A round, amiable man, J is in his 40s, and runs a business in Dahab, Sinai. He has a small son who lives with his mother overseas: his family background is Coptic Christian, but he last attended church for his son’s christening.
J laughs. “Yes!” he says. “I have been to Saudi Arabia. It’s quite a funny story.”
I nod encouragingly. J has a range of funny stories and some great Egyptian jokes.
“There were these three Russians who hired a boat,” J says. Russians are a visible minority among Sinai tourists, while Russian working girls often ply their trade in the hotspots of Sharm el Sheikh, and, apparently, Dahab. “There was vodka. There was food. And there were 34 Russian women. Beautiful women. Long blonde hair, bodies like….” J makes 38-24-38 curves with his hands. “34 women for three men…”
“We have a phrase in England,” I say, cutting him off from his revery. “’Natasha’. It’s not very…”
“Yes! Natashas!” J says. “And there were three Russians, me and the five guys I’d hired to work with me. I thought, y’know, with 34 women and 9 guys, we’re going to have fun… But this! It was girl on girl, two girls, three girls, three girls and a guy – and the Russians all too drunk to do anything.”
“It must have been amazing,” I say.
“So the captain was teaching the girls how to steer the boat,” J says, miming a hands-on demonstration of tiller craft. “And, of course, he was not looking where we were going. All of a sudden we are 30 metres off a beach! And the girls are naked, diving in the water, naked! And we…”
“Oh f*ck,” I say. “Not on a Saudi beach? You have to be a prince to get away with that, no?”
“A beach,” J says. “Dawn comes, so we go off. But the captain, he’s a bit, well, sleepy, you know?”
What with the vodka, the beer and the general excitement of a fullblown orgy, I can well imagine the chap being a little the worse for wear. “So we see these lights,” J continues. “And he says, ‘Here we are! We’re in Dahab!’ Then I look a bit closer, and I say, ‘This is not Dahab. We’re in Saudi Arabia…’”
“Oh f*ck…” I say, again.
But, surely, J wouldn’t be here talking to me if he’d inadvertently arrived in Saudi Arabia with a cargo of naked ladies, vodka and unconscious Russians? The punishment for even *drinking* alcohol is a public whipping.
“We were lucky,” J says. “It was Ramadan. So, after breakfast, there are two hours of prayers. And, in Saudi, EVERYONE has to pray. They’re praying, or they’re in their house. So we cast off, we leave, we make it back – and that was the time I visited Saudi Arabia.”
“In Parliament, now,” J says. “Do you know what they talk about?”
“No,” I say.
“They are discussing banning the teaching of English in schools, because it’s unIslamic. Whether this book or that book should be banned. What women should…”
“But your economy, J,” I say, genuinely outraged. I’m fond of Egypt. I want Egypt to do well. With 5000 years of recorded history and its vast land area, this beautiful country could be an African powerhouse, the hub between Asia and Africa… “It’s tanking! You have no industry. Tourism’s half what it was. Youth unemployment…”
“I know,” J says, wearily. “But this is not what they care about. This is not their priority… The problem is that in Egypt, we have, let’s say, the 80%. They are poor, and for them, God is their life…”
“If you’re that poor and your life is so bad, it’s important that there’s a new life that is better than this one,” I agree. “It’s important that when your baby dies…”
“…It becomes a little angel,” J says, making sardonic wing motions with his fingers.
“Egypt is like ten or fifteen countries rolled into one,” I say. “We don’t have this divide between rich and poor in England. It’s growing. But everyone in England has enough to eat. Hardly any babies die. And very few people are really religious.”
J continues. “So, these are the 80%, and they are almost all Muslim. Then you have 15%, who are, maybe, quite liberal. So, the 15%, they are not so religious, they are educated, they may be quite liberal, maybe even travel. Some, like me, they might even think that their daughters can have sex before they are married. And then the 5%, the super-rich, who can do anything. Satanism. Drugs. You name it…”
We swing back to politics. “The Muslim Brotherhood are very organised,” J says, and goes onto describe scenes of vote buying, intimidation and ballot stuffing at the last election. “That’s how they got 74% of the vote. With money, and with…” He mimes punching.
“But some were Salafis,” I say. “Some of that vote was the Salafis.”
