Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Four Indiana Jones's and a few step pyramids

We started off at Abu Seer, a remote Pharaonic site which is officially "closed" - but we told the men guarding the entrance that we won't be a minute, and handed one of them a small sum - "share it amongst yourselves". The guards' spokesman said it was too little, we said it was fine. He thought about it and then said: "Okay, enjoy."

We were in my buddy's four-by-four, and he parked it to the side of the entrance and we were just getting out when the spokesman yelled: "Sire, sire, go in with the car, it will speed you up." "Go in by car?" we asked. "Go right ahead. See those two dunes, ease off to the right a little," he replied.

Afraid the wheels might not find traction in the fine desert sand, my buddy drove faster and faster. We were shaking wildly in the back. Then we smelt burning plastic. We started yelling at my buddy to slow down.

"I know what I'm doing, I've driven in the desert before, just calm down" he instructed us.

When we finally stopped, I was glad the car hadn't burst into flames. But he was dismissive of us upstarts who'd never driven in deserts before. "Just a bit of melted plastic."

We parked the car behind a sand dune. It was a bright, lovely, warm day. The temperature at night may be lower than 10C, but now we had to take off our jackets.

Out in the open, facing a step pyramid around 5000 years old, we were in no time cracking jokes about porno films.

"Not as impressive as the proper pyramids, eh?"

"Yeah, poor workmanship. You know what this reminds me of? Porno films with Pharaonic settings. It's always desert shot, pyramids, and then they're going at each other in bed with a Pharaonic portrait on the bedroom wall."

For four men in their 30s, this was comedic banter of the finest order.

The only people we met were a Russian couple and their daughter of about 8. The Russians were being guided by a man in traditional Egyptian attire. He had spotted us from afar, and came over to us. He had sussed out we were Egyptians, now he wanted to know who the hell we were.

"Salamu alaikom, how are things?" we asked him.

"Very well, sires, have you just come to look around?"

Yes, we said.

"I hope you are having a good time," he said as he shook hands with each of us. He seemed so earnest, I found myself saying: "Alhamdulillah" when it was my turn to shake hands with him.

We said we'd be happy to follow him around. He relaxed.

We chatted a little with the family in English and Russian (one of my buddies speaks Russian). The husband was serious and very well-informed about our history. The wife was friendly and chatty.

The guide led us through the relics of a couple of tombs and what looked like a small temple.

We were laughing all the time; the Russians must have thought 'these Egyptians really know how to have a good time'. Yet, I can't remember what it was that we moved things along with. They weren't all porno jokes.

The guide talked us through one of the drawings on some random stone. He said this was an "ankh" (some Pharaonic term), and someone asked: "ankh or nakh'"? [Nakh' is Egyptian slang for bs.] I guess the guide just didn't make an authoritative impression on us.

We decided it was time to leave. Our guide smiled at us and nodded his head sideways. We gave him something. He said he wanted more. We said we all want more. "Have a safe journey, sires," he said in good sport.

Next up was Sakkara, where early step pyramids were built, about twenty kilometers from the Pyramids.

At the entrance to the Sakkara site, we met large tours of German and Italian visitors. The site is home to two of the oldest step pyramids on earth, a large, impressive temple, and numerous tombs. Archaeologists still keep discovering things in Sakkara. But the entrance to the site is populated by napping dogs and fully alert Egyptians (yeah right).

One of my buddies started taking pictures of very far away industrial towers polluting Cairo's air. We stopped him talking himself senselessly negative (as is customary in Egypt) and dragged him to the site. As we walked around the site, it happened again: joke, joke, pun, pun, joke, topper, great topper, flat topper, better topper, pun, joke, etc. It was a joy.

We spotted a tourist peeing on the outside of one of the walls of the temple. "It's like, this is what he thinks of our country." " 'You guys have such great temples, let me pee on'em.' " "You know what, I feel like I want to pee on him for peeing on our history." "I feel the only way we restore our dignity is to pee on his pee." "As long as it is Egyptian pee, that's fine." "We purify his pee with our pee and thereby restore Egyptian dignity." "We should patrol the site with Egyptian guards whose job it is to pee on anyone else's pee." "Trouble is our guards won't do their job, they'll wait next to the tourist, and go 'Had a nice pee, sir? How about a tip?" It went on and on and on.

