The Arabian Peninsula, and the United Arab Emirates specifically, are an extremely rich area, culturally and geographically speaking. Their art, architecture, and history reach back thousands of years. Which is why I had to go see Timothy Power’s lecture on the ‘UAE and Islamic History’. It’s too bad most everyone else was only interested in the free buffet.
It was a Thursday night lecture sponsored by New York University Abu Dhabi. Similar to TEDtalks, they have speakers come and give presentations on different topics of academic and social interest. In the weeks to come there will be talks ranging from ‘Autism: New Mutations and Gene Therapy’ to ‘Whispers of Abu Dhabi in the Oral Tradition’. The latter will be given in a library.
This particularly night we had the pleasure of Tim Power, an assistant professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at local Zayed University. He gave a detailed history of the ebb and flow of the Arabian Peninsula, with a moderate focus on the UAE. His talk searched through centuries old archaeological finds and the interconnectedness of the UAE and Asia through Indian trade routes. He broached the complicated topic of Islam’s effect on the Arab region and even brought in bits of Nestorian Christianity’s influence. It was a captivating and detailed account of the boom and bust of such an influential culture.
Sadly it lasted only an hour.
When the lecture was done the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Like always, some members asked poignant questions based on the speaker’s points, some asked seemingly unrelated questions about things they were interested in, and a few intellectuals simply wished to state their own knowledge on the subject. None of these really caught me by surprise; I’ve seen enough public forums to believe otherwise. The session ended with a boisterous round of applause, but what stumped me was what followed.
After the claps had ceased the audience cleared quite quickly which jammed the two small exit doors. I immediately thought Tim had made his way to the entrance and, like church members stopping to shake the priest’s hand, this had caused some congestion. But Tim was not at the door. He was still by the stage talking rigorously to a few fellow professor-types. If he wasn’t the reason for the crowd, then what was?
My buddy and I snaked through the multitude to find the unexpected culprit. The hotel hosting the event had provided a buffet… for free. Normally, I would’ve been like, “Score!” But I had a Korean Olympic party to attend. That’s Korean food and Olympics, not a party for the Korean Olympians, that’s next week. Anyway, we passed on the buffet nibblets.
However, it dawned on us, once we had sidestepped the crowd while overhearing a few conversations, that there was a larger hum and debate about the food being served than of the lecture just given. This Assistant Professor at Zayed University had most likely spent weeks combing over the fine details of this proposed impactful presentation and for what? So the 80 or so guests could scamper out quickly after the final question to fill their bellies? I laughed. It was all I could do.
Compassionately, I understand that it was 8 p.m. and most of the crowd had yet to have dinner. But the focus of the evening was not Intercontinental Hotel’s tapas menu. The focus was UAE and Islamic History. Truthfully, when thinking back, there lies within me a slight sadness. Maybe I just don’t understand. Maybe I want people to take more from life. And maybe its because while I am still feeding on the material Timothy Power provided, the devoured hors d’oeuvres of that night’s buffet have long left the attendants’ systems.
Or maybe I’m just hungry. And you know how I get when I’m hungry.
Look at the following advertisement I saw in Bahrain and take a guess on what you think they are selling.
Still nothing? Give up?
A dental clinic?!? I was surprised too. Could’ve been a million things. Mixed Martial Arts fighting class. Face massage. Bathroom deodorizers. Maybe even a Horror Film Festival. Almost anything!
Well, when language fails, there’s always the perception of the eyes that will allow us insight into the visual world. But what if language failing is a good thing? If you spoke the language of Arabic, those advertisements may not have been very interesting. You would’ve seen the picture, read the line, and moved on. But I don’t know Arabic. Other than Shukran, which means Thank You, or Sabagh al Khayr, ‘Good Morning’, I know diddly. I kind of like that though. Don’t you?
It would definitely make traveling and communicating with populations around the world quite easy, but in my book, that wouldn’t be very fun. Imagine having a conversation with someone from a completely different part of the world and knowing exactly why and what they’re saying. BORRRing.
At the tail end of college I studied abroad in Spain. Some of my funnest stories were when I made a complete linguistic fool out of myself. Once, I mistook the word soup for soap and evidently had a 10-minute conversation about what types of soup I like to use to bathe with. Another time, I told the nice middle-aged couple I was staying with that I was excited to be there and they started laughing. At the time I thought they were just laughing to make me feel comfortable. Turns out I had actually said, in Spanish, that I was sexually aroused to be in their company. Uh-oh!
