Earlier this week the news was filled with stories of the arrest of the Prince of Thugs and all that was discovered in his multi-story villa and I nearly hugged myself in glee. The term ‘thug’ alone is enough to prod my imagination into overdrive. It evokes an image of a cross between Robin Hood and Monty Python’s Knights of Ni, and the word sounds like something dense falling on sand, turning the term into something to grin at instead of fear.
When I first heard the title Prince of Thugs, I thought for a second that it was the latest release by the folks at Disney, or a new blockbuster starring Russel Crowe. It turned out that the powers that be had stormed a villa in the north of the country however, and had arrested a man, nicknamed the Prince of Thugs. This mystical figure was touted by those who apprehended him to be a major player in the underground realm of unlawful activities, if not top of the heap. In a coordinated effort, the men in uniform raided his villa and apprehended the Bossman himself, his associates and all kinds of drugs, money, weapons and several women.
I was saved from disappointment in mundane reality when the reports mentioned the livestock found on the grounds of the villa: six dogs, five lions, four horses and my personal favourite: one ostrich. Yes, indeed, an ostrich. On the first night of Christmas my sweetheart… Humming “…and an ostrich in a palm, sorry, pear tree,” I could not stop wondering why that last animal was part of the menagerie this purported kingpin of crime had accumulated.
People choose their animals for different reasons yet they are usually an extension of personality traits. Going down the list of occupants of this private zoo I could devise reasons for most of the inhabitants. The snarling dogs must have been used for protection – no fellow baddie would climb the walls with those babies roaming around the grounds. A lion is the king of the jungle, and as such lions would be a worthy companion to the Scarface of Sahel. Horses are noble beasts and can be ridden in wild-west fashion.
Maybe El-Brince shares my appreciation of this strange looking, pea-brained, fast running mega bird. Our long-necked, feathered friend is revered for its ability to plunge its head in the sand to avoid seeing what should remain hidden from plain view. And given what purportedly went on is this villa the poor animal must have spent most of its time faced down.
Turning a blind eye is not uncommon here, as with most societies, Egypt is ruled by strict codes of behaviour. “What will the neighbours say?” was heard in the house I grew up in as much as I have heard it since I moved to this country. What happens behind closed doors, or communities, is often very different from what people would like you to believe. Conservative Egyptian culture and the discrepancies are sometimes baffling. That more progressive choices are hidden from the family makes sense, but the duality of actions seems to border on denial at times.
I have seen friends fast for the full month of Ramadan, carefully explaining the religious merit to me, yet order a beer right after they polished off the final Iftar of the month. I have been to dinner at a friend’s apartment, a home she shared with her boyfriend, to see her rent a separate room when we all went on a trip to a place where nobody cared about the sleeping arrangements. Another friend was once asked to not have men stay over in the house she shared with girl, yet ‘just friends’ could come and stay for the weekend without any problem. The latter request was fuelled by a concern of what the bawab might think, and I have wondered ever since how this all-seeing doorman knew in which bed these guests would sleep.
Don’t ask, don’t tell has worked as well for me as it has for many of my Egyptian friends. What astounds me is how my separate-room-renting buddy earnestly explained that sharing a hotel room with her beloved was very different than sharing their bedroom at home, even if we were in a country where nobody cares about such things.
Denial is definitely something I have been guilty of over the years, but believing nobody can see me when I close my eyes is something I have given up around the age of five. I will probably never understand the nuances of pretence that I have seen friends display at times when they attempt to hide what is glaringly obvious to everybody else.
And suddenly the ostrich made sense.