At the far end of the site, far, far from the tourists, where we could hear something close to the sound of silence, we saw accumulated bits of rubbish from many years: a lot of paper tissues, plastic bags, etc. Someone ducked into an isolated, dark chamber covered with litter and yelled: "They're shooting a porno in here."

An unofficial guide appeared out of nowhere (as they usually do) and offered to open for us a small temple that is "closed". As we were discussing his offer, we saw a dog carrying someone's plastic-bag-packed lunch in its mouth and walking towards the edge of the site. The dog was clearly taking the food far from where its pals may intrude, to eat it alone. We all marvelled at how someone had packed a lunch so carefully, only for them to lose it, for the dog to find it, and then take it away. "That food was that dog's fortune," the guard said.

We walked away: our small sum was not going to be that guard's fortune.

Inside one of the smaller chambers, in front of exquisite 5000-year-old reliefs, an unofficial guide raised his voice at a tourist: "No pictures, no pictures". She apologised and walked out. Afterwards, I leaned on her husband and told him "give the guy something, and you can take some pictures." "We've given already," he said with some exasperation. The guard later tells me: "They're so tight with their money these people, don't they get it?" "What're you gonna do with those miserly foreigners!" I commiserated. My buddies sniggered at my unashamed hypocrisy.

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe! The RSS feed button is in the top left corner of this page.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Israel bombs Gaza and kills more than 300 people.

Israel has bombed Gaza and killed about 300 people.

Al-Jazeera's coverage made the blood in my veins pulsate. The BBC's coverage made me want to never watch again its sanitised nonsense.

Al-Jazeera showed live coverage of men strewn on the grounds. Most of them were dead. One guy had blood underneath him and looked dead but was blinking. Another guy was reciting his shahada (Muslim article of faith), clearly worried he might be dying. Random men were running around trying to help those on the ground. When cars and ambulances arrived, they helped put the injured inside. Occasionally, there were shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is Great). I knew if I was there, I'd be doing the same. I could smell death coming out of the TV screen.

The BBC coverage stated that Israel had bombed selected targets in the Gaza strip, killing an estimated 200, and then went to say that Hamas militants had already taken revenge by sending their rockets into Israeli territory. They showed an Israeli flat that had a hole in its wall because one of the rockets had hit it. They said an Israeli had lost his life. Then they said that the Israeli defense minister had warned his people that more violence was coming their way, and that Israel was not finished with Hamas. The sense I got from the BBC coverage was: this is a violent match between two equal - or perhaps slightly mismatched - rivals.

The thing is this is not a match between rivals. Hamas was popularly elected by the Palestinian people, but because they won't recognise Israel, they have been confined to Gaza and Gaza has been laid siege to in a manner that years from now will be acknowledged as Israeli war crimes. There was a six months ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. During this time, the Israelis continued assassinating Hamas leaders. Hamas did not hit Israel. When the ceasefire expired, Hamas started shelling Israeli land with cheap rockets. Israel's response: 300 dead. So far.

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe! The RSS feed button is in the top left corner of this page.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Show at Cairo Opera House with Gala al-Hadidi and David Hales

I was at the Cairo Opera House for a Christmas show with Gala al-Hadidi (Mezzo Soprano) and David Hales (Piano).

Gala al-Hadidi sang some classic Christmas pieces, delivering an impressive performance that electrified us all. "Us all" included Madam American Ambassador, Egyptian TV star Nilli, and a hall-full of people.

Gala al-Hadidi was trained in Cairo - encouraged by director Abdel-Menem Kamel - and has also trained in France, Germany, Finland and the US. David Hales is an English pianist who has been at the Cairo Opera Company since 1980.

Gala hosted the event herself and spoke in English. She proved herself an adept, charismatic, and energetic 25-year-old performer. The hall rose to its feet several times to show their appreciation for her renditions of classics such as: "Tonight" (from West Side Story), "La Vie en Rose", "I could have danced" (My Fair Lady), "Angels we have heard on high (Gloria)" (a traditional French Carol), "Silent Night", "Minuits Chretiens", "Let it Snow", and more.

One thing I took from her performance: feel it. She felt what she sang.

