Friday, December 19, 2008

Happily Cold in California

During the month of December in Abu Dhabi, the temperature climbs to upwards of 75 degrees every afternoon, the sun shines cheerfully from dawn until dusk, and the blue of the Arabian sky never falters. Except for the very occasional freak rain shower, each day unfolds as a perfect meteorological duplicate of the one before it.

To anyone who's lived through a bitter midwest winter or knows what it's like to fear going ouside so much that things like social engagements, exercise, and basic nourishment all become second in importance to staying warm, December in Abu Dhabi probably sounds like paradise. But when you take the cruel coldness out of winter, you lose all the best parts of the season which exist to defy it: fires, apple cider, scarves and mittens, sweaters, hot meals.

Let me quote Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend to show you what I mean:

At length the door stood open, and Mr. Fledgeby's retreating drapery plunged into bed again. Following it at a respectful distance, Riah passed into the bed-chamber, where a fire had been sometime lighted, and was burning briskly.

"Why, what time of night do you mean to call it?" inquired Fledgeby, turning away beneath the clothes, and presenting a comfortable rampart of shoulder to the chilled figure of the old man.

"Sir, it is full half-past ten in the morning."

"The deuce it is! Then it must be precious foggy?"

"Very foggy, sir."

"And raw, then?"

"Chill and bitter," said Riah....

With a plunge of enjoyment, Fledgeby settled himself afresh.

"Any snow, or sleet, or slush, or anything of that sort?" he asked.

"No, sir, no. Not quite so bad as that. The streets are pretty clear."

"You needn't brag about it," returned Fledgeby, disappointed in his desire to heighten the contrast between his bed and the streets.

While there is as little snow, sleet, or slush to be found in Berkeley as there is in Abu Dhabi, the weather is chilly enough here to warrant plenty of bundling-up before venturing out of doors. It's nice to come inside shivering and peeling off layers of clothing as you slowly thaw in front of the furnace, and nicer still to hunker down under heaps of blankets each night as you go to bed. Dickens, always a keen observer of the little pains and pleasures of life, was definitely onto something.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The God in All of Us

Islam has traditionally forbade the artistic depiction of living forms, founded on a principle expressed in one of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which states: "Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created" (Hadith, Sahih Muslim vol.3, no. 5268). This hadith views art as a form of creation, with creation being a capacity uniquely given to humans by God when he made them in his own image. On the grounds that to shape a person or animal out of clay, paint, or marble without endowing it with the gift of life as God did is to make a mockery of that divine capacity, Islamic scholars have made a practice of banning figurative representation in art (although it has been permitted under certain rulers and at certain times in Islamic history, most notably during the Safavid period in Iran). For this reason, most Islamic art is characterized by geometric shapes and abstract motifs or is calligraphic in nature, making it perfectly suited for housewares, furniture, textiles, and architecture but not as suited to filling a canvas.

An illuminated Quran in the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.

European artists have never had qualms about depicting the human body, not even when it belongs to the son of God himself. Each time I stroll through the pre-Renaissance European painting collection in the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am confronted by dozens of seemingly identical artistic renderings of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Close examination reveals that each one is differentiated from the one beside it on the wall only by a slight variance in the color of the Madonna's robe or the arrangement of celestial beings posing in the background. This is art clearly meant to be functional rather than expressive; most of the paintings seen here once adorned churches, and were intended to remind the faithful of God's presence in their lives, not to distract them from their piety with beautiful images.

But as unimaginative as these early takes on the Madonna-and-Child theme seem now, such devotional works were crucial to the development of European art as a whole. With the emergence of humanist ideas in philosophy and religion and the birth of Protestantism, artistic representations of sacred figures did not dwindle in popularity, but instead began to follow a new fashion of being modeled after regular people (think Rembrandt's quietly reflective Christ or Peter Paul Rubens's famously humanized saints). When the dedication to capturing the human form that this movement inspired was applied to secular subjects as well, the door was opened for future generations of Europe's painters and sculptors to produce some of the most celebrated art we know today.

