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Gayyash Al 'Aatifa

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bits and pieces

At Whole Foods I am overwhelmed with the crispness of everything, the rolling waves of luxuriant bounty. Something is wrong. A certain kind of excellence repulses. It is me, I know, maybe because I do not feel that I am party to that excellence myself, that excellence being merely the natural hitting-of-the-mark when the competent give things their all. I'm still honing in on my competence and am not quite sure I'm giving 100 per cent in the process. Anyway. There's also the issue of global economic inequality, the extent and systematicness of which are obscene and seem almost gratuitous at this point. This makes it hard to appreciate with an open heart any indulgent, however sober, expressions of affluence. Whole Foods is affluence.

After a morning of hectic errands we decided to drop by there to get lunch from their cooked-food buffet, which is great. We got average priced food in boxes and when to the cashier to weigh it and pay for it. The boxes are similar to Chinese restaurant (in the US) takeout boxes. We had three boxes and we had folded their lids and locked them shut with the little paper buckles. The young woman at the counter smiled at us and then reached across her cashier station and tore off a couple of strips of tape and stuck them across the tops of our boxes before proceeding to weigh them. I asked her why she did that and she said "to keep them closed so the food doesn't spill". I said thank you and then "but how am i going to eat the food now?" or "how am I going to open them" and the woman laugehd and said it's just tape" and I said "but it looks so strong". she stayed quiet looking at the boxes, indifenitely it seemed. and when i told her i was joking she exhaled with relief and said "i didn't know you were joking" and i realised that maybe she was right to think that maybe someone would actually make a fuss about such a thing, and in such soft terms. I had heard of such people, of such a sentiment. And it made sense that there were others aware of it's possibility, and in Whole Foods, no less.

When people are unhappy with something I did while driving or in any public situation they shake their head with indignance. Not like they're pissed off but like they're disappointed.

The man in the Apple shop whose cane dropped and I went and picked it up and he looked like he didn't need the help and II was worried my assistance seemed presumptuous but then the shop guy gave me a discount for doing something kind and "bringing good energy into the shop"

At the bike shop a friend comes in and knows Tim and asks about the business and Tim says he bought out the partner and is now in trouble and the guy sai great I like hearing about people doing worse than me, it makes me feel better about myself. He said just the other day my testicle swelled up to the size of a fucking grapefruit and I had to crawl to the emergency room. Tim asked "didn't that happen before like three times alread" The guy said :"Yeah, well life just sticks it in you then snaps it off then rapes you with the broken part.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Morning run, Boston

We woke up early, my wife and I and my father-in-law. The jet-lag helped. We decided to go for a run. This is America, Boston, Back Bay, a great place to run. Paths and gardens and exercise frames and pristine, challenging jungle Jims all along the Charles river. On the other bank is Cambride, a row of MIT buildings. The water is dark brown and still. A ripple from a fish here and there. Ducks flying low, rowing teams in their two- and four-man boats cutting through the water quietly. Lots of people here run. All ages. Some clearly university students and some old and hunched and with grey hair. Those ones run softly and have muscular, sinewy legs. Most people wear fancy, hi-tech fabrics, specialty running clothes. People. My wife commented that it's not only the 'fit' and 'in-shape' people who run. All shapes and sizes, which is nice. Everyone's serious, though. Noone looked like they were there trying to lose weight, nothing medicinal. People looked like they were running because that's what they do to stay healthy. Some people wore regular, thick-soled running shoes and other wore the new minimalist ones and one guy was even running bare-foot. It was interesting seeing the different running styles. Some people were running heel-toe and other landing more evenly on the middle of their feet but one guy, with minimalist shoes, was actually just running on his tip toes, his heel not even touching the ground.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I had first gotten just the regular raqam eeda'a (standard book number) but then when I asked about the bar code the lady asked if the book was going abroad. I got paranoid and said "maybe, I don't know, it's likely but not certain". I was worried by the prospect of paperwork and delay, censorship drama, who knows. She snatched my copy of the receipt and stuck it with a sheet of carbon paper back into the pad. From the shelf beside her she took down a big old logbook that she opened to a marked page. Its yellow sheets held a great long list of ten-digit numbers. The lady followed the list with her finger and stopped at the first unchecked number. She crossed it with a pencil and penned it onto my receipt.

