Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Cell Phone

A Novel
by Franz Kafka

Imagine that you want to purchase a cell phone. You browse a few dealers, select the phone you want from among the glittering overpriced Prada phones and cell-Mp3 hybrids in the dusty display case (this is, after all, Morocco) and walk in. You sign a few papers, dole out your dirhams, and *poof* you have a phone. What could be easier?

Brokering world peace I suspect.

I needed a new cell phone. Last year I bought the cheapest phone possible on a pay-as-you-go plan and, to be fair, for a 200 dirham phone it has worked admirably. As cells go it is now long in the tooth, the keys are sticking, and the battery keeps falling out. Time to bid it a heartfelt ma’salaama. Then I got it into my head that I should get a camera phone. For one thing, it would be useful to document the paranormal activity that has marked my nights in Rabat - how much more credible interesting my blogs would be with photos of those annoying medieval monks chanting outside my bedroom window (see below). Also, my friends, it seems, have become peeved with my a) reluctance b) unwillingness c) refusal d) all of the above to have myself photographed while I am away from home. My stunning architectural studies, The Doors & Windows of Morocco, The Doors & Windows of Spain, and The Doors & Windows of Portugal, have left them oddly unsatisfied. A camera phone would be a milksop that has the added bonus of not wasting any film! Huzzah!

I decide to continue with the pay-as-you-go option. It's not that I have commitment issues but I have had a singularly ugly experience with a previous cell phone contract (amazingly not in Morocco) and don't particularly need to experience its Moroccan counterpart. So a few weeks ago, I see a lovely little camera phone at Méditel (one of the 2 major players in the phone business here) and decide that I must have it. Yes, today I will buy a phone! (Any student of Greek tragedy should by now see where this is going). Mr. CinR and I inspect it (i.e. look at it from different angles with a practised & knowing eye) and tell the Incredibly Rude Man behind the counter (whose ass & nose picking zen-meditation practice he has taken great pains to let us know we are interrupting) that we want it.

"C’est une abonnement,” he snarls. Or possibly un abonnement. I have no idea if abonnement is masculine or feminine (it's probably feminine) nor, I suspect, will the solution to this gender-based conundrum improve the quality of my life in any way.

*Crap*. The phone is on a 2-year contract system. Pay an exorbitant fee for a phone and then pay hundreds of dirhams a month for the privilege of calling or texting the three people in my life I call or text. My personal pay-as-I go history sees me spending an average of 100 dirhams a month. I look at Mr. CinR in frustration – why didn’t the price card indicate that? They usually do. Are all of these camera phones on an abonnement? It would seem so unless I want to pay about 3000 dirhams for one outright. I really don’t want to pay 3000 dirhams for one outright, so we decide to rethink things.

We bid him a frosty ma’salaama and leave.

Two weeks pass. I linger past the windows of Méditel and Maroc Telecom with my nose pressed up against the glass. The phones are so shiny and pretty. I vacillate. What’s the harm in a contract? But I don’t want a contract. What’s the harm in choosing Maroc Telecom? But my three regular phone contacts use Méditel cells, which keeps my rates low.

Repeat previous paragraph as much as humanly possible with special emphasis on the flip-flopping of resolve.

Last week, Mr CinR and I are led into one of the newer Méditel stores on Follow the Leader by our cell phone hierophant, Mr. N who, for my sake, is clearly embarrassed whenever he sees my crappy 200-dirham phone with its peeling keys & escape-artist battery, and is also probably finding my inability to make a decision both vexing and exasperatingly
annoying. Mr. N gets things done; under his influence, I have no doubt that I will walk out with a phone. But I am resolved to this: yes, today I will buy a phone! And we do see a phone – a nice little Sony Ericsson. We inquire about the monthly rate –@ 300 dirhams a month on top of the semi-extortionate cost of the phone – which I can almost live with. Mr. CinR and I inspect the phone (i.e. look at it from different angles with a practised & knowing eye) and tell the Incredibly Bored Woman behind the counter (whose gossiping session customer service seminar with her Silent Co-Worker she has taken great pains to let us know we are interrupting) that we want it. She tries to upsell it – I can add a handful of friends for a gazillion more dirhams a month, but then I would have unlimited calls with them. Imagine the late night chats! I try to explain that I only call or text 3 people in my entire life and, as I fumble in my fumbling French, I can see from the expression of disdain in her eyes that I have effectively become a nonentity.

In order to sign up for an abonnement at Méditel, the Incredibly Bored Woman tells us, one needs valid identification, a blank cheque, and a form endorsed by one’s bank. I’m pretty clear on the first two points, but if I have a cheque, why do I need my bank to approve my application? Never mind, just give us (for Mr. N has decided to buy a phone as well;
apparently owning more than one phone in Morocco is de rigueur) the forms.

She shakes her head. She has no forms. Could you look? She makes a perfunctory move at opening a drawer but fails to look inside. She shakes her head. Again. We stand our ground, appealing to the dictum that one never allows a sale to walk out of the door. With a heavy sigh, she (presumably) asks her Silent Co-Worker (who has been hiding in a corner) about the forms, and the Silent Co-Worker shrugs. Silently. We are incredulous. Perhaps, she suggests, we could go to one of the many Méditel shops along the street and get a form from them, then bring it back. Perhaps, I think, we could bring her a coffee while we’re at it.

