If every day were a concert

10 07 2009
Azraq Samawy

Azraq Samawy

There are times, few as they are, that I find myself thinking, you know, Egypt could be a nice place to live. Take last night, for example. My friend Laila and I took the kids to see an open-air concert at the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It was out on the plaza, two bands I’d never heard of before. And it was the perfect summer concert–laid back, warm and breezy, intimate. The first band, Azraq Samawy (Sky Blue) played a sort of Arabic rock. “Asalamalaikum,” the lead vocalist said to the small crowd when they first came out.

“This doesn’t bode well,” Laila said.

The guy never took off his sunglasses, even when the sun  set. The overweight bassist with the heavy eyelids seemed to be chewing not a piece of gum, but an entire pack at once, through their set. Judging by his girth, we all assumed at first it must have been food, a meal cut short that he’d decided to finish on stage. They were all in t-shirts and jeans or khakis, and they rocked out.



The second band, Miraya, or Mirror, was a bigger operation–maybe seven band members. A few of them looked like they could be in middle school, Greg Hefley bodies and all. They played a sort of Egyptian/Nubian/Reggae/Rock fusion. At times I could hear a little Carlos Santana in the guitar riffs. There were bongo drums and a guy on oud. They sang harmonies that would put any boy band to shame, and they smiled and swayed to their own tunes. You don’t appreciate a smile until you’ve been in a country where a lot of people don’t do it anymore, at least not among strangers.

We’re planning to hit the next concert tonight. Alexandria has more in store than I thought.


Bicycles and Cinema

7 07 2009

It never ends well, but like a battered wife, I go back to the bike rentals in Egypt again and again. I know someone is going to end up hurt, but what else is there to do? It’s not like they have parks or Barnes & Noble with a cozy little kids section on every corner. So we rent bikes.

Actually this time, Roofie wanted to rent a four-seat contraption, that was part  paddle boat, part bicycle and part tractor. The end result was something that looked like Fred Flintstone’s car.

We got in, Daddy Yankee and Roofie in the front, Juniper and I in the back. It was a bumpy ride, but everyone seemed to be having fun. And then a quick swerve to avoid what could generously be called a pothole, and Juniper’s foot got caught between the pedals and the ground. Her flip flop toreflipflop and her foot was blackened by the chain grease, except for where it was bleeding near the ankle. I took her in to the pharmacy (there is one on every corner) and asked for some hydrogen peroxide and cotton. I cleaned her up, and 30 minutes later, it was time for us to go see a movie.

Now, my mother has bragged about this movie theater for three years, since it opened in her subdivision. It is not much to brag about, except that once you pass the popcorn stand and go through a lobby, it is an open-air theater. So during boring stretches in the film, you can look up and gaze at the stars.

The movie was called Bobos, named after a severely obese boy who had a small role in the film. It starred a well-known Egyptian actor, Adel Emam, and one of the early scenes showed the 69-year-old at an outdoor party where, of course, a bellydancer was the main entertainment. And Adel Emam was smitten with her huge breasts and her legs, one of which a hip-high slit exposed in its entirety.

Cut to the next scene with the two of them in bed. As in most Egyptian movies, what they were doing in bed is implicit, but then the cops bust in, about a dozen of them, saying Emam’s character owes someone $10 million for some business transaction gone awry. He promises to comply, but first needs one of the officers to hand him the “G-string.” After picking up several objects in the room–a bottle with a long neck, a pink ball with an elongated tip–he finally comes to the red, lacy panties and hands them over, expressionless. Emam takes them and then asks for the “boxers.” The same confusion ensues, and finally when he gets it right, Emam shuffles out flanked by two officers wearing boxers wedged up his behind.

How this is funny is beyond me, but the crowd found it amusing. A couple of scenes later showed a business man on discovering  he’s just lost millions in the stock market,  shooting himself in the mouth, blood splattering in the back of his head. At that point I took Roofie and we walked out. We’ll hold out for the Harry Potter movie that comes out in theaters here in a week.

Michael “Mohammed” Jackson

5 07 2009

Our trip to Egypt involved three airplanes, the worst part being that I lost an earring that was irridescent blue. I blame that plush neck pillow (the one that looks like an inflated toilet seat) for pushing it out of my ear during an eight-hour slumber (thanks, Ambien!). On a trip when so many things can go wrong, that having been the worst of it is OK by me.

At the airport before we hit customs, we went through a screening for swine flu by people wearing surgical masks. A woman asked me to walk up to a yellow line, and proceeded to adjust a camera. I smiled big. Turns out she wasn’t taking my picture, just training an infrared device on my face to reveal my temperature. If I’d had a fever, they would’ve detained me.

The drive to my sister-in-law’s house took an hour and 10 minutes, though with a normal driver it would have taken 90. My sister-in-law, an excellent cook, gorged us on stuffed white eggplant, roasted chicken, rice with chopped liver and mouloukheya, a green, earthy soup that is slightly slimy in consistency but has a tender sweetness to it.

