INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for Norms

Bronzage — برونزاج

It is now the final day of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day celebration commemorating the end of thirty days of f(e)asting and its resulting indigestion. The conclusion of the month of Ramadan is a time for family gatherings, hardcore chilling (not a litteral Qur’anic translation), and reflection.

To recap these wet hot Arabian nights, I will say that the choices of things to do are somewhat limited, but always deeply connected to the spirit of the city. A few days ago, the Kuwaiti national soccer team challenged the UAE home team in Al Nahyan Stadium, a 12,000 seat park practically connected to Al-Wahda Mall (malls are a really big deal).

Even for the national team and free tickets, and perhaps because of the I’ll-just-sit ethic of the month, not many more than a thousand spectators turned out. Here, the club teams are still the bigger attraction, a not so subtle reminder that only four decades ago the arab emirates were not united and that local rivalries between neighboring towns or tribes or cities still remain a fundamental part of the culture.

The crowd.

The crowd.

This is not to say these rivalries extend beyond the football pitch — there I have no idea. The fact that Bears fans (allegedly) throw cheese at Packers fans doesn’t (necessarily) have any bearing (pun intended) on the relation between Illinoisans and Minnesotans. But it might.
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(يوم التنقيل (جزء الثاني — Moving Day (Part Two)

On an Emirati airplane surrounded by Americans, I settled in to watch the over-the-top Chinese game show “Just Go” and felt comforted by one of those observations that makes you feel like the world is small and we’re all just one big people after all: it sucked just as much as our TV.

So I changed to something English because there’s nothing like dry humor to compliment a wet martini.  I think I’ve already been spoiled by Pearl Class… to the point where felt the need to spy on even posher territory.  I snuck another look behind the Diamond Curtain, pretending to fetch something from my luggage.  A suspicious stewardess came to check on me just as I had gotten up from one of the velvety leather chairs that are more like couches than seats.  Chairs are so plebeian, don’t you know?  Uh-oh.

I can’t remember ever being in an airplane bathroom before with a window.  I’m over Iran.

I’m peeing over Iran.

It’s somehow comforting to know that I got to do what George Bush was trying to do for many, many years, and no one got hurt.

In English, the PA system told everyone to turn their beds back into chairs and to turn off all electronic devices.  To my delight, the Arabic announcement had come almost 10 minutes earlier.  Even at the hands of the super international flight staff, sky law is no match for Arab Time.

And then, by the light of a red sunset above the clouds, I caught my first glimpse of the Gulf.  And we descended and the triangle of Abu Dhabi stuck out into the water like a slice of baklava.  And dark came all of a sudden, eased by the moon not two hours from full, and the plane landed by the lights of the city.

And I was like, whoa, man.

I was met at the gate with my visa, taken to have my eyes scanned (for security reasons maybe, but probably as a way of saying “hey world, check out the gadgets Abu Dhabi has”), and then pulled through customs faster than you can say “thatstwiceasmuchastheamountof
alcoholyoucanlegallybringintothecountry” to find a gang of porters waiting to collect and push my bags on a cart.  And so classism presents itself in the ultramodern{1}, post-cosmopolitan world{2}.  Some push, others pull, and those lucky enough just sit.

Before I was taken to the car, I stood on the threshhold of the airconditioned airport and the merciless desert.  Al-Rahman Al-Rahiim.  Not so bad, I thought.
And then I took another step.
My mind couldn’t really take in what the rest of me said it was feeling.  My eyes said it was dark out and ergo it was cooler than the last day I had been in.  My skin said no, no no, I feel hotter than a camel’s… temper.  And my legs said run.

I checked in to my apartment, fully furnished and with too many electronics to plug into the staggering dearth of outlets.  Classic case of eyes-bigger-than-stomachs.  Like Dubai, maybe, but not Abu Dhabi.  No no, Abu Dhabi won’t be like that.

And then I plugged something in.  And fire shot from the walls.  And the lights went out.

But in the time it took to get a mechanic not quite fluent in Abu Dhabi’s unique language known as “Globalish” (think English without the hard words), I wandered the streets of my immediate neighborhood.  As the old joke goes, a man is promised the amount of land he can walk in one day.  If that was an Emirati joke, the man would have gained about half a block.

The midnight humidity was so strong camera lenses fogged within seconds.  You can feel it, but you can’t capture it.

And soon enough two men came to fix the electricity and turned the lights back on.  So I turned them off.

{1}{2} These words not used according to any real definition. They may be made up.

Hi — اهلا وسهلا ومرحبا بكم

So do it already. That’s what I’m telling myself, in the voice of someone’s old Jewish grandfather (not mine, because he didn’t have the accent). It’s always hard in the beginning.

And as I refrain from typing “that’s what she said” in huge bold letters, I acknowledge a set of different norms — norms that find allusions to the crude or sexual disrespectful, and false rudeness as improper as deliberate effrontery. Of course, I generalize. I assume. And though we all know what you do when you assume, I feel I should still write down my expectations of a culture that I can probably say — safely and without offending anyone — is somehow at least a little bit different. Tell me if this offends you.

In a region where borders are still drawn in dashes, it is hard to know where to draw the line.

So if I don’t remember my mindset now, on the day before my departure for Abu Dhabi, How will I ever say “wow, that is totally not what I expected,”? I wonder now, if the style is to cover your head, how important is a haircut? This website will fail to answer this and other, greater questions during my next year or more in the Gulf. (The Gulf that is meant to have oil flowing through it.)

To leave America behind and Americans in their natural habitat is to leave behind many things: we leave behind our home and our rules, we abandon words like “effrontery,” and we let go of the certainty that comes with going to the same CVS for 21 years. But heading for the United Arab Emirates, we make a journey much different from that of an explorer heading for the Arctic, or a student let loose in rural China, or a doctor responding to a crisis abroad.

We leave instead for a place where 80% of everyone comes from somewhere other than where they are — a journey that, I find, is like going to grandma’s house. At grandma’s house, things are much like they are in your own home, but with little differences. Most of you still have the same sense of humor, but you make different jokes. Respect for the new place and the person that has been there longest supplants the feeling that everything is the same and that nothing has changed. Most of the food is similar but there are a few jars of things you’re not sure you want to try in the refrigerator door. The United Arab Emirates banned Skype, and Grandma just says she doesn’t like it when we use it. And when my parents, brother and I arrive at the door of my grandmother’s apartment in Southern California, 80% of us, too, are foreign.

This is what I expect to feel when engulfed in the Arabian Peninsula. This website chooses the archaic spelling “ingulfed,” to invoke the connection between past and present, the evolution of culture through language, and the never-ending struggle for continuity in a ever-changing environment. And “engulfed.com” was way, way too expensive.

Next post from the Middle East,

!مرحبا
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