Friday, November 18, 2011

Gravity

Earlier, there was quite a scene at one of the compound’s swimming pools, and no it did not involve women swimming in abayas, which is strictly forbidden. If you are in the pool, then you must have on a swimming suit. If you are in an abaya, then you must not be in the pool. And yes, women have attempted to swim in the pool in abayas and they are promptly told to get out or leave. This I have not seen but I would imagine that it looks something like nuns in full habits swimming or swimming goths or a witches’ coven hit by a flashflood.

Not many people were at the pool. For the most part, it was a quiet afternoon. Under the shade of the awning that runs the length of the south side of the pool, a man - who somewhat resembled an overweight ogre in a speedo - skyped and then later he walked around smoking. Danny Devito’s version of the Joker came to mind. A few nondescript sunbathers, all male, were scattered around the rest of the poolside area.

In the water were four older and younger children. My estimate is there was a six-year gap between the oldest of the youngest children and the youngest of the oldest children. Thus, there were two younger children and two older children, the older ones barely being teenaged.

When I arrived, one of the older children, a boy, was taking pictures of the other older boy as he did back flips into the water. The two smaller children - a girl and a boy, the girl being smallest – splashed around the pool. The girl was wearing arm floaters. The boy was not. He was tall enough to stand in the shallow end. The girl was not.

Soon after I arrived, the photographer got bored with the back flip photography game and left. This did not seem to faze the back flipper in the least. He then jumped into the pool with one more back flip and splashed around with the two smaller children who at this point, I assumed were his younger siblings.

The older boy played with the younger two with a mixture of love and unnecessary roughness. At times, he would hold his sister close to his chest and kiss her on the top of the head like she was the most valuable treasure in the world and then five minutes later he would be splashing her mercilessly.

I spied him teaching his younger brother how to hold his breath after one failed attempt of dunking his brother and his brother coming up coughing and gasping for breath. But then, he showed his brother by example how to hold his breath and go under water. The little boy tried and succeeded and did it ten more times to make sure he actually could, in this episode was a brotherly tenderness, a tiny achievement, a snapshot of a metaphysical building block.

But then, a few minutes after this achievement, the older brother started a splashing game against both siblings that escalated to the point where the little brother tried to climb out of the pool just to be tickled and dragged back in by the older brother. At this point, I thought I might intervene but then the older brother let the little brother get out of the pool. But then, lo and behold, the little brother was just getting out to jump back in.

My assumption was if the roughhousing was too rough that the little brother would just go home but he didn’t. He kept coming back for more. So this went on for sometime and I went back to reading my book. Then I heard some screaming. At which time, I looked up from my book.

At that time, one of the sunbathers at the opposite end of the pool, whom I had not really given much notice, an older Arabic gentleman with a mustache, ran yelling down to my end of the pool where the children were splashing. There was a confusion of voices:

“Stop that! Stop that! What are you doing?!”

“But he is my brother.”

"Arabic"

"Arabic"

"Arabic," the man saying more heated than before and then adding in English, “Where is the attendant? I want your names and your parents' names.”

The attendant arrived.

“He is trying to drown his brother! Get his name from the registry! Call his parents! He is trying to drown his brother.”

This went on for a few minutes. The attendant, a Filipino, did not seem to know what to do. He just stood there in between the mustached man, who was still near his end of the pool, and the children, who were in the pool mute, the older boy trying to defend himself but finally just going silent.

Should the older boy; should he have dragged his brother around by the legs in the pool? No, probably not. Was the mustached man right in jumping up and intervening? Actually, yes, probably so.

There are signs posted at the pool that there is to be no one at the pool under 12 without a guardian. And a boy, who is not much older than 12, would probably not qualify as a guardian.

After the brouhaha, the scolded boy huddled in the pool with his siblings. What they huddled about, I cannot be certain but I would surmise that it had to do with the aforementioned altercation. Then they just stood there in the shallow end - the little girl with her arm floaters; the little boy with his smallness; the older brother with his weight. Maybe the older boy felt gravity; maybe he felt it for the first time ever. Maybe he realized that his young siblings were not much sturdier than plastic dolls, china cups.

Shortly after, the younger brother conferred with his brother and then got out of the pool and went into the locker area. The older brother hugged his little sister and held her to his chest and asked her something. Both of them then got out of the pool and he carried her, so that she would not burn her feet, across the pool area to the other side where their towels and belongings were. He then dried her off with the tenderness of a father. At this time, the younger brother came out of the locker room and raced over to where they were, the older brother still tenderly drying off his tiny sister.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Last Ahmed of Cairo

Leaving Cairo, at the airport, I agreed to do something that I should have never agreed to do. Ahmed, this Ahmed, the last Ahmed of Cairo had been very kind thus far. How could I refuse?

This all happened because of the wrong information on my itinerary. When I showed up at terminal 3, I was brushed along by a few non-English speaking security officers to various places until I found the Egyptian Air customer service window. The man there who had a limited grasp of English told me I needed to go to the Seasonal Terminal. As he was explaining this to me, an Egyptian man came to the window with the same query.

In Arabic, the worker explained to this man where he needed to go and then the worker told me to follow the man. I did. The other terminal was some 500 meters away, which was a bit of a hike in the heat with baggage. The man told me a car would come pick us up and take us there.

Outside at the drop off spot, there were two men and two children – a girl and a boy - and one overloaded cart of luggage. The man introduced himself. This is another Ahmed, a good Ahmed - the last Ahmed of Cairo.

The last Ahmed of Cairo and the men talked and looked off into the distance for the mythical car as the children entertained themselves on the overloaded luggage cart. The boy pushed the girl around the sidewalk on the cart. Often he would push the cart within inches of the curb, which in turn made me wince quite a few times because I was certain the cart would go over the curb and the overweight luggage would crush the little girl.

“Is this the car?” I asked when an Egyptian Air van pulled up to the curb.

“No, soon the car will come.”

“Okay,” with that I looked with the men off into the distance to the East to see if I could spot this car that we were all waiting for as if the car was Godot. I asked the Last Ahmed of Cairo if the children were his children. No they belonged to his brother, who did not seem to realize he had any children while the children wildly wreaked havoc with a luggage cart overloaded with luggage. And I winced occasionally at the sight of this.

“This is car,” the Last Ahmed of Cairo pointed to a belching panting Fiat approaching that soon rattled to a halt. All of us piled in. One man in a thobe sat to my left in the backseat; the Last Ahmed of Cairo sat to my right. In the front seat, the children piled on top of their dad, who once we took off down the road seemed to finally recognize their lineage. The car sputtered and kicked its way like an ailing camel over to the Seasonal Terminal. Honestly, I was not sure the car would make it some 500 meters.

But the car did make it. Once there, the Last Ahmed of Cairo went to make sure we were at the right place. His brother and the two children followed. I was left standing with the men in thobes. I smiled at them awkwardly, oh these Woody Allen moments. After several minutes, the Last Ahmed of Cairo returned. We loaded the luggage on another cart and headed for the terminal. At the door of the terminal, the Last Ahmed of Cairo gave his brother and the children a teary farewell.

Since his flight was an hour earlier than mine, at ticketing he would try to get me on his flight - once we got through the initial security. However once we got to ticketing, I was fairly certain that no special treatment was going to be forthcoming because a few agents were trying to serve a few hundred passengers. This is when the Last Ahmed of Cairo asked me the Locked up Abroad question.

“You do not have much luggage. Could you check one of my bags?”

And before I even thought about it, I said, “Okay.”

I know. I know. Who in their right mind would say yes? Why I said yes, I don’t know. This is what I was thinking. It would have been a very odd coincidence that he showed at the customer service window at the same time as me if he had a bomb. At the time, I assumed if he had anything it would be a bomb. I suppose I was still in revolution mode. I did not even stop to think that he might have had several kilos of hash that he was smuggling into the Kingdom.

Now everything seemed very suspicious – the teary goodbye, the men in thobes, the tank liquids splashing around in the trunk of the Fiat, the weird chemicals in milk crates in the Fiat, the Fiat. The fact that our flights were leaving at two different times was the most suspicious. After I thought about it, I tried to tell him what he wanted me to do was against the law but he did not understand what I was trying to say. Maybe this was a ploy. Maybe he understood English perfectly. Maybe in his spare time he spoke with the flair and intellect of Tony Blair.

In the throng of people, we were not moving. The lines had ground to a halt. Actually, there was nothing as civilized as a line but just a mob of people gathered together. Each person in line at the ticketing counter seemed to have several people and several bags with them. This took a minimum of ten minutes a customer. On top of that, the luggage conveyor did not work. The luggage had to be hauled over to an overworked bag handler by the customer once the customer had checked in.

