MCIV BLOG

Thursday, October 27, 2011

PAUL EMERSON: A HANDHELD HANDSHAKE

Article original published in the International Herald Tribune
The Global Edition of the New York Times
October 26, 2011

Aeroflot flight 179 from Moscow touched down before dawn in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I was arriving for a six-day concert and education tour organized by the U.S. Department of State for my dance company, Company E.

The tour would fill 800 seats of the old Soviet-era opera house with 1,100 people, reminding us again of the power of culture to bridge geographic, geopolitical and generational gaps.

Standing in the crammed aisle of the plane I turned on my iPhone and in quick succession I got buzzed (e-mail waiting), then double-buzzed (text message) and finally pinged (voice mail).

The trip to Kyrgyzstan had come up at the last minute, and I hadn’t had time to get a visa. So I got in line for the single immigration officer.

I had my knapsack on my right shoulder, cameras and lenses on my left, and my phone in my hand. I put my passport down on the counter and said good morning. All routine.

Suddenly, there was a tall, thin guard at my right shoulder. “Hi,” he said. Then there were three guards around me. And then a second officer in the kiosk. Not good.

“iPhone?”

I looked up at the tall guard and he looked down at my phone. At this battered old airport, deep inside a tiny country still battling with Lenin’s ghost, he was snake-charmed. Transfixed.

“iPhone!” he said and looked around at the other guards.

He held out his hand and, for all practical purposes, pulled my iPhone from my hand, a bit of gold glowing in the night. It wasn’t an offensive gesture in any way, just keen anticipation.

Then he looked at me again, clearly wanting a lesson in iPhonese. So for a few minutes we played with my phone — the mail, the browser, the Internet, the video and finally the music.

“Music — how?”

I pulled up the last thing I had been listening to. Miles Davis, “So What.” He put it to his ear, then looked for the sound, which was coming from the tiny, tiny speakers at the machine’s base. He played with the screen, with multitouch.

Standing there, the random American walking half a dozen Kyrgyz border guards through the wonder of that little machine — completely nonverbally — the world got small and easy and friendly and funny.

Finally I took my iPhone back. My passport had been stamped minutes before. We said goodbye, in our different ways and languages, now bonded by a little wonder that went quietly back into my back pocket.

“iPhone. Cool, man,” the guard said.

Two days later, I learned that Steve Jobs had died. That moment at the airport was the first thing that came to mind. I thought of that border guard, of walking out into the pre-dawn darkness of Central Asia, with Miles still playing in my pocket. Of the wonder of that machine.

“Even here,” I remember thinking at that moment.

Even there, in distant Bishkek, on the fabled Silk Road, those ideas, those dreams, those machines and those tiny bits of genius resonated, bringing smiles, wonder, cordiality and a moment across so many different collisions of culture.

Paul Emerson is the cofounder and artistic and executive director of the dance company Company E in Washington.

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