(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for August, 2010

نهاية الاسبوع — The Weekend

Woke up at 16:00. I needed water and electrical adaptors — the two main items in the UAE food pyramid. The 400+ stores of the Marina Mall extend along the breakwater just off the island of Abu Dhabi. In it, along with a movie theater, grocery stores, and a bunch of English chains (I’ll get back to that), is an IKEA. Just like any other IKEA.

If you didn’t look up at the labels in Arabic, it would have felt like anywhere else in the world — no Scandinavian Persian rugs, no Swedish sandal racks, no ergonomic falafel-ballers. Though I’ve heard IKEA names come from various names of way up north places or other families of words (occupations, kinds of flowers, sizes of umlaut) depending on item category, I started to doubt it. I wondered if oddly familiar-to-English names like the baby crib “Sniglar” would sell as well with Arabophones. Sounds like “snuggle” in English. Means “slug” in Swedish.

The exit to the mall smelled of Krispy Kreme and incense. You want a donut, but you feel strangely calm with the decision.

For tea and wandering, I stopped by the Emirates Palace where the rule is: if it looks like it, it is. The 800 palm trees inside are real (though sometimes petrified). The vaulted golden domes and ceilings are real gold. The tea is not Lipton.

When in Dome: One of the Emirates Palace's 114 domes

Somehow, inside the luxury is not oppressive — the shimmer of Swarovski Crystal and gold-plate feels distinctly elegant. What appeared to be a “Whites Only” section of the parking lot (the cars, that is) — with its unflinching Beamers, Bentleys, Rollses, and a Maybach — seemed a little like the world’s best cake shop with a cupcake stand out front. Make of that what you will.

And pulling a complete about-face, I ordered Indian take out to my apartment doorstep (complete with tip) for 5 dollars.

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دمّ و عرق و دموع و بيتسا — Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Pizza

I had lost sweat and (metaphorical) tears to settle in Abu Dhabi. Today, I gave the blood.

Every visa-carrying visitor/resident of the UAE must get a relatively unintrusive medical check-up in order to stay in the country. A positive AIDS or TB test will send you back where you came from.

Trying not to concentrate on the needle, I stared at my Arabic entry permit and tried to think of puns using the word “Sheikh”. Sheikh down. Sheikhspeare.

Afterwards, I was called into an x-ray room to have my chest examined. She asked me to fold my collar upwards, she said to get it out of the way. I still think they take pictures at the same time — every American with a popped collar — as a bargaining chip in case of strained relations. “We have pictures of all of your citizens looking like guidos. Now let’s negotiate.”

On the digital screen above the machine I saw my name, and beneath it “W CHEST PA”. I’m sure that means something to a doctor, but to me it was eerie. My small hometown in Pennsylvania neighbored the town West Chester — W. Chest., PA. How much can they tell from my ribs? Read the rest of this entry »

A Stopped Clock — ساعة موقوفة

Day One

Woke up in a new place. Turned out the gulf was right out my window, draped in a haze of sand that dropped like a wall a few hundred meters offshore. And holy crowned prince! — I’m already thinking in meters.

According to my schedule, my first day in the UAE and my first day at work began at 9:30. At 9, I stepped outside and the heat punched me by surprise, even though the morning was a relatively cool one. It was about 105, which in Celsius… is some other number.

My job is with the brand new New York University Abu Dhabi, located until 2014 in the Madinat Zayed neighborhood of downtown Abu Dhabi. (In February 2014, the University will move to Saadiyat Island, the site of numerous architectural and artistic endeavors, including new branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre.) And in the glistening purple and gray buildings, I kind of learned what sorts of things I will be doing for the (at the very least) next 53 weeks.

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(يوم التنقيل (جزء الثاني — Moving Day (Part Two)

On an Emirati airplane surrounded by Americans, I settled in to watch the over-the-top Chinese game show “Just Go” and felt comforted by one of those observations that makes you feel like the world is small and we’re all just one big people after all: it sucked just as much as our TV.

So I changed to something English because there’s nothing like dry humor to compliment a wet martini.  I think I’ve already been spoiled by Pearl Class… to the point where felt the need to spy on even posher territory.  I snuck another look behind the Diamond Curtain, pretending to fetch something from my luggage.  A suspicious stewardess came to check on me just as I had gotten up from one of the velvety leather chairs that are more like couches than seats.  Chairs are so plebeian, don’t you know?  Uh-oh.

I can’t remember ever being in an airplane bathroom before with a window.  I’m over Iran.

I’m peeing over Iran.

