New York City is a vampire

The other day I walked by a man in tattered clothing slumped against a pay phone, a small stream of blood trickling down his forehead. I was on the phone while I walked by him, and slowed to look at his face, but then carried on. The common explanation for my failure to act is that ethical obligations are diluted by a crowd; it was a busy intersection and I figured someone was going to do something about it. But I don’t think it was that.

After two years of living in New York, I have developed an expectation that the city will trounce a certain portion of its population. I did not speculate about the cause of his bleeding, because I figured that in some way or another the city had done it to him. I did not feel the tug of civic duty because I figured he was lost to the jaws of the city. The city does not reject those who lose their gamble on it, it punishes them. In this stronghold of modern abundance, I have been conditioned to sometimes look at the unfortunate the way I do at gazelles being mauled by crocodiles at crowded watering holes. Some Atmosphere lyrics came to mind — “This city’s a vampire, she eats her kids / Let’s hide the bodies under the bridge..”

Notes on Baltimore

IMG_0564This is a mural for Freddie Gray that was completed on Saturday in West Baltimore. I was there for the day. I saw a great many boarded up row houses, broken windows, warm people sitting on stoops. A demonstration put together by local organizers and the New York Justice League marched from the city community college to a youth concert. Most of the rapping was about the police. The sun was bright, and the crowd was small. Men in tuxedos — Nation of Islam members — milled about, shaking hands and selling newspapers. Aside from some families, the crowd seemed mainly composed of organizers and activists.

The theme of the day: what will justice for Baltimore look like? Does it mean harsh sentences for the six police officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray? Does it mean tempering the Baltimore police’s proclivity for violence? Does it mean making the landscape of West Baltimore look more like what you would expect of one of the more affluent metropolitan areas in the country?

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 10.54.41 PM (Chart above from Brookings.)

I walked by a courtyard sectioned off with police tape. I asked a white cop if things had quieted down recently. “Things are never quiet around here,” he told me with a smile. I asked if there had been any more riots, and he said there had not been.

The thing that struck me about the day was the smallness of it all. A day or so of zero-fatality rioting had caused the nation to obsess over Baltimore. The president of the United States was talking about Baltimore. Future presidents of the United States were talking about Baltimore. White liberals across the country were trying their hardest to summon everything they had ever imagined about Baltimore. Every pundit in America had decided that everything that mattered was at stake in Baltimore. But less than two weeks on, it was clear that Baltimore was no longer some kind of allegory; it was just Baltimore. And Baltimore was on its own again.

Notes on my grandfather

My grandfather was the beginning of my unraveling. It was summer in Karachi, and I was about 16. I was covered in sweat, as one always is in summer in Karachi, and reading a book.

Without any particular preface, my grandfather asked me, “Why are you a Muslim?”

I responded slowly, reciting something about Islam being the unvarnished word of God. It was not compelling; I had never been asked the question before — religion is generally considered hereditary. I felt I was drawing from some half-empty reservoir of memory. I said something I thought I should say to someone asking that question of a Muslim.

He nodded, and then asked, “Why are you not Hindu?”

I again responded with something uninteresting, relying on the self-justifying verse of any major organized religion. It went roughly along these lines: Islam is the greatest religion in the world because it is the greatest religion in the world.

He nodded. He asked then, “Why are you not a Jew? A Christian? A Buddhist?”

At this point it’s too embarrassing to attempt to recall the desperation of my reasoning, so suffice it to say that the hollowness of my talking points was now thoroughly apparent to both of us.

He asked me, “Have you studied any of these religions and texts that you reject, considered them seriously as worldviews?”

I said no.

“So how do you call yourself a Muslim?”

I didn’t know.

He walked slowly out of the room, then walked slowly back with a laminated card which he gently placed in my hand. It said, “The improver of natural knowledge refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith, the one unpardonable sin.” The quote was attributed to Thomas Huxley, the 19th century English biologist.

I have had the fortune in my life of being buffeted by the agony and ecstasy of epiphany on many occasions, but I am almost certain that nothing compares to that summer day.

My grandfather released me from perpetual guilt about not understanding why I couldn’t feel close to god. Why, despite different experiments with prayer and attempts to grasp the Arabic that sounded even worse than my Urdu, there was no response as I prostrated myself before something I didn’t understand. Why, as I quested for the celestial, I only felt an abyss.

Shortly thereafter, I became agnostic, and within about a year, I identified as an atheist.

The idea that there was virtue in skepticism and that authority was trivial was a torpedo. It was the beginning of my education, which I was soon convinced that high school was an interference with, more often than not. It made me feel righteous when skipping class and debating with my friends about what I found at the time to be more important intellectual and political issues. It made me feel a certain degree of pride for being disciplined in school so often. It often made me view teachers as equals. It made me laugh at and disdain people who strived to mold themselves in the image of ideas they had never once interrogated. It made me grapple with the vices modern capitalism, and forced me to reckon over and over again with the limitations of representative democracy. It was not only about dislodging god, but also about rejecting masters. The sentiment made it into my senior project with my best friend in high school, which was about revolutionary pedagogy. When I graduated, the quote my grandfather handed me was featured on my senior year book page.

