Sunday, August 28, 2011

Riding in English

He points to my slightly filled water glass and says "push." I look to where he is pointing and return a questioning look. It is Ramadan. He is Muslim and hasn't had anything to eat or drink since before sunrise. I don't want to drink in front of him. My glass is in my office and I have been careful not to drink around my Muslim co-workers, but in this dry air-conditioning and outside hot/humid weather I can't make it through the day without generous amounts of water.

He is insistent, this driver/custodian of ours. Ahmed is Syrian, about my age, and until recently spoke no English. "Push" is a close enough word. I understand that he wants me to finish my water so he can clean my glass. I say "one minute" and make a shooing gesture with my hand. He leaves and I push my water and take the glass to him. The gesture, while it might seem disrespectful in some settings, is not meant to be, nor received as such. We are often reduced to clear sign language.

Our conversations are very limited and usually result in some stage of frustration: his or mine. The Arabic classes I took at the beginning of my assignment here are of little help in our interactions. My age (and admittedly short-timers attitude) renders my memory pretty much useless for learning Arabic, short of the short list of typical greetings, popular menu items and a few miscellaneous words.

Each day on my fifteen minute ride to and from work we exchange pleasantries and stumble through a few minutes of disjointed "conversation" before I put us both out of our mysery and go to checking work through my iPhone. He gets very enthusiastic when we talk about his home country, Syria, where he has offered to take me in a year’s time when "all to be OK." Right now there is artillery fire in his city but he is sure in a year’s time it will be safe enough for visitors like me. I don't think I will try it. He is the only brother of six sisters, all of whom he helps support from his meager salary here. One morning he was talking on his cell phone with his mother in Syria. I could hear gunfire in the background. I say "that is scary." He says "yes. We have many." Something is lost in the translation.

He likes to talk about his shisha, the water pipe for flavored tobaccos that is popular in the gulf countries. Only he "drinks shisha" and asks if I do to. Smoke is a verb he hasn't learned yet. So I admit to a fondness for drinking shisha and he is all over that. We have a long conversation about drinking shisha, only part of which I understood. I think he makes his own apple flavored mix. I think he has seven shisha pipes at home in Syria, one he keeps in the car for trips to the mountains.

We have had a few misqueues where a request for car pickup or meeting place was misunderstood. He also will never tell me if he thinks he is more than 15 minutes away from where I need to be picked up. When he says "fifteen minutes, miss Jennifer" I have to ask him where he really is so I can decide if I will take a cab instead. I learned this the hard way. Fifteen minutes is often a half hour or 45 minutes unless it really is 15 minutes.

He has started to play an English speaking radio station from Dubai in the car when I am in it, rather than the Arabic news and music that he has on when I am not in. I appreciate this gesture and try to communicate that it is not necessary but he is generous to a fault along these lines. Sometimes the music is very foulmouthed rap with lyrics that make even me uncomfortable. I am embarrassed to think that he thinks this is what I listen to until I remember that he has no idea what images the words in the "music" conjure up. He happily taps along to "I Like My Mouth Down There" as I wince at the implications. I have heard some shocking music piped through the malls in this country where men and women are separated and covered up. Music I wouldn't want in my home back home is blasted over the loud speakers of the department stores. In my prudish middle-age I am shocked to know that these songs exist, let alone are played in public in this conservative corner of the world. I hope that this is not the English that he will pick up on in his quest to learn our language. Though "push" would probably work to translate this as well. Though different gestures required.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Passion at the Airport: an X-rated Post

This is a little something inspired by the note “contrast of Madrid Airport to Abu Dhabi – couple who can’t keep their hands off each other.”

(December, 2010     Madrid)

I’m waiting in the Madrid airport for Andy, praying he is on this flight.  He missed his connecting flight in Chicago and I got word that he hopped another flight which requires a transfer in London.  London has been boxed in by snow storms off and on for the past few days.  I hope he makes it.  I am ready to start our reunion as I’ve been separated from my son for five months now: he back to University and me headed over to the Middle East for an indefinite work assignment.  I had carefully scheduled his flights so he wouldn’t have to make any connections in a non-English speaking country nor get stuck outside the US if he had any weather related delays at this time of year.  But this man-child of mine (mostly child in this instance) fell soundly asleep in Chicago O’Hare (damn those finals week sleep deprived study habits) and missed his connection. 

