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Sunday, October 30, 2011

the bar redux 22/10

It begins with a rumour, a whisper, a word. It continues with sound moving from ear to ear, a status update, a tweet moving from server to server, a blogpost, a news article moving from reader to reader. No one is sure if it's true and this makes some of them more cautious some less so. Then in the end there is confirmation.

Near my apartment there is a bar. A type of bar that's strewn all over Egypt like papers in a garbage heap. This bar does not sell alcohol; no it sells shisha and soft drinks. All kinds of soft drinks, pepsi, nescafe with a lemon squeezed into it, Turkish tea, Kenyan coffee and always these drinks are accompanied by a glass of water. I have fallen into the habit{am not sure if it can be called a habit after barely a week} of going there in the evenings after work to have a hit of shisha. I enter sit down and ask for shisha, I puff and pull and pull and puff till my brain gets dizzy then I sit and watch the bar. I can't speak Arabic and no one here speaks English except for a young boy whose job it is to take care of the shisha, he brings the water pipes to you, replaces the wella or coal and for a price replaces the hagga which is the receptacle into which the tobacco is poured.

It gets cold at night, this is strange as everyone associates Egypt with heat but this place is buffeted by trade winds. The structure  of the bar is open, it's a long rectangle maybe 3 by 13 metres. Near one end is the television  hanging by a thread from the roof, it's a flat screen of respectable inchage that's tuned into whatever's hot that day, football, news or whatever s touching the Egyptian psyche at that moment. Behind it is the shisha store where row upon row of shishas is kept, all of the large variety and next to them a furnace, this furnace is kept on the whole day it heats up the  wella that heats up the tobacco that heats up our brains. At the other end of the bar is an open space the bar opens up onto the street this is a multipurpose design, serving to clear out the smoke, entice new customers and let in the breeze.

The owner is a portly man, a man with a stomach. He sits his heft down and its always a surprise that he can get I back up again then he gets high on his on supply the whole day. His main job seems to be to create a friendly atmosphere in the bar, he knows most of the regular patrons, he knows me and we exchange greetings while am on my way to work. And a friendly atmosphere is created am not sure if its thanks to him or thanks to the nature of Arabian culture. Arabs are naturally expressive people, the move their hands as they talk, they do this  for emphasis, to help explain and because that's what they've always done. They speak with large voices, voices that match their loud personalities. Voices designed to conquer the constant din that's part of Cairo, Cairo is one of the nosiest cities I have ever been in, it is extremely alive. Speaking to its inhabitants and speaking through them. There you can hear a car hooting, hooting so loudly and insistently you're always almost moving out of the way, behind you comes the sound of prayers a sound that's an almost constant companion, inside the bar you can hear the treble bubble,bubble bubble of shisha, conversation and board games. The board game most played is a dice game where after every roll of the dice blocks are moved around till they come to the end of the four cornered globe they use. The game looks like what the old gods must have played when deciding the structure of the world. Chance aided by skill.

Egypt is essentially a smoking country. Tobacco is consumed in frightening quantities. Cigarettes are  sold and smoked on every street corner and by every road merchant, they are lit up in buildings and in cars they are put out in hallways and in rooms.Shisha emits as much smoke as a dragon. The old men who smoke it exhale it constantly from their noses, they just let it go like its a part of their anatomy a fire burning within them. The bar is smoky and loud. Maybe because of its layout. The chairs are placed facing away from the walls so that everyone can look at everyone else. The people here know each other and talk and joke the whole night. They grab each other heads and hit the back of them, they shake each other's hands and kiss each other's cheeks in a greeting that's much more manly when witnessed. They stand up, they sit down, they shout and silence each other with looks that could kill. A soccer game is watched with rapt interest and punctuated by sounds, dismay, joy, relief. All this exchanged between people in this bar which now seems like one table, one very long table in which all the patrons are sitting together, a family of men. Women aren't allowed in here a flaccid ticket is needed to gain entrance.

2 days ago I  entered the bar to find silence and people staring intently at the TV screen. A friend of mine communicated to me that Gaddafi was dead, he made a slit throat gesture and said “morte Gaddafi bad man.” I don't think there's any love lost between Gadaffi and the average Egyptian citizen, they watched a revolution that they partly inspired crushed and quashed by this man. They watched him order the bombing of his own citizens and fight a civil war in a country that borders their own. Their brothers, geographically, culturally and religiously were shot down mercilessly on the orders of this man.

So I smoked shisha and peered up at the TV screen. Al Jazeera had an exclusive, all day rumours about this event had been swirling and they could finally be confirmed. The channel is in Arabic as it should be but there are no subtitles which means all I could rely on was my vision. Gadaffi looked pale, ghastly and ghostly, death had done what it usually does ripping the soul out of him and leaving just a bag of bones, flesh and blood. There was a y incision across his chest that looked autopsic or maybe that was just the scar left when his huge heart stopped beating. And he was thin, much thinner than I remembered reduced in his final moments to something less than what he was in life.

This day had some significance for me though not to anyone else in there, you see it was the twentieth of October, Kenyatta day. This is the day when in Kenya we celebrate the anniversary of the imprisonment of our first president, a paradoxical thing to celebrate, but then in its own way fitting as it speaks volumes about the mixed feelings that most Kenyans have as concerns mzee. Gadaffi may never have met him but I can't imagine him not knowing about Kenyatta, I can't imagine that in his pushes for a pan African state he didn't read up on the first set of presidents we had, all strong men, men who wielded power and perhaps even emanated it from the force of their personalities. Men like Nyerere and Nkrumah, Kaunda and Kenyatta, the heirs of the colonial systems they fought tooth and nail. Kenyatta with his fly whisk will always be the image of the first of Kenya. And for along tome Gadaffi in a tent holding court with some of the most powerful men in the world will be the image of the leader of Libya.  They both held their countries in an iron grip, they both oozed charisma from every pore, both inexhaustible leaders, both men who inspired a mixture of admiration, terror, blind love and naked hatred among their citizenry and now they shared this too. Fifty-nine years between the two captures but the fact that it was on the same day dawned on me as I sat there and watched.