What does it mean to be a man who can deliver a lightning bolt with the hands of a pianist?

My grandfather, who in my understanding identified as agnostic on the matter of religion, was content to allow his irreverence emanate from the content of his beliefs rather than through his style of debate. In my presence, he was a rare breed of public intellectual in his aspiration to remove ego from idea. By far the most compelling trait of his habits of thought was his comfort with uncertainty, his celebration of the unknowable.

He once sent my sister and me a note about his personal utopia. I cannot remember all the details of it without digging up the note, but the heart of it was about living in a place with great green gardens where people peacefully debate the day away to build a better society. He passed away this weekend, but I can imagine him walking and running though its lush forests. I cannot imagine anything more sublime.

Saudi diaries

This is something I wrote in 2012 that I decided to re-publish in light of the death of Saudi Arabia’s king. I have been to Saudi Arabia twice, and between my two trips spent around a month there, mainly in the city of Jeddah, but I’ve also visited Mecca and Medina.

I.

The first thing that happened on my trip to Saudi Arabia was that I was asked to leave. Upon sitting down in my seat on the Saudi Airlines airplane, a woman two seats over looked up from her copy of The Great Gatsby and told me I needed to sit elsewhere. She did not feel comfortable sitting near a man, and so after everyone had boarded and four more pleas I moved to another seat.

All the women on the flight had not yet covered their bodies, as they would upon arrival, but immediately the on-flight films helped set the mood: the female characters were blurred out when immodest – not when naked, but when showing much more than their face or hands; collarbones and calves were off-limits. I acclimated to this more quickly than the confusing plots of romantic comedies that had been chopped up to omit any scenes with physical encounters between men and women. But most striking was the unnatural silence of characters when their lips and context suggested they were saying words such as “beer” and “puberty.”

II.

Jeddah is a city of a few million on the western coast of the Arabian peninsula where almost nobody swims at the beach. The time of day and the season are abstractions that have little bearing on the reality that most time spent outside feels like you’re being cooked alive. The most cosmopolitan of the the country’s cities, on any given street in the city center you’re likely to come upon men and women from all walks of Muslim life – Indonesians, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Malaysians, and people from at least half a dozen Middle Eastern countries. The most liberal of of the country’s cities, some women can leave their hair uncovered without being harassed by the police, as they apparently would be in the capital, Riyadh. In Saudi Arabia, all women are expected to cover their bodies with a black abaya, a large cloak that conceals one’s figure, but rules regarding covering hair are more lax with non-Muslims and foreigners, at least in Jeddah. Most women, however, exist in a spectrum that ranges from have only their hands and eyes visible to being entirely buried in cloth, hands covered in gloves.

There is a sartorial symmetry between Saudi men and women, both wearing long, flowing robes from head to toe that protect one from the sun with a simplicity and elegance that mirrors the desert itself. But this symmetry begins to break down when you take note of the fact that the men wear white and the women wear black; the latter face a higher bar for modesty, and must absorb the punishment of the sun for being the true temptress of the two, historically. The symmetry erodes further when you account for how the man may and frequently does show his hair and wear form-fitting clothes if he wishes to, in the form of Western-style shirts and pants. And the similarities are only cosmetic when one remembers that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are legally prohibited from driving (academics at Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council said lifting the ban would lead to “no more virgins”), and where women frequently need a male guardian’s permission for marriage and divorce, travel, if under 45, education, employment, and opening a bank account.

III.

The main centers of public space in Jeddah appear to be mosques and shopping malls. Jeddah is reported to have many people, but feels underpopulated; it’s hard to find packed venues or locate a source of the city’s energy. There is no public transportation.

In the evening, some people sit on uncommercialized stretches of the beach and eat and smoke shisha by the water but rarely go into it. Massive playgrounds are strewn all over the beach, and the women’s clothes look less heavy on the swings. While parents play with children, missing are signs of teenagers and young adults, whose unrestrained antics anchor the Western conception of the beach.

One of the more interesting sights I observed on the beach was a man sitting surrounded by about six women while the car behind him blared Ludacris’s “Southern Hospitality”; the line I heard as I noticed them was “Oh how I love these pretty-ass hoes.”

One day I stumbled upon a few young university students chatting on a bench, watching fishermen. Like most Saudis I’ve met, they were exceptionally warm people who invited me into their lives within minutes of starting to chat. I decided to take them up on their offer by asking that they take me out on the town, so I could catch a glimpse of the evasive night life. Like most Saudis I’ve met, they replied to questions about what there was to do outside of eating at restaurants with silence, and then asked me if I like to shop.

