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Making it flow, somehow

This is not a film about the Egyptian revolution. This is a film about Cairo - and traffic. Film review.

Cairo in Arabic, Al-Qahira, means – among other things – ‘the victorious’. The days of (at least direct) foreign invasion are long gone, however, and now the victory is one often won over its residents, in daily battles with traffic. There are countless ways in which the basic tasks of every day life are difficult in Cairo, but quite literally in between and above and under everything else is the traffic. 

The experience of the roads is one shared by every resident of the city, whether you drive over the bridges or live under them, whether the ring road saves you fifteen minutes in the morning or splits your neighbourhood in two. Everyone is trying to get somewhere – as exemplified by the two great [un]spoken slogans of the revolution: “’ayez akol ‘aish” and “‘ayez ammashi haali” (‘I want to eat bread’, or make a living, and ‘I just want to go’).

Cairo Drive is Egyptian/American director Sherief ElKatsha’s third documentary, and he takes us on a ride through the city with various drivers from all walks of Cairo life, giving us a driver’s-eye view of Cairo over a three-year period from 2009 to 2012. Though temporally the film is framed around it, the revolution is woven into a canvas of broader themes that persisted for Cairenes before, during, and after: transport and planning, safety and responsibility, interaction with the state, corruption, attitudes towards women and philosophical questions about violence and non-violence. The film succeeds in its goal of “capturing the unspoken codes of conduct, frustrations, humour, fatalism, and life-or-death decisions of driving in a city where the only rule is: there are no rules” with wit and humour – much as Egyptians tend to tackle living in the city, for which navigating its streets is an apt metaphor.

From Cairo drive

Serene classical music plays over immersive opening shots of cars on Cairo roads, in contrast to the teeming chaos of the traffic. It’s as if you’re driving with the windows rolled up and the radio on, as anyone who has the air-conditioning and the money to pay for running it does, to diminish the inevitable exposure to exhaust fumes and noise.

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Like the notes in the symphony, the cars magically, impossibly, find order and flow – or at least trickle. “Life in Cairo has a strange rhythm,” says stand-up comedian George Azmy, one of the people featured in the film, as he launches into a hilariously tedious impression of how to get out of a necessarily minute Cairo parking spot. The audience laughs and claps not because it is a clever exaggeration, but because of the shared knowledge that, no matter how ridiculous, this is exactly how it is. Like many aspects of life in Egypt, you cannot parody Cairo traffic – it is a tragicomic parody of itself. Yet it has rhythm, it is.

The film finds the perfect quote to express this, from Maria Golia’s excellent book Cairo, City of Sand: “Cairo is an essay in entropy, a measure of disorder or randomness. But order is nevertheless maintained, if barely.” The words appear slowly, solemnly, as if to reinforce the viscosity, the tenuousness of this order at all times. As a reminder, perhaps, that it comes at a price.

The streets of Cairo are dangerous. We see the anguish of an expat father whose daughter was killed crossing the road, trying to make sense of a senseless death; Iman, a worried mother driving her son to school rather than letting him take the bus for fear over his safety. And then, flying in the face of the fear represented by these images, laughing in the face of danger, there are the babies held aloft out of car windows, the gangs of youths doing wheelies in heavy traffic on flyovers, the families of five precariously balanced on scooters; out of joy, or the need for a thrill, or just need. We see the gruesome wake left by an out-of-control truck, twisted metal and broken glass stretching out behind it on either side of the road, the worried mother’s worst nightmare; a shocking sight, but not a rare one.

There have been attempts to reassure the public that something is being done about the trucks – perhaps justly blamed for Cairo’s worst accidents – in the form of restrictions, such as one banning trucks from driving in the city between the hours of 7am and 8pm. Enforcing anything in Cairo is a negotiation, however, and in one scene a truck driver is pulled over and makes his case to the traffic officer, appealing to his need to earn a living, and to the injustice of laws that are inconsistently and unequally applied. His bargaining is unsuccessful, but the fact that it happened at all showed that compromise was at least a possibility. Haggling with words or money is just one of the ways people find to “go around” inconvenient rules, as Ayman puts it. Ayman is a chef and restaurateur whose own way is to meet his stranded delivery truck on the highway, to pack the goods into his car “like a thief,” he says with resignation, “we have to cope with it…a day in the life of an angry Egyptian citizen.”