Just like that. Another great man had left us, another life snuffed out like a candle at a children's birthday party. death makes equals of us at the end. In that moment I was struck by a certain picture, a scene from the end of The Godfather, as Michael’s sisters child was being baptised. This scene is interposed with the death of great men from all over New York. They are not good men and they lived by the sword, a biblical promise that more should take seriously found its conclusion in them. They are cut down in their nakedness and their vulnerability glasses are worn and shattered, a policeman kneels down by the courthouse and delivers a shot that remains one of my favourite scenes ever. In my mind I saw Saddam hanging to death losing all the dignity he had so painstakingly reclaimed after being found hiding in a hovel, I saw Osama being hunted down in his house in Pakistan, he had stirred a giant from sleep and when that giant wakes up someone pays no matter when, I saw Mubarrak as I had last seen him being taken into the courtroom on a stretcher sick and sickly as if he was suffering withdrawal from power, I saw Castro somewhere in Cuba no longer the revolutionary who had walked with Che as a young man, no longer the dictator who would stand up and give 2,3,4 hour long speeches  now he was just a man, a man locked in an eternal staring match with mortality and death which like Putin never blinks. Steven Erikson once wrote that time is death's most faithful servant. And so it seemed. Before that scene in the movie Michael said “tonight the Corleone family settles all debts.” And so it seemed.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Nineteenth October

                                                 .................ci...................    .......c2...................

                                                     ....................c3..............       ..........c4...................

“they thought I was an idiot I gave them my car and they gave me a card.”

I love phone games especially the old ones. Angry birds has created a storm of catapults sucking man-hours like it's a toothless whore but before this there were the old school games creating addictions with nothing more than lines on a small phone screen. Snake swallowed more time than the number of balls that animal was after. Bounce was what people used when they were scared of being bounced on dates, but a game that has been severely underrated was push. This wasn't a game of wits and war, it was simply a game where you pushed blocks back and forth as you tried to win, push them this way and they fall, that way and it will all be OK, I had the pleasure to observe a game of push yesterday.

I had been picked up to go to a café in maadi{as promised better with names.} the doors to apartments in Egypt are curious contraptions, they lock themselves immediately on impact, you can then open them if you are inside but if you are outside you need a key, once you slot the key in and turn it the door pops open, I like the security this presents but when your flatmate is on the way to Italy and she was the last person to be seen with the keys it means hermitage isn't just a word that rhymes with rage. Because I needed a solution the guy who was picking me up had to leave his car downstairs in a position that it wouldn't be blocking anyone. His car is c4. C4 and c3 are vertically parked while c2 and c1 are both horizontally parked. In any country in the world this is where you utter a string of colourful curses believing that profanity provides position change, not so in Egypt

He looked at his car and was a little angry then he talked to an old man in Arabic, this was the quintessential wise man, the yoda Egyptian complete with bent gait and walking stick. They grab hold of c1 and push it, magically that car moves , I say magically because this car was parked and it shouldn't be able to move, maybe its the effect of yoda there I think. But am going with the flow so I lend a hand and push till it creates some space. They then turn their attention to c2 and push it but it does not move. Not to be daunted my pal begins to push c3 so that he would have enough space to turn around.

Apparently in Egypt if you park your car blocking the exit of another car it's common courtesy not to set your handbrake, that way if someone needs to leave they just push it out of the way and then leave! I was just as surprised. Anyway now he needs to reverse and turn diagonally because while c1 has opened up its still a player in the unfolding drama. C2 is directly behind us and am not sure how he expects to back out but expectant he is. He starts turning this way and that doing the magic drivers do where they turn the steering wheel really fast  and then move forward repeating the procedure over and over.

At this point he can diagonally back out or so it seems and he begins to. Then yoda says something and it turns out that he has very nearly scratched c3. In fact till this moment am sure he has scratched this car, a hairsbreadth couldn't describe the distance between them unless it was the hair on Michael Jordan’s head[I know I know using an mj reference for baldness in twenty eleven shows an appalling lack of of interest in current ahhairs but that's just who I am right now.] he drives forward now and I can swear I hear the scream of metal on paint but when he is done it's OK apparently.

Two kids show up on the scene, they had been watching with interest and now they want to lend their help. They are  around fourteen or fifteen. They speak incomprehensibly at least to me. In their mouths are dangling cigarettes like that's actually normal they are so nonchalant about it that even yoda doesn’t say anything.

They engage in Rubik’s cube like hand gestures that I couldn't follow if I was active on twitter, when they are done the driver nods like he understands, in my mind I know he scratched c3 and there's no manoeuvre in the world slick enough to avoid scratching it again. My heart pounds since all the confidence in the air has filled it with a sense of hope. He starts his car engine and back out.

1 cm. One second later he still moving

2cm. At this point the accelerator is being caressed like beautiful hair.

3cm. We're so close to the other car they could be kissing each other.

4 cm. This is the moment of truth.


 C2 begins to move, I have no idea why till I see that the owner of the car showed up and unlike Kenya where he would waste more time by starting it up he just began pushing it out of the way and out of ours then we are on our way.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dead Pharoahs 18/10

In Kenya leaving the house at 5 pm can be considered wasting the day, at that time if you're a foreigner there's nowhere to go except a club, in Egypt its not so. 24 hour economies are amazing, we arrived at old Cairo about 6 pm. This is the  site of the first city of Cairo a fort built to protect its inhabitants from desert marauders, its surrounded by huge, medieval walls, walls with murder holes and wrought iron gates. The streets were obviously not meant for driving, paved and jigsawed together as they are and the mosques here all look amazing. They have lights flashing yellow, purple, red changing the colours of the walls. It looks mystical and religious as they flash the night away. After this we went back home. One of my Italian flatmates was leaving Egypt the next day and so she wanted to go out to celebrate her last night, we were in the house till around 11 pm. At that time our other flatmate arrived home, she didn't want to go out and was having an early night which  here actually means coming home at 11 pm.