Another ticketing agent arrived. We hurried to his counter. We were near the front. The Last Ahmed of Cairo kept looking at his watch. It was now an hour until take-off for his flight. He overheard someone say that the line we were in was just for the passengers on his flight. This meant I would have to brave the mob again to wait to check in for my flight.

We got to the counter and the Last Ahmed of Cairo checked in and checked his bag. They told him it was overweight but let it slide. He told me to go wait in line and he would be right there after he had given his overweight bag to the bag handler.

I made my way through the throng of people that had grown exponentially. Making my way through the crowd was maddening. I now had in custody one bag that I had no idea what was contained therein. Was it hash? Was it explosives? Was it a tea set? What could be in it?

Once I got in line, I looked to see if I could spot the Last Ahmed of Cairo. He had disappeared. There was only one exit and I was closely watching to make sure he did not give me the slip. But then if it was in fact a bomb, he could have just headed to a distant part of the airport and he would be safe. At this point, I thought of speaking to an airport security officer about this. But then I thought, their English is, for the most part, non-existent so how would I get my point across without implicating myself in the process?

While I procrastinated and waited for the Last Ahmed of Cairo, I thought about my time in Cairo. If there was in fact a bomb that was about to explode, I had had a great time in Cairo and I had had a pretty nice life for the most part. After being bamboozled twice, on my third try I got to see the pyramids and ride a camel around them.

This is how it went down. I was looking for something to do my last full day in Cairo. I was trying to not be down about not seeing the pyramids but then I thought:

“Why not? I will give it one more shot.”

So I took the metro out to Giza and decided I would take a taxi from there. Right when I walked out of the metro station, a man asked where I was going. I told him the pyramids. He told me he is a taxi and he would take me. I asked him how much. He told me twenty Egyptian pounds. I agreed but then I told him that he better not trick me. I wanted to see the pyramids not his uncle’s perfume shop and not his aunt’s papyrus museum.

“No tricks,” I told him. “I will be angry and I won’t pay you if you trick me.”

He probably did not understand but he gave me a faint sign of agreement. We got in his car, which had the remains of a bumper in the backseat, and we drove. He told me after we went to the pyramids he would like for me to come to his home which was right by the station to have dinner. I did not agree to anything.

After ten minutes or so, the pyramids were in sight. We exited from the highway and took a rode crowded with mule carts and tuk tuks. After a few minutes, we turned left into an alley. He had been on the phone. At this point, I was thinking of how I would get away if he were taking me to some remote place to rob me. I had visions of many accomplices helping with this crime. Many of them, in my mind, looked like Hassan Mohammad who by now had certainly slaughtered his camel for the holiday.

But then there it was a stable of camels and horses by a wall, the pyramids on the other side. The stable owner invited me inside for tea. I told him I just wanted to see the pyramids. How much for a camel and a guide?

He quoted me one priced. I quoted another.

“Oh you know way of Egypt,” he said and quoted another price. Finally we agreed on 200 Egyptian pounds for an hour trek on a camel with a guide around three of the pyramids and the sphinx.

I got on the camel and was still surprised by the bulk of the beast when he rose. The guide led the camel into the walled area and then he had the camel sit again so that he could get on the camel. He got on the camel and we rode along the ruins of the pyramids. There were many discarded shoes, most of them made of canvas, along the way.

When we had ridden for twenty minutes we were at a place with a view of the pyramids. The guide had the camel sit and we dismounted. I took some photos and then the guide took some photos of me using my camera. We started to get back on the camel and ride but then he stopped me because a dirty old desert man appeared on a donkey. Out of the donkey’s saddle bags, the dirty old desert man - wearing a thobe that looked as if in its former life had been a mechanics grease rag – pulled out two bottles, Pepsi and 7-Up. There we stood viewing the pyramids – me completely awestruck - drinking a Pepsi and a 7-Up.

Then a man came by selling cheap keffiyehs. This man was as dirty as the first donkey rider. Really, it was not that hot but I decided I would buy one if it were cheap enough since they did look cheaply made. I bought one for 5 pounds and He fashioned it on my head. We then rode onto the sphinx and surprisingly the sphinx is not as monolithic as I thought it might be. Maybe I caught it on a bad day.

At that point, the guide demanded money. I gave him 100 Egyptian pounds. Although we were not gone for an hour, I did not mind. We returned to the stable. The taxi driver invited me into have tea with the stable owner which at this point I knew was a ploy to fleece me since that is what happens. I told him I would love to but I had to meet a friend.

And right then, my phone rang and it was Scammer Park Ahmed who was the second person who had told me we would go to the pyramids but instead we wound up in a field with the man of the field, crazy man who in retrospect still gives me the creeps. I did not actually answer the phone but I put it on silent as I had been doing since he had been calling me relentlessly to try to pull another scam I am sure.

But I acted like I answered the phone.

“Yeah, I will be right there,” I said into a phone with no one on the other end. “I am leaving the pyramids right now. Yeah, I won’t be long.”

With that, I told the taxi driver, I had to get back to meet my friend. He offered to take me all the way into downtown. I told him the metro was fine. We pulled out of the back alley and back onto the crowded street still competing with the donkey carts and tuk tuks for room.

“Arabic, Arabic, Arabic, metro,” the driver yelled to a family walking along the road. The taxi driver, who I might dare to say his name was Ahmed, stopped the car and got out and pulled the bumper out of the backseat and put it in the trunk and the family piled in.

“I’m sorry. This is my brother and wife of my brother,” he told me when he got back in and put the car into gear.

“Yes, I’m sure it is,” I replied sarcastically.

But this is what happened, I knew he would try to fleece me for more money once we got to the metro. So I had to have a plan. I looked in my wallet to make sure I had the 20 Egyptian pounds –twenty there, twenty back. I did. I am always happy when I have small change because it makes every maneuver much easier. The taxi, unknowingly did me a favor, he let me out before he let out the family because I knew he did not want me to see them give him money.

“This is metro,” he said and pointed to a stairway up to the metro under an overpass that was obviously not where you would usually drop passengers.

This is what I did. I handed him the twenty, yelled thanks as I was opening the door and getting out of the car. As the car door slammed and I was running up the stairs, I could hear him try to fleece me out of more money!

So how was I to get out of my current plight? I had a plan. I would just tell the ticketing agent that the bag is not mine and that my friend wants me to check it for him. But, I had to hope that the agents English was good enough to understand what I was saying. While I was thinking about this, the last Ahmed of Cairo approached.

“I may not see you again,” he said. “I will take the bag.” With this, he took the bag and dashed off to check the bag with the agent we initially encountered.

As he dashed away, I looked at him and he really did not look like a terrorist or a drug smuggler. He looked like a man, an Egyptian, trying to get back to his job in Cairo.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

After the revolution, burnt out cars sun themselves on side streets under billboards advertising escapes and getaways to Paris, Milan, Barcelona, New York. On the entrance to the bridge that crosses the Nile, a woman – Egyptian, perhaps; Sudanese, perhaps; Ethiopian, perhaps – sits with blankets and her children spread out around her. She sells small packets of tissues for one Egyptian pound. Her young daughter, the only daughter old enough to speak, collects the money and says, “Thank you.”

A small boat floats on the Nile filled with teens. Music blasts from the boat. In the middle of the boat, a few teens are dancing. On the other side of the bridge, we have now moved on to Zamalek, a more prestigious zip code. Men sit by the Nile and read the morning paper and smoke cigarettes and drink tea.

As if in retaliation to this prestige, this luxury, this life of leisure; a concrete bridge support, close to where the readers lounge, has been christened a toilet by the less prestigious.

I'm mad...And that's a fact /I found out...Animals don't help / Animal think...They're pretty smart /Shit on the ground...See in the dark.

The celebration is over. The camels have all been slaughtered. Teenage boys hose down the makeshift animal pens around the city. Fragments, pieces - parts of skulls, the ears of a cow, the horns of a bull, the animal scalps - have been swept away. But if you look very hard what you think might be an old mop is the scalp of a sheep, or a ram, or a calf, an old smashed water bottle may in fact be a the partial skull of a goat. Donkeys are safe. They are used to pull the fruit carts. The blood covered streets are only a memory, a faint smell of blood and dung with the continual wafting of the exhaust from the Fiats, Fiats that should have run their course two or three decades ago.

Last night, from the balcony of my hotel room, nine stories up, I listened and at times watched the revelers below on Talaat Harb. Car horns honking; young men yelling; drum beating, clapping and singing and more clapping, intermittent fireworks – all of this went on until the wee hours for the holiday celebration. From my vantage point, in the opposite direction of the boisterousness, I could see cars congested inching their way to the downtown party, honking in frustration and celebration.

“Great party, isn’t it?”

