I think spring is inside me. I feel spring awakening, I feel it in my entire body and soul. I have to force myself to act normally. I’m in a state of utter confusion, don’t know what to read, what to write, what to do. I only know that I’m longing for something. . . .
—Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl
The dawn here is like a dimmer switch. The city opens its eyes without rolling over, without stretching. It is just suddenly awake.
I’m sitting on my strangely puffy sofa in my new studio apartment, looking down from the twenty-fourth floor at the empty streets below, the shoreline a mile or so away, wisps of blue sea and sand obscured by skyscrapers. I landed in Abu Dhabi last night. On the radio, an economic expert laughs. He has been discussing Brazil—where he is from—and the interviewer has just asked him why so many Brazilians are unhappy, despite the high rate of economic growth. The expert replies: “You’re asking me as a Brazilian, not as a businessman.” You can hear in his voice that he enjoys being both. Detroit is declaring bankruptcy. They are assessing the value of their art collection. Close to my window, taking up a good third of the view, is what looks like a gigantic, rose-colored golf ball. It is easily the size of a two-story building, and it is perched atop a skyscraper, clad in cool eighties blue-green glass. The sphere is made up of hundreds of hexagonal panels. I could hit it with a stone. A transmitter? A receiver?
Every building I can see seems to be made from the same set of colors: white, lemon, green-blue, a reddish beige. The smaller skyscrapers have a brutalist-glam thing going on. They’re made up of rounded concrete corners, colored glass, arched windows at the top, then a strange narrowing-in at the very base of the building, so that they look like pens balanced on their heads. The taller skyscrapers are much more modern. One looks like a blade of grass. Another is composed in a series of folds, like a hanging curtain. On top of each, a bright white light flares every few seconds.
Last night, these lights were as sharp as a photographer’s flash. Even with the blinds drawn, I couldn’t sleep facing the windows. Now I realize that all of the taller buildings up and down the cornice have these lights. They flash out in silent conversation with each other.
Directly in front of my building and to the left, there is a hole in the city, a block of land that has yet to be developed. Even from up here, I can see it is white sand.
The next day, I meet my students for the first time: seven girls, six boys. I’m teaching in a summer school bridging program for high-achieving Emirati high-school students. This is one of my university’s outreach programs in Abu Dhabi. The students take courses in Leadership, Math, and SAT and TOEFL preparation; I’m going to teach Critical Thinking and Writing for three weeks, then continue to teach them all in New York for ten days. This is my students’ second (and final) year of the program; last summer, they went to Florence. I will be helping them with their personal essay. By the end of summer, they will have begun the college application process.
I’ve been told how transformational the program is. On the first day last year, few students could stand up in front of the classroom and say their name with confidence. Many had never sat in a co-ed classroom, let alone talked to a member of the opposite sex to whom they were not related or who did not work for their family. They had to deal with each other, and with us. In Florence, they also had to deal with stairs, laundry, and mosquitos. Some of them had never been bitten by an insect before. In the morning, all four classes met in the large hall downstairs, and what struck me then was the girls in their black abayas and their massing blackness, the way their small wrists rose and fell in scattershot chorus as they talked quickly and lightly to each other, incessantly adjusting their hijabs, tucking strands of hair away, ducking their heads. Whenever a boy stood, I noticed their slimness, how their bodies disappeared under white robes so it was hard to tell where waist or hip began or ended.
Sitting in the classroom now, I ask each student to tell me something they remember from the summer before. As I listen to their voices in turn (When Amnah broke her ankle! Gelato! Pizza!), what strikes me is how these students’ faces are all studies in individuation: no one looks even remotely like anyone else. One girl has the face of a small fox, her eyebrows as light and large as an awning. Another girl has black eyes, calm hands. The boy in the corner is as slim and as light as a wading bird, but the boy next to him appears to be made of denser material than the others—lead rather than iron. In only three of the thirteen students’ faces can I see what I see in all of my students’ faces in New York: a trained self-awareness in the musculature, the ghost of what they think they ought to look like, so that their faces always approximate attractiveness. If there is any broader automatic calibration at work, I cannot see it yet. Their spoken English is very good.
We are beginning with Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. In New York, before I left, people nodded approvingly at this choice. Right now, however, I am stuck, lost for words—or really, lost for questions. I don’t know where to begin.
“Have you read this book before?”
I know that answer already.
“Do you know what it’s about?”
The words “diary” and “Holocaust” and “World War Two” are mentioned, but this is on the dust jacket, and these are nouns and not sentences. Her being Jewish is not said. I feel like I’ve used up two of my three wishes.
“Let’s read from the beginning, everyone taking a paragraph.”
There’s that magical sound of new books being opened en masse, the glue cracking in bindings, the fluttering of thin pages. The second entry is June 15, 1942. Anne has been given the diary as a birthday present and describes her party, her other gifts, her Jewish school. She gives us a brief description of each classmate. Betty Bloemendaal looks “kind of poor, and I think she probably is.” Jacqueline van Maarsen is “supposedly my best friend, but I’ve never had a real friend.” Rob Cohen “used to be in love with me too, but I can’t stand him anymore. He’s an obnoxious, two-faced, lying, sniveling little goof who has an awfully high opinion of himself.” Albert de Mesquita “came from the Montessori School and skipped a grade. He’s really smart,” she writes. “Leo Slager came from the same school, but isn’t as smart.” Of course, I wonder what my students would write about each other.
At three in the afternoon, I watch a number of SUVs, windows tinted, pull up into the park. One by one, the students climb into the cars, slipping back into their lives with the grace of fish into a stream.
In 1948, well into his five-year exploration of the Arabian Peninsula, the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger visited Abu Dhabi and found a small coastal town dominated by a fort. It was mid-afternoon, and the fort’s gates were shut and barred. “We unloaded our camels,” he wrote, “and lay down to sleep in the shadow of the wall. Near us some small cannon were half buried in the sand.” He was, it seemed, underwhelmed: “The ground around was dirty, covered with the refuse of sedentary humanity..Kites wheeled against a yellow sky above a clump of tattered palms, and two dogs copulated near the wall.” That night, they were invited inside to dine with the ruler of the area, Shakhbut. During the meal, they discussed the war in Palestine. Thesiger’s traveling companion, Bin Kabina, then seventeen years old, was obviously puzzled, whispering to the explorer, “Who are the Jews? Are they Arabs?” Thesiger didn’t include his response.
To Thesiger, Shakhbut seemed “courteous, even friendly, but aloof..I suspected that he mistrusted all men.” Of the fourteen previous rulers of Abu Dhabi, only two had died peacefully. This wasn’t the only reason for Shakhbut’s reserve. For centuries, pearling had been the main source of the income for the coastal region, but in the 1930s, the Japanese began to flood the world market with artificially cultivated pearls and Abu Dhabi’s pearling industry collapsed. It then looked possible, for a time, to transition from pearls to oil. In the 1930s, the British had begun to explore the possibility of oil in the Arabian Peninsula and had negotiated exploration contracts with a number of sheikhs, including Shakhbut, who had used the money to build the fort and employed most of Abu Dhabi’s male adult population for three years. But in 1939, the money ran out again, and World War Two delayed further oil exploration. By the time Thesiger visited in 1950, Shakhbut’s people had been on the verge of starvation for almost two decades. The population was around 2, 000, down from 72, 000 a century earlier. Nearly everything—except dates and fish—was imported. And the British had little interest in modernizing the Trucial States or in investing in infrastructure beyond oil drilling; instead, they played one sheikh off another, intimidating and undermining their authority. Shakhbut negotiated with the British with ever-increasing resentment, stockpiling any money he did receive, afraid, perhaps, of the even more desperate times that might come to pass if oil was never commercially developed as an export. There were no schools, telecommunication networks, hospitals, or even a single doctor in Abu Dhabi. There were also no roads; a photograph of the town in the late 1950s simply shows a maze of tire tracks as far as the eye can see, converging on a few low buildings in the distance.
