Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Frankincense, Innocence, and Myrrh

 At the hotel front desk she was laughing.  I hadn’t heard a woman laugh in, well, since coming out of the Saudi desert.  I don’t know how long it had been.  So, I stood there like a dope making every corny joke and one liner I could, because I could, watching this brown skinned Indonesian woman hide her red lips and gasp for air.  Her boss was watching the whole shebang, furious.  By the time he moved to the counter to intercede, I was walking out the spinning glass doors.  She had said through breathy sighs, “You’re just a kid at heart, aren’t you?”   But she didn’t know.  I’d lost my innocence long before she was born.
 In the market souqs along Dubai Creek I followed my nose.  Past the white robbed Thobes and scarves from Jordan and Syria, the belly dancer costumes fresh from Bagdad with the shiny hanging coin braziers and the junk shops selling busted Japanese razors and plastic sandals from China.  Until I got to the spice racks… where my senses came alive.
 No where in my life have I seen or smelled such delights. Brilliant orange saffron thin as spun gold and brown cardamom strong enough to knock a man over. Tumeric and clove and cumin and bitter dills. Cayennes of chili, red, and capsaicin to make eyes sting weepy wet . Anise like mouth watering licorice. Caraway seeds and vanilla, galangal root of citrus and pine and mace of the nutmeg seed. Savory mints and tart sumac berries and actual cinnamon sticks, not the Chinese illusion you buy in stores called cassia, I mean ceylon which is like a faraway dream

“Come my friend,” the short, dark skinned owner of the shop said to me, leading me gently by the arm inside, “Have you ever been seduced by the sweet gum of frankincense or the subtle powder of myrrh?”
The man in the spice shop was so charming. He kept laughing and giving me tastes. I bought small chocolate marbles for my girls and thimbles of lemon tea for friends. He asked how much money I had to spend and I was in such a good mood, an actual jovial mood, I showed him fifty American dollars which he snatched from my hand proclaiming, “I will give you a tablespoon of red pepper flake and dried fig leaves from Crete?”
I thanked him, but no, I only wanted the remainder of my purchase.
“But I will give you thyme from Prussia and dark fennel from the Indus Valley. Crush this in your tea and you will live a hundred years.”
I smiled, agreed, asked again for my change.
“But you must also buy black sage from the Caucasus and sweet coriander from Ethiopian mountains that will ward off evil spirits.”
I was arguing now, demanding my money back.
“No, you buy more. No.”
Finally, I grabbed his wrist, and the money was back in my pocket as I left his store with my chocolate and lemon tea.
The rest of that afternoon, wandering the market, I laughed.  The woman at the hotel had almost convinced me.  Maybe something remained after all.  Anyway, it was a good sign, wasn’t it?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Harley's Swans by Raymond Carver and Surfing at the Burj al-Arab

“I’m trying again. A man has to begin over and over- to try to think and feel only in a very limited field, the house on the street, the man at the corner drug store.” -Sherwood Anderson, from a letter.

(dedication to the poem Harley’s Swans by Raymond Carver)

In Dubai, I left the Burj Khalifa and headed to the Burj al-Arab, trading one of the world’s most famous buildings for another.
“So I quit looking and went inside. Had a Coke at the soda fountain where I gave some thought to betrayal. How that part always came easy.” -Carver, Harley’s Swans

The Lamborghinis revved their engines and the Arab men in Polo shirts and precisely shaved beards, flipped up their collars, adjusted their sunglasses, and flicked ashes onto the street. I left them to their money, their oil, their sand, and their god.
“You’d come and gone in an instant, but I remembered, there at the fountain, Harley’s swans.” -Carver, Harley’s Swans

When I reached the sea I stopped and laughed, paid the driver, and stared at the waves.
“Anderson, I thought of you when I loitered in front of the drug store this afternoon. Held onto my hat in the wind and looked down the street for my boyhood.” -Carver, Harley’s Swans

The muslim women wrapped in black sack cloth waited on the shore like Charon beside the ferry.
“My mother. How she went with me to pick out school clothes. That part embarrassing because I needed to shop in men’s wear for man-sized pants and shirts.” -Carver, Harley’s Swans

Moments later, shoe laces tied and dropped over my shoulder, I sank toes in the sand and chatted up a young Belgian girl in a bikini, telling her she was the first woman I’d seen in more days than I could count. She smiled wide, freckles in the clouded dusk, and knew all I meant but didn’t say.
“Nobody, then, would could love me, the fattest kid on the block, except my parents.” -Carver, Harley’s Swans

