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.