Yesterday, I moved into the Grand Hotel. With its Outlook Hotel hallways and its authentic cage elevator that rattles from floor to floor like the rattling of chains, old glamour haunts this haunt. The place was built in 1939. Above me are rooms of suites only accessible by a circular staircase. In one of them, a specter Norma Desmond continually gets ready for her close-up. She is set to play Cleopatra. Mae West and Marlene Dietrich swap stories about roaring Cairo. Marlene has doubts that Mae West was ever here in those days. “But I am Little Egypt!” West proclaims. The current date is a misnomer to them.

Ghosts from the Chelsea drift over oceans to their new home here at the Grand. Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling drink champagne and shoot speedballs. But then they come down and slip into the Cairo cool, the swing of the Nile, the bebop of the Funky Tut quartet. That energy, that undercurrent of art, misadventure, and larceny is here; it is all here in Cairo.

The only time the noise dies is in the early morning, when the bakers are baking their bread and the old men sit and drink tea. Shuttle busses rattle past.

Yesterday, I was wandering around, this time I was trying to find Concrete, a clothing store that supposedly sells nice Egyptian cotton dress shirts. Why am I always buying dress shirts? At this point, I think I have given away or left behind a few closets full of shirts in my meandering. That is okay. These days I travel light. Here today, Concrete tomorrow. As I walked along Mother Focus - not Hocus Pocus - by Focus played in my head. Thijs van Leer operatically over taking my mind.

Concrete, I had read a review - Egyptian cotton shirts, fine quality, not overly expensive. I typed the address into a maps application and perhaps found the vicinity but not a concrete (oops!) address. The address that I found I wrote down and asked the concierge at the front desk if he might know where Concrete is located. He suggested I take a taxi. It would be a ten-minute ride. I told him I would rather walk. He told me to walk down July 26th St. and cross the bridge to Zamalek. Once I got there I could ask specific directions. This was the cranky old man concierge, the one who can never be bothered. He was brusque and short to put it mildly.

Everyone is working an angle. I trust the policemen. They have minimal knowledge of English but that is okay. They can point me in the right direction. However, as soon as I got to Zamalek, I was sidetracked. I saw a billboard for hamburgers. There were two policeman standing talking to each other unoccupied.

Thus, I pointed to the sign and asked the nice policemen, “Where?”

The younger one shook my hand and pointed in the direction and said “Five.” He then continued to talk to me but I did not understand him. I just smiled. He told me his name. I did understand that. I told him my name. He did understand that. He introduced me to his older policemen friend who had one shifty eye. After our conversation of hand signs and hand jive, I headed for a hamburger. Within a few doors, I passed a pizzeria that had an authentic look to it. Maybe I would come back and eat here, I thought, if I did not find the hamburger.

As I walked, I passed the bookstore I had read about. This was all going very well. Not at all like the day before when I had tried to find the book market and wound up in a ghetto where I thought I might be beheaded.

This is what happened; I was off to find this market that had inadvertently become a huge market for books from all over the world. It had been touted as this grand thing, this book market to end all book markets. This was very exciting. I had never really been to something so vast, so exhaustive, so bookish.

Since I get up relatively early these days and had nothing better to do, I started out at 8:30 a.m. thinking that I would take a leisurely stroll and though the book market may not be open I would come back in the late afternoon once I had found it.

The walk was an estimated 30 minutes. This would be good exercise. The weather in the morning is perfect. I was all set to go. The directions were fine. I followed them and each landmark was as it should be until I got about half way there and that is when things started to go awry.

The directions were written in English, which was useless to policemen and others who could only read Arabic. I happened upon an automotive market that was absolutely not it but I thought maybe if I wandered along the road that was supposedly where the market was located I would come to it.

The market was next to a metro stop. I crossed a train bridge thinking the market was there. Maybe the road had a sister road on the other side of the train tracks. Since on my directions, the road was listed as Ahmed Helmy and I was on Ahmed Helmi. I crossed the tracks to find Ahmed Helmy, the sister road that did not exist.

Across the train bridge, I had truly wandered into a third world, a world of dirt roads and dirty children and old leering men, suspicious and grim. This slum wound like a maze. Now I had wandered into a place that was off the grid, hidden from view, a place where a knifing might go unnoticed for days, weeks, years. Trying to keep my composure, I thought at each opening there would be the market; there was not. I crossed back over the train bridge. At this point after an hour or more of tracing and retracing my steps, I had to decide if I should cut my losses and go back to the hotel or edge onward. I edged onward.

The market was by a park. In the distance, I saw an overpass and trees; that must be the park. I walked a kilometer or so. At this point, the sun was high in the sky. I was sweating in my linen blazer. I was thirsty. Books did not sound as wonderful as they had an hour or two before. At this point, I was absolutely less than bookish.

Then I came upon it, the market. I was overjoyed. There was the welcome sight of cheap plastic jewelry and atrocious knock-off leather belts. This made my heart leap. The books were here. They had to be.

Before I tackled the book browsing, I stopped at a little outdoor café. The place looked new and clean. Some of the chairs looked as if they had never been sat upon. There was a gleam to the place that made it shine like a diamond in manure.

A boy in a red uniform came to my table and took my order. I ordered a Pepsi. He brought my Pepsi and then went over to the corner of the building where his young co-worker friends were congregated. All of them peaked their heads out to get a better glimpse of me. This was much like the munchkins getting a glimpse of Dorothy and Toto for the first time.

Their curiosity was endearing. I called the boy over who had taken my order. I took a picture with him and with a man that I assumed was his father but then probably was not. Then I took a photo with the boy and all of his friends. A young man, older than the boy but younger than the father figure, asked me if I would like some tea. I was still drinking my Pepsi so I told him no thank you. He stood and talked to me for a bit. He had a friend in the US. He asked me if I spoke Arabic. He asked if this was the first time I was in Cairo. Realizing he did not sit because I had not asked him, I told him to sit. He did. We chatted and then I was curious about the book market.

“Is the book market here?” I pointed in the direction of closed stalls that dead-ended into Ahmed Helmi.

“Book market?”

“Yeah, book market,” I confirmed, “Books, like this,” I pointed to my Moleskin.

“No,” he told me, “No books. Nothing here.”

“Nothing here?” I asked crestfallen.

“No, nothing.”

“I am looking for the book market,” I told him. “I think it must be around here somewhere but I cannot find it.” I showed him the piece of paper where I had written the directions.

“No, no book market here,” he told me one more time as if I did not believe him the first time.

He then asked some of the other workers. He consulted two of the father figures. This naturally all took place in Arabic. I was not sure what was being said.

“I get taxi,” he said. “Taxi take you.”

We went out to Ahmed Helmi St. He hailed a taxi. I asked how much the taxi should be. He did not answer. I thanked him and got in. The taxi took off and did not turn on the meter. I asked him to turn on the meter. He was on the phone and ignored me. I thought he would turn on the meter once he got directions from the person to whom he was speaking. This was a ploy. Once we got to where the market supposedly was which was back near where I had found the automotive market, he stopped the cab.

I gave him a ten and got out of the taxi. He got out too and said “No, this,” and pointed to a twenty. I told him “No, Ten.” We stood there. I shook my head no. I knew I was being rooked. Although we were probably not standing there longer than a minute, this seemed like twenty minutes. I was not going to budge. He was not going to budge. He showed me a five. I gave him the additional five he demanded and preceded to the market at long last.

But neither was this the book market. This was an extension of the automotive market. On a muddy side street, a boy had a ram by the horns and was pulling the ram with all of his might. The boy was slightly bigger than the ram and the ram did not want to go. The ram planted its hooves and refused to budge. The boy pulled and pulled at the ram’s horns until the ram finally did budge. This happened every few steps. The ram did not want to go where the boy was taking it. This made quite a scene.

The sight of this lifted my spirits. There was plenty of daylight left and the markets really get going in the night anyway. I would go back to the hotel and regroup and reexamine my directions. Maybe I had made a blunder.

At the hotel, I realized that I could take the metro over to the book market. It is criminally cheap, less than 25 cents a ride. I found directions via the metro. The book market was supposedly at the exit of the Attaba stop. Finally I would see the book market. I rode the metro in anticipation thinking about all of the great books I was going to find, all of those strangely beautiful foreign editions of classic lit; a Moroccan edition of Catcher in the Rye or Naked Lunch perhaps, or a Algerian edition of a Gide or a Camus novel. The possibilities were uncountable.

The Attaba metro station is mad. I suddenly had flashbacks of the Shanghai North Railway Station. Oddly, it seemed like 1,000 other people were itching to go to the book market as well. The crowd was so thick at times that I thought I might faint. I calmed down and just let the crowd sweep me along. Everything was fine. I was floating and drifting and meditating and feeling up and over and high and feeling the low tones of the pull of the crowd and nothing mattered and then…

BOOK MARKET!