The lady had wondered aloud while fiddling with the carbon paper what all the fuss was with this ISBN thing anyway. "Some will tell you," she muttered, without looking up, "that it's to protect the authors and then others come and say it makes a book pretty." A man waiting his turn leaned over and whispered to her that ISBNs (as opposed to 'regular' standard book numbers) were for showoffs, mere posturing.

She had also said earlier that all books except for those written for children had to be at least fifty pages long in order to qualify for getting a number. "What about books of poetry?" I asked. "They're usually quite short."
"That's their problem," she said. "These are the rules, like it or not."

I had remembered from a previous visit something about books having to be a certain size. I asked the lady and she said yes, they had to be at least eighteen centimeters by twenty-four centimeters. I pointed across the room to a stack of new-looking books that clearly did not meet those specifications. "Okay," she said, "fine, it's just we don't want people coming in with like really really tiny books, you know. Nothing smaller than the palm of your hand," she said, holding up her outstretched palm like a printer's sample.

"So you're saying, then, that these rules are flexible?" I asked.
"Sort of, yes," she said.
"So you're saying I can bring a book that's, say, forty-nine pages long?"
"Forty-nine pages? Sure," she said, her eyelids drooping cheekily.
"Okay, how about forty pages?"
"No, not a chance," she replied, and with pursed lips she looked down, aligning gently the loose sheets before her with the desk's edge. I asked again, as I had several times, what the logic was behind these rules, and several times she answered, like a wartime statesman, that the logic was that These Were The Rules.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ramadan Kareem

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Land of Milk and Play

My flight back to Cairo included a stopover in Kuwait. Waiting at the terminal before getting on the plane, I was surrounded by the largest number of Egyptians I had seen since February. I smiled at people, said salamo3aleiko, masa2 el kheir, eh el akhbar, ezay el 7al to whoever I felt I might connect with. I was so excited to be back in a space where I could talk freely to people. People are friendly in the US and India but there was no play in either. I was so happy to be heading back, and here it was, beginning.

Inside the plane I had gotten comfortable in my seat and others were still boarding. It was a Kuwait Airways flight but the cabin crew were all European looking and didn't seem to speak much Arabic. I later leanerd they were Swedish and had been hired through a personnel company on a four month contract. Or something.

A tall young man came down the aisle looking for his seat, his gym bag in one hand and his boarding pass in the other. "mesh 7ayenfa3 ma3ana el kalam da," he said out loud (this won't do). "el nabi 3arabi we kan byakol be2eedo. wenti 3ammala te2olelna 'twenty five'? mesh 7ayenfa3 keda." (The Prophet was an Arab, he used to eat with his hand. And you're here telling us 'twenty five'? This just won't do.)

His friend responded from the other aisle, several rows down. "wallahi enta bas elli shaklak mabsoot 3ashan 7atshoof ommak ennaharda." (I swear, I bet you're just all happy because you're seeing your mother today.)

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Shot At My Foot

I'm sitting at a coffee shop in Berkeley, or Oakland, I'm not sure. It's a quiet, cool grey day, long weekend. The day/city seems sleepy and vulnerable, like this is the day it's caught unawares by some major event. Anyway. Beside me are two young guys who've been chatting for a few hours. One of them has a software text book open before him, but they look too old to be university students. They're talking about big things, about having given up trying to change the world and stuff. Their conversation is very meta. Also very synergistic, that is they agree on a deep level and they're just getting off on the verbal rally, confirming and building on one another's ideas. I'm getting a very Atlas Shrugged vibe, even though I haven't read the book, but I have an idea what it's about. They're talking about the interplay of capitalism and the spread of democracy, reminding me why I don't like clever business types. They seem to have snappy articulate definitions and positons for everything and their whole story seems to fit together so nicely. And it's making me sick, partly because I think they're wrong and missing the point. But also because I'm sick of having similar conversations myself, albeit at the fluffier, warmer end of things. I think things are coming to a head in my life, except I'm not quite sure which things. Either way, I want to shut up.

I was just in New York city and I filled my little note book with many cute observations, like I did in India. And now I don't think it matters at all. I want to stop worrying about writing. But not all writing, just whatever this flaneur attitude to which I seem inclined is seeming to inspire in me outside of Egypt. I feel like my meditations on the mundane are meaningful in Egypt and critically less so elsewhere, except for situations in which I was personally very involved, like the time I thought I was getting kidnapped in Udaipur, or the week I nearly lost my mind with frustration about getting ripped off.