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe! The RSS feed button is in the top left corner of this page.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

"Events and Cases" - newspaper article in Cairo newspaper

I am now in Cairo, Egypt. I sat the other day at the City Stars Mall ('sanitised Cairo') sipping on a double espresso macchiato at BEANOS (for LE 13, just over $2 or £1.50), reading one of the opposition papers, al-Masry al-Yom.

Below is not a translation, it is my recollection of one of the 'Events and Cases' articles.


He is a 24 year old man with an ill father, a mother, three married younger sisters, and one younger brother at school. He makes LE 30 a day from driving a mini-bus route on the outskirts of Cairo. Of his LE30, he gives LE20 to his mother, and lives off the remainder. He was due to marry in about a year.

His mother had woken him up at 4am; he was sleepy and did not want to get out of bed. She reminded him of his responsibilities towards his ill father and the preparations for his marriage. He got up. Before leaving for work, he told her: "Pray for me, it seems the world has turned its back on me."

Marriage was adding to his heavy burden. As eldest son he was taking care of his incapacitated father, his mother, his youngest brother, and occasionally helping out his sisters too.

Towards the end of his twelve hour working day, his mini-bus was stopped by policemen. They asked to see his papers. He knew the routine. Yes, he might be breaking some rule or other, but the other drivers did the same; the police were using their power, probably looking for bribes.

The two police officers got on the bus, told him to drop off all his passengers at the next stop, and drive down to their check-point. After he dropped off his passengers, with only him, the 'helper guy' (a kind of bus conductor) and the two police officers on the bus, they told him to take a sharp turn into a small road. Down that road, they told him to stop.

He asked what was going on? They told him his papers were out of order. He took out LE 50 and put it on the dashboard. One of the police officers told him he didn't like his attitude. He told the officer he was not having the greatest of times these days - anyways, is this not what they want? Affronted, the officer said he wanted double. Not giving a toss, the driver said he did not have any more money.

The police officer put his gun on the dashboard. The driver told him he wasn't scared. "That's all the money I've got, do what you like", he said. The officer hit him. He lurched into the officer, cursing and yelling. The officer reached for his gun and shot him in the arm. He carried on angrily hitting at the officer, so the officer shot him again. This time, the bullet went through the driver's eye socket.

That's what the helper guy has told the papers.

The police are sticking by their man: the officer had wanted to ticket the driver, but the driver had driven away and when they chased after the mini-bus, the driver had wanted to attack them with his mini-bus, so they shot him.

The ambulance took two hours to arrive (these are far-out parts of Cairo). Two public hospitals refused to take the shot man with the bleeding head. The third hospital refused to put him in intensive care. But after his entire family had arrived and a row had erupted, the hospital relented and put him in IC. He is still there now.

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe! The RSS feed button is in the top left corner of this page.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Are you racist?

In this post, I want to examine what racism is. Followers of my blog will know this is one of a series of posts in response to Mona Eltahawy's post: The Arab World's Dirty Secret: Racism. (You may be interested to read my earlier post on why I started writing on racism in Egypt.)

UN definition

Let's start off with the UN's definition of racism:
According to UN International Conventions, "the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."
[UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, NEW YORK, 7 March 1966]

My understanding of the above definition is that a country or organisation practises racial discrimination if it tries to diminish someone else's rights based on their race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.

It would seem the easiest way you can nail racism down is if you show the existence of written laws or rules to that effect. For example, the apartheid regime in pre-1990 South Africa.

Practically, a judge or court can deem someone as racist if there is verifiable evidence of discrimination.

The cornerstone of the racism definition is the phrase: "race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin". Let's use one word to summarise this: "background".

Note that "background" excludes other things that people are prejudiced about: gender, height, wealth, obesity, status, age, religion, etc.

"Racism" is a political, past-orientated view based on current definitions of "colour", "race", "ethnic origin", and "nationality origin". I mean, in determining someone's background we typically rely on present-day convention.

Explicit and implicit racism

Imagine Mr X, a person in a position of relative power; he works in a company inhabited mostly by people of his background. Someone of a different background has interviewed for a job in his company. Because the applicant is qualified, Mr X hires her without hesitation.

At home, Mr X has a maid of a different background to his, and he has no issues with that. Mr X sits in the same bus as people of other backgrounds. He chats with them everywhere - at the newsagents, while waiting for the doctor, in a restaurant, etc. Mr X has no problems submitting himself to their professional judgment as doctors, judges, or driving-test administrators.