Portrait of Christ, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Yet perhaps, with the Islamic point of view in mind, we might consider it a sign of self-obsession that the art we hold in highest esteem in the West is that which depicts the human form. Nearly all of the "best" paintings of the European tradition are of people, and even when the people are ugly or distorted, these paintings reflect a preeminent interest
in the human body that we cannot help but find flattering, whether we realize it consciously or not.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Picture of the Day

A ferris wheel in the emirate of Sharjah at sunset.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Happy Birthday UAE

The United Arab Emirates celebrated its 37th birthday this week. On December 2, 1971, the founding fathers of this country signed a constitution that transformed it from a loose confederation of British protectorates known as the Trucial States into one nation, unified under a common flag and with a single preeminent leader--a man named Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's national hero--at its helm. The nearly four decades since that day have seen the UAE grow from a sleepy desert trading post with a fledgling oil industry and a political system weakened by tribal infighting and colonial interference into a fully modern country of 4.6 million with a sophisticated system of governance, a diversified economy, well-maintained highways, and stores stocked with everything from organic cereal to Nike sneakers. In record speed, a nation of tent-dwelling nomads was transformed into a nation of businessmen and visionaries that has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Truly this country’s history has been exceptional.

Like the United States in its halcyon days of immigrant-fueled prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the UAE provides unrivaled opportunity for employment for workers of all backgrounds. Even in the midst of the current financial crisis that has paralyzed the job market in much of the rest of the globe, companies here are continuing to hire, cushioned by years of oil profits and buoyed by the confidence of a people that believes it can do anything. The coming year will tell how well the UAE is able to weather this storm, and some predict that it is only a matter of time before Dubai, with its multibillion-dollar real estate projects financed on the promises of a booming property market that no longer exists, suffers the same catastrophic credit bust that hit Iceland last month. But after 37 years of making the impossible possible--man-made islands shaped like the seven continents, the world’s tallest building, a ski slope in a mall, a hotel built around an aquarium inhabited by a live shark--it is understandable why the Dubai government shrugs off these predictions with such apparent lack of concern.

The brazen materialism and love of money and status displayed by many native Emiratis make the UAE an easy target for critical Westerners like myself, who were brought up to view obvious displays of wealth as gauche and to believe that the best successes are cloaked in humility. But still, looking at what this nation has accomplished in so short a time, there is much here that is worthy of admiration.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Not-Quite-Melting Pot

Here's a myth about the UAE that ought to be debunked.

Despite what you read in the official UAE tourist literature, which aims to lure progressives and exoticaphiles alike by touting the country's diverse multinational makeup, "cosmopolitan" attitudes, and "mixture of culture and traditions," it is not a melting pot. There is no common language, for although English is generally recognized as the lingua franca here, few people other than native English speakers and educated Emiratis are actually able to converse in it. The job market is founded on a frankly hierarchical principle that places Emiratis at the top, white foreigners in the middle, and non-white foreigners at the bottom. Rarely will you find a Sri Lankan or Malay in a position of CEO; you will never meet an Emirati selling tickets at the cinema. Restaurants, long prized by Americans for their painless facilitation of cross-cultural exchange (who doesn't enjoy rolling those paper-thin pancakes around a scoop of hot moo shu chicken doused in plum sauce?), make no bones here about exluding anyone who doesn't fit the criteria for their preferred clientele. A white woman will be made to feel extremely uncomfortable in a popular Pakistani eatery; a Pakistani in a salwar kameez will be openly frowned on in an upscale hotel bistro.

