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An Albuquerque Odyssey March 27, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Life's Lessons, Travel.
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Albuquerque (chantal foster@Flickr, by-nc-nd license)

Early January. Another day, another destination’s Aalaw. On the flight spanning two time zones across America’s vast expanse from Baltimore, one couldn’t escape the breathtaking sight of an entire megacity perched among peaks as high as 6000 odd feet. Very Tabuk-esque I thought, reminded of that ancient town at the crossroads of Arabia, the Fertile Crescent and the Sinai. That source of ineluctable longing and incessant pleasant memories from my childhood years.

‘Could this bring it all back?’ I wondered as I sat stunned gazing at the spectacular sight, SubhanAllah. There’s always been something magical about living amongst peaks. And this should be no exception, I thought.
On a high, I could almost smell the cleaner air and my skin began anticipating the extreme variations of temperature across what I felt lay ahead – a highly knobby landscape.

Touchdown; and the airport at once seemed so different to the ones you’d see in a metropolis like New York. Spread out to the extreme, the few passengers there were strolling at a leisurely pace, the building embellished with an interesting blend of modern and ancient architecture incorporating guess what – wood – and paved with brick tiles that would rattle luggage trolleys, one had to walk a football field or two to find ground transport.

Albuquerque, or rather  البوقرق (the emphatic Q occurring twice in the same word makes you wonder if this was an Arabic town lost in some hidden corner in this part of old Mexico’s expanseThe surprising answer came pretty quickly to me later), as I fondly remember it, is situated on a high plateau surrounded by hills. The landscape that my skin was anticipating cruising up in the sky, was towards the periphery I realized. Not here, where I stood eager to catch the hotel shuttle. With a population of roughly 1 million thinned out over its surface like a poorly jammed slice o’ bread, by urban America’s standards البوقرق is in one word, sparse. It is dotted with modest homes in striking contrast to the extravagant suburbia characteristic of places like Chicago.  Distinctly desert, as evidenced by the familiar short shrubbery peppering its barren but warm landscape and with green palm trees to be seen here and there. But this was not the desert I knew back from the Hejaz. This was a high desert. Cooler. Even colder at times, as I was to later find out there had been a massive pileup of, wait for it – police cars – on a freeway when it had its dose of sleet a few days before. What is it with New England towns and their resilience in cold weather I thought. Barely few days later I would be riding a packed bus in the midst of a snow and hail storm between New York and Baltimore, in near white-out conditions!

But yes, the palm trees (struggling with parched conditions as they seemed) were a welcome sight as was the desperately needed sunshine that your body yearned for, coming from storm-riddled New England. New York had just been through a blizzard unprecedented in recent history and those vivid descriptions of office-goers taking to skiing on its caked streets on Amy Goodman’s show were still fresh in my mind. Running (my choice of exercise) in ice, up in the north was risky and something one had to think twice about. America’s woeful healthcare system and costs be damned.

I was here to meet a deadline too I recalled. ‘Oh! I’ve only two hours to unpack, unwind, and suit up! What’s more, I have to iron that freaking suit!’ And then catch yet another shuttle to what was to become in this odyssey my third destination. But coming back to where I stood waiting for the shuttle driver to pick me up, I noticed someone who seemed just as concerned as I was, stroking his wrist watch, murmuring explicatives. Not surprising I felt. For all the superficial courtesy among people in American society, people drop curse words right, left and center like there’s no tomorrow. From the most elite business executives, politicians or pontiffs to the tiniest tots as they are groomed in امریکا ‘s oft lauded network of public schools where peer pressure runs inescapably high, it is – PERVASIVE. One of the many awkward paradoxes I learned about the US in my travels. We took the same ride together to the hotel, exchanging pleasantries along the way. He & I were here for the same purpose we each learned. The driver explained to us about the dirt cheap costs of living, the exciting outdoor opportunities like climbing the Sandias & skiing too if that was our hobby, a couple of notable eateries and you guessed it, for this is Umricaland, pubs and other rather debauched places to hang out. ‘Oh let’s not get so judgmental’, my inner voice jeered. ‘Haven’t you read about such stuff in Arabia or boozing and human trafficking elsewhere in your travels? Heck, you as a doctor have met with such people in the hospital, in that subcontinent located in the derisively labeled “third world”! Silly you!’ You see, traveling, reading and a keen sense of observing things had made half of me a more nuanced person. Or so I hoped, Alhamdulillah. We talked about rumors of the town being famished, as was visible by the seemingly unkempt roads (by امریکی standards mind you), and high rates of violent crime. The driver confirmed that the place was on the crossroads for druggies coming in from Central America. But the weather isn’t as extreme as it is up in the northern reaches of New Mexico he quickly said as if to reassure.

