14 February 2010
Grand larceny is alive and well at my multi-starred hotel. “Your taxi will cost $150 — the journey is 45 minutes.” The concierge raises his hands to the sky as if the price has been determined by a higher authority.
I don’t travel to have arguments, but sometimes it would be rude to resist. After a blunt exchange with the Guest Services Manager, we agree that the taxi in question will manage the journey for roughly a third of the original asking price.
The manager refuses to be embarrassed by the shakedown — and I refuse to gloat, especially since I know the city will now be gunning for me.
We pull out into the traffic. In parallel there are pleasure boats overtaking us on the Nile.
Cairo is a wonderful reflection of what is right and wrong with the Arab world. Right that any deal is possible. Wrong that every negotiation begins with an attempted rip-off. Right that there are sharp, incredibly talented, charismatic and beautiful people. Wrong that to visit them, you have to punch your way through one of the most constipated traffic systems known to man.
I lean over to ask the driver a question. “Yes sir, I know the place you are going to,” he replies. “No, no sir … I know it very well.”
I have heard the same lie a hundred times in this region — but it is delivered with such goodwill and charm that I want desperately to believe it. And this explains so much about the Middle East. This is why we still believe in peace processes — long after peace has evaporated and all the processes have halted. It’s the way they tell it that fools us into thinking it’s real. And the way they believe it themselves for that split second of the telling.
An acquaintance at Al Jazeera told me of her experience: “Stick a BBC microphone in front of people and they’ll tell you the version they think you want to hear — replace it with one of ours, and they’ll give you the complete opposite. They see no contradiction.”
We have traveled centimeters from the hotel. Now comes the hooting — not angry; it’s just something to do. You can’t help reflecting that while Cairo has spent decades by the roadside, men elsewhere have gone to the moon. They’ve mapped the genome, fought wars, filmed epics, staged revolutions.
And yet, quietly and often out of sight, some of the young people here are moving. The little army of Cairo bloggers — many of them women in headscarves — run the gauntlet of a secret police that sometimes looks too weary even to go after them.
Yes, they are arrested and harassed from time to time — last month some 20 or so were detained outside the capital on their way to inquire into a shooting, then dumped back in the city a couple of days later.
But the kids are faster with the technology and more nimble than the cops. They are also connected to networks that include foreign embassies and people of influence, and they’re no longer so easy to put down.
Why else would the police have given in over the staging of a human rights film festival in Cairo last December? Because they were told by a 28-year-old woman that it would be better for their image to let it go ahead rather than close it down.
Why else were a police and army unit moved from outside a blogger’s building after she began to update her friends on Facebook and Twitter, who in turn updated their friends and whipped up a campaign out of nowhere? Why did a security man plead with her not to escalate the situation? Because he didn’t have a choice any more.
One influential editor tells me that these young bloggers are the real bridge to a better, freer future in the Arab world. But, like the traffic, it may take a few years to arrive.
We’ve been stuck for half an hour. Worse, it’s become apparent from the driver’s desperate calls on his phone that he has no idea where we’re going. I look around at all the other cars and suddenly realize that maybe no one actually expects you to reach your destination.
Think of it this way. Four friends call each other and arrange to meet for dinner. None of them shows up and no one phones to make an excuse. The reason: They all knew in advance that they wouldn’t be able to get there.
So what was it all about in the first place? My strong suspicion: just nice words and the germ of a good intention, believed for a genuine split second by everyone. That pretty much tells you where Middle East peace is right now.
Tim Sebastian is a television journalist and chairman of the Doha Debates. International Herald Tribune