This country is not a patchwork quilt of immigrants living shoulder to shoulder in colorful camaraderie. It is a deeply segregated place where 20 percent of its inhabitants live in terror of losing their identity to the other 80 percent, and the only common thread that spans divides is not patriotism, but the pursuit of money. And am I any different?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Return to Egypt

From the moment our plane touched down on the runway of the Cairo International Airport, it was impossible not to notice that we were back in Egypt. As the aircraft rushed toward the terminal, wheels squealing on the tarmac, row after row of passengers sprang to their feet in anticipation. A mixture of young men in tight jeans and faux-leather jackets and older men in galabiyas spilled into the aisles, prying open the overhead compartments to retrieve bags and suitcases with one hand and clutching their ringing cell phones to their ears with the other. The concerned hostess implored them over the PA system in both English and Arabic to stay in their seats until the plane stopped moving, but their excitement at being home seemed too great to contain. Each brandishing an oversized green passport like a proud symbol of their shared national identity, the Egyptians on our flight pushed past us and surged into the airport as if this homecoming were a thing too precious to delay for even one more instant.

As I hurried down the crowded, dingy corridor to passport control, my own feelings about returning to Egypt were not so simple. I had looked forward to this visit for months, imagining how I would reacquaint myself with the friends and places I had left behind, reviewing my favorite Egyptian Arabic phrases in my head, and making a mental itinerary for each day we would spend in Cairo--I had offered to play tour guide for my boyfriend's parents on their first trip to Egypt, and I intended to do it right. Yet as we approached the creaking conveyor belt where our luggage would hopefully soon appear--if it hadn't already been tossed aside into one of the many piles of unclaimed belongings littering the floor--I felt a rush of misgivings. What if our bags had gotten lost? What if I had to fight tooth and nail to obtain a reasonable taxi fare into the city? Would I be able to find our hotel, which was on a street I'd often walked before but whose exact location relative to the airport I couldn't quite remember? Most of all, what would my guests think of this chaotic, dirty, noisy, but ultimately supremely lovable (at least to me) place?

The four days we spent in Cairo sped by, crammed with sightseeing and expensive dinners, a felucca ride and a day at the pyramids, shopping and drinking local beer and snapping hundreds of pictures. My feelings about being back remained complicated. I vacillated between exultation when things went smoothly and a sort of desperate anxiety when they didn't. I thrilled at each compliment my visitors paid to the city; I despaired each time we fought with a taxi driver or were accosted by hustlers, afraid that Cairo was making a bad impression. I felt like each interaction that my guests had with the place reflected on me personally, not just because of my responsibilities as tour leader but because of how entangled my identity is with the city's own.

This trip back to Egypt after six months away was a homecoming for me just as it was for the Egyptians on the plane. I have come to define who I am as a person in part by my relationship to this country, by what I have taken from it and what it has taken from me over the past three years. Like any home, its continued existence--even in absentia--validates mine. Like any home, my feelings for it encompass both love and hate.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Guests in the UAE

For the past two weeks I've been helping my boyfriend show his parents around on their first-ever visit to the Middle East. We spent a day ogling the tall buildings in Dubai, sampled the culinary highlights of Abu Dhabi, took weekend jaunts to Cairo and Oman, cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and generally enjoyed ourselves immensely. For my part, I was so happy to have a splash of something different to spice up my rather bland existence here that I was more than willing to play the parts of tour guide, chauffeuse, sous-chef, etc. More later....

Monday, November 17, 2008

Living in a Lawless Land

It's an oft-repeated adage that rules are meant to be broken. By limiting yourself only to what is allowed you miss the opportunity for innovation; by bowing to authority without dispute you may be failing to challenge narrow-minded or antiquated ideas. Many of us would agree that a certain amount of intelligent examination of the rules in place around us is wise. Maintaining well-informed opinions on whether or not, and in what circumstances, our governments should forbid us from doing certain things is the key to having a free, just society.

The Arab world, however, has a tendency to take the old adage rather too much to heart. In general, laws are treated here with a mixture of extreme suspicion and casual disregard, the proportions of the two varying from country to country.