These Tower of Babel moments make life utterly enjoyable, albeit sometimes in retrospect. They prove our flaws and inadequacies. They allow us to own them, apologize, and move on. The great part is they connect us. The defects that we wish to be rid of are actually one of our most useful connection tools. I have never embarrassed myself, while attempting to communicate through a second or third language, and been met with a rude, “How could you not know that?!?” Because people like that we make mistakes. They make them too.
Even here in Abu Dhabi, when I attempt to make some of the guttural sounds that are needed when speaking Arabic, I fail miserably. But in that, it is uncanny how those moments actually make me more endearing to whom I’m speaking. Its fun using your face and hands to attempt to convey what you mean. During that semester in Spain, I enjoyed making a fool out of myself. And I enjoy making a fool out of myself here in Abu Dhabi. In the grand scheme, we’re really ALL fools, it is only in recognizing our shortcomings that we allow ourselves help, progress, and peace.
So go ahead, tell me what you really thought those advertisements were about…
How a supposedly fun night in a Go-Kart almost ended my life.
If I were to ask you what was the first thing that came to mind when you heard the words Go-Karting, I know exactly what you’d picture. Little cars. Big people. Simple tracks. Joyous smiles. Intense and overly competitive glares. Children playing adults. Adults acting like children. And so on. I doubt you’d picture the harrowing ordeal I went through, but harrowing it was.
Al Forsan International Sports resort is a new and exciting facility here in Abu Dhabi that entertains your every whim. Paintball compounds, equestrian tracks, gun and sharpshooting ranges, they have it all. They even have a motor sports arena, which is where my story begins.
Me and a few lads from my Gaelic Football team, about 20, arrived Thursday evening at about seven o’clock. Walking in to the guest services area, men, women, and children of all ages and sizes greeted us. They were wearing red jumpsuits and carrying heavy-duty helmets. The cover your skull and everything close to it kind of helmets. Before I could receive my fashionable outfit and headgear I had to enter my information as a first time guest. And so I did.
- Name: Dylan McShain
- Age: 27
- Name: Dylan Hunter McShain?
- Terms and Agreements (paraphrased): During any and all racetrack activities, Al Forsan is not responsible for any loss of property, bodily damages, injuries, or loss of bodily fluids (last part added).
- Do you accept: Is there a maybe button?
- No there is not. Yes or No: Yes.
That machine was glitched, confusing, AND rude.
We suited up, neck to ankle, in our red outfits and then walked to our de-briefing session. A kind gentleman gave us information on the flags and instructed us on basic kart maneuvers. The kart stood about 3 inches off the ground and had the capabilities to reach upwards of 70 km/h (44 mph). This thing could move. Karting was not a suitable word for what we were about to do. We were about to embark on an adventure of Go-Krashing if we didn’t handle this machine delicately.
Out on the track, we waited for our “Karts” to arrive. While waiting we saw that all of the names of the racers had been posted. When I scrolled past the awesome racing names that the others had chosen – like Eat My Dust, Road Warrior, and Flowers for Algernon – I saw my own “racing” name: Dylan Hunter McShain. Dang It!!! That second name wasn’t a glitch in the system. It was supposed to be fearsome nom de plume. Terrible racing name. And my jumpsuit was bunching in the nether regions. Not a good start!!!
I entered my “Kart” and strapped in only to find my tire flat. The attendant took me to another kart at the front, which moved me from 5th place to 1st place in the starting block. I would not stay there for long. Moments after the warm-up driver got out of the starting lane to let us pass, karts were flying past me on the left and right – literally flying.
I had looked out on the course while waiting. The turns seemed manageable. They were not. My first turn came and I spun out, my vehicle stopping completely. As a fellow racer T-boned me into the rumble strips, I felt the marrow rattle in my wee bones. Uggh!!! We done yet? Checkered flag please! However, I continued on, now a little less assured in my driving abilities. After the 4th spin out I had successfully lost all confidence that I would finish the race in one piece. It was only the 2nd lap. We weren’t even technically competing yet. That came at the fourth lap. We were still in the qualifiers. My fingers hurt.
Nonetheless, I pushed through despite my decrepit digits.
