May 23, 2006 25 Comments
And so now it can be said: mmk has visited the famous Concorde in Addis Ababa. And what little shreds of innocence that were still (reluctantly) hanging off me have now been stripped and buried for all eternity. Oh yes, to this son of the soil, innocence is a past state of being. Where to begin?
In the past two weeks, a number of taxi drivers have been recommending that I should visit the Concorde Hotel on account of it being lots of fun and very popular with foreigners. But since realizing that taxi drivers in Addis are made precisely from the same clay as those in Nairobi, namely that they are out to fleece anyone with the sucker look one wears in a new town, I was not willing to take them up on the offer. Besides, I have been trying to sustain a no-alcohol pledge; and thought it best to stay away since I do not associate nightclubs with sodas.
On the night in question, this past Friday to be exact, I went to have dinner at a workmate’s home. In the course of conversation, it turned out that the Concorde was just a short walking distance away. We decided to check it out and my curiosity only grew when he assured that I would see, ‘things you have never seen before bwana aiii!’
Once at Concorde and having paid the 20 birr cover charge, it took less than three minutes to realize that its popularity has nothing to do with its music or cocktails: it’s the sex for sale that draws the crowd. We were in Addis Ababa’s version of Nairobi’s Florida nightclubs.
There was an Ethiopian band playing to a crowd whose mood is best summed up as ‘hurry up and stop all that singing and dancing, we are here for other things.’ After an hour of excruciatingly unenthusiastic performances, the club music kicked in spurred on by an MC who bounced around the small space rapping along with whatever hip-hop was in any particular song. The DJ (and please oh lord I beg for leave to issue a critique that I hope does not extend throughout the city) seemed trapped in an American mid-western, early 1990s music hell. I suppose there must be a fundamental existential crisis DJs suffer when they have to play for western tourists or expats and local prostitutes. Imagine the dilemma as they build their play list for the night: do I play hip hop for the 18 year old girl who will cajole the John to buy drinks and stay longer or to her 60-year old John from a small town in Missouri? Add to that the insistent little voice in the DJs head that insists he is an artist and should be above all other concerns.
His attempt to unify the disparate audience at Concorde meant that a jazzy song was succeeded by rap, then by Lingala and then that national anthem of American middle-age angst: ’18 till I die, 18 till I die…yeah!’
One wall of Concorde is mirrored. For the two hours I was there, several women stood in front of the mirror dancing with their own images. They were so absorbed, so taken with the obvious beauty in front of them; it must also have been a good vantage point from which to get a view of who was checking them out most ardently. The weird thing is I found myself concentrating more on the image in the mirror than on the woman standing in front of it. It was as if by looking so intently at her image, she drew me to her image and away from herself. But then since the image was also looking at her… Let us turn to our Lacan here because there is clearly a need for some further confusion. I have not read Lacan but do know at least that he wrote on the mirror stage. Imagine again this young, tightly trousered, nubile woman dancing in front of the Concorde mirror. When she was younger and had done the same thing, Lacan would have said that she was involved in the initial and necessary act of self manufacturing – by identifying the self according to the Other. And if indeed I do understand any part of other arguments he made, then perhaps the woman in the mirror was not actually her at all, but a stranger, an Other. This of course must be quite close to the truth of selling sex for money. It requires, I would suppose, a distancing, an ability to say that this is me and that woman over there in the bed under the heaving weight is some other person. A tough person who does what she has to do.
(Please do not ask that it make sense because nothing Lacan says makes sense to me. Actually nothing anyone says that involves the words self, other or identity make any sense to me anymore. I have been far too corrupted by an Anglo-Saxon veneration of words for authority’s sake. If you want to get into this a bit more, I suggest you go to Wikipedia – not that it helped me in the least)
In Greek mythology, Medusa whose gaze turned people to stone was herself turned to stone when Perseus the hero held up a mirror to her. Snow White’s Wicked Queen needed the reassurance of a magic mirror to know that she was the fairest woman in all the land. And my favorite: Harry Potter in one of the books glances into a magic mirror that reflects his deepest desire. Destruction, revelation and yearning. Surely the women in Concorde could in some way relate to the three mirrors. Or perhaps this riff of the subject is just my way of dealing with the fact that I am once again procrastinating from my long suffering thesis.
Anyway, to get back to the scene, the twenty or ladies on the floor were swaying patiently to the music. They were not actually dancing as much as showing off their wares, waiting for the prod in the back, the one that says ‘can I dance with you or buy you a drink?’
In the dim light, their eyes shifted slowly from one male face to the other. They peeled away my pretension that I was just a local accompanying some ferenjis (foreigners) out on the town. The table between me and the dance floor had white expatriates seated around it. They were behaving as if they were on dates with women whose body language to everyone except their ‘date’ reflected an utter boredom relieved only by practiced touches filled with a detached erotic promise.
At an adjoining table was a smooth looking dude in all-black clothing and exuding manicured airs. The women kept walking up to him and drifting away minutes later. He coolly appraised each as if he knew their secret which in his mind must have amounted to ‘I know what you want and it is me you want’. I suspect that he actually felt that beneath all the solicitations was a genuine desire for him since he was clearly irresistible. There are Johns whose visits to prostitutes are only made bearable by maintaining the conceit that love can flourish somewhere within the money-for-sex transaction. I found myself disliking every man in the room except for the waiters and the grossly fat, exhausted looking bouncer.
As we sat there, with me trying to hold onto my non-drinking pledge, I noticed a woman looking at me more intently than any of the others. Her eyes were filled with come hither and so I tried filling mine with ‘I am scared of you and have a wife and am considering becoming a monk.’ But her eyes ignored such pleas and insisted, ‘you know why you are here, why else would you be here if not because of me?’ By the time I came back to the table from a toilet break, her eyes had stopped talking and her mouth had taken over.
‘You want to dance?’ she asked loudly to be heard above whatever song the bastard of a DJ was playing.
‘Um, no thanks, I don’t like this song.’ I answered.
‘You want to buy me a drink?’
‘Um, not today, I am just about to leave.’
‘But I love you.’
My colleague interjected then with loud and, to my ears, very welcome laughter. ‘These ladies,’ he said into my ear, ‘they know only three words: drink, love and condom.’
Such was the adventure at the Concorde where you are promised to fly very high or very low or whatever kind of flying provided you are ready to pay the fares.