I didn’t know that ever happened. The roof of our apartment building began to leak immediately, and we’re on the top floor, so now the kitchen is full of water. I suppose this happens so rarely that it isn’t worth worrying about. There are no storm drains alongside roads, so they may hold water, and I doubt if the local drivers have a lot of experience with driving in water, so maybe accidents increase. When I moved to San Francisco in January of 1976 it snowed. The whole city shut down. Nobody knew what to do with snow. It melted by the afternoon and never happened again during the twelve years I lived there.
We just spent a year in Thailand, and even though I tried my best to learn Thai in three months of lessons, not much stuck. I spoke more Spanish after two weeks of lessons than I did Thai after twelve. And not many Thais speak English. It’s really hard for them, and their schools are less than rigorous, so English speakers just expect not to be able to talk to Thais about much more than how much something costs.
Here, in Dubai, everybody thinks they speak English, but most of them do so with a variety of accents that are so thick that they might as well be speaking Icelandic or Maori. I’ve never seen such a polyglot crowd as the populace of this place. I was going to use the word “cosmopolitan” but then I realized that wasn’t really the right word, for it implies sophistication. Never have I seen such a melting pot of races and tongues, and the only common language they have is English, though to the casual, untrained ear you’d never know it. I don’t feel I can smirk or feel superior, as I have limited command of two other languages besides English, and knowing any foreign language at all makes me a veritable oddity in my country. Where I come from if you talk English, you’re normal, and any other language is for weirdos, who are probably just putting on airs. We secretly believe if you wake them up in the middle of the night and ask them a question, they’ll forget their posing and talk normal.
Both of the countries which I have recently called “home” have policies that sharply limit the personal expression of ideas. Recently, the UAE passed a law making it a crime to use the Internet to criticize its rulers or institutions. See the following link http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20317803
In Thailand, you can be jailed for years for on the mere accusation of having insulted the King! After a few years they might let you out if they determined that you didn’t really insult the crown, but just lacked reverence. Needless to say, opposing political parties routinely accuse each other of such offenses, and the backlog of these lese majeste cases is clogging the courts.
What are the rulers afraid of? Are they that thin-skinned? Well, yes and no. The UAE is an area of relative calm and stability, in a part of the world where revolution can seemingly come out of nowhere one day and burn the whole place down the next. So despite their current liberal atmosphere, they want the legal framework in place to stop what happened in Egypt, Libya and Syria from happening here.
Thailand is another case, altogether. This intense devotion to the Royal Family only developed after World War II. There was historical precedence, sure, but nothing like what’s going on now. So I don’t have an answer other than it seems a form of super-patriotism mingled with religious fervor.
To this observer, the strangest aspect in all of this is that the current rulers of Dubai and Thailand are enlightened leaders. They’re great guys, forward thinking, talented, magnanimous. The King of Thailand jammed with Benny Goodman. Sheik Mohammad of Dubai has helped craft a country that doesn’t rely so much on oil wealth as it does on the principles of unfettered market capitalism.
But these policies regarding public discourse make it almost impossible for anyone to take the risk to talk about these things, for fear of imprisonment or deportation.
The only reason I’m sticking my neck out is because I’m hardly saying anything revolutionary or novel here. I’m just trying to describe these places to the folks back home.
I’ve been walking to school for fifty-six years. I started the process in 1956, when I walked to kindergarten in Flossmoor, Illinois. Then I walked to school in Philadelphia, South Dakota, St. Louis, rode a bike to school in Columbia, Missouri and Iowa City, Iowa, took a break from school for ten years in San Francisco, but then the school addiction kicked in again, this time as a teacher, and I rode a motorcycle to San Francisco State, went back to Iowa for the longest stretch of all, then on to Thailand, and now Dubai. For somebody who keeps posting rants against education, I sure have spent a lot of time in school.
My latest walk to school is quite different than the others I’ve enjoyed. Here, on the edge of the city, it’s pure desert. Our apartment building is right across from the school. There’s nothing else out here. Most of the apartment buildings are empty, though some have been completed for years.
There’s a stray cat that lives in some refuse that’s settled along the outer wall of our building. It seems comfortably housed and I suppose it somehow gets enough to eat and drink. I said “hello” to it this morning and it meowed back.
The discovery of oil and gas in the mid-sixties certainly jump-started the United Arab Emirates, but petroleum isn’t the only explanation for why Dubai has become the world’s fastest-growing city. It’s the attitude towards business. The free zone concept began back in the seventies, and the lack of taxation and restriction on trade did what none of the protectionist policies of most nascent economies could. It gave investors of all kinds confidence.
