(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for October, 2010

Coal, Soup, and Television — الفحم والشربة والتلفيزيون

There’s no better way to identify differences between countries than to get sick in them. Sorry mom. All of the comforts, the dietary staples, the bad television the body demands are identified clearly in the mind — either to be found, or to indicate in their absence a different cultural approach to coughing, or breathing, or eating.

Suffering from something like a cold, which lingers ironically in the now 95-degree autumn steam, I set out on a mission to find soup… in delivery menus. Almost nowhere would even offer soup — not Lebanese places, not the American places, not the Indian places. Cuisines from the Asian subcontinent sometimes make soup-like things, but often resembling other simple dishes watered down. Where are the microwavable cans of soup and soft foods upon which America’s unwell have built their empire?

Instead, the advice for the wheezing illustrates in Abu Dhabi just how multicultural the place really is. A good citizen of Pakistan will push a tea called “Johar Joshanda,”{1}
which tastes of herbs and licorice and smells something like an old shoe. And those under the influence of French medicine still monger charcoal. “Charcoal, it’s good for gas,” they argue. No, no — it’s better than a gas stove. One word misheard by some French chef turned house-calling doctor and now we’ve got a whole continent pushing smelting materials on the already sick.

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!العمل… — … Action!

Abu Dhabi Film Festival: Part Two
Read Abu Dhabi Film Festival: Part One

There are many different ways to be the same.  People in Islamabad are just like you, the movie Slackistan says — lazy, apathetic, directionless.  Why fight? Look how Western we are!  

Considering I’d left work at noon for popcorn and the movies, this was more than fair. Touché, Pakistan.

The next evening at the Emirates Palace Hotel, an Indian film showed in cultural compliment, this one about the stalwart spirit of one man… to mate his goat. Virgin Goat takes us all on a journey through backcountry Indian prisons, poverty and family feud, and caprine acid trip nightmares — all without the help of Steve Carrell or Judd Apatow.

Immediately after, and with Burger King in hand, I squeezed into the last showing of Chico & Rita.  The animated romance was a real culture shock — the Festival transported us from the land of chaste bovids to a place where mammals have, shall we say, a much different disposition: Cuba in the time of swing and bebop.  We watch a Cuban singer and pianist fall in love, separate and be separated by New York, and listen to Dizzy, Bird, and Chano Pozo all the way through. It’s just like The Pianist if 1942 Poland were a Cohiba cigar.
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…اضواء، كاميرا — Lights, Camera…

Four short and thirteen feature films ago, I settled into my first of many screenings at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, all like little lessons (intentional or not) about the places they’re from It was Wrecked, the almost wordless struggle of Adrian Brody against amnesia, a shattered leg, and some sort of lion or cougar, and who finds himself trapped one morning in a totaled car with a bunch of dead people. The star was there in the kind of silly fedora worn by people that have never actually had any of those problems. That’s good acting.

The next day, I saw a beautiful Chilean documentary putting in parallel the endless search of astronomers for scientific truth and of wives and mothers for loved ones lost to the Pinochet dictatorship. And I saw a 3-D documentary matinée— Cane Toads: The Conquest, a lesson about the threat of the billions of lazily poisonous frogs conquering Australia from coast to coast. Guess which one I remember better.

The following afternoon: I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You , a fictionalized documentaryish travelogue about forgotten northeastern Brazil, filmed without a gameplan on an array of recording media. A lot of footage of road just going by with narration in singsongy Portuguese. Nap time.

Also that Sunday was the much anticipated Never Let Me Go, based on a bestseller by someone about English boarding school children raised until their early twenties to be disposable organ donors. Spoiler alert: it sucks.

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وقت القيلولة — Nap Time

There used to be a top Swede in everything, my Swedish colleague tells me. Now all they’ve got is fish, meatballs and IKEA. And when even IKEA can’t help me out, I know I’m in trouble.

My bed is a size not recognized by the world of IKEA foam mattress pads all christened with names of nonexistent Swedish sultans — Sultan Tafjord, Sultan Tårsta… So I turn to the Middle Eastern chain “Home Centre” in the hopes that they sell padding that does not have to be removed from its packaging and cut with scissors before using. Bad move.

It’s often hard here to find exactly what you’re looking for — a positive mall attitude requires a kind of vagueness far from the model number, “compare items” culture of American shopping. So I couldn’t find a perfect 100 Watt converter and the metal box they gave me gives out serious electric shocks when touched. But hey, now my TV works.

Even getting a haircut is a total free-for-all. The South Asian coiffeur told me what I wanted, explaining that it was “style”. I tried to argue, admitting that I wanted something stupid, and finally touching on one excuse that worked: “America. I’m from America.” He gave me a look: Okay, I’ll cut it, but it’s gonna look like shit. You asked for it.

