When you're there, in one of the countries of the Middle East, it seems as if time has stood still in the midst of pockets of progress and modernity. Or, maybe its that there are pockets of an ancient age and time in the midst of progress and modernity.
Many women still walk the streets in long robes, their heads covered in scarves that reveal only their eyes and foreheads while talking on cell phones or sipping coffee or eating cheeseburgers and fries under their veil.
I was in Dubai once, on a six hour layover flying home after a two week stay in Ghana. That was 2005 (or was it 2006?). We returned in the opposite path from whence we had arrived: Accra, Ghana to Lagos, Nigeria, to a six hour layover in Dubai to a direct flight from Dubai to New York.
I had traveled there with my friends Oberi and Phillip and a small group of other adults which was part of an educational opportunity offered by a university where we were adjunct faculty.
It had been a wonderful trip - from Accra to Cape Coast to Kumasi and Tamale, way in the North. We had seen and heard some amazing things, but mostly, I had grappled the whole trip with the tension between what I understood to be "primitive" and "modern".
Turns out, there's a fine line between them both, once you strip away your arrogance and understanding of "time" and how it's measured and used and lived.
I was thinking about this as I traveled through several time zones in order to get "home" to the World Capital of Progress and Post- modern Life. I had flown twenty some hours but had lost or gained some here or there, depending on your perspective.
It may have taken twenty hours to get to West Africa and then the Middle East but I had gone back centuries. On the way back, I wondered if we could fly fast enough to catch up with the post-modern reality that awaited us in the Northeast Corridor.
I was considering these things as I read this morning's gospel of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins.
Jesus ends the parable with these words, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour".
As tempting as it is to talk about Harold Camping and his predictions about the end of the world, let me tell you about my little adventure as a Time Traveler in Dubai. Turns out, a lot can happen during a six hour layover.
If you're looking for a sermon or an exposition on the Gospel, you'll be disappointed. If you're looking for a good story, I think I've got one for you, right here.
They are everywhere so it wasn't hard to find one. I wanted something more ancient-looking, where I might actually have to "haggle" for my purchase but, alas, most of the ones around the airport terminal are quite modern.
I did buy a burqa - a lovely silk thing which covers me from neck to toe. It came with a head covering an veil which I gave to Phillip to wear at his next Halloween Party but I kept the burqa which I still use for festive, dress up occasions.
Actually, it looks very liturgical. I remember I wore it when I traveled to EDS (Episcopal Divinity School) for a retirement party for Carter Heyward. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.
I also spotted a small kiosk selling Dubai coffee mugs. When I spotted one "on sale", I did a quick calculation and determined that it would only cost $5. Such a deal! No need to haggle over this one.
I scooped it up, made my purchase, chatting with the guy who wrapped my treasure so that it would make the trip home safely in my back pack. The rest of my luggage was already on the plane.
He spoke perfect English, which was a surprise to me. He said he had spent some time in "Your New York City" but got homesick for Dubai, which was his home.
He was charming and lovely, if not a bit flirty, and I really thought nothing of it, but later, as you'll see, I wondered about him.
I tucked the mug into my backpack and met up with Phillip, who had purchased some exotic spices and a few cookbooks, listening to him as he told me all about the recipes he couldn't wait to try.
We got a cup of coffee and then headed back into the terminal where we met up with the rest of the group. All to soon, it was time to gather up our stuff, make one more trip through what seemed like pretty tight security - they even X-rayed our bags - and then boarded the plane for the long, direct flight from Dubai to Newark International Airport.
One of my bags, and one of his bags were "lost" in transit but the airport officials said they would have them returned to us within 24-48 hours. These particular bags were loaded with our treasures from Ghana - wood carvings and Kente cloth which we purchased in Kumasi, Ghana - and I admit that we were both a wee bit suspicious but grateful that it wasn't anything we needed immediately.
For several days, I used my Dubai mug for my morning coffee. I noticed that it had a bright pink bottom which seemed odd, but then again, lots of things seem odd when you return from a place that, in many ways, seems centuries away.
"It must be a musical thingy," said Ms. Conroy.
"But, it didn't say that on the signs at the kiosk," I said. "And the guy who sold it to me didn't say anything about it being a musical mug."
"Of course not," said Ms. Conroy. "Why else do you think they were selling it for $5? It's broken."
I examined the thing more closely and said, "But, it doesn't look like a musical device. What do you suppose it is?"
Ms. Conroy sighed and examined it and said I suggested I bring it into the church to have my Parish Administrator - a really tech-savvy guy - take a look at it.
I washed out the mug and put it, the false bottom pink thingy and the electronic devise into my backpack and took it with me to the office.
"Hmm," said Randy as he looked at it, "You're right. It doesn't look like a musical device. Here's what I'd do," he said, "Take it to the Chatham police. Let them look at it. You can never be too sure. And if it is anything, you'll just be a good citizen."
I was a bit skeptical and feeling a bit foolish but, at 11 o'clock, right after our staff meeting and before I had to head into Newark for a Standing Committee meeting, I brought it over to the Chatham Police Station.
