x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

One flew over the Dhakla oasis

Last word After a few hours, Youssef Rakha writes, the presence of djinns seemed wholly unremarkable.

After a few hours, Youssef Rakha writes, the presence of djinns seemed wholly unremarkable Eight months ago, my London-based Egyptian friend came home to carry out the field-work component of his doctoral thesis, which explores the assumptions involved in treating the mentally ill. All he needed was an isolated, relatively self-contained spot where there was no modern psychiatric care. So, rather than learning a new language on top of everything else (the endless required literature reviews, etc), he decided to return to his home country.

For posterity's sake I should say I am speaking of Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: frustrated astronaut turned orthopaedic surgeon-in-training turned disgruntled psychiatrist turned, finally, philosopher and doctoral candidate. Mohammed had always liked the Western Desert. And so, like the old caricature of the Colonialist desperately in search of nutty Natives, he set off from Cairo to research all five of its oases. Eventually he settled on Mut, the capital of Dakhla - according to him "the most baseline", the most typical and unremarkable of all, and of course without a single psychiatrist to its name. The idea was to live there on and off for six months, researching how the local approaches to madness - exorcism, for example - measured up to the western status quo.

I wanted to fly out to see him, but only return tickets were available, and the flights were a week apart. I couldn't be away that long. In time I accepted that a 12-hour bus journey was my only option. Which is how my story begins ... Madness is fascinating. But so was Mohammed's description of Mut - named after the ancient mother goddess, but otherwise devoid of links to ancient Egypt. He described it to me in paradoxical terms: an urban community of subsistence farmers; its people of neither Nile Valley fellahin ancestry nor Bedouin stock. Many of the city's residents, Mohammed told me, trace their ancestors to Suez, an origin so unexpected it might as well be Mars. Others claim Arabian, even Ottoman descent. They share a distinct lack of interest in the world beyond their little city, along with an encompassing belief in the power of djinns.

I didn't realise it at the time, but these details must have gone straight to the exoticism antennae on my head. An insular community where the supernatural enjoys a stronger-than-average presence in the collective psyche: my voyeuristic, rationalist neurons were buzzing, informing me of my superiority, readying me for some kind of exotic encounter extraordinaire. By the time I arrived at the newfangled Cairo Land Port, I was feeling slightly guilty. Surely I should be suffering the 12 hours in solidarity with Mohammed, who complained of isolation and boredom every time he called me - not looking forward to indulging in some complicated Orientalism.

I had barely made it to the platform when I noticed a podgy midget in a Mao suit eyeing me with an unsettling mixture of curiosity and contempt. Though I already knew the answer, I walked over and asked him how long it takes to get to Dakhla. After answering non-committally, he launched into a sort of cross-examination: where was I from, where exactly was I going, what for, who with, for how long, why? Finally he stepped abruptly away with forced politeness - only to go on giving me sidelong glances for as long as I remained in his sight.

Over three days at the town's central cafe - Mohammed's centre of operations - I saw for myself that it was exactly as he told me: everyone did in fact believe in invisible, fire-based djinns who wander the town speaking Syriac, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that has been extinct for centuries. These djinns, it seemed, could do anything: from snidely controlling your thoughts (paranoid schizophrenia) to shrinking themselves down and lodging themselves in your prostrate (erectile dysfunction). Within a few hours of my first day, I had heard enough about them that their presence felt perfectly ordinary, mundane, unremarkable. It did not strike me as particularly strange that bachelors live in fear of wedding-night impotence caused by a supernatural "knot" commissioned by their enemies, tied by some evil "sheikh" who knows all the fail-proof hexes by heart.

Other, less mystical things perplexed me more. Why did people in Mut, unlike most anyone else in millennial Egypt, love Bollywood films so much? How did they not realise that the childish violence broadcast by World Wrestling Entertainment is all staged? And why did everyone I met apart from Mohammed's few friends give me the same look I got from the midget in the Mao suit at the bus station? Divine retribution, perhaps: for the three-day duration of my stay, the remote Orientals taught the Cairene Orientalist that they distrusted and despised him more than he could ever mystify or objectify them.

The look trailed me everywhere, from the cigarette kiosk to the town's sole kebab restaurant, in the dark, empty internet cafe with straw seats so shaky and uncomfortable you could barely sit on them, on sleepy street corners and in bustling corner shops. It identified me as precisely what I was: a westernised Cairene dissatisfied with bland Egyptian food, the discomforts of my filthy one-star hotel, the lack of activities beyond worship and shisha, the absence of women from social space, the hopelessness of culture and art, the insularity - the terrible, terrible ordinariness of life.

In the end only the Asian-looking straw hats on the heads of farmers - utterly unlike anything traditional anywhere in Egypt - struck me as in any way noteworthy. The landscape was no doubt distinct (even in autumn, daytime heat was unbearable), but the streets themselves looked so indistinguishable from a Nile Delta town that whenever I went out for a walk I headed reflexively for the nonexistent corniche. And talking expansively with Mohammed (there was nothing else to do), I came to see just how badly he had been disillusioned as well.

Mohammed hoped that spirit possession might turn out to be a partially viable alternative or supplement to the increasingly prevalent biomedical model of mental illness. Then the "sheikh" who was providing him with information, a Tramadol addict continually using needles on his own arms, came up with a new method of exorcism, one inspired by Mohammed's modern medical presence: instead of beating his patients up, splashing them with water blessed by the Quran or simply breathing the verses onto their head, he would henceforth write the relevant verses on paper in gazelle's blood, then soak that paper in tap water, then inject the possessed with the resulting solution.

A handful of madmen roamed the city freely - well fed, muttering about djinns, occasionally solicited for sex. But the truly memorable characters in Mut were the same ones you might encounter anywhere. On my last day, one of Mohammed's case studies, a lost soul in his mid-fifties, approached our table at the cafe, looking more or less presentable. Everyone invited him to join in for a drink, but he did not oblige. Instead he stood there with a tortured expression on his face. "You want me to sit with you, do you?" he said. "How many cockroaches are you?"

Youssef Rakha, a regular contributor to the Review, is the author of Beirut shi mahal (Beirut Some Place) and Borguiba 'ala madad (Borguiba Reluctantly). He lives in Cairo.