Friday, April 21, 2006

Basim and Ali

Before I knew exactly who or what human beings were and before I had mastered the cognitive skills needed to differentiate between personalities and even genders, estimate ages and judge characters I remember the warm nicotine-scented breath and the bristles of a cheek brushing against my face of a man bending down to hug me as I lay on a bed or maybe even a cot. My since errant, absent father perhaps? Another relative? I don't know who it was. But I think that it was a man like Basim. A large, bearded grizzly bear of a man, Basim is nominally the cleaner at work, but in reality he is a sort of general gopher, no-fixed-job-description, maintenance man, odd-jobber and donkey/dirty worker. Basim is a contract worker, not a direct employee of the company and is therefore not issued with the standard company coveralls and safety boots which normal employees, including desk-bound ones, get. Someone once gave him a green company boiler suit and, though now oil-stained and tattered, it is his uniform to work, though in theory he could wear anything he wanted to. Basim works every day of the week, from 7.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. and is paid 6 dinars (about 4 euros) a day.On a normal day, Basim can be seen pruning roses, hosing the ground to keep the dust down, carrying desks on his back, distributing office stationery with a wheelbarrow, emptying the bins, cutting down poles with grinders and spraying the offices with air-freshener at the precise moment that people are getting their sandwiches out for the lunch break. Although only 24, Basim's teeth are a muddy brown on account of the five spoons of sugar that he shovels into his coffee. Like many Libyans, he uses a tablespoon for putting the sugar into the cup but then finds that this spoon will not fit into the cup and has to use a teaspoon for stirring. Maybe this is where he gets his energy, his carbonated enthusiasm, his sunshine smile that seems to suggest that he has been somewhere no-one else has been and seen what no other eyes have seen. Basim is always in a good mood. If you cross his path 15 times a day, he will stop and say hello and, if he is carrying anything, put it down and slap you on the back all 15 times. Basim once tried to hold hands me with as we walked across the hard, the way Arab men often do. I didn't want to be culturally insensitive but that was just one bridge too unbearable to cross. I think he understood.
I once told Basim that a taxi-driver had overcharged me, and Basim earnestly described to me in detail how much the taxi-driver was going to suffer in hell for what he had done. Any conversation with Basim, and indeed any conversation in Libya can quickly take on a theological hue. In the little English that he is keen to practise, Basim told me that while the Prophet Mohammed was unquestionably his "number one", the Leader of the Revolution, Muamar Ghadaffi was equally undoubtedly his "number two." These are perpetually the two positions in Basim's league table. Others may concur, but certainly not everyone does. Ali definitely does not.
Ali is unusual in that he sometimes tells me that he wishes that America would invade his country. While everyone in Libya I have spoken to is vehemently opposed to the Iraq war, Ali says that if the Americans came they would sort the country out. Ali works in the office and has that universal, crushed, slumped demeanour of the disgruntled office worker. The company sent Ali to Britain to do his MA and he bought a Toyota SUV with the expense money that he saved up. But now, with the trip behind him, he has nothing to look forward to. He hates the work, he hates all the bosses and he also hates Basim, though I don't think Basim realises it. Misery loves company and hates anyone who has what it can't have. I think Ali feels that Basim's mood reflects badly on him. Ali certainly resents the way that Basim feels comfortable in just taking a seat in the office and starting to banter and chat when it takes his fancy. He feels that it is not Basim's place and though not openly hostile towards him, he sometimes just ignores him and glowers behind his computer. It confuses Basim that there is somewhere which will not take his charm as a substitute for genuine authority, but if it bothers him then he certainly doesn't let is show.
But more than Basim, Ali is unhappy with how little he is paid. He does two jobs and probably takes home four times as much as Basim a month but this is still not enough to sustain the lifestyle that he aspires to. In a socialist system of government like Libya has, there are undoubtedly some workers who secretly enjoy the fact that their mediocrity will go undetected, that their own inefficiencies will be drowned out by the wider inefficiencies of the system. But Ali is the other type, the one who is frustrated that his perceived talent and superior ability will never be rewarded.
For Basim, I think that within the context of his religious faith, the lack of financial reward does not trouble him greatly. For now, at least. I have no doubt that Basim will make an excellent father one day. With his broad shoulders, love of football and his knowledge of poisonous snakes, one day he will make an excellent playground boast, a lunch-break threat of reprisal.
But Basim is not a father yet. Ali is, though he only gets to see his year-old daughter when he gets home at 8 o'clock in the evening. Ali was hoping that when his wife gave birth in Britain, it might give him a legal right to stay there, but it didn't work out that way. Sometimes Ali's moods are so dark that I really think that he might sliding into serious depression. On some days, all he seems to do is sit there and sigh deeply. I try to talk to him about it, or at least to change the subject. Once I tried talking to him about music and he smiled when he recalled how he used to play the guitar in a band when he was at school. "We were going to play a concert, but it got cancelled, because someone at the top didn't like music," he said and his face reverted back to its defeated frown. Admittedly, among the songs they were going to play were Iron Maiden's "666 - The Number of the Beast" but I don't think that the concert was cancelled because of satanic lyrical content but because of a deeper religious objection to any type of music. This incident seems to sum Ali up. He tried, but they wouldn't let him, so he won't try any more. There isn't really much I can do. I just hope that Ali's situation, or at least his outlook improves before his daughter gets much older. The Americans aren't coming to invade and as I know, children can pick up on these things way before they learn to speak.