So this was it. NM – the two letter abbreviation that represented so much. Home of the Manhattan Project, billions wasted from the public exchequer personified in five thousand bloodthirsty nuclear tipped missiles lurking somewhere near the airport as I believed I had read some place, and where that science celebrity & demagogue drew his inspiration to bring forth what, in my opinion, is possibly one of the worst books ever published in all of mankind’s short history.

Checking into the hotel wasn’t too bad. My ہمسفر and I parted ways, agreeing to rendezvous shortly. He explained he was Korean. ‘The South, I bet?’ I asked. ‘Yup. You know the North is in lock-down.’ My inner voice interjected, ‘funny how it’s now no longer under the US State Department’s famous list‘.

The room wasn’t too spectacular. In fact I soon found out that besides an unusable toilet by Asian, Muslim standards (more on this in a separate post InshaAllah), it was fitted with an iron that had a broken thermostat! ‘Oh squat! Just an hour left!’ And housekeeping couldn’t make it in time with a new one I was told. ‘Oh Allah! Help!’ Firm in belief, as always, that rarely does Allah SWT not leave solutions out there for the world’s myriad problems, I began to brainstorm. I would plug and unplug the iron periodically. In half an hour I had my suit crisp and ready, Alhamdulillah.

My Korean co-traveler and physician was already in the lobby. As we waited for the driver to take us to that important meeting, continuing where we left off, he and I shared brief summaries of the histories of our ethnic lands of origin. He was originally from Korea. Grew up in Argentina. And went to medical school in New Jersey. He told me that he couldn’t make sense of the division between the North and South.

It wasn’t like the Indian Subcontinent where people slaughtered each other (and do so to this day) and parted ways in the name of, wait for it – ‘culture’, ‘religion’ and worst of all as a Muslim, in a fashion antithetical to the calls for interfaith dialogue and co-existence espoused by the ‘moderate’ and championed Shuyookh of today. (Things like dialogue, co-existence, Da’wah were, it seems to me, the least priorities in peoples minds in the centuries leading up to that bloody chapter in human history. I’ll have a book review and a series of articles on the Subcontinent shortly, InshaAllah. There are many neglected lessons that this history provides for Muslims all over the world.)

No. The Korean drama was different. People spoke the same. Lived the same. Religious differences were rather negligible. It all seemed just so artificial and politically engineered. He explained the Japanese influence in Korea’s history. At which point I transitioned into the Subcontinent’s own bristle with Japan in the Andamans and its North-East during WW2. Moving on to the 70s and therefrom, I asked about what he knew of the Kwangju massacre. Ecstatic at my interest in the area, he inquired how I’d even heard of it! Alhamdulillah, I love reading and remembered an article a famous journalist had written about recently declassified papers from the Carter era. Furthermore, that part of the world, along with Indochina, China, Russia’s Far East and its neighbors, its deep history and those of Muslim minorities living there have always fascinated me. We had a very useful exchange on the imports of Kwangju, how it shaped South Korean democracy, so recent as it is, putting it now on the world stage as an economic powerhouse. He mentioned the varying and contradicting positions South Korea’s presidents took towards the renegade generals responsible for the tragedy. And how people have surprisingly moved on. Sinister truths from the declassified papers about the US vis a vis the massacre left him kind of amazed. I humbly referred him to the journalist’s website. He mentioned how he felt Korea never saw ‘thinkers’ like Gandhi, etc. for some reason. And – we heard a voice – our driver was here and we needed some mental prep before the meeting.

We finally reached that moment of truth. Being one on one with other liquor-clutching physicians in-training who were entrusted to find for their training program, the right recruits amongst the dozens who were there. By now I knew the drill. We were stuck with adhesive name tags that seemed to peel away every ten seconds. As each tag dropped and stuck to the dusty floor in that underlit, jazz-riddled, pub-like hall, I would swoop down and as agilely as I possibly could, pick it up and put it back on again. It was a rather futile and at times clumsy exercise. By the end of the evening, the soiled adhesive name tag wasn’t adhering any more.  I met a senior physician in-training who was from the Subcontinent. She mentioned that her ancestry was a mix of Gujarat and Kerala. But as expected, from meeting with other ‘Western’-ite desis before, her cultural behavior was anything other than desi. In fact she’d just introduced me to her Caucasian spouse. And her adorable fair-skinned infant, as she explained the details of the program. Desis in America are a breed apart from desis in Desiland. As are Koreans, Arabs, Hispanics, etc. I had learned this from experience. One requires tact and cultural insight for these different groups to get along. But more on this in a later post, InshaAllah.

