(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Prologue — فاتحة

First they said two hours, then four days, then six weeks. It wasn’t going to be easy to get a visa to Pakistan. Reciprocity, they relayed with a shrug. It isn’t easy for us to go to your country either.

Two months later, I let myself hope there would be a visa in my name, just waiting to be glued into my passport. They said they would call. Calls to the embassy switchboard would almost never go through, certainly not long enough to survive the transfer to the “visa office”, and my one contact — the sole officer responsible for my application — had ceased answering his phone, quit, and returned to Pakistan.

The embassy is only open for business before lunch. At 9 a.m. a crowd of a couple hundred men spills out the door in lines down the steps and pools around the snacks and tea stand; others mill about idly waiting their turn to be ignored. But having other business, I pushed through the infernally dim, musky floor to the much smaller room I remembered from months ago: VISAS / ATTESTATION.
Abandon hope.

The room was empty. I wasn’t my first time — I knew that if there was no one there, there was no one coming. If you’re told to wait one minute, sure, wait one minute. “Five,” means hire a sitter, and “ten minutes”, in Urdu apparently, means fuggedaboudit. I checked across the hall where I had seen someone in an office. This was a good start. The person you think should be helpful is no less likely to be helpful than anyone else, so instead of looking for the right person, you can ask around at random with the same luck. How convenient!

Aziz, in his late-forties and a suit with no tie, was willing to help. I was expecting to complete my visa process, I told him, one for which I had submitted documents back in February. He rummaged through papers on his desk, and leaned back to pull open a filing cabinet. The ground floor of the Pakistani Embassy in Abu Dhabi has no computers. We went together into the Visa room, where I had watched my departed contact Mohammed Ali Khan fling passports into a desk drawer and contribute documents to towering piles of paper in boxes and on bookshelves behind him. The dingy room looked like an obsessive librarian’s garage, though in Mr. Khan I saw precious little of Melvil Dewey.

Aziz leafed through folders, unearthing the petitions of my fellow forgotten, checking my face occasionally to see if it matched any of the white men’s mugs paper clipped to old applications. And after only a few minutes — like nanoseconds in Embassy Time — he found me in a colored folder. My application, complete with all of my photocopied documents, had moved approximately eight inches in the eight weeks I had left it incubating in the office. It hadn’t been processed, sure, but at least it was still there. “Lucky you,” said Aziz.

As it turned out, most of the necessary bits were there, but my invitation letter had been thrown out. There was never a time at which anyone had actually intended to grant me a visa. If five minutes is a day, six weeks is an eternity. (Mathematically speaking, it’s 33.1 years, but there are more things in the Pakistani Embassy, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.)
I launched a series of near-daily, half-hour cab rides to the embassy, hoping every day against the odds that I would have done enough, that I would have satisfied the clerical gods of passport administration and earned my license to enter the land few deem a valid answer to the question, “Wheresoever shall we go for vacation, dear?” Every day I came back to pester Aziz, who, contrasting me with another American he didn’t like, seemed to look forward to my visits. And every day, something was missing, someone necessary wasn’t in the office, someone hadn’t responded from Islamabad. Or worse: there was nothing to do, everything was fine, just wait.

Aziz called me back most days but wouldn’t tell me what I needed to do until I pried it from him. He greeted me always with a grin: “My brother!” I learned to repeat the same questions over and over — usually something like what now? — with little changes in wording or urgency. I processed his responses, discarding what didn’t make sense, whittling away until I’d get a clearer picture with no bark on it.

The key was to somehow try to be likable. I didn’t have wasta — Mideast connections used for personal gain — but I was trying to get some. If Aziz ever stopped liking me, I was through. And as for the other American who had shouted at him — Pakistan might as well have been on the moon. Or Cuba.

I joked with him, talked about my friend I wanted to visit in Karachi and about how beautiful I had heard the country was, but I tried to apply some semblance of pressure. Yelling is never good, but administrators (like me) often respond to authority; I made sure to dress well, like someone with things to lose, like someone it pays to know, wobbling on the fine line between straight-laced businessman and secret agent (to Pakistanis, by default, Americans are linked with the CIA. They must prove otherwise.)
Finally, Aziz sent me upstairs for my interview. It was something I could have done days earlier, three visits ago, but no one had told me — perhaps I hadn’t nagged enough.

The interview was not a conversation as such, but an opportunity for me to actually watch someone acknowledging the existence of my paperwork. Time slowed down: I noted this as a necessary climax in the process that, if Abu Dhabi had seasons, had taken a full one. I waited for a curt shake of the head, a flick of my papers to indicate something was missing, to send me back downstairs like the lone American Sisyphus. But the official asked no questions. Perhaps the hours spent sitting waiting in Aziz’s office were themselves a test of dedication. I had waited in every room in the Embassy; I had watched two Emiratis inquire about, file documents for, and receive their visas before I could even figure out why Aziz had called me in; I had slogged nine times across ten weeks back and forth to the green and white building outside of town; I had wheeled around in a rolly chair while laborers from the world’s most dangerous regions peeled through red tape to earn a living, just so I could go on vacation to somewhere unusual.

