Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Day of Fasting and Intimacy

I recently received the following piece from my friend, Paul Berg, who is not only an accomplished diplomat, but as you can see from this, a fantastic writer as well.  Read and enjoy:

Dear Friends:

Foreign Service people en route to Afghanistan often overnight in Dubai. I knew in advance I’d be stressed and sleepless right up to the minute I boarded my direct thirteen hour flight at Dulles Wednesday evening, so planned to spend two nights in Dubai rather than just one. One whole day to sleep in as long as I wanted with nothing more than Gulf sunlight burning through my 16th floor window (plus that damn arthritis in my shoulders) to shame me awake this morning. And the lure of a full day to see some tiny corner of this desert fantasy of a city whose architecture every month seems to score a biggest, tallest, most bizarre, most unusual architectural record.

Truth is that quite a few of the most-written-about places in Dubai are located at the Dubai Mall, including the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world), Dubai Waterfall, Dubai Ice Rink, and the famous Fountain. The Mall itself is the perfect place to fill an empty chillout day; it’s enormous, with plenty to distract, and the most varied selection of luxury retailers you’re likely to find anywhere on earth (can’t believe there’s another mall on earth anchored by Bloomingdale’s at one end and Galeries Lafayette at the other), plus plentiful dried fruit, Middle East carpet and Muslim apparel shops of a sort you’re not likely to find in Singapore, London or the Mall of America. It’s Ramadan and it’s Dubai’s oven-hot August, locals are fasting and immobile while foreign tourists are waiting til the more temperate autumn to visit, so only a few international odds and ends like me were poking around seeing if our credit cards work as well over here as at home (they do.)

Ramadan means restaurants do not serve until sunset, although a few fast food joints at the mall offered discreet takeout packages to be eaten at home. The nice young Iranian man at Casa Pons de Importaco, Treenut General Trading L.L.C. (since 1945) told me that he could not let me sample dried fruits and nuts from his open vats because of Ramadan, but pointedly looked the other way when I sent him off on errands (“find me a little sack so I can scoop in some of these pistachios, okay?”) so I could taste what I was buying: exquisite dried figs, two kinds of dried corn nuts, pistachios, remarkable dried kiwis, strawberries and cherries, dried watermelon seeds. I woke up too late for breakfast at the hotel, so the rest of the day at the mall I carefully slipped fistsful of these dried fruits and nuts from the bag into my mouth while keeping a lookout for mall security people enforcing the Ramadan rules, like the mall cops I saw getting stiff with some Europeans who sat eating their “takeout” at a food court table.

Several corridors of the Dubai Mall are devoted to an “Arab Court,” meaning stores selling ladies’ Islamic apparel. To one side, though, was a men’s fragrance store selling Arab perfumes to Arab men. I was sure Khaled was Iranian because of his accent, but he turned out to be Syrian. I asked him to start with the most powerful, masculine scent he had on hand but, like an Indian chef who ignores your instructions to cook your tandoor chicken spicy and brings it out bland instead, he drew out something called “Ehsass” (“Emotions” or “Feelings,” as you’d know if you’d spent a year studying Pashto with its many Arabic cognates) which, he said, Western men could wear. Bland. Way too bland. Let’s try something with a bit more muscle, I said, feeling like Lawrence of Arabia meeting a wary Sherif Ali for the first time. He starts explaining about the mixture of musk and amber and having me smell flasks of each, then brings out something that he says is the strongest he’s got, “Flagon Desert,” which is actually “Desert Falcon” and smells like burnt over cigar ashes. It’s clearly a scent to repel the strong and intimidate the weak, but he insists that it will smell better if I leave it on for a few more hours.

I’d told Khaled, 27, how much I like Syria and Syrians and how beautiful I find Aleppo and Damascus, which led him to lament how much of Syria is being destroyed by the civil war. “The Syrians are stupid people,” he said, “so stupid that we have let that family rule us for so long. Everyone in Syria thought it was normal to not talk about the Government over the phone, normal that spies are listening everywhere.” He added, “But how can it be that we Syrians all get smart once we leave Syria? Every Syrian I know who lives outside is smart.” He said he was from Daraa, and recounted the story of how the current movement started there, when the authorities found and arrested citizens who had painted anti-government graffiti. He said he had seen a lot that disgusted him during his two years of military service in Homs, which is always a pressure point. “Did you have to kill anyone?” “No,” he said rolling his eyes, “it was a quiet period when I was there.”

But he also believes that the uprising will change nothing, and that Assad will remain in power. “How can it be otherwise?” Then he brings out what he says is the best and most popular perfume he sells, Majestic, which, he says, both Arabs and Western men can wear. “It is for a special night, or for a businessman going to an important meeting.” This one smells a little better; Khaled sprays a little more onto my upper arm, and it smells better yet. He is realistic about emigrating to the U.S.; “of course I want to go, everyone does, but I’ve asked around and I’m sure they would not give me a visa.” “Have you tried?” “No, but I know the rules already.” He smiles and nods his head as I recite the U.S. “sufficient ties” language, which he knows already. Majestic turns out to be pricier than I’d expected, so I tell Khaled I’m going to walk around the mall a bit but may come back later. He sprays a big draft across the front of my shirt; “this is guaranteed to work, and after you’re worn it all day you’ll come back.”

