Hobble Creek Review
God is for Pinheads
Driving in Dubai is like tap-dancing across the 38th parallel. It is impressive
if you can pull it off, but in the unlikely event that you succeed the only
reward is survival. Yet that is exactly what I did my last weekend in Oman. In
a quest to buy gifts in one of the world’s greatest attempts at erasing culture,
the shopping mall, I found some unexpected moments of clarity.
Dubai is a desert city. Any sheikh, princeling, or multi-national company can
find a square of sand and begin construction. Half a mile away another begins,
and then another, and another. When the projects are completed they must be
connected to one another and the rest of the city. In such ways overpasses,
underpasses, roundabouts, traffic circles, utility roads, construction cones, and
concrete barriers dance haphazardly between the errant shopping malls.
Everything is disjointed and caddy cornered, and most importantly, still under
construction. Road signs become outdated weeks or even days after they are
erected and tourists drive hopelessly in circles while locals drive them off the
In 2011 consumption remains conspicuous, but the city that once lived
exclusively in the future has been shocked into standing still. Dubai still has a
high concentration of construction cranes, but they remain idle. The mercurial
machines stand as quiet as the dangling arms of arcade games, waiting for a
quarter to bring them to life. Unfortunately the foreign firms burned their
cash, and then their credit. The city-state of shopping needs only a few balls of
tumbleweed for an official end to the gold rush.
I drove into the city in the late morning, heading to a place that I had gotten
lost for hours trying to find on my last visit, so the route was firmly burned
into memory. Wafi is a sprawling mall complex, complete with designer stores,
restaurants, a hotel, an atrium, frescoes, underground complexes, and
particularly interesting was the sub-building designed to look like a modern
Arab suq. The courtyard, underground but open air, is modeled after a
Moroccan coffee shop. The shops here are a welcome relief from the mass
produced, mass marketed, and expensive designer labels that fill the rest of
the mall. In the underground Wafi, craftsmen, whether they are local, or
copycats milling around India and China are making things that at least look
In a small shop called the Golden Pen I came to a man named Amir Golshani.
Amir sat behind a large desk with an assortment of pens, grinding machines,
and bamboo reeds. The focus of the office was not his desk, but the coffee table
and couch, the latter draped with a large brown leather shawl. Around the
white walls hung an assortment of oddly shaped pieces of leather, decorated
with pictures like colored constellations inside of a border of Arabic script. I
was interested in one large, Celtic looking piece of leather, which I later
discovered was the entire first verse of the Koran, written in such a way that
it looked far more like a design than a piece of writing. Amir’s first love was
Calligraphy, as I unexpectedly discovered, conversation came in a close second.
I entered Amir’s office expecting to buy two pieces of art quickly and leave. Six
hours later I left with an indelible imprint of a man and a city that defied my
expectations. I had already picked out one piece a few months earlier when I
briefly stepped inside. I quickly claimed my first gift and began pouring over
smaller scroll work on leather. After a half hour my search turned up nothing
that really fit.
When I finished looking at the smaller pieces, somewhat dismayed, I went
back to the walls, pacing and thinking. My eyes and my thoughts settled on a
painting. A striking combination of a blooming flower coming from a stalk and
leaves composed of sinuous Arabic script.
I asked Amir if he was a painter among his other talents. This question
prompted a long story about a European woman living in Dubai to whom he
had taught calligraphy. When the woman returned home she put her newly
acquired skills to work creating this beautiful painting and sent it back. A
lengthy conversation about art in the Muslim world piggy backed onto the
story, on one side an Iranian mechanical engineer cum calligrapher, on the
other a wannabe writer trundling haphazardly around the Arabian Gulf.
Calligraphy, painting, and poetry represented a totality of acceptable forms of
expression for a long time in the Muslim world. Sculpture came around to the
oil kingdoms more recently, as the forms of men and women had been properly
devolved into inhuman shapes.
During a lull in the conversation, Amir decided that I was either a worthy
aficionado or an easy mark. “Let me show you something,” he said. He bent
over to open the door of a large cabinet and began pulling out a few boxes.
The first box he lifted was about big enough to hold a severed head, and when
he opened it, lying on cushioned, red felt was a huge shell covered in black
script. Before my eyes could really adjust to the letters flowing through the
pastel shimmer of the shell he opened a second box with an even bigger shell.
“This took me six months,” he said. Next he took out a box containing two
huge ivory tusks with a helix of Arabic script running from the bases to the
tips. Lastly he went to the very bottom of the cabinet and pulled out the most
beautiful nautilus shell I’d ever seen. It appeared as if the oceans, working in
concert, had spent a hundred millennia perfecting geometry.
