Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Rosen By Any Other Name...

"If you want to cause him confusion, give him a choice" - Ancient Syrian Proverb

I flew to Syria on Sunday May 24 on Emirates Airlines. In less than a decade, Emirates is expected to become the world's largest airline. I am not sure what this may mean for Israeli travelers, as the United Arab Emirates is officially off limits to visitors from the Jewish state. Visitors with an Israeli stamp in their passport, however, face no problems like they do in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in Arab lands. I am also unsure what a globe trotting Emirates Airlines will mean for travelers of any nationality that would like kosher food. A Jewish community leader from New Zealand was not provided with kosher food when he flew Emirates to Wellington in December 2004. On board the flight, according to an article I read in Wellington's Dominion Post, the Jewish passenger was told that Emirates does not serve kosher food, despite providing nearly two dozen dietary options for a range of religious and cultural traditions. The Jewish passenger was later informed that as Emirates is an Arab airline, it does not expect Jews to make use of it.

The blatant racism has its own logic, one that ignores that Jewish Arabs have lived in the Arab world for over two thousand years. Jewish Arabs can even be described as providing the earliest blueprint for the ambitious Arab airlines. I vividly recall reading in Benjamin of Tudela's twelfth century travelogue how in the Middle Ages Jewish Arab traders were the mercantilist glue linking the cities of the Arab world. The lack of kosher food is also an ugly rejection of the distinction Arab spokesmen tend to make between their strident opposition to the Jewish state versus their acceptance of the Jewish faith and people. To see such a hateful policy advanced by one of Dubai's flagship enterprises is especially disappointing, as the dynamic city-state has built its reputation on putting aside religious and political tensions in favor of economic development.

In preparing to spend a month in Syria, I had sought advice from rabbis and my parents before deciding that in Syria I would refrain from publicizing my Judaism. When I traveled to Egypt in January 2009, the conservative Islamic climate had not proved enough to prevent me from bringing along a pair of tfellin. This time around I did leave my tfellin at home, though I did pack a small siddur on the assurance from previous visitors to Syria that bags are rarely, if ever, checked on arrival into the country. And although the first leg of my flight on Emirates Airlines was from New York to Dubai, I had been careful to avoid requesting a kosher meal, settling instead for the vegetarian option.

Having since read of the Arab airlines policy against kosher food, I am sorely tempted to request kosher food on my return flight from Damascus to New York, via Dubai. Doing so would blow my cover as a secular American of Italian--and by extension, Roman Catholic--descent that I have assiduously developed in visits to Egypt and Syria. It is a cover I first came by accidentally in conversation with my Egyptian host after I had just arrived in Cairo. He was sharing an anecdote about Egyptian family life when I shared that my mother's relatives did the same thing. Except instead of saying my mother's relatives in Israel, my mind acted of its own accord and substituted another Mediterranean country listed under the letter I in the UN roll of states. Likewise when my Syrian Arabic tutor asked me during our first class where my parents come from, I claimed Italian roots. My teacher nodded in agreement, informing me he had known I was Italian from my dark hair and whatnot. Nearly every Arab I have met in Egypt and especially in Syria has come to the same conclusion as my tutor. Even before discovering that I have an Arab name (Sami means grandeur in Arabic and is a fairly common name), Syrians always insist that I look Arab. When I admit to being a foreigner, locals suggest I must be of Spanish or Italian background. Considering that some friends of mine continue to insist that I have a Chinese look to me as well, I tend to think that appearance must be shaped in part by geographic and culture curiosity.

Traveling through the Arab world with an Arabic or at least European appearance, and with an Arabic first name and a generic last name, has its perks. But as I contemplate how I want to engage this region in the future, I doubt that practicing the Shia tradition of taiqqiya (dissimulation) on my religious and political beliefs is the long term solution. Considering the ramifications of the decision I am taking this July is enough to remind me that ultimately I have to come to terms with the Arab world through my own identity. Whether that includes requesting a side of kosher chicken that I will not even eat on my flight from Dubai to New York, however, remains less clear.

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