Just My Luck!

Well, I have to admit the whole thing was more stupid than ominous.

Something did indeed happen. I was turned back at the airport. But no, not because of a security crackdown in the form of a new travel ban, but because of sheer bureaucratic incompetence. 

Ten months ago, while doing my fellowship in DC, I received a kind invitation to attend a cultural festival in Italy and be honored for my novel Menstruation, which had only recently been translated to Italian. but, siince I was not a resident of the US, I was not allowed to apply for a visa to Italy from there. So I had sent my passport via DHL to Damascus to get the visa from one of the European embassies there. This was not exactly kosher, but I had enough friends in the diplomatic community to “wing” it.

Weeks passed but the passport did not arrive in Syria, and finally DHL declared lost. Naturally, I reported the matter to the local Syrian embassy and applied for a new passport.

But the Embassy could not issue a passport for me locally seeing that the format of the Syrian passport had recently been changed and that the new machine has not arrive yet. The passport, therefore, needed to be issued from Syria and sent via diplomatic pouch. So far so good.

The bureaucrats in Syria, however, were just so competent they kept on making one mistake after another in the application process and the whole matter dragged on for months. Until one day, someone knocked on our apartment door in Damascus and delivered the old passport to my daughter, Ola. OH yes, DHL finally came though for us, albeit five months late.

So, I reported the passport found to the people at the Embassy and the appropriate authorities in Damascus, and I used my newly found passport, that had been sent back to me through the diplomatic pouch, to return home.

Then, and as all know, upon arrival at Damascus’s International Airport, I was immediately slapped with that infamous travel ban, which was, however, lifted a couple of months later, and I used my passport to travel to Doha. Everything was going fine.

Until yesterday, that is, when I found out that someone had reported my passport lost again to the Airport security and, as such, I couldn’t be allowed to travel.

The security people wanted to take away my passport even. But I shouted and threatened and I spoke with such authority that they decided to play safe and allowed me to keep my passport, just in case I was really connected you see. You just never these days. Indeed, mentioning General Dashing’s name and threatening to wake him up to handle the matter personally did the trick. Otherwise, the passport would have really been lost, along with my US and Schengen visas.

So what was the story? What did happen?

Well, not much really. Someone in the police department seems to have finally noticed that little report about a lost passport that had been sitting on his desk for the last ten months now, and he must have decided to read it, worse, he must have decided to do something about it. Unfortunately for me, he did not bother to read the follow up report which said that the passport had been found. It woul d take him probably a few more months to get to it. I don’t think I am going to wait that long.

First thing Sunday, I will go to the central police station and pay the necessary bribes and expedite the whole thing.

Damn it, if it’s not one thing it’s another in this fucked-up country. Blows come from all sides, and even a heretical dissident like me has to use General Dashing’s name in vain and has to take part in the local corruption schemes, to survive.

Is this culture still reformable? Are we still viable as a people? These are the real questions at the heart of everything around here?

But the answers can only be found through trial and error. For reform in these parts is but a continuous testing of the limits of the viability of the human spirit, a continuous search for that ultimate breaking point separating man from biological machine.

Considering that most of our reformers need to be reformed themselves, can I really tell for certain on what side of the breaking point I happen to be at a given point in time? What are the clues that I should be looking for in this regard? How do I really know for sure if I am still a viable human being?

7 thoughts on “Just My Luck!

  1. Sounds to me like you need a vacation. Any chance of you and your family visiting the US?We would love to have you and at least know you are out of harms way.Any word on what happened to Karfan? He hasn’t posted in over 6 weeks now and I’m troubled by that.I hope you don’t have the same problems but by the sounds of things you very well might.Think about it my friend.

  2. By the way, GeneraL Dashing needs a break too.He and his family are welcome in my house so long as he leaves the bullshit at the door.It really gotta suck if you are the guy in charge of that mess.Ammar has the number. Karfan didn”t get that that chance.I will try to get the ticket for those that really, really deserve it.

  3. This Bryan guy makes me ROFL; he feels SO powerful. We are wrong to antagonize him because on the day of reckoning (i.e. to morrow)he will throw us in the fire.

