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(في هذه الظروف (جزء الثاني — Under These Circumstances (Part Two)

Part One
Part Two

“Let’s go, man.”

We took the long way back to the parking lot, every moment asking why? — why are we doing this? why are you doing it with me? Given each action, each movement, under what circumstances would they make sense? If you’re trying to rob me? If you’re just trying to hang out?

“I don’t normally come here,” Salim said about the downtown quarter. “But I like to walk with company, because of this one.” He patted his belly.

He walked me into a falafel shop — I’d mentioned I was hungry. I ordered one, then two, and Salim paid. Weird. Sure, they were about 50 cents each, but when did a cab driver ever take his fare to lunch? Either he felt it was only fair considering how many thousands of dollars of electronics and dirty sweatshirts he was going to steal from me, or he bizarrely wanted to make a nice gesture for a tourist in his city.

Whatever his game, I decided to fight back. We paused at a streetside tea vendor. I paid. Maybe if I was nice enough, and melted his heart with warm mint tea, he’d call off the hit.

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(في هذه الظروف (جزء الاول — Under These Circumstances (Part One)


“Seventy-five dinar,” the dispatcher said.
“No. It’s thirty to the airport, and it’s not more than twice that.”
“Okay. Forty-five.”

It all seemed a bit too easy, but for sixty dollars I had hired a driver from the Hussein Bridge Border Crossing to take me into downtown Amman, and later, to the airport —more than two hours of total driving. Plus, I’d have three hours to see the Jordanian capital before my flight back to Abu Dhabi. I put my duffel in the trunk, jammed my backpack into the back seat and slid in the front.

Salim was from Palestine and had lived almost everywhere his visa would let him. He lit a cigarette and spoke in better English than my Arabic.

“How’s Abu Dhabi?”
“Abu Dhabi’s okay,” I told him. “Hot. Jordan’s so nice in the wintertime.”
“I don’t like the cold.”

After an hour and a half and several bouts of involuntary napping, I opened my eyes at the city limits, where swaths of identical square houses cover every inch of hillside. Where Jerusalem stone is white, textured, the façade of Amman is yellow and brown, its flat boxes textured only by pressing against and climbing over one another like a cubist painting.

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Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب

Our destination was big: not here — but still we found it hard to find. It was either linguistically or culturally impossible to ask directions, so we turned like explorers of old to our (iPhone) compass and sought a course north and west out of Baku. We ended up going south in heavy traffic. So we paid five manat and followed a taxi, our Azeri Sacajawea, to lead us to the great wide west. And very suddenly, over a few hills and around a bend or two, the city was gone.

After such inauspicious beginnings, a traveler may succumb — opting for a nap instead of ten hours on the open road. But should you defy the dead end, you explode like a stallion from the starting gate of every detour. Extend your middle finger to lockers of gates. This is your lightening rod.

The M1 highway was quiet; old Russian cars straining to go highway speed, a few new models, rickety sedans filled to burst with apples. The road flattened and the scenery changed instantly. Thirty miles inland, the capital seemed a continent away, with its industry and trade and petroleum. Here, a man sold sweet, ruby red pomegranates by the roadside. A couple dollars for a kilogram.


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Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة


I woke at dawn, as one tends to do in such pressing times. One day down, a whole country left to see. With a visa costing about a buck-eighty per hour, I felt like I was back in a Parisian club with a 20 Euro cover charge, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to get my free drink.

A day earlier, we had made plans for our getaway — a hired car and driver, unquestioning and ready to make the drive way west. The negotiations went as smoothly as they could have, considering our plans (visually aided by screenshots of Google Maps) were conveyed through an Azeri-speaking Iranian to an Azeri with almost no English to our driver, an Azeri twenty-something with an endearing stutter. But with no hope of understanding, we sat back and hoped that through this series of telephone translations, something was being conveyed. It seemed to work out, and our man signed on to pick us up at 6 AM for a two-day trip costing less than a two-day car rental. And Misha, the owner of our hostel was coming, too. This was a man who had fought for the Russian’s when he was only 18, and who had fought the Armenians when he was 22 in the region now secessionist and under military control. I wouldn’t tell him I wanted to go there.

Misha explains with pen and paper.

Misha lifted his shirt — a wide scar tore from chest to navel: two bullets had ripped through his stomach and out his back. Without the words to explain, he grabbed my hand and dragged it down his thigh a few inches above the knee. A bump — shrapnel rooted like an enemy flag pole. The President had visited him personally at his house in gratitude. Or to pay him. Or to give a speech… something was lost in translation.

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Miss Dial and Mr. Right

The United Arab Emirates, I am certain, has the highest ratio of wrong numbers dialed in the entire known universe. If Yellow Book made a guide for Abu Dhabi, it would have every number on one page with the heading: JUST GUESS. At least once every day, I answer calls from India, from Senegal, and from all over the Emirates unsure if I’ve ordered something or could somehow be the least bit useful to the mumbler on the other end of the line. Because of language barriers and the fact that everyone in the UAE is actually calling all the same people, you’re never sure until you’re asked: “Sanjay?”
No. This isn’t Sanjay.

Text messages rain in from banks, clubs, stalkers, vampires (just guessing about the last two), often divulging more information than they should because you’ve got someone’s old number. Your statement is ready for the Dubai Islamic Bank account beginning 4299 and ending 8654. Even banks have trouble finding Mr. Right.

Or maybe this is actually the vanguard of sketchy advertising. Hey! That’s not me, I can see myself saying. But you guys do text message banking? I’m listening.

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival, too, tests the limits of ethical sales tactics with its website — complete with the single most aggressive shopping cart in the whole wide web.

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يوم عند السباقات — A Day at the Races


Friday was the first day of racing season. Camel racing season.


Think of all the glamour, the maquillage, the frenzied betting and crowds screaming, the graceful galloping of horse races: it’s none of that. Some thousand camels run dozens at a time in back-to-back races around a horseshoe track near five miles long. Owners shadow their entries in crammed (white) SUVs from an internal track, paved for the first time this year. While the driver speeds ahead in what looks from the inside like rush hour in the desert, the owner clicks a remote control that triggers the camel’s whip.

Oh right — they’re ridden by robots.



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