Thesiger hated cars, as he hated all of the luxuries of a modern, mechanized life. He was well aware that if the British were to find oil in the desert—which he was sure they would—it would mean the end of a way of life for the nomadic Bedouins with whom he traveled. Thesiger had never encountered a people (nor ever would) who got by on so little. Beyond food, water, loyalty, and honor, anything else seemed superfluous: no homes, few possessions (beyond camels and rifles). He wrote:
“All that is best in the Arabs has come to them from the desert: their deep religious instinct, which has found expression in Islam; their sense of fellowship, which binds them as members of one faith; their pride of race; their generosity and sense of hospitality; their dignity, and the regard which they have for the dignity of others as fellow human beings; their humor, their courage and patience, the language which they speak and their passionate love of poetry.”
The desert’s harshness had preserved a way of doing things that had lasted for thousands of years. On its edges, on the coast, the “patina of human history was thick,” but inside the desert, time, memory and space took on different densities. Men remembered events from thousands of years before as if they had happened in their youth. That first night in the fort, Shakhbut’s brothers told Thesiger they had heard rumors of a Christian in the area but disbelieved it, thinking the Bedouin were recalling Bertram Thomas, another English explorer who had passed that way sixteen years before.
It was clear to Thesiger that the increasing number of cars and planes into the peninsula meant that the desert would no longer be a refuge in space or time. He thought the Arab spirit “deteriorates progressively as living conditions become easier.” Rather dramatically, he feared the Bedouin would become, as he put it, a “parasitic proletariat squatting around oil-fields in the fly-blown squalor of shanty towns.” Of course, he was aware of his own culpability in this potential transformation. The maps he drew would allow other foreigners to visit. But he could not bring himself to stay away. His only solution was to lament.
In 1938, the young woman who lived next door to the Franks in Amsterdam was getting married, and that afternoon, Anne leaned out over the balcony to get a good look at the bride and groom in the street. She was caught, accidentally, on camera. It’s the only piece of film footage we have of her, and it’s about five seconds long.
She was eleven years old, fifty feet away from the camera, just one of the bystanders, but we can still see her quick smile, the darkened pools of her eyes, the thick brown hair that flies up a little at the ends. Someone calls to her from the inside of the apartment and she looks back over her shoulder for a second, says something, then turns back. She’s deeply alive to the occasion but also aware—however unconsciously—of the camera. She radiates excitement.
The footage was only discovered by accident, during a larger archival project focused on the city. Looping the footage four or five times, you start to sense the city beyond the shot, its brick, burgher-like efficiency. Everything seems so solid: the white window frames, the trees planted in the sidewalk. We see the edges of a park as the camera pans. A man totters by on a bicycle.
At the same time, halfway around the world, there were salt flats running down to the sea and walls of a fort still being built. There were dhows, pulled up on the beach. A beached dugong provided the dried skin for sandals.
Every morning I catch a shuttle bus from my residential tower to the downtown campus. It’s forty-degree Celsius heat and ninety percent humidity night and day; after twenty seconds outside, you are covered in condensation, which turns imperceptibly, a minute or so later, to sweat. Thesiger visited in November. If he had visited in July, he would have found the town deserted. Everyone would have moved to the Buraimi oasis, one hundred miles north. In other words, Abu Dhabi has never found this heat particularly bearable.
The shuttle bus slowly motors down a series of one-way streets, moving in ever-decreasing rectangles, then suddenly taking a right turn or a left, only to narrow in again. It’s an incredibly inefficient route: half a mile as the crow flies, but almost two miles on the bus. Each block is ten-times larger than a New York block and the buildings do not directly abut each other, standing instead like gap-teeth, arranged around an empty square, which might also contain a parking lot or a mosque or a series of small grocery stores. So in order to travel three blocks, the driver has to travel out of one block, through an intersection, along the edge of another block, then find his way inside a third. Most journeys in the city are this way; you approach, tacking like a yacht.
It’s only when I fly above Abu Dhabi that I see that the city looks like a computer’s motherboard, each block a chip, a cluster separated from the others by the wide roads. By then, I know that Emiratis live in large family compounds that are also arranged this way. Quite often, a family will often own an entire street of buildings; their neighbors are their brothers and sisters, their cousins, their grandparents. The more suburban streets of Abu Dhabi, which often resemble housing developments—one block in one style, the next block in another—are also matter-of-fact modern examples of clan living. In New York, what counts is what you look out on. In Abu Dhabi, it’s what’s inside. Roads are not generally numbered; addresses are determined instead by distinctive buildings. Mail is not delivered to individual houses but to post boxes. Whenever I get into a cab, I only have to give the name of the building or, at most, the name of the street. The city is modern, but its structuring assumptions are not.
On that daily bus ride, we pass a construction site. On the walls there are printed photographs of the fort, one from the early 1950s. This is what it looked like when Thesiger visited. They are restoring the building. Waiting at the lights, another bus pulls up alongside. It’s a public bus, and its route number alternately flashes between Arabic and English: bus no. 42, toward the British Club. On the side of another bus, there is an advertisement for something (Tea? Dates?), which features a group of young Emirati men, dressed in their keffiyeh, reclining on a rug, holding small glasses of tea up to each other in a rapturous brotherly understanding. Arab hospitality. Beyond them, dunes march up and down into an infinity of red-brick gold. In the supermarket that night, I find an impressive array of very raisiny, fruitcakey British desserts—far more than there would be in an American supermarket. British hospitality.
Here on the coast, at the edges of Thesiger’s happiness, what he described as a patina feels more like albumen; tilt your gaze one way and history seems to slide to one side, the view of half a century before suddenly, effortlessly revealed. It reminds me of a dislocated kneecap, but there’s no pain. In Abu Dhabi, you can push the present to one side. The ligaments that should be there to stop you from doing so aren’t. There’s a freedom—or at least, a swiftness—in seeing the past so immediately. You find yourself absentmindedly playing with the edges of things.
Thesiger stayed in Abu Dhabi for twenty days, visiting the market, drinking coffee and eating sweets, wandering on the beach, watching the dhows being caulked and treated with shark oil. He then travelled north to the Buraimi oasis to meet another of Shakhbut’s brothers, Zayed bin Sultan, who was living in Al Ain.
The Bedouin admired Zayed; even if he lived on the edge of the desert, he also knew how to survive in it. He knew about camels, could ride them well and had fought with distinction. Thesiger described his initial impressions at length: “He was a powerfully built man of about thirty with a brown beard,” he wrote:
“He had a strong, intelligent face, with steady, observant eyes, and his manner was quiet but masterful.He was distinguished from his companions by his black head-rope, and the way he wore his head-cloth, falling about his shoulders instead of twisted round his head in the local manner. He wore a dagger and cartridge-belt; his rifle lay on the sand beside him.”
Every day, he would receive visitors and petitioners from the six villages he controlled, and Thesiger noted how well he settled the disputes brought to him. Zayed seemed a natural leader.
In 1966, Zayed became the leading ruler of Abu Dhabi, taking Shakhbut’s place. It was, it seems, a bloodless coup, but I can find very little information about it. “I suspect that he mistrusted all men,” Thesiger wrote.
One of his Zayed’s first acts was to give away all the money Shakhbut had stockpiled. He literally opened the palace doors and started handing out cash. Two years later, when the British withdrew from the Arabian Peninsula east of the Suez, Zayed sensed Iran and Saudi Arabia’s geo-political ambitions and proposed to the rulers of neighboring sheikhdoms that they form a union. Bahrain and Qatar declined, but Zayed managed to unite seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Umm al Qawain, Fujairah, and Ajman. This is how the United Arab Emirates came to be. In 1971, Zayed declared the union, and became the country’s first president—a position he held for thirty-four years, until his death in 2004.
By the early 1970s, the oil had really started to flow. Several large oil reserves were discovered just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, and Zayed negotiated lucrative contracts with the oil companies, continuing, counter to general Western economic strategy, to give out large cash handouts to Emiratis. (The amounts I heard ranged from ten thousand dollars to one million USD.) These payments also happened more than once; the first time around, some families spent the money unwisely. Zayed encouraged other families who had left during the decades before to return and worked to preserve Emirati ownership of the country’s assets, requiring every business in the UAE to be half-owned by an Emirati. On turning twenty-one, every Emirati male was (and still is) entitled to three pieces of land: one residential, one commercial, and another industrial. (“How do you get the land?” I asked one chaperone. “You email,” he said.) Abu Dhabi raised itself from the desert. Millions of laboring migrants from South-East Asia were brought in to build the city. Roads and bridges were built, hospitals opened.
