INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for Expatriates

Firsthands On — مباشر من كابول

Afghanistan: Part One

The dispatcher at the taxi stand was confused; I was a paradox. “But… you’re wearing Pakistani clothes!” And yet, I had the Urdu skills of a wooden chair. At the airport, my looks earned me little but… was it discrimination? The metal detector security guard merely grunted and poked, assuming a man in my dress would be unable to understand words in any language. I thanked him in an Arabic unaccented by any South Asian phonology… American maybe… maybe French. Eyes widened.

Deep down, I think the entire week’s travels were underwritten by a mantra burning under my tongue at all times: Stereotype this, fuckers! To Pakistanis in Abu Dhabi, I was at first fellow Pashtun but soon an idiosyncratic western tourist; to Arabs I was a laborer… with an American passport; sitting in the airport terminal, I was at first look a resource to Afghans searching with questions in Pashto for their gate, but soon just Lebanese, for that was what I told them. To me, Afghanistan was half war-zone, half news imagery, half quotes and impressions, observations and assertions disconnected from their footnotes. The other half was blank. When I landed in Kabul in Afghan shalwar kamees and Pashtun sandals, I joined the files of other men in the same clothes, in similar chappal, with comparable skin tone — I wanted to be blank, too.


Sharp brown mountains and splashes of greenery flowed toward the capital as the plane landed. A small group in western clothes with boxes of gear mixed with the passengers in hats, vests, colors boisterously disembarking. Military planes roosted along the runway; a pair of helicopters kicked up dust. Commercial budget airlines are all parked mixed up together like parents’ cars out on a suburban street, waiting for kids at a bar mitzvah.

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Po(m)p and Circumstance(s)

This week I practiced for the first time with the Abu Dhabi Philharmonic Orchestra, a volunteer group of all expats ranging from 14 years-old (I asked) to about 70 (didn’t go there). Rehearsals take place in the Armed Forces Officers’ Club — a multipurpose army hang out, hotel, gym, theater space, concert hall, and gun museum — in a venue clearly not designed with music in mind.

For the first ten minutes (of a Howard Shore Lord of the Rings medley), the stage lights wouldn’t come on, and we played through squinted eyes and predictable melodies. Finally bright lights shone from somewhere sort of over us, illuminating the ancient music stands only a military establishment could have owned — the tripod base tightened with a screw and looked more like it was made to hold a 500-pound bazooka than 10 grams of sheet music, and the matching stand head had to be fitted from a crate of mismatched parts like the barrel of a rifle to its companion grip.

As some sort of event had just finished in the hall, cleaning men scurried to remove all evidence of celebration — a thick coating of confetti, boxes of cake, dozens of balloons forty feet up on the ceiling. The fact that the music that was being played involved real people that were really there had no bearing on the chatty vacuumers and shouting managers. I tried to think of it all as part of a new surreal musical culture — one that defied the challenges of an uncooperative environment and persevered. Like, say, the English in the subcontinent.
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محمد و محمد و احمد Mohammed, Mohammed, And Ahmed — “او “لن تجتاج الى هذه هنا Or, “You Won’t Need These In Here”

Sunday morning and the start of a new work week found me taking old business cards, restaurant coupons, and pharmacy memberships out of my wallet like someone checking into prison. You won’t need these in here.

I put them in a desk drawer only to be reopened upon my departure, my return to a world where “Duane Reede” and “Amtrak” actually mean something, where “Queens” is just a word for a place, and where plurals are made just by adding an “s”.

And in this new world of office hustle and bustle, I can’t help but notice that adding an “s” to deadlines makes deadliness. Having too much to do is deadly — it says so right in the English language.

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