Fat cats and foul play


I am at Moses Mabhida stadium for a tour, when the cute journo I’m chatting to spots a giant leopard bobbing his fractious head for a couple of photographers to our immediate left.

‘Ah, first Sepp Blatter, then Deputy President Kgalema Mothlanthe and now the famous Zakumi, esteemed World Cup mascot dressed in a long leopard catfit, is here to grace our lavish stadium and make our dreams come true,’ I think to myself.

The tall formation of feverish cloth stood handsomely before an impressive backdrop of the scintillating stadium, shifting positions every couple of seconds for the trigger-happy amongst us.

‘Get me a photo… please?’ my newly acquainted mate requests, trailing off with an impressive Olga Kurylenko pout for good measure.

‘But he is made from child labour,’ I respond back with the cocky courtesy of a socially conscious, eco-friendly Bond.

She kills my attempt at temptuous banter and giggles, as she goes on to ask me again.

‘With the haloumi Zakumi?’ I groan as I realize that she really does want a photo with the cat made in a Chinese sweatshop.

Even though this is really against my principles. I comply. Beside, it could get me laid.

After all, it isn’t my problem if she wants to immortalize herself with a photo alongside a fat-cat uniform made by seventeen four-year-olds suffering from Down’s Syndrome.

I look at the bozo, raise the camera and begin to imagine what might be going on around the world, in the factory and in Sepp Blatter’s boardroom, bedroom, and bathroom; news that the workers making the mascot dolls were being treated poorly had sparked international outrage and resulted in an audit of the factory.

With the mascot being the face of the World Cup – until of course E-TV catches a couple of drunk British hooligans waking up in the wrong brothel in the Cape Flats – revealing that his manufacturers are in fact rebellious working-class foetuses in a Chinese factory would be a PR disaster for FIFA.

Army of Zakumis by Shine 2010

I cringe as I imagine overseas investors, internal investigators, factory managers, FIFA contacts, local politicians – everyone in on the scam – running helter and skelter to fix aspects of the production process before auditors are meant to expose their punk-ass profiteering shenanigans.

‘Remove da kids chains…fifa guys are coming,’ says one SMS from Durban buyer to factory manager.

‘Tell mnger 2 shift pay-roll b4 auditr Hein cums to check…Blatt says must avert PR disaster’ says FIFA insider to investor in Singapore sent via his BlackBerry messenger.

Meanwhile, in the factory, the four year olds are rounded up and threatened with dismissal if the rat is not found. 

‘Which one of you little bastards alerted the British media about how we ill-treat you? We know it was through Twitter…if you come clean we might let you grow up healthy…but if we find out…’ says factory Manager Juan Tao Ming. 

‘Didn’t you all volunteer to this camp? You all know that this seriously compromises your reference letters. No Nike sweatshops for any of you!’ the bespectacled man with the flat chest but Buddha paunch adds.

‘Spoke to auditor, he cant go Beijing but says public need minimum 2 areas we can improve fast & tighten security at plant. Will send note now,’ writes Singapore investor to FIFA insider via SMS.

Back on earth, my journo friend distracts me from my stupor as she strikes a hip-hop pose with the fake leopard in the sheepish cloth.

‘Poor guy, animal, thing, it,’ I think to myself, ‘he must be burning inside it.’

I take the photo and walk up to him with my digital condolences in hand.

He poses as I take further snaps from Durban’s ground zero with the stadium’s arch featuring prominently behind his quivering whiskers.

When I think about it now, I feel bad for not conversing with the furry creature.

What if it really was an adult and not two kids standing on each other’s shoulders to make up the six-foot cat?

If it were kids, I wouldn’t have had any regrets. What would we speak about anyway?

‘I want to take it home,’ the lass says as she ambles over to me.

Everyone knows that girls love taking furry things home only to suggest a do-it-for-me-honey back-wax.

I agree with her that the leopard made me feel something inside.


I figure it might have something to do with the scratch marks I imagine carved by the claustrophobic kids who might have lost their way as they stitched the inside of ‘fair play’.

We watch Zakumi walk away into the main hall of the stadium.

His inanimate tail wagging happily, beating the non-existent flies attracted to his clean-behind to shreds.

