3 Feb


One can only imagine the depravity of conscription in a land such as Egypt; twelve to thirty six months dependent upon social standing and familial circumstance, followed by up to nine years of reserve status. Years of servitude at the behest of a corrupt regime. Military service regulated by a despotic government with no regard for individual politics or social leaning, the young men of Egypt complying in order to go forward with the rest of their lives. The situation is thus – no military service, no school – refuse to comply and you may never receive a ministry of defense regulated travel visa. Without national service the only expectation of the conscript dodger is to be ostracized from every job and every opportunity available. It is easier to go than to stay. The shame upon the family is unbearable, the disdain of the neighborhood unlivable. Therefore when Mustapha’s number came up there was only one thing he could do.

His father drove him to the depot, his younger siblings in the back of the dilapidated truck, his mother at home crying into her neighbor’s shoulder. Climbing out of the cab, his father waves goodbye and drives away leaving Mustapha to join the line of conscripts waiting outside the bolted gates of their soon-to-be new home. Six o’clock sharp the gates swing open and they’re ushered in by screaming sergeants and an expectant military regime.

As the old song goes, “There are hundreds who want to be soldiers, but there are millions who want to be civilians!”

I’m driving on the I-10 with the heat turned up because I’m freezing my arse off in subzero Arizona. Billy Bragg is warbling through the speakers and I break into yet another American Idle-esque rendition. A song about breaking through the barricades, usurping the corporate bosses, exercising personal freedoms. One tune is quickly followed by the next and now Blake is bursting my eardrums as I wend my way through the dark satanic mills of Corporate America. I depress the pedal and increase the speed of my chariot of fire, preparing to swing my sleepless sword and let fly my arrows from my bow of burnished gold. Just as I reach the ear-splitting windscreen-cracking crescendo, the car in front of me starts to pull out….

Dragged from proletariat reverie, away from my love for my fellow man, I divest myself of socialistic utopian ideals and lay my hand on the horn like a bastard. A continuous blast, which wakes the dead, and scares the shit out of the errant lane changer in front of me. I zoom past preparing to unsheathe my two fingered salute, only to discover, to my not-utter-amazement, she’s using her phone. Doing what everybody does who claims to be a multitasking genius – several things badly at the same time! The perpetration of simultaneous gross inefficiency.

Blood boils and steam comes out of my ears. In an instant she flashes me a smile and waves her apology. This helps to abate my instinct to murder, maim, kill. Instead of giving her The Archer I accept her apology and motor on. Within seconds the incident is forgotten and I go back to the picket lines of my mind, happy with the resolution and my return to comradely affections; content with the excuses bidden me by a stranger, who may have been on the phone for any number of reasons. Perhaps it wasn’t random chit-chat, perhaps there was a death in the family, perhaps her daughter has gone missing from school. Perhaps, perhaps…

Basic training was barbaric but after completing his sixteen weeks young Mustapha is posted to a tank regiment. Coming from a long line of Bedouin Arabs his short stature makes him ideal for the cramped conditions of a made in the former U.S.S.R. tank. Unable to read or write, the controls of the vehicle are beyond him; however his position in the crew as gunner suits him just fine. Using his strength to heft the shells and his keen eyesight to operate the machine gun, he quickly graduates from tank school and moves on to join his tank regiment in downtown Cairo. Domestic defense as it is called; tanks in the center of the city in case of public unrest, or god forbid insurgency from antigovernment forces. No fear of invasion as the old enemy Israel is on speaking terms, so there’s no danger of canned death in the Sinai.

Dark o’clock this morning now seems a long time ago, when the corporal walked into the barrack rooms, kicked them out of bed and ordered them into their vehicles. No coffee, no nothing – straight out into the streets. They had gunned their engines and in thick plumes of diesel wended their way to Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo where even now they stood assembled facing the angry mob in front of them. Despite the darkness of the hour and the plumes of CS gas wafting through the streets, he could make out the banners and the flags of the irate populous through the gunner’s slot. He felt a familiar kick in his shoulder and acted accordingly. The thump was an intentional order from the tank commander- lock and load. Knowing only obeisance Mustapha reaches forward, pulls back the bolt, lays himself across his weapon and puts his finger alongside the trigger guard.

