Abu Halen Don't Play That (or "The System is the System")

I'd been waiting for several minutes at the counter while a flock of shoppers jostled and elbowed for position. I angled my cart toward the counter so the Yemeni guy could weigh my vegetables. A big lady in a black shroud edged the corner of her cart in front of mine. I could only see her eyes behind her hood and mask. She began plopping her bags of vegetables on the counter.

Dried onions and lamplight. Abu Halen plays that.
This used to bother me. I would silently command the uncivilized masses around me: Queue, people! Line up! Order! But it doesn't bother me anymore. The slapdash rush, the blocking out the competition, the avoiding eye contact while you totally blitz in front of everyone who has been waiting in line, it's the order of things. This is the system.

We were passing through a little stain of a town in the desert several months ago, hours from any real population center, me and a couple friends. The low concrete buildings were old and sad and dusty and the road was pocked and the air smelled like diesel. It was breakfast time. We pulled up to a gritty little corner shop and tromped inside. "Sorry, no women allowed," said the guy behind the counter, pointing at Rebecca, who, despite being appropriately cloaked to the point of being invisible, was nonetheless still guilty of being female. Lee pleasantly asked why not, even though he knew why, just to see what the guy would say. "Is it against the law?" Lee wondered. The guy behind the counter wasn't sure. Finally, he shrugged. "It's just the system. The system is the system," he said.

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for a mere blink of an eye. I understand the system at only the most superficial level. But what was shocking and fascinating 18 months ago is now commonplace, normal, the way of things. It's just the system.

I'm not proud of my vagabond impulse. About the time I become familiar with my surroundings to the point that life settles into a ho-hum routine, I'm ready to move on. It would be nice if I were different, because there is much of virtue and value in routines and putting down roots, in familiarity. But vagrancy, transience, they are my order of things. This is my system.

I didn't bat an eyelash when the lady in a shroud cut in front of me at the vegetable counter. I punched the corner of my cart in front of hers, body bumped a bald guy in a thobe out of my way, and hoisted my bag of bananas onto the counter, followed by my bag of lettuce, my tomatoes. I brushed Shroud Lady's stuff out of the way. Yemeni Vegetable Weigher Guy glanced at me and then started dropping my vegetables on the scale. In his glance, I thought maybe I detected just a hint of respect. I bet he was thinking, "Homeboy foreigner knows the system, man. And, also, sweet beard." Shroud Lady had thought Abu Halen was a rookie. She'd thought Abu Halen didn't know the system. She'd thought she could take advantage of Abu Halen's western politeness. Nuh-uh. Abu Halen don't play that.