Saturday, June 10, 2006

A small victory

First off, check out this week's War News Radio program. It's really fantastic. It's not everyday you hear what your average Iraqi has to say about events in his or her own country.

Since my arrival in Cairo, I've been waiting for the famed Egyptian sales pitch to come my way. I have to admit, by Thursday, I was surprised no one had offered me a "great deal" on exotic rugs, an "exclusive offer," on fine dishes or a "special price" for Arab treats. No one had even tried to sell me perfume. Until today.

I got out of bed today at 1 (I'm sleeping from dawn until I wake up these days because of a not-so-small cockroach problem) and decided to head to the center of the city to wander around. The American University in Cairo, where I'm studying, is in the most western part of the city (where you'll find McDonald's, KFC and Hardy's), and I figured it was as good a place as any to find an internet Cafe. [An aside: the AUC area is also the heart of the tourist and travel industry. One travel office had a large banner above its entrance that read "direct flights to Baghdad." Apparently that's it's best selling point. I guess a lot of people are flying from Cairo to Baghdad these days]

Right now, my Egyptian colloquial still isn't fantastic, and often random people on the street shout things to me I can't make out. This especially happens in the neighborhood where I live, most likely probably because there are virtually no foreigners. But as the midday sun scorched my neck, I found myself in a reasonable mood. As I walked a crowded street, a boy of about 15 with dark brown skin (I would not have mistaken him for Syrian) began barking at me "mister, mister, scuse me, mister." I decided to engage him. "Afwan, elinternet cafe fein?" [where's the internet cafe? that's what I wanted to say, anyway]. "Come, come," he said, as he led me across the street.

Fuck. I don't have time for this, I thought, my sunny mood slowely weakening. He walked me into a small perfume shop, a few steps below ground level. A shabby red rug covered the floor. Perfume bottles lined the wall, reflected by wall-to-wall mirrors. "I really just want to know where the internet cafe is," I said, stopping at the entrance. He told me that everything was fine, that his father would tell me where the cafe was. All he wanted to do was give me the store's business card. He invited me to sit down.

His father showed up, a short, stout man with a tight mustache and a growing bald spot on top of his head. "Welcome, welcome," he called in a warm voice. He introduced himself as Abdul, and asked if I wanted coffee or tea. "I really just want to know where the internet cafe is," I told him. "No pressure, no pressure. You are friend. Sit, sit." I reluctantly said I would have some tea. It's a smart trick he pulled. By agreeing to have tea, I was forced to stay for an unspecified amount of time. The son disappeared to make the tea, which, amazingly, was not served for a solid 20 minutes. Perhaps he was boiling the water by the heat of the sun.

As we sat, an amusing conversation began. The Arab was trying to engage his American customer with mediocre english. The American was responding only in even more atrocious Arabic. Finally he relented and we spoke mainly in Arabic. I told him I was a student, with little money. He said he would give me a special price, because I was a "special friend." It's amazingly easy to make special friends here. (He always said "special friend" in English. Perhaps he didn't feel comfortable bullshitting to that extent in his own language, but I doubt it.) I tried to explain in Arabic that I didn't wear perfume, that I had a girlfriend in America, and that the only perk of that unfortunate situation was that I didn't have to smell nice. Ever. I must have butchered the Arabic though, because he didn't seam to get the joke. "I give you special price. 1 guinea." Well, I thought, if I can get out of hear for only 20 American cents, I guess that would be fine. As he let me (that's not the right causitive verb) try on a few perfumes, we discussed my living situation-- I'm looking for an apartment. Suddenly, another boy, maybe 14 with the beginnings of a thin pubescent mustache showed up in the doorway. Abdul, who had been showing me perfumes, turned to the boy and told him I was looking for an apartment. Abdul asked how much I was willing to pay. I explained I was living with a friend, and between us, we were willing to pay 2000 pounds a month ($380bucks). "Not a little more?" He asked "No," I said. The boy rushed out to look for an apartment. Normally, he wouldn't do this, Abdul assured me, but I was a special friend.

After trying on a few perfumes, I told him which I liked better. Finally, his son returned with the tea, as did the boy from the apartment. He said he'd found an apartment that was fantastic (no coachroches, he promised) for only 1,600 pounds (300 dollars). The catch was that the apartment would not be vacated for a week, but for a small deposit it could be held... I said I could make no decisions without my friend. I felt the pressure of three sets of eyes looking at me. The stout owner was perhaps 5'7," the two adolescents much skinnier and maybe an inch or two shorter. Their combined gazes were still intimidating.

I said I would talk to my friend about the apartment, and the topic changed back to the perfumes. "Okay," Abdul said, as he reached behind his desk for a few velvet-covered boxes. Inside the box were glass bottles of varying size. "This one, 120, this one 100..." Wait, I thought, what was going on? "Afwan, wa lekin fakaret en kulta wahid guinia bes." Sorry, but I thought you said only one pound. "No, one pound, one gram. Special deal, normally it's two pounds one gram, but you are special friend." So he's trying to drag me in for 20 bucks hunh? "Sorry, but I'm really not that interested in buying perfume." "No pressure, no pressure," he said at a feverish pitch, as he reached for a smaller box. "This one 50, this one 40." Finally he got down to the smallest bottle. "This one only 10 pounds." I stood firm. He offered to sell me half the bottle for 5 pounds. "Only 5 pounds he said, in a voice that was quickly approaching a wimper. I'm not buying I said. I'm interested in the apartment, and I need an internet cafe. Where was the business card I had been promised anyway? Finally, I was at the doorway, a half hour after my entrance, with business card in hand. "Please, 5 pounds only." Almost out. I promised to call about the apartment. "Where's that internet cafe?" I asked the boy again. He pointed around the corner. "Just 5 pounds!" Abdul moaned. 3 more steps until street level. 2 more. 1. Freedom. Zero dollars spent.

I still couldn't find the internet cafe. So I asked another shop owner.


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