We left and as happens in most countries we decided to go in search of alcohol. Forget mututho laws in Kenya just walk into a dingy down town joint and you'll be served your brandy, in Egypt you look for this place called Drinkees. Drinkees is such a customer oriented service that if you call and let them know you want some alcohol then tell them where you are they'll give you directions to exactly where you can find alcohol. If that makes it sound easy to find alcohol that sentence is deception writ. Well we went in search and drove round and round Cairo, Cairo is huge, Nairobi is a dwarf town in comparison. At around 1 am we found a likely spot for alcohol. There was a guy there with a couple of horses, this guy makes his money by hiring them out for a ride and there he was at this random time looking for fares, all his ten or so horses lined up ready for a ride(he wasn't the alcohol seller just another curious sight). We finally found a shop where there was alcohol we tried for vodka, tequila{one of the party dudes was a Mexican} but there was nothing nearly that strong,in the end all we got was a couple of beers which we carried to the club.

I promise I’ll get better with the names of these places with time but for now I can't remember what the club was called just that it was out of the way, we stood around in the parking lot emptying a can of beer each into our throats. This taste was just like the flash flood Egypt experiences, you are thankful for the moisture but it's really just a beginning point, you need a dam lot of beer to be anywhere near what you're used to. We went into the club and just like most of Egypt there was a drought of women. I have no idea where the women go in this place, definitely not the same places I go too, something am going to have to change. There were a couple of people there already partying. There were these lounge chairs where the Viagra guy was already chilling. There was shisha to be had, and shisha here is a phenome deserving of another post, it makes sense that they don't need alcohol.

A couple of minutes into the revelry a horse is led onto the stage and it performs{mind out of the gutter please} I mean it dances, it dances round and round with its jockey sitting on it, its oddly hypnotic looking like a snake charmer as the horse gets on its knees and then laboriously rises before falling back down, moving its head this way and that, cantering and jumping all in time to the beat. The thing about this club is that this was not the surprise animal of the day, no that honour goes to a lion. Yes a lion, well a cub. A guy in the club had this thing that looked like a dog till I gave it a closer look and saw a mane. He was carrying it around in his arms showing it to everyone who cared to see. It looked tired and tamed, maybe it was just drugged and dragged to the club. In my mind I was glad to be sober because otherwise... well there is no otherwise. When confronted by a lion all I have is my word(as my cousin would say after watching scarface and being dared to do something he considered too scary.)

We left this club and went to the spot. There's this hotel called the Armada, that name was really familiar to me and it wasn't till we left and I saw that the hotel was in the shape of a ship moored on the Nile{the Nile is everywhere here, its as unremarkable as a road to locals while every time I see it all I want to do is stare.} This is a posh hotel. The name says it's posh, the location says its posh, the ATM machine welcoming you into the hotel says its posh. Even the spicy food in there would be posh. One of the guys we were with had booked us the top floor of this star awarded hotel, connections, and we got to go there and have a private party.

This was by no means a free party but when we entered there were wine glasses on the table for each of us and.... bottles of mineral water. We sat down and took over this place. A guy had his ipod and convinced the DJ to let him play music off it. The musical mix was eclectic to say the least, jumping from eminem to pitbull to nicki minaj to frank sinatra to fallout boy and the guys who sang losing my religion. There was an Indian dude with us who couldn't get enough of this, him and my Egyptian pal were on the floor the whole time, crooning with frank, crumping to nicki, air guitaring to fallout boy and raging with em. The thing about the people I was partying with was their international experience, a lot of the Egyptians here had spent a couple of years in America and this had changed them, sinatra isn't that common a music choice in most parts of the world, the Indian wasn't your typical Indian, he had been around too, dude could dance and he was the one who came up to me and said
“flashing them dead presidents huh.”
“you know am not black American right? Anyway here it would be dead Pharaohs.”

I ordered a shisha because when you come to Egypt have one, have one every day. You can find it at the local café’s for twenty American cents, and when it hits, it hits. There’s no head rush like an Egyptian shisha head-rush. They keep laughing at how weak I am when I can't stand up immediately and I tell them if being weak feels this good I never want to be strong. I lost my head, it's somewhere out there wondering. That's how it feels, the smoke rushes straight to your brain taking you on such a head trip you have to take off your shoes and belt.

We left the club at around four thirty, my flatmate got to see Cairo one last time as we drove around the streets, this part of the journey was tinged with a certain sadness, she kept looking off into the distance, playing with her phone instead of being there with us as if already preparing to detach herself from all these people she had met on her trip.  She was looking forward to italy but at the same time she had to say goodbye to egypt, all her friends, all the sights, all the memories. She looked away from me and sniffled just a little. I had no idea what to do or what to say. Bitter goodbyes and sweet memories had her in their grip and until they let her go there was nothing I could do. When  you travel you get so homesick and then it's time to go back home, but when you're in a place you may never see again it's like you're losing home all over and this time  you know its terminal. Sure there's facebook but that's just morphine when what you really need is a cure. "the worst thing about being a traveller is this part, the goodbyes no even worse it changes you and soon all you can relate to is other travellers because they are different in some way.” she said as she looked out of the window as her home passed by her one last time.

On the bright side now I'll have a room to myself.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

cairo day 1. 16/10.

Am in Egypt for 6 weeks. Courtesy of AIESEC I found an internship in Cairo an opportunity I had to take.

The first thing I notice about Cairo is how huge it is. Am picked up at the airport at 3 am and driven to my accommodation site, there's no traffic at all considering the time and I get to see Cairo as it was meant to be seen{I’m assuming noone wants streets to be driven in while people are angry at the traffic.} There are flyovers everywhere, endless ways to get to your destination it's like seeing a potential future of Nairobi which is really gratifying in addition this is Egypt so for every glimpse into modernity and what humans do now there’s a window into the rich cultural and historical enigma that it is. “there to your left is the citadel. We're passing some of the oldest mosques in Africa right now.” The whole time am being blown away by the sheer beauty of the architecture.  I have a friend who put it like this once, men love curves, anything with curves, the curvier the woman, the curvier the car, the curvier the ball the more the men who want to get their hands on it. But back home all the buildings are angular and straight. They are angry, they want to take over the space that the air now occupies, towards this end they thrust into it. They plunge themselves like a knife into the warm folds of the air, renting it and tearing it, giving two options you or us. Here the architecture is curved, it accommodates the air, it tells it we can live together here, find a way around my curves because there is and I’ll find a way to let you pass. We'll have balconies on every one of us, inviting you in, friends right?

