While working in Cairo as a freelance journalist, the British writer Hugh Miles (pictured below) fell for an Egyptian woman doctor he met at the leaving party of a mutual American lawyer friend. The party was held at a Thai restaurant in a five-star hotel. “There, at the back of the restaurant, silhouetted against a tank of slowly circulating black koi carp, was a group of extraordinarily beautiful Egyptian girls.
“With her coal-black hair and coppery skin, Roda reminded me of a Nefertiti statue I had seen in the Egyptian Museum when I had first come to Cairo as a teenager. Her beauty and grace stunned me: I did not know that such an exquisite combination of looks and intelligence could exist in a single woman, except perhaps the odd gorgeous physicist in a James Bond movie.”
Miles took Roda’s telephone number, but had no time to see her again before he returned to London. Back in England he could not get the doctor out of his mind. “Where could I find a girl like that in London? I asked myself.” The handful of single girls he knew in London were “highly-paid professionals, too focused on their ball-breaking careers to hang out with out-of-work writers like me, or suffered from untreatable personality disorders.”
He found himself sending Roda a text message: “Bck in Ldn. Cnt stop thinking abt u.” She phoned him back, and he decided on the spot to return to Cairo.
Miles’s book “Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City”, published recently by Abacus, is the story of his adventures after he returned to Cairo. In particular it tells of his courting of a woman from a culture very different from his own. He had no blueprint for the relationship: none of his Western friends had dated an Egyptian girl.
The card game tarneeb, a type of bridge popular in the Middle East, provided an opportunity for Hugh to get to know Roda through spending long hours socializing in her home with her and her sisters and their female friends. Roda’s family apartment was in Muwazafeen, a relatively affluent middle class area of Cairo. Her mother was dead, her father was working in Kuwait, and she and her sisters lived with no male guardian, unlike most of their female contemporaries. Their girl friends constantly fabricated stories on where they were and who they were with so as to placate their brothers and fathers. They were adept at living double lives.
Over the card table Miles heard about the lives of Roda’s sisters and friends and gained insights into Egyptian society. Men generally come out badly in his book. “We played cards all summer long. Through long hot nights, over cigarettes and endless cups of syrupy tea, I listened to tale after tale of bullying husbands, overprotective brothers and a litany of sexual harassment by strangers.”
One of Roda’s sisters, Nadia, is a doctor married to a gynecologist from upper Egypt, and the prejudice against upper Egyptians expressed by the women is disconcerting. Nadia tells Miles her husband is from Qena, and asks him: “Do you know Qena? It is in upper Egypt and its men are famous for being stupid and macho.” Nadia’s husband regularly beats her, but she has a small daughter and finds the prospect of divorce difficult to contemplate.
The only Egyptian man Miles seems to have spent much time with is Dwayne (not his original name), a relative of one of the girls and a heavy user of hashish whose civil servant father has a second job trafficking women into the Gulf. Dwayne matures after he goes to work for a telecoms company in Iraq.
Miles played his cards right on the personal level, and eventually he and Dina al-Shafie, the psychiatrist on whom the Roda of his book is based, got engaged and married and are now expecting their first child. One of the book’s final chapters describes Hugh’s visit to Al Azhar to convert to Islam, and his adoption of the name Sami Hussein.
Hugh Miles is the son of Oliver Miles, a retired British diplomat who served as ambassador to Libya in the 1980s and as ambassador to Greece. Hugh was born in Saudi Arabia in 1977, and studied Arabic at Oxford University and English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. He first went to Cairo at the age of 17 to work as an au pair for a wealthy family. His first book, the award-winning “Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World”, was published in 2005.
In “Playing Cards in Cairo” Miles puts the stories of his card-playing female friends into the wider context of Egyptian society. He examines issues such as the pressures on women to have plastic surgery, honor killings, veiling, violence against women, the unofficial temporary form of marriage known as urfi, and the search for “good husband material”.
The statistics he cites are daunting. At present, some 700,000 graduates a year chase 200,000 jobs. By 2025 the population of Egypt will be 90 million and the country will have to find 450,000 new jobs a year to keep pace with the number of young people entering work.
For single women there is the pressure to find a husband before it is too late. And for young men, high unemployment and economic pressures make it difficult to get married. Roda’s friend Yosra is 33 and knows the clock is “winding down on her marriage prospects.” Her state of mind is not helped by her being hooked on prescription drugs supplied by friends working in pharmacies. After various efforts to get engaged fail, despite her sessions with a mystic healer to try and help her love life, Yosra departs for the hope of better prospects in Dubai.
Miles is observant and inquisitive, and relates with relish a succession of tragi-comic scenes involving the women in his tarneeb-playing circle. Doubtless some Egyptians will resent his negative portrayal of their society, and especially its male component, and one can ask how fair his account is and whether it is over-sensationalized. Although Miles describes the group of women he meets as highly educated, Roda comes across in his narrative as standing above the others in her intelligence, independence and strength of character. Otherwise, the women seem over-preoccupied with superficial concerns and show scant interest in politics and the wider world. There is little evidence in the book of the progressive and enlightened elements in Egyptian society, male or female.
Miles is fascinated by Cairo, but writes that it has become “a cruel and neglectful mother, as if the grinding poverty and the weight of millions of people and cars had worn down her benevolence and her will to go on.” He thinks that “everyone clings to memories of better times, the days before Cairo became a monster to her people and a slave to foreign powers. They remember their beloved city when she was great: when Cairo was the cradle of Arab nationalism and Egyptians were the proud leaders of the Arab world.”
Saudi Gazette, 14 April 2008