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Adventures in Arabia

“Il’an Abuk!” curses a mother of four, veiled in black, in Kuwaiti dialect. She’s eager to board the plane, but her tiniest is still fumbling with the visor of his Homer Simpson baseball cap—much the way his bearded father fusses over his own regulation red-and-white checkered headdress, or shimagh. Boys will be boys, but their concern to be chic is slowing down the whole clan, and mom looks fed up.

To me, these sights and sounds feel like family, even though I’m the childless, American Jewish economy-class passenger who boards alone at the end. I’m no stranger to the raucous Emirates Airlines non-stop flight from New York to Dubai, which I’ve been flying on and off since the ’90s to get to various connecting destinations in the neighborhood. I once lived in Dubai as a graduate student for the better part of an academic year; and as a telecoms consultant in a prior career, I used to commute to Saudi Arabia and weekend in Kuwait.

For most Americans, the names of these countries call out news-flash associations involving oil, terrorism, or American troops. But for me they evoke New Jersey: strip mall after strip mall, soccer moms and dads, weird sex, and newly built mosques off the interstate.

My complimentary on-flight copy of a pan-Gulf Arabic newspaper features a typical front-page spread of government press releases, pointed coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a smattering of urban legends. It’s the last of the three that has the passenger seated next to me engrossed—though why he should ignore the screaming headline about the Sultan of Sharjah’s decision to increase administrative salaries in the educational bureaucracy by 7 percent, I can’t imagine. He’s reading about a house in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah that may be haunted, at least according to the police. How else do you explain several fires and a mysterious cat that appears at odd hours of the night only to vanish? The owner of the house, his four wives, and 26 children have evacuated and appealed to the authorities to build them a new one. Only in the Gulf.

To my eyes, the story smacks of an old cartoon involving a scheming bad guy who dresses up as a ghost to scare off the neighbors. I test my fellow passenger’s TV literacy.

“Doesn’t it read like an episode of Scooby Doo?” I ask him in Arabic.

“Bigtime,” he replies. Then he channels classic Americana: “And I would have gotten away with it too if it wazint for you keeds!

There’s another reason why flights to Arabia feel, to me, like a journey home. Every pungent phrase I hear uttered by the Kuwaiti mother of four—from the disciplinary curse “Il’an Abuk!” to her righteous praise of God upon touching ground safely—is a linguistic blood sister to my mother’s native tongue, Iraqi Judeo-Arabic. I grew up tasting the cooking and hearing the melodic inflections of a Baghdadi Jewish woman, whose family dates back 2,700 years in Mesopotamia. All these Gulf states, their recipes, and their dialects, are variants of the Babylonian haute culture in which my mother was raised. That Baghdad—an axis of sophistication that lit up the surrounding deserts—no longer exists. But whenever I travel in the Gulf, I always catch a phrase, expletive, or hot sauce that brings me back to that place, at least as I imagine it, having caught a few rays of old Baghdad as a child in the remote Iraqi-Jewish diaspora of Providence, Rhode Island.

It was a modest Diaspora, to be sure, consisting of my mother, my younger brother, and another family of four that lived two blocks away. The vast majority of the Jewish community, including my father, grew up with an Eastern European notion of Jewish civilization that involved many helpings of pickled fish. Because Jews in the United States tend to assume that Jewish culture equals Ashkenazi culture, a person like me can feel a touch out of place amid gatherings of American Jews. And because Arabs in the Middle East tend to appraise all Jews through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, my visit to Arabia is also front-loaded with emotional baggage. But often enough, over the past ten years, I have experienced the warmth of a genuine connection to the ancient hinterland of Semitic monotheism.

Over the next three weeks, I’ll make my way through Kuwait City, Bahrain’s capital Manama, the Qatari polis of Doha, and finally Dubai. This is not exactly a religious pilgrimage, however. I’m co-producing a couple of shows about Afro-Arabian music and history for Afropop Worldwide, a public radio program, and I’m meeting with various Arab intellectuals on behalf of an academic fellowship. In other words, I’m kibitzing through Arabia—and shvitzing, let me tell you, because it’s 93 degrees and muggy when I arrive in Kuwait City at midnight.

“Iraqi?” asks a mustached immigration official after I inquire about my visa. “Welcome home.”

Next dispatch: The beauties and dangers of Arabic music.



Do: Think American Jews need to wake up and smell the couscous? Had it up to here with shtetl-mongering, Yiddish slang, and all the other fetishized trappings of Ashkenazi culture? Tell us about it below. Go: To the website of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) Read: The Jews of Islam, by Bernard Lewis

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