Egypt is my mother
Her Nile is in my blood
Her sun is in my tan
Her face is in my features
Even my color is that of wheat
The color of your harvest, Egypt
These are not my words, but those of a song known to every Egyptian around my age. We all know it well and probably sang it at school at some point. It has always brought filled us with enthusiasm to make this country the best place on earth.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked into a bookstore famous for its good choice of what to put on its shelves. I found a book that I have seen standing in the same place of the display for months. It’s titled “Egypt is not my mother, … she’s my stepmother.” I knew that the author was using the song I told you about and he was sure that everyone would recognize it. I didn’t quite understand what he meant by the stepmother part or by the picture he chose for the front cover.
I bought the book. It’s a collection of short articles which the author decided to compile in one book. After reading a couple of them, I started to understand why he realized that Egypt was his stepmother.
Last Thursday, I was driving my cousins home late in the evening. There was a traffic jam in an unusual spot of the city. When I approached the end of the street I saw that the reason was a ‘lagna’ – literally means a committee or a checkpoint and Egyptians call it a ‘kamiin’ –ambush. In the traffic world of Egypt, it means that a couple of middle or high ranked traffic police officers and a number of soldiers have parked their cars to do one of two things: 1- to comb the area looking for a suspect, or 2- to check everyone’s licenses (!) which should be OK.
It was a kamiin of the second type.
I approached the soldier and he asked for both the car and my driver’s license. I handed them to him and, seeing that they were fine, he kept them and walked to the front of my car and bent over to check whatever.
He handed the licenses to the officer who was already holding enough of them. Because Egypt is my mother, she’s taught me what to do in these situations. I parked the car and walked over to the officer.
“Kheir? Hope things are OK. Can I have the licenses back?”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Obliteration of numbers on the plate.”
I didn’t respond. I left him surrounded by the many motorists who were begging him to get their licenses back. I walked to my car and did as the soldier did earlier. Numbers on the plate perfectly readable if you are standing a month away. The plate is bent at the bottom due to driving on the blessed bumpy streets of Cairo.
“There’s nothing wrong with the plate.”
“We don’t think the same.”
Okay. Now I understand. Ramadan is almost there and they need some money to go grocery shopping. Egypt, my mother, also taught me this and told me that if I argue with this officer I might end up being beaten up at some point or maybe go home with a smashed car and still with no licenses in hand.
“What do I need to do?”
“Pay 150 pound now or we keep the license and you collect them later from the traffic department.”
“I’ll pay now.”
I got the money and waited for my turn to pay.
Despite all the hatred my heart has for Egyptian police officers, I found myself looking at his face trying to have eye contact with him. I wanted to tell him what my mouth couldn’t utter. I wanted to ask him when the last time he had a good night’s sleep was or if ever ate food bought with blessed money. I wanted to tell him that he would be another reason why I want to leave this country although I love it more that he did. I wanted him to see the cold anger that was boiling inside me.
He never lifted his eyes off the receipt book. He handed me my receipt, both licenses, and the change.
“Thank you,” he said and I was now sure that he was not fully an Egyptian police officer yet. There was a trace of conscience somewhere between his ribs, which was not enough, though, to stop him from turning a deaf ear to all the voices around him.
Back in the car I looked at the receipt and it read:
(.. and they paid the minimum fine for ‘changing the shape of the plate’). Oh, great. He didn’t even have that trace.
And yes, I now think that Egypt to him is definitely a mother who, to me, has started to feel like a inhumane stepmother.