We bid her a tepid ma’salaama and leave in search of the Elusive Form. Or to formulate a Plan B. We are not sure which.

We decide to stop by the Méditel shop near our place of employment, a smallish shop that has taken to, above selling and recharging phones, flogging porcelain tableware and silverplate gifts. The connection between these is completely lost on me. We see a phone – a very nice but slightly more expensive Sony Ericsson. We inquire about the monthly rate –@ 300 dirhams a month on top of the now-extortionate cost of the phone – which I can almost live with. Mr. CinR and I inspect the phone (i.e. look at it from different angles with a practised & knowing eye) and tell the Very Nice Woman behind the counter that we want it. In truth, we are not sure that we want it but we do want the Elusive Forms.

The Very Nice Woman shakes her head. No forms? we ask. Yes, she has forms but she isn’t giving them out until we sign our contracts. We confer. While we confer, the phone rings, and customers walk in to recharge their phones. We feel slighted. Are our feelings justified? Probably not but we’re getting a little tetchy. Tetchy bordering on cantakerous. We tell her that we will return, knowing that we never will.

We bid her a frustrated ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan C.

Mr. CinR suggests that we visit Wana, the newest (and curiously lime-green) phone store to open on Follow the Leader. We leave within moments when we realise that their their pay-as-you-go picture phones (huzzah!) don’t sync with the standard SIM-card system, and that is what we want. At least we think we do. At least we have been told we do.

We bid Wana a hurried ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan D.

Mr. CinR suggests that we continue along Follow the Leader and check out the Incredibly Rude Man’s Méditel; perhaps he won’t be working now and more importantly, perhaps they will have some new models. He is right on both counts. There is a pay-as-you-go LG that costs significantly less than 3000 dirhams. I am delighted. Mr N intercedes, curbing our enthusiasm; he has a host of LG horror stories. Would we like him to share them? No, we wouldn't.

We bid the Incredibly Rude Man’s Méditel a disappointed ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan E.

Mr. N suggests that we visit Maroc Telecom. Of the 3 people I call or text, 2 have Maroc Telecom phones, so perhaps this is the way I should go. We enter the flagship store on Follow the Leader and see two phones flirting with us from behind their glass showcases. They are sporty & rather jaunty. We take a number and wait. Our number is called and the 3 of us approach the Incredibly Peevish Woman who deigns not to greet us. Mr. N apprises her of the purpose of our visit and she says and does nothing.

“We’d like to see the phones,” Mr N helpfully prompts her.

“You want to see the phones?” she asks incredulously and rather – well – peevishly.

We show uniform support with her conclusion. She sighs and shakes her head. She raises herself from her desk with great effort. She walks towards the showcase muttering to herself then changes tack and goes upstairs. Mr. N is all-knowing; he has been upstairs. Nothing much happens up there. No good can come from this. She eventually returns to tell us that there are no phones. She will not even allow us to see the display models although I believe we can still buy one if we wish.

We bid her a decidedly nasty ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan F.

This involves coffee. We regroup. Consider our options. Although we all liked the cell phone at the Incredibly Bored Woman’s Méditel the best, clearly we are not in possession of the Elusive Form, nor do we feel that it is incumbent on us to procure one. The exchange at Maroc Telecom (you want to see the phones?) is still ringing in our ears and to totally mix up metaphors has left a bad taste in our mouths. That leaves the Very Nice Woman. Perhaps her reluctance to hand over the Elusive Forms is not born of spite; perhaps she has had enough of the Incredibly Bored Woman sending clients down to pick up forms and then promptly leave. Why should Very Nice Woman facilitate Incredibly Bored Woman’s sales? They are both independent dealers. We decide that we cannot blame her.

Very Nice Woman is pleased to see us return. She really is a very nice woman. We tell her that we are ready to sign 2 contracts. She shakes her head. The phones are not in stock. Mr. CinR heatedly questions the wisdom of displaying items that are not in stock but this is a moot point. Amazingly, Very Nice Woman picks up her phone and makes a phone call. She is checking stock at other locations, earning for her the coveted Excellence in Customer Service Citation never before awarded in Agdal. The first place she calls has no stock. Apparently there is a promotion on Sony Ericsson phones (involving free phones or free flights overseas; we are not sure nor do we care) and Méditels country-wide are scrambling to fill orders. She asks us to come back later when she will have had a chance to check other dealerships.

We bid her a very appreciative ma’salaama.

I return the next day. She looks at me sheepishly as I walk through the door. There are no phones. Maybe in a few weeks. In sh’allah. I bristle at the word and force myself to smile in return.

I bid her a dejected ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan G.

There is no Plan G. I am ready to concede defeat. Once again, this country has beaten me to the ground over something inanely simple. Like all of Kafka's novellas, I fear that this one too will have no conclusion.

Yesterday, masochists that we are, Mr, CinR and I walked into the downtown location of Méditel, again to see if there are any new models on display. The LG is there and Mr CinR tells me that he has checked product reviews for the phone and they are very favourable. LG, it would seem, has made great strides in improving their phones. I don’t know if I can go through with this, if I can withstand any more surly salespeople, if I can cope with Elusive Forms, if I can bear the disappointment of depleted stock.

Five minutes later we bid the Efficient Salesperson a very appreciative ma’salaama and walked out with a new phone.

The moral of the story: nothing is easy in Morocco except when it is.

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