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.