Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 28, 2010


My Best Ever Career Choice

When I sat down at the computer a few minutes ago I was in a really rancid state of mind.  And so while I was thinking about all the things at which I could hurl some serious and self-pitying vitriol, I suddenly thought to myself, “No, just wait a fucking moment!” After all, what do I really have to complain about today that I didn’t already have to complain about yesterday?  Nothing much, really, for when it comes down to it I lead the life of a nudnick.  In fact, every day in every way, I seem to have fewer and fewer things about which to grind my teeth.  For example, yesterday the new tenants in the flat underneath me spent yet another afternoon sawing their way through concrete and knocking down walls with a sledge hammer, and today – except for the fact that they are playing the Qur’An loud enough to peel what is left of the paint off my walls and blow out my eardrums, they are remarkable quiet.  Except, of course, I shouldn’t have said anything, because no sooner had I written that last sentence than they started to drill holes in the walls.  I really do not know – nor do I want to know – what they are doing down there.  If all the grinding and the pounding and the drilling are anything to go by, they soon will not have any apartment at all.  Just one big open space with no exterior walls.  And that will mean, of course, that everyone in the building opposite will be able to see in. That is one thing if you live in Greece, but quite another in Egypt. Because in Egypt and if you are the observant Muslim you are expected to be – that is, if you want to get a decent apartment and you don’t want to have ‘garbage collecting’ as your only career choice – none of the occupants of this wide open space will be able to take any of their clothes off.  And I am not just talking about the women.  There’s also a law for the men. Because, you see, there is nothing so forbidden for a man to see than the nakedness of another man. Yes, he can see another man’s torso, and he can see another man’s legs below the knee.  But forget the good parts. And since men are also forbidden to look upon the nakedness of a woman (unless they are ‘bad’ girls), that doesn’t leave them very much room for manoeuvring, does it?  I mean, the sense of shame permeating every pore of this place makes The Vatican seem like a playground for little boys.

Alexandria may have many attractions, but one thing it does not have – or if it does, it doesn’t put ads in the paper – is a chain of nudist clubs, with branches in Mahatat Raml and Ibrahimea and Carrefour and San Stefano and Mamoora and The Sporting Club.  It’s no wonder everyone is so bloody crabby all the time!  They’re so repressed they might as well be Presbyterians. And just think, all those hundreds of miles of sandy beaches and not a single one for us nudists!  It had occurred to me it might be an idea to open up a tiny nudists’ resort between Alexandria and Matruh.  Perhaps somewhere near El Alamein or even ‘The Amway Private Resort’ (yes – really; the mind boggles). If one could get away with it, this might be an idea that would actually make me some money.  But then I thought, if they want a nudists resort, let them get their own act together and quit equating the naked body with the forbidden fruit.  And while they are at it, they might even stop screaming at each other for five minutes and do something besides play dominoes.    

But back to complaining.  I thought for a while of other things I could moan and whinge about, but the trouble is I have been complaining about so many things in the past month or so, that I am in danger of running out of annoying things to complain about. This means that I shall soon have to revisit every one of those old, used-up annoying things about which I have already been complaining, give them fresh paint-jobs, and recycle them.  It really is a shame that my repertoire is so limited. 

And as for recycling, once I start revisiting and rehashing my own redundancies (deliberately and not just ‘accidentally’ as is my usual practice), wouldn’t it be tempting – instead of actually re-decorating whinges – to simply ‘cut and paste’ the most whiny bits and pieces from last month’s ravings without even bothering to re-write them?  However (and alas), since I never keep track of anything I do and cannot for the life of me remember anything I have written after I have written it, I would end up so totally confused that I might end jumping out of the window.  And actually, while jumping out of the window might solve a few problems – such as what am I going to do in the future – I don’t really think my feet would like the landing, for knowing me I would leap off feet-first.  Granted, all the lanes round my building are sand, but – let’s be honest – the ground underneath the sand is very hard. And as for the sand itself, it’s not really all that fluffy.  I mean, it starts each day fluffy enough, and once you have cleared away all the garbage that has been dumped on it overnight, it even looks quite presentable.  That is, if you don’t mind landing in the largest cat-box on the planet.  But none the less, my feet still might object. And so might my legs.  And my hips.  And my pelvis.  Just think for a minute about my pelvis!  I mean, what has it ever done to me that I should abuse it in such a fashion?  If I were a pelvis, would I be all that pleased to have two very white and very spindly legs rammed up inside me?  Even if the legs in question were only moderately hairy and not really ginger at all – at least not so you’d notice once I’ve shaved them and have turned off the lights?  Would my pelvis thank me?  Isn’t it enough that I’ve already smashed it to smithereens several times?  You remember: when both my horse and I were so busy sniggering about the flatulence of the horse in front of us that we forget the fence and ploughed straight into that horse’s flatulent behind? 

And what about my poor groin?  What would happen to it if I jumped eight storeys down on to the hard-packed sand?  I could hardly say, “I’m sorry I’ve torn you yet again, but you should have landed on the other side of the alleyway where there’s that soft pile of used masonry.” No, definitely not feet-first.  And not head-first either.  I’ve just had my hair re-spiked by the guy in the Four Seasons Hotel – the one with the assistant who resembles a younger Christiano Ronaldo – and its ‘lukin well coooel’.  God only knows what it would look like after landing in a pile of cat-shit ten feet deep.  Or on one of those donkey carts selling tomatoes and onions.  And then there’s the fact that I always like to see where I’m going.  And if I saw where I was going when I was falling and I didn’t like where I was going to land, would I be able to turn around and fall back up again?  No?  How about if I got religion and started to pray reeeeaaaallllly hard?   But what if I did pray reeeeaaaallllly hard?  And what if after I prayed reeeeaaaalllly hard, I discovered that God had been called away on business, leaving his phone to be answered by his voicemail?  What would I do them?  Or even worse, what if God has outsourced his telecommunications system to one of those call-centres in Mumbai?  You know the ones:  where the system keeps giving you ever-more elaborate instructions and ever-more complicated numbers to dial? And then it puts you on hold for fifteen minutes while you listen to the Best of Barry Manilow – interrupted every ten seconds by a soothing voice assuring you that you are their most valued customer and they are only keeping you waiting so they can serve you better?  And FINALLY, when you are on the brink of deciding that suicide might be less painful that waiting on hold, on comes this operator who pretends he or she is speaking from Bognor Regis – only he or she doesn’t really know where Bognor Regis is.  In fact, when pressed, the operator states that it’s on the outskirts of Krakow.  Then, when you ask to be put through to God Himself – after first trying to explain which God you are actually talking about – the operator explains that your particular God is having lunch with Katie Price, as a precursor to appearing as her new love interest on her next reality show.  However (according to the operator), even though He Himself won’t be available to take your call personally, He would like to send you a signed photograph of His Son, as well as two sets of Glory Hallelujah Miraculous Beer Steins – all for the convenient low-low price of £2.99, plus seventy-six percent tax and £2,000 shipping and handling from their warehouse in The One True Heaven.  Just send your certified cheque or money-order to:  Beer Steins – Dept. X, God In Heaven, c/o The One True Heaven, Mumbai 3.   Now remember to send your cheque or money-order to this address: The One True Heaven, Mumbai 3.  We repeat, your one-time payment should be sent to ‘The One True Heaven’ – NOT to ‘The Only True Heaven’ and NOT to ‘Heaven On a Bagel With Lox’ and NEVER NEVER  to ‘Siddhartha Sittin’ Under The Tree Nirvana Heaven’ or to ‘Billy Bubba’s Heavenly Hookers and Chitterlings, Route 3, Selma, Alabama, or even to ‘That Final One True Heaven That Actually Got There First Before The Others’ (the heaven that never sends pictures of their head honcho on their brochures).  Remember:  your cheques and money orders should be sent to ‘The One True Heaven’!  This is a one-time limited offer.  Limit: 12 sets of beer steins per customer.  Offer expires 27 May, 2010. The merchandise featured in the brochure may not be the same as the merchandise the customer receives.  All transactions are final. No refunds given. No complaints accepted.

It goes without saying that the operator has by this time remembered that it is his or her lunch-break. And because he or she doesn’t want to miss out on the vindaloo special in the cafeteria, he or she has handed his or her headphones to the custodian.  And the custodian – who wants to see how it feels to work in Bognor Regis and to abuse call-centre customers) eagerly fills out the forms and completes the transaction.  Unfortunately for you – the customer – the custodian does not speak a word of English (even though he was born in Bradford) and he spells your address in such a way that your Beer Steins, as well as your new pre-approved credit card from The First Bank of God, have been sent to someone named Beelzebub Scratch.  The same Beelzebub Scratch who has just taken over the ownership of Liverpool Football Club after making an offer to its American owners that they could not refuse.

And if that is not frustrating enough, you look at your watch and see that it is already the 28th of May and the offer expired yesterday!

This is the end!  This is the point when you say to yourself, “Oh fucking shit on a shingle!” because by this time you have given up all hope of receiving your beer steins before your head has crashed into the ground – and you were really looking forward to them for your next pool party.  Therefore, you ‘disconnect’ the ‘connection’ and wonder if it would have been more efficient to have summoned Ol’ Scratch in the first place? 

And what does this mean?  Among other things, it means you are better off not jumping off the balcony head-first.

This only leaves two available options, jumping-wise (well, three, if you count the ‘cannonball on to the table where the three men have been playing dominoes for the last hour and a half’).  But if you discount this third one, these options are: a belly-flop and a swan dive.  Right up front I am going to say “NO” to the belly-flop.  The one and only time I belly-flopped off the high platform, it was far-more painful than plunging from a chaser into the centre of a fence.  And as for the swan-dive, I am going to say “NO” as well.  It would mean having to wear one of those itty-bitty pairs of Speedos – most probably in a shade of turquoise blue – and should I have an accident on impact, I can only say that yellow and brown are not really all that attractive when splatter-painted on to a turquoise background.

So, where are we now?

YES: my future.  That is, my future now that have talked myself out of jumping off my balcony. 

And I think I have the answer.  I shall take up employment as a cow.  And please don’t sneer at that.  Don’t make fun of me. And don’t you dare criticise my career choice until you have actually tried it yourself.

Personally, I cannot see anything wrong with being a cow.  Now, let’s get this straight: while I would rather not be a dairy cow in one of those American Industrial Dairy operations, which are usually located in a place where the sun is too hot and where there are no good bookstores within walking distance, it is better than being a cow in Ethiopia or Haiti, where I might starve to death.  But whatever, I refuse to be a bull!  And I will not compromise on this – unless, of course, I can be a Brahma Bull in India.  For if I am a Brahma Bull in India I can do anything I want and go anywhere I want, and during certain festivals I will even be permitted to wear makeup. However, even in India – as a Brahma Bull – there is danger.  What if I forget my street map, and instead of strolling to the Ganges for a good swim, I take the wrong turning and enter the other people’s Suq.  Believe me, having my throat slit is not how I wish to end up.  Nor do I wish to end up on a kebab.

