Rants of a Shackled Egyptian

I wake and sleep to the sounds of the traffic and sirens outside my window. I look at this and think twice before I go out for any reason. (Can you spot the ambulance on the left?)

How badly can you want something? What would normally be the thing to do when you are placed with someone who has authority over the thing you want so much and withholds it from you? Would you walk your talk, confront them and live up with the consequences? Would you speak with fear of being denied your thing and so you acknowledge the authority lest you wake the beast?

My story today may not be that dramatic, but little violations of my rights everyday can turn me into something I’m not pleased with.

I was driving home last night, trying to arrive within less than 30 minutes on a route that should in any other city take 10 minutes. I started my journey with my car crawling among other cars in a pool of chaos. I managed to get near the area where I lived around 7:30, exactly 30 minutes later. To my surprise I found that the street I normally take to reach my home was blocked with police rails and two officers were standing there. If I missed that street it would take me another 30 to 45 minutes of turning in the chaos to get back to a previous spot and choose another street. I had no option.

I spoke to one of the officers. “I live right there and I need to get home quickly.”

“Sorry madam, prohibited. There’s a tashreefa.”

Tashreefa has no literal translation in the English language, probably because there is no equivalent to the phenomenon outside our world. It is a deliberate blockage of streets in anticipation of a prominent politician passing in his bullet-proof car. The streets get decorated by soldiers, human beings that are placed on both sides of the road from beginning to end for hours until the sacred passing takes place. Until then the street is literally out of order. No forewarning, no easy access to alternative routes. You drive there, get stuck, and discover that it’s a tashreefa.

My blood began to simmer. “You cannot deny me access to my own home. I must get there now!” He went to speak to a higher authority sitting on a chair with its back to the street and busying itself with some papers. He came back with the same answer. “It’s prohibited, madam.”

At this moment the simmering grew to a boil. I found myself opening the door and charging out of the car in an anger fit I usually describe as an out of body experience. I suddenly acquire a much higher voice and begin to say and do things I have no control of. I walked to the “authority” on the chair and ignored the officer’s calls after me.

“I need to get to my home. All I demand of you is a little respect to my basic human right as a citizen of this country!”

The man’s eyes were wide open staring at me in disbelief. “You may take the next street.” I began to fume. “The next street is a one-way street and if one of you catches me he’d charge me 1000 EGP, and there is no way I can enter it since it is equally blocked with cars trying to get to the already blocked road we’re in. So now please allow me to get into my home. You may search me if you will. I have no weapons. I need to get to the child that is waiting for me there!”

I had no idea who that child was, unless I count my cat as one.

Predicting that he would not be rid of me soon, he waved at his subjects to allow me in. I walked to my car without another word and drove in. It was a party in the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Black cars, black suits, black dresses. I was thrown back into my black mood. I drove with so much fury and kept cursing out loud alone in the car.

I got to my home and all I could think of was how many of us end up being reduced to basic levels just to protect our rights to go by in the streets of Cairo with no hassle. What’s more important, I was alarmed at the things I said. I said “please.” Please?? What the hell was I thinking? Was I so afraid he’d let me do the 45 minutes turn and I was secretly begging for his mercy? A “child”?? What child? I lied!

Is it the systematic subordination we’ve been subjected to in our society for so many years that made inner submissive cowards out of us? Has the hierarchical system of authority been passed down to us individuals, making us oppressive to those below us and submissive to those above?

Yes. As children many of us went to schools where we were beaten by teachers for speaking in class or for not doing our homework. We were yelled at and humiliated in front of our peers in class. When we grew up we became used to laws and regulations being issued overnight and executed with no consideration of any say on our part.

The spark that I see in the eyes of Egyptians as I look at pictures taken some forty or more years ago no longer exists. The people I see walking in the street have a look of defeat in their eyes. The women have lost their glory, lines of exhaustion and fatigue have carved their ways on their faces. The men have lost their sense of self-worth. The little sense of control they still aspire to have is practiced on their children or wives.

Egyptians have been systematically neutralized by a smart centralized authority that has reigned above them for so many decades. They used to revolt, but now they can’t get more than a hundred people to stand still in a demonstration. A culture of prohibition overrules everything. I can’t get a refund in a shop, I can’t change my order in a restaurant, I can’t enter certain restaurants because I cover my hair. The list continues.

Inside me there’s a free soul longing for harmony with its surroundings, but sometimes I feel like it’s forever caged inside the body of the hesitant person I have become. I don’t know how long I will further have to wait until it is out, but I’m going to keep trying to unshackle it bit by bit until I, all of me, am free.

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  1. #1 by Marwa on November 1, 2010 - 7:28 pm

    Are you talking about me, girl? Cause that sure sounds like me. Except of course, I don’t get those “out of body experiences” that you do ;) They must be reserved for the really special.

    What’s even more frightening is how I, despite the fact that I lived the first 21 years of my life outside of Egypt and was therefore spared the horror of school beatings and the like, have felt the oppression of this entire system ever since I got here. I feel this sense of defeat, and it’s something I have to struggle against every single day I live here. It’s like what my brother who does not live here said when he came on a visit a few years ago: The people LOOK oppressed. It’s physically manifested itself on their faces, in their eyes, in the way they talk and how they think.

