Saturday, 7 November 2009

Obama, Israeli settlements, and Iran

The Obama administration is coming across as "business as usual" amongst Egyptians. Its recent reversal on insisting on a complete halt to Israeli settlement activities is a clear setback. No one here thinks Obama is a hero for letting this happen; quite the opposite: back to the usual US inability to stand up to Israel. Wasn't it just a few months ago that all the Obama administration's top guns lined up to tell Israel and its supporters that settlement activity _must_ stop? Now they say: "Oh, settlement activity is part of the negotiation." R-i-g-h-t.

It seems the Obama administration has recalibrated and decided that getting Iran off the table for a while should be its top priority. And if shutting up Israel and getting it to go along with the deal being negotiated with Iran (Russia will enrich uranium for Iran, in Russia), if the price for getting Israel's acquiescence on that, is letting Israel off the hook on settlement activity, so be it.

It's a highly damaging policy for Obama's image in the Arab world. But it may just get him some traction on Iran. Let's see.

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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

This Blog in a Nutshell

Okay, I have a small request from you. Can you try and describe this blog in a sentence? If you could please invest five-ten mins I'd be grateful.

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Monday, 21 September 2009

Yehemmak fi eih - Amr Diab - summer 2009 album


Eid Mubarak, everyone.




What do you care?


What do you care?
If I live or die, it's not your business.
And what are you gonna tell me?
When people change, it's evident.

Who is this across from me? It's someone I don't know.
I don't fear for that person anymore: if I leave them, or hurt them.
Many lovers have met; and they did not carry on.
Let everyone do what they please.

What do you want to hear?
Some words to satisfy your conscience?
What will you gain out of them?
Go and live your life.
The wounds of my heart, I forgive.

Who is this across from me? It's someone I don't know.
I don't fear for that person anymore: if I leave them, or hurt them.
Many lovers have met; and they did not carry on.

(chorus)
Let everyone do what they please.

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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

My outlook on God, faith and religion: part two

We still don't understand a lot about the universe even after many thousands of years of human civilisation. We don't know what the soul is, what consciousness is, what happens when we die, and so much more. We can put a man on the moon, and have computers that do amazing things, but we are far, far from learning everything.

In a previous post, I wrote about God and about how it seems to me that His existence is a "no-brainer". I suggested that people who do not want to acknowledge His existence are not just ignoring reasonable signs but also emotional resonances. We are, after all, creatures of the heart, as well as of the mind.

Why am I here?

"Well then, Ahmed, if there is God, then can He tell us why we are here? And where are we heading?"

The nature of mankind's relationship with God is that we believe in him without being able to communicate with him. This is the abiding mystery of our existence. This is why we call it "faith", rather than knowledge. We can't lift our eyes to the sky and have a one-to-one.

It seems all our communications with him have been anticipated ahead of time, compressed, and packaged in various forms - for us to discover. When people communicate, they take turns, laid out in time. When we communicate with God, perhaps we should expect that his replies have already been given? Which, in a funny sort of way, makes sense: He is above such human limitations as time and space.

He is here and there, he is in the now and in the future and in the past. He is in the beginning and in the end. He is at the fringes, and in the middle, at the smallest scales and the biggest ones. He is in every atom, in every form of thing we know. It seems likely that he is in our soul; and he is in the perceptions we have about the world.

This "mysterious" nature of our relationship with the Almighty Supreme Creator and Being seems to explain why some human communities developed "gods" of stone, or of man. This way, communication with God is somewhat "humanised." It also explains why many religions center around a man who "received revelation" from God: a Prophet, or Messenger, like Noah, Moses, Mohammad. Some religions award their Prophet a special status of conveyer of divine revelation and being "God-like" or "of God", like Jesus or Buddha.

Still, "Why are we here, and to where are we heading?"

There is no agreed-on, universal answer to that question. Each religion has an answer (or more). Scientists have many ideas; but nothing agreed-on. Atheists and agnostics have given up on answering the question: everything is random, we'll just end up as recyclable earth, and that's it.

There is a fundamental mystery in our relationship with God and we will not be able to fathom it. His existence can be easily doubted; and what is remarkable is even if you accept his existence, you cannot communicate with him. Because He never answers back in man-made languages. He seems to be of, and in, the universe since He created it. Yet he won't "tell" us why He did so, not in a personal one-to-one. The only way to do this "human communication" thing seems to be to accept Him and to submit to His presence in every tiny thing on earth. To be open to various messages. To have conviction that He exists and that all the answers are here already.


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Friday, 21 August 2009

My Top 10 Prank Calls on YouTube

Fonejacker set a high standard for prank calls. Hard to believe one guy, Kayvan Novak, is behind them all.

I am tempted to list many fonejacker clips. But I won't. I've filtered 'em for ya.

Here are my top ten prank calls - as collected and assessed today. Check in with me in a year's time, I might have a different list.

Careful a lot of them are inappropriate for a non-adult audience: swearing, etc.

Here's the youtube playlist - use this to autoplay them all on the youtube website, if you wish.



Sol Rosenberg, Jerky Boys - Hurt at Work

Another classic Jerky Boys production.



The Greatest Prank Call Ever

An absolute classic.



Fonejacker - internet service providings - Fix your script.

Indian telesales guy vs Someone who took him seriously



Fonejacker - Cinema (EP2)

You know how many phone-lines are automated? This old gent thinks everything is.



Fonejacker - Rent

The opposite of the above.



Terry Tibbs buys a campervan

Terry Tibbs is a fictional Fonejacker character supposed to represent smart-arse cockney types. Talk to me!



Fonejacker - Terry Tibbs - Double The Price

More of Mr Terry Tibbs.



Jerky boys: Frank Rizzo

Some of my absolute favourite prank callers: old-timers the Jerky Boys from New York City.



vietnamese prank phone call mcdonalds--pubic hair in big mac

This is an under-appreciated jewel from Down Under.



Stewart Lee Complains About Pornography

This is a low-key call, and Stewart Lee handles it with such civility. Which is so ironic given the subject matter.



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Monday, 17 August 2009

My outlook on God, faith and religion: part one

Some people's unwillingness to believe in God is difficult for me to understand.

The universe is hugely complex and detailed, it is beyond my imagination that it started as some random accident. And, yes, you can say that I have a limited imagination because I can't see randomness as a possibility. But then I might say that it is _you_ who has a limited imagination, to not be able to imagine that there is a creative force behind Life. Let's have an imagination contest!

Imam Abu Hanifa (an esteemed Muslim scholar who lived about a thousand years ago) was once late for an appointment with a group of atheists with whom he debated. To excuse his unpunctuality, he told them that the ferry he normally catches on his way to meet them was not there, but that while he was waiting, planks of wood floating on the water came together and formed a boat. He got in; the ferry navigated him across the river, and he was able to meet them.

They told him this was an outrageous story. He stared at them.

Me too, I feel like staring at those reluctant to believe.

Some people claim:
  • there is no God,
  • Life is all a great big accident,
  • we all started from a single entity and evolved from there,
  • there is an evolutionary process that explains everything,
  • things make sense now only becase there was a lot of trial and error millions of years ago.
Let me ask some questions. There seems to be an evolutionary software running in all living things. Who wrote this evolutionary software? Who started it running? Who created the original single entity from which we all evolved, who initiated the Big Bang?

All what we do, we do against the assumption of staticness. Imagine if you woke up to find that water is no longer H2O, that the sun is rising from the West, that everything solid is liquid, or that no one on earth understands English anymore? It is a mercy that things are predictable; life is static enough for us to analyse it. (This is a fundamental assumption in Physics, called symmetry.) Imagine existing in a universe in which you are hardly able to establish anything!

Atheists would say there is nothing special about the universe being a symmetric, static place; I guess they would argue that random systems do slowly stabilise on patterns. I suppose they would argue that the evolutionary software was not quite so good at first and it kept making mistakes until the current software came out and it was good and it wiped out everything before it and propagated itself.