The main reason why I do not wish to be a bull in the west is that only one in five million or so gets to have any fun.  It’s like being born a ram if you are a sheep.  I mean, there you are, pushed out into the cold grass all cold and wet from a warm uterus and your mother thoughtfully licks you all clean and shiny and shows where you get a bite to eat.  And then you notice you have those two little things between your hind legs.  And instantly – because you are a bovine, you know about such things – your life flashes before your eyes!  The next thing you know, you’ll be calf-napped from your mother by a man with rough hands, and your little thingies will be chopped off.  And after this you will be placed in a nice little field with a lot of other little guys who have also had their little thingies chopped off, and you will settle down to a few weeks of eating fattening foods.

Of course, if you are in one of those American Factory Operations, you will not only be fed, but you will find out what a Gascon goose feels like when it is having its liver fattened up for Foie Gras.  But since I have already marked the ‘No’ box beside the ‘American Cattle Factory Option’ on my employment application, I won’t even worry about that.  Unless, of course, the computer decides I’m going to be sent there anyway.  As the song says, “Don’t worry, Be happy!”

What I really would like is to be a Highland cow, but – course – I know there are not that many opportunities available. I also like to be an Aberdeen Angus – but with my spindly white legs with the not-quite ginger hair – I doubt whether I should qualify for that.  Mind you, with my hair I could pass muster as a Jersey or even a Limousin.  And while both of those options are acceptable, should I be accepted as a Limousin I would have to learn French.  And since I have already forgotten French at least once every decade, I can foresee certain problems.

What it boils down to is that a nice little dairy herd of twenty-five or thirty cows living in a nice rural community, would suit me just fine.  Yes, I would have to pump out a new baby each and every year, but I am told that after the first two or three, they simply fall out.  And it’s not as if I would even have to take care of them, for the nice farmer with the warm hands (not like the other farmer with the cold and rough hands that snips off your bits if you are a bull) will carry you off into a warm barn with plenty of heat lamps and good food to eat and plenty of playmates with which to romp.

And just think about this:  If I should end up in such a herd, I shall make sure my milk is very sweet and very rich.  And I shall also make sure that the coop – to which all the milk in the district is taken to be processed and bottled – sends all my personal milk to that sweet little ice cream shop (run by that lady with the implants in her udders) where they make twenty-five flavours (and never liquorice). I shall also insist that, should there be any cream left over it must be sent to that the pub on the riverbank where they make that really amazing Single-Malt Coffee.


May 18, 2010

Lost in Alexandria

Prowling Around the Back Streets and Alleyways of a City of Dreams

I have a real love of public transport.  And although I miss the countryside and all that it has to offer, I do love cities.  I especially love cities that have real people living in them; in other words, cities with a good public transportation system.  Because for me, the minute a city has become sterile and its services consist of private car parks and outlet malls and fast-food franchises and botoxed faces, then that is not a city in which I can breathe.  It might have all the best libraries and museums and theatres in the world, but if there are no buses or undergrounds, I’ll go somewhere else. Because I can drive around in cars anywhere; in a city I want to see and smell and taste the city itself. I want to uncover the street life, and the best way to do that is by walking from one end of it to the other.  And yes, by taking public transport.  And, by that, I mean by exploring as much of each and every route as possible.  Because – after all – every separate route .leads to a different place. Or, if they do happen to end up at the same place, then the route by which they travel is along a different set of streets.

One of the first lessons I was given as a kid – and a lesson that has stuck with me through thick and through thin – is that  upon arriving in a strange, new city  the first thing you do is to sample that city’s sights and sounds and flavours.  And, no, this isn’t done through going to a travel agent or through a faceless concierge in your indentikit hotel or in booking a guide to take you on the ‘official unofficial’ tour – which, it goes without saying, is conducted in the back of a car or in an air-conditioned coach.  And in both cases you are at the mercy of this guide (and in the coach this factotum is certain to have a microphone turned on to ‘full-blast’). That’s all very well if you are on a package tour and have only half a day before you move on to the next city and/or ruins, or if – to  put it bluntly – you simply can’t sand another moment of ‘experiencing the Third World’.  And that’s fair enough, because it’s honest.  On the other hand, if that is all you want out of life, then why bother to visit at all – just stay at home, save yourself a lot of money and discomfort, and watch the travel channel.  Of course, that way you won’t be able to share your travel-related horror-stories with your friends, but you can’t have it both ways. But back to guides and pre-arranged tours.  What you have to understand is that nothing they will show you will resemble the city or country in which they live.  For no matter how conscientious the guides happen to be, their tour will have been designed by some expert or other who ‘knows’ what the visitor will want to see.  And you can be sure that on their list there will be nothing that hasn’t been vetted by the chamber of commerce or the guide books or the ministry of tourism. In other words, you will never even hear about the truly exasperating and shimmering parts of the city, much less the nitty-gritty areas that, for the locals, make their everyday lives come alive.

I will never say that you should not do a certain amount of homework, for every city has areas that are best avoided, just as every city has its own special secrets.  This, however, does not mean you should Google the FBI/CIA websites or stick to the news agencies of your own countries. For contrary to what you might have heard, other countries do report news accurately, and not all of them cover up the negative and the ugly. And no, not all of their news is propaganda.  And if you would rather not believe me, just remember this: every month, thousands of tourists visit dozens of countries and most of them even live to tell about it.  And also keep in mind that you are just as likely to get diarrhoea drinking bottled water in Dallas as you are eating falafel from a market stall in Ibrahimea. 

So anyway, here you are in Alexandria!  You are all squared away in your hotel, having unpacked and eaten a good hotel lunch of over-cooked chicken, and you are ready to hit the streets.  Now remember, the first thing you do is ignore the concierge at all costs.  First of all, many of them really don’t know what’s going on if it’s not already listed in the hotel’s ‘What’s On’ Guide, plus the fact that they will never ever have a decent map.  But in any case, even if all you want the concierge for is to book theatre tickets, wouldn’t you prefer to go to the theatre yourself and see what seats are actually available?  It’s not only an eye-opener to discover how much money you will save, but – and this is a real bonus – you will actually get to know where the theatre is; and wouldn’t it be interesting to discover what else is happening in that particular neighbourhood?  For, as far as I am concerned, the whole purpose of travelling – indeed, the whole purpose of life – is to be constantly surprised by sounds and tastes you have never before even imagined. And as for the theatre itself, there will possibly be other offerings not listed in the hotel’s brochure. For believe me, it is only for the ‘major’ events that the theatre or opera house will bother notifying the hotels. In other words, if the production happens not to target a higher-end audience willing to pay a lot of money, the concierge will never hear of it.  And also – in Alexandria – there is the probability that the production will have been cancelled, but since nobody in Alexandria ever notifies anyone of anything, your concierge would not have been informed. 

Another good reason to check out the theatre yourself is that you can also investigate any bus or mini-bus routes that take you back to the hotel; for believe me, there will be dozens of them.  This, for me, is extremely important.  I’m not being a cheapo here – although I admit to preferring to spend my money on something else besides a taxi. However, let’s be brutally honest; in many countries taking a taxi means one thing:  bargaining, endless whinging, perpetual wheedling, followed by yet more bargaining.  And I’m talking about bargaining that will not stop from one end of the ride to the other.  What you will discover is – yes – you may have agreed on a price beforehand, but from the moment the taxi leaves the curb (and you are deluded enough to believe that the affair of the fare has been satisfactorily settled) that’s when the driver suggests that there is, of course, the matter of the tip. And, from that point on, instead of being able to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of the city, you will perforce listen to a non-stop whine about what a good driver he is, about how the driver has to support his brother’s sixteen children in addition to his own, and about how he has to pay for an operation for this mother. Now, what you have to remember is that the story is always the same; it is, in fact, the same story that ruined the visits of tourists two thousand years ago. And, more recently, it is why “The boy stood on the burning deck” (the boy in question being young Casabianca, the son of one of Napoleon’s admirals) chose to burn to a crisp rather than to swim ashore and risk a taxi to the Cairo Airport. For me – and I am willing to admit that it is personal – on the whole, I would rather leave two hours early and take the most crowded bus  that deal with the average taxi driver.   I’ve been there, done that,  bought the fuckin T-shirt  and, what’s more, I can repeat the spiel back – word for word (in the identical tone of voice) to any taxi driver who dares inflict me with it.  And if you take taxis often enough you will hear it in all its hundreds and thousands of variations.  And you might even hear three different versions from the same driver who picked you up from the airport, who later drove you out to Carrefour, and who – later still – picked you up at Carrefour and drove you back to your hotel.  It’s called one of the seven wonders of Egypt.  And I’m sure it’s why Marc Antony eventually committed suicide.  After all, with Cleopatra dead and unable to bargain on his behalf, he never ever would have been able to set a fare to the airport.  It was simply more pleasant to die.

Needless to say, if you ever ask an Egyptian how much you should pay a taxi to take you – say – to the Greco-Roman amphitheatre (which is has never heard of), he will immediately tell you that you can get a much better deal on a new Nokia phone at Sidi Gaber, and that the tariff to Sidi Gaber is five pounds and not a piaster more.  It is then that you laugh in his face.  Because, you see, you are not Egyptian.  An Egyptian simply gets into a taxi, gets out at the other end, pays the driver the five pounds, and slams the door.  But, as a foreigner, even had an Egyptian settled on a fare on your behalf, the minute you have left in the taxi, and your Egyptian friend is safely back on the street, your driver suddenly doesn’t remember that anything has ever been discussed.  And so the bargaining begins.

Now, I will admit here and now to having sunk to a new level of deceit.  It’s called speaking French. I simply get into a taxi next to the drive, and bark a resolute “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I have found to my great joy that this confuses the driver.  And being confused, he simply accepts whatever sum I give to him (and here, let us be fair:  although I am as skint as a bucket of skinflints, I still have more money than the average Egyptian.  Taxi drivers work very hard.  And I certainly do not expect to pay the same low, low tariff as an Egyptian).  However, I would much rather hear the whinge in French than I would in English. After all, in English I am forced to understand it.

And while we are on the subject of foreigners and bargaining – and let’s face it, there is nothing dearer to an Egyptian’s heart that proving that every foreigner is the idiot that he truly is – I have a story for you.

