(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Hubcaps Don’t Make The Man – [الترجمة غير متوفرة]

After seeing Inception two nights in a row, I feel qualified to make enormous statements about the theater experience in the Gulf. The first shock to the western movie-goer is the assigned seats. While something about choosing your exact place makes going to see Leonardo more like an outing, it forces certain stressful decisions not found at American first-come first-sit Loewses or AMCs. The teller shows you the layout of the theater and asks you to pick as you force yourself to imagine,

Will that be too close?
Too far?
Next to fat people?
Behind the tallest building in the world?
(The Emirates are unpredictable.)

Turns out not that many people are out at 21:00 on a Wednesday and it doesn’t really matter. Though Midnight the next night was packed full of an even more animated crowd laden with take-in from surrounding mall restaurants, answering their cell phone calls, and yelling warnings at Leo and Ellen Paige.

Leaving the mall at 1 a.m. after Inception Night One, we found shoppers steaming in the night heat and an hour-long cab line. But a friendly enough-looking Indian man stood offering a private car (a no-no in your mother’s book of Travel Safety Rules) like a scalper offering last minute tickets to your own house. So, like any smart shoppers, we weighed our life against our patience.

Patience took precedence and I entered the car with my US phone dialed to 9-1-1, my UAE phone dialed to the equivalent 9-9-9, and my thumbs on “call”. But hubcaps don’t make the man, and simply not having them doesn’t make you a bad guy.

As a bit of an unintentional international chameleon myself, I should use what I’ve learned about assumptions and not make them. In recent days, I’ve been called Egyptian (by an Afghani), Pakistani (when buying an Afghan), Pakistani (by a Pakistani), Parsee{1} (by an Indian), and “really American” by a colleague from Lebanon. Still, sometimes we’d rather make an ass out of u and me than be turned into dhal. Life is about choices.

Choosing to study Arabic, I accepted that I was learning how to use a mostly written language with the intent of getting to know her spoken sister. FusHa or Modern Standard Arabic, is found on the news and in newspaper, so even in my best moments I’ve heard “you sound like you’re reading the news” and “you sound like a nerd” in (mostly) playful mockery.

Language here is like a Venn diagram where your circle never overlaps completely with another’s. Phone calls to vendors demand a kind of linguistic simplicity that belie the disorder nurtured by most local commercial pursuits. The clash that follows demands calmness, a strong grasp of whatever-ness, and patience.

Today one conversation began like many:

Rafiq: What is your good name?{2}

Me: Adam.

Rafiq: Aarif?

Me: Adam.

Rafiq: Aarif?

Me: Yes.

And then we attempted to do business.

Tomorrow, New York University Abu Dhabi truly opens for business and the first large groups of students will begin to arrive. As what one dean has hopes will become the “first great university of the twenty-first century,” NYUAD is taking big chances, making big moves, and at least so far, buying a lot of pizza.

And at the intersection of Airport Road and the Old Fish Market, West meets East, and South meets North, and we begin to pluck the thorns from the compass rose.

{1}Zoroastrians of Persian decent now living in India. Pretty specific.

{2} A common phrase in the region, asking after your legal name as opposed to any nickname.


  Ari wrote @

Good luck tomorrow! P.S. My local theater in LA assigns seats as well. I think it’s pretty cool if you can plan ahead.

  soni holman fink wrote @

Dear Aarif,

Your conversation is almost a duplicate of one Bob Lax had when he first arrived on Patmos.
“What is your good name?”
“That will do.”

Which is why, if you noticed, everyone on Patmos addressed him or spoke of him as Pedro.

  Rebecca wrote @

As someone who knows your mother I got some severe giggles reading about your walk on the wild side with the unofficial cab driver. I bet she feels better knowing you have your phones set to dial 911…

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