So every time I’m tempted to criticize this place for being the Las Vegas or Atlantic City of the Middle East, I have to remember that forty years ago THERE WAS NOTHING HERE! What Dubai lacks in charm it gains in possibility. I’ll be lucky to be around in twenty-five years, but Dubai certainly will, and it will be two or three times the size it is now!
We’ve already rented an apartment across from the Academic City. But they won’t turn the power on. We’ve paid everything, but it’s a Middle Eastern thing, a glitch that everyone warned me about, that nothing really works the way you think it should so just accept and do your best to relax. So we’re paying thirty dollars a day for an apartment we can’t occupy, but then we’re being housed for free in International City. This place is a Fellini set if ever there was one. Remember the housing projects outside of Rome where Giuletta Massina lived in The Nights of Cabiria? That opening scene where her “boyfriend” steals her purse and shoves her into the river to drown? That’s what this place is like. It’s full of lonely Indian men and a very few women and children. It’s not nice, it’s not horrible, it just is what it is. Since I haven’t figured out how to put multiple pictures in this blog, I’m just going to attach one last photo of this place which I think epitomizes the vibe, which, as I said, is surreal, melancholy, haunting, Fellini-esque.
This is a remarkably “can do” kind of place. In forty years Dubai has managed to house an international populace embracing over 200 nationalities, the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest golf course, and me. Yes, I’m Dubai’s latest attraction, having just spent the last year in Thailand.
In Thailand, I was amazed to see want ads that read “Attractive, slim 25-year-old female sought for office manager position.” Routinely, university teaching positions were only open to people under the age of fifty-five. But Dubai has taken racism, sexism and ageism to new heights. Here you can’t even rent an apartment if you’re the wrong race, gender or religion.
Emirati’s, the Arabs who are actually from Dubai, run the place. Filipinos, Pakistanis and Indians do most of the service work for them. There is a tight-knit fraternity of Indian multi-millionaires who are important to the UAE economy, but the real power in this country is held by Emirati’s.
Recently, the government admitted that twenty percent of the young Emirati’s applying for marriage licenses were planning to marry their first cousins! As Sly and the Family Stone sang, “It’s a family affair.”
News articles omit actually naming the individuals concerned, but instead report their ethnicity. Last week I read “Two Tunisian men were sentenced to three years in prison each for taunting an Emirati policeman who was taking a shower on the beach. They accused him of being gay and cursed God.”
It’s five in the morning and I hear the call for prayer outside my window. I’ve gotten used to it, sort of, the way I got used to the Buddhist monks chanting over loudspeakers from the nearby temple in Thailand or Burma. In Mexico I had to get used to church bells. It still amazes me that people in most parts of the world don’t think anyone has an aural right to privacy. And in most places, there is a state religion. It wouldn’t occur to them that it shouldn’t be so. Only in America do we assume that religion should be a matter of choice. We do, however, not tax religions, which, in effect, is a direct subsidy. I’m content to keep my opinions to myself on that one. I wish others would keep their religious chanting to themselves or at least stay away from microphones and loudspeakers when they do it.
In the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve probably run into twenty different nationalities. Russians, Indians, Filipinos and Arabs mostly, but not all Arabs are from the same place, and Iranians aren’t Arabs, and there’s just a big world out there that we don’t see represented in the same numbers back in the Midwest. Thailand was full of expatriates too, but most of them weren’t there trying to make a living. You get the idea that most people here are trying to get ahead financially. That’s why they’re here in the first place. It’s not cheap to live here, and although massage and prostitution exist, they’re not affordable by geezers on a pension. So it’s a different scene entirely than I’m used to. In my travel experience, I’ve never run into anything quite like this. Nicaragua is mostly full of Nicaraguans, and Argentina, Argentinians. But foreigners outnumber Arabs here 11 to 1.
And I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know what people did here before they discovered oil and were able to afford air conditioning, but for this recent immigrant, having come from a year in Thailand, which was plenty hot, it’s impossible to imagine life here without air conditioned cars and buildings. The desert is vast, and at least from my perspective, flat as a pancake. I understand there are some places a few hours away that feature hills, but I won’t be able to find them until I buy a car. Fortunately, cars and gas are cheap. Most of the locals drive around in very large, brand new SUV’s. People drive fast here. The rich Emerati young men drive muscle cars. Nobody’s worried about being “green.” They sell bicycles in some shops, but I don’t know how you’d use one here. You’d be killed if you took it onto a major road. Half the year it’s too hot to even imagine riding a considerable distance on a bicycle. And nobody walks.