After the longest car ride I have ever been in that passes through only urbania I get to the place I’ll be living. The guy who picked me up tells me the apartment is on the fifth floor. I look at my suitcase which while it was safely below the forty kg limit is still a problem to lug around, especially all that way, then he says a sentence that should be used more often in Kenya,”don't worry we have elevators.” and do they. Elevators like I have never seen before. Of course Otis made these elevators too however the elevators have a door. Not the sliding metal curtains that am used to but an actual door, you pull on it and it opens up for you, step into the elevator and press the button for the fifth. Then you are in the belly of the beast. In Kenya elevators are usually clinical and pristine, it makes you forget that you are actually inside a building, there's no promise that you'll leave but all you see is metal and so its OK Here there are doors on very floor, meaning between the floors the elevators open up into the wall. You can reach out with your hands and touch the wall but you wouldn't want to, its rugged and rough, hewn out of the building or so it seems. We stop on the fifth and push the door, otherwise you're going to sit there like a dunce.

My apartment is open and am introduced to one of my house mates, here's one of the best things about an aiesec internship you get a window into so many cultures at once. My two house-mates are Italian, one leaves in 2 days the other in 2 weeks at which point I’ll either have the house to myself or get gifted a few more cultural insights. It's a huge apartment by my standards. There's a kitchen to the left with a gas cooker, this is one of those places where the gas is delivered in pipes. I enter the sitting room area and its nearly 6 metres long and 2.5 wide. There are only two rooms{there should really be a way to convey sarcasm in text.} am going to be sleeping in the sitting room, the border of my room is marked by this couch a seven seater contraption that's that's actually two couches set up perpendicular to each other but with the aversion that they have to angles here there's a curvy cushion thing where they meet which makes it into one. Its stacked with all manner of cushions all purple and white.

Behind this couch there's a mattress on the floor and a window that takes up almost the whole wall. The sun lives in Egypt It wakes up happy to go to work and by the time it has to leave it has become red~eyed, a single globe that has cried itself out till that colour has infected the clouds around it. And you can tell it has worked its ass off. By sunset you can look right at sun and not get hurt. It has lost all its energy by now, there's no light hurting you but there's a beautiful sendoff. It is going  gentle into that dark night.  but there are no clouds around it, at least on my first day. Its not as hot as Nairobi was 2 weeks ago, its autumn now and am glad for that fact. But there are no clouds, the sun doesn't want to share Egypt with anyone else. However the sky isn't the blue I have come to expect from a cloudless sky, instead it has a hint of smoke is what it looks like to me. The further away from the sun you get the whiter it becomes. Mistical? Maybe. By the horizon the buildings are obscured completely by white air. Since my room is near a window every time I open my eyes at night I see a different looking sky. The moon is yellow for a while, then its white, but since there are no clouds I can see it all the time. I was told by someone that this is actually really cloudy by Egyptian standards it just doesn't seem that way to someone used to billowing feathers. Me being on the fifth floor I can see the sun chasing away the shadow that has been cast over the surrounding buildings by ours. An actual sphere of influence as the shadow moves farther and farther away forever concentric like everything else here.  The curtain of dark is drawn to reveal a city where everyone owns a satellite dish. One here, one there one everywhere. All the roofs are flat, and I quickly notice that they all look unfinished, well maybe not unfinished, but many of them have stones on them and rubble. There's iron sheets lying discarded on some of them as if they are there to pick up water, there's scaffolding for an extension that was started and then quit, a skeletal structure for the next floor that when no muscle was built over it quickly decayed and turned into the coral version of buildings.

The next day I wake up and foist myself on on of my flatmates, they both had things to do and were getting ready to leave when I gently hinted that I had nothing better to do with my time. She' has to go to the immigration office to take care of some visa issues. Now, I don't consider myself particularly ignorant, I have laboured under the assumption that I am culturally open, I know there are Muslim countries and that in those places Sunday is not customarily a holiday. Its something I know but I have never considered or paid particular attention to. Sunday has been a holiday all my life and as time goes on it becomes divorced from Christian traditions and seems to be worldwide phenomenon. The movies we  watch, the books we read, Sunday is always taken off. It got to a point I had forgotten Sunday is only a holiday because am from a Christian country. Here on Sunday the immigration office is open full swing. Inside it there's a guy who shines shoes and there's food being cooked and sold right there. There is semblance of order to the lines, but its evolutionarily so distant from actual order that it only conceptually makes sense.. its OK to smoke in here, in these crowded quarters where there are nearly forty counters with people cramped into line like lengths before each of them. A guy finishes his cigarette and puts it out right on the floor. He does that thing where you just throw it lit onto the floor and follow it simultaneously with a foot.

I like my guide she's funny though she doesn't talk to me in the metro[a subway system] it's an Arab country after all. She talks about how sure she is that the people around there think she's a prostitute, she's always with a different man, getting dropped off and picked up. These men are all her friends but she's caught some looks and what's written there can be read. She shows me the sheesha bar which she has never visited, its patrons give the worst of the looks. We meet one of her male friends, an Egyptian  who spent some time in the states. He has a love for African culture and custom when he talks about Kenya  he asks “is that the one with menenga ngai” I have never heard that phrase but it sounds so much like what Mt. Kenya should be called that I understand what he's talking about. He tells us about this day he had to satisfy three Englishwomen at the same time, [I don't mean by cooking for them]. Here is a man who knows his limitations but isn't afraid to stretch them out and asks if he can go to the pharmacy and get some condoms feeling hallelujah when they don't have any. He rushes in and asks the pharmacy attendant for some Viagra. The attendant nearly pisses himself laughing at this weak specimen of an eighteen year old man who needs dynamite to blast out tunnels that should still be brand new. Our hero buys a red bull and swallows the whole pill, nobody told him that a quarter was all that was necessary. Viagra works by dilating the veins to allow blood flow easier and by the end of the session the veins on his neck are tunnels of haemoglobin popping on his He introduces us to another one of his friends, who at some point talks about Mexican food, he went into a restaurant and was asked whether he wanted the sissy boy chilli or the real man chilli. Regrettably he asked for the real man chilli, “if I put a matchstick near that food it would have exploded, when I was done with it I felt like a nuclear meltdown was happening in my mouth,”

these are my guides for the first full day  have in Cairo I put kilometres under my feet as we walk around. At some point we go to a café in down town Cairo and order some sheesha. It's so strong. In no time at all my head is rushing everywhere. At this café, which is actually built like a roadside bazaar, there's people everywhere seating cross-legged smoking and reading, smoking and talking, smoking and thinking. “noone will disturb you here you can just come smoke and go into your own utopia.”

