A Trip into Authenticity, Part I.

It’s Sunday.  This is the last day of Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, a four-day holiday which honors Abraham’s submission to God in willingness to sacrifice his son.  If you know the Biblical story, God ends up staying Abraham’s hand and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead.  Anyway, the holiday itself is a time when there are tons of sheep (and other larger animals) that are slaughtered and feasted upon.  We saw many fine animals in the backs of trucks, destined, most likely, to end up on the dinner table.  Besides the large meal with their families, Muslims will share a large portion of the meat with the needy, too, making the festival about providing for others.

These sheep are headed for…well, probably nothing good, at least from their perspectives.

This bull probably also is not much longer for this world.

As I said, it’s a four-day holiday, Jenia and I have just returned from a mini-vacation.  For our break, we packed our camera and backpack into the newly purchased Kia and headed east.  East, across the border to the Sultanate of Oman, into territory which Jenia has visited ever so briefly (making one of the famous Al Ain ADEC teacher spouse’s “border runs”), and which I had hitherto gazed upon through the razor-wire topped fences which insulate the UAE from it’s friendly neighbor.

The Oman experience was a lovely one, by and large.  It busted up some of our preconceptions into tiny little pieces, and we enjoyed seeing a new part of the world.

First, let’s talk about the new part of the world and getting there: our destination was Muscat, some 4 1/2 hours away on the coast.  Our route there took us across the Mezyad border crossing.  We hit the border around 11:30, parked, went inside, paid 50 AED each for visas (just stamps in the passport), and purchased automobile insurance coverage good for Oman (which was only 80 AED for a week, the briefest amount of time they’d sell to us).  After spending a solid hour in there, we finally got out and headed on our way.  There was a lesson in this: on Eid, travel early to avoid crowds.

The scenery was nothing like we’d expected: instead of dunes and wide-open spaces, we paralleled a mountain range most of the way.  There were a few stretches where there were dunes, but there were plenty where the desert was barren, rocky, and flat, with little trees which bring pictures of the African bush to mind.

This stretch of desert was unusual for its dunes.

The Kia contemplates the stretch of 120kph highway ahead, wishing it could go faster.

We traveled along the flank of a range of mountains which look more or less like this.

The road signs leave a little to be desired, as do Google maps.  Fortunately, we only made a couple easily corrected mistakes along the way.  Nonetheless, by the time we arrived in Muscat, the sun was nearly set and it was impossible to see very much of the ruggedly beautiful landscape.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a local joint with outdoor seating where an Indian waiter beckoned, “Come, everyone happy!  Table right here,” and soon friends of ours from Al Ain who were also vacationing in Muscat joined us.  We all went to the Mutrah Souk, a traditional style Arabian market, which was a bustling mixture of sights, sounds, and scents.  The air was heavily perfumed by strong, oily fragrances, incense (frankincense, in particular), and other things, sometimes less savory.

Enjoying the souk with friends.  Textiles, silver, gold, kitsch, and more, it’s all available there.

On to preconceptions.  Here’s how at least one of those got smashed.  A beautiful abaya and shayla-clad Omani woman started talking to us at one point.  Her brother was inside the same stall that our friends Frank and Melissa were shopping at.  “I could get that [same item that your friends are looking at] for 1.5 [instead of 2],” she said, “Because I am Omani.”  She offered advice on which pieces matched best, and she watched Melissa bargaining with great interest.  The vendor wanted 5 riyals. “He’ll do it for 4,” she told me quietly, as Melissa low-balled away.  “4 is a good price.”  Sure enough, after a moment or two, Melissa struck a deal at 4.

Now, this was interesting because in Al Ain, Emirati women are friendly enough to Jenia, but they hardly speak to males, whereas this lady didn’t mind speaking to me at all–there seemed to not be the barrier between men and women that there often is erected here in the Emirates.

I asked the woman about her henna, which ornamented her fine hands in brown floral patterns.  “Is it for Eid?”  She smiled and told me, “Yes, for Eid.”  She told me where the girls could get it done, and told me that there are two kinds of henna.  “There’s black henna and red.  This is red,” she said, indicating hers.  “But we don’t do the black anymore, because it is bad for sensitive skin,” she said.  “Better the red.”  I think if we’d hung around, she would have happily talked to us about anything and everything for as long as she was able.

So, there went one preconception: that Arab culture is more or less the same in the Gulf states.  Evidently not.  Jenia’s going to be writing about another encounter we had that further altered our vantage points on people here, in a very good way.  But I’ll let her do that, and not get into it just yet.

The daylight revealed the rugged, rocky landscape that Muscat is built upon.  This shot is in the Mutrah area.  You’ll notice the fortress tower atop one rocky peak.

