You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Friday, 19 November 2010

If she is to be sold the camels will be hers - Shopping in Egypt

Egypt, Africa: It was my first time out of Europe, from the start I saw this would be more than a holiday, it would be an abstract lesson in cross cultural codes of conduct.

Getting through the security at Sharm El Sheikh airport did not look easy. Ahead of me a heaving mass of English, Italian and Russian tourists. These seemed to fall into two distinct sets: 'Seasoned Scuba Divers' and their counterpart 'Out Of Practice Sunbathers'. Tensions flared between both factions, apparently considering the other was less entitled to be here.

The system the airport had put in place was designed to infuriate; there was an opening in a barrier that two squashed thick lines inched forward to funnel through. After that was a winding que but the barriers were mere belts and soon the situation would make their protocol obsolete.
As the temperature raised and the crowd became more heated I looked worryingly at the handguns worn by the security.
It was a rogue Italian who made the first move. A short podgy 30-something with glasses thin hair and a youthful grin. He slipped under one barrier casually and got away with it, emboldened he used the same maneuver again not 5 minutes later. This was too much for the embittered eyes of a group of Ladies from the North of England.

"Hey there's a queue here!"
"Get back to where you were."

"What makes you think you're so special?"
His face reddened slightly as he appologised as best he could "I speak no English"

"I don't care if you speak English or not just get back in the queue."

His shrug seemed to say "I don't understand what your saying and I don't understand your need to be sticklers for queuing, I am just trying to get through security and waiting in a line isn't as effective as sneaking through gaps. If you had more sense you would do the same yourselves." I believe it was the smile he flashed before turning his back to them that made them finally flip. "WHO THE HECK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?"


With so many people distracted by the commotion sly Russians started slipping under barriers on the left flank.

Once on the other side our buses wouldn't leave until everybody using the same tour operators filled up the shuttle buses. I wanted a cigarette, this however was going to be no mean task.
Sharm El Sheikh is a city of hotels, there is no center, no residential districts, this is a city built on tourism alone. Surrounded on one side by a mountainous desert and the other by the coral strewn Red Sea.

Me and my girlfriend Margarita left the hotel and began walking down a long road sided on the sea side by hotels and on the side of the desert by shops. These establishments seemed to fall into 5 categories:

1. Souvenir shops - Where you could get Pharaoh-themed fridge magnets, ashtrays, vanity mirrors and the slightly less ubiquitous dancing soft-toy camel (which we put on the maybe list)
2. Shisha shops - Hookah pipes in there hundreds.
3. Leather shops - Faux-designer leather bags. If you can't afford to be rich why not pretend to be?

4. Spice shops - Huge bags of spices on offer to the multitude of guests eating self-service buffets three times a day on their all-inclusive holidays.
5. Jewelery shops - For the most precious memories.

A rare sighting of dancing cuddly toy camels.

But none selling cigarettes.
We kept walking the lone road, no longer lit by the merchants strip lights. Packs of dogs roamed in the shadows, the ancient hieroglyphic god-breed. Five Egyptian men towards us. After they have passed Margarita tells me one of them touched her arm, I hadn't noticed. She asks me what I would have done if he had grabbed her bum, I told her the truth which she did not want to hear. I would have ignored it and walked on.
She would have rather I hypothetically confronted him
"Hey what do you think you are doing?" In my mind that would have only served to escalate the situation into possible danger. I was ignorant to how women were treated here but had an inkling that certain institutions made the sight of a scantily clad lady an invitation to male attention. Shouting at this guy for acting the way his society had raised him to behave, even hypothetically, seemed wrong. I could have just swung at him, an unexpected right hook to the face then taken on his friends too; whether I won or lost that fight I'm sure the ensuing battle with Egyptian authorities would not favour the hot headed foreigner.

Having not told her what she wanted to hear, and dishonoring her with the wimpy truth, had laid the foundations for us becoming another of the
'high incidence of a romantic breakups caused by the stress of travel.'
I was not in a good mood and started to just completely ignore the inevitable jeering "Where are you from?" that starts the generic Egyptian hard-sell script.
Blanking eager to-please Egyptians really annoys them and evenings vibe got increasingly worse as we passed them to muttering of "Shit" and angry eyes.
Eventually I spotted a shop displaying cigarettes and marched inside.
Shop keeper "Where are you from my friend?"

Me "How much are they?" Pointing to a sleeve of Camel triple filters.

Shop keeper "I can tell you don't like talking."

Me "I just want to buy them, how much?"

Shop keeper "Relax, please relax in my shop"

I started to feel bad, I am usually chilled out, what was wrong with me.
Shop Keeper "Is she your wife?" Pointing at the scowling beauty looking at single packs of Davidoff slims.

Me "Yes"

Shop keeper "Where are you from?"

Me "England"
Shop keeper "Wayne Rooney, Lovely Jubbly"

Forced laughter.

Me "I will give you 90 Egyptian pounds" (Price you would pay in the UK converted to Egyptian pounds then divided by 3)

Shop keeper puts meaningless figures into a calculator."I can give you these for 90 Egyptian pounds" Offering a less popular brand of cigarettes.
I accept.

Shop keeper seeing my St.Christopher pendant (good luck travel charm) "I am Christian too, you can trust me" - Not a Christian myself and generally one to avoid putting much trust in any religious type or anyone that asks me to trust them for that matter. Needless to say this last sentence did not work in the guys favour.

