INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for October, 2011

Off the Cuff

There is something distinctly comforting about the lack of possibility. To be entirely unable to do something, to be barred from success by the laws of physics or nature or immigration — this is a kind of freedom that relieves us of the stress of trying.

If, say, I had to be on Mars by 2 p.m. today to polish the wheels of the Rover, I just couldn’t do it. Relax. It’s impossible. But even the faintest whiff of the minutest possibility that something cool is out there or somewhere cool is visitable and that the time and the tides are right — this is the pea under my mattress. And this princess has a lot to do in the morning.

Recently, the Vice-Consul of the Embassy of the largest democracy in the world, which will remain nameless (rhymes with Joo-dan), rejected my application (delivered by a Sudanese friend — Americans cannot apply directly from Abu Dhabi) because my last name revealed a deal-breaker: that I was Jewish. In Saudi Arabia, a country I want to visit out of the kind of curiosity that sends a couple of young kids to drop by Boo Radley’s house, I have also been stymied. No tourist visas, and no 2-day transit visas for men traveling alone (without a wife or family).

Their proximity, and the fact that I once thought I could go to these places, has made me unable to give up. There must be some way. Once the possibility switch is flipped, it may be impossible to flip back. Or maybe there is some way to let go — to realize that some things just cannot happen, or aren’t worth forcing, or, or, or…

When I run out of time, I can decide whether to regret defeat or to be satisfied by the attempt.

For now, I guess I’ll keep trying.

Cool off the Press: Breakfast with the Taliban

For the original, from the Daily Outlook Afghanistan in Kabul: click here.

One Saturday in June, traffic was light on the road from Kabul to the town of Bamyan, nestled deep in a high valley lined with sandstone cliffs 240 kilometers to the northwest. But for all the paving efforts that have made it among the smoothest in the country, this route from the Afghan capital through the 10,000-foot-high Shibar pass is less than perfect. One week earlier, head of Bamiyan’s provincial council Jawad Zahak had been targeted and dragged from his convoy by the Taliban. Four days ago, they told me in the car, he was beheaded. Hussein pointed: “Right… wait — there.”

I had found a tour company online and guessed an email address from a mush of pixels. Success came in the confirmation of a car that would deliver me from outside the dead-bolted orange gates of my hotel in Kabul to their lodge in Bamiyan. At six a.m., I was late. The hubcap-less white sedan drew a stark contrast to the polished and armored SUVs that take westerners to get mango milkshakes. And there were four men inside. Open the mind’s floodgates: this seems infinitely more kidnappy.
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Once and Future Happiness: This Decade on Saadiyat

It is essential that we have hope. For human beings to push forward we must have some confidence in the brighterhood of tomorrow — happiness is our fuel and our pot of gold. Saadiyat Island, the UAE’s Orwellianly marketed “Happiness Island” will host New York University beginning in 2014, and will has already begun selling villas to early birds with big nest eggs. The major museums are on the slate for five years Gulf time, or approximately 7-? years.

Here’s a blurry look at some major projects and where they stand.

Major Projects — اهم المشاريع

The Guggenheim

Future: Guggenheim

Now: Guggenheim

The Louvre

Future: Louvre

Now: The Louvre

Now: The Louvre

Saadiyat Beach Villas

Future: Saadiyat Beach Villas

Now: Saadiyat Beach Villas

Monte Carlo Beach Club

Future: Monte Carlo Beach Club

Now: Monte Carlo Beach Club

Park Hyatt Hotel and Villas

Future: Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas

Now: Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas

Shangri-La Hotel

Future: Shangri-La Hotel, Saadiyat

Now: Shangri-La Hotel, Saadiyat

Now: Shangri-La Hotel, Saadiyat

New York University Abu Dhabi

Future: New York University Abu Dhabi

NYUAD in 2014?

Now: New York University Abu Dhabi

Now: New York University Abu Dhabi

St. Regis Resort

Future: St. Regis Saadiyat Resort

Now: St. Regis Saadiyat Resort

Zayed National Museum

Future: Zayed National Museum

Now: Zayed National Museum

State of the Etihad — حالة الاتحاد

Housing for construction laborers.

Now: Khalifa Highway

Now: Saadiyat Marina

Saadiyat from Space

Now: Saadiyat Beach

Saadiyat Beach Golf Club

Saadiyat Beach Golf Club

Now: Manarat al-Saadiyat convention center

The Vision — الرؤية

(Buzzwords in the UAE: “vision” and “outlook” and “innovation” and “tomorrow”.)

Future: Cultural District (Inshallah)

Cool off the Press: Mixed Blessings — سلم مشكلة

For the original, from the Sunday Magazine of The Express Tribune in Karachi, Pakistan: click here.


I wanted to peek through the locked gates, to look into the sanctuary and enter the house of the dead. I read the engraving by the walkway — UNEQUAL IN LIFE, ALL LIE EQUAL IN DEATH — while birds flitted about the cornice. I wasn’t sure if I smelled something, faint, pungent, unrecognisable. But it was time to go. Sacred Zoroastrian Towers of Silence were not built to be ogled.

There are two such structures in central Karachi, dating back to over a hundred years ago. The small Tower known as the “Ghadialy Dokhma,” along a ridge studded with green trees, was consecrated in 1847 and the bigger Tower, known as the “Anjuman Dokhma” was consecrated in 1875. The Tower of Silence or dokhma is a perfectly white cylinder with a flat top but for a rounded lip that juts up above the entrance. Inside, bodies are laid out under the open roof to decompose by the powers of nature.

