Saturday, June 21, 2008

Portrait #24: My new best friend is named Ibrahim and he sells phones

I'm here with a group of people, most of whom are having their first experience in this country. My role in the group is something along the lines of 'Cultural Transition Facilitator'. I get to give cultural tips, answer questions, translate, and just be there for people in processing their experience of this new place. It's a fun job! So one of the things I've done so far is help members of the group get set up with local mobile phones.

Early on, I figured I had to develop a relationship with the guys from the phone shop across the street, and they're young guys with a good sense of humour, so that hasn't been painful. Everytime I go I have a different 'ajnabi' (foreigner) with me, and a different random request to make. The second time I entered their shop, I greeted them and their reaction was something along the lines of, "Oh, yeah, it's you again..." But today, several visits - and several paying customers - later, when I left the shop after signing the last two guys up, their eyes were droopy and they asked me, "So... we're not going to be seeing you again?"

Ibrahim is the guy who runs the shop and he seems to care about three things: Making Money, Football, and Following Rules. Specifically, getting photocopies of passports, writing the customer's father's name between first and last name, and doing everything in Arabic. He dresses like he cares about it and gels his hair like he cares about that too. He likes to sit in his chair behind his desk and oversee everything that happens in his shop - which is roughly the size of an eight-person dining table. He loves to give orders, and his pal is happy to do the dirty work: put sim cards in phones, write down new phone numbers, and test chargers to make sure they work. He gave me orders, too. I became the official write-people's-and-their-fathers'-names-in-Arabic person. Ibrahim is not good at math, or at least that was what I inferred from the fact that he needed a calculator to add 1200+500. He and his assistant both have quite a bit of trouble keeping piles in order, and when they registered two phones at once, I needed to point out half a dozen times which phone held which sim card for which customer with which passport photocopy.

Ibrahim is a hard worker, though. He opens his store around mid-day each day, and closes around midnight. He speaks very little English, but his favourite word is "businessman." But his friend-assistant works even harder: I've not yet entered the shop when he wasn't there, even though Ibrahim has occasionally been out.

They have come through on all my requests, albeit with a good share of hemming and hawwing and excuses, and many, many laughs. But we have a great business relationship whereby I set my expectations very high and they deliver something a little bit less. For example, they promised me good phones for 1000 because I insisted I needed cheap phones (1000 is quite cheap), but when the phones arrived they charged 1300. I asked them for a 1-month phone deal, but they came through with 16 days and easy possibility for renewal.

When I've questioned Ibrahim about these discrepancies, he has kind of furrowed his eyebrows and looked up from his low chair behind the desk and smiled with a giggle. Then he's shrugged his shoulders. Often he has told me that the price he's giving me is very low, just for me. And other times he has left it with the shrug.

Today, I had a problem with the phone charger I bought from them a few days ago. I went into the tiny shop ready to argue and complain, but I guess we're friends now, because Ibrahim immediately replaced it for me, telling me that the replacement was his own personal charger. Then we left, and he and his friend bid us fond fond farewells.

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