Another lazy morning interrupted by the usual breakfast of KFC and hummus. But today with the addition of matabil – a dip made with aubergines that have been roasted on an open fire (in this case the gas hob) and mixed with lemon, thyme, olive oil and mint.
Ali announced our plan for the day: let’s go hang out at the Uni and drink nescafe. Well I’m game, I reply, with as much enthusiasm as a man laden down with a stomach full of second-hand, greasy chicken wings can muster at 10am.
The Uni was closed so we wound our way back through side streets. I waved my fist triumphantly at two of the flats I had lived in last year, my old porter recognised me and gave me a hearty greeting. Next Ali decided to give me an impromptu lecture on Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Then for a bit of light relief we went to the Mosque and sat down with another Sheikh for an hour or so. Turns out he has visited Exeter and wanted to make sure I knew how much he loved Aldi supermarket. He apologized for last night (it was him who accused me for all the problems in the Middle East) and then proceeded to do it again with renewed gusto.
I needed a bit of a lie down so trudged up the steep hill to our flat and threw myself on my mattress. I had just stretched out my legs and closed my eyes when in burst Ali telling me to get ready for football. Oh great, I grunted excitedly, football. So I obediently changed into a pair of running shorts, put on my trainers and went back down to the mosque. The Sheikh took one look at my bare thighs, smiled and jokingly called me haram.
There were three teams of five, playing for ten minute slots at a time, and whoever wins stays on. Our team was pretty good, not that I had anything to do about it. Over the years I learned that to get by in football I just have to stand in the way and stick out the odd foot at any passing attackers. For that reason, Ali put me at the back and told me to run at the opposition waving an imaginary spear in the air whilst shouting at the top of my voice: ‘I come from the British Empire, we invented Israel, we destroyed your region and now I have been sent to destroy you at football’. Well, something like that anyway.
In between games I tried to claw back some street-cred by making it clear to anyone who would listen that I am more of a rugby player. This always involves elaborate explanations and mimes of how rugby is different from American football.
‘Who do you support?’ The usual question, to which I usually answer:
But for some reason, this time I felt bolder:
‘What? They are terrible!’
‘That’s your opinion. You obviously don’t like bubbles’
Afterwards there was a mass exodus to the mosque, leaving the token non-muslim chained up outside to be patted on the head by sympathetic passers by.
Quick shower and change of clothes then we were off again to find food. The Sheikh’s car stuffed full (including one smiley man who persists on calling me John) we went to pick up some more roasted chicken (a bucket this time), two watermelons and some kenafe (sweet, cheesy pastry).
After we had cleared up the mess of bones and batter we reclined to take the mick out of Omar. It turns out his nickname is ‘Cream’ due to his obsession with personal hygiene. He was obviously distressed due to the lack of soap and tissues in our flat which provoked much boyish giggling.
A guy called Mohammad suddenly cut the conversation by saying: ‘Ok now time to teach us English Abu Steve.’ Yay, my favourite time of day. I went to my go-to lesson (which for reference comes from Book 1 of ‘English through the Wurzels’):
Where be that blackbird to? I know where ‘e be, ‘e be up that blackbird tree an’ I be ‘after ‘e. ‘E sees I, I sees ‘e, bugger if I don’t get ‘im. Wiv a gurt big stick I’ll knock ‘im down blackbird I’ll ‘av ‘e…
Discuss the possible fates of the blackbird with reference to the stick. And in the context of a Post-Combine harvester moral world can we really be sure who the protagonist is in this situation?
This had the desired affect. Eyes rolled over and smartphones came out. So I compromised with recording a message of advice for English learners for Mohammad’s ‘English Learning’ WhatsApp group. This would be the first in a series of intriguing episodes.
We stayed up late, with the evening eventually turning towards Quranic recitals. At which point I made my excuses: ‘I don’t speak Arabic after 2am’, and meandered off to bed. My belly grumbling angrily at me for all the greasy chicken.
Just as I was drifting off, in burst my three room mates, settle down on their mattresses and put on the Quran at full volume. I was prepared this time, headphones already in.