Wednesday, 26 May 2010

On the Run

"On the Run" shop
Mobil gas station
Cairo Ring Road
Near Mirage City

I've parked my car and am getting out. Someone pulls up and parks to my right. He flings his door open and it hits my car.

"Sorry, I do apologise. Wasn't paying attention," he says. It's a young voice, sounding husky and well-brought-up.

I am about to give him a cutting look, then I notice he is wearing police uniform (all whites) and the trademark Ray-Bans.

"Fine. Okay," I say.

By the time I am walking into the shop, he is coming towards the entrance. An attendant greets him, the other attendant calls out after him: "Hope you had a pleasant journey sir."

"Hooda! [Nickname for Mahmoud.] All good?" He acknowledges his fans. His pistol is in the holder, hanging off his belt, and he is sauntering into the shop.

Inside the shop, at the espresso counter, the guy behind the machine says: "Sire Kareem, the usual for you sir?"

"Yeah ..." he oozes, John-Wayne-like.

"I waited for you yesterday Kareem Pasha [a bigging-up] for two hours, but then I had to go," says the espresso guy.

"Dude, I am so tired, I've literally just rolled out of bed. I'm not seeing straight. I need that espresso pronto. I swear to god, I was driving dazed just now," the cop says.

"Coming right up, [King] Kareem," the counter guy says. [The tone is deferential.]

"Naah, I couldn't come in yesterday to see the stuff you told me about. We were ON DUTY." the cop says.

"God give you strength, sir. No problem, just let me know when you want to have a look at the stuff, and I will bring it over from the hotel," the espresso guy says.

Whereas the cop had paid for some food at the main counter, something told me he was not going to pay for his coffee. And sure enough he didn't.

"Everything the way I like it, eh? Sugar, everything?" the cop says.

"Of course, yeah," the guy says. But he actually had not put any sugar - it is not part of his job. He was just deferentially agreeing, letting the cop correct the shortcoming himself later. [This is a common attitude in Egypt: people do not like to say no, they will lie and say yes, just so as not to disappoint you. You can fix it yourself later, they reason.]

The cop, Ray-Bans still on, goes off to stand at one of the waist-height tables. He lights up a ciggie, gets on the mobile to natter, and starts sipping his coffee. He notices the lack of sugar and casually reaches out for a pack. He cuts quite a handsome figure against the bright blue skies behind him. He certainly has presence.

Employees from the shop pass him, and everyone throws a smile or a hello. He acknowledges them with small nods.

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Thursday, 13 May 2010

It's all written

I wrote this on 5th April but forgot to post it.

The roads are empty because of a run of four days of holiday (Egyptian Christian Orthodox hols and "Smelling the Breeze" Day). We're in a bubble of good weather here in Cairo, transitioning from winter to summer. Soon, I will be complaining about 40C days and constant sweating. But for now, it is under 30C by day, and over 15C by night.

Driving around parts of Heliopolis and Medinet Nasr, I cannot believe how charming this city can be. Just remove people.

This sort of holiday begs for visits to Sharm El Sheikh or Ein Sokhna (both by the Red Sea). But everything is full-up; I should have booked a month ago. I have been forced to stay in Cairo, without the daily work routine, and with a pile of things to do.

Still, it is nice to be out and about. Last Saturday, a distant family relative died. In accordance with convention, a member from my family should have gone to her burial. But my dad was at the clinic together with my mother. Should I go?

My mother said: "Well, it is a national holiday so there is no at-work excuse and our family should be represented, so you should go." I got a little upset and said that I don't know the way to the burial site, am not a close relative anyway, etc. My kind mother told me to leave it and not bother.

Eventually guilt got the better of me and I did go. Grandma Kareema (my sister's mother-in-law's mother) had always been very sweet to me. "He's prettier than either of his sisters!"

What a lovely drive it was to 6th October city. The sun was bright and the colours vivid. Roads that would normally take half an hour to pass through, I shot through like a bullet. I passed patches of countryside green by the highway; the trafficmen had switched to their white uniforms - everything was fresh.

The mosque at which Grandma Kareema's funeral prayers were held was big and impressive: Sheikh Al-Hosari Mosque. I greeted my sister's husband, who is Grandma Kareema's grandchild, and went off to do my wodoo' (ritual wash).

The 'asr prayers were spritually nourishing - perhaps because of the newness of the whole experience, perhaps because of my affection for Grandma Kareema. I was "there" during prayer, not away on my usual going-through-the-motions reveries. I reconnected - for fleeting seconds here and there - with young me, more faithful, more pious and devout. After 'asr prayers, the imam said we would offer the Prayer for the Dead.

People - volunteers, all of them - brought forward Grandma Kareema's coffin and placed it in front of the 200-odd congregation (people who just happened to be in the mosque to do their 'asr prayers). There was also another coffin, a dead man; his coffin was placed near that of Grandma Kareema's. Then we did the Prayer for the Dead.

Afterwards, men - random, unbidden volunteers - carried the coffin to the minibus where it would be transported to the graveyards. Men would run from afar just to carry the coffin a little of the way, mentioning God's name and saying personal, spiritual things that no one else really listened to.

I went with two mourners I had never met. We went in the beat-up Fiat 128 of one of them, then we switched to a cool 1970s Mercedes belonging to the other guy. Both men, in their mid to late forties, lit up ciggies and discussed whom they'd spotted and who didn't come. I felt very much at ease with these strangers.

One of them, Khaled, had a full head of gray hair. "Mummy wanted to come but I told her don't worry about it," he said. Something funny about a grown man with a distinguished mane of gray talking about "mummy". The other man, Tarek, did not have a speck of dust or grime on his black shoes.