This post features the word authenticity.  Here’s why.  The city of Muscat manages to feel more genuine than Abu Dhabi or Dubai.  You must understand this might sound a little contradictory at first, because most of the people who were working in the stalls in the souk or at the restaurants were, just like in the UAE, from another country (usually India).  But I say it felt more authentic because Oman’s development feels less forced and artificial.  Muscat doesn’t feature a ton of high-rises, and it doesn’t have the world’s tallest this or the world’s biggest that.  It doesn’t appear to be in a contest to prove itself.  It feels content to be itself, and that self is more relaxed and less hectic than the UAE tends to be.

Jenia took this photo of the Mutrah area by night.

It’s hard to explain the final reason that I call our trip a journey into authenticity, but I’m trying: the people themselves seem warmer and more at ease with being themselves in public.  Or maybe it would be better to say they seem less guarded, more open.  Whatever the case, they seem a bit more natural to me.

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Nuts.

That’s how life is here. Completely, totally nuts.

A few brief examples: today, the day before Eid al Adha, there were probably 25 kids who showed up at school. The holiday starts tomorrow. Because there were so few of them, no classes were held. The two-day holiday is implicitly at least a three day one.

That said, the principal made no announcement to the faculty. In fact, I’m not sure he was even at work.

As a result, this was the most productive work day I’ve had in some time. I got some grading done, and planning, and I had time to get organized and get to know my fellow English teachers, too.

In other words, it was the best day at school of the year so far, other than the first couple of honeymoon weeks, before all the bad kids started coming to school.

In the course of talking with my fellow teachers, I found out that I’m not alone in having some difficulty explaining to others back home what life and work here is like. We agreed that this place is just bizarre. It almost has to be experienced in order to be understood. It’s simultaneously wonderful and horrible, beautiful and ugly, amazing and exasperating. I sometimes think of it as a third-world country in first-world clothes.

The example of how the school schedule works is just one of many that indicate how ridiculous some things are here. It is taken for granted that schools will ignore the actual schedule and allow everyone an extra day off (except us teachers, who they tried to get to stay until 2:50pm. When my coworkers and I left, it was not 2:00 yet, and there was not a single administrator or Arabic teacher on the grounds). It seems that the schools themselves are reflections of how society here works and doesn’t work.

Yesterday it was decided, without ever informing the faculty, that students would be allowed to leave early. Here are some stragglers heading for the exits.

We can look around at the unchanging weather and the desert, and we can say, “Oh, yeah, I see how it’s possible for a people to care very little about time schedules, because the land itself never changes. What’s it matter if you’re a day late, or a couple days late, or if you never get around to doing whatever it is anyway? Nothing really changes.” But that mindset doesn’t exactly foster a work ethic, a competitive spirit, or a forward-thinking culture.

On Thursday afternoons (remember, the weekend here is Friday and Saturday), ADEC’s local offices close early. That is, they unofficially do, because everyone clears out as soon as they can possibly manage. It’s pretty aggravating when you’ve driven across town and then discover the people you need to see aren’t around.

ADEC has a wonderful curriculum in place for the public schools in Abu Dhabi. I mean it. It’s really very solid. But implementing a challenging curriculum in a place which is much more about looking good than working hard is well nigh impossible.

What makes it that way? Let me tell a story to present you with what I’ve observed. An exceptionally gifted student hung around the English office today, chatting with us. He asked me what I think of the UAE. I hesitated. “It’s okay,” he said. “Really.” So, I told him what I told you, my dear reader, in my opening paragraph. He smiled and nodded.

“What do you think of the schools here?” He asked. “Are the ones in the USA better?”

I didn’t try to hide my chuckle. “They are much better,” I told him. And I worked at a school that was one of the worst in the state of Georgia.

This student wasn’t surprised by my response.  “What do you think is the problem?” he said. “Is it the school system?” He seemed to think that’s what I would blame for the educational situation.

“No,” I said, “I think the educational system is excellent. Now, you’ve been here a lot longer than I have,” I said, “So tell me if you agree. This is what I think the problem is: lack of discipline. There’s no discipline in the schools, and there’s no discipline anywhere else. Furthermore, nobody takes responsibility for anything. So that’s what I think: lack of discipline and responsibility. What do you think?”

He agreed wholeheartedly without a moment’s pause, and even offered examples of what he thought would happen if students from the UAE were to go to other countries.

Now, you’re saying to yourself, Shon, that’s all that’s nuts? You say the whole place is nuts because students don’t go to school sometimes, and because there’s a lack of discipline and responsibility?

Well. Mumpkin (that means “maybe” in Arabic). The thing is, the lack of discipline and responsibility is pervasive here.

Not at the top–obviously there has been quite a vision and stunning execution of that vision from those who are in power. In 1964 (I think that’s the right year, the early ’60s anyway), there were only 1,800 people in Al Ain. Now there are 300,000. And the place is well-laid out with great roads and such. There are wonderful homes and lovely parks. There are many shopping malls and other entirely first-class accommodations in various spheres.

