On flying through Dubai

Amit Chaudhuri writes for the LRB blog about flying through Dubai:

Two months ago, before the so-called (and oft-denied) crash in Dubai’s economy, I saw, rushing to catch a connecting flight, Western tourists gaping at, even photographing, the immense granite walls in the airport, with perfectly measured sheets of water cascading down them. I was reminded briefly of a Bengali proverb descended from colonial modernity: ‘To show a Bangal the High Court’. ‘Bangal’, in Bengali, means, strictly speaking, ‘East Bengali’ (someone from the region that’s now Bangladesh). But, just as north and south, east and west, have country-specific, often prejudicial connotations in, say, the US or in England, so too, in Bengal, ‘Bangal’ denoted a villager, or the opposite of a sophisticate. Calcutta was in West Bengal, and the East, for historical reasons, was seen to be agrarian, feudal, and less developed in ideas and institutions; notwithstanding the fact that a great deal of Bengali ‘high’ modernism was the work of East Bengali migrants.

To take a ‘Bangal’ to see the High Court, then, was to confront the oaf with modernity and power. While watching Western tourists at Dubai airport, I reflected on how many Europeans remain ‘Bangals’ at heart. Development generates its own simple but profound enchantment. I, on the other hand (and this too is an oafish anomaly), look out for old buildings and doors when I find myself in new cities. In Fribourg in Switzerland, I found versions of the specked mosaic floors we have in middle-class apartments in India; in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels there were red stone floors identical to those in my uncle’s (now destroyed) house in South Calcutta; in Cheltenham, noticing balconies, I couldn’t decide whether some memory of light among retired colonials had led to these (for England) unique additions, or whether the balconies themselves produced a special effect of light in Cheltenham. In turn, I’m surprised that more people who visit India – or Dubai, for that matter – don’t chance upon buildings, cornices, and windows that stir some buried, unlooked-for memory that tells them more about themselves and their histories than their guide books (which are about famous monuments) can. Dan Jacobson once told me that this was a habit of looking that migrants have: as we stopped to stare at an astonishing old bench on Hampstead Heath, he observed resignedly: ‘The locals don’t see this.’ In a few days, on my way back to Calcutta, I will be flying through Dubai. I can’t think that it will be any different from how I now imagine it.

Read the rest here.

The photo is by Martin Becka, from a recent exhibition “Dubai, Transmutations” at The Empty Quarter in Dubai, in which Becka used 18th century photo equipment and a view camera from 1857.

Coming back

I was idling through a long layover in Charles de Gaulle airport a few weeks ago, halfway to Damascus, trying to nod off in the terminal but interrupted by the sun coming up over the cold. An Air France flight to Tel Aviv left the gate first, followed two hours later by my flight to Syria. This was in the middle of the war on Gaza, the end of the first week of January. I remember wondering that if Israel was sunny and clear like France was that day, could the passengers, on their afternoon descent into Ben Gurion, see plumes of smoke and the evidence of Gaza burning? Maybe they would see those oddly shaped white phosphorous attacks, which look like a smoke stream of tentacles descending.

The first few weeks back in Sham: there have been a few government-sanctioned protests and rallies for Gaza. I was in Aleppo for a few days, and walked through a mid-morning rally of school children, waving Palestinian and Syrian flags in Aleppo’s central Public Park, chanting the usual chants: ” من روح, للدم, والفداء في الله “From our souls, to our blood, we will sacrifice (for Allah).”

Before last Friday, the Old City was plastered with Gaza rally posters jointly advertising the PFLP, the DFLP, and the Syrian Communist Party. This week there are new, larger posters of George Habash smiling next to the PFLP logo, coinciding with the anniversary of his death. Billboards saying this or that about Gaza are on roadsides and bus stops all over the city — end the occupation, against the aggressions of israel, etc. The favored way of protest in the Old City and in shops in the new parts of town is to spray-paint the Israeli flag on the street (or better attach a large decal of the flag to the pavement, some combined with the American flag and a Swastika) so cars and little trucks and people have to stomp over it to get a croissant, some fruit, or a bootleg dvd.

Satellite tv is a refuge and anger machine at once. Flipping between Al Jazeera English and Arabic, the pictures and montages are gruesome and accurately so. Some call this media hype, but when you live in a neighboring capital a days drive (if borders were open) from the destruction of Gaza and still can’t help feeling disconnected, the immediacy of suffering that makes Al Jazeera’s programming seems essential. It’s not a fair trade with the jingo montages and raving of Fox News, because Fox News doesn’t show violence. The political agenda of Jazeera, and there are many, has through the Gaza war been supplanted by the simple task of communicating suffering.

In lieu of posting many links about Gaza, here is one. A collection of comments from contributors to the London Review of Books. Among them, Eliot Weinberger who writes simply:

1. Who remembers the original dream of Israel? A place where the observant could practice their religion in peace and the secular would be invisible as Jews – where being Jewish only mattered if you wanted it to matter. That dream was realised, not in Israel, but in New York City.

2. The second dream of Israel was of a place where socialist collectives could flourish in a secular nation with democratic freedoms. Who remembers that now?

3. ‘Never again’ should international Jews invoke the Holocaust as justification for Israeli acts of barbarism.

4. As in India-Pakistan, blaming the Brits is true enough, but useless.

5. A few days ago, to illustrate the Gaza invasion, the front page of the New York Times had a large pastoral photograph of handsome Israeli soldiers lounging on a hill above verdant fields. Unquestioning faith in the ‘milk and honey’ Utopia of Israel is the bedrock of American Judaism, and reality does not intrude on faith.