INGULFED

(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Speaking before thinking

Welcome to the Holy Land. Here’s Your Change.

Or, The Ruins’ Point

The land marked on many maps as “Israel”, or as a series of dotted lines, or a be-yarmulka’d frowny face, is exactly what it has been for millennia: ever-changing. Every neighborhood and time-tested city is a variable function that depends on your state of mind: Feel like a local? The city is x. Feel like a tourist? The city has this to offer. Feeling especially Jewish today? Come, have a homentashen.

As the first familiar place I’ve been in seven months (save a week at grandma’s house), Israel — as it does for many — felt like an old relative. Like at grandma’s house, Israel always feeds to excess and loves to retell old stories. But insomuch as any past posts have been a travelogue, the document of this short stay in the Holy Land can’t be. I’ve changed too much throughout the course of my Isrelationship — I haven’t been just the brief courtier I was in North Oman or Eastern Azerbaijan. In rapidfire, express-tourism, vision is clear because it is so heavily filtered. Depth makes statements difficult, assumptions even harder — putting complete thoughts together after visits spanning nearly 15 years and a brief stint as a semi-professional is harder than trying to chart the evolution of your favorite color in your first seven months in utero. I can’t write advice for tourists because I’m all mixed up about what it means to be one. Less is more sometimes, and as much as this is a failure to reveal the value of touring in the first place — it’s not you Israel, it’s me.

Long story short: it hurts to think. So I’ll report the facts unmarred by that aggrandized pastime, and all that deducing and synthesizing that purport to accompany “clever” writing and “helpful” analysis — well… that’ll just be your job for the moment.

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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.

Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

(اذربيجان اربعة: الاستراحة (وشويّ جنون العظمة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

High-beams blazing, we barreled down the road to the north. With the scale on screenshots of Google Maps as our only indicator of distance, we would slow each time we felt close to a turn to ask passers by if they had any idea where we were. I’d pick a town name just past where we wanted to turn and repeat it over and over, sometimes with haradadir, “where is…?”

We passed ready to forage through the town of Göyçay, hoping to find anything to keep us alive and driving. A breakfast of half a pomegranate and a lunch of part of a roll and baklava-like pastries that taste like peanut brittle can only go so far. And almost too conveniently, we found a group of young guys who knew the only restaurant in town. As our tradition of total incomprehension required, we followed their car — “No,” I had to say, “you can’t drive ours.”

The Göyçay Cafe looked just like a motel, with a long row of identical small rooms. The dining area, it seemed, was just a small bedroom converted into eating space — our guides did the talking and arranged for a waiter (shockingly professional) to bring a spread. They weren’t hungry.

Again, paranoia kicked in like practiced defense. You don’t know martial arts, so you should probably just stay a little scared. Why would five guys drive us to a cafe just to sit? It was freezing, especially after October in the Gulf, but I kept making excuses to open the door when they closed it. And even though we had left wallets in the car, the tiny motel room still begged to play host to trouble should anyone want to cause any. I caught myself thinking, if we were really in danger, why would they have given us knives? The cutlery certainly had us on an even playing field.

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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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No Complaints — بلا شكوى

When life gives you pillows, you chaperone them.

Hi, my name is Adam, and I am a pillow chaperone.

Last week, among my many programs to coordinate sat eight large decorative pillows that needed supervised transportation from one part of campus to another. Unfortunately, I was not the supervisor. I was assistant to the supervising advisor of the facilities manager who facilitates (and manages) such transportation. And I was totally useless.

But I’m not complaining. I’m learning.

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اسبوع مرحبا — Marhaba Week

الجزء الثاني — Part Two

As the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. And busy times call for outsourcing.

In these times when the start of busyness is long before the start of business, I have found many emails in my inbox from 5 or 6 in the morning. But somewhere, it’s later than that. Something is fishy.

And remember what they said about giving a man to fish or teaching him to fish? Give a man an email to write, and he’ll save you ten minutes. Forward all your emails to India, and you’ll save yourself a whole vacation. All I’m saying is that people might be micro-outsourcing… not that there’s nothing wrong with that.

دمّ و عرق و دموع و بيتسا — Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Pizza

I had lost sweat and (metaphorical) tears to settle in Abu Dhabi. Today, I gave the blood.

Every visa-carrying visitor/resident of the UAE must get a relatively unintrusive medical check-up in order to stay in the country. A positive AIDS or TB test will send you back where you came from.

Trying not to concentrate on the needle, I stared at my Arabic entry permit and tried to think of puns using the word “Sheikh”. Sheikh down. Sheikhspeare.

Afterwards, I was called into an x-ray room to have my chest examined. She asked me to fold my collar upwards, she said to get it out of the way. I still think they take pictures at the same time — every American with a popped collar — as a bargaining chip in case of strained relations. “We have pictures of all of your citizens looking like guidos. Now let’s negotiate.”

On the digital screen above the machine I saw my name, and beneath it “W CHEST PA”. I’m sure that means something to a doctor, but to me it was eerie. My small hometown in Pennsylvania neighbored the town West Chester — W. Chest., PA. How much can they tell from my ribs? Read the rest of this entry »

(يوم التنقيل (جزء الثاني — Moving Day (Part Two)

On an Emirati airplane surrounded by Americans, I settled in to watch the over-the-top Chinese game show “Just Go” and felt comforted by one of those observations that makes you feel like the world is small and we’re all just one big people after all: it sucked just as much as our TV.