Mr X is not a racist, clearly.

But there is another side to Mr X. His wife is of a certain background and he never imagined her otherwise. If someone of a different background annoyed Mr X while driving, he factors their background into his voiced disapproval. He would not share a hotel room with people of certain backgrounds; nor would Mr X imagine his daughter marrying people of certain backgrounds. When he is surrounded by people of other backgrounds, Mr X feels suffocated. He cannot help but think certain things when he starts conversations with people of other backgrounds. After a few minutes of chatting with people of other backgrounds, Mr X thinks it is time to move on.

Is Mr X racist? Where is the threshold?

Trust and familiarity

To my mind, racist attitudes reflect "implied trust". If I trust people of a certain background (typically of my same background), and implicitly mistrust "others", I am taking a step in the direction of racism. Racists put trust, familiarity, relatability above everything else, including other people's rights and freedoms.

The everyday way of looking at racism is that: We assume those who look like us went through what went we went through and, so, we would relate to them easily. We feel closer to those we can understand, or those we think we can understand. Of course, we are often wrong about this assumption.

Academic research on prejudice is huge; it is impossible to do it justice here.

There is evidence to show that us-against-them thinking _is_ hardwired in the brain - mainly for self-protection. And often, racism is explained as an aspect of the mechanisms of instinctive us-versus-them. However, this theory is gradually getting discredited.

There is evidence to show that racist attitudes come about as justification after an event has caused some people to be cast as "others". For example, the US white settlers came up with their racist attitudes and laws because they were exploiting the black slaves and needed "good reason" to do so.

This is a powerful point: events cause separation of people into groups, and then one group begins to justify its superiority with "reasons" that connect directly to the other group's traits. Not only are people from our background relatable, familiar, and trustworthy, people of other backgrounds are nasty, ignorant, backward, hell-bent on destruction, primitive, unworthy, etc. And this is why it is good that we are superior.

Concentric circles of racism

Returning to my example above, was Mr X racist? Clearly not, he does not exhibit classic signs of _explicit_ racism. In fact, according to the UN definition, he is not racist. He has not diminished other people's rights or freedoms. Clearly then, he is not.

And yet, isn't he? Surely, his _implicit_ prejudices will eventually manifest themselves one way or another in a racist decision that affects other people's rights. Surely, he will unwittingly expose himself, every now and then, as suspicious and uncomfortable with people of certain backgrounds?

In fact, there is a very interesting phenomenon called institutional racism: when an entire organisation does not have a single person in it who publicises racist views, and yet as an institution, they pick up each other's unsaid prejudices and act as a thoroughly racist organisation. London's Metropolitan Police was famously found to be institutionally racist by Lord Macpherson in 1999. Five white men (very likely) got away with murdering a black teenager because the police refused to think the teenager was anything but a lowly drug dealer.

It seems to me there is a series of concentric circles. At the outside, lie things like slavery, segregation, apartheid. Then, as the circles get smaller, we get things like discrimination in employment and in education, and then as the circles get even smaller, we get subtle things like a waft of prejudice, a hint of disrespect (things like not taking a black candidate seriously because you expect him to break into a hip-hop dance routine, and so on). The circles get so small and so personal and so intertwined with other types of prejudice like, e.g., religious prejudice, or status prejudice, or careerist prejudice, that it is almost impossible to separate as distinct racism.

Intra-race prejudice

How often have I disrespected other Egyptians and Arabs, by refusing to hang out where they hang out, by avoiding to rent accommodation from them, and even by making fun of them with disrespectful, racist words.

I remember a white friend, who was driving us around town, criticising two elderly ladies who were a little slow in taking a turn as: "aaah, white women!"

I have a friend who is Asian (from the Indian sub-continent) who recently confided in me that he is prejudiced against his own race. Once he was in a bar, and as soon as two Asian men walked in, he told his friends to leave. On another occasion, he told me he hated the suburb in which his parents live because "there are too many Asians around". His comment was an almost word-for-word quote from a white English acquaintance of mine about the same suburb!

We all know about the Chris Rock routine about intra-black racism.

Can we put an end to racism?

