Monday, July 19, 2004

Reading In the ATL

The reading was a success. It was in the parking lot in front of Criminal Records, and we were afraid it would rain, but it didn't. Everyone was in patriotic colors. Jamie had Gusto, his guitarist, be the co-MC, and Gusto's wife, Shannon, played Monkey Zuma. We ran out of beer in approximately 20 minutes. The show began with the national anthem, followed by cheers from two girls who showed up dressed as cheerleaders. They were very cool. Chants of "free George Bush!" followed. Spiderman came and did a Q & A about being on the frontlines in the war against terror. Gusto and Roger French, the accordion player, played This Land is My Land.

The parking lot swayed. Icecream was sold rapidly. A woman sold antenna balls that have a crossed out "W." Red, white, and blue streamers, garlands, and flags swayed in the breeze. Jamie introduced me and I read my story while Roger accompanied me on accordion. People liked me, they really did! Gusto then sang "America, the beautiful" in his Elvis voice. Jamie and the cheerleaders did more cheers, and Jamie read his karaoke-inspired masterpiece. These people in golden clothes showed up with a banner that said "Billionaires for Bush...if you can't join us, tough!" Jamie moderated a fistfight between a liberal from the crowd and a conservative from the Billionaires For Bush. It was hilarious. The liberal won after the conservative played dirty.

A woman named Sadie with gorgeous dreads approached me and said she loved my story and gave me her email address. A comic book artist named "Saint" came up after the show and told me he related to growing up in a Muslim household, and he gave me a copy of his comic book. It's very cool. At that point, I'd had 4 beers and some of Jamie's Knob Creek. So, I needed to keep going. We took down the flags and streamers and I took off my heels and we walked around Five Points, drinking and talking about writing.

Jamie is one of my favorite people and writers. He's energetic and talented and funny and things will take off for him soon. Speaking of taking off, we went to Clermont Lounge- a strip club/dance hall. The strippers looked like normal girls. We danced and drank and left to another bar to drink some more. Atlanta is very pretty, green, wet, and lush. I loved it.

The drive back was snappy; we made it in 16 hours with a stop for seafood in Baton Rouge. I came home to a note on my door saying my rent check bounced and I was to vacate the premises or write them a money order with $115 in fees. Which I don't have. There were messages on my machine from my phone company saying my bill was past due and my phone was getting shut off; from my car insurance company saying I have a limited period of time to renew; from my kid asking where I was. I crawled under the covers and slept for 10 hours, only to be awakened and reminded that real life won't go away.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Meeting Cairo

Cairo ...was incredible. I would have to say that the best part of my trip was visiting Cairo. And the reason the visit went so well is because Ahmad El-Aidy (whose Being Abbas el-Abd I will praise very soon in another post) took good care of me and took it upon himself to be my personal guide to Cairo's beautiful, rich literary scene.

My first night there, I finally got to meet him and hold his book in my hands, and I met his uncle Magdy, who is a kick-ass comic book artist and full of funny stories and contagious charisma. Ahmad and Magdy took me to the Hossein, where I'd never been. We sat at a coffee shop where men played covers of Umm Kulthum and others, and a drunk guy in the row in front of us kept getting up to dance. We also went to the famous lit cafe el-fishawi, where I got my very own sheesha and people kept trying to peddle us wallets, toys, and other various wares. Magdy told us stories about how when he was in France, he lived by a peepshow street and how one night a fire broke out and the street was flooded with naked ladies. Ahmad, who in person is quite possibly the funniest man I've met, told jokes and serious stories, alternately. They showed me the gates to old Cairo, and toured me around the renovated quarters, which were breathtaking. I later sat on my balcony overlooking the Nile and smoked cigarettes, then began the first half of Being Abbas el-Abd, even though I was exhausted, and I eventually fell asleep next to it.

