Archive for June, 2011
First they said two hours, then four days, then six weeks. It wasn’t going to be easy to get a visa to Pakistan. Reciprocity, they relayed with a shrug. It isn’t easy for us to go to your country either.
Two months later, I let myself hope there would be a visa in my name, just waiting to be glued into my passport. They said they would call. Calls to the embassy switchboard would almost never go through, certainly not long enough to survive the transfer to the “visa office”, and my one contact — the sole officer responsible for my application — had ceased answering his phone, quit, and returned to Pakistan.
The embassy is only open for business before lunch. At 9 a.m. a crowd of a couple hundred men spills out the door in lines down the steps and pools around the snacks and tea stand; others mill about idly waiting their turn to be ignored. But having other business, I pushed through the infernally dim, musky floor to the much smaller room I remembered from months ago: VISAS / ATTESTATION.
Something bad has happened or hasn’t.
This post was scheduled before I left for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I left almost completely certain I would return, but certainty killed the cat, and I’d hate to leave this blog without even the most trifling conclusion if the worst were to happen. The worst, of course, being that I am lured by an accounting job for the Taliban, for the generous vacation time and team-building retreats, and so simultaneously cast asunder my dreams, morals, and extensive porn stash (the last is negotiable). Anyway, the point is: no one likes anything left unfinished (looking at you Schubert). If I haven’t returned, there will be a large F underneath this paragraph — it stands for a few things. If I have, I will have deleted it, but I leave the remaining text here as a window into the past, my head, and other things that look better from a distance. (PS: in either case, this may come off as rather black humor. If dead, I claim that humor as home turf, right along with Jew and sleep farting jokes. Still, Mom, this probably isn’t for you.)
Last Will and Testicle:
Dearly beloveds who are gathered wherever whenever, let this bad joke be a reminder of everything I am and wasn’t. If any lawyer gets his hands on this, and if this will that I’m typing on a Sticky Note has any standing in a court of law, I expect the above title to be printed in a large, dreadfully serious Gothic font. Now let’s get to the good bits:
Electronics: anything with batteries or solar panels goes to my brother. If I have more than one (brother, not electronic things), let them duke it out. (Mom, c’mon — I know you’re still reading.)
Written things, photography, film attempts: to the Louvre and the Guggenheim, but not the Abu Dhabi branches because I stand with the protestors of labor rights. And now these hallowed grounds must sully themselves with my things because I put it in my will and it’s my will and you’ve got to do something with them so there. It’s nice to have a will. The copyrights and royalties of the above shall not be retained within these or any museums but shall be accredited to the Adam X. Valen Levinson Estate which shall be heretofore established inside Monticello. Again: it’s a will, you’ve got to do it. And the X stands for “Magic”. (Ma, quit it.)
Souvenirs, gizmos, and fun things (excluding electronics) will go to Friends. “Friends” is henceforthward defined as anyone who would like to claim the title. (Henceforthward is furthermorthword defined as a word I made up when I was about 14.) If you have a picture with me and an object, you have dibs on the object. If you have a picture with just me, you better check your purse. And if you have a picture with a bottle of alcohol, shots for everyone in the room on me. Just kidding, I’m dead — someone else get the fucking tab for a change. Jesus.
Musical instruments: bury or cremate me with them. It’ll probably sound really silly. Oh, and then take that recording and do with it whatever you’ve done with me. I’d like to hear it.
Oh, and money: Coins. All of it into coins of various currencies and thrown by the fistfull into one or many fountains on every continent. An Antartic fountain may be considered a) a hole in the ice, or b) the direct possession of a penguin or other native wildlife.
Now that these are or not my last words to the world, I’m feeling a bit sheepish. Too much heed is paid to what comes last, when generally I give my best at the very beginning and then give up. That’s right ladies. (Oy — this is really a terrible way to go out.) So here it is, my last words are below, but you must click the link. The words are not mine and I shan’t claim them, but they speak to us all and shall resonate both in the moment and forever. In large type you will see what I have to say, and what I will continue to say until the end of time. But do not live your life by it, and do not think too deeply — I hope it’s helpful — that’s it — that’s all I could ever hope to be.
A cross-country trip in the United Arab Emirates is never very difficult. From Abu Dhabi to the Saudi Arabian border, no longer than four hours; it is no longer distance from the city’s warm insulated nook in the Gulf to the other side of the Emirati promontory where waters are cleared and cooled by the Arabian sea. Roads are wide, fast, straight — I could make no more than four turns and be through the low mountains to Fujairah, supine by the sea with a snorkel and a bottle of rum. It would be so easy.