We awoke before dawn to the call to prayer, the athan booming in a staggering echo from several mosques nearby. It felt hot in the room, so that with jetlag made it tough to fall back asleep right away.

Daddy Yankee’s childhood best friend dropped in to visit. He is married with four kids. I remember his wife in a prior visit saying she got pregnant twice with an IUD in place. Doesn’t say much for Egyptian birth control. After he left, my nephew mentioned that his eldest son had fallen in with an ultra-conservative crowd who had convinced him that going to school was haraam, or forbidden. This was hard on his father, a high school teacher. The boy soon dropped out of school and went to work among some bushy-bearded fellows at a deli. My nephew claims to have beat him up, and the boy hasn’t been seen in town since.

Among the other discussion topics:

-My sister-in-law’s father-in-law, who is struggling with diabetes, Alzheimer’s and various stroke complications, says he wants to come to America to die. Even if the chance of his frail 80-year-old frame of surviving any kind of surgery are slim, he’d rather be abroad. He has no use of his hands or feet anymore. In his salad days, he had a reputation from traveling Europe chasing women. That booming voice he once had has been replaced by a tiny high-pitched mumble, barely understandable.

-Michael Jackson converted to Islam before his death and is demanded in his will to be buried according to Islamic law. My mother-in-law insists this is true. “He invited young boys into his bed,” I told her. She came back with a quick reply: “Who knows, maybe he repented before God!”

Relax, relax, relax

3 07 2009

Deep breaths. I could use a yoga class right now, though not with an instructor who looks like a cross between Charlie Brown and Bill Clinton on three hours sleep. I’ve done that.

Had a busy workweek, and tomorrow we leave for Egypt. Exciting, amazing, Pyramids! Camels! Falafel vendors and taxi drivers who light up for each other in bumper-to-bumper traffic!

A little perspective on why this is all so stressful to me:

I haven’t packed until tonight. Last-minute packing on a two-week international trip? Oh no she didn’t.

Everywhere I go in Egypt, I see near-death experiences, or if not that,  DANGER. In a freak accident at the Pyramids, I fell off a galloping camel (who was supposed to be waiting patiently until our guide got Daddy Yankee and Roofie situated on their horse). I’m taking the white shirt I wore that day, but I’m afraid it’s a bad luck charm now, that shirt. Sort of like that tikki amulet Greg Brady found on the beach in Hawaii.

Another time, a truck barreling along a highway maybe 100 feet ahead of us lost one of its giant steel coils, and it came bounding towards our car. Had we been tailgating, it would have crushed us in an instant.

The kids rent bikes almost every year, and none of those is likely to have any working brakes. Don’t even mention a helmet, unless you want to be laughed at or sneered at, or both (Egyptians are fond of this combo).

I am afraid of flying.

I’m scared I’ll forget something essential like  sunscreen or the diffuser attachment on my hairdryer and be completely bummed that there are no CVS stores to run to.

Hope all goes well. See you on the other side.

No One Gets Hurt

21 06 2009

Whatever this week has in store, it’s sure to be a bore  compared to last week. I mean, recording, editing, voicing versus RIDING AROUND WITH A REPO MAN? Honestly.

I met him at 9 on Friday morning at the Home Depot parking lot. I’d tried four other companies before his, and none would let me ride around or interview any repo men. Too risky, too many men died, don’t want to draw attention to the business, everyone knows who we are. Finally I found Cash.

I walked up to his Ford F350 truck and peered into the illegal tinted glass. Couldn’t see a thing. He rolled down the window. “Ready to ride?” he asked.  I said yes.

I was nervous. After all, I’d only talked with Cash once on the phone, and I had forgotten to ask his name then. So here was this 275-pound 6 foot 1 man who looks like he could’ve eaten a few small children for breakfast, watching Brudda Iz on a laptop in his truck inviting me to hop in.


So I did. And for two hours, we rode around looking for people’s cars to repossess. One was a 32-year-old single mother near the end of a pregnancy. The other was a man in construction, who had parked his truck in front of a girlfriend’s house (Cash found it and took it anyway).

It was, without exaggerating, the most adrenaline-filled day I’d had in a long time. When he pulled us back up to the Home Depot, I was crestfallen. It was almost an addictive high, sort of how you feel after being on the Space Shot. You want to ride again. And again.

Granted things probably would’ve felt different had we been confronted or, worse, shot at.

But in my car on the way home I found myself thinking, “This…THIS is why I love my job.”

Ignorance is Bliss

15 06 2009

Look, if your marriage sucks, keep it to yourself. I’m telling you now, I won’t want to visit you no matter how good you cook or how empty the calendar is. Because I don’t need to witness any more awkward exchanges between you and your husband. It’s painful enough to watch Jon and Kate Plus 8. Yet I had to see a scaled down version of it this past weekend.

