Thursday, April 9, 2009
The flight from Accra to Osaka, via Dubai, leaves a triptych of images of their Customs. Until I started writing this I had never thought about the metaphoric ambiguity of the terminology. When we enter a country we expect to meet different cultural norms and there, at the border, this expectation is flagged up in the sign saying Customs. From this point everything may change for a temporary immigrant. To leave Accra I had to hand over my passport with my right hand. I remember Tony Blair, trying to impress a Muslim leader with a present of a miniature Koran and sliding it acroos to him with his left hand. Worse than no present at all. Accra’s Customs are possibly the most orderly element of Ghanaian life. It is as though international etiquette reaches this point and makes no further impression on the country. A sort of Canutish sea of anarchy washes it from the inside. It is said that it is a doddle to buy your way into Ghana without the necessary papers, at an official kiosk here. Bribery is rife, according to the newspapers. Every civil servant throughout the country expects to make his or her wage via backhanders. They’d die in penury without this oiling of their palms. It is built in to bureaucratic life.
Dubai, on the other hand, is above such lawlessness. But money drives this weird, artificial settlement in the desert, nevertheless. The Customs here have marble floors and gleaming steel and spacious lifts and white robed men and black robed women, speaking impeccable English with grave courtesy, sliding you seamlessly through the protocols and on to the lifts that rise silently to the Arcade above. You exit and are shocked that, at two in the morning, the place is jostling with thousands of shoppers, packing the half mile stretch of counters selling everything from newspapers to gold. It is retail land at wholesale prices, opulent and inviting. An Aladdin’s cave.
In Osaka Airport I disembarked from the internal shuttle train and followed the sign saying ‘Foreigners’ between the maze of posts and red ribbons that turn people into rats and reached a barrier of around ten gates, manned by people in white medical robes, white masks and white gloves.. It was reminiscent of when the scientists came for ET. Signs exhorted visitors to declare their diseases and a disembodied, gauze sieved voice verbalised it to me. “Have you fever? Have you complaint? Have you illness?” I hid my cold and tried not to be adenoidal in my straight faced , “No”. “Where from?” asked the mask. “Dubai, “ I replied, omitting the Ghana bit for fear of being hauled into a hose down module of some kind, a human cattle grid. Thence to a second line of barriers where my retinas were photographed, my finger prints taken and my bags searched.
Three types of Counter Culture. Under the Counter. Over the Counter. Counter intelligence.