While slightly annoyed at my son’s irresponsible travel behavior, I am still very happy to be in the Madrid airport.  Frankly, I am very happy to be anywhere outside the UAE.  But really happy to be in Europe.  I am sitting at a café, facing the gate area that I think he should be coming through sometime in the next hour.  I am sipping on my second cappuccino, watching the romance and drama of the international arrivals gate.  I love a good reunion.  I am writing a few notes in my notebook/journal, looking busy, and eavesdropping on the conversations around me, trying to make sense of the Spanish being spoken.  At this point, newly arrived and a great many years distance since my last visit to Spain, and even farther from Middle School Spanish classes, I have only a hit rate of about 20%.  By the end of our two weeks in Spain I will be closer to a 45% hit rate.  For now I can just fill in the blanks with the passion in their voices and the tale tale body language. 

I am aware that the three also middle aged café patrons at the table next to me are also amazed at the scenario in front of me.  A young punk couple is desparately, almost violently making out against a pillar in the middle of the arrivals hall.  The passionate display is outrageously x-rated and the thought crosses my mind that I, and the other folks calmly awaiting arrivals, are the subject of some Punked type tv episode.  These two dive together with hands through hair, deep throated kisses, bum grabbing, crotch grinding urgency.  They go at it in ten second intervals (believe me, a lot of contact can be jammed into ten seconds) until they must come up for air and a rest.  And then they are back into it just as passionately as before.  At the nearby table, the one with his back to the scene, at his dining mates urging, tries to subtely turn around to see what they, like me, are taking in.  He turns back, mouth agape and catches my eye.  I smile and shrug at him, raising an eyebrow to indicate that I am shocked and amused by this extreme public display of affection. 

 The couple goes at it for quite some time.  Their crotch grinding so intense and rhythmic I have to stare until they uncouple just to make sure that they actually have their zippers up.  Remarkably they do.  OK, so I said I stared, and I did, but I tried not to be obvious about it.  I busied myself in my journal or sipping on my cappuccino, just grazing by the scene as subtely as I could because it really felt like I was watching some x-rated porno film, one that I certainly wouldn’t want strangers to know I was watching. 

 I kept thinking “somebody stop them.”  “Where’s the policia when you need them.”  But nobody seemed to feel comfortable interrupting this display.  And then I remind myself that I am newly arrived from a Middle Eastern country where the only people holding hands in public are little children and grown men (I mean children holding hands with each other and grown men holding hands with each other which is totally normal and no indication of same sex sexual preference…it’s just the normal for the middle east).  Yes, the pornographic scene played out in front of me, while shocking to even the Spaniards at the adjacent table, is tolerated because passion is a component of life in Spain.  Similarly, one might find such a scene in the airports in Italy (my most favorite European country…to date).  In the Middle East: not so much. 

In Abu Dhabi, when we pick up folks at the airport, no matter how darn happy we are to be reunited with a friendly face from back home, we hold back.  A handshake and a warm smile is what we try to remember to do.  Well especially if it’s someone of the opposite sex.  A couple engaged publicly in Abu Dhabi in what I saw in the Madrid airport would be deported, if they were lucky, or, more likely, incarcerated.  There is no legal cohabitation of unmarried couples (housing or hotels).  Local ladies are covered so that only their eyes and hands show.  Many actually even have these covered with full face covering and gloves.  An American friend of mine who teaches locally was advised by her local counterpart that she should consider covering her hair as she would be safer from being raped.  We were amused by this statement as we are all so untouchable here that the danger of being raped has never crossed our minds.  But that is what the local women believe: show your hair: you are asking to be raped. 

