Jordan.

If you’re about my age, somewhere in your mid-30’s, I’ll bet you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  What a great movie!  Wasn’t the ending, set in that amazing building carved out of a red-hued canyon wall, just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen? And wasn’t it even cooler to discover that such a place, or, in fact that very place actually exists? Ever since the time I learned that the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra, I’ve longed to go there, longed to see the facades a thousand years old that ornament tombs and sacred places, longed to ride a horse though the Siq and into the sunset like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (and the other two guys).

Finally, it happened.  Most of it, anyway.  I didn’t ride a horse though the Siq, I’m sorry to say, but I did put my wife on a donkey and send her up to the Monastery that way.  So that’s sort of similar.

What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise.  It’s poor.  There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along.  Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose.  Cars are old and beat up.  A layer of dust covers most everything.  But the people are nice.  They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

Much of the waterways which once supplied Jordan with water have been diverted by other countries.  The Dead Sea’s levels are declining rapidly as various tributaries which feed into it have been dammed and co-opted for things like irrigation.

I work with several guys from Jordan.  Excited that we were planning a visit, they offered suggestions on where to go and what to do. Among the many places they listed, we managed to hit Karak (site of a dilapidated crusader castle), Madaba (home of a large Christian community and location of the oldest image of Palestine), Petra, Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and where Lawrence himself once roamed), and the Dead Sea.

Any fan of history, including Biblical history, medieval history, Roman, etc., would find Jordan a stellar place to stroll around.  Walk where Moses died atop Mount Nebo, for example, or look over the valley below Karak from a castle window, or compare the architecture of the various facades in Petra to each other and spot the Nabatean style vs. the Roman style, and on and on and on. If ancient history isn’t your thing, perhaps modern history is: consider the guard towers along the shores of the Dead Sea as you hand your passport to the armed checkpoint guards along the road.  Talk to someone and find out that Jordan is one of the only countries in the region to officially recognize Israel as a state.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

And if you say to yourself, “Screw history, I’m all about the present,” then enjoy a mediocre takeaway pizza you bought near the exit from Petra on your way back to the Bedouin camp you’re spending the next few nights in, wash it down with some hyper-sweet tea made over the open fire, and chat with the friendly fellow with bad teeth that owns the place.  Be surprised that he travels extensively, and that he’ll be in London next month. Climb the rocks and watch the sun slowly set, turning some blonde chicks hair to sparkling gold as they sit in front of you. Rub your hands along canyon walls as you walk the Siq and sing with your wife, glad you’re there at 7:15am, not 4:30pm when it’s packed, and you couldn’t hear your voices reverberate over the cacophony of the many. Enjoy the winding road from Petra to the Dead Sea, carefully drive along the detour where the road had fallen away into the sheer nothingness below, and let your ears pop as you descend 1,000 meters in no time.

So about Petra–about Indiana Jones, the Siq, and that donkey.  We spent an entire day there, from sunup until approaching sundown. We carried the little one most of the way.  Fortunately he decided to nap in that amazing Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, so he didn’t feel the need to be down and running around the entire day, or we’d have never gotten anywhere. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it.  The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher.  We climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice, and descended to the Great Temple, an area that Brown University has been excavating since 1993. Midday by then, we were feeling tired, so I hired a donkey to take Jenia up to the Monastery, and by the time I stopped to rest in shade kindly offered by an aged merchant lady, drink some water, and let the toddler get out of the carrier, I was wishing I’d gotten a donkey ride myself.  But, being the manly man I am, I sucked it up and took the baby in hand (actually, I put him on my shoulders) and climbed the remaining 4,000,000 steps (exaggeration, yup, but it felt like a lot).

Being totally worn out does have a way of stealing some of the majesty of any experience, but seeing the Monastery was still pretty awesome.  It’s big, y’all.  There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there.  Jenia made the descent on her ass, and I on foot. The way down was easier.

Treasury

The Treasury, shown when being approached through the Siq (which means “shaft”). The man in front of it gives some idea of scale.

In Petra

A musician playing in Petra.

