(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)


Nationalism is left outside the gates of the FIFA Club World Cup, where the winners of all six continental confederation cups (plus the host nation champion) are gathered in a kind of mini-Olympics. Inside the stadium, Pakistani and UAE locals go crazy for Inter Milan, watching as they demolish their Korean opponents. Sometimes its nice just to be on the winning side — many fans still wave FC Barcelona flags at the jumbotron cameras (last year’s winners, not even in the tournament).

Also left far outside the gates is the self-evident truth that all bags are created equally likely to be checked. No, here, bag-checking is a sophisticated process that involves profiling on many levels, bolstered by the analysis of “is this really worth it” on the part of the checkers. You never know whose father bought that bag.

The Nepalese guard stopped me with his hand out. I unbuckled my bag, showing him my camera with the telephoto lens clicked on, and the camcorder by its side.

“Oh, camera,” he said and waved me through. With cameras rather uncommon at soccer matches, his tone seemed to suggest that he felt he had to ask what was inside.

I refastened the clip and nodded back at him, something he surely took to mean something other than great, thanks. He looked apologetic. “Listen, I’m sorry, eh?”

Right there, my brain twisted itself into a pretzel — did a security guard just beg my pardon? It was too weird. I was just another potential menace to society carrying an opaque black bag into a crowd of riled up (though completely sober) soccer fans — he had every right to check me.

But maybe, I’ve just forfeited the freedoms that undermine values held dear back home — that firecrackers are not for personal use inside a stadium, that a beer should cost nine dollars if you’re watching something. That doesn’t seem to be quite the issue here, where two British-looking enthusiasts lugged a trashbag of cans past the lines of security.

In America, we try to assume that our interactions with checkers of all kinds are based not in suspicion but in protocol. In Abu Dhabi, those assumptions are not yet in place, and security operate with the knowledge that their actions may be taken as personal judgements. At work, where everyone is asked for ID all the time even when checker and checked have known each other for months, learned social customs invite a flickering of indignation. The social strata are so deeply engrained that it comes as a shock — not wrong, just surprising — to be questioned from “below”. To get stopped at the door is to get jumped, to see security say “king me” and to lose your place. Except, it’s not at all like that — these blanket protocol that treat every bag-carrying member of the UAE equally (migrants and locals alike) may be the very first in the country to do so. All men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, wrote Thomas Jefferson. Among these are Life, Liberty, and the ability to get taken down a peg.

At the gates of the soccer stadium, guards may ask you to find your place in the society, and to admit how you are seen by everyone else. They may treat you with a kind of uncomfortable deference that feels more natural to a medieval fiefdom than an Italian soccer game. Or they might just let you walk on through.

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