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Miss Dial and Mr. Right

The United Arab Emirates, I am certain, has the highest ratio of wrong numbers dialed in the entire known universe. If Yellow Book made a guide for Abu Dhabi, it would have every number on one page with the heading: JUST GUESS. At least once every day, I answer calls from India, from Senegal, and from all over the Emirates unsure if I’ve ordered something or could somehow be the least bit useful to the mumbler on the other end of the line. Because of language barriers and the fact that everyone in the UAE is actually calling all the same people, you’re never sure until you’re asked: “Sanjay?”
No. This isn’t Sanjay.

Text messages rain in from banks, clubs, stalkers, vampires (just guessing about the last two), often divulging more information than they should because you’ve got someone’s old number. Your statement is ready for the Dubai Islamic Bank account beginning 4299 and ending 8654. Even banks have trouble finding Mr. Right.

Or maybe this is actually the vanguard of sketchy advertising. Hey! That’s not me, I can see myself saying. But you guys do text message banking? I’m listening.

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival, too, tests the limits of ethical sales tactics with its website — complete with the single most aggressive shopping cart in the whole wide web.

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Po(m)p and Circumstance(s)

This week I practiced for the first time with the Abu Dhabi Philharmonic Orchestra, a volunteer group of all expats ranging from 14 years-old (I asked) to about 70 (didn’t go there). Rehearsals take place in the Armed Forces Officers’ Club — a multipurpose army hang out, hotel, gym, theater space, concert hall, and gun museum — in a venue clearly not designed with music in mind.

For the first ten minutes (of a Howard Shore Lord of the Rings medley), the stage lights wouldn’t come on, and we played through squinted eyes and predictable melodies. Finally bright lights shone from somewhere sort of over us, illuminating the ancient music stands only a military establishment could have owned — the tripod base tightened with a screw and looked more like it was made to hold a 500-pound bazooka than 10 grams of sheet music, and the matching stand head had to be fitted from a crate of mismatched parts like the barrel of a rifle to its companion grip.

As some sort of event had just finished in the hall, cleaning men scurried to remove all evidence of celebration — a thick coating of confetti, boxes of cake, dozens of balloons forty feet up on the ceiling. The fact that the music that was being played involved real people that were really there had no bearing on the chatty vacuumers and shouting managers. I tried to think of it all as part of a new surreal musical culture — one that defied the challenges of an uncooperative environment and persevered. Like, say, the English in the subcontinent.
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يوم عند السباقات — A Day at the Races

Friday was the first day of racing season. Camel racing season.

Think of all the glamour, the maquillage, the frenzied betting and crowds screaming, the graceful galloping of horse races: it’s none of that. Some thousand camels run dozens at a time in back-to-back races around a horseshoe track near five miles long. Owners shadow their entries in crammed (white) SUVs from an internal track, paved for the first time this year. While the driver speeds ahead in what looks from the inside like rush hour in the desert, the owner clicks a remote control that triggers the camel’s whip.

Oh right — they’re ridden by robots.

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Nonsense — سفاسف

Some things just don’t make sense. Why would they make the European electrical plug exactly nose-width if they didn’t want you to stick it up your nose? In the vast cosmos of language and logic, there is shared perspective, and there are disjointed frames of mind that keep us from colliding with our “impossible”. Here on the Arabian Peninsula, for example, one can even haggle with reality.

“I’m 45 minutes away,” the man stated. Fact. Distance. Time.

The international crowd strives for tolerance, the pinnacle of mutual understanding, yet to tolerate is merely to accept — not the validity but the existence of something different. Anything short of plotting and pursuing a savage vendetta is tolerance. I think we can aim higher. We tolerate first, and then we use this impossible flexibility to our advantage.

“Could you make it 30 minutes?”
He was there in 15.

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اتصالات فائتة — Missed Connections

A real screenshot from a failed call.  And we wonder why the world is the way it is.

Malik 2 / The Lohan Ranger — مالك ٢ \ الحارس لوهان

Videos after the jump.

The road from Nizwa to the Indian Ocean is paved with surprises, but mostly, the hundreds of kilometers that roll by are lined with a whole lot of very little. The mountains of the Omani Interior are like blurry photographs — up close, towering piles of dirt and rubble, but from afar, sharp and rugged like camels’ toenails.

Off the straight, flat highway stems variety, where a 10 minute drive can take you up into the mountains and back down to a valley river, or into the desert, red sand dunes appearing out of the blue. We did both, teaching Omani children how to skip rocks (they were naturals), and seeing if our Altima could manage a road made of sand (it couldn’t). The pavement snakes into the 5,000 square miles of the Wahiba Sands, until, all at once, it just stops. And there at the end of the road, we were called in for coffee.

I had turned down a young Omani’s offer to go dune bashing and he had responded by offering me into his home — the very last stop in town — cooled by a thick straw roof and a floor of sand.

We left and raced for the Gulf, hoping to catch the sunset before we made the final stretch for the coast. We kept pushing, motivated to stay above the speed limit of almost 90 mph, flying through the tiny towns with everything in our control except… except that the Gulf of Oman faces north. And the Arabian Sea coast faces east. And the sun sets in the west, doesn’t it.

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