Went to a friend’s house. We’ll call her Amy. Amy and her husband have been married for maybe 7 years (I see your antenna is raised already). She is at home with their two under-5 boys. She feels overwhelmed. One said boy was nagging for his soccer cleats (there was no match being played, but he needed them NOW). She called for her husband, whom we’ll call Remy.

Amy: Will you PLEASE take him?

Remy: What does he want?

Amy: He’s looking for his soccer cleats.

Remy: Well where are they?

Long huff from Amy, and she tells him they’re in the goddamn garage.

Remy exits with the boy, and Amy turns to me and says that he never looks her in the eye when he knows he’s done something wrong.

“Who?” I ask.

Remy, it turns out.

Remy is all “yes, dear” and “of course, honey.” But you can tell that he’s bubbling beneath the surface. He’d slap her with the back of his hand hard if it wouldn’t land him in jail.

Later the ladies were dishing around the kitchen table over cheesecake. I asked Amy where she spends the most time with the family at night watching TV–up where we were, or down in the finished basement, where there was another sofa and TV and loads of toys?

“We don’t spend time anywhere as a family,” she said. “We hardly ever sit together.”

Damn, I thought. It’s not that the concept is so odd. It’s just awkward knowing it. Next time, I wanted to say, don’t tell me. I’d really much rather be in the dark.

Foster Care Nightmare

6 06 2009

Here’s the truth about working from home with kids: it doesn’t work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or her kids have formed an unhealthy bond with the television set.

I know this because this past week, I tried to meet a deadline while the kids had a week off–you know the one when school has ended but camp hasn’t yet begun? Right, that one.

I thought, no problem. We’ll take little day trips and I’ll work at night after they go to bed. HA!

On Monday we went to the skating rink. Roofie right then (perhaps prematurely) pronounced it the “best summer ever.” On Tuesday we went rollerblading on the greenway, and to the neighborhood swimming pool. The kids were still glowing. Hooray for summer! Ice cream and swimming and frosty glasses of lemonade. This was a honeymoon worth remembering. But as with all honeymoons, it wouldn’t last.

The next day I had to force myself to take them to the library to sign them up for the summer reading program. I wanted to take my laptop along to see if I could sneak some work in. But alas, no. I wasn’t in the mood, or in the zone, or whatever you call work mode. (this is a problem with fluid freelance deadlines, by the way)

By Thursday Juniper was moping around the house complaining about how bored she was. All of her friends were either at their lakehouses or had started camp. Roofie continued to make demands–to go to the swimming pool once more, to make a trip out to the dollar store for a squirting water toy, to have raspberry pancakes for breakfast.

The week was wearing on me. That carefree bounce in my step that I’d had on Monday with the kids had soon given way to a shuffle. Soon I was making eye contact with them minimally. I’d grown tired of Juniper’s sulking, so I told her to look in one of her cookbooks for something to make. Something long and involved, something like bread from scratch or flan. She brightened at the idea and set to work.

“You can’t ask me every few seconds if we have this ingredient or that,” I warned her amid the clanking of mixing bowls and whisks.

“I won’t,” she said.

Not five minutes into her spice cake endeavor, she asked me how much 16 ounces was.

“It’s two cups. You have ounces on that measuring cup, you know,” I said without looking up from my laptop.

A few minutes later: “Would you say this is an eighth of a teaspoon?”

I wanted to say, LEAVE ME ALONE. LEAVE. ME. ALONE. But instead I said, “Go with your instincts. They’re pretty good sometimes.”

We were in each other’s faces for a long time, and I’d had enough. I needed a break. Monday, I thought. Just hold on until Monday.

Then last night I had the most awful nightmare. Somehow  the kids were taken away from me and put in foster care. Yes, it’s a mystery to me, too.

Weeks later (interesting it took me weeks), I went to pick them up, as if I were picking up  dry cleaning or a computer that’d been shipped off for repairs.

So Juniper came out first. The really terrible thing was that whoever put them in foster care put them in separate homes. On second thought, seeing how they fight sometimes, maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea.

Anyway, Juniper came out looking pretty good, being her usual cool as a cucumber self. If her foster parents had been branding her with hot irons every day, she wasn’t letting on.

Then out came Roofie, who appeared to have had quite a different experience in foster care. He was filthy, his hair was sticking up every which way, and it was full of lice and these little white bugs that were just circling his head. And he turned to me and said: Thank you for getting me out of this HELL where I’ve been failing.


I didn’t know what it meant, but we embraced anyway. Then I woke up.  It left me with that awful feeling, you know when you wake up from a dream but it still feels real and your heart is pounding out of your chest? Maybe it was my subconscious telling me to relax and enjoy them. Perhaps the moral of the story is this: enjoy your kids today, because you never know when they might end up in foster care.