We went to a mall. The journey was a bit of a trek, because the closest malls were exclusively for women or families. In the mall, we used products on sale for entertainment, playing with pianos and kittens we had no intention of buying. Eventually we found ourselves in an Egyptian cafe, smoking shisha and talking about girls. Some of them had tried finding girlfriends abroad in Lebanon and Jordan, and sustained relationships with extremely rare visits. They told me they all wanted to visit me after I told them that you can talk to just about anyone in an American bar.

IV.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as I often forget to call it, seeks to be a world unto itself, and largely succeeds. The weekends run from Thursday to Friday (Islam’s holy day); all business must cease five times a day for prayer time; the Visa process is easily the strictest and most arcane that I or everyone I know has ever encountered; I know a number of businessmen who have been established there for decades and have no prospect of citizenship, and will probably have to leave after retirement.

The uniquely closed nature of Saudi society is perhaps most evident in the opacity and strictness of the justice system. The specter of the death penalty, often by beheading, looms over acts including witchcraft, adultery, apostasy, drug smuggling, and armed robbery. According to a prominent Saudi blog, thieves do indeed get their hands chopped off on occasion. Deportation comes easily – there’s a confirmed story of a Pakistani man who was given 24 hours to leave the country after he gave a ride to a hitchhiker who was found at a police checkpoint to have no papers. Horror stories abound, and seem to substitute for a heavy police presence, which there certainly isn’t in Jeddah.

V.

Sex is hard to avoid in Saudi Arabia. It’s against the law for unmarried or unrelated men and women to be together in public, but no culture can eliminate beauty and desire. Sex is in the eyes: their shape, color, personality and movement. Sex is in one’s gait, in the way you carry a bag or hold open a door, in the movement of the hands and the contours of the wrist.

The parameters of conversation can be regulated by society, but what people literally say to each other is just the tip of the iceberg. Chemistry between two strangers can be forged while discussing the price of fruit in a grocery store, playfulness and teasing with a friend’s wife at dinner parties cannot be condemned.

There are always gaps to be exploited by people who wish to exploit them. Everyday errands, queues, and sidewalks provide windows of opportunity. It is impossible to prevent people from arranging private meetings if they are the kind who is willing to take a gamble.

There are drivers and people who work around the house – often poor foreigners – who exist in a different sociosexual domain than the rest of the population; I have no doubt that power discrepancies produce different dynamics for how they fit into all this.

It goes without saying that those attracted to the same sex face far fewer logistical obstacles in committing illegal acts – but finding those who are similarly inclined requires taking serious risks. I know of a man who has had phone numbers scribbled on crumpled up pieces of paper hurled at him by other men when stopped at traffic lights in his car.

VI.

On the highway to Mecca there are signs indicating a point where non-Muslims must take an exit, because they are not allowed in Islam’s holiest city. Before entering the city, you must drive slowly through a police checkpoint, where officers look through the window and stop people arbitrarily if they suspect they might not be Muslim. For some reason they couldn’t tell I was an atheist.

VII.

I’ve had trouble talking domestic politics with people in Saudi. Like the national newspapers, they could report goings-on, but didn’t have analysis. They preferred to debate about international politics, especially Israel and the United States. One man I met who worked for the Saudi BinLaden Group (the family’s multinational construction conglomerate) said that he and a few of Osama bin Laden’s brothers were skeptical of the claims made about his assassination. In fact I ran into a number of conspiracy theories, including 9/11 inside job stories and worries that America was trying to deliberately bring about the collapse of the Pakistani state.

A number of professional observers have remarked on how historically many Arab autocrats have benefited from drawing attention to American and Israeli misdeeds in the region, and it makes some sense to me.

VIII.

Saudi Arabia is in a class of its own compared to any country, both within or outside of the Middle East I’ve had the privilege of visiting. But this shouldn’t be overstated to the point where it is rendered alien – at times, it could be argued that it shares a great deal with certain parts of the Middle American landscape: the highways and cars; the scarcity of public space; the centrality of strip malls to social life; the concept of family and god as the greatest of duties; the religiosity and intolerance of other creeds; the rigidness of gender identity; and even the prohibition on alcohol, if you take into account the Bible Belt. And like many of those Americans, many Saudis – both men and women – take pride in these qualities. They are not blindly obedient or easily duped, but agents who consciously reckon with the traditions and nature of their society.

The problem is that it’s impossible to tell how many Saudis do feel differently, which of course many do, and how many who identify as comfortable with what they have would feel differently if presented with more than one option – an option that promises spiritual ecstasy through a life of deprivation.

Harlem

Harlem
by Langston Hughes, 1951

What happens to a dream deferred?

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?