When Thesiger returned in 1977, he was horrified. He found a city of hotels—the spirit of hospitality incarnate—defined by the comforts he had thought would corrode the Arab spirit. His companions bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, who had both been teenagers when they crossed the desert, were now men with gray in their beards and children of their own. But they weren’t proletarian. They owned Land Rovers and lived in concrete houses. As a mark of respect, they escorted him in a procession of cars, horns blaring, up the highway. There were helicopter rides and television cameras. It was worse than he had thought: his Bedouin weren’t suffering. “They had adjusted themselves to this new Arabian world,” he wrote, “something I was unable to do.” Emiratis made up ten percent of the population and controlled all of the country’s wealth. But Thesiger’s description of Zayed—published decades ago—had become one of the founding texts for the nation. In my month there, I saw Thesiger quoted over and over again in newspapers and at museum exhibits. Emirati women and men told me they have copies of Arabian Sands at home.
It must have been (and might still be) a distinct pleasure for Emiratis to holiday in London from the 1970s onwards, to drive their Maseratis at top speed through Hampstead, to go on spending sprees at Harrods, to picnic in Hyde Park. Within living memory, they had become exacting guests of a culture that had tried, for most of the twentieth century, to remove most of their political, economic, and social agency. It is not unreasonable to think that Zayed’s moderate reputation (especially in the context of the Middle East) came from this commercialism, from liberating his people into luxury.
But this is still all so recent. My students’ parents are as old as their country. Their grandparents predate the existence of their nationality. It’s not surprising that the blood that binds is, still, not country but family and tribe. My students know each other’s families as well as some might characterize the Guggenheims or Pulitzers here. They know and debate families as we know and debate sub-cultures. This kind of familial thinking is too far back in my own Scottish, Irish, and English heritage for me to really understand what that feels like, how wealth and influence can be thought of in terms of a family’s capacity rather than an individual’s.
On the flight back, Emirati Airlines announces that they’ll be offering family-friendly flights, supplying one-on-one nanny-stewardesses. They also promise that if you buy two first-class tickets, they’ll ship your car to your destination for free.
The first assignment I set for my students is to write a biographical sketch of their lives. Anne set this as an assignment for herself in the first few pages of her diary; she wrote about where she was born, her father’s business, and how they came to live in Holland. This is what Amnah writes:
I’m the eldest in one household, but I’m considered the 4th in another. I was born in Dubai, but I never lived there. I’m a 16-year-old, but I’m a senior at school. I read a lot, but I don’t consider myself a writer. I’m curious, but not nosy. I’m funny, but I might be lame. I’m not perfect, but I’m a perfectionist, most of the time. People always declare themselves as a unique or one of kind individual. I’m not one of those people. I get tired. I get sick. I am human. People are all the same to me, but they are also different in specific ways. I’m not different, and I’m not perfect.
My friends always claim that I act like a mother and that’s because I care. I try to help everyone, but sometimes I push it. I treat people like I’d like to be treated. I make mistakes. I talk a lot yet I don’t talk at all. I try to never give up and achieve what I have in mind, but sometimes things don’t go as planned. Success is the main goal in my life. Education is considered one of my priorities. I work hard to achieve what I what. And I always try to think before I act. As I said before, I’m not perfect.
In the end, it’s me and if I can’t change that then I have to deal with it. I’m not different and I’m not the same. I’m okay with that. I’m the same as everyone else, yet I’m different because I might think differently. I dream. I dream of achieving my goals and to be successful in life. This sounds like a riddle and that’s fine. I’m Amnah and I’m as much of riddle as this sketch is.
I’ve read this ten or fifteen times now, pausing at the end of each sentence. Eldest in one household, fourth in another. Are these houses on separate streets? I feel like I’m following Amnah through a series of rooms in a museum. She turns, pivots, tells me something, turns again, pushing the doors to the next gallery open. She is specific one moment, vague the next, and I’m unsure if she thinks I would register the difference. Her silences are like lakes. I dream. I dream of achieving my goals and to be successful in life. Why is that a riddle?
Of course, I don’t say any of this when I mark her assignment. Instead, I write “Great!” on her hard copy and hand it back. That same week, we read an entry from Anne’s diary where she lists the anti-Jewish decrees that were passed soon after Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940: “Jews were forbidden to use streetcars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own; Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 p.m.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors.”
Rashid—a beanstalk of a boy, quiet, with huge eyes and an impressive Afro barely restrained by his keffiyeh—reads this paragraph out loud. The list goes on and on, and an incantatory power of the forbidden takes hold in the room.
Hamdah puts up her hand. “Miss,” she says, “why were the Jews not liked?”
“It’s got something to do with Israel,” Ameenah says.
Silence. The students are uneasy. I tell them that Israel hadn’t been formed then. I try to explain anti-Semitism. They say nothing. Who are the Jews? Are they Arabs?
In study hall later that day, Ameenah tells me that at her high school—where they do the International Baccalaureate—the sections of her history book that deal with the Holocaust and the Second World War have been glued together. Her mother is amazed that they are allowed to read Diary of a Young Girl. I tell her members of the royal family have approved of our course content, and she nods, still uneasy. We watch an excerpt from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you would recognize the footage: Riefenstahl loves to linger on the beautiful faces of children who in their thousands ecstatically welcome Hitler to the arena and to the podium. The kids beat on their drums, play their trumpets. Hitler yells of peace. He does not look up to the left or to the right. Anne would’ve been just starting school then.
The students shake their heads. They cannot reconcile this film with another I’ve shown them—namely, footage taken by Allied troops of various concentration camps. We watched the slow pans over piles of corpses, or worse, the single bodies scattered here and there, which, by their very virtue of being unmoved, show how death was everywhere. Asma is very upset by the images of American and British soldiers dragging the dead to a burial pit. “At least they could’ve carried them,” she says.
The horror on their faces is so fresh. They might be able to exhaustively discuss the minor plot points of Game of Thrones, but they barely know the internet search terms for those burial pits. The camps must have been isolated, they say. I show them a map of Germany, the camps marked not in the tens, but in the hundreds. I also tell them about cycling two summers ago through northern Germany, about coming upon old guard towers and knowing that this meant I was drawing close to a town. In their disbelief they show an innocence that seems so rare. We consider the etymology of the word, “holocaust.” It’s from the Greek holos kaustos: a whole burning, an animal sacrifice, utterly consumed. We talk about the implications of this word in relation to another, “shoah,” the Hebrew word for catastrophe.
Every day in the campus caf, over lunch, I read the National newspaper, which is one of the biggest newspapers in the UAE, and which also happens to be in English. On at least three separate occasions, I read lengthy profiles of Zayed. It’s not that they’re celebrating a particular anniversary: Zayed is just innately newsworthy. These articles vary from each other only slightly in their recitation of his fairness, toughness, and generosity.
The letters to the editor reinvent the genre. For one, they are very short. “Sheikh Zayed was a true leader and the father of the nation,” one reader writes. “I wish we could have leaders like Baba Zayed in Pakistan.” Another writes, “Sheikh Zayed was a very wise leader and a true visionary.” A third: “May God have mercy on the soul of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. I hope your readers will kindly say Surah al Fatihah [the first chapter of the Quran] for Sheikh Zayed.” They are all greetings and salutations that confirm rather than correct. In every building we enter, Zayed’s portrait is prominently displayed in the lobby, usually as part of a triumvirate: Zayed in the center; the current Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi on the right; Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE, on the left. Regardless of how new these paintings are, they always have the look of old-fashioned studio portraits. They are nearly all based on the same photograph. The men look into the future, aware of our gaze: great men, kind and fierce in equal measure. Barely knowing this culture, this broad patriotism stand out. Repetition without variation feels ominous.
In the photographs we have of Anne, she also stares off into the distance: precociousness personified, a girl with gumption. We have seen this image so many times it has become a trope. Everyone likes a child hero; for some reason, we assume that she can be pure, that she need not ever be complicated. This is not the girl who writes mean things about her classmates. The films that have been made about Anne generally treat her as a martyr for some kind of ethical humanism, a poster child for the U.N.
