April 24, 2004

A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part One: Musings on an Opening Question

Two French lovers had turned down our request that all four of us share a taxi to the Israeli-Egyptian border, when a young man from Japan approached and asked, 'Do you have a visa for Egypt?'

Did we have a visa? Two days earlier we had spent three hours at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, a place unappetizingly reminiscent of a cesspit, waiting for them to authorize our re-entry. The man at the immigration window was very friendly, and in the end we were given our visas without the added bonus of an interrogation by the Consul, but the wait was unexpected and unwanted, especially as we knew that with each passing minute our chances of enjoying the seaside pleasures of medieval Acre were decreasing. When we were finally handed our passports, newly furnished with visas and a thick blue ink stamp which bled all over my fingers, I discovered that the embassy's bureaucrats had put a staple through mine in order to better secure (or so they thought) the lamination around the photograph, which has deteriorated somewhat after so much use and abuse.

This brilliant idea of theirs, no doubt implemented with the best of intentions, caused us no small trouble yesterday when we tried to make good on that visa and leave the Holy Land. Passports that have been tampered with are a one-way ticket to a half-hour no-holds-barred grilling from a sweet-faced but stern-voiced Israeli border control officer, her henchmen nearby, Kalashnikovs at the ready. 'Where have you come from?' 'What did you do there?' 'Who are you traveling with?' 'What can you tell me about him?' ('Where do I start?' I thought.) 'What is your religion?' 'Who gave you the idea to come to Israel?' 'How much money do you have with you?' etc. As always, I met this barrage of questions with a barrage of verbose replies, while Her Lad, once his turn came up, did not bother hiding his feelings about such inhumane disrespect, and answered with one or two words only, often asking, 'Say again?' as if to say with ire, 'I choose not to hear your stupidities the first time.' When they asked him, 'What can you tell me about your friend?' he asked, 'What do you want to know? He has a big beard and didn't have one when we were kids,' for which he was rewarded with a chuckle. All I got for my concerted witticisms during my interrogation were two smiles.

Being delayed at the embassy in Tel Aviv did indeed cause us to miss out on beach fun in Acre. The day before, though, we had walked up and down the Tel Aviv coast, so our desire for the sea did not go totally unfulfilled. I swam while Her Lad sat on the powdered sand and soaked up the familiar beauties of a breezy shore. 'This is the first time I've actually had fun since I left home,' he said, not the nicest thing to hear after having traveled with a guy for two weeks. But Her Lad is a homebody at heart. In fact, he says the primary reason he travels is to be able to appreciate home that much more. It is difficult for me to understand that perspective, but then again, the more I travel the more I feel disinclined to return home at all. I think this difference between us, that Her Lad travels to reinforce the familiar while I travel to escape it, reveals a lot.

He would attribute it to my incorrigible extremism, but the reality is that from deep down to tip top, I hate America to the core, and can see no good in it, or at least no special good. It is a blind-spot, I know, but it seems to me that everything truly good about America is true of all countries to the extent that there is good inherent in all people. But as I travel to countries more and more unlike America, I discover that the good in them is not present in America, and are not based merely on the common good shared by all men, but something subtler and more rarefied, something (I dare say) spiritual. The problem I have with this situation personally is that having been raised in America, I carry within myself all those aspects of it that seem to me most evil. Traveling for me, then, is a flight from social evil in the hope that doing so will provide a foundation for a flight from personal evil. Likewise, the unfamiliar, exotic and unnerving things I see in foreign lands provide touchstones by which I hope to stimulate in myself something unfamiliar, exotic and (perhaps even) unnerving, always assuming that the unfamiliar, and thus for me un-American, will always tend toward the spiritual and away from the merely mediocre. (Katie Vigil is probably banging her head on her keyboard right now, with all this talk of good and evil. Hopefully she will find the spiritual-mediocre distinction more acceptable.)