Okay, so why was there software in the first place? How did the first version of evolutionary software come about? How come it could mutate and spread itself? Why do atheists assume randomness begat order, instead of order begat randomness?

The short of it: humanity doesn't know a lot of stuff - yet. We don't know what on earth is consciousness? How come when someone dies their 'spirit' leaves them? Where does it normally reside? Is it something tangible? Does it weigh 24grams as some have claimed? We have no clue. Do animals have a 'life' spirit too? Does everything have a life spirit? Well then, are we ever alive, do we ever die?

Time and space are our constructs, we know that. Could there be a parallel universe in which time is not uni-directional?

The exact narrative of how God created everything is something humanity will keep debating, trying to work out, until the end. We are good at debate, proposition versus proposition, lines of thought, evidence and counter-evidence. But we are also emotional beings.

I feel that there is God; some questions, some debates you know the answer to before you even begin. We are trying to construct narratives to explain the universe. Let's separate the various narratives from the concept. Let's say it simply: God exists. The Life force within us knows and understands that God exists. It certainly does for me.

(More posts to follow in the days to come - if God wills.)

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Saturday, 18 July 2009

Links 18 July 09 - 02 Aug 09

The funny stuff:

The best Whose Line Is It Anyway clip I have ever seen.

Are you bored with the internet?

How to piss off the aeroplane passenger next to you: take a deep breath, open your laptop, and pull up this URL - annoying and funny, but great (Egyptian) pop song makes it all fine in the end.

Serious stuff:

Equal rights for men please, says woman.

Collins' scientific narrative on God. Scientists doing God can sound weird.

I don't know what the USA's effect is on BBC correspondents, but one after the other, it takes their breath away. From Alistair Cooke (of "Letter from America"), who adored his adopted new home and sent a broadcast letter once a week for about fifty years, to Stephen Sackur, whose eight-year stint included covering Clinton's infamous "I did not have sex with that woman" line, and now Justin Webb, they all turn wistful and loving.

Read the now-traditional "This-America-is-so-full-of-faults-n-paradoxes-but-darn-don't-I-just-love-its-almighty-awesomeness-and-ain't-I-sad-that-I's-goin-backs-to-that-overcast-knife-crime-ridden-place-called-Britain-again." Justin's reports from the US over the past eight years have generally painted sympathetic pictures. And now it's time for his farewell.

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interesting links this week

The funnies

- Parody of New Scientist magazine. Great!

- Is she coming back you think?

- He caught his wife cheating.

- new meaning of "retired"

- Ridiculous T-shirts.

Describe your philosophy about life in one sentence: discussion fires up good quotes and links. Examples: Some days you're the pigeon; some days you're the statue. 'Be kind to everyone along the way for we all fight a hard battle' - Plato. And this thought-provoking Alan Watt vid .

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Bonfire of the Vanities - coming to this blog

Tom Wolfe likes to introduce his novels with a sort of "making of" Introduction. I noticed he did so with "I am Charlotte Simmons"; and now I discover that, about twenty years before, he did the same with "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

The Introduction to "The Bonfire of the Vanities" is a lovely literary essay, the sort of thing that arouses serious writers (whom Tom Wolfe defines as those who aim for literary prestige). It is rich with historical context from the world of fiction, from as far back the nineteenth century to the 1980s. It is also an argument for something.

Wolfe argues that novel writing must rely on reporting skills. A serious writer must be able to document - carefully - the world he wishes his work to inhabit. He has to interview, live in, make friends with, that world. Wolfe compares realism to electricity; you can't go back on it, you can't do without it. Realism is essential for fiction, he argues.

His point seems true; part of The Wire's immense TV success is that its creator immersed himself in the inner-workings of Baltimore, Maryland. Indeed, David Simon was a reporter for a local Baltimore paper for many years.

Some nuggets:

  • In 1969, Tom Wolfe sought to write a novel about New York - that irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening. He thought it the most obvious idea an American writer could have.

  • 1960s America was a time of immense change. He kept waiting for novels about those changes. Nothing.

  • By the time 1979 swung around, and still no grand novel on New York had come out, Wolfe began to prepare for writing that book himself.

  • The reason why no novels where forthcoming was complicated. Most writers were experimenting with different forms of fiction. The realism school was deemed to have been 'over'.

  • Extraordinary and abundant news coverage challenged fiction writers. There was no way they could replicate that realism. The news was full of detail, full of things even a fictional novelist would be at loss to match for symbolism and surprise.

  • Reporting is the most vaulable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage.

  • Wolfe sought to document the influence of society on even the most personal aspects of the life of an individual. It strikes me as folly to believe that you can portray the individual in the city today without also portraying the city itself.

  • I doubt that there is a writer over forty who does not realise in his heart of hearts that literary genius, in prose, consists of proportions more on the the order of 65 percent material and 35 percent the talent in his brain.

  • Between 1981-1985, Tom Wolfe gathered material by visiting neighborhoods and making friends with people he would never have encountered. The novel was published in 1987 to widespread acclaim; it was often described as 'prophetic'.

Hola: While in London, my friend avantcaire set up this book-reading-circle of sorts; to my lot fell the honour of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" - all 740 pages of it. My task is to read it, and send it on to the next person in the ring. Wish me luck!

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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The hijab martyr: Marwa el Sherbini

I am astounded this story did not receive the coverage it deserves. This is a horrible racist crime, and the fact that the German media has not given the story the coverage it deserves tells me all I need to know about German attitudes.



Update:
An interesting low-budget video featuring a discussion between a woman and herself on hijab.

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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Rickroll question

Was rickrolling a piss-take of the vid, the song, and of Rick Astley? Or was it a genuine attempt to draw attention to the song, by tricking people to watch it?

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Saturday, 27 June 2009

Michael Jackson

My oldest friend in the world texted me yesterday at midnight: "Can't believe Michael Jackson is dead."

That's how I found out.

Our flat went into an hour of shock; I broke the news to them. A Dutch woman of 24, a Portugese of 28, and I, all united in our shock and love of this icon.

The thing that most strikes you now that he is gone, is his incredible output. A
treasure trove of amazing songs. A track record that goes back to when he was 11.

As avantcaire says, our generation loved MJ. We associate childhood memories with him.

His music had ability to stir into action, to make you dance, to make you feel good, and also to make you contemplative, sweetly so. I always had a soft spot for his sentimental songs.

Here is a song that was one of my favourite since I was 13: Human Nature.

This too, used to be one of my favourites when I was a teenager: The Girl is Mine.


Gotta be startin somethin' - my Nigerian classmates loved that song!

'Off the wall' - this phrase entered the vocabulary in my Nigerian school because of Mr Michael Jackson.

...

And I will never forget the excitement that overcame me when I learned, at age 15, now in Cairo, that Mr Michael Jackson is back with I just can't stop loving you.

Why do we wait until someone dies to appreciate them? Imagine all MJ's contemporaries and competing artists, how they probably never called him, and how they probably want to do so now. They never celebrated his success, yet now they do.

The legacy is clear: volumes of music, a great voice, great dance moves, excitement, novelty, and sometimes, message as well.

You want to be remembered? Produce!

Sure, the guy had lost his way by the end. But boy did he produce!

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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Niqab equals ...

I'm posting on the niqab subject in a new post because I want to clarify a few things.

What Sarkozy is doing is saying: "You're in our country, you abide by our norms, and if not, we may take things into our hands." He wants to change the law.

And you know what, on reflection, that's probably a more honest approach than pretending to be tolerant when you can't stand the sight of niqab.

Meg asked what niqab equals?

Niqab equals devoutness.
Niqab equals piety.
Niqab equals a visible display of religiousness.
Niqab equals a statement of virtue and decency.

