Monday, March 30, 2009

Portrait #80: Albanian Ali G and his sidekick

We walked into the car rental agency and saw two men seated at two desks behind two computers, looking very important. They both sported trimmed beards - the kind that around here seem to suggest that they're in the minority of Albanian Muslims who actually care about being Muslim. The Yusef Islam Islamic pop music wafting from one of the computers confirmed this impression. The fact that the more talkative of the two said "A-Salamu Aleikom" (in Albanian spelled, I believe, "Selamu Alejkum") at the start of each phone call further confirmed this.

So when they said they didn't speak English, I asked if they spoke Arabish. But no, Shqip (Albanian) is all they know. And it's enough for them, they nodded.

Ali G, or so I've mentally nicknamed him, the guy subtly blasting Yusef Islam, did three things during the hour that we waited for someone to show up at work who could actually rent us a car.

(That's right: Though they worked at a car rental office, we have no idea what Ali G's job is, and are pretty sure that his colleague's job description was to sit at a desk and stare out the window. For, other than occasionally enter the linguistically challenged conversation with a suggestion as to what us foreign girls might be trying to say, he did nothing else throughout our stay.)

The first thing Ali G did was chat on MSN Messenger. It was also the last thing he did. And the middle thing. No matter what else he was doing, every few seconds he'd go back to MSN and type in a message to keep his conversation going. Who he was chatting with at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning is another mystery to us, but then again I suppose it could be some other young Muslim Albanian nationalist whose job it was to sit at a desk doing nothing at that particular hour.

The second thing Ali G did was make phone calls to his boss on our behalf, whenever we had a question. There was a phone call for each question we asked. What time will we get the car? How much will the car cost? What will you do to compensate for making us wait an hour when we pre-reserved the car? And so on and so forth. Ali G's boss is apparently the only person who works at the rental agency who can speak any English. And with all these calls on a Sunday morning, it stands to reason that he really should have just come to work instead of leaving Ali G and his sidekick manning the office. Each of the dozen or so times he called his boss, Ali G started the conversation with "Selamu Alejkum".

The third thing Ali G did was try to convert us to Islam. When he learned I speak Arabic and am from Brazil, he showed me a YouTube video of Ronaldinho speaking Arabic on an interview in which he talks about his conversion to Islam. The Albanian title of the YouTube video was "Ronaldinho speaks Arabic". (What, you ask? When did Ronaldinho convert to Islam? As far as I can tell, it's an unfounded Internet rumour. In this YouTube video, he's actually speaking Spanish with an Arabic voiceover - I couldn't actually hear what he was saying. But, to be fair, he did say "Selamu Alejkum" at the beginning.) Then he showed another YouTube video entitled "Famous Muslims" with before and after photos of sports and music icons who, according to this video, converted to Islam.

So I asked him why he didn't speak Arabic, why he didn't know his Qur'an, and how he could call himself a good Muslim if he didn't bother to learn. He didn't understand my questions, though. He only knows Albanian (and when he discovered that I know a dozen or two words, he pretty much prattled at me in his beloved language).

But since he didn't understand my challenge to his religious practice, he just went ahead and turned Yusef Islam on again and typed in another message to his MSN buddy.

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