“Europe is boring. Everyone sits around and drinks coffee and reads books all day. There’s nothing else to do. No excitement, no fun.”
K was an Arabic interpreter at the Internet Governance Forum. Originally from Lebanon, he had been working in Azerbaijan for years, with a four-year stint in Europe in-between. He was tall and slim, with a muscular grace that reminded me of a male ballerina, and he towered over me as we stood drinking cheap instant coffee. We had already covered the usual conference pleasantries, the basics of our respective personal histories, as well as our opinions on American foreign policy in Afghanistan, so we had built up a rapport when he made this pronouncement.
“Look, there are bars and clubs everywhere, but this is not what I’m talking about. Here, in Azerbaijan the driving is crazy. And you walk down the streets and see people fist-fighting and you are like, ‘Those idiots!’ but then the fight keeps your mind occupied, at least for a moment.” His hands had been stuffed in the back pockets of his jeans, and he took them out to indicate where he meant.
“Here, the police are friendly. They stop your car just to get to know you. And here, if you are missing a document or something, it’s still OK. No problem. You just pay a bribe and support the man’s second job. It’s not like that in Europe.”
K betrayed the hint of a smile and I was not not sure if this was because he was joking, or if he was simply reminiscing about some encounter with the police corruption that he so euphemistically and poetically described.
“I like the excitement. The disorder. The…chaos.” He paused, as if that was not quite the word he was looking for.
And it wasn’t. I knew what he meant. It was not the chaos that he was drawn to. Not exactly. It was the grittiness, the flaws, the seeming contradictions that stared him in the face on every street corner. But it was also more than even that.
The thing that most people don’t understand about conflict and crisis zones is that even the most complex, lawless-looking places are governed by rules. Those may be utterly unintelligible to us, but they exist. And it’s the slow process of recognition, discovery, and eventual understanding of the order amidst the disorder that is so appealing.
“In Lebanon, the political situation is not so good.” K sighed and shook his head, but the shadow that crossed his face quickly dispersed. He continued on to give me a brief and simplistic history of modern Lebanon. This time, he was fully aware of the irony of his words, pulling and teasing at them to reveal the extent of the contradictions.
I mused over his love for the daily grit of life in Azerbaijan but dislike of the at times life-threatening danger of living in Lebanon.
Everyone has a limit, it seems, as to how much discomfort and danger they can tolerate. For K, the random stresses of Azerbaijan – far “worse” than anything in Western Europe – presented an acceptable level of dark reality. It was exciting. It broke up the monotony of everyday life. The political and security situation in Lebanon, on the other hand, was too much. And understandably so; though not officially classified as a conflict zone (as Afghanistan still seems to be) the threat of violence in Beirut especially is all too real.
But perhaps even more importantly, Lebanon was his country, making it too close to make light of, too close to look at impassively and with the sense of invulnerability and invincibility that he felt in Azerbaijan. There, the danger was foreign, and the relative mundanity of its crimes and car accidents were not only bearable, but even fun.
A woman in a headscarf approached us. It was time for him to get back to his interpreting duties. He grimaced at me. “Let’s talk more at lunch.”
I nodded and waved, wondering idly how we were going to find each other in the masses of hungry forum attendees. But I wasn’t too worried. We had our moment of connection and I felt as if I knew everything about him, and vice versa.
In our respective Central Asian countries, we were fellow expats – and kindred spirits.