I worked in Egypt intermittently over 12 years between 2000 to 2012. I used to visit Cairo every four to five months typically over a week. I must have made more than 30 sorties to this great city. I really miss Cairo today.
My work in Egypt was focused on Cleaner Production (CP) across various industry sectors that covered dairy, textile, leather tanning, cheese making, pulp and paper and several more. The priority industry size was Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) but we often landed working with medium to large industries.
The project I worked on was called SEAM (Support on Environmental Assessment & Management). I worked as a Consultant for two cycles of SEAM – viz. SEAM-I and SEAM-II. Later, I worked for the Egyptian Pollution Abatement Project (EPAP-II). I designed the CP demonstration projects at industries, helped in the assessment of loans, provided policy advice and trained professionals, government officials and academia on CP Opportunity Assessments.
During these 12 years, I worked closely with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), the National Bank of Egypt (NBE), Ministry of Trade & Industry (MTI), Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI), National Research Center (NRC), the World Bank and the European Investment Bank (EIB). I was thus involved in the Egyptian “ecosystem” around industrial environmental management.
My work took me across various locations in the country like the cities of Alexandria, Mansoura, El-Mahalla El-Kubra, Sohag and the like. These were the Governorates with industrial clusters where SEAM’s CP Demonstration projects were implemented. The base was however Cairo.
I loved the city of Mansoura as Nile moved here like a chute, winds gushing especially at the night times. We used to have late dinners at the bank (with Shish taouk or chicken tikka) in the company of Professor Samia Massoud, Executive & Technical Director of Environmental & Water Engineering Consultants (EWATEC), her pretty daughters and EWATECs girl staff (Prof Samia had a policy only to employ women!)
The first Egyptian I met outside Egypt and who extended me an invitation was Professor Osama El-Kholy (Sam Kholy as we used to call him). We met in Canterbury in the UK for the first High Level Cleaner Production Conference organized by UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (DTIE). Sam was a short man unlike an Egyptian with a large egg shaped head and was half bald. He was the Chancellor of the Cairo University and Advisor to Mostafa Tolba, then Executive Director of UNEP HQ at Nairobi. A great orator and philosopher. I still cherish conversations with him at the Club in Maadi (Sports and Yacht Club) next to river Nile. We used to discuss Cleaner Production and its relevance to countries like Egypt and India. I think today Sam is no more.
Philip Jago (Phil) was my contract manager in SEAM. An Australian by nationality, Phil managed both SEAM-I and SEAM-II that were financed by DFID. He was also the Manager of EPAP-II. I learned a lot working with Phil, especially in managing projects, the consultants and the Government. He maintained excellent records, did diligent follow ups and tracked the projects extremely well. He had an art of getting best from the Consultants. In 2003, Phil was decorated as MBE by the Government of UK for his outstanding contribution to SEAM. He still continues working in Cairo and is now preparing for EPAP-III.
During my more than decades work in Egypt, I could “experiment”, “apply” and “learn” all my ideas on CP. With the support of Phil and that of colleagues at EEAA, we could come up with projects that were innovative and led to some high quality outputs. Visit http://www.eeaa.gov.eg/seam/ to download the outputs we produced. Website of EPAP gives additional details. The eco-labelling manual on this website that I wrote is perhaps one of the few manuals available today that describes a real industry application with costs and benefits.
I feel that this is one of the great advantages of international consulting. In India, I couldn’t have done work on CP that I could do in Egypt. Though I was quite proximal to the Ministry of Environment & Forests in India, the Central Pollution Control Board and agencies like National Productivity Council (NPC) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) – but the shear inertia, absence of vision and inter-institution rivalry did not let me replicate what I could achieve in Egypt.
I remember that the textile exports from Egypt to EU & US were hit by requirement of eco-lables and we showed on the field scale how to achieve eco-label certification to a cost-advantage and wrote a manual. This manual was translated in Arabic. Seminars and training programs were conducted with a backing of the Ministries of Environment, Textile and Trade. This intervention obviously became impactful in the terms of both economics and environment and became a success story.
