Given all the negative press that Dubai has been getting in the US in recent days because of the bungled US ports deal, I thought I’d put together a video montage of some of the scenes I shot in Dubai last May. No matter what people think about having a UAE company involved in US ports, it doesn’t change the fact that Dubai is a wonderful, friendly and safe place for Americans, which I hope I capture in the footage.
February 22, 2006
June 1, 2005
An abra water taxi crosses the Creek by the dhow wharf
As the sun dropped low in the horizon, I caught another taxi to Bur Dubai, getting out at the Dubai Fort and Museum. Until the sun actually set, it would remain scorching hot, around 40 degrees celsius, so I thought the museum would be a good place to seek shelter for awhile. I’d visited the museum two years ago and had enjoyed its history of Dubai’s development. The exhibits were just as impressive, but the large number of visitors, particularly a gabby group of Emirates flight attendants, detracted somewhat from the experience.
Leaving the museum just before 6pm, I wandered Bur Dubai’s grand souk, marveling at the golden sunlight striking the recently restored wind towers in the Bastakia district. The textile shops, which had closed for afternoon siesta, were now back in full swing, displaying huge bolts of cloth outside each window. Two cats snoozed in the shade; I went over and took a picture of them, but a few moments later one of the cats jumped up and bit the other one in a sudden rage. Apparently this souk wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
Recalling that I’d seen a creek-side restaurant while taking an abra water taxi with Ivar Tallo two nights earlier, I began to explore the souk trying to find it. Just before reaching the water taxi terminal, I found the restaurant, the Bayt al Wakeel; it served Thai and Lebanese dishes and had a gorgeous view of the Creek. The hostess said I wouldn’t have to reserve a table as long as I got back before 9pm, so I took her card and headed to the water taxi.
Selling sea salt in the spice souk
Handing the driver a half dirham coin, I settled into the abra for another ride across the Creek. The sun to the west was quite blinding, and caused a fantastic shimmering effect in the water around the dhow wharf. Exiting the abra, I entered the spice souk, in search of an incense burner. Last time I was here I’d bought some frankincense and coal, without realizing you needed a special heat-resistant incense burner to hold both of them. Nearly every shop had them, in every imaginable shape and size; I wanted one that was small enough to slip into my luggage without noticing its bulk.
After perusing a few shops, I visited one store that had a nice selection of incense burners and spices. Realizing that I didn’t know where my frankincense was back in our apartment, I decided to buy another small box of it, along with some coal chips, an incense burner and a jar of mixed peppercorns. The shop owner asked for 45 dirhams for the lot; I managed to talk him down to 30 dirhams, just under nine dollars.
I wandered through the souk heading northwest towards the far end of the Deira district, where I’d remembered there was a public library offering cheap Internet access. I soon found the library, right on the waterfront. For less than a dollar an hour, tourists could use the Internet, while UAE residents could do it for free. I only needed to use it for around 30 minutes, but at such a cheap rate, I couldn’t care less about paying for the full hour.
From the library, I headed east through Deira until reaching Heritage House. This turn-of-the-century house has been restored meticulously to its original condition, giving visitors a chance to see what life in old Dubai was like. I wandered its rooms, seeing displays about where residents would host guests, cook and sleep; there was also a room dedicated to traditional children’s games, with a video demonstrating how the games were played. One game featured a group of boys spinning a wooden top by wrapping it onto a leather whip and flinging it to the ground; as the top spun, they’d whip it again and again, hoping to keep the top spinning until it could cross their designated finish line.
A group of men hang out near the gold souk
Leaving Heritage House, I next visited the gold souk one last time. As always, it was packed with shoppers. Some stores seemed to serve east African clientele exclusively; others, the shoppers were Indian, Arab or western. Just for fun I poked my head into several shops, wondering if I could actually afford anything; after a bit of browsing and some moderate haggling, I found a delicate gold necklace and matching bracelet, which I bought as a surprise gift for Susanne.
