Places seep into you. They get under your skin. Some years ago—eight to be precise—I wrote a blog post titled “Leaving Lahore”—in which I reflected on the experience of leaving Pakistan after barely a year in the country. While that post is sadly lost—I’ve learned far more powerful ways of backing things up in the interim—it’s gist was a somewhat harried effort to come to terms with leaving a place I’d just barely begun to know.
Pakistan is, as the subtitle of Anatol Lieven’s excellent book would have it, A Hard Country (Allen Lane, 2011). It is also beautiful, intriguing and alluring. Our year there, 2007-2008, was eventful. It witnessed martial law, the assassination of Benezir Bhutto, the Taliban takeover of Swat, the escalation of the American “Drone War” and much else. There were several large bomb attacks in Lahore—which had until then been relatively unaffected by such things. On a day-to-day level the most draining thing was the increasingly accute electricity shortage. Rolling, nearly-random blackouts referred to as “load shedding” left us—and everyone else in the city—without power about 12 hours a day. The well-off compensated by running diesel generators that spewed noxious smoke. While we knew enough to avoid drinking water from the tap, it didn’t occur to us at first ice from the neighborhood eateries would be a vector for parasites. At the same time there was the warm welcome we received and so many things to explore and try to understand.
The UAE is a very different kind of place. I arrived directly from Pakistan and experienced the most profound culture shock of my life–not because it was so profoundly different from my own culture (a fraught notion in any case), but because of the contrast with Lahore. The biggest difference is the lack of visible poverty. There are, of course, plenty of poor people in the UAE. But for the most part these are the working poor–mostly “able-bodied” individuals who have been carefully screened by local authorities before being allowed to enter the country. (Well, some categories are more closely screened than others, but in relative terms it is a highly controlled population.) Moreover, for the most part poverty is hidden away in labor camps or the staggering debt load incured by many domestic, construction and service workers. The contrast with Pakistan (or South Asia more generally) could not be greater. Again, there are plenty of very wealthy people in Pakistan, but poverty–including the relative impoverishment of all that falls in the realm of the public good–is as visible as a weeping sore on the face of actor viewed in high definition close-up.
Lahore, of course, is heir to a deep legacy of cultural accomplishment visible in its monuments–the Shalimar Gardens, the Badshahi Mosque, Data shrine and so on–inherited from Mughal times, as well as a plethora of traditional markets that evoke all of the exotic tropes of the Arabian Nights–enchantment, danger, allure, decadence–in a way that the UAE, for all of its post-modern opulence, cannot match. Yet there is a level of care–of basic expenditure and attention to maintainance–in Abu Dhabi that is utterly alien in Lahore. The monuments endure, but only because of the fabulous character of their construction. Basic attention to infrastructure is almost unknown–so in that sense it reminds me of post-Reagan America!
But ultimately what I am feeling is not really so specific to Abu Dhabi. We have lived here for eight years–the longest I have lived anywhere in consecutive years since graduating from high school. It feels like an eternity. Angie Reed and I made a life here. Our beloved German shepherd Heathcliff lived his last several years here and passed away. Somehow George, a long-haired local cat, found his way into our lives, demonstrating his ability to manipulate hominid sensibilities. We made a garden, our “Garden of Hedon,” on our lovely terrace. I became a department chair and learned just how difficult it can be to mediate between neoliberal institutional expectations and student/faculty desire. So much has happened!
I am relieved and sad and full of hope to leave this place that has been my home–our home–for so many years. This is so even though I am very much looking forward to my new life in Louisville, Kentucky, to writing and teaching and selling art and to becoming part of what I have already found to be a wonderfully creative community of comic and musicians and artists and thinkers. I look forward to being able to be more politically engaged, to say more precisely and openly what I mean. I know that I will benefit tremendously from the time to write and do research and activism with anti-war veterans. And yet… Here I am, sad to tears, at leaving.
I think I will be profoundly grateful! How many of us can be so sad to leave a place, a situation, and yet so exuberant and joyful about what likely comes next? It is a blessing I have in no way earned. No one can. It is grace in its purest form–though I am no theist–I recognize the real message of grace. Grace is the experience of a benefit that you know you did not earn or deserve in any conventional sense. It is an excess every bit as real as the excess of suffering that attaches to bare life, to genocide, to idiotic and profoundly evil levels of incarceration such as those found in my own country of birth, even if such negative excess is easier to believe in.
Some things I take away from Abu Dhabi.
A better understanding of the ways in which constantly moving for city to city, cotinenent to continent, for all of its advantages in perspective, has a cost that I never quite got until now. This is the first place where I stayed long enough to really become part of some things. Toward the end of my time in Portland, working with a small non-profit group and connected to a nationwide network of right the right activists I had something akin, but that was a very different way of being. I was single and immersed in the work and almost nothing else. Here I think people will miss me, miss us, quite apart from work. Moving to far flung parts of the globe takes you out of your human context, forcing you to lean on institutional supports precisely because you at first have no personal ones.
The underbelly of the neoliberal academic dragon is ugly. I have seen enough to last a lifetime! The surveillance and standardization regimes are not just irksome, they are an active detriment to the purpose of the University. And yes I know this is not unique to ZU, rather it is spreading to every corner of academic life. There is nothing irrational about this if we accept that the purpose of universities is something other than education in broad terms. Once we allow that a college education, or scholarly research should primarily be judged by the extent to which it contributes to the neoliberal economy, then we lose all authority to make any other kind of claim.
I have nothing against students learning “useful” skills, but I think it is necrotic to think that “job skills” as defined by capitalist employers are the only, or even the most valuable skills. It is, moreover, profoundly I unrealistic to train a vast excess of reserve labor to do the same high value set of tasks–and this is quite apart from how we define what those tasks are.
Academics are a noisy, long-winded and entitled lot on average, prone to crying foul at the slightest hint of a violation of our prerogatives–or at least that is our image, and I have certainly witnessed all-too-much of that sort of behavior as department chair the last three years. But, some of the things we complain about should not simply be dismissed as First World Problems. But the incessant application of notions of “efficiency” and “accountability” and even “real world applicability” to academia is a much larger issue than it would seem to be. At issue is not the privileges of a few spoiled eggheads, but the collective capacity to pursue wonder, curiosity, to head down a thousand, thousand dead ends and utterly unproductive avenues to see where they might lead all the while not knowing as the initiation to knowledge.
I am, of course, not arguing that nothing about the university should be changes; that there are not many ways to be curious and live in the pursuit of wonder, but without places that are purpose-built to insulate and nurture such things, something is lost that no virtual community, no flex-time work plans, no weekend university scheme can come close to replacing. That something is time–the long slow time to think and ruminate and grind away at issues both trivial and profound. A place to dream. There may well be better ways to teach a narrow set of practical skills than a university classroom–some combination of apprenticeship and OJT comes to mind–but there is no better place (for many people at least, it’s peculiarities are by no means conducive for everyone!) to learn to dream and test out aspects of dreams than a university environment at its best.
I have learned that in spite of my best efforts, I can’t make-up for a malfunctioning institution with built-broken systems. This may seem obvious, but there is something seductive for me about sticking myself into