It’s somehow comforting to know that I got to do what George Bush was trying to do for many, many years, and no one got hurt.

In English, the PA system told everyone to turn their beds back into chairs and to turn off all electronic devices.  To my delight, the Arabic announcement had come almost 10 minutes earlier.  Even at the hands of the super international flight staff, sky law is no match for Arab Time.

And then, by the light of a red sunset above the clouds, I caught my first glimpse of the Gulf.  And we descended and the triangle of Abu Dhabi stuck out into the water like a slice of baklava.  And dark came all of a sudden, eased by the moon not two hours from full, and the plane landed by the lights of the city.

And I was like, whoa, man.

I was met at the gate with my visa, taken to have my eyes scanned (for security reasons maybe, but probably as a way of saying “hey world, check out the gadgets Abu Dhabi has”), and then pulled through customs faster than you can say “thatstwiceasmuchastheamountof
alcoholyoucanlegallybringintothecountry” to find a gang of porters waiting to collect and push my bags on a cart.  And so classism presents itself in the ultramodern{1}, post-cosmopolitan world{2}.  Some push, others pull, and those lucky enough just sit.

Before I was taken to the car, I stood on the threshhold of the airconditioned airport and the merciless desert.  Al-Rahman Al-Rahiim.  Not so bad, I thought.
And then I took another step.
My mind couldn’t really take in what the rest of me said it was feeling.  My eyes said it was dark out and ergo it was cooler than the last day I had been in.  My skin said no, no no, I feel hotter than a camel’s… temper.  And my legs said run.

I checked in to my apartment, fully furnished and with too many electronics to plug into the staggering dearth of outlets.  Classic case of eyes-bigger-than-stomachs.  Like Dubai, maybe, but not Abu Dhabi.  No no, Abu Dhabi won’t be like that.

And then I plugged something in.  And fire shot from the walls.  And the lights went out.

But in the time it took to get a mechanic not quite fluent in Abu Dhabi’s unique language known as “Globalish” (think English without the hard words), I wandered the streets of my immediate neighborhood.  As the old joke goes, a man is promised the amount of land he can walk in one day.  If that was an Emirati joke, the man would have gained about half a block.

The midnight humidity was so strong camera lenses fogged within seconds.  You can feel it, but you can’t capture it.

And soon enough two men came to fix the electricity and turned the lights back on.  So I turned them off.

{1}{2} These words not used according to any real definition. They may be made up.

Moving Day (Part One) — — —(يوم التنقيل (جزء الاول

I just got to play the fun game you can only play a few times in your life completely sober — the one where you pop the window open and go, “where in the world am I?”  Turns out I was in London, or over London, after having reclined into my fully flat bed/massage parlor the “night” before above the islands of northeastern Canada (read: the real New England).  It’s like I didn’t even go anywhere at all!

But no, I promised when I left America eight hours ago that I’d give up making fun of Canada.  We members of the Global Community choose respect.

I’m over Brussels now.  I remember it having smelly parts.

The day began at six AM Something Standard Time in a cove near San Diego where I surfed my last American waves for what’ll be a while to come.  Hopefully the tankers chugging through the Straight of Hormuz make swells big enough to ride, but somehow I don’t know if that’s what they’re there for.

And then a car came.  “No crying until two miles from the airport,” the driver told my mom.  I like this guy.

But just as I haven’t yet had that “Holy ****!” moment where I see a map and actually understand what moving means, I don’t think my parents quite have either.  There are a lot of parts to this that make it hard to focus, hard to figure out exactly how we feel in any given moment.

Now I’m flying over Liege.  The world’s greatest waffle people.

My mom couldn’t let me leave the country without a little nourishment, so my last moments on hard american soil were spent eating peach yogurt with a spoon she pulled from her purse.  And not finding a trashcan, I left the half eaten thing on the curb, waiting for me.

If I understand my neuroses at all, I know I’ll have a flashback the day I return to the country.  I’ll nervously look around in line at immigration.  They’re coming for me.  They know about the yogurt.

In fact, they almost didn’t let me leave.  The tickets that had been booked for me were under a slightly muddled version of my first and last names, and the guy on my passport was close to getting left stateside while my single last-named doppleganger flew to Abu Dhabi in style.

But I’d had this kind of trouble before, and I knew what to do.  I knocked over the attendant with my one 65-pound suitcase and flattened her with the other before diving down the luggage chute and rolling out onto the Tarmac.  I knew the tail number of my flight and I made a dash, scampering up the massive wheel and into the cargo bay before they knew I didn’t even pay for the overweight.