The book dresser of Istanbul

Photo of Azad Essa

I meet Doğan Ülgenciler in a cloud of cigarette smoke in his broken-down but cosy office below road level in Kadiköy, an old district on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Greying and bespectacled, he relaxes with his three companions around a table. The afternoon sun filters through the window panes as Ülgenciler and his companions sip tea over humorous banter about where they will bury each other in a city which lacks space for cemeteries.

But when the focus of discussion becomes culture, books and the changing face of Istanbul, there is a shift of guard; Ülgenciler’s tone changes, his words reveal an eloquence.

And it is not difficult to understand why. Ülgenciler has restored books for the past 23 years, earning him the title, in some circles, of ‘the book dresser of Istanbul’.

He proudly shows me a book he was recently asked to restore. ‘This book is the first edition of  Kemal Ataturk’s 1927 speech. It needs minimal restoration,’ he says, admiring the strong leather cover, firm spine and high quality paper. ‘This book is 80 years old. Are books built to last this long today?’ he asks gloomily as he puts the book down on the cluttered table.

Ülgenciler complains that the traditional book binding business, once an integral symbol of Istanbul’s cultural power, is now an anonymous and inconsequential craft.

‘We live in a consumer age, where everything including books are just commodities; there to be instantly consumed and replaced. The days of collectors’ items are a thing of the past,’ he explains.

Photo by Argenberg under a CC Licence

He says that the urban renewal projects initiated by the Istanbul municipality, which have seen the removal of fishers selling freshly fried seafood on the Anatolian docks, as well as the replacement of the Bosphorous ferry system with faster speed boats, have forever changed the face of Istanbul.

‘Istanbul is still beautiful, but it is nothing like the Istanbul that once was,’ he sighs.

When Ülgenciler first arrived in Istanbul in 1968, the city had a population of just one million. By the late 1970s the figure had doubled. Presently it stands at more than 15 million.

We live in a consumer age, where everything including books are just commodities; there to be instantly consumed and replaced

He nostalgically recalls how, for the past 20 years, he left his flat, bought a simit (a pretzel-shaped bread) and a newspaper, and passed by other second-hand bookshops, stationers and binders. ‘It was our community in the city,’ he says. ‘Now I must pass a mobile phone service provider, a bar and then Burger King!’

At first, Ülgenciler taught history at a school for five years, after which he worked for the publishers of an encyclopaedia. He then got hold of a book-binding machine and started up his business. He boldly claims that ‘all of Istanbul’ once passed through his doors, and ‘there is nothing about Istanbul’ he needs to be educated about.

‘When you came to Istanbul, the city’s codes, cultural norms and ambience shaped you. People came to Istanbul and there was a higher Turkish language here, a sophistication to be awed by. But now it’s the other way around,’ he complains, saying that the city is unrecognizable even to him, with the current economic crisis fast-tracking the cultural deterioration.

‘This area over here, this part of Kadiköy, was known for its second-hand book stores. But it has now become a haven for a new bar culture and entrepreneurs want me to leave this place so they can turn it into a trendy bar,’ he says, ruefully gesturing to his left, where, ironically, also lie the heavily packed book shelves, loose sheets of paper, newspaper cuttings, gigantic binding machines, uncapped glue bottles and a mountain of sprawling dust.

Lighting another cigarette rolled by one of his companions – all of whom have remained melancholically silent throughout our discussion – Ülgenciler says he has been offered an exorbitant sum of money to discontinue his lease of this property.

But he defiantly refuses to part with the store, even if the economic crisis has knocked the air out of his business, with just a select few clients remaining.

‘Where I am going to go?’ he asks. ‘History has walked through these doors,’ he says, exhaling another puff of smoke as he drops the cigarette to the floor and extinguishes the little flame.

Azad Essa is a freelance journalist and lecturer based in South Africa. He won the ‘Best political blog’ in the South African Blog Awards 2009.

Theatre of the absurd

The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo is a sort of religious site. Sitting adjacent to the harbour in central Oslo, a spot that could easily pass for Cape Town’s waterfront, the Peace Centre is a temple for serious diplomats, earnest hippies and wide-eyed, encyclopaedia-stuffed kids. I suppose the plush building is to idealistic peace-mongers what the Neverland ranch was to Michael Jackson fans; a theatre of make-believe crock designed to keep you warm and fuzzy inside while you try to exorcize those monsters in your head (or bed).