Even getting a driver’s license is a negotiable process, just another inconvenience to be sidestepped with a connection or a well-placed bribe. One young woman in the film is a rarity in that she has the means but insists on doing it properly, despite peer pressure: “I feel it’s wrong because I’m going to drive with my children, I’d fear for their safety.” She is an exception to a rule better exemplified by another who paid a “big bribe” because the exam was too hard, or by Karina, the affluent young woman who feels that her confidence in how well she might have done on the exam (despite on-screen evidence to the contrary), and her mere appearance at the DMV, have sufficiently earned her her brand-new license.  There is no shame, no reason to hide the go-around, but pride in how smoothly it was accomplished. “I’m very happy. I had a connection. The fastest license ever made in Egypt,” she beams.

A core component of the underlying logic by which this corrupt system is perpetuated and made to seem innocuous is the appeal to common practice, and once you’re implicated, it can only be good to do what everyone else is doing, better. What point is there in one person doing it differently? Yet everyone complains about how licenses are 'just handed out', even if they got theirs the same way. Let loose on the streets, Karina realises that now that she drives, she does the same things she “used to complain other drivers do.” Everyone shares in the experience, but responsibility for the traffic, as for so much else in Egypt, is shunted around and ducked and dodged, blamed on the trucks or the tuk-tuks or the microbus drivers, on badly planned streets and traffic laws and lax enforcement, on drivers being women or too young or too old, or on a lack of ‘civilisation’, a culturally-dictated absence of order.

One officer with the traffic department sees this last as the root of the problem, otherwise aggravating an issue shared by other countries – making no mention, of course, of corruption. He has a vision of "coming generations that have this driving culture" and sees that these civilised practices can be instilled early on with focused school curricula. In this way order will be imposed and Cairo's traffic problem will shrink to a manageable, less embarrassing, "universal" size. But scenes showing lacklustre primary-school recitals of tuneless, vaguely military songs about crossing the road ("very nice but louder, children!"), and the bored blank stares of teenage driving students trying to learn about engines – apart from being funny – do not inspire confidence in the success of this ultimately superficial plan. As the driving instructor says, “I do it my way…they do it their own way." And chaos rules.

The microbus drivers are the scapegoat of choice, and the one featured in the documentary acknowledges that he contributes to causing the traffic he complains about. Almost immediately however, he counters this by saying its not in his hands, there's nothing he can do – still not willing to take responsibility for trying to fix the problem. A taxi driver, who is put on the spot about why he, like many drivers, doesn’t really respect the imperative of an ambulance siren, gives a similar response. “I want to move for him,” he says, “but where will I go?”

Even getting lost in Cairo, an arduous process at the best of times, is made more difficult thanks to the general deflection of responsibility. None of those asked for directions will admit to not knowing and so lead the lost driver even further astray, but the driver is not entirely free of blame either, asking not for a precise address but for a vague “way to the marble sellers.” But to be fair, even if she had an address, building numbers are erratically marked and street names have been known to change on a political whim. When that happens, people stick with the old names, mostly – the new names are written by officials on maps somewhere to please a foreign dignitary, and life goes on.

This is part of the problem: planning solutions are often superimposed onto rather than integrated into the traffic. The Cairo Ring Road is a case in point – initially seeming a success, diverting the flow from Cairo’s narrower streets. It cut through ‘unplanned’ but well-established (if poorly-serviced) neighbourhoods, however, and residential, commercial and academic communities continued to mushroom up around it unhindered. “It is now,” as the traffic officer admits, “a normal road and not a ring road”; a normal road fraught with bottlenecks, pedestrians, impromptu bus stops, breakdowns, fruit or tea stalls, and potholes. One woman interviewed (not identified but possibly an academic), tries to explain the dynamic that results in this anti-system:

“You can’t design a city, it grows, it becomes…planners look at a 2D map and draw lines no matter where they go…the past 15 years you see a growing network of highways and overpasses on top of Cairo, very much fragmenting the city and isolating drivers from pedestrians and public transport users…this is the chaos you see now in Cairo.”