A couple of months ago, I became acquainted with a young student teacher from Brazil. Now, it so happened he was well-educated, well-travelled and savvy; what’s more he also knew how to use his appearance to get everything at ‘local’ prices. Because, of course, the ethnic mix in Brazil often has more in common with that of North Africa than it does with the rest of Latin America.  And because of his appearance – for let’s face it – the modern Egyptian is an homogenous blend of many different peoples – everyone in the market automatically assumed that he could be either a Nubian or an Egyptian of Sudanese descent or some other mix.  And consequently, just so long as he kept his mouth shut (for he did not speak Arabic) he always paid what the Egyptians paid for everything.  And I do mean everything.   

Now this is where is gets funny.  The other students in his ESL certification class were either Americans of European descent or Northern European themselves.  In other words, the last thing they looked like was Egyptian.  Now, it goes without saying that every one of the students was on a tight budget.  Therefore, the minute they realised the Brazilian could get things for practically nothing – whereas they always had to pay ten times as much – he would invariably end up with their shopping lists.  So far, so good; all’s fair in love and war and in saving a buck or three.

As I’ve already mentioned, this Brazilian guy knew enough to keep his mouth shut when out shopping; he would simply point to whatever he wanted, then pay and leave.  The fact that he hadn’t spoken was irrelevant.

And when he happened to be accompanied by one of his American friends, he still pointed and still said nothing.  And if for some reason, he did speak English to one of the others in the group, the stallholders still assumed that he was Egyptian.  After all, plenty of Egyptians speak at least a little English.  But then – alas – came the day when he actually needed to ask for something.  It was at that moment, of course, when the stallholder – who had been selling items to him at reduced rates for a good three weeks – suddenly saw the light of day.   And, of course, he laughed.  What a wonderful jokester the Brazilian was!  However, to cut a long story short, the Brazilian instantly lost his Egyptian status, as well as the privileges that went with them.  Knowing the Egyptians as I do, he probably ended up paying twice as much as any other foreigner. And to make matters worse, he was never again given any of the choicest fruit. But, of course, he was now a foreigner and all foreigners are stupid; he was simply being put in his place.

Now, you may recall that at the very beginning of this piece, I mentioned that – when I was very young –  I was given an invaluable piece of advice (the only one to which I have ever actually listened).  It is the key to unlocking the mysteries of any city in the world.  And it is this:  the first thing you do, upon arriving in a city – after you get settled in – is to get on the first bus you see.  And once you are on the bus, let yourself be absorbed into the life of the bus, into the lives of the people on the bus, and into the life of the passing streets.  Simply open your eyes and ears, and let yourself go.  And when you get to a place that looks interesting, simply get off and start walking.  And don’t worry about getting lost, because in a city teaming with life, there is no such thing as getting lost.  Yes, you might misplace yourself.  But even should you happen to get totally tangled up, you simply ask for directions (and having asked for directions, you will immediately be invited to eat lunch with everyone within earshot).  

It goes without saying you will have remembered to write down the name of your hotel (I least I hope you have).  And, of course, although I hate to inflict one on you in your very first day in Egypt, there’s always a taxi in case of emergencies. 

Mobile phones may be the bane of my existence, but they really can be lifesavers. And in countries such as Egypt, handsets and SIM cards are cheap.  Plus, since they are invariably pay-as-you-go, you are not going to end up with a large bill at the end of your visit.   Therefore, buy an inexpensive phone; write down the number (as well as the number of your hotel – and yes – your Consulate if you are so inclined – as well as the number of that one person in your family back home in Dundee or Duluth who is most likely to panic).

But anyway, don’t worry about getting lost.  You are, after all, in a foreign city for the sole purpose of discovering that city.  And how you do this is by taking buses – any and all buses – and then by walking and walking and walking.  And whilst you are doing this, you will meet new friends; in fact, if you are in Egypt, by the end of the first day you will have more friends than you’ve ever had in your life.

Before we go any further, here is another thing worth remembering. Each and every one of your new friends will want your phone number, and if they are male, ninety-nine percent of them will be named Mohammed or Ahmed or Mahmud. And all of them will phone you at three o’clock in the morning and invite you out to tea and sheeshah.  For in Egypt, life begins after ten or eleven at night; sitting in cafes until all hours with your friends in an Egyptian tradition.  So don’t get annoyed, and when you enter their names on your contact list, remember to add their second name as well – for in the Arab tradition, each and every person carries four names: his or her own name, followed by his or her father’s name, followed by his father’s name, followed by his father’s name. So if a new friend tells you his name is Mohammed, it will save a lot of embarrassment later on if you ask him to tell you his second name as well. That way instead of being listed as one of thirty Mohammeds, he will become known to you as (for example) Mohammed Sayed (which is easier to remember than Mohammed Number Two).  Otherwise, when you receive twelve different calls from twelve different Mohammeds at three in the morning, you will be able to avoid the usual scenario wherein whichever Mohammed it is will be hurt because you can’t tell him apart from all the other Mohammeds.

One additional suggestion.  Now I know I’ve come down hard on taxi drivers, but when you do meet a good one and he wants to give you his phone number, enter in on your phone.  Because you never know when you might need the services of a good taxi.  And if a rotten drive insists on giving you his number, simply enter it – and after you’ve gone, push the delete button.

Over the past years, because of my curiosity, I have discovered no end of out-of-the-ordinary places in Alexandria. And since the average Egyptian, just like the average Englishman or American or Frenchman or Irishman or (yes, I know, and I’m sorry) Scotsman, won’t have a clue about what’s going on in his or her country – it will be up to you to discover everything for yourself.  Now, I happen to love the local markets in the back streets, as well as the twisty-turny hidden passageways where ordinary people go to shop for special delicacies and bespoke items. I also like to know what sort of cafe is frequented by what sort of people.

For a while I used to suggest to foreign visitors that they might like to visit some of these amazing, magical places, and I always ended on the receiving end of a blank stare.  Because almost none of them ever take buses, they don’t know one district for the other, and when they do go out, it is invariably to Carrefour (which is, after all, a mall like every other mall in the world, and therefore just like home).  Either that, or they go somewhere on a set tour arranged by their school.  Having been burned, I now mind my own business.

At one point (for my sins) I taught one or two evening classes to Egyptian students.  One of the joys of this experience was to have been able to share with them some of Egypt’s cultural icons, of whom they had often heard very little.  For example, none of them had heard of Nass Makan – which is in Cairo and is the Centre for Traditional Egyptian folk music (it is, by the way, on the web – and it also has a page on Facebook). Another name with which to conjure was and is Rahnda Fahmy, who is possibly the greatest female coppersmith in the world, and whose works are displayed in every major museum and gallery and palace (and – yes – mosque) throughout the Middle East, Asia and Europe.  Her sister, Azza, is a major jewellery designer.  The list goes on and on and on… and the maddening thing was not that my Egyptian students knew very little about their own cultural treasures, but that not a single one of the people responsible for running the ESL training centre – which was supposedly guaranteeing foreign students an insight into Egyptian culture – had even heard of any of them.  Nor were they interested.

For what it’s worth, in case you ever do happen to visit Alexandria, here are a couple of places to explore:  first of all, The Friday Market, which is the most outrageously chaotic flea market you will ever find.  It is open Thursdays and Fridays (afternoons to well after midnight) and is located between Anfushi and El Max on Sharia Abaza Oshmann (and which spreads out higgledy-piggledy in all directions).  And then, of course – and this a part of the Friday market, as well – along the canal is to be found the market for new toilets.  And if that isn’t worth more than a visit to the Pyramids, I don’t know what is!  Another little gem is on the rue Nabi Daniel, near Manshea. It is a tiny market chock full of booksellers.  And no, it is not as good as the one in Cairo, nor can it be compared to the Left Bank in Paris, but I have never failed to find at least one long-forgotten and discontinued Penguins amidst the madness.  And yes, just a few minutes from the bookstalls are a couple of legendary cafes.  And while they may be crumbling and the service may be appalling, you cannot sit in their faded and dusty splendour and not be sucked back into the past, to an era when Alexandria was the Alexandria of everyone’s memory.  One more thing:  Across Nabi Daniel (and this is probably the only place in Alexandria where you can actually cross the street and not be run over) is the French Cultural Centre.  Their small exhibitions are truly wonderful, they have a full program of concerts and films (all free), as well as a small French/Arabic bookshop and a mediateque. … and, last but not least, a peaceful garden where you can sit and not be surrounded by noise.  And as a bonus, inside the villa they have well-polished floors.

If there is one thing you should embed in your psyche it is that Egyptians do not have the western concept of service.  So leave any thoughts you have about the customer always being right at home.  If you don’t, I promise you will be miserable.

And one more thing.  Egyptians are not politically correct and everyone yells at everyone else.  So for once in your repressed and frustrated and timid little politically-correct life, go ahead and yell back.  Because nobody will mind at all.  It is the Egyptian way.

Do you want to know one last thing?  I bet you I am the only foreigner in Alex who knows where a certain pet camel lives (and no, it is not the one in the seafood restaurant).  Its home is somewhere near the shipyards.  But if you want to find it, you’ll have to prowl around and find it for yourself.

May 13, 2010

More About NOISE: Bonkers Egypt

What is Noise, what causes Noise, and how to lay back and enjoy it!

Last time I wrote about noise and the Egyptians I was in a good mood and the whole thing was rather funny.  Well, it’s still funny, but this time I am not in a good mood.  As far as I am concerned, they can all fuck themselves. With a garden implement.  Or with one of those jagged rocks they are always throwing at each other.

At this moment in time (the afternoon of the twelfth of May, 2010) Agami is gearing up for the summer.  It is, after all, a summer resort; great globs of people will come pouring in from other parts of Egypt to enjoy the milder climate, the beautiful beaches, and the relatively relaxed atmosphere.  And Bitosh – the road in and out – will be transformed into the South Beach of Alexandria.  Without the poofters, of course… unless you count the little boys holding the big boys’ hands, but we won’t go there, will we?   Now last year, due to the monetary crisis, many if not most of the apartment buildings were half-empty, meaning that – although the entire district was still pulsating with enough noise such as would cause the Empire State Building to lose its windows, I was spared the comings and goings and trampings and yellings of other people in my own building.  And what a relief that was.  Because even though on most nights it was still like being trapped inside a jet engine at full-throttle, there was no-one above me or and no-one below to bang on their drums or to have a great fight or to play the Qur’An or to burn the garlic for their koshery during the occasional quiet moments.  

This summer is not going to be good.  First of all, the apartment owners from one end of Agami to the other have recovered the greedy glint that their eyes had lost in 2009.  That means not only are they rushing to build an extra two or three storeys atop each one of their buildings – an easy matter if you have a some concrete and a few bricks, two extra weeks and a large contingent of miracle-working Nubian construction workers working twenty-four hours a day (with no lights provided during the hours of darkness – but, then again, Nubians are miracle workers, and they don’t even stop for lunch).  And it also helps if you don’t care if the building crumbles at the end of September.  You can always rebuild it next spring.  It’s the Egyptian Way.