Blogger Erezija said...

you are phenomenal

4:28 pm  
Blogger Erezija said...

when will you be in Malta anyway? I'll be there during the last week of May.

4:33 pm  
Blogger Safia speaks said...

Why on earth would the Americans invade Libya???

4:45 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Thanks for the compliment erezija.
I hope to be in Malta at the end of May myself.
Of course they wouldn't Safia. Er, although they did bomb it not so long ago.
I don't think Ali really thinks there is any real possibility of the Americans invading. He just feels that Libya would only work properly if outside forces invaded and ran the country. As I said, I have never heard anyone else express such an extreme view, although I suppose there must be other people who agree with it.
But maybe I didn't explain what he meant properly. I will have another look at it.

7:16 pm  
Blogger Molestine said...

The best post of the blog. I will definitively miss this place

9:26 pm  
Blogger gybexi said...

ghogbitni hafna din specjalment...

In a socialist system of government like Libya has, there are undoubtedly some workers who secretly enjoy the fact that their mediocrity will go undetected, that their own inefficiencies will be drowned out by the wider inefficiencies of the system. But Ali is the other type, the one who is frustrated that his perceived talent and superior ability will never be rewarded.

10:35 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Well molestine, this blog will hopefully still continue after I have left Tripoli. Although I will have to find something else to write about. Not that that stops a lot of bloggers.

11:17 am  
Blogger Molestine said...

that's great news, you are a sharp observer and wherever you will go, I will enjoy your writings

10:00 pm  
Blogger david said...

As usual top-notch stuff from the cyberdigger. Why don't you join the rest of us in the Benelux? Certainly less exotic than the desert, but lots to do and observe around here anyway.

5:10 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Thanks David. Well, as alluring as the snooker table fields and clear beer of the Benelux may be after a few years of dust, sand and desert wind, I need to head elsewhere.
But while I can not board that gravy) train this time around, who knows if one day it may not pull into my station?

7:01 pm  
Blogger Erezija said...

that gravy train has perfumed cabins... i wish i knew how to continue this cleverly...

9:57 pm  
Blogger Antoine Cassar said...

I finally got round to reading this post... it's EXCELLENT. Thanks for the enjoyable read, cyberdigger.

Funny how what Ali feels in Libya (frustration and resent for his surroundings) is similar to what I felt in the UK... although to a different degree, no doubt. It's a shame he invests his dreams in a US invasion though...

Ever heard the song by Morrissey which goes "Come, Armageddon, come" ?

6:10 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Oh, I know that song very well.
Every Day is like Sunday. I think Morrissey was inspired by John Betjeman's poem Slough:
"Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough"
Ah, Morrissey, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Alan Bennett, slate-grey Victorian grey skies, bus stops in the rain and the chaffinch singing on the orchard bough. Ah, to be in England now that April is here...
Well, a few days out there, but the sentiment is in the right place.
Anyway Antoine, you have got me thinking on an important point and thus are the inspiration for my next post. Thank you.

8:52 pm  
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