Let’s start anew

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

September 25 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Teacher’s rest, mother’s pest, father’s little worry. That ditty sung in the playground as we swung our satchels at each other has special meaning for the thousands of expats planning their evacuation from Egypt.

Teachers rest was our jingle-jangle for the autumn half-term holiday, which ends in early November.

The 150,000 or so expats are wondering whether to admit their kids into schools back home to catch up on their work – and give up on Egypt. They’re attending crisis-planning sessions, which anticipate chaos at the airports after the election on November 21.

Last Wednesday at one such, someone whose opinion is much harkened said he could anticipate headlines such as: Hundreds Killed as Egypt Votes.

I tossed that into the junk box of my mind. Next day, however, when I faced down an extortionist, a baby faced taxi driver, I found myself soft-shoe shuffling in Dokki’s Massaha Square as he lunged at me with a pinhead-sharp screwdriver.

My life hung on a thread…all over two Egyptian pounds.

Unafraid but abashed a little later I retired for lunch at the Semiramis with a dear friend. She had her story. Her nurse, one she’d known for 30 years, a German woman of impeccable standing who virtually brought up her children, was murdered in her home in Nasr City.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she described the incident: a burglary that ended in her brutal death. She was 83, frail, a lover of Egypt, a saint who had years left to befriend Egypt.

Why on God’s earth should she be killed for the demon of cupidity, the avarice of desire? A few quid to satiate addiction?

As you do over a meal we chitchatted about this and that. I mentioned I hadn’t bumped into a mutual friend.

Don’t you know: she left with her daughter and the grandchildren for Canada?

Canada? Does she know anyone there?


Why leave? She had an experience too excruciating to publish.

She was my mentor and friend. An Egyptian, she fled too befuddled to bid goodbye.

Then I heard of the CFO robbed of EGP 10,000 on a busy highway in full view of passing motorists who deigned not to intervene. Held at gunpoint, he relinquished the means to satisfy the company’s obligations, which included paying staff.

I recounted my own experiences: being threatened by a silly Billy in my bedroom. I gambled he wouldn’t have the heart to assassinate an elderly gent in his Y fronts; returning from a business trip I see my flat has been turned over, my computer invaded.

How did I know? The bugaboo stole two cigarettes left to tempt and to finger – mouse poison to catch rats.

I’m told by an impeccable source Mugamma is ‘misplacing’ expats’ passports left for visa renewal; so many that consuls general have platoons at Cairo International Airport to calm nerves and get the fleeing evacuees out.

Why should the expats be singled out in this way? Many, like me, don’t come to live off the backs of Egyptians’ sweat. We come to learn from the custodians of ancient truths; to offer our two-peneth. We pay 20 per cent of our earnings in taxes – unlike those who evade criminally rather than pay their dues.

If that sounds vainglorious or sanctimonious it shouldn’t. I yearn to live among people who respect their neighbors as themselves. I thought I’d found the place.

Some years ago I left a wallet with a couple of thousand on the counter of a pharmacy downtown I’d never used before. Two hours later I returned and was handed it back intact.

In eight years in Egypt I can’t add up the multitude of miniscule gestures that I value more than gold. I have been received with extraordinary hospitality. Sometimes I could weep to be so blessed.

Yet something’s changed post February 11. I have often remarked that some Egyptians are on a short fuse. They want everything now. They can’t wait.

Intellectually I can understand it. As Uriah Kriegel, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona posits in his paper “The Same Order: The Monitoring Theory of Consciousness” we have no conscious knowledge if we’ve not been schooled to meditate.

The taxi driver lunges because he’s broke and sees a likely looking dope. The goon reaches for his pistol because he is bereft of reasoning. The government caves because it abhors criticism. SCAF oscillates this way and that to assuage misguided patriotic bigots.

Mubarak dons a suit for his court appearance to signal he’s not a prisoner anymore. Who cares? He’s been hanged in the court of public justice: belittled by his peers, a more demeaning end than a noose.

Arab pride is mephitic, noxious, pestilential — as out of place as 19th century regal puffery and buffoonery. Ignoring consequences is feckless.

It’s time to confess. The past half-century has delivered little to be proud of. Neither East nor West. Europe has suffered the ignominy of abasement: the shame of imperialist chicanery, the humiliation of gunboat diplomacy, deceit and meanness.

America’s ambition is one of history’s fleetest, begrimed by greed.

Obama and Cameron are revealed as bantamweights. President Mahmoud Abbas unveils wisdom not blathering cant: Give that which was promised Palestinians, he says calmly. Hand over the birthright you determined: a homeland.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, is a latecomer realist. He climbs the UN podium to say: Hey, you guys, the problem in Israel/Palestine is your creation. Listen up. There are several solutions. Instead of two states in perpetual disharmony, let’s consider one state in amity: peaceful coexistence.

Aristotle described friendship as a single soul dwelling in two bodies. In Greek mythology our ancestors had two heads and four arms, who, if they offended their gods would be split down the middle resulting in the creation of humans condemned to eternity searching for their soulmates.

Egypt has to settle its kindred antitheses in dialogue. Apportioning angst is acerbic aberrance of Arab affinity.

Neil Sedaka sang it exquisitely: Come on baby let’s start anew…’Cause breaking up is hard to do.
Philip Whitfield writes commentary in Cairo.


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