(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

أنشوجة — Anchovies

In the waning minutes of Hanukkah, the orchestra bearing the name of its Muslim host country set out to play Christmas music. If there exists an appropriate adage, I don’t know it.

Many citizens of the Jewnited Arab Emirates (as no one calls it) might have noticed local observances of the Festival of Lights — namely the decking out of most of the city’s tall buildings with bright neon, flags, and the number 39. Of course, it was just pre- and post-national day decorations — not an attempt 5732 years off the correct Jewish year. Still, a bit suspicious National Day fell on the first day of Hanukkah, isn’t it? Okay, sure, Emirati National Day is always on the second of December, and Hanukkah is determined by the lunar calendar, but… but — okay. Good point.

At the Emirates Palace Christmas tree lighting, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians (ok fine! and Jews, too) stood around the joyous alter of the Christmas tree as a children’s brass band heralded not the anniversary of the birth of someone’s lord, but the beginning of a season of fun and shopping for everyone.  In the world of Internet and Connectivity and the Global Village, it’s getting too goddam hard to stereotype people.  That people still try is my only regret — for their own sakes.  Time-saving stereotypes had some basis back when West was West and wild, and East was just East. But now, reality is disorienting – there aren’t any shortcuts.  Racism is just racism… and it’s awkward.

The world's most expensive Christmas tree. Ever.

At a local event’s refreshments table, I saw a white woman telling off Indian and Bangladeshi help, scolding “this is for our guests.”  One replied, “set-up, ma’am,” we’re doing the set-up. She seemed not to have heard, staring them down in territorial confusion.  Without the red and beige shirts or the shalwar kameez of many other of their brown brethren, caterers in white shirts were relegated to the subcontinent’s subclass. You must not be working for us, but you’re still one of those, she eyballed at them. A beat. His smile fading. Awkward.

It’s really hard not to have your expectations met, no matter what the scale. Mrs. White never knew her mistake, “real American” bigots would never care to know that there are a whole lot of hard-line Muslim fans of Christmas. As for me — I assume lunch quality before I give it a chance. If I can tell lunch is going to be shitty, I make it even more terrible in order to avoid disappointment. One choiceless day in the cafeteria: a nicoise salad with anchovies — everyone hates anchovies. Black olives still with their pits. A refrigerated soggy roll. Lightly hazelnut flavored chocolate milk — weird on its own, emetic in this company. Nothing about any of this is going to be good. So it was everything I hoped it would be.

Once we form an expectation, we’re probably going to stick to it whatever the cost — blatant hypocrisy, migraine headaches, nausea. The trick is to expect something different (or better: nothing) before it’s too late — before we eat any anchovies.

I think I’ve remembered the adage:
“Fish and visitors smell in three days… if the visitors are racist.”
— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1736.

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