INGULFED

In Shanghai

إيجاد الطرق — Finding Ways

To the sound of the afternoon call to prayer, we set off in our Nissan toward Oman… east. Yeah, let’s go east.

Our car of three sped away from the eyes of city-center radars, toward Al Ain where we aimed to cross the border. Once there, I found myself having trouble finding the biggest thing I’d ever looked for — a whole country. We knew it was there — three million people were right there hanging out — but according to the map, it seemed to have been out for the afternoon.

My friend asked a shopowner in Arabic where we could find Oman, and I listened as he gave us directions that were clear, but seemed to contradict the existence a dead-end I’d seen. So I tried to clarify. And in that moment, he said something that had been said to me so many times before gently and in surprise, this time curt and with disdain: “Do you speak Arabic?”

I had never had a relationship that was purely based on Arabic — even Arabs I’ve met and known only through Arabic have understood that it was a foreign language for me, taking my words at more (or less) than face value, and giving me more credit than I pronounced. But here I was assumed to be an Arabophone. The jab echoed the sarcastic taunts of “You speak English?” heard a million times on the streets of New York, always with the assumption that the insulted does speak English, fluently in fact, but misheard. In his assumptions, this salesman was — in a way so rare and re-encouraging — a total douchebag.


We were lost within seconds, but found an alternative route to the border: a sand-blown carriageway known only as “Truck Road”. For good reason — as darkness fell, we hurried towards Oman both with and against the traffic of enormous semis carrying livestock and godknowswhat, slowing only for camel crossings as farmers returned from the plains.

Man on Truck Road.
And then we were there, waiting outside the UAE exit controls for the green light to drive our (insured) rental car into the Omani mountains. And they said no.

We lacked a signed sheet from the rental company signed in support of our trip. Like a schoolkid who couldn’t ride the roller coaster because his parents didn’t see the permission slip, we were told to turn around.

Oh no.

With one bar of UAE cell service left, we got the Airport Thrifty on the line, sending faxes as we ate questionably named Philippine snacks and blasted Ke$ha for all the traveling truckers.

Boy Bawang

Don't question the packaging. Question what's inside.

But none of them came through. We waited in one of the crossing’s trillion identically nondescript offices, manned by an administrator and an officer in a white shirt puffing lazily on a cigarette.

“Is he Indian?” The administrator asked about our Thrifty contact.
“Yes.”
“That’s the problem.”

We laughed racistly to belong. As the adage has it, When the Syrian guards the Emirati border while the Egyptian watches, the nice Jewish boy doesn’t pick fights.

So we called for an email. And our officemates couldn’t access their own accounts. But after another phone call, there I was, sitting in the office at the border crossing, checking my own messages. And voilà. Print.

“But this is just insurance.” The white-shirted official took a look.
“Yes?”
A pause. “Okay. We’ll wave you through.”

And as my brain did dizzy summersaults and tied itself in knots, I mouthed to my friend: It’s the same form.

A list of insurance options, with just one ticked off, bedazzled with Thrifty letterhead — it couldn’t be enough. It wasn’t possible.

No. It wasn’t.

We waited and waited to be waved on to the next checkpoint, but no one ever came. And when I went looking for our mercifully impatient officer, he had gone, lost in a sea of uniforms. That’s when I met the supervisor, who told me to go back to Abu Dhabi — he needed a hard copy. Our time on the road kept slipping away, but I kept trying to think: in a place where the systems don’t make sense, the solutions don’t have to make sense either.

I wandered into other offices, speaking Arabic but looking as American and haggard as a SkyMall catalog. Enough foreplay — I signed on to sleeping computers with abandon, foraging for the helpful letters Thrifty assured me they’d sent… twice. Everything was busted.

But then I met an Omani (blue shirt), delighted to speak in not-English and driven in our hunt for working internet and printers. And when we got to my email, the attachment they’d promised had been there all along, scanned through for a second time. Two separate emails misplaced in the ether, two of my own email addresses slow on the draw, and more than two hours later, I marched toward Oman, jaw clenched and ready for anything.

Permission Slip

The Permission Slip.

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2 Comments»

  Donna (Your mom’s friend) wrote @

I felt your frustration as I read your very interesting foray into Middle Eastern bureaucracy. Now I’m eager (and a bit anxious) to read about your adventure in Oman.

  Mary M wrote @

Hey Adam,
I just had lunch with your Mom and am so happy to know about your blog. It’s wonderful. What an adventure. I’ll be following.


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