Irresistibly, I find myself wondering about the details of Zayed’s life that are passed over in silence. Hard decisions are inevitable in any position of power, and there is very little record of those choices. This hagiographic vagueness is like the humidity. At night, I go out with a friend of mine from New York who now works in Abu Dhabi as a journalist. He tells me stories about the thousands of migrant workers living on the outskirts of the city in labor camps that barely have a name. Those who strike over working conditions are deported en masse. There is no naturalization process for non-Emiratis in the UAE; you are always here at somebody’s invitation. There are no movies made about these people. Their thoughts, the details of their day-to-day existence, have not been admitted into the public record yet—at least, not into English.
Write about a daily routine, I tell my students. They interpret routine to mean the whole day, rather than Anne’s particular practice of peeling potatoes or bathing rituals or preparing for bed. I receive paragraphs that describe the experience of teenagers all around the world: hard to rise, quick to breakfast, school, friends, television, computer games. This commonality ought to be reassuring, but I push them for details. What kind of newspaper articles do you read? What kind of conversations do you have with your father? What are your aunt’s poems about?
They do not see the point in amassing this kind of evidence, and I hesitate in trying to justify my insistence. I cannot ask them to reflect on their lives if they cannot describe them to me. I say this. But I do not ask them what the consequences will be if we are taught to only ever notice the general. My fear is probably misplaced; it’s not that they don’t know the difference between the specific and the general. Amnah shows me this. But what each word means to them may well be different from what it is to me.
Whenever I grow anxious I am foisting a history lesson on them, I return to Anne and her fierce descriptions. Listen to her writing about her parents’ marriage, I say, and read out loud: “No quarrels or differences of opinion—but hardly an ideal marriage.Father’s not in love. He kisses her the way he kisses us. He never holds her up as an example, because he can’t. He looks at her teasingly, or mockingly, but never lovingly. She loves him more than anyone, and it’s hard to see this kind of love not being returned.” When I read this, I hear Anne’s sympathy. When the class hears this, they are silent for a moment, and then Asma says, “She should not have written this.” I am trying to work out if they think it is too honest, judgmental, or cruel. Do they have a problem with Anne thinking it or Anne writing it? I feel paralyzed by the sense that every emotion I discern might well be another.
When we acknowledge one day that there might be very little difference between the rhetoric of a man like Hitler and a leader with good intentions, Rashid—he of the shy but excellent smile—tilts his head very gently and suggests that it is not words that count but actions. “I feel very lucky to grow up here,” he says. “We have had wise, kind leaders.”
I know, instantly and certainly (for once), that he believes what he is saying. And maybe he is right. Maybe my students know how to take the rhetoric more lightly than I do. After all, regardless of what we say or don’t say, we are sitting in downtown Abu Dhabi, in an air-conditioned room. Zayed brought his people into the modern world. The city tells us so. Every afternoon, I use the gym on the top floor of my residential tower. As I use the running machine, I gaze out over Abu Dhabi, the edges of the desert in the far distance. Afterward, I swim in the small pool on the building’s roof, very mindful that I am floating forty-five floors up. On the bottom of the pool there is a tile mosaic of two dolphins, dancing together. I’ve seen the same mosaic in leisure industries the world over, in Greece and Australia. I think a lot about the fact that these dolphins are so familiar to me. Repetition without variation is also crucial to a global sense of luxury. I can imagine this line in a hotel management textbook.
I am starting to understand why I see very few people in the street. During Ramadan, you cannot eat or drink in daylight hours, generally between the first prayer (usually around 4 a.m.) and sunset (around 7 p.m.). All over the city, those who can sleep during the day or lie in darkened rooms, watching Ramadan television specials. People often only venture out at night. The malls open at 8 p.m. and close at 2 a.m. Teaching the hours we do, we are living out of sync with the city around us. The students tolerate this with polite resignation. When they are in their other classes, I duck into the campus caf for lunch. Numerous screens have been erected to cover all the windows and doors; if there’s natural light, it means that someone can look in. Strangely enough, there are echoes here with how the Frank’s lived: their blackout curtains and nocturnal routines (for fear their tread might alert workers in the factory below). I don’t know what to do with this congruence; it feels cheap and real at the same time.
Anne writes about moldy potatoes and spinach. Each night, we eat at a different hotel restaurant or banquet hall. We are served small mountains of mixed grill meats, which we never come close to finishing. I am becoming an expert in the various desserts you can make with milk, sugar, pistachio, spices, and thickening agents. I am putting on weight. One night, we go bowling with the students. Another night we go-kart. The sounds of the pins dropping or the engines revving are obscenely satisfying. These are the sounds that signify a result. On the drive home in the evening, we often drive along the Corniche, and every twenty meters or so we pass green-and-white fairy lights wired into different shapes, wishing me a Ramadan Kareem. Other lights spell out the star and moon or a minaret. The traffic is picking up. These, it seems, are the details that matter. I can’t work out whether I feel like a vampire or if everyone else does. Either way, it’s a painless bloodletting.
I have my first Turkish Hammam, which involves lying on a large slab of black polished granite in a room also made entirely of black granite and having a Filipino woman (also called Laura) rub oil and hot water over my body, before scrubbing me down with a loofah. I lie there and watch the dead skin being sluiced off me in disconcertingly large, soggy pieces, and I think, so this is what a desert sacrifice looks like. I do not need to kill anything, practice deception, or even forget. I just need to pay. Now I glow.
Write about a complicated relationship in your life, I tell my students. They do their best not to. If they admit to any tension in these accounts, it is resolved almost immediately. For instance: “My father wanted me to do engineering, but I was interested in law. Eventually, I realized that my temperament was much more suited to the hard sciences.” (I can hear the pins dropping.) They read American sample college application essays and are completely nonplussed by how revealing they are. What looks to us like self-reflection appears to them as weakness. I’m living in a fairytale land, in a modern-day kingdom of princes and princesses, all living in the happily-ever-after. As the days go by and no further details are forthcoming, I start to feel, vertiginously, that maybe it is possible to love your family in such a guileless way, that maybe what I am pushing for just isn’t there. For the first time, I see that my existence isn’t simple partly because I do not know how to discard that which is not simple. I am over-stimulated and self-indulgent. My demons are of my own making.
Most days, when we are waiting for others to finish dessert or for the bus to arrive, a colleague and I play a card game called Anomia with the students. This is how you play: on each card, there is a category (e.g. artist, condiment, jazz musician, blues musician, currency, famous address) along with a colored symbol. Moving around the circle, everyone takes it in turns to flip a card over from the pile. If your colored symbol matches another’s, you have to quickly shout out an example of their category.
The fastest to answer wins the card. The winner of the game is the person who accumulates the most cards. We always start off quietly, mindful of the semi-public space around us, hissing our answers. But as more students join in the game, the volume rises, until we’re all yelling; the louder you are, the more likely the others are to credit you with getting the word out first. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” we cry, pointing, fingers stabbing the air, when we see the symbols suddenly match and cannot think of an answer. Our brains are caught in mid-flight like a ball intercepted. If we win, we palm the card with glee. There is no shame in loving the victory. We all love losing track of our own self-consciousness, even if it’s only for twenty-minutes or so.
I am very aware that Anomia is teaching me about America. I am expected to know brands but not politicians, poets, countries in Asia, or African currencies. I should know the tools of blue-collar professionals but not white-collar ones. I need to know household pests, pets, extinct species, and dinosaurs, but I do not need to know about anything living in the wild right now. Sometimes, the other faculty and I come up with the same answer with a kind of collective osmosis. James and I simultaneously call out “Happiness” when a card marked with “Emotion” is turned over. (We all, without really noticing it, refer to the building next door as “the golf-ball building.”) Our instincts match. It’s an involuntary comfort.
It’s not surprising to me that the students stumble over some of these categories. They are flummoxed by artificial sweeteners and mystery novelists (even though half of them are reading The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie), and I feel a pang of guilt every time they turn to me uncertainly and ask me to explain what a condiment is or what the difference is between a musical and rock musical. They memorize the names of a few jazz musicians, chanting them over and over again. Dave Brubeck. Miles Davis. What’s more startling is how easily, on the whole, they play the game. American pop culture is a universal social lubricant. Their young brains are swifter than ours. Once they have memorized answers to the more alien categories, they begin to win.
I want to play their version of Anomia—or at least, hear what their categories might be. I want to know their nouns. But it is such a relief to simply play with them. Of all the acculturation going on during these weeks, these games are the most innocent, crude, and effective.
