EGY.COM - PROBLEMS & ISSUES
by Samir Raafat
Egyptian Mail, March 16, 1996
WITH THE SHARM EL SHEIKH Conference on Terrorism taking up media space everywhere, I thought I'd snatch a few inches of copy and relate lesser events that took place in Cairo this month. I'll start with a workshop I attended two weeks ago.
1 Even as I contemplated the letter inviting me to attend, I knew I was taking unprecedented risks. I thrive on individuality and cannot abide teamwork. My initial understanding of workshops is that it brings together varied people and puts them through brainstorming sessions where they are encouraged to think vocally--an American model of organized chaos. Perhaps this particular workshop was short of a maverick. And since being actively engaged in a system that I criticize is an interesting irony in itself, I decided to give this workshop a try.
Because of time constraints, workshop topics are pre-determined and disseminated in advance. As the invitation outlined, we were expected to discuss the revival of an architectural center somewhere in Upper Egypt. Yet, somehow, the brainstorming session promptly deteriorated into a forum so that (i) lonely hearts could prattle non-stop, (ii) has-been members of international organizations could sing their own praise (iii) participants could recite their glorified CVs and (iv) workshop habitues could exchange the WHAT'S NEW in Workshopworld.
As the session progressed, it looked like we had been convened to re-invent the wheel, to assert the sky is blue, the Pope Catholic and that dogs wag their tails! At the end of the day I concluded therapists and workshop promoters are in secret collusion
In all fairness to this gathering and to its talented host, there were participants who didn't speak out. On the other hand those who did have the gift of the gab. One immediately sensed the workshop was their native habitat. They made a living running from one workshop to another. And why not. Some of these vocal affairs are sponsored by blue chip institutions and US-AID-related agencies that hold them in five-star hotels. This means tasty hors d'oeuvres and hot meals. In fact I learned from an all-knowing workshop-worshiper that some of these meetings were followed up with out-of-town field trips, or, alternately, with conferences in exotic destination--all expenses paid, naturally. She was already speculating whether this one had a junket attached to it. A career in the World Bank had made her a pro at detecting "sustainable" freebies.
Because this workshop was in a chic Zamalek hotel and included coffee, cakes, and a three-course menu, it was well attended. Yet I noted some participants made fast exists (or buyuk firar as they say in Turkey) after lunch missing out on the riveting afternoon session where we learnt it snowed in Siberia.
When a few days later I checked on some of my new workshop acquaintances, I was told they were out of the country. Amazing how they all happened to be in the same foreign capital courtesy of US-AID!
After these harsh words my host will regrettably have sensed a denial of his values. I guess I'll have to go back to being a loner.
THE PRESS CONFEREFENCE
My next stop was a Meet-The-Press parley at a luxury hotel by the Nile. The guest speaker was the freshman minister (or is it more PC to say freshperson?) of economy. We were treated to an upbeat exposé of the current situation: Egyptian pound in good health, low inflation and enviable foreign reserves. Meanwhile the dreaded negative unemployment trends were being reversed, the old Cairo Bourse was breaking all records and even privatization had suffered a few pangs, it was nothing a spoonful of Enos couldn't cure. As for the IMF figures, these differed with ours by a benign 1%.
According to Madame Minister, the seeds of a magnificent economic future had been installed. Asian tigers beware, the tigers on the Nile are coming! Yes, the new administration and the winds of change spell rosy days ahead.
The promising statements were rendered more gullible in view of the five-star setting in which they were uttered. One wondered if they would have had the same intent in a Mokatam Hills settlement or some flash-point section of Embaba?!
As Madame Minister gently spewed what many within the audience considered an anticipated rhetoric, I observed Herr Von Clipp, the eminent German correspondent sitting beside me, scribbling the same sentence over and over again in his voluminous yellow legal pad. "Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose!"
Only tepid tea was served at this Meet-The-Press function, no toothsome delicacies or gateaux. Perhaps this is the reason behind the meager attendance. Moreover, the FT and the Finanz Und Wirtschaft Die Welt whom one would have expected to show up were conspicuously absent. True, there were no buyuk firars. If some reporters were anticipating a last minute scoop, none was forthcoming.
A pause here to elaborate on new measures for solving unemployment, a demo of which I was a witness.
