“Mediocrity” my friend says, delving into one of his favourite themes, “mars every precept of the political sphere”.
This truism is elaborated in the form of a verbal outrage against politicians large and small, against the army, against the state and its civil servants, against civil society and anyone whose memory misfortunately crossed our minds. But he has a way with words, and though his comments be searing, they are at once witty, audacious, humourful, and infused with delightful pebbles of trivia, history, philosophy and sacrilege.
As he speaks, boundaries of ignorance shrink before us and we traverse with alacrity the shifty dunes of the country’s political landscape.
“The whole situation is rather Nietzschean,” he says matter-of-factly, as if pronouncing that skunks stink. I dare not ask the meaning behind the reference to avoid looking stupid. I convince myself that the allusion is towards the false virtuousness of all parties involved, but that’s only because I’m projecting my own loathing towards the putative virtue of the “middle class”.
The reference however could have meant anything at all. Nietzsche was often invoked in our conversations and more than often in a manner that was way above my head. I leapt to a memory over ten years old when I first entered his room and saw the elegant leather-bound copy of “Beyond Good and Evil”. The mere name of the volume was enough to throw a scripturalist such as myself off balance. Next to it lay “The Gay Science” at which I winced with inane contempt. But times have changed and I had by now mastered the art of masking my ignorance.
In criticizing the opposition we talk about the secularists who denounce secularism and defend their religious credentials. We laugh at television channels that claim to be bastions of a modern civil state when their airtime is rife with programs that defer to religion, to myth, to miraculous healing, and to faith in heaven, which will surely, if nothing else, be enough to deliver the good people of Egypt from the depth of their bottomless pit.
God is far from dead in this country of ours.
My friend goes on to decry his civil service job that leaves no room for progressive and critical thinking. Diatribes are flung against a government system that rewards substandard performance and is most cruel to exceptional individuals. His ego gets the best of him here, and I silently thank my own system for catering to the average and commonplace employee. I’d hate to be out of a job with what little talent I had.
“I don’t mind all those mediocre civilians out there. I just wished they were in the service of an exceptional being who can actually deliver”.
I remind him that the exceptional being exists, and that he is about to become president. He gives me a scything look and oinks like a pig.
Conversation takes us to the country’s possible standing among the community of nations if the Marshall becomes president. He tells me that elections won’t be rigged, but that all conditions surrounding it will be in the officer’s favour; the short election campaign, the lack of alternatives, the worsening security situation, the media bias, and the tendency towards block voting within government institutions. This is not the right time for elections, he concludes.
I retort, saying that great men should not submit to the indignities of an election, and that agency should be removed from the mobs.
He shoots me the same dirty look and jabs a finger in my direction.
He hates it when I use his precious Nietzsche against him.
Unlikely parallels are later drawn, forcibly, between Middle Earth and Egypt. Parables and similes from Tolkien are used not as tools of clarity but as seals of proof. The narrative soon becomes ridiculous, but nevertheless delightful. Gandalf though is never evoked; no one is worthy enough. I, on the other hand, am likened to a hobbit. Merry or Pippin, but not Frodo nor Sam. I am also unworthy it seems, but at least I am still in his good books.
As with all his convoluted monologues, which go all sorts of ways but nowhere in particular, the fellowship of the ring takes us to the ring of Nibelung, which leads us to a short lecture on his love-hate relationship with Wagner, and the reason why the demise of the Vikings is linked to their conversion to Christianity. That takes us along a short history of the Catholic Church and leads us to the connections between Pope Francis and the rise and fall of Socialism in Latin America. Contrasts are drawn to the history of communism in Asia, which begets the question of why leftist ideologies never took the same strides in South Asia. This prompts a discussion of castes, which one way or the other brings us back to Tolkien, all in under fifteen minutes.
As my head spins I realize that there is such a thing as being too well-read for your own good, and for the well-being of others.
I ask him about prospects for his country’s future. He gives a longwinded speech about optimism being the sign of superficiality, and how there is no hope in the pursuit of egalitarian democracy. “These people aren’t ready,” he says, and I remind him that those were the exact words of many a dictator. But I know his sentiments are shared by almost all so-called liberals nowadays.
I ask him why Egyptians adhere to a herd morality when they choose their in-laws or their bosses– always looking for the kind and genteel, praising meekness, politeness, patience and penitence– whereas a master morality commands their choice of pharaoh. Why was it that the more obstinate, rash and impertinent a ruler was the more he was praised?
“It boils down to our age old respect for diversity”, my friend mockingly says. “We are all longing for he who will get rid of those who are unlike us. An anarchy, rather than an hierarchy, of classes exists in this country. And we’re all fending against each other, looking for an ally at the helm of the state.”
I follow up with a question on what should be done to limit the threat of the new statists.
“Burn the bastards!”
There is, it seems, a limit to the refinement of intellect. Egyptians may think there are differences among them, but they’re really all the same.