The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Thar he blows


Vanity Fair has a couple of pieces on the Middle East right now.

The first is a combined text / photo bit on Egypt headlined—a little disconcertingly for those of us who live around here—“Under Egypt’s Volcano� / “The Egypt you’re not supposed to see.�

The pics are by Magnum photog Paolo Pellegrin, and at least 14 of the 17 are lovely, complicated things that amply reward time spent figuring out the light and the lines.

The text is by Scott Andersen. He cuts back and forth between Al Arish (where he talks to relatives of “the notorious Flaifil brothers,� the Bedouin men alleged to have been at the center of the 2004 Taba bombings) and Beni Suef, where he meets with a long cultivated “friend� (read journalistic contact) and a shadowy (and way-sinister) Jihadi type. His point is, ultimately, slightly fatuous: Egypt is chock full of frustrated, broke young guys who are right on the edge of blowing up some serious shit.

Never mind that though. This is Vanity Fair, after all. The piece is built on anecdote, and very nicely built it is. Andersen makes some very fair points about the inequities of life in Egypt and the violent repression of the security forces (see Hossam's bit on torture in Arish below), and the pressures that these create. There are also some great passages, as where Andersen writes about asking the concierge in his five-star hotel how to take a train to meet his friend.
… his look changed to bafflement when he heard my request. "You want to take a train to Bani Suweif? But there is no reason to go to Bani Suweif, sir."

I explained I had a friend there.

"An Egyptian friend? Then it is much better if he comes here."

"But I want to go there," I said.

With a frown of consternation, he picked up his telephone and spoke in hushed Arabic. He apparently heard good news, for his frown cleared, and he replaced the receiver with a relieved sigh. "I'm sorry, sir; very few trains go to Bani Suweif, and all the ones today are full. What is best is to arrange a minivan for you, with a driver and a guide."

I knew this couldn't be true. Just 75 miles south of Cairo on the Nile, the town of Bani Suweif lay on Egypt's main rail line; there were probably dozens of trains every day, and they couldn't all be full. The real issue, I suspected, was that I had just run up against Big Nanny.

In response to the terror attacks on foreigners in the 1990s, the Egyptian government now operates a vast internal-security apparatus designed to shield visitors from any potential unpleasantness or harm. Wander away from the demarcated and heavily protected tourist zones in the countryside and the ever present tourist police will try to herd you back; insist on proceeding and, more than likely, you will end up with your own bodyguard detail. The specific problem with Bani Suweif, I surmised, was that the nondescript industrial city, best known for the pall of white dust from its two cement factories, fell outside of any conceivable tourist zone. By stating my intention to go there, I had tripped the Big Nanny alarm bells—and those bells would continue to sound until I gave up or submitted to whatever minivan security package was arranged.

Telling the concierge I would think things over, I wandered away. I then went down to the main railway station and caught the first train.

Fine stuff. And Andersen’s point about Big Nanny, which he plays off nicely against Big Brother, is well made. He can’t help coming off as a bit of a Big Khawaga, however, as he wanders about sniffing out “the angriest man in Egypt� and generally playing up some pretty threadbare stereotypes. Naïve, lovelorn Farouk from Beni Suef may go over just fine with the domestic readership, but we can practically see Andersen sitting crosslegged on the floor of his Marriott hotel room cutting the guy out with a pair of scissors. In one scene he has him pulling a bundle of postcards from a shoebox under his bed.
"From the girl I loved," Farouk said, untying the string.

The girl, from eastern Canada, had been on vacation in Sharm al-Sheikh with her family when they had met. As he flipped through the postcards, Farouk described a chaste, almost pre-pubescent version of romance: strolls along the beachfront promenade, long talks in a secluded corner of the hotel gardens, a quick kiss or hug when they were sure no one was looking.

"I loved her so much," he said, "and I thought she loved me, too, but … " He held out a postcard. "This is the last one from her."

Twang go my heartstrings for the lost world of innocence that the worldly journalist so thoughtfully illuminates for us here.

And herein lies the problem with this piece. Evocative and compelling, it still deals in half a dozen paper cutouts rather than real people, and—because it is built on anecdote—these two dimensional little tokens are all we have to go on. A nice read, but it’s going to take more than this bit of Harlequin-on-the-Nile to convince me that the Talibanization of Egypt is just around the corner.