It was now approaching 8pm; I ambled through the souks until reaching the water taxi. The sunset call to prayer was just wrapping up, and the sky was alight with bursts of orange and red, the colors unusually rich from the amount of sand particles in the air. An abra took me back to the Bur Dubai side of the Creek, using my last half dirham coin. I then walked a few blocks through the souk until reaching the restaurant, which still managed to have a few water-side tables available.
I settled in at my table, attaching my camera to my mini-tripod so I could take pictures of water taxis in the Creek. I ordered a plate of hummus and a shish tawuk platter – grilled chicken kabobs – with a bottle of water and Diet Pepsi to wash it all down.
At one point the waiter, a young Arab man, asked where I was from. When I said the US, he laughed and shook his head.
“The US… Your government…. It is such a problem now…. I am Syrian and I want to study there but I cannot go because of relations between our countries. It is very bad; I really want to go and be creative.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said sympathetically. “Hopefully things will get better sooner rather than later.”
A waiter serves guests at the Bayt Al Wakheel restaurant
After feasting on my chicken kabobs and chickpea puree, the waiter asked if I wanted any coffee. Explaining to him that I had to fly home that night and didn’t want any caffeine, he offered to give me a pot of herbal mint tea. I also ordered one last shisha — apple, of course — which arrived with the tea a few minutes later. The mint leaves needed to steep for at least 15 minutes, so I peacefully puffed my shisha, hypnotized by the ebb and flow of abras traveling along the creek. The restaurant’s view was simply magnificent — probably the only restaurant with a view of the abras’ transit lanes. At one point, I counted no less than a dozen abras, each full of people, making their way across the Creek.
Before I could finish my pot of tea or my shisha, the waiter returned and refilled both of them. “What time is your flight?” he asked.
“It’s at 1am,” I replied.
“Plenty of time to relax,” he said, smiling.
“Well, maybe another hour,” I said.
Indeed, I managed to squeeze another hour before getting restless about heading to the airport. Meanwhile, a cameraman from the BBC’s Asia Business Report was there shooting B-roll for an upcoming episode about business in Dubai. He took a few shots of me puffing my shisha and checking email on my phone; I wonder if I’ll ever find out if the footage made it on air.
By 10pm, it was time to go; I needed to be at the airport by 11am to avoid the crowds, so I paid the bill, polished off my tea and gave the shisha a final puff. Wandering the back streets of the souk in search of a taxi, the late evening call to prayer rang out in all directions. A taxi soon stopped and offered me a ride, but I waved it onward. I could wait a few minutes longer.
May 30, 2005
An art piece made out of rows of laundry hangs outside the Sharjah Art Museum
After wrapping up the conference, I had some time that afternoon to explore one last time before heading to the airport around 10pm that night for my flight back to Boston. Since I’d spent a lot of time in Dubai itself, I decided to catch a taxi to Sharjah, the emirate adjacent to Dubai, to visit the Sharjah Art Museum. The museum was playing host to the Sharjah Biennial, the Arabian Gulf’s premier modern art show. I’d read about it in several magazines in Dubai, so it sounded like an interesting change of pace from what I’d seen so far.
The taxi driver let out an audible groan when I told him I wanted to go to Sharjah. “Should I get out?” I asked him, when it seemed he disapproved of relatively long trip, but he muttered a string of No Problem’s and kept driving. The distance to Sharjah is only 10 kilometers, but the traffic can be very bad, apparently. Today, though, it was manageable; we drove along the highway and managed to get there in about 30 minutes.
If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed Sharjah was an extension of Dubai. But once the taxi driver dropped me off, I realized otherwise. For one thing, it seemed hotter here – there was less shade than you could find in Dubai. The buildings and streets weren’t as clean, either; though Sharjah was the dominant emirate in the early 1800s, it has since fallen on lean times, unable to strike oil with similar success to that of Abu Dhabi or even Dubai. I also noticed that all the women were covered in head to toe wearing black abayas, without any exception. And as I walked along, I didn’t see any other tourists.