afterwards we walk around Cairo There are sculptures everywhere. Buildings with gargoyles drawn into them, statues of famous Egyptians, former presidential palaces strewn all over the place. Museums as soon as you turn around and huge monuments on your path. The most beautiful architecture  ever seen looms in my path. In down town Cairo there are places in the street where the sun doesn't reach. Most buildings are so tall that there is a constant shadow thrown across the street, then you come out of the shadow and before you lies the most beautiful building you have ever seen. I can't remember all their names or in fact any since my Arabic is horrible. But at the end of the day we go to Mokota, you get here by leaving the city centre and going up some hills. The road looks carved into the hills snaking this way and that. Am told that the hills are actually the quarries that are used to provide raw material for the roads and you can see where it has been cut into like a plasticine hill. Losing some of itself but getting back in a different form. At the top of the hill there's a spot where you can see some of Cairo, not all of it since the city is huge but it's still an unbelievable sight. There are lights everywhere as far as you can see. The main highways are clear to see since those are the places where the beacon of lights is in a straight line. There's a Nile breeze blowing in here and it smells amazing, there's just the four of us standing there looking over Cairo, breathing in its god~kissed air and taking in it's history made monuments. This place is where silence comes to die, not that its loud here its just so quiet that you have to believe this isn't normal. The wind and distance have carried away all the sound of the bustling city below us leaving us with a vacuum, a bubble of nothing but what we can see and what we can hear. I tell myself this is my home for 6 weeks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

ethiopia, 15/10/11

I love House [the TV show] and its not just because Gregory and I share the same name{well kind of, my name is actually gragory and its really hard for people to remember it and use it because it sounds like Gregory The result is most people just call me Greg~some call me grag nowadays~ but the ones who always say Greg are the first to point out that its not the gragorian calender and its not gragory house} those were damn long parenthesis I feel like this is the part of the show where you need to see previously on...... anyway I love house. Yesterday I was watching an old season 5 episode and house utters this gem when he's accused by someone of always assuming that he is right “the other way would just be confusing.” I loved it and then today I felt it. There should be a word for the thing am about to describe but there isn't, huh this sounds like a deja vu, this is a problem usually felt by people from left handed countries.{these are the countries conquered by a tiny island of people, commonly called the commonwealth}. We keep to the left while driving but when you go anywhere else, the former colonies of Germany and  France, Europe too. All these countries keep to the left. Even Ethiopia, former colony of …... well noone. drives on the right. How do I know this it's because am in Ethiopia as I write this. I find it hard to cross roads my face is always turned to  the wrong side, the right side is always the one I left. So I start to assume am wrong and just like house said it's as confusing as conking out and waking up in an airport{the events of that day will constitute a prequel of the current story.}

Anyway Addis Ababa. Am here for a day on a stopover on my way to Egypt. Flight landed 5 in the morning and connector takes off ten at night. This gives me a neat seventeen hours in Ethiopia I have always wanted to go to Ethiopia always. This is why. I found out today that there is a lot of gold in Ethiopia, lode  loads of gold. The imagery of that struck me immediately, wow there's gold under your soil, you uncover your mud and there you see gold. There is gold in Ethiopia Not just the solid kind either. I wanted to come here for the women, their beauty is famed and fabled stories  about it abound rumours concerning it swill and are spat out as if by pretentious wine tasters. And those rumours are all true, ridiculously true. There is a battering by beauty that can leave a man senseless. There is such raw beauty like gold when its first mined except its refined too. Everywhere beautiful women, everywhere and I do not exaggerate.

In the morning I went to a massage palour. Massage parlours are huge in Ethiopia, they're everywhere burgers are also everywhere in Ethiopia, the have neighbourhood burger joints that make awesome looking burgers, the very sacrifice Abel was killed for. But I didn't have any telling myself why would I have an American meal in Ethiopia? Bring me injera. Anyway back to the massage parlours, I was convinced to go there by the cab guy who wanted to scam the tourist {maybe but you can't con a klepto he'll learn before the day is over.} I go in there and it's awesome, beautiful as a dream masseuses walking around like this kind of thing is normal. They smile and you forget every single consideration you may have had. The parlours play this relaxing Ethiopian music, the lights are red just so and you can look into the face of an angel as you get worked on{both meanings.} you see here you can get a happy ending, all you have to do is ask for extra and fork over ten dollars, lie back and smile. That sentence alone has done amazing things for the guy tourist interest in this place. Get your happy ending at the beginning of your trip I told myself happily. Girls isn't it for Addis though. When I had paid the cab guy  I simply skipped out on him as he was getting his umm  commission, that guy would have been a cash and adventure drain. I left the massage palour knowing noone at all in Ethiopia, having no idea where to go but wanting to keep walking the whole day.

And walk the whole day I did. The City of Addis is crowned by a hill. Not in the vein of Rwanda which sits atop hundreds of hills, a situation that gives it one of the most beautiful views in the world but leaves people coming from pancake cities like Nairobi winded and cursing. Addis instead has the threat of a hill. Far off in the distance a looming mountainous structure broods, its dark and beautiful, dwarfing the efforts of mankind but like a mirage I could never reach it, all my efforts to get there were given up. I sat down a couple of times too exhausted to move. The flight the night before was murder, a 3 am flight and I didn't sleep till  I got on the plane since I was really drunk and I had the feeling that if I blacked out I would stray in Kenya, a lot of the people who dropped me off had the same concern even giving me fare home in case I was barred entry, which money is now comfortably ton the mantelpiece of a certain masseuse here. I slept till 6 and I was kicked out of the plane. I walked out of the plane and towards the place where people wait for you. The titanic~an awesome movie by any definition of that word~ has a scene where people are getting on the ship and  below everyone's family and friends are waving goodbye , creating a racket, happy and sad at the same time. If that ship made the crossing{if that ship was always in charge of making crosses the bible would have a very different end.} there would be the reverse of what happened people coming to be picked up and love and banners and smiles and hugs but as happens there would be some guys who weren't picked up. These aren't even businessmen who have acquired frequent sailor miles, those have a cab from the hotel waiting for them. These guys would get off and see no love, no expectation and no open arms. These guys would feel horrible and I was one of these guys. Everyone's being picked up but me. I see a kindred soul and see he has slept with his feet on the passenger couches. I feel so bad and tired that I do the same. This feeling stays with me the whole day causing me to jump whenever I hear a phone ring that sound even remotely like mine, having to remind myself over and over, noone is calling you here, you don't even have the right sim~card. I wake up with a start at ten I didn't come to Addis Ababa to sleep I have to leave. I walk out and meet the cab guy who featured heavily in the preceding paragraphs.

