The Big Turn-Off

(excerpted from my forthcoming novel, Death of an Ultra)

I slammed my laptop shut. Jerkoff country.

The concierge said the Internet would be back up by now. But it wasn’t. Of course the concierge would say that. His job was to say yes. To say everything was possible. To kiss ass while pretending to work. But most of all, to collect his baksheesh. It was true what people said in Riyadh—Egypt was a nation of slaves.

Now here I am, watching the tentpole in his pants begin to yield. People always complained how difficult it was to accomplish a single thing in this country. Even something as simple as this.

My editor was right. This place really is completely orthogonal. And not just Egypt. The entire Arab world is perpendicular to the actual world.

Exhausted from the events of the last days, I’d wanted something very simply: to drift off with some late-night entertainment. Given the hour and the solitude of his hotel room, the opportunity had seemed secure. A well-earned rest after days of running around.

But the Egyptian muhkhaberat had discovered the ultimate cockblock. The idiots had somehow figured out how to turn off the Internet. Until they turned it on again, they were denying my right to streaming vids.

It was so primitive that I’d had to file via a telefax device located in the room down on the Mezzanine. The concierge had insisted on calling it “the Executive Center,” but it was nothing more than a windowless box filled with aging Dells and cracked naugahyde chairs. Of course, I was not allowed to use one of the ancient computers by myself. Why? Because this was a country of full-employment, a country that employs bathroom attendants to stand at urinals handing out tissue so you can wipe the tip of your dick after pissing.

So instead of doing it myself, I was assisted by an “executive assistant,” the sleepy old man who belonged at the urinals. Naturally, I was obliged to pay the man to print it up, tipping him by the page. And then I was compelled to repeat the baksheesh process as the incompetent old man loaded the printed copies page by page, hitting the send button between each sheet so as to create multiple jobs when only one was necessary. Did it get to New York? Who knows. All I had to show for it were the thin receipts my personal executive assistant pulled out of the machine and gave me as proof that the job had been completed.

 I rebooted my computer one more time, then gave up on the Internet. I opened one of the warm bottles of Stella that had been gathering dust in the minibar and stepped out onto the balcony. Even though most of the Midan was not visible from here, the spectacle was mesmerizing. From twenty stories up, the nighttime crowds looked like a pulsing sea. Or a river crashing back and forth against its banks. I took a sip of beer and watched as another skyrocket performed its bright rainbow before bursting apart. Green lasers flashed across buildings, drawing loops and lines that vanished instantly but somehow etched themselves for minutes in my eye. It wasn’t porn, but it was spectacle. And for the first time in days, I enjoyed myself.

It’d been a week like no other. From the bureau in Riyadh to Tunis. And then to Cairo just in time to watch the city turn itself upside down. Not that I’d had much time to watch anything from up close. Not with deadlines and the vertical climb of Arab-world learning curves. I never hid the fact from anyone that this was not the area of my expertise. Like most business majors, I’d taken my two years of Spanish and called it a day.

But life deals us different cards. Who ever heard of financial reporting in Egypt? Or Tunis for that matter? It was an utterly bullshit job to have to report on places like this. When I complained to my editor, Zack laughed, “It’s true that their relationship to the global economy is…” Zach always paused before using his favorite word… “orthogonal. But these events may impact markets. We need you in the game, Jayjay”

Orthogonal here meant ‘basket case.’ Irrelevant. The kind of place no one would ever invest in. You couldn’t even call these economies emerging markets. If the growth and vibrancy of an emergent market is normally measured by the degree to which the vibrant, panted sector of a young man was allowed to emerge and grow, this place was stagnant. Non-emergent was a better adjective, and it did double duty, describing the state of the region’s overall economy and also the state of its chubbies.

With my degrees and recommendations, I should have been in London by now. But after that intern, I not only lost the affections of my fiancée, I’d been let go, with threat of lawsuits. The best job I could land was a shitty line on Gulf markets. And that was only because my MA advisor had made me take a gut seminar on Islamic finance with that bored Saudi prince who taught in a econ seminar every Spring. Islamic finance had come up in the interview and I milked it. And that’s how I found myself with a bureau job in Riyadh.