Her Lad is different. He thrives in the society in which he lives. He is intelligent enough to see its flaws, but clever enough to take its flawed rules and use them to his advantage. In an unfamiliar world, though, where the rules are different and usually less rigidly enforced, he draws inward, disturbed and slightly scared at the chaos of it all. When I watch him get this way, it seems to me that his cleverness is then in overdrive: however unable he would be to put his ideas into practice, I know he is thinking of all the ways the chaos would have to be ordered so as to allow him to regain his place at the top of the totem pole. How can you manipulate the system when there is no system? He travels, then, for the thrill of the return, when America's Golden Arches will empower him again to be all he wants to be, hurting nobody thereby, and protected by the system from being hurt himself.

None of this was in my mind when the young man from Japan asked me about my visa status. All I said was, 'Yes' and asked him his name.

'You can call me Chai,' he said.

'You mean like "tea"?'

'Yeah. That is the nickname they gave me in Baghdad last month.'

To be continued...

Posted by djsmall at April 24, 2004 03:52 PM

I wish you had been writing entries all along while you've been gone, because everything about your life seems exotic (and I'd rather read about it than do it, I guess). And you have a knack for including good details.

Posted by: zorak at April 25, 2004 06:20 PM

whoops. that's what happens when I forget to check my personal info. I am not zorak.

Posted by: didofoot at April 25, 2004 06:20 PM

You are Zorak. At least, I've always thought of you as Zorak.

Posted by: Dianna at April 25, 2004 11:10 PM

I agree with Zorak, in that the detail of your posts paint a wonderful picture for those of us who read it. I very much enjoyed this one.

I do think, however, that the arguement you put forth for hating America is too generalized - in the same way that Americans hate Iraq or Afghanistan in an over simplified way, writing the whole country off as one ideal. I have always thought you to be much smarter than that, Dan.

Posted by: kati at April 26, 2004 06:32 AM

I wasn't aware I was arguing anything. I begged questions. But I think it is true that Americans are more or less unified around a certain set of ideals, however differently they interpret them. It is precisely those foundational ideals themselves that I find so sinister. And in a way, Americans are acting with integrity when they 'write off' whole countries like Afghanistan, whose citizens very much believe in and conform to a set of ideals in complete opposition to America's. This set of ideals can be called Islamic, and though the Afghans may be divided in their different interpretations of that ideal--pro- and anti-Taliban, for example--and though a powerful middle- and upper-class minority there may conform more to the American way and seek to impose that conformity on their compatriots (with the help of the Western world), still the Islamic ideal is what they as a culture subscribe to. That is changing at an accelerating pace, of course, and no doubt within fifty years genuine Afghan culture will have all but disappeared. As far as Americans are concerned, this should fill them with glee, because the dissemination of the American way around the world benefits Americans tremendously. America's is a messianic, evangelical way, just like Islam. They cross each other out. The belief of many broad-minded Americans that taking sides in such a civilizational conflic is unneccesary is a little disingenuous, I think. I have taken a side, defined in purely negative terms: anti-Americanism. But as my blog pointed out, this leads to a lot of specific personal problems, unbridled self-hatred one of them.

Or you could just be right, in which case the problem is that you thought me too smart to adopt an extreme position. Gene sitting next to me in this Alexandrian internet cafe has for a long time known better than to think that.

Posted by: djsmall at April 26, 2004 03:20 PM

I take you to be a smart man, sir, but have little doubts you are also an extreme one.
In my understanding, they are not always mutually exclusive.
I appreciate your view, and your willingness to adopt it and take a side as you say, even though your country of origin makes you a bit of a paradox. I'm sorry it comes with such unbridled self-loathing, though I imagine it would. Detesting a country so much, and yet having once loved it, and wearing it's mark all over you must be a frustrating situation. Americans can appear as beacons of filth to other nationalities, and I have no idea how to wash that away.

Posted by: kati at April 26, 2004 06:49 PM