What has happened – and unfortunately for me, it has happened with a vengeance in my building – is that all the apartments that were empty last year have been taken for this  coming summer (which is very unfair on me, because let’s just say, I liked being spoiled).  This means one thing: NOISE!   To the left of me, the new owners are busily sawing through concrete walls and tearing up the floor.  To the right and below of me, they have been pounding on walls and the ceiling for the last week and a half, probably trying to knock the building down so they can put up another one – with smaller apartments and much higher rents – before the beginning of June.  Now, at a certain time every evening – just after the arrival of the mosquitoes and, coincidentally, after the night prayer – the families who will be soon moving in to their new apartments congregate in their living rooms; they cook dinner, and discuss everything that is going on in their lives. At full volume.  And then, of course, the television is blaring and the inevitable teenager is practicing his talking drum (which he will be later playing at a wedding).  And since no one here ever bothers to close their front doors, and since they bellow at the top of their lungs – and since the grinding and pounding continues regardless – and since they also feel obliged to play the Qur’An at such a deafening level as to be heard above all the other noises, a little (slightly intolerant) Westerner like me starts to feel a little sorry for himself.  Then, of course, this is Wednesday, which means the disco next door will rev up its engines to a ear-shattering roar at about three-thirty in the morning, and will continue on until nine, which is just about the same time as the pounding and the grinding starts all over again. Now, don’t get me wrong, the minute that  any one of these noises pauses for at least a minute, I will instantly feel refreshed and reborn – just as though I had gone on holiday to a remote little isle where there is only an Atlantic gale to disturb the peace and quiet.  It’s pathetic how easy I am to please.

The building across the street was (until they added an additional two stories during the first week and a half of this month) a nice quiet three storey affair, and the apartments in it were – for the most part – occupied by the wives and sisters and mothers and grandmothers of husbands and fathers and brothers and grandfathers who live elsewhere with their side of the family.  This is, of course, not an unusual arrangement and there’s nothing to say about it except that it is the way it is.  The family is Bedouin, and the women are an absolute delight.  It goes without saying that I can’t go over there and drink tea with them, and they obviously cannot come over here. In any case – with the exception of one of the daughters, who is about fifteen and goes to school, the women never leave the apartment.  Instead they phone local merchants – who are probably members of their extended family – and the merchants send round provisions to them.  The women then lower a basket or two from the balcony, and the merchants fill them up, after which the women pull the baskets back up again. A tidy and efficient arrangement if ever there was one.  I wonder how it would work in one of those American Golf Resorts?

Now, in spite of the fact that I cannot have any social interaction with these ladies, I have developed a most wonderful bond.  It is totally stress-free; we never argue; we never quarrel over how she burnt the garlic when she made the koshery or how she hung my washing on the line. In fact we don’t talk at all.    Our relationship can be called a ‘meeting over the laundry lines’ arrangement.  I may well have mentioned this before, but this family (at least the women) are so delightful they deserve to be given another round of applause.  For what happens is this: they spend an inordinate amount of time hanging washing from the balcony and beating carpets, etc.  It’s the women’s fulltime job. I, on the other hand – being a man – only hang a couple of things from my line in the morning and take them in at night (and since what I hang out is invariably underwear, I don’t hang it from the balcony where it can cause a kafuffle, but from a little folding contraption that cannot be seen by other apartments, and from which my knickers cannot offend my neighbours).  Every so often, it happens that I go out onto my balcony to hang my little delicates at the same time they are out on their balcony engaged in one of their many pursuits (hanging out washing, beating carpets, scrubbing the balcony, etc.).  At this point, we either exchange greetings or we don’t.  It all depends upon which other family members are in the apartment at that time.  If one of the fathers or sons or brothers or grandfathers is visiting, the ladies do not acknowledge me and I do not look over at them.  Because it is they who have to make the first move, and if one of their male relatives is present, I am strictly off-limits.  However, if none of the males are there, and the aged grandmother – who is, by the way, completely veiled – happens to be safely tucked away inside – it is safe for them to wave, after which they start jumping up and down in this deliriously wonderful Egyptian shimmy.  I then reciprocate.  And there we are, dancing and shimmying – they on their balcony across the alley and down two floors, and me across the way and up above on my little rooftop.  We only ever do this for a five seconds or less, because basically it’s not a cool thing to do. But they are so sweet. And because they are ‘good’ girls and I wouldn’t hurt them for the world, I am very, very careful.  In other words, if they do not wave first, as far as I’m concerned they do not even exist.

More and more, these ladies are being visited by a nephew – or at least I assume he’s a nephew – and he is clearly there to keep an eye on them.  Last year, when he was only about fourteen he would join in the fun, and occasionally he would even bring out his talking drum. However, he is now fifteen, very much a man, extremely macho –  which means he smokes like a chimney, looks very cool and his phone is never out of his hand;  he is very much their protector.  So when he’s out on their balcony (or even in the apartment), they are strictly off-limits to my eyes.  It is called life.  But in any case, they are a joyful little family, and just knowing they are there adds to my happiness.

Mentioning my neighbours’ method of shopping for food, reminds me of something. When I first arrived here last year, the first thing I did was to shop at all the food stalls and little grocery stores up and down Bitosh in order to make friends and establish myself as someone who was living here and not just another tourist . And believe me I am very glad I did, for I made a lot of friends.  And although on most days now, I run over to the local Fadhalla supermarket in the centre of Bianki just to save time, I do enjoy my neighbourhood shops and try to keep well in with them.  Now, the first lesson I learned was not to shop for food in the local food stalls at mealtimes.  Simply because hospitality demands that you will immediately be given the merchant’s food (which has just been lowered down in a basket from the family apartment above the shop).  Now it goes without saying there is an established etiquette to this.  For, of course, if they had their way they would really like to eat their own meals themselves.  Anyway, it goes something like this: they offer it three times and you refuse it three times, and then you buy whatever it is you wanted, drink the cup of tea you really can’t refuse, and move on.  They really are enchanting people.  If only they didn’t love noise.

Now, as everyone who has lived in a Muslim country knows, the call to prayer is sounded at several appointed times each day, twenty-four hours a day.  Now because theirs is a lunar calendar, the times of the prayers change by several minutes with each passing day.  Also, each prayer time also varies depending upon how far east or west you are.  This means that even in the mosques only a block or so away, the Azans will not be called at exactly the same times as in the mosques immediately adjacent to your building.  Now, in each block there can be more than a dozen or so tiny, storefront mosques.  In fact, within five minutes’ walk from my apartment there are at least twelve.  Now, of course, in the days before amplification, the muezzins would stand on a high place – such as a minaret – to make sure the azan was heard.  Now, let us just say that amplification is God’s gift to the Egyptian. Whereas before, the calls were lovely and mellow and very much like clarions, now – thanks to amplification – they are blasted out with a deafening wail than can sometimes cause you to spill your coffee or fall off your chair. These calls are sounded twice before each of the five daily prayers: the first time about ten minutes before, and the second just as the prayer is about to begin.

Since the azan is called from each and every mosque by its own muezzin, this collection of amplified blasts can be rather impressive – as well as intrusive.  Now I asked a good friend of mine who happens to be an Imam, why it seemed they were each trying to overpower the other. After all, all the mosques are full for every prayer, every person goes to his own mosque, and so it isn’t as though they are trying to poach from each other.  And you want to know what he told me?  He said they are simply competing to see who is the loudest.  In other words, he who has the biggest toys wins.

It goes without saying that this same rule applies to the Friday sermons. Each one is screeched through a sound system which is turned up to the volume of a blast furnace. In fact, the harangue is so loud in each case that even if you wanted to hear what the Imam or Sheikh was actually saying, you’re out of luck. However, let me say this (and I am not fudging here): it is part of the fabric of life; I’m used to it, and if I don’t like it, I can always leave.

That being said (and this I think I did mention it before), when the disco is blaring full-throttle and it’s rattling the window panes (those that are still unbroken) and the guys in the disco are holding conversations and screaming over the music while they are dancing, the mosques – when they are calling the dawn prayer – can overpower them all without any trouble at all.  And I think that is cool!  Imagine it happening in South Beach (plus, here, nobody is drunk).

In January, I spent some time taking a French/Arabic class in the French Cultural Centre (anything to actually avoid coming to grips with my Arabic).  At one point one of the more zealous of the Egyptian students demanded to know why it was against the law to play the Qur’An in one’s apartment in Paris?  And he was very, very serious about this.  Now, ordinarily when this guy got going on one his pet rants, I made it a practice to hold my tongue and to forget about it.  After all, it is none of my business.  But on this occasion, I felt it was time he was corrected on one or two counts.   I told him that anyone can play anything they wanted in their apartment, at any time of the day or night – just so long as the neighbours were not forced to listen to it in the apartment next door.  I pointed out that most countries in the west have such things as noise ordinances, and if you blasted everything out the Egypt way you would end up with a very stiff fine.  The professor, an amazing linguist from Tunisian who had lived much of her life in France and in the United States and who was blessed with a dry sense of humour, laughed and turned to me (me, who always sat up front with the woman and not in back with the men who never stopped talking all the way through any of the classes) and said with a great beaming smile, “But they like it loud!”

But then again – and this I said before – when it comes down to it, anyone’s life can be filled with a wall of sound, and you simply cut it out.  That’s what the Egyptians do.  They simply do not listen to it.  It’s sort of the local version of a noise ordinance.  How spoiled we are in the west.

Now this same guy is also the one who was lambasting the Swiss for banning minarets; he accused them of fomenting anti-Islamic prejudice. To which I pointed out, that – if he cared to look it up – there was no mention whatsoever of a minaret in the Qur’An, and that the whole injunction had to do with noise. I then pointed out (being on a teat by this time) that in most non-Muslim countries of the world the Azan was never proclaimed outside.  And since every single person knows to the minute what time the prayers are held, until recently there had never been any problem. And I did even suggest that if everyone had simply minded their manners and respected others – and had not blasted the Azans so that they caused avalanches as far away as Klosters, perhaps there would have been no ban in the first place. In which, the very lovely unamplified Azan could have blended in with the church bells in a beautiful two-part harmony.  Yes, I know life is not like that, but in my head lives such a simple world…

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.

May 5, 2010

Does Your Willy Need a Bonnet…..?

More About Me – and About Bonkers Egypt – Than You Thought You Needed To Know.


Does your willy need a bonnet

When he goes into the sun?

Do you rub some ointment on it?

Or put it in a bun?


Does your willy put his collar up

In the cold and damp?

Do you mail it to the warmer climes,

And send it with a stamp?


