Monday, August 23, 2010

What's the deal, Egypt?

There must be something in the water - strange and unfortunate things are happening in Egypt, perhaps more so than usual.

To begin with, a $50 million Van Gogh painting was stolen from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum on Saturday morning. Saturday evening, officials reported the painting had been retrieved from the possession of two Italians at Cairo airport. Since then, however, it has been revealed that the painting was not recovered and is still missing.

This isn't the first time the paining was stolen - it was previously stolen from the same museum in 1978.

Now, here's the kicker: none of the alarms in the building were functioning at the time of the heist, and only 7 out of 43 surveillance cameras were working. Anyone who has spent time in Cairo knows most security features are for show more than anything. Most metal detectors don't work, and even if they do security personnel very seldom question foreigners. But this is a bit much, even for Cairo.

To make matters worse, a statue of Cupid which stood in the courtyard of the same museum was shattered less than 24 hours after the painting was stolen. According to Bloomberg News, the statue was toppled by journalists, who tripped over it during a press conference.

Seriously, guys?

In other news, the head of Egypt's al-Wafd opposition party has acquired prominent Egyptian newspaper Al-Dostor.

One more thing. Egypt is reportedly buying back natural gas it sold to Israel. Why? Looming gas crisis. Israel bought the gas for $2 billion. How much would Egypt have to pay to get it back? $14 billion.

The last issue I want to talk about is the most disturbing. Over the weekend, a 13-year-old girl died during a female circumcision operation. The doctor who performed the operation was apprehended and now awaits trial.

Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in Egypt. Even so, it is estimated that 70-97% of Egyptian women have undergone some form of FGM.

Yeah. Way to go, Egypt.

An Egyptain So7our

We made our way down a dark, dusty street as 2am neared. The car was left in a lot near Al Hussein, but we headed the opposite direction, away from the famous mosque and the landmark souq surrounding it. After a few minutes a lit courtyard opened before us, with tables and couches scattered about. Dishes of food, plumes of shisha smoke, and men and women filled the area.

We settled at our table, quite a mixed group: four young Egyptian men, an Egyptian girl home from studying music in Paris, myself, and an American girl in Egypt to spend a semester at AUC. Drinks arrived quickly - lemon and mango juices and tea. The tea was unlike what I've had in Cairo before. Along with small individual pots of tea, a large cup of fresh mint, and dish of sugar, cups of cardamom, dried sage, and cloves were delivered.

I must admit I'm not really a fan of cardamom, and the cloves didn't really seem to add much (perhaps had they been ground?), but I love sage in my tea. I first tried the concoction while in Sinai along the Red Sea, and since then a bag of sage has nearly always been found in my tea drawer.

Shortly after, the ever-present shisha arrived. Watermelon and grape tonight for my friends. Talk and shisha smoke mingled in the still, warm air. Cups of tea were drunk. Eventually menus were delivered and food ordered: fool, ta'amea, tahina, salad, and baskets of fresh baladi bread found their way to the table. Talk lulled as food was quickly inhaled, leaving plates empty, bread crumbs scattered, and bellies full.

After glances at watches, water and yogurt were ordered. As the young men greedily puffed away at last-minute cigarettes, the kitchen closed. Tables were cleared. Final gulps of water were swallowed as the call to prayer rang out. Slowly another call joined, and another, until the familiar echo came from every direction, swelling and then slowly fading again.

Good-byes were said, cars were filled, and a near-empty highway driven. Home, at last.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Contemplating Rarity & Intellect Among Egypt's Masses

I recently read a blog post written by an Egyptian friend who recently finished university and has now entered the working world. In his post, he discusses the weight of words to ordinary Egyptians, a consequence of rarity, and the implications on intellect.

I want to post a few excerpts here, but I highly recommend you read his post. It offers both an interesting - if sad - theory and a look into the mind of a young working Egyptian.

When someone is expressing an opinion which happens to deter from the norm, unfortunately your average Egyptian would consider it a proverbial slap in the face. A 'how could you?' reaction is automatically fired back. This sensitivity has given more weight to the word. Since the average Egyptian is a text book conformist, varying opinions are a rarity, which produces millions of citizens who can't converse objectively and effectively with people they may disagree with.
He goes on to discuss intellect and education in Egypt, beginning with the following observation:

I've was curious in school why the Arabic word for mathematics was a word almost exactly like the word for sports. The answer to that of course was that the brain is like any other muscle in the body that always requires exercise. Mathematics to the brain is like running to the legs.
Unfortunately, he argues, a combination of factors - including summer hit films and music mass-produced by the culture industry - have led to a declining intellect, as Egyptians no longer exercise their brains. "It is not uncommon to meet a person with esteemed academic merits and a frigid inflexible mentality," he says.

Anyway, these are his thoughts, not mine. Go read his post and think about it.

In other news, a stolen Van Gogh painting has been recovered at Cairo Airport. An Italian couple had it. The painting, worth $50 million, was stolen this morning from Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil Museum. Turns out, this is the second time it's been stolen from the museum - the first time was in 1978.