I haven’t figured out how to post more than one picture on this blog, but if you want to see more pictures of sand formations, check out my Facebook postings. This one that I took today looks like an enormous breast. It’s about twelve feet high, and sits in front of a construction site where they’re building yet another apartment complex that will sit empty for God-knows-how-long, competing with all the other buildings that have been sitting empty for the last three years. But what an amazing subject for photography. After a year in Thailand, where everything was green this is quite a switch. I’m surrounded by sand, and the wind does the sculpting.
Rough Country Indeed
In addition to beautiful red sand dunes, there are really rough, completely bare, scary-looking mountains along the border with Oman and along the UAE coast near Fujairah. Those mountains also extend northeast to Muscat, Oman. I have never seen more desolate country, except in Nevada. Even in New Mexico the hills have some sort of vegetation on them, but here it looks like photos sent back from the Mars rover.
This picture was taken on Christmas Day (not a holiday here) just after some pretty substantial rains, hence the spot of greenery in the foreground. I’ve noticed some green fuzz along the roadside sand as well. I imagine that will turn into dust within a few weeks.
Speaking of dust, the sand here has the consistency of dust. It’s so old it has been ground fine. If they need sand for filtering, they have to import coarse sand. I talked to somebody who used to work at a water-treatment plant in Egypt, and he said they imported sand for that purpose from Muscatine, Iowa!
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.
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.
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 kids 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. 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.
English as a Second Language (or third, or fourth)
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.
A Damper on Discourse
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.
My last week in International City
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.