I started walking around Addis, they have no market for weaves, none at all everyone has the same amazing hair, I love Ethiopia. Their city is so spacious. Wide wide roads. Roads so wide they dwarf the crossing at university way, which right now is a wondrously huge road to cross back in Kenya I count a ten lane road once, ten! There's no traffic, or maybe its just Saturday. The roads are so wide and open my mind begins to feel free. I feel wide minded right now and I can see why Ethiopia is a haven of art, or it should be. I feel inspired like a block to my mind was thrown away and now I can think thoughts I wouldn't normally. There are sculptures around the street, beautiful once-stones that love made into beauty. Also the toilets flush strangely. The toilet bowl is filled with water near to the brim and as you add your refuse there it collects, mixing in with the water until you finally press the button to flash a trapdoor is opened under the water and it begins to spiral down, all of it, that which is not spiralling is chased down by an onslaught from on high until finally the toilet is bone dry and it begins to fill up with water again. This just made me think that there are probably so many ways to skin a cat the problem would soon be lack of cats.

On my travels I randomly fall in with this artist, a master sketcher, he uses a pen and shading and he can bring any image to life. He can draw his self portrait~such an uncanny rendering that I ask if he used a photo. ~ he can draw it with his feet and he can draw it from memory's wells. I found it strange that someone could have such self awareness. Am not completely sure how I look, am sure its as subjective as the way our voice sounds  better when we hear it while talking and worse when its recorded. But this guy doesn't, he objectively knows just how he looks. He becomes my guide for the day.

The friendliness here is amazing, everyone is so nice. They all have time for you, I asked for directions in a second floor office and the lady came down with me and pointed the way! Kenyans are not that friendly. As these A.R.K increase I feel more welcome, I am at home. The place I met the artist is near a certain  spot. This is how the spot looks, stairways to heaven. Right in Addis ababa they have the stairs a man climbs in any good Greek mythology rip~off on his way to godhood. The steps of Olympus are right in the city centre A wide set of stairs first then they narrow down abruptly but still wide by normal world standards{all their roads are at least three lane inside the city centre and by the end of the day I felt so cramped when  I was in them} at the top of these Herculean stairs you can sit down and catch an awesome glimpse of the city. The stairs were an entrance to the museum right behind it. Which segues into sculpture.

There are so many sculptures in Addis, towering symbols of stone carved lovingly.  I went to a church, the one near the UN complex there. It was beautiful, astonishingly. I had a smile on my face as I walked in with my unofficial guide. The church was having restoration work done on it and this is pretty ordinary, I love the way Ethiopians hold on to their culture. It was called st. Stephens catholic church and right on the door there was this painting of a man on his knees. He was a saint by the halo thing that's so in with saints these millennia. He was in pain by the look of anguished hope on his face. His tormentors looked gleeful but very angry, really angry that he was a Christian. This man was about to die a painful death but he was happy. I got it right then it was a depiction of the saint who stoners everywhere claim for a patron. Across the road the UN complex had a sculpture carved into its floor, a sculpture of Africa. A massive rubber stamp with a Africa as its trademark. I could see the engravings  from outside, incisively Africa. and I felt proud. This whole trip a particular song has been ringing in my head the lyrics are I made it I made it, I made it. That's how I feel, exactly how I feel.

By the end of the day I have three birr in my pocket, seventeen birr make up a dollar. My fare back to the airport on the matatus is two birr which I gladly pay. I'm sitting at the airport feeling free, unencumbered of useless currency, a note and some coins to remind myself that I balled in Ethiopia, having fallen in irretrievable love more times today than the rest of my life put together. I have a great feeling about this trip right now. Egypt here I come! It's going to be a life changing 6 weeks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

because i just finished breaking bad

I was once asked what story  I had read that I wished I had written, back then I gave my favourite~at the time~ piece of writing the Kite Runner by Khaleed Hosseini. This is still one of the best books I have ever read, a movingly poignant story about the relationships between fathers and sons, between boys who would be men and those who can't. It tackles regret and sadness, weakness and the strength that is found in all of us if we can just forgive our flaws. In addition it does all this against the background of Afghanistan both pre and post taliban, pre and post nine~eleven and closes with a sentence that in its simplicity holds all the themes of redemption and the complexities of a  love that can never be repaid brought to the forefront of the book. Here's the thing though if I had written that then I would never have read it not in the way I did, with a sense of curiosity and wonder, finding a world in every page and being so moved by the end that I didn't want to come back to ours.

Then I read Ethan Brand by Nathaniel Hawthorne~don't you just love the end of copyright limitations?~. {this paragraph contains some spoilers for the aforementioned and linked story}This is a story about a guy who goes out in search of the unforgivable sin. His quest is a good one when it begins,pure and maybe even holy. He leaves town for a few years and travels the world in search of this sin. The story then begins to chronicle his descent into darkness as he looks everywhere for this perfect sin finding it in the place he would last look, on the inside. I had never read this story before and I realized while I was reading it that I had once written a rudimentary version of it. This story blew me away, it explored the conflict in the soul of the main character, plumbing the depths of his heart and the path he was on as well as  the battle that he had to fight within himself to come out completely different. I love this kind of story, and maybe that's why I love Breaking Bad so much.

The series creator has said that this a story that tracks the transformation of the main character from Mr. Chips to Scarface. I have no idea who Mr. Chips is, probably the best neighbour to have, a guy who won't sniff a mountain of cocaine as a coffee break, Scarface is. You don't want him as an enemy but even more you don't want him as a friend, because at a party he might just ask you to say hello to his little friend [one of the only statements that's more benign if your mind is in the gutter.]