One weekend, when the students have gone home to see their families, the faculty are flown to Bani Yas, a wildlife island park, which was, until relatively recently, entirely restricted to Sheikh Zayed, his family, and private guests. Mustafa, our Moroccan driver, tells us that if he were to hit and kill an animal on the island, he would automatically garner a large fine and a six-month stint in jail. No one is allowed to hunt here, a far cry from Thesiger’s account of a month-long hawking expedition with Zayed in Buraimi. Salukis—which they did not consider a dog, and therefore not unclean—were used to pursue injured bustards and to flush out hares and foxes. But these days, it is all about eco-tourism. It is not, however, about sustainability. All fresh water is piped under the sea from the mainland. In one valley, acacia trees have been planted in the shape of a coffeepot; apparently, it’s visible from space. Arab hospitality. I’m accumulating nouns for this category.
On a ninety-minute safari drive across the island, we see herds of ibex and ostriches, goat and oryx. Some of them are indigenous to the Arab peninsula, but others are gifts from countries as far-flung as Africa and Madagascar. These animals never belonged. Every time Mustafa says “antelope,” I keep on mishearing him as saying “interloper.” On top of one hill, we drive within ten feet of two cheetahs (brothers) lounging by a large water tank. They seem bored by our arrival and do everything to not meet our eyes.
At the island’s five-star resort, over lunch, I’m sitting next to a middle-school teacher from Brooklyn, who does yoga, who wears stretchy-drapey clothes, and who says, quite matter-of-factly, that although she believes in environmentalism and bio-diversity, she cannot, for the life of her, bring herself to care at all about the animals she just saw.
“I just don’t,” she says, politely amazed at the depths of her own detachment. “I mean, I get they’re alive. I get they’re amazing. But I just can’t care about them.”
Detachment, it turns out, is very contagious. It’s in the water. After lunch, we have a handstand competition in the pool. I sit in the shallow-end and read Thesiger. His Bedouin companions could tell from a camel’s tracks and droppings what kind of camel it was, whether it was male or female, if it was in calf, when it was last watered, and where it was grazed. They could tell what kind of load it was carrying. They could tell who rode it, if it had just been used in a raid or if it had been recently stolen. They could recognize individual camels they had seen only once and years before. Who observes animals this way anymore?
Arabian Anomia. Camel no longer serves as a category—for me, or for my students. Zayed is a supra-category. Zayed is an answer to more than one thing. Even when I am not in the pool, I feel like I am floating.
On the plane ride back, we discuss likely outcomes if the zombie apocalypse were to occur while we are in Abu Dhabi. Something about the deserted streets brings out the inner apocalyptic in us all. We do not rate our chances well.
The first morning of class in New York, we take the students on a walk down University Avenue to Washington Square Park and on to Rocco’s Pasticceria. I want them to try cannoli. They don’t like it; too creamy. But they love the cheesecake and the coffee. This place is like The Godfather, one student says, and the wait staff must overhear this because shortly afterward, I hear the waltzing melody in the background—an act of kindness that goes unacknowledged.
We walk back to class in the cool morning air and my students bounce next to me, falling in love with my city. They are obsessed with spotting celebrities, slightly freaked out by all of the dogs, and cannot be persuaded that dog runs are the places to spot the objects of their affection. In the Strand Bookstore that afternoon, they also fall in love with the idea of old books. One student screams when she brushes up against a small Pekingese in the fiction section, and there is a flurry of embarrassed laughter and shushing noises.
“I want to talk to black people,” Hessa says, pouting very prettily. On the morning we left Abu Dhabi, she arrived at the pick-up point dressed in a black beanie, Kanye West tank top and Rihanna hoodie. She had the hoodie custom screen-printed, she explained, based on YouTube videos. She has found out that Rihanna is also in Manhattan for the week and wants to stake out Da Silvano’s.
By the time we landed in New York, some of my female students have removed their abayas, though they all continue to cover their hair in some fashion over the next eight days. Their bodies amaze me; many have the frail slimness of older women.
Each night, I cycle back to my own apartment and dream about them, feverish, obsessively logistical dreams that in the morning I can barely remember. I listen to Rihanna every morning, cycling back up over the Brooklyn Bridge to class. At every opportunity, Hessa suggests we visit Da Silvano’s. She knows it’s a ten-minute walk away, and the proximity is killing her. They are growing bolder. Ramadan has ended, and it’s a pleasure to see them eating during the day, absentmindedly opening bags of chips, selecting fruit from a platter. One night, we do Times Square. They love The Lion King. It’s my first Broadway musical, and I’m shocked by the smallness of the stage and production scale. Spiderman was supposed to be a letdown after this? One elephant, one leopard, four dancing gazelle women, two zebra. I can’t help but obsessively count every animal on stage. This is it? This is the circle of life? Interloper. There is one leopard puppet, controlled by a woman. She stalks around the stage, refusing to meet any other animals’ eyes, let alone ours. No matter my longing, every version of nature I seem to find these days seems so artificial. (If there is any kaustos here, any sacrifice, it is unbearably partial.) The singing is beautiful, but the African harmonies rest very uneasily against the artificiality of the film’s cartoon conventions, which are translated so literally on stage: Timon, the meerkat, is a life-size puppet strapped to a short curly-haired guy wearing a green suit and in green face. That we are meant to see this as magic amazes me. The seams are so visible; the whole thing creaks.
But my students’ eyes shine with excitement in the intermission, and I feel guilty for still having trouble with their sincerity. Birthright matters. Honor matters. This is why Simba exiles himself. “My father’s name is a precious thing,” Amnah wrote in one of her exercises. “My every action will reflect on him.” I am not used to thinking of my moral failings as a public affair; I never imagined that my sins could be passed backward, onto my parents, but it makes perfect sense to my students, as well as the manner of this story’s telling. In the intermission, I look out over Times Square and I think that all of this—the entertainment, the technology, the excitement—might be more foreign to me than it is to them.
But there is one moment in the musical in which I am moved, despite myself. It’s the bit I always fast-forwarded through when I watched The Lion King as a kid: namely, when Simba’s father dies, trampled by wildebeest. This time around, I’m not worried about it being sad, only that I’ll be bored even at this moment. How are they going to evoke thousands of wildebeest pouring down over the lip of the cliff and into the valley? (Right then, my confidence is not with the individual or particular; I needed the thundering, crushing weight of mindless generalization.) And their solution delights me. They divide the stage into four sections, near to far. At the back, at the top, there is a twenty-foot-long wooden spool, on which they have a roll of paper printed with wildebeest (from a bird’s eye view) that scrolls down and down again: wildebeest wallpaper. Then, closer, there is another large wooden spool, this time with wooden wildebeest sculptures stuck to it—toothpick hors(e) d’ouevres—turning over and over again. In front of that, there are actors dressed in wildebeest costumes, dancing and prancing. And at the very front, other dancers jerk and prance under gigantic wildebeest heads. The effect is hyper-instructional: small to big, far to near. This is how you convey scale, in stages. Whereas the cartoon made a virtue of speeding up all of those still images, approximating the natural blur of our eye and its effortlessness, the musical slows it down, turns our sight back into frames.
I marvel at the forthrightness of the effect. The scene has precociousness to it, the feel of a very bright child working their way around a problem rather than solving it. It is a playful acknowledgement of one’s own limits. Maybe this is how you deal with distance, with the problem of perspective, with the dangers of translation. You break it down. You make it false, knowing that this aggressive neatness has its own kind of pleasure. Maybe this is how my students and I should be constructing the stages of our interpretation. I have told them so little about what I am actually thinking. But if I rendered my frames of reference—Western, female, New Zealand—as bluntly as those wildebeest, my simplification might slow everything down enough for us to be able to understand which cultural muscles we are actually using: the tendons stretching beneath the skin, the ripple of one limb extending away from another.
In the rush of New York, we have stopped reading The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne feels further away here than she did in Abu Dhabi, though I know it should be the reverse. Anne’s family tried to emigrate here before they moved to Holland, but the United States rejected their application. If they had gotten through, it’s possible they would’ve settled in New York, that her father, Otto Frank, would have begun another business selling pectin and herbs and spices. The warehouse might’ve been in Brooklyn, below the bridge I cycle up and over. I see women on the street every day that could be her grandchildren: that quick smile, the thick brown hair. Yet the airlessness of her life in the annex is missing here. New York is blessedly cool for August. The crickets sing.