It seems clear that we can only keep trying to limit racist behaviour in so far as it is visible and verifiable. But once it mixes with subtle forms of prejudice and limits itself to the personal domain, it becomes very difficult to confront.

One wonders if bi-racial couples and mixed-race people will eventually render this phenomenon one of the quirks of human history.

Related links

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe! The RSS feed button is in the top left corner of this page.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Is Racism the Arab World's Dirty Secret?

About a week ago, a US-based Egyptian journalist, Mona Eltahawy, wrote an article - picked by the International Herald Tribune - titled "The Arab World’s Dirty Secret: Racism". Mona also posted the article on her blog. The post attracted new readers (looking her up after the IHT article) and many comments.

In the post, which was well-written and heart-felt, Mona makes these points:
  1. While on a Cairo underground train (subway) Mona witnesses a young Egyptian taunting a Sudanese (black) girl racially. Mona intervened, but the Egyptian girl's mum sided with her daughter's racist behaviour. Many passengers sat silently and watched. Later, the Sudanese girl told Mona: “Egyptians are bad”; Mona felt the girl must have been abused publicly before.
  2. Mona states that: "We are a racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial about it."
  3. She cites an incident in 2005 in which Egyptian police stormed a make-shift camp housing Sudanese refugees and, in the process, killed 28 of them.
  4. She cites the killing of a total of 33 Sudanese migrants from the war-torn Darfur region at the Egyptian-Israeli border in 2007.
  5. She generalises this racism from Egypt to the rest of the Arab world, citing the Arab world's silence on Darfur (in Sudan).
  6. She says Muslims (an even bigger generalisation than Egypt and the Arab world) have double standards: we cry "Islamophobia" but "never stop to consider how we treat minorities and the most vulnerable among us."
  7. The television network ABC staged an experiment in which an actor worked in a bakery and refused to serve an actress dressed as a Muslim woman in a headscarf. Mona was deeply affected by this programme, and she wonders whether an Arab television channel would dare to stage a programme that boldly looks at our own racism.

I was immediately drawn to this topic. It is a sensitive topic that I think of regulary, particularly in light of my residence in a country in which my religion and ethnicity are in the minority. In fact, it is a sensitive topic that most human beings grapple with; otherwise, why would we call Obama's election "historic"? This is a touchy topic; as evidenced by the many comments that Mona's blog post received. Some of the comments were personal; one commenter gave highly-specific aggravations that he claimed to be representative of what southern-Sudanese citizens suffer in Egypt.

So, beginning with this post and a couple more on the way, I want to explore the racism that Mona accused Egyptians of denying. Is it real, does it exist, is it widespread? I want to explore if we human beings can put an end to racism? Also, I want to explore the question of: are Egyptians respectful towards _each other_? Forget other nationalities and other races, are we respectful to each other?

This is a topic that _could_ have ramifications. Someone in the State Department in the US, having read Mona's article in the IHT, can easily insist on dedicating a portion of US aid to anti-racism campaigns.

So, watch this space for more posts.

Want to read my future posts? Don't forget to subscribe! The RSS feed button is in the top left corner of this page.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

One easy way to be smarter at browsing for information

Did it ever occur to you that you're playing the role of book editor every day? Well, you are. Except it's a virtual book. Our web-browsing sessions are unique, virtual books. Each "virtual book" is a collection of the web pages and posts that we read within a given time frame. This virtual book is more powerful than most books. It is customised to your tastes. You were its editor.

What you should do is:
  1. Protect "exploration mode". Ring-fence exploration mode and do not allow off-topic intrusions such as email or side-links to spoil your virtual book.
  2. At the beginning of the journey, fire up a text editor and ask yourself "what is the topic of my virtual book for the next hour?"
  3. In your text editor, write occasional notes, paste links, ... you are writing the table of contents of this unique virtual book.
  4. Take the same trip again at another time. Being the VBE (virtual book editor, remember?), you are a professional: you know that half of what you read is not well thought-out or credible. Thus, you are aware that to edit a really fine book, you will need to visit it again, dropping the not-so-good content. Those notes you took first time round, they'll come in handy now.
Taming the web browsing phenomenon

Our typical web-browsing experience is haphazard. On pages 1-10 of my virtual book at (say) 08.12.2008 at 7pm, I am reading on financial analysis, then I turn the page to read many pages of email. Some of these pages, I skim quickly, others I rip right out the virtual book, and others I invest in - that email from my sister, for example. Then I start scribbling in the virtual book: I am replying to my sister (the virtual book has blank pages). Then, I turn the page and I am reading a few pages of news. Then, it is back to financial analysis, although now I am much less attentive, so I jump through to a link on the side containing a book review, and so on and on.