In line with the Conference on Terrorism and all that which the unsettling militant gangs have brought upon us these last years, in all fairness one must reluctantly give those nasties some credit. Here is why. As you may have noticed, ministers are nowadays surrounded by a phalanx of karate trained drivers and kung-fu-ready aides. For instance, flanking Madame Minister as she spoke, were three exalted bodyguards who looked like the lions of the nearby Kasr al-Nil bridge. Via ear-pieces and judging by their facial expressions and occasional smiles, the Rambos were being continuously appraised of the general security situation with what must have been very humorous interludes.
By applying some basic arithmetic we'll see how terrorism creates employment. Multiply 3 bodyguards X 3 daily shifts X (40 ministers + 340 gov't VIPs + MPs + visiting dignitaries + ex-officials + etc.) = hundred thousands of Kevin Costners and Claude Van Dammes. Ah, and let's not forget private individuals (the instantnaires, showbizioniares, lords of the New Order, fat cats, merchants and charlatans, etc.) who have all resorted to hiring private crimebusters.
Who says jobs haven't been created in those critical post-infitah years?
Off to another five-star hotel in Giza. No Nile view this time and as it turned out no hot meal either, only yesterday's flavorless cakes. The outspoken speaker at this meet was dissident and pro-normalization playwright-author Ali Salem. His attentive audience consisted of 40 Israeli students from Beersheba's (Negev) Ben Gurion University. They had come to Egypt during their holiday break with their four professors. Two of them, Professor Yoram Meital and Dror Zvi of the Near East Studies at BGU, I already had met during a previous visit to Cairo. Meital is the author of an informative book on Jewish sites in Egypt.
Other luminaries scheduled to speak to the Israeli students included Lotfi al-Khouli, Ahmed Hamroush and Ain Chams University's Rashad al-Shami.
Like college students anywhere this was a curious and outspoken bunch. The age group was slightly above the norm in view of the compulsory co-ed military service current in Israel and which takes place immediately after high school. I spoke with Rita whose Karaites parents left Egypt in the 1950s. She was enthralled by her trip. Everything was contrary to expectations. Cairo and Alexandria were bigger than imagined, people friendlier than expected, hospitality overwhelming. Rita decided she wanted to live in Egypt. From her professors I learned this was the first field trip of its kind and that the collective results were excellent.
So here were 40 Israeli-born students visiting a neighboring Arab country for the first time. They'll go back home and relate their Egypt experience creating the much desired snowball effect. The big question: When will these visits be reciprocated?
My final stop on my confab tour was the Oriental Hall at the AmericanUniversity in Cairo. My former professor, the erudite Galal Amin was giving a talk: "Anthroplogising The West" which promised to be both spicy and controversial.
AUC is currently going through one of its cyclical soul-searching spins. The latest issue to polarize the faculty into their two traditional camps--Egyptians vs. Americans--has to do with the "inequitable" retirement plan favoring Americans. It is, after all, called the American University in Cairo. Was Professor Amin on the retirement list? I suspected we would find out by the tone of his lecture. We didn't. Yet despite all his Yankee-bashing, I was glad not to have missed his lengthy indictment against our fading century.
While I can't relate everything Professor Amin said and didn't say (which has equal significance), I would like to report one of his quips.
While touring the Western USA, the professor stumbled onto a bird sanctum. While Southern California abounds with animal theme parks, this particular one boasted a young bird trainer and a large unidentified bird.
The exotic bird performed tricks only humans are known to do. At each prompt, it responded in a certain manner. Pavlov-at-its-best sort of thing. The bird stood on one foot, bowed, chirped, winked etc. "The bird was superior to its keeper, not only because it could imitate humans, but because if left alone, it could fly. Moreover, the bird had a fine-tuned sense of direction and recognized seasons. It was certainly a better parent than most people we know!"
But because it had been lured, captured and caged by a crafty mortal, the bird was now forced to perform these antics to a bewildered and screeching audience? Abstention invariably meant no bird food. No bleed, no feed! Professor Amin wondered whether or not this trained bird symbolized the fate of Third World countries. No tricks, no bucks.
Amin's analogy drew raves from the audience. So much so that the usually morose Herr Von Clipp whom I had run into at Madame Minister's press conference, was furiously writing away in his voluminous legal pad. Looking more flushed than ever, he was enraptured by the bird story. Perhaps he anticipated the feathered creature would learn a new lesson at the Sharm El Sheikh Summit on Terrorism.
Despite the absence of tea and cakes there was no buyuk firar this time. In fact, Amin's adoring audience public remained resolute throughout the two-hour lecture. Aside from his engaging talk we were rewarded with an intense question and answer session. It was refreshing to see how students have bolded up since my days when professors were regarded with exaggerated deference. There may be hope for the caged bird yet.