Bones fall through a grate into a well below. “People don’t like to build houses here.” A Parsi friend indicated the barren plot below the ridge. “The smell.”

Until 1999, there were vultures on the Indian subcontinent. But in the next ten years, as a result of feeding on cattle treated with a particular chemical called diclofenac, they were nearly completely annihilated. In India, some form of solar contraption is now used to “evaporate the body,” as our guide said — some reports say they are mirrors that focus the sunlight, others whisper of something more complex. No one is allowed inside the Towers of Silence but those trusted with its upkeep, so there’s no way of knowing what lies beyond those raised white walls. The birds, it seems, are there just to look.

The term ‘Parsi’ is today used interchangeably with “Zoroastrian”, though it traces its roots to the Fars or Pars Province in south-west Iran but today only those who fled to the Indian subcontinent in the seventh and eight centuries are referred to as Parsis. Numbering only in the low thousands, the Parsi community is nonetheless thriving and prominent, distinctly less affected by extremist attacks than other religious minorities in Pakistan.

In Karachi, Parsi, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian are all within striking distance — er, short drives — of each other. Though its inhabitants are almost entirely Muslim, Karachi’s demography reflects the gravitation of myriad immigrant populations to this Sindhi city by the sea, now one of the world’s top five most populous. This genealogy extends back through nations and empires, including the country’s own provinces, that existed long before Pakistan — and it is by no means forgotten. In one corner of a house, the cook speaks Sindhi to the maid. Downstairs, the driver jokes with a guard in Pashto. An obstacle to Pakistani unity, then — though by no means to its heart and spirit — is perhaps that too much is remembered.

The monumental mausoleum of Abdullah Shah Ghazi looks out over Clifton beach from its hilltop on Khayaban-e-Firdousi street. Crowned by two solid green flags, the exterior is entirely navy-blue tile and patterns of thick, white zigzags. In 2010, a double suicide bombing claimed several lives. Still, all day and night, past the defunct metal detector and cursory pat-downs, crowds leave their shoes below and climb to the shrine to pray to the eighth century mystic saint, under whose aegis, many believe, tropical disasters have spared Karachi for more than a millennium. My friend, a born and raised Karachiite, seemed nervous. “Don’t tell my dad we went here.”

One Hindu mandir, hides quietly down a small street near Jail Roundabout, albeit marked with colorful paint and a white dome peeking up over the mute blue walls. The gatekeeper wrenched open the latch and followed us with watchful eyes as we shuffled in. We took off our shoes and walked past the glittery, foil swastikas on the walls into a small shrine, dim and crowded with the stems and smells of leftover offerings.

Twenty minutes away through the city’s infamous traffic are the gates to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. A catholic man with a dark, happy face guarded the entrance with a dog that looked delighted to nap with its head on its paws. The man’s name was Diego Rodriguez and he welcomed us onto the impressive grounds of the gothic church, in front of which rise the stately staircases of a white marble monument. We couldn’t go in, though — the church is closed except for Sunday mass because of two recent attacks. “It is sad,” said Diego.

Rumours were that a synagogue would be near the Bhimpura Old Town, but we never found it. Wikipedia says it may have survived until the 1980s. Diversity, too, has its bounds.

I remembered the plaque that stood at the foot of the newest Tower of Silence. Unequal in life. There is a kind of inequality stitched to the heart of this city, a hand extended to some, and withdrawn from the grasp of others. But there was more written on that marble slab, in letters accented with black ink: NO SPECIAL PLACE FOR ANYONE. NO MINE, NO THINE, NO HIS, NO HERS, ALL INSEPARABLE AND INDISTINGUISHABLE, SLEEP SIDE BY SIDE, PARTNERS AND EQUALS. Sure, these words honoured the idyll of death, but men in Karachi also stand side by side.

We walked back onto the street, a Jewish tourist and his Muslim host. We nodded to pedestrians in passing, Baloch, Sindhis, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs. At least, they might have been — I had no idea. Perhaps they didn’t either.

Originally published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2011.


Pictures from Pakistan here.

Falcon Guantanamo — غوانتانامو للصقور

(It’s actually a hospital.)
Scroll down for pictures.

At the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the national bird of the UAE is given the royal treatment — as in, a treatment similar to monarchs in other countries: forced mani/pedicures under anesthesia, beak sharpening, and surgical repairs to their plumage.

The birds vary in value from 20,000 to 200,000 dirham, or about 5,000 dollars way on up above 50,000. White birds are prized, and falconers have a choice between species. According to falconpedia.com:

[In the] UAE three major species are used for falconry. They are Peregrine, Saker and Gyr. Peregrine is widely spread all over the world except Antarctica. Saker flies fast and hunts at low level. Gyr is powerful and prefers to catch larger preys.

Trends in breeding favor a cross between the Peregrine falcon and the Gyr: these alpha-birds have both speed and appetite, and have been known, at the top of their game, to take down gazelles.

Watching a bird go under anesthesia is like watching your mother-in-law get drunk very fast. SQUAWK! Squawk! Squawk. Squaaawk. As the knock-out helmet is put over them, they resist briefly, but wake up to find their nails trimmed and polished.

Sheikh Zayed: The Falconer

His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates.

ايد بن سلطان آل نهيان‎ز‎ سمو الشيخ
مؤسس دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة

And his falcons.

و صقوره

Pictures photographed are the property of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.

Shadows : فضاء التصوير

Shadows on Sadiyaat.
Sadiyaat Island, Abu Dhabi.

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