Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 8, 2010

Am I Loud Enough? Can You Hear Me?

 Egyptian Noise and the Woman from Wisconsin

You may remember that a few days ago, I happened to share a double burnt double barbeque chicken with a freshly minted foreign double-strength, double-dip bad girl from Wisconsin.  If you cast your eyes back, you might remember her.  And if you don’t, no matter; here’s the skinny.  She was, as you may recall, not long in Egypt and was still lugging around all her western prejudices and ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ in her ten-tonne Samsonite case.  Now, she had been in Egypt before.  And irrespective of the fact that her previous sojourn had not been all that brief – a matter of six weeks, as I recall – and that, as a consequence, she should have mastered at least one or two essential survival skills – she obviously hadn’t been paying attention.  In other words, she had missed the point.  She was still smiling at men in the street; her arms were still bare, and she was still waving at strange men in their balconies, as well as waggling her fingers and shimmying her shoulders.  Now, I don’t know if this is how things are done in rural Wisconsin, but in most parts of the world, it shows that you are a fucking idiot, and that you should not be allowed out on your own.  In Egypt, what it says is, “Come on, big boy. I’ll be waitin’ for you round the back of Fadhalla. Bring your friends.”

Now I seem to remember an occasion on her first visit – a year ago – when she had been punched on the shoulder by one of the Bedouin security guards patrolling Bianki.  Yes, I know you might get all huffy and say that it should have been reported, but let’s shed a little light on the subject.  You see, she was a foreigner visiting a Muslim country who had not made even the slightest effort dress appropriately.  Her boobs, if not exactly hanging out, were displaying a generous amount of cleavage.  Not only that, but she had been flirting with the security guard (in a happy-go-lucky Wisconsin sort of way), as well as with other young men in the street.  The guard, who happened to be a very observant Muslim, was simply showing her exactly what sort of woman everyone thought she was.  And, after all, this is his country, and Bianki is on what Bedouins consider to be their land.  This woman from Wisconsin could not and cannot get it through her head that, while you may perforce be friendly with everyone in Wisconsin – as well as with their pet sheep – in Egypt her behaviour is simply beyond the pale.

She is lucky that Egypt is – although in many respects like Toontown in ‘Roger Rabbit’ –  unique in the Middle East; one can get away with things here you can’t elsewhere (Dubai comes to mind).  And had it been in Sudan – for example – she would have ended up being stoned.  And even had her own government been able to intervene, she would not have come out of it smelling like roses.

She had forgotten certain basic rules of behaviour, the first being that you should try to respect the country you are visiting, even if it means dressing a little modestly.  Also, do not look at other people in the street.  And you never, ever look into anyone’s eyes. And may I add, you really should restrain yourself from waggling your fingers and shimmying your shoulders – unless, of course, you are in one of those belly-dancing classes given to foreign ladies of a certain age.  And I will add here that these rules also apply (although under a whole different set of rules) to men – but more about that on another day.  Quite simply, when one is out in public, you live within your own bubble; other people do not exist (something that pedestrians should keep in mind when crossing the street – which means you had better learn to fly if you want to cross the Corniche).  In other words, unless they happen to be friends, do not acknowledge them.  What I say is, get used to it, or stay at home.  Please don’t be like this woman from Wisconsin who – even on her second visit- is still oblivious to the lesson. She is still chatting up the guys in the local juice bar (much to their delight), and even arranging dates for them to meet her friends.  A friendly place, Wisconsin. I can see a lot of Egyptian guys booking their tickets to Sheboygan right at this very moment.

Don’t get me wrong, the Egyptians are wonderful people (heh heh heh), and to their credit, they have been dealing with foreigners for about four thousand years, give or take a millennium or two.  And what they’ve learned is this:  All foreigners are twats.  They are stupid.  They are ignorant. They are gullible.  They think they are better than the natives.  They don’t bargain.  And, really, they should have stayed at home.  And it’s true.  Because when one travels, it becomes almost impossible to remain comfortably nestled within your own cultural myths (what with all those ignorant and greedy natives pestering you day and night and offering you taxis when all you wanted to do was admire that buff guy in the pedalo).  And sometimes, the innocent foreigner can even start to doubt that he is what his aunt Weezie had told him he was before he left home – the superior race and one of God’s own people.  This, of course, doesn’t apply to those who are slurping iced caramel lattes in Starbucks in front of the Four Seasons Hotel; they clearly have the whole thing down pat and don’t give a shit.  Because, after all, the only Egyptians there are rich – and they are also, by the mere fact of their sitting in front of Starbucks, already on their way to hell (Starbucks being a good friend of Israel and all that).  Besides, as the narrator in ‘The Great Gatsby’ liked to say, “The rich are different…” 

And here is another thing for the westerner to remember:  Egyptians – being Egyptians – know when they must abide by the rules, and when they can bend them.  Westerns are not Egyptian; they are always foreigners.  And therefore always and forever twats.

