My friend Khaled Kassab writes two popular newspaper columns about Egyptian society: ‘Sunstruck’ and ‘Pollen of Wisdom’. Both are of ten framed as allegory, a form much appreciated in Egypt. This is partly owing to discretion, since political and religious hypocrisy has long been a favourite, often dangerous topic best approached indirectly. As the Arab proverb puts it: it is good to know the truth but it is better to speak of palm trees.
I told Khaled I had been to the cancer treatment hospital that morning with a sick friend. We had to hop- scotch through a sprawling pile of bloody gauze, spent syringes and plasma sacs to reach the door. The basement floor, a labyrinth of ill-lit corridors, was packed with the sick and bewildered; whether alone or accompanied by their families they outnumbered the available nurses 50-to-1. There was no one to tell them where to go or what to do or what might happen next. They received only one, familiar instruction: to wait.
This waiting in uncertainty is a fairly common human state but Khaled understood my story as a metaphor for Egypt at the moment, some 20 months after the uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak. Khaled was in Liberation Square for those 18 days alongside Egyptians of all ages and backgrounds.
He saw this moment of unity as a confirmation of how he’d always felt about the world, i.e. that we are the agents not just of our own but one another’s happiness and/or misery.
Things have since gone downhill. Egypt is more divided than ever, not just between the rich and poor, but along sectarian lines and over differences regarding nationalism, identity, or more specifically, ways of life. Egypt was never a rich country, but it always seemed there was enough to go around. Now people are obliged to fight for necessities; a subsidised loaf of bread, a tank of petrol, a cooking gas canister, all in short supply. To convey his frame of mind on the matter, Khaled told me that his latest column is entitled ‘sadness is the hero of the world.’
Happiness is a beautiful woman that becomes a prostitute, he explains, because Sadness has convinced people they can buy her. In the end, Sadness murders Happiness and people in high places say she had it coming.
Khaled told me the story with a big grin on his face, happy to have pinned sadness down in 700 words. Another reason why Egyptians enjoy allegory is that it places thorny issues at a safe distance, in order to ex- amine them with detachment.
Khaled was born in Giza, famous for its pyramids but better known to those who live there as a teeming quarter 14 km from the city centre (two hours by public transport) with poisoned water and monumental garbage heaps.
Khaled now rents a flat downtown, which to him is another, more beautiful and open country, especially after the victories of Liberation Square. He doesn’t see the dereliction of downtown’s beauty as I do, having lived here for 30 years and having other points of comparison.
Like most Egyptians, Khaled is young, has never left Egypt and perhaps never will.
And while he sees the myriad difficulties facing his unbalanced society as it seeks to right itself he is willing to stand firm and optimistic, waiting for another opening, no matter how long it takes.
I admire his equanimity – and his patience – but wonder if at times it isn’t best to call a palm tree a palm tree after all.