I just finished watching the fourth season of this amazing tv drama and it was flawless. At the beginning one of the characters is lost to the world, he has gone through something that changes him and the way he looks at the world. He begins to question his humanity and responds with apathy. One of the best portrayals of apathy I have ever seen in my life. You see him spiral out of control and he doesn't care. He looks for every escape he can find from the harsh reality of what he has done and what it means for what he's become and through this all there's a blank stare in his eye, nothing brings him pleasure and all the things that should bring him pain instead.

The concept of this show is a high school teacher who's diagnosed with cancer and begins to sell crystal meth in order to leave something behind for his family when he goes. As can be expected a lifestyle choice like this changes your life, a heightened state of danger and being is expected when dealing with hard drugs,law enforcement, other criminals, your own family. This is basically a triad that you have to keep monumental secrets from. The potential for drama arising from all this is huge.

However the best pieces of literature usually portray life in all its minutiae. It's a good writer who can keep you hooked when writing about a fast paced plot where explosions are occurring at every turn you can imagine but its the greats who can keep you hooked even when they delve into the minutiae of every day life, when they write about the mundane and make it seem magical. Breaking Bad does this stretching the tension in one of the few business transactions that doesn't involve drugs or criminals to a point where I nearly fell off the seat. The portrayals of home life in the show are also particularly touching. All the characters are flawed and when flawed characters interact with each other flawed relationships ensue. Before our eyes relationships break down, slowly and gradually then everything gradual adds up and builds till it feels like the conclusion given is the only one that could be expected. These are people trying to do what we all have to do in life simply deal with whatever the world throws at them and they fail as we all do but you can't help supporting all of them or at least respecting and admiring them.

Admiring them and looking forward to their interactions. I once watched a movie, Before Sunrise, where one of the main characters told the other, "I believe god exists in the space between people." Maybe he does because there is something there. in a few moments in life there is such power in that space that its all that matters. It is rare in tv but in this show the power of silence was brought to the forefront as characters would  have quiet conversations, those moments where silence would speak volumes, it would well between them like the cancer that started the show off growing and taking over everything else till it became a suffocating presence. It would become another person in the room, an all consuming entity. in those moments of silence, whether it was two people looking at each other with fear, trepidation, awareness or just one going about their daily lives with an intensity we all should, in those silent moments the beauty of the show and of life sprung forth.

There was also plenty of action, a plot that was dependent on the characters and grew organically from who they were while at the same time, since this is essentially a story of transformation, the characters had to grow organically from what the plot was. The effects they had on each other was clear as the fourth season built up to one of the most satisfying climaxes I have ever seen a climax in which silence was once again used eloquently. In a moment without words a hanging plot thread was plucked out while a light was shined into the soul of one of the characters and as the screen faded to black i felt i was watching literature. 

So in short, go watch Breaking Bad.

Monday, October 10, 2011

getting home

 The Chinese have changed the world. They put up structures that can be seen from space, founded civilisations that have lasted as long as stone and invented gunpowder. They survived Mao's great leap forward, an overindulgent love for lead and the building of the Great Wall that claimed a life for every brick. However at this moment one thing and one thing only will come to the mind of a Nairobian if they are asked about China, the road network that's being built in collaboration with the Chinese government at this very moment. It is an intricate series of flyovers and changeovers to the old order that leaves the directionally challenged such as myself completely distraught . A couple of months ago construction was finished on the first of these projects. A flyover that lies in my path home.

On my way home I have two options to get to the stage, the first is the short route which involves using the old road,a mere 100 metres from start-point to destination. A very tempting prospect since I had on these huge boots, ridiculously heavy shoes with laces hanging out like dog ears, not because that's what fashion dictates but since the last time I wore these shoes and dutifully laced up it took me all of 20 minutes to get them off. The other option, the flyover has a concentric shape, the road snakes up winding through wind and air before finally coming to an end on the other side. This route adds another 800 metres to the journey, but there's something about the new and the unconquered that gets my heart going. So I took this road.

Halfway through there's a spot where if you stand you can see the crater of the former roundabout. It looks like the machines reached down and ripped the very soul out of it, the wound hasn't scabbed over yet and even the cars drive around it in an elliptical path. As you stand here and look down you can see some cars going back but round, some going forward but round and it feels like the road is moving. It gets disorienting, two waves fighting on a turgid sea. It hit me what an achievement this was,a road built not on ground or earth or even water, this road was built on effort, and experience, it's not carried by anything the world gave us but was fashioned and chiselled out of rock, moulded and made from mortar, dreamed and achieved by man. I looked down and everything was smaller then it usually was, the cars at my feet, the other roads beneath this one. They all looked faraway a speck of what they are and that felt right for some reason.

When I got to the stage there was a bunch of people milling around,looking like they had nothing better to do, there was a matatu there too milling around looking like it had nothing better to do. I asked the tout what the price was and he said 30 shillings.
ah ndio maana hakuna mtu anaingia/oh that's why no-one is entering,” I said with a decidedly nonchalant shrug. The look he gave me could have burned holes in the ozone.

I had witnessed a few of these battle of wills between producers and consumers when both centres of economic power have a united front. The strike can last for ages so I took out a book and settled down to read. Turns out I didn't have to do this since drama was in the air. This time in the form of a matatu driver who forgot there was no U in turn, well there is but there’s no u-turn in tightly packed roads where there is barely space for two lanes. A sharp policeman saw him and waved him down the not too sharp driver decided he could get away. There then ensued one of the shortest, most bizarre car chases I ever saw. The matatu was moving fast but not too fast since it had to start from zero and Porsche recently stopped producing their line of luxury passenger transport. The policeman was a Kalenjin. While the Maasai warrior is the image of Kenyan most foreigners carry in their heads the people who have done the most to keep our national memory in the collective international consciousness is the Kalenjin runner. Winning marathon after marathon, taking the first, second, third and many a time fifth place in the middle distance runs. There's a running joke(though not intended this pun is glad to have been discovered) that has to do with the fact that a large proportion of the policemen in the country are kalenjin, a friend of mine once talked about being in a European country and still expecting policial accosting to be accompanied by the accent associated with the Kalenjin.(it's much funnier when he says it.) Anyway, this policeman too was a runner, he caught up to the matatu in no time and pulled it over to the side of the road.

