April 2008


The Garden

Four friends undisturbed;

An oasis in sea of brown;

Wishing it won’t end.

………………………………………………

Opposites

Like the north and south;

Bewildered, surprised, amused;

Yet strangely we laughed.

………………………………………………

My Regrets

I can’t or I won’t?;

Yet He nudge, yet He cries out;

“Ahead, My young son!”.

An Iranian acquaintance working in Singapore once shared with me that one thing which he never really ‘liked’ about Singapore was the absence of the four seasons in the country.  He explained that the four seasons was a way for them (i.e. the Iranians) to sense the passing of time and the change of activities.  While I beg to differ (er, we do have our monsoon SEASONS?), his words did reverberate through my mind during the past few days.  [Note: a little trivial here since I am also trying to promote understanding of the Middle Eastern culture here – Iranians generally DO NOT eat our noodles, bee hoon and the like.  They told me that these stuff have a ‘funny texture’!  So take note if you were to ever host Iranians to a meal].

You see, summer is officially here in Cairo.  You know because all the military and security guards changed their uniforms from black to white colours overnight; daylight savings kicked in – I am now 5 hours behind Singapore time; daily temparatures hover at a minimum of 40 degrees (unlike Singapore, there is a dearth of air-con shopping malls and offices to run to here to hide); and tempers start flaring (I witnessed a mass brawl ala WWF’s “SummerSlam” today at the metro station that was initially between a customer and a station staff.  It was over a torn 1 Egyptian Pound or S$0.26 note.  Being the Singapore-trained kaypoh, I gawked a little too much and was nearly pulled into the fray).   

Coincidentally, today also marks my third month of my stay in Egypt.  I have a month more to go before the current “Spring” semester ends and the “Summer” semester kicks in from June.  I heard that traditionally the students (and teachers) are pretty slack for the “Summer” semester due to the terrible heat and weather – you just want to sleep or chill somewhere.  Anyway, my results have been okay so far (stuttering mainly in grammar) but still relatively crappy for spoken colloquial Arabic.  Pronunciation and my 32-year-old ears are the key impediments to a linguistic breakthrough.  Hopefully, my ‘pasar Arabic’ would suffice for the rest of the time that I will be here. 

One thing which is quite a damper is that the turnover of students at my university is pretty high.  People come and go because of various reasons – to start a degree elsewhere; to start work; to look for work; to continue their Arabic education elsewhere etc.  So I have lost quite a few ‘good’ friends (well, within this short span of time, these are the ones that I can ‘click’) already or soon to the cycle – a Jap; a French; an American; a Greek.  Its a tragedy all right, as I have to start the “Hi, my name is blah, blah, blah and I am not from China, Japan, Philippines etc, and I can speak English fluently not because I am educated overseas thank you” all over again.  Absolutely exhausting.  And in the summer heat to boot!

One other key observation I made was how almost everyone I met in the campus spoke at least two languages fluently.  The Europeans were typically leading the way in this outpouring of linguistic capabilities what with the EU and what not.  Most of them can speak at least three languages – English, their mother tongue and one of the key European languages such as French, German or Spanish.  Other nationalities such as the Egyptians and the (few) Asians were pretty adept in English for economic reasons.  Well, I felt kind of small and regret not paying more attention during my Chinese classes right away (though my Mandarin is adequate, having spent many a nights watching Channel 8; my Cantonese is much poorer but still above the survival level).  So if you have children, please take note that the world is changing and while it is true English is sufficient as more and more people are adopting it as the lingua franca for the business world, it does help for the young ones to be at least adequately proficient in another language.  That would go a small way to minimise being ‘lost in translation’ once too often.     

Well, the only other thing that has been mildly interesting was to travel around this huge and beautiful country.  It is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a full-time student and use the breaks and vacation to fulfil my wanderlust.  Brought back good memories of my backpacking days in 1999 when I was a poor student transversing across Europe.  Except that now I am not a ‘poor’ student (in that sense) and I can empathise with my fellow travel-mates who have to watch every penny that they spend.  Again, the only drawback is finding khakis to travel.  But I will still do it as much as my schedule allows now.  Upon my return to Cairo in August, there is only going to be hard work and more hard work at the workplace. 

That also signals then the coming of winter.  The passing of time.  A change in activities … 

“I am lonely not because there is no one by my side now.  I am lonely because there is no one thinking of me now.”

“The passing of someone close to our hearts is probably not as painful as the passing of our memories of that someone close to our hearts.”