Anne died in Bergen-Belsen with her sister, Margot. The family was discovered—probably because of a tip-off—by the S.S. in August 1944, and all eight members of the annex were first transferred to Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland, before being separated. Margot and Anne were transported to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen. By then, it was the middle of winter. According to other prisoners’ recollections, the sisters had the worst beds in the barrack—next to the door—and you could hear them constantly calling, “Close the door, close the door.” Their voices grew weaker. They were both suffering from typhus. Hallucinating, in horror of the lice and fleas, Anne threw her blanket and clothes away. Days later, Margot fell out of bed and couldn’t get up. Anne also died shortly afterward. Barely a month later, British troops liberated the camp. The sisters may not have been carried.
But in summer, it is so hard to actually imagine winter. One evening, we do trust exercises at Chelsea Piers that involve the rolling of golf balls along bits of drainpipe. There is a pizza party afterward. Another evening, we visit the Empire State Building and marvel at how pink the city looks, how quiet it all seems down there as well as up here. The hundreds of people on the viewing platform with us barely have anything to say to one another either. In these last days of the course, the students are working on their Common Application for college. They spend hours researching various colleges. Dream schools. Safety schools. I think the terms hit them too.
But the next day, we read Langston Hughes’s poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?” First, I write the title on the whiteboard, and ask them to come up with their own answers. To a student, their responses are extremely literal, instinctively tautological. You do not follow your dreams. I think of Amnah and her earlier exercise. I dream. I dream of achieving my goals and to be successful in life. So I give them Hughes’s answers—the rest of the poem—which are in the form of more questions:
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
When they were in Abu Dhabi, my students participated in a class debate about the Arab Spring. The negative team won, arguing that it had not been, in fact, a success. Too much misery, they claimed. Too much death. One evening, I overheard a chaperone talking about the Arab Spring. “One season is not enough,” he says. “You need to have an Arab Fall and an Arab Winter. Things need to die off. You need a whole year.” They want to wait. I want to wait. We enjoy deferring. As Thesiger noted, a spring in southern Arabia was a rare event, with “bitter winters” turning swiftly into “blazing summers” with no interval. Bin Kabina, who was the same age as these students, could remember only three in his life.
Like a syrupy sweet. We discuss non-violent and violent conflict resolution. That I use these terms shows how wary I am to show them my passion, even this late in the course. I never wanted to be the Western-liberal teacher, thinking I could arrive on a white horse, call up and rescue them from their towers. That always seemed the worst kind of condescension. But I also desperately want them to see that in talking about Hughes’s dreams, we are also talking about Anne’s dreams, and theirs’. I cannot stop wanting them to want, regardless of the exact nature of the dream. They would look at me blankly if I said this. After all, the thing they want to do more than anything else in New York is shop, and purchasing is desire incarnate. I want, therefore I shall have. Chanel is out of the espadrilles in Khadijah’s size. Tiffany’s has the key charm Mahrah wanted. One day, the four girls I’m shopping with witness a catfight between two African-American women in a Soho American Apparel store. Hessa was there, taking it all in, and she seems satisfied. She’s seen black people up close, in the wild. Their dreams of being a real-life New Yorker, they say, have come true. And how can I tell them I am talking of a different kind of dreaming, without imposing my own categories?
As a kind of work-around, I ask them what keeps them awake at night, what worries them. “The maintenance of a tradition,” Tarek replies. But they find it hard to describe what that tradition is. It is supposed to predate the modern city of Abu Dhabi, but most of their day-to-day custom is fundamentally based on routines of modern luxury. The two timeframes—pre-oil and post-oil—demand two conceptions of space that are so incongruous with each other that some degree of cognitive dissonance is inevitable. One dream’s fulfillment is another’s deferment. They are aware of this; in our class discussion of tradition, it registers in the room like the low-grade hum of a refrigerator. Arabic poetry is a tradition, but for some, their English is better than their Arabic. They explain to me the keyboard slang that’s developed so that you can write Arabic characters using an English keyboard. They don’t like it, but they use it. The internet has smoothed the edges of everything, but this is also a blurriness. My students cannot slow the world down enough, and I cannot either. We are caught up in an endless landslide of historical symbolism, and we move through it as if it were a river of dust mites, lit up for a brief time by the sunlight angling into the room.
On Thursday—four days before they leave—my students attend an interfaith panel discussion between my college’s rabbi and imam. I didn’t ask for this, and I’m nervous. So are the students. This is their first time meeting a Jew, they tell me, not realizing that members of the faculty—with whom they’ve been working for weeks—are Jewish. (It has become a point of discussion whether these teachers should come out to the students. Because we’re reading Diary of a Young Girl, it’s easy to imagine how this could all be construed as a Zionist re-education.) After breakfast, we gather in a large circle of chairs, and Rabbi Max turns up—young, handsome, a coif of gelled spiky hair up front, yarmulke in back. He’s wearing jeans and a very expensive designer T-shirt. He has a handshake so firm he has to tilt his elbow up near his ear when he grips your hand; it’s as if he’s arm-wrestling a greeting into you. Imam Ali is running late, he says, which is fairly typical. There’s an impending sense of Abbot and Costello.
While we wait to begin, Rabbi Max turns to me and quietly asks, “Do they always sit separately?” Half the room is female; the other half male. I realize I have stopped noticing this.
Rabbi Max asks everyone to introduce themselves and takes careful note of their names in his notebook. “A lot of Kahleds and Meeras,” he says. “If I forget your name I’ll just call you that.” I can see they are a little surprised by how quickly he is making them laugh. “I’ll tell you a little about what I do,” Rabbi Max says. “College is a very unusual time of life, a time like no other. It’s the time when you have maximum freedom and minimum responsibility. You’ve never had that before, and you’ll never have it again. It’s totally unique. And because you’re exposed to so many new people, from so many different backgrounds, you get to experiment. One week you can think one thing—the next, something entirely different. Your head can feel like a washing machine.”
The students are following this. How could they not? A sense of scale is asserting itself, a fundamental congruency. This is how you deal with distance. “It’s hard in this context to lead a committed life,” he says and pauses. “What do I mean by a committed life? I mean living according to set of ideals. They don’t have to be Jewish ideals, of course. I mean living according to the rules you set for yourself.”
He goes on to describe some of the choices he has made. He cannot eat at most restaurants, because they are not kosher. His wife covers her head. He prays three times a day—each time, for at least forty minutes. He is describing restrictions that he knows the students also face. They ask him about the tassels visibly hanging below his shirt, about his yarmulke. One student asks him about the Jewish people he saw dressed all in black in Belgium, who were wearing big hats. “They stick to tradition,” Rabbi Max says, “because so much is changing in this world.” The students are now visibly nodding.
Imam Ali arrives; he’s also young, but he wears a suit-jacket and jeans. He’s academic-cool: self-possessed, preternaturally calm. His voice does not rise and fall. We will visit his mosque on Friday for prayer, and he tells the students that they will be surprised by how many different types of people will be there. He uses a lot of critical theory, leans on words like homogeneity and normative and racialization. Ironically enough, I know my students are only understanding every fifth word or so. But his point is useful. America is willing to lump all Arabs together, removing the necessity to learn the vast regional differences in the way Islam is practiced. There is a difference between being Muslim and being from the UAE, but we often treat one category as if it’s interchangeable with the other. Rabbi Max is nodding at Imam Ali’s words. You can tell he’s heard this speech before. They are both pluralists. They are friends. They probably play basketball together.
Imam Ali continues. What we see as religious intolerance is often just racism, he says; dismissing a people because they do not believe in the same principles seems more reasonable than disliking someone just because are a different color or have a different language.
There is a very slight pause. Muslims, he says, are not averse to doing the same thing. We all tend to racialize religion. Another pause. He is waiting to see if the students are following this. I don’t think they are. But I sit there and realize that I come from a country where we have created our own sense of tradition, not by nationalizing religion, but by sentimentalizing class (in our case, the middle class). A particular standard of living has become a marker of distinction, a national characteristic. The same thing appears to be happening in the UAE, but it is shrouded by the question of religion.
Abdullah raises his hand. “Hello Rabbi Max,” he says. “It is an honor to meet you. You said you lived in Jerusalem. I have watched World War Z, and I was very surprised to see that Israel is that way. And I was wondering, Mr. Max, what is Israel like? What is Jerusalem like?”
