(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Melting Pot

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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لعينيّ فقط — For My Eyes Only

The Levant: Part Two

Old and new and old and ruined and new and destroyed and old and refurbished and new and under construction. Beirut’s one face is like a cubist painting, recognizable patterns (outdoor cafes, the waterfront boulevard, shelled and charred hotels) elicit memories of separate cities (Paris, Orange County, Kabul.)

Down the street from the new souks (Dolce & Gabana, Massimo Dutti, Quiksilver) that lead onto Ajami Square is one of the city’s many old churches, one that won’t attract tourists despite its age and simple beauty as much as it does a very few of the midday pious. An outlet was embedded in the stone wall, put there, I assume by Crusaders hoping to charge their Palm Sunday Pilots. (That joke was a stretch and I apologize.)

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Feeling Istanbullish

(اسطنبولية (لعبة الكالمات بلغة الانجليزية

Vast swaths of light race towards the city as the plane descends, over something that looks more like a game of Tron than a human settlement. At night, it appears as the sprawling metropoleis of an alien planet. This is the way to Istanbul.

Really, though, underneath the streetlights and after the sunrise, Istanbul is anything but alien: it is a layering of so many things human, bolstered by a settled history a dozen times longer than that of Sharjah — the Emirate I’d flown out of, conservative, but stamped with its own space-age mosque-like Airport.

I found my own history there as well, in friends that have known me for longer than the seven months I’ve been in the Emirates. Not to say that new friends aren’t important — they are. Oh, how much they are. (Not least of all because a desert offers little but the companionship of other desert-dwellers.) But old friends have a history that fuels itself, that needs no input to give back, that runs as a hybrid of trust and shared stories. And as someone who forgets his own stories (hint: why blog?), it often takes other people to remind me who I is. I just counted — I’ve been here eight months.

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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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Nazi Barista

Leaving Jordan, I ordered a Turkish coffee from the comfortable looking counter-and-chairs cafe at the entrance of Queen Alia Airport. As he stirred, the barista launched into a long account of his extra-curricular activities: listening to music, reliving the glory of the Third Reich, and playing in a cover band in his friend Rashid’s garage.

He loved languages, too. French, he spoke as a resident of the outer reaches of a Francophone mandate. English, he’d taught himself in just three years from books and television. Italian, he wanted to learn because it is as beautiful as the women who speak it. And German.

“Why German?” he bid I ask him.
I hazarded: “Tons of German tourists. And you’ll learn easy — it’s like English.” Wrong.
“I love Hitler!”

This is when I started recording, furtively, on my phone. Listen below, and/or follow along with our fragmented negotiations about the actuality of certain facts, and my sad, scant accounts of ancient history.

NB: … I think myself he is true.
A: He’s true?
NB: Yeah.
A: How do you mean ‘he’s true’?
NB: ‘Heil Hitler’. [laughs]
A: What do you mean? Well yeah, but there are a lot of people that do terrible things but that doesn’t make them… good guys
NB: Ah okay. Like you… — I love a strong man, okay.
A: Sure.
NB: Yeah. It’s a strong man, this will be a good man for the future. Because… I have a lot of things for the Hitler, okay. I read it, what Hitler [—] listen all the [—], get [—] for him. I love that.
A: But there are lots of strong men —
NB: — yeah it’s a strong man
A: — that are not mass murders.
NB: But I love him! Everybody here ‘why you love Hitler?’ I love Hitler! [laughs]
A: But he — but he was killing people, you know.
NB: — okay, okay…
A: — like children, and people that did nothing.
NB: Not children.
A: Tons of children. [pause] Oh, tons of children.
NB: No.
A: Babies, children, everyone.
NB: No.
A: You know in Germany they had these camps, they just took entire families sent them [—]. The only people that lived were the guys that could work and most of them died anyway.
NB: Yeah.
A: But men were kept alive to like, you know —
NB: Okay
A: — work, but babies, children, women, oh my god —
NB: Okay I know.
A: That can’t be good.
NB: I know. That’s, that’s point is — not good for him.
A: That’s one thing against him, yeah.
NB: That’s one — Just one, that’s one —
A: Well…
NB: That’s a point that’s not good for him. It’s a [—] not good for, the world is hate him because that’s point.
A: Well, it’s —
NB: Yeah.
A: It’s — it’s a big one.
NB: Yeah.
A: There aren’t many bigger points to make about a person —
NB: [laughing] yeah —
A: — than that they kill women and children
NB: Yeah, but he’s when — have like a king is very — very cool [—]
A: Right.
NB: And like a king is very good. Cause he’s strong man. I love him!
A: But the you know like Alexander the Great, you know, big guy — he did some debatable things —
NB: Yeah
A: — you know — there’s, there could be some problems, but still really strong and did some also amazing things.
NB: Don’t kill anybody, don’t kill anything.
A: Yeah he did kill people — so that’s not great. But he also expanded culture and you know, made the world a, a you know —
NB: Like a mixing for…
A: Mixing was good, yeah.
NB: Yeah.
A: Hitler wasn’t so much about the mixing or the sharing, it was kinda like —
NB: [laughs]
A: — let’s get — like, he wouldn’t — you might’ve like — he wouldn’t’ve liked you though.
NB: Yeah.
A: He wouldn’t’ve — I don’t think he would’ve been friends.
NB: It’s hot or cold?
A: It’s hot, it’s great coffee.
NB: Yeah?
A: Yeah, it’s really good.

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