Sharp turn left. Got it. Sharp turn right. Done! U-turn, glide into acceleration, then blow past the starting gate. Bam!! Now I’m getting it. I was even passing a few people. I had gone the entire 3rd lap without one skid, stop, or crash… on FIRE!!! I rounded the bend with a need for speed -
I came up over the small hill to find two karts locked up and congested right in the middle of the road. There was no time to turn or slow down. I was going to hit them dead on at 50 km per hour. Images flashed through my mind of devastating NASCAR crashes. Flimsy pieces of scrap metal, that used to be a car, soaring through the air. Tens of on-looking fans clenching their Bud Light cans as the debris rained fire on top of their heads. Screaming tires and burning grass as the pit crews ran out with extinguishers in hand. Looks of despair spread across their hopeless faces.
It was a good thing I didn’t have a pit crew to witness such carnage. And it was a good thing there were no fans with cans watching the destruction. It was also a good thing that the cars were so low to the ground. The only thing that happened in that moment, as I rammed the side of my fellow footballers Kart, was, what I later saw to be, one of the gnarliest thigh bruises I’d ever seen. Seconds later he drove off rattled as I once again put together my senses.
My joints were aching something awful. I was whiplashed. My shoulders had officially usurped my neck and seized completely into my chin. I… was… done.
I spent the next 6 laps joyriding at a smooth leisurely 25 kilometers per hour. I finished those last laps with 0 crashes, 0 collisions, 0 bruises, and in last place. The racer Dylan Hunter McShain took a measly 20thplace, but he remained intact and alive.
In all honesty, there wasn’t really a time I feared for my life. The karts were safe. The track was safe. Al Forsan had taken all necessary precautions to affirm an enjoyable time. However, it is a big difference driving down the road in a secure metal box than feeling the wind whip against your next when you’re pushing 60 kph. Perceptively, it felt more dangerous.
I’ll probably go back for more sooner or later. But next time, my racer name is going to be ‘Meals on Wheels: Serving up wins since ‘Nam”. Because if you can’t win the race, you might as well win their hearts, even if it does include excruciating joint pain the next day.
Before we get into the meat of today’s cooking lesson, I want stop anyone who would read the title and decide that baking steak is a viable option. It is not. For heaven’s sake, keep your steak OUT OF THE OVEN! Now… let us continue.
Sickness had taken hold of me the night before and had stricken me bed worthy for the entire day. The sun had come up and the sun had gone down, and still, my tookus remained prone. I had made a few raids on the fridge, eating everything that was quick and easy to make, but I was now staring blankly at the tomatoes and chicken broth in my refrigerator at 7 pm. And I was hungry. Calculations started spinning in my head estimating the amount of time each item would take to prepare and how long would I have to be standing to make it?
As I scanned the items numbers popped up in front of each one:
- Frozen Chicken… 30 minutes cooking – 30 minutes standing
- Fried Cheese Dumplings… 20 cooking – 20 standing
- Rice… 15 cooking – 15 standing
- Eggs… 10 cooking – 10 standing – 2 minutes picking the eggshells out of my omelet
- Mayonnaise Sandwich… 5 cooking – 5 standing – 1 eating – 1 minute throwing away disgusting mayonnaise sandwich
At this point, dinner seemed hopeless.
Then I saw it. The beef I had put on the bottom shelf to thaw. I had planned, before the Ebola got me, to make a nice stir-fry for this evening’s meal. That would not be, but this beautiful ole bovine was just waiting to be devoured. The only problem was the prospect of actually cooking it…
- 5 minutes to clean unwashed pan
- 3 minutes to dry meat
- 15 minutes to sauté meat
- 5 minutes putting on the BBQ sauce (I like BBQ sauce)
It would’ve had me standing for hours.
So instead of cooking the steak the way God intended, I lit the flames on my “Guess the Temperature Now” oven, dumped the wet meat on a metal tray, and shoved the whole lot in. Done and done. I set my alarm for 15 minutes and skedaddled back to the sheets gleefully. They were still warm. Success!
But oh, how wrong I was.
When the timer went off, I threw some buttered toast on my plate to complement the meal and retreated once again to my bed. I took a bite. And another bite. And another bite. And another bite. I chewed so ferociously I could’ve eaten through a watermelon, but to no avail. Those tender beef cubes I had spent so much delicate time preparing were now square-ish mounds of Michelin tires. The best, and only thing, I could do was to lick the BBQ sauce off them, eat my toast, and sulk in my hungered state.
I could easily go into a line of complicated thoughts about why trying to save time will actually lose you more of it in the end. Or I could go into greater depth about why and how we should cook steak the right way. I could, but right now, I’m in mourning. I’m sad that what I thought was a brilliantly lazy idea would backfire so disastrously on me. I’m sad that a cow had to die so that I could mis-cook his flesh. I’m sad that I’m hungry. But the saddest part is that my tears of grief and shame will do nothing to soften the baked steak that will never ever be my dinner.