As far as we know, niqabs existed before Islam, and not just within Arabia. But it became part of Muslim culture when the Prophet Mohammed's wives were named "the mothers of the muslims", told not to marry after his death and to wear niqab. Even though this was directed to the wives of the Prophet, many women followed their lead. The niqab became a symbol for maximum decency, propriety, virtue, etc.

It is absolutely not "required"; but for some reason women have been held captive by its strong statement of "rising above" the standard hijab.

You know how nuns wear a particular uniform to indicate their choice to rise above, get themselves out the equation of, the sexual, the material? The niqab is the same - max strength.

It seems that its wearing came and went with fashion and place. I'm not sure that in Egypt, for example, women always wore niqab. But certainly in the 1920s, middle class Cairenes would put on something to cover their face on top of what they were wearing.

My late grandmother told me about the time when - as a result of a campaign by a man called Qasem Amin - women stopped doing that and started wearing European-style clothes. I got a sense that it was a weight off her young shoulders.

Today, women who wear niqab in Egypt do so by choice. Their life is not easy. Some hijab-wearing women see niqab as affront; as if the niqab wearer is saying I'm holier than thou.

In parts of Afghanistan, and the tribal regions of north Pakistan, I understand that niqab is widely spread, and "comes as standard". A girl grows up with all her female relatives in niqab, she knows that's what she'll wear when she grows up.

Sarkozy was addressing niqab wearers in France. These women chose.

There is little evidence - in my opinion - for the "causality" argument: that women wear niqab because their men would kill/intimidate them otherwise. Such a link would not hold up under scrutiny.

I recently received a call from a Saudi PhD student at another university in the UK. She wears the niqab (not all Saudi women wear niqab). She'd met me a year ago at a seminar at her university. She is finding some difficulty in making progress in her studies and was panicking a little. Let me say that I found a strong, clear-thinking woman on the other end of the phone. I felt a lot for her.

I know her supervisors (Englishmen), and the rest of her faculty (mostly Englishmen), and I can imagine what is going on in their minds while dealing with her. In fact, I advised her to seek a Muslim supervisor (not me) - because she might contend with less with him/her. But then she told me that one of her PhD colleagues is a non-hijab-wearing Muslim woman who absolutely, studiously distanced herself from her. Talk about isolation!

Having been a foreign PhD struggling with a different educational system, on my own, with no close family or genuine friends, I knew her situation. She not only has to deal with all that, but also the unremitting prejudice that no doubt exists in the minds of all who deal with her. All they can see is "slave", "prisoner of male domination", etc.

I am going to say something slightly controversial, and it may disappoint you, but I think the feminist story is simply that. It's a story. It has a bad guy (manhood) and a hero (womanhood) and it's about the hero's struggle with the bad guy. I'm not sure it's true.

Throughout history, smart men have known that women are an asset best at their sides. The Prophet Mohammed said “God enjoins you to treat women well, for they are your mothers, daughters, aunts.” "Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith."

I'm not evil for being a man. Yes, I may inherited a baggage of male domination issues. But women have also to realise that the genders have different strengths. Under pressure, under stress, some women are not effective. Many women yearn for male leadership: they look for a strong, visionary man; they want to be in the company of an expert; they want a teacher; etc. Again, I'm going on personal observation and hunch.

The genders have different qualities - let's just accept that. And no one's perfect.

The strongest women I have met have been the ones most wanting to be _dominated_ (their word) by strong men. I've heard it from impressive, independent, high-achieving women that I'm sure it says something.

The women most sensitive about how men deal with them, I found, are the ones who have a deep, dark backstory involving their father or an old ex. Again, it's a hunch I have based on a small sample.

The niqab issue for me is a matter of practicality. I wouldn't want my wife and daughters to wear niqab, but that's mainly for social reasons. I recognise that they would become outcasts or ill-advantaged (even in Egypt). But do I approve of this outcasting business? No way.

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Monday, 22 June 2009

Deprived of identity?

Sarkozy, the vain attention-seeking cuckoo from France, is now saying that niqab (the burka) is not welcome in France.

What is it his business to intrude on someone's personal choice of attire?

Niqab is not equal to terrorism.

Niqab is not equal to wife-beating.

Niqab is not equal to male domination.

Niqab is not equal to "servitude".

Niqab is not equal to "undermining of dignity".

"Prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity."

Wow. Are they really?


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Thursday, 18 June 2009

Sunday, 14 June 2009

1979-2009: Iran's Islamic Republic

The guys who run Iran have seriously miscalculated. The results are implausible. There's no way Ahmedinejad won two-thirds of the vote. This result puts into disarray the 1979 Republic and may well turn out to be a historical blunder by the grand clerics. Not only will the youth of Iran feel that the 1979 Republic no longer represents their values, but they will also resent it. The revolutionary constitution of 1979 will cease to have serious moral value.

Up until now - say what you want about the 1979 constitution - elections in Iran were fair. The candidates may have been vetted, but the voting process was transparent. I always felt that Iran's regular, free and fair elections were an example for many Muslim countries. But this falsification is a turning point. In 2009, 30 years after 1979, the Velayat-e Faqih - "Rule by the Supreme Jurist" - is failing spectacularly. If rumours are to be believed, Ayatollah Khameni's long dispute with Mousavi, Ahmedinejad's main rival, led to the fixing of the outcome of the election.

The 1979 constitution stipulates that the people are the source of power. The rigging of the election puts Khameni in direct conflict with the people of Iran.

Update 14/06/09

It's just not credible that Ahmedinejad would win in Mousavi's home province. It is not credible that the other candidates would gather only two percentage points between them. Given the extremely high turnout, Mousavi was supposed to benefit. Instead, according to the official results, it seems that even those who voted for a reform candidate four years ago, plopped for Ahmedinejad this time - not credible. Ayatollah Khameni was supposed to verify the result after three days. He signed them off right away.

See NYT columnist in Tehran.

Update 16/06/09

Interestingly, an Iranian colleague of mine believes that Ahmedinejad DID win - but perhaps with not as wide a margin as the official result. He believes Ahmedinejad has genuine popularity amongst the poor, and they see him as one of them - on their side. This echoes Robert Fisk's anonymous trusted friend:

"The election figures are correct, Robert. Whatever you saw in Tehran, in the cities and in thousands of towns outside, they voted overwhelmingly for Ahmadinejad. Tabriz voted 80 per cent for Ahmadinejad. It was he who opened university courses there for the Azeri people to learn and win degrees in Azeri. In Mashad, the second city of Iran, there was a huge majority for Ahmadinejad after the imam of the great mosque attacked Rafsanjani of the Expediency Council who had started to ally himself with Mousavi. They knew what that meant: they had to vote for Ahmadinejad."

"You know why so many poorer women voted for Ahmadinejad? There are three million of them who make carpets in their homes. They had no insurance. When Ahmadinejad realised this, he immediately brought in a law to give them full insurance.

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Thursday, 4 June 2009

Obama speech in Cairo

This is my placeholder post for reactions and commentary on the Cairo speech, earlier today.

I'm not a fan of Egyptian blogger sandmonkey at all, but he was invited to Cairo University to attend the speech and his report is very good.

What I think in a nutshell:

Obama needs partners and supporters in the US to help him deliver on his paradigm-changing words.

In the Arab/Muslim world, with the exception of Iran and a few Islamist movements, most of the regimes are pro-US and will happily support him. It will be Israel's government that will most likely hold things up.

Obama's speech has won him extra affection at the street level; it will probably stem the drip-drip leak of angry men to jihadi-type activities. But decisions and actions by the Obama administration, to back up the words, are crucial.


More links and comments to follow ...

Obama would win presidency of Egypt easily.

British-educated, Harlem-based Egyptian Mona El-tahawy always has a different take.

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Sunday, 31 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York



Charlie Kaufman needn't prove his artistic worth to anyone. He's written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. For some reason, the 50 year old writer's worried about his heritage, his mortality; he's still trying to show how broad, vivid, inventive his imagination is.

