Buildings, old and new:
Buildings, old and new:
It started last night. A “ding-ding-ding,” like someone’s phone was ringing, or like the sound you hear in department store elevators announcing that the next stop is ladies lingerie.
I stomped out of bed to ask Husband why the hell he hadn’t turned off his phone only to see him standing by the front door listening intently to a recorded voice echoing in the hallway: “A fire has been reported in the building. Please stand by for further instructions.”
We stood there for a while in the dim light wondering if we should ignore the recording and go back to bed, or call someone (who?) or just…stand by.
So we stood by until someone started banging on doors: smoke on a lower floor, time to evacuate, don’t use the elevators.
That means wake up sleeping boys (it’s a school night!), gather up phone and wallet, begin the long trek down from the 37th floor.
Somewhere around floor 24, I looked at my phone: 12:01. September 11, 2011.
Down and down we went, Caleb clinging to my hand, Liam bounding ahead, more and more people joining us in the staircase as we went down. We smelled a little smoke—more like burning rubber than anything else—but never enough to make us cough. In fact, we only saw one incident of respiratory distress, and that was our upstairs neighbor’s twelve-year-old dog, who was crouched in the corner somewhere around the 14th floor, gasping and wheezing.
What would it have been like, I wondered, as we went down and down, to go down for ninety floors, or a hundred, while the stairwell filled with smoke and the building echoed with rumbles and crashes and screams.
We got to the bottom floor and tumbled out into the heat of the night. Somehow it gets more humid here at night rather than less, and the breeze off the Gulf that blows in during the late afternoon disappears completely in the late evening. Not heat like you get from a fire, just The Heat, that crouches here in the summer like a live thing, smothering you as you round the corner, suffocating you as you cross the street.
Residents of our building–almost all of the university community of students, faculty, and administrators–stood in front of a mosque angled at the far side of the parking lot. The college students larked about singing (someone had brought down his guitar), others crouched desperately over laptops, cramming notes for today’s classes (which were, ultimately, cancelled). Students in abayas chatted with friends in shorts and flip-flops; boys in turbans talked to professors in kippahs.
Rumors swirled: it was just a small stove fire; it was something in the garbage chute; it was a false alarm. Fire trucks came, an ambulance pulled up, men in uniforms wandered around importantly (in their own minds, if nowhere else).
One hour crept into a second hour; some of us sat on the floor of the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby building and then someone had the brilliant idea of going to a hotel across the street. We booked all the empty rooms in the hotel for the older people in our maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t burning building and for people with kids (yay! for having had the foresight to have children eleven years ago! yay for hotel rooms!) An Emerati woman in a jeweled abaya checking into the hotel at the same time must have been muttering under her niqab about these crazy Westerners: half-dressed, some of us in pajamas, barefooted children clutching stuffed animals wandering around aimlessly.
Liam and Caleb attempted to order themselves hot chocolates in the café while we were waiting to be assigned a room—nice try guys—but Mean Mommy surfaced just in time to prevent them from ingesting chocolate crack at 230 in the morning.
We woke up this morning, discombobulated and tired, but safe. It turns out a generator in the machine room on the 34th floor had been sending out sparks—not burning, exactly, but creating enough smoke to set off the alarms. Nothing was damaged, although there’s a faint scent of smoke in the elevators, and no one (not even the wheezing dog) was hurt. Alhumdullelah, right?
It’s 9/11 today. Ten years after That Day.
On That Day, I was teaching in Westchester, was just about to start my early morning class when a student announced that her mom had called to say a plane flew into the World Trade Tower. We all shook our heads in disbelief—how could a plane fly into a tower!—and went into the radio silence of class-time. At the beginning of the next class, a security guard came into the room and announced that there’d been a bomb in Manhattan; the bridges and tunnels were shut down; and that the city was effectively closed. Kids in my class with parents who worked in the city burst into tears; the security guard refused to answer any questions and stalked out of the room, and so began my own little piece of the nightmare, although my nightmare had a happy ending: all my people–Husband, baby Liam, friends, family, colleagues–were fine. Others, of course, had their worlds collapse along with the towers.
