Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Finding Common Ground

Hawiyat Najm Dabab Sinkhole.
Hawiyat Najm Dabab Sinkhole.

What Does An American Jew Have to Fear in the Middle East?

Chronically questioning, funny, and bold, a young American explores the majority-Muslim lands that scare him most. The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East is a look at how an American Jew faces his fears across the Middle East.

Armed only with college Arabic and restless curiosity, Adam Valen Levinson sets out to “learn about the world 9/11 made us fear.”

From a base in globalized and sterilized Abu Dhabi, he sets out to lunch in Taliban territory in Afghanistan, travels under the watchful eye of Syria’s secret police, risks shipwreck en route to Somalia, investigates Yazidi beliefs in a sacred cave, cliff dives in Oman, celebrates New Year’s Eve in Tahrir Square, and, at every turn, discovers a place that matches not at all with its reputation.

Adam Valen Levinson crosses borders with wisecracking humor, erudition, and humanity, seeking common ground with “bros” everywhere, and finding that people who pray differently often laugh the same. And as a young man bar mitzvahed eight years late, he slowly learns how childish it is to live by decisions and distinctions born of fear.

Excerpt from the Book: The Jump

Guarded by empty tollbooths not yet in commission, the smooth highway back to Muscat runs high along the coast.

Prisoner to the deranged Lady-Gaga-On-Repeat singalong my trip mates had organized for themselves in the front, I suggested a turn off at the signs for Hawiyat Najm Park, a giant sinkhole in the middle of a quiet local garden.   It takes its name from the supposed means of its creation: “The Fall of a Star.”   

It is more than seventy feet from the sinkhole’s rim to the endlessly deep sapphire water below, and it made sense to me to try and jump off the edge.

I peered down at it over my toes.   If I could clear a six-foot ledge, I might make it.   Later, I watched Rachel’s video from below.

Gaar says quietly, “Emergency is 9-9-9-9.”

“We don’t have a phone,” says Rachel.

“I really think you’re going to fall, tumble down.   Tumble,” Gaar shouts to me. Hawiya— “fall” —   can also mean “tumble.”

I stand for a few minutes looking down, hands on my knees, frozen.   I am afraid of everything.   I did not trust that I was on solid ground until my toes were hanging off the edge of a cliff. Now they were, and I was undeniably attached to something solid — that made it so much harder to give up.  

But that was the point, wasn’t it? To see what I could let go of and still survive?   I looked down twelve of my heights and made symbols of bigger things out of every potential action and inaction.    

“You’re thinking about it too much,” Gaar says.

Hawiya can also mean “identity.”

I felt like I was playing host to fraternal twins, one overthinking, and the other belligerent: do something, DO SOMETHING! DO SOMETHING. But one could silence the other at times, like Sam Hamilton’s second son says in Steinbeck’s East of Eden.   “Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.”

Gaar counts from ten, and I push off from the ground, rolling slightly in the air.   Behind the camera, Rachel gives a tiny squeal.

I felt a weight lifted, but as I swam back to shore I felt it still.   I had wanted to be in the air, and I had wanted to come down, but mostly I wanted to face that microscopic moment where a decision is made, where the impulse to do overcomes all those that say, do not

There is a muscle somewhere between your ears that gives the final authorization for your legs to swing out of bed in the morning, for your torso to plunge into cold water, for your finger to confirm an in-app purchase. There is friction on that threshold, and it can be sanded smooth with time.   But I rubbed my arms and floated and I knew I was still afraid. Fear itself. 

I climbed back up the stairs.   If I could do it twice, I thought… well, then I’d have done it twice.   There were women in headscarves watching me from the park now, with a little boy sitting on the stone wall of the sinkhole.   Two Omani men below were shouting confusing encouragement.

“Go for it!   Don’t do it!   Jump!” they said.

This was the moment that would marinate and crop up at moments on my couch and at the Emirates Palace and Le Royal Méridien between when I ordered my Guinnesses and when they were delivered. The thing that fueled me was the limit that fear defined, between off-limits and not. I was nothing if I didn’t confront that limit, and push it to see if it would give way to something else.

At that moment, though, it was all prove-you-wrong showmanship.   “Don’t jump! Do it!” the Omanis yelled.

Lestu dijaaj,” I called.   It might have meant “I’m not a chicken” in formal, Quranic Arabic, but the idiom was meaningless out of English.   The onlookers looked puzzled. It was insulting to their powers of observation, denying something that should have been obvious by my patent lack of feathers and wattle. 

The rocks were burning my feet, and I licked my hands to wipe them, to buy time.   Gaar counted again from ten, and the loudest man made the sound of a buzzer.   I didn’t jump.   Everything was quiet.   And somewhere, the threshold was crossed.   On the way down, air escaped my lungs like a low, excited whistle.

It was enough to feel the tingling in my feet to know I was still alive.

Excerpt: Pressure And Release

The closest I came to gunfire was just after I crossed the border into Syria. If it came, I thought it would come from the cities, from the police, from around the crowds, and not on the road that cut up from Beirut through the mountains and back down again toward Damascus.

I passed through each country’s checkpoint without issue, accepted into Syria without knowing my destination, with nothing but a visa and my tempered American smiles. It had only been months since the beginning of the uprising that would be deemed a civil war the following summer.  

Leaving Lebanon at Masn‘aa, we barreled toward the first Syrian town, Haloua, whose name means “sweet”.

Driving in Damascus, Syria.
Driving in Damascus, Syria.

I sat in the back of the taxi. Just me, and the driver’s fat friend in the passenger seat. They gained interest in me with the altitude but lost it quickly when I told them that I wasn’t at all Lebanese.

We entered into Syria and the fat friend lent me his phone, or rather rented it, fidgeting angrily when I had spent too long trying to make out my friend’s directions to a meeting point.

Tension mounted as he demanded eight thousand lira, almost six dollars, for a five-minute call. The scruffy driver took his friend’s side.

I didn’t even have that much left — with my ATM card gone and a hundred grand lost to the Mosquito Inn, I’d spent nearly my last lira before the taxi left Beirut. I couldn’t give more than five thousand, I said, groping for a liter-and-a-half bottle of water down on the floor. My mouth was dry. Someone grumbled.

Outside there was no one, nothing but empty green and brown hillside one thousand meters above the Mediterranean. And then: a low thunk — something shot fast through the air — and I tensed as it struck me square in the forehead. A moment of shock… broken by the fat friend’s laughter. I was laughing with him: the blue plastic bottle cap rolled on the seat.

The air pressure was lower — that was all. We were nearly in Damascus. And the driver kept driving, smiling, on the threshold of the town whose name means “sweet”.

Just outside the city, there is a parking lot where out-of-Beirut cabs meet the into-Damascus cabs. The new driver lifted my bags into the car.

“You’re not afraid?” He asked. (Everyone asked.)

“Should I be?”

He dropped me by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, at the bottom of the street by the fried chicken shop. I waited for Danny with the affable cabbie who had charged me seven times the going fare. Good thing it was all so cheap. “Alhamdulillah,” the driver said, Praise to God.   He wiped his face with a soiled sleeve, answering the questions I didn’t have to ask about the state of things. “Mafi shi,” there is nothing.

He believed it, and he may have been right to. But it was certainly wrong: there was something. Just not today, not there.

Adam Valen Levinson is an affiliate of the Middle East Institute, and a Fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, where he studies senses of humor as a key to cross-cultural understanding. He has written, filmed, and photographed for Al Jazeera, The Paris Review, Haaretz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and VICE, and did college stints at the Meccas of real fake news: The Colbert Report and The Onion.  All of his stories are true.He usually lives in America.

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