  4. I have treasured this essay ever since I read it many years ago. The essay is by the late Russian (later, American) writer Joseph Brodsky. You may treasure it as well. He is, of course, talking about himself. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 1984: No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be,in the course of your life you are bound to into directphysical contact with what’s know as Evil. I mean herenot a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, apalpable social reality that you in no way can control. Noamount of good nature or cunning calculations will preventthis encounter. In fact, the more calculation , the morecautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this ren-devious, the harder the impact. Such is the structure of lifethat what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitouspresence if only because it tends to appear in the guise ofgood. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil”. That, of course, indicates its secondarynature, but the comfort one may derive from this observa-tion gets dulled by its frequency. A prudent thing to do, therefore, would be to subject yournotions of good to the closest possible scrutiny, to go, so tospeak, through your entire wardrobe checking which ofyour clothes may fit a stranger. That, of course, may turninto a full-time occupation, and well it should. You’ll besurprised how many things you considered your own andgood can easily fit, without much adjustment, your enemy.You may even start to wonder whether he is not yourmirror image, for the most interesting thing about Evil isthat it is wholly human. To put it mildly, nothing can beturned and worn inside out with greater ease than one’snotion of social justice, civic conscience, a better future,etc. One of the surest signs of danger here is the number ofthose who share your views, not so much because un-animity has the knack of degenerating into uniformity as be-cause of the probability–implicit in great numbers–thatnoble sentiment is being faked. By the same token, the surest defense against Evil isextreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality,even–if you will–eccentricity. That is, something thatcan’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a sea-soned imposter couldn’t be happy with. Something, inother words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin.: noteven by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It alwaysgoes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideologicalpurity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivityfor such things has to do presumably with its innate in-security, but this realization, again, is of small comfortwhen Evil triumphs. Which it does: in so many parts of the world and insideourselves. Given its volume and intensity, given, especially,the fatigue of those you oppose it, Evil today may be re-garded not as an ethical category but as a physical phe-nomenon no longer measured in particles but mappedgeographically. Therefore the reason I am talking to youabout all this has nothing to do with your being young,fresh, and facing a clean slate. No, the slate is dark withdirt and it is hard to believe in either your ability or yourwill to clean it. The purpose of my talk is simply to suggestto you a mode of resistance which may come in handy toyou one day; a mode that may help you to emerge from the encounter with Evil perhaps less soiled, if not necessarilymore triumphant than your precursors. What I have inmind, of course,is the famous business of turning the othercheek. I assume that one way or another you have heard aboutthe interpretation of this verse from the Sermon on theMount by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. In other words,I assume thatyou are familiar with the concept of nonviolent, of passive,resistance, whose main principle is returning good for evil,that is, not responding in kind. The fact that the worldtoday is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this con-cept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons forits unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required forthis concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy.This is precisely what 86 percent of the glob lacks. Second,it is common sense that tells a victim that his only gain inturning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields,at best, a moral victory, i.e., something quite immaterial.The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of yourbody to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort ofconduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that a moralvictory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity. There are other, graver reasons to be suspicious. If the first blow hasn’t knocked all the wits out of the victim’shead, he may realize that turning the other cheek amountsto manipulation of the offender’s sense of guilt, not to speakof his karma. The moral victory itself may not be so moralafter all, not only because suffering often has a narcissisticaspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior,that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil yourenemy is,the crucial thing is that he is human; and al-though incapable of loving another like ourselves; we none-theless know that evil takes root when one man starts tothing that he is better than another. (This is why you’vebeen hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best,therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheekto one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to thefutility of his action. “Look,” the other cheek says, “whatyou are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush mysoul.” The trouble, of course, with this kind of attitude isthat the enemy may just accept the challenge. Twenty years ago the following scene took place in one ofthe numerous prison yards of northern Russia. At seveno’clock in the morning the door of a cell was flung open and on it’s threshold stood a prison guard, who addressed its in-mates: “Citizens! The collective of this prison’s guardschallenges you, the inmates, to socialist competition inchopping the lumber amassed in our yard.” In those partsthere is no central heating, and the local police, in a mannerof speaking, tax all the nearby lumber companies for one-tenth of their produce. By the time I am describing, theprison yard looked like a veritable lumberyard: the pileswere two to three stories high, dwarfing the one-storiedquadrangle of the prison itself. The need for chopping wasevident, although socialist competitions of this sort hadhappened before. “And whit if I refuse to take part in this?”inquired one of the inmates. “Well, in that case no mealsfor you,” replied the guard. Then axes were issued to the inmates, and the cuttingstarted. Both prisoners and guards worked in earnest, andby noon all of them, especially the always underfed prison-ers, were exhausted. A break was announced and peoplesat down to eat: except the fellow who asked the question.He kept swinging his ax. Both prisoners and guards ex-changed jokes about him, something about Jews beingnormally regarded as smart people whereas this man…and so forth. After the break they resumed the work, al-though in a somewhat more flagging manner. By four o’clockthe guards quit, since for them it was the end of their shift;a bit later the inmates stopped too. The man’s as still keptswinging. Several times he was urged to stop, by bothparties, but he paid no attention. It see