I want you to know the only reason I am writing this is to offend my one remaining friend (yes, that’s what I’m like).  You see, she’s a woman, and as you all know, women don’t necessarily like talking about the same things that men do.  Women seem to be very delicate creatures, and very prone to attacks of nausea should certain topics crop up in a conversation.  This was brought home to me the other day when I was munching double roasted burnt chicken at one of the many eateries on Bitosh – which is by way of being the ‘South Beach’ of Alexandria, Egypt, where I’m currently hanging my hat (and no, not the kind of hat women don’t like me to talk about).  The woman I was with…

But first, let us clarify a few things. When I tell you I was actually sharing a meal with a woman in a public, I should emphasize that in Egypt, it is not often that a male will actually been seen in public with a woman of the opposite sex.  And as for eating food with her?  Don’t be obscene.  After all, unless she’s your mother and completely veiled, the sight of her opening her mouth and inserting something even as innocent as a bread roll into its depths, will probably inflame you.  Is that clear?   No?  Then we shall discuss it a little more before coming to grips with today’s topic, i.e. foreskins.  

Now, I like woman.  Not necessarily as sexual partners, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s say, I tend to prefer them to men as companions. And I have an unusually large number of female Egyptian friends, but not more than one or two males (for reasons I may or may not address in the future). Now this is sort of rare.  It makes me one of the few men I know in Alexandria who’s ever been seen in a cafe with a woman.  But, here you must bear with me a little longer – for women such as the one with whom I openly consorted in such a blatantly public venue as a burnt barbeque chicken eatery on Bitosh, are obviously ‘bad girls’. Now, there two principal types of bad girls.  If you are an Egyptian bad girl, you will never ever be able to get married, and – what is more – the mere sight of your wantonness, makes older men (the ones with beards and bruises on their foreheads) look for the nearest pile of stones.  Then there are the foreign bad girls.  Now, in the case of these abominations, they are already so bad that the only thing they crave is to give desperate Egyptian males their first (and possibly last) fuck of their lives.  In other words, foreign girls should count themselves lucky to get a nice dry Egyptian fuck from a nice steroid-filled Egyptian fucker,  after which they will be begging to convert to Islam, marry the fucker, help him immigrate to America (or possible to Ireland, or Canada or Sweden, or to one of those other places with free healthcare).  And then as neo-Egyptian wives, they will spend the rest of their life scrubbing the floors of their mother-in-law’s apartment, doing the washing, and hanging the carpets from the balcony.  And, oh yes, if they want some wifely excitement, they get to lower a little basket from their window and ask their husband’s brother if he will go and buy some food for them.  They then beat the carpets for another twenty minutes, or until the brother-in-law returns with the requested items, at which point he dumps everything into the basket, and the wife gets to exercise her muscles by hauling the entire load up to her apartment (on the seventeen floor) by hand.  Now, if the foreign bad girl will not consent to marry and convert and cover herself with a blanket, there’s always the possibility that – although in Egyptian terms she is already a slut – the male might consent to marry her via one of those friendly little arrangements called a weekend marriage. Now in a weekend marriage, the bad girl agrees to become a good girl, but only just for the weekend (hence the name a weekend marriage).  In other words, it is a legal arrangement lasting just long enough so that the good Egyptian male can finally feel the difference between a vagina and a little boy’s anus.  Then, after the weekend is over, the newly-proclaimed good girl is divorced (for not having had a hymen when she got married), and she abruptly reverts to being a bad girl again.  And, it goes without saying, that being a born-again bad girl puts her in a whole new category.  Not only is she a defiled bad girl, but she is a despised and outcast divorced and defiled bad girl.  And it’s even more special if she is a despised and outcast and defiled foreign bad girl, for this makes her a double-strength, double-dip bad girl who was such a bad girl to begin with  that she deserves everything that’s coming to her, but we won’t get in to that. Let us just say that, as a double-strength, double-dip foreign bad girl she does have a certain allure. Not only that, but it’s probable that she will also have an abundance of pubic hair. For an Egyptian male, this opens up a whole, new, uncharted territory.  For you see,  the removal of every hair on a woman’s body with hot sugar is another exciting Egyptian preoccupation, and one that occupies a good twelve hours of every good girl’s day – in other words, the hours when she is not scrubbing the floors of her mother-in-law’s apartment, washing clothes or beating the carpets.  This, of course, means that this activity is really a blessing, for without it a good girl might have time to go shopping for shoes – which is always the first step down the slippery slope.  And from there it’s almost inevitable that the good girl will go bad.

Now, let us be sensible here.  It goes without saying that, with all this special allure going for them, these double-strength, double-dip foreign bad girls can now be handed round to all the ex-weekend husband’s friends, and possibly also to most of the other men in the local cafes.   After which, of course, they should be stoned, but that’s all right; foreign bad girls can always escape that fate by giving private lessons teaching English, for this gives them a certain legitimacy when they renew their visa. But if they are not enamoured of teaching English to the entire law faculty of the university or to the entire shipyard in Wardienne, they should really put on their thinking caps.  In other words, before they declare their independence, they should think seriously about their options:  is it better to be stoned by a crowd of men wearing Armani jeans under their galabayas, or is preferable to spend one’s life scrubbing the floors of one’s mother-in-law’s apartment, washing the clothes, and beating the carpets?  It’s what we call a win-win situation, which is why we have all these young western girls flooding into the land of the Pharaohs to teach English.  Figure that one out if you will.

Anyway, to get back to the subject of women’s delicate natures, I was (yes!) sharing a slab of burnt double barbeque chicken with this double-strength, double-dip bad foreign women (she’s only been here a week, and she’s already on the fast track to seriously bad-girldom).  She was bemoaning the troubles she was having in adjusting to the cultural quagmire of being a western female in Egypt. In other words, she was still making eye-contact with people on the street, for which she has already lost her reputation in Agami. Now, I have been here for some time, and let us say that, although I am a man and therefore operate on a much higher plain in Egyptian society, I’ve been around the block a few times.  And, in a general sense, I know more or less what not to do, at least when it comes to the ‘big’ issues.  This means, of course, I am aware of certain cultural pit falls you do not hear about in the travel guides, etc. It also means I know almost everything there is to know about the good boy/bad boy/good girl/bad psycho-drama merry-go-round, which is a whole new other chapter.  Anyway, after listening to this double-strength, double-dip foreign bad girl for an hour or so, and commiserating – because, let’s face it; nothing you’ve ever been taught in the US on any subject whatsoever applies here.  But, of course, it goes without saying that westerners will insist upon bring their beloved values with them, trying to force them down the throats of the poor downtrodden natives, and then being miserable because they simply cannot cope, and because they don’t realise that the Egyptians (bless their little hearts) think all westerners are stupid fucking morons and there for the taking.   

Now, after we had dealt with how she should simply dump everything she had ever learned out the window (and for fuck’s sake, next time put some clothes on before you come out: you’re not in Wisconsin anymore), the conversation drifted on to other, more light-hearted topics.  One of these concerned the wonderful bidet attachments fitted into every Egyptian toilet.  Now, in Egypt – as in many, many other Middle Eastern and Asian countries – toilet paper is considered unclean.  Meaning it just smears everything around.  Instead the locals are accustomed to washing themselves.  Now, this is a very efficient methodology and it’s certainly very sanitary.  Plus the fact that it makes sense. And, also, it does prolong the life of drains. Anyway, I asked this woman – in all seriousness – how she was adapting to this, and she immediately squinched up her face, squealed “Eeeeouuuuu,” which was followed by a, “Oh don’tttttt,” like a six-year-old girl.  And I thought to myself, you are a fucking forty-one year old woman, you’ve had a child and you come from a country that bombs the shit out of every nation that isn’t their flavour of the month, and yet you cannot handle a serious question regarding the disposal of bodily wastes and how you clean yourself afterwards.  But, of course, I should have remembered that the country from which she came is also the only country in the world where they can’t even say the world ‘toilet’.  And this means that three of their major contributions to the rest of the planet – in addition to ‘Farmville’ and  ‘Facebook’  – are ‘comfort station’, ‘little girls’ room’ and ‘tinkle’.

Now, here I must apologise for dragging you along to Bonkers Egypt when all you were interested in was hearing my views about the conditions inflicted upon the wangers of the world.  Please forgive me!

If you will remember, I did start this chapter by giving you a sweet little poem.  To understand me, you must realise that the pro-/anti- foreskin debate has resonated within me since the very first time I saw a penis that was (shall we say) differently enabled.  At the time, I remember thinking, how very strange! How wonder what it feels like?  And, of course, I wondered if it tasted the same, and if its owner would let me sample it… 

Now, let me be blunt (it’s amazing how many times I can be blunt in these blogs, isn’t it).  I do love penises more than practically anything else in the world.   Except perhaps horses.  A nice friendly penis – clean, of course – is far more sublime than any Mozart Sonata.   It beats the hell out of kicking a football around a pitch, and I would certain rather nibble on a happy wanger than I would on a bar of chocolate.  And as for pop singers, all I can say is, “Shut the fuck up and show me the willy!” Quite, simply, willies are delightful creatures, they are the miracles of the universe, they sing like heavenly choirs of angels (and if you’ve never heard them, that means you’re tone deaf).  And  it beats me how any intelligent man with a willy between his legs and reasonable health, would rather waste time in making a living or in ruling the world, when he could instead be sitting at home with a nice cup of coffee and perhaps a kipper, and discussing the meaning of life with his willy.

 I have spent a considerable amount of time researching the crimes perpetuated on innocent willies in the name of religion.  And what I have found is that it is a very painful subject.

Now, I refuse to be drawn into the more arcane traditions with which so many cultures are enamoured.  The whole business of having your penis mangled simply to prove your manhood seem to me to be somewhat of an oxymoron.  Or, in other words, completely moronic.  I mean, isn’t the whole idea of having a male organ to impregnate a woman and, thus, propagate the human race?  You know?  Go forth and multiply? Well, how can you fucking do that if you’ve mangled your willy so badly that it doesn’t really function again.  At least, not without the killing of a lot of small, endangered animals and seahorses and grey whales. Or even without inhaling little triangular tablets that turn your vision blue and give you a headache.