What tarnishes Petra?  Could be the myriad stalls set up haphazardly selling trinkets. Could be the tons of guys hawking horseback rides, donkeys for steeds (“This one his name Michael Jackson”), or kids trying to get you to buy postcards with images probably better than the ones you’ll take. Could be nothing tarnishes it, if you’re expecting the clatter of generators powering snack shops in the canyons.

Wadi Rum was another highlight–and someone asked me “Why?” the other day.  Er, it’s just one of those places that’s worth visiting to experience for yourself, that’s why.  We thought it was cool to spend the day on camels and in a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park there.  We found the scenery amazing.  And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night.  The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence's House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence’s House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

Karak

Jenia and el nino at Karak Castle. He wanted to walk around a lot, but the area was a bit unsafe for him with precipices galore.

The Dead Sea is the last thing I’ll write about. Yeah, it’s pretty dang cool to find yourself standing in shoulder-deep water, and when, the instant a gentle wave hits you, suddenly you’re floating, your feet sticking into the air, suddenly bobbing about because gravity doesn’t seem to function like it does in every other body of water you’ve ever been in. But it’s not cool to scare your toddler by putting that famous black mud on your face.  Although the skin does feel might refreshed when you go rinse the mud off a few minutes later.

So, in a nutshell, Jordan. Indiana Jones didn’t lead me wrong–it’s a great place to visit. Go there.  Your view of the Middle East will be altered still further than it was by your visit to the UAE.

Summer Heat

Sorry, but my subject for the day isn’t anything deep.  It’s simple–summertime heat.  If you know the Middle East exists, you know that it has a reputation for being hot, so the notion probably doesn’t surprise you.  This year Abu Dhabi isn’t disappointing in the heat department, either.  Last year in 2013 we had a rather mild spring, with a good amount of rain throughout April.  That kept the temperatures comparatively low.  There wasn’t much rain last month, however, and as May draws nigh to a close, the mercury is leaping higher and higher.  Let me share a story or two to illustrate what it’s like.

My cousin is visiting from the USA right now, and Jenia and I have been showing her around.  We spent a day in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi over the weekend.  During our Dubai time, we were mostly indoors, seeing the tremendous Dubai Mall and such.  I got sick of being cooped up inside, and ventured out to walk near the base of the world’s tallest building, with Jenia and the baby accompanying me.  “Man, that feels good,” I quipped as we stepped out of the air conditioning.  Jenia didn’t seem to agree, but she kept her peace.  It was mighty warm out and very muggy.  After about ten minutes, the little one was bright red, and Jenia retreated with him to shade and then the air conditioning.  We then went to the beach with the aim of swimming at Jumeriah Beach.  To our disappointment, we found the nice beach with paid admission, snazzy park, and, most importantly, showers, had no parking available at all, since most everyone evidently fancied a dip to get some relief from the blazing sun.  Consequently, we drove to the next public access beach, which, on the plus side, offers a great view of the Burj al Arab, but has no showers.  “I’ve never seen it so crowded,” Jenia said, surprised by the mob on the sand and in the water.  We paddled our feet instead of going for a proper swim.  In truth, the water was so warm that it wouldn’t have seemed very refreshing in the first place–a surprise when you’ve been accustomed to the Atlantic’s constant coolness, as my cousin was.  When we returned to the car, the humidity was so high that the car’s body had fogged over while parked, as if it had been driven through a thick haze.

While in Abu Dhabi, we visited the Emirates Palace, a palatial hotel owned by the UAE government and operated by the Kempinski hotel group.  We kicked around the hotel, exploring the opulent (though questionably tasteful) interior.  Eventually, we went outside to have a gander at the grounds.  Jenia’s sunglasses fogged over when she stepped through the doors.  In the space of only a few minutes (perhaps up to 15), we were all dripping sweat.  My shirt was almost entirely soaked, and my linen pants were wet all down the backs of my legs.  At one point, when I put the baby in his carseat, the sweat was dripping from my nose and splashing onto the upholstery.  I’m a lightweight guy–not the kind who sweats easily, so it means something when I’m dripping like a faucet.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, being coastal cities, are much more humid than Al Ain.  Al Ain’s heat is easier to bear, owing to the dryness of the air.  The sweat doesn’t start pouring off you as quickly.  Still, triple-digit heat is intense.  We’re in Al Ain now, and today’s high was, according to my iPhone’s weather app, 113F, the same as yesterday.  Other thermometers are reading hotter, and it’s hard to know what to rely on.  Regardless, the heat here is akin to that of an oven.  My cousin wears a stunned expression every time she sets foot outdoors.  I tell her, “At least you get a real experience.  The heat is something to write home about.”  That doesn’t seem to help her enjoy it, unfortunately.

