INGULFED

(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Melting Pot

What Really Happened Behind the Scenes of Bibi’s Speech

An American Jew* and a Jewish American**, deconstruct the motivations, repercussions and realities of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress (March 4, 2015) live and direct (to only each other) just as it happened. This isn’t exactly Live coverage from House of Reps’ locker rooms, not is it even live… but all this blather should be put to death anyway:

Bibi congress transcript: March 4, 2015.

Israeli Intelligence.

*Jerusalem local, papa.
**Transient traveler-type, célibataire.

#200: Muathifakhrs Unite — Arabic Rap From (America’s) West Bank

The rerelease of this legendary and illustrious video is dedicated to Joshua “Issa” Casteel, an endlessly positive Middlebury Arabic scholar with the power to brighten every door, the kind of soldier who returns home not with enmity but with curiosity and compassion — a true Muathifakhr if there ever was one.

In 2010, a group of Middlebury Arabic School students left nothing on the rhyming fields of Oakland, California. Two years later the ornery former director of the program, who shall remain nameless in this sentence, achieved a lifelong goal and had the masterwork taken down from video sharing sites, including انتم توب. Kenneth S. Habib’s image has been removed.

But the message lives on.

On the grounds of Mills Young Ladies Seminary (as it was known in 1852), the Thalith Alif Allstars rhyme about a life with thoughts in one language and speech in another. Words divide, but they also unite, and in this grappling with confusion we can follow new pathways to understanding. Like the diverse coalitions still struggling for freedom across the Middle East, this group — which features an Arab doctor, a UN relief hero, a veteran, scholars of the Middle East, and Jews — is united in its message: we shall not be divided by language if we recognize difference not as obstacle but opportunity. And if we take silliness for what it is.

Issa, this one’s for you.


{Watch on YouTube here.}
{Watch in Germany or on a mobile device over here.}

This is INGULFED‘s 200th post!      A thousand shukran for coming back again and again.

Christmas in the UAE: Polar Bears — عيد الميلاد في الإمارات : الدببة القطبية

Polar Opposite Caps
A Christmas diorama at the Intercontinental Hotel
Abu Dhabi, UAE

More yuletide shenanigans from INGULFED today @ the Huffington Post

Christmas in the UAE: Blue Santa — عيد الميلاد في الإمارات: بابا نويل ازرق

Merry Christmas!
Happy (fifth night of) Hanukkah!
!*عيد الميلاد مبارك

*(Are we saying this now?)

Even though the Emirates Palace apologized for its last year’s “attempts to overload the tradition” by decking out a 43-foot plastic tree in diamonds and pearls, the UAE is hotter on X-mas than ever before.

According to one very high level administrator at a foreign-run university in the UAE (and I paraphrase), “the government was giving me flak for not putting a Christmas tree on campus.” Apparently, they wouldn’t have been cool with a menorah.

Happy holidays!

Check the Huffington Post today for more holiday stories from INGULFED!


Photos above: lobby of the Jumeirah Hotel
Abu Dhabi, UAE

The Temple on Lane 253: Bahrain’s Synagogue

As rumor had it, the one synagogue on the Arabian Peninsula was in Bahrain. It seemed like an easy find — a sore thumb somewhere in two mile-wide downtown Manama. Earlier in the day the address I had plucked from an online forum, “Sasa’ah street,” seemed to get vague grunts of recognition from taxi drivers: near the souq, maybe. I decided not to make the trip to the desert to see the “Tree of Life”, a large mesquite that seems to spring miraculously from arid ground; instead, buzzing and sleepy from a long, bacony brunch, I went in search of the country’s Jewish roots.

A friend dropped me at the arched gate of the Manama Souq, a mostly pedestrian criss-cross of simple stands and boutiques. I forgot my phone (GPS and all, though unlikely to be helpful) — this quest would depend entirely upon the knowledge and forthrightness of passersby and standers around.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had no idea where I was walking. After a few blocks, the bustling lights of the central shopping district gave way to construction and inauspicious quiet. I figured I’d ask around. I didn’t know how people would feel about any past or present Jewish structures, but I was leaving the country in a few hours and I had a better shot playing honest than sneaky. I greeted two older men chatting in the street beneath the pointed dome of a beautifully ornate blue and green Shia mosque. “Do you know where the Jewish synagogue is?”

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The Poster-Makers — صناع الملصقات

The martyr's grip.


Taher flipped a perfectly browned panacake onto my plate. “Perfetto!” He propped up his iPad on its stand so I could see and flipped through the morning’s Facebook photos. His friends had posted second-story shots of a narrow street crowded with protestors and Bahraini flags, typical for a Friday morning but charged today with the power of a new and tragic martyr: Seventy year-old Ali Hasen al-Dehi was brutally attacked by police on Wednesday night; hours later, he was found dead in his home. The Ministry of Health announced that he “died of natural causes.”

