A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

Month: September, 2010

Min wayn? Hindi Hindi ;P

As mentioned in a previous blog, Egyptians are funny people. They have this grand sense of pan-Arabism. Well this you find in all of Arabia.

Although in the last sermon of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) he said the best amongst you is not about who is Arab or non-Arab, it is about who is the best Muslim. Who follow the commandments of the religion, is the best amongst you. Therefore, nationality or language does not mean you’re better than non-Arabs. It doesn’t make sense either. I am told that usually the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca is a Pakistani who speaks fluent Arabic.

Going back to the topic of this story, wherever we would go on our sight-seeing around Egypt. In Khan-Khalili, at the airports, in Luxor, Aswan even in the Egyptian Museum, in the taxis, basically everywhere. Even in the lavatories, I would be asked in heavy Arabic accent fram vherrre? Or, min wayn? In the beginning I would tell them Pakistan and they would just wrinkle their noses as if it was an inferior nationality. In the tourist places for no reason they would go ahhh min Hind! Hindi Hindi Hindi. As if Pakistan doesn’t exist. Then I changed strategy and said in Arabic “Ana masri, ana baskun fi Masr, Cahira, ana masri.” Some would laugh, others would just keep quiet.

Then I thought of something else. I went to the Egyptian Museum and one of the security guards by the mummies sections asked the usual question…”from where? From Hind?” I said “no, not Hind, are you from Hind?” He was slightly taken aback by my question and said a very determined No as if he was insulted and said with pride, like when a duck flashes its breast and wriggle its tail “….Ana Maasri!” From then on I used this strategy to counter the Hindi song. Usually when they were counter asked whether they were from Hind, they would get insulted, taken aback or just laugh embarrassingly and say “nooo, we’re Egyptian!”

Some Egyptian are quite dark skinned and they resemble South Indians from Tamil Nadu or Kerala and I would say in Arabic, “…but you look Hindi, you’re darker than I am. Compared to you, I look Arab.” This way the Hindi singsong would stop and if they were talkative, the conversation would automatically change direction. It also happened that when I told where we’re from they would say ahh, from Pakistan, welcome. So it’s not all bad. As for being Hindi and the slighted reaction, I was surprised by the result. I mean If they take pleasure in calling others Hindi why don’t they like it when they are called Hindi? As for Indians or India, they are people just like everywhere else. It is a country with an ancient civilization and a dynamic member of the world community.

Finally, I am Pakistani, but it is rude when people automatically assume you are a certain nationality or ethnicity and when you counter ask them they find it offensive. Moreover, as a Pakistani, I find it insulting when people refuse to acknowledge the country of my ethnicity. It is a valued member of the United Nations, has been a geopolitical entity for the past 64 years. Pakistan the first ideological state, it is a paradigm in nation-state formation theory that religion is a basis for national self-determination. Israel is the second such state. We should appreciate and celebrate the colors of the world instead of rebuffing them.


Egypt vs Pakistan

Egypt, or Ejypt, as the Arabs pronounce it, is an interesting place with funny people. An ancient civilization, co-existing alongside a somewhat neglected, contemporary reality. I’m not putting any regional affiliation/ethnicity down. At the end of the day we’re all human beings with idiosyncrasies and shaped by our experiences and exposure. I could just as well be writing about Pakistanis and their peculiarities; which belongs to a different entry.

For starters, Egypt is a middle income developing country. Its GNP per capita is US$ 1,881. Compared to Pakistan it is a relatively rich country, which only has a GNP per capita of US$ 971. Keeping these numbers in mind and knowing Pakistan’s development issues quite well, I was shocked to see the actual state of affairs in Egypt.

The first time I went to Cairo, I was living in the most affluent area of Zamalek, which is where most of the embassies and ambassadorial residences are located. Zamalek is on an island on the Nile so it is centrally located. When the weather is nice you can walk to Downtown Cairo where the Egyptian Museum is located in Tahrir Square, the place of the Egyptian Revolution 2011. I was staying in the best locality in Zamalek, Gezira el Wosta. The best supermarket is there, the best meat is there. Every residential building has its own guard. The streets corners are also guarded by the street police. It is very safe. Ironically however, and strangely enough, even though I was living in the best area if not in all of Egypt, then certainly the best area in Cairo, it felt like a dump.

I’m used to dust everywhere, pathetic and pedestrian unfriendly road network/infrastructure, having lived in different developing countries of various national incomes levels. It’s the rubbish everywhere which got to me.

In Pakistan I have never been to a house which had a toilet where the flush didn’t work, even when I used to do fieldwork in the rural areas. Overall, there is a general poor standard of living. On a more superficial level, I saw 30+ year old cars which I have never even seen in a secondhand car shop in Pakistan. Considering that Pakistan has half the national income of Egypt, I was shocked because from the impression I had of Egyptians in the United Arab Emirates, is that Egypt is better than Pakistan in every way. However, when I went there, explored the country and continue to do so, Pakistan is a five star hotel compared to Egypt, in every way.