So there you have it.  The hottest part of the year is still well on the horizon, and it’s already super hot.  But I expect the heat now, and I smile, because it’s all part of the experience of living in the UAE.

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Wage Slavery

I’ve just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s turn-of-the-20th-Century book “The Jungle.”  It’s about the disgusting Chicago meatpacking industry and the poor souls in its employ.  The narrative follows a fictional family who immigrates to the US from Lithuania and the numerous trials they endure on their way to becoming cogs in the industrial machine.  Like all overused machinery, the family suffers greatly and are all driven to overwork before that finally takes its toll and things fall apart for them.  Sinclair’s book ends in an unfortunate way, for it becomes mere Socialist propaganda.  But up until about 3/4 or even 7/8 of the way through, it’s quite a good read.  Now, although I ignore the propaganda, I find one turn of phrase I stumbled across during the latter part of the book interesting and even poignant.  Sinclair calls those in the employ of the meatpacking trust “wage slaves.”  For, you see, the employees are technically free, but they’re too poor to live a life of any quality and they have no other viable options but to return to the torturous jobs they have and maintain them as long as they can.  In Sinclair’s book, this usually means until someone is injured on the job, whereupon they’re laid off and cast out.

sinclair's jungleMaybe we can make the argument, like Sinclair might if he were still kicking, that this kind of thing is alive and well in America.  But I’m not sure.  Since “The Jungle” was published, the meat industry was forced to clean up and working conditions have undoubtedly improved by leaps and bounds.  In fact, the Food and Drug Administration was formed partly as a result of the novel’s publication.  On the FDA’s website, Sinclair is credited thus: “the nauseating condition of the meat-packing industry that Upton Sinclair captured in The Jungle was the final precipitating force behind both a meat inspection law and a comprehensive food and drug law” known originally as the Wiley Act, which became law in 1906.  Ah, the power of the pen.  Although the Wiley Act and the FDA is a big deal, Sinclair was really more interested in the plight of the poor working man than food safety, as his Socialist ending makes abundantly clear.  It would take nearly four decades for a national minimum wage to be introduced in 1938, and at 25 cents it was equivalent to $4.13 hourly in 2013. It’s hard enough to live on minimum wage in the USA now, and it’s $7.25 in most states–imagine surviving on way less than 5 bucks an hour, especially when you’ve got to pay rent, buy groceries, fill up your gasoline tank, and spend money on all the necessities of life.  It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?  So does “wage slavery” still exist in the States?  I don’t know.  I’m open to comments on it.  I’ve worked for minimum wage and below, but I climbed upward since, and I couldn’t go back.

As I ponder the notion of folks who have no option but to work for whatever diddly amount they’re offered, it occurs to me that I see a certain amount of this every day here in the UAE.  It’s common to have house help here.  Most apartments or villas of any size have a miniscule maid’s quarters.  If you take a stroll through the mall, you’ll inevitably notice Emirati women shopping in Carrefour being followed around by Filipino ladies who are trying to keep the kids in line, pushing the shopping cart, and frequently being told what to take off the shelves and put in the cart.  I hate doing dishes, and I don’t really like giving up my weekend time to clean the house, so I thought, “Gee, we might be able to afford a maid.”  But Jenia is totally opposed to the idea.  “Those people are practically slaves,” she says.  Sometimes she goes even further and calls them slaves outright.  “Well,” I say, “They’re making more than they would at home.”  That doesn’t get my case any farther along, I’m afraid.  Just how much do these people make?  The pay range for maids/nannies tends to run about 1,000-2,000 AED monthly.  Divide that by 3.67 to find what they’re making in dollars.  These employees are usually expected to work 6 days a week, basically all day.  Lest you think I’m picking on Emiratis when I illustrate a point like I did above, I should say that there are quite a number of Westerners who hire help.  Also, mind you, I’m not criticizing those who take maids and the like into their employ–I’m pointing out that it’s a job with a surprisingly low wage.

The Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec's projects (completed along with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec’s projects (completed in conjunction with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

Besides house help, most other blue collar laborers are imported from eastern Asia.  The administration’s menial workers, the janitors and the like at my school, for example, are all from elsewhere.  Most of them are Bangladeshi, and they’re serving a 1-year contract.  I gave one of the guys a ride home one day, and he inquired as to what I make per month.  I didn’t tell him, but he told me what he made: 1,400 AED.  He told me that from that, he spends 500 a month on rent, 300 on food, and some on transportation.  The rest he sends home to his wife and baby.

A group of Pakistani men hang about hoping for work as movers.

A group of Pakistani men hang about in the Sanaiya area in Al Ain hoping for work as movers.

The ratio of Pakistanis and Indians living here is very high.  While they are certainly not all unskilled, there are many Pakistani men who come as unskilled laborers.  At night they fill up the parks in downtown Al Ain enjoying the relative coolness of the evening.  I’d venture to guess that most of the construction workers I’ve seen are Pakistani, but that is only a guess, and likely not representative of much.  Last month there was a big strike in Dubai as laborers refused to come to work for Arabtec, the largest construction company around.  I watched the newspaper coverage of that with great interest.  I was interested because I’ve seen workers being transported from construction sites when they take their midday break in the summer months.  It will be far above 100F and these glistening, sweaty men load up into big buses, windows wide open since there is no air conditioning in the buses.  Usually these workers live on the construction site or nearby it, in housing provided by their employers.  If you think that this means nice housing, you should probably join me in doing some research.  Is it squalor of the type these people might have to deal with in their home countries?  I don’t know.  I haven’t been to Pakistan or where have you, and I haven’t set foot in any of the housing provided by Arabtec or any other big company.  At any rate, these laborers typically work 6 days a week, and put in long hours.  The strike was news because striking is patently illegal here. In a country with no minimum wage, I was also curious to find out what these workers made.  Well, if you clicked on the link in my text, you’ve already found out: they make about $160 a month, depending.  If you’re still curious, here’s another link providing a lot of detail, including much more about working conditions, housing, wages, and the like.  Now, a month after these people boldly defied the authorities in order to try to get better treatment, they’re being dealt with. According to a 7 Days Dubai article, many of those who didn’t go to work are being deported.  7 Days is something close to a tabloid–they’re quick to report, but usually short on details and depth–but they do offer a look at what is happening in the area.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec's completed projects.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec’s completed projects.

I am not an investigative journalist, so I’m not knocking on doors and visiting all sorts of people all the time, but I do have eyes, and I do go to various areas in town, and I do interact with people.  And clearly I read, too.  So I end up wondering, in old Socialist style phrasing, what the plight of the worker is nowadays.  Do we continue to exploit and even victimize unskilled laborers?  Do we do it in the USA?  Does the UAE do it, right here around me, where I’m living?  I’m among the masses of foreigners who work in the UAE because I get more pay than I get at home.  In my case, the pay isn’t stunningly high, but I have lots of perks thrown in that end up being equivalent to a notably larger payday than I’d have in the States.  Many times I’ve debated with myself whether it’s worth being here or not, considering the difficulties at work.  But I’ve learned to cope with the challenges and I’ve adapted, more or less, to the culture here and figured out (to some extent) how to work within the environment I’ve chosen to move to.  I can’t complain about my situation, since I chose it, and since it’s always possible for me to bail out and leave if things get unbearable for some reason.  Do these unskilled laborers have the same options as I do? They certainly work much harder physically than I do.  Can they leave if they choose?  What kind of toll does this work environment take on them?  Do the pros of the jobs here outweigh the cons?

I’m not answering these questions today.  I’m just posing them because I think they’re worth exploring and seeking answers to.  If you feel you can contribute to the topic, you’re free to comment.  In keeping with the spirit of our blog, I’d ask that you keep your comments civil and respectful to all.