Synecdoche, New York is a vanity project. Kaufman is not entertaining anybody's concerns; he's just telling us all of his own. He is 50; it's time for his pièce de résistance, his magnus opus (not necessarily his masterpiece).

What a world he depicts: a central character insecure, unhappy, unhealthy, deserted by his wife, longed for by a receptionist whom he cannot fuck, admired by an actress whom he does fuck, ... Meanwhile, he receives a generous grant and embarks on a lifetime project lasting 20-25 years, in which actors play actors playing actors (ad finitum). His project becomes a full replica of an NYC cityscape, with the stories of his main characters taking part inside apartments.

An epic imagination; a crazy, fevered desire to leave, make a mark, to have insight; a bleak, nihilistic, vision; a dream.

http://www.sonyclassics.com/synecdocheny/site/

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Sunday, 10 May 2009

That pig cull

Summary

The Egyptian government ordered a cull of all pigs. Western popular opinion sees it as an attack on the Christian minority. That perception indicates more the Western mindset than reality.

The cull

A day or two after the appearance of 'swine flu', the Egyptian government announced it was slaughtering all 300,000 pigs in the country. Initially, it said the measure was a public safety measure. Egypt had suffered about 25 deaths from bird flu, and the government didn't want to be caught out again.

Within about 48 hours, international expert opinion began to come to a consensus that a cull is not necessary, that once the flu has spread to humans, it is more likely to continue spreading via humans, not via pigs. Indeed, there seemed to be an opinion that the mere idea of flu transferring from pig to man is laughable, which it isn't - it is possible.

The Egyptian government came out with a revised opinion: this measure isn't about avoiding swine flu only, it's also about restructuring pig rearing in Egypt. Pigs are not bred in farms in Egypt, instead they tend to be hemmed in with garbage and left to do what they like. These dumps-with-pigs tend to be inside Cairo, surrounded by not far from dense human quarters, in the illegitimate slums known as "ashwa'eyyat" ('randomites', 'vagarites').

This Economist article does a good job of succintly explaining some aspects of the rubbish-and-pigs set-up.

British hypocrisy

I can't say I've conducted a comprehensive survey of British opinion via the media, internet and street opinion, but it was very interesting to me that the story was given an immediate Christian-Muslim angle. "The pigs are reared by Christians, eaten by Christians, thus when the (Muslim-dominated) government orders a cull of pigs, this is clearly aimed at the Chrstians, it's a subtle form of persecution, it's Islamist opinion getting strident and using a health-scare to score 'told-you-so' points. After all, the Muslims don't eat pork because they believe it to be unclean, and so Muslims can now gloat about their religion's wisdom and have an excuse to kill off all pigs."

I live in the UK, so I'll take aim now at British hypocrisy. For a country that culled cows - when there was the mad cow disease scare, a country that undertook an equivalent of a holocaust in the history of sheep (killing almost ALL sheep in the UK) - because of foot-and-mouth disease, I found this particular strand of British opinion to be shameless. So those Egyptians are backward, unscientific, driven by medieval religiousity, but we Brits, we took things slowly, one step at a time, and only escalated to a complete cull when we had no choice. I see.

Same outcome! Human beings kill animals at will: If it comes down to: us or the animals, light up the furnaces.

And let me just follow the logic here: we do NOT want to kill animals in a mass-slaughter fashion because ... ?? We want to fatten them up, and hela-hopp, slaughter them when the market needs them.

It's the synchronised killing that's the problem here. If we could just stagger the process, mix-it-up a little, not have them all scream at the same time, that'd be fine. Spread it out. Maybe Mondays and Tuesdays, and the fourth Thursday of every month. That's all we're talking about here, y'know what I mean?

'Egyptian style'

Incredibly, this is now exactly the Egyptian government's policy. It will spread the cull out over the next several months.

Egyptians have this instinctive understanding (sometimes) of how to stroke other people's egos. Okay, so you're offended because pigs have got nothing to do with spreading the flu? Oh, well, erm, it was an overdue, much-needed restructuring of pig rearing. You guys still not happy? Okay, we'll spread it out, we won't have a bloodbath, promise. Happy? Tell you what, we'll financially compensate the rubbish collectors, and parade a bunch of doctors wearing masks and holding giant injection needles in front of the world's cameras - that should reassure you. Still, no? Okay, get a female lead doctor, let the leader of the medical operation be a woman, and let her talk about all the _humane_ precautions the team's taking. Get all men out of the camera frame, repeat, leave the uncovered, decent-looking, well-qualified female lead to take the full shot. Thank you.

What, still not happy!



PS. Vegeterianism is the solution.

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Friday, 1 May 2009

Same language, different countries

Roger Cohen writes in the NYT about British English.

A good read, that piece, and one that I see is very popular on the NYT website. Americans love Britishisms. So much so, I suspect that many of the words Roger Cohen pointed out affectionately will seep into educated, American middle-class usage.

Meanwhile, the youth of Britain have become more and more at ease with the various youthful Americanisms that they see and hear in the popular media. There used to be a generation of British people that scorned any American usage, they hunted for it and shot it down in contempt. But the young people of Britain, certainly here in London, they're "cool" with it. Like, totally. Duh!

I detect this subtle age-gap thing, where younger English people adapt to, and find cool, any exotic use of their language. Particularly, when inflitrated with Americanisms: the Noo Yewark intonations, the Black-American rhythms of speech, "The Wire" drug-dealers-and-cops talk, mafiosi speak, Al Pacino fuck-you-you-owe-me-a-cadillac explosive delivery, ... these are all welcome, these are signs you're tuned-in.

It's perfectly normal to hear a 20-something in London have a conversation on his mobile (cell, if you must) that goes like this:

- Hey, Andy.
- Wassup dude?
- Cool man, awesome.
- Was just wonderin if you wanna hang out at my place tonight, play some Wii shit.
- Nice, man, nice. Ahahahaha.
- Okay, well sweet, mate, catch you round 8 at my place then.
- Byebye, bahbye, bah.


On the other side of the ocean, I detect an increasing influence of British pop culture. British The Office is seen by many Americans as infinitely more pleasing than the American version. Before there was an American version, Gervais and Merchant had to start a special section of their website to translate the various Britishisms of the show to an ever-so-keen American audience.

Jeremy Clarkson's "Top Gear" is probably as popular in America as in Britain - who'd have thought (I can't stand him)! Clarkson is very contemptuous of popular American culture, but American audiences laugh with him and love him for it. Simon Cowell - need I say more?

A friend who lives out in San Franciso dropped by London recently. We spent a few hours together. He was very complimentary about London, and the "cleverness" of British opinion. To him, reading an article or essay written by a British author, is a more pleasurable and intelligent exercise than one written by a typical American author.

In the past, Britain was seen as a fading power. It was listened to only amongst the elite of the US. But it has regenerated its image. Now it's seen as a thriving livewire of talent and sophistication. And whereas in the past, it sought to separate itself from the US - because it thought itself superior, now it freely mingles with US culture, able to communicate with it, use it, learn from it, and deal with it as an equal, a wealthier, bigger equal.

On the plane from Seattle to New York a few months ago, I sat next to two American guys of about 17 and 19. They were both keen followers of British culture, able to discuss Jeremy Clarkson, Ricky Gervais, Tony Blair with ease and fluidity. Likewise, I keep meeting young British people who have travelled America up and down and are extremely familiar with its popular culture.

It seems to me the cultural divide that Roger Cohen writes of is receding.

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Sunday, 26 April 2009

Il Divo

About four years ago, I watched director Paolo Sorrentino's "Consequences of Love". A cool, stylised Italian film it was; magnetic, intelligent. How about this for an opening sequence?

Or how about this scene for cinematic inspiration? You don't even need subtitles.

