(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Instant Billionaire

They all sat outside the amphitheater selling bills, most no longer worth their ink, most from a decade of a ruler demised, or a leader deposed. Saddam Hussein glared up from the street, girdled in wide greenish-blue dinar. Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and African heads of state lay side by side in neat spreads replicated near identically by each squatting vendor.

For 1 JD, about a buck-fifty, any one of them can be yours. Buy more and strike bargain territory. I took greater interest in those currencies long out of print, those minted in a day when one language was good enough and a banknote never traveled far. Just across the border from a land divided, a land that was once theirs, these money markets are the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what the bill can buy now. It doesn’t matter what it ever could have bought. It doesn’t matter what it’s selling for on eBay — now it costs one Jordanian Dinar.

I put my finger on Fifty Soviet Rubles, a small, wrinkled green note branded with Lenin’s pointy profile and pointier beard. From 1961, the Sixth Ruble was valued at about a gram of gold, though it was never redeemable as such. Fifty rubles would have been worth nearly two thousand American dollars in the earlier Sixties; for many Russians, this would have been a full year’s pay.

“Look, look,” the shopkeeper pushed. He didn’t care one bit what I was looking at — just that I was looking. 100 Omani Baisa, he showed me. About twenty cents —one hundred thousandths of the Omani Rial, a currency still alive and well two hours from my apartment.

I had accidentally zeroed in on the heart of the Ammani tourist trap, an undertaking that exploited exquisitely the (Western?) fetish for cash. Here, the concept of value is so tangled and perverted that money in a wallet can only leap to be traded. And yet, this scheming heart pumps in concert with a brain nostalgic for yesteryear, for an era when demographics, values, and money in hand were simpler. In fact, these bills can reveal the history of Jordan’s foreign relations and immigration: Middle Eastern bills as recent as can be; African bills only from times of crisis; Iraqi banknotes satcheled and traded by refugees from the Gulf War; Israeli shekels from as far as the Camp David Accords, and no further.

And then I saw it. The space elevator for life goals — millions of dollars that could be mine in a heartbeat. Ten million dollars from Zimbabwe. It’s not a milestone that means much except in number, but the road to the American Dream is paved with memoirs of the “first million”, of those who struck success and had the zeroes to prove it. I didn’t really need all the success that came with it, or to have my pursuits validated in any real way — I was just happy to cross off from my lifelong to-do list one pesky item. Like when I watched my mother pay millions of Italian lira for blown glass, I knew milestones had been surpassed, glass ceilings shattered.

   See the backside.

Sadly, excitement fades, and our bellies grumble empty and with a taste for more zeroes. Like so many men along that forsaken road having found a first million and craving millions more, there was no end in sight. I needed more.

But luckily for me, progress is easy when goals are shallow. Under one corner of a stone keeping money from blowing away (a rock solid investment) was the mother of all superficial treasures, the great homage to Zimbabwe’s 2008 hyperinflation: five billion dollars.

    Look at the back.

I snapped it up, and made off with 7 other bills from Israel, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and Somalia for only 5 JD. (Afterward, I learned that Zimbabwe’s mints later printed a Ten Trillion Dollar note.) Mr. Lenin looked up at me: I have one zero and could have bought a car. He has nine and wasn’t worth a loaf of bread. Now you put me in a bag with him?

That’s right, Vladimir. After all, zeroes aren’t worth anything — not as much as a dream, anyway.

1 Comment»

  Old Lady by-the-sea wrote @

Such a savvy yet benign look at the old lucre and what is hidden in it. A non rancorous look at all that wicked history and written with style. OLD LADY by-the sea.

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