But the fact was Saudi sucked. And my efforts to relocate to Dubai had been stymied by Zach and the others at the Bulletin. For my first two years there, the VPNs that worked just fine. I had the entire Internet at my fingertips. Which meant that Saudi was bearable even if the local pussy market was horribly underpenetrated. While the rest of my friends were spending their paychecks on the normal leisure activities and courting rituals of the financial peerage, I was saving money hand over fist. Even with my busy schedule, I could always find time to explore the rich and colorful virtual worlds created by today’s adult entertainment industries. And for some goddamn reason, it was distributed without charge. Occasionally, while availing himself of the sector’s products I wondered about their business model. If people like me were getting it for free, who the fuck was paying the bills? Could be an interesting piece for the Bulletin. But no sooner had this financial query presented itself to my inquisitive journalistic mind than I became distracted by the visceral effect that downloads of shaved poon can have on a healthy guy.

Then one day, the VPNs stopped working. That was when I learned what it really meant to live in the Kingdom. The IT guys in New York couldn’t fix it, and told me to “hold tight.” In fact, holding tight was exactly what I wanted to do, only while catching my share of Asians and naughty schoolgirls, and later, with time, some choice MILFs. When I brought up the subject with another journalist in the Kingdom, the old man winked and told me to visit the online Victoria’s Secret catalogue, which for some reason was not blocked by the local firewalls.

That was three years ago. And since then, my sensual life has consisted mainly of bra ads and bikini pix that old girlfriends sometimes post to their Facebook pages. But it created as many problems as it solved. While it gave me the relief that any thirty-year old man deserved, it only made me feel disgusted afterwards. And the truth is that Facebook mostly made me sad. My late night visits meant that I would glimpse friends who lived in more interesting places. And their pages were invariably full of pictures of dinners and nights out. Weekend reunions in Prague. Beach parties in Cannes. Raves in Ibiza. Ice cream cones on the Cape. Each one of these posts was a reminder of how sad and lonely life in Riyadh was.

The highlight of my social calendar was the monthly Rotary Club dinner at the Brazilian churrasco at the Mamlaka Mall. There, sitting with minor royalty and zesty but pious Pakistani engineers, I would gorge myself with exotic meats. It had taken me a year to learn that you had to pass on the skewers of lamb and veal they brought out first. The trick was to wait for the game. Gazelle. Wild cow. Zebra. Baby zebra. Camel veal. If it was a blowout event, I might go out for sheesha and tea afterwards with the old British poofster who never missed an opportunity for male bonding.

I stood there drinking my Stella, staring at the mass of human chaos spreading out before me. I imagined hordes of creatures from a Bosch painting. It was the apocalypse or Hell or something like that. It was from a lecture in Art History 121, the course I took because of all the bitches from my dorm had preregistered for it. The class didn’t get me any, but it wasn’t the worst course I ever took. One day the professor lectured about Bosch’s vision of the end of the world. We looked at slides, and those were the images that were flashing before my eyes right now as I stood on that balcony overlooking Cairo. I imagined a stream of close-ups—weird fishbirds, hollowed out barrelmen, engorged penismen and ass-monsters parading around the old painting, fucking one another, torturing or fellating each other, shitting and pissing on themselves and everyone around them.

That’s what this was. The fucking apocalypse. And then it hit me. Now, Egypt’s apocalypse was my ticket out. This was the main stage for however long it would last and for whatever reason I’d been sent to cover it. I’d filed my first story, it was out by now, not that I could see it online. It wasn’t brilliant. It wasn’t original. But it proved I could do it. If I wanted to get ahead I’d have to create an angle. Anything. But without it, I’d be lost in the pack.

My friends might be having going out in Knightsbridge tonight, but I was making history. Cairo was a shithole, no doubt about it. But this—this was history. And covering it was my ticket out of the orthogonal life. Out of Riyadh for good. This was the biggest break I’d ever catch in his career.

I finished the last swigs of beer and heard a voice deep inside me saying: Don’t waste this chance. I closed my eyes and promised myself twice, “I will not waste this chance.” And then, to seal my resolve, I threw the empty out into the night. I opened my eyes and watched the bottle somersault over the Midan then disappear in the sky.

Standing over Cairo, it felt like someone had pushed the restart button on life. I could feel the excitement coursing through my veins again. Slowly, that orthogonal swelling began to return to my pants.


Army Deployed to Calm Egypt Chaos : Mubarak Installs New Cabinet (January 29, 2011)

By Jason Monsale 

Cairo—Egypt edged toward chaos as thousands of demonstrators filled the streets on Friday for a fourth day of civil unrest and security forces appear to crumble.