Two weeks ago I went to see Sorrentino's latest: "Il Divo". It won the 2008 Cannes Jury prize.

The movie is about the real character of Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister of Italy three seven times, 1992 being the last year he was so. Andreotti is reputed to have had links with the Mafia, but despite numerous investigations in Italy, nothing has been proved, and he has been acquitted time and again. He is alive - 90 years old.

The film is a stylish, funny, energetic film about a man whose entire attitude to life seems to be tight-lipped, sardonic, wily. Andreotti is a shrewd man with a quick mind who seems to have studied his acquaintances, his peers very carefully. His every move is a chess move, designed to take advantage.

The film does a terrific job of mocking the man and the whole enterprise of power. Framing certain scenes in funny ways, ridicules the situation and the characters very effectively, without getting them to say ridiculous things.

I enjoyed it thoroughly.

An examination of his daily routines, that often started at 4am and involved a deep relationship with the Church.

The scene which depicts his supposed meeting with mafia bosses, an event never proven. Notice the subversion of the whole thing.

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Saturday, 18 April 2009

Letter to the Egyptian People

Egyptians love this poem. It's just perfect in Arabic, and it's an utter misrepresentation in English, but its message bears spreading. This is my quick translation.


From: Hosni Mubarak
To: The Egyptian People

Dearest people, dearest soulmates, dear babes, dear good, nice people that I carry in my pocket

My people, you smart-alecs, you empty-talkers, you who live in graveyards, patient and fine

You who eat anything, you impoverished worriers, you carriers of mountains

My people, you who sleep, who are lost in thought, who daydream, who drift, poor, and whose state is in a state

I love you just the way you are: drugged, happied-out, in-denial, dizzy and dizzied, in the clouds

I like you not-sweating-it, anodyne, compliant and deferential

I like those among you who are crooked, those who lie, those who are fraudulent and steal fortunes

I love those who see, who know, who fear, who say nothing, and keep mum

I love those who shut their eyes, the fools, the idiots, the jackasses

I love those who are content, who do nothing, those who 'just want to raise my kids'

I love those who've lost hope, those who're sad, those who're depressed, to whom everything is impossible

I like it when you travel, when you're distant, migrant, when you transfer your dollars and riyals

I like you drumming, yelling, clowning, for a football match, a film, or a column

I like it when you support, kiss-hand, flatter, concur, pretend, and lick-shoe

But when you think, plan, decide, engage, and open debate

When you trouble, make trouble, provoke issues, or ask questions

And when you want to enlighten, to develop, to make yourself special

Then, oh then, I will get you, never leave you, and I will make of you an example, a lesson

I will throw you around, humiliate your folk, and make your pain beyond tolerance

I will drag your distinguished self, disgrace you, respected sire, and shrink your withered honour

You'll get slammed a court case, be dead weight, and for the rest of your life, you'll live in isolation

So, dearest, if you accept, I will love you, if not, I'll slap you down, and whether you rise or you fall, you'll get my Gamal.

[Gamal is the president's son]

* By Ahmed Fouad Negm



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Friday, 10 April 2009

Obama's bow

In the Arab world, leaders greet each other with exaggerated gestures of affection all the time - and it means nothing. A leader will bow to another, a leader will kiss the forehead of another, etc. The late president Arafat was the best of them, he once kissed the Sultan of Oman nine times - pretty much everywhere on his face.

But it means nothing. If anything, I think Obama's bow (if it was a bow) shows a shrewd operator who knows how to win people over. Obama has out-Arab'ed the Arabs.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2009

What Howard Schultz said about supporting Israel

Summary: Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, happens to sit next to me at one of the Starbucks stores in London. When I recognise who he is, I query him on his company's position towards Israel.

Many people in the Arab and Muslim world believe he supports Israeli settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. Some believe he and his company make donations to various Israeli organisations.

He denied all this. I felt he sounded like a politician.

Quick-links:


Events before

I walk into one of my favourite Starbucks, on St Martin's Lane, London, just next to the Avenue Q theatre, a minute's walk from Trafalgar Square.

The first thing that strikes me is that there are many people queueing. And they're all in suits. I notice several attractive, tall women in snazzy business suits. I'm not happy about having to queue. One of the women immediately steps out of line and says: "Oh sorry, we're not waiting, you go right ahead." I notice her American accent. I notice they're all Americans.

"Okay," I tell myself, "so we have some American business-types on some kind of conference, coming for a coffee round. The top end of America: well-heeled, well-scrubbed, well-spoken, good-looking, ... bastards." I'm feeling a little cranky.

"I bet these Americans feel totally at home here, I bet they think: what's that guy doing in our shop," I think to myself. I shove the lady out of my way - I'm a little cranky, okay?

I order my coffee.

By the time I return to the sofa that I had "reserved" with my stuff, I find some executive sitting on the other end of the sofa. He's leaning over and being all nice and friendly to one of the good-looking women, sat on another chair. They're like old friends, talking in hushed tones - almost like teenagers sharing illicit intimate moments.

I sit next to them on "MY" part of the sofa. I'm a little agitated that I'm going to have to sit through their teenage huddle. The male executive, let's call him the Teenage Exec - eventhough he is in his forties, annoys me. While waiting for my coffee, I had seen how much of an easy presence he has, how outgoing, networky, fizzy, he is. He is also a little slimy.

On close inspection, the woman he is chatting to is not as impressive as my first impression. Lots of make-up, older than I first thought.

No sooner had I settled down, than another bunch of execs arrive. One guy sits on the sofa to the left of me. Across from him is an English woman who excitedly talks about a new range of crepes. I begin to notice that everyone is directing attention to the guy sampling the food.

I notice they have spread the crepe samples on the table as if my cup of coffee is not there. So, I push back one of their items and re-position my cup. The important man looks over to me and says "Oh sorry." But the teenage exec dislikes my move and pushes whatever I had pushed forwards, backwards - as if to say "you're one, and we're many."

The crepes-sampling man is older, possibly in his 50s, he is fit, he still has a decent mane that is not predominantly gray, ... He is relaxed and chatty and wants to be part of the crowd. He must be a senior, experienced exec, but not hugely important.

The teenage exec introduces the lady he's been chatting to: she works for Microsoft. "Tell me what phone to carry," the senior guy says to her. She asks what phone he carries now. He says it's an iphone but he doesn't like it, it's all-show. He tells her he is the least techie guy she could meet. They carry on talking about phones.

Meanwhile, the senior exec is munching on the various samples of crepes. He turns around to me and says: "Would you like some food?" I give him a dismissive shake of the head. "Get off my table, you and your posse of execs," is what I'm thinking. I shut my eyes to shut them out.

Suddenly, I open my eyes. I look at his face and something tells me this man is Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks.

Now it all makes sense. This is why the English woman was excitedly pitching to him the new line of crepes. This is why he looks so relaxedly powerful. This is why they're all looking at him. This is why he is asking such specific questions about the line of crepes: calorie count, ingredients, true cost, retail price, time of sale, etc.

He stands up and they look like they might be about to leave. I have to act.

Impromptu Interview with Howard Schultz

"Excuse me, are you Howard Schultz?" I say.

"Yes, I am," he says. He turns towards me, fully open to conversation. "And you?"

I stand up to shake hands with him. I give my name, and repeat it again.

"I was just thinking who might this guy be. And then it all suddenly, finally ... clicked," I say. They all laugh. I had clearly been a nuisance, a cranky man sat at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"A pleasure," he says.

"Actually, I want to ask you something, do you mind," I say.

"Sure," he says.

"A lot of Muslims believe you support Israeli settlement activity. Is it true?" I ask.

"Okay, I'm glad you asked that question. Please sit down. Let's talk about this," he says. He is very friendly, jumping at the chance to discuss the matter.

We sit down. All eyes are on us. My heart trembles. I am under pressure. He has celebrity power and I am - for a minute - allowed to sit with the big man, and to ask him an uncomfortable question.

