Christmas Eve Day at Immigration in Dubai


Like dutiful Joseph and pregnant Mary, we spent Christmas Eve day  in the Middle East fulfilling a government requirement. It cost almost five hundred dollars and we didn’t get it all accomplished, but enough so that we’re still on track. Mostly we accepted the results and had a pretty good time, anyway. The high point of the day was when we left the car in the Immigration parking lot and took a bus to the Dubai Mall, where we hung out in a beautiful bookstore. I bought a book of Handel’s piano music. Even though you can download all that stuff for free on the Internet and print it out, it’s kind of nice to have it all in a book, rather than scattered around on xeroxed pages.

I recently went on a picnic with some Muslim friends, and they asked me how I could possibly believe in three gods. There is but one God, they asserted. Everyone knows that. Common sense demands that. But then I thought about the power of a story that God gave up his only son, and having lost a son myself, I know how hard a sacrifice that would be. And I thought of how recent a faith both Christianity and Islam are. One is two thousand years old and the other fifteen-hundred. There are graves here, near Dubai, in Al Ain, that are eight thousand years old! That’s earlier than the pyramids. Six thousand years before the birth of Christ.

Anyway, just some Christmas musings from the vantage point of Dubai, 100 miles from Iran, about 1,500 miles southeast of the Holy Land. Where camels wander at will over endless stretches of sand and there is no snow, ever, except inside the ski run at the Emirates Mall.

Building the Easy Part First


Dubai thinks of itself as a tourist destination, as well as a trading center, so they’re big on name brands. Right next the outlet mall, just a few miles from our apartment in Silicon Oasis, there’s the beginnings of a Universal Studios theme park. Like lots of things here, it’s merely been sketched out. The surveying lines have been drawn, there’s some lines on a map, and maybe the beginnings of some roads that have been blown over with sand since they were first scratched into the terrain with machinery.

So they’ve got the famous arch from Hollywood, the one that Paramount Studios in Hollywood had, and maybe Universal as well, though in my time in Los Angeles I don’t remember ever seeing a Universal Studios arch. But I can report that they have one here in the Arab Emirates, as well, just waiting for a theme park to sprout in the sand behind it. But there are a lot of half completed construction projects still waiting for the economic slowdown  to speed up, and this one doesn’t seem to be going anywhere too soon. There’s a camel racetrack just down the road a bit that seems to be getting business, and the Outlet Mall next door isn’t doing too badly. But it seems positively spartan compared to the lavish Emirates and Dubai Malls ten miles north.

Camels Here Are Like Bears or Raccoons Back Home


Today I went to the outlet mall, which is a few miles past the last ring road, the last highway that circles the city. We already live about 10 miles south of the center of town, say Dubai Mall, and there’s a lot of desert out here that will be filled in some day, but that day is still fifteen years in the future. As I prepared to leave the outlet mall parking lot, I spied a camel, just poking around in the sand. I later saw he was chewing on cardboard, as he was near the dumpsters out back. Then I realized there were about twenty camels back here, all eating cardbaord. They were raiding the dumpster behind the mall ,the same way bears do in Minnesota and raccoons do farther south.

The camels had a rope tying the front legs together, prohibiting them from running. So I guess that’s all their owners do to reign them in. Otherwise, it’s every camel for himself, and since the roads aren’t fenced,  every driver might want to keep a watch out, as well.

Truly International Cities


Even though most of the capital cities of the world are full of people who speak a variety of languages, and come from a variety of places, I’ve never found a more international city than Dubai. There seems to be no dominant culture. I know there is one, it’s Arabic, and the true citizens of the country are called “Emirati” and are a close-knit group, who practice the Islamic faith and speak Arabic, but they do not feel like the majority here. The Emiriati are easily outnumbered by their many guests.  They are, I estimate, exceeded by a factor of eight to ten times by Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Lebanese, Iranians, English, Americans, Europeans of various types, Arabs from countries other than the UAE, and a few Africans.

There seems to be little crime. Ostentatious displays of wealth abound, which makes Dubai seem more like Beverly Hills than your typical large city. Everything here is organized around the shopping mall. So in that way, it feels like a big city in the Midwest. There is absolutely no pedestrian traffic, for nothing is close enough to walk to. And for four or five months of the year, you wouldn’t want to be foolish enough to try. So despite it’s size and power and impressive display of architecture, Dubai isn’t even the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is, an hour to the southwest.

If you’re like me, you never really get a handle on geography unless you spend some serious time someplace.

The Author Relaxing At Home

The Next Hollywood (insert local reference)


The last two places I’ve lived, Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Dubai, UAE, have both claimed to be “the next Hollywood.” They’ve created commissions, done feasibility studies, and given someone of importance at least a part-time job soliciting film and television production. The local newspapers have dutifully reported the initiatives, and quoted experts saying that it’s only a matter of time that this comes true. But it’s only been a matter of time for a lot of places to become the new Hollywood. There’s no physical reason why film and television production needs to be headquartered there. The sunshine that was important in 1915 for film production hasn’t been necessary for quite a while now. And any kid with a three hundred dollar camera and a laptop can now make a pretty good-looking movie. But mostly they don’t. Mostly they log onto facebook and scroll through what their friends are talking about. Or they play video games.

