Monday, September 18, 2006
One thing you’ll notice very quickly in Cairo is the visible police presence. So far, I have been able to distinguish two types of police presence, according to uniform. The first, and most common, are presently wearing their summer whites, head to toe. The shirts of these uniforms are decorated with a sash and other official-looking regalia vaguely reminiscent of Gopher from Love Boat. Apparently, once the weather changes to winter cool, these men will trade in their whites for a different color, and that will be a sad day for me. I like my white-uniformed po-po.
These men appear to be “common” police. Sometimes they perform helpful functions like helping direct traffic—there are very few traffic lights in this city, and those that do operate at, say, Midan Tehrir, do very little to stem the tide of drivers who are intent only on driving to their destination with as little delay as possible. But there is not a necessity for traffic police at every corner, and so most of these police sit around, looking, among other things, bored. You don’t go more than a few blocks without seeing a gaggle of them, arms flung over the rickety iron barrier demarcating their domain, watching the Western women walk by. They hiss at women or they nap. They are boys, they are old men. They fling their arms over their rifles as they wander about their appointed zone, unwittingly pointing the barrel of the gun at disconcerted passers-by (like me). As in the case of one particularly bored young officer, who looked straight down the barrel of his rifle, one eye at a time, these officers might invent new time-consuming activities to quench their thirsty boredom.
The second type of police are the embassy guards, or military police. I’ve been trying to figure out if these guards enjoy an elevated status among their peers. They wear navy uniforms, pants tucked into black boots, and navy berets. As with the “common” police, these uniforms are time-worn, you can tell, faded at the seams and the creases of the pockets. Regardless, these uniforms effectively convey the appearance of military; they also carry old automatic rifles that may or may not be stocked with live rounds, depending upon whom you ask. These young men will most often stare at M as she passes by (but will not attempt to get her attention if I am with her) and will smile at me and say, “Aloo,” when I look at them. These men generally stand at their post outside their assigned embassy—in the case of our most immediate surroundings on Bahgat Aly, that would be China, Serbia, and Oman. Sometimes they are joined by middle-aged men who wear suits all the blazing day long. Occasionally one is sent as a gopher for water.
Interestingly, these blue-uniformed guards appear to be conscripted. How do I know that? you ask. Here is how I know. At various places throughout the city are some beefy-looking paddy wagons. They are blue, armored, with spacious and enclosed beds. The beds are adorned with small, boxy windows covered with a thick grate, behind which you can see the faces of the military police. These seemingly imprisoned military police are guarded by other military police, who also supply them with bread and water. This curious scene confused me for a few weeks before I was informed that young men in Egypt participate in compulsory military service, I don’t know for how long. Young men in Cairo are often sent out of the city, to other places in Egypt—which is, after all, a sizable country—while the country folk are sent here, to Cairo, to perform their service. They are maintained, it seems, in these armored paddy wagons, awaiting their “shift” at whatever spot, embassy or otherwise, they’ve been assigned to. I’m still trying to figure out if they are so kept in order to protect them from what must be the overwhelming sensory delight of Cairo—lots of trouble to be found, even among devout Muslims—or to keep them from running away, lost in the city or back to their rural homes. Their faces in the grilled windows look bored, eager, curious, apprehensive, all at once, complicated by the crossing shadow-pattern of the grill. That certainly doesn’t help me figure out what they think of what they see and hear all around them.