Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Pedicure for your Head

Think of it as half haircut, half chiropractic visit and half pedicure.

And it's all waiting for you at your neighborhood Riyadh barbershop.

OK, so I never was very good at math but I believe the ladies will know what I mean about the pedicure aspect when I explain what goes on.

Some would argue that a trip to the barber is wasted on me, but I still need to get rid of the shaggy stuff on the sides and back from time to time unless I want to look like a B-list Hollywood director.

Thus it is that we settle into the barber chair and signal to the barber that we'd like a "#1" cut. Nowadays, whether you're in Riyadh or Phoenix, barbers know how close to the scalp to go by a series of numbers. A #1 is as close as you can get. For me, it will take about five minutes but most barbers drag it out to 10-12 minutes to make us both feel like they're doing something more than shaving my head.

Now, watching a master barber from the Subcontinent go to work on a regular hirsute Saudi customer -- often in the late evening after prayer -- can be an excrutiating exercise in patience. He can easily spend 10 or 15 minutes after the main haircut making such ultra-fine clipping movements and razor cuts on his customer that you'd think he was giving a performance at the Met.

But it's after the Pakistani or Indian barber gets done fussing with his electric razor, clippers and straight razor, that the show really begins.

He starts by lightly oiling up his hands and giving your scalp a thorough 360-degree massage. That can go on for a couple minutes.

Next he cups his hands together and starts thwacking your head from ear to ear. It actually feels quite good though it looks bizarre.

Next he makes you lean forward and gives your upper torso a good massage.

Then he lifts up each arm and cranks it backwards and around in a circle.

After that he grabs your head, yanks it to one side and cracks your neck. Both ways.

Then it's back to your backside for another minute of massage.

Finally, you get a light dusting of talcum powder, and voila, "Ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille."

I really wish I could show you pictures of the whole operation but you know what they say: "What goes on in the haalagh stays in the haalagh."


"Ready for my closeup Mr. Demille" - Norma Desmond to newsreel camera in Sunset Boulevard


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Annals of Bad Service: Mobily

As much as people (including me) complain about customer service in the Western world, service is a dream compared to the number one offender in the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia.

I refer, of course, to telecommunications provider Mobily (pronounced moBUYlee).

I should make it clear that I have no beef with their actual phone service; it's not like I get a lot of dropped calls or fading signals. It's the customer non-service I'm talking about. Well, that and a few other things...but mainly the non-service.

Specifically: 1100, the Number of the Beast in telecoms.

That's the alleged number you call to get any kind of customer non-service, short of trudging off to visit one of their offices. (Of course that's a frustration in itself because you may get to a Mobily office, take a number, wait for your turn to come up--assuming no one has jumped in front of you--and then find out the particular office doesn't offer the service you need or need to have fixed. Even something as simple as renewing your USB modem gigabytes can be your undoing if you go to the wrong office.)

I should mention that there is no other number provided in any Mobily literature anywhere except the 1100 number. And if you wait 45 minutes to see a Mobily rep at one of the offices and complain about having to drive all the way there, they'll just cheerfully refer you to 1100.

In short, the 1100 is about as useful as a flyswatter on a bowling ball.

First off, no one ever answers. Ever. Even after you've gone through their maddening phone menu. OK, so perhaps after 50 or 100 tries you do get a live person. The connection will either be immediately terminated or you'll find yourself with someone who speaks English with such a heavy accent that you need to have him repeat what he says 5, 10 or even 15 times for everything he says.

But enough yakking, let's try out the 1100 number right now:

[ring ring]
"Welcome to our new Mobily customer service menu. For Mobily services, press 1. For Broadband at Home press 2."

[Press 1]
At this point, instead of getting the option you requested, a recorded commercial starts: "Internet roaming..." (annoying commercial plays for about 16 seconds) "...to subscribe to this service, press 3. To go back to the Main Menu, please press 'star.'

[Press *]
"For information about the balance and recharging, press 1
"For settings, 3G services and internet packages, press 2
"To activate and deactivate Mobily services, press 3
"For (nacawfee?) program, press 4
"For reporting the harassment complaint, press 5
"To change the language, press 6
"To listen to the services list again, press hash"

[Press 2]
A new menu option list now starts up, the last of which, hidden after the "listen to the list again" item, is:

"To contact a Mobily customer care representative, press zero"

[Press 0]
"Dear Customer, you can now evaluate the quality of service provided by our customer service representative immediately after this call. Dear Customer, to ensure service quality, this call will be recorded." (Mobily is big on prefacing all their statements with "Dear Customer.")

