(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for How to be

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.

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The Benz.


An old mercedes is to the highways of the Gulf what a rented vélo is to a Paris bike lane, or what a rocky mountain oyster is to the diet of people who like to eat gonads. Driving cars is more Emirati than air conditioning, and Mercedes, especially the old ones, are the staple of a simpler era with smaller buildings and bigger Aviators. In the Arab World, models and shapes of the cars have nicknames — C Class in the late 90s were Abu Dama’, Father Tears, for their big headlights; S Class were Abu Ayun, Father Eyes, for a similar look. The ’92 model I found on Dubizzle — the UAE’s Craigslist — and bought with two friends was called just Shabah. Ghost.

For our first date, we took her out onto the docks, the only place in the city where there are no traffic cameras and no speed limits. Past a line of cargo ships and lit by the harbor is a straightaway made for test drives with just one rule: break before you crash into the breakwater and fly out into the water towards Iran. It didn’t make it much faster than 140 kph in the half kilometer-long track, but where every previous test drive felt wrong, she felt absolutely right. The dark gray, nearly black SA 320 had boxy wide hips and drove like a boat, and so earned its first nickname: HMS Matsuflex. (The latter, of course, is a character from VH1’s “Tool Academy” known for a) being a tool, and b) black spiky hair.

Ryan, aka "Matsuflex"

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المصعد — The Elevator

I stepped into the elevator holding a bottle of French pastis that I hadn’t been drinking. In such cases, I expect always to run into Arab women wearing abayas and demeaning scowls. This time, it was one of my building’s non-university Emirati men, thirtyish, in a khandura.

“Thalatha w’ashriin. Twenty-three,” I slurred. I had, however, been drinking something else. I repeated my floor once again. He pressed thirty-two.

“Studying hard?” he smiled.
“Oh, I… I’m working here. I was just picking this up from a friend.” All true, but still bullshit’s doppelganger. My floor came.

An hour later I was up at the pool on our building’s glassed-in roof. Outside the gym, the sauna read 115 degrees Celsius (239 Fahrenheit) — just about hot enough to roast shawarma. So I got out, showered, and too dizzy and lightly broiled to manage a towel, just got back dripping into the elevator.

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“شو بتفكّر عن ثورتنا؟” — “What do you think about our revolution?”

“What do you think about our revolution?”
“Freedom is beautiful.”
Beaming: “Yes!”

The university’s security staff is mostly Egyptian, almost exclusively supporting family back home, and quite openly champions of the overthrow of Mubarak’s autocracy. (Supporters, dejected, are less visible.) Engulfed in the politics of the Arabian peninsula, this American institution has made very evident the support for non-violent protesters, democratic ideals, and all Middle Eastern countries’ fights against their respective “the Man”.

But other than these interpersonal connections to the region’s groundswell, the UAE is barricaded in an impenetrable bubble — a piece apart from the line of dictatorial dominos that have fallen in rapid succession in recent weeks. A good reason for this: the word protest once meant, for Romans, to “assert publicly”. How could this be in the UAE when those most relegated are hardly even members of the public?

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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.

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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.

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The Theory of Relativity — النظرية النسبية

Those buildings are really old, the water’s freezing, and that pumpkin pie is delicious. Well… relatively.

The word “relative” comes from something in Latin that I believe has to do with how weird an uncle seems given the comportment of his extended family. The weirder the relatives, the more normal the uncle… relatively. Near the Dubai Palm, forty year-old buildings endure like stewards of a forgotten age. In Abu Dhabi, the 80 degree bay water that tastes like it has been liberally salted by a gefilte fish factory feels nippy — to some. In the palm of my hand, an iPhone app tells me I’m now finally one of the best (read: most addicted) 100,000 players in the world — a perfect measure of my relative skill/lameness/free time. And in a local hotel serving a sumptuous Thanksgiving buffet, pumpkin pie still the right color after a spicing accident tastes more like home than Umm Ali ever will.

The fourth Thursday in November has this rare power — to make every American living abroad realize his or her place in that “scheme of things” everyone is always talking about. Not everyone has jumped on the Americana bandwagon, not everyone knows what it’s all about. Really, except for the Canadians who celebrated Thanksgiving the first Monday in October (for other reasons, I believe — something about the repeal of a syrup tax), not a soul understands why something that looks like strawberry jam is served next to pulverized potatoes. Out here, I have thanksgiving with the kind of Indians Columbus had been trying to find. Lucky for him, had he caught they right wind, he’d have had a turkey day spread of daal and tandoori that would’ve made the English stomach double over at the Queen’s mercy.

Give thanks, America, that we still have our individual quirks, that not all of our traditions befit the world’s adoption. Free speech, equality — these ideals we can strive to make absolute, but a day of fowl-based gourmandizing and near-footless football — that can be our thing.

It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, and in shorts, wrinkled T-shirt, aviators and flip-flops, I’m the weird one. It would be normal somewhere else, though, I told myself beneath the shades. This is what it feels like to feel totally fine, normal, not anxious, when everyone else thinks you’re nuts. I knew I wasn’t fitting the norm — that less than a hundred miles north I could get arrested for showing that much leg — but that where I came from I was guilty of nothing more than bedhead and lazy dressing. I felt the glares and they didn’t faze me; had my relatives shot me the same pointed stares, I’d’ve felt much more nervous.

I wonder if New York “crazies” have the same effect on each other. Is it embarrassing for the naked schizophrenic unicyclist to get called a nutjob by a man dressed as the Watergate complex? If we wrap ourselves in a blanket of relativity, we’re vulnerable only to those wrapped up with us. If you only think of yourself as relative to your country, there’s no need to worry about what them foreigners think. If you’re only relative to yourself, what difference does it make if no one else likes your one-man rendition of Cats?

Popped collarers, too, don’t feel the heat when everyone’s eyes scream you’re a douche. Yes, everyone feels cooler with a popped collar — hell, it even makes sense in the desert sun — but we don’t all think as relatively. Sometimes it’s helpful to put yourself in a smaller bubble, to relate only to those genetically immune to comments about extreme WASPiness. Other times, it’s better to throw ourselves in with the whole world, if only to realize in how many ways we’re weird, if only to briefly quantify ourselves in more objective terms.

High Noon: Reloaded is the perfect example of our Excel spreadsheeted world in which categories can be drawn and redrawn at the click of a button. In tiny letters at the top of my iPhone, the game nonchalantly offers alternatives for how I conceive of my place in the universe: “Worldwide,” I am the 99,685th most talented gunslinger; “Nearby,” I am 108th. And among my group of online friends — my “Shitlist” — I’m number one.

Relativity can make us do crazy things. Relative to what mothers have been doing since time immemorial, ironing, for example, is no extreme pastime. In absolute terms, however, ironing clothes is the most illogical thrill seeking behavior anywhere in the world. Worst case: maimed for life just by knocking over a little plastic thing. Best case: a flat shirt. But hey, my relatives have been doing this for generations. Fuck wrinkles — I’m in.

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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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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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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