INGULFED

(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for Rules

(Non)essential — غير) الاساسي)

The day after the United States began to evacuate “non-essential” staff from its Embassy in Damascus, I too bought a ticket out of Syria. Except to use that ticket I’d first have to fly in the other direction — I wasn’t even there yet.

I spoke to my parents from the 3:00 am bus leaving Abu Dhabi for an airport three hours away in the north of the UAE. “Do you hear the birds?” they asked. It was May in the suburbs. “Do you hear the air conditioning?” I asked back. While the next week never ceased to the vacation I needed it to be, it felt at first and at moments like a sprint towards a fire. I flew to the Levant to thaw from the sterility of the Emirates. Sure, fire can burn, but it warms until the bite.

So there I was, heading to the places my mother had never wanted me to go, at the times when the world said it was worst to go to them. And it was two days before Mothers’ Day.

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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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