I could see the latticework of his engravings not yet darkened by ink. He said
he was devoting two years to completing this shell, and planned on donating it
to the United Nations afterward. He was going to cover the shell with three
languages; the Arabic verses of the Koran, seen by the naked eye, the English
verses of the Bible, seen with a magnifying glass, and the Hebrew verses of
the Torah, seen with a microscope. I wasn’t sure if what he was describing was
even possible but I realized at the time that I had stumbled into this man’s
deepest passion, and whenever I am lucky enough to encounter such a thing I
try to immerse myself and let it roll over me.
He wasn’t done showing off though. He bent down under his desk and dialed
the combination to a lockbox that might look more at home in a CEO’s office
than a small art shop. He pulled out a few small boxes and placed them in
front of me. He opened the first box, about the size of my palm and infused
with Arabic script.
Inside the casing was a slender cylinder of about three inches. The end of it
tapered into a smaller silver cylinder that looked like a headphone jack that
could plug into an IPod. He took out a piece of paper and pressed the end into
it, making a slight circular depression. He passed the paper to me and rotated
the giant magnifying glass mounted to the desk. When I looked into the small
circle I saw a confluence of symbols that seemed to run like Japanese script,
from top to bottom.
“It is the name of the Sheikh of Dubai,” Amir said as I puzzled over the
characters. He pulled of another piece of paper with a few paragraphs of
English printed on it. He pressed the tip into the paper and said, “You can
press this into the first ‘O’ of any document in 12 point font or greater and it is
absolute proof that it comes from the Sheikh,” he said. “Nobody else could
I felt like I was being pulled backwards through history to a time when
Medieval kings or Mandarin Emperors pressed their signets into a band of wax
while sealing some declaration of truce, or war. I didn’t mention then the fact
that most leaders who required such proof often killed the makers of their
signets, or chained them to a post within their compound. I continued looking
down into the paper, trying to make out the Arabic characters, and failing.
He had finally slowed down his whirlwind of activity, appreciating my
appreciation, my awe at discovering the Lilliputian world of his imagination.
He walked to the opposite corner of the office and pulled out a magazine from
a pile of identical magazines. It was some in-house propaganda rag for the
Wafi Mall, but like most things in Dubai, it was extravagant. Every page was
covered in color photos on high quality, glossy paper, the kind that feels like
plastic. In it was an article written about Amir and his shop. He pressed his
tiny stamp into the page and circled it, then he took out a few gold and silver
markers and wrote a note out to me in the most artistic and beautiful way I’ve
ever seen the English language presented.
Living in China and Japan for the last few years I never considered that there
could be an English calligraphy. I thought it was something that must have
been reserved for the Asian languages with their pictographs or Arabic with
its endless strings of curves. It was then I discovered that these were just Amir’
s opening acts. Out of a small case, without any ornate flourishes or decorative
touches, he took out a pin. He handed it to me and adjusted the magnifying
lens on his desk. “You can’t see it directly, you have to twist it in order to
make it clear,” he said. After twisting the needle, and my head, the thing
finally came into focus, like three waves cresting a gunmetal ocean.
There is only one thing a man as devout as Amir could have carved into
history. “Allah,” he said, “it is the smallest engraving in the world.” As he
spoke I kept twisting the pin, trying to see the strokes that created it. “I
couldn’t see what I was engraving, I had to feel it.” He made god through faith
in the memory of his name. When I handed the pin back to him he quickly
replaced it in the case and put the cherished items back in their safe.
Before I had a chance to take in what it was I saw Amir set to work rifling
through a pile of papers. He handed me a printout of an e-mail he received
from the Guinness Book of Records. The illustrious book of records which
tracks such statistics as longest fingernails and heaviest hamburgers sent
Amir an e-mail stating that his accomplishment was “too good” for the
Guinness book of records. The book strived to include records that were
breakable, attainable, that would draw publicity for their dramatic
“shatterability.” Amir’s Allah, they reasoned, was such a pinnacle of the art
form that nobody could hope to break it and thus made for a bad record.
“That’s crazy,” I said, but he seemed to have come to terms with this lack of
recognition. He felt recognized in much more significant ways than a line item
in a record book. The next thing Amir showed me was a slide show of his
customers and visitors to his shop. Whether he remembered these people or
made up their nationalities and titles as he went a long along I’ll never know,
but the parade of diplomats, politicians, scientists, and professors was almost
endless. Many have invited him to show off the creations he showed me in
European exhibition spaces. After ten minutes or an hour or a day the pictures
finally stopped scrolling and he took a picture of me to add to his illustrious
patrons. It may be the only time I will be included in such company.