The following night, Ahmad invited me to Miret, his publishing house, to meet his fellow authors and Muhammad Hashim, the editor-in-chief. And although I've visited the offices of HarperCollins, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, Random House, those places are shit holes, absolute hellrooms compared to the small haven of Miret's inner room. I was introduced to Hamdi Abou-Golail, whose Retired Thieves I've just begun and love. I also met Nabeel Suleiman (The Nights' Darkness), Ibrahim Dawood (Outside Writing), Khalid Ismaeel (The Black Cloak), Saeed Nuh (Every Time I Meet Pretty Girl I say: Oh, Suad), Muhammad Hashim himself (Open Fields) and others. It was, for me, a historic night, since one of my top five wishes has always been to hang out with Egyptian writers and chat. Talk, laughter, jokes, tea, a cigarette. We talked about drugs, American publishing, more drugs, writing, Vietnamese presses, and other things. I was handed something yummy to smoke half an hour into the meeting. I was handed a Heineken shortly after. Within minutes the table in front of us looked like a forest of Heineken cans. Young boys who work there cleared the forest and replaced it with dishes of minced meat and onions, cheeses, and bread. We also drank Arak, which, mixed with water, turns into a miniature cloud in your small cup. And then the girls arrived, the small faeries, Hashem's daughters, each one sweeter than the next. They asked Magdi to draw on them, and he did, then they came to me, and I drew "tattoos" on their arms and hands: stars, butterflies, and one of them wanted the same one I have on my right wrist on her arm. I farewelled the men reluctantly; I could've stayed and spoken to them for years. The night drew to a close in a nearby cafe, where I met Alaa --Muhammad Alaa elDin-- (The Other Bank, Echoes) who is cute and funny and whose fantastical and magical book I read most of on the train back to Alexandria.

The third night, I met Ahmad's friend Hatem, who is a comic book artist, and whose pages in Seif Bin Zi Yizen (An amazing comic book collection featuring the works of 17 artists, review forthcoming) feature a red-scarf-wearing, huge-sword-wielding, alien-head-chopping superhero. He, Ahmad, Alaa and I went to the movie theater and stood outside debating which film to see. We settled on Khalty Faransa (See post below for more on Egypt and cinema), Ahmad treated us to tickets (I literally didn't pay for anything while in Cairo except the hotel. I was spoiled and treated to things the entire time. Unequalled kindness) and we ate kidney and drank an Egyptian cola with a fly drawn on the front of the glass bottle. Alaa's fondness for cats became apparent when alley cats crawled past. Let me explain about these three guys. They're like a holy trinity. A self-proclaimed Bermuda triangle, they're the most entertaining, intelligent, and, I must add, handsome trio on this planet. These guys are witty, their wits are sharper than a mass murderer's blade. And quicker. They cracked jokes faster than fireworks, and brighter. They were full of double entendres and jokes and fun. We walked after the movie all the way back to my hotel, crossing the river and mimicking billboards and street signs. I was told incredible jokes and Ahmad recited some jaw-dropping poetry. The guy is unnaturally gifted. Watch out for his star soon.

I also spent a night with my kid and later went to a bar and drank too many stellas. My friend Sandy had felt bad about the evening before. She'd given me a lecture about how sex is like drugs and I should quit, that horniness is just a withdrawal symptom, that sex is only meant to be done between two people who love each other. I shut her up by saying, "No offense, but I don't want advice about sex from someone who's never fucked." After this pleasant lecture, I discovered that the drinks in the bar were all alcohol-free, and the menu had a drink called "Joy on the Beach," which was the last straw. I wanted to rip people's clothes off and force them to fuck. I shut my eyes and imagined everyone fucking in the steets. Sexual tension, sexual repression is the downfall of every society. I don't know: I just really wanted a fucking drink.

Cairo is beautiful. Where Alexandria is a man, Cairo is a woman. Alexandria has a long corniche, no other real attractions. The corniche is linear, hard, straight, like a man. All its streets and alleys empty out onto the corniche. Cairo on the other hand has a river and several bridges and circles ("squares") around which cars and pedestrians roam-- it's more like a woman. It's big, congested, untameable, dirty, sexy, dangerous, welcoming, and funny-- like my body. I loved Cairo, I loved the time I spent there, and I loved being surrounded by my gifted, beautiful, generous, hilarious, and unforgettable brothers.