    At the time, I thought I was exempt from that description, but the more time I spend here, the more I realize, with horror, that I am not. No one is exempt. This oppression is something we have to fight because it’s not just being denied entry to your own street or being denied the right to vote, it’s like a tapeworm… it eats you from the inside out.

    Fight it, Arwa.

    P.S. Your cat does qualify as a child :D


  2. #2 by Arwa Mahmoud on November 1, 2010 - 7:42 pm

    It eats us inside out indeed, Marwa! I’ve learned to stay home for as long as my errands can wait, because a 1 hour errand usually takes 3, with lots of arguments and confrontations along the way. I’ve become more of a passive, apathetic citizen that no longer cares what happens next, and that really scares me.

    Because yes, I still have a sense of ownership over this country because I love it so much. And it’s not the country of the present “authority” trying to kill time sitting on a chair in the street. It’s the country that has produced amazing writers, poets, thinkers, and even falafel makers! That is the country I long to find somewhere in this madness. We have to fight till we can bring it out again, if not in reality, at least in people’s hearts.


  3. #3 by Dalia on November 2, 2010 - 2:45 pm

    ممكن تسيبولي موضوع الـ
    out of body experience
    ده، و تتكلموا في حاجة تانية؟؟؟


  4. #4 by Dalia on November 2, 2010 - 2:48 pm

    و طبعا متفقة معك في موضوع الـ
    child @ home
    because mine is also there!


  5. #5 by Inas Soliman on November 2, 2010 - 7:06 pm

    We’re blessed my dear that at least we are realising, expressing and fighting in a way or another this oppression, because millions out there are not even realising it. Others are expressing in violence, and the rest… lost the will to fight or in other words… lost their sense of belonging.
    I hate to sound so pessimistic, I still believe there is light at the end of the tunnel….

    By the way, being a Heliopolis resident I am quite familiar with these “Tashreefas” and I have to say that I’m wtinessing some sort of improvement …. There are no longer these marine type of guys with machine guns stopping you for accidently or deliberately – taking a short cut – passing through certain “restricted streets”. No signs…. nothing….. but restricted… I was twice stopped by these guys with machine guns raised infront of my car… Today they closed these roads with bars and signs…
    See…. Light at the end of the tunnel… Cheers…. From where did you get this idea of ‘child at home’ ????


    • #6 by Arwa Mahmoud on November 2, 2010 - 10:20 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Inas.

      It’s good to know that now there is some variety. I do remember those machine guns. I recall having them pointed at me in a traffic light for no apparent reason except that someone “important” was in the car. The aim was to terrify me just in case I decided to reach into the compartment and bring out my gun and shoot at their guy… you know… just in case!

      Child at home? In an out of body experience I’m not even aware where my words or logic comes from! That’s how bad I have been driven lately!


  6. #7 by Ann on November 5, 2010 - 1:53 pm

    I live in the Uk, (I’m Irish) and I spend a lot of Time in Luxor. I experience that same sense of oppression while I am there also but I notice the same issues here in the Uk and in Ireland. My own people fought to free themselves from the yoke of English oppression and yet now, less than 70 years later, they have lost their ‘fight’. Modern living, soul-less living, has led to a culture of sheep-like people who just accept the status-quo and complain bitterly when the Governments do stupid things and make equally stupid decisions. It drives me crazy. When we have tashreefas it is exactly the same!!!
    In a way I am relieved to hear of your experiences, as it makes me realise that the feelings of oppression I feel in Egypt are not just mine but that I am feeling what is ‘present’. In a way that makes me feel more rebellious and defiant. I’ve spent 48 years being defiant!
    My first experience of Cairo was when I visited in 2001. From my hotel window I could see the hectic, busy streets and I felt too nervous to leave my room. I have had a life of abuse at the hands of men, one of them a moroccan muslim, and then the healing of it and the feelings of oppression I felt so strongly in my room were nearly overwhelming. But then I pulled my courage up from inside of me and I decided that I would not allow anyone to hurt me and that I was not going to be scared. no matter how oppressed or scared I was actually feeling. So I stalked out the door and out into the busy street, walking for about a mile before turning back. And you know? No-one said a word to me! I received no comments from men, I was not hassled in any way, shape or form.
    When I got back to my hotel I met up with my group just as I was returning. I told them I had gone for a walk and they asked incredulously ‘What? You went by yourself? Wow, that was really looking for trouble!’
    I didn’t even try to explain…
    But I sincerely hope, that with more women feeling the injustice of oppression, that we can some day free ourselves and our brothers and sisters too. And hopefully make the world a less oppressive place for everyone.
    Keep up the good work!


    • #8 by Arwa Mahmoud on November 6, 2010 - 11:51 am

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Ann.

      I suppose the feeling of oppression is global, we feel it in different ways, but in the end it is all the same. You are right about the times passing and turning people into sheep. There’s no better way I would have expressed it about my own people within the past 30 or more years.


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