At the water I stripped down to my shorts, dropped my shirt on the sand, and entered the Persian Sea. The cold water rushing against my naked skin. The salt surf biting against my lips. I dove deep, twisting in the water, coming out to face the land with the immense pounding water behind me.
“I finished the Coke and drove home. It was almost dark now. The house was quiet and empty. The way I always thought I wanted it to be… I’m here in the house. And I want to try again. You, of all people, Anderson, can understand.” -Carver, Harley’s Swans

I had over ten thousand dollars wrapped in a ziplock bag in my fist. The other months I had managed to wire safely to the bank. My eyes closed, feeling the world around me. In an hour I would be passing through the lobby of the Burj al-Arab, adjusting my sunglasses and snapping fingers at waiters, but now I was floating adrift. Completely alone. Remembering everything.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hartensteinabroad ep 64 "The Curse of Macbeth at Cawdor Castle, Scotland"

Hi Everyone,
It's been an interesting couple of weeks, but hartensteinabroad is back with another little episode that could!  In honor of my old pal Will's birthday yesterday, I thought I'd share a couple poems and songs from last summer's amazing exploration of Scotland's Cawdor Castle, which I pilgrimaged to in hopes of feeling the curse of "The Scottish Tragedy" and instead found Birnam Wood cleared out for a golf course.  Not to be discouraged, I snuck down into the cellar in search of why this Shakespeare play is 'cursed.'  I hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I Heart FOX News & Weird Arab Fashion in Abu Dhabi, UAE

The following is an interview with Watertown Police Chief Edward Deveau on cable news F.I.X.

Judge Jenny:   Before we get to our All-Star bipartisan political round table, I'd like to welcome my first guest, chief of Boston’s Watertown police department Ed Deveau, who is responsible for bringing down the terrorists. This is his first interview, the whole world has been waiting for him to tell the story of the most captivating event of 2013 and certainly the most compelling story since we sold you September 11, 2001. Chief, tell us, in your own words, what happened? You have 15 seconds.
Deveau:      Thank you, Judge. Before I say anything, I'd like to thank the brave joint efforts of law enforcement officers who ...
Judge Jenny:      Absolutely, those men and women are true American heroes. Selfless! We should really have a moment of silence for them. What they face on a daily basis, wow! It’s real patriotism. That's our vocabulary word of the day, "patriotism." That's "patriotismo" in Spanish for our viewers in Mexico on F.I.X. affiliate Taco Vision and "p’try’tyzm" in Hebrew for our new Sister Station in occupied Palestine’s Tel Aviv. Shalom! Ok, keep going Chief, ten seconds.
Deveau:    Well, as I was saying, when the call came out that a car-jacking had taken place at approximately 12:35...
Judge Jenny:      That's right, this is the part I absolutely want to hear. Walk us through step by step at this point. So, the call goes out and then what? Seven seconds...
Deveau:      Ok, so units in the area responded and caught up with the suspects...
Judge Jenny:      You mean: Terrorists!
Deveau:      Well, they haven’t actually been proven guilty so… suspects.
Judge Jenny:      Actually Chief, they're terrorists. And this is a reminder that we will be joined after our series of commercial breaks by Senator Lindsey Graham who will explain why, in this election year, he will be pushing for the death penalty and that the foreign born terrorists be tried as war criminals. After that we will be visited by Guy Yum Yum and his new cook book: Recipes for Trans-genders. So Chief, when the units caught up with the terrorist car-jackers, did they come out brandishing weapons?
Deveau:      Yes, officers were confronted with a barrage of...
Judge Jenny:      And we're these long or short weapons?
Deveau:      They were...
Judge Jenny:      Because, guns don't kill people. Bad people with guns kill people. We should be clear for our NRA supporters. It's like the drug debate. It's not the drug user. It's the pusher. The PUSHER! We have to stop: The PUSHER! People aren't to blame because they're sheep. I mean, how many deaths are attributed to terrorism each year compared to other silent killers like heart disease? And can we really blame fat people? No! We should blame the fast food industry. Those are the Pushers! Wait...! (She touches her earpiece) This just in... (Pause). I'm sorry, I was just informed McDonald's is one of our corporate sponsors. Just forget what I was saying. Ok Chief, what all our viewers want to know is, with all those officers on the scene, how did the younger brother get away?
Deveau:      Well...
Judge Jenny:      I mean, these are the kinds of questions you’ll be answering during the Congressional hearing, which will be carried live... On F.I.X.
Deveau:      I'd like to explain. You know, it was really dark.
Judge Jenny:      Speed it up, Chief. I've got two seconds before we go to break.
Deveau:      Wow, you're really tough. I'd much rather face bullets on the street.
Judge Jenny:      That's why they call me the judge!