I had found it. I was absolutely ecstatic and incredibly anxious to start browsing. There was stall upon stall upon stall upon stall. I was in heaven until I visited stall upon stall upon stall upon stall and saw with disappointment where all of the John Grisham and Michael Crichton novels had come to die. On top of that, most of the books looked as if they had been kissed by a fair amount of rain and heat, slut lit of the desert sun. The book market can kiss my ass.

Here I should mention that when I had tried to walk to the book market, my directions were completely wrong and I had not even been anywhere in the vicinity of the book market. Thus everyone I asked either thought I was a lunatic or thought I was a, uh, lunatic. The really nice man at the outdoor café, in the end, was probably just trying to get rid of me since I would not let the idea of the book market being right there where he stood, I would not let that go.

So this time, I was off to find Concrete and a hamburger but I was not absolutely set on the hamburger after I had passed the pizzeria. At the same time, I realized I needed cash so I needed an ATM. ATM, Concrete, hamburger – these were on my list, my must haves.

At a corner, I asked a policeman. I showed him the piece of paper where the concierge had written the directions in Arabic. He pointed straight down the street where I was walking. I kept walking but then I saw a man sitting who looked slightly Bedouin, and a little slow as well after I had already approached him. He pointed up at the sky. Heavy. Then a young hip female crossed the street towards me and I asked her.

She pointed to a side street that I had just passed and said:

“Follow that street. The store is on the right.”

“Thank you. Thank you,” and I am almost certain that I bowed.

Halfway down the street was a store, a store that sold Egyptian cotton shirts but it was not Concrete and since the day was a holiday it was closed. That was okay. I was not disheartened this time. I had quickly become enamored with this pocket of Cairo. At this point, I was just in the mood to wander. Walking down the side street, I came upon two security guards who were clowning around with each other. The bigger one mussed the slighter ones hair. They did not notice me. At another point, I came upon a bunch of men in animal costumes dancing and beating drums. They wanted me to dance with them. They put a rabbit head on my head. We all laughed.

I never did find the hamburger place but that was fine because the pizzeria looked so appetizing. I headed that way. Halfway there, I ran into the shifty eyed cop. He asked me a few things but I was not sure what he was saying. I stood there for a moment wondering how to make my exit without seeming rude. Finally he said:

“Five pounds is enough.”

“You want me to give you five pounds?”

“Yes.”

“No,” and with that I brushed past him and walked on into the pizzeria.

The pizzeria had the appearance of one of those places in the West Village, the ones that have been there since the 1940s ran by the same family, that have served the likes of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Chairman of the Board Sinatra.

One table was occupied. The rest of the place was empty. I sat at a three top positioned against a window. The waiter brought me a menu. I quickly chose the Napolitano and a Pepsi. The pizza was spectacular like authentic New York inspired thin crust pizza should be. The anchovies were pleasingly salty. I tasted the memory of New York.

When I finished, I asked the waiter if he knew where Concrete was located. He asked a couple of coworkers and they all agreed that I took two lefts and then from there walked straight down the street. Concrete was at the end of the street.

To be honest, even though they probably would know if anyone knew, I was still hesitant to believe them. I did what I was told and was even more skeptical when I found myself walking down a street that was just a glorified driveway for several huge apartment houses and the Indian Embassy.

Nevertheless, I kept walking. I probably walked half a kilometer and there it was – Concrete. Like Anthem, it stood like a monolith. Actually, no, I am kidding. It actually just looked like an old man store. It was closed. I headed back to the Grand Hotel. Maybe I would spot the ghosts of Dick and Liz playing dress up - Cleopatra and Mark Antony, George and Martha

It's this habit you've got of chewing on your ice cubes like a cocker spaniel…

When I came out onto July 26th Street where the pizzeria was located, I bumped into the younger cop who had had the nonsensical conversation with me when I first got to Zamalek. We talked again. Though I did not understand a word he said, I found him endearing. We continued our conversation of Arabic and nonsense. Then he said:

“Five pounds,”

“Yes?”

“Is enough.”

“You want me to give you five pounds?”

“Yes.”

What was the deal? This mirrored the conversation I had just had a half hour or so before with his buddy before I walked into the pizzeria. Is everyone including the cops on the take? Were these guys even cops dressed in white with their black Cairo Police berets? This was an outrage.

“Okay,” I told him and I pulled out my wallet and gave him the five pounds.

But then that billboard, that billboard behind the after-the-revolution-burnt-out cars, maybe it is not advertising getaways to Paris, Milan, Barcelona, New York. Maybe, in fact, the billboard is an advertisement for a new Cairo, post-revolutionary. The grime of the revolution is upon us and then on us - and we love the liberation of the filth. We are all looking for the pay off, the big score, the payday. Cairo in its change is the same, looking for that payday in the renewal, in the rebirth.

And, we look for some hip song to fill the void, make the blanks less blank, to speak for us. Radiohead’s National Anthem swims into our collective heads, though this song has not been properly celebrated on the streets of Cairo; Mott the Hoople’s All the Way from Memphis gives Memphis a new meaning - less Mississippi, more Nile; lest we forget the Alice Cooper Group’s Elected, beheadings daily on Talaat Harb courtesy of the Coop; or Brian Eno’s Dead Finks Don’t Talk, for the afterglow and the solitude. Yes, all of these would be fine choices for Cairo’s theme song, Cairo’s new beginning. But the most fitting song, the undeniable best choice would have to be:

You always won, everytime you placed a bet

You're still damn good, no one's gotten to you yet

Everytime they were sure they had you caught

You were quicker than they thought

You'd just turn your back and walk…

And you're still the same…

No one standing in your way

Turning on the charm

Long enough to get you by

You're still the same

You still aim high.

That’s right, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s Still the Same blasts from the museums and mosques. Citizens rejoice!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Here, I found myself having tea in a field with one person that I somewhat knew and four people that I didn’t know, which suddenly was unnerving because I realized I did not know the person that well that I thought I knew. We were out in the middle of nowhere. There were no taxis in the immediate vicinity.

There we were. One man was a local farmer. The others were nondescript except for one man. He had that horror-movie crazy person look, not the guy who does the deed but the simpleton that laughs and has no conscience and might bury the body later or cleans up the blood after the bath has been given or who fries up the arm for a snack. This man, they told me, was the man of the field. This made me think that he slept in the field. Maybe he is of the melon. Maybe he is of the corn. He gave me the creeps. I swear I had seen him in some Tobe Hooper film. Or was it a Wes Craven horror-show?

We had come upon them when I thought we were on our way to lunch. They were in the middle of the field sitting on a blanket in the shade. They were eating grapes and rolling cigarettes. We sat and talked and had pita bread and feta cheese and then later we had tea. They were friends with the newest of the Ahmeds and his friend Ahmed.

If something were to happen to me, know one would know where I had been or whom I was with or anything. Sure there are pictures of the new Ahmed and his friend Ahmed but how could anything be proved. In the last few days, I have found myself in that situation a few times. And really, I don’t think that I need to be scared but it does give me pause. My feeling is that sketchy guys look sketchy. Ahmed and his friend Ahmed have fresh faced university written all over them.

I had just been to Sakkara to see the tombs. Finally, I had ridden a camel. Ahmed, I met in Azhar Park there with his girlfriend. When he was taking her picture, I offered to take a picture of them both. We started talking. At university, he studies languages. Sometimes he answers me in French or Italian. He is not accomplished at any of them but he is trying.

“Oui, oui,” he says occasionally.

After we talked in the park for twenty minutes or so, he told me that he wanted to show me Sakkara. We planned to meet on Saturday. He gave me directions to Sakkara via train, shuttle bus, and tuk tuk. He wrote the directions in Arabic and English.

I took the metro but missed my Giza stop. Since the direction I was going had Giza on the sign I assumed it was the terminal station. It was not. When I looked up, I realized I had missed it. A very kind man named Ramy told me it was the stop before. I told him I would just go back one stop. He told me he would help me. He actually led me out of the station and told me he would take me to where I needed to go. We walked on a muddy animal strewn road back to the next station or rather to the shuttle bus area by the station.

Ramy told me he would help find a shuttle bus. That is what I wanted to do. But then a taxi came. Ramy hailed it but the driver wanted too much. I had asked Ramy how much the taxi should charge. I told him I would like to take a bus instead. I would have to make two shuttle connections to the Sakkara stop. That was okay with me.

Ramy tried a few busses but then he finally grabbed me a cab. He told me I might have trouble speaking to a bus driver and they would not know where I was going so a cab would be better. I agreed.

