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Masters of immobility
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 07 - 2002

To the outsider, Cairo appears to be moving at a relatively brisk pace. Yasmine El-Rashidi, however, has an easy time overtaking the crowd
Cairo is said to be fast-paced -- a cosmopolitan hub characterised by a busy, bustling, and buzzing persona. That, at least, is what is said. For when one looks a little closer, and tunes in to the vibe, one notices that while the city's personality does indeed mirror other energy-spewing capitals such as Hong Kong and New York, it has a remarkably different inner core. Amidst the crowds and the traffic, the bright lights, signs and mess, Cairo, and Cairenes, are slow. Very slow. Mobility, in short, is not a part of the culture. And that includes everything: from moving homes, changing jobs, to moving, of course, around the local club track.
Arabic has endowed the slowness syndrome with a term of its own. It surpasses the meaning of pure lazy or slow, and relates to a large group of people who are tagged brutta -- an immobile blob and couch potato.
Cairenes, however, are not alone.
"Although there are some programmes to improve the health and lifestyle of people in Arab countries, physical activity is given little attention," writes Samir Miladi, food and nutrition officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation's Cairo office, in the preface to the FAO's 2000 report on Nutrition and Physical Activity in the Arab Countries of the Near East. "There are many social and cultural barriers to practicing physical activity in this region, especially among women and girls. Advice on physical activity and its relation to nutrition is, at most, scanty."
That may be part of the problem, but the other part lies in the fact that the culture is simply too laid back. Ma'lish (never mind) and
insha'allah (God willing -- meaning hopefully) dominate daily discourse and epitomise the turtle pace of life.
"One thing that I find amazing about this country are the insha'allahs and ma'lishs," renowned nutritionist Rida Ali told Al-Ahram Weekly several months ago. "I had someone coming to work on my appartment on Friday. He was scheduled to come at 10am, but he didn't show up until past noon. And you know what he says when he walks in? Ma'lish, can I just pray first?' He offered no apology, nothing."
Ali has spent the last 20-odd years in the United States. So this culture of 'everything can be done tomorrow' has caught him by surprise.
The same thing happened to me when I returned home several years ago. A year in Washington DC, followed by one in New York -- both in the cut-throat world of US journalism -- had been enough to jolt me into a fast-paced fury. Upon my return to Cairo, however, the speed faded fast.
"I've slowed down," I wrote back to my colleagues in New York several months later. "I've fallen into the Cairo culture. I am slow!" But while the spew of words onto my computer screen may have slowed to a slur, the physical activity element in my life remained firm. It was what I was raised with.
"Activity is taught," explains nationally-renowned fitness and nutrition consultant Gina Grant -- a resident of Egypt for the pat 10 years. "You have to remember that you don't have to be playing tennis or jogging or going to the gym to be active. Being active is about filling part of your day with some kind of activity. An active person is a housewife who, for half an hour a day, cleans her house and breaks into a sweat. People confuse activity with jumping around," she continues. "Cleaning your house once a week, and being completely sedentary for the rest of the week does not make you an active person either. And if you don't have access to a club and can't play sports but live on the seventh floor, then climb the stairs. You might not want to climb all seven flights to start with, but start with one."
The problem, Grant believes, is getting people to think in terms of movement -- to get them to appreciate and embrace the importance of activity.
"When kids have exams, they stop going to the club, stop playing sports. People forget how exercise stimulates the brain because you're sending oxygen to the brain. Exercise also has a psychological benefit -- it releases natural endorphins into the body and puts you on a natural high. In short, you function and study better."
The core of the problem is the deep-rooted tradition of depending on a service-driven culture. Egypt, it is well-known, is the only country which offers a McDonald's home delivery service -- a factor that was considered key to the chain's success. Home delivery does not stop there; it extends to video tapes, groceries, ironing and dry-cleaning -- even hair and nails with services that come and 'do it at home' rather than 'do it yourself'.
"People here are used to having everything done for them," says Sherine Iskander, a 27-year-old Egyptian who recently returned to Cairo after a lifetime in the US. "In the States you have to do things for yourself. People have domestic help six days a week here. In the States there's no such thing. You have to cook, clean, do your laundry, run your own errands. You have to be on the tip of your toes constantly. Or else you fall behind."
Education is the solution to the syndrome.
"All learners should be provided with a sound knowledge of healthy and safe living," declared the World Summit on Physical Education (WSPE). "Since education is a life-long process, sound health and human movement practices can contribute to the prevention of health-related problems and can improve the quality of life for learners."
It is a form of education, critics stress, which will take time to assume national proportions, and so parents must take the first step by instituting it at home.
"Even during exam time, you should let your kids go out and play -- even if it's to kick a beaten-up old ball in the street with their mates, using a couple of tin-cans for goal- posts. It doesn't make the exercise any less valid because you're not wearing the latest high-tech football shoes and playing with an official Ahli ball," Grant emphasises. "The ability to exercise doesn't have to do with money, it has to do with education."
Unfortunately, however, sports do not have the stature they should in the national curriculum.
"Not only is the time allocated to physical education in public and private schools continually decreasing, there are many education programmes worldwide whose curriculum does not include any form of sport," said Michael Murray at the WSPE. "Furthermore, we should not confuse athletics with physical education because they are not synonymous. The purpose and campaign of promoting physical activity through developmentally-appropriate physical education has never been more compelling. We desperately need to develop an international commitment to ensure that all children receive the encouragement, training and support they need to develop and maintain active, healthy lifestyles."
Long-familiar with the public school system, Grant echoes the reality that can be found on the ground.
"If you're going to a public school, you get 'wahid, itnin, talata, arba'a' ('one, two, three, four') in the morning and, if you're lucky, a teacher will throw a football into the school yard so the boys can kick it around," Grant says. "What they don't do, however, is teach them what physical fitness is and how important it should be in their lives."
The masses that make up Egypt's 68 million population, then, cannot be blamed for their first-gear pace -- a trait taught and passed on from generations before. There is a minority, however, who can be held to account.
"The more money you have, the better education you can afford," says Grant. "And the better education you can afford, the more important physical education becomes in the curriculum. That's a fact."
It is also a fact that these people know better; that sports and being active are not necessarily one, and that activity and enhanced living go hand-in-hand.
What has been said to be a culture that has seeped into people's genes is simply, in essence, just borne of habit. A habit, however, which a bit of thought and motivation would easily break.


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