Yes, I know – the minute I mention circumcision, I am going to be bombarded with all five hundred fifty-six million, one hundred fifty thousand, three hundred twenty-five entries in Google, all of which set out in pedantic terms that the uncircumcised penis is both an abomination, and behind every plague and every misfortune ever to befall man. But, what you must understand is that every single one of these entries was written by an American.  Probably a member of the elite CIA/FBI propaganda unit.  Now, if the Americans want to be pro-circumcision, that’s up to them.  But why must they always try to justify their own peccadilloes by pretending they have the last word?    I mean, they yell very loudly about being ‘God’s own country’.  But if this is the case, and if – as they like to proclaim – we are made in God’s image, why is it they cannot grasp that man was created with a foreskin?  It’s such a handy little wrapper, and if they are so worried about it being unclean, why in the fuck don’t they simply learn to clean it.  You know: you retract it; you wash inside the foreskin with a gentle soap, and you wash the glans, and then wash the rest of your little willy, and then you bathe your little, wrinkly scrotum… and then you make sure you rinse it all very thoroughly with water.  And you always check it for any spiders nesting underneath the foreskin, and also check that there are no mousies having babies in the furry patch under your scrotum and between your legs. And then you dry everything using a soft towel or by standing naked behind the engines of a jumbo jet, or simply by having your significant other blow on it.  After it’s squeaky clean and to ready to start its own little willy day (for it is bound to lead a busy life, and its Blackberry is full to the brim), you moisturise it and powder it and gel its curly locks.  However – and this is important: whatever you do, please make sure your willy is nice and dry before you stuff it back into the underwear you haven’t washed since you graduated from high school and left home in 1956.

And herein lies the crux of the matter.  Not only do the Americans not openly teach about the proper washing of man’s most essential tool, they would rather blame its natural state for the ills of the world (including weapons of mass destruction and every single pandemic and epidemic) than they would in instructing their own citizens in proper sanitary practises – which is sort of in keeping with their insistence on smearing their shit around their bottoms and clogging their drains with toilet paper.  A very odd place, is God’s Own Country.

Now – never fear – as long as I have a willy, I will have a lot more to say on this subject.  But until I do, please remember to treat it nicely and try not to torture it.  Do not stick it through the meat grinder during one of your sexual escapades, and do not insert it into a fucking light socket.  That has been done before, and what always happens it that you will be found by the police; they will take a lot of photographic images, and these photographic images will be splashed all over the local paper, and then, of course, they will be posted on your sister’s Facebook page.  Most likely, she will be forced to commit suicide, and it will go and on and on… until her entire cheerleading squad is kicked out of their Sororities and forced to marry insurance salesmen, wear  shapeless polyester blend sweatpants and Crocs, and shop for their two dozen children at Factory-2-U.

And all because you tortured your little willy!

And in case you were wondering about the poem – no, it’s not finished.  But don’t worry your silly willy’s head that; it shall be.

April 24, 2010

2009 was 2009 was 2009… fodder for tales on down the line…

The following are blogs written during 2009 after I moved to Alexandria.  I posted them elsewhere for a short time, but never followed them up.  Simply put, there was nothing more to say, except this was where Johnner’s head was in 2009 – for better or worse.

So, here we go: Random Rants and Crapola from 2009

 Carrefour and Beyond

 2009-02-03 – 06:24:16

I realise I’ve got to organise my “blogtime” better. Yesterday I was planning a riff on the wonderful social madness that takes place at Carrefour in Alexandria every Friday and Saturday night. However, because I wasn’t paying attention to the time, I was interrupted, and as a result posted my fragment by mistake. Never mind.

Anyway, as I was about to say before I fell over my own two feet, Alex loved to party, and the current Party Central is Carrefour (there are other venues, of course, but none so deliriously weird). Thousands of people (men, women and children)… jamming the isles of one of the largest supermarkets on the planet (not literally, but you know what I mean), whirling about on the amusement park rides, stuffing their faces in the same (dreadful) ol’ food court eateries we know and love the world over. What is it about a food court anyway? Cities such as Alexandria have amazing markets and shops and restaurants. Food is fresh, tasty, well-prepared and cheap. So why does everyone flock to a food court, and scarf tasteless multinational garbage as through it were their last meal. Horrible thought, that. Imagine dying after eating at a food court. Is that the best last memory one could take with one to one’s final destination?

I thought I was going to finish up with Carrefour today and get on to something more worthwhile. But since I got stuck in the food court and my mind is still there…..

 My Brain is Sucked Dry and Then Some

 2009-05-22 – 16:06:20

It’s been forever since I scribbled my last entry. ‘Course I knew that this would happen. You see, I’ve never been any good when it comes to diaries. I really can’t fucking stand myself and I don’t have much to say. And so, the usual happened: Two entries and then the Black Cloud descended over Johnner’s Blogland. My days ran their course; they all started promisingly enough. Some widened their horizons; some shrunk into their shell. Some could have been interesting, but – you see – I was busy living them, and when I’m busy living a day or a minute or an hour, the last thing on earth I think about is writing about them. Like a memoir: how can I fucking remember something when I’m not yet finished with it?

What does this have to do with Alex? Nothing, really, but this time I really do have an excuse for not writing about this dirty, filthy, crappy city of industries and refineries that I love like no other (except, perhaps, for Paris or Buenos Aires, but I’m here and they’re not). You see, I haven’t been here, either.

Two and a half months ago (a dark day if ever there was one), a private school from a town on the north coast of Egypt sent a busload of urchins to Agami for a day camp. Since I had mentioned to some people I know that I would like to spend some time teaching kids, I was volunteered. It seems they liked me (they were also desperate for a teacher), and I was hired on the spot. So off I trotted, on a day’s notice, to Marsa Matrouh, and there I remained…

One thing good I discovered is that I really do like kids. Another thing I discovered is that I will shred my nose with a vegetable grater if I ever become an Egyptian teacher. Now, before you get your knockers in a twist, let me clarify something. I am not talking about a teacher who happens to be an Egyptian. There are lots of those about and many of them are fine, upstanding citizens. What I’m talking about is that particular specimen I was warned about going in. (“We’ll make an Egyptian teacher out of you.”)… This particular species of pond scum screams and punishes and hurls insults, and quotes some bearded fanatic’s bizarre interpretation of the Qur’An from morning ‘til night, AND NEVER EVER LISTENS to the children. Not once. The kids are they, they believe, only to be beaten and to show blind respect their teachers and to follow every mangled lie that is pumped into their heads. Believe me, I would castrate myself if I was even tempted to sire a child who might end up at the mercy of one of these creeps…..

For days and weeks I watched from the sidelines, more concerned about my own part in this play… and then one day I found that I had started to become one of them. One of these Egyptian teachers.

This might go down as the worst moment of my life. Or perhaps the best. I’ve learned what listening entails. How difficult it is, and how wonderful. I’ve learned how impossible it is to be understood when we ourselves don’t bother to understand.

I’ve still got a week in Marsa Matrouh, and then, insh’Allah, it’s back to Alex, to my wonderful new flat and the new possibilities (good and bad) which which await me.

There are rumbles about me returning to Marsa and setting up a new curriculum in a new department. However, warning lights are flashing and every night I wake up grinding my teeth…..

Besides, I’ve crappy (and decaying) city or industries and refineries that I love… And oh, do I want to write about her…

… I think I start off with the rendering and paint applied to building, and how it seems to slide off before the first day is done. Bless Alex. Bless everything about her.

 Egyptian Bugs

 2009-05-31 – 12:09:39

No., I’m not talking about our intestinal friends, of which I’ve had a few. In fact, during my lifetime, I’ve had so many various and sundry residents in my nether regions that no new ones dare crave admittance. My amoebae run a closed shop: NO ROOM FOR AMATEURS. It’s rather fun. While all around me spend their days sitting on the pot, my generals are waging war against the invading armies, and I do not feel a thing.

Personally, however, I have a feeling I’m not bothered because I really don’t give a fuck. I’ve got better things to do with my time than spray the walls with shit.

So… if it’s not bugs of the intestinal variety I’m whingeing about, what is it? It’s the fucking computer variety. And they’re driving me bats. Not my laptop. I should add – for I’m really fussy and don’t let anyone get without a million miles of it – but the computers I resort to when I go online for reasons great and small. The fucking viruses here are really boring, and do nothing whatsoever for the already crumbling reputation of Egypt. 

You may have noticed that I am here. This means I’m shot of Matrouh – at least for now – and am once more ensconced in my flat in Bianki, which is now the proud owner of a dozen new lace doilies. Every week it looks more and more like the carriage of a Soviet era first class train compartment, only with strangely Egyptian William Morris/arts and crafts furniture (at least we’ve gone past the French brothel look, of which I’ve had more than a fleeting acquaintance). But even more important, my apartment seems to like me – which is vital when it comes to even the most tentative residence/resident relationship. It is a relationship that (hopefully) will build and endure longer than most of my other relationships, which seem to last about as long as the phrase, “my name is…..”

Of course, should I be offered a small villa which is to my liking, or perhaps an estancia at Tortugas, you won’t see my arse for dust, but please don’t tell my apartment. He is a trusting chap, and I don’t want to disillusion him before I leave him for someone else.

It is altogether amazing and wonderful to be back in Alex! I have met all sorts of wonderful new friends, have added to my wardrobe in an encouraging manner, and am weedling a membership of Sporting… I have even discovered – and this discovery was, for once, the last thing on my mind when it happened – the effectiveness of being pulled whilst on the tram. In this case – which ended my status as a virgin expat and pathetic amateur – it was done by someone more munchable than I could hope for. The someone was idly texting no one in particular but making sure I was the once who saw the message. Quite an amazing experience. It also answered a few theretofore unanswered questions about how to arrange an intimate encounter of the best kind, in a place where such things seem so impossible.

Of course, everyone here already knows about the technique. It’s called “how to pick up or be picked up without anyone else even guessing anyone had even noticed anyone else. I’d heard about it, of course, and knew it was universally used in this part of the world. When it suddenly happened to me (yesterday, as a matter of fact) I had a few qualms of the “what if I’ve knifed and thrown out the window” variety. But, of course, if you listen to all of your qualms, you’ll never get anywhere and probably die a virgin.

 Language Expansion

 2009-06-01 – 10:26:50

No, this has nothing to do with the painful and hopeless attempts on the part of my mind to ensnare Arabic. For that, mi amigos, shall for all time remain an illusive goal. Or, as they say here, mish mumkin.

I used to care. After all, wasn’t that one of the reasons I moved to Egypt?

That, however, was before I realised this particular goal was not within my grasp. I stopped caring, relaxed, and joined that horrid fraternity (formerly despised by me), “Expats who refuse to learn languages”. I used to seethe at the mention of Brits in Spain who’d lived there for twenty years, still ate nothing but Bacon Butties and chips, were resolute footie hooligans and ate nothing but frozen fish and chips, washed down by a pint or twn. Ditto expats from Germany, France and Italy. Argentina I cannot include, for the simple reason most of them seem to be born multilingual. Besides they have the tango and Tortugas Polo Club. Both of those attributes render them perfect and above criticism. However, come to think of it, many of my acquaintances from Arab countries abstain from languages other than their own (for reasons I shall not go into here, but which actually boil down to intellectual sloth). So, perhaps I’m playing their own game. And I shall win. I’ve only learned how to win and I like it. Winning makes me feel good.