The taxi had dropped me off by a market along the corniche. I thought I had a rough idea of where I was, but as I tried to navigate using the map in my Lonely Planet book, I realized the scale was much larger than I’d thought. No matter which direction I walked, I didn’t seem to make any progress on the map, so I pulled over at a hotel and asked for directions. The concierge gave me a fold-out map that captured the details of Sharjah’s streets — including the scale — much better than Lonely Planet did. I then realized I would have a lot of walking to do; the sights here were spread out over large distances. But I still had some water left in my bottle, so I decided to walk and see how I could handle the heat.
Emerati women wearing abayas inside the art museum
Following the traffic back towards the corniche, I spotted a long building with traditional wind towers at the front; across the road sat an art gallery. I’d found the art museum without getting too lost. Inside, a trio of women in black abayas ran the information desk; one of them gave me a map of the museum and asked me to sign the guest book. I then began walking down the first corridor, a long hallway with arches inspired by mosque architecture. Each artist featured in the Biennial had his or her own room. For those whose work wasn’t dynamic — such as paintings or photographs — their work would be displayed in a wide room offset from the corridor. For other artists whose work was dynamic — particularly those using video — you would first have to walk down a claustrophobic side alley before reaching a dark, intimate room showcasing their work.
One of the first artists I encountered was Tim Lee from Singapore. His piece utilized two flat panel TV screens. On one screen there was a video loop of the artist lying face down on the floor; on the other screen, a video loop of him lying face up. In both videos, he remained totally motionless; at first I thought they were still images, but every now and then you could detect slight movement in his hands or feet. Accompanying the videos was a loop of Public Enemy’s rap classic, “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Off to the side of the piece, a placard described the work as “an attempt to marry the avant-gardes of the social and artistic.” The placard concluded with a line that made me laugh out loud:
“Lee’s work can be interpreted as completely meaningless, or quite the opposite.”
This very sentence encapsulated my impression of the entire exhibit. Wandering through each floor, some pieces struck me as quite pointless, while others successfully captured the artist’s humor, angst or politics. Many of the works appeared to be related to the Palestinian conflict. One piece featured a note scrawled on the wall by an artist who had managed to convince Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting for a few days so they could host an art show in the West Bank. Another piece, entitled “Ramallah/New York,” featured two video loops of Palestinians running small businesses, one in Palestine, the other in the US. Whether it was of a hair salon, an import-export business, or something else, the mundane, everyday images from the videos made it quite impossible to tell which video took place in New York or in Palestine. There were also several pieces about globalization, featuring photos and paintings of the UAE over the decades, with various skylines crowded by cranes and construction equipment.
A wall of media representing TV programming during the Iraq War
Some of the most interesting pieces related to the Iraq war. One piece, created by Chris Keinke and Tarek Al Ghoussein, featured a display of 1500 still images of TV programs captured during the war. Many of the pictures were directly related to the war, including images of George W. Bush and wounded civilians; other pictures captured random TV programming such as cartoons and variety shows, juxtaposing pop culture with the cruelty of war.
Another work, Christoph Buchel and Giovanni Carmine’s PSYOP, critiqued the US military’s propaganda leaflet campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the most creative work of the show, PSYOP was a room set up as a small classroom. On each desk were random paper copies of leaflets distributed by airdrop to Iraqis and Afghans. The teacher’s desk featured more leaflets, file folders and what appeared to be ungraded homework. In the upper right corner of the room, a television played a 1979 instructional video from the US Department of Defense about the art of propaganda leaflet design. And to the back of the room, a large file cabinet overflowed with cardboard boxes of leaflets, thousands of them, along with books by the artists containing copies of the leaflets. A small sign in the room encouraged visitors to help themselves to copies of the materials; I put some of the leaflets inside one of the books as a souvenir.
I spent the next hour or so exploring the museum. The quality of the art varied, but it was all quite interesting. On one wall I even found a framed handwritten letter with an intriguing note:
It seems that, within the next six weeks, I would be able to show publicly (in some other place) a body of work by one of the students from the Sharjah College of Fine Arts, in the United Arab Emirates, which, apparently, is not suitable for being exhibited here.