We obviously cannot eliminate the disjointed, disconnected nature of our computer activities. Let's call it "responsive mode". "Responsive mode" is our default online mode: a scatterbrain-type mode in which we're doing a dozen things an hour. (By the way, have you noted the irony of being disconnected in the connected universe of the internet?)

A unique, customised virtual book

This virtual book is even more powerful than most books. I made all the decisions on its contents. Imagine if you were holding a book and then as soon as you didn't like where a page was going, you ripped it out. That's what we do online, we skip the post/page.

With a real book, you're stuck with its fixed content. If you're on page 50, you still have pages 51-300 ahead of you, and their structure and content is fixed. The pages of your virtual book are changing dynamically: totally dependent on your priorities and snap judgments.

It is possible that a two-hours burst of web-browsing is equivalent to a small virtual book: about the size of say Machiavelli's The Prince. And unlike The Prince, which you may feel disgusted by and put down right away, your virtual book is responsive to your needs, so you do end up reading all through it.

My virtual book moment

Today, between 6pm and 9pm, I was browsing through some of the RSS feeds to which I subscribe. I followed some interesting posts to their respective blogs and followed links from one article to another, trying to focus on my topic. Because I wanted to read the articles well, I printed them out too.

At the end of this intense browsing session, I found I had used about 300 sheets of paper. The stack of articles could easily have been a book.

That's when I realised that in three hours, I had read, or skimmed through, a book 200-300 pages long.

I realised that the hours I fritter away add up to tomes. I sit infront of my computer everyday and read at least one 'virtual book'. I tend to lessen the weight of stuff I read online - in the sense that, psychologically, I don't feel I have studied and pondered something well enough unless I've read it in print form.

In fact, I do study and ponder online. We all do. We spend bursts of time, every day, being Virtual Book Editor - VBE (you may put that on your business card, and link to my blog while you're at it). We ought to acknowledge this editorial role we carry out when we're reading up on something; give it the respect it deserves.

Questions to readers
  • I am particulary intrigued by the uniqueness of each virtual book. It totally depends on the time frame, our circumstances, the context. You could go on the same journey tomorrow and be editor of a different book. Isn't that interesting? And also troubling?
  • The unit of reading in real books is pages. With virtual books, the unit is paragraphs. Sometimes, just headlines. Do you agree?
  • We flip pages in real books. With virtual books, we follow links. What does this tell us?

  1. A great RSS-feed-to-pdf converter - get your RSS feeds in magazine format.

If you like what you see and want to read my future posts, please don't forget to subscribe. The RSS feed button is in the upper left corner of this page.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Prepare and get Adrenaline on Your Side

The comedy-writers' workshop I have been attending since October culminated in a 'graduation' performance (a 'showcase') earlier this evening. In front of an audience of about 50 people, 6 writer/actors performed 12 sketches back-to-back. Learnt lessons? Rehearse and prepare a lot; relax and have fun; and bask in the glory of Adrenaline. Whatever chemical it is that flushes your brain in these situations, it works.

Learnt Lessons

1. Prepare.
2. Rehearse.
3. Over and over until you are fluent.
4. Double-check every detail.
5. Have clean, clear actions so you do not appear hesitant.
6. On the day, loosen up, warm up, relax.
7. Don't over-rehearse on the day.
8. Adrelanine will lift you and steel you (*).
9. If you're upbeat and calm, you will handle any fluffs well.

* Adrelanine exaggerates; so don't trust it completely. Check afterwards.

Here is what happened

After dedicating four-five weeks to writing, we voted for our most favourite sketches, picking two from each writer, and went to work on them. For the past four weeks, we have done nothing but rehearse those 12 sketches. We performed them again and again, cutting, adding, amending, tweaking ... Through all this we were led by an experienced tutor. Sometimes he case-studied particular sketches to dial them up. This involved asking us to improvise the scene, brainstorm better endings, or add new twists.