That way. Does he mean clean? Does he mean organized? Does he mean walled? Any sense of scale I was creating—those little thoughts about class and religion—collapse with a kind of wet sucking noise, as if they were begin dragged out to sea on the tide. Rabbi Max has to fudge. So he shrugs his shoulders and says it’s impossible for him to generalize. “My experience is very different from anyone else’s.”
Abdullah doesn’t stop smiling, nods in gratitude.
Rashid—my Rashid—puts his hand up, smiles. “All respect to you, Rabbi Max,” he says, “but Imam Ali, are there any Jews that have converted to Islam?” Rashid is making a point. I cannot construct a stage for them, nor them for me.
Imam Ali replies, as even as a horizon line. “Yes. And some Muslims have converted to Judaism.”
A ripple moves through the room. It’s quiet and quick, but I catch it. His is not the usual answer. This is an answer given by someone who is not living where they are.
But I also think they are surprised because they live so far at the end of a teleology—in that seemingly impossible gap between the arrow and the target, where all of their physical wants and needs have been met and will be met, where there is nothing they really need to worry about—that the notion that there might be this kind of “next” is a little shocking. College is one thing. A new kind of committed life is another. In these last few days, I feel closer to and farther away from my students than I ever have.
The next day, we attend Friday prayers at the college’s mosque. The men are in front, the women in the back. I sit off to one side, my back against the window, watching.
“I assert that Allah is real,” the imam cries, “realer than anything.”
So many people have entered the room now that the imam asks those who are already seated to move closer. With one collective movement, the crowd scoots closer. The sound their bodies make on the carpet is the sound of the waves on a rocky beach. When everyone kneels and touches their heads to the ground, I see a forest of belt buckles and jeans, and I see humbleness, pleasure in the uniformity of an action that has everything to do with shielding the face, just a moment, from the world. There is a sense of modesty, of submission, that is deeply attractive.
Afterward, Asma smiles and rubs her arms. “I’ve never heard a white imam before,” she says. “He sang so beautifully. It gave me goose bumps.”
A man is converting today. Even from my position at the back of the room, I can see he’s sweating. He looks like he’s about to get married.
The imam leads him through, first in Arabic and then in English, breaking it down into short phrases.
This is how belief is made: word, by word, by word. There is no difference between nouns and grammar, between categories and scales. The order of our belief is as instinctive and as whole as a plant, as coherent as the relationship between leaves and roots and stem. It breaks my heart a little bit.
Outside, my teaching assistant shakes his head. “This turnout,” he says, “on an off day, before the school semester actually begins? Amazing. This would be the envy of any Jewish congregation.”
After Friday prayer, we go to the 9/11 Memorial. We did not intend this kind of symbolism, but here it is. The late afternoon light is washing the city, sluicing it down.
Ammar, a chaperone, is dressed in his formal white robe and keffiyeh. When we walk into the memorial site, he is the only member of our group wearing this kind of clothing. I watch Americans and tourists watching us. They say nothing. I am impressed by their polite reserve.
The first thing that strikes me is how the sun shines through the young oak trees that have been planted throughout the memorial. For some reason, I think of Levin in Anna Karenina, scything wheat with the peasants, losing himself in the work of the body, dreaming of God. In the distance, a group of policemen stand under a tree, absentmindedly dutiful, looking like horses. A young girl practices her dance routine for her family, who are sitting on a stone bench. There are perhaps a thousand people milling around. It doesn’t feel like a sad place. People are here to see; they are trying to take something in. There is gust of wind, and the leaves around me rustle. The sound is like those bodies in the mosque, a scoot closer to the divine.
Hind asks a guide in a blue vest about the trees. They are planted to mark the buildings’ actual size, their footprint, the woman says, where they stood. I think of that patch of white sand, back in Abu Dhabi. There, it wasn’t that anything was missing, or needed to be replaced. It reminded me of a natural gap in the seaweed and reef, a place where you suddenly see the sea floor. But here, the absence aches, like a moment of silence after someone calls out another’s name.
At the center of where the North and South Towers once each stood, there is a large square-shaped hole in the ground, each one easily big enough to fit a three-story brownstone inside. The walls of each are entirely encased in black granite, and water sluices down each side in a never-ending waterfall. All that grief without end, pouring into the center of the earth: it’s as if the forces that govern our world were, by virtue of the towers’ collapse and all that death, suddenly reversed. Whereas everything else in New York seems to rise upward, here the world keeps on falling down and down.
At the bottom of the hole we are looking into, at the center of the floor, there is another square-shaped hole, descending into the earth again. This second hole is large enough to fit a cargo van, or perhaps that strange golf-ball structure outside my apartment window in Abu Dhabi. It is quite clear that we are never meant to see the bottom; no matter where you stand, the final resting place of all this water is hidden from view. It is a kind of magic, a disappearing trick. Matter vanishes.
All of this water: I was in Abu Dhabi long enough to see that this is another kind of liberation into luxury. It makes me wonder if one form of luxury can be transformed into another—if, like some kind of chemical reaction, excessiveness, material or otherwise, can generate a magnesium flare of emotion that is worth acknowledgement, regardless of the catalyst. Consumption is more various, more crucial, more fundamental, than I had ever anticipated. This is what I have in common with my students. This is the maintenance of a tradition. We are good consumers. One luxury can stand in for the incompleteness of another.
Standing in the sun, the sound of water in my ears, I think, small to big, far to near. A box within a box. I keep on seeing this structure. It’s The Lion King, all over again, or Rabbi Max’s rhetoric, or me on a black slab in a black granite room in the Yas Hotel, my skin falling away with the water. I am fascinated by and I worry about this aggressive neatness. The sacrifice is always contained, symbolized rather than experienced. After half an hour, we leave the 9/11 Memorial. We are off to dinner; I forget where.
I have been avoiding talking with my students about the second half of Anne’s diary, which is dominated by her relationship with Peter, the then-sixteen-year-old son of the van Daan’s.
In the annex, Peter initially irritates her. He isn’t as quick as she is, and he has a tendency to mope in his attic bedroom. The more natural love-match is between Peter and Margot, who are the same age. But as time passes, Anne’s feelings change. One year turns into two. The two teenagers begin to talk—about the other members of the annex, about their homework. She is impressed by how matter-of-factly he shows her the sex of Bouche, the warehouse cat, explaining to her the mechanics of intercourse. She is deeply moved by the fact that they are able to speak so pragmatically about something that could be so embarrassing.
And then she begins to dream of him: his eyes, his kisses. She and Peter often find themselves talking at dusk in his bedroom, watching the sky turn from blue to black, lost in the intimacy of a darkening room. “I’m not sure how much I can continue to keep this yearning under control,” she writes. To us, she confesses she has found someone with whom she can learn the pleasures of a relationship that has nothing to do with blood or obligation. It is entirely her choice, entirely the strange leaning of her own sensibility in towards his. This has nothing to do with family. As the war limps on and on, as they run out of food and their clothes begin to fall apart, her connection to Peter is one of the few ways she can experience exhilaration.
Nevertheless, she analyzes her feelings over and over again. She can’t deny that he disappoints her. His views on religion are off-putting. He has “too little character, too little willpower, too little courage and strength.” She can sense how much they are both open and closed at the same time, and it drives her half mad. She knows she will not marry him. But there are two Annes, she writes: everyday Anne and the second Anne, who is “never overconfident or amusing, but only wants to love and be gentle.” To us, she bares her writhing soul—beset with desire and doubt—and the prolonged rawness of it all is so private, so honest.
A day comes when she realizes that Peter does not know what the female genitalia looks like. So she writes a description for him: “Between your legs,” she writes, “there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside. They separate when you sit down, and they’re very red and quite fleshy on the inside. In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris.” The presence of mind she must’ve had to write so methodically, so precisely, about what is usually passed over in silence takes my breath away. This is a committed life. Anne was aware that others would read this. She wanted others to read this. Several times in her diary, she describes her ambition to become a writer. She heavily revised and edited her diary for publication once she heard, on the radio, that the Dutch government was going to create an archive of war memoirs.