I have more to write about modesty and fitting in yet remaining yourself and how to dress and how not to dress in the UAE.  I’ll save those for some other time.  Right now I’d like to just replay that pornographic scene from the Madrid airport and remember that there is passion, even x-rated passion, elsewhere in the world and somehow it all makes sense.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Little Book of Lists and Stuff

Sea bass – 2 kilos
Mussels – 1.5 kilos 

Canned tomatoes
Mortadella (possible? No pork)
Hazel nuts

Parsley – Italian
Salad greens – Rocket
Cherry tomatoes
Swiss chard

The list comes at me as a poem.  In this desert of writing, fumbling for entertainment as I am temporarily without my iPhone, I come across my little book.  The blank book I keep in my purse to write down lists, thoughts, impressions, phone and flight numbers.  Things I don’t want to forget.  One corner is slightly chewed by the puppy Satchmo…so I suppose I cannot forget him too, another one I left behind.  For now.

I start flipping through the book.  Filled with gems (and also some words I cannot read nor begin to decipher…written in a rush and thoughtlessly thought I could not forget the meaning nor context.) 

It begins in ’09…Scotland with Andy.  Then there are notes around the continuation of that trip, into Italy where I celebrated turning 50 with wonderful friends.  There are sermon notes from church, packing lists, thoughts and lists around the big change up: a temporary post in the Middle East.  Notes and lists from a trip to India in the fall and meeting up with Andy in Spain over Christmas.  A few self pitying dumps and yet even some joyful discoveries.  Some things that I think would be pretty profound...if I could just remember what I meant at the time.

Still waiting for a driver, still sans iPhone I begin my “Surviving Ramadan” list.  Truthfully I am worried about this next week and a half.  My flatmate is going on a well deserved escape from the heat and stifling lifestyle.  The handful of mates that are still here are all leaving save Hannah, who will also be stuck here.  At the end of Ramadan we have five days in a row off but I have no plans and no one to plan it with.  Hannah has to work.  And at the end of this “break” I dive into a few months of potential work hell: no new projects; only old ones that won’t die though the budget for them has long since dried up; continued shortness of staff and support and my unflinching desire to prepare those who are here to pull off a quality presence and reputation for work well done…but so much of what it takes completely out of our control; dealing with agencies who have agendas different from ours and hell bent on moving the target on a daily basis; the red tape and administrative BS that has been developed to a fine art of delay the likes of which I have never before encountered.

But, then this, this little notebook, with little gems to take out and unwrap and remember.  Perhaps I can start with this as a source of inspiration, if not for some things great, at least for somethings positive.  Memories which might help through hell week and beyond.

Surviving Ramadan List (not too ambitious…definitely doable) and still room for staying in pajamas a full day or two when self pity gets the most of me.


-        Paint 1 picture
-        Write 1 poem (I’ll try to do more than an Italian meal shopping list)
-        3x treadmill
-        1 day by pool (shoot for 2)
-        Talk to Julie, Melinda
-        Finish current Kindle read, start another
-        Cook healthy
-        Order out healthy J
-        Broccoli salad (get recipe from Lola)
-        Bible Study (3x+)
-        Starbucks hang/read (2x)
-        Get outside my mind

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the Desert

I was a writer.  I want to be able to say "I am a writer."  But in this place where I am now, the channeling of the ideas, the creating something out of nothing is not there.  I am in a desert: literally and figuratively.  And I miss it so much.  In a time and a place where I should be excreting pictures with words and sweating out so very much, I find I am dry.  I think I need to unpack that. 

I am enjoying some good reading and maybe through that I will find the inspiration to dance over the keys and be back in that place and space where I will be a writer again.  I did find this wonderful talk on TED by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I think I've listened to it about seven times now.  It is saying something to me. 

The mounting frustration of trying to get work done in this place is zapping.  Dealing with lack of resources and, probably more so, trying to understand and work through the decision process in the agencies we rely on to move things forward: the nuances of the Arabic business culture, is choking my soul.  At the end of the day, at the end of the work week, I feel like I have no skills to bring to the table.  If I can't do the things that are understandable and solid, how can I do the things that are ellusive and undefined?  It's the work that has become ellusive and undefined.  I hate that.  Robs a girl of her confidence.  Turns up the volume on that inner voice that says "you are too old for this!  Too old for anything of value."  It chokes the confidence and in so, smothers the deeper stuff where creativity can thrive. 

So I will keep at the reading and at least trying to enjoy and receive from the creative success of others, looking for water in this desert, until I can say again that I am a writer.