(The above pictures of sweet muslim and Arab/Gulf fashion were taken in the street markets of Abu Dhabi.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Chechnya Connection

 As people around the world today look up the tiny nation of Chechnya on the internet, (indeed, as Don Delillo said, Americans learn their geography during moments of conflict reported on the news) it’s good to pause and hear from people not reporting in bloodlust on acronymed stations (MSNBC, FOX, CNN) or from pundits who have never lived outside of the U.S. (and no, your annual cruise to the Caribbean or that week you spent surrounded by armed guards while you hiked Kilimanjaro, don’t count).  I’m speaking of people who have lived and traveled for multiple years overseas, to answer one question: Why do people hate America?
 When you travel, as I’ve stated on this blog numerous times, you meet amazing, kind-hearted people and visit breathtaking locations, but there is also a dirty undercurrent to foreign life bubbling beneath the surface.  As polite as your guide can be, steering you to the most delicious secret cafes or toward the most delectable street fare, or as courteous as your jeep or elephant or horseless carriage driver may appear, or as sweet and innocent as the villagers with their toothless grins and traditional clothing may sound as they dance and sing in front of you by the village fire, it’s very often just a business transaction for them.  It is a relationship based solely on monetary compensation that ultimately bankrupts the soul.
 Life abroad is cheap when you have nothing to lose.  It will always be a battle of the haves and have nots.  You can hear it in the mumbles under the breath of locals in foreign tongues, you can see it in the quick glances aside when someone is forced to sell their sacred culture for your enjoyment.  There arises a built in resentment, an underlying hatred, that manifests later into every encounter with something foreign.  It is only human.  On the most basic level, why should this person have so much, when I have so little?
 Ironically, I’m susceptible to this too.  Living as an expatriate, I’m on guard all the time.  I’ve been cheated and lied to and beaten down abroad so many times, I can’t even go outside without gearing up emotionally for a racist comment or a violent act to be committed against me.  That’s why when the taxi scoots ten minutes out of his way to jack-up the price or the woman on the street stops to smudge-up her face like she’s licked a lemon and comments rudely about me out loud to her friend or when the old man rushes by and knocks my daughter down with his shopping bag… I lose it.  I completely freak out.  I chase people down and order them to apologize.  I return glares with fingers in people’s faces.  I’m just as guilty of pent up hatred and animosity as my hosts.
 Of course, what separates me, is that in this business transaction, I always come out on top.  I was randomly fortunate enough to be born with commodities in the world people desire.  Whether it is to adore me, exploit me for their own gain, or they are fascinated by my foreign mystique or wish to destroy me for their own satisfaction, these commodities are sacred but simple:  I was born an American, I’m a native English speaker, and I have white skin. 
 The thing is, you would be amazed how many unintelligent, lack luster, boring, rude, arrogant, inept, unprofessional, louts I have met who have capitalized and profited, by no special effort on their own parts, because of these God given traits.  I’m speaking of the absurd collection of Western “losers” I have encountered over the years.  Drunks.  Abusers.  Fools.  Liars.  Crooks.  Hacks.  Idiots… who have come to another country as a teacher or businessman or traveler or trader or politician and because they were American or British or Canadian or German or French or Italian,  they were given a free pass to make mistake after mistake.  How could this not add to the amount of frustration by host countries who see these impostors celebrated and worshipped?  How could this not reassemble into a loathsome violent and revolutionary hate for the very symbol of exorbitant, frivolous, unearned wealth and lavish obesity in the world: The United States of America.
There’s a popular conversation among expatriates and it goes to the heart of who you are as a traveler.  Invariably, wherever you go, you’re asked where you’re from.  Everything depends on your answer.  I think most people are honest, and really they have nothing to lose.  If you are from Norway or Thailand or New Zealand, people celebrate you.  They buy you drinks and rave about how kind your people are… but if you say you’re Canadian or British or Chinese (actually, Chinese people never leave the tour bus so nobody is asking them, besides they’re some of the worst travelers ever… spitting and screaming… people just leave them alone) but you really risk somebody trying to cheat or hurt you. If you are French or South African or Russian, you almost expect a fight.  It’s a badge of courage to get in someone’s face and seethe… “I’m Aussie, mate!”  But if you’re an American… you really have to choose whether to tell the truth.
 When I taught in Saudi Arabia, this was a daily occurrence, I would be approached by someone and they would look me up and down and speak in Arabic.
“Are you a muslim?
“Ah… you’re a kaffir, an infidel.” He would quickly draw back his hand or slightly step back as if I were toxic. Then his eyes would squint and look straight at me (and many of these guys had knives and daggers tucked in their belt), “So, you are Ameriky?
 At this point what do you say?  Depending on your answers, you could be in physical danger.  Now usually I put a big smile on my face and act very humble and explain that I am an American and I’m so fortunate to be visiting this beautiful country (even when I’m basically standing in a rubbish heap on a barren desolate land) and try to make a friend, but I’ve also been guilty of telling people I’m from other places, just because I could tell it was a matter of life and death.  In Saudi out of boredom and intimidation, my friend Zack and I started messing with people, thinking of countries that would make the Arabs nervous.  We'd tell these hate filled, sneering, scoffing accusers we were Cuban or North Korean, just for fun, then walk away laughing.  It was a way to stay sane.  But as we encountered more and more racist abuse, we started fighting back, telling people straight faced we were Chechnyan.  This little country muslim jihadists struck absolute terror in the faces of the Saudi men.  Immediately, they would back off and we were left alone.  It was like a new found commodity we could trade in, and I won’t lie to you, after constantly being called a ‘Kaffir,’ it felt good to suddenly be Chechnyan.
I relate this story today only because as of a couple hours ago, it would have been amusing. It’s the kind of story an expatriate would tell another to get a chuckle.  It’s hard to make a seasoned traveler laugh.  We’ve seen too much.  Poverty and sickness, filth and decay, corruption, prostitution, drug abuse, the horrors of child labor and exploitation, and so much of the blame is pinned on America because people have been broken by the buying and selling of their own commodities and bullied by transactions that leave them crying for justice in their own way.  The only way they know how, the last part of the soul they hold on to when bereft of all else.  Either love or hate.  Sadly,  many choose the latter.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Gold Souqs of Dubai