The glorious thing about travelling (besides making fun of those who are too afraid to do it) is the inevitable discovery that everyone (even those of the native persuasion) is predictably interchangeable.  Mix and match.  Like the people on remote islands that all have the same mother.  In other words, no matter what you’ve read and no matter what you have been led to believe and no matter what the politicians try to tell you, the worst stereotypes about every person in every culture are true.  And none of us are exempt. Except of course, for me.  But I’m writing this, and I can be just as deluded as I want to be.

But where am I now?  Oh yes, back to listening to a forty-year old woman who was probably delightful in that particular part of Wisconsin whence she came.  But she is anything but delightful in Egypt.  She is feeling sorry for herself and blubbing; she is blubbing over this and blubbing over that and blubbing over the other, and blubbing because she was only trying to be polite, and instead of being polite right back, the Egyptians either pushed her into the street, ignored her completely or asked her if she had her own house.  Quite frankly, if I found myself in the middle of rural Wisconsin and some strange woman (her) came up to me and waggled her fingers and shimmied her shoulders, I would probably ask her the same thing.  And I might even ask her if there were any more like her at home.  Except slimmer, of course.  And possibly male.

Anyway, to get back to the other evening, there we were talking and there was the eatery’s owner giving us dirty looks, because – let’s face it – I was permitting an underdressed foreign double-dip, double-strength bad girl to stuff large pieces of burnt chicken into her mouth in full view of the other customers (well, empty tables, actually, but had they been occupied, the occupants would have had wet dreams for a month).  And what could the owner do, but turn up the television. Now, this, of course, was a signal, but even had it not been, there is one thing you must understand.  Volume controls in Egypt have only two settings: ‘off’ and ‘pealing the paint off the walls’.

Now, I’ve been living here for quite some time, and my ears have learned to switch themselves off.  In other words, they – unlike the rest of me that resolutely remains a foreign twat – have become Egyptian.  Because you see, Egypt is without question, the noisiest place on earth.  Everything is at full-volume all the time:  they talk at full-volume; they yell and fight and screech at full-volume; they play dominoes at full-volume (one can hear them bang the tiles a block away), they play the Qur’An at full-volume, and when they play Egyptian ‘house’ music in the disco a hundred yards away from my building, my walls vibrate, the already loose glass in my windows cracks a little more, and sometimes my shutters even fall off.  And what you must appreciate is that the din goes on all night and sometimes until nine or ten in the morning. And not only am I not exaggerating, but I would like to make it clear (just so you get the picture) that my apartment is up on the roof, and the club is at ground level and two buildings away.  Only, because noise is an essential part of the Egyptian experience, and because they have never heard of noise ordinances (a western conceit if ever there was one), everyone sort of takes advantage of the extra hours of wakefulness by washing the laundry again and beating the carpets on the balcony and scrubbing the floors and playing Farmville and chatting to their friends on Facebook.  At least this is what the women do; the men are down in the club having their eardrums reamed; either that or in the cafes, banging away at dominoes and drinking tea and smoking sheeshah.  And, it goes without saying, talking on their mobile phones.

Now to get back to this woman from Wisconsin (who clearly seems to fascinate me), I doubt very much that in her previous life, she had ever ventured outside her air-conditioned house or car or mall. Therefore, when the eatery proprietor turned up the volume to the level of the inside of a jet engine, she went ballistic. You see, in Wisconsin, she was accustomed to calling the police whenever a passing pedestrian so much as farted louder than a whisper – although, to be fair to her, this pedestrian had already broken at least ten ordinances by the fact of his getting out of his car in the street and actually moving his legs.  Anyway, in her opinion, it was simply outrageous that she should be blasted out of her seat while she was busy complaining about the miserable time she was having.  In fact, I seem to remember she called the Egyptians ‘selfish’.  Which made me laugh, but, of course, she was too busy blubbing to notice, so I got away with it.  After all, where there is enough noise, you don’t notice anything, not even someone being sarcastic.  After I regained my composure, I tried to explain to her that when there was too much noise, one simply spoke louder and overpowered the noise (which means, of course, that when the owner of the television can no longer hear the Qur’An because everyone else is yelling over it, he simply ratchets it up another three thousand decibels or so… and so it goes; an endless cycle, and it gives the Egyptians a hobby).  And while under this system you may end up with nodes the size of cricket balls on your vocal cords, you will have no trouble at all overpowering Brian Blessed the next time he’s busy booming King Lear’s diatribe into the storm while you’re trying to place an important call to your friends, telling them they really should have come with you, because it isn’t as bad as you thought it might have been. 