We found a cabbie that agreed to use the meter. Usually this is a good idea with the exception of the other night when a cabbie charged me three times what the cost should have been after he drove around in circles since the destination was not that far but he assumed I did not know where I was going so he was able to fleece me.

So I hopped in a cab and told Ramy goodbye. I promised to write. I felt as if I was on some mythical adventure full of intrigue, daggers and pita. The cabbie knew no English. I started taking pictures of farm animals in front of apartment buildings. He slowed down to let me do this; sometimes he pointed at farm animals for me to shoot. Everyone is getting ready for Eid al-Adha. For this, to celebrate, animals must be slaughtered. Back in mecca, Hassan Mohammad with the most terrible big slash of a scar on his face, at this moment, I know, is preparing to slaughter a camel.

The cabbie drove me somewhere in the vicinity of 30 minutes out into the farmland of outer Cairo. Along the road was a creek that was used for irrigation. Motor vehicles shared the road with animal powered vehicles, donkey, horse, camel, yak, whatever. At the reigns at times were young boys almost too small to control the animal or old men almost too old. At one point, we picked up a toothless old hag carrying a box. She rode a less than a kilometer and was dropped. The cabbie took no money from her.

Me, he had. If he wanted to demand all of my money, he could. I had no earthly idea where I was. I was lost in the African outskirts. Although, the day was as sunny as days get, there was a slight feeling of doom about all of this but this might just be a lark.

We drove past a sign with Sakkara written on it. I pointed to the sign. I called Ahmed. I gave the phone to the taxi driver. We turned around. At the crossroads where I had seen the sign, Ahmed and his friend Ahmed jumped in. We headed to Sakkara.

At the gate of the Sakkara tombs, the guards questioned us, our origins, our citizenship. This was done in Arabic. Ahmed answered and the two Ahmeds gave their identification cards. The guards did not ask for mine since I am a tourist, a traveling ATM.

Ahmed and Ahmed and I saw the tombs and walked around and yes it is awe-inspiring and like nothing anywhere. And it is in the middle of nowhere with just desert around, or let me rephrase that it is out in the countryside down several paved narrow roads, out in farmland. But once you have gone into this vast burial ground, the necropolis for ancient Memphis, there are miles and miles of sand and tombs. This has to be cinema. This cannot be real. Where are the cameras? Where is Spielberg? Where is the Pink Floyd soundtrack?

Inside Sakkara, Ahmed asked me if I wanted to ride the horse. I was noncommittal. He then asked if I wanted to ride the camel. Yes, of course, I love camels. I have to ride the camel. Yes!

We walked to where the camel men were camped, with the camels beside them. The camels and the men looked as if the desert had exchanged their youth for rotten teeth, weathered faces, and failing limbs. The desert had given the camels bad attitudes. They had the look of disgruntled employees on the verge of mutiny. The herdsmen seemed unaware of this.

Maybe this is because the camels are tied to the ground with ropes. You come upon them and they look as if they are relaxing. Soon you find out this is not the case. They are bound to the ground. If you bend your elbow to your shoulder and then have someone tie it between the elbow and shoulder that is how the camels were bound which seems less than P.E.T.A. friendly.

We picked a camel for me to ride.

The herdsman shushed softly to calm the camel. The camel, with not many teeth left in its head, wanted to let out a ferocious roar to intimidate but instead out came a forlorn Chewbacca howl. The herdsman motioned for me to get into the saddle. There was a stirrup for my left foot. This was what I expected but was not what I expected. The camel, though very old, rose with such force that I worried it might try to buck me. Forever, I have spoken of the magic of camels and I was finally able to experience this. These camels will someday be freed from the spell that has been cast upon them. Maybe they will be the ones to inherit the earth. Imagine a camel future - camels playing indie rock, camels playing golf, camels gossiping at the water cooler, camels working at Starbucks.

This moment, getting on the camel moment, I had been looking forward to this for so long. I was ready to take off into the desert for a several day ride, sleeping with the Bedouins. This was not quite what happened because of the location where the camel riding took place. All around were steep drop-offs. In a place where there is just flat desert for as far as the eye can see the place where the camels were parked was corralled by precipices. This was worrisome.

If I was to go flying, it would be looked upon as nothing more than a freak accident, one of those foreign news blurbs, footnote at best. I suppose that wouldn’t be a bad way to go to be thrown by a camel to my death but that is not particularly how I would like to end my tenure on earth. At least give me a longer camel ride before I am catapulted.

Nevertheless though the camel was of a very moody extraction - if I may indeed speak about his ethnic origin in such a way, I am still very fond of camels even the ones who do not wake up with sunny outlooks. But then really I don’t blame them. If my front haunches were tied together I would not have the sunniest of outlooks either.

At the entrance to the site, after the car has been parked, there are guards who ask for money. Ahmed explained this to me after we walked in the site. I was going to have him pay for everything with the money that I had given him to pay the cab at the end of the adventure. How he wound up with my money I do not recall. He is shifty.

When we got back to the gate, he told me I needed to pay the guards. Since he was holding the money, I told him to. He acted a little strange about this. He tried to give a guard the money and the guard would not take it. To Ahmed, he said something that sounded rude. Ahmed handed me the money and I handed it to the guard. He threw it back at Ahmed. Ahmed then told me that the guard couldn’t take money from an Egyptian.

Ahmed had told me to pay the cab to wait while we saw the site, which I did, though Ahmed would be the one to settle up since I gave him the money. We drove through the village of Sakkara. There were farm animals and carts and beat up cars and beggar women and beggar men everywhere. There was bustle and noise and loud tractors and the hollering of youngsters and their elders. Ahmed had said that we would eat here but now I was wondering about that. I was hoping that we wouldn’t because it looked so dingy and dirty everywhere. Third world eats sometimes are less than delicious.

For the second time, I thought that I was going to see the pyramids but it was not to be. Ahmed told me that there was no time to see them. They are the carrot held in front of you. Instead you are taken to a place for perfume or papyrus.

This Ahmed, come to find out, this Park Ahmed, is a bit of a scammer. He is a student, I think. We were near his home, I think. He had lured me out there to make some cash, I know. But at the same time, I hold no grudge. Perhaps, what puts people off about this sort of thing is that it is sneaky. Yes, you meet someone in the park and they seem to honestly like you and in this instance you think that it is like it is in China where they just want to practice their English, a fair exchange. Then they want to take you into their home because it is so unusual to know a foreigner. No, here they also want a piece of your wallet. But then, who can blame them? I don’t. I just come from a luckier zip code.

On my way out to meet this Ahmed, I started to wander about all of this if he really wanted to show me around or if he just wanted to show my money around. Thus, after our tomb visit when we got out of the cab next to a field a bit outside of the village, I was a bit suspicious, not worried, but my detector for the manure of cow being dished to me was starting to register in the higher register.

At the same time, I was out in a field in Africa seeing the local people do their thing. I was not a tourist but a traveler that happened upon a daily scene of pastoral tranquility. I followed Ahmed down narrow raised paths with irrigation ditches on each side. The taxi had dropped other Ahmed off to get a computer. He would meet us.

Then there I was sitting with these men that were friends of Ahmed. At one point, his older brother came upon us carrying some sort of leafy crop. He sat it down and talked to us. Ahmed had to interpret for everyone.

The ploy I have found when you are being scammed is that the person scamming you tells you to relax, no hurry. This happened on the first night I was here. Today was nice sitting in the field but I did not want to sit in a field all day, not when I was starting to see that Ahmed is among the better scammers. Finally, I was able to convince him to find a bus for me to take me back to the city.

As we were leaving, the crazy horrorshow man who had disappeared came back with a donkey. I was to ride the donkey. I told him I would the next time. He insisted I ride the donkey. I told him I would for sure the next time. Again he insisted. Ahmed then told me that horrorshow man had prepared a feast for me, that he had killed a chicken and prepared a feast for me. This totally turned my stomach.

Please could some Tobe Hooper character or perhaps Dracula’s Renfield make me dinner? This just seemed too much like it could be a new smash hit horror movie with a different take. Have it take place in Egypt. Will the main character survive? But then was I the main character or the dinner to be served to the main character, who was yet undetermined? Maybe this was all on the up and up but it was a little too creepy.

Since I knew the donkey could not go very fast, I appeased horrorshow man and I hopped on the donkey but then horrorshow man started leading the donkey back to the field. At that point, I jumped off and ran. Ahmed and Ahmed followed.

We took a dilapidated shuttle bus back to where the cabbie had picked up Ahmed and Ahmed. Ahmed and Ahmed put me in another shuttle bus that would take me to Giza and from there I could get another one to the Metro. That dilapidated bus kept packing in the passengers and then little by little they got off. Behind me sat three brothers, the oldest being in his late teens or early twenties and the youngest being in the vicinity of ten. The one in the middle was closer to the youngest one’s age.