It was through the radio that she and her family followed the war, and her diary, indirectly, charts the terrible grinding-on of the conflict, the way news of troop movements and campaigns seemed so promising and yet delivered so little so much of the time. Part of the diary’s effect is the numbing repetition with which their hopes were raised then dashed. She was never able to put the war behind her. She barely allowed herself to imagine the future. Instead, she was stuck within the nightmarish routine of the present, a war without edges. But she persisted, trying to create some kind of limit to her experience by simply describing it.
Anne and her family debated military strategy with a fervor that’s entirely foreign to Thesiger’s prose. Thesiger spent most of the Second World War in the Sudan and Syria, as part of the British Special Air Services, involved in raids that interrupted the enemy’s lines of communication, but his recollection of this period amounts to less than a paragraph at the beginning of Arabian Sands, and is mostly concerned with his relationship to the desert at the time (defined by the quality of the road) rather than how he felt about the war itself.
There is one other moment in the book where he alluded to how he felt about the slaughter in Europe. At this point, he was discussing Bedouin blood feuds (which generally fascinated him), and the expectation that the taking of one life demanded the taking of another. His companions had told him about their killing of a fourteen-year-old boy from another tribe. This was, of course, in retribution for the murder of one of their own by a member of the boy’s tribe—but the boy and their friend’s killer were separated in time and space. The boy only had the misfortune to be of the Saar Tribe and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thesiger wrote he could imagine the scene “with horrible distinctness:” “The small, long-haired figure, in white loin cloth, crumpled on the ground, the spreading pool of blood, the avid clustering flies, the frantic wailing of the dark-clad women, the terrified children, the shrill insistent screaming of a small baby.” It would be “easy to be shocked by the Bedu’s disregard for human life,” he went on, “but I could not forget how easily we ourselves had taken to killing during the war. Some of the most civilized people I have known had been the most proficient.”
And that is it. The curtness of that word—proficient—set against his imagining of all he did not see. Overall, it seems as if Thesiger was fairly indifferent to his own kind. His imagination tended toward the past of his Arabian companions, rather than their future. The only other-echo of his possible feelings toward World War II is implicit. Thesiger believed in the purity of blood, approvingly writing of that the Bedouin prized their lineage, while in the towns and seaports, mixed blood was the “dirty froth upon the desert’s edge.” As a metaphor, dirty froth seems compatible with the rhetoric of National Socialism. I don’t like dwelling on it. I want to believe Thesiger a lonely, driven man, rather than one who might instinctively racialize a way of life. I want to keep on registering class and refusing race. This is my own knee-jerk ethical humanism.
I can imagine that Anne could imagine Thesiger. She was a fan of Hollywood, fluent in cinematic fantasy, and she could probably easily envision the mystical vastness of that empty space, the rolling dunes, and Thesiger perched on top of one, looking out with his beloved pen and diary. I wonder if he could place himself in the annex. I’m sure he would recoil in sympathy at the claustrophobia of not once being able to leave a small four-bedroom apartment in two years. He would be able to picture the slow decline into squalor: the fraying tea towels, stained oilcloth, the fleas floating in the sink. He would think her an extraordinarily brave girl. He would probably be able to imagine her in Bergen-Belsen with the same “terrible distinctness” as he did that fourteen-year-old boy.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure Thesiger would want to imagine Anne’s hunger to understand her family and Peter or the pain that came from believing no one would ever really understand her. The shape of her desire might seem incomprehensible to him. Cushiony things. A kind of blister. He might respect her fierceness, but I can imagine him avoiding reading the book. I suspect this might be the case for some of the people in New York who nodded their heads in approval when I said I was teaching Anne Frank. These are the details we want to overlook.
That I instinctively chose not to talk in my class about Anne’s feelings about Peter or her body preoccupies me. Of course, there are obvious explanations. My students are living in a culture where I cannot shake the hand of many men, let alone accurately describe the luxury of my own body. Anne’s longing is obviously more forbidden, more shocking than all of those prohibitions and regulations that Rashid read that first week of class. But The Diary of a Young Girl has also been banned from some schools in the United States. New-World Puritanism is an example of more than one category.
One evening, while we’re waiting in line for an Indian buffet, I ask Abdullah what he meant by his question to Rabbi Max about Israel. He doesn’t answer me directly, but he smiles and says very gently, “I think we are friends with some countries that don’t like Israel.” Abdullah is a natural diplomat. He also has royal blood. He checked in at a separate counter at the Abu Dhabi airport in a three-piece suit, and when he stepped off the plane in the United States, an airline representative was waiting to accompany him through passport control. Most people know who he is before he knows who they are. At the Strand Bookstore, he murmured delightedly over books on the rare books floor that were older than his country, immediately picking out a two-volume collection of British poetry. The historical synchronicity was so clear it was as if a gong had sounded. That patch of sand back in Abu Dhabi gave off the same kind of aural vibration.
Through the students’ reactions to Abdullah, I see there is an automatic calibration, a deference that instinctively recognizes political power. He is matinee-idol handsome, has the educated musculature of a dancer. He has been trained from birth to be a leader. The individuation I saw in my students’ faces on the first day might have to do with their trust that they will be taken care of. They know they will find marriage and a family and a good job. Their ambition does not have to feel infinite in order for their lives to be set in motion, and so they are allowed—instinctively, wordlessly—to be singular. But for Abdullah, things are slightly different. He is expected to be a child hero, and he is also expected to dream. He is expected to be an example. How else will he lead?
It is almost too easy to sense the points of contrast between the past and the present or between West and East, to understand how Thesiger’s sense of the desert offers a kind of corrective posture to all of those crumbling walls in Europe. From the sand might spring a different kind of organization, a different kind of collective memory, a different sense of living on top of. There might well be a tradition that my students will learn to articulate. But I know how unfashionable that notion of distinction might also be, how dangerous it is. It is the kind of difference that ends up translating into a sense of manifest destiny—that a people or a country, even one that is barely forty years old, might be intrinsically something that others are not. The USA and the UAE are both examples of that category, as well as the notion that the manifest is also materialist. The notion that person can be singular, but not a people, turns out to be an idea that I wouldn’t mind fighting for.
At the closing dinner of the course in New York, Abdullah is chosen to give the closing student speech. He quotes, in homage to the friendships that have developed over the course of the summer, a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” The line seems strangely violent and tragic for the moment, and it hangs in the air. We all look at each other in faint alarm. But in his love of intensity, Abdullah has desire; it bubbles outward, expresses itself in carefully phrased homilies, in silences and broad smiles. I see him feeling and thinking, categories re-wired to connect to examples I wouldn’t dream of: a strange stew of end of days and Brad Pitt and Wilfred Owen and Anne Frank, peeling her potatoes, bleaching the darker hairs over her lip, dreaming of Hollywood. There is truth in these new neural pathways, regardless of whether it is mine. I think he would be able to hear Anne’s endless desire. I only know that I’m longing for something. Some kind of truth is brewing in Abdullah too. He wants to study environmental science at university. I think about Bani Yas Island, about the revised circle of life he might end up creating there.
In the last entries of her diary, counting down the days to the end of the war, Anne couldn’t sit still with her thoughts. She thought about happiness, about human nature, about the role of religion in an ethical life. “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals,” she observed, “they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” In the next sentence, she reversed direction again, writing, “It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death.” She reevaluated her own motivation in falling in love. “I used intimacy to get closer to him,” she writes, “and in doing so, I ruled out other forms of friendship. He longs to be loved. . . . I forced Peter, more than he realizes, to get close to me.” All of that love now felt like strong-arming. It is a remarkable reevaluation of her passion.
In dealing with it all at the same time—her strengths and weaknesses, as well as the world’s—she was compelled to keep it all in view, but in doing so, she conceded, she was a “bundle of contradictions.” Anne’s truth-telling created little rockslides of panic and emotion and revelation. The only way she could stay upright was to narrate her imbalances, accounting for them as soon as they happened. This was the sensation of being caught up, of being in the stampede. But it is enough. “I feel spring awakening,” she wrote.
In one of her last diary entries, Anne allowed herself to fantasize about going back to school again in October.
All names in this essay have been changed.
Kate Berri is a writer and professor living in New York City. This past year, she has written about silent cinema, American sign language, and Lon Chaney; interior decoration, Roland Barthes, and Ingeri in Bergman’s Rite of Spring; and how Norwegian reindeer run, OK Cupid, and the difference between liking and loving. (updated 8/2014)