Leaving the museum, I walked several blocks west to Sharjah’s fort. The fort, reminiscent of Dubai Fort, was one of the oldest structures in the city, but the high-rise apartments surrounding in detracted from it. I also strolled through the Sharjah Heritage Area, several square blocks of old buildings restored to their original condition. It was reminiscent of walking through a deserted North African medina; the lack of people there made it feel like a ghost town.
After buying a bottle of water at a shop, I continued westward to the vegetable souk, a covered market featuring various produce from the region, particularly the local dates. The date sellers all made their best attempt to sell me two or three kilos of the syrupy sweet fruit, but I smiled and declined.
A man strolls through Sharjah’s Heritage Area
On the far end of the souk, I found the long distance taxi stand, which my Lonely Planet book said was the place to get a taxi back to Dubai. To my horror, though, I found out that this place was actually the taxi stand for rides to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain; the Dubai taxi stand was at Rolla Square, clear across the other side of town where I’d started in the first place. I asked the taxi drivers if any of them would take me there, but they all declined, again reminding me the taxis were for Abu Dhabi and Al Ain only. Silly me.
Now breaking out into a continuous sweat, I backtracked through the city, trying to find whatever shade along the way, until I reached Rolla Square 30 minutes later. Several large minibuses sat along the northern edge of the square; one of them departed as soon as I arrived. I asked an attendant about going to Dubai; he directed me to a ticket booth under a tree in the middle of the square. I bought a ticket for five dirhams (about $1.50) then returned to the remaining minibus. It was already filling up with passengers. I grabbed a seat near the front and waited a few minutes as the last seats filled up; some male passengers had to be shuffled around to accommodate a couple of women passengers, who aren’t aloud to sit next to male strangers.
We then got under way, taking a route back to Dubai that was different than the one I’d used to get there a couple hours earlier. We passed through a very developed part of Sharjah, with brand-new high rises hugging a large bay. It was oddly reminiscent of Miami. About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the Bur Dubai bus station, where I had to walk a few blocks to catch a taxi back to the hotel, where I packed my bags, checked out, and plotted what to do with my dwindling hours in Dubai.
Two African women walk along the ridge of giant sand dune
Once conference activities had wrapped up on Monday afternoon, I returned to the hotel for a quick swim before meeting Shauneen Furlong for an evening ride into the desert. The pool, adjacent to the hotel on the roof of the parking garage, offered a fine view of the post-modern skyline along Sheikh Zayed Road. The ironies of Dubai were in full force as the afternoon call to prayer sounded in the distance while Eminem’s “Without Me” played on the poolside PA system; it was very odd hearing the opening Allahu Akbars of the prayer while the rapper lamented how the Federal Communications Commission won’t let him be. In some Muslim countries I’ve visited, they turn down the music when the muezzin offers the call to prayer; here, though, I could have sworn they actually turned the music louder.
Downstairs in the lobby, I met Shauneen just before 4:30pm. Our ride was waiting for us; the driver and three passengers sat inside the Toyota Land Cruiser, with the door open for us to slide in the back seat. The three passengers were teammates on the Kuwait national basketball team, including a Kuwaiti national named Sami and two Americans, one of whom was named Jameel.
We left the hotel and drove south on the highway; soon we were out of Dubai and somewhere in the emirate of Abu Dhabi – it’s hard to drive anywhere in the UAE without going into Abu Dhabi at some point, given the fact it takes up around 85% of the country’s land mass. Somewhere along the highway the driver pulled over for gas and let us get out to buy snacks at, of all things, a roadside Dunkin Donuts. As we got out of the car, I realized that Jameel was enormous – probably close to 6′ 10″. He looked over at me and shook his head.
“Uh oh,” he said. “A Red Sox fan.” I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I was wearing a Sox t-shirt.
“Let me guess,” I replied. “New York?”
