(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Things to do


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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منتصف الطريق — Middle of the Road

At the fish market near the port and harbor, Mina, everything is way too easy. A four-pound fish fresh from the morning catch, a half-kilo of calamari, another half pound of shrimp — all for about 80 dirham (22 bucks). And around the side of the market, half a dozen grilling and frying experts wait outside their restaurants to spice and cook everything you’ve just bought right on the spot (25 dirham). Get some minty, spicy arabic salad (from the same guys) and a couple lemons (from next door) and it’s without a doubt the best lunch in the city (priceless).

Abu Dhabi is a city that lacks a middle. There isn’t much of a middle class, or a stable one at least — the kind that spends christmases in the UAE. And there aren’t a whole lot of midrange places to eat where a sandwich might cost eight bucks, coffee would cost two, and everything else would be something else average. Everything is either high or low.

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بار متسفايا — My Bar Mitzvah

They both took off their baseball caps, and under them — yarmulkes. Dressed and bearded to the nines of Hasidic custom, these two Chabad rabbis had come via Dubai from Brooklyn to light candles with relocated Jews on a legally nonspecific floor of our Abu Dhabi apartment building (lets call it twenty-three). It was the fifth night of Hanukkah, a night that for its inability to ever fall on the Sabbath — the week’s most holy day — is distinctly holy. The rabbis resolved the apparent paradox: clearly, this day must need no help to get holier.

The rabbis, henceforth Rabbi Bob and Rabbi Khaled (for puzzling social, possibly legal reasons), led the Hanukkah blessings, touching the shamas to all five candles, now burning brightly with the green light from the minarets below. Everyone felt that all around us, there was Islam and spirited expatriatism — not as marks of oppression, but as marks of distinction: what made us run-of-the-mill deli patrons in New York now made us bakers of homemade bagels and fasters at unpredictable seasons. And with shared distinction comes a kind of solidarity, a kind of fort-like refuge. Still, we mustn’t build a moat — the hardest part is joining together without snubbing those who aren’t gathered. But with blessed juices flowing, chocolate coins clinking against the tile floor, and kids screaming encouragement at their dreidels — that didn’t really seem like a problem.

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National Day — اليوم الوطني

— New video at the bottom —

“’Eid sa’iid,” we wish each other — happy holiday. It’s not Islamic New Year yet. It’s not Hanukkah (although it is). It’s not Christmas — even if the buildings all draped and merry in glittering neon suggest otherwise from outside every window.

A window.

On December 2nd, the Emirates come alive — as they tend to do at wintertime — for National Day. This year marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the unification of the UAE’s seven emirates, a historical occasion commemorated by the only tradition befitting its supremacy in the lifespan of the young country: shooting silly string in strangers’ faces.

It’s chaos. Car owners en masse relieve their vehicles of their mufflers, burning rubber and backfiring (not supposed to sound dirty) on the busiest street in the city. The Corniche, which runs from the Port all the way through Abu Dhabi, past the beaches and up to Emirates Palace Hotel, is a standstill: thousands rev engines and blare music in cars painted with red, green and black, arrayed with faces of the Sheikhs, and overflowing with garlands and streamers. Exhaust pipes howl under pressure, letting out bursts that from the distance sound like automatic gunfire, and from up close, feel like it. Friends ride in pickup trucks or huge flatbeds, jumping and shaking them until it seems like they just might tip over. Others dance in circles in the street. Fireworks are exploding all the time. And everyone is shooting everyone in the face.

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كريكت — Cricket

[New video down below]

Since time immemorial, men and boys have long relished hitting balls with sticks. Satisfaction and accomplishment have no exemplar more pure than the moment of contact between ball and stick. With his first alphabet, man drafted rulebooks to institutionalize stick ball-hitting in rites like Rounders, which left the Queen’s isles on a boat to make its fame in the New World as Baseball. But before all of this, there was Cricket.

With this in mind, I set out for my first ever cricket match, a benefit for the victims of the floods in Pakistan and contested between the struggling Pakistani national team and the physically much larger squad from South Africa. It was green against light green.

Somehow, in my years of curiosity about “the sport Baseball made more interesting,” I had never been able to learn the rules. But there at the pitch, tutored by a well-traveled American, I had it down in five minutes. And immediately, I knew what was wrong.

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!العمل… — … Action!

Abu Dhabi Film Festival: Part Two
Read Abu Dhabi Film Festival: Part One

There are many different ways to be the same.  People in Islamabad are just like you, the movie Slackistan says — lazy, apathetic, directionless.  Why fight? Look how Western we are!  

Considering I’d left work at noon for popcorn and the movies, this was more than fair. Touché, Pakistan.

The next evening at the Emirates Palace Hotel, an Indian film showed in cultural compliment, this one about the stalwart spirit of one man… to mate his goat. Virgin Goat takes us all on a journey through backcountry Indian prisons, poverty and family feud, and caprine acid trip nightmares — all without the help of Steve Carrell or Judd Apatow.

Immediately after, and with Burger King in hand, I squeezed into the last showing of Chico & Rita.  The animated romance was a real culture shock — the Festival transported us from the land of chaste bovids to a place where mammals have, shall we say, a much different disposition: Cuba in the time of swing and bebop.  We watch a Cuban singer and pianist fall in love, separate and be separated by New York, and listen to Dizzy, Bird, and Chano Pozo all the way through. It’s just like The Pianist if 1942 Poland were a Cohiba cigar.
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…اضواء، كاميرا — Lights, Camera…

Four short and thirteen feature films ago, I settled into my first of many screenings at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, all like little lessons (intentional or not) about the places they’re from It was Wrecked, the almost wordless struggle of Adrian Brody against amnesia, a shattered leg, and some sort of lion or cougar, and who finds himself trapped one morning in a totaled car with a bunch of dead people. The star was there in the kind of silly fedora worn by people that have never actually had any of those problems. That’s good acting.

The next day, I saw a beautiful Chilean documentary putting in parallel the endless search of astronomers for scientific truth and of wives and mothers for loved ones lost to the Pinochet dictatorship. And I saw a 3-D documentary matinée— Cane Toads: The Conquest, a lesson about the threat of the billions of lazily poisonous frogs conquering Australia from coast to coast. Guess which one I remember better.

The following afternoon: I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You , a fictionalized documentaryish travelogue about forgotten northeastern Brazil, filmed without a gameplan on an array of recording media. A lot of footage of road just going by with narration in singsongy Portuguese. Nap time.

Also that Sunday was the much anticipated Never Let Me Go, based on a bestseller by someone about English boarding school children raised until their early twenties to be disposable organ donors. Spoiler alert: it sucks.

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