Even cosmetic changes are superficial and only occur to present a particular image to important outsiders, to save face. The chaos of Cairo’s streets, however, is hard to hide behind a façade, as government buildings do behind marble. For Obama’s visit to Cairo in 2009, there was a scramble in the days leading up to his arrival to make the roads presentable. Lampposts were fixed, fences painted, graffiti covered, potholes filled in. But only on the route he would be taking, and only on one side of the road.

The taxi drivers featured in the film debate the pros and cons of the visit, and the beautification process in preparation. Some want Cairo to “light up for the president of the greatest country” and are enjoying the empty streets engineered with roadblocks and a public holiday. Others see dishonesty in the act, saying, “he should have seen it as it is,” and noting that Egyptian presidential visits to America are not given the same treatment.

Without directly addressing them, the film touches upon many of the failings of the state. Along with double standards, corruption and mismanagement, a recurring theme is intrusiveness. Checkpoints are so frequent, for example, that one of George’s popular jokes is his proposal that Egyptians will evolve to have “a clear pocket on the forehead for the ID card, so as not to waste the officer’s time at checkpoints.”

This suspension of this civil right is so ingrained and normalised that when the police disappeared during the first weeks of the revolution and civilians took upon themselves the task of organising the traffic, they also set up “popular checkpoints” to take over this role. There was indeed some cause for concern over security at the time, but this was often overstated and exaggerated and the checkpoints were more about claiming the public space, the power once held by the police. One of these standoffs plays out on screen, when the film crew is stopped by a civilian checkpoint and an altercation ensues. Even though they don’t have IDs, they are eventually let go, but only after power has been asserted, with one of those manning the checkpoint saying “we could keep you if we wanted.”

This is a gesture of control exerted to lighten the strain of having little, and thus having to be prepared for every eventuality. George likens it to a game of Frogger with no staff: “you have to improvise, stay alert all the time, consume a lot of energy doing normal daily things.” We see how Egyptians struggle to make ends meet, the rising petrol prices that are making taxi driving unprofitable, the inability of young people to leave home until they get married but the difficulty of doing so, the class and gender prejudices, a public transport system that is often an insult to the dignity of the passengers at best and a death-trap at worst.

All of these things force a life that is carved out not so much day-by-day as moment-by-moment, one “stitch” at a time through the warped colourful fabric of the city. Despite the distractions in the foreground, some of the characters have remarkable depth of vision about what their futures hold. Perhaps part of this is rooted in the resilience and resourcefulness that helps Egyptians keep moving no matter what they have to face. Whatever it takes to keep going, “making it flow,” in spite of itself.

The choices they make might not always seem to be the right ones, but when options are limited and outcomes similar, survival always comes first. This attitude is aptly summed up by one of the taxi drivers, commenting on Egypt’s first presidential election after Mubarak’s ouster (and first somewhat serious multi-candidate elections, because, let’s face it, 2005 was a cruel joke). Any hope in the historic process is tempered with a matter-of-fact expertise in how to just get on with it: “whoever wins, we’ll clap for him, and whoever loses, we’ll say hard luck.”

In this enacted complicity there is camaraderie, compassion for one’s fellow game-players. Everyone is in it together. As one of our drivers says, “Cairo is a hell, but there’s always the human aspect.” This highly recommended documentary captures this humanity with authenticity and tenderness, and is moving whether or not you are familiar with the city victorious. For those of us who are, it inflicts the pain of the “best jokes,” those that drive home the hurt with every laugh. “Shall I tell you a joke? There was a guy who wanted to live in his country…but can’t live. This is the best joke.

Cairo Drive will have its UK premiere at the Hackney Picturehouse in London at 20:30 on 19 June. Get tickets here. openDemocracy is an Open City Docs Fest media partner.


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