“Brooklyn born and bred,” he said.
My dune companions: Jameel is the tall one; Shauneen is on the right
We got back in the car and drove another 45 minutes, until we reached a highway outpost somewhere southwest of the oasis of Al Ain. The driver informed us this would be our last chance to buy food or water until dinner time, so I got out and picked up another bottle of water and a snack bar made of cashews and dried fruit. Meanwhile, one of Jameel’s teammates grabbed a stack of hats that were on the shelf of the store, several of which displayed the label Georgetown Hoyas.
“Check this out, Jameel,” he said.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Jameel replied.
Suddenly I had a moment of recognition. “Did you play for the Hoyas not too long ago?” I asked.
“Yep, ’96 to 2000,” Jameel said proudly.
“No wonder you looked familiar,” I replied. “I bet I saw you play while I was living in DC.”
(Later that night, I did some poking around on the Georgetown website and found him – Jameel Watkins, drafted by the Houston Rockets prior to moving into the international pro basketball circuit.)
While the others finished buying their supplies, I snacked on my fruit-nut bar and stared across the road at a giant sand dune. It must have reached 250 feet high, certainly the highest sand dune I’d ever seen. I wondered how far out into the desert we’d get on this trek of ours.
I soon found out. Back in the Land Cruiser, we joined two Land Rovers from another tour agency and drove behind the outpost. Suddenly I could see nothing but sand dunes, and no road for us to take. But that didn’t matter; the caravan of 4X4s drove straight up the dunes, gunning the pedal as soon as we hit your sand. “Check your seat belt,” the driver yelled back to us.
Arabian sand dunes
Before I knew it, we were careening up and down the dunes at frightful speeds. Not wanting to go in a straight line, the driver banked hard to the right along the edge of a dune; the car dipped 45 degrees to the side, feeling like it would tip over at any moment. He gunned the gas again, causing a gale of sand to whip up behind us. We plunged down the other side of the dune, dropping 200 feet in a matter of seconds; my windpipe caught my stomach and grasped it with all its might before I could cough it up all over the ceiling.
Everyone in the car, except the driver, let out a series of involuntary grunts, whoops and guttural noises as the 4X4 banked along the dunes like a roller coaster that shifted randomly with each turn. I soon began to regret that snack bar I’d just eaten; I had no idea that we’d be going on a ride like this. You could actually feel the g-forces as we careened at gravity-defying angles, spraying sand and plummeting between the dunes. Even though I felt awful from the ride, I kept telling myself to enjoy every minute of it. I mean, how often do I get the chance to race through the Arabian desert with a former NBA player?
As we darted through the endless dunes, I did my best to take pictures and some video clips. I had to be careful about pressing the lens against the window; sometimes we’d plummet down an embankment, causing an enormous thud that would easily shatter my camera if it were too close to the glass. Looking behind at the Range Rovers following us, I was shocked at the gravity-defying angles the vehicles took while shooting up and down the dunes. What on earth were their drivers thinking? I then realized they were simply following our tracks — our vehicle was doing the exact same thing; I just hadn’t realized how utterly reckless it all was.
Eventually, the car spun to a halt, parking on the side of a dune. We got out and enjoyed the tremendous view of the desert, not to mention the stable, unmoving sand below us. Jameel and his buddies took a crack at sandboarding, riding a snowboard down the side of the dune; I held my breath and prayed I didn’t throw up on the Indian tourists that had just gotten out of one of the Range Rovers.
Our driver checks in with the tour agency from the dunes
Jameel and Sami were really getting into the sandboarding; the driver offered to take them up to the top of the tallest dune, towering nearly 300 feet just behind us. We watched with amazement as the 4X4 flew up the edge of the dune, skidding out and grinding to a halt at the very top. Sami then jumped on the board and surfed downward, plummeting around 150 feet before rolling over. He seemed to really enjoy the ride, but now he had to walk all the way up to get back to the car. Meanwhile, I pulled out my iPod and recorded a brief podcast — perhaps the first from the Empty Quarter, I wondered.