In the UAE, motorists ignore traffic signs and make u-turns where none are allowed, boldly drive the wrong way on parking lot ramps, and leave their cars sitting in the middle of the street for hours. The alcohol laws ban bars from serving Muslims and prohibit the sale of bottled spirits to anyone without a liquor license. Yet Emiratis, unmistakable in their distinctive white kandoras, are as common as foreigners at many upscale hotel bars, and my fellow expats and I purchase beer and wine every week without a license from several local liquor stores, who don't care as long as we don't use a credit card and sometimes not even then. The other day when the time came for me to pay, the cashier asked me if I had a license, and when I admitted that I didn't, she simply told me the price of my two bottles of wine, took my money, and told me to have a good day.

In Egypt, the situation is far worse. There is no adherence to traffic rules whatsoever: stoplights are disregarded, divisions between lanes are rendered meaningless, speed limits on city streets are routinely exceeded. Bribes are a normal part of any dealings with the police or the government, as I found out once when an Egyptian guy I knew was caught carrying hash and some American friends and I had to raise money to pay off the policeman who would have arrested him. Illegal housing developments are as much a part of the Cairo skyline as the pyramids, and utilities like water, electricity, and satellite service are widely considered fair game for stealing if you can get away with it. With a population of 20 million, the number of laws, large and small, that are broken every day in Egypt must be astronomical.

At home, I was uneasy filching paperclips from the office or smuggling bananas out of my college dining hall, and when I'm stopped at a red light, even if it's the middle of the night and there are no other cars around, I still won't run it. I shudder at the thought of overstaying the limit on my parking meter. So why doesn't this same respect for the law exist here?

When it comes to social behavior, which is determined by the dictates of religion and longstanding tradition rather than by the government, Arab societies are models par excellence of how to follow the rules, which is why I don't buy the arguments some people make that Arabs are an inherently disorganized, disorderly race whose predilections for reckless driving and cutting in line are indicative of an innate lack of civilization. But the fact is that laws are simply not important to many Arabs. A large part of it is a lack of proper enforcement. In the UAE, the police are impotent and ineffectual, victims of the hierarchical social structure that puts Emiratis on top and everyone else at the bottom. In Egypt, the legacy of the unspeakable brutalities committed by policemen long ago cost them the respect of the Egyptian public.

But I would argue that it goes beyond this explanation alone. It is as though, being set in place by human beings rather than by divine decree, there is a sense among many Arabs that laws are worthy of only as much respect as the men who created them. I am inclined to think that there's something to be said for this attitude. With dictators, monarchs, and tribal oligarchies running the show around here, I'm not sure I'd put my trust in their laws either.

Rain in the Desert

Yesterday morning I was woken by a deafening clap of thunder, followed immediately by the sound of water drops splattering against the roof. In Abu Dhabi, which averages only about 100 mm of rainfall per year, this was an event worth getting out of bed for. The shower lasted only scant minutes (yet despite its brevity, still managed to cause 25 traffic accidents in the city), but the smell it left behind was that unmistakable, universal scent of clean earth after the rain.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Watch Out, Nermal!

"To: Anyone, Abu Dhabi"
The National, November 15, 2008
By John Mather

Garfield, the obese cat who believes “lethargy takes real discipline”, stands in front of a mirror admiring his physique while Nermal, the self-proclaimed cutest kitten in the world, sits beside him. “How do you think I look?” Garfield asks.

“Like a million, give or take a year,” Nermal responds.

“I think I carry my weight rather well,” Garfield continues.

Nermal shoots back: “You should. You’ve had the practice.”

Finally, Garfield says: “Do you think I have a strong chin?”

“Which one?”

With that, Garfield pats Nermal on the head, stuffs the kitten in a box and places him on the doorstep with the address: “Anyone, Abu Dhabi”.

It is not the first time the lasagne-loving feline has tried to ship his nemesis to the capital. The joke began in 1984, when Jim Davis, Garfield’s creator, picked the UAE as the last stop on the Annoying Kitten Express. Since then, the gag has been syndicated in more than 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and has put Abu Dhabi on the map for many people contemplating a move to the Arab world. But few know why Davis chose Abu Dhabi as the place where all the cute kittens go.

“I wanted to pick something that sounded like nothing in the United States,” he says from his office in Albany, Indiana, where he runs the all-things-Garfield company Paws Inc. “I didn’t want to send him to Middleton or Springfield.”