Now, this is something you might also remember: your new vocal technique may not produce  the  loveliest or most delicate sound you have ever heard, and it may make you sound like your voice was channelling a blast furnace , but just think of your next amateur choir recital!  Why, you’ll be able to blow that pesky so-called soprano soloist from Milwaukee right off the stage, and right in the middle of her big moment – her aria from the beheading of John the Baptist in Salome.  And when this so-called soloist is safely deafened and down for the count, you – with your new voice – can proceed with the sort tunes that folks in Wisconsin really like: selections from ‘Oklahoma’ – in an arrangement for twelve tubas and an air-raid siren.  That will be your moment of triumph. Right then and there, you will praise Allah for your instruction in overpowering even the most overwhelming extraneous noise.

Let’s be blunt (once more). I finally got a little impatient with all this woman’s whining, because – after all, – no one had actually begged her to come back here, so I opened my ever-ready big mouth and tried to get it through her  thick skull that ‘selfishness’ was a western concept. It simply does not exist elsewhere.  But clearly, our lady from Wisconsin thought they (meaning the Egyptians – you know – the oppressed and downtrodden foreigners) had better start learning their manners if they wanted to get anywhere.  And she kept screaming at me (in a little bitty petulant Wisconsin voice which wouldn’t even be heard over a mouse squeak) that she couldn’t hear what I was saying, and they were “just too selfish for words.”  And I told her (doing my middle volume Brian Blessed voice) that, if she bothered to look around, she’d see that no one else was having the slightest difficulty in carrying on their conversations. For believe me, if there’s one the Egyptians know how to do, it is talk, and – not only that – they also know how to be heard.  Because, if there is one thing they do not notice, it’s noise.  They are simply oblivious to it.  It is ever-present, it’s always ear-splitting, and you simply cannot escape it.  No matter who or where you are. And it’s always possible that you can get even louder than everyone else.  At least until they get louder than you.

But let’s now (finally) try to get rid of this woman from Wisconsin so we can get on with life.  But first, let me add that she eventually flounced over to the owner of the eatery and ordered him (through her tears) in her little bitty Wisconsin voice, to turn down the television so she could talk with her friend.  Now, number one, the owner hadn’t bothered to learn proper Wisconsin – in fact he couldn’t speak English – but then again, why should he; after all he is an Egyptian living in Egypt and – thus – he couldn’t understand a thing she was saying.  Which is just as well, because I did hear her say something to the effect that he was “just going to have to mend his ways.” And I think she even called him a selfish so-and-so, which made me wonder when I’d stepping into an episode of ‘Little House on the Prairie’.  But fortunately, the owner’s mind was little boggled – being an Egyptian male and having just been confronted by an enraged and half-dressed tonne of American female bosom.  But he was ever-obliging, and he did what he knew would please any decent Egyptian.  He turned up the volume another ten thousand notches.  And then smiled helpfully.  I think I may have sniggered.

Now, unfortunately for me, I ran into her the next day (when she was buying out the entire cookie and chocolate section of Fadhalla). She was still blubbing and whining and whingeing and moaning about the fact everyone was so rude and selfish.  I simply smiled, and made my escape.  And tweedled, “Y’all have a nice day now.”

Ah, but before you get excited and think I finally have done with her, I just remembered something.  And it is this:  this woman from Wisconsin actually came to Egypt to teach!   It seems that the last time she was here, she had gotten two job offers (believe me, if you’re not qualified for anything and can’t get a job, and if you are a native English speaker – or even a native Wisconsin speaker – come right on over).  However, just before returning here, she received emails from both the principals of both the schools in question.  And both stated categorically that they expected her to sleep with them.  This, of course, can only mean thing: she had waggled her fingers and shimmied her shoulders at least two times too many.  In other words, she was not only a double-strength, double-dip foreign bad girl, but they had hit the jackpot.  And the thing is, she not only still come back, but she actually blubbed about it.   I mean, in Wisconsin don’t they teach little girls that internationally understood word, “no?”  Because you know, it does work everywhere, and it is so very easy to learn and to remember. Except, of course, for someone like our woman from Wisconsin.

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