Walking through the centre is like ambling through an expensive leather-bound history book. The most influential leaders, thinkers and doers of the past century showcased; the mafia of all do-gooders showcasing deeds; and the triumph of the human spirit under one roof.

And in this world of interactive post-micro-chip museum exhibits, the Peace Centre pulls out all the stops: magic history books tell Alfred Nobel’s story, a maize of electronic stems hosting mini-interactive screens summarize each laureate’s distinction, looping documentaries advance the legend, and trees bear international messages of peace as all-season fruits of hope; all of which make the experience as gratifyingly ethereal as possible.


I’d rather believe in Peter Pan or eat an oompa loompa.

Though I felt right at home with the three South African laureates looking at me through the interactive screens, I couldn’t help but think it all felt amiss.

The Peace Centre seemed to be trying too hard to find an authentic spot in modern human history.

Was this the great humanitarian award philosophers Aristotle and Plato envisioned for mankind, as they munched on olives and goat’s cheese in the Mediterranean till the wee hours of the morning?

It was instead a Swedish arms dealer, Alfred Nobel, whose dying wish in 1895 was to syndicate a series of prizes that soon became the Nobel prizes. These prizes ranged from Literature to Physics and Medicine to the most famous of the lot, the Nobel Peace Prize.

In fact, the first Nobel Peace Prize was only awarded in 1901.

But here we are, behaving as if Moses came running down Mount Sinai with a nifty Nobel Peace Prize attached to the Ten Commandments.

This award has no elaborate history, no apparent mythology involving a Greek god or exotic dervish from some outlandish post in the East. This is an award decided by a bunch of Norwegians sitting somewhere near the North Pole.

Even Coca Cola is older than the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yes, in many ways, Norway is amazing: glacier cut salt-water fjords, Vikings for great-grandfathers and generous paternal leave, but surely this is not enough to regard the Nobel Peace Prize as the modern Holy Grail?

Yes, there is a place for such gimmicks as the Nobel Peace Prize, especially when the award brings to the fore causes that need international attention, and/or resilient humanitarian work by organizations or certain individuals who try to make significant improvements in their part of the world.

In essence, the award honours brilliant work, or interventions that highlight a cause, or a precarious circumstance needing urgent consideration.

That Desmond Tutu got the Nobel Peace Prize is mostly arbitrary, compared to the work he has been and continues to be involved in. Likewise Nelson Mandela’s attitude, and 27 years of sacrifice in prison comes to mind long before we talk about a CV lined with awards including the Nobel Peace Prize.

People don’t revere great individuals because of the prizes they receive. The Nobel Peace Prize might increase their stocks, polish that grey into a silver strand of hair, but awards pale in comparison to the tangible products of their life’s work.

What does Barack Obama have to showcase to the world just why he is deserving of this award?

The fact that one laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi can be languishing in a jail while another laureate, Obama, is engaged in two wars and lacks the political will to emphatically challenge Burma to release her, makes the Nobel Peace Prize seem quite, erm, juvenile.

Don’t get me wrong.

I don’t dislike Barack Obama. I like how he delivers speeches. I like his chiselled face. I even agree he is the sexiest politician since Clint Eastwood became Mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Barack Obama makes me want to watch Superman the way my German shepherd used to make me watch Lassie reruns.

But by rewarding Obama for ‘capturing the world’s attention and giving its people hope for a better future’ this Nobel gimmick has only shrunk further into a feverishly farcical limerick.

They might as well have given the Nobel Peace Prize to Superman.

Now if Obama had responded like this:

‘I am shocked, surprised and moved by the Committee’s belief and choice for an award that holds a long list of dedicated workers of human rights, equality and justice. With it, I have been invited to join the ranks of all those men and women before me who have sacrificed their lives in fighting for a better world. I believe I would want to honour the Luthulis, the Mandelas, the Aung San Suu Kyis; individuals who have inspired through personal sacrifice. Our time is now, and while I understand the honour of this being bestowed upon me, I request humbly that I be judged by what I accomplish and not by the promises I make. Therefore, I cannot accept this award. God bless America.’

It is difficult to turn down such an award. It could be easily construed as an arrogant and unnecessary slap in the face; it could even be regarded as anti-peace.

But in doing so, Obama would have exchanged a farcical award for immortality; the Nobel Peace Centre might have just stopped looking like a famous never-never-land.

