being brown

Unknown wars in unknown places

One of the strongest images I have of Egypt (other than the museum and the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings) is the overwhelming presence of the Egyptian police. In white pants and white shirt like Indian naval officers (the only difference was that the shirt was not tucked in but was held by a black belt), these well built, hawk eyed, men were everywhere. On the streets, in the museum, at the railway station, at the pyramids, in the Valley of Kings – everywhere!

We were waiting for a train at Cairo station. The train was to take us to Aswan (where Agatha Christie stayed as she wrote Murder on the Nile). At Aswan we were to board a cruise that sailed on the Nile all the way to Luxor. We had arrived at the platform slightly early, which meant that we had to wait and entertain ourselves as best we could. The station was like any railway station in India (less crowded, of course). A whole lot of people were waiting about for trains; some families, some individuals, no individual women though. The platform was dirty and there were quite a few stalls selling snacks and other knick-knacks. In fact, we felt quite at home.

My father asked one of the policemen about our train and he said it should come in sometime but there were two trains due before ours. Did I mention there were police men to the tune of one for every 100 metres at the platform? In fact the station was so well secure, the car that carried us to the station was stopped for security check and our driver had to tell them who the car belonged to, who we were, where we came from and where we were going. As a family, we look pretty harmless so after a cursory glance at our faces we were allowed to pass.

My sister and I decided to take a walk down the length of the platform seeing that we had quite a bit of time on our hands, to do with as we please. As we walked the length, we realized that a lot of the men that had gathered at the station were in military uniform. With their large rucksacks and their huge metal boots, they looked ready to jump into war. Back at ‘campsite’ (where mum and dad were standing with the luggage), I asked if Egypt was in some kind of war. Mmy father answered in the best way he knew (read longest way). Apparently, Egypt had had/has forced conscription of males in the military until sometime ago. Not sure if the practice continues now and definitely not sure if it will continue after the revolution. Now, forced conscription is one of the things that interest me immensely. The reasons would make for another blog post that I would save for another day.

One of the primary things that interests me about forced conscription is the individual’s own perception of this kind of conscription. And as I watched the young men, some alone, some with their families waiting for a train, the writer in me was building for each one, a story. Sitting atop our luggage, I removed my camera meaning to store this poetic picture for ever. I did not focus on anything in particular but wanted to catch the length of the platform with atleast some of these men with their romantic baggage. And as I held out my camera, I heard my father saying that its against the law to take pictures in public places like the railway station. But I had already clicked and as I clicked, I saw the severe expression of the policeman in the screen of the digital camera staring right at me. He slowly moved forward a couple of steps, raised one arm and shook his finger from side to side, scowling all the time. I meekly put the camera back in the bag and realized that being a girl just saved me some uncomfortable moments. That and the fact that mum, dad and sis exude a certain respectability that the policemen read as ‘good people’. Moreover, my father looked ready to give me up to the policeman, if need be.

Well, in a rather anti-climactic turn of events, the already full military train arrived and the platform turned in to this long film strip of goodbye scenes. As men packed into it like sardines in a tin, Egypt’s military strength left for unknown wars in unknown places for an establishment they may or may not have loved.

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2 responses

  1. Rene Lacoste

    I keep coming back to this blog only to end up reading the same blog post many times over (and unsheathing layers of your writing). I wish you’d write more frequently, but then, that would probably bring about what they call a dilution of content and intent.

    February 11, 2011 at 11:08 am

  2. sumanyav

    interesting you should say this at this point of time.

    I am always divided between publishing and improving what i have already written. The need to publish (even mediocre work)was high some time ago, hence the blog.

    but the dilemma has resurfaced. since ‘publishing on the blog’ has become an end in itself. and with that what you call a ‘dilution of content and intent’ has also happened.i guess it was inevitable.

    However uncanny your observations, I do appreciate a discerning reader.

    February 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

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