Thursday, March 30, 2006

Journalist Jill Carroll Released in Iraq. Best thing I have heard in such a long time...
I went out to karaoke night in Mohandiseen last night and had a pretty good time, but for lack of much else to say, here's a little rant.

Christian convert case: Cheap political ploy serving Bush?

This is a priceless moment from Al Jazeera. Try this on for shoddy logic:

Some analysts, explaining the political implications of bringing up the issue of Abdul Rahman at this time, although he converted to Christianity more than 16 years ago as said in circulating media reports, they attributed that to Mr. Bush’s need to show the world that his mission, to spread “democracy”, now failing in Iraq, has actually succeeded in Afghanistan, once ruled by conservative Taliban regime.
Woah, there. Sorry, but who was the one who "brought this issue up" 16 years after Abdul Rahman converted? I think it was the people who were about to execute him, not Bush. This is a common trick in the Arab press, I've noticed: mention the issue of timing, and then hope the dimmest readers will fail to see that the timing doesn't even compute with the implied conspiracy theory. You'd have to be pretty dim to fall for this one. (Notice that nowhere does the article say outright Bush engineered for Abdul Rahman to be arrested to begin with. That would just sound like a silly conspiracy theory, eh?)

Speaking of silly conspiracy theories, I saw Syriana two nights ago -- the midnight showing at the Odeon cinema just downstairs from me. Why it took me this long to discover the midnight screenings at the Odeon -- just as I'm about to leave Cairo -- is beyond me. Then again I only just discovered karaoke night, too.

Anyway, I thought George Clooney's character was about the saddest and loneliest guy I've seen in a movie, ever. (Where were his wife and kids? They were referred to but never seen.) And I'm liking Matt Damon more and more now that he's taking on international-man-of-mystery roles. But in the end the film depended completely on its political message, and the political message was foolish and naive: omniscient and all-powerful American intelligence, in cooperation with the energy-industrial complex, is up to no good blowing up Arab reformers. There are plenty of negative things you could in a film about American foreign policy, but that the U.S. assassinates too many Arab reformers isn't one of them. (In fact, I thought this movie implicitly suggested we may have killed Rafiq Hariri, which is pretty odious.)

I wondered the same thing wathching Syriana here in Cairo that I wondered when I saw Crash at a crowded bar in the Christian quarter of Damascus: Does the average viewer in this part of the world see these films and think, "Wow, America must be really fucked up if even the Americans are making movies about how fucked up it is"? Or do they think, "Huh, funny how there are no Syrian or Egyptian movies about how bad our government is."
Referral of the day: What does "sugar in a plum" mean?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I’ve decided I’m finally going to look into one of those Flikr accounts that I keep seeing around. Pictures can be fun, and people have started reminding me that I have to take lots of pictures before I leave Cairo. I’ve hardly taken any so far.

Here’s something that deserves an illustration:

My friend Raymond Stock (translator and biographer of Naguib Mahfouz) has coined the phrase “man-presence,” rather than man-power, to describe the basis of the Egyptian economy.

Example: I’m sitting here trying, unsuccessfully, to connect using my laptop at Cilantro café, a Starbucks-style place downtown across from the main entrance of American University in Cairo. I just snapped a photo of the counter area: For a seating space of about 100 square meters, I counted no less nine wait staff in the photo. Yes, nine, and there are others lurking around, standing around not doing much of anything.

At my Tulip Cafe, back in Prague, we used to manage (or at least come close) a similar crowd in a similar area with two or three staff. (Although I hear Tulip has taken a turn for the Egyptian, so to speak, since I sold control of the company.)

About 50 minutes after I sat down at Cilantro, a waiter approached me for the first time and asked me if I would like the check. No joke. I laughed and ended up asking for a decaf Americano instead. I should have just allowed him to try and bring me the check.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

New Slate article: What's the Matter With Kiev? Sunday's vote wasn't a rejection of the orange revolution, it was proof of its success.

This is an piece I've been mulling over for almost a month now, since my two weeks in Ukraine in February.

It starts with me, along with just about everybody else in the room, being drunk out of my skull:

After some jazz standards, the Lithuanians join the singing with a drunken rendition of "Svetit Neznakomaya Zvezda" ("A Foreign Star Is Shining"), an old Soviet folk song about being in a foreign city far away from your beloved. Everybody but me joins in—they all know the words, even though none were adults when the Soviet Union collapsed—and for a moment I'm back in the U.S.S.R. This is the new Kiev, polyglot and approaching something almost like cosmopolitanism.
I'm very happy with the editor's work, but there were some important things that got snipped, such as the fact that the two Lithuanians' names were Paulius and Adomas, which come on, let's face it, are objectively brilliant names.

