Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Outbound (3.21.10)

There is a way parents walk with toddlers, those two-arm, stiff-legged little walks with arms held high and a father’s legs parallel to his child’s, locked in place like a single four legged creature from some fantasy film that only happens in the home that turns a cabin in the air into a cabin in the woods. Watching it from the center aisle as it goes by, and where you can see only the top half of the Dad yet know instantly the full scene as though you’d suddenly been granted X-Ray vision, you feel at ease, surrounded by family.

That’s what it is now to travel with these people who have become, in these years, family. For most of us it’s the start of week six on the road, and the fact that the last time we were overseas together was nine months ago is rendered irrelevant by the bond within. We’re happy to be together, happy for the adventure and for the chance to be in each other’s company again in a way that you cannot find a parallel for in the studios at home. We know the experience, we know each other, and when you see us, even though you see only part of us, its as though you had suddenly been granted the same X-Ray vision of seeing father and child in the long corridor of coach on Qatar 57. It’s a family thing.

Kathryn, my most constant traveling companion in this past year, the person with whom I spent two weeks in the Middle East in October under such different circumstances, is at my right, lost in “Up in the Air,” which I watched about 8 hours ago on my own little 10 inch person viewing screen. The last time we were up in the air together we were flying from Amman to Damascus, heading to the last leg of a time meeting and talking with people in the displaced communities of Iraq, trying somehow to take in and to recount the experiences of people’s whose circumstances were in many ways beyond what we could bear. They are people who still sit near my shoulder, voices that do not go away, lives I have felt completely inadequate to support even with a 35 minute dance called “Wishes of the Sailor,” which was derived from those two weeks. Ghosts, really, and that fact makes it all the harder to bear. There is a worry, nagging like those ghosts, that all that pain we took in has led only to the catharsis of artistic creation for us, and done nothing for them. That’s hard to live with.

We’re over Turkey now, and the nifty 3D screen shows us heading directly towards Beirut, where the first part of the journey to meet the refugee community began in the early days of October 2009. As always, watching the miles go by and seeing the cities we are breezing over, with names like Tarsus and Aleppo, I am lost in the history of them, and at how cavalierly we bound over them, a journey of 13 hours that a century ago could have taken 13 weeks and been filled with endless challenges is now simply about comfort and convenience, as impersonal as an evening on the couch. I spend much of my “chatting time” marveling at Qatar Airlines and railing at Delta, and feeling somehow unpatriotic in the process. As a traveler the startling difference in quality between these two airlines is a travelogue unto itself. It’s the first time I’ve ever said “thank God” for a strike – in this case the British Airways strike that changed our travel plans from BA to QA.

In 1910 there were perhaps 50 countries in the world. Now we’re just shy of 200. At some point an hour or so from now we’ll fly over or hard-by Israel for about a second-and-a-half before crossing above Jordan and into the airspace over the incredible vastness of Saudi Arabia. I am reminded of how tiny Israel is, of how the pre-‘67 borders left it at one place only 8 miles across. At 537 miles an hour it takes less than a minute to over-fly it. What must it be like to live with that precariousness? How do you find balance and rationality in a world when your entire country can be bisected in 50 seconds by a commercial airliner?

Our view screen flashes the location of Mecca every few minutes in between its in-flight geography display before zooming out to a Moon’s-Eye view of the earth and our path. We are returning to a world at once familiar and eternally unknowable, the woman behind the veil (never turn the souls of your shoes upward enough for someone in the Arab world to see them. It’s an insult. At home, growing up I used to strain to emulate my Dad, who would sit with one leg cocked at the ankle or shin atop the other, confident, strong. Here that same hubris would have exactly the opposite impact).

The most direct route to Qatar would have taken us over Africa, but that’s a route never traveled. It’s probably many hours longer to fly over Europe than to fly over Africa, crossing the expanse of the Sahara, over Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but our trip to the desert Island of Bahrain takes us over the Alps. Is the choice of route practical, or is there something subliminal at work here?


The word, in Arabic, means “Two Seas.” The first is the salt sea surrounding it; the second the pure, sweet, fresh water of legend that gave it its magic. That water is almost exhausted now, pulled out of the ground and into my showerhead in hotel after hotel, into the tap, into the gardening hose that creates lawns where sand belongs. The endless prices of “modernization” at work again. Desalinization anyone?

Bahrain lies deep in the legends of Gilgamesh, the very definition of ancient in human societies. It was the Garden of Eden itself, as archeologists are determining even today. Yet as is so common in this part of the world, its history is a poker game of changing hands. Its sovereignty was granted only in 1971 from the UK. There’s always a bit of a disconnect in the dichotomy of civilizations which founded civilization (there’s something about a civilization going into “decline” two thousands years before Christ that’s a bit jarring to the American ear) having to struggle in the late twentieth century for their independence. And for Bahrain, which grew influential and stunningly wealthy with the first oil strike in 1935 – the first in the Middle East – the future poses so many questions. 10 – 15 years from now the oil that feeds their economy will, according to many projections, run out. A country of 730,000, smaller in size than 189 other countries or territories – smaller than Hong Kong, only 3.5 times the size of DC, with 38% of its population non-Bahraini, will end a 100 year-run as a different type of Garden of Eden, a garden not of fruit but of fossil fuel, the nutrition of the industrial age. What then? Will the smallest independent state in the Gulf, the first and to date only nation in the Arab World to hold a free-trade agreement with the US, slip into irrelevance? It’s hard to picture, and ironic to consider when you also take in that it’s a remarkably pro-active nation. Open, forward-thinking on many, many levels. More than once in my conversations with Washington diplomats or people “in the know” the mention of the word “Bahrain” has brought a smile --- an acknowledgement that “they’re doing it right.”

Filling up the gas tank just before hitting the Dulles Access Road Sunday afternoon there was that momentary flash thinking about the fact that the fuel in the car that got Julie and me to the airport might well have originated in a well in the place we were heading to – a 7,000 mile journey for the refined remains of plants which died millions upon millions of years ago when this entire part of the world was thousands of miles removed from where it is today and lush. Tens of millions of years sucked out of the ground and consumed in 100. Makes you wonder, again and again, what will be in all the places so familiar to us now a century hence. Alicia’s baby was born last Thursday. What will her world be when her first child is born, or when she becomes a grandmother for the first time?

Someone up to the left in the cabin a baby is wailing at the change in air pressure, compressing its tiny eardrums and disorienting its infant sensibilities. I know just how it feels.

We’re over Damascus now.

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