Last night’s adventure had moments of worry—what if there had been a big fire? what if we’d not heard the alarm? Even now the “what ifs” are still bouncing around in my very tired brain. (I’m way too old to function on only three hours of sleep, in a bed shared with a seven-year-old who sleeps in the shape of an “X.”) I can’t imagine the pain of those for whom, on 9/11 and the weeks following, the “what ifs” came true. Today (and always) we remember those people, their families, the courage of those who went up the stairs to help others get down.
Last night the men running up the stairs were Abu Dhabi rescue workers—maybe Pakistani, maybe Indian, maybe Arabs, I couldn’t tell. Last night we all gathered in front of a mosque—you know, one of those scary buildings that terrify the Tea Party (which seems to be afraid of most everything these days, near as I can tell).
Now, in the light of day, last night’s “emergency” qualifies mostly as a big fat inconvenience, albeit an inconvenience with the uncanny echo of a tragedy. Last night, standing in front of the mosque under a full moon, watching whatever was going to happen, happen, we were all in it together, just as we were on 9/11–a unity that has been fractured, squandered, drifted away like smoke on a hot night.
Standing in front of the mosque, watching rescue trucks with Arabic writing pull up, I wondered if that unity were lost forever. I wondered if we might ever stop being afraid of our differences, if we will ever stop worrying about who worships what where and in what kind of building. I wondered if we would ever be able to find common ground again, stand together again, all of us.
As we drove in from JFK on Saturday, having just landed after a 13 hour flight from Abu Dhabi, Caleb said “now we can do that painting eggs thing for the Easter Bunny?”
The Easter Bunny thought fast. “Well, I’m not sure we have eggs at home to boil and then paint. The Easter Bunny might not come this year because we don’t have any eggs for it to hide and it knows we were away. So we’ll celebrate spring another way.”
Caleb wasn’t having it. “NOT COMING? He always comes! And with chocolate bunnies and maybe little presents in the Easter baskets, like cars or something.”
The Easter Bunny closed her eyes and wished she were still sitting in business class with the nice flight attendants plying her with champagne. Then the classic punt: “we’ll see.”
And that’s why, after the boys were asleep, the Easter Bunny found herself roaming the pillaged aisles of Duane Reade, Walgreens, and Food Emporium, in search of something–anything–that would count as Easter Bunny offerings. Here’s what was left in a walking-distance radius at 9pm on the Saturday before Easter:
12 plastic eggs with schlocky “toys” inside, which I supplemented with jellybeans; 4 Reese’s Pieces plastic eggs; 2 big Lindt bunnies; and 2 nerf footballs. Pathetic, I know, but the Easter Bunny had jet-lag. These triumphs of plastic commercialism were hidden around the apartment and lo, in the morning, there was much joy and jellybean eating.
That’s the meaning of Easter, as near as my kids know. I talked a little bit about Easter as a time of “new beginnings,” which is why we use the eggs, and about spring and re-birth. Note that avoidance of any actual religion here. The closest Caleb knows to anything is the story of the First Matzoh but as far as he’s concerned, that’s a story about bad guys chasing good guys and I think he’s pretty sure that Moses looks like Frodo (aka Elijah Wood), in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies.
Religion, in our household, doesn’t have much of a foothold. I heard Liam a while back talking to a friend of his about what J. was learning in Catholic school (J. will be confirmed next year). J. said “well, there are prayers you have to know, and you go to Mass, and stuff…” Liam thought a minute and then, “what’s praying for? And what’s a Mass?”
Walking through Abu Dhabi the other night after dinner, we walked by a mosque, its green light shining from the minaret. “I know what that is!” Caleb exclaimed. “It’s one of those special places and all the different people who believe stuff go to different ones, right? What do people believe who go to a mosque?”
Every year at Easter and Christmas I tell myself that this year I will spend some time with the boys explaining the various stories and every year I do a little bit and then give up. I don’t think I believe in god, or God, or anything, particularly, but often that makes me feel like I’m missing something–a larger community, if nothing else, and a way to encourage the boys to think about the world beyond their own needs and desires. We’re moving to a place where religion is unavoidable–that five-times daily call to prayer is a sure-fire reminder of the world of faith–so maybe now the time is right for us to embark on a little “introduction to world religions” course. It’s not that I want the boys to believe in god, necessarily, but I think they need more information than we’ve given them thus far, if only to make sense of where we’re going to be living next year.
I grew up going to an Episcopalian Church. I remember three things: I was a horse in the Noah’s Art pageant; my mother taught Sunday school (reluctantly, she later told me; it was something she did because “she thought she should.); and the minister’s wife had a mustache and thick man-hair on her arms.
