Another Tack: Ma'alesh, inshallah, bukrah, baksheesh

Years ago, when peace with Egypt was new and relatively warmer, I was plenty angry with my paper for forcing me to file my copy from Cairo by telex rather than phone. I was sent there on a news assignment way back when among the broad lower strata of Egyptian society (as distinct from the razor-thin so-called intelligentsia) peace with Israel hadn’t yet been thoroughly delegitimized.

Neither cellphones nor the Internet were around. Now obsolete technologies like the telex were staple and old-fashioned landlines were indispensable. All my colleagues from other Israeli papers – and there were considerably more dailies then than currently – were authorized to phone in their stories. The Jerusalem Post, although handicapped by the earliest deadline (due to its out of Tel Aviv base), was the sole exception. My then-editors wouldn’t even hear of footing the bill for long-distance telephone communications.

They had made arrangements with the Reuters bureau in Cairo which entailed my arriving there in person each evening, handing in my written material and having the local teletypist transmit it to the Post. Traveling alone at night from our well-secured hotel to Reuters raised safety issues. One way by taxi was supposed to take an hour, though I was warned that I better plan for no less than an hour and a half.

My bosses became the immediate laughingstock of the entire Israeli press delegation. However, the ribbing the Post took came to a very abrupt halt when we needed to dispatch our first report. No phone line worked. Despite unstinting help from the Israeli VIPs and well-intentioned (though excruciatingly lethargic) assistance from Egyptian Foreign Ministry personnel, it was like flogging a dead horse. Reliable phone connections couldn’t be established. This trouble persisted night after night, with only occasional short-lived patchy successes, allowing a lucky individual to briefly – sometimes – get through.

I became a sudden star among my colleagues. I had an ostensibly viable alternative. In no time it was decided that I’d become a pool writer and that my English-language pieces would be relayed to other Israeli papers as well. The upside was that I had company on those long forbidding after-dark cab adventures.

But another rude culture shock awaited us at the end of the ride. Reuters’ Egyptian teletype operators were a nonchalant bunch. There was no overt hostility, just no rush. We explained that we were up against deadlines, to which the inevitable reply came with a shrug of the shoulder and the word ma’alesh. We soon learned that it denoted something approximating “Who cares? What’s the big deal? So what? Don’t take it too seriously.”

On my absolute best behavior and controlling myself stringently, I spoke for the entire group (because of my English and the Post‘s deal with Reuters). I explained what must be done and by when. The man in charge, chewing on some late-night nourishment, nodded and uttered inshallah -God willing. I was hardly heartened. I thought the task was straightforward enough to be attempted without divine intervention.

I again noted the urgency of our business, stressing that this item must go to print soon, but nothing seemed to inspire the crew to action. In near desperation, I asked the telex chief when the text would at last be processed. Bukrah, he answered. That meant tomorrow.

WHAT’S THE point of rehashing yesteryear’s bygone exasperation? Because it’s eminently relevant today. Our disparate mind-sets – leastways emanating from cultural diversity and work-ethic incompatibility – are still conspicuously potent. The languor displayed by Egyptian employees at a busy Western news agency isn’t all that different from the languor of Egyptian uniformed personnel charged with safeguarding the Philadelphi Corridor – and that’s assuming unadulterated goodwill.

The aid of European/American gadgetry, know-how and officious kibitzing won’t curtail illicit missile imports. Moreover, foreigners can be counted on to prefer the side which intimidates them most and demands least of them. Israeli gripes about assorted violations will only expose the failures of outsiders who won’t relish risk nor want to admit failure. Israel will be stuck with the wretched consequences, for which nobody will take responsibility.

Right now Egypt seems on top of the world. Not only is it the regional mover and shaker, but it’s courted internationally as the indispensable facilitator of any maneuver to impede Israel’s self-defense. Forgotten or deliberately downplayed is the fact that Egypt is largely to blame for allowing Iran’s lackeys to arm Gaza to its teeth. Had Egypt lived up to its obligations to hinder Hamastan’s gunrunning, there would have been no need for Israel’s offensive and no need for Egypt to posture as the honest broker.

All this should caution us not to put our trust in Egypt (the “staff of hollow reed,” as per Isaiah 36:6), which had already let us down more than once. Besides such factors as Hosni Mubarak’s advancing age, the formidable strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and rampant Der Sturmer-style Jew-slandering, Egypt in the best of circumstances is never as good as its word, its sincerity or lack thereof notwithstanding. Even if Cairo’s powers-that-be were unreservedly determined to seal Philadelphi off – which is questionable – odds are that nothing would change.

Northern Sinai’s Beduin are scarcely likely to toe Cairo’s line. Lawlessness and smuggling are their livelihood, and their insubordination continues unchecked. Any attempts to control them are met by violent resistance. Whichever international agreements bind Cairo make no impression on the tribal gangs that de facto rule Sinai.

Similarly unimpressed is Egyptian bureaucracy. Its super-snarled red tape effectively obstructs all governmental executive decisions. Even topmost policy edicts are unrecognizably ground down as they’re subjected to arbitrary whims imposed along the way by inflated cadres of sluggish officials. Mubarak may order a clampdown in Philadelphi, but Egypt being Egypt, his commands are unlikely to be dependably implemented.

The bottom of the bureaucratic pyramid is the most troubling of all. True, the peace treaty with Egypt caps the numbers of its troops at the border, but much more significant is the nature of these men. They are woefully underpaid, and hence eminently bribable. For a handful of dollars, Egyptian officers will turn a blind eye to Hamas military contraband regardless of Mubarak’s diplomatic undertakings.

Baksheesh, after all, greases all Egyptian wheels.

NOT UNEXPECTEDLY it was only baksheesh which at the time resuscitated those prearranged Reuters telex services. In the end, after recurring maddening rounds of ma’alesh, inshallah, bukrah, we finally resorted to baksheesh. The clock was ticking. Deadline was literally minutes away. We all coughed up some foreign exchange, greased the head honcho’s palm and in return he allowed me to sit at his teletypewriter and punch its keys myself.

There may be a lesson here for the Israeli collective. The only job we can rely on is the one we ourselves do.

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