Of course, my failing to learn yet another language – having already neglected three unto their deaths – does not particularly please me. However, whilst I have been occupied in not learning Arabic, I have discovered – to my delight – that my other languages have been stretched in certain directions. My swearing has reached new heights! And so has my ability to fight and scream and jump queues and, in general, to behave like a twat.

For a long time I preferred to ignore the fact that no one here is capable of ordering a coffee without fighting with the waiter. One cannot board a bus without entering into a shouting match with the driver. My regular bus trips from Matrouh to Alex are ALWAYS delayed whilst the man selling the tickets fights with someone. And, of course, the men here cannot multitask to save their lives (of course, they already have a head start, being men, but being Egyptian doesn’t hurt). Since they are fighting, they cannot press the button of the computer which causes one’s ticket to be dispensed. And so the bus is delayed; it really is sort of counterproductive to wade in and join the fray… but as I’ve come to realise, it doesn’t hurt either. For the thing is, everyone fights all day long, and no one really worries about it.

In the school in which I’ve been toiling (for my sins), the pupils are screeched at, whacked and punished from early morning til late afternoon. And unlike other countries where they worry about such weighty matters as human and civil rights, nobody thinks twice about it. The kids certainly don’t.

Of course, one knows they get the same treatment at home. And when they grow up and propagate (for propagate they certainly will), they will render the same abuse unto their own kids.

And we wonder why there is no peace in the Middle East. But I do adore the Egyptians, in spite of and because of it all.

Next time I’ve really got to mention bathroom fittings. And perhaps their light bulbs. If, that is, I’m not so busy fighting that I forget.

 Purchasing Light Bulb and Other Joys

 2009-06-02 – 10:58:26

This is for those who’ve either never lived in Alex or have only stayed in hotels or hostels. It’s called “Navigating amidst the Ruins”.

You should know by now that I am infected (and infested) by Alexandria. Egypt is all right. Aswan is dandy, but only if you want to see the same Egyptians you saw in Alex or Matrouh, only this time at their second home. Sharm El-Sheikh is all right if you don’t mind the Lanzarote and Costa del Sol drinking crowd from Blighty. Siwa is all right if you are a old hippy, play ‘ultimate’ and like that sort of thing. And (because we have to mention then) The Pyramids are all right in their own way, especially if you avoid facing Cairo and seeing all the horrendous apartment buildings you never see in the brochures. Anyway, I suppose they’re decent backdrops for photos of one’s mother-in-law astride (just before she falls off) a camel. Yada Yada Yada. But Alex is infectious. By that I mean it infests the blood like an amoebae infests the bowels. Once there; always there.

There is no unearthly reason why there is a single building still standing. The Pyramids may have been built a couple of years back, but – except for their rendering, which I’ve noticed sluffed off just like the rendering on every single Alex building, after only the second month – they’re are in pretty fair shape.

I may have mentioned that I have a new (to me; five years old to Bianki) apartment. And I absolutely adore it. The rooms are large enough to accommodate Egyptian furniture, it’s a corner flat and gets a nifty cross-draught, and it’s high enough up so that, when I hang my towels on the line, I can give my vertigo something to think about. However, it (the building) was not built thousand of years ago when Egyptians had confidence in themselves, but by the contemporary variety who definitely do not. Unfortunately, they also used Egyptian materials.

The flat was newly painted in colours and patterns of William Morris Wallpaper. The furniture is madly arts and crafts, and their maker had a definite preference for spindled legs. And, it goes without saying, there are loads of doilies (many brought by myself). It’s quite fun, sort of like a retro Brothel (or, as I’ve already said, a Soviet-era 1st-class railway compartment).

It even has a water pump so that I am able to shower and do all the other things that make the world go round. However (and this is the first of the ‘howevers’), the taps one should close to keep unwanted water from gaining admittance to the toilet cistern when the pump is on, do not work. But, then again, I have never ever met a tap that works in Egypt. By government edict, the minute one touches one of the little critters, it falls off, often on to one’s foot. Consequently, when one turns on the water pump to, say, wash one’s hands or take a shower, the toilet floods.

Before I moved in, “my people” were told a new stove was being installed in the kitchen. In fairness, it probably was new at sometime in the last century, about the last time it was cleaned. That wouldn’t be so bad, except the knobs (those that are there) also fall off when touched, rendering one unable to turn off the gas. Since, as of today, I have no more cheap plastic knobs to replace the other cheap plastic knobs that have broken in half, and I happen to like to cook, I have no choice but to bring up the matter to the proper people (hopefully via “my people”, since they – at least – have been known to get things done). I really dread the confrontation, for in the hearts of every contemporary Egyptian (what has happened to them?) lies a thick payer of denial of the “what’s the matter, there’s nothing wrong with it” variety. And that leads to the regulation fight, and after a regular dose of such fights, I’ve become a much more unpleasant (but possibly more interesting) person.

I am a very sore loser, and have been known to prolong a fight longer than even the best Egyptian… (this is for the record, by the way).

Which brings me to light bulbs. Now, the light bulbs here are made to expire the minute one needs them. They also shatter in their fittings, which is why every blingy, gilded chandelier in Egypt looks decrepit before the first day is out. I don’t know who makes the light bulbs, but I do know that unless the makers want to give Egypt an ever worse reputation than it already has, they should cease putting “Made In Egypt” on the box. The light bulbs are utter crap.

However (this is sort of a reverse however, to compensate for all my other negative howevers), if one does have to purchase a light bulb for any reason, one should always go to a shop specialising in light fittings and (yes) light bulbs. At least in one of those places you can check the boxes in front of the little man before forking over a wad of brown money. One thing you do NOT do, is to purchase light bulbs in a Supermarket, not even in such lofty emporia as Carrefour or Metro. A friend of mine did. However (sadly, not a good however), I was by that time wise to all things bearing the imprint “Made in Egypt”, and told him to check the box before he bought. He looked in all twenty-six boxes (this was, by the way, in Metro, which is part of the San Stefano Mall, anchored by The Four Seasons Hotel). In every single box was a shattered light bulbs. The manager didn’t seem to think anything was wrong with them. He even had the nerve to say, ‘Insh’Allah’, which annoyed me no end.

I’ve not got round to buying shoes yet… or to brown money… or to getting change, although I’ve probably mentioned that, it being one of the impossible inponderables of life.

But I still love Alex. Call me infested.

 Ain’t Life Wonderful!

 2009-06-07 – 10:01:26

What can I say? I’m in love again. And no, I’m not talking about my personal life, where – let’s face it – I give a new meaning to the word “fickle”, and where it’d be nice if my love of my life lasted longer than the best part of five minutes. In fact, I rather think the longest-lasting love affair of my life was with a paint bubble when I was about three. It was on the window sill of one of my nursery windows… then there was my love affair with a jar of pickles when I was five.

I also fall in love with necks… more specifically, with the line that runs down from the jaw bone to the collar bone… this, means, of course, that I can have great relationships with perfect necks on the bus any day of the week, and never have to worry about personal interaction and other boring stuff.

I also have a thing about the throat latch of horses… very special horses. But unlike with members of the human race, I don’t mind a bit of interaction with their equine equivilents. Plus the fact, that I’m still around for breakfast.

You might have noticed that I’m not angry this morning. The reason for this, my dear friends, is that I have “DONE THE RIGHT THING”.

As you might know – if, that is, you’ve been following this blog or my page on Facebook – I spent the past couple of months teaching at a private school on the North Coast of Egypt. Lovely people; lovely town (as towns in Egypt go); fabulous kids. And everybody seemed to want me around (which must be a first). The only drawback – and one that was airily dismissed by those in charge – was that, although I was supposed to be teaching English, not one of my pupils could understand a single thing I said. As anyone who knows anything about teaching understandings, a good teacher has to find a way around this sort of problem; it is, after all, the teacher’s jobs is to find a way “in”, as it were. Unfortunately, in this case, the longer I was there and the more I listened, the more I realised that I understood the pupils even less.

There was also the problem (while I’m being honest I might as well admit this as well) that I do not know my way around kids. As kids, I really didn’t know any (preferring horses and books and inventing stories); in school I avoided them whenever possible. I’ve never held a baby, and – until my recent experience – I’ve never ever played with them. Of course, I suppose kids are remarkable creatures. Not as interesting as a pet kestrel or a horse or a pen and paper, of course, but good for a few amusement. At least until they realised I don’t really know what they’re for, at which point they find someone or something more amusing.

Kids want to play. Kids need to play. It’s what kidhood is all about. In other species, play is what is referred to (condescendingly, I fund), nothing more than a schoolroom for the cutthroat world of adulthood. However, when it comes to kids, playing is called time-wasting. Now, my problem as a teacher is that I want kids to play. Once their balls drop (in the case of boys, at least), life will start to sour – not only because that is what life does when one turns into a seething pustule of pumping hormones, but because there is inevitably an authority figure who takes himself too seriously and spends his time beating the pustule whenever he behaves… like a pustule.

Kids need special handling; they are, after all, our future and I (at least) they manage to do a better job taking care of things than have the current crop of adults. And that is why, when a teacher realises he or she has no business teaching, he or she should stand aside.

I spent the past two months getting more and more angry, acting more and more like a male Egyptian teacher. In other words, ranting and screaming and – yes – resorting to physical abuse. Then I woke up. I realised that one more day of that and I would thrown myself out of a window. Literally.

I’ve also become increasingly rude. Now, if you’re Egyptian, it’s all right to argue with everyone and push into queues. It’s a cultural thing. However, I’m not Egyptian. With me, such behaviour is NOT acceptable.

And so, in spite of being wanted by one’s employers, I quit. As soon as I did so, I suddenly ceased feeling angry. I no longer feel the need to be ruder than the next guy. I didn’t spent the night ranting and raving. I know, I know: in a place where everyone else spends all their time yelling and screaming, no one even notices. And the kids are often abused so much at home, nothing done to them at school even phases them.

Best of all, I’m back in Alex. I don’t have to spend five days per week away from this glorious mess of a city doing things for which I hate myself.

I’m back in Alex. I have fallen in love again. I’m learning how to have love affairs the Alex way, even if they last only the best part of five minutes. I am reading great reads and scribbling great scribbles. I’m looking out for the next best thing.

 Alex without Alex

 2009-06-16 – 15:15:56

This actually has little to do with Alexandria. Of course, it happened in Alex, so for all intents and purposes it’s an Alex problem.

It’s been a while since I last scribbled anything for this blog. I made this promise, you see, not to say anything about the city unless it was something (at least) reasonably positive. And, of course, that meant I was OBLIGED to go one a tear. A rant. An absafucking shitfaced fury over anything and everything, but mostly over the constant fighting and screeching and yelling that surrounds one every minute of the day and night.

