Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cairo Road Jazz

Newcomers to Egypt often find the driving here as intimidating as garage or grunge music is to grandmas. Egypt’s traffic system, like unaccustomed musical styles, needs to be understood to be enjoyed. Just as teenagers need to be explained to their bewildered parents, driving needs to be explained to the terrified, unforgiving foreigner. People always complain about the roads here; rolling their eyes, patronisingly dismissing the traffic system as dangerous mayhem; I even heard one ex-pat talking about taking a defensive driving course here. Defensive driving! That’s like saying it’s a war out there, that “they” are the enemy - it’s completely missing the point. Driving in Egypt is creative like jazz. It’s an elegant fusion of music and motor, it’s a dance with a thousand unknown dance partners, it’s about having soul.

My view is; if you come from a western nation, you will have undergone in your youth numerous driving lessons and torturous driving tests (I took five of them) paying extortionate amounts of money and going to sleep with “mirror-signal-maneuver” as your bedtime mantra - it would have been rather like learning to play a classical instrument extremely well. You were taught about tone, embouchure, music theory, to watch the conductor, to wait your turn and to play with precision and perfection. And then, when you passed your driving test, you were allowed out to join the great orchestra of the road. Maybe you were a little shy at first - kind of like being fourth viola - but in time you found your place and settled down in your own driving style, confident that the rest of the orchestra out there knew what it was doing, and you all duly and appropriately lived in fear of the conductors.

Driving in Egypt is like music, just of a different type. Egyptian drivers aren’t interested in the precision and training that has to go into your classical music. Egyptian drivers like jamming. They prefer a musical fusion of free jazz and oriental melodies and, unlike the superior minded classical set, they don’t mind if you’re not very good. They like to see what sort of creative moves that they can execute on the roads. They are, on the whole, good natured (there are some people out there whose instruments are in bad need of a tune or a spot of valve oil) and generally this naturally musical nation brings that musical soul to its roads. So, when driving in Egypt one has to expect the unexpected; a surprising riff when you thought a gentle movement was coming, an unusual combination of chords at an intersection, a spectacular precision display of incredible tightness around a midan and then an abrupt coda as you come off the bridge.

Classically trained drivers who manage to master the jazz of Cairo’s roads must surely be some of the best drivers in the world. They have the theory and the skills from the Conservatoire, but if they can make the transition from classical to jazz they can fly, dance, create, invent.

It’s all about the soul, it’s a dance out there and to flow with the art form drivers must never drive defensively, never drive offensively (spread peace not pieces on the road as I was often told by my classical instructor) or aggressively; instead drive from the heart, with magnanimous generosity and irresistible cheek. Don’t be afraid to enjoy it but never, never let your concentration slip for a moment - there are way too many soloists competing for space and outright beginners out there and it is easy to bring about disaster.
To drive in Egypt is to drive with a sense of privilege that you got a place in the band, that you got an invitation to the club. Keep very alert and be quick with the give and take of the crowded dance floor; as you sweep around be careful not to tread on anyone’s toes and be watchful for those who may tread on yours. Enjoy it. If a juggernaut threatens to overwhelm you, just think, “ah ha – Charlie Parker” and cheerily get out of the way; if a microbus insists on taking the glory lead, let him, just sit back and sustain the beat. If much slower vehicles are your dancing partners like donkeys or tuk-tuks then appreciate that even the triangle has its day and enjoy a glimpse of a slower, older more natural life. Don’t get cross when people cross the road, people were there before cars and they live here too. Above all, enjoy musical jokes - there are plenty of them out there.

I love driving here, its so much more fun and entertaining than driving at home where people drive fast and furious, where the price of fuel is astronomical, where road rage is the norm, where you live in terror of the vast fines those intractable police conductors will land on you for daring to drive with a little expression, where a camera can orchestrate the removal of your license so that where once the roads were a driving symphony now they have become soul destroying lift music. Savour and enjoy your driving in Egypt, it’s jazz.


Pat Callahan said...

Best quote I've read on a blog in a long time: "drive from the heart, with magnanimous generosity and irresistible cheek."

That's why I miss you, bro!

Rich Kirkpatrick said...

I like the "soul destroying lift music" myself.

peter steggall said...

Hi Mark. I love the paperwork "system". I haven't read your blog in its entirety, but it looks like you're a star out there. I'm glad to see you look so happy-deserved. You're recalled to memory frequently so I put a search in hoping to catch up with you. I'm dropping this line to say, of course, how stupendous your absolutely outstanding blog is. Moreover, to say that I miss you, in short. There is a shortage of stand up guys like you and, in particular, within the "industry" we met. The place we met went under to clipboards and acronyms and ceased to be the place you made it. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with you, though.No doubt that part of the world is a better place for your arrival. Very best regards, Peter Steggall

marcel said...

Amen brother! People here do not seem to appreciate this creative jamming. Car drivers here freak out when I suddenly bolt forward demanding a solo. They loose track of everything, showing that they are indeed terrible at improvising. Most members of this dutch orchestra are continually playing rubato (traffic jams), causing them to immediately judge anything that keeps a firm beat (like me on my bicycle). I much prefer Egypt...

Christina said...

We used to live in Cairo, from 94-97, I KNOW how that goes! I see you're in Maadi, we lived right across from CAC.