Poverty is not something to look down upon, it is nothing to be ashamed of either. It is a fact of life and it is a condition you can learn a lot from. Compared to Pakistanis, Egyptians are a very subdued nation, they stick to their work and try to get on with life without questioning things. It is a survival strategy to avoid trouble with the authorities. For instance the taxi drivers will not talk to you about general affairs in their country, they will take you to your destination and that’s it. The silence could be because I don’t speak Arabic and the taxi drivers don’t feel confident speaking English.

In Pakistan on the other hand, the taxi drivers have all the gossip, they know what is happening within their country as well as around the world. They will sit with their fellow taxi drivers at the tea stall during their meal or tea breaks and discuss happenings of all sorts. Even the illiterate taxi drivers will join in and contribute with their analyses and observations.

Every male who has basic schooling, which in Pakistan is up to 5th grade, or maybe only attended school for 1 or 2 years and has basic literacy skills, will read an Urdu daily. Many of them have a lot of religious knowledge.

Maybe their lack of formal education encourages them to seek information or it could be that they just happen to be formally educated, but taxi driving is the only source of income they can get hold of.

Finally, even the relatively educated taxi drivers in Egypt who speak English don’t talk much. Or as mentioned before about not speaking Arabic, it could be that they are cautious about talking to foreigners about how things are in Egypt.

Never plan to change the status quo, plan to ameliorate the effects of inequality because poverty is a source of social dynamism.

Last Monday morning I went to my neighbourhood library. I was already out by 8:45 and thought I could make use of the morning by going to use the computers at the library. I arrived at the library by 9 am. It was closed and I remembered it would open at 9:30. I have had some very interesting conversations at this library. Public libraries are  social hubs and contributes to creating a free society.

On the bench at the bus, just outside the library, stop one of the friendly faces I have become acquainted with was also waiting. He is a tall man with a bushy communist beard, a friendly face and soft spoken. We started talking. He is from the binary area of my backyard neighbourhood area and he is interested in genealogy. He called me Miriam, I corrected him with Mariam and he told me that it has Spanish origins. Well, whatever the origin, I just stick to the Arabic origins of the mother of Jesus. Now, in a half an hour conversation you can cover quite a lot of information exchange. He kept talking about Pakistan and gave me an update of the flood repercussions there. I reminded him that I’m not from Pakistan, I just have origins there and that I’m European. He did remember I told him that and told me that people from the third world all think the English always had the rights and privileges. He said “some 300 years ago we were a feudal society and women did not even have the right to vote till 1922″. He told me that “the floods in Pakistan were the wrath of God for not believing in the commands of his son”. Now, I have already had a similar conversation with others on this before so I had an idea of where the conversation would be leading and said “well I’m Muslim and I believe in Jesus, but not as the son of God. We believe in him as a prophet of God”. I don’t discuss religion with people because things get misunderstood and you might offend someone without the intension of doing so. Whatever you believe in, the basics are the same, we just interpret it differently. Thus I managed to somehow change the topic.

Later on a common friendly face along too. By then we were talking about surnames, again the genealogy topic. Friendly Face #2 agreed with Friendly Face #1 that the surnames all indicate a certain economic group or area which you belong to. For example he said everyone with the name of Smith belonged to generations of blacksmiths. Wiltshire means you belong to that region. So the caste system exists even in Europe and everyone knows it, but unlike in the developing world is does not define who you are anymore.

Going back to talking about Pakistan he started talking about the Pakistani feudal system. In a nutshell he told me I should go back and work towards changing the system there, he even started giving me a strategy. I asked him why he didn’t become a consultant to DFID and get them to implement his ideas ? He said: “but that’s the problem, no one will listen to me”…

The trick is to avoid playing dirty politics and yet work within the system. The purpose is to bring about change without reforming the status quo because no one will let you and you will just be labeled a radical or a threat. As Caroline Moser (1978:1061) says in one of her articles on the informal sector, the point is to highlight issues and bring positive change without disturbing the power structure. Hence;

“policy-makers who wish to propose solutions within the existing capitalist political system must realize the need to focus on more specific problems at the grassroots. There is still room for measures at this level, many of which still remains to be accurately defined, but it must be recognized that their function is no more than to alleviate some of the worst anomalies, not to change the overall structure”

Essentially, the formal sector depends on the informal sector and vice versa. In others words, you need to keep people down in order to sustain opulence. In so saying: the persistence of poverty is part of a dynamic system of production and consumption.

Therefore, it is important to have sufficient and updated statistical information to properly evaluate realities on the ground because desktop policymaking is equally a waste of time and resources. Hence, it is better to accept that poverty will persist, the key is to understand the phenomenon and its effects in order to understand a misunderstood segment of humanity better. They are people just like the commonly spoilt, ungrateful and boring rich people, but their surroundings and the dynamism which characterizes their way of life is just as vibrant and absorbing as the person who has everything money and power can buy…if not more interesting.