I had run the gauntlet of the man’s professional history, but I had also
discovered the true power of Dubai. Here was an Iranian practicing his art a
few miles across the Strait of Hormuz from the artistically oppressive regime
of his native land, and across that chasm he is caught, gladly, in a maelstrom
of countries and cultures. Dubai, like maybe no other city in the world could
take him so far, so fast into the collective thoughts of planet Earth.
Finally it was time to figure out what shape the last memento I brought back
from Amir’s shop would take. I started looking in earnest at the small cache
of necklaces he had above one of his cabinets. Icons and Arabic script looped
and curled around the subtle kaleidoscope of polished shell and pearl. As I
looked over the visible items he beginning opening drawers full of more and
more objects. After a while I thought I’d found what I was looking for and he
asked me who I was shopping for. “My sister,” I said.
“What does she look like?” He asked. After I described her, her physical
features, her personality, what she was doing he asked, “and what is her
name?” I wondered why he wanted so much information about someone for
whom I was just buying a gift. “I like to get a picture of the person in my head
before I design anything for them,” he said, “I don’t really engrave on the
shells, I engrave on the mind.”
He poured a few dozen shells on the top of his desk, they were mostly a little
bigger than a quarter, and they each had that slight phosphorescent glow of
things that once grew in choral beds. He traced the shell I picked out on a
piece of paper and then proceeded to design my sister’s name in Arabic on the
page. When he was finished with his drawing he showed it to me. It took me
more than a minute to realize that the design was Arabic letters spelling out
After his tracing with a wooden reed dipped in an inkwell was finished he
allowed me an unobstructed glimpse of the design. From another drawer
behind the desk, he pulled out a box of Omani dates. “I like to have a little bit
of sugar before I work,” he said. While he chewed his date he picked up a
remote control and turned on the stereo in the corner of the office. An aria
emerged softly from the speakers, and he walked over and locked his door.
After seeing all of his creations I realized that I was anxious to see the
creative process unfold in front of me.
Before he sat down again I asked him to give me the paper from the Guinness
Book of Records. If the only true art I could practice was bullshit, at least I
had a chance to practice it here. As Amir used the reed pen to draw the design
on the shell I re-read the horrific response of the record book and began
composing a response in my head. He was scratching the surface of the shell
gently, wiping excess ink on a napkin as I pulled a blank piece of paper from
near the magnifying glass. The singer was growing more emotional, more
powerful as I began writing a letter on Amir’s behalf. After some time I heard
a noise like a dentist drill. He had begun piercing the shell with his etching
machine, which looked like a water pick.
The two of us remained in the same position for the better part of an hour. He
slowly carving and then re-tracing the lines with ink before polishing the
finished product to a shine, me trying to appeal to the artistic sensibilities to
the Guinness Book of Records and argue that the absolute limits of the human
hand could never touch those of the human mind.
I walked out of his office at least partially satisfied that the simple ability to
play with words, if not adequate to change a man’s mind, or a company’s policy
may have at least provided Amir with a small comfort, a slightly more
permanent testament to his art than the gasps of the usual passerby.
After being locked in seclusion in the small room for so long, the blinding,
afternoon sun coming off the spires of glass was overwhelming. The towers and
hotels loomed slightly more gigantic and monolithic than they had on the way
in. The city itself was taking on a few new added dimensions. It occurred to me
then that Dubai is actually one of the most spiritual cities in the world. In a
way it is a testament to all the gods we’ve created, all the idols of modernity.
The old faiths have been cast aside so that the temples of scale and the monks
of marketing could baptize the sands with a system of faith greater than any
But I find some solace in the idea that the old gods will never die. Even after
all the great works in their names have been destroyed, their temples and
testaments, obelisks and observances vanish from our consciousness, they will
be there waiting, humbly staring back at us from the head of a pin.
A pale streak of sunlight pierces the dark hall of Horace’s temple in Edfu. It
cradles the motes of dust and sand, rising and falling through the hole in the
chamber. There are other lights, and other sounds, the clicks and flashes of
pocket cameras, the monotonous droning of tour guides, the cooing and
exasperated whispers of tourists; they all begin an elegant blending into
background static, pulled into the halo of that rectangular, daylight shard of
hieroglyphics. I wonder if the original pilgrims to this site read through them,
from top to bottom or left to right, the same way I read the Gettysburg address
on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
To cover rooms, from floor to ceiling, with incantations designed to discover
immortality is the providence Hollywood has reserved for mad men. Yet the
Hieroglyphics in Edfu, and all the discovered and undiscovered temples of
these civilizations devote themselves to that same thing. The ancient
Egyptians accomplished impossible feats of engineering. The level of craft and
sophistication they employed was unparalleled in the ancient world.