7/11, In Texas now.

After a 32 hour trip including four airplanes, three layovers, and a bus ride from Alexandria to Cairo during which I watched El-Limby Part Two. Many of you may not know of El-Limby. And you should. He is played by comedic genius Mohammad Sa'd, whose most recent movie is 3okal. I saw 3okal with my cousins in a theater in Alexandria the day it came out. It tells the story of a man named 3okal who gets fucked over by his fiancee and her brother, is bitched out by his great-grandma (whom he plays), fails to perform well as an extra in a period film, and gets fired. These events prompt him to drink huge amounts of liquor and roam the streets of cairo. Exhausted, he yells out that he wants to sleep. In the film's subplot, an old man is convinced by some thugs to fake his own death and burial in Turkey so that he can come out with a clean financial slate. This man is now in a coffin in a hearse in Cairo. 3okal bumps into the hearse and asks the man in the coffin to stop being selfish with his bed, drags him out of the coffin, and climbs in and passes out. He wakes up sober and in Turkey. He believes he's still in Egypt, which provides with some of the funniest monologues I've ever seen : "Who are you people?... Did you invade the country? What's the palace doing by the ocean?...Wasn't this statue riding a horse before?" Finally he hears the voice of "El-Sayeda Umm Kulthum" and follows it to its source; the camera pans upwards and you see the sign: The Egyptians' Coffeeshop. And his adventures begin proper.

Another movie I saw in Egypt was Osama Fawzi's Amelie-like "Ba5ib el-Seema" (I Love the Movies). It tells the story of a coptic family in the seminal year of 1966-67. The father is extremely strict and makes his 7 year-old son believe his movie addiction will land him in hell. The film features a sex scene with the father and Laila Elwy, in which she is on top and her night robe is still on. She rides up and down his cock for about 4 seconds and he comes. I was the only person laughing in the theater. Loudly. But within minutes, I was weeping. Because Elwy delivered a terrific speech about how he never loved her, and always thought of sex as something bad and dirty that he wanted to get out of himself as fast as possible. The film's arc is built on the father's reformation from angry tyrant to happy family man. In my other favorite scene, the father's riding a bicycle on the beach with his son while the sun sets and the voice over is Gamal Abdel Nasser's resignation speech. I really hope the movie gets subtitles and comes to the US.

The third movie I saw in Egypt was Ali Ragab's "Khalty Faransa" (My aunt Faransa [France]). She is named Faransa because when she was born, her father (who is brilliantly played by an actor who died during filming) thought she looked too blonde and pretty to be his own and divorced her mother. He then goes on to say, in one of the film's best scenes, that someone told him how his great great great grandma was raped by a Frenchman and thus blonde hair and blue eyes became a family trait- and so he embraced his daughter and named her Faransa. He says when he dies and goes to heaven, he wants to see this great great great grandma and find out for himself if she was a decent woman or a prostitute to the French. I saw the movie in a crowded theater with Ahmad, Muhammad, and Hatem. The Egyptian people make the best live film critics on the planet. There was a healthy discussion about the film's themes going on in the seats surrounding us. The movie is about a baltagiyya who is hired by people to ruin weddings and beat up protesters; who pickpockets in buses; who raises her pickpocket sister's daughter after said sister is arrested with husband for robbery. The movie's first 15 minutes were hilarious. There was a serious mishmash of genres which made it difficult to swallow, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. My favorite part was a torture scene in a room that looked like it was straight out of Gotham city-- complete with fan and blue smoke. Faransa and her nieces are tied to crosses and beaten and questioned by rich thugs. The sets cracked me up because, as Hatem pointed out, there was a mini-cross for the small niece. When did they have time to make this cross?

Egyptian film is better than anything I've ever seen. I can't wait to see "Alexandria-New York," Yousef Chahine's newest.