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.


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.


"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?


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!


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?"


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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Monday, 2 March 2009

What was!

There must be something in Egyptian (and Arabic) DNA that makes us utter sentimentalists. Just full of longing and nostalgia.

I am listening to Nancy Ajram's Elli Kan. The music has been given the modern pop treatment but its base is old-old-school arabic/turkish. It's incredible with longing, aching. The lyrics have been matched to the same level of arch emotion.

What was before you, when you weren't next to me, it was like I never lived through.

And what will follow you, if you're not next to me, then I wish to die before you.

I don't normally pay attention to lyrics, I just let a song sink through several listens and - if I'm still listening, I begin to hear the words. "Elli Kan" ran through several listens, filled me with sentimentality and tenderness, and then began to register its words on me. You might want to try the same listening strategy.

Find the song in the music player on the right side.

"Elli Kaan" by Nancy Ajram - featuring English subtitles.

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Sunday, 1 March 2009

More on Jerry Seinfeld

Funny. You write about Jerry Seinfeld one day, and the next day, you read about him in a book and then you meet someone who has a story to tell about him.

First, I was reading a book about project management when I encountered this story:

Jerry had a calendar that had a whole year on one page, and a red marker. Each day that he wrote, he put a big red X over that day. Jerry explained, "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain." Don't break the chain!

Second, later in the evening, I meet a couple of sketch writers and one of them tells us she had attended a stand-up class in New York. The teacher of the class was someone who was once, years ago, in a stand-up class with Seinfeld. According to the teacher, his class had gotten along very well, they'd all hang out in a bar afterwards. But one guy never went to the pub afterwards. In fact, that guy was the worst performer; he'd do such cheesy, easy material that audiences would get bored of him really quickly. But the guy would always go over his experiences. He did not join them at the pub because he wanted to get home and go over what happened. By the end of the class, he had improved significantly. But no one took him seriously, because there were obviously far more impressive talents than his. The guy kind of felt it too, because he always took to the side a little. That guy was Jerry Seinfeld.

The lady who told me the story wondered how bitter the teacher must be, seeing his old classmate become the mega-star he became. Yet, the teacher was clear-eyed. He told them that this story showed the importance of working hard and not giving up.

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