Or wait… that didn’t happen.

I’m past Frankfurt — either I write very slowly, this plane is going very fast, or Europe is tiny.  I think maybe all of the above.

Before I boarded, I listened to the San Diego loudspeakers babbling the announcements of lost items and people.  It sounded like half the passengers on my flight were saying: “Yeah, so I lost my watch and my duffel and my six year-old.  And I’d like an upgrade to business.”

Then, after a run of bottomless gin and tonics on sleeping-with-gaping-open-mouth flight number one, I shuffled into the Etihad lounge in the Chicago airport to drink Chivas Regal and make a few last domestic calls from a cushy massage chair.  You can’t be an alcoholic if you’re going to a (nearly) dry country, right?  Well, okay, maybe not after the four bottles from duty free I’ll be wetting the sand with.  That’s not supposed to sound dirty.

The flight (so far) has been everything it was cracked up to be (by many Google searches), but I keep reminding myself not to get used to the “Pearl Class” treatment.  A flock of pretty women from East and Southeast Asia (is this offensive to say/notice?) guide us all to our seats and offer beverages from a tray.

Here’s how I knew I didn’t quite belong:
Attendant: Would you like a beverage?
Me: Yes, thank you.  What’s the orange one?
Attendant: Um.  Orange juice.
Me: Oh, I mean, the other orange one.
Attendant: Ohh, I’m sorry.  That’s carrot.

Whether it’s “I’m sorry, I misheard you” or “I’m sorry that you’re a totally helpless idiot,” you know it’s good service when someone apologizes to you for nothing in particular.

And then came the food.  And drinks.  And much exploring of Seat Reclination Possibilities (or SRPs, as I called them).  I snuck into the Diamond Class compartment to find the personal suites, with their arabesque sliding doors wide open, completely empty. I guess when no one can afford something, we all know we have something left to work for.  And maybe that was the UAE’s plan for expats all along, like your parent’s rule for when your friends were over when they were out of town: let ‘em get comfy, but no one gets the master bed.

And here, between Vienna and Zagreb, I think I’ll order breakfast.

[Just moved in to apartment, escaping sweltering heat even at night.  More to follow.]

Hi — اهلا وسهلا ومرحبا بكم

So do it already. That’s what I’m telling myself, in the voice of someone’s old Jewish grandfather (not mine, because he didn’t have the accent). It’s always hard in the beginning.

And as I refrain from typing “that’s what she said” in huge bold letters, I acknowledge a set of different norms — norms that find allusions to the crude or sexual disrespectful, and false rudeness as improper as deliberate effrontery. Of course, I generalize. I assume. And though we all know what you do when you assume, I feel I should still write down my expectations of a culture that I can probably say — safely and without offending anyone — is somehow at least a little bit different. Tell me if this offends you.

In a region where borders are still drawn in dashes, it is hard to know where to draw the line.

So if I don’t remember my mindset now, on the day before my departure for Abu Dhabi, How will I ever say “wow, that is totally not what I expected,”? I wonder now, if the style is to cover your head, how important is a haircut? This website will fail to answer this and other, greater questions during my next year or more in the Gulf. (The Gulf that is meant to have oil flowing through it.)

To leave America behind and Americans in their natural habitat is to leave behind many things: we leave behind our home and our rules, we abandon words like “effrontery,” and we let go of the certainty that comes with going to the same CVS for 21 years. But heading for the United Arab Emirates, we make a journey much different from that of an explorer heading for the Arctic, or a student let loose in rural China, or a doctor responding to a crisis abroad.

We leave instead for a place where 80% of everyone comes from somewhere other than where they are — a journey that, I find, is like going to grandma’s house. At grandma’s house, things are much like they are in your own home, but with little differences. Most of you still have the same sense of humor, but you make different jokes. Respect for the new place and the person that has been there longest supplants the feeling that everything is the same and that nothing has changed. Most of the food is similar but there are a few jars of things you’re not sure you want to try in the refrigerator door. The United Arab Emirates banned Skype, and Grandma just says she doesn’t like it when we use it. And when my parents, brother and I arrive at the door of my grandmother’s apartment in Southern California, 80% of us, too, are foreign.

This is what I expect to feel when engulfed in the Arabian Peninsula. This website chooses the archaic spelling “ingulfed,” to invoke the connection between past and present, the evolution of culture through language, and the never-ending struggle for continuity in a ever-changing environment. And “” was way, way too expensive.

Next post from the Middle East,

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