Mogamma


Thereís a building in downtown Cairo, an imposing off-white structure that sits in the tempest of noise swirling around Tahrir Square. Itís called the Mogamma. Officially, it is the epicenter of administration in the capital, and positively throbs with the harassed air of 18,000 public servants rifling through innumerable applications scattered across 14 floors of concrete bureaucracy. Outside, a throng of people battle their way through cajoling street vendors and converge underneath an archaic metal detector Ė which nobody is really monitoring Ė to join the chorus of the Mogamma.

Inside is the heaving, undulating, chaotic embodiment of Egypt. Life in the capital collides through the aperture of tight and sterile corridors. Burqa-clad women mold into slim mustached Syrians, reckless Western children bowl into slender Africans clutching blue UNHCR refugee permits, and everywhere there are voices drawn from every corner of society Ė a crash of cultures all fighting for space at the northern tip of the continent. The Mogamma is immutable; corridors twist around the body of the building like arteries and people passing through them are blood, and the entire building palpitates with a strange cry of life that for me, only in my fifth week here, is an overwhelming and deafening roar.

I walk in a constant state of sensory overload. Noise assaults me from every angle as I attempt to distinguish one voice above the rest. Iím heading to window 12, but am redirected to window 18 for a form. Can I borrow a pen, I ask a nonplussed staff member, to which she replies that she doesnít have one. I stare at her disbelievingly. The Mogamma is a relic of twentieth century clerical efficiency. Not a single computer exists here and all forms are processed manually. I know there are more pens in the Mogamma than in every Whitcoulls store across the southern hemisphere combined. The nonplussed woman stares back unfalteringly. She shrugs, I donít have a pen. The throng of people has been incrementally closing in from behind, and now I am asphyxiating a very short Egyptian woman who is gasping desperately into my back. I fight my way back from window 18, penless.

At home, life is perceptible and clear. Things are regulated, polite, underwhelmingly simple. Iím ingrained with the Western desire for control over condition, and here in the Mogamma it is pointless and utterly perverse. Iím back at window 12, and I direct a persistent child whoís straining to get around me to stand behind. Thereís a line, I state authoritatively. He shuffles sheepishly backwards, and somebody jumps in behind him. My eyes just about pop out of my head. Christ, Iíve started a line. It lasts about half a minute before it disintegrates into a teeming mass of bodies jostling for position at window 12. Iím a body in the mass, being thrown around by the weight of the crowd, my social experiment defeated unequivocally in an embarrassing rejection of Western pompousness.

There are moments where I wonder what omnipotent force of nature beckoned me to this melting pot of madness and confusion. They usually come at points of extreme exasperation; when the mercury hits 40 degrees, the heat starts compounding my overwhelmed brain and one more benign heckle sends me tumbling over the edge. For a fleeting instant, the magic of travel ebbs away, and Iím overcome with a desire for normalcy, for social graces and the comfort of controlled surroundings. Itís during these moments that standing mutely in a line at Whitcoulls waiting to purchase an ink cartridge for my refillable pen seems an attractive alternative. Itís a malaise that sets upon me like a creeping, unfurling hand of tiredness that is slowly reaching forward; tempting me with the promise of a safe, warm palm to crawl up in which to feel guarded and safe. But such niceties were cast away the moment I whisked myself away from home. Structures of habit and routine, while necessary at the time, have become a perverse concept here. I abide now by chaotic, uncertain principles. And within these new schizophrenic structures I have found former boundaries morphing into a fragmented version of myself. My ties to the past, while pervasive, are slowly ebbing as I realise that survival here requires an ability to adapt, to learn, and to listen.

Sounds that first appeared as overstuffed noise have begun to take on a meaning and purpose. My reason for being here always seems to strike me in these acute moments of stress. It glides in on the back of the noise; the strange harmony of Cairo that rises in a Saharan brilliance and fills the city with an irresistible crazed rhythm. It pervades my senses and brings me crashing back down to Earth.

Sometimes, it is the way the minarets sing Allahuakhbar, the piercing call of a Mullah as he floods the streets with a pious, guttural hum. Sometimes, the rhythm of water pipes bubbling their dulcet tune in the ubiquitous street ahwas. Sometimes itís the triumphant shopkeepers, whoring their produce and assaulting you with abrasive voices that give away patriotic passion with one overused phrase Ė welcome to Egypt!

It can be the Arabic pop music that blares from the machinery of daredevil scooter drivers, or the squish of unwanted food lying mute on the concrete sloshing around under the collective weight of fifty million feet. Or the heavy churning of traffic - horns are blasted down the street not as indignation to other drivers but as a courtesy in the art of assessing road space. The demand of an eight-year-old child for twenty-five bound for your beer Ė and then the second moment of disbelief that an eight-year-old is indeed serving you alcohol Ė while he expertly churns hot shisha coals around in his hands. The woman sitting derelict on the dirty street, arms outstretched to the crowds crying inshaíAllah while life swirls around her. Sheís still, forgotten Ė washed up on the banks of the river as it rushes continuously beside her.

This time, it is the return of a Mogamma employee from her morning break. Iím snapped out of my musing and am returned crudely to the present. She comes rushing into her silo in a flurry of kisses and exclamations, and everybody pauses to greet her. I think of the Mogamma tearoom, amplify all my conceptions about standard office gossip, and make a wish to be reborn as a fly on its wall.

Whilst on first glance everything seems to be moving at a hectic pace, life is actually strangely pacified Ė if a little congested. Egyptians have a leisurely stroll characteristic of a people who always find time to contemplate the grammar of life. I walk at such a rapid pace here that I often find myself crashing into others on the street. Something catches their eye in a shop window and they will suddenly halt in the middle of the footpath, sending me flying into their backside with an embarrassed fit in broken Arabic of excuse me and sorry. My own determined pace, a restiveness that I am deeply entrenched in, is an awkward paradox to Egyptian life. I begin to feel that my pathetic and relentless attempts to seek out some fantastical logic in the Mogamma structure are useless. As the morning stretches towards midday, and the hive of people multiplies and becomes louder, I escape outside to the sticky August breeze that is dancing over Tahrir Square.

Itís fine - my morningís work is done. I need to return the next day (at 9am, no later or mushkila kibeera Ė big problem) to complete the administrative process. To be honest, I feel like the entire morning has been tainted with several mushkila kibeera, although I have the feeling that such a sentiment is reserved only to myself. Itís all in a dayís work for the Mogamma. The staff will fend off thousands of perspiring applicants today, tick off their final boxes at 5pm (using any number of an endless supply of pens), and leisurely bid goodbye to their colleagues. As for me, Iím now striding manically past the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, performing my daily dance with death as I navigate the chaotic streets. A hell bound scooter zips past me, too close, and I leap screaming into the side of a parked car. Iím attracting odd glances from every angle. My heart is racing and my face is twisted with shock and relief, but both my feet are planted firmly on the ground, and all around me there is noise and heat and life. I put one foot in front of the other and begin to walk. Slowly.

Hester Moore

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