Also, she removed the word "Kuchmastan."

The words to "Svetit Neznakomaya Zvezda," and the translation, according to Paulius:

"Svety neznakomaya zvezda, snova my otorvany ot doma, s nova mezhdu namy goroda, yarkyi ogny aerodroma..."

"Once again we torn away from our home, once again the cities separate us, and bright airport lights, but hope is my eternal compass, and fortune is reward for bravery, and it is enough to have our song to remind us of home...."

Here are my initial impressions of Ukraine, without more stuff about me having to spend so much cash and less mumbling into my shoes about politics.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Jesusjosephandmarymotherofgod. It's raining in Cairo!

(Not that they had anything to do with it.)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

What is it about apples that makes me not enjoy them as much as I think I should?


The editorial board of this blog has made a strategic decision to modify its direction somewhat. Not too much – impossible, because it’s never had much direction – just a wee bit. I’ve always been a little turned off by the idea of an online personal journal because, well, I guess because most people’s internal lives just aren’t that interesting. Yet lately I’m getting the most positive feedback from the melancholy posts that sort of scratch a nerve, like the one about the dying cat. So at the risk of alienating a small segment of my paltry readership, we’re veering in that direction. Just a heads up.

I’m glad I’m leaving Cairo, and not just because it’s a shit-hole. To be sure, it’s a real shit-hole, but I know a lot of like-minded people who love it here, perhaps in no small part due to its shit-hole qualities.

Late last year I visited a well-known Egyptian conceptual artist (there is one, I swear) in his downtown apartment. “I don’t know that I’ve been in a city as inspirational as this,” he told me. “That’s one of the reasons I live in the heart of Cairo. You can live here as in New York or as in Bamako or Timbuktu.”

So if you find me talking shit about Cairo or about Egypt in general, keep in mind that it’s probably because it’s been the site of the most painful experience of my life. I shan’t go into the details, though they may leak out. It’s just a demonstration of the extent to which circumstances really color your perception of a place.

Enough about Cairo. I hereby wish to issue the world an apology.

I’ve had a few friends who at various points in their lives have had something bad happen to them, or for whatever reason have been seriously down in the dumps. I’ve always tried to help, to listen, to try and say the right things. I have no idea whether I did a good job or not, but regardless, when I think back, I do believe that deep down inside, I was secretly thinking, “Dude, pull yourself together. Get a grip.” And I really regret that, and right now I just wish I could give enough thanks to the world (well, most of the world, anyway) for being good to me.

When somebody’s going through some serious turmoil, there’s not much you can say that’ll help. There are certain things that don’t help: “Snap out of it,” or “Chin up, man!” or “Don’t be so depressed” or, less bad but not great, “It's totally normal that you’d feel that way.” These are very well-intentioned – as is, “Don’t forget to smile!” – but they shouldn't be said. Acting like nothing’s wrong is also bad. Things that extol the personal virtues of the depressed one are more than passable – again, while these don’t make things better, they can probably have a sustaining effect, like helping a person tread water until things start to clear up. And the person would have to be a real jerk not to appreciate it.

One of my Buddhist friends gave me meditation advice. Just take five minutes, he said, make yourself comfortable, and concentrate on your breathing; let you mind wander, don’t judge your thoughts, but always come back to the breath. This is pretty standard stuff, but it helped anyway. The only problem is that I can't help but judge my thoughts based purely on the amount of pain they cause. So the whole process ends up going something like this:

Breath in
Breath out
Breath in
Breath out

And so on.

Sometimes people say things and it helps because it just makes something click. Maybe it's just circumstances, and they happen to say something at the right time, rather than making an objectively helpful remark, but no matter. At the risk of revealing too much, I'll give some examples.

I asked a particularly beloved ex-girlfriend of mine, “How did you manage to be friends with me after I broke up with you?” The well-thought-out reply: “I realized and accepted we did not fit perfectly and started to look for what would make me happy personally and not how others wanted to have me, but I guess your situation is different.”

Yes, it's different - but huh! How about that. Stupid asshole me never even bothered to ask in six years. Her response made something click.