"What do you do, Ahmed?" Khaled said.

"I work at university," I said.

"Yeah? Like you're doing a masters or something?" he said.

I mentioned a relative of theirs who had died in a car accident. Tarek told me that had I seen how unscathed his car was, I would have thought: "He must have survived. But poor Ahmed died instantly."

"Yes," I said.

"But then I had an accident, which if you had seen the state of my car, you would have said the driver must have died horribly, and here I am, I survived. Times. Everything has a time. It's all written," Tarek said.

We arrived at the burial site. The entire area was narrow dirt-roads with small buildings (graves) lining each side. The gravekeeper laid out plastic chairs for us and he a couple of helpers dug up the "underground room" where members of the Wardani family are buried and motioned for the coffin to come up. We hoisted it up. Everyone was mouthing prayers and Qur'anic verses.

At some point, the cover of the coffin fell off and I could see Grandma Kareema's corpse fully wrapped in crisp pink-on-white sheets, beautifully fragrant. The keepers got the corpse out and went down into the chamber with it. They took about 15 minutes down there.

I asked what they were doing. Someone said: "They're tidying up. Checking after the remains of the others, and finding a place for her."

We sat on the dark brown plastic chairs, surrounded by the golden colours of desert: the colour of the land, the walls of the graves, of the dust, of everything.

Everybody fell silent, looking down.

I noticed Tarek's shoes again. How can he walk through this sand and still have spotless shoes! He had his hands pressed together, at chest level, a little in front, fingers interlocking and playing with each other; it made him look very contemplative. Every now and then, he cleared his throat.

Someone's mobile rang. He got up and quickly silenced it, but took the call, walking away.

A donkey - I don't know what it was doing there - blew wind through its lips, making a loud, disrespectful noise.

Grandma Kareema's daughter, Aunt Mona, was in a state. She sat inside the grave-building, by the underground chamber, sobbing. I turned around to an older mother and her daughter and said: "Aunt Mona is very affected."

The mother-daughter pair looked at me like I was mental: "It's her mother who just died."

The gravekeeper now put the stones back and shut the underground chamber. They started shovelling earth on top of the stones, completely hiding them.

It was now time to leave.

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Thursday, 6 May 2010

When visuals strike

I am driving around Cairo and I notice this red bus that is of exactly the same type as the (new) red busses serving London. It even has the same iconic drawing on the side, just behind the driver (imported from the same company, I bet). For a second, my brain merges Cairo with London, superimposing our streets on theirs. But another part of my brain rejects the image. I like them separate.

Another such incident occurred a half hour ago. I have just parked, I open the door and there's a light breeze to relieve my heat. I have Four Tet's remix of "Roads Become Rivers, Rivers Become Oceans" by Rothko on my car system. Perfect music for a hot, 40C day and for me to spot two lizards climbing a wall. They're not exactly the same type of lizards I grew up with in northern Nigeria, but close enough to cause a superimposition, a type of dislocation.

Somewhere out there, everything is still the same.

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Mamma Mia!

One of my favourite 30 Rock scenes. End of episode 21, series 3. Delicious.

Jack Donaghy is a fictitious head of NBC who meets his biological father for the first time.

I am Jack Donaghy, Colleen's son. I was born around nine months after that.

Prof Milton Green:
Oh my God. Wait a minute. Is this contest some Mamma Mia thing?

Milton, I'm your son.

Prof Milton Green:
(overcome by joy)
Of course you are. I shoulda known the minute I saw you.
(gets up and embraces him excitedly)

I have a son! A beautiful son!

And I have a dad!

Prof Milton Green:
Fate has brought us together Jack. To open a whole new chapter in my life.

Isn't it amazing!

Prof Milton Green:
You don't know the half of it. I need a kidney.
(yanks Jack into his embrace and hugs him forcefully)

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Saturday, 1 May 2010

Fragments of London

At times, I have strong visuals of London. I remember sunlit roads, or aspects of buildings. Today I happened to remember the approach to a restaurant that my ex-wife and I used to go to almost every weekend. Shepherd's Bush, parking the car, crossing the road, the interior, ... Fragments of visuals from the many scenes that have been imprinted over the years.

I listen to a piece of music and it brings back the spirit of the people who live in London, with all their nationalities. But especially the youthful, trendy variety who made a point of going out to the cool places. Chilled out music, glasses of something or other, cups of coffee, people standing outside pubs talking loudly, puffing cigarettes. There is a certain quality to London's distance: Nobody knows you and nobody wants to, and yet somehow we're all party to the same culture, the same society.

I think of London when I want to go out in Cairo. I find the choice and variety limiting, here. My friends' priorities, their talking-points, ... ugh ... suffocating sometimes. And, even if I did go out in London and come back empty many a time, and lonely too, sometimes seething and bitter at this coldhearted city, still the London I spidered (like google) was a London of ideas, aspirations and endeavours.

Even though age and appearances do matter in the UK, there are lots of 40+ year olds wandering the streets, wearing the same sorts of clothes as the younger people, and enjoying life similarly - with adjustments. But in Cairo, one feels ridiculous if one does not act one's age. I am 38 (still!) and I am constrained already.

London life is indulgent - especially when you earn a good living and have made peace with the indignity of public transport. You tend to have money to be in nice-looking spots, eat out at new restaurants, meet lots of people, dress well, buy books, attend plays, support new acts, hang out, ...

I miss London, but I am sure when I go back it will be the same. Anyone can plug in. In fact, long after I am gone it will still be the same: a hub.

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