Soon he figures out that me and Margarita are not married and offers me 100 camels for her, Margarita calls his bluff "Come on! You don't own any camels" most probably true but he persists. I laugh and say okay and sarcastically reach for the sleeve of Camel cigarettes.
Jovial shop keeper "Yes, yes"
Me "Sorry, if she is to be sold the camels will be hers."

Sat over a small glass of shandy and finally smoking I couldn't stop thinking about my eagerness to buy. How rude it seemed here. Why was I so rushed? I had plenty of time. Was I so used to self-service checkouts I had lost all sense of human decency? That poor guy was interested in a foreign culture and I had denied his curiosity.

Over the week that followed me and Margarita became more accustomed to the hard-sell approach of the Egyptians and the haggling that ensued. We didn't ignore the "Where are you from?" question, just let them guess until politely conceding but apologising for not needing there assistance today.

On the last day I tested the good nature of the shop keepers again. I had become bored of the swimming pools and 5* service, being more favourable to a
slow-travel approach to seeing the world, so now it was me asking the questions.

"How many roads are there out of here?"
"How far between petrol stations"

"How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

I had been asking questions for over an hour without ever once talking about what I had come to buy.
"Do you live in Cairo?"

"Where does the tap water come from in Sharm? Is there a water purification plant for sea water or is it piped in from the Nile"

Divulging from the script the shop keepers' mastery of English language was not what they would, at first, have me believe. They answered as best they could but what most confused them was my behavior. It appeared they were not interested in talking much at all. He wanted a deal to go down just as much as I did on my first day. I don't know if this made me feel better about myself or worse about the world but one way or another things balanced out and felt back to normal.

In the huge expanse of Cairos outskirts I saw hundreds of thousands of unfinished buildings, just shells really, no fittings whatsoever, in neighborhoods completely void of shops of any kind just rows of ghost blocks and dusty streets. Mostly uninhabited except by an occasional family with enough money to buy their own windows and doors, or by ramshackle wooden shacks thrown up on the roof. High-rise-husks built buy land grabbers with an eye for building up and up when the time comes, steel wires pointing to the sun one day to support more concrete. This was a wonder.

However there was one sad sight I saw as I got back onto the shuttle bus: As two white girls in pleated mini-skirts walked along the pavement a merchant, long into his 40s, a few yards in front dropped his cigarette accidentally on purpose, he must have caught a mere frustrated glimpse of their panties.

Margarita; a happy shopper.

Who benefits from misunderstandings?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Better Best Forgotten - A disturbing dream

The second I discover a piece of writing is set in a dream I completely discount it as worthless gobbledygook, even if the story that it is set in is a work of fiction. What you are about to read is not fiction at all, it really did happen to me, it's just I was asleep at the time.
I was walking besides a dusty railway track, not much else in site, I knew I was dreaming and that bored me. I stumbled upon a heavy hardback book, the cover was black but had no title or author indeed nothing that indicated what this book might be about. It was locked with a inconsequential gold padlock just like a young girls diary might be, with one forceful twist I gained entry. The pages were empty but having beaten the decorative lock the book seemed fit to bestow its secrets upon me. The knowledge of why dreams exist.
There are plenty of scientific explanations for what dreams are but a clear explanation of why seemed before this revelation to be lacking. Imagine if nobody ever had dreams, how strange it would be if one person did, how much stranger still if after years of a population unbeknownst of the experience of dreaming the entire world all began to dream at once. When taken for granted the mystery of why we dream seems to be ignored.
Now I knew. Dreams exist to confuse, to shift our attention from our immediate surroundings, to further overwhelming over communication. To ignite our imaginations that we may tell stories, create myths and legends and monsters and lies and fear when we wake up.
There and then I ceased creating any narrative any connections out of the images flashing on my retinas. Seeing hundreds of meaningless images come and go, hundreds every second.

An autumnal tree.
A camels gurning face.
Rows and rows of grey shelves in a library, filled with thousands of books.
Three pears on a plate.
A young woman in a hat sat on a park bench.
A dramatic cliff face jutting down into a turbulent grey sea.
My uncle.
A small white dog barking aggressively.
A child blowing out candles at a birthday party.
A steep grassy hill.

Then a man with a grotty strawberry blonde beard appeared and lingered for a while, staring blankly at me with cold eyes – the pupils a misty grey.
I knew he was a wandering soul sent to me from limbo by the guardian of the secret, here to make me forget what I had learned.
I repeated to myself “Don’t let the nonsense distract you from the significant.”...
...“Don’t let the nonsense distract you from the significant.”...
...“Don’t let the nonsense distract you from the significant.”
Eventually the spectral figure stood listlessly in front spoke “You don’t really believe I was sent here do you. You must know that you created me yourself. I was born of your imagination, an imagination that cannot be stifled. It is laughable; your need for some sense of purpose. You seek greater purpose in anything and everything, just give it a rest.”
rest. Ahhh! Yes I was just resting, I yawn, ooohh I only shut my eyes for a moment and must have drifted off. I am sat on my brown faux leather sofa fully clothed. I remember having a stomach churning dream of long straight black hairs sprouting out of my ripe burgundy bell-end. My penis a nasty witches broom dangling between my legs like a suicide excuse.
I cautiously slip a hand past the drawstrings of my comfortable jogging bottoms.
It couldn’t be real, could it?