To be fair, it’s not an Alex thing. It’s an Egyptian thing. But still, it drives one round the bend. Especially since – if you’re like me – it’s so easy to get sucked in to the fray. In fact, you can easily go from dawn to dusk (well, more like late afternoon to dawn, since nobody gets up until 4 or 5 in the afternoon) and never spend one second without being embroiled in one fight or other. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the others involved or that you have no idea what’s going on, the thing is to let everybody else know that they don’t have any right to exist. Not that they do exist. This explains a lot about the Middle East Peace Process and why anyone from the know-it-all West who thinks he/she’s got the answers has been eating too many happy pills.

Ooops… as usual, veered into lecture mode. Sorry about that. Of course, I’m not going to admit I was born with it, because I was. In fact, in school I was chosen as the Mostly Likely To Bore People To Death.

I don’t know what I’ve accomplished in this blog, but as they say, it’s the jounrey that counts, not the actually getting there.

Oh, I know. It’s about not writing this blog if I couldn’t find something good to say about Alex. HOWEVER, I just thought of something to write about in which I could blame Alex, but at the same time, let Alex off the hook.

It’s all the fault of Alex. Not the city Alex, but an Alex named Alex. Alex may or may not be his real name, and I may or may not have met him. In other words, what took place may or may not have taken place. And while it took place in a city that looked very much like Alex, it may, in fact, have been Geneva. Or not.

I bought (or didn’t buy) a computer. From a guy who may or may not have been named Alex. Now, the first rule is NEVER ever buy a computer from anybody else. NEVER EVER buy a USED computer. Period.  Also, never ever buy a computer unless you like it – and more importantly, unless the little guy that lives inside and to whom you pore copious amounts of coffee every day (through the CD/DVD thingy)- likes you. That’s the trick about successful computer ownership. The guy inside’s gotta like you, and can’t care a fig what a moron you are.

Most computers I’ve owned (all of which have forgiven me anything and everything and have never once told me I’ve performed an “illegal act”) have ended up as my best friends. But then, I knew they would before I bought them (the same has applied to houses and flats and cars and motor cycles: either I’ve loved ’em, or I’ve left ’em (usually without getting my money back, which shows that when you buy a computer or a car or a motorcycle, it’s the same as getting married).

But back To Alex. Who sold me a computer. A used computer. A computer I didn’t like. I computer I hated so much (it looked at me and sniggered) that I locked it away in the wardrobe for a month before using.

Of course, like in any good horror story, the computer really was evil. It had a worm. A really really really bad worm. And I know it was there waiting for me, because it sucked out the life of a flash disk before I even went on line with it. It destroyed my life and I hadn’t even downloaded any porn. And that wasn’t nice of it.

Alex phoned me a while back and asked me (?) how the computer was. Of course, seeing as how it was still locked in the wardrobe at the time, I said it was fine.

Alex isn’t in Alex anymore. Alex is now Alex-free. I like Alex better now that Alex doesn’t live here anymore.

 The Joy of Being Me

 2009-06-20 – 15:30:13

It’s nice being me; it’s even better not having to be anyone else. Being someone would be so exhausting. All that responsibility for things, which I – as me – don’t have to worry about.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of miles (and kilometres, since I’ve lived in a lot of countries) to appreciate the me-ness of being me. That is not to say I necessarily like myself or like what I do or like my personality (or any of those other things that – put together – make the me that I am. But I’m used to me.

Now, I’m not necessarily very good at anything, except of course, at being me. I have no other talents to speak of, I’m rather too fond of being antisocial when life would be easier if I weren’t. After all, going through life alienating people is not something I would recommend to anyone else. Except, of course, if you’re me, and then it’s all right. I’m used to it.

My linguistic skills are appalling. I was once fluent in three languages and proficient in a couple more. Now, I barely get along in one, and unfortunately that – English – is not one of which I’m particularly fond; it can be sublime when on the printed page, but that’s as far as it gets.

What does this have to do with Alexandria, my home for now and possibly for the foreseeable future? Not much, excepting the bit about my appalling language skills, and even there I feel a fine Italian hand at work.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that now that I’ve settled here, learning Arabic would be my number one priority. Not a bit of it, it seems. I’m not in the least bit proud of myself, but – you see – it doesn’t really matter all that much. Perhaps one of these days I’ll awaken and proclaim, “today is the day I learn Arabic.” But I doubt it. And I’ll tell you why.

What a longish life lived in many countries has taught me is that, as soon as one knows the lingua franca of a given place, one is required to listen to what people are saying. And since they are usually saying more or less the same thing wherever you are, why should you go to all that bother and muss and fuss just to hear the same old crap you listened to at the last twenty places you lived in. In language, just as in so many other things, familiarity really does bred contempt.

It used to really upset me that I don’t retain languages very well when I don’t practice them. But that was when I was when I was busy striving for a meaningful existence and hidden talents and – well – denying my real purpose in life: which is to be me.

Alex, at least until it changes its mind about me, is quite a nice place in which to be me.

 On Being a Border Person

 2009-07-07 – 03:09:55

As usual, it’s been a long time between blogs. To be honest, there’s been nothing much to say. Or at least nothing to say I haven’t already said a dozen times. Pathetic, really, when I’m living in Alex; surrounded by teaming, screaming life; being lectured to by sour men who spend most of their time standing on their heads and never look at the garbage they’re throwing on the ground. They always ask me if I can say the Faditha, to which I answer yes. They don’t bother waiting for my reply. I’m European, and therefore stupider’n the cat shit upon which they’re standing, and so they ask me to repeat after them. At that point I butt in and say (politely, I hope) “I pray to God and not to man”; quickly I say Ma’a Salam and exit stage right. But not before they’ve asked my age, followed by various other personal questions I’ve no intention of answering. This is not really a whinge; it’s an admission. Every day I’m assimilating less. Something I’m not proud of, really, considering I have always lived between cultures – though I’m not really ashamed of it, either. A border person, is one definition that fits people like me. I exist between cultures; I don’t fit in anywhere, and the longer I live the less I want to. I used to become annoyed at my mother’s constant refrain, “but I’ve moved all my life!” I know now what she meant, because the mantra has become my own. But, of course, it always was; only when I was younger I was naïve enough to think I would change.
Of course, I have changed; however, instead becoming someone or a better me , I’ve become a more concentrated version of myself. I’m far more me than I was a year ago. I sort of like the me I’m becoming (thank God I’m even less conservative than I was last week; if the opposite were true, I’d have to kill myself). My horizons are brighter; the colours sharper. I exist and want to exist in the Aurora Borealis.
The average length of time I’ve lived anywhere is about three years, the longest exception being five or six. What I notice now is that “drifting through” is my limit. Set me down in a place for three months and I can’t stand myself. When I think of what I really want to do, all that come to mind is a sail boat – endlessly sailing the southern oceans, only stopping now and again. Mr heart yearns for Patagonia. The Andes also call, as does the north of Norway and Sweden. Cities don’t beckon, except for their diversions; education and learning do. And books. Endless stacks of books. And, please, if I am to be around people, let them have a passion for life and learning. Let their horizons be bright. Let them be fucking educated. And for fuck sake, let them keep their religion to themselves. We all believe in something. I believe in the endless seas; in the skies; in the breezes that caress my bare flesh; in horses; in me. The rest is my business.
I know why I’m writing this. It’s because I’ve been in Alex for more than three months. Three months, plus a further two in Marsa Matruh. When it comes down to it, I’ve got nowhere else to go; Egypt is good for me; I have opportunities here that elude me elsewhere. Who cares if the cities are cities. Who cares if they don’t wash their plates on the reverse side? Who cares if the people are nosey and bossy and as rude as shit drying in the sun? They are also giving and generous and wonderful…
I’d thought, having nothing good to say about Alex, I’d write about something else. There was always the jingoistic 4th of July “Happy Birthday America” picnic to which I was invited, and which left me in a black hole of fury (about which I have nothing original to say, and so won’t. At least for now). On a more positive note, I’d also thought to write about the community of rats living in my (and everybody else’s) ventilation shaft. I met them today; they’re fat and healthy and bigger than the Agami cats. I’ll write about them tomorrow. Mumkin.

 Early Sunday Morning on Bitosh

 2009-06-27 – 10:33:50

Picture this (I only say this, because if I don’t, you might not get the picture). It is Sunday morning in Bitosh, which, for those not in the know, is in Agami, somewhere to the west of Alexandria. In the summer, Agami is a party town. It rises at five or so in the afternoon, and doesn’t really get going before nine or ten or eleven.

I live at the good end of Bitosh. In other words, I live at the edge of Bianki. Not so posh as living in Bianki itself, but better than living on the other side of the street, if you know what I mean.

Clubs on Bitosh and in Bianki don’t get going til long after midnight. And some don’t wind down til after seven in the morning. I should know. My apartment overlooks the Paradise Restaurant, where all the trendy Agamiti hang out and do what they never do – things they don’t even know about – between the hours of seven and midnight.

I was going to say it’s where hijabs come off and minis (just about) come on, but since it’s one of those open secrets of which Egypt and much of the rest of the Middle East is so famous for, I won’t go into it.

Now, I get up early. Always have. Always will do (until the day I don’t). The racket blaring from the Paradise has nothing to do with my sleeping habits, only I wish they’d get a longer playlist and a better sound system. One can only turn the volume up on a cheapo set so far until it you start pondering the fate of humankind, if such a thing is possible. Thank heaven no one in Egypt can afford sub-woofers, is all I can say. The buildings in Egypt are constructed of concrete in which they forgot the concrete. They have enough trouble standing upright without sub-woofers.

This morning I met a new best friend. I was leaving my building about nine, a time when everyone else is asleep – unless they’re slumped in a cafe blurry-eyed and sucking on a sheesha – and a young ultra-trendy agamisto came up to me and asked me where I’d spent the night. I pointed up in the general direction of my apartment, to which me mentioned a name. A worried frown crinkled his face.

The conversation went back and forth (as they do here), and it dawned on my that one of the women living in the building (I don’t knowing which one, not knowing my neighbours) earns the sort of income no one in Egypt is supposed to know about. The guy – who I suppose – has to earn a living somehow, was worried I had been getting a little on the side without him getting a cut.

In the end, we got it all sorted out. He knows (because I told him) that my “little friend” likes to be introduced before getting all excited, and that being introduced entails more than a quick “here’s fifty pounds, your alleyway or mine?” Also, although I’ve got the morals of a stoat, I’m really really cheap (I thought he deserved to know the truth about me). However, since I also said I was always ready and willing, and that I never met a “haram” I didn’t like – should the conditions be right – my new best ultra-trendy Agamisto pimp friend left me with a hopeful smile playing on his lips. I bet he phones we with a proposition.

Actually, what I said had something about drawing the line at ducks.


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