The oldest brother started talking to me and seemed to think we were carrying on a conversation though it was all in Arabic. I just laughed and repeated what he said though I do know at one point that he was talking about slaughtering animals because he acted as if he were eating after he had cut a mock throat. I hope that he was talking about slaughtering animals that is. A few times he said Giza and a word that sounded like pyramids. A boy who had been silent in the front seat looked back at him and me and said ‘metro’. The older brother then repeated ‘metro’ to me.

“Yes metro!” I agreed. I had to get to the metro.

When we got to crossroads - the pyramids one direction or the metro the other, he motioned for me to get off as he got off with his brothers. We stood at an intersection and he called to passing busses. At one point a taxi stopped but I shook my head. Finally, a city bus came by. The older brother flagged it down. I shook his hand and got on. He did not try to scam me out of anything. Really, most people want to help. He looked poor and like he could have used the money but he did not try to scam me. Now I wish that I had given him money.

As the bus pulled away, I waved at him and his brothers. The boy who had said ‘metro’ got on the bus with me. I followed him to the front of the bus. He asked some people sitting near us something in Arabic. I am not sure what. One shook his head yes and then looked at me and said:

“We tell you when metro.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

Soon this boy got off and the man he had asked nodded to me. The man behind him would go to metro stop.

“I will show you metro,” the man behind told me.

“I go to metro,” the Asian sitting behind him said.

I thanked them all and rode the rest of the way. Soon the bus stopped. The Asian was a Chinese man named Wu. I said a few things in Chinese, which made him laugh. We rode the metro together to the Sadat stop where we parted.

He asked me if I saw the pyramids. I told him that I had not seen them yet. Since he was coming from Giza I assumed he had.

“No, the driver could not find the gate. I did not see them,” he told me. And although, he was leaving the next day and had more than likely been scammed by the driver who could not ‘find’ the gate to the pyramids, he did not seem to mind that he had not seen Egypt’s most iconic landmark but then that is the magic of Egypt.

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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Another Ahmed

Cairo is scam-a-delic. Please do not think that I do not like Cairo. I love Cairo. I would move here in a second. There are so many wonderful people that live here; the scammers just add a gaming element to the experience.

Thus at some point, though it can be taxing, the endless amount of scams and scamming should be looked at the same way as climbing a mountain or running a marathon. You take it one step at a time, one scam at a time. And you just try to stay on your feet.

This morning, I thought I would find a bakery and have coffee and a croissant. First, I went into a bakery by my hotel but I was not pleased so I kept walking. As usual, someone stopped me in the street. The scam this time - did I want a hotel? No, I told them I was looking for a place for coffee.

“My brother has coffee or tea,” the jovial man said and I proceeded to follow him. He led me a 100 meters or so down the sidewalk and through a shop of papyrus art, which is always a red flag that you are going to be conned or scammed into buying papyrus for way too much. Funny how this is a continual scam that after you have been here for a day or less you know the scam so it does not seem like it would be that affective.

Like last night when I was at the Khan el-Khalili Market, a scammer latched onto my teacher friend and I. He went on about how he just wanted to hear us talk so that he could practice his American accent. He loved Americanisms.

“I am not sketchy people,” he kept repeating to us.

We followed him because we did not want to be rude. He told us he had the best papyrus in Cairo, written about in the guidebooks. His father, who has since passed, was a papyrus master.

Of course, these scammers think that we are pushovers because we are nice. That is never the case with me or hardly ever the case. Although the first day I was here, I was taken for a ride but I actually knew I was being taken and I wanted to see where that ride was going to take me. It almost took me to the pyramids where I had been promised to be taken but it did not take me quite there. It took me to a place of essential oils where I knew once we stepped in the shop I was going to be fleeced.

But with the papyrus scammer what was odd, when this scammer showed us the guidebook entries in Lonely Planet and Frommers, half a sentence had been marked through with a sharpie by him or someone else at the Papyrus gallery because obviously there was some caution to be practiced on behalf of the traveler.

Before this happened earlier in the evening, the other teacher and I sat and had kebabs at a place my teacher friend had been recommended to him. The staff was incredibly attentive. They brought us tea and set it up on the brass tray in front of us. As soon as the tea was laid, we were inundated with hawkers - some of these mere children, which always sends a tinge of guilt through me. These hawkers were selling everything from scarab bracelets to glow sticks like you would see at a rock concert. Occasionally a boy with the most dejected look on his face would walk through with cheap looking mugs that he did not even seem to think he could sell.

A beggar with a shoeshine box offered to shine my shoes. We agreed on 5 pounds, which is a little less than a dollar. I had the coins in my hand, which I showed him. He nodded yes.

He took my shoes off which was a bit worrisome because I had just bought them. I am not sure if I had previously mentioned my shoe amnesia. When I packed for Jeddah, I seemed to have forgotten to pack all of my shoes except for my Kiss Hotter than Hell Vans, a pair of leather Pumas and the random boa skin shoes that I bought in Thailand in the spring. Yes, I left my Jil Sander snake skinned loafers (How do I have two pairs of snake skinned shoes?), my Prada white patent leather, and my Prada grey with green trim, I left them all Stateside. Packing my Prada hiking boots for desert weather would have just been silly but these other shoes I needed. How did I come halfway around the world and forget half of my shoes?

So the first couple of weeks in Jeddah, I made do with the shoes I had brought with me. The boa shoes from Thailand soon started to show stress so I went on a reconnaissance shoe mission. I hit every mall and boutique I could find. For once, I wanted some normal sensible leather shoes of good quality.

At the Stars Mall, I located some Paul Smith shoes that were by no means cheap. They were not on sale. For me to pay full price for anything is rare. Nevertheless, the Paul Smith shoes are comfortable. I can wear them every day to work though the instructions say that you should only wear the same shoes every other day at most. These shoes are nice. They will wear well. I closed my eyes and bought them.

Thus, the beggar with the shoeshine box disappeared into the market depths with my shoes. This was slightly offsetting. I tried not to think about it. The food arrived and I still did not have my shoes but we did have four - sometimes five - cats eyeing us and our food. One of the braver cats even went so far as to put his paws up on the makeshift table that the host had fashioned out of a stand and a big brass tray. At this point, we had the tea tray table of tea and another tea tray table of food. The salad and meat and bread and hummus was all vying for space on a tea table that was meant for just half of what had been set upon it.

Add to this the added bonus of more and more hawkers at our table - some selling the same goods, which brought about sharp words from the hawker who had staked his claim first and planted himself assuming we would eventually give in to him and buy some of his bracelets.

One young boy with a crazy eye and the manner of Chico Marx, who I tried to go back and find later, kept piling bracelets into my hand and making better and better deals. At one point, the host grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and tossed him out. This did not faze him. He came back several times during the course of our dinner. The comedic quality of it never wore thin. Most of the hawkers were clean and did not make me lose my appetite, though I did not eat everything because of the sensory overload to the ordeal.

When we were halfway through our meal, the hajib clad beggar ladies came through scanning for leftovers and plastic bottles. One of them took a Dixie water cup from our table.

“I was using that,” my teacher companion told her.

After she had stuck her thumb in the cup, she put it back on the table. My shoes were brought back before the end of the meal. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Yes, all of this could be bothersome but then you can also look at it like a game. This morning, when the man, an Ahmed, most everyone is named Ahmed, tried to coax me into having coffee above the papyrus gallery and I quickly put together that I was in a reception room where full-fledged fleecing takes place, I turned tail and ran.

“Thank you but no thank you!” I called up to him as I turned and ran down the stairs.

He was actually quite fast and followed suit and called after me:

“Tyson! Tyson! One minute!”

“No thank you.” I called back laughing at the absurdity of this situation of wanting coffee and getting papyrus.

Now, in my flight, I was not lost but I was on a side street that I had not planned walking. I passed two separate mule carts loaded with fruits. The fruit sellers manned the carts and guided them down this street as if this was a village not downtown Cairo with a population of 20 million. Within a couple of minutes, I saw a steer or perhaps an African yak in front of a random automotive parts shop. Maybe it was a parts shop. Maybe it was a VCR repair shop.

I finally found a coffee shop and sat and had my croissant and coffee. Inside a café I was on base, I was safe from hawkers.

Although, you never know – a few days I was at McDonalds. Sometimes when I cannot make a decision, even though I would never eat at McDonalds in America, I will head for McDonalds overseas. I was seating eating my McMuffin and I noticed a man sitting a few tables away. When he saw me see him, he came and sat down at my table and introduced himself. I was cautious but nice. He told me his name is Ahmed. He wrote his name down and his phone number. He told me he would like to be my guide around Cairo. I told him I did not want a guide. He told me it would be free. I was leery at best.

