Archive for April, 2011
Or, Vending for Yourself
Thalia read my fortune on the inside of my coffee cup. It was unpredictable — large, empty white spaces told her that I had a standing date with the unknown, and crinkly dregs pointed to my need for motion. One thing was sure: facing the figure of a man with big, “heavy” feet and arms lifted and waving were the undeniable letters “A–D” — the first two letters of my name, the initials of the city I live in, and a close misspelling of my favorite kind of arithmetic. Whatever the message was, I think it was for me.
Deep in the underground cistern sixty meters away from the entrance to the Hagia Sofia (street signs are very accurate) big fish swim around in fresh water and their own shadows, just as they have been doing for the past 1500 years. Wet walkways under the round, vaulted arches lead to two columns whose bases are carved Medusas, one upside down, one sideways.
Every year (or decade, as necessary), Lonely Planet and Explorer choose with alacrity the face of many nations, one that is both representative and alluring: Pakistan boasts majestic, snow-topped mountains; Saudi Arabia fronts the angular domes of Medina’s Qoba Mosque as its guide’s cover photo. Kuwait’s good side, in the eyes of both publishers, is the two giant balls of the 32 year-old Kuwait Towers. Both balls are filled with water; the tallest, which reaches 187 meters at the top, also has a restaurant. That’s where we ate our first night, savoring the most authentic and traditional Gulfi fare: the intercontinental buffet.
Most of Kuwait is behind a curtain, only to be lifted on appointment. What Lonely Planet’s latest Kuwait guide (from eleven years ago) leaves out is the necessity of friends of friends to arrange tours and visits when and where you’d like them. One such friend-in-law told me repeatedly, “Four days, it’s not enough!” — and with him in charge, local and well-connected, he was right. In Abu Dhabi, colleagues had a different tone: “Four days in Kuwait? Christ.” They were right, too.
(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.
He handed me the card below:
“GRAND MOSQUE: western perception of islam dept.” Wow. I don’t think anyone has ever cared so much about what I think. He was our tour guide, Khalil, a short man with a long beard who spoke bits and larger bits of a million languages and answered his phone with, “I hope it’s not my wife!” He knew just how to make us laugh.
Gulf countries are, for the most part, young and successful parvenus that don’t seem to need your help or give half a damn whatchu think, but it isn’t so. In Kuwait especially, where George Bush the First finds his framed place among family photos, allies are more precious than gold, and blood runs thicker than oil.
Yet, to borrow the title question from one chapter of Werner’s Fassbinder’s 16-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, “How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?” How can a country thrive it is afraid to be vulnerable? Good question. The answer, as always it appears, is spin. Perceptions are monitored and framed in a manner made possible by Kuwait’s particular circumstances: small population, strong governmental oversight, little economic disparity amongst citizens, high percentage of unassimilated residents, money. If this is starting to sound like a political science paper, it’s not. Look at this silly picture:
A man and his son.
Kuwait City, Kuwait
On our first day in Kuwait, the full moon was closer to the Earth than it had been in 18 years — only 221,566 miles! It really did look bigger: learn about the science.
With thousands of dollars wrapped up in a paper envelope and tucked away in my backpack, I packed onto a bus for the Dubai Airport — Terminal 2, where budget flights leave daily for all the places they don’t let most of us go anymore. Kuwait isn’t one of those places. In my role as “trip leader” (I couldn’t help but think of the line in Star Wars where one of Luke’s friends radios “Roger, red leader,” before exploding into a billion pieces), my job was to keep things safe.
We launched out of Dubai and very simply left The World behind. In less time than it took to drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, we were descending over a stretch of oil-soaked desert so barren it looked like a sandbox that had engulfed some of those old spiny antennae TVs used to have.