The cartoonist remembers liking the ring of Abu Dhabi – “it sounds like a song” – but his assistant was pushing him to send Nermal to Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago on the southernmost tip of South America.

So Davis began researching his choices. He discovered the UAE, then an adolescent nation, is a friend of the United States and predicted the two countries would remain peaceful. “I was careful to pick a location that we were not going to be at war with in 10 years,” he says. “And I just love that name. It was a perfect fit.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Flying the Friendly Style

I met a Swedish girl yesterday who is a flight attendant for Etihad Airways, the official airline of Abu Dhabi. She and her fellow attendants are required to wear seven types of makeup at all times while on duty, as the airline prides itself on having not only an internationally diverse flight crew but also an attractive one. This is superficial, yes. But it also demonstrates a care for customer satisfaction that seems to have ceased being a primary concern for American carriers years ago, and which went out the window completely when fuel prices soared earlier this year.

Not so in this part of the world. Compared to the bare-bones amenities on American airlines today, even the economy class on carriers in this region seems luxurious. Qatar Airways, billed as one of the world’s only five-star airlines, offers each passenger a personal TV screen with a library of hundreds of movies to choose from, has 180-degree reclining beds in the first-class cabin, and served a smoked salmon appetizer before dinner the last time I flew with them. On the forty-minute morning flight from Abu Dhabi to Doha, Qatar Airways passengers are treated to a breakfast of warm croissants and coffee, even though the flight is so short that the seatbelt sign never turns off. Bahrain-based Gulf Air, despite being one of the oldest carriers in the Middle East, boasts spanking clean planes, friendly service, and restaurant-quality meals. On Etihad, passengers order their dinner from a three-course menu, receive a complimentary pack of goodies on overnight flights that include ear plugs, a toothbrush, and socks, and enjoy the comforts of a fleet of brand-new planes. I’ve heard more than one American say that Etihad is the best airline they’ve ever flown on.

Americans who stay in America, however, have become sadly accustomed to shabby planes, canceled flights, surly flight attendants, and B movies shown on tiny screens either so far away that they're barely visible or so close that they're sure to induce neck cramps. Weight limits on luggage are enforced with a dictatorial hand, and many airlines now charge an extra fee for each checked bag. As for food, you’re lucky to get free peanuts on a six-hour cross-country trip, and when you’re traveling internationally, the meals are barely edible.

If you have any feminist sympathies, you are surely digusted by the thought of makeup requirements for flight attendants. The populist in you may cringe at the idea of so much money spent, so much attention lavished on something as relatively unimportant as a plane flight. Realizing that an unattractive person will never be hired by any of these airlines, your inner activist no doubt wants to sue them all for discrimination. But the next time you fly on one of our homegrown American carriers and disembark hungry, stiff, and three hours late only to discover that your luggage never made it past your latest transfer point, I challenge you not to wish that you, too, could travel on one of the Gulf's luxury airlines.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Tan in November

On the first day of my newly launched program to find things I like about Abu Dhabi, I spent the afternoon at the beach. A narrow strip of white sand hugs the corniche along the northwestern edge of the city, and on weekends it is crammed full of locals and foreigners alike, out to enjoy the sunshine and take a dip in the aqua-blue waters of the Persian Gulf. At midday when families come for lunch, laden with shopping bags full of bread and hummus, watermelon and potato chips, you can gawp at the peculiar juxtaposition of Emirati women in black abayas slogging through the sand with their skirts trailing and feeding themselves morsels of food beneath their veils, side by side with well-bronzed foreign women in string bikinis reclining on towels beside their pasty, pot-bellied husbands.

