Saturday, February 7, 2009

The beehive - Cairo, Egypt

Ramadan in Cairo is a curious time.
When the sun is set, because of the Iftar, on the streets and the squares there's not a soul around. The familiar uproar and the rock concert-like air vanish as if the city were the setting of a dream.
If you are crossing a road you can relax: that creepy feeling of being a scared cat that springs from lane to lane dodging speeding cars, at this time of the day is like a nightmare half-dreamt.

A few hours later though, let’s say at 1 a.m., when you go down for a snack and walk out of the hotel, a whirl of sensations just swallows you up. You freeze on the sidewalk and stares at the sight, stunned by the noise, the lights and the smells.
Deep into the night the shops are all open and huge crowds gather in front of the windows. They hunt for shoes, clothing and sweets, the same kind of stuff that you'd buy in the afternoon. You’re looking at people of any kind: not only adult men but old gentlemen too, and mothers with children who pull at their skirts.

Like a web of human threads it invades every space. Focused on the goods displayed in shops and stalls, people glide on the asphalt in multiple files. Hitting, blocking, crossing and twisting they look like water snakes into one of those basins that can be found in an Asian market.
Who is in a hurry and keeps kicking the heels of the innocent pedestrian who walks in front, decides to swerve and to share the road with the endless chains of battered cars.
At the main intersections the flows intersect and as in the screen of an old video-game they cross the road with intermittent starts.

When you're done with your shawarma you go back to your room and the activity of that beehive has yet to stop. Half an hour later you're awake in the dark, listening to the honks, the screams and the roar, that
mixed with vapours of spices and grease, keep filtering in through the chinks in the window.

This is Cairo during Ramadan: that’s the way they sing lullabies here.

Like a fly caught in a web - Penang, Malaysia

Tall and baroquely decorated minarets, vaguely psychedelic statues clutching at colourful columns in the Hindu Shrines, Chinese pagodas shrouded in clouds of incense and houses of the corporations with soft pastel pink, yellow and green façades. The streets are lined with restaurants, lodgings, craftsmen’s workshops and merchants’ storerooms. Everything seems to be wrapped up in a thin and pale veil of colonial and ancient dust. This is Georgetown: the pulsing heart of Penang.

It’s late, eleven at night. I’ve just put my bags down in my room and I’m already strolling around to smell it, taste it and look at it, in order to try, maybe in vain, to seize it and hold on to it, if not yet to remember it. I walk past a Mosque and a group of men with embroidered robes and headdresses sitting and chatting in front of it. The notes of a familiar song catch my ear and I slow down my pace. As a spider that hurls itself on a fly which got caught in its web, a man with dark skin and a thin moustache comes up to me.

“Just a look…Indonesia!”
He gestures towards the band and starts talking again.
“Enter...only a like…go.”
His English is not too good, but the number has obviously been staged again and again.
“Hmm, maybe later, ok?”
“No. Now...come on!”

His smile is so charming that I feel drawn to it like a cobra to his enchanter’s flute and a few seconds later I find myself following him into what seems to be some kind of food court.
I know the song: how many times did I listen to it when I was in Kunming.
“It’s Chinese!” I cry out.
“No, Indonesia.” he insists.
At a closer look the singer might actually be Javanese.
“But he’s singing in Chinese!” I try again.
“Indonesia…also China, Malaysia…English language.”

What is he talking about? Are there going to be other bands playing?
I take a better look at him and I notice a misalignment between our gazes.
While mine has so far been fixed on the band, his eyes are scanning the space that separates us from a group of people sitting at a table. They are all women.
My perplexity only lasts for a few more seconds, as I put the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle together. Indonesia, China, English language, women and that sentence…If you don’t like it you can just leave.
Ha-ha...He’s a pimp!
“Ah, no…thanks!”