In parting, I’d like to leave you with the link to a post on the blog Sweden and the Middle East.  It’s worth a read as it’s thought-provoking and just might provide some insight into what life can be like for a domestic worker.  Have a gander at it.  Let the author (and me, if you get around to it) know what you think.

Thursday List: Things I Never Thought I’d Say Before I Moved Here

1. It’s 95F. Do you think it’s warm enough to go to the beach?

2. I am freezing, if I knew it was going to be 55 degrees outside, I would have brought my jacket along.

3. Yes. (To a person asking if they can take your baby to the back room of the office to show to their colleagues.)

4. I’ve been to 3 malls today.

5. Let’s go to the park tonight. I miss grass.

6. What time are we meeting your students at the mall?

7. We have not been to Dubai in, like, two weeks!

And the worst one:

8. I miss Walmart and Target.

Missing Spring

June is here, but it feels like we’ve never had a spring. My facebook and livejournal feeds have been flooded with photos of spring flowers for several months, and it made me so jealous. I miss camellias and azaleas, irises and hyacinths, tulips and jonquils, cherries, and Bradford pears, and dogwood, and tulip magnolias…

When I told Shon I missed spring, he said we sort of had one – in November, when it was cool enough for several things here to bloom. It’s not the same, however, not even remotely close.

In a country where there is summer and cooler summer (in the fall, I kept saying it was like a backwards Narnia – always summer and never Christmas), there is no death – or slumber – of winter months, but it means there is also no rebirth or awakening of spring. No sensation of a new life, a new beginning, a new hope. There is never the feeling of waking up one morning and seeing a tree in your yard with a full crown of fresh green leaves, while it was black and naked just yesterday.

It’s one of those things you never expect you’d miss, and then find out that you really do.

 

Al Ain’s Old Souk

Al Ain is a city of texture. Some areas are quite polished and upscale. Other areas are anything but. There are buildings that are literally palatial, and others which make a bomb shelter look comfortable and inviting. On the outskirts of town you will find shanties housing those willing to subsist on the meagerest of wages.  Al Jimi Mall is the place to go if you feel like watching the locals cruise about in their Rolls Royces, tarted up Bentleys and Ranger Rovers, AMG Mercedes’, or the rather less common Ferraris or Lamborghinis.  By contrast, in the town center, not so far away, there are Pakistani workers, entirely carless, squatting on their haunches.

And in the very center, in a series of garage-like structures nigh to the bus station, there lies an amazing market known as the “Old Souk.” For years, the souk has functioned as a place that vendors can come to sell their wares free of any charge. Those who are selling come from a variety of locations, and sell all sorts of things. They have certain areas they usually set up in, and most of the shops, with some exceptions, look more or less permanent. There is a new souk established outside of town, behind the nicest of Al Ain’s malls, but an attempt to move things out there failed, and the sellers were soon back in their traditional place in the middle of the town center. Fridays are the best day to visit, for that is when things are busiest.  Much of the souk is indoors, or semi-indoors, but there is also quite a bit outdoors.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter courtesy of that funky smartphone app known as instagram.

One building houses the vegetable and meat market.  Seeking some good flat cabbage?  Or maybe a nice, succulent camel hump?  This is the place to get it.  Maybe you’d rather skip the camel and get some nice, fresh goat.  That’s readily available, as it’s a very common meat here, usually served with biryani (an Indian style rice dish).

As we approach, we encounter an Omani woman who is happy to show us her wares, which include a number of interesting items uniquely Middle Eastern.  She has come from Buraimi, just a short way off, almost every day for years. She is also pleased to allow us to take her picture, something that isn’t always to be counted on here. Jenia purchases a souvenir for herself, and one for her friend–the golden face covering that seems to be known as a “burqa” here.  The burqa is meant to accent the woman’s eyes, we are told.  Jenia decides to buy a second one to give to a friend of ours, and the woman, noticing that Jenia is with child (yes, we did this before the baby came), refuses payment (a mere 10 dirhams) for it, and insists on giving it as a gift.