Luckily I arrived at the entrance gate to the Burj Khalifa Tower just when there was an opening on the tour schedule; had to leave my fruit and nut bag at the reception because no food is allowed on the Observation Deck during Ramadan. It’s a dramatic view up there, but somewhat less interesting than the view from the Empire State Building or whatever they call the Sears Tower these days because there’s less to see; brown desert in one direction and the flat obscurity of the Gulf in the other. Still, Dubai’s rapid pace of construction constant offers more for the Observation Deck viewer, and Khatik, a 26 year old Indian engineer, marvels that so much, including the Burj itself, has been built since he arrived from Tamil Nadu in 2005. “When I got here, this was all sand and water,” he said.

Khatik is from Rajapuram, not far from Chennai, so I tell him how much I like Tamil Nadu, and ask him about the famous temple at Tiruchchirappalli. Turns out his family lives just across the street. We talk about how the Tamil Nadu beaches are so much more beautiful than the Dubai Gulf coast, and of course how much he misses home. Khatik and his four visiting buddies are Hindus, just had lunch, which means they are smiling and enthusiastic, not slightly ghostlike like the fasting Muslims. Much to criticize in Jayalalithaa’s government, but who wants to get onto politics? It turns out that Khatik is a Scorpio with a lot of planets in Aries and, since I’m a Pisces with a lot of planets in Aries, we have much in common. (On the other hand, Jayalalithaa is a Pisces, too, which explains a lot about her dismal political style, successful though it’s been with her fellow Tamils.) Khatik says that surely I must have visited many astrologers when I worked in India, since Indian astrologers are the best in the world; I tell him about some of the Gujurati and Sindhi astrologers my Bombay businessment friends referred me to. Khatik beat me to the punch; Gujuratis and Sindhis are interested mostly in money, so Gujurati and Sindhi horoscopes always focus on how much earning power you have and how your personality will allow you to get rich.

A morning spent eating dry corn seeds and pistachios will make you crave something sweet and, since current American diet legend teaches us that dark chocolate is virtually a weight loss pill, I headed into the Buteel Chocolate Shop for (takeaway) dessert. Rakeel, a cheerful 22 year old, asked me to guess where he is from. Couldn’t be Iranian judging by the name; tall, slim, with a burst of black hair falling onto his forehead, didn’t seem Egyptian or Palestinian, either. Lebanese?, I offered. Wrong on all counts. “I’m an Uzbek!,” he announced proudly. “From Samarkand!” Where else? He found me the darkest chocolate in the store, a 75% cacao ganache in praline. Rakeel’s English is close to accentless, which makes it all the more remarkable that he began studying from TV and books about six months ago. A Sagittarius, he also speaks Uzbek, Tajik and, of course, “a little Russian,” meaning he was born just at the end of the Cold War. The Commies always dumb down the language once they take over, and his speaking “a little Russian” reminds me of the Tajik filling station attendant I met in Whippany, New Jersey last fall. Asked him to write his name in his native script rather than in English, so he wrote it in Cyrillic. “It’s the only native script we have.”

Rakeel still has a bit more English to learn. He asks me about jobs in the U.S. and tells me he wants to go to New York City. Brothers or relatives there? I ask. No, just buddies, he said, but they want me to come to see the big yellow taxi.

I buy four pralines, delicious, then head back to Khaled and the colognes. He is sleeping head down in a chair when I arrive, the Ramadan fast is taking its toll. He’s happy to see me again, and I ask him whether this Majestic stuff will ensure that I am irresistible. He assures me that it is guaranteed, absolutely guaranteed to make me irresistible. Fists up, I reply that I will return and beat him up if even a single person resists me in Afghanistan; we both laugh at each other. It turns out that he is a Cancerian astrologically; he is not surprised to learn that I am a Pisces, and he notes that, like many another Cancerian, he has a round face and many Piscean friends.

Then, while he’s looking for a box, he apologetically asks why George W. Bush had to make things complicated by invading Afghanistan. I tell him that I was in New York City on September 11 and watched from a distance while 6,000 innocent people were fried alive, so saw it as Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda making things complicated. Yes, he said, but Bush did not change anything, everyone knew Bin Laden was an idiot, and something similar will happen again. I said that, thank goodness, nothing similar has happened since September 11, perhaps because of our action in Afghanistan. He apologized again for bringing up politics; I told him there is no greater act of intimacy between friends than talking openly about their differences.

Finally scored a Pushtun on my way back to the hotel! My driver, Mohammed Badal, is 43 years old, a Peshawari who has lived in Dubai 21 years. Our conversation turned quickly from English to Pashto but I lament that, four weeks after getting a very respectable final Pashto score, I have to search to remember even the simplest verbs. He asks me if I speak Urdu (no) but we carry on in Pashto. He was a construction worker before becoming a taxi driver and has three kids “but only one wife.”

If the Saudis see the sun tomorrow, Ramadan will be over and I will arrive in Afghanistan just as Afghans are getting their energy and spirits back. A good time to arrive.