I’ve been in Dubai two days. Naturally, the hotel is inside a mall. There’s no ski slope in the mall. It isn’t the world’s biggest mall. It’s not underwater. The building is not shaped like a line of Sheikh Mohammed’s poetry. Not yet. This is August 2000. Academic Orientation. Workshop #1: The “inter-net.” We learn how to use e-mail. Or we stare in disbelief at the speaker, who insists on being called a facilitator. Workshop #2: Cultural Sensitivity. We’re split in two groups. One is from Planet Gorf. We like touching people. The other group, from Trog, does not like to be touched. The facile-orator lets us loose. Gorfians try to touch Troggies. A Muslim professor suggests that this Cultural Sensitivity workshop is culturally insensitive. The obvious has been stated. Don’t touch the students—they’re Muslim girls. I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to touch any student, even in America. Workshop #3: The Classroom. Sounds promising. A very loud Scot, with a Van Dyke beard and shirt open to the sternum, chews gum while he speaks. He likes the sound of his own voice and the look of his own look. A crossword puzzle is covertly wedged into my legal pad. I work the empty squares while nodding thoughtfully.
I’ve drifted off. Jet lag? Dis-orientation? Air-conditioning coma—the entire city is climate-controlled. Q&A time. I sit up. A nervous woman raises her hand. “Is there anything we can’t say in the classroom?” “Don’t mention sex,” Scot says. “Or alcohol. Drugs. Politics. Homosexuality. Race. Ethnic divisions within the UAE. Religion. Sorcery. Harry Potter’s contraband—the papers print a list of banned books every weekend. Never allude to The Prophet (PBUH). But if you do, say PBUH afterward. Peace Be Upon Him. Let’s see…never criticize the UAE, its leaders or Islam. Don’t mention Judaism, pigs or Israel. And if you do talk about Israel, it’s not Israel. It’s the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” There’s a brief debate, among several long-bearded Jordanians, about whether it’s haram—forbidden, religiously unclean—to mention female armpits. Crossword time. I enter the classroom three days later. Modern Literature. Sure, it’s no problem for math professors. Quadratic equations and l’Hôpital’s rule are okay. The number 47 is fine. But without sex, alcohol and female armpits, what am I supposed to talk about? I open the textbook, a wedding-magazine-thick anthology. There are missing pages where Rushdie used to hide out. I skim the first story, the second. I read with new eyes. Everything is haram. I close the book. Someone asks a question. I give a long rambling answer that, for some reason, touches on Animal Farm. I’m careful not to discuss political allegory or—whisper—communism. “The animal leader is Napoleon. He’s a pig.” Uh-oh. The girls’ eyes grow wide. A few head coverings are drawn tighter. Please, girls, don’t tell anyone I said pig. “Or maybe he was a goat. I can’t remember.”