I walk past my boy’s bedroom and once again there’s a pile of dirty underwear and socks. I’ve only told him fifty million times that his dirty undies won’t make it to the wash machine by themselves. We’ve had the whole discussion about teenage boys being horrible, sweaty individuals – that he needs to pick up his crap otherwise he’ll stink up the whole house. Simple case of doing what you’re told, when you’re told so that we can continue to live in domestic harmony. I don’t hang my skids from the lamp shade nor do I stuff my socks in between the coffee cups! Likewise I expect him to do the same.

Enough is enough and I ban him from Life. No play station, computer, phone friends, going out ….. Nothing except staying in his room and reading… which I know he loves so much. He stands in front of me with head bowed, that look of you’re a complete bastard in his eyes; but he can’t say it because he’s a kid, and I’m in charge.

I know it, he knows it!

Once again he suffers the wrath of the despotic ruler that just happens to share the same house. I am determined this time that he’ll learn his lesson. I’m sick of picking up his shit. He looks at me with his big eyes, tells me how sorry he is, that it’ll never happen again – at least until the next time. I refuse to break, and although accepting his apology, I remain fast in my decision; I am determined that he will see his punishment through.

How else is the boy supposed to learn? It isn’t like the gulag system didn’t imbue the right sort of work ethic on its inmates. The door opens the next afternoon, he comes in from school, and after twenty four hours of reconsideration I relent. Once again an apology does the trick and I am prepared to forgive and forget – but the next time it happens! I draw my finger across my throat. He smiles, dumps his school bag, and goes back about his life as though nothing happened.

Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo is starting to fill up. There are uniforms of every kind; local police, militia and army standing side by side. On the other side of the wire, women, children, youths and old men confront the forces of the Mubarak’s regime. It’s not like they are demanding pallets of gold bullion, all they want is regime change. After thirty years of the same Western-supported puppet they’ve had enough. They want better conditions, better services, functional schools and hospitals where people go to get better instead of to die. Seems reasonable enough, however it’s totally out of the question. The crowd starts to surge, dragging the barriers out of place, making their way through the razor wire.

Mustapha can hear the stones bouncing of the steel hull of the tank, watches nervously as the troops in front run for cover behind the armored vehicles. The crowd comes closer; he can see then now, not just a mob but a bunch of individuals, boys around his own age who, if it weren’t for an education or extenuating circumstance, would be sitting in his position.

The kick to the shoulder comes quickly and he responds immediately. He has been taught well, instructed by some grizzled old vet from the Egypt-Israeli wars complete with battle scars and healed bullet wounds.

Depress release, depress release.

Three-second bursts while remembering to articulate the weapon in a thirty degree radius thereby laying down an effective field of fire and achieving an impenetrable killing zone. He feels the cold steel of the trigger on his finger, feels the weapon buck against the shoulder, sees nothing but flame and smoke as the machine gun spits death and destruction into a point-blank crowd. Brass shells clatter to the floor of the vehicle; he can smell the cordite from the expended rounds. The aperture in front of him is completely shrouded in smoke – once again he feels the kick to his shoulder and stops firing.

….Last night in central Cairo, twelve anti-regime subversives were killed by concentrated small arms fire around the area of Tahrir Square. The victims are believed to be anti-government demonstrators, confronted by pro regime forces. Given the close proximity of armed forces to civilians, it was only a matter of time before casualties occurred….

…President Mubarak has offered his apologies and prayers for both the victims, and the victims’ families…

Somehow I don’t think that’s an apology I can accept.


  1. Absolutely*Kate February 3, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    My comment’s coming oh mighty Mr James, for this phenomenal understanding of the scourge of discourage . . . but my lovin’ mate interrupted with his shout from over there on the big white couch when I read this prominent piece out loud —

    “RIGHT ON!”

    — was the comment from Matthew Magda, professor of History in an inner city school, with the University of Connecticut and the summer European Studies program at YALE

    (seems to these global citizens . . . you convey “on target” pretty damn well)

    • Colin James I-10 Blog February 3, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

      Kate you do me proud with your support.
      It would seem that your mate is acutely attuned to the disparities of this world, and in that we share common ground.
      Keep reading there is so much more to come 🙂

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