Swine Flu (or, how Egypt stopped liking my foreign-ness)

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Africa » Egypt » Middle Egypt
June 17th 2009
Published: June 17th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

“All the good for the American image that was done by Obama’s speech has been undone by Swine Flu” - my roommate’s boss

While I’ve been fortunate enough not to fall victim to earth’s trendiest new pandemic, swine flu has taken on a special new importance in my life. For those of you not voraciously following Egyptian news, there have been 7 cases of swine flu diagnosed in Cairo (actually, now it's up to 26, but it started with 7) - all of them foreign students newly arrived at the AUC dorms near downtown, in Zamalek (an upper-class island neighborhood in the Nile, in the middle of Cairo) to take summer courses. This, predictably, ignited a sort of latent frenzy that is so ill-conceived it borders on the hilarious. There is no rioting in the streets, no mass rushes to the pharmacy to buy face masks (not that much anyway) or to stock up on canned food the same way fanatics prepare for impending nuclear winter, but there is now a sort of superstitious anxiety that has ratcheted up the already vivid interactions between Egyptians and foreigners.

Two of my blonde and fair-skinned roommates have cited me some of the best examples of this. They walked into a pharmacy the other day, and the moment one pharmacist saw them walk into his shop and registered their ivory complexions, he snapped a surgeon’s mask over his face before he would talk to them. Cab drivers will often cover their mouths with handkerchiefs for the entire duration of our cab rides, if they stop for us at all. Passerby do this too. Sometimes they’ll even cross to the other side of the street rather than inhale our germy foreigner carbon dioxide. My good friend and roomate Katie, who is writing with the Egypt Daily News for the summer, wrote a short opinion piece about Egyptian-foreigner relations in the wake of swine flu if you care to read it:


Defensiveness of non-contamination has also begun to take root. Another friend of mine made an innocuous take-out call to a McDonalds the other day, one that had allegedly found a case of the flu in one of its staff. The conversation went something like this, positively sweating with paranoia:

“Alloo, Macdooonalds”
“Hi, can I order for take-away?”
“Take-away?? Want take-away??”
“Uh, yes please.. is that okay?”
“….Yes….take away okay…there’s no problem here…”

To be sure, there is an eerily Red Scare-esque flavor to all of this, but it isn’t without its entertainment. Subways are especially fun. Though my friends and I haven’t yet mustered the gall to launch a full-blown “take me home, Lord, Satan’s done stricken me down!” style of coughing fit (though it’s in the works…) we’ve been enjoying small spats of fear-mongering. Little mutterings in Arabic like “gibberishgbberishgibberishH1N1gibberishgibberishHOSPITALgibberishWOW, I DON’T FEEL SO HOT, MAN” and strategically-timed coughs are some of our favorites.

It’s a bit callous, it’s true. But it gives me a measure selfish personal vindication - for all of the butt-grabbing I encounter in crowded places, and for the shouts of “Uuuuubaaamaa, good man!” which have now morphed grotesquely into “H1N1! H1N1!” and “Swine! Swine! Flu of swine!” that sometimes follow us when we walk by. The AUC students who had been diagnosed were shipped off to hospitals, but the rest of their comrades in the dorms were quarantined off and secured by armed guards (I shiver to think that it probably wasn’t keeping people out that was their purpose…) but when in Zamalek I still catch suspicious looks from passerby who are doubtlessly weighing the odds that I’m an escapee, and seriously considering summoning the nearest zaabit (the ubiquitous yet comically ineffectual police officers blanketing Egypt) to haul me away back to my little hotbox of disease.

Sadly, this kind of ignorance (such as the conviction that children are immune, for example) is echoed by the government in equal (well, who are we kidding - greater) measure, on a larger scale. Swine flu has provided us with some epic examples. For instance: Hosni Mubarak, in his infinite wisdom, made with his cronies the sweeping decision that it would be a cracking idea to prevent the spread of swine flu by slaughtering all - that’s right, all - of Egypt’s 300,000 pigs. Refusing to let the rigmarole of liberal-thinking nonsense (like, oh, the fact that pigs don’t carry the disease) get in the way of good strong statesmanship, “Papa Hosni” succeeded in wiping out the livelihood of the majority of Egypt’s poorer Coptic Christians. He made an oily attempt to soothe tempers by promising payment for and humane slaughtering of the pigs. He came through on neither.

There was a good article in the Times, if you didn’t read it:


...It describes the important role that pigs served in the lives of these Christian zabaleen, or garbage men (literally, those of the garbage), taking care of thousands of tons of organic waste in a city already brimming with waste. Hundreds of communities are built up around these dumps and these pigs.

It is the opinion of many (mostly foreigners and Egyptian Christians) that this decision of Mubarak’s was an ill-concealed means of ridding Egypt of pigs, considered to be unclean creatures by Islam. It is nearly impossible to find pork products in Egypt, and the presence of so many pigs in a predominantly Muslim country is an issue of contention. The Coptic Christian population, who have no religious problem with pigs or pork and who are indeed legally permitted to raise and consume pigs, see this new development as one of many small slights done the Christian community by the Muslim majority. I’ll not take sides, considering I have both Christian and Muslim friends in Egypt, both of whom fluidly assert that there are no real problems between the religions, and except for some political cases, Christians and Muslims cozily coexist with no problems at all. But I digress. I’m probably going to be eating bacon within 8 minutes of getting back to America, so my own take is slightly biased.


18th June 2009

Hey, Nancy. Love your blog. 'Fun to read your observations. Feel like I'm there actually... to the point where I think I now need an antibactirial wipe. :)
18th June 2009

Was interested to hear that people say "Obama" or "swine flu" to foreigners they pass on the street. I have never had this, does it only happen to people who look obviously American? As for Egyptians trying to avoid one on the street, this could be a good thing! Great blogs...
19th June 2009

Well spoken
LOL...this is so true. Be careful with your coughing fits or you may find yourself all alone in some dingy dirty government hospital! You gotta love this place...

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