Once upon a time, there lived a nameless monster.
The monster was dying to have a name so badly.
So the monster decided to set out on a journey to find itself a name.
But the world was such a large place.
So the monster split into two and went on to two seperate journeys.
One went to the East and the other went to the west.
The monster that went to the east found a village.

There was a blacksmith at the village entrance.
“Mr.Blacksmith, please give me your name” said the monster.
“I can’t give you my name” replied the blacksmith.
“If you give me your name I will jump inside you and make you stronger in return.” said the monster.
“Really? I’ll give you my name if you can make me stronger.”, the blacksmith told the monster.
The monster jumped inside the blacksmith.
The monster became Otto the blacksmith.
Otto the blacksmith was the strongest man in the village.
But one day he said:
“Look at me! Look at me!”
“The monster inside of me has grown this big!”
*Chomp, chomp, munch, munch, gobble, gobble, gulp*
The hungry monster ate Otto from the inside out.

The monster then went back to become a monster without a name.
Even though he jumped inside Hans the shoemaker….
*Chomp, chomp, munch, munch, gobble, gobble, gulp*
He went back to being a monster without a name again.
Even though he jumped inside Thomas the hunter…..
*Chomp, chomp, munch, munch, gobble, gobble, gulp*
He still went back to being a monster without a name.
The monster then went to a castle to find a wonderful name.
Inside the castle, there was a very sick boy.
“I’ll make you stronger if you give me your name” said the monster
In reply, the boy told him “I’ll give you my name if you can cure my illness and make me stronger.”
So the monster jumped inside the boy.
The boy became very healthy.

The King was delighted.
“The prince is well! The prince is well!” said the King.
The monster became fond of the boy’s name.
He also grew fond of his life inside the castle.
That’s why he endured even when he became hungry.
Every day, even when his stomach became very empty, he endured.
But then he became so hungry….
“Look at me! Look at me!” said the boy.
“The monster inside of me has grown this big!”
The boy then ate his father, servants, and everyone.
*Chomp, chomp, munch, munch, gobble, gobble, gulp*
Because everyone was gone….
The boy left on a journey
He walked and walked for days…..

One day the boy met the monster that went west
“I have a name” said the boy.
“It’s a wonderful name.”
And then the monster that went west said…
“I don’t need a name.”
“I’m happy even if I don’t have a name.”
“Because we’re monsters without names.”
The boy ate the monster that went west.
Even though he now had a name….
There was no one left to call him by his name.
Johann.
It is a wonderful name.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Monster” is an intriguingly-written manga about a young skillful Japanese neuro-surgeon and doctor Dr Tenma Kenzo in pursuit of a young psycho and serial killer Johann Liebert, a life Tenma had once saved through his timely intervention.  Set entirely in Germany, the plot unravels in various cities from Berlin to Munich to Dusselfdolf and engages its readers on various themes such as racism, the ‘devil’ (evil) within human beings (i.e. how normal humans can turn into ‘monsters’), nature versus nurture and ethics.  In fact, the series began with a quote from the Bible, the Book of Revelation, Chapter 13:1 and 4:

And I saw a beast coming out of the sea.  He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name … Men worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshipped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast?  Who can make war against him?”. 

While Johann’s murderous streak initially appeared to be the result of a failed East German military experiment to turn young children into killing machines, later episodes hinted that he was but a human being trapped within a fleshly shell that schemes and kills.  Was Johann a schizo or the devil incarnate or merely a product of the environment he grew up in?  The mystery of his past is a recurring theme in the plot. 

In one memorable episode, Johann was looking specifically for this Czech children picture book entitled “Obluda” (Slovak for “Monster”!!).  What made the entire storyline so intriguing was the parallels between “Obluda” and Johann’s life, as well as the analogies from the picture book that we can draw into real life.  For example, questions about identity (the monster had wanted a name); the search for identity and meaning in life; how one monster after travelling half the world decided that it was not the name that was important but inner joy, while the other was never satisfied despite devouring others and inheriting their identities; the insatiable appetites in humanity (the blacksmith wanted extraordinary strength); and the ‘monster’ in all of us etc.  Who then is the real devil – the devil himself as revealed in the Bible or the ‘devil’ that is in us or is the truth actually somewhere in-between? 