Leaving Saudi Arabia in the middle of the night, I truly felt like I escaped.  The company I had put my faith in lied to me, stole from me, overworked me without pay, and eventually confiscated my passport, basically imprisoning me and controlling completely if i would be allowed to leave.  If not for luck, will, and the hand of God, I would still be there.
The night I left Jizan, Saudi Arabia, I slept on a dusty and damp rolled up styrofoam mat on the floor of an airport mosque in Riyadh and early the next morning crossed into Dubai.  Walking through the gold souqs and bazaars of the Emirates, kicking the sand and running into the Persian surf at the Burj al Arab, even climbing to the top of the Burj Khalifa, I felt such a relief to have survived.  I felt golden, like molten gold that has passed through fire and come out clean and rich beyond belief. 
I haven’t written about Saudi for fear of my friends there… but basically I was stationed along the Yemen boarder and my biggest concerns were safety.  (well boredom too, I talked to only two women in four months… both with amazing stories to tell me) but fear was always on my mind.
I'd already been threatened numerous times and been intimidated by locals and secret police thugs, but the nightly news scared me even more.  One local story had a Saudi father cutting off his daughter’s hands for glancing at a man that coughed in her direction.  Another was of a father who murdered his six-year-old daughter after questioning her virginity.  Numerous floggings, sword whippings, and public executions were common.  I even spent time in Riyadh's "Chop Chop Square" where men and women are publicly beheaded.  There was an Indonesian house maid set for beheading that month.  Surprisingly, I was openly cruised by numerous gay men and other teachers in our compound brought local men home with them for sex.  Just knowing that my coworkers and neighbors could be executed publicly for this caused a tremendous amount of stress on my daily life.  I never knew when the door might get kicked in. 
There was also the story of the Emirati blogger who was beaten to death by the police for criticizing his government.  There were numerous dangerous and crazy things that happened in Saudi.  Cars full of teenagers swerved at me on the roads and doubled back to finish the job.   I was constantly called “kaffir” or “infidel” by every kind of muslim… boy, male adult, grandfather, even women mumbling beneath their veils…  Men waved swords at me threatening to cut my throat, and I was stopped and questioned randomly by the police for walking in the city, even struck with a baton and almost arrested if I didn’t immediately return to my apartment.
In the end, when I finally stepped outside of Saudi, I felt a surge of relief and freedom. 
As I have written privately to many of you, teaching Saudi students was like having a staring contest with sand. The students would sit in class and glare with such ancient hatred at me, curse my Jewish name, snap their fingers in my face, openly cheat and lie to me, even joke they could kill me anytime they pleased and my body would never be found. For the first time, teaching became more than  manual labor. I actually hated going to school.
Of course, as in all travel, there were moments of levity and wonder in Saudi.  I did meet a few Arab men who  had some semblance of humanity and thought…  but mostly that time was dominated by the harsh landscape, the amazing and crazy expatriates I encountered, and the overwhelming  adventure of living and attempting to exist in the most closed minded and censored place in the world. 
In the end, the combination of Saudi greed and betrayal forced me to go.  (well… I missed my family too.  Looking at my daughters the moment I got off the plane, that made it all worth it.)
But that first day in Dubai, cleansing myself down by the river and knowing I would be returning to my girls… that was one of the greatest, richest days of my life.

