In my travels there are always some encounters that stand out in my mind, for whatever reason, and one day in Bangkok, 2002, I met this Egyptian shoe-repair man. His speech was arcane but interesting, so I recorded him secretly. Call me a bastard. I suppose he was an anti-Semite, which is strange in itself because the definition of “Semitic” is: “relating to or denoting a family of languages that includes Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic” (ie: Egyptian). But these days it seems “anti-Semitic” has come to mean “anti-Jewish” alone. Personally I try not to get involved, having both Jewish and Muslim friends, and not wanting to get shot. Now, this “interview” took place right after we went into Iraq, and he prophesied that “America will go into Iran,” but we’re still waiting. Then again, maybe it’s just a conversation I recorded with some guy who fixed my shoes.
You see, my Birkinstocks were coming un-glued, the soles were peeling away and flopping on the street. They would fold under my feet if I didn’t walk with a very high step, which made me look like retarded circus clown, or someone with bad knees. Down the busy sidewalk I came across a bald man sitting on a stool next to a pile of random things: shoe-soles, laces, nails and tacks… glue, polish, buttons and a bucket of things that were small, metal and odd. I showed him my sandals and he slid a box over the sidewalk for me to sit on.
After slopping some goo under a flap and cranking a sandal into a metal press, he got excited when he learned I was American. Then he started talking quickly, yakking in a thick, Middle Eastern accent. By the time I managed to click on the recorder, I caught this:
“…America should do more. Look at Ethiopia; they cannot even find food!”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “no food.”
“No food! Go to South America; Argentina, Cuba! They need food!”
“And we throw out so much food in America.”
“Yeah, yeah. In America people are cryptic, shearsh, shearsh. Now: fuck off, fuck off. I live there, I know: fuck off and die. You are a slave. I’m sorry but it’s true. All the American people now is the slave. Where are the American people now, eh? What is the homeland to the American people?”
“The homeland of the American people? America,” I replied.
“No, not America! The banks own them all now, it’s Coca Cola, Pepsi, all the big companies now own the American; buy them.”
“The banks are…”
“Do you have a dollar? I show you, you are America?”
“Huh?” The traffic was reverberating off the concrete buildings and sidewalk.
“You are America?”
“American? Yes, I’m American.”
“What is the meaning to you; this pyramid?” he unfolded the dollar.
“What, the eye?”
“Yes, what is that; you know what the meaning is?”
“I thought it had something to do with the masons.”
“No! It’s a bigot religion; Haham.”
“Hahaam,” I tried to imitate.
“Jewish guy, religion. You know what the meaning is?”
“The eye is on America, eye on Egypt, through the power of America: it’s a bigot religion, but they forgot something very important,” he had a knowing look.
“What’d they forget?”
“They forget that there is a creator, and they are all slaves to one God; that there is one God, and everybody will be thy one God. These people forgot this point, forgot that if I die, then he will die. We have one God, and he will ask me what I did with my life. And if he forgot, then I forgot, so I say get out of my religion!” He checked me and explained, “I am not against the Jewish religion, I am against the corruption.”
“Right… very corrupt.”
“It’s true, it’s true. I got it from Roakchef. I’m warning the American people, I’m warning the American people. They say ‘Do what we say, what these opinions say.’ I’ve been to America; I know it’s true. You are my friend, I tell you this. You think you are thinking? WE are thinking for you. We are thinking for you. Fuck off! Nobody thinking for me! God gave me a mind for thinking, and God gave me hands for working, he does not give me a mind for you to corrupt my mind.
“Even now the Egyptian people are thinking, they are really alive, know how to live; and this is not wrong for American people. We know, we know it will be so again. I listen to other Arabs, they say, ‘America; I want to fight!’ But Egyptian people, ‘No.’ Because we know what it wants.” He pulled the left sandal from the press, slopped some goo under the flap of the right, and cranked it in the press.
“Now America may go into Iran. Why is rich the public opinion? Why? We go for Jewish people; fuck off; I’m Arab.” He beat his chest with a fist. “Who goes to war? American people, not Jewish people; not a single Jew in World Trade Center, wasn’t one even in the building.” He checked me again, cautious, “It’s true! A French journalist who brought this up, he was shot a week later; assassinated.”
“I never heard anything,” I said.
“And what of the blood of the Americans?” he asked. “What is this, garbage blood, shit blood? The Jewish blood is much more expensive; not one Jew has died in the war; no Jews in the Army, not in Iraq, just American blood.”
“I don’t know what the, uh… demographics are.”
“It’s true! Because they control the banks, the media, property, politicians; but they won’t stop religion. You know, we only want one thing: survive,—number one. But America won’t allow it. You know why?”
“Thank Omar Sadat.” He leaned back and slapped his knee, “He make a big arch when we met. But we know how to play the game: we wait,” He eyed me like he had given away a secret, then pulled the sandal off the press and flexed its sole, which held tight. “I have a man, come tell me not to work here, to come and work for him. Nobody can tell me not to work! Work; no work—no work; work! Man offer me ten thousand Baht to work for him! I say no, I make a hundred Baht here every day. Every day of my life a hundred Baht, forever!”
“Forever,” I repeated.
“I never work for somebody.” He smiled and threw his hands up, “Now enjoy yourself, enjoy!”
He wouldn’t let me take his picture, so I was glad I didn’t mention the recorder. But he looked a lot like Telly Savalas—without the pizazz—so I’m posting this photo instead.