I was struck by how beautifully these simple but thought-provoking questions were put together by the author in what looks like a fairly straightforward story.  While kindness, conscience and goodness reside in everyone, we cannot deny that the potential to hurt, harm and destroy is equally dormant, even in so-called ‘normal and nice’ people.  How then did these flaws come about?  Are these acts the sinful nature at work?  If so, where then is the cure or redemption?  In death?  What then? …     

You can have the entire “Obluda” story eerily narrated to you in Japanese (with English subtitles) here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nk8Il0gKhig    

p.s. the manga has also since been rendered faithfully into an anime version which is currently showing in Arts Central every Thursday and Friday at 11.30pm.  You can also catch the entire series from crunchyroll.com.             

The concept of food delivery has never been viewed favourably by me.  The mathematics was simple: Long Wait + Minimum Spending + Delivery Charge + Soggy Food = Lousy Food + Bad Experience.  Take our well-known McDonald’s McDelivery for example.  On most occasions, I end up with shriveled fries thoroughly soaked in its own oil.  On another occasion, McDonald’s told us that due to thunderstorms, the riders were unable to do any delivery until the rain had ceased.  While perfectly understandable, this actually defeats a key reason for calling delivery – people do not want to venture out to eat due to the inclement weather.  To my best analysis, food delivery is a tricky and expensive add-on for consumers back home.  But this has not stopped our food entrepreneurs from trying – I think the tingkat food delivery is relatively successful but they have had to rely on economies of scale to survive.  To be fair, circumstances conspire against food delivery in Singapore too – think expensive petrol, high labour costs, wet and humid weather, and the abundance of eating places in each housing estate.

On the other hand, the situation here in Cairo is directly opposite of what I have cited above.  In fact, delivery is the norm for most food businesses here, and I am talking not just your fastfood joints that offer such a service; most restaurants also provide delivery for a large part of their menus.  Cheap petrol, low labour costs, the dry weather, some reluctance of residents here to venture out (to the crowds and/or pollution) and a huge population/market makes this good business sense.  Also, delivery charges typically run from S$0.52 – S$1.30/delivery only.  With Internet, delivery is now also done online, with the well-designed and easy-to-use English Internet website “Otlob” one of the most frequently used by expats here.  I have found it very useful but used it mainly to order fastfood and the like.

Which brings me back to this food review.  During my Arabic vocabulary class, there was a worksheet which used an Egyptian restaurant Abou Shakra as an illustration.  Hearing my classmate’s comment on the good quality Egyptian/Middle Eastern food dished out by this particular restaurant, I was curious to try it and what do you know – while browsing Otlob, I realised that Abou Shakra was listed and it offered an extensive portion of its menu for delivery.  Dying to eat rice, I ordered the Makloba (or Meat Tagen) – veal, basmati rice, eggplants and peppers cooked in a casserole.  The choice was also because I reckoned that a good Egyptian/Middle Eastern restaurant should be competent in its handling of the lamb or meats, as well as its tagens, among other things.       

Despite the long wait, I was pleasantly surprised when a still-piping warm dish was served right up my doorstep.  Of course, presentation was nothing to shout about.  The tagen was predictably in a ‘Made-in-China’ takeaway plastic container but the restaurant had taken extra care to ensure that the food was compact and sealed (note: in fact, I have yet to encounter soggy fries from Cook Door – an Egyptian fastfood chain with ‘excellento‘ fries – or cold chicken pieces from KFC whenever I ask for delivery). 

 

With hints of fragrance from unknown spices, the basmati rice was cooked to fluffy perfection.  As a typical lover of the long-grained variety of rice, I noted that each grain was dry but had absorbed the flavours when cooked in the casserole before being transferred to the container for delivery.  This was definitely one of the closest I can get to my favourite (but not available here easily) Thai long grain rice – I was in rice heaven!  A small complaint was that it was a trifle oily.  The eggplants and peppers was generously portioned and blended into the rice nicely.  Perhaps it is the soft and creamy taste, but there is something about eggplants that I cannot stop raving about, especially when eaten together with rice as good as this.   

Next up – the meat pieces.  The meat used here is veal, or ‘young’ calves, which has a more tender and delicate texture.  Well-marinated and in bite-sized chunks, the reasonably marbled veal was quite ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ soft to each bite.  There was no overpowering “cow” smell or taste to the meat, and the first thought that came to me when I had my first mouthful of veal and rice was this – Egyptian Briyani!  However, unlike our Briyani, the spices used here were less strong and conspicuous.

Yummy?: ****1/4 (out of five stars)

While a thoroughly satisfying meal, I cannot help but think of how good it could be if I had eaten this at the restaurant itself.  From the online menu, there also seems to be many more interesting dishes (e.g. grilled veal chops, pigeon soup, stuffed chicken etc) from Abou Shakra.  I would have to make a trip down to the restaurant one day to try more.