[This entry was originally posted at the end of my 2010 Fulbright-Hayes trip to UAE-Qatar-Kuwait]
Tonight, dear readers, marks the end of my travels. (My flight leaves in a few hours.) Since this is the end of my journey, and since everybody knows how dangerous the Middle East is, I feel obligated to comment on all the dangers I have endured while on my trip. They have been many and painful, but I will highlight only a few.
Danger #1: Being stuffed to death. The Arabs are a hospitable people, and one way of showing hospitality is to gorge one’s guests with food. If it’s not feeding time, no matter. Then you simply stuff your guests with sweets or small sandwich thingys. Are we being fattened up for the slaughter?
Danger #2: Multiculturalism run amok. The Middle-East is a complex mix of cultures; some people from different cultures intermarry, others simply work for one another. This is all well and good—in moderation. Sometimes, however, the multiculturalism gets out of hand, and then There is Pain. An example that comes to mind is the time I was forced by Our Leader to spend time at the Villagio Mall in Doha, Qatar. In this Arab city, this mall (an American invention) was designed to imitate an Italian city—Venice, to be specific—complete with fake gondolas on fake canals. If that weren’t bad enough, loud, harsh, technofunky something music (must I blame America again?) blasted out of the Virgin store while I stood ordering food from the Mongolian grill. A severe headache ensued. In Mongolia-land, whenever a meal was ready, the Indian employees banged on a gong with all their might. BOINGGGGGGGG!!!! went the reverberations in my poor aching skull. This brand of multiculturalism is enough to send me to the desert to commune silently with the camels.
Danger #3: Spending “fun time” on a dhow. Somebody has decided that a good way to keep tourists occupied is to stick them on a dhow (a traditional boat) and let them drift for a few hours. Our Leaders decided this would be good for us TWICE. The first time was a dinner cruise at night in Dubai. Although Dubai is, of course, part of an Arab country, the operators and all of the tourists except us on this dinner cruise were Indian. This would not be a problem except that they decided the best way to entertain us would be to blast out loud Indian music so that we could get massive headaches and not be able to talk to each other. There was an Indian buffet, but were kept from the food well past our feeding time (I was SO hungry on this trip, which explains my crankiness to a great extent) by being forced to watch a “magician.” I put quotes around “magician,” because this Indian man who was dressed like a pimp (a pink hat????), apparently knew no magic. He kept pouring water from one container into another and then looking at us like he had just performed magic. We were very confused. We were hungry and in pain. At one point he started a napkin on fire and seemed to expect applause for this magic. We were even hungrier and becoming surly. After what seemed like hours of this torture, the Magician Pimp finally gave up and we were allowed to eat. This soothed me a little bit, but we still remained trapped with the pounding Indian music for what seemed like hours on this stuffy boat. Since it was dark, we couldn’t see anything outside, but I suppose it was lovely.
As if that weren’t enough torture, we were given another dhow tour in a different country. This time it was during the day. It was maybe 115 degrees. While we were moving (the first half hour or so), it was sort of fun. But then they anchored off shore and just let us sit in the sun and heat for almost three hours. There was no air conditioning and the gentle rocking made me quite sea sick. I lay in the blinding heat, listening to the buzzing sound of the jet skis and the misognynist rap music and wondered how I would survive the dangerous Middle East
[This a transcript of a talk I gave at Concordia University in October of 2010 regarding my Fulbright-Hayes trip to UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait earlier that year. This talk was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.
(notes to accompany PowerPoint presentation)
This summer, I spent six weeks in three countries: the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait. I travelled with a group of nine other academics from around the country as part of a Fulbright-Hays seminar. The purpose of Fulbright-Hays seminars is to deepen the knowledge of American educators in non-Western countries so that we in turn can share our knowledge with students, our colleagues and the community. My goal in today’s presentation is to provide you with an overview of some of the highlights of my trip.
The seminar was multi-disciplinary in focus, with lectures and visits focusing on politics, history, geography, education, energy, economics, religion, the role of women, and other issues. In preparing for today’s talk, my main challenge was trying to determine what my focus would be.
I’ve decided to do so by answering the question I got most often: What was most striking about the places I visited?
Here is my response:
1) The extremely rapid modernization and Westernization of these countries in the last 40-50 years, with English language dominating the societies.
2) The warmth and hospitality of the people.
3) The citizens of these countries are a small minority in their own countries.
Before I get into my main points, I’d like to start by showing you where these countries are.
To understand these countries, it’s important to understand the natural environment of these countries. They have some of the harshest natural environments on earth—all desert. The summers are exceedingly hot. We were there in May-June, and the temperatures in UAE and Qatar were around 105 and humid every day. In Kuwait it was hotter—around 115, but less humid. Apparently, it gets hotter in July and August.
All three countries border the Arabian Gulf, so they have access to the sea.
They have a long history of trading with nearby countries.
The first point I want to stress is the mind-boggling rapidity of change that these countries have experienced in the last half century or so. Before the discovery and extraction of oil in the 1940s-60s (depending on the country), these were some of the poorest, least developed places on the planet. In general, life was extremely harsh and simple and the populations were small. This land can support very little agriculture. Traditionally, before oil wealth came, people lived very simply: dates from palm trees, camel milk and meat, some rice and fish. Many of the people were nomadic Bedouin who lived in tents; others lived from fishing and pearling. There was no electricity or other modern conveniences. For example, the first hospital, begun by Christian missionaries didn’t come to United Arab Emirates until 1960. Kuwait was different from Qatar and UAE in that it has had a sizable town for centuries. Life there was still harsh, though.
Despite, or perhaps because of the harshness, the desert life had an appeal to many people. For example, Wilfred Thesiger, an English explorer of Arabia wrote, “The everyday hardships and danger, the ever-present hunger and thirst, the weariness of long marches: these provided the challenges of Bedu life against which I sought to match myself, and were the basis of the comradeship which united us.” The Bedu belief that satisfaction in any task was in inverse proportion to the effort required was, he said, the most strikingly beautiful expression of humanity there was. “Among no other people,” he wrote, “Have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.” (qtd in Tatchell 31)
Today, because of oil and gas, these countries are among the richest in the world. These countries are dominated by hyper-modern cities with all of the luxuries and conveniences that money can buy.
What about the culture?
I was expecting something like this. You know, magic carpets, genies coming out of bottles, that sort of thing.
What I actually saw was this:
Not only are they hyper-modern, but these countries also struck me as extremely Westernized—to such an extent that sometimes it was easy to forget that were in an Arab country. English is one of the two official languages, so it was everywhere. Almost everyone I met spoke fluent English. In fact, an area expert told us that it’s not a good idea to send students to these countries to learn Arabic—because so few people speak it in daily life.
This is not to say they never make errors in English.
You could find just about any American fast food chain you want. And the place to be, the social center, is the mall. That’s where people spend their free time. The malls are similar to American malls, except bigger and richer. You could spend $30,000 on a cell phone, for example.
University education struck me as extremely Americanized. The curriculum, the instruction style, the organization, even the textbooks are all very similar to those of American universities. In fact, branch campuses of major American universities are popular in many countries, especially Qatar, where they have a “university city.”
When I told people I was applying to do this program, a common response I heard was, “They hate Americans over there.”
“Oh, well, that’s good to know,” I’d replied.
Other people told me,
“You know, those people hate women.”
“Well that will be unpleasant for me, then.”
Still others, (most notably my mother) told me it’s dangerous over there.
“I’ll be careful then.”
Well, if they hate Americans, especially women, they certainly did a good job of hiding that fact from us. This was the second time I’d been to an Arab, Muslim country (the first was Egypt) and this was the second time I was struck by the huge disconnect between the stereotypes of Arabs (all of whom are supposed to hate us) and my experiences of the warm, hospitable, generous people I met.
One of the core values of Arab culture is hospitality. I certainly found that to be true. One guide told us to be careful with our compliments. Often if you admire somebody’s possession they might give it to you!
A couple of examples: the dress I’m wearing, along with material for another dress, was given to me by a family who hosted us for dinner one night. They lavished us with a dinner and gave all of us dresses, even though we were complete strangers.
Another example: one member of our group, Karen, told an Emirati man that she was looking for saffron (the most expensive spice in the world.) A few hours later, all of us received a delivery of a package of saffron.
In terms of danger, one of the greatest dangers we faced was that of weight gain and in inflated sense of self-importance. Everywhere we went, we were overwhelmed with servants offering us coffee, food, chocolates and other treats. We were also constantly being waited on and showered with gifts of all kinds. It was actually kind of hard to come back home and realize nobody was going to wait on me and that I had to fetch my own coffee and treats if I wanted any.
The third issue I found striking was the extent to which these countries are dominated by temporary foreign workers. 70-90%.
Definite hierarchy. I noticed open disdain for the unskilled laborers from other countries.
A Question of Identity
How does this rapid modernization, Westernization and dominance of foreign workers affect the national identity of people from UAE, Qatar and Kuwait?
There is no one response to this question, but identity is definitely a hot-button issue.
One aspect of modernization that poses little controversy is modern technology. Most people from this area love their cars, air conditioners, cell phones, computers and so forth. As one Emirati said, “Come on, why would you ride a damn camel when there are SUVs? We like this new stuff. I don’t need a tent with fleas. I love the space out here, but when I need to get out of the city I like doing it in a car” (qtd in Tatchell 55)
The dominance of English does, however, provoke debate. On one side are those who want the country to open up to the world and claim that the use of English in education is a prerequisite for modernization. On the other side are those who believe that over-reliance on English is detrimental to national, Arab and Muslim identity.
For example, Jalal al-Sultan, a businessman from Dubai, said in an interview in Le Monde Diplomatique “We no longer know if our children are from here or if they’re turning into American or English kids who can’t express themselves properly in Arabic. It’s worrying. It is making us rethink our educational system. It’s a matter of saving our national identity” (Belkaid 1).
The influential minister for higher education and scientific research, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, advocated a different view. “We are all proud of our language and our identity, but nevertheless, English is the language of science and technology. We cannot afford to lag behind in global competition. If we want our children to contribute to making this country a real player in globalisation, we have no choice but to educate them in English” (Belkaid 1).
“We are in the minority in our own country, where some 200 different nationalities cohabit,” said a high-ranking official who preferred to remain anonymous. “That can lead to a feeling of being hemmed in, which triggers a more rigid assertion of identity. That explains the debate about English. We want to remain different from those we have invited in to build our country. If we start speaking their language, there is an amalgamation factor involved that frightens many people. That’s why we are such sticklers about national dress, which every civil servant is obliged to wear.” (Belkaid 2).
“It is imperative that we have a real national debate on this issue,” warned Gameel Muhammad, a researcher at the Emirates College for Advanced Education. “If nothing is done and we can’t find a solution to reduce our dependency on foreign workers, then one day the Gulf State Arabs may become aborigines. We’ll be the native Arabs, like the native Americans in the US, on whom alien traditions and values were imposed because they were in the minority” (Belkaid 2).
Perhaps the most common attitude is that of gratitude for the new ease and opportunities that development has brought combined at the same time with a nostalgia for a simpler way of life. Some believe that the modernization has brought about a decline in a sense of community and strong religious and cultural values.
Adullah Masaood, an extremely wealthy and influential man from Abu Dhabi says: “Of course we needed roads and houses, schools and hospitals. . . . My father and grandfather. . . were moving always. We used the plants of the land. We were eating from the land—dates and camel’s milk, goats and bread. We had a very simple life. Happy times, when God was with us. Myself, I liked to hunt for the rabbit.. . . We used everything. Not one thing was wasted. We worked all the day and took enough to live, but we did not every forget to give thanks.” His tone hardens. “We thanked God for each thing that we had, food and peace at night. Now they have plenty and no one give thanks. People are slaves here. They talk and think about the job, the money, but they do not live well. Time is their boss. Before, people were happier.” (Tatchell 130-131)
One Qatari writer also believes that modernization has brought about a decreasing sense of community:
“The neighborhood has lost its meaning of unity and homogeneity. Previously a neighborhood was made up of the same tribe, and each house had an extended family living in it. The houses stood next to each other, and their doors were always open. It was safe, as no strangers lived among them. Today the same area is made up of buildings and houses; the residents barely know each other. The buildings have become taller, the houses bigger; but our hearts have become smaller”(Al Matwi 36).
Nonetheless, despite the problems of modernity and a nostalgia for the past, the majority of people would not want to turn back the clock. A Qatar writer sums up this feeling of inevitability by saying:
“A lot of people were afraid of these changes at that time and some still are. They thought it was too much, it should happen more slowly; change should be more gradual. This idea is normal; sudden change is worrisome: we get used to things being done in a certain way. But that’s not a reason to turn our backs on change. Yes, there will be some problems and some mistakes. But that’s inevitable; that’s how life is.” (Rasheed 28-29)
To conclude, the nationals of UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait have witnessed an astonishing transformation in their societies in the last generation or two. Although they welcome the comforts and opportunities rapid modernization has brought, many simultaneously mourn the passing of simpler times that many find more authentic. Many, such as Saad Matwi al Matwi, ask themselves, “Can we keep our hearts rooted to our values and our culture, and still be modern? (36)
Belkaid, Akram. Trans. Krystyna Horko. “Language Debate Reflects Identity Crisis.” Le Monde
Tatchell, Jo. A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Richest City. London: Sceptre,
Matwi Al, Saad Rashid. “The Sidra Tree.” In Henderson, Carol and Rjakumar, Mohanalakshmi . Qatari
Voices: A Celebration of New Writers. Doha, Qatar: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing,
Rashid, Mashaael Salman, “The Secret Smile of Change.” In Henderson, Carol and Rjakumar,
Mohanalakshmi . Qatari Voices: A Celebration of New Writers. Doha, Qatar: Bloomsbury
Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2010.
If you travel to the West Bank, I encourage you to get off the tour bus and take a hike instead. Rural Palestine offers an abundance of walking opportunities and provided me with some of my most memorable experiences. In addition to enjoying the beauty of the desert, plains, hills and wadis, you can’t help but encounter ancient buildings, monasteries, and monuments of religious and historic significance.
If I understand correctly, the hiking-as-tourism movement in Palestine is relatively recent and is starting to gain momentum. One impetus to this movement is a newly published book by Stefan Szepesi called Walking Palestine: 25 Journeys into the West Bank, Interlink Publishing Group.
In this book, Szepesi guides the reader through twenty-five walks in different areas of the West Bank. I confess I have not read the book yet, but agree with the blurbs and reviews which claim that Palestine is a walker’s paradise and that walking is the best way to get to know a country. It is largely through my walks in the countryside that I have been converted into a fan of deserts and almost-deserts. (My native habitat is the humid green and blue lands of the Upper Midwest.) For me, there is something magical about the landscape here, something that even the best photographs don’t really capture. It’s hard for me to explain the attraction, but it is powerful. There is a reason, I think, that the desert plays such a prominent role in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
If you plan to travel to the West Bank, you may want to join the “Walking Palestine” group on Facebook. Group hikes, many of them guided, are posted regularly on this site.
A slightly older book (2008) about walking in Palestine is Raja Shehada’s Palestinian Walks.
Here is what the Amazon website says about this book:
“Raja Shehadeh is a passionate hill walker. He enjoys nothing more than heading out into the countryside that surrounds his home. But in recent years, his hikes have become less than bucolic and sometimes downright dangerous. That is because his home is Ramallah, on the Palestinian West Bank, and the landscape he traverses is now the site of a tense standoff between his fellow Palestinians and settlers newly arrived from Israel.
In this original and evocative book, we accompany Raja on six walks taken between 1978 and 2006. The earlier forays are peaceful affairs, allowing our guide to meditate at length on the character of his native land, a terrain of olive trees on terraced hillsides, luxuriant valleys carved by sacred springs, carpets of wild iris and hyacinth and ancient monasteries built more than a thousand years ago. Shehadeh’s love for this magical place saturates his renderings of its history and topography. But latterly, as seemingly endless concrete is poured to build settlements and their surrounding walls, he finds the old trails are now impassable and the countryside he once traversed freely has become contested ground. He is harassed by Israeli border patrols, watches in terror as a young hiking companion picks up an unexploded missile and even, on one occasion when accompanied by his wife, comes under prolonged gunfire.
Amid the many and varied tragedies of the Middle East, the loss of a simple pleasure such as the ability to roam the countryside at will may seem a minor matter. But in Palestinian Walks, Raja Shehadeh’s elegy for his lost footpaths becomes a heartbreaking metaphor for the deprivations of an entire people estranged from their land.”
If you are like me, a person who gets lost every time she travels to Minneapolis, you may prefer to hike with a live tour guide rather than a written description. If so, I would recommend Hijazi Eid, http://hijazih.wordpress.com/ who guides small groups on a variety of tours ranging from a half day to several days. He loves the area and knows it intimately—the flora and fauna, the history, and the politics—and can arrange meetings and overnight stays with local families so that you can get to know local people. One of my regrets is that I did not get a chance to do an overnight hike, but I did immensely enjoy visiting the Bedouin family on the Hijazi’s Bedouin tour.
Here are a few photos of the landscape I saw while hiking in Palestine:
While staying in the West Bank of Israel, I went on a guided hiking tour of part of the Wadi Qelt. Wadi Qelt is a spectacularly dramatic crevice in the desert hills between Jerusalem and Jericho. (In Arabic, “Qelt” means valley or sometimes riverbed.) It follows the spring of Ein Qelt, which provides the route with lush greenery. Wadi Qelt used to be used as a major travel route in the Roman times. The tour was led by Hijazi Eid http://hijazih.wordpress.com/. There were three of us tourists, two American women and one German woman. Hijazi picked us up in Bethlehem and drove us to the beginning of the hike, at the top of chalky, undulating desert hills.
In this scene, D refers to me (Debra), H to Hijazi, and T and K to the other tourists (in order to protect their privacy.)
We all get our backpacks , water bottles, hats and sunglasses in place and start to hike.
Two minutes into the hike:
H: The valley of Wadi Qelt used to be used as a main travel route between Jerusalem and Jericho. We will not hike the whole valley today, though. Our hike will be about 15 kilometers. If you look below you’ll notice….
D: Look! A camel! Can we stop and take a picture?
K: Yes, let’s stop and get a picture.
T: Oh, I love camels. Hi, sweetie. [Pets camel on head.]
D: Hmmmm…that camel looks really dirty, but is still awfully cute. [Pets camel gingerly.]
Camel does the camel equivalent of rolling eyes and thinks, “Oh, brother. More tourists. It’s such a drag to be so picturesque.”
(Several minutes of picture taking and cooing ensue.)
Seven minutes into the hike:
H: So, as I was saying, if you look below, you’ll notice….
Small child walks up to us carrying scarves and says something in Arabic.
H: Does anybody want to buy a washaha [Arabic word for scarf)?
D: Kahwah? Did you say coffee? Yes, I’d love some.
H: Not coffee–scarf, washaha.
D: Oh, sorry. This one’s kind of pretty. [Fingers the scarf.] But no thanks. I don’t want a scarf.
K and T shake their heads no.
Ten minutes into the hike
H: OK, ladies, yalla, yalla [Arabic for “come on, let’s get going.”]
[Everybody starts walking.]
Twelve minutes into the hike.
H: If you look below, over there, you will see the remainders of an aqueduct. It was built over 2000 years ago by the Romans and was used by the Hasmonean rulers to carry water from the Ein Qelt [Spring of Qelt] to their palaces and to the city of Jericho.
D: Oh, wow! Look at those pretty flowers! What are they called?
K: They are lovely. [Takes out camera.]
D: Yes, they are. And they are so, so…..red. [Takes out camera and stoops down low to take pictures.]
D, T, and K stop for a few minutes to take pictures.
T: It’s so beautiful here.
D: Yes, it is. I’m glad we’re here in the spring when everything is in bloom.
Sixteen minutes into the hike:
H: Ok, ladies. Yalla! Yalla!
Lady hikers start walking again.
Twenty minutes into the hike:
D: Look! There are the remains of some old structure over there. What is it?
H: The remains of a Roman aqueduct.
D: Really? The Romans built an aqueduct here?
H: Yes. They built it to lead the water from the Ein Qelt spring to Jericho and all the homes in
D: Oh, look at the lovely tree. It’s so green. K, could you please take a picture of me by this tree?
K: Sure, if you could take one of me, too. T, would you like us to take one of you, too?
T: Yes, please!
Several minutes of picture taking of lady tourists in front of tree ensue.
Twenty-five minutes into the hike:
H: Yalla, yalla, ladies. (Begins to sing a song in Arabic that has the refrain “yalla, yalla.”)
Ladies begin walking again.
H: Below you will see the remains of a flour mill from the 19th century. Today, a Bedouin family is living in the house and taking care of it.
D: (looking at her camera’s record of the 35 hiking pictures she’s taken so far while trying to hike at the same time) thinks, I look like a dork in this hat, but I need it to keep out the sun.
Thirty-one minutes into the hike:
T: Could we stop for a few minutes, please? I really need to go to the bathroom.
H: OK, just find a rock and we’ll wait for you up ahead.
D, K and H continue to walk a little bit to give T some privacy. They stand around and wait for t to finish. D thinks her foot might be starting to hurt a bit.
D: Hijazi, what would happen if I tripped and hurt my leg and couldn’t walk back?
H: I would have to carry you back. (He says this with a look of absolute terror in his eyes.)
D: Bummer. (That’s English for “that would be quite unfortunate for you.”)
Two minutes later, H presents D with a walking stick that he made from wood found near the path.
D thinks, That was very thoughtful of him!
H thinks, Please, God, please, please, please don’t let her hurt herself today!!! Not on my watch!
D: Hey, I think I saw a woman in that house over there. Does somebody live there?
H: Yes, a Bedouin family lives there, next to the remains of a flour mill from the 19th century.
T comes back from the powder room.
Thirty-eight minutes into the hike, the group have advanced about 300 meters and have collectively taken 72 photos.
H: Yalla, yalla, ladies. This is a four-hour hike without breaks. At the rate we’re going, though, it
will take us three days to get to Jericho. We need to pick up the pace.
T: Sure, of course.
D: No problem.
K: I’m ready.
H: Please be careful! Watch your step!
The ladies focus on hiking for several minutes. Progress is being made.
But then, 45 minutes into the hike:
D: Oh, look! There’s a Palestinian dog! I wonder if he speaks English? I really need to get a
picture of him. . . .
(Several minutes of “nice doggies” and “good boys” and “oh, I missed him in that shot” ensue.)
. . . . . Fast forward eight hours. The group is still hiking.
D: How much longer before we’re there?
H: Just 15 minutes or so.
D thinks, I’m hot. My feet hurt. I’m thirsty. This hike is taking sooooo much longer than H said it would. He really needs to be more accurate in the future.
It was not until my first trip to Russia, in the summer of 1998, that I realized that shopping for cabbage could be such a harrowing adventure. Learning how to cook schi (traditional Russian cabbage soup) required the development of a tougher psychological hide than my wimpy Midwestern existence had prepared me for.
My initiation into the dangers of shopping began on my first day in Russia. My companion picked me up at the airport and escorted me to central Moscow. Before we even entered the apartment, I asked him if we could first check out the mom and pop grocery store across from his building. Even though I was exhausted from the flight, I was intensely curious about everything Russian. I knew that in this post-Soviet period, Russia was no longer the evil empire it had been in the Reagan years. Still, I was hoping it was still a wee bit wicked, at least enough to make my trip halfway around the world worthwhile. Also, on the practical side, I assumed that I would be shopping at this store frequently, and I was curious to see what kind of goods it contained.
It took a few moments after entering the burrow of a shop for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We were the only customers. The owner, a burly middle-aged man, stood behind a long counter with his arms crossed. He glared suspiciously at us. Most of the goods were stored on the shelves behind the counter, so browsing was not an option. We stood near the doorway for a few moments while I looked around. Although we were not there for long, maybe only a minute or two, the owner was clearly getting impatient with us.
It wasn’t long before he barked: “Sashamashadashabaryshnikovbrezhnevharascho.”
“Let’s go,” my companion muttered to me, and we turned around and left.
Except for a few words and phrases, I did not speak Russian, so I had no idea what the bark meant. I asked my companion to translate for me, so he did, somewhat reluctantly. If we were not going to buy anything, the burgeoning capitalist had yelled at us, then we should get the fuck out of his store. Apparently the idea that the customer is king had not yet caught on in Russia.
Although I decided not to go back to that shop, I was, on some level, pleased with the encounter. It suggested that perhaps Russia would live up to its scary reputation and that my trip would be worth the fare.
For the rest of my stay, I frequented a shop two or three blocks away, a leftover from the Soviet times. As with the Barker’s shop, all of the goods in this store were placed behind the counters, which were zealously guarded by the clerks, like so many Cerberuses guarding the gates of hell. To buy anything, customers had to ask the clerk to get whatever they wanted for them. And to make the process as inefficient as possible, customers had to stand in separate lines to order each type of food (produce, meats, etc). After a customer ordered the products, the cashier told them how much the food costs. Next, the customers had to move to a separate line so that they could pay the cashier for the food. After paying for the food, customers had to stand in yet another line to show the clerk the receipt and collect the goods. This procedure was then repeated for every category of food. This system not only maximized inefficiency, it also maximized the amount of customer contact with the clerks. Thus, the potential for scary encounters was high.
I remember one day in particular, after having been in Moscow for a few days, when I decided to make shchi (a traditional cabbage soup). First, I stood in the produce line. Given my extremely limited Russian and my frightening experience with the Barker, I was intimidated by the rotund, middle-aged woman behind the counter. I felt a little bit like Dorothy trembling in supplication before the Wizard of Oz.
“Please,” I said in my garbled Russian when it was my turn to order. “Threes carrot and thank you two cabbage.”
The clerk gave me a disapproving look and barked out the price: “yapeeshuperom.”
I did not understand and looked blankly at her.
She repeated the price: “yapeeshuperom.” Seeing me stand there dumbly set her off on a harangue: “Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev dvapivapazhaloosta.”
Although this dressing down was not as scary as the Barker’s had been, it was frightening enough to give me a little bit of a thrill. Perhaps this is what it feels like to ski down a steep mountain slope.
“To write, excuse me,” I mumbled, and made writing motions with my hand.
She rolled her eyes, but understood and wrote down the price on a slip and handed it to me.
Grateful for her condescension, I scuttled off to wait in a second line—the cashier’s—to pay for my produce. When it was my turn, I handed the young brunette a fifty-ruble note for my 24.85 ruble purchase. In response, the cashier replied, “Bolshpriviborsch.”
Here we go again, I thought. I knew by now that my blank look would be enough to get her going, and I was right.
“Tchaikovskyrimskykorsikov yapishuperom yanepaneemayonichevo,” she went on, this time in a louder voice. Eventually, the cashier gave up trying to explain anything to me and instead pointed to the 85 cents in the price and held out small coins in her palm. Now I understood that she was expecting me to give her the exact change. I did not have the change, so I simply shook my head and continued to look at her in mute supplication. Finally, with an exaggerated sigh and a rolling of her eyes, she gave up on me and gave me back my change, counting it out slowly and loudly to signal her displeasure.
By this time, I was so intimidated that my adrenaline was starting to climb and my heartbeat was almost in the aerobic zone. I started to understand the appeal of extreme sports. I was frightened, but in a thrilling way. This was getting good. I walked back to the previous counter, eager to claim my hard-won cabbages and carrots. I was puzzled, however, to notice that the lights were off and the produce clerk was no longer there. I looked around the store, confused, wanting to know where my cabbages were. A woman was sweeping the floor. Seeing the confused look on my face, she started in on me. “Dvapivapazhaloosta bolshoischiborscht mishadachadostoevsy!” she yelled.
Wow. Three scoldings within the course of maybe fifteen minutes. Could bungee jumping be better than this? I began to feel my moral fiber toughen. I could get through this adventure and would be the stronger person for it. I noticed that there was nobody left in the store and I realized that the store was closing for lunch.
“Please,” I said to the woman. “Cabbage and carrot?”
“Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev” she replied, but went behind the counter and retrieved my package.
Although I still had other purchases to make, I had to leave because the store was closed. As I walked out the door, I was tempted to raise my vegetables over my head in a sign of victory. In the soundtrack to my life, the theme song from Rocky should have been playing.
I had maneuvered the minefields of the evil empire and emerged victorious. This was fun.
As I stayed longer in Moscow, I realized that the denizens of this store were not particularly surly by Russian standards. They were quite ordinary, in fact. Although at first I thought they were yelling at me because I was a foreigner, I realized this was not the case. (In fact, many times, the scolders did not know I was foreign. They simply thought I was a feeble-minded Russian.) Russians will scold anyone. And although any Russian—young, old, male, female–feels entitled to yell at strangers, scolding is the particular specialty of older women—the babushki. It does not matter that the scoldees are strangers, or—like me—might not even understand what our offense is. The important thing for the babushki is to let us know we are wrong. I believe they consider it their civic duty to keep the idiots in line.
They have their jobs cut out for them.
When I told Americans about getting yelled at in Russia, they were appalled. “What a horrible place,” they said. They don’t get it, I thought. At least for me, it was not a horrible experience. In fact, after awhile, I felt a little disappointed if I went out in Russia and did not get scolded. Why is this? Am I a masochist? I don’t think so. Rather, I realize in retrospect that on some level I envy these women their freedom of speech. Living as I do in the land of Minnesota Nice, I am obligated by social custom and the law of capitalism (to always please the customer) to be polite at all times. I could never get away with calling someone a blathering idiot, no matter how blatheringly idiotic he may be.
The older I get, and the more fools and knaves I encounter, the more painful I find the constraints of politeness. I fear that one day I will snap. I will don a Russian scarf, sit in my office and tell whoever comes by what romanovpushkinblinis they really are. I know that if I do this, I will lose my job and the entire capitalist system will come crumbling down. I will become a minion of the new evil empire of Minnesota. It might be kind of fun.
Girl, you got it goin’ on,
With yo azure waves and sun so bright,
I wanna chill with you. It seems so right
That Imma give up reading the Scrolls of Qumran
To splash with you, baby, you hot little ho.
Let me shimmy in your depths and play with all yo fish.Damn, girl!
Those rocks are hard, they hurt my toes.
You’re hurting me, you bitch!
Now I’m in the water, this is good.
Yo, what’s with all this salt?
It burns my eyes and hurts my sores—you’re ruining the mood.
Wo, now I’m floating against my will. You’ve screwed with my gestalt.
F____ this _____, I’m getting out.
Girl, you bust my chops.
Even the fish can’t take your crap; that’s why they’ve gone, no doubt.
I’m leaving you, going back to the hood. I’d rather wrestle with the cops.
“Sister! My Sister! You must look at my shop!” called the tall, lean proprietor of a woodcarving stall. I smiled at him hesitantly and kept walking, and he started to follow me, carrying several of his carvings along. I was surprised that he left his shop to do so.
“No, Sister, you must come over here,” cried another woodcarver, motioning me to come to his shop containing woodwork looking very similar. “I have the very best prices.” When I kept on walking, he, too, started to follow me, leaving his stall unattended. Both of these young Ghanaian men walked uncomfortably close to me, sometimes touching my arm to shoulder to get my attention. Even though I did not say anything to them, they kept up a constant chatter, touting the superiority of their goods. Although it was a warm, humid day in May, my difficulty breathing had less to do with the weather than with my discomfort at such unwanted physical closeness.
It did not take long before I had four or five men following me around the National Cultural Center, the largest souvenir market in Accra, Ghana. Jumbled together under this vast open air pavilion were various stalls and shops other selling souvenirs ranging from masks to statues to musical instruments to paintings to woodcarvings. I had been looking forward to shopping here. For me, part of the pleasure of travel is to be able to take in the sights, smells and textures of the local culture through their markets. My plan was not only to look, but also to buy some souvenirs. I was quickly realizing that shopping here would reveal unexpected psychological difficulties for me. At home in Minnesota, I was used to fitting into my surroundings to such an extent that I was nearly invisible. As a white American in Ghana, however, invisibility was not an option.
I traveled to Accra, Ghana in May of 2006 to present a paper at the African Literature Association Conference. I am an English professor and although my specialty is American literature, I have read a significant amount of African fiction and I have long been interested in the art and culture of the region. This was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and I was looking forward to making connections with local people. I was certainly meeting many people in this shopping center and we quickly became close—physically close, that is. This was not what I had in mind, though. I was hoping to be seen as an individual, not simply a walking cash machine.
As I walked on, some of the hawkers would drift away, while others would take their place. I stopped at one particular stall to admire the fertility dolls. I picked one up to admire it. I wanted to know more about the origin of these dolls. Which ethnic group were they from? The Ashanti? The Ewe? Or were they widespread among the myriad of peoples making up Ghana? How were they used?
I was about to ask the man tending the shop some of these questions. Before I could do so, though, he said to me, “Because you are my mother, I will give you a special deal.” His mother! Offended, I quickly left the stall. I had gotten used to being everybody’s sister, but I was not ready claim this grown man as my son. I was far too young (in my mind at least) for that.
I moved on to the next stall, which carried a wide variety of traditional African masks. I knew very little about masks, and was afraid of buying one that would bring a curse upon my house. I asked the salesman what the masks meant.
“I am looking for something to bring me good luck,” I said.
“My sister,” he responded. “If you buy these masks you will bring ME good luck.
I laughed at his response. As much as I wanted to bring him good luck, though, I was feeling too overwhelmed by all of the new sensations and the constant attention to continue shopping at this point. Although I had been in the city for less than two hours, I desperately needed some invisible time. I found at least partial refuge in a café bordering the market. As I sat on the shaded porch sipping my Pepsi, I began to breathe easier. There was only a railing separating me from the crowds, but behind it, I felt safer.
I learned later that this market has a reputation for particularly aggressive salesmen. Although my time at the market was perhaps the most extreme experience in terms of numbers of hawkers, I found that any time Westerners stepped out of the protected confines of the five star hotel or tour bus, we were the center of unwanted attention. Intellectually, I perfectly understood that the Ghanaians were desperately poor in comparison to the American middle-class tourists and that they were simply trying to make a living. Because of my academic background, I was acutely aware of the power dynamics between Westerners and formerly colonized peoples. When reading books by African authors, it was very easy for me to identify with the African characters and to feel outraged by the arrogance and unearned privileges of the whites. I learned to despise the colonizers, especially those who led luxurious lives in their white enclaves, completely separate from the African people—except for their servants, of course. I was always on Okonkwo’s side. I was finding, however, that it was easier to make human connections through the books I read than it was with the real people I was meeting.
This became even more clear to me the time I decided to go for a walk along the beach. The narrow strip of sand along the waterfront did not belong to the hotel; it was public property. A tall wrought-iron fence separated the beach from the hotel; the gate was zealously guarded to keep out non-paying guests. I walked on the warm sand, happy to be taking in the breathtaking spectacle of the Atlantic ocean shimmering in the sunlight. I noticed numerous small stands and businesses lining the beach. The proprietors motioned to me to come check out their goods, but for the most part they left me alone physically.
Within a few minutes, however, a tall, muscular young man walked up to me and began following me.
“Hello? How are you? Where are you from?” he asked.
I answered his questions briefly and kept walking. He was not carrying anything to sell, so I was confused by his presence. I did not know what he wanted from me. If he was selling something, I did not know what it was. Surely he was not trying to pick me up; he must have been twenty years younger than me.
He continued to talk about himself and ask questions about me. I thought that my minimal responses and closed body language would be enough to make him go away, but I was wrong. I think of myself as a nice person and did not want to give offense, but I did not know the social codes of the culture. If I told him explicitly to go away would it be taken as a sign of racism? Not knowing how to get rid of him politely, I simply continued to walk. He continued to walk alongside me.
After awhile, we came to a very shallow stream of water. The water came up to my knees, if that. The man motioned for me to get on his back.
“I will carry you across,” he said.
Are you nuts? I thought. You can’t really expect me to hop on your back. Can you?
But I merely replied, “No, thank you,” I said. “I can walk across myself.”
He looked offended. “You think I cannot carry you. You do not know that I am a man.”
I was very aware that he was a man; that was exactly the problem, but I just said, “I am fine” as I slogged through the shallow water.
“Now your feet are wet,” he said sadly, shaking his head, once I made it across the stream.
I continued walking for a few minutes, but then I turned back. I was becoming more and more uncomfortable and wanted to go back to the hotel. When we got back to the main beach, he motioned for me to follow him into a restaurant. Because it was in between meal times, there were no customers in the cool darkness of the building. The man spoke briefly to a woman who was working there. I surmised that this was his restaurant, or at least that he worked here and that his goal was to get me to buy a meal here. If so, it seemed like a lot of work for one customer.
He motioned for me to follow him to the back part of the main room, where he turned on a low faucet for me to wash my feet. This seemed like an odd thing to do, but still eager to avoid offense, I walked to the faucet and took off my sandals. For a moment, I enjoyed the feel of the water on my legs. But then, the man until he bent down and started rubbing my feet, trying to wash them for me. I stiffened and pulled back from the water. What was he doing? I wondered. By this point, my need to get away trumped my need to avoid offense.
“I have to go now,” I said and started to walk away.
“Stay and have some lunch,” he replied. “The food is excellent.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I really need to get back to the hotel.”
I was not lying. By this point, I was desperate for the psychological safety of the hotel. I hurried up the gentle slope to the hotel gate. As I did so, I was followed by several hawkers selling their paintings. Normally, I would be interested in looking at the paintings and might have purchased one. At this point, however, I needed to get away and was relieved when the hotel guard let me in the gate. When I looked back on the beach, I saw that some of the men were pressed up against the fence, continuing their sales pitch through the bars.
Because I was on one side of the bars and they were on the other, the scene reminded me of a zoo. However, I’m not sure who was on display and who was being watched. Perhaps Western tourists like me were like exotic creatures—like Panda bears, perhaps–best kept behind locked gates.
As I slunk back to the safety of the hotel, I felt simultaneously relieved and disappointed in myself. Surely, it must be possible to make genuine connections with local people. I, however, had failed to do so. Because of the fraught history and massive economic differences, the Ghanaians saw me as a target and I saw them as harassers. Like the colonialists of the past whom I had always despised, I sought refuge from harsh reality in the protected confines of economic privilege.