Archaeological teams armed with lasers scanning in micrometers and infrared
cameras still cannot agree on the methods of construction of the pyramids. Yet
for all their engineering artistry, the ancients created awe inspiring masses of
stone dedicated entirely to gods that today’s children of the Nile laugh at.
History is often little more than the art of paraphrasing. The lives of, as has
been said, “the gone, growing in number,” have been carefully filtered into
mass. They are religions, civilizations, and battle statistics. They are the
white space between words. For every invention, theory, and quote there are
ten thousand thoughtless; dead before they ever lived, the greatest apes
forgotten, when even starfish have left fossils. In Egypt nothing is left but the
re-arrangement of rocks, and we tourists, who appropriately move in echoes,
always fading into the dark.
The light remains, and the wall’s carvings reveal the struggle of its creation,
of its heroic stand against the entropy of the desert, but the story is
meaningless. Even if I devoted myself to learning this dead language, the
nuances of a bird’s beak pointed left or right, the scythe of an underworld
guardian raised or across a lap, it would make no difference. The walls will
eventually crumble, though masons will repair them, remake them, try to stay
true to the character of the dead, but like wine laid down in the cellar by the
deceased, once drunk, the vintage will never return.
Each relic reinforces a gnawing feeling of nihilism, of the futility of all
endeavors in the face of the worst evil of time, irrelevance. Ideas are no more
immortal than flesh; they simply live longer, like the decaying orbit of a
comet, circling suns for a hundred million years, before plummeting into the
molten core. They aggregate, like symbols on the flags of revolutions, and
dissipate back to their origins, but ultimately they will be discarded, like the
golden funereal masks discovered in pharaohs’ tombs, melted down into wine
goblets, snuff boxes, or bedposts in the chamber where the next king will
Against this backdrop of this perpetual forgetting are a people remembering
for the first time. The distant relatives of those who tinkered with the timeless
have finally accepted that their time is short. So they surge Friday after
Friday into Tahrir Square, where they raise their banners and shout into
loudspeakers. A man stands on a light post waving Egyptian flags. College
kids construct stages and podiums. Shopkeepers lay twenty feet of newspapers
proclaiming Arab Spring across the sidewalks while minibuses disgorge men
and women from all over the sagging, brick tenement districts into the open
chapter of this new history. They dip their shoes in black ink, and march from
page to page, hoping that the story will end before the empty inkwells fill with
blood. We’ve seen it all before, and we haven’t. We know how it will end, and
They come in lines, in waves, in song, in light, sweeping past the Egyptian
museum, the warehouse of all the accumulated works of a people who have
nothing left to teach, into a square where nothing will be left unsaid. On the
battleground of ideas new heroes will emerge, some here will become great,
lead parliaments, trumpet calls for war, and see themselves as statues looming
over the next generation of anger. Some will lose hope or lose interest when
discovering that authority gnaws away at the future like a cancer of
compromise. Some may become architects, working in glass and steel,
stamping the next great geometric symbols across the sands, where they will
wait for a thousand years to impress the people who have dismissed them.
And then, when all the glorious, magnificent structures have been forgotten,
overwhelmed by the smell of wheat wafting across the green, alluvial fields of
the Nile, there is a new turn in the quest for immortality. Where all the mad
artifice of architects’ dreams had failed, the simplest acts of life persevere.
Here, across the badlands of dusty streets and crumbling brick apartments,
farmers beat their mules, till the soil, sew the same seeds and reap the same
harvests century after century. All those unnamed men and women, in
unmarked graves, leading unremarkable lives, have never left us after all. If
history has never noticed them, it is because they never left. The wealthy, the
heroic, the brilliant, all of the creatures of ego, who strive toward the
timeless, will never ascend past the colloquial, because immortality will
always be found in poverty.
In the long, unbroken chain of our daily bread, in the never ending quest for
our most basic needs, you will find that which has escaped time. In the rice
fields of central China, the terraced tea plantations of southern India, the
mountain villages of Chile, and the flood plains of the Nile River you can find
them. They are the same men and women who fed the Pharaohs, who fed the
Greeks and the Romans, who fed the Caliphs and the Mamluks and Turks, who
fed the last king and the last dictator, and who will feed the next. You could
paint them every year for 5,000 years and find that after the paint has peeled,
and the photos have faded, they will still be standing over the same fields,
under the baking sun.
Steve Wheat has been writing from the road since 2005 and
submitted these pieces from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived
and taught English in Prague, Japan, China, and Oman, his current
home. Previous work has been published in Chronogram and
International Poetry Company.