Soon, the car returned and we climbed inside; the driver retraced our path until we reached the highway again. We then turned north and heading towards a “Bedouin camp” set up for tourists to have an evening barbeque. Along the way we passed several itinerant camels strolling down the road; the driver said they were wild camels.
The caravan pulled off the highway and followed a wire fence back into desert, reaching the camp about five minutes later. The camp was a large courtyard with several divans set up inside, each seating around 20 people on pillows along the perimeter. To the left there was a small fleet of all-terrain vehicles waiting for riders willing to pay an extra fee (they weren’t included in the tour price); to the right, a man in Bedouin dress stood by with three camels, waiting to give tourists a ride.
Jameel and his friends went straight for the ATVs; Shauneen and I made a beeline to the camels. The camel driver lowered the animals and let us climb onto their backs. We each got our own camel, sitting in the second seat position of the saddle. Unlike every camel I’d met previously, these camels were very sweet; they let you scratch their heads and rub their necks, and actually seemed to enjoy it.
Andy bonds with his camel
The camel driver gave the camels a bit of a whack, and all three of them stood up. I’ve ridden camels three times in my life, and each time I’m surprised just how high off the ground you get while riding on their backs. It’s really quite an extraordinary experience. And compared to my previous camel rides, this one was quite comfortable; the saddle was wide and well padded, hugging your legs as the camel took each step.
The driver directed the camels over a sand dune to get us a little way from the camp; Jameel soon skidded by on an ATV. The rider-less camel strode along side mine, leaning in close so I could scratch the back of its head as we rode. It was a marvelous, relaxing experience.
By the time we got off the camels, there was a line of a dozen or so tourists from India and Singapore waiting for a ride. Interestingly, with each successive group of passengers, the rides got shorter, and the camel driver more irritated. By the time Jameel and his teammates got on the camels, the rides were lasting no more than 30 seconds, in a tight circle. I was really glad we got to ride them when we did; otherwise I would have thought we wouldn’t have gotten our money’s worth.
We went into the camp’s courtyard and helped ourselves to some tea and dates; I then grabbed a beer at the bar to help cool down, since the water they served tasted like burnt plastic. One of the staff offered us shishas, so Shauneen and I split one as we waited for dinner.
The belly-dancer-in-residence teaches some of her moves
About 30 minutes later, we were invited to the buffet, which included half a dozen types of pilaf, several kabobs, hummus, baba ganouj, pasta and lentil curry. It wasn’t the best food I’d had in the UAE, but it wasn’t bad either. After dinner, we were treated to a belly dancing show. The dancer was actually quite good, though she spent too much of her routine trying to recruit tourists to learn how to belly dance. Shauneen was actually a good sport about it; she got on stage and belly danced like a pro; I stuck to my camera and pretended not to hear the belly dancer when she asked me if I wanted to take a crack at it.
At 9pm, the dance ended rather abruptly; the tour staff were clearly on the clock, so it was time to drive back to Dubai. For the next 90 minutes, we drove northeast along the highway. For one stretch of the trip, the driver kept swerving perilously close to one of the Range Rovers while thumbing his mobile phone at the same time. Eventually he rolled down the window and drove within inches the other vehicle, sticking his phone out the window. I suddenly realized what he was doing.
“Bluetooth?” I asked.
“Yes, good pictures,” he replied, apparently of the mind that a driver had the right to swap camera phone photos wirelessly with other drivers while speeding down the highway. Fortunately, a few sharp “slow down!” requests from Jameel caused the driver to mellow out.
Just after 10:30, we got back to the hotel. I noticed I left a trail of sand behind me as we walked towards the elevator.
May 23, 2005
Here’s a small collection of photos I took a few nights ago at the Burj al-Arab Hotel here in Dubai. Click on any of them to see a larger version. -andy
The hotel lobby
A vertical panorama of the Burj’s atrium – the highest hotel atrium in the world
A woman sits by the mezzanine water fountain
High-angle view of the hotel from the entrance.