Vendor

If you’re looking for fresh Emirati fish, this is the place to find it. The types that are most renowned are available here: hammour, Sultan Ibrahim. They’re all freshly caught from around the Emirates. The vendors are happy to show you their catches.  If you’re trying to find a good price, you can probably get it here–but you should know what the going rate is, and it helps if you read Arabic, because most of the signs and numbers aren’t in English.  The best way to get a deal is to bargain, which is expected.  I, of course, have no idea what a reasonable price is for any seafood, but I enjoy looking at the huge number of fish, big and small, and the sellers enjoy telling us what is what.  Jenia strolls about with her camera, snapping the images you see here.

In the image above, Amro, one of the main folks involved with Al Ain Weekends, a lovely group which organizes excursions for anyone interested in learning more about the area, shows off a fish.

Despite the stern expressions these two men wear in the photographs, they are happy to explain all about the fish they are selling and let us take their pictures.

Leaving the fish souk, we pass smiling faces, families, and virtually no other westerners other than the ones we came with.  There is Yemeni honey for sale, and one of the guys selling it gets me to try some.  It’s good, but I’m not about to pay the kind of money they’re asking for it, and I don’t feel like bargaining in the first place.  The wife and I are interested in seeing the people, smelling the odors that flavor the air, and simply being a part of the bustle of the souk, a place that seems mostly left out of the rush toward hyper-modernity that Al Ain has generally embraced.  Incidentally, you’ll notice the reduction in quality of most of the pictures after this–they’re the ones I snapped with my phone.  Jenia gets all the credit for being the better photographer of the two of us.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Soon, we are standing outside a shop that makes a traditional Omani sweet called halawa (spelling?).  This is basically made from sugar or corn syrup with added sugars.  It’s boiled for a long time in huge basins, being stirred the whole time.  If memory serves, the boiling/stirring must go on for at least two hours.  The sweet is rather delicious.  There are all kinds for sale, and there are buyers in and out while we are there who purchase big boxes full for parties or weddings.  We are lucky enough to be invited to the back room to watch it being made.

Boiling the halawa.

Boiling and stirring the sloppy goop that will become halawa.

Next, we stroll through the camel souk.  Here we see anything you might need for your camel.  If you’ve ever seen a camel wearing anything, it’s probably for sale right here.  There are blankets, muzzles, ropes, and much more.  I enjoy seeing some of the simple things for sale, like camel shampoo.  When I took the dog to the vet back in the States, I used to see horse shampoo for sale, but I’ve never seen this before.  Naturally, I whip out my trusty old iPhone and snap a photo.  Good instagram, right?

Gotta have that camel shampoo if you have a camel.

Gotta have that camel (and horse) shampoo if you have a camel (or horse).

Finally, we get to the tobacco area.  Here folks can purchase the very strong type of tobacco that is so popular and which a bunch of my students smoke in the bathrooms.  I forget the name of it, but it’s actually no longer legal to grow it in the Emirates, so this stuff we’re seeing is imported from Oman.  The guys here are also selling the slender little pipes that are used to smoke this stuff, and a number of accessories handy for this kind of addiction.  The men have the sort of faces that make great photos.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

In this post, I’m afraid I omit a lot of interesting details about the wide range of merchandise for sale in this bustling market.  There’s so much more than I can write sufficiently about.  I don’t remember what many things are called, and I forget the reasons some of the unusual items are for sale.  There’s pollen for date palms, palm fronds, harnesses of rope for climbing and trimming palm trees, saws for that purpose, dried goods, liquids of all sorts, and on and on and on.  If you’ve been to the souk, you can no doubt think of something striking that I neglect to mention here.

Al Jahili Fort

We took a stroll around Jahili Park here in Al Ain recently and made an effort to get some good photographs.  I think we succeeded, by and large.  Here are some of the images that we like best.

Jahili F1 Jahili F2 JahiliF3

Door

Door detail

JahiliB&W IMG_0496 Entry

So teaching for ADEC does have its benefits.  This is an interesting place and there is a lot to take in.

Stereotypes: Broken.

Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.

A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.

Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites.  We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.

The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.

Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.

Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses.  Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt.  We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.

They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother.  “Even the Always,” Bedad said.

I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”

“You know Always?”  The maxi pads.  Yes.

“He put on his leg,” Medina said.

We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.

At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.

“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.

“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”

“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.

Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”

We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal.  As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”

“Shattered,” I added.

P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.

P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.

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.

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.