Thursday, 28 July 2011

The New Colonials - Time for a Revolution?

The revolution in Egypt has resulted in increased difficulties for foreigners to obtain visas. Whereas before, foreigners could renew 6 month tourist visas for years, if not decades, the times are a changin' for the epxat community now. Oil companies are under increased pressure to hire Egyptians with stricter ratio quotas. Foreigners widely percieved as taking the jobs from locals are being kicked out. I wonder if the behaviour of some of the expats in Egypt has not contributed to this nationalistic fervour...

Neo-Colonials: Skeletons in the School Cupboard 

It started one winter’s day when we were all sent an email from school. 

“To All Parents,” it read.

“Please tell your drivers to go round the one way system, drop you and your children and then wait at a prearranged spot to be called back for pick up.”

The safety of our children was at stake, it seemed and not only that! Traffic chaos, a fact of life in Cairo, had finally extended its sly, sticky tentacles to the British school. The missive read like a takeover warning, a call to arms against cultural invasion. I laughed, then, and took it in good humour, promising inwardly to change my sloppy ways. It was, I admit, also my fault. Disorganised and often late, we sped round the short dusty route to the school forcing our car against the tide of school traffic, parking after a nifty, prohibited, U-Turn at the gate so that Mohammed, our young, savvy driver could go and chat with his mates while I ran with my son to class.

The school, a sandy coloured building with tinted green windows on the outskirts of building desert, borders a new sports club for disaffected Middle Class Christian Copts escaping the ‘effendi’ Muslim takeover of the ex-colonial Maadi Yacht and Sporting Club and football/ tennis academy enthusiasts. It is at the edge of a new construction development of high rise apartments, one of many in burgeoning Cairo suburbia. As the upper-middle classes of Egypt move to escape the fumes, chaos and riff-raff of downtown Cairo, so the developments follow. Or perhaps it is the other way round. It is not clear.
The school presently faces a large trench where a crane is slowly laying enormous sewage and water pipes for future high rise dwellings.  In the distance, across the rocky, sandy hills of Wadi Degla, cement factories spew out rubble and dig for limestone. Occasionally trucks come to deposit large boulders into the gorge below, sending plumes of grimy dust into the air. Piles of building sand interspersed with domestic refuse dumped by country maids from the high rises lie along the road, creating a single lane of sand covered tarmac. Therein lies the crux of the problem, a narrow road made narrower by construction debris where harassed, rushing parents race in their four by four desert vehicles to the school gates. Invariably late for the school bell, anxious motorists jostle for position, double parking and arguing with taxi drivers and sports club traffic while groups of Egyptian drivers stand guard by their vehicles smoking and smirking at the ensuing chaos. It is no different to anywhere else in the city.

A clash of cultures is almost inevitable. On one side, the Egyptians: relaxed, carefree drivers who do not follow prescribed rules but have developed their own methods of motoring:  Intermittent use of the horn, parking willy-nilly and the general rule that the bigger the vehicle is the more right of way it deserves. Time, what time? Egypt doesn’t wake up or engage in commercial activity until 10am, so what’s the rush? Where is everyone going in such a hurry? By nature easy going and friendly, they gaze in wonderment together at the stressed frowns of European school parents desperately trying to drop off children before work. Even more bemusement is reserved for stressed housewives togged out in tracksuits and riding gear – for whom and for what are they rushing, and what ARE they wearing?
Open aggression loses the aggressor face in Egypt. Even in the most trying of circumstances, a well brought up Egyptian does not lose his temper. Road rage is an anomaly unless there is an actual accident. Foreigners do not use the horn in the same way as locals. It takes time to understand that one beep is “hello”. Two is “I am passing”, and three is “Look out!” All are friendly and well received with a wave and a smile. Only the foreign pedestrian will turn and shout angrily in response, eliciting bewilderment by locals. ‘Hey, I was only trying to warn you of my presence,’ they shrug sadly. On the relatively rare occasion of an accident, after much macho posturing and argument, drivers are friendly, shaking hands, exchanging cash if requested, bidding farewell and never, ever, calling the hated traffic police to the scene if they can help it. There is an unspoken driver’s code, a code that is not cross-cultural and does not easily translate. Clash and contrast this with the vain efforts of the school to enforce a more British, ‘civilised’ modus operandi on the road: All cars to follow a one-way system, filing slowly and carefully through from left to right, without double parking, without stopping for a chat, a smoke or a laugh. No time, no time, be on your way!
The emails filter through to our inboxes, becoming increasingly aggressive, desperate in their pleas.

First they are polite;
“Can we please remind all parents...,”
“To those who continue to flout the rules”,

And finally, the ultimatum;
 “This week the Headmaster will be standing outside to name and shame offenders... “.

Suddenly the stand-off goes too far, child safety notwithstanding. I stare at the final email in astonishment, embarrassed for the school in its ivory tower. I pause with wonder, where do they think they are, Hemel Hempstead?  In that moment, we are transformed from fee-paying parents into rebellious, naughty children to be disciplined in the name of divide and rule and conquer. Shame them into shape! Catch the bad apples, throw them into detention! Make them conform. Rules, rules, rule! Of course one fact is never mentioned, the white elephant in the room. The school seems to have conveniently forgotten that the road is a public byway, not owned by the British, not any longer at least, not for these past 60 odd years. How can one ‘name and shame’ drivers for driving on a public road? It is no less futile than the efforts of the American Embassy to close roads in London that border ‘their’ land, and no less arrogant.

I am surely not alone in this thought and yet the school buzzes with self-righteous indignation for weeks. At pick up time I overhear disaffected Mothers from the PTA in loud discussion. The surrounding rocky outcrop appears to reverberate with their angry clamour. Standing huddled together in Nazi riding boots with manicured hands on jodpured hips, flicking stray hair and adjusting Alice bands, they screech and shriek like seagulls fighting over a bloody fish carcass.

“These Egyptian drivers are so arrogant!” one squawks superciliously, red faced with heat and the efforts of the morning dressage session.
“Why can’t Egyptians follow simple rules?” screeches another. They all nod.
“Well, clearly it is beyond them, but parents should force them to go round,” clucks another, a Russian this time, fluffing her feathers importantly.
“And they stand there smoking and chatting every day, Ugh! It really annoys me to have to look at them,” whines the first again. The tone of this comment veers them firmly to the right, somewhere just left field of racist. Clearly the parking problem has opened a can of worms despite all school attempts to clamp it shut with charity work and community spirit. All this good work undone because of a little traffic jam in Cairo, king city of tailbacks. The ivory tower is exposed as made of sand, fragile enough to be blown away on the wind of neo-colonial discontent.

Pecking and preening, these rich, white women are haughtily oblivious to the quiet, dignified frowns on the faces of parents from India, Morocco and other Imperial ex-colonies standing excluded nearby. Luckily, most are too young to remember the ugly side of Colonialism, yet they have all experienced 21st Century racism borne of ignorance, insecurity and fear of the unknown other, especially those married to the English.

 It’s time travel expat style. Close your eyes, listen and see Cairo circa 1952.

No comments:

Post a Comment