I am sick of my anti-terrorism kit

So I am standing behind all shapes, sizes, colours and obviously nationalities at Dubai International Mall, otherwise known as Dubai International Airport, waiting to surrender my boarding pass to get on this Emirates flight to Frankfurt.

In front of me is a small family: an old woman flanked by her two sons. The woman wears a black hijaab, covering her hair and arms but revealing an old and somewhat perplexing face. The elder of the two boys, skinny and tall and no more than 18, handles the passports and boarding passes as they approach the flight attendant at the boarding counter.

Remember, this is the final step. The visas have been issued, their luggage already checked-in and they are simply boarding the plane, after arriving from someplace else. But the woman tearing the boarding passes and wishing travelers a good journey looks at the small family’s passports and begins the second longest inquisition of modern times: 

Woman:               Where are you going?

Boy:                     To Frankfurt

Woman:               Okay. Why are you going to Frankfurt?

Boy:                     To visit my father

Woman:               What is he doing there?

Boy:                      He is working there.

Woman:               Okay. What is your father’s name (she looks at his passport)

Boy:                     Abul Mohamed Jamal Mustapha… (the rest is inaudible for me)  

Woman:               You missed one name.

Boy:                     (He clarifies, pointing to something that I cannot hear)

Woman:               So when last did you visit your father?

Boy:                     About nine years ago.

Woman:               Why so long ago?

Boy:                     Because….. (again I cannot hear the rest)

While I am watching the circus act play out, wondering when the boy would lose his patience and scream out something random like, ‘Okay Okay! I like looking at granny porn’, I am called to the other counter by another woman to board the flight.

I pass by the family and look at their passports which reveal their Pakistani nationality. My eyes wander to the name-badge of the woman at the counter who suspiciously looks like my aunt Katie back home and easily resembles the average Savatri from Bangalore, and it reveals unsurprisingly: ‘Gayatri’.

I squirm at the fair assumption that ‘Gayatri’, like thousands of other migrant workers in the UAE, was really an Indian national taking prestige and honour, already far up her rectum, to a new level of perversity as she takes the mickey out of this family trying to get to Europe.

Of course, whether she was Indian or even Taiwanese (though I seriously doubt the latter) is hardly the point.

First, ‘Gayatri’ is really just a flight attendant and not an immigration officer. Second, the boy who can’t remember his father’s fifteenth name is not some indentured labourer hitchhiking through the galaxy, nor is he on the first leg of his journey that normally stirs the most frenetic check-ups.

He was already in Dubai International, about to board a connecting flight to Frankfurt, meaning that all check-ups had already been completed. Airlines must check that visas are in order (ie: issued) to protect themselves in the event that a visa is a cranky fake on arrival, since the airline would have to fly the miscreant back to the place of departure at their own cost.

Asking why the boy hadn’t seen his womanizing father for nine years is hardly verifying an already legitimate visa.

But our tall Pakistani friend continues bravely – dealing with the entire rhetoric of air travel soaked in a terrorism discourse that makes him a beggar in every airport he ventures into, and turns his admission onto every flight into an act of self-paid charity.

In theory he could’ve told Gayatri that he was actually visiting her sister in Frankfurt. In reality, of course, he has to talk to Gayatri with his eyes to the floor until she favours his crossing into the plane that will take him to the much fabled land of Europe.

Instead of raising the alarm about her clearly prejudiced questions, he treats the obstacle course like a monk seeking the highest levels of tolerance, patience and spirituality.

But what choice does he have?

He is brown. Strike One. He is Muslim. Strike Two. To open his mouth and act too smart – then he would be really ‘out’.

Sure we all remember 9/11 and London and Madrid and Hiroshima and Nagasaki but when did racial profiling become fair discrimination in a universal sense because of an overwhelming stronger terrorism concern?

This is why it was almost funny to hear Obama thrilling us with his Quranic quotes and earnest ideologues calling for ending mistrust and clash of civilizations anecdotes, when the nature of travel and mobility today suggests that it would take decades or a bigger threat like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to thwart years of strong Islamophobic propaganda.

Case in point, I am convinced the Russians are still coming.

Obama also said improving exchange programmes and building online communities where youngsters in Kansas could flirt with youngsters in Cairo would help toward developing positive notions of intercultural dialogue, but the online and the real world, as the couple will surely find out the day they decide to move beyond cyber sex, are literally world’s apart. Put simply, how long do we wait before North Africans or South Asians or Arab-looking heroes are no longer treated like lepers with suicide bomber tendencies at airports en route to the Western World?