It would have been just the latest entry in the history of police killings that number around 40 since the uprising began on the 14th of February (in late March, the Interior Minister confirmed 24 deaths; in April, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported 31.) But Ali was in name and symbol more than an innocent participant — he was the father of Hussein al-Dehi, vice chairman of Bahrain’s largest political party, a Shi’ite organization. The protestors on Taher’s iPad had found a way around the road blocks to join together and scream against injustice.

Taher explained this to me rather matter-of-factly. In eight months, the pre-emptive crackdowns and the demonstrations and the resulting crackdowns had become a weekend standard — one that left some locals numb, expats mildly frustrated, and the rest of us tingling with faint hope, sadness, and guilty excitement.

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Cool off the Press: Mixed Blessings — سلم مشكلة

For the original, from the Sunday Magazine of The Express Tribune in Karachi, Pakistan: click here.


I wanted to peek through the locked gates, to look into the sanctuary and enter the house of the dead. I read the engraving by the walkway — UNEQUAL IN LIFE, ALL LIE EQUAL IN DEATH — while birds flitted about the cornice. I wasn’t sure if I smelled something, faint, pungent, unrecognisable. But it was time to go. Sacred Zoroastrian Towers of Silence were not built to be ogled.

There are two such structures in central Karachi, dating back to over a hundred years ago. The small Tower known as the “Ghadialy Dokhma,” along a ridge studded with green trees, was consecrated in 1847 and the bigger Tower, known as the “Anjuman Dokhma” was consecrated in 1875. The Tower of Silence or dokhma is a perfectly white cylinder with a flat top but for a rounded lip that juts up above the entrance. Inside, bodies are laid out under the open roof to decompose by the powers of nature.

Bones fall through a grate into a well below. “People don’t like to build houses here.” A Parsi friend indicated the barren plot below the ridge. “The smell.”

Until 1999, there were vultures on the Indian subcontinent. But in the next ten years, as a result of feeding on cattle treated with a particular chemical called diclofenac, they were nearly completely annihilated. In India, some form of solar contraption is now used to “evaporate the body,” as our guide said — some reports say they are mirrors that focus the sunlight, others whisper of something more complex. No one is allowed inside the Towers of Silence but those trusted with its upkeep, so there’s no way of knowing what lies beyond those raised white walls. The birds, it seems, are there just to look.

The term ‘Parsi’ is today used interchangeably with “Zoroastrian”, though it traces its roots to the Fars or Pars Province in south-west Iran but today only those who fled to the Indian subcontinent in the seventh and eight centuries are referred to as Parsis. Numbering only in the low thousands, the Parsi community is nonetheless thriving and prominent, distinctly less affected by extremist attacks than other religious minorities in Pakistan.

In Karachi, Parsi, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian are all within striking distance — er, short drives — of each other. Though its inhabitants are almost entirely Muslim, Karachi’s demography reflects the gravitation of myriad immigrant populations to this Sindhi city by the sea, now one of the world’s top five most populous. This genealogy extends back through nations and empires, including the country’s own provinces, that existed long before Pakistan — and it is by no means forgotten. In one corner of a house, the cook speaks Sindhi to the maid. Downstairs, the driver jokes with a guard in Pashto. An obstacle to Pakistani unity, then — though by no means to its heart and spirit — is perhaps that too much is remembered.

The monumental mausoleum of Abdullah Shah Ghazi looks out over Clifton beach from its hilltop on Khayaban-e-Firdousi street. Crowned by two solid green flags, the exterior is entirely navy-blue tile and patterns of thick, white zigzags. In 2010, a double suicide bombing claimed several lives. Still, all day and night, past the defunct metal detector and cursory pat-downs, crowds leave their shoes below and climb to the shrine to pray to the eighth century mystic saint, under whose aegis, many believe, tropical disasters have spared Karachi for more than a millennium. My friend, a born and raised Karachiite, seemed nervous. “Don’t tell my dad we went here.”

One Hindu mandir, hides quietly down a small street near Jail Roundabout, albeit marked with colorful paint and a white dome peeking up over the mute blue walls. The gatekeeper wrenched open the latch and followed us with watchful eyes as we shuffled in. We took off our shoes and walked past the glittery, foil swastikas on the walls into a small shrine, dim and crowded with the stems and smells of leftover offerings.

Twenty minutes away through the city’s infamous traffic are the gates to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. A catholic man with a dark, happy face guarded the entrance with a dog that looked delighted to nap with its head on its paws. The man’s name was Diego Rodriguez and he welcomed us onto the impressive grounds of the gothic church, in front of which rise the stately staircases of a white marble monument. We couldn’t go in, though — the church is closed except for Sunday mass because of two recent attacks. “It is sad,” said Diego.

Rumours were that a synagogue would be near the Bhimpura Old Town, but we never found it. Wikipedia says it may have survived until the 1980s. Diversity, too, has its bounds.

I remembered the plaque that stood at the foot of the newest Tower of Silence. Unequal in life. There is a kind of inequality stitched to the heart of this city, a hand extended to some, and withdrawn from the grasp of others. But there was more written on that marble slab, in letters accented with black ink: NO SPECIAL PLACE FOR ANYONE. NO MINE, NO THINE, NO HIS, NO HERS, ALL INSEPARABLE AND INDISTINGUISHABLE, SLEEP SIDE BY SIDE, PARTNERS AND EQUALS. Sure, these words honoured the idyll of death, but men in Karachi also stand side by side.