But on weekdays the beaches are quiet, populated mostly by white women alone or in pairs, occupying themselves while the men are at work by working on their tans and catching up on their Danielle Steel. An entrance fee of 5 dirhams admits you to a secluded stretch of sand reserved for families and females, where--if wearing an abaya at the beach is not your style--you can strip down to a swimsuit unmolested by the stares of the young male laborers who often gather on the free public beaches in nice weather to talk, eat, and fool around in the sand (but rarely to swim). Since the only other outdoor hangout spot I've ever seen them use is the grassy medians between lanes of speeding, honking traffic, I don't blame them for flocking to the beach whenever they can. But still, it's hardly pleasant to be leered at, and so yesterday I was happy to exercise the privileges of my Western status and pay a little money for some privacy.

However much you resist becoming that privileged Westerner, you will inevitably end up assuming that role on many occasions when you live in the Middle East. Social norms in the Arab world are powerful, and when they assign you a particular place in society based on your race, nationality, and way of dressing, it is nearly impossible to go against their decision.

So I lay on the beach, I swam, I sunbathed, I ate lunch, I luxuriated in the feeling of absolute idleness. While meanwhile, just beyond the margins of the sand, the city hummed with the pulse of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Malaysia, Egypt and Syria and Yemen, sweating for long hours under the very same Abu Dhabi sun to build this country.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Starting Over

In the four months since I left Egypt and moved to Abu Dhabi, I've been surprised at how much I can miss a place that at times was anything but good to me. Every day in Cairo brought new challenges, small and large, from trying to figure out where to buy coat hangers (and how to say "coat hangers" in Arabic) to being harassed by my doorman each morning, afternoon, and evening as I passed in and out of my apartment building. My monthly salary was less than my monthly rent, so that I grew to consider eating red meat, going to the cinema, and buying new clothes to be luxuries I could seldom afford. As the Middle East's largest city, Cairo can be a downright unpleasant place to live. The streets are dirty; the cab drivers are crazy; the food can make you sick. The noise is unrelenting. The lack of organization is astonishing. Yesterday an Emirati acquaintance of mine told me he'd never visited Egypt and never wanted to. "It's dirty, and nothing works there," he said. "The people have a sense of humor but you can't trust them."

And yet I miss Egypt so much at times it's almost painful. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I feel this way. When I returned to the U.S. after six months of studying in Cairo in 2006, I spent hours staring at photos of the places and people I'd left behind, babbled endlessly about my so-called experiences abroad in an attempt to keep them from slipping away, and whispered the Arabic phrases I had learned over and over to myself like cherished prayers. This second parting should have been easier. Abu Dhabi is only a four-hour flight away from Cairo, and my chances of returning there either for pleasure or for business while I'm living in the UAE are high. So why has it been so much more difficult than it was two years ago?

Cairo: an evening in late spring.

I think the answer lies in Abu Dhabi. Everything here reminds me of Cairo, from the shisha cafes to the Arabic on the street signs. And yet it is not Cairo. I hail cabs that are nearly as shoddy and beat-up as any in Cairo, but when I try to talk to the drivers in Arabic they only shake their heads and look apologetic because they are Urdu-speaking Pakistanis, not Arabs. I walk into smoky, higgledy-piggledy little shops armed with my best bargaining skills and discover that in these shops, everything has a price tag. Fruit juices, which I used to chug by the freshly squeezed glassfull while leaning on the counter of a juice stand and chatting amiably with the stand's proprietor, is just as good here (and probably cleaner, too) but seems to be available only in shopping malls. Where's the charm in a shopping mall?

After months of feeling tricked, disappointed, and taken for a fool by Abu Dhabi, I have come to resent it. But to be honest, it's my own fault. I've been too busy making comparisons between this city and Cairo to confront Abu Dhabi on its own terms. Frankly--unfairly--I haven't given the place a chance.

So how can I change this? I can try to start appreciating Abu Dhabi for what it does have to offer, which includes beautiful beaches to go to all year long, a rich heritage of Arab traditions dating back to before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (tribalism, burqas, and whole roast camels, among others), a diverse society encompassing people and cuisines from all continents of the world, and of course, like any new place, a smorgasbord of new haunts to discover and new people to meet once I stop pining for Cairo enough to take an interest in them.

So this is my resolution. And this blog is the first step.