We then traded emails. He contacted me through email and asked me to visit him at work. He works for a computer company behind McDonalds he told me. He gave the address as Cassation Court, the company Gateway. I told him that I would come visit him the next day. I was intrigued. This was all very Graham Greene, intrigue at its most Egyptian. I was to meet him at 10 am. At 12 pm, I was meeting my teacher friend at Café Riche, a hangout for intellectuals and artists supposedly. At 9:30 am, since the place was an estimated 20 minutes away, I took off to meet him.

On a small piece of paper, I had written the directions he had given in his email. When I arrived to the area behind McDonalds, I thought that it would be all self-explanatory and easy. I was wrong. My scrap paper written in English and not Arabic was unhelpful when I asked the people in the places I found myself. I started walking up stairs in buildings with no addresses posted. I was looking for 25. On one side of the street was 26 on the other side of the street was 24. This made no sense. Gateway, though I did not think it existed any longer in the West I assumed like many defunct companies (Hardees anyone? Hang Ten?), it had taken up residence in the East or Middle East or Africa rather. Rather.

I wandered through a teahouse where men smoked hookahs. They directed me into an Internet café. I asked the attendant there. He was not helpful. I took an elevator up to what was a rug warehouse, not the flying carpet kind but the hideous Home Depot variety. I thought about giving up and going back to my hotel but I had promised that I would visit this Ahmed who seemed to be a good Ahmed omen.

When he wrote court, he could not have meant that his company is in the big government building that looked like a courthouse. Gateway would not be in an actual courthouse. I decided to go in because I had run out of options. It looked like a scene from Dr. Zhivago. I swear I saw (a young) Omar Sheriffe but he did not hit the journalist (feel free to hum the Bob Marley cum Eric Clapton song here).

In this building were people milling about everywhere. I saw a police officer dressed in white as the police officers dress here topped off with berets giving them the look of French sailors imagined by Gaultier or Tom of Finland. I showed him my scrap of paper, which had been handled by many men at this point. He looked at me questioningly (Okay Ramones song here – Road to Ruin if there ever was one.).

I then looked up and saw a glass booth where there were cashiers of sorts. A sign over the booth read – Court of Cassation. I had found it. I thanked the policemen though he did not know why.

On the paper, I had written down the 3rd floor. There was no office number on the paper. There were no office numbers on the doors. My assumption that he worked for the company Gateway was not correct. If he had worked for the company Gateway there would not have needed to be an office number because it would have been a big enough office to find without a number was my assumption.

So I wandered from office to office in this huge building looking for him. The key information that would have been helpful, his last name, I had forgotten to write so I was looking for a random Ahmed who worked for a computer company. Man after man led me to office after office but no luck. The 3rd floor was vast. There were many offices with many people in each one, fifteen people in offices that would comfortably house five.

Everyone that tried to help was incredibly cordial. They all asked my name and where I am from. When they could not help, they led me to a colleague who possibly could or whom they assumed spoke better English to no avail.

I was not going to give up. If I had to open the door of every office I would but then I would not have to because through the crack of a door I thought I spotted my Ahmed. For the benefit of the person that was trying to help me, I pointed into the office as the door shut and I said.

“I think I saw him.”

The door opened back up and I peaked in and it was not him - but then the person behind not him was him. Or I thought it was. He then turned around. There stood Ahmed with a big smile on his face and a welcome in his eyes.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

“Time we pray sir.”

A minute or so before, I had heard the call to prayer over the public address. These public address systems are all over Jeddah with different men calling the prayer at each one. The sounds blend like harmonizing mountain singers, forlorn and spiritual, distant and near, droning, droning, droning.

Besides the two employees, I was the only one in the bookstore. This particular bookstore was a small one. There was only one small area, a few shelves, dedicated to English lit. In my hands was a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Reading stuffy mentally unstable Woolf in Arabia was my inner debate. Stream of consciousness with these dunes and camels and sheiks in thobes, the spells of jinns, and the experimentation with English amongst technical school graduates – I thought of all of this as I listened to the call to prayer and sighed a sigh of relief.

A sigh of relief because this time I had made it to my destination just in time and I had time to browse the bookstore before one of the two employees called to me (alluding to the fact that I had to leave the store):

"Time we pray sir."

I had walked a few kilometers to the store from the compound, a store that I had noticed a few nights ago when the shuttle had passed it. In the shuttle, Mr. Uzair takes us to the Corniche or to the Red Sea Mall. Mr. Uzair is from Pakistan. That is where his family live. He has lived here 30 years. He has a son in college in Pakistan. He sees his family maybe once a year. His life is in Saudi. His family’s life is in Pakistan.

Although, I had started out a bit before 7 p.m. to the bookstore, I was not sure if I would make it before the call to prayer that according to my calculations would be in the vicinity of 7:30. The other night, I arrived at the cleaners a minute or less after the call to prayer and that cleaning bird had flown. It was 5:55 when I arrived at the cleaners.

By my calculations, I had figured at least 20 minutes leeway until the call for prayer, which I thought was 6:20, the prayer being 6:30. I had arrived a good 20 or 25 minutes before this. If they were to be in their places at 6:30, then they should have plenty of time to get to their places if they closed shop at 6:20. At times, the call to prayer does not seem to follow a set schedule. Maybe the prayer callers do not have accurate watches of maybe the first one to call does not have a watch and everyone just follows him. I am still trying to figure out the system. The call to prayer does not seem to coincide with the world clock.

If you are walking along Sultan Road or King Abdullah Azziz Road when the prayer is called, you will see cars pulling over left and right. The first men to get to a makeshift prayer spot lay down the prayer rug. The men that arrive after take a place on the prayer rug unless the rug is full then another rug is laid.

Or if you are at Mall of Arabia when the prayer is called, the store gates come down and people take their places on the rugs wherever they find out of the way spots. Once when I was at Mall of Arabia, I saw a group of women in heaps of hijabs in front of a lingerie shop with prayer rugs laid praying as if they were praying to the lingerie. Oh Holy Hustler Superstore on Sunset Boulevard, this is a whole new way to look at lingerie.

Mushmouth Saud, A Jinn cast a spell on him I am quite sure. When this happened, I do not know. Maybe this happened when he was much younger. Maybe it happened just before he appeared in my life at TVTC, the technical school where I teach. In my head I hear Bowie’s TVC15 which should by all rights be the theme song for the school and probably for me and probably for modern society in general. But that’s not important now. Maybe the spell that has been cast on Saud is somehow family related or maybe past life related. Who knows for sure?

Maybe if I pray every, each night I sit there pleading

"Send back my dream test baby,

She's my main feature"

My T V C one five, he, he just

Stares back unblinking

Saud, as perhaps I have said before, has a perpetual fat lip and his eyes are crossed. When he first arrived a few days after classes began, I sized him up as a troublemaker, even a bully perhaps. This might be due to my shallowness. I could not see past the spell that the Jinn had cast. There was a vacancy in him.

…he, he just

Stares back unblinking…

Saadoon and Saud sit together. They help each other. Saud looks at what Saadoon writes. Saadoon tries to figure out what to write. Saud tries to speak but his fat malformed lips get in the way. As I hinted, he is like an Arabian Mushmouth, Fat Albert’s sidekick. When he tries to speak, I have to go over to him to hear him better. He has to say it a few times. Saadoon helps him.

A few days ago, Michael and I were having fourth week remorse. To cheer ourselves up, we decided to switch classes for what we call fudging Module. (We substitute a few letters in fudging and turn it into an altogether different word by the way.) Michael took over my classroom. I took over his. He teaches higher level students than I do. Although his students had just seen him 20 minutes before, I convinced them that he had left the school with a buxom blonde and packed bags. Camel Eyes was incredulous about this.

“Teacher Michael Leave?!”

“Yes,” I confirmed. “He was angry for some reason and has gone back to America.”

“America?” America as a question echoed across the classroom.

“Yes,” I confirmed once again and then asked, “Did you do something to make him angry? I have no idea why he left. He said you called him fat?”

“Fat?... America?” once again echoed around the classroom.

“Yes, yes. America,” I was honestly starting to feel a bit guilty.

“Teacher, why this?” one of the students, maybe a Mohammad pointed at my long right pinky nail.

“Guitar,” I said as I pantomimed playing a guitar.

“Oh guitar,” to this there were multiple nods of approval as the word ‘guitar’ echoed around the room.

Since I had traded lessons with Michael, I did not want to be the one talking. I wanted the students to talk. I wanted to find out about them. They wanted to find out about me. They asked me my age. I told them to guess. The guesses ranged from 25 to 68. Hosam said 19 but I think he was trying to flatter me.

