David Lamb on Cairo in 1987
February 07, 2011, 01:27 PM
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The LA Times' foreign correspondent David Lamb wrote a book called The Arabs in 1987. (He also wrote The Africans, which Barack Obama found such a disturbing read on his first flight to Kenya.) Here are excerpts from Lamb's chapter on Cairo, where he lived for several years. (This is from the 2002 edition of The Arabs, but it seems pretty similar to the edition I read in the 1980s). I don't know how much has changed since then. Lamb wrote:
The capital is sinking under the weight of people, more and more people, and Egypt itself seems in danger of becoming a Bangladesh on the shores of the Mediterranean, an impoverished land gripped by lethargy and decay ... ... a system that has never rewarded competence and has seen its skilled craftsmen head off for better-paying jobs in the oil-rich countries. In their absence, janitors become clerks, farmers become builders, cooks become mechanics. When the results are predictably diasastrous, the ever-tolerant and patient Egyptians merely shrug and say, "Malesh," — Never mind. ... The sand is powder-fine and so pervasive that it sneaks through the tiniest cracks and clings to everything. ... Open a book and there on page 105 is a fine coating of dust.
Grit turned out to be a big problem when Egypt's ambitious and energetic early 19th Century Albanian ruler, Mohamed Ali, attempted to industrialize the country by buying steam engines and powered cotton looms from Britain to turn Egyptian cotton into textiles. The expensive power machinery kept breaking down due to sand getting in.
Sometimes on the dusty shelves of unlit bookshops, you can find old guidebooks to a city that is no more. They speak of Cairo's fine opera house [I believe Verdi's Aida had its world premiere in Cairo], of banyan trees and patches of green that stretched along the verdant promenade of the corniche, ... of days when Cairenes could live and breathe and move easily in what was, until the 1950s, among the last of the twentieth-century Westernized enclaves in the Arab world. Cairo, in fact, was really two cities throughout most of the 1800s and 1900s: there was the Cairo for Europeans and the Egyptian aristocracy with manicured gardens, elegant hotels and palaces, fine carriages and well-dressed people, and further back from the Nile, past the parks and villas, there was the crowded, dirty Cairo for everybody else. ... An apathetic public, economic mismanagement and a wildly out-of-control birthrate have become the cancers of Cairo, sapping its strength and leaving its dazed inhabitants the victims of what is known in Egypt as the IBM syndrome: inshallah (if God is willing), bokra (tomorrow) and malesh (never mind). ... That Cairo is being transformed into a vast slum of rural peasants, attracted to the city by the illusions of a better life, does not greatly concern the individual Cairene because, the reasoning goes, man does not really control his destiny or his surroundings. But here's a curious thing: while Egyptians are content to live in filthy, battered buildings, the insides of their home are always immaculate. ... When I asked friends if anyone had ever considered a neighborhood block association, or an owners' association to clean up common areas, they would chuckle and say, "Oh, that would never work here." ... That attitude, I thought, represented a troubling omen for the undisciplined Egyptian society as a whole and brought to mind the words that T.E. Lawrence spoke more than seventy years ago: "The Semitic mind does not lean toward system of organization. It is practically impossible to fuse the diverse elements among the Semites into a modern, closely knit state." ... In Tahrir (Liberation) Square, out the back door of the Nile Hilton Hotel, the cluster of small gardens and the strips of grass have been paved over to make way for an outdoor terminal serviced by fifty-four bus companies. ... A generation ago, when Egypt produced a hundred or more feature films a year, Cairo's thirteen first-run movie theaters were as grand as any in London. ... "The audience that used to support the first-class theaters just doesn't exist anymore," said one of Egypt's widely known character actors, Salah Zoufoukay. "Now it's a peasant society." Cairo's deterioration is of more than passing interest because the conditions that have allowed it to happen were largely avoidable. ... The first force of destruction was government centralization. Everything is centered in Cairo. If an Egyptian needs a new passport or has a question about his war pension, he must come to Cairo.
Then military spending in 1948-1973, then socialism and apathy about the birth rate. ...
The intellectual class became more isolated and less influential, its voice drowned in the sea of look-alike, think-alike peasants who have taken over Cairo and to whom politicians, educators filmmakers and newspaper editors seem to believe they must cater.
A big question would be what changes in government would be necessary to allow civil society to flourish. And what are the odds it would flourish?