Of course there is no evaluation because you will never get a live person to evaluate.

At this point the system often simply hangs up on you, so you call back a dozen times until you finally do get through to an actual live person (who, remember, you will have to ask to repeat everything he says at least 5-10 times to understand him). Alternatively, a live person may answer, who promptly gets drowned out by the previous recorded announcement...and the call is dropped. So you call a dozen more times until a heavily accented person comes on the line. This whole Abbott & Costello routine can go on a dozen times.

Now, is it just my imagination that Mobily customer service is renowned throughout the Kingdom for being slovenly and poorly engineered?

I've asked several of my student classes and every time I mention Mobily they all wake from their gerund-learning-induced stupors and start laughing and shouting about how much they despise the 1100 number.

I did find out while I was visiting the Mobily booth at an electronics exhibition recently (from a guy who probably shouldn't have told me this): Mobily has a 5-tiered system for responding to calls on 1100. It starts with their VIP customers, works down to "post-paid" phone customers and finally dead ends at the "pre-paid" customer level. That's me. I buy pre-paid cards worth 60 riyals every month or so. You'd think these would be among their most valued customers.

Back to the job at hand. In case you're wondering, I've now been on music-hold for more than 90 minutes -- about the time it took to write this blog, get some coffee, check some other e-mails and read a few chapters of a book. I'm just feeling ornery enough to plug my phone into its charger and see how many hours it will take for someone to answer.

UPDATE: I left the phone on the charger and let it just sit playing on-hold music and I racked up about 6 hours, including 3 or 4 callbacks...without a single live person interrupting.

In the meantime, I have suggestion for Mobily: Why not just change the number to 666 and get on with the business of ignoring customers without the subterfuge of a help line?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Labelous language

Idioms are one of the trickiest things to translate from one language to another, especially when the two languages don't even have the same alphabets or sound systems.

I don't know who the marketing genius at Nestle is, but the company somehow has managed to dominate the instant coffee market in the Kingdom, so much so that Nescafe has almost become the generic term for coffee. One of the coolest things they've done from a promotional perspective is to tie in their "Red Cup" brand with red collector coffee mugs, each with a clever coffee-oriented saying. You get the cup as part a nice package when you buy the jar.

Now, "No can do" is a sort of hipster American phrase and apparently the closest Arabic can render it is"Forget it"(انس). Not too bad really. I've consulted with several native Arabic speakers and there's always quite a bit of heated discussion as to what the imperative mode for the verb "forget" might be. One person even suggested that the idea of commanding someone to forget is a metaphysical impossibility. There's even discussion as to whether the Nescafe cup lettering might not be quite right so I've changed it above to the consensus spelling, pronounced eensah.

Next up, a foul little item that appeared at my doorway in a bag along with a nice doorhanger.

Foul medammes or (ful medammas), as everyone knows, consists of mashed brown fava beans which my trusty Wikipedia says derives from the Egyptian language. Ful is Egyptian for fava and medammas is a Coptic word meaning "buried." The Wiki article suggests that it has been described as "like a stone in the stomach." I'll stick to my corn flakes and strawberries, thank you.

Submitted for your consideration: the classic A1 steak sauce bottle.

What I love about this bottle is that they could very well have simply left it as is with the usual information about contents and serving size and the need to occasionally shake the bottle. But someone at A1 decided to perk up my day in a wholly gratuitous and wonderfully whimsical manner.

Did it cost them a penny more to write something whimsical that perhaps conveys a bit of spice, foretelling the contents to be enjoyed therein?

As I used to tell my advertising clients: a good idea doesn't really cost any more than a bad idea.

Finally, a logo that needs no introduction to sports fans.

To the untrained eye it simply looks like Gatorade as seen in a mirror. But to a crack Arabicist like me (more crack than Arabicist some might say), there's an interesting little dilemma: Should you say "zhay-toor-eed," thus mimicking the long "a" of the English brand name, or "zhah-toor-eed" using the standard Arabic pronunciation. Note that Saudi Arabic doesn't have the hard "g" sound so the first letter is a pronounced like a soft "g" or [zh].

After much consultation among my Arabic experts, the feeling seemed to be that either way will do -- "same same" is the phrase used -- but the zhah pronunciation might be best: zhah-toor-eed.

I was about to put a feather in my cap and call it macaroni after this revelation when a colleague who was casually checking out the bottle during my hallway conversation pointed out that the Arabic translation of "fruit punch" was "fruit mix," using the Arabic word conventionally used for "problem" -- thus it becomes "fruit problem."

Makes me wonder what Hawaiian Punch uses for their translation.