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EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
JEFF MACGREGOR
February 26, 2007
THE 15TH ASIAN GAMES LIFTED THE VEIL ON THE MADNESS OF THE HUMAN PAGEANT: THOUSANDS OF ATHLETES FROM SCORES OF COUNTRIES IN HUNDREDS OF EVENTS IN DOZENS OF SPORTS BEAMED OUT TO A BILLION AND A HALF VIEWERS AROUND THE WORLD--AND ONE AMERICAN WRITER BRAVED IT ALL TO TELL AN ARABIAN TALE OF THE 21ST CENTURY
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February 26, 2007

Everything Is Illuminated

THE 15TH ASIAN GAMES LIFTED THE VEIL ON THE MADNESS OF THE HUMAN PAGEANT: THOUSANDS OF ATHLETES FROM SCORES OF COUNTRIES IN HUNDREDS OF EVENTS IN DOZENS OF SPORTS BEAMED OUT TO A BILLION AND A HALF VIEWERS AROUND THE WORLD--AND ONE AMERICAN WRITER BRAVED IT ALL TO TELL AN ARABIAN TALE OF THE 21ST CENTURY

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If you go to the Arabian Desert seeking madness, you will find it. In a land of wandering prophets and sunshot revelation, of oracles and portents, of messianic signs and magic, in the ancient place where first we met and wrestled God, madness is only a matter of time.

It all seemed pretty straightforward: Go to the emirate of Qatar in the Persian Gulf to cover the Asian Games. Then came the Endless First Day, the Windowless Room and the Burning of the City of the Future, the Electric Minarets, the Shadowed Alley of the Tombac HuffenPuffs, and the Iranian Diaper Pirates. � On my fifth night there, I see the heart of these Games briefly, but whole. Pakistan and India playing a children's game, a children's game now infused with 60 years of blood and bad history. Pakistan's up 6--2. India sends an attacker into the Pakistani zone, and the defenders there, strong men, agile and hard and serious, swarm him and lift him and throw him headlong to the floor. The crowd erupts.

The Pakistanis help the Indian to his feet. He wobbles there. The Pakistanis regroup, ready themselves for the next attack. But for one. He stands with the Indian. He steadies him with a hand on his shoulder, then reaches out with the other and gently smooths the Indian's hair. As he does so, he leans in to kiss the Indian's cheek. Then he jogs away.

One thousand people watch this, lungs burning as they roar and deaf in the roar they make and every heart in that crowd filled with the things that fill us all--pride, violence, sadness, joy, admiration, desperation, longing, compassion, hunger, hate, want, love. The infinite litany of human feeling compressed into an instant, another kind of madness. All the grace and complication of the species, and the stakes of the games we play, written in the smallest moment.

The first day, on the mummifying 18-hour flight from New York City to Doha, Qatar's capital and the site of the Games, I begin this journal. From the press kit: 15th quadrennial Asian Games, two weeks, 10,500 athletes from 45 countries, 5,700 journalists, more than 400 events in 39 sports at 36 venues. The sports include most of the popular Olympic events, with some Asian regional favorites thrown in: wushu, sepaktakraw, kabaddi, etc. Also, some rumpus room standards like chess and billiards.

Cost to Qatar of staging same: nearly $3 billion. More than 2,000 hours of television programming to be beamed out to 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. Of that number, I'll likely be the only American. I'll cover what I can.

Qatar, pronounced like cutter or gutter--not like guitar--is a flat spit of sand and gravel that juts from the Arabian peninsula into the Persian Gulf. A crossroads between land and sea for the nomadic Bedouin, it has for centuries been a minor commercial center. Until oil was found here in the late 1930s, the two big businesses were fishing and pearling. Oil and natural gas were first exported from Qatar in 1949. Thus, in the vernacular of the macroeconomist, ka-ching. Today, with the third largest natural gas reserve in the world, Qatar has one of the highest per capita earnings on earth. Population about 880,000, of whom fewer than 175,000 are native Qataris. Most of the rest are immigrants and guest workers from all over the Middle East and the subcontinent.

The current ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, came to power in the mid-1990s--by overthrowing his own father. One presumes Al-Thani family picnics remain to this day subdued.

High temperatures in the summer routinely reach 120�.

And this last, from the Lonely Planet travel guide: "Around the Gulf, Doha has earned the unenviable reputation of being the dullest place on earth." Which, given the neighborhood--what a real estate agent might refer to as "war-zone adjacent"--may be its strongest selling point.

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