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Talk like an Egyptian

How to become an expert in time for your dinner party

5 February 2011

12:00 AM

5 February 2011

12:00 AM

Few of us understand what is going on at the dusty end of the Med. There may be a few chinstrokers who cup, in their wizened palms, a concise comprehension of the Cairo crisis — see pages 14 to 18 — but the rest of us struggle for something to say.

Vivid reporting has been sparse. The Today programme produced an English-speaking dentist in Cairo but he let the side down by saying, before Thought for the Day, how ‘pissed off’ the protesters were. Use some of your mouthwash, mister! The Times resorted to a photograph of Omar Sharif. On Monday Penelope Keith was wheeled out on Radio 4 to describe how the protestors were sitting in deck chairs, holding earnest discussions about mathematical problems. We were then told it wasn’t Penelope, after all, but some Egyptian intellectual. A member of the Cairo branch of the Old Roedeanians, by the sound of her.

Otherwise it has been ‘now we go live to Cairo’ two-ways with world-weary Jeremy Bowen. At the long table of the Savile club in Mayfair the other night, the subject of Egypt arose. Silence fell and members glumly started prodding their Welsh rarebits, unable to summon a gambit. Given that one of the Savile’s late members was Stephen Potter, author of Gamesmanship, how can one bluff one’s way through this Egypt carry-on? How, at a dinner party, can you affect a veneer of specialist knowledge? Some tips:

1. Tahrir Square Base camp for bluffers. ‘EGYPT CRISIS’ flashes up on the 24-hour news network screens and the dollybird presenters narrow their eyelashes. Until a week ago, none of them had heard of Tahrir Square. Now they coat its name with artful significance. You need to do the same. Try applying a horse-cough noise to the ‘h’ of Tahrir. That always impresses them.

2. The Arab streets In the first week it was enough to devise some spurious Egyptian motto such as ‘He who controls Tahrir Square, controls Cairo’ but with the story moving fast, this ploy needs upgrading. Ask your interlocutor, ‘Is there any news from Salah Salem?’ or ‘Do you think they can take El Mui’z Street?’ Truly ambitious bluffers may wish to give the latter its full name — ‘El Mui’z Li Din Allah’ — but this should not be attempted after the first bottle of Valpolicella.

3. The Egyptian army Fertile ground for Cairo bores. Preliminary phrases to deploy may include ‘The key to all this is the army’, ‘The Pentagon will have been in close touch with the generals’, and ‘He went to Sandhurst, you know’. If others around the table are not quelled by these elementary forays, try referring to the army command as ‘Heliopolis’ or ‘Beni Suef’. If someone says, ‘Beni Suef, who’s he when he’s at home?’, do not rise to the bait. Beni Suef is a barracks, not a bloke.

4. Mohammed El-Baradei Ah, now we’ve all heard of him. He and Hans Blix used to wander round Iraq with Geiger counters, looking sorry for themselves. The news crowd pounced on his name with frantic relief when they discovered he was leader of the opposition in Cairo. That’s him, look, holding the megaphone. Looks as though he could be Tom Bower’s brother. The astute bluffer will radiate ennui when El-Baradei’s name is mentioned. Try ‘He’s not the man he was’ or ‘He’ll have trouble holding the centre — they always do.’ There is no need to specify what you mean by ‘centre’. If anyone asks, rise from your place quickly, saying, ‘Any more of that delicious apple crumble, Lucy?’

5. Dates These work wonders, particularly when picked at random (your fellow guests will be too ashamed to admit they haven’t a clue what you are talking about). Say, ‘This isn’t 1989, it’s 1917,’ before adding after a pause, ‘Actually, it’s more like late November 1916, but we needn’t be pedantic.’

6. Moments As with dates, bluff hard. Last week it was okay to say ‘This is a Shah of Iran moment’ but that has now been done. Select a name that will be vaguely familiar. Therefore, ‘This is a Kerensky moment, not a Batista moment.’ NB: Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, not the American bodybuilder Dave Batista.

7. The Muslim Brotherhood Fashionable opinion says they are not radicals. Bluffers should express scepticism. Useful phrases include, ‘All I can say is “follow the money” ’ or ‘Have you read Melanie Phillips on this?’

8. The south If your card-house of apparent expertise starts to wobble, follow the advice of Potter and mention ‘the south’, darkly. Some other guest at the dinner party claims to be better informed. He or she produces a seemingly clinching line about Egyptian politics. Play your ace. Shake your head dolefully, chuck a peanut in your mouth, and say with finality, ‘Yes, but not in the south.’

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