The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Rumble in Cairo

Nour, The Arabist's invaluable Intern, share this account of what has become everyday violence in Cairo. 

Verse 99 in Quran is a fragment of a conversation between the prophet Yūsuf, not Allah, and his parents, and not all of mankind, in which he says: "Enter Egypt, if Allah wills, in safety." The verse, which many Egyptians read too much into, is often partly quoted on talk shows, usually near the end of an episode in which the host wants to leave the audience on a hopeful note, or in the middle of a monologue about the eventual failure of terrorists (meaning Islamists) to control it and thus make it unsafe to live in.

That quote, which is closer to a causal "You'll be alright, God willing" than a divine promise of perpetual security and safety, the chronic lack of which Egyptians don’t need to be reminded of, is by far the most ironic sentence one can hear from a man, who just three hours ago was threatening to burn the face of an annoying stranger with acid.

It all began when my sister, who operates under the belief that she is worth seven (very small)  men, “unavoidably grazed” a toktok and then told its driver to bugger off. He would not. Instead, he  demanded that she pull over, which she did, despite my offering to kiss the dust underneath her feet for her not to.

To my great relief, what came out of the toktok was only a scrawny teen, who began wildly waving his arms at us, perhaps to make himself appear bigger or attempt flight. They exchanged a few words about blinkers and the need to use/notice (verb depends on whose side you take) them and then threw the should-be inoffensive and self-evident fact that both their mothers have had sexual intercourse at some point in their lives in each other’s faces.

By then a crowd had quickly formed to separate the two, as I sat in the car, eyeing the gear stick, wondering if I could, very quietly, drive past them. Then someone remembered that it was Ramadan after all and that it was probably just their empty stomachs screaming. Moments later they were both being ushered back to their vehicles, red-faced and grumbling “May Allah bless him and give him peace” after someone in the crowd invoked the prophet Muhammed’s name. The altercation was over. Or so we thought.

Shortly after we arrived at home, we were told that there was a disgruntled young man muttering in a toktok about a thuggish woman who walked into the building after she irreparably destroyed his toktok. The man swore he was going to kill, or at least maim, the said woman, and had already called a group of friends and family to join him in doing so.

Prior experience said not to call the police, because, in all likelihood, they would just call back in a few hours later to ask why you called them again and if there was any blood yet (if you answer no to that question, you may be charged with false reporting of a crime for wasting the authorities’ time. All four minutes of it. And if you answer yes, they will ask you to call back when it’s over. They will swing by later to collect the bodies and scribble down a report - their general indifference made worse by the closeness to Ezbet El-Nakhl and El-Marg, areas they would sooner nuke than enter). So instead of the police, we called the mechanic.

Ahmed, the mechanic, may not be the bulkiest of men. But what he lacks in muscles, he more than makes up for with a generally unhealthy, but, in light of the circumstances, suddenly commendable obsession with vigilantism. An obsession he developed after he lost a brother in a street fight over a car tire that was tragically blown out of proportion. The fight, not the tire.

Without introduction, the two groups, Ahmed and his friends, and the toktok driver and his friends,  began cursing each other out, brandishing their pistols, sticks and the likes. As if on cue, the unarmed ones (by unarmed I mean lacking a gun) scattered around after each other, while the armed ones exchanged aimless birdshots. The unarmed ones then clashed, broke apart, ran after each other, and then clashed again. Some were trying to suffocate and kick each other at the same time. Their physical proximity made the latter impossible, but they kept trying nonetheless, giving the impression that they were trying to climb, rather than kill, each other.

About an hour later, four of the toktok driver’s relatively uninjured friends remembered they had other pressing commitments and left to tend to them. Once outnumbered, Hamada opted for dialogue.

It didn’t take much after that to persuade  Hamada to accept the removal of the dent for free in exchange for never showing his face within the perimeter again. During that process, in an effort to show goodwill, Hamada told Ahmed that my sister’s face was safe. “I wasn’t going to burn it, burn it, you know... I have sisters! I was just going hit and scare her a bit, you understand?” he explained in the end, before recalling the comforting fact that Egypt was mentioned in the Quran 5 times.

It’s actually just four times. That must be why.

It is worth noting that although these men had never met each other until that day and most of them didn't even know what they were fighting about, they were quite eager to seriously wound each other. In fact, after the fight came to a disappointingly peaceful (to some extent) end, they almost got into another fight trying to arrange a meetup and really “finish it” later. They exchanged phone numbers and settled on next Thursday night, if not Friday morning before the prayers. Another equally, if not more, fascinating fact is how normal all of this has become.