"First off, what have you heard?" he says.

"That you personally support Israel, and so does Starbucks. Listen, I'm not a journalist or anything, I just thought if Howard Schultz is right here in front of me I should ask," I say.

"And I am so glad you asked. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have repeatedly denied this. These are hoaxes, and they circulate on the internet, and they keep growing, and it's not true, and I don't know what to do to stop it," he says.

"Right," I say. I am still steadying myself. I try to breathe properly. I have been totally unprepared for this. I try to focus on his eyes, to steady myself. I see green eyes that seem friendly, gentle, but I also see eyes that say nothing, and I hear a voice that has adopted a tone of a politician. I feel he is practiced in this sort of situation.

"Do you believe it?" he asks.

"Well, I personally have been coming to Starbucks for over five years. But it bothers me," I say.

"I am Jewish, but I have always said that I would never, ever want Starbucks to be the reason for any harm to come to any Muslim or Arab citizen. I want peace in the region. I want the Arabs to live alongside the Israelis in peace, and I would never support one side over the other. I'm at my wit's end, what do I have to do to let people know?" he says.

"I don't know, put it on the front page of the Starbucks website," I say.

"And we have!" he says. "I don't know what more to do," he says.

"Besides, you have all these Arabs and Muslims who work in your shops, right?" I say.

"Not just that: We have many branches across the Middle East and they're doing really well. We have a partner too, from Kuwait. They are a Starbucks partner. Where are you from?" he says.

"Egypt," I say.

"Right, we've have had very successful stores in Egypt. We're growing," he says.

"You opened three branches in Egypt recently didn't you?" I say.

"Yes, we have some amazing stores in Egypt," volunteered one of the standing execs.

"The thing is, I remember reading this internet circular over five years ago that had the text of a speech you gave to an Israeli organisation that supports Israeli settlement-building in the Palestinian occupied territories," I say.

"All a hoax. I never ... ", he says.

"I mean, there's nothing wrong with that. Many Jews support Israeli settlements, and that's their right," I say.

"Right. I've always said I'm for a two-state solution: a situation where the Palestinians live side by side to the Israelis. I want them to live in peace," he says.

Something tells me that the speech is not a hoax, that he might possibly have supported settlement-building at some point in his life, but now regrets it.

"Please spread the word. Maybe if people blog about it more," he says.

Afterwards

"What do you do?" he asks.

I hand him a business card, and tell him about what I do. The head of operations in the UK asks me for a card too. The teenage exec hands me his card. Mr Schultz points at the Microsoft woman and tells me: "She works for Microsoft!"

Totally over-awed by the situation, I ask for a picture with Mr Schultz.

"Absolutely, we must," he said. "Hey what phone's that? Is it good? We were just talking about phones," he says.

Then the head of UK operations takes our picture on my mobile.

I shake hands with Mr Schultz again and they leave.

The teenage exec and his lady chum do not leave, they continue to sit close to me. Very pleased with myself, I turn to the teenage exec and say: "You know, I was in Seattle last summer!"

"Is that right?" he says dryly. He turns to his companion and resumes conversation; my time's up.


[Mr Schultz hung around the branch for about twenty minutes more. I don't know what he was doing, the party had moved to another part of the shop. Later, he posed for pictures in front of the shop with a small photo crew.]

[Before leaving, Mr Schultz and the teenage exec glanced at me excitedly typing on my laptop. Could they have guessed I'm blogging about it?]

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Monday, 23 March 2009

Is this all there is to it?

Tonight we put on another sketch show: eight prospective writers wrote a total of 22 sketches and performed them in front of an audience. This time, unlike last time, it was in radio-recording format; we stood with our scripts in front of the live audience and read out the scripts into studio-grade microphones.

It went well.

But I cannot get over this business of the 'down' that one feels after the initial 'high'. The initial high comes from having risen to the occasion. But the low, that feeling of 'is this all there is to it?', is proving hard to deal with. People ask you "so what next?", and you have no idea. More importantly, you don't know what you've gotten out of the whole experience. You end up talking quickly and excitedly, like a child, about what you'd like to do, and you feel none the wiser.

*

The first time I gave a proper lecture I got a massive high. I had stood in front of about 120 first-year students, captured their attention, explained things, been in charge, got nods of satisfaction, and along the way discovered I had become an instant role model for some of them, ...

I went to a friend who'd been in the teaching business one year longer than I.

"So, what now?" I said.

"Nothing," he said.

"What about the high? It feels great!" I said.

"Temporary. Look, I'll pass by for coffee later, okay," he said.

*

Mark D was a professor in his 30s at a university I used to teach at. He was an inspiring model for me. Oxford-educated, intelligent, an actor and performer in his university days, and a present-day pianist with his own jazz trio. His students adored him.

A Greek girl enthused to me about how he'd walk into the lecture hall looking like he'd just got up, mad hair everywhere (he was balding, and that's one of our ploys to hide it: mad hair), and then in the middle of the lecture, he'd stroll over to the piano and play. She felt he brought a touch of class that no other lecturer could match.

So when I got my PhD finally, I was keen to chat to Mark D about it. He offered me a cup of coffee in his office.

"PhD. Big deal, eh? You work hard, you think it'll be the culmination of your life, and then you get it and you're like 'so what?' Getting a PhD is like having a girlfriend. When you don't have one, you think everything'll get better when I have one. Then you find a girlfriend, and it's like 'yeah, big deal, now what.'" (Although I suspect he did not express his feelings in quite those words to his girlfriends.)

*

After an improvisation night in which I'd performed well, I walked home actually feeling depressed. An actress I knew at the time helped ease the hardship: "it's always like that after a performance, it's a sign you did well."

*

I was at a meeting of life-coaches on Friday night. I overheard an expressive lifecoach in her 30s (an American who now lives here) complaining about coaching a 25-years-old client. "Oh I'm so confused. My life's a mess. I have no goals," the client told her. She said she wanted to just break out of her professional mode for a while and shake the hell out of her. YOU'RE 25 YEARS OLD, YOU CAN DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT. SHUT UP. NOTHING'S RUINED FOR YOU. YOU HAVE TIME. YOU'RE OKAY. STOP WHINING.

I wanted to complete her logic for her: you have time, but I don't!

*

After tonight's show, in an attempt to celebrate our achievement, some of us went out for dinner. There was a guy with us - also a prospective writer - who is almost 20, although he looks 17.

Out of a desire to make conversation, he asked someone at the table "how old are you?" We all laughed. Only a young person would ask that question with such directness. The guy became defensive; he said he looked up to those older than him, knowing he was going to be like them one day, he said he did not at all feel like we were old uncles and aunts to him.

Then, for some reason, we had a moment of feeling for the guy, and out poured unsolicited advice to him. The main thrust of it was: enjoy your life, you have so many wonderful years ahead of you, do everything you want, it's all good, etc.

It is remarkable: this outpouring of angst that comes from people in their mid-to-late 30s when confronted with the question of age. In other societies, the older people would take the young guy under their wings, and patronise him as a 'kid', and he would show visible deference to them. In London tonight, at our dinner table, it resulted in a mass projection of unease over the "mislaid years". Why would you say the things we said unless you felt a deep unhappiness over your present situation, unless you felt a yearning for your youth!

Thankfully, I stepped in. (The lone voice of wisdom, I hear you say.)

I said: "But hang on, when he gets to our age, he'll also feel that he could have done more but didn't. He's not going to get to do everything."

Now I realise that even that was a wrong assessment. The truth is that we HAVE done a lot. Perhaps we wish we could go back and add more to what we did, but we've done A LOT. I have not been sitting on my bum doing nothing. The last few years have been frustrating in terms of the ambitions that have been diminished or slowed down, but there has been a lot of progress.

We now live in an age in which we are addicted to doing new things and more new things. We are addicted to doing whatever the hell we want. And sitting down to face someone who still has about 15 years of that guilt-free 'fun' ahead of him scares the hell out of us.

