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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.