There was something missing in my life. There was giant hole in the corner of my periphery that could not be filled. That was until recently. But to the dismay of my fiancée, it was not her. What was missing was a reclining brown chair that now sits comfortably in the corner of my living room. And oh, how snug it is.
When I got back to Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago I knew I had to start creating some mental space to afford me some sanity in this wild desert world of Abu Dhabi I live in. Between the cars, the construction, and the street-walking feral cats, your stability is sometimes a camel’s breadth away from crumbling. That is of course unless you find things to combat such decay.
Some people here Brunch. Yes, capital letter B. It’s intense. You pay anywhere between 100 and 600 dirhams for an all you can eat and drink buffet, usually on a Friday. It starts around 12 pm in the afternoon and can last into the wee hours of the evening. I tried it once and it nearly ate me alive. I barely escaped its grasp. Luckily, it only demolished my weekend. Could’ve been much worse.
Others here shop. It is quite possible to go a full 365 days buying something from a different retailer in a different mall every day and not scratch the surface of your buyer’s capacity. From Dior to Dunkin Donuts, you can buy pretty much anything and everything here… except peace. For that, I had to look elsewhere. Where? A British man’s living room.
I saw his ad on Dubizzle, a Craigslist like site in the UAE, and I followed up. Turns out he was moving back to the UK and was getting rid of most everything. Including a VERY soothing recliner and ottoman that I nearly couldn’t depart from when I relaxed my cheeks in it for the first time. After prying myself free and loading it into my new Peugeot hatchback rental, I asked him one last question. “How long have you been here?” He replied, “37 years”. Whaaaaaaaaaaa…..t?
This man, who was in his mid-fifties, had survived in a country that in the last 40 years went from a tent strewn oasis to a booming Middle East economical and tourism hub. He had experienced some of the most frustrating and inconveniencing periods of growth that anyone from a first world country might experience as the UAE expanded at rapid rates, and through it all, he had stayed.
I didn’t ask further but I’m pretty sure it was all because of this chair. Well, technically the chair was a gift from his wife 3 years prior, but still. This comfy brown chair touched the bottom of the man whose bottom had probably touched more seats than any foreign born individual in this country… history was in that seat.
But enough about his rear-end, let’s talk about mine. I got the chair home, placed it in its preordained spot, parked my rump in its warm embrace, and put my feet up. As I pulled that lever that sent me sprawling backwards, a small part of my sanity clicked back in place, and I sighed, “Ahhhhhhh. My chair.”
The chair alone won’t afford me the peace and calm that is necessary when dealing with such continuous changes and challenges. But like that lovely little British man, sitting in that chair does seem to make the passage of time a bit more leisurely. I look out my window on the 25th floor of my apartment building and I can feel the crazy slowly melt away.
Next up: A desk… and I’m building it.
Today is my cousin Tim’s birthday.
“Happy Birthday!” I tell him, smile across my face. A bottle of cerveza raised is all he needs on this important day, his birthday. Today honors the birth of a very humble and joyous soul. Facebook wants me to give him a Starbucks gift card of anywhere between 5 and 50 dollars. I’d buy him the card but he’d just end up taking me out for coffee with it anyway. Tim was born in 1982. He would have been 32… he would have been.
Tim was hit and killed in a tragic bus accident in New York City in May of 2011 and never lived to see his 30th birthday. I guess that makes him forever 29. A much better age to be stuck at for the rest of time than those fashion stores that clothe you under the illusion you can stay 21. Who would want that anyway? 21-year olds get terrible car insurance rates.
Tim, however, was happy with whatever age he sat upon. It was just one more year to make memorable. One more year to shine the light within him. Age is a funny thing. Tim had a stroke when he was 18 and lost a lot of his cerebral functions, as well as much of his memory. He had to re-learn a lot of things. It was like God pressed the reset button on his mind.
Before the stroke Tim loved to travel and experience life to its fullest. Some would think that after losing much of their memory, their drive for such things might wane as well… but not Tim. Tim’s love of life was inherent. This is not the case with everyone.
After Tim’s funeral, my brother gave me a wristband that was black on one side, and pink plaid on the other. It was a remembrance band, he told me. We would wear it to remind us of Tim’s love for us and his love for life, so that we may never forget to have either. I still wear that band, and although the band might one day snap and the pink plaid has most certainly faded, Tim hasn’t. Not one bit.
So, today is my cousin Tim’s birthday… Happy Birthday, Tim.