And for that, I was rewarded. For 132 American dollars and a vial of my own sanity, Aziz glued privilege to my passport and let me go.

*     *     *

One morning I stopped by the Afghan Embassy with a two-page form and a few photos of myself. At 2 p.m., my visa was ready with a free brochure.

*     *     *

Getting in to Afghanistan would be easy — flights leave daily from Dubai and Sharjah before dawn. Getting out would be easy, too, I was sure (though when I left for Kabul with plans to get to Pakistan, I had forgotten to book a return ticket to the UAE). But simply being in Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, was something I couldn’t quite imagine. It was uncharted territory for me, for a lot of tourists, and I had no conception of what walking would feel like, what the streets would look like, what people’s eyes would feel like when they landed on me. I was like Alexander, minus the army and legacy and dreams of conquest — I wasn’t an emperor, but I still needed new clothes.

Luckily, the style of the plurality in the Emirates is shalwar kameez (literally “pants shirt”), the chameleon skin of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Next to the mosque just behind my high-rise is a string of a dozen tailor shops run by Pashtuns from northern Pakistan, usually near Peshawar or Waziristan. These guys knew Pakistan. They had opinions about Afghanistan. “Don’t go,” they would say sometimes about both places. “Go,” they’d say other times.

It was Thursday, eight days before my flight to Kabul, and Muhammed Amir took my measurements to stitch a white shalwar kameez with an Afghan-style collar. He spoke only Pashto and Urdu. His cousin Khan Zaman spoke a fair amount of English. Their cousin Mumtaaz owned the shop. We spoke in Arabic.

“First, you should learn Pashto,” Mumtaaz said. “Ten days, you come to the shop, every day little, little.” I didn’t have ten days. But I had eight — and that was good enough to try. Every afternoon until I left I sat with them for three or four hours in their shop, learning disconnected words in Pashto, translated to me through whatever language was convenient. Serlatsum Afghanistan-la, I am visiting Afghanistan. I swapped English words in return — thread, needle, scissors — and endured the tepid Mountain Dew they poured for me so graciously.

In the Abu Dhabi evening, shop people hang out in shops. Friends and random passersby come to sit — some know the cousins, some don’t. Some want tea and Mountain Dew, some don’t. Some have a reason to be in the shop — others don’t at all. Almost everyone old enough to grow a beard has one. At times when a customer or serious-looking man entered, Mumtaaz warned me with his eyes to keep silent. Having an American in the shop might rub some people the wrong way, he explained later. He made a cuckoo hand gesture, “Their minds are rotten.”

It took three days for Muhammed Amir to finish my costume, and on the fourth I sat among them, greeting customers with “Tsanga yei, chai ski?” (“How are you? Drink tea?”) and silently nodding and pretending to understand when the bigger beards walked in.

Sometimes I wondered why I was putting all this effort into Pashto — spoken mainly in the south of Afghanistan, when Dari (Persian) is much more widely spoken, especially in the central areas I was hoping to visit. Persian shares a bit with Arabic, but everything in Pashto was new. And this was Pakistani Pashto, sprinkled with bits of Urdu and English, not Afghan Pashto. But I wasn’t really sitting with the tailors to learn the language. After eight days, I wouldn’t remember many words anyway, but I would remember body language: how to wear the shalwar correctly, to shake everyone’s hand when entering a room, to listen for the azan and know when it was time to go.

A bomb blast killed many in the north of Pakistan, an Urdu news channel reported. The tailors listened and looked away; Mumtaaz shook his head in unsurprised disappointment. Another shopkeeper leaned in the door to ask about relatives back home: Everything okay?

Packing for a trip is never about what you actually should bring, it’s about what you want to know you have with you. The simple act of returning to the tailors, sitting with them and taking notes, was enough to feel like preparation. I wasn’t just waiting to board a plane, nails bitten to the bone; I was doing something — it didn’t really matter what — and so strengthened my debatably responsible resolve. Serlatsum Afghanistan-la.


  Ninotchka wrote @

It is very beautifully written and very interesting, but I am very uncomfortable
and am going back to Latvia soon.

  guide wrote @

excellent..cant wait to read the rest

  I Doc wrote @

Your blog is an interesting, humorous and well-written account. I look forward to reading more about your adventures.

  Brandon wrote @

Your posts are very interesting to read. I’m from Maryland and am in Dubai for the next two months. I read a lot of your entrys before coming and they helped to know a little of what to expect. I look forward to continuing reading your blog 😉

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