Howard Roark at the Burj Khalifa Dubai

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire.  He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light.”

Leaving Saudi Arabia and arriving safely in Dubai, I feel a rush of freedom I haven’t felt in years.  Like the first man who stepped outside a cave, pointed to the valley and said, there… I’m going to live there.  I felt fearless.
“He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded…”

I taxi from the airport and arrive at the hotel and the boy in uniform carries my bags to the room.  From the open window, I can hear the traffic and the men arguing outside the cafes, but in the distance over the other buildings, there is nothing but the Burj Khalifa rising enormously into the sky, beckoning for me to come.
“Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel.  He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build.”

All roads in Dubai lead to the Khalifa, the world's tallest building.  I've been to Taipei 101, the Petronas Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, and the Tokyo Tower, but she is impossible to avoid, to shun, to not marvel in amazement or bask in her achievement. 
“He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world…”

It had rained that morning and the streets were washed clean and the sunlight gleamed against her glass and steel. 
“That man, the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning.”

From the metro, I turned away from the city buses and decided to walk.  I had spent so much time in Saudi walking from one place to another.  Miles.  My legs have carried me thousands of miles, but these last few were special. 
“Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures because he had stolen fire… Adam was condemned to suffer because he had eaten fruit…”

Because I’m free.  Free from the past, free of that restricted place.  I've paid my debt, and now I’m debt free.  
“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision…”

I spent too many years wanting or regretting, feeling trapped by mistakes.  What a waste of time. 
“His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit.  A man’s spirit, however, is his self.”

I believe every man comes to this conclusion, when he begins his real life.  But to do so you have to fail so mightily.  You have to fall so hard that there is no other way but up.
“Man cannot survive except through his mind.  He comes on earth unarmed.  His brain is his only weapon.”

Standing at the base of the Burj Khalifa, staring into the reflection of the bright sky upon her veils, I can’t help think of Ayn Rand and Howard Roark, the enigmatic inspiration and force of life main character to her monumental The Fountainhead.  His trial. His persecution.  His vindication.  His need to push forward or perish, to create or die, to continue building forever.
“The first right on earth is the right of the ego.  Man’s first duty is to himself.”

So I went to the top, laughing to myself alone at the edge of the desert, the loneliest place on the planet, rising out over the sea.  I have no idea what comes next.  Will the challenges be worse than before?  Will they finally break me and crush me?  Who knows.  I just know that for today, standing at the top of the world’s tallest building, I can't be touched.  They can never hurt me again.  Today, I won.

Daggers Drawn... Feelin' Minnesota

Marathoners, really? You target an inspirational group of historical do-gooders pushing the physical and mental limits of human holiness and that's who you try to destroy?   Joggers in general are health conscious, genial, conservationist minded, fitness nuts, that's your evil Satan? What's next, paralympians? You going to unfasten their wheelchair screws and split their crutches? Why stop there? Let's brake the rakes of the Zen gardeners or burn up all the origamist's folded swans? While you're at it, let's tear down all the art hanging in museums and build a huge burning alter to your ignorance. Don't you get it, good wins! Light defeats darkness. The very next day in schools and churches and hospitals and community centers all across America, people united. They found common ground, built new understanding, and forged better acceptance. You didn't win. You can never win.

There's a reason I haven't written about Saudi or living along the Yemen border.  The madness there, is in every man's eyes. It changed me completely.
But...I'm coming back to normal and... Feelin' Minnesota! 

That's my buddy Zach getting out of the car with his brother and father back home in the land of 10,000 Lakes.  Knowing we both made it out of that Saudi cesspool is a great relief.  I think its time to start telling Saudi Tales... and I'll start with my escape to Dubai.