But, at the same time as there are these great roads, there are crazy drivers who make driving anywhere a stressful experience. The worst ones seem to be Emirati. They’re aggressive, rude, and downright belligerent behind the wheel. Which, you must understand, is a contradiction in itself, because Emiratis are typically rather ordinary and nice people, courteous and helpful. I’m not saying that just because I live here–it’s because it’s true. The youth are, although irresponsible and immature (think 5th graders in 12th grader bodies), actually likable and amusing. They’re happy to share about their culture and such, and entirely tolerant of divergent beliefs and so forth.

Anyway, it seems like the vision and the motivation that comes from above breaks down along the line. Somewhere somebody shirks responsibility, and things don’t function precisely. What we’d probably designate “common sense” often gets thrown out the window. So you have a place where the technological infrastructure is so good that I can purchase automobile insurance and 30 seconds after I’ve paid for it, I receive a text message on my phone from the bank notifying me of the use of my debit card. In the space of a minute, I received another text, this one from the insurance company itself, thanking me for choosing them. And yet, this same place is where there is a crew of Pakistani men out sweeping the streets–with brooms–in the morning as I go to work. Perhaps the Pakistanis work cheaper than an actual street-sweeper vehicle. I don’t know.

I’m told it’s illegal for people to grow crops on non-commercial property, such as the yard of this villa, where you see a crop of alfalfa in the foreground. But it’s done anyway, and evidently there is no fear whatsoever of repercussions, as there are actually hired hands harvesting away while I was there.

To return to my school as an example, this is a place where I punch a code and have my fingerprint scanned every day when I arrive to work and leave. Yet classes are overloaded with 30+ students of all ability levels, and there are computers so old they’re barely able to run the Toshiba smart projectors that are in the classrooms.

It’s a place where the legal driving age is 18, but my 10th graders who are 15 years old are driving, unaccompanied, in Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols and nobody bats an eye. It’s a place where yesterday I saw a bright blue Lamborghini Murcielago–that’s one of the world’s most expensive and desirable supercars, in case you didn’t know–piloted by a man in a kandora, with a woman wearing her abaya in the passenger seat. And a child standing over the shifter in the middle of the console.  And yeah, there are seat belt laws.

Where is the common sense, discipline, or responsibility in any of this? Why create laws and not enforce them?

Because of the reflection in the windows, it’s hard to discern who is where in the 2-seat sports car next to mine. But there’s a little kid in there in the middle.

The Lambo and the kid riding so unsafely in it brings to mind another thing that I find irreconcilable. Family. Here it is incredibly important. Families are large. It helps that men can marry up to four women simultaneously, so he can really spread his seed around in a hurry. The family structure is important–the men do their macho things in the desert with camels (see my earlier post), the women do their things in the towns with the kids. And the maids. But that’s another story. Children are valued, and by looking at a person’s name, it’s easy to track a good part of their family history. I gather that family history is much more important to these people than it is to my countrymen back home. Here it’s taken for granted that you know a lot of genealogy. Anyway, to make my point: how does it make sense that you value your family so much, yet you simultaneously value your children so little that you’re zooming through town without even making your kid sit down (never mind putting him in a child seat or even a seat belt)?  And, if you’re saying, well, Shon, that’s an isolated incident, I can tell you more about the times that I’ve seen 7 and 8 year-olds riding around gleefully in their parents Mercedes, torsos protruding from the open sunroofs. It happens so frequently that I don’t even give it more than passing notice anymore.

I still can’t wrap my head around the way things are here. I’m starting to adjust to it being the way it is, though, and that’s making it easier to reside where I am.  Anyway, it’s nuts.

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Addendum: don’t take me to be biting the hand that feeds me.  I don’t have anything against ADEC.  In fact, I admire what they’re trying to do, and I’m cerebrally quite pleased to be part of it.  I’m simply still struggling to understand how things work here.

More Mosques: Thursday’s Pictorial List

Four local mosques: a pictorial list for Thursday.

There are, as you know, some lovely mosques around.  We’ve hardly photographed any of them, but these are all interesting in some way, shape, or form, and I thought I’d share.  None of these are amazing photos in themselves, and since they were all taken with my iPhone, there is considerable lens distortion in some images.  Still, I hear there is no better camera than the one you happen to have with you, and I think you might enjoy a look.

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1) In downtown Al Ain, this mosque, mostly hidden behind the palms and the fountains in this image, is perhaps the most modernistic one that I’ve seen in town. The green lights up top are clocks, which display the time in English and Arabic, as well as the date and month.

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2) This one is about the size of a small gas station and I think it’s picturesque in it’s own way.

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3) More attractive in person, this one has a couple of tall minarets and is what I immediately think of when I think of the word “mosque.”