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Sunday, 22 March 2009

Detail is like the water we take to swallow the pill of meaning

I saw a short animated film earlier tonight. The hero got struck by a meteorite and as a result is displaced by 91cm from his usual physical self. People see him where he is supposed to be, but he is detached 91cm away. At first he is confused. Then he works out what happened, and manages to adapt. He stands at 91cm away from the bathroom sink to use it, he sits 91cm away from the telephone to use it, etc.

But he can't live like that. So, he leans out the window and it comes to him: he needs to find another meteorite to collide into him, to undo the displacement. So, he travels far and wide, and manages to get at the exact location another meteorite is supposed to hit. Except this time, the collision causes him to be displaced even further, and with a vertical displacement too. (Previously, he was displaced 91cm horizontally.) So, he learns to accept his situation, to live where he is, not where he should be, or wants to be.

The film is Skhizein - directed by Jeremy Clapin.


Stories have all sorts of twists and turns but what we remember are the meanings.

I was struggling to recount to a friend the details of a funny sketch by Harry Enfield when I realised that I had already told him the meaning of it. Interestingly, my precis didn't mean anything to him! He wanted details to flesh out the gist, the idea.

Detail is like the water we take to swallow the pill of meaning.

When creating something, it works in an opposite direction: you have to go through the mechanics of storytelling, but what makes it a satisfactory process is when what you've detailed has meaning, says something. It takes many iterations to find out what the hell you're trying to say. Sometimes, ideas come fully-formed with their meanings already clear. Such ideas are a delight to write - just don't force it too much, and make sure you don't get distracted.

Other ideas come as what-ifs, observations, questions, how-about-thats ... Those need lots of iterations. I would say that out of so many iterations and versions, there is usually only one or two that are satisfactory - the rest are forgettable.

It seems to me the most effective creators, innovators are those who know what they want to say first.

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If it's between my friends and him, I'm going with him

How interesting it was to go to a point in London I'd never gone: Westferry, and sit in a grand church built in the 1700s to listen to classical compositions I had never heard.

When the orchestra kicks off, I am sat there between two friends. It's a new composition by a local composer - yet to be recorded. It is exciting, big, and has a very filmic, 007 sound. Within minutes, I am transported. The piece has raised the stage, raised the whole place, and the mundane has wafted out.

Suddenly, I feel: "I'm with that guy - I'm with the composer. Whatever world he inhabits, I want in on it. If it's between my friends or him, I'm going with him."

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Monday, 16 March 2009

Collaboration - how does it work?

Summary

Isn't there something intrinsically strong about work produced not by one mind but two (or more)? Sure, you can have dilution. But equally you can have a potent mix!

Quick-links

Solo or Collaborator?
My Experiences
Pros and Cons

Solo or Collaborator?

Woody Allen writes alone. Steve Martin writes alone. Einstein got help with his maths from a trusted friend but worked on his theory of relativity alone. Picasso painted alone.

"The Office" was created by Gervais and Merchant; "Seinfeld" was created by David and Seinfeld; and the discovery of DNA was made by Crick and Watson. Indeed, a lot of science today is the result of collaboration. Nobel-prize chemist Ahmed Zeweil reminds his audiences that his work is really that of directing a lab of about 25 top-flight doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. In TV productions, writing a show "by committee" is typical.

Could there be an invisible line, somewhere around the 1960s, when it became more and more accepted for innovators to work together? A time when it became not just accepted but expected that collaboration brings about better-quality inspiration? I know that in science one of the buzz-words is the word "inter-disciplinary"; put that in a paper or proposal, and you're going places.

My Experiences

I find this topic particularly interesting in light of the fact that in both my research output and my fiction output, I have this feeling that I'm missing collaborators. I've tried finding them, but gotten nowhere. Finding a person with whom you can brainstorm, write, share, exchange, create, ... turned out to be very difficult.

In science, most of the people I know work quid pro quo. "I've done this, I've got this working. What have you done, what have you got working? Let's fuse our works and get some outputs!" It's so exchange-based, so dull! And if you question it, you're looked at as if you're delusional. "Did you drop the Nobel prize off your CV or something? When you get your Nobel, we'll sit here for hours, pondering and musing. In fact, win the Nobel and we'll do all the running for you. But for now, pal, what have you got for me that I can get some recognition from right away?"

In comedy writing, I'm finding a different problem. The clash of tastes; of senses of humour. Whereas my attitude is: any collaboration is good, the writers I have dealt with are very protective of their "point of view". They find it immensely difficult to not own the full vision of anything they put their names to.

A friend told me I should just write my own stuff independently. "It's harder, but it will make you stronger," he said. And isn't it interesting that it took two of Gervais and Merchant, or David and Seinfeld to create what one of Woody Allen could? In fact, could those later writers (who have all cited Woody Allen as an inspiration) have felt the same measure of confidence about their styles without Woody Allen's trailblazing work?

Pros and Cons

Admittedly, there is something to be said for the feeling of comfort and confidence in your collaborator's input. And, maybe, they're right to insist on being in-tune with their prospective collaborators. I suppose it's like picking a life partner; it's not an easy, anything-goes, it's-all-experience decision.

But is the collaborator decision on a par with the marriage decision?

In the world of science, where things are highly structured and people are fastidious, your past record is paramount. Without a record you won't even get to talk to anybody. Once you're in, your ideas do not need to be very good, if you've got access to data, resources, staff, funding, connections, etc, these can compensate. Of course, if you've got a weak record and no special benefits, no one will want to collaborate with you.

In the world of writing, the world is flatter. Provided you've shown some evidence of mastery of technique, it's a world of ideas from then on. In some respects, you have less room for negotiation when collaborating artistically. Either we bond in idea and presentation (substance and stylisation) or there's not much else we can 'trade'.

What do you think?

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Saturday, 14 March 2009

They can buy anything but they can't buy backbone

Last night at the pub, an unanticipated topic came up: schooling. One woman had gone to a public school in Cork; she was lamenting that they didn't have a swimming pool. They could only play basketball and hockey, she said. But she had an arts studio and a drama stage.

Another guy had been to a private boarding-school - one of those flagship English schools. Naturally, he had all the sporting facilities, and much more. His single-sex education, combined with students living in the school all through the year, led to interesting encounters!

What about you, Ahmed, they asked?

I went to public Nigerian schools. At one point, we had 80 pupils in our class; we had 30-years-old men in class; we had no swimming pool and no sporting facilities, except for a football pitch; no library. Arts, music, drama: no sir, nothing. In fact, we'd have periods in which the teachers simply didn't turn up - just 'cos.

Then I went to a free, public university in Egypt. I specialised in computer science, but we had only one computer room - to which we did not have access until our second-to-last year, for two hours a week only.

The college library stocked books as new as 1973 - in 1990. And the woman who fetched you the book from the dusty collections got off work at 1pm, so if you wanted a book, you had better get there well before one, because you have to fill in a form, and if she's in a good mood, she told you to go wait in the reading room. Half an hour later, while she's in the middle of a conversation with a colleague about her daughter's progress at primary school: "I review all the lessons with her, sit next to her for the homework, I don't know what more I can do. I told her, you must ace the exam," - and you interrupt them to remind her that you're waiting for a book. "Where you sitting? I'll bring it over. Let me finish."

Still, my old friend B never forgets how I used to conspire to get to the library and borrow an only copy before he could.

In Nigeria, my parents could have sent me, like most foreigners in our Nigerian town, to a private, international school with a US curriculum. But, on principle, they didn't. My father rejected these "schools for softies". Likewise, my parents could have sent me to a private university in Egypt - like the AUC. But the mere thought would have sent my father berserk.