The tout from earlier (the ozone destroyer-who was not really a tout but an in-between, he's the guy who stands at a stage and whose job it is to motivate passengers to enter the matatu, this is also the guy who has all the power in terms of price control since as soon as a matatu comes to the stage a quick consultation and decision on price is reached between the triumvirate of him, actual tout and driver) came to commiserate with us on the wrong ways of matatu drivers. He gave the very sage opinion that had the driver not run away there wouldn't have been such a hoopla, I took the very sage option of agreeing with him. In a few minutes the tout began walking further up the road I followed on a whim. The whim being my experience that if you just shrug your shoulders the universe will take care of you.

A few hundred metres in front there was another stage, being controlled by the same guy as before meaning that the price was the same. At this point for no reason at all I decided to walk home. I wasn't alone and in fact the tout was with us in this exodus spreading the virus of high prices further and further away. But I trudged along having fed my mind lines of how walking is actually good for you telling myself look at the weather right now the sun is out yawning in yellow making everything pretty and optimistic. I was ready to walk the rest of the way because I do not cross picket lines. Turns out I didn't have to.

Another few hundred metres away there was a pick-up truck waiting. It was the kind that had been used for cattle until the owner saw the advantage of hastily putting together some benches and saying it was ready for passenger transport. I jumped into this contraption ready to go the rest of the way, imagine my shock when it turned out the price controller was in charge of this too. He hastily took fares from everyone, 20/= this time. One lady hesitated before handing it over
mbona unajifanya haujui story na we ni mwenyeji?/ why are you acting like you don't know this is done, you've been here before,you're an old hand.”

I sat witnessing this and realising that I had stumbled into another business transaction in the peeling onion that is the Kenyan economy. The price controller was eating on both sides,charging the matatu drivers and touts for making a racket and ostensibly bringing them higher prices while at the same time charging these other guys, the ones in the pick-up, for keeping the matatu prices so artificially high a black market transport economy could materialise.

So now I was in the back of one of these rickety trucks with no way of letting the driver know it was my stage at the same time so impressed by all that had taken place that I wanted to put it all down in my notebook so that I wouldn’t forget a process that left me lost in spaces between lines, spaces where scribbles became unintelligent prompts of memory.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

there's something about the rain

I don't know what it is about rain, maybe its the smell that greets my nostrils in anticipation of the drops that meet the ground. Maybe its the sight of water coming down from nowhere, materialising out of thin air a few miles above me, it might be the sound, the steady drip, drip , drip of the rain as it falls in sheets and sprinkles changing everything around it, turning the tarmac dark grey, almost black. Splashing little meteors around my feet making the sand into mud and the mud into craters, little cradles for aliens from another world to be found in.

Maybe its the atmosphere, there's a certain something to rain that changes depending on the type of downpour. I love the rain that doesn't send the sun away, it’s flirty, flighty and sprightly, it makes you wet but in a playful way a reminisce of a game from childhood where water was splashed in jest. This rain is gentle, it doesn't send the sun cowering behind huge billowing clouds, leaving the light nimb. Instead it holds hands with the sun, it takes it in itself, promising cooperation and comfort. If you trust me we can make beautiful children, children that poets will write stories about and that gods will use as a sign of their fidelity to humanity. My condition we have to name these children after me, the rain says and the sun bows.

Other times it's not like this, it's overpowering and blots out everything else, the kind of rain that comes down in pails. It's not a leak in heaven but outright malice, a child upending a bucket over the earth and thundering oops! The sun retreats when this happens unable to help or maybe heartbroken, on days like this it's clear that the rain prefers the earth. It can't wait, the lust in its breath is palpable, its heart beating quicker and quicker and the sun gets sicker and sicker with envy. The rain possessing one last modicum of mercy draws the curtains over the face of the sun. Allowing it at least this thing, this last dignity of not seeing the betrayal happen. On those days it gets dark and it gets loud. The rain pants and yells,it can't wait to get here and when it does it soaks everything. A good girl gone bad it ruins all it touches. These are the days of slush,of mud so slippery and pervasive that there must be at least one person in a white trouser. These are the days of traffic jams that stretch from road to road becoming longer and longer until they form a coil long enough to hang on. These are the days that mothers and daughters have fights, take a ride home together and sit in soulful,awful silence since the radio doesn't work and sorry would work but nobody's ready for it. These are the days bartenders dream of. As the rain falls outside people pour drinks inside, telling themselves that leaving now makes no sense, none at all, you see we'll get home at the same time anyway so let’s just sit here in this bar and talk.

But there are also nights of menace. The nights when the rain is no longer a fair maiden or a lustful lass, it is quite simply a bitch. It announces its presence with a sky-tearing scream a scream that follows a flash of something. A glimpse into it's true nature, a showing of what it can be. On these nights the winds howl bloody murder as the ground turns into wet. The mud is washed away in torrents much faster than the ones we use to steal movies off the internet. This is a bad night to be caught out. In no time at all the rain gets into all of you, not sparing a single morsel for later. It feels heavy and angry at something. You know its angry because it's trying its best to hurt, and every raindrop smarts. If you're smart you get out of this in a hurry. If you are really smart you already got out of this. These are the nights when not having money is a good thing. It means you are home curled up in bed, amidst blankets. The menace outside is outside, not really a concern of yours. On nights like this the rain sings a song, a haunting song. A song filled with love and loss, a song of the betrayal of blood and the death of desire. It sings a lover's song but without a lover's emotions. It has gone cold and hard, it has turned angry and bitter and turned this song into a war cry. Giving out shrieks a banshee couldn't match, enough water to wash away all the make up we use to lie about our brave hearts.

On those nights I shouldn't like the rain. It's more destructive than instructive but I can't not. I want to be inside and safe from it. I want to be in bed curled up and safe. But most of all, I want to have been caught in that downpour, I want an excuse to run through that rain, to be soaked to the inside and to be freezing. I want all that discomfort and all the things that come with it, most of all I want to have that feeling of being dry and warm after a long period of being cold and wet.