Monday, December 24, 2007

Light Blooded Egyptians

All photographs in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007

As we drove by the presidential palace a few days ago, my taxi driver pointed to the large, treed compound that was surrounded by guards, and smiled.

"Look mister! Look all ze security!"

"Zey keep zem here to protect us from our president."

If good humour comes from great pain, then Egyptians have got to be some of the funniest people in the world. This is a country where things are just barely bearable. Just barely.

And just enough effort is made by the powers to keep it that way - if there's too much prosperity, people no longer depend on the government, and bureaucracies become irrelevant; too much poverty, and you will have a revolution on your hands.

There's virtually no middle class here. Just the very rich, and the very poor. About 44% of Egypt's 80 million people live on $2 a day. Every year, Egypt's free universities churn out thousands of graduates who can't find work. Engineers make about $300 a month, and usually have second jobs. The police force and most government institutions are make-work projects so unemployment won't spiral out of control.

They call it ad-damm khafif, or "light blood". It's the Egyptian term for a sense of humour. Every day, I see Egyptians' light, acidic blood work its magic. And they love to turn it upon themselves.

Take for example, the local english language music channel here. It's called Melody Tunes. They play the usual MTV/VH-1/BET fare, and are fairly up to date.

The best part of watching the channel, though, are their promo videos - hilarious 30-second spots where ordinary Egyptians make complete fools of themselves with popular western songs in everyday scenarios. And they sing them in their heavy Egyptian accents:

Sometimes I'll watch Melody Tunes only for these.

There are a few more on youtube.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putting the "G" in Sovereignty

I'm sorry I've neglected Khan-un-Drum lately. Final exam season just ended here. I've been busy.

I stand accused of keeping this blog only for the purpose of impressing my wife while she was away from Cairo. This charge is spurious. I categorically deny it. On with the show:

A few weeks ago, my friend Mr. Yosri Fouda invited Suf and me to dinner. Post meal, we went to the uber-posh Garden City Club for drinks, and ran into an animated conversation:

"But it's ours! Why should we not use it? Leih??" The woman's bejeweled fingers made a questioning gesture. Her fingers on the other hand flicked a cigarette.

"Ya'ni I know that," said the man in the dark suit, shelling a pistachio. "But people will get confused."

The argument was about geem - Egyptians pronounce the "J" (the arabic letter "jeem") as a "G" ("geem"). So, Jamal becomes Gamal. Jezira (island) becomes Gezira.

Sometimes, the geem finds its way into english. The result can be comical. Take a look at the restaurant menu in the picture.

The woman was arguing with two TV journalists that Egyptian broadcasters ought to pronounce the geem on air, as they would normally, when talking to fellow Egyptians.

Egypt is the Hollywood of the Arab world. Egyptian movies, sitcoms, and news shows are watched by millions from Morocco to Muscat. Egyptian arabic, then, is the most well-known dialect. No matter where an Egyptian goes in this part of the world, everyone will understand him. He, on the other hand, will have no clue what they're saying.

Regardless, Egyptian broadcasters will switch to modern standard arabic, when they're on air, and a jeem will no longer become a geem.

The guys at Garden City Club thought that pronouncing the geem on television would alienate their pan-Arab audience.

"Bas, the geem is ours. We should be proud of it!" ranted the woman whose country receives the largest amount of US foreign aid after Israel.

"It's a question of Egyptian sovereignty!"