So I changed to something English because there’s nothing like dry humor to compliment a wet martini.  I think I’ve already been spoiled by Pearl Class… to the point where felt the need to spy on even posher territory.  I snuck another look behind the Diamond Curtain, pretending to fetch something from my luggage.  A suspicious stewardess came to check on me just as I had gotten up from one of the velvety leather chairs that are more like couches than seats.  Chairs are so plebeian, don’t you know?  Uh-oh.

I can’t remember ever being in an airplane bathroom before with a window.  I’m over Iran.

I’m peeing over Iran.

It’s somehow comforting to know that I got to do what George Bush was trying to do for many, many years, and no one got hurt.

In English, the PA system told everyone to turn their beds back into chairs and to turn off all electronic devices.  To my delight, the Arabic announcement had come almost 10 minutes earlier.  Even at the hands of the super international flight staff, sky law is no match for Arab Time.

And then, by the light of a red sunset above the clouds, I caught my first glimpse of the Gulf.  And we descended and the triangle of Abu Dhabi stuck out into the water like a slice of baklava.  And dark came all of a sudden, eased by the moon not two hours from full, and the plane landed by the lights of the city.

And I was like, whoa, man.

I was met at the gate with my visa, taken to have my eyes scanned (for security reasons maybe, but probably as a way of saying “hey world, check out the gadgets Abu Dhabi has”), and then pulled through customs faster than you can say “thatstwiceasmuchastheamountof
alcoholyoucanlegallybringintothecountry” to find a gang of porters waiting to collect and push my bags on a cart.  And so classism presents itself in the ultramodern{1}, post-cosmopolitan world{2}.  Some push, others pull, and those lucky enough just sit.

Before I was taken to the car, I stood on the threshhold of the airconditioned airport and the merciless desert.  Al-Rahman Al-Rahiim.  Not so bad, I thought.
And then I took another step.
My mind couldn’t really take in what the rest of me said it was feeling.  My eyes said it was dark out and ergo it was cooler than the last day I had been in.  My skin said no, no no, I feel hotter than a camel’s… temper.  And my legs said run.

I checked in to my apartment, fully furnished and with too many electronics to plug into the staggering dearth of outlets.  Classic case of eyes-bigger-than-stomachs.  Like Dubai, maybe, but not Abu Dhabi.  No no, Abu Dhabi won’t be like that.

And then I plugged something in.  And fire shot from the walls.  And the lights went out.

But in the time it took to get a mechanic not quite fluent in Abu Dhabi’s unique language known as “Globalish” (think English without the hard words), I wandered the streets of my immediate neighborhood.  As the old joke goes, a man is promised the amount of land he can walk in one day.  If that was an Emirati joke, the man would have gained about half a block.

The midnight humidity was so strong camera lenses fogged within seconds.  You can feel it, but you can’t capture it.

And soon enough two men came to fix the electricity and turned the lights back on.  So I turned them off.

{1}{2} These words not used according to any real definition. They may be made up.

Hi — اهلا وسهلا ومرحبا بكم

So do it already. That’s what I’m telling myself, in the voice of someone’s old Jewish grandfather (not mine, because he didn’t have the accent). It’s always hard in the beginning.

And as I refrain from typing “that’s what she said” in huge bold letters, I acknowledge a set of different norms — norms that find allusions to the crude or sexual disrespectful, and false rudeness as improper as deliberate effrontery. Of course, I generalize. I assume. And though we all know what you do when you assume, I feel I should still write down my expectations of a culture that I can probably say — safely and without offending anyone — is somehow at least a little bit different. Tell me if this offends you.

In a region where borders are still drawn in dashes, it is hard to know where to draw the line.

So if I don’t remember my mindset now, on the day before my departure for Abu Dhabi, How will I ever say “wow, that is totally not what I expected,”? I wonder now, if the style is to cover your head, how important is a haircut? This website will fail to answer this and other, greater questions during my next year or more in the Gulf. (The Gulf that is meant to have oil flowing through it.)

To leave America behind and Americans in their natural habitat is to leave behind many things: we leave behind our home and our rules, we abandon words like “effrontery,” and we let go of the certainty that comes with going to the same CVS for 21 years. But heading for the United Arab Emirates, we make a journey much different from that of an explorer heading for the Arctic, or a student let loose in rural China, or a doctor responding to a crisis abroad.

We leave instead for a place where 80% of everyone comes from somewhere other than where they are — a journey that, I find, is like going to grandma’s house. At grandma’s house, things are much like they are in your own home, but with little differences. Most of you still have the same sense of humor, but you make different jokes. Respect for the new place and the person that has been there longest supplants the feeling that everything is the same and that nothing has changed. Most of the food is similar but there are a few jars of things you’re not sure you want to try in the refrigerator door. The United Arab Emirates banned Skype, and Grandma just says she doesn’t like it when we use it. And when my parents, brother and I arrive at the door of my grandmother’s apartment in Southern California, 80% of us, too, are foreign.

This is what I expect to feel when engulfed in the Arabian Peninsula. This website chooses the archaic spelling “ingulfed,” to invoke the connection between past and present, the evolution of culture through language, and the never-ending struggle for continuity in a ever-changing environment. And “engulfed.com” was way, way too expensive.

Next post from the Middle East,

!مرحبا
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