EGY.COM - PROBLEMS & ISSUES
by Samir Raafat
EGYPTIAN MAIL, January 20, 1996
BABY Mathias Recondo arrived in a Dokki hospital's maternity ward right on target two weeks ago. He was delivered into this world by an Egyptian doctor while an anxious Argentine father observed in a daze. I suppose this makes Mathias one of the few Argentines born in Egypt. But this article is not about Mathias or his proud parents. It is about two passing incidents starting with the one I encountered when visiting the Recondos at the hospital.
THE HOSPITAL LOBBY
Just as a group of persons, myself included, were about to enter the hospital's elevator, a cabinet minister, accompanied by his security and a couple of self-important aides, swooped in and before we knew it, the elevator was commandeered and off they went into the upper sanctums of the building. There was not so much as an "excuse us" or an itfadallo ma'ana.
Not even an apologetic smile.
Not surprising since the belated cabinet "reshuffle" had already taken place, and Mr. Minister, now looking extremely confident and smug, was secure in the knowledge that his ministerial trappings and the hoopla that goes with it were his for the next few years. He no longer needed our vote(?!) or support. Once more, we had become invisible!
I can't tell whether it was out of frustration or was it my mind playing tricks, but the minister had a sadistic "let them climb stairs" look on his face. As though to confirm my impression, the elevator never came down.
I am not referring to those ordinary coffin-like wooden elevators that only handle 3 or 4 slender persons at a time. I'm talking here of a modern lift that takes 8 to 10 obese individuals. The hospital in question has two of these allocated to visitors and another one marked "staff-only". Because this was visiting hours, it seemed like each patient had his entire extended family come over. While some brought flowers and chocolates, others smuggled in food, beverages and hot water bottles. There was a wobbly old auntie with a giant stuffed teddy bear for her ailing nephew. There was the out-patient come to remove stitches from his injured leg. But because the working elevator had been commandeered by Mr. Minister, relatives, friends and teddy bear had to scramble up the stairs to God knows which floors.
Ah! the other elevator? It was taking a rest. Meanwhile, the reception desk people avoided eye contact with anyone who looked like he might need information or assistance.
Let's contrast the above incident with another situation.
A HOT SUMMER DAY IN LONDON
It was end of August 1995 and summer sales were exploding all over London. As usual, Oxford Street was swamped with overseas shoppers but in view of street renovations, it was almost impossible to walk especially if you carried 10 large shopping bags all marked C&A and M&S.
Going to these out-of-town malls seemed like a wise alternative, more so if you lived nearby. One of these American-type shopping malls is located at Brent Cross not too far from the Hampstead-Finchley-Golders Green triangle. So, here I was, in one of Brent Cross' many department stores, filling out a VAT (Value Added Tax refund) form when I got distracted by what appeared to be an angry argument between a short, pudgy shopper and a thirtyish store employee who looked --and sounded-- definitely Asian. She also looked like she had missed her lunch hour. Whether or not she was craving for curry and tandoori, the source of her irritation at the time seemed to be the persistent shopper in front of her.
The man looked vaguely familiar. For sure, he was certainly Egyptian. Aside from his characteristic physique, he was wearing the tell-tale, tie-less and dull '60s-style outfit dubbed badlet wakil el wezara or high official attire.
The nearby remonstrations had gotten two decibels louder with strong Asian and Egyptian accents overlapping as each party argued his case. Suddenly, the Asian employee pushed a red passport into the man's hands and told him in exasperated tones to "go off and fill out a new VAT form. And do it properly this time!" she snapped.
I immediately recognized it was one of ours: The red passport. Red meant it was diplomatic. The man must be a retired Egyptian senior civil servant or something.
As though admonishing a school child, the obviously unimpressed Asian employee instructed the by now fuming Egyptian shopper: "You must NOT put your credit card number where it says passport number and DON'T volunteer unnecessary information such as your titles and former occupation. Just answer the simple questions listed in the form."
When the man asked if he could leave his parcels next to her counter while he re-filled the form, she refused in the most resolute terms. "NO, you certainly may not! You will take your parcels and all your belongings with you. And when you complete the form come back and stand in the queue. This is England. There are no privileges here. NEXT PLEASE!"
The man was about to argue some more but the Asian employee's patience having run out, she beckoned to the next in line. Without hesitation, the heaving South American shopper standing behind, shoved the flustered Egyptian aside and positioned herself square in the front of the VAT counter spouting words that sounded like caramba, mierda and loco.
My Egyptian compatriot, whose face had become as red as his diplomatic passport, picked up his Fenwick, M&S and C&A shopping bags and proceeded to the nearest ledge where he painfully filled out a new VAT form. This is when I realized who he was.
Agonizing in front of me in a shop in London was a former deputy prime minister from the Nasser and early Sadat era. He had been a proponent of socialism when everybody was supposed to be equal with the exception of himself and other members of the cabinet. This was that self-important minister who had his Zamalek road closed off to the public so that his chauffeured driven cars could park at will. Unless you were an expert groveler, appointments with him had to be tabled months in advance. He was also the one who abused his powers and privileges hawking cushy posts to the highest bidder and selling favors all around. An entire school was removed from the vicinity of his house because the noisy morning parades and patriotic chants disturbed him as he drafted his sycophantic reports to al rais!
Perhaps he was also the kind who took elevators alone because his 'elevated' status forbade him from mingling with lesser mortals.
And now, despite his red diplomatic passport, he was getting an appreciation of what it was like to be a commoner; what it felt like to rub shoulders in a queue only to be impetuously told off by an Asian immigrant worker in a British department store. There was no one around to carry his bulging M&S and C&A packages for him. His superior former titles were not welcome on VAT application forms!
Later, as it turned out, I discovered that the Egyptian Embassy in London had not bothered to give him the use of its extra car reserved for visiting VIPs like in the good old days. Who bothers with an ex-minister. How true the saying "every minister has his day". Or was it something else?
Somehow, don't ask me why, I felt sorry for the man and considered offering my humble assistance. Or was it just to gloat at close quarters?
You may ask yourself, like I did, why on earth was this former senior civil servant in such need to collect his VAT at the expense of demeaning encounters? The only answer I could come up with was, that because he had been 'involuntary' retired before the launch of the infitah, he had therefore missed the gravy train. Unlike his fat cat successors, he had not feathered his golden nest infitah-style. Most probably the nest egg he had managed to put together during socialism had eroded thanks to the Open Door inflation.
BRENT CROSS BUS STATION AN HOUR LATER
Half an hour later, here I was sitting contentedly in one of those epic London red buses surrounded by a mix of old English ladies clutching empty plastic bags. Naturally there were also shoppers of all nationalities carrying what seemed a lifetime's purchase. Suddenly, I heard shouts coming from up-front.
"Sorry gov, you must get off this bus. Can't you see it's full. There are no more places". This was obviously the conductor asking a would-be passenger to get off. Happens all the time.
Some more incomprehensible mumbling followed by the conductor's now loud angry baritone. "I'm talking English here man, you must leave now or I'll call security and they'll remove you from my bus, d'ya hear, now bugger off!"
As the situation got more agitated, I stretched out to have a look at what was going on.
Oh my God!!! It was the former deputy prime minister being chucked out of the London bus by what looked like a stocky Rastafari conductor from the Caribbean.
My last glimpse of this degrading scenario was the sweating man scurrying down the bus steps. And as though adding injury to insult (in this order), one of his larger shopping bags burst open to reveal all kinds of women's lingerie; obviously one of the items on his wife's shopping list.
This time I felt genuinely sorry for the man.