Since rock and roll is foreign and a bit magical to them, I thought I would mention that I once had a band. I wrote the band name on the board. I tried to pantomime the reason behind the name. I failed miserably. They asked me if I was famous like Westlife and Celine Dion. They wanted to see a video.

This is the slippery slope. Some say pop music is forbidden in the kingdom. I have been told to not play songs in class. Leave the Dylan and Beatles at home. Do not tempt them with the Stones or Led Zep. Most of the students would raise no objections but if one does, then there is trouble. Nevertheless, I got on Youtube and searched for a video. I pulled up “Pop Heiress Dies.” When the video started, there was no sound coming out of the speakers.

Hosam came up to help me figure out the problem. Then another student came up, an Abdullah or Mohammad. Both of them followed the cables to the connections. Everything was in order. The class was waiting to see and hear the video. We were stumped. Finally, Hosam looked at the amplifier and hit the power button. I started the video. Suddenly there was a picture and sound. Near the beginning of the video, I had forgotten about the girl dancing in a bikini, which was another no no in the Kingdom:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8kwPdsZ1Cg

After the video played, a few of the students thought that I was just having a laugh with them. The person singing in the video was not me they told me. They saw no resemblance whatsoever. Thus, I did what I have not done in a long time. I sang. I sang acapello.

I was not sure how this would go over. And I did not know if I could even sing without my voice cracking. In front of this small group of 10 or so students, I was more nervous than I had been singing ever before.

After the boisterous applause, I told them thank you and came clean about Michael. He was in my classroom; we had switched. This sent Camel Eyes, Michael’s student and star of the classroom, into a spasm of misused expletives embedded in threats such as: “I am to asskick going Mr. Michael!” “Oh when I blur blur blur him!” “Oh I am so ass angry!” Last he added: “I am coming with you! I ass is kick!”

Not one to censor or impede students, Camel Eyes came back with me to my classroom. He was ranting and raving the entire time. I was a little afraid for Michael actually. My plan was if it turned into a punch-up maybe I could get one of the students like Hassan Mohammad to intervene and gently restrain Camel Eyes.

Arriving at my classroom, with trepidation I opened the door. There Michael was. The students were quiet. A student was talking. Everyone was listening. Camel Eyes looked at him and his anger left. In a loud enough voice for the students to hear, Michael told me he had each student present himself and each had done a great job. We both gave them a big hand. Michael and Camel Eyes left. Camel Eyes was chattering away to him as they left the classroom.

Later in the teacher’s office, I told Michael that the students had really enjoyed his lesson. He asked me about the student who sat next to the student that was sitting by the beam, the beam that divided the classroom in half.

“Saadoon sits next to the beam and Saud sits next to Saadoon,” I replied. “Why?”

“Well, when it was his turn to present,” Michael started and then stopped.

“Yes?” I questioned. I was thinking that Saud might have made trouble. Michael, however, is very good at nipping trouble, or getting kicked out of a mall in Riyadh, one or the other, so I was not that worried.

“Well, uh, I felt bad for him.”

“You felt bad for him? Why?” This truly perplexed me. Saud had a touch of Kotter’s Sweathogs in him and I was not sure what had happened. Maybe he had made a whoopee cushion sound.

“When it was his turn, he started shaking so bad that he could hardly even speak.”

“What?” This was not the Saud that I had noticed. Sure he was always copying off of Saadoon but I assumed this had to do with him being cross-eyed. Suddenly, I felt empathy for Saud. This brought back memories of being called upon at school and being afraid to answer but I don’t think I ever visibly shook when I answered.

Saud is a big guy, probably six feet tall. If he were American, he would probably be a baseball player. He has an all American look to him. If you squinted that is, he has an all American look to him.

Definitely, Saud is under some evil jinn’s spell. I had not noticed in the three weeks plus since school had begun that Saud had any sort of nervous condition. After Michael told me this, indistinct correct answers started to register in my head that before had just been unidentifiable background noise. Now the background noise I realized was Saud answering the questions in his Mushmouth way.

A few days later, Saadoon coaxed Saud into writing a sentence on the board. The students were expressing their condolences to the King’s family because the King’s brother Prince Sultan had passed away this week. Suddenly, I was hyper aware of Saud’s situation.

“Teacher! Teacher! NO! NO!” Waleed who sits on the other side of Saud yelled while Saud was writing his answer on the board. With this he feigns a heart attack hoping that I would do the same.

“It’s all right Saud. It’s okay. You are doing good,” is all I could say. “Waleed, Saud is doing fine.”

“No! Teacher!” And with that Waleed collapsed in his chair.

At the beginning of the term, we were short teachers due to visa problems so each class had four or five extra students. When the missing teachers got here, the extra students were transferred into the newly arrived teachers’ classrooms. Saleh was one of these students. He was a student of whom I was fond. He and Eesi were buddies.

Last week, he came into my classroom with Eesi. They had something to ask but they were not sure how to ask. Finally, somehow they got it across to me that Saleh wanted to come back into my classroom. He had talked to Samir (who runs the school) about coming back. I volunteered to talk to Samir. So after class that is what I did. Samir told me he would see what he could do. I assumed he was just paying me lip service.

Yesterday, Saleh came back to my classroom. I had been sent an email telling me to expect him so when he was not there at the beginning of class I asked Eesi where he was. Eesi called him. Saleh was sleeping. By the time he got to class, class was almost over. Maybe I had a mistake in going to Samir on his behalf to get him back into my class.

When he did not show, I assume he thought that I had not been alerted that he was going to be coming back into my class. He figured he could sleep in or miss class altogether. When he did arrive, he had a note with him to tell me to let him back into class. Being over an hour late the first day back was not a good start in my book. Nor did it help matters that we had a holiday coming up in a few days. Already, the students were in holiday mode. The students driving from Taif and Mecca everyday were going to be excused the two days before the holiday because of the Hajj traffic. Hajj actually translates from Arabic into pilgrimage to Mecca. Supposedly, millions of pilgrims will be coming in for this.

Since the holiday is coming up, I wrote on the board:

“What will you do over Hajj?”

Granted, I had to explain the word ‘over’. The students, Waleed and Saadoon mostly, kept asking “Game over?”

Once I had clarified the meaning –

“Game over?”

Or thought I had clarified the meaning –

“Game over?”

Or at least tried to clarify the meaning for ‘over,’ the students came up and wrote their answers on the board. Saadoon wrote:

“I will cut my hair over Hajj.”

Rami wrote:

“I will work over Hajj.”

Mosleh wrote:

“I will drive taxi over Hajj.”

Waleed wrote:

“I will travel over Hajj.”

Then Hassan Mohammad came to the board. Hassan Mohammad scares me. I admit it. He looks like a thug owing to the fact that he is brutish and has a scar down the left side of his face that makes him look like some sort of James Bond villain ready to throw his teacher to the sharks or piranhas or cobras – whatever is handy.

The first day of class he just sat and stared at me with that James Bond villain stare – a Dr. No henchman, Mr. Jaws poker pal. He had no pen, no paper, no notebook.

“Where is your pen?” I asked in the most intimidating voice I could muster, which I am sure sounded more like Ichabod Crane than Clint Eastwood.

He just shrugged. Eesi gave him a pen. With that I gave Hassan Mohammad a dirty look as if to say this sort of tomfoolery did not fly in my classroom. He just smiled back. Whether this was an apology or the smile that a cobra gives to his prey, I did not know.

As those first weeks went past, Hassan Mohammad continuously rubbed me the wrong way – at times 30 minutes late to class, at times he was a no show. At that point, I figured he would miss enough classes to be thrown out of the program and I would be shut of him.

But then, something strange happened, something unexplainable. Although he would still occasionally be late or miss class, he actually started to become more engaged. When I would be at the board trying to squeeze out an answer from the students at large I would hear:

“Is.”

I would turn around and I would hear it again:

“Is”

“Mohammad Hassan was that you.”

“Is,” he would repeat.

“Yes, Hassan Mohammad,” I would confirm “My brother is tall. Very good.”

Then when I would have the students come up to the board and write a sentence on their own, Mohammad would come up and usually write close to a flawless sentence and I would be somewhat dumbfounded. How could this young man who looks as if he might tear my head off without much effort, how could he write this flawless English sentence? – Having nothing to do with the fact that he often smells vaguely of camel dung.

In actuality, he has an inner beauty that I had overlooked. The smile that I thought was a cobra smile is actually a warm-hearted smile. When I congratulate him, he shakes my hand. Hassan Mohammad, I was wrong.

So when he wrote:

“I will slaughter camel over Hajj,” I did not flinch as I congratulated him on the proper use of ‘slaughter’.