CAIRO: Have you ever noticed how gastroenterologists and gynecologists, anyone really with any sort of medical degree, even if it’s from Grenada, or if they haven’t practiced medicine since before Castro came to power, feel qualified to speak on any subject whatsoever, feel that their opinion should carry some serious weight, even if they’re talking about apples and iPods?
What about the know-it-all wannabes who try to claim their fame through the desperate act of standing up at public lectures (by people who are actually famous) and giving lengthy speeches when they’re supposed to be asking questions just for the pure joy of hearing their voices ring out over the PA system?
We have a close friend, a heart specialist, whose qualifications have permitted him to tell us that DVDs are not restricted by region, that there are no good restaurants in London, that any phone will work on any charger and that there is no such thing as a deep fat turkey fryer. There’s no arguing with him.
But you know, it’s our fault that people who are well known, or on television, or in a position of authority,or anyone who grabs the microphone really, feel over important … because we suck it up like a safinga.
We’ve seen this phenomenon many times in Cairo. Earlier this year we witnessed the pandemonium accompanying the Paulo Coelho feel-good tour. Desperate housewives popping over-the-counter spirituality. Anything he said, anything, was met with awe and reverence.
“I didn’t come here to talk, he said,”I came here to listen. Big fat Brazilian chance.People blocked the exits until he dispensed sufficient quantities of love-yourself potion.”Life isn’t about finding answers, he said. “It’s about formulating questions. More more more! Go Paulo go! No one heard any of it. His lectures were like gospel revival meetings where it was just enough to be there basking in his Pauloness, clutching your very own piece of him (in the form of a Harper Collins hardback).
We witnessed this again a few weeks ago when Kofi Annan was in town to commemorate his colleague Nadia Younes who was killed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad. His speech was simple and beautiful; the masses were moved; his every word a drop of water from the well of zemzem.
It seems we want easy answers to all of life’s hard questions and like it best when celebrities tell us exactly what we want to hear whether or not they are making any sense.
How do we explain the fact that we give anyone famous the right to speak on any subject? Sometimes this reaches the point of absurdity as in a couple of hundred pop stars pontificating on poverty in Africa. What does Bono know about life without room service and valet parking? It’s the dark continent they happened to be passing through on their way to the spotlight.
There is an up side for sure. Celebrities turn our collective attention to important causes: Elizabeth Taylor and Aids; Princess Diana and land mines. The sad part is that it takes the fame fix to get us moving.
The most recent celeb to grace our city was Karen Armstrong, author of History of God, Battle for God, Muhammed, Buddha and many more. The large audiences that turned out resembled hungry baby birds sitting in anticipation with heads turned up and mouths wide open. Like Paulo, after her lecture she was mobbed by fans who just wanted a little piece of her, literally, jostling her for autographs while pushing and pulling, hoping some of that compassion would rub off, gleefully looking forward to the day when they could tell their friends:
“I was there. I saw her. I was among the chosen few.
Was it like this in pre-media days? Certainly. Crowds lined the streets when the Caliph passed; tens of thousands cheered their favorite gladiator in the coliseum; famous opera singers were the talk of all Italy, and there was always the desire to catch a glimpse, maybe a touch, to hear their voice, as if to garner for oneself just a dash of immortality.
Little did it matter that back at the palace the politicians and performers called their admirers grasshoppers and cannon fodder while chitchatting over fish eggs and fermented grapes, because that one day you were there, near the flame, you could feel the heat and the strength and the wisdom.
This phenomenon says a lot more about the average human being, about human culture, than it does about the people we throw up to tell us what deep down inside we already know, that the world is going nowhere fast, because just for that brief moment it seems we’re moving forward.
Paulo Coelho, Kofi Annan, Karen Armstrong.What do they have in common? Us.
Oddly enough, their initials are PC KAKA. Seems we need that stuff.
Nadia Wassef is one of the owners of the Diwan bookshop. David Blanks is a historian.