“This is what they do,” says J. The oldest political organisation in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood originated in Egypt in 1928 but was banned for many decades. “They are very clever. They split. So the Salafis look far out, and they, the Brotherhood, can look like the centre.”
“So…” I say, dipping a toe into the mindblowingly complex maelstrom that is Egypt’s upcoming presidential election. “The current election, where Aboul Fotouh has split from the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re talking about supporting the army’s candidate, that’s so they can get the guy they want, then turn round to the army and say, ‘See? They wanted us?’”
“I think so,” says J. “During the Revolution, we had one party, which they call a ‘Christian party’, because one of the founders was Christian and it’s liberal, the Free Egyptians Party. Then one of the founders posted a picture of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, with Mickey in a gallabiya and Minnie covered, and they said he mocked Islam, they said he hated Islam. It’s what they do. They’re clever.”
“But surely…” I say. “That 74% they cheated for, that’s close to your 80% of the country that are religious Islamists and poor, anyway, isn’t it? It’s close to what they would have got, had they just got out the vote.”
“OK, J,” I say. The staff in the restaurant, all male, as in almost every Egyptian restaurant, are eyeing us not-terribly discreetly, clearly under the impression that J has got lucky. “There is something I really do not understand. So… You have these guys, these Muslim guys, observant Muslim guys, chasing after Western women in the tourist towns. And voting for women to be back in the home and covered, and wanting a covered wife. How does that compute?”
“Well,” J says. “Every man wants to have a Western woman.” (Sharm el Sheikh, the package resort down the coast, is popular with older Western women in search of toyboys, rather as some Western men head to the Philippines or Thailand for the ladies.)
“Yeah,” I say. “I noticed. And, we’re easy, aren’t we? But what is the thinking behind it with your own women? How DOES that work?”
“So, in this culture, a man, if he plays around, he believes that what he has done will come back to him. So, if he goes with a tourist, he thinks that next time it will be a man going with his wife, his mother, his sister – it will come back on him, you see? So he covers her, he keeps her locked up at home…”
That makes sense. Depressing sense. But sense. “OK,” I say. “And, I guess it gets worse. Because when you fuck these Western women, who do what only a prostitute would do here, you begin to think that if you let your women have any kind of freedom, they will become like us. Like prostitutes, basically.”
“Yes,” says J.
We pause. Then he asks, rather tentatively, “I heard that in England women can do all the jobs that men can. I mean, I believe that women can be better at some jobs than men. But you have women working as butchers? As bricklayers? Driving taxis?”
J has been to Europe, but only for a week: the relationship didn’t work out. “Yes,” I say. “Not many women. But it’s the law in England that a man cannot refuse to give a woman a job because she’s a woman, or because of someone’s skin colour, or their sexuality, or their religion. Those are unusual choices. But we are free to make them.”
We talk a bit about religion then swing back to politics again, although in Egypt the two are inextricably enmeshed. “So, how do you think it’s going to go here now, after the revolution?” I ask.
“Well,” says J. “I think in five years, ten years time, Egypt is going to be like Saudi Arabia.”
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote, drive or appear in public showing more than their eyes and their hands: the legal system includes punishments such as beheading, whipping and, on rare occasions, blinding, and on one occasion the religious police beat back young girls to die in their burning boarding school because they had run from a fire immodestly clad.
“No democracy?” I say.
“No,” J says, looking around and lowering his voice. “The problem is, in some ways, I think things were better under the old regime. You could talk against Mubarak, at least in private, and people did. But you can’t argue with Allah. And that’s what these people say, that they are the voice of Allah.”
“So, no democracy in your lifetime?”
“No,” says J. “I think, 30 years from now, we will have another revolution, and this time we will have democracy. But I’ll be an old, old man by then.”
More in this series:
Voices from Post-Revolutionary Egypt 1: The Coder
Voices from Post-Revolutionary Egypt 2: The Bedouin Girl
Voices from Post-Revolutionary Egypt 3: The Future Soldier
Voices from Post-Revolutionary Egypt 4: The Guide
Voices from Post-Revolutionary Egypt 6: The Taxi Driver
Voices from Post-Revolutionary Egypt 7: The Working Mother