    med as though hehad acquired a certain rhythm he was unwilling to break;or it was a rhythm that possessed him? To the others, he looked like an automaton. By fiveo’clock, by six o’clock, the ax was still going up and down.Both guards and inmates were now watching him keenly,and the sardonic expression on their faces gradually gaveway first to bewilderment and then to one of terror.By seven-thirty the man stopped, staggered into his cell,and fell asleep. For the rest of his stay in that prison, nocall for socialist competition between guards and inmateswas issued again, although the wood kept piling up. I suppose the fellow could do this–twelve hours of straightchopping–because at the time he was quite young. In fact,he was then twenty-four. Only a little older than you are.However, I think there could have been another reason forhis behavior that day. It’s quite possible that the youngman–precisely because he was young– remembered thetext of the Sermon on the Mount better than Tolstoy andGandhi did. Because the Son of Man was in the habit ofspeaking in triads, the young man could have recalled thatthe relevant verse doesn’t stop at but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also but continues without either period or comma: And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shell compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Quoted in full, these verses have in fact very little to dowith nonviolent or passive resistance, with the principlesof not responding in kind and returning good for evil. Themeaning of these lines is anything but passive, for it sug-gests that evil can be made absurd through excess; itsuggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its de-mands with the volume of your compliance, which devaluesthe harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very activeposition, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victorythat is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.The other cheek here sets in motion not the enemy’s senseof guilt (which he perfectly capable of quelling) butexposes his senses and faculties to the meaninglessness ofthe whole enterprise: the way every form of mass produc-tion does. Let me remind you that we are not talking here about asituation involving a fair fight. We are talking about situa-tions where one finds oneself in a hopelessly inferior positionfro the very onset, here one has no chance of fightingback, where the odds are overwhelmingly against one. Inother words, we are talking about the very dark hours inone’s life, when one’s sense of moral superiority over theenemy offers no solace, when the enemy is too far gone tobe ashamed or made nostalgic for abandoned scruples, whenone has at one’s disposal only one’s face, coat, cloak, and apair of feet that are still capable of walking a mile or two. In this situation there is very little room for tacticalmaneuver. So turning the other cheek should be your con-scious, cold, deliberate decision. Your chances of winning,however dismal they are, all depend on whether or not youknow what you are doing. Thrusting forward your facewith the cheek toward the enemy, you should know thatthis is just the beginning of your ordeal as well as that ofthe verse–and you should be able to see yourself throughthe entire sequence, through all three verses from the Sermon on the Mount. Otherwise, a line taken out of con-text will leave you crippled. To base ethics on a faultily quoted verse is to invite doom,or else to end up becoming a mental bourgeois enjoying theultimate comfort: that of his convictions. In either case (ofwhich the latter with its membership in well-intentionedmovements and nonprofit organizations is the least palat-abel) it results in yielding ground to Evil, in delaying thecomprehension of its weaknesses. For Evil, may I remindyou, is only human. Ethics based on this faultily quoted verse have changednothing in a post-Gandhi India, save the color of its adminis-tration. From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s allthe same who makes him hungry. I submit that he mayeven prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry stateif only because this way social evil may appear to comefrom elsewhere and may be perhaps be less efficient than thesuffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien incharge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy. Similarly in post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this mis-quoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation’s resolvein confronting the police state. What has followed is knownall too well: six decades of turning the other cheek trans-formaed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that thestate today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face.As well as the face of the world. In other words, if youwant to secularize Christianity, if you want to translateChrist’s teachings into political terms, you need somethingmore than modern political mumbo-jumbo: you need tohave the original–in your mind at least if it hasn’t foundroom in your heart. Since He was less a good man than adivine spirit, it’s fatal to harp on His goodness at the ex-pense of His metaphysics. I must admit that I feel somewhat uneasy talking aboutthese things: because turning or not turning that othercheek is, after all, an extremely intimate affair. The en-counter always occurs on a one-to-one basis. It’s always yourskin, your coat and cloak; and it is your limbs that willhave to do the walking. To advise, let alone to urge, anyoneabout the use of these properties is, if not entirely wrong,indecent. All I aspire to do here is to erase from your mindsa cliché that has harmed so many and yielded so little. I alsowould like to instill in you the idea that as long as youhave your skin, coat, cloak, and limbs, you are not yetdefeated, whatever the odds are. There is, however, a greater reason for one to feel uneasyabout discussing these matters in public: and it’s not onlyyour own natural reluctance to regard your young selvesas potential victims. No, it’s rather mere sobriety, whichmakes one anticipate among you potential cillans as well,and it is bad strategy to divulge the secrets of resistancein front of the potential enemy. What perhaps relieves onefrom a charge of treason or, worse still, of projecting thetactical status quo into the future, is the hope that thevictim will always be more inventive, more original in histhinking, more enterprising than the villain. Hence thechance that the victim may triumph. Williams College, 1984″ From: ‘Less than One Selected Essays’ by: Joseph Brodsky Farrar Straus Giroux New York, NY 1986

  5. Is *any* culture reformable? Where I live, many things seem to happen like this, trying to get anything done can be a challenge. No. Trying to get something done RIGHT the first time is the challenge (and DHL is…well, don’t get me started, now I only use FedEX).But, I’m living in a place that is not my native culture, and after over a decade even my wife (who *is* Chinese) has given up on reforming this culture. I gave up on reforming my own culture years ago (brick walls are able to comprehend more) and quit writing, thinking music was the way. Well, that didn’t work. Photography??Simply a brilliant ‘blog, one that I’m going to spend quite a bit of time reading.Thanks so much for keeping it.

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