But things still stimulated me in New York and I thought about them and chatted with friends and took notes. I'm increasingly coming to see a certain deep discomfort within me to be partly my longing for more direct engagement with the content of things I end up writing about. And the question remains/returns: writing/discourse as practice? I don't know, not for me at least. I have that drive, and I've learned to act on it, but then the feeling of accomplishment fizzles, and I'm left feeling empty and useless in a way I' m increasingly feeling the need to act on as well. And not by writing more to replenish that risky sort of contentment.

Groups of Hacidic Jewish men and boys patrolled the very late night streets in south Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They were everywhere, all dressed the same, walking in groups, walking alone. I was enchanted and I pulled out my notebook and scribbled, in the cab on our way to a club where we saw a group I loved, the Crystal Castles, who I also took notes on. I think I'm driven to write about the late night patrol and the group and so many others because I ultimately want to be them, or at least to partake of the beauty and import I see in them. Maybe I should focus on doing just that. Who knows. Gatni neela and/or Rabenna yesahhel.

Friday, April 27, 2007

For the Sake of Posting

I read Amnesiac's post yesterday and was sent reeling by the last passage, where she recounts one of those Cairo moments that are both mundane and profoundly cool. I felt an overwhelming, if somewhat retarded, urge to fly back and jog through the city clapping, snorting it all in and living all superstimulated again. I've travelled a fair bit over the past three years and I feel like other places just aren't inspiring me that much. Or at least not as much as I get back home. I'm fortunate that I'm not bothered in Egypt or sick of it, unlike the many good people who decide or hope to seek gentler, more reliable lives elsewhere. I feel that because I've nurtured so intently my comfort and fluency with the ways of my city (not just as a flaneur but by constantly imposing a desire for meaningfulness on my interactions with the city's public elements), other places just don't end up hitting the spot (in a general human experience sort of way) the way I know they can. The only way they have done so for me is through an indulgence that I've come to find unsustainable. You can only have your mind blown so many times before you realize 'wi ba3dein' (now what).

Yesterday was one of my most enjoyable days yet in India. In the morning, Sunny called me out to the courtyard at Shikshantar and asked me to put my ear to a bloated cloth pouch hanging from a clothes line. He'd soaked some moong beans the day before and then hung them outside bundled in a wet cloth so they could sprout (good for salad, healthier in general). I put my ear on the cloth and heard a faint crackling sound. Without thinking I asked him what the sound was. "Beans sprouting." It didn't exactly make me euphoric but to actually hear something grow is I think enough to check a very big, if unglamorous, box on the list of things-to-do-as-a-human. Later in the day we took a whole bunch of things (coconut shell jewellery workshop, cotton thread spinning, paper bag making, herbal medicines, tasty oil-free sugar-free snacks, etc,) down to Sunny's neighborhood as part of our TV Turn-Off Week program. We set up our stalls on the corners and along walls and chatted with the neighborhood crowd. I've been trying to put together a percussion group with some of the people here, with old buckets, tin cans and steel pipes. I'm not a particularly good drummer but I can keep a beat and I can tinker with one, enough to make people want to dance, which is enough in general, I think. So I took up a spot started some beats with Jasmine and when the kids flock to see I hand them some junk and invite them to bang along. Some kids, usually boys aged eight to twelve, are real assholes banging as hard and fast as they can, not caring to actually participate. But you can't just be an asshole back, or tell them get lost. You just can't, and I've learned over the past while that there are indeed ways of making them not want to be a nuisance. (Of course sometimes I do give up and walk away, waiting for them to get bored and hop back on their bikes). Then there are some kids that are just so talented and keen as to make you look actually think positively about the future. I feel there's little that needs to be said. My Hindi's not that good but all I ever need to say with these kids is together and gently. Gestures suffice for everything else. Jamming with kids... some as young as six getting a beat right from the first try, or taking a second to think up their own and leading the rest of the group. We've been doing this all over the city. I wonder if it'll work in Cairo. I hear it already... "aywa ya kabtin... taba3 meen... beta2tak." Someday I'll have the guts to actually say "ma3lesh ya 3ammo".