Amidst all the banter, I met a fellow contestant who came from Syria. I was elated to find someone to speak my rather shoddy Arabic with. But who cares, it was going to be fun, I thought! 🙂 He mentioned that he was staying in a hotel room just next to mine! In fact, for weird reasons, we had a common door connecting them both from the inside. We exchanged a few Arabic words that evening and the next day. Talking about the similarities البوقرق had with Arab landscapes, the fact that so much of what’s in a name gets lost in translation (as Sooria, becomes Syria, Damashq becomes Damascus, Caahera becomes Cairo, etc.) I also further mentioned that my parents named me inspired by a famous freedom fighter and a poet from Aleppo. It was nice to connect with him culturally. Knowledge isn’t just from books, you know. A lot of it comes from on-the-ground experience, meeting with people. A fact that I’d first gleaned reading about explorers like Ibn Battuta, Xuenzang, etc. and then confirmed meeting with Indian villagers who would come to my hospital having no idea of what in fact was India. Where its capital was or what it looked like on paper. Much to their governments’ rattling to the contrary, their India was their village. And that’s all a worried mother or father laboring in their fields ever cared about. Over the years I came to realize that borders are the ultimate bureaucratic hammerheads designed to clobber all manner of human diversity, richness and nuance to eternal oblivion. A fact that’s easily missed by the social herds of which we seem to be a part. Braindeath is the norm you see.

We met with senior faculty the day after that evening meeting. News had just come that there was a shooting incident earlier in the ER of the medical facility perched in this beautiful, yet among America’s poorest of cities (for reasons I suspect similar to this). Poverty and negligence feed a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. And البو قرق I realized was no exception. Another contestant, from Mexico, remarked that it didn’t even match economically with cities back home.

Despite it all, the city has a calm pace and laid back community. Some (in)famous Muslim personalities too whom I’d rather not name. And welcoming, warm hearted people. The challenge in New Mexico is the same as it is in the Subcontinent. Poor healthcare penetrance, lack of education leading to poor compliance with treatments and widespread loss to followup. Heck, there’s even an unwavering faith in “alternative medicine” (what people in the Subcontinent have their own version of in the forms of Ayurveda and Unani). These are areas in which to master skills, that would be essential for any physician wanting to do good for the needy patients there. It was interesting for me to learn about this side of America. In the Subcontinent, the view is that امریکا is like heaven. Tisk-tisk at the all-pervading, hopeless braindeath in our world. May Allah SWT grant us the taufeeq and desire to gain more knowledge about each other! Ameen. It would do SO much to foster peace and understanding in our world.

The junior physicians showed us around the city and talked about, among other things, breweries to check out. To my shock but-by-now-not-surprise one of the first people in the entourage to eagerly ask about the joys of this pastime was a young lady with an Arabic name. I figured Muslim. Wallahualam. (More on failings among Muslim societies in America in future posts InshaAllah. This is a neglected topic that people, who haven’t experienced it all first hand for themselves, will be shocked by. Reading sites like MuslimMatters.org or Islam-Online.net, one gets an extremely rosy perspective on Muslims in the US. Things on the ground are extremely depressing as I’ll elaborate in the future InshaAllah.)

Soon thereafter, my Korean and Syrian co-travelers left to trace their return journeys as did I. It gave me a good feeling that Allah SWT presented me with these opportunities to learn about people and for them to learn about me. Alhamdulillah, I was able to gel-in, speaking fluent American, diligently polished over the course of a few months a couple of years before. And I was filled with humility (knowing how much remained unexplored) Alhamdulillah, being told by my departing Korean-Argentinean-American ہمسفر that he’d never before met someone with such an interest in Kwangju. And my Syrian friend and I wished each other الال‍قا and السلام وعليكم . My interest in the Levant has been piqued ever since. And it has been fascinating learning about the demography of Muslims in the region – the Alawis and other groups.

البوقرق will be hard to forget. Its beauty. Its sunshine. Its poverty. Its social issues. Home to the largest percentage of Native Americans of any State, and virtually devoid of a significant African-American presence for some reason, I would want to be back to explore more someday. And perhaps come out with a decent photo-essay this time around InshaAllah.

© ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit

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