Well, these boys had never gotten a case like this. Everyone from detectives to the Police Chief had to take a look at it and hear my story. They determined that, since no one really knew what it was, they had better keep "the evidence" and my handwritten story of how I came into my possession.
As I was driving to Newark, I got a call that, at 3 PM someone from "Morristown Intelligence" would meet me at the Chatham Police Station to "get my story". I admit that I giggled at the term "Morristown Intelligence," but suddenly, this was becoming an adventure.
My trip to West Africa and brief stopover in Dubai suddenly became "my story" and my coffee mug became "the evidence".
Post 9/11 drama, I thought.
Next thing I knew, I was being interrogated by "Morristown Intelligence" followed by some of the boys from the local "Homeland Security" office.
No, really. Interrogated.
"Do you recognize anyone in the picture?" they asked. Really? Seriously? I mean, these pictures were randomly taken off the internet, right?
"Oh," I giggled, "I think that's my friend's uncle Vinny. We all thought he was in a Witness Protection Program in Arizona. Who knew he'd be in Dubai?"
Turns out, it's not good to make jokes when the feds are "investigating potential terrorist activity". At least, they didn't think it was funny.
Then, one of the guys asked if it was true that I had a Jewish Congregation sharing office space in my church. Yes, of course, I answered. And, they use your worship space, too, right? Yes, I said, they worship on Friday night and Saturday and we have the sanctuary on Sunday. It all works out.
"So," I was asked, "would you describe yourself as a 'Jewish sympathizer'? "
"Why would you ask such a question?" I demanded, perhaps a little too forcefully with, perhaps, a bit more annoyance and righteous indignation than I intended.
"Well," said the guy in the suit, "It's one thing for a church to rent out office space, but it's quite another to have them use your worship space, don't you think?"
"Wait, wait, wait," I said, "What is this really all about?"
That was when one of the guys allowed as how the electronic device was actually a small transmitter.
"You have got to be kidding me!" I said.
"No ma'am," one of the guys said, sounding every bit like Detective Joe Friday of the Dragnet TV series of my youth.
"You, of course, destroyed it when you put it into the dishwasher, but up until then, it seems that it had been working just fine."
Get outta town! I thought. This is unbelievable!
"But, I went through security in Dubai," I said, "They X-rayed the bag with the coffee mug wrapped inside. Why didn't they see it then and stop me?"
One of the guys snickered. "Oh, probably because the guy you bought it from is related to someone in airport security. You know, Cousin Abdul and Cousin Aladdin," he smirked.
Just a little post 9/11 cop humor I suppose, with just a tinge of xenophobia.
I had some of my own. Actually, I got a bad case of the giggles, just thinking about it.
"What's so funny?" one of them asked.
"Well," I said, "I'm just thinking about what they may have heard in the rectory. I mean, do you suppose that, when they heard only women's voices they thought it was a convent or a brothel?"
My natural way of handling anxiety with humor started to kick into overdrive. "Do you think they thought (turn on fake Arabian accent): 'Ah, must be American lesbians. Evidence of the corruption of the West. Oh, what's that', they must have asked when they heard the dishwasher. 'Whirlpool bath? Hot tub? Really big vibrator?'"
I lost myself in laughter but, apparently, the humor was lost on them.
"Are you sure there isn't anything else you want to tell us?" asked the guy who looked and sounded like Joe Friday.
"No, sir, but I do have a question."
"Sure, ma'am," said Joe, "what is it?"
"What happens next? I mean, I've given you 'my story' and 'my coffee mug'. What will happen, now that you have what you need? I mean, to me?"
I was just a bit nervous. Several "G-men" in suits in a small room with no windows in a police station will do that to a girl.
"Well, it will take a few weeks to examine all the evidence and do the research, and we'll have to keep this mug, but I think you should expect that, while this case is under investigation, you'll be put on the 'No Fly' list. You won't be able to travel by air any time soon."
At this point, I had learned not to push it. "I see," said I, all good, serious, solemn, compliant citizen.
"And," said Joe Friday, "I wouldn't plan to travel back to Dubai for a few years. You don't want to raise any further suspicion."
"Further suspicion?" I gasped. "Are you kidding me? I could have just thrown this electronic thingy in the trash and not said anything to anyone. I'm trying to be a good citizen here. I'm not the enemy. I live here. In this community. I'm an Episcopal priest, for goodness sake."
"Yes, ma'am," said Joe Friday, "It's for your own protection, ma'am."
"Sure," I muttered, "just like the burqa, right?"
He looked at me a little puzzled and then said, "We'll be in touch. You have a good day."
About three weeks later I got a call from the Chatham Police Department. They had my mug. Would I like to come and get it, please? I walked over immediately.
One of the police guys I had previously worked with told me that the device couldn't pick up sounds but was apparently designed as a 'tracking device'. "They just put it in there randomly just to mess with us. Just to show us that they can slip small stuff like that into this country. "
Just a bunch of guys in turbans and long robes sitting around the cave, putting electronic tracking devices in the false bottoms of coffee mugs, showing the Western world what it's all about.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour".
And then, across the barriers of time and space, I distinctly heard the voices of ten maidens, dressed from head to toe in burqas.
Five of them were giggling.