As did this: “You want to be friends with a woman who said she'd marry you and then ran away with another guy? How would you introduce her to your friends? Hi, this is the flake who dumped me. Fuck that.”


Then there's my mother, of all people. It came as a surprise because Mom's a woman notorious for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and who, to the best of my knowledge (not that I try to think about it much), has only had one lover in the last 59 years. “Time to start the rest of your life,” she said. Yep.

I think there’s a point to what I’m saying, and this is so totally Friendships 101, I can’t believe I’m writing it on my blog. But if you really want to help somebody who’s feeling low, don’t tell him or her to cheer up, but do say something. Just keep shooting. Sooner or later you might say something that makes a difference.


Though I can’t say I truly enjoyed it, I had the privilege of starting the rest of my life at the Four Seasons resort in Sharm el-Sheikh on Thursday and Friday. I was there for a travel feature I’m contributing to about the world’s hottest ports. Sharm el-Sheikh is not one of the world’s hottest ports, by the way, but I couldn’t argue with a cushy assignment. (It’s difficult to type these words, because it’s like this whopping admission that the world is really treating me nicely and my life is, objectively speaking, the cat’s pajamas. So it goes.)

The only real problem with the Four Seasons Sharm el-Sheikh is that it’s totally secluded from Sharm itself, which means that even if you’re getting comped for the room rate, you’re spending out the wazoo on extras like food, drinks, transportation and that single important long distance telephone call. The marketing director told me that 80% of the guests never actually leave the resort. If they can afford it, which they can, I’m not sure I blame them.

I did the overpriced nightlife thing Friday and, predictably, didn’t have a great time. I think the whole experience may have somewhat tipped the scales to send my political leanings back in a leftward direction, which is to say that the Four Seasons is so stupidly opulent that it made me feel like a Communist all over again.

Other that that, Sharm’s a great place and the Four Seasons rocks!


In genuine thanks to the world, in true adolescent fashion, I have created a mix for you. It’s not meant to be the best compilation in the world – just an OK mix, hopefully in the way that your favorite CDs actually have a few not-so-great songs to act as foils against the good ones.

The method of compilation was such: I told my computer to randomly play every MP3 on its hard disk, which means every song on every CD I own plus everything that ever ended up on the Tulip Café sound system (from staff, etc.) plus a bunch of stuff that just ended up there for whatever reason. It’s a huge, diverse mix. As the songs played, I sorted them by style, mood, substance, context, whatever.

This is just one of the piles, leaning heavily in a nerdy old-school East-Coast quasi-indie-rock direction. When I had enough stuff to fill a CD, I stopped and put the songs in an order that made sense. I didn't delete anything except one that didn't fit in under 76 minutes. Do not try to read too much meaning into the selection, in other words.

Since we are rapidly approaching the point where every song ever recorded is on the hard drive of every person everywhere, I only have to tell you the order of songs, and you'll just play them in that order. (OK, if you really don’t have some of these songs, I’d be happy to burn a CD and send it to you.)

This mix is called “Cairo Silo” because the first song I picked was “Silo” by the totally obscure and probably now defunct Western Massachusetts band called the Scud Mountain Boys, and because “Cairo” almost rhymes with Silo. Here we go.

1. Patti Smith - Ask The Angels (3:10)
2. Bloc Party - Banquet (3:18)
3. Talking Heads - Bill (3:22)
4. Scud Mountain Boys - Silo (3:42)
5. Yo La Tengo - My Little Corner Of The World (2:25)
6. Liz Phair - Shatter (5:28)
7. R.E.M. - Shaking Through (4:30)
8. Eugenius - Hot Dog (3:34)
9. Morrissey - Piccadilly Palare (3:26)
10. Elliott Smith - Track 08 (4:40) *
11. Wilco - Jesus, etc. (3:49)
12. Ugly Casanova - Track 04 (4:58) *
13. Sebadoh - Skull (2:17)
14. The Shins - So Says I (2:48)
15. Elvis Costello - Busy Bodies (3:34)
16. Dinosaur Jr - Green Mind (4:56)
17. Ben Fold's Five - Philosophy (4:38)
18. Folk Implosion - My Ritual (4:35)
19. Grandaddy – I’m On Standby (3:12)
20. Tom Waits - Closing Time (4:20)

* Sorry, I don’t know the title. That’s just how it’s saved on my computer. I could hum it to you if you want.