Throngs of protesters marched across Cairo and other large cities, breaking through cordons of police to attack police stations and government buildings. By nightfall the headquarters of the ruling NDP party was in flames, and the Egyptian National Museum, home to priceless collections of Pharaonic antiquities, was under threat by angry mobs.

In the city of Suez, protesters exchanged gunfire with police while laying siege the main police station. In Alexandria, masses of demonstrators marauded through the city center, battling against legions of security forces and laying waste to downtown storefronts. While local NGOs claim hundreds have died in the violence that took place in the deadliest day of rioting, those figures are disputed by Health Ministry officials.

Officials in the Ministries of Finance and Tourism have estimated property damages and the disruption of the economy will cost the country more than $1 billion. The government of President Hosni Mubarak responded by announcing a curfew and deploying the military to civilian areas for the first time since 1986.

Cellphone and Internet service went down Thursday night and local organizations accused the government of deliberately disabling communications in order to prevent protests. Despite this, demonstrations began as planned immediately after noon prayers on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. Congregants leaving sermons in Cairo were confronted by battalions of Central Security Forces urging people to return to their homes. Arguments and disagreements quickly erupted into chaotic street battles.

At the historic Al-Azhar Mosque, thousands of men hurled bricks and firebombs at the black-clad riot police who stood their ground until they were overpowered. The crowd then moved on toward downtown Cairo leaving three smoldering police trucks in their wake. Elsewhere, protesters broke through police ranks on their way to Tahrir Square, which became the unofficial base for protesters. By the end of the day, the police had retreated from many parts of the city.

Downtown shopping districts were filled with the smoke of tear-gas canisters and burning cars. Around the Ministry of Interior, the sound of gunfire went on all day. In Tahrir Square, protesters announced that they had struck a blow for democracy and free speech. After the withdrawal of the police, the first military units began to arrive. As tanks rolled into Tahrir Square, protesters erupted in cheers, chanting, “The people and the army are as one hand.”

Ahmed Kilani, a protester who has been in the square since the first day said, “We are the people, and we are telling Mubarak he must go now. We do not want the tire, or his spare tire.” The 34-year-old carpenter had come to the square from his home in Giza, and emphasized he was not an activist, “I am an ordinary man and very happy to see the army has come to protect us.”

Hèdi Shameed, senior analyst at the Institute for Middle East Peace remarked, “What we’re seeing in Egypt is nothing short of a political tsunami. But only time will tell what this surge will do. It might wash the region with waves of democracy, or it might destroy everything in its path.”

Hussein Nadrawi, leader within the ruling National Democratic Party, insisted that the protests did not represent a spontaneous upsurge in public sentiment. “There is no doubt these events were orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood.” When asked to comment on the fact that tens of thousands of Egyptians—including Coptic Christians—had participated in the protests, Nadrawi replied, “It is regrettable that so many Egyptians have been fooled into thinking that the aim and purpose of the demonstrations was peaceful. It is anything but. When we present the full evidence we have found, everyone will see that this is a premeditated scheme, a vicious attack on Egypt.” On their official website, the banned but influential Muslim Brotherhood had issued an ambiguous message, urging members not to participate, while also implicitly endorsing Friday’s protests.

As the situation deteriorated during the day, foreign embassies began to evacuate non-essential personnel, causing traffic jams along the airport road. At the international terminal, hundreds of families found themselves waiting for hours as airlines struggled to make space on outgoing flights.

In Washington, observers remain on edge about how these developments will impact the stability of one of the oldest allies in the Middle East. In a brief statement, the White House urged all parties to show restraint. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared her growing impatience, “We ask for all parties to deescalate. Violence will only exasperate grievances.”

President Hosni Mubarak said in a televised address that he was prepared to undertake major policy reforms. “Our path toward reform cannot be reversed, nor will we take a single step backward,” he said. “We will move forward to create a more independent judiciary and we will broaden the freedom and democracy of citizens. We will fight unemployment and raise the standard of living, working on behalf of the poor. We will choose our goals.” Defiant, Mubarak went on to announce the dissolution of his cabinet, and that he had no intention of stepping down, “I am the one who carries the responsibility of our nation’s security.”

In Tahrir Square, throngs of protesters responded to Mubarak’s speech with boisterous songs and chants. Many others waved flags and climbed onto the armored personnel carriers, chanting, “We are all brothers.”

(Dean O’Mauch contributed to this article from Washington.