INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for Stereotypes

The Spice of Strife — نكهة النزاع

The Levant: Part Four

They told me not to go to Baalbek, so I obviously wanted to go. I hadn’t heard of the town before, except for seeing it on a part of the map I hadn’t addressed, and it was off-putting how they spoke of this city in the east (the eighth largest in Lebanon) as a place of endless danger and lawlessness. But I was comforted by one thing, a glimmer of the logic that projected such fear: the word “Shia”. Poorly hidden at the heart of their reasoning was this sectarian prejudice — if I didn’t share it, I had no reason to be afraid at all.

The one road east from Tripoli reached the patch of thousand year-old cedars in the aptly named town of Ariz, “Cedars.” The national tree has survived only here and on Lebanon’s flag, but for an entrance fee of whatever-you’d-like-to-pay you can stand under them forever. The gatekeeper gently refused to offer suggestions for donations, so I slid him three green thousand-lira bills ($2). He handed me two official looking tickets and grinned, “That’s enough for two.” It’s an amazing kind of green.


And that’s where the road stops. Read the rest of this entry »

Osama and Me — انا و اسامة

I don’t appreciate what Osama Bin Laden did yesterday.

Everyone has someone with whom they agree to disagree. You live your respective lives at peace with the fact that there exists someone who you cannot change, whose every fiber contradicts the principles woven into your DNA. Think of your neighbor Geoff who you don’t speak to anymore and who has stopped poisoning your gardenias to flex for you, ad infinitum, his forbearing cold shoulder. Osama and I were like that — or at least I was — and just like you would for Geoff, I lived my life hoping nothing I did would ever make him happy and I cheered and high-fived people when I heard he was, as your other neighbor Lorenzo would say, swimming with the fishes.

Yesterday though, Bin Laden’s voice was given a sounding board from the bottom of the sea, and with it he praised the valiant struggle of citizens across the Middle East and North Africa — the struggle known as the “Arab Spring,” which is (curse him) valiant.

The equilibrium I struck that allowed me to stress less in his existence was balanced on the expectation that we would disagree on everything, just as we’d promised. To hear any semblance of reason from a sworn enemy of good sense was to come face to face with the fragile foundation of my inner status quo. The quo until yesterday was one in which I was more comfortable ignoring, more secure behind a wall of cultural insolation built from lazier bits of my own personality.

This is certainly a window into the other side that the reasonable can analyze for clues into the psyche of bad people with bad opinions that are wrong. It is perhaps an opportunity to come to terms with our absolutism and to engage more deeply with nemeses and the Other.

We may even humanize the world’s devils as we allow that there may be overlap — the reasonable — between our minds and theirs.

Meh, fuck it. And Osama. And screw your neighbor Geoff, too.

(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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أنشوجة — Anchovies


In the waning minutes of Hanukkah, the orchestra bearing the name of its Muslim host country set out to play Christmas music. If there exists an appropriate adage, I don’t know it.

Many citizens of the Jewnited Arab Emirates (as no one calls it) might have noticed local observances of the Festival of Lights — namely the decking out of most of the city’s tall buildings with bright neon, flags, and the number 39. Of course, it was just pre- and post-national day decorations — not an attempt 5732 years off the correct Jewish year. Still, a bit suspicious National Day fell on the first day of Hanukkah, isn’t it? Okay, sure, Emirati National Day is always on the second of December, and Hanukkah is determined by the lunar calendar, but… but — okay. Good point.

At the Emirates Palace Christmas tree lighting, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians (ok fine! and Jews, too) stood around the joyous alter of the Christmas tree as a children’s brass band heralded not the anniversary of the birth of someone’s lord, but the beginning of a season of fun and shopping for everyone.  In the world of Internet and Connectivity and the Global Village, it’s getting too goddam hard to stereotype people.  That people still try is my only regret — for their own sakes.  Time-saving stereotypes had some basis back when West was West and wild, and East was just East. But now, reality is disorienting – there aren’t any shortcuts.  Racism is just racism… and it’s awkward.

The world's most expensive Christmas tree. Ever.

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Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)

(اذربيجان اربعة: الاستراحة (وشويّ جنون العظمة

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

High-beams blazing, we barreled down the road to the north. With the scale on screenshots of Google Maps as our only indicator of distance, we would slow each time we felt close to a turn to ask passers by if they had any idea where we were. I’d pick a town name just past where we wanted to turn and repeat it over and over, sometimes with haradadir, “where is…?”

We passed ready to forage through the town of Göyçay, hoping to find anything to keep us alive and driving. A breakfast of half a pomegranate and a lunch of part of a roll and baklava-like pastries that taste like peanut brittle can only go so far. And almost too conveniently, we found a group of young guys who knew the only restaurant in town. As our tradition of total incomprehension required, we followed their car — “No,” I had to say, “you can’t drive ours.”

The Göyçay Cafe looked just like a motel, with a long row of identical small rooms. The dining area, it seemed, was just a small bedroom converted into eating space — our guides did the talking and arranged for a waiter (shockingly professional) to bring a spread. They weren’t hungry.

Again, paranoia kicked in like practiced defense. You don’t know martial arts, so you should probably just stay a little scared. Why would five guys drive us to a cafe just to sit? It was freezing, especially after October in the Gulf, but I kept making excuses to open the door when they closed it. And even though we had left wallets in the car, the tiny motel room still begged to play host to trouble should anyone want to cause any. I caught myself thinking, if we were really in danger, why would they have given us knives? The cutlery certainly had us on an even playing field.

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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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