The Jumeirah Beach Club, as seen from the Burj al-Arab
The Burj as seen from its ocean causeway
Wind towers in Dubai’s Bastakia district
After Sunday’s conference sessions, I returned to the hotel around 4pm, spending about an hour at the pool with Ivar Tallo of Estonia. Currently the director of the Estonian E-Governance Academy, Ivar is a former member of parliament and foreign policy advisor to the president; he told some great stories of traveling with the Estonian president to meet with Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin to negotiate the withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonia in the early 90s.
Around 6:30pm, Ivar and I caught a taxi to spend the evening in old Dubai. Traffic was horrendous; the usually 15-minute drive took more than 45 minutes, so the sun had set by the time we neared the creek. There was so much traffic we eventually abandoned the taxi and walked the remaining blocks to the creek. This turned out to be a good decision, since Ivar hadn’t visited the old city before; it gave us a chance to walk through the Bastakia neighborhood, with its beautifully restored wind towers, each circulating air to cool the shops at ground level.
Soon we arrived at the abra water taxi station. Large crowds of Indian men were coming and going from the water taxis; we joined the crowd and made our way onto a boat, struggling to find a place to sit. We then got to experience an abra traffic jam: our boat collided with no less than five other boats, each honking their horns like Bombay traffic, the drivers shouting at each other to get out of the way.
A blurry view from the abra water taxi facing towards Dubai’s Deira district
Traveling by water taxi is thrilling by day, but mysterious by night. Because the creek isn’t lighted, you can’t always see what’s around you. If you’re lucky, other abras coming in your direction will have a small lamp at the front; as they approach you can make out the silhouettes of the passengers. To the left, the dhow wharf was crowded with large wooden ships moored together like sardines. It was too dark to make out any details as to what goods they were carrying, though for a moment I thought I saw an SUV lashed to one of them. Fortunately, there was a full moon, not to mention the lights emanating from the minarets of the local mosques and giant neon signs on surrounding buildings. Otherwise, the creek was all darkness.
The boat soon collided with the dock on the Deira side of the creek; several Indian men had already casually jumped off the boat before the rest of the crowd waited for the docking before following suit. Ivar and I walked ashore and took an underground walkway to reach the entrance of the Spice Souk. Unlike my previous daytime visit to the souk, the bazaar was bustling at night, with most of the shops open for business. Huge bins of herbs, incense and spices lined each storefront: sage, oregano, cumin, cardamom, peppers, dried lemons, frankincense, myrrh. The smell was overpowering, but quite enjoyable. As we walked by the shops, aggressive salesmen would come out and break open a dried lemon under our faces, trying to get us to buy a kilo or two to bring home. Saying no thanks, whether in English, Arabic or Hindi, seemed to make no difference, so the only option was to ignore them altogether.
After exploring the spice market for a while we weaved through side streets heading east, hoping to find the gold souk. I soon realized we’d gone a little south of the souk, so we took a left and backtracked until reaching the souk’s entrance. The souk, a long corridor with a decorative wooden roof, was jammed with shoppers from all over the world: Brits, Americans, Japanese, Russians, Lebanese, Kenyans, Iranians, Saudis, Indians. Wherever you looked, you could find people staring into the storefronts or negotiating with shop owners inside their air-conditioned show rooms. And no wonder: displayed in each window you would find an incredible collection of gold. I’m not talking about an elegant display of delicate necklaces and earrings, but an in-your face, over-the-top bonanza of 24 karat chains, tiaras, belts suitable for a welterweight champion, bangles as thick as PVC pipes. Amazingly, the gold looked almost like costume jewelry; the color and texture seemed very fake to me, I was so used to seeing only 14k and 18k gold.
Necklaces for sale in the Gold Souk
We browsed the shops, marveling at the display of wealth in each window. Every few moments, Indian men would approach us and utter a familiar mantra: “Fake Watch Rolex Breitling Omega Fake Watch” repeