06-11-08 Cultural transitions at Dubai International Airport


9:30 pm

Cultural differences are in the details; it’s the small moments that illuminate them best. In much of the West, Canada in particular, one boards a plane with an unsaid pact between yourself and fellow passengers.  This pact has its own guidelines: be polite, don’t rush, be demure, allow other passengers the right of way.  This unwritten social contract, embedded in a culture based on politeness and democratic consensus, seems to hold no water in most other places, especially in areas where South Asians are numerous, such as Dubai.  The Gulf is an interesting place in that regards – it’s acts as a sort of transit area for people in the Subcontinent, physically and mentally, not quite totally Eastern, definitely not Western in any non-superficial way.  Something happens to Pakistani travelers whenever they come here, a sort of shift in the mentality brought on by the presence of other Pakistanis, a shift towards a mindset slightly infatuated with chaos.  Lining up, for example, becomes a cause for concern.  It is de rigeur for Canadians if they wanted to board any plane, but here, as the announcement for seats has been made in an otherwise torpid lounge, things change.  The usual magnanimous act of asking families with small children to board first becomes an excuse for EVERYONE to storm the plane en masse, brandishing their boarding cards with a quite sense of entitlement.

This is not to suggest an intrinsic rudeness on the part of most Pakistanis.  Despite what I have heard from my elders about manners being in decline in the country, I really don’t think its that bad. More than anything this is sort of a cultural illustration of what I mentioned above, that subtle need for chaos, even a small, trivial chaos.  I think you can interpret it in a political vein as well.  Rules, arbitrary as they are, may be more readily adopted (ironically) in countries with stronger traditions of liberal democracy than in developing nation-states.  Or perhaps its something more specific, more particular to “consensus-building” cultures than those based on raw individualism. (People often say that’s what differentiates the U.S. from Canada the most.)  Rules tend to be applied on the honor system  in Pakistan, so even the simple act of lining up in the manner flight attendants ask you too tends to be adhered to with blithe selectively, if not outright dismissiveness.


05-11-08 Obama at Pearson International


Wide screened TVs are in abundance here in the lounge, everyone of them with Obama celebrating his victory.  It seems I’m one of the few people slightly underwhelmed by Obama’s aura.  It had less to do with him than the millenarian over-confidence that seems to be symptomatic of everyone infected with Obamania.  Something about it seems shallow and lacking substance beyond trite liberalism. Domestically I am sure he could be a resounding success; internationally I have certain doubts with him based on my own biases (his hard-stance towards Pakistan, my own pro-Palestinian inclinations).  Much of the enthusiasm for him is based on the fact that he is not George Bush.  Clearly, he can and would do better than his predecessor.  However, let there be no mistake about it: anyone would be better than his predecessor.  A coat hanger would be a better public servant, as would any other charmless inanimate object.

I’m curious to see what Pakistanis think…we shall see.

04-07-2007 Pierre Part and the end


5.49 pm Towards Pierre Part, Assumption Parish, Louisiana

Just had a fourth of July party with some of Claire’s classmates. Now heading towards where she’s having her residency, in Pierre Part, a small hamlet in Cajun country. Swamps line the highway, and everything seems hyper-green in color.

8.15 pm Pierre Part

Pierre Part is a town of approximately 2000 people built in and around the Louisiana bayou. The local corner store sell all that one would need, including large cartons of Marlboro and Pall Mall cigarettes, copious amounts of alcohol, and shotgun shells. Signs advertising for the August gun show at the Patterson Civic Center are frequent, and Claire’s home (we affectionately call it the “shack”) lies in close proximity to the other major thoroughfares in town: Family Street and Mam and Pap (not Mom and Pop) Drive. Cajun French is spoken here. I find those that that we’ve met so far to be people of genuine character, with an warmth and hospitality devoid of guile and insincerity. We had dinner at a place called Vince’s BBQ. Vince, a 76 year old Korean War veteran, made a point to shake our hands and ask us everything about us. He gave us free ribs to partake in, which I politely declined. We went back to the “shack” to witness Claire’s new neighbors providing the Parish skyline with good old fashioned 4th of July fireworks.

10.20 pm Driving from Pierre Part to New Orleans on Highways10,70

We’re passing through very rural Louisiana. This state is partly oil country, and while originally I thought this was limited to off-shore platforms in the Gulf, we’re seeing no shortage of refineries dotting the landscape. Moving towards them in the enveloping darkness you can see an artificial dawn created by the lights reflected on the emitted smoke almost like a distant fire. The close you get to them you stumble upon something bizarre and magnificent: the refineries themselves. I first I thought we had reached the skyline of downtown New Orleans that we had reached prematurely. What it was was a giant microcity splattered with dotted lights, formed out of plethora of cylinders and pipes. I find it difficult to describe the scene clearly. A part of me wants to shudder at it; seeing the orange halo from afar plainly indicated a man-made economic monstrosity violating the bayou’s lushness. Yet the closer we got, the strangeness of the landscape gave the refinery an almost extra-terrestrial beauty. The director Werner Herzog once said:

“For me a true landscape is not just a representation of a desert or a forest. It shows an inner state of mind, literally inner landscapes…”

It’s this sentiment that stays with me … the bidirectionality of how the landscape and one’s mind approach one another. I can’t say what the moment did for me, or what my mind provided to augment its significance. I can say, however, that I wish I could experience it again, and see those lights appearing from nowhere like a mirage arising from the swamps.

03-07-2007 French Quarter revisited; Rebirth


9.35 am Envie Cafe, Barracks and Decatur St., French Quarter

This place is not in my guide book but it should be. Looks like an old-fashioned espresso house. Having a chocolate muffin and iced tea with hibiscus. Rain is expected. It isn’t hot, but the humidity is typically tropical. I’m thinking of some of my memories from the my trip here so far. Yesterday, at Cafe Beignet, I saw one of the most strikingly beautiful women I’ve seen in my life. She was a thirty-something mixed-race woman with a young son. Knowing the history of New Orleans (both factual and luridly embellished), one always hears stories of White Creole families in Louisiana and their quadroon or octaroon mistresses. These stories were always tragic, mostly for the women. Her face reminded me of those stories, as if she was completely rooted in the city, her existence trapped within it.

10.25 am Envie Cafe

At this moment in time I am completely relaxed. The languor here has removed any angst within me. It might be the weather, the environment in this cafe, some laissez-faire quality of the culture, but I feel I’ve internalized a sense of ease, as if living in some sort of dreamtime, one of those liminal states between full consciousness and drowsy swooning.

1o.41 Cabrini Park, Barracks and Delphine

I’m sitting in a bright blue lawn chair in a torpid parkette. The moisture and overgrowth of grass, the abundance of ornithic and insect sounds reminds me so much of Lahore that I felt a stunning need to sit down and just be here for a moment. Dogs abound here, and their owners have an open, friendly vivacity that adds to the sense of peace here.

2 am

Back from the Maple Leaf Club after seeing Rebirth, a brass band in true New Orleanian fashion. The crowd was mixed, black and white, class differences seemed to mean nothing. The crowd was huge; even the outside air seemed cold in comparison with the heat inside. At the back was the bar’s patio, bathed in blue light, with oak trees and mosquitoes interspersed with the ironwork chairs.

02-07-2007 "Vieux-Carre" The French Quarter


9:30 am Cafe Beignet, Royal Street, French Quarter

I’m eating a beignet with a cafe au lait in an open air patio while listening to Etta James. In front of me, dangling across the ironwork base of an archaic water pump like a damp rag an extremely and somewhat chubby cat is sleeping soundly in the languid humidity. A strange sort of traveler’s paradise this is.

I walked through parts of downtown today and could see small remnants of Katrina’s devastation. Being advised to have a bite to eat at the “Purple Dragon” I found a boarded up restaurant not giving the impression of being opened any time soon. The frequency of boarded-up establishments covered in wooden planks increased the closer I got to the French Quarter.

I’m waiting here for my walking tour of St. Louis cemetery. I’m interested to see how the rest of the day goes.

7.15 pm Back at Greg’s…On the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

The heat was even more unbearable than usual, especially at the cemetery. It may seem odd to many why I would be so interested in a cemetery, but I must say my trip was worth it. New Orleans and many parts of Southern Louisiana are known for the above ground crypts. The reason for their existence was pragmatic – the water table in this part of Louisiana is particularly high, making burying anything deep under ground impractical. The constant threat of flooding made the sight of freshly buried corpses floating down the street a frequent site in the early years of the city. Burying above ground thus seemed a natural and effective way of preserving the dignity of the citizenry after their departure from this world.

The necropolis had a genuine air of being infused with an Old World (African and Latin Catholic) spirituality, where filial piety and an emphasis on recognition and rootedness of the past are ever-present. Like the city itself, its sadness, for me at least, stems from a sense of abandonment. Much of the famed artwork associated with it has been stolen, and a feeling arose in me (hopefully a false one) that many families who had utilized these cemeteries to bury their dead may abandon the tradition as the new generation stays in exile from the city after Katrina.

I think one of the many reasons I’m fascinated with this place is how it represents the interplay of communal endeavor, spirituality, the importance of family, and the struggle against time through memory. History consumes people. This is neither a gloomy or morbid statement but merely a statement of obvious fact. Our guide, author Robert Florence, made a point of highlighting some of the crypts and structures erected by and funded by Catholic immigrant benevolent societies for the masses of poor, working class immigrants who helped create New Orleans , people of mixed race (nowhere else in the South would you see a cemetery this old that would allow anyone with a trace of African ancestry to be buried alongside Europeans) like Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, old French Creole aristocrats, and even Protestant Anglo-Saxon Americans all sharing this very limited space. The cemetery, in his words, acts like a microcosm of the city – divisions of class and race and religion exist, but at the same time, the city was and is fundamentally a pluralistic polis long before notions of multiculturalism really existed. Multicultural or not, all people, regardless of origin, all people fear Time. Many critics of religion argue that the religious impulse is based on a neurotic fear of death. Personally I think that’s an overstatement. What people do fear is not dying – finitude is a bit of knowledge everyone gains early and accepts – but fear of being lost or forgotten when Time envelopes oneself and subsequent generations. Cemeteries around the world try to preserve that sliver of memory in a struggle against Time. St. Louis Cemetery seems special, however. As I mentioned above, a distinct Old World aura pervades the place. After the tour of the cemetery, Mr. Florence took us to see his friend Priestess Miriam of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. The temple and the priestess both give the impression of authenticity, serenity, and immense gravity – there is nothing that gives one the feeling that this is a mere tourist trap, and Priestess Miriam certainly takes her religion very seriously. Amongst the many hard-to-follow non-sequiters in her rather stream of conscious speech to us was one gem that stood out to me: Voodoo is based on the idea that “our merits are based on the merits of others” who came before us. It is this idea, of being connected to one’s surroundings and in recognizing how our identities are created (at least partially) by the processes of history that affected our ancestors, that linger with me.

The rest of the day I spent walking in the French Quarter. Got to see the Mississippi, Jackson Square, Faulkner’s resting place (now a beautiful little bookstore). Royal street has man exquisite art galleries, and, as in San Francisco, the art dealers there always gather some sort of vibe from me that I am the type of person who can actually afford $7000 on a painting.

01-07-2007 In New Orleans


12 pm Greg’s House, Uptown, near Audobon Park

Listening to the Great Ones now: Ella, Nina, Dinah Washington, etc. It was my choice of music. Wanted to feel the romanticism of the place, or at least, the romanticism I created for myself. This moment, I feel I am accomplishing that goal.

3.30 pm

The heat is enervating. We’re back in Greg’s shotgun house after walking on Magazine Street. The torpid atmosphere has it’s advantages. One see how how fecund the Southern Louisiana environment is – oak trees with Spanish moss spring from the sidewalks with their thick, uncontrolled roots showing. Palm trees are abundant as well. It reminds me of Lahore in many ways. Nature is unavoidable here, even in this very middle- and upper middle-class neighbourhood filled with a mixture of stately seemingly ante-bellum homes and more modest but still spacious “shotgun” houses. Many of the houses seem worn with time, only adding to the Southern Gothic mystique of this area.

6.35 pm

Just had a crawfish boil in Audobon Park’s “Pit” right next to the Mississipi. Met some of Claire’s (Greg’s fiance) Tulane classmates. I do enjoy crawfish, although I must say I found the process of peeling them troublesome. These Tulane students, mostly but not exclusively middle-class white Americans served as an interesting contrast to the other “garden parties” going on, many of them involving groups of Latinos (the Hispanic population has increased since Katrina) or Black family gatherings.

11:00 pm

Greg and Claire took me to see Lakeshore at the bank of Lake Pontchartrain to see evidence of flooding. Most of this formerly prosperous area seems dry. What’s left in the area are remnants of a tragedy in the way of an abundance of all-white, perfectly rectangular, 30-foot long FEMA trailers, newly constructed homes, other hoes showing a need for their complete dismantling. Other homes seem perfectly intact save for their deconstructed bases. Overall, the impression I got was that of a beautifully maintained ghost town where the homes, and the overriding aura of the neighbourhood, is that of a place inbetweeen repair and dilapidated abandonment.

I can only imagine what areas like the mostly-poor Lower Ninth Ward must be like, apparently still flooded and neglected as it was before Katrina. Going to the Ninth Ward at any time is unlikely; despite the decrease in crime attributed to the post-Katrina exodus, it remains one of the city’s more troubled areas. Given the staggering rate of violence associated with a city long known as “the murder capital of America”, this is no small thing.

Driving in New Orleans I got the impression of some of the divides that are an almost intrinsic part of the city. Driving towards St. Charles Avenue through Jackson Avenue you can see the contrast between the relatively well-off, white New Orleans and the New Orleans typified by urban, black poverty. I could see chop-shops, run-down homes, and a fascinating surfeit of churches and ministries. My desire to go to the Tremé district to see the renowned St. Louis Cemetary alone as I originally wanted (despite warnings in all travel books I’ve consulted not to do so) was officially abandoned as Greg recounted an incident where he was politely “escorted” out of the area by someone from the corner after taking a wrong turn, giving him the distinct impression he did not belong. This area is near the Iberville housing projects, which border both the cemetary, French Quarter, and the downtown business district where Greg works, gives an indication of the close proximity yet segregated, self-contained distance that New Orleans neighborhoods have with one another.

30-06-2007 The Journey


12.15 pm Montreal-Trudeau Airport…in the Department of Homeland Security’s “special area”

Once again, I am about to be interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security. Technically, I am now in the United States. For some reason I’m relishing the experience perhaps because I want to see what they’ll ask me (this happened to me some five years earlier while trying to visit my brother in San Francisco) or perhaps I just want another story to tell.

Unlike the area they corralled me in at Pearson International in Toronto, this room is pleasantly devoid of large, imposing nostalgic photo spreads of the Twin Towers flanked by smiling portraits of Bush and Ashcroft. This place is starkly officious and bureacratic with connected chairs reminiscent of a Greyhound terminal. To my left are a series of small interview rooms where a varied assortment of officials – Customs, Immigrations, etc. – pass each other and engage each other in vapid banter. A few minutes ago I witnessed a Bangladeshi man being politely told by an unusually friendly officer that the reason he’s here is because his name is disconcertingly similar to “someone else”. His last name was “Abdullah”, which makes me wonder of the literally millions of people in the world with this surname who this “someone else” could be. Mr. Abdullah is asked a series of extensive questions on his work and family history. Once I think he’s done, and Mr. Abdullah can assuage himself that this traveller’s ordeal is over, he is asked to take a seat again. He is then told rather non-chalantly that he can’t be promised he won’t miss his flight. I can’t gauge Mr. Abdullah’s thoughts; however, if it’s anything like mine he’s wondering desperately what could come next.

2.07 pm

The “interview” was remarkably quick, which is to say I only had to wait for 75 minutes to be asked by one Officer Luna several quesions including: where I was going, whom was I visiting at what address, where I worked, how long I had been in Canada, etc. (She was particularly interested in typing where I worked and whom specifically I was visiting.) All things considered, Officer Luna was quite friendly, making sure I wouldn’t miss my flight and mentioning how “Omar” was a common name in Latin countries (she made it a point to mention she was of Mexican extraction). I was out fairly quickly, passing through security with ease. At the other side, past security, a T.V. screen in one of those faux, over-price bar-restaurants ubiquitous to North American airports announced that Glasgow’s airport closed after a terrorist attack involving a car ramming into one of it’s terminals. This followed the announcement of a renewed search for two suspects wanted for leaving two explosive-laden cars in Central London. Certainly not the type of news I wanted to see immediately going into the United States.

6.41 pm Washington-Dulles Airport

I’m feeling utterly physically exhausted. Nothing to note at Dulles save for a myriad of shirts and other apparel emblazoned with the acronyms of sundry agencies: CIA, FBI, NSA, etc. Naive as this may sound, by it makes me wonder who would ever buy a CIA T-Shirt, or, for that matter, sell one. To be fair, the airport’s namesake was the brother of the CIA’s first director, so perhaps my weary bewilderment is a bit out of place.

8.00 pm

Christiane Amanpour’s CNN special on London’s jihadi groups is making me quite uncomfortable as I watch it amongst a group of Americans at the departure gate who are a bit too attentive to it’s content (if content is what you want to call it) for my sake.

9.15 pm

Most flights, mine included, are delayed. Just had a conversation (or, to be a bit more accurate, a conversation was had with me) with very elderly couple going to Maine. We spoke mostly about lobster. And crab. And Alaskan salmon, the same type that “Bill” (I never caught his last name) in his time in the Navy used to fish frequently in the war. It was Bill’s reckoning that these delays were related to the attacks in Glasgow, remarking he didn’t understand “how vicious these people can be”.