It was sometimes a struggle navigating the HMS Matsuflex through the stream of white Land Cruisers racing past. A favorite local driving technique is to charge drivers ahead flashing high beams (day or night) to make them move: Give me passage or give me death. I shant change lanes. It must seem so convenient to drivers in their hulking SUVs to have a stick to the left of the steering wheel that simply makes traffic move. If you don’t take notice quick enough, if it isn’t nighttime and you haven’t been blinded by lasers in your rearview mirror, you’re finished.
Although a ’92 Benz won’t be the fastest in any Emirati fleet, it was easy to go the 120 kph speed limit (75 mph) without trouble (conspicuous radar detectors issue instant $200 fines at 140), but that wasn’t good enough. In the right lane, trucks inched along out of everyone’s way, in the center traffic still moved too slowly, and in the left lane, we were prey to assholes. On the high seas of the Sheikh Zayed Highway, we were in constant struggle.
After only an hour, the car seemed to be wheezing. She would reach a top speed and then jerk suddenly slower, as if struggling to change gears. The radio would turn off. The ship had become a horse — in short bursts with my coaxing she stayed speedy, but only for moments. We pulled into a highway gas station and turned off the engine. The battery died.
One jumpstart later, we were soon on the Dubai-Hatta road, following signs for “Eastern Regions,” and heading deadly straight toward the Fujairah coast. The wheezing seemed to have abated, and golden sand dunes sprung up along the roadside, red-orange from beneath my sunglasses. My god, the desert is actually pretty.
And that’s when I smashed into the back of another car.
An old mercedes is to the highways of the Gulf what a rented vélo is to a Paris bike lane, or what a rocky mountain oyster is to the diet of people who like to eat gonads. Driving cars is more Emirati than air conditioning, and Mercedes, especially the old ones, are the staple of a simpler era with smaller buildings and bigger Aviators. In the Arab World, models and shapes of the cars have nicknames — C Class in the late 90s were Abu Dama’, Father Tears, for their big headlights; S Class were Abu Ayun, Father Eyes, for a similar look. The ’92 model I found on Dubizzle — the UAE’s Craigslist — and bought with two friends was called just Shabah. Ghost.
For our first date, we took her out onto the docks, the only place in the city where there are no traffic cameras and no speed limits. Past a line of cargo ships and lit by the harbor is a straightaway made for test drives with just one rule: break before you crash into the breakwater and fly out into the water towards Iran. It didn’t make it much faster than 140 kph in the half kilometer-long track, but where every previous test drive felt wrong, she felt absolutely right. The dark gray, nearly black SA 320 had boxy wide hips and drove like a boat, and so earned its first nickname: HMS Matsuflex. (The latter, of course, is a character from VH1’s “Tool Academy” known for a) being a tool, and b) black spiky hair.
The Levant: Part Eleven, the Last
The narrow streets of the old city smell like soap or raw meat or wet stone — every hundred meters shops shift in their inventory: spice markets, then tailors, then piles and piles of green and brown soaps. Shop owners dispatch their young kids to relay or fetch or give directions, but only when approached. For that composure, Aleppo is different from Fez, where display racks breathe and squeeze in from the walls, but the look is the same: always dim in the channels between old buildings, just wide enough for a pickup to honk its way past, just the same every day of the week. In these oldest of Old Cities, a dozen odd shops sell the same selection of keffiyahs — how does anyone get by?
Early morning at the Hammam Al-Nahassin, downhill from the Citadel towards (Aleppo’s) Umayyad Mosque, a few guys sit around not really waiting for customers. It was expensive by Syrian standards, but this was the place — it even had an arrow at the end of the street. Stairs lead down under an archway, revealing a vaulted wooden chamber half-underground and hidden from the world but for the one door. For $12 (or $7 at a good spot in Damascus), you can spend the day washing and lounging, commanding tea and shisha or coffee or kebabs, reclining on pillows set up in separate boxes along the wall. Another door leads from the hall to the hammam — all intricate stone and tile, infinitely steamy, letting daylight in and steam out through patterns of circular holes in domes along the ceiling. One room has metal and marble basins to fill with warm or freezing water; another blasts the hottest vapor from a pipe on the floor, mildly musky, but like armor for the lungs. In the center of the hammam on knee-high cement walls is a long tile surface that burns to touch for more than a second. My hammam mentor tapped the tile: “Lie down”.
“What’s under there?