We walked back onto the street, a Jewish tourist and his Muslim host. We nodded to pedestrians in passing, Baloch, Sindhis, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs. At least, they might have been — I had no idea. Perhaps they didn’t either.

Originally published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2011.


Pictures from Pakistan here.

Mixed Blessings — كراتشي

The town of Karachi is made of many things. For three days, I was one of them — a rare Jew in a the world’s third largest city where almost everyone can style themselves a minority in some way. There are those that seek to destroy everything “different” from themselves — the sadly frequent bombings and killings. Except for them, everyone is awesome, every corner of the city has its own new secrets.

There are Catholic churches, Sikh shrines, Hindu temples, the memory of a synagogue, and Zoroastrian fire temples, not far from the Towers of Silence where the dead are left to decompose naturally in focused sunlight.

[Annoyingly, this story has been submitted elsewhere and cannot be published here in good conscience. Until we can give up on “conscientiousness”, I offer only a poor abridgment below. In order to read the full story with everything you ever wanted to know about Karachi but didn’t know to ask (unless you know things to ask): send an email to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM with a sentence including the words “fondue”, “Pakistan”, and “Sammy Davis, Jr.”.]


Hindu Temple

Tower of Silence

Old Tower of Silence, 1849

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Sikh Shrine, Abudullah Shah Ghazi Mazar

The Lunar Eclipse

— with USA, — rush Israel?

More pictures from pakistan here.

A Day in Lahore — يوم في لاهور

Lahore was blisteringly hot.

In a white shalwar kameez, I adopted the look of the bluer collar, while two men escorted me across the city. The driver wore traditional clothes too, but the man in the back joking loudly in Punjabi had on slacks and a neat collared shirt. He worked for the father of a friend of a friend of a friend, the president of the oldest and largest university in Pakistan. In Pakistan, with the right start, hospitality is easier found than Kevin Bacon. (Bacon, however, isn’t served anywhere.)

You can’t get far without hearing Lahore nahin dekha tou kuch nahin dekha, “If you haven’t seen Lahore, you haven’t yet seen the world.” The city is peppered with gardens and architecture left by the Mughal Empire and parallel kingdoms. The Shalimar gardens are green even in June, and families picnic and sit by the fountains. A couple of couples nap in piles. Through the Masti Gate in the north of Lahore’s Walled City, the Begum Shah Mosque is mostly hidden behind market walls and a rind of scaffolding. Like most of Lahore’s antique facade, the seventeenth century walls are baked red with delicate patterns painted in yellow and green and bright colors. The Begum Shah (which I translate poorly as “Mrs. King”) was Mariam uz-Zamani, mother of Emperor Jangehir, (“conqueror of the world”).

Shalimar Gardens

At night, this Shahi Mohalla (“Royal Neighborhood”) is better known as Heera Mandi, “the Diamond Market”. You might say it’s why Lahore is called that — it’s the city’s longtime red-light district, thinly guised with music and dance. But recent crackdowns have imposed stricter laws on the dancing, and lady’s of the night have become lady’s of the early evening. What once began only after midnight now ends at eleven p.m., and at dinner at a rooftop cafe down the street, we heard only the sounds of sitar wafting up from below. Some things had modernized in the name of convenience. “It’s all delivery now,” my host said.

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Firsthands On — مباشر من كابول

Afghanistan: Part One

The dispatcher at the taxi stand was confused; I was a paradox. “But… you’re wearing Pakistani clothes!” And yet, I had the Urdu skills of a wooden chair. At the airport, my looks earned me little but… was it discrimination? The metal detector security guard merely grunted and poked, assuming a man in my dress would be unable to understand words in any language. I thanked him in an Arabic unaccented by any South Asian phonology… American maybe… maybe French. Eyes widened.

Deep down, I think the entire week’s travels were underwritten by a mantra burning under my tongue at all times: Stereotype this, fuckers! To Pakistanis in Abu Dhabi, I was at first fellow Pashtun but soon an idiosyncratic western tourist; to Arabs I was a laborer… with an American passport; sitting in the airport terminal, I was at first look a resource to Afghans searching with questions in Pashto for their gate, but soon just Lebanese, for that was what I told them. To me, Afghanistan was half war-zone, half news imagery, half quotes and impressions, observations and assertions disconnected from their footnotes. The other half was blank. When I landed in Kabul in Afghan shalwar kamees and Pashtun sandals, I joined the files of other men in the same clothes, in similar chappal, with comparable skin tone — I wanted to be blank, too.


Sharp brown mountains and splashes of greenery flowed toward the capital as the plane landed. A small group in western clothes with boxes of gear mixed with the passengers in hats, vests, colors boisterously disembarking. Military planes roosted along the runway; a pair of helicopters kicked up dust. Commercial budget airlines are all parked mixed up together like parents’ cars out on a suburban street, waiting for kids at a bar mitzvah.

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