x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Me and my TV

Last word Youssef Rakha nears the end of his Showtime subscription - and of his days in Abu Dhabi.

Youssef Rakha nears the end of his Showtime subscription - and of his days in Abu Dhabi.

For some 24 hours now, every time I switch on my television, a message takes up three quarters of the screen: my Showtime subscription has expired. If I do not renew it immediately - so the white-on-grey writing tells me, in no uncertain terms - the service will be discontinued in five days. Five days, I cogitate: Why should this be happening exactly 45 days before I am due to leave the country? It is as if some incredibly ironic force is timing things so that, having decided to leave Abu Dhabi, I must go through the traditional Egyptian mourning period of 40 days, whether I like it or not.

It does not matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, so long as you are Egyptian: the Arbaein (or, literally: the Fortieth) is strictly observed. When someone dies, that person's family and friends are supposed to grieve for 40 days, after which a ceremony marks the point when they finally let go of their loved one. Afterwards, instead of "May your life give you solace," people start saying "May you live and remember." But in the meantime, no festivities can take place; if a wedding has been scheduled, the wedding has to be postponed. Often - whether out of respect, ill humour or moroseness - people also refrain from switching on their TVs.

I am thinking that perhaps, by depriving me of Showtime, Abu Dhabi is asking me to mourn it - or, more precisely, to mourn the person I have been while living here. After all, in the course of the last 24 hours, during which I kick-started the pre-departure procedures at work and at my bank, that person (my Abu Dhabi avatar) more or less officially died. And my finances and professional schedules being what they are - among other things, I have a lot of reading to do for outstanding books reviews - I will not renew my subscription. Mourning, then, my last 40 days shall be.

Yet there is a cheerier way of reading the situation: I have been released of my bondage to the screen. For nearly a year now the television has been on in my living quarters far more frequently than I ever thought possible. I am hard pressed to say whether this is directly related to Abu Dhabi, but the person I was before I came here (my Cairo avatar) hated television. AD-me is a TV addict; C-me is not. So it startled me to hear my Ethiopian cleaning woman remark, on meeting AD-me at the beginning of the end of his lifetime, that I do not watch enough TV. She didn't seem to appreciate that I spend more time with Jerry Seinfeld, John Stewart, Mitchell and Webb and the cast of Married with Children than with real people.

Elena entered my life through my preferred Ethiopian Jebena coffee shop, a few steps away from my apartment. This was several weeks after the great Senthil - my podgy Tamil bellboy from the Ramee Garden who, after I found my apartment, I hired to be my indispensable purveyor of general order - went home to Madras, where he has ended up staying far longer than he said he would. (Will he ever come back? I doubt it.)

I did what I could in his absence, "could" being a euphemism for "could be bothered to do". When the disorder became unbearable, I began to ask my Ethiopian waitress friends over Jebena if they could introduce me to someone who would "sawwi tandhif," as I said in pidgin Arabic: do cleaning. Enter - eventually - Elena the Eritrean: Reticent, efficient, spick-and-span and outwardly severe, Elena comes and goes under the cover of an Emirati abaya heavily scented with Arabian aromatic oil, which she takes off to work, revealing a T-shirt and sweat pants. Sometimes, if she is not in too much of a hurry and I have asked her enough times, she takes a TV break, drinking Nescafé while I sip my Turkish coffee (which she deems so inferior to Jebena that she brings her own instant coffee along) and telling me a little about her life and TV preferences.

I suppose it is only natural, given how the television is always on at Ethiopian cafes and homes, that Elena finds my television watching insufficient. But she also takes issue with my preference for comedy channels, regards Family Guy as just another children's cartoon and once told me that she sees action and horror as the only genres worth exploring. This suggested to me that she was far less severe than she seemed, and I rushed for the remote control, but Fox Movies had neither Alien vs. Predator nor I, Robot - two films that channel seems to show on a loop and I thought she would like - and ShowMovies Action was showing a mawkish 1970s number in which the monster, as Elena pointed out with a pitying smile, looked like a blow-up toy.

In the end, AD-me switched back to Family Guy, and Elena left the room. That night, C-me appeared in my dream. He was a sort of superhero hunting down his double, whom he identified simply as "my TV twin" (as in "where is that renegade TV twin of mine?"). The chase was like an action film and a horror film in one, complete with video-game sound effects and sudden shifts of viewpoint. The double, whom I knew to be AD-me, never appeared until the very end when he fought C-me in a laser-beam duel on what looked like the roof of the Hilton Baynunah. AD-me was about to lose irrevocably when he leapt from the roof, held onto the rampart and cried out: "Eleeenaaaa!"

An Ethiopian-looking, black-clad superwoman flew onto the scene holding a silver shield that kept C-me's beams in check while AD-me recovered to fight another day (or, more accurately, another five days); "I told you," the superwoman kept telling the panting, all-but-vanquished, cartoon-loving survivor. "I told you to watch more action movies."