x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Stint in the Middle East was far from a no-brainer

While at The National columnist Chuck Culpepper followed a race around the world, discovered new levels of fandom, experienced Arab culture and had a splash.

Chuck Culpepper counts diving from the Azzam sailboat into the shark-rich waters off South Africa during the Volvo Ocean Race as 'among the most thrilling moments of existence'. Courtesy of Ainhoa Sanchez
Chuck Culpepper counts diving from the Azzam sailboat into the shark-rich waters off South Africa during the Volvo Ocean Race as 'among the most thrilling moments of existence'. Courtesy of Ainhoa Sanchez

Farewell, and thank you for the brain enhancement.

The brain I brought here 720 days ago on the Etihad flight from New York had little comprehension of Ramadan and thought the word "Eid" had a long "i" sound. It had never been in the Middle East. It knew little of the warmth and generosity of the Arab people.

It thought it knew of heat.

The brain I take back toward Los Angeles to write for a new sports website carries a profound appreciation for the tenets and principles of Ramadan, plus the capacity to instruct the mouth on the proper pronunciation of "Eid."

It teems with a fascination for the Middle East and a yearning to see much more. It carries along some sort of fresh health born of a thousand smiles, handshakes and conversations with Emiratis and guest workers.

It has a new-found understanding of heat.

The old brain had never found itself amid M-M-Mum-Mumbai. It knew something of Manny Pacquiao but always struggled to spell the surname. It had never tried to solve cricket in person, let alone processed the sight of south Asians playing it in empty fields on Fridays.

It certainly had never reeled in disbelief while its owner stepped off the back of a state-of-the-art sailboat and into the shark-rich sea off Cape Town.

The new brain has stewed amid Mumbai for 12 wowing days and come upon a strange, strange realisation: New York is just not very crowded. It has gone to Baguio in the northern Philippines where it tried to process the sight of a hyper-famous boxer and congressman sitting in a Starbucks for three hours upon various days and greeting any fan who wished to come up. It suddenly has insisted that some Saturday in New York, I take it to a park in Brooklyn to watch the Pakistani and Indian and Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan immigrants play cricket.

And now the brain has absorbed a crucial rule of life: If someone ever asks if you'd like to hurl yourself off a state-of-the-art sailboat into shark-rich waters off South Africa, by all means do so. It could rank among the most thrilling moments of existence.

One night I brought the old brain to Zayed Cricket Stadium and encountered a new realm of fandom. I stood outside talking to Pakistani fans who had no tickets but could see the scoreboard and crane necks to see bits of action. Some had walked out there. Soon a cluster of perhaps 25 or 30 fans surrounded me, staring or hoping to contribute to my cricket tutelage, exotic exhilaration for the old brain.

The old brain never gave much thought to sailing, having wandered four Olympics without ever seeing even one tack, but here came a round-the-world sailing race, and here came Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. Here came new-found respect for these athletes, and here came a new-found derision for all the other sports whose playing surfaces don't actually, you know, move.

Or roil.

Or violently hurl the entire apparatus sustaining 11 lives.

That former cerebrum never knew anything about mountain climbing until a Finnish maestro of the Seven Summits kindly explained the untold intricacies one day in Dubai. It never knew anything about any football club from Papua New Guinea before the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. It never knew the first iota about freediving until meeting – and then meeting again, just to talk – a gem of an Emirati in Ahmed Khoori.

The new mind bustles with respect for some of the most alive people extant: female athletes in the Gulf. The Emirati taekwondo athlete Basma Essa would be a credit to any nation. Listening to the Emirati footballers Mariam Al Omaira, Hemyan Khalid Al Meraikhi and Azza Al Kaabi could make you love football all over again. The Kuwaiti triathlete Wadha Al Bader epitomised determination by training amid jellyfish in a lagoon near a construction site.

There was the Iraqi Yasman Wadhai in the Abu Dhabi Challenge and telling of running in Mosul, the Omanis Samah Osman Al Awad and Zainab Osman Al Awad, whose health had improved dramatically through taekwondo, and some unforgettable wailing audible from a closed locker room.

It came from a Jordan women's football team that had lost to Iran in Abu Dhabi, and it divulged the depth of their commitment.

I had unprecedented conversations about Dhaka. I learnt the meaning of "Kerala" and heard at least a hundred exhortations that I must go and see it. I can recite the geographical terms "Luzon," "Visayas" and "Mindanao."

My brain got its first, valuable turn at perceiving life as if some sort of exotic zoo animal, because in certain crowds I looked so different that one day, along the Marine Drive promenade for the Mumbai sunset, a man walked up, held up his smartphone and snapped photos.

Bystanders laughed.

In the Dubai Metro, three Indian men asked if I could take a picture. I said sure, thinking I would snap it of them. They said no, they wanted to snap it of me. With them? No. Just me, the bizarre.

The old brain went to serene, pretty Kalba over by the Indian Ocean, to Al Ain for football passion and to Al Mirfa where the incredible Mike Young waded out in the sea, photographed kiteboarders and ruined his mobile phone.

It went to the most astonishing sporting venue I have ever seen, on Yas Island, and tried to process the sight of Formula One cars racing beside a marina and beneath a space-age hotel. It turned up at karting by the Oman border.

The new brain has found itself in Istanbul. It contains some image of what a sandstorm does to a sky. It stores grand memories of Syrian barbers inviting me in for tea even when I didn't need a haircut, or the excellent Ismail in Dubai making coffee and describing how he might start a business back in Bangladesh.

The brain seems to love the story about the day I boarded a bus and a Pakistani man asked me, out of curiosity, if American adults still ever see their parents, and I laughed because the cultural differences do make the question understandable if extreme.

(Note: We do see them. Often we even enjoy it.)

I just worry that in return to my sprawling, isolated, insular homeland, the brain might become too animated. It might start spewing thoughts of my two years here and soon the mouth will gush about what it's like to sit with an Emirati sailor, Butti Al Muhairi, have him hand you half his lunch and say, "It's good to share food."

Or about all the Nepalese who have invited me to Nepal, so many that I worry I'll have excessive tour guides. Or about the sound of a few hundred Filipinos applauding as the Etihad wheels touch the ground at Manila.

Maybe listeners in America will start checking their watches, hoping to escape my effusion, but I hope they will allow me to practise my self-appointed role as an ambassador back from the Arab world with an enhanced brain, born of a two-year string of kindnesses and adventures that will have me raving about this time in this place.

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