The last two weeks were dedicated to running through pretty-much-finalised sketches. Most of us were already "off-book" on most sketches (had memorised the lines). Still, we organised about four or five extra sessions amongst ourselves to double-check.

The last few days

For me, the real heat turned up in the last few days. I had memorised the lines but they were slow-to-mind. This means they had not been memorised well enough. I would easily come unstuck, lose focus, stumble, blank a line, and generally feel stiff.

A particularly helpful technique I picked up from a trained actress is to record the other roles' lines and leave durations of silence for your own lines. After a few practice rounds with my dictaphone, I was pretty much set. This technique worked for me like a treat. It was like I had a pocket-actor to play the other roles for me at all times. Over the past few days, I drilled the sketches with more frequency. The lines began to come out more fluently now, and by the night before last, I began to feel safe.

It was useful to be able to sit in a coffeeshop and hold my dictaphone to my ears as if it were a mobile. I would hear my voice playing the other roles, and then during the silences speak my lines. To anyone who cared, I was having a phone conversation. More importantly, because I was sitting in a public place and people might eavesdrop on bits of my speech, I made sure to sound perfectly normal. Forced not to put on a show, and instead to engage in a "phone conversation", I found myself realigning the logic of the lines, and the words felt real.

On the night

Three hours before the show, we all gathered to enact the show. We did physical warm ups, loosened ourselves, and generally made sure we had everything ready. Our first run-through was almost faultless. Everybody was up to speed on the lines. Hardly a fluff. I was proud of myself for not letting the side down.

Our tutor then made us rehearse things like coming on and off the stage, and putting the chairs on and off stage. We had a full run-through without sketches: just their beginnings and endings; this way we could focus on the links between, to make sure they too had been rehearsed.

Then came our second and final run-through of the sketches: a mere 90 minutes before the show. I was now fully relaxed and confident. Everyone had gone and got a glass of wine in the break. But our final rehearsal was a massive let-down. There were many blanks, including one from me (my mind froze and I couldn't remember the rest of the line). The energy was altogether very low. Some of us looked defeated already. One guy withdrew into himself, worried he might bring the whole show down.

Thankfully, I kept my energy up and tried to support those who looked a little down. But it's a tough call: you don't want to draw attention to what they already know.

The show

At 9pm, we now huddled into the dressing room (only one) and began the final preparations. Ten minutes before the start of the show, I ducked into a corridor and had a phone conversation with my dictaphone, running through all four sketches I am in. At 9.30pm, the audience took their seats. Morale in the dressing room was high, but so was tension. I surprised myself with how upbeat, dancey, and smiley I was; it was the only way.

The show started.

Things flowed like clockwork. Pretty much as planned.

The intro got a few chuckles, the first proper sketch got a couple of laughs, the second sketch got bigger laughs, and now we had ourselves a wave that we could ride.

The third sketch - my first appearance - went down very well for the absurd flight-of-fancy that Tim (a team-member) had created. I came off feeling all-buzzed-up. Things were flowing. The rest of the team looked like they were beginning to relax. No forgotten lines so far.

And on it went. By the time I came on again, for the 8th sketch, I was so warmed-up, I did not feel the slightest hesitation. The audience's warmth was there, I was playing to it, and it did not bother me at all. After the 12th sketch ended, which I wrote, we all lined up to bow. Afterwards, various members of the audience said they had wanted more.


We were all very pleased at the end; we spent a minute or two in British-style, self-effacing congratulation. "That wasn't too bad, was it?" "No, it could've been much worse, couldn't it?" "They seemed to like it, didn't they?"

I was so psyched up. I felt my sketches had gone down very well, and my performances in other team-members' sketches had not let them down. And I enjoyed those fleeting seconds when various audience members were checking me out after the show. In particular, of course, the attractive women.

In the pub afterwards, the people we had invited congregated to congratulate us and there was a jolly atmosphere for the rest of the night.

The Twist

I filmed the performance.

When I got home, I watched it.

To my surprise, I discover that what I had thought was perfect diction came out as Ahmedspeake - a mix of mangled words and staccato rhythm. Sure, the audience must have understood me, because they laughed. But on tape, the glamorous image of me rising to the occasion and producing perfect enunciation and poise was wrong. It turned out I had also slightly mis-remembered a line or two. And my body language was not as perfectly fitting as I thought it was.