My work at EEAA would start by 930 am. The lunch was generally late and quick. It used to be at the Creperie des Arts Maadi or simply the Crêperie, downstairs the office of EEAA. The walls of the restaurant were decorated with pictures of Hollywood stars in B&W and currency notes from different countries. The Crêperie was run by father and his two sons. In my 12 years of numerous visits, we only smiled and hardly spoke. All I used to do was to point at the option in the Menu.
Most of the evenings, Phil and I used to go out an Italian restaurant, a Thai or sometimes an Indian restaurant nearby. Thai was the favorite. We used to order glass of sweet and mediocre local Egyptian wine, with a large bowl of peanuts followed by the main course. The idea was to talk rather than eat. When alone, I used to go to the Italian restaurant at the ground floor of the Sofitel where an Egyptian Guitarist used to play some nice old numbers – but mostly repeat.
I always stayed in Sofitel Cairo. The hotel was on the bank of Nile facing the Pyramids at a distance. The EEAA office, where I used to work, was just a 2 minutes’ walk from Sofitel. But sometimes I used to prefer to stay at the Marriot at Zamalek in the city and take a taxi on the Corniche. Marriot had all the vibrancy and proximity to the shopping areas but more importantly it was close to the La Bodega restaurant of fame in Cairo. La Bodega was a perfect place for playing the high-society game of “seen and be seen” without spending too much money. I loved the ambience, style and of course the food at La Bodega.
Amongst the numerous dinners I had at this restaurant, one of the dinners was with Laila Iskander and Phil. Phil knew her well in SEAM-I and I was also independently in touch with her. Laila studied Economics, Political Science and Business at Cairo University. She later acquired a Doctorate of Education from the Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York. Laila is well known today for her notable work with the zabbaleen or garbage collectors where she established an informal recycling school way back in 1982 to teach children basic literacy, health and hygiene – a project for which she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1994.
Laila was (and is) a very vocal and high energy person. During the dinner we had, she criticized Hosni Mubarak – and loudly so. This was something “not acceptable” or “not generally done” as Mubarak was the President of Egypt and was very powerful. I told Laila to “cool down” but instead she started speaking even louder “I don’t care if Mubarak and his cronies send me to a prison” – she yelled. I thought that I will also be sent to an Egyptian prison along with Laila. So I behaved as if I did not know her at all and it was just a chance that we were sitting on the same dining table!
After Mubarak’s “departure”, Egypt went into a turmoil and I stopped continuing my missions to Cairo. I checked with Phil about Laila Iskander and I learnt that she had become the Minister of Environment (i.e. boss of EEAA). She did an excellent job there and increased proximity of the Agency with the civil society. She took a strong stand to oppose import of coal on environmental grounds and this was not accepted by the politicians and the industry. She was obviously moved out and transferred to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs (Urban Development). See http://www.madamasr.com/sections/environment/new-minister-different-environment for this story.
One of the places I used to frequent was the Cairo Opera House. The was “the place” for music and opera. We used to book the tickets, go early to have coffee in the lounge and then take the seats. I could watch several famous operas in this great opera house with artists flying from Europe and enjoy some of the intimate solo music shows. I remember attending piano recitals by legendary Omar Khairat. Omar studied piano with Italian Maestro Vincenzo Carro and followed correspondence courses in music theory and composition with the Trinity College in England. According to music experts and critics, Omar Khairat’s music bridges contemporary Arab music and Western music reflecting genuine maturity.
But the greatest attraction to me was the Cairo Jazz Club, a place to be – as much important as visiting the Pyramids! For well over a decade, Cairo Jazz Club LLC has stood the test of time as Cairo’s ultimate live music hub. The Cairo Jazz Club (or simply CJC) has functioned like a portal for manifesting art and expression through music. It has stood witness to the rise of many fresh talents, regularly hosting the finest live acts in town, as well as international artists. The club’s motto is “We serve good moods” and that is precisely what is on the menu every day of the week.
