(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Melting Pot

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.

القوة الناعمة — Soft Power

Sands shift, borders are redrawn, battles fought. But in one theater, there are no winners — only cooperation or sandy balls. The famed beach paddle sport Matkot is one of refined skill and simple, simple rules: hit. For decades, almost always in pairs parallel to the shoreline, Tel Avivians (and other Israeli-inspired Mediterranean beachgoers) have smacked a squash rubber ball. There is no net, there is no score — there is but the betterment of mutual skill, the sound of the waves, and a never-ending supply of onlookers to make fun of the rookies.

With this inspiration, I announce the first ever Co-Sponsored Initiative for World Peace and Other Endeavors: the First Annual Global International World Matkot Invitational Championship. Now, I’m not positive what year the First Annual will be, but I have every reason to believe that a strong Matkot [MAHT-coat] culture cultivated and encouraged around the Middle East will provide the necessary grassroots support for the resolution of many (if not all) of the regions problems, whatever they may be. I’ve already forgotten, just thinking about Matkot — see?

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البحر الميت — The Dead Sea

In Hebrew, signs point to the Salt Sea. But below those letters reads the English no euphemism could touch. The Black Sea ain’t black. The Red sea ain’t red. But the Dead Sea, oh yeah — that pond is fuckin’ deceased.

In fact, the six-foot-under Sea is sinking even deeper. Less than 1,300 feet below sea level in 1970, the dead seashore now sits 1,385 feet below, and continues to recede three feet further every year. But despite the fact that decades ago the sea split into a separate North body and South body, there is one clear winner — your body.

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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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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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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.

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