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4) This reminds me of Alderaan (I told you I was a Star Wars nerd). Sort of spaceship looking, yes?

The call to prayer is echoing gently off the apartment complex’s facade as I write, and I think that signals an excellent time to end this post.

About a Friend

If you ever opened our “About” page, you know that both Shon & I have our own personal blogs.  Mine is on LiveJournal, and I’ve had it for over 5 years now. It is amazing how many wonderful people I met and befriended by means of that blog!  Today, I want to tell you about one of them.  While it may have nothing to do with life in the UAE, please finish reading this post.

Nadia is 21 and lives in a small village in Russia.  She loves books and movies, writes a blog filled with honesty and humor, and is teaching herself English and Spanish.  She is fun, cheerful, extremely bright – and she cannot walk.

This is what she writes about herself:

“My first joint started aching when I was 5 years old.  I went to 2 different hospitals and was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  I was lucky to have a really good doctor, but despite her professionalism and the fact that I was hospitalized twice a year between the ages of 6 and 16, more and more of my joints became affected.  After several years, I could not run anymore, and soon after graduating high school, I could not walk either.  At this point, I can’t stand even with somebody’s help.”

Her diagnosis still stands – rheumatoid arthritis + several things on top of it.  Every single joint in her arms and legs has been affected.  She almost stopped growing, and the multiple medications she has to take are taking their toll on her inner organs, too.

The doctors in Russia do not operate patients like Nadia.  Doctors in Germany and Israel do.  Nadia found a clinic in Tel-Aviv, Israel, that read her story, looked at her x-rays, and said they will take her.  Now money is the question.  She will need 4 (four) surgeries to replace 4 joints in her legs.

Nadia says, “I really want to walk.  I want to be able to take care of myself.  I want to leave my village and start college.  I want to travel and visit all of my friends.  I understand that I am not a child anymore, I am an adult, but life is such a strange and wonderful thing…  Why shouldn’t I give it a try?”

If you can and would like to help, please do.  If you know someone who might be interested in helping, please share this story.  Your life would not turn for the worse if instead of another cup of Starbucks coffee, or a couple of doughnuts, or a glossy magazine you will send those 3, 5, 10, 15 dollars to Nadia.  Her life, however, will get a whole lot better.

I can vouch for the integrity of this person.  This is not a scam, this is someone’s life.

You can send money via PayPal to omaximova@gmail.com (if possible, please send as “personal” and in the message, please mention it is for Nadia.)  If for some reason you cannot use PayPal but would like to donate, leave me a comment and we’ll think of another way.  If you feel like sending her a postcard, a book, or some other kind of gift, please contact me as well.

If you made it to this point – thank you.  If you made it to this point and decided to help – thank you very, very much.

P.S. Nadia’s blog can be found here: http://starushkan.livejournal.com

UPDATE: Nadia’s page on Indiegogo: http://www.indiegogo.com/hope-to-walk-again

Burj, Beach, and Birthday

Shon celebrated his birthday on Sunday with the traditional carrot cake, a new book by J.K. Rowling, and a bunch of friends.  On Saturday, however, we went to Dubai, so that he could receive the first part of his present: a tour to the tallest building in the world – Burj Khalifa.

If you have seen “Mission Impossible 4,” you know this building.  If you haven’t you should.

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The Burj (it means “tower”) is 852 meters tall. The observation deck is almost half-way up, and is, you guessed it, the highest observation deck in the world!

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Us on the deck

The view is great if you ignore the ever-present haze:

ImageDubai Mall, yes, exactly, the largest shopping center in the world (by total territory) is the huge building from the road to the water.

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See the haze I keep talking about?

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us looking all cute

ImageAnd then we went to the beach! I have to say, the beach itself is not as beautiful as the Gulf of Mexico beaches, but the water… the water is simply phenomenal here! It is turquoise even when you are in it, it is very, very clear, and delightfully warm. We should invest in some goggles, though, because it is very salty (which makes it quite a bit easier to swim.)

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Shon loves it!

It was only at the end of the day that I truly realized I was in Dubai: the sun just set into the Arabian Gulf, we could see Burj Khalifa in the distance, and Burj Al Arab (the sail-looking building) right next to us. And then, the evening call to prayer came from several of the nearby mosques. It was simply beautiful.

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Camels in Trucks

Camels in trucks are not an uncommon sight here.  Here’s one we captured on whatever the digital version of film is recently.

Notice the camel…

The camel was quite interested in his surroundings.

We drove past a bigger truck loaded with no less than three of these guys, all of whom seemed quite thrilled to be going for a ride.  Unfortunately, the best picture we could get did not show them clearly.

I hear, by the way, that a camel is worth, on average, around 1 million AED (that’s approximately $250,000, if you need the conversion provided).  That might explain why this one is so tightly secured in the bed of the Toyota.  Just in case you were wondering.

Peace.

Shon and Jenia