On one of the Friday evenings, I and my Dutch consultant friend on EPAP-II were at the CJC. We arrived by 10 pm at night as we knew that the real talented performers start warming up only by 11. On that day there was a performance from a group from Lebanon. The group specialized in refreshing and groovy retelling of songs from the Balkans to the Middle East. When the band started performing, we could feel their warmth and energy, weaving a tapestry of delicate melodies, vocal harmonies, mesmeric percussion, punchy brass and wild floor (and hip) shaking basslines. This “music experience” was simply enthralling. The CJC was packed and full with smoke, coming from expensive cigarettes.
When I feel happy about the music, I have a habit to send an offer to the lead performer on a chit telling how I adored the performance – and saying that there is one free drink waiting for each member of the band – at the bar – courtesy me. So I sent across such a chit to the lead singer who was a short Lebanese woman with curly wild hair, wearing traditional Gambaz dress. I went across the bar tender that the bill will be on me. I lost my seat in this process as someone grabbed my seat and I decided to stick on to the bar stool and continue listening to the Band.
The show was over by 12 30 am and the Band with the lead lady reached the Bar. The support staff was “packing” the drums, a Korg Keyboard, guitars and all the “electronics”. The lady got my chit from the bar tender. As her colleagues were picking a drink of their choice, she lit a cigarette and asked the bartender who the sponsor was. When he pointed at me, she walked across like a lioness in a grace.
“Hey, thank you so much for your appreciation” She said in a perfect American accent. Then dragging a deep puff from her cigarette, she sat crossed legged on the bar stool, winked at me and said – We are going now to my house on the Corniche and are absolutely “hot” to continue singing and playing music. We cannot stop now. Would you like to join? Hop in if you want to – we are moving out in next 20 min”
I asked my Dutch colleague and he was game. The lady spoke to her colleagues something in Arabic.
In the next forty minutes we were in her bungalow. As soon as we reached, all members of the team unpacked the boxes. The drums, the guitars were back in position and the “electronics” with Korg keyboard was set up. And wow, they started singing and playing again!
This time the music came from the “heart” and was perhaps was a treasure that wouldn’t otherwise share with anyone outside! Some of the songs they did at CJC were played now differently with subtle variations and all in impromptu! The session went on till 4 am with short breaks for shots of Egyptian coffee. I don’t know why they stopped at all!
They got us a taxi at 4 30 am to get back to the Sofitel. The lady, the lead singer, saw us till the gate of her bungalow. While bidding good bye, she said – “Thanks for buying us the drinks and for coming here to continue appreciating us”. I said on the contrary…!!
She opened the door of the taxi for us. Spoke to the driver in Arabic and said “Your taxi bill to go back to the hotel is on us. You don’t pay”
On Sunday morning when I was in the office, I told this incident to secretary Nelly. Nelly was shocked – “This is something crazy” she said and then dialed to CJC. There was some animated conversation in Arabic. After she put the phone down, she shouted in Arabic and got all the colleagues to her desk. Then another round of high pitched conversation took place in Arabic. I was standing and looking absolutely dumbfounded not understanding what was happening.
Then Nelly turned to me and said “Do you know who that woman was? You are the luckiest guy in the town. We simply envy you”
Apparently that lead lady Lebanese singer was one of the most sought after in the Arab world. I don’t remember her name today but when I departed at the Cairo International Airport, I saw a number of Compact Disks in the music shop with covers featuring her face.
“Dr Modak, You should have taken a photo standing next to her or at least taken an autograph” I saw frustrated looks on Nelly’s face.
“Next time – I certainly will” I said to Nelly in an assuring tone.
And the next time never happened!
Blues rarely repeat. Do they?
Cover image sourced from http://www.haircolorsideas.com/bright-hair-colors/blue-hair/blue-and-green-guys-hair/