“Yeah, especially because the prospect of declaring Fayuum an FDA was getting us quite excited,” Kahka admitted wistfully.
“Surely, you mean FTA?”
“‘Touny, my boy, you know that free trade is an oxymoron,” Kahka explained as if tutoring a student. “Either the dice are loaded to the advantage of the rich, or it renders you a slave to consumerism. Where’s the freedom in that?”
“We’re thinking of a Freedom and Democracy Area. Like some sort of federal arrangement, it would be an area under the authority of the central government but where the emergency law does not apply,” she elaborated.
“Can I be your first asylum seeker?” I asked eagerly.
“Sure you can. But I don’t think we can count on the recount. Our contingency plan is to apply for a plot of land allocated for reclamation and move there with a band of dedicated followers to turn the desert green and set up our FDA.”
Will the recount amount to a victory for the status quo or Kahka? Will the existential baker be forced to take her half-baked plans to the desert? Will she succeed in her quest to set up an FDA? Will Haflatoun become her first asylum seeker? ‘Toun in next time for another odd-venture of Haflatoun.
ã2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.