Husband grew up as a Zorastrian–seriously. Zarathustra and the whole deal. Zorastrians–Parsis–were driven out of Persia and settled mostly in India and what is now Pakistan; the religion sees the world in terms of the fight between good and evil. Husband had a “nav jut” when he was puberty-ish (about the same time a Jewish kid might have a bar mitzvah); he had to recite some lines in an ancient language, memorize some prayers, and a few other things. For a while he wore a special undergarment, like an undershirt, that had religious significance, but he gave that up when it started to be a pain in the ass to change for gym…and he’s never looked back. You could say he’s a “lapsed Zorastrian.” Husband’s mom was a Protestant, so there was a bit of a flap on his father’s side of the family when they married, but the upshot is that Husband grew up with Christmas but not much else by way of religious celebrations. I know there are some Zoroastrian holidays on the calendar but Husband doesn’t remember what they are, when they are, or how they are to be celebrated.
In short, we got ourselves some heathen kids and our holidays are primarily chocolate-based. I want the boys to know about faith and what people other than themselves believe, but I think it’s time for me to make my peace with the fact that this family isn’t ever going to be a faith-based operation, at least not on my watch. I’m hoping that if we can institute family traditions (whether built around chocolate or some other eating venture), we will be building a sense of community and continuity. Mom-101 wrote about this the other day, about making her own Seder for her kids and that she can make the traditions how she likes and not be beholden to the “shoulds” and “always haves.” If she can do it, so can I, right?
So. Happy Easter and Passover and alhamdulillah and whatever else there is: happy spring and happy chocolate bunnies to you all.
Abu Dhabi made my head spin. I wasn’t there very long but I began to understand what people like Thomas Friedman mean when they talk about the collisions in the middle east between old worlds and new.
Old World and New in Abu Dhabi isn’t as profound as in a city like Cairo or Athens or Jerusalem, for instance, where you’re literally walking on ancient roads. Abu Dhabi only came into being as a modern city in the 1950s; it was a fishing village before that, primarily. Here’s a picture of Abu Dhabi’s main street, in about 1964:
Now everywhere you look are glass-clad high-rises, with more on the way: huge construction cranes dot the skyline and signs proclaim the coming of this new office tower, or that new apartment building. Of course, what they really need are window washers–there is so much sand and salt in the air that all those glass windows on all those buildings? Filthy. This photo is from the 22nd floor of the building we stayed in – the haze over the cityscape is from the schmutzy on the window.
These new glass high-rises,which look like the same anonymous buildings in LA or Chicago or New York are going up alongside crumbling decrepit terra-cotta buildings, with laundry dripping from the balconies and air conditioners that look like they’re going to plummet at any minute onto the heads of people walking on the sidewalks below.
The call to prayer echoes through the city five times a day, a literal reminder of ancient days, as are the rows of shoes lined up outside the mosques. Does anyone ever steal the shoes of people at prayer? But other than those calls to prayer, it’s a quiet city – there isn’t the cacophony of horns and sirens that make up street life in Manhattan and even the construction sounds are muffled.
Because it’s quieter, that means when you finally manage to cross the twelve lanes of death-defying traffic to get to the corniche, the paved parkway that curves along the beach front, you can look out at the water and almost imagine you’re not in a city at all. Of course, when you turn around, the tall buildings are right there–a sort of bad Miami Beach look to it:
At the beach, bikini bodies lounge in chairs next to women who are fully clothed and wearing head scarves–the ultimate SPF:
This woman was wearing thin cotton trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, and her veil. She spent a long time in the water playing with her kids and the veil never once budged out of place. She either totally had the scarf tuck-and-fold down pat, or some serious bobby pins.
Abu Dhabi seems like a city in a hurry–it’s developing an entire cultural “zone,” complete with museums, universities, and of course that ultimate in 21st century haute culture, a gallery space currently showing pieces from Larry Gagosian’s private collection. I mean, once you’ve got Gagosian, you’re pretty much arrived, haven’t you?
How do you balance the frequently conflicting claims of old world and new? It can’t be as easy as just importing Gagosian’s Warhol paintings, or putting up some glass office towers…can it?
Old Abu Dhabi photograph courtesy of Geoff Pound