There are only a coupe of hundred thousand people who make a full-time living in Southern California’s entertainment industry. The decision makers probably only number less than ten thousand. But their is a tremendous value in the networks they have created over time, and the fact remains that those networks of people who own homes and drive cars and support families are more important than the hardware or the occasional pretty face.

So everything seems to change but nothing really changes. If you want to work in movies or television, you buy a one-way ticket on that Greyhound bus to Los Angeles and get off when the driver yells “Hollywood Boulevard!”

On becoming a sand connoisseur


The sand here is so fine it’s like rouge, like dust. The wind sculpts it very easily into beautiful shapes and it’s possible to find dunes that have no been ruined by tire tracks, though they’re outnumbered by those that have. There’s not a lot for kidsDSC08547 to do around here, and it seems that there are no shortage of land rovers, land cruisers, jeeps and other four wheel drive vehicles. In fact, I feel like I’m the only person in town without one. I have a little Peugeot that got stuck in five inches of sand the first time I tried to veer off the road. Fortunately, it was light enough to push it back onto the pavement. I’ve bored all my Facebook friends with too many pictures of sand, but I can’t stop taking them. In Thailand, I took pictures of vegetation, but here it’s sand

Thailand and Dubai – Polar Opposites.


I cannot imagine two more different places.

Thailand is inexpensive. It is three to five times more inexpensive than the States. Dubai is easily as expensive as the States, and in some ways, mainly housing and food, more so.

In the Middle East, gas is cheap, so people drive big cars. SUV’s are quite common, as are four wheel drive land rovers, jeeps, muscle cars and luxury sports cars. In Thailand, gas is expensive, and the poor cannot afford cars. Even if they become wealthy enough to buy one, they still don’t properly learn how to drive, but rather get a license and begin the process ad hoc. In Dubai, on the other hand, a drivers license in difficult to obtain without expensive and lengthy training and testing.

In Dubai, people drive fast and honk if you displease them. Even after the moment of danger has passed, they will honk to chastise you, to make sure you learned your lesson. In Thailand, almost nobody honks, ever, for it would display your lack of serenity. Since no one in Thailand really knows how to drive, or what the rules of the road are, they conceive of driving as a group process. Like extremely elderly drivers in the States, Thai drivers slowly drift in an out of traffic, expecting and hoping that those behind them will look out for them.

An aside: in Viet Nam, Thailand’s neighbor the Northeast, everyone honks his horn every two seconds. I rented a motorcycle, and the guy showed me where to insert the key and where the horn was. Otherwise, they drive like Thais, as a big group experiment, like fish in a school.

Women who appear in public here in Dubai are often completely covered, leaving only their eyes visible through a little rectangle cut in the fabric. Some don’t even have that, and peer through somewhat sheer black cloth. There are separate sections on the bus and metro for women only. Due to the large number of Indian men who are in Dubai without their families, men outnumber women in public by five to one.

In Thailand, men are almost invisible. Women are everywhere, shopping, selling, sitting behind desks and counters in offices. I don’t know where they men are. This is especially true after the age of fifty. There are almost no men over fifty visible anywhere. My hunch is they’re all back home in the village, taking care of their grandchildren.

 

 

 

The world’s largest rug in a very large mosque


It’s the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Ermiate just down the road from Dubai. It’s an hour and a half bus ride, but it’s worth it to see the Mosque. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the rug in the main prayer hall:  “The carpet in the main prayer hall is considered to be the world’s largest carpet made by Iran’s Carpet Company and designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi.[2] This carpet measures 5,627 m2 (60,570 sq ft), and was made by around 1,200-1,300 carpet knotters. The weight of this carpet is 35 ton and is predominantly made from wool (originating from New Zealand and Iran). There are 2,268,000,000 knots within the carpet and it took approximately two years to complete.”

There’s a whole lot of nothing between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  Scrubby desert that’s as flat as a pancake. I hear there are some scenic desert areas, but I haven’t seen them yet. And then you come across the Wizard of Oz stretch of buildings longer than Michigan Avenue in Chicago, but at night, they’re all lit up in the most psychedelic ways…it’s really something.

Sure, not all the architecture here fits my taste, but it is pretty amazing what they’ve managed to do in a short amount of time. And oil wealth is only part of it. There are plenty of countries that have oil wealth who have done nothing but squander it. Nigeria, Venezuala. The Arab Emiriates used their oil wealth as a leg up to do what they wanted to do, which was to create a nation that invites outside investment. It seems to be working.

But this mosque is one of the most amazing structures on the planet.

Followed by Fast Food


In Oskaloosa, when I lived alone I ate all my meals at Hardee’s or Hy Vee. Needless to say, I was overweight, wheezed with the slightest exertion and waddled down the aisles of Wal-Mart like everyone else town. Since leaving, I’ve eaten more sensibly and greatly increased my level of exercise, mainly through swimming. Today I went to the food court at the local mall and found that my friends at Hardees are still trying to kill me. They’ve come halfway across the world to do so (grandiosity? Paranoia?) Can Hy Vee be far behind?