Monday, February 10, 2014
A Treatise on Travel (and other things)
Tonight is alive with countless smells, neon lights, masses of people. Take a deep breath, let the full outdoor air rush into the space between your ribs.
You shouldn’t take a camera where I am going.
Do you know what an abaya shop looks like? Have you ever seen a mannequin covered from head to toe, with even the niqāb shrouding all but her opaque, listless plastic eyes? Can you imagine how the men who work the store look at you, an American male wearing Nikes and shorts, as you walk into this establishment with your friends? In this position, the blood floods every conscious appendage in your body as you take the brunt of this foreign environment full flush in the face.
What picture have I conjured up in your head? Perhaps one of fear, maybe even a shiver of horror at the discriminations to which I undoubtedly bore witness? Would you believe me if I told you that the experience is beautiful, if I described the kindness we meet at each turn? The sounds of bartering, garment trading, and melodic Gulf Arabic spills out of the souk shops into the warm, vibrant air, and, denied for what we seek, yet undaunted, we move onwards.
We are in desperate search of spandex fabric, which we will find, insha’Allah...
We scoured the Heart of Sharjah that night for the elusive stretchy material, needed for the design models the architectural students I was accompanying were building. We wandered through nearly fifty streetside shops, two shawarmas cut from the meat tornado in front of us with mango nectar to wash the meal down, and nearly a thousand grinning teeth telling us the same thing– No, no, we don't have that, but _________ does. Which way? we asked. Always down the street and to the right, so we circled tirelessly through the unquiet darkness.
You might say we failed, and if by that you mean that we didn't find what we had come to acquire, I couldn't argue with you. From the materialistic perspective, it was an exercise in futility. But if there is any one thing that I have learned from my 18 days in the UAE, it's to shut up about the momentary objective and instead experience what my surroundings have to offer. So that's what I did, and I found something ever the more valuable than a synthetic fiber. I found happiness amongst squalor, real people living real lives honestly and without the cognitive disconnect that privilege grants so many of us in the developed world. I found people who asked real questions, people who believe in things they've never been able to see. And I found a big part of my heart tugging at me to stay there, to not return to the effortlessly manicured grounds of my campus.
This experience is but one vignette within three weeks of extraordinary adventure – a synecdoche of my time here. When I think back to my expectations of this country before I left home, I am reminded that I formed hardly any. Somehow, I knew before coming that much of what I was stepping into would defy expectations.
It has. All the better for me, because I knew I would learn from it.
I never could have imagined the outpouring of support I would have waiting for me here. I don't care if I've said it before; it rings truer all the time. Today, for example, I passed by the piano in the student center, on my way to somewhere else. A friend of mine saw me, called my name, ran me down, and insisted that I come back and show his friends the music that I write. This has become the norm already, somehow. I have been playing the piano for 14 years, in the process devoting thousands of hours to practice – but I have never received this kind of support from anyone, even my own family. I am astounded daily by the unmitigated warmth of this eclectic grouping of people.
Nor could I have expected the opportunism that permeates the atmosphere here, nor the way it feels like the American West, as though anything - good or bad - is possible. Being cavalier here is sort of the norm; you don't wait for things to come to you; you make them happen. It seems a truer manifest destiny than we enjoy in America: not because the opportunities are more accessible here, but rather because the general attitude is better inclined towards self-actualizing one's life according to his or her dreams. I wish I could parlay the inspiration that settles upon me as I've listened to students, cab drivers, and all other walks of life tell about who they are becoming. It is once again romanticizing the world for me.
However, I should also denote that the case for realism is not absent here. If you wanted, I could give you a harsher reality about unmet expectations: for instance, how something in the nature of the student-professor relationship here makes for some of the most foreign classroom dynamics you can imagine. I could describe my shock when a girl candidly defended child labor to my operations management professor yesterday morning, straight-faced and earnest. I could describe for you the cognitive dissonance of many here who are unable to grasp the vastness and value of the privilege they enjoy; I'm in four classes with third-year business students, and I am one of only five students total who has held any sort of legitimate employment. Wealth has its drawbacks, too, not least of all on your world perspective towards poverty and hard work; some students here came from high schools where instructors accepted pay for passing grades. I could inform you that the dorms don't look any less like prisons or mental hospitals than when I first arrived, and I doubt that I'll find any better way to handle them than by avoiding them during the daylight hours. Most haunting of all, I could relay the sinking feeling I get in the pit of my guiltily full stomach when I pass by the janitorial and groudskeeping staff, who never say a word but do occasionally make incredible eye contact. They are migrant workers subsisting on below-legal-minimum wages and dangling on the precarious brink of either starvation or work visa revocation. These are not my expectations for basic standards of the way things should be, things I often take for granted in America.
These issues are real, and I'm not trying to sweep them under the rug to sell you a fake travel guide. You are going to see things you don't like when you go somewhere new, after the honeymoon fades and you wake up from that filmy dream of wanderlust. It is truly difficult for me to reconcile the problems I see with the wonder I feel about this place. But that's everywhere. Here is still incredible. You can't find people like this anywhere else in the world.