And sure, put into perspective, this treatment is not as bad as walking around Baghdad with your goat and being shelled, or planting some opium in Peshawar and having rockets light up your fields, or sitting up with your suffering children because of the after-effects of white phosphorous. Of course, undressing and embarrassing yourself or having cheeky security personnel check out your anus simply because of a flawed classification system can never be as bad as losing your limbs.

Forgive me for being petty, but either way, I am pretty sure I am no longer comfortable with continuously pulling out my anti-terrorist kit every time I travel.

For someone who hates shaving facial hair, I have to first pull out the razor blades and take that haircut.

Then it is my vocabulary that must be tied up. Since ‘bomb’ is pretty much a part of every Muslim’s upbringing these days, I need to discipline myself not to shout out ‘I will bomb this place’ as the knee-jerk reaction to all things we Muslims don’t like. Then it’s my luggage. Instead of spraying my bags with religious phrases asking God to protect my travel, I spray my bag with Rough Rider condoms. Finally, it is image. I switch into the typically under-nourished journo mode, strutting around in slightly torn cargos, sneakers and a hoodie boasting the latest i-pod headphones as I seek to look too scruffy to be a fresh puppy out of a madressah aus Kandahar and too stupid to be a polished undercover pilot in an Armani suit. Finally, stay away from all contentious behaviour at a 5km radius from all airports and it should all be fine.

And it works. It always does. No one interferes, and, mostly, no one bothers.

But for this to work, all parts must function in unison.

For example, the last time I was in Europe I decided not to shave before my return flight out of Amsterdam – as a slightly demented social experiment – but mainly because shaving during a European winter is like melting the hairs on your balls with heated tweezers.

I flew out of Europe three times in three years and you would think airport security would now offer me a drink as their local homey, but this one time I refused to shave my six day unkempt beard and I’m picked out like Ahmed the plump chicken terrorist asking to be slaughtered.

My bags were turned upside down, my passport put into some CIA type gadget to verify authenticity and the questions posed bordered on the insane (What is the capital of Mongolia?), while ordinary law-abiding Europeans were forced to point at me as they explained to their little Heidi, Heinrich and Hannah why the queue resembled a lunchtime traffic jam.

I am South African, so the interrogation almost always takes a lower priority than the search for curry powder laced with marijuana. My chance of being a dangerous radical is miniscule since the local Jamiat Ulema is a pretty impotent gizmo of clerics rather than some Interpol-referenced terrorist movement claiming Fordsburg in Johannesburg for an autonomous Muslim state.

In contrast, if you’re coming from Pakistan, a nation confused into a country and now in absolute chaos, you might have to prove you are a homosexual seeking asylum in Europe, since your nationality makes all attempts to clean up your image null and void. And even if you do get the visa, proving you actually plan on returning home alive rather than as a burnt out fire cracker, the whole world is really still against you.

Patience for the brown man in these times is a crucial survival tool, or so I learned some years back when I had an altercation with an employee of the low cost Condor airline in Frankfurt airport.

What started as a mere request, albeit an important one on my part, became a proper ding-dong when I threatened to report him to his company for barking at me like a stray wanker. He suddenly changed his tone and motioned close to my face, popping that elusive space bubble as he pretended to help me. But all he really did was read out my full name very slowly, ‘Mohamed Azad Ebrahim Essa’, emphasizing each name and when he was done, looked me straight in the eye and said even more slowly, ‘Are you sure you really want to fly?’

Being a slow sod, it took me a whole five seconds to realize what he meant and I blinked as I felt fire rage through my lungs like a lion without a roar and I nodded profusely with a smile. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I understand. I understand completely.’

‘Siegfried’ had my passport after all and I had an important flight to catch. On returning my passport, I thanked him for his time very politely and walked away, biting my lip as specially created fumes lit my path. I finally turned around, called out his name and showed him the finger.

I remember thinking special paratroopers would break through the airport windows and take me away, Minority Report style but none of it happened.

Siegfried was a prick, even the average neo-Nazi would battle to be such a goon. I should have reported him. But I didn’t have any proof, or any real argument. What was I going to say exactly?

I was young and stupid.

But let that happen today. I would get his surname, blog about it violently and send the link to his mother.

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