The Middle East Syndrome: Come tomorrow!

February 3, 2013

By Syed Neaz Ahmad

The writer has spent many years teaching in the Middle East. Here he takes a look back at the practice of ’don’t do anything today if you can delay it until tomorrow’!
EVERY week my cluttered desk, my bursting-at-seams shoulder bag and my over worked laptop presents a sad state – a reflection perhaps of the time of the year. The sheer volume of committee meetings, preparation of reports, checking term papers, planning for the next semesterr and a thousand other things leave you little to think of an interesting topic to write about. 
Then came the biggest of all surprises – construction of a new flyover where we live. Every construction brings in some destruction and dust. I miss my favorite shwarmah joint, the bakery, the baqalah, the pharmacy and not forgetting the friendly neighborhood bank. 
But before the bulldozers hit the bank I had rushed to pay some utility bills and leave some instruction for the autumn break. Through a strange coincidence it was not only the last working day at this branch but also the last ‘working day’ of the month so you can imagine the rush. Most of us know that Wednesday is the day of the week when bank queues are longer, people are in a rush and tellers are away on long weekends. Post office, bank or the STC we all have a story to tell – mostly sad. Alexander Graham Bell’s first hello into his invention had set the ball rolling but nobody knew then that his contraption will end up at a bank counter.
You spend half-an-hour in the queue and finally reach the cash counter. You straighten your face, adjust your glasses and wet your lips and get ready to present your credentials to the teller when you learn the that computers are down . What do I do now? The teller tells you with a chuckle: Come tomorrow! You collect your papers and senses and prepare yourself to make an honorable exit when you realize that tomorrow is Thursday and this branch of the bank doesn’t operate on Thursdays. 
In fact this branch won’t operate at all for sometime – and if it does you don t know when, you don t know where.
Frustrated you try to catch the teller’s eyes but you realize he ‘s in no such mood. He puts his tea finjan down, stretches his arms as far as they can go, lights up a cigarette and is lost in Marloboro country! You cough discreetly and ask him if he could cash your check. I told you the computer is down, he waves you away as he argues with his friend if Al-Ahli are a better team than Al-Ittihad. You can rest assure that he doesn t have the Bank on his mind!
Last Wednesday’s experience is a point that most columnists have made many times but like the summer heat and dust we have learnt to live with it. The approach why bother to be punctual when you can afford to be late is not just an attitude but a way of life for many. You visit someone for a minor work but be assured that it won t be ignored as something unimportant. What s the hurry? Sit down and relax. What would you like to drink: Tea, coffee or some cold drink. You protest politely: I am in a kind of hurry and would appreciate to have this job done. I have a number of bases to touch. But your host insists that you suffer his hospitality. 

Misplaced hospitality costs you time and an important appointment at the hospital. Someone’s attitude costs you time, money and a loss of face somewhere. But why bother? Your protestations earn you nothing but a higher blood pressure count. So why bother – say your well wishers. Maa’lish.
Tracing our steps back to the dusty road of time and expectations I remember two anecdotes thatAlbert Einstein narrated in his memoirs. Einstein’s housemaid intrigued by the publicity that the theory of relativity had brought her employer – asked him what it was all about? You work here five days a week, right? The five days seem like infinity, right? But when you are away for the weekend, Saturday and Sunday seem to go very fast, right? With your background that’s the nearest you can get to this complex theory. I wonder if the confused housemaid was given a long weekend to ponder over the problem!
Traveling on a New York bus Einstein met his match. Going for a leisurely ride the scientist asked the bus conductor: How far are you going? The bus conductor sized him up and replied: That depends on your sense of time and space! Doesn t it make you wonder if all the people you meet – even those you meet on Wednesdays – had the same sense of time and space. But if wishes had wings men would fly and women would drive.

This brings us to an important question of time and space raised by a reader. Not that concerned citizens have not asked similar questions before but it s the timing of the question that is important. With Muslims being discriminated here and there a worried reader asks: Where is the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC)? Mr reader if yours is a question of space then the answer is: It’s an organization of no fixed address. If it’s a question of time then the answer is : the OIC is still there where it was years ago. It s a matter of Oh I see or perhaps Oh I don’t!