Both my parents are products of middle-class, public education in Cairo - though my mother did go to a private French school run by nuns, where if they spoke a word of Arabic in the playground they were reprimanded. My father, in particular, is testament that good education is not facilities; it is teachers and keen pupils. His vivid recollection of his English, Geography, or Arabic Grammar (nahw) lessons astounds me.

My education in Nigeria, flawed as it might have been, was good. I do not recall with the same kind of vividness that my father has, what and how I was taught, but most teachers were effective, and I was there to learn. Every now and then my parents checked to see the quality of my learning.

Returning to the conversation I had. After listening to my experiences at school, my Irish interlocutor said: "Oh, I hadn't realised. You've done well. My, Ahmed, you've done very well, then."

And I laughed in my head.

I realised this is _why_ I've always felt angry when people said to me I come from a privileged, elite background.

"Just remember, they can buy anything but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it." -- from the movie Rushmore.

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Wednesday, 11 March 2009

I do not know anyone's number by heart

I went out for an errand early today and on my return I discovered I had locked myself out of my home. I had nothing on me. Nothing. Okay, I did have some cash and my transport card and my bank card, so I wasn't completely disconnected from the system. I could have gone to work, but I needed stuff that was indoors, locked in. I had to stay around the area. Normally, one of my flatmates works from home. Not today. I only managed to stumble back in at 10pm.

I spent the day in forced retirement at various public places: coffeeshop, internet shop, restaurant, another coffeeshop, barbershop, bookshop, etc. The experience was not as bad as it could have been, and I did get to think about things from a different vantage point than the one I am used to (which tends to mindlessly follow on from whatever it was I was doing before). On the other hand, it was disruptive. I could not even call people to cancel plans; in today's world, I do not know anyone's number by heart.

Still, I did manage to borrow pen and paper from various random people and got to ponder some writing ideas. I miss unplanned heavy pondering.

And I had a number one at the barber!


Londoners love their alcohol haze, that's what one of the London Evening Standard's rising columnists says. Nirpal Dhaliwal does voice something that I've chewed over for a while and wanted to post about. In fact, I drafted a couple of blog posts on the subject but never got around to finishing them. Nirpal's article summarises a lot of what I want to say, except I think the opposite. Anyway, this guy, he's come to my attention in the last year or so, and every post I've seen is well-written and interesting. He nails the well-travelled, single, 30ish, London voice.

Will Self, established writer that he is, is always enjoyable. His way with words, his wordsmitherry (hey, I am no Will Self) are distinctive. He voices a liberal, sophisticated, atheist, London voice.

Hey, you wanna laugh? Please read how children are too hot to handle for Iranian TV.

Yes, I had a lot of time to read the papers today! Even the not particularly noteworthy Evening Standard!


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Sunday, 8 March 2009

The promise of comedy writing

The BBC advertised for submissions to one of their topical-comedy radio sketch shows. This is not normal; they usually advertise only when it is a new show and they are willing to take some risks - because they get inundated.

Our workshop leader strongly recommended that we send in some submissions, because it puts the submitter on the map, gives them experience, etc. So, the current group I am doing the course with, including me, all sent in our submissions. The radio show's team displayed extraordinary enthusiasm; they read through all the submissions in under one week. And now results have come in.

I was not successful. But they flagged me as having "showed promise" and encouraged me to submit more to them. Only one other person in my group got a similar nod. No one we know was successful.

So, it's pat on the back time. The show had hundreds of aspiring writers send submissions in. I was not in the top 10 of those, but I was not far off.

Given that I was going to ignore the competition altogether (I don't really care for topical sketches), but then decided to put something in, only 48 hours before the deadline, I've done pretty well. Now I am left to wonder how I would have fared had I started a little earlier!

I still do not think of myself as a good sketch writer, but it is clear I am making progress. My peers seem to think of me as a contender too, which is nice.

Some of my blog readers may recall a post I wrote in October when I was contemplating giving up on comedy writing altogether. I felt deeply insecure, thought my sense of humour unappreciated and different, and just generally felt that I do not belong in that world. Thanks to the blog-comment of a friend, I "stuck it out", and today I am glad I did.

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Saturday, 7 March 2009

To everyone who reads this blog

Please comment. I do want people to say something back to me - even if one word.

When I post something and get absolutely no feedback, I tend to think that those who did read the post had skimmed it, or that they don't care for me. I know that my regular readers _do_ care for me, so then it must be that you skim my posts.

Either you read my blog because you care and you are willing to invest the time to jot down even a short question like "I didn't get your point" (say), or you do not care, and you should not be reading my blog.

In fact, I think in the age of "information overload", this is a good test of whether you want to remain subscribed to an RSS feed: Do I care enough to comment on the posts on this blog or not? (You may not be able to comment on every post, that is understood.)

It is important that blogs are commented on, folks. No man is an island, and all. In real life, I am a regular moaner about insularity; when people, with the excuse of 'shyness', do not reach out, reciprocate openness, or even show appreciation of it. I feel the same applies to blogs.

There are times when you want to write a message in a bottle and you do not care who reads it or what they think. I know there are times that I post something for which I expect no feedback at all, and I do not even want it. It's like: "I am telling the world that ..." On most occasions though, feedback is good.

What do you think? :-)

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The Arab Terrorist Comedian

This evening, I was with a bunch of people that I don't know very well - I am on nice, friendly terms with them. The subject of my youtube clip came up, and one of them told me that whereas she thought my youtube clip is fun - in particular (note her distinction), the actress was amazing, she wondered if I am suited to play that type of role. Having the accent that I have, she continued, she was wondering if I have thought of playing different types of roles, more suited to me. "Like an Arab Terrorist," I asked. The whole table burst with laughter. She said, "Yes, absolutely. I mean, I didn't bring it up, you did. But that would suit you much better. You can bring so much to roles like that."

She continued digging herself deeper and absolutely ruined my night.

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Tuesday, 3 March 2009

So, Alan and I are texting each other

So, Alan and I are texting each other on whether we want to go to the show at 9pm. He texts to say that Karen and Natalie [all names are made up] are coming too. I say I am in, definitely.

At 7pm he texts to say that Natalie's pulled out and Karen has not replied. He says we are on the waiting list with unconfirmed seats; so, what do I think?

"Leave it," I say. "Being on the reserve list is too risky."

At 7.30pm, he texts me to say Karen is now in and he is already on his way. What! I text back "On my way as well. Definitely worth taking the risk on the seats."

So, it's 8pm, and I'm first through the doors of the pub that hosts the sketch show. Really nice area, posh people, good atmosphere. Long gone are the days when I caught young things' eyes just by walking in. But I get a glance or two. And, in a sign of what is forthcoming, I am invited with enthusiastic welcome by a Polish mother to take the seat next to her. It's her daughter I'm interested in.

"I'm here. What now?" I text Alan.

Alan turns up two minutes later with a big smile. "What, am I your mum? What now!"

Karen turns up. We go to the tickets office, only to be told that we are definitely not going to be able to get in. The show's performers have booked up all the reserve seats. Show's totally, completely sold out.

Since when was topical sketch comedy so popular!

We go back to the pub. And a couple of merry hours later ... we're in the middle of a conversation on the flat that Alan owns. I take the opportunity to lean on Karen to tell her that Alan is a very eligible bachelor. Alan is amused, and I am glad he is playing along with my game.

"Is this a good time to tell you about something rather personal," Karen says, to much suspense. "I am with someone who I absolutely adore and love. She's wonderful and we've been together for years. Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against men. Gosh, I don't know why I'm telling you this. Should I be doing this?"

Silence.

I look at Alan. He's looking at me. Fuck. I need to make eye contact with Karen. I can't. I can't look her in the eyes. Say something, Alan!

Alan: "So, you're a lesbian."

All the words that are flashing across my head have to do with sex, lesbianism, dildos, ... Darn it, I should stop drinking. Thinking clever is so much harder with alcohol in your bloodstream.

Ahmed: "So, have you been, ever, with a man?"

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