I was surprised too that during my performances, I had not noticed that some of my co-performers had mis-remembered a few lines. In one case, Rob had fluffed his line badly, rendering it very differently to intended, but I had not noticed. During the performance, I thought he'd done a perfect job.

Adrenaline! Yes, it helps us, but it also washes over some unflattering details.

I guess it goes back to that blind-spot phenomenon I blogged about before.

What were our sketches about?

  • A guy who goes overboard trying to save Pandas
  • Two dogs in the park having a conversation
  • A pretensious chat-show host and his 'down-at-heel' guest
  • A weirdo on a bus who does not take a hint
  • A guy who calls in 'sick' because he's having an orgy
  • A lifecoach who does not have limiting beliefs
  • A corporate interviewer who demands 'a song' from the interviewee
  • A talking guitar

Which two are mine?

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The correct way to write academic papers

Next to the watercooler, I saw an academic research paper in draft form. The draft was written by a PhD student; her supervisor had highlighted certain bits, crossing out and inserting his own words. The bit that made me smirk said:

The way in which our system analyses, encodes, and converts the spoken expressions seems to be is a novel approach.

Fantastic video for all prospective writers out there

If you have 50 minutes to spare, I highly recommend this week's edition of BBC Four's Screenwipe. All through the show, various well-known UK writers (comedy and drama) talk about their craft. As my mate Andy Lydon says:

Screenwipe was ruddy, bloody marvellous this week. Half a dozen top TV writers, talking about writing, for the entire programme. Brooker asks a few questions, melts into the background, and lets them talk. Plus it proved what I've always said about Eastenders.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Rararararara rararara rarara

There are few songs that would bring almost equal joy to my parents and to me as this song. Big smiles on our faces, shaking in our seats, and probably soon on our feet.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Why you should find your self-conflicts and talk from the gut.

I have been seeing a shrink lately. Well, a psychologist turned "life coach". Except he does not believe in life-coaching. Mantras such as: "what are your goals?", "how are you going to achieve them?", etc, are psycho-babble to him.

He is totally opposed to life-coaching as a means to help people find their goals and achieve their dreams. He thinks people who think like that are "losers". And their life-coaches are snake oil salesmen. (Never mind that I found him by googling for "life coach"; he says it is just a means of advertising himself.)

My 80-year-old shrink/coach believes that the right way is to abandon goals - which are really desires (to be loved, in various forms) - and curtail one's sense of self. What is the self? "A resistive organisation to protect yourself against the vicissitudes of life. It's an ego thing. It's a suit of armour which you've developed to protect yourself against rejection."

The proper goal, he argues, is one in which you are not so concerned with your self. He sees his role as helping his clients to not judge themselves harshly and instead to follow the flows of life.

I am a little confused. I question myself as to why I am paying a high-end sum to see someone who himself seems a little confused. He has full credentials (PhD in psychology); he coaches high-profile clients; but his thoughts are new-agey and rather vague.

We have conflicting worldviews on several counts. For example, he dislikes and suspects religion, I do not; he thinks parents are a screwed-up burden, I do not; and he seems to 'feel' his clients based on psychic affinity, I am not even sure what that means. To his credit though, he has been hammering at me on why I came to see him.

Our second session turned, as I suspected it would, into a shrink-type session. He managed to tease out of me (with some difficulty, he complained) some conflicts I struggle with. For example, the culture-clash between my conservative upbringing and western culture; my struggle with guilt; my willingness to sympathise with victims; my insecurity about myself.

Towards the end of the session he told me "I've been going round the houses, frankly Ahmed", trying to get me to forget my intellectual, reasoned top and look down to see the submerged 90% of me that is all emotions and feelings and wants and fears. It was an interesting affront to all my impro training and I found myself telling him: "you want me to talk from the gut, fine." And without pause I found the self-confident, carefree, this-is-what-i-f'ing-believe pouring out of me. Nothing bizarre, nothing rude, just 'core'.

"Let's have another session and see what we feel about this," he proposed.

So, why should you find your self-conflicts and talk from the gut? Because it will save you some money!

Woody Allen interviewed on his experiences with psychoanalysis in 1971.