Saturday, 17 March 2012

Taxi to Cairo: Viewing Egypt from the Back of a Cab

“Taxi” is an interesting patchwork of a novel by the freshly-minted Egyptian journalist-commentator-filmmaker cum writer Khaled al-Khamissi. The fifty-eight chapters that comprise this unusual book represent fifty-eight separate taxi rides taken by the narrator, who is merely the guise of a thinly-veiled al-Khamissi. This work is, in some sense, an ethnographic novel in that it attempts to portray the working lives of Cairo's 80,000+ taxi drivers through punctuated scenes (chapters) which are a cross-section of that part of society.

Al-Khamissi's portrayal of the Cairene cabby is definitely sympathetic though not patronising. While giving due credence to the unique social and political perspectives that taxi drivers maintain by virtue of their near-constant physical presence on the maddening city streets, he does not shy away from revealing some of the wackier encounters with those drivers who spout conspiracy theories, conservatism and tales of faux poverty.

There are moments of knowing and astute political irony in Taxi. An example of the meta-critique of Egyptian government that pervades the book occurs in chapter seven, where the driver laments Egypt's arcane statutes regarding seatbelts and the myriad laws and tariffs and cost of it all to be borne by the poor taxi driver. At the end of that particular encounter after mentioning how he skirts the law by only installing a decorative rather than functional seat belt to appease the authorities, the driver tells the narrator: "We live a lie and believe it. The government's only role is to check that we believe the lie, don't you think?"

Mr. al-Khamissi works hard at being representational of the whole of Egyptian society through the work of the commentary and dialogue offered by his characters. Yet in his desire for a complete cross-section of Cairo taxi culture all of the offstage laboring by the author began to seep into the text. The first twenty-five episodes are interesting and insightful but they eventually began to feel like a gimmick and came perilously close to monotony. If it were a television series it would have been canceled after half a season.

But it is not episodic television, it is is a book, and its annoyances do not detract from its originality as an interesting new voice in pop-Arab fiction. The chapters provide often captivating nuggets of insight into the concerns and ebbs and flows of daily life in one of the world's largest cities, and most important countries. A helpful glossary in the back is included for readers less familiar with details of the culture.

Jonathan Wright's English translation of the colloquial Egyptian Arabic is good though a bit uneven. Yet Wright is to be commended for taking a frenetic text and rendering it into something readable and perhaps appealing for an English-speaking audience. We ought to have more popular fiction in translation and not just higher-brow literary novels (“Taxi” has been on Arabic language bestsellers lists for more than a year).

Credit to D. Chaudoir for this review.

In reaching my next destination, again, I go for the flight option, given the overland issues in this region. Therefore, for around $300, I take an 8am Royal Jordanian flight from Cairo International Airport, arriving back in Amman, Jordan at 10.15am (allowing for the time difference). After a short stopover there, where I take a quick lunch break, I am on the 11.40am flight to Tripoli, touching down at 1.45pm, and visiting Libya courtesy of “In The Country of Men” by native author Hisham Matar, of which more in my next post…

Friday, 9 March 2012

Leap of Faith: the Queen of Jordan’s Memoirs of an Unexpected Life

The Jordanian book on my journey is an autobiography of Queen Noor al Hussein (born as Lisa Halaby into a distinguished Arab-American family and raised amid privilege in the US, while visiting her father in Jordan she was casually introduced on the airport runway to King Hussein. After a whirlwind, secret courtship Lisa Halaby became Noor Al Hussein, Queen of Jordan).

The sub-title of this engaging book is Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. For a young American woman to marry an Arab king was indeed unexpected but not entirely unpredicted. At a farewell dinner at a restaurant in Tehran, an acquaintance told Lisa Halaby her fortune in the traditional Middle Eastern way, by reading her coffee cup. He turned over the cup, flipped it back, and studied the patterns within. "You will return to Arabia," he predicted. "And you will marry someone highborn, an aristocrat from the land of your ancestors." That man turned out to be King Hussein of Jordan.

Halaby was born into a prominent Arab-American family. Her father, Najeeb Halaby, was a successful businessman and public servant but a demanding and difficult individual. The father's relentless perfectionism could not be reconciled with the mother's quest for family peace and the marriage was dissolved.

As a child Lisa was earnest and introverted, a loner by temperament, and she was to remain impatient with small-talk and gossip. Part of this social awkwardness, she confesses, is rooted in her relationship with her father. One of the positive results of growing up in this "moderately dysfunctional American family" was self-reliance. Lisa joined the first freshman class at Princeton to accept women, graduating in 1974 with a degree in architecture and urban planning.

Leap of Faith is the story of her remarkable journey into Hussein's heart and their 21 years of marriage, ending with the king's death in 1999. For Hussein it was evidently love at first sight. For the young, independent-minded American woman, the courtship, over long evenings in the palace, involved some doubts. The king was a widower with eight children from three marriages and a reputation as a playboy. "I will not deny that the idea of being his fourth wife, or anybody's fourth wife, was troubling to me," she writes. But the king was an assiduous suitor and would even sing to her. Though she was not as drawn to the Swedish group Abba as he was, she was charmed when he would croon "Take a chance on me".

Having accepted the royal proposition of marriage, Lisa Halaby changed her name to Noor Al Hussein, the "Light of Hussein". She also converted to Islam and began in earnest to learn Arabic. The love affair with Hussein developed into a love affair with his desert kingdom.

As well as being an intimate portrait of a marriage, Leap of Faith reflects a deep commitment to the people, culture, and natural beauty of Jordan. "I had found myself spellbound," writes Noor, "by the serene expanse of desert landscape washed golden by the retreating sun at dusk. I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary sensation of belonging, an almost mystical sense of peace."

There was precious little peace, however, to be found inside the royal palace. Noor knew she had to make some adjustments to her new environment but she found the lack of privacy irksome and unsettling. Court officials were ubiquitous and they constantly intruded on her private space. Over the years she came to realise that some of this dissonance was cultural - "the difference between a western sense of privacy and personal space and an eastern emphasis on communal identity and space". This was a characteristically charitable explanation for the conduct of the courtiers.

Noor also had to fight to carve out a meaningful role for herself. Many in Jordan thought a queen should be a glamorous figure on a pedestal, perhaps engaged from a distance in charity work. Noor had no intention of being a mere figurehead and spending her time simply opening bazaars and expositions. On the contrary, she wanted to be involved in tackling real problems.

Through the United Nations and other organisations, Noor became involved in issues that were important to her, such as global peacekeeping, refugee assistance and the Land Mine Ban Treaty. Most of her time and energy, however, were taken up with work in the areas of women's and children's welfare, human rights, health, education, and the environment.

She became acutely aware that all these problems, tackled in isolation by individual ministries and charities, were fundamentally inter-related. Her role, as she saw it, was to serve as a catalyst for consensus-building and action. In 1985, the Noor Al Hussein Foundation was established. Its aim was to provide strategies for sustainable development and integrating efforts to tackle these problems in a concerted manner.

While King Hussein supported his wife's domestic initiatives, he himself was mainly preoccupied with foreign affairs and more particularly with the quest for peace in the Middle East in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. Politics thus became a constant companion to Queen Noor throughout the 21 years of her marriage.

She is a highly sophisticated political animal with strong liberal leanings, and a perceptive judge of personalities. In writing this autobiography, she relied not just on her memory but also on a journal she kept intermittently. Her book contains fascinating accounts of encounters with American, Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders. It also sheds a great deal of new light on inter-Arab relations and on the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One theme that crops up again and again in Noor's narrative is the frustration and anger she feels in the face of American double standards towards the Middle East. From Jordan she began to see the land of her birth through new eyes - and the image that America projected was not a positive one.

Noor had grown up believing in America's commitment to freedom, justice, and human rights, but she gives many examples of Washington's failure to uphold these principles in its treatment of Jordan. She complains, with justice, that America's support for Israel has too often been at the expense of Arab human rights and in violation of international law and United Nations resolutions.

Throughout the 1980s Noor undertook several intensive speaking tours in America, grueling two-week marathons of speeches and interviews. The American media offered few perspectives on the Middle East other than that of Israel. Noor was uniquely placed to educate her fellow Americans about the problems of the region but it was an uphill struggle.

The warmest reception Hussein received in America was in 1994 when he and Itzhak Rabin went to the White House to issue the Washington Declaration, ending the conflict between Jordan and Israel. Members of the Jordanian delegation could now see first-hand the magical hold that Israel had on the American political psyche.

On at least one issue Noor was at odds with her husband and the leaders of her adopted country: press freedom. From the first years of their marriage, she lobbied her husband and his key officials to reconsider personal and institutional freedoms. The press in Jordan, though privately owned, was effectively government-controlled. Truly independent reporting did not exist. A combination of conservatism and insecurity made the rulers wary of allowing the people to read dissenting opinions. By her own account, Noor's pleas fell on largely deaf ears. In this respect she was a bit like a lighthouse in the desert: brilliant and illuminating but of little use to her immediate environment.

However, politics aside, there is also a very human story here; and the final chapters that deal with the King’s death after a long struggle with cancer are genuinely moving.

All in all, I felt this was a fascinating insight into a rarified element of Jordan – whilst not representative of the day to day lives of most ordinary citizens, did at least give an insight into the wider politics of the country and, through Queen Noor al Hussein’s work with various charities, an insight into some of the wider issues affected the country’s populace…

From Jordan I head to Egypt. Whilst this country has been making international headlines of late due to its political and government issues; I shall be taking a change of focus and spending my time there in the company of various Cairo cabbies, through fictional monologues contained in the book, “Taxi” by native author Khaled Al Khamissi.

Having researched overland routes to Cairo from Amman, it seems all of these involve travelling back into Israel and out again, which given the problems encountered in my last two trips I decide to avoid! So, once again I take to the skies with Royal Jordanian airlines and fly from Amman Queen Alia International airport, leaving at 9pm, and arrive 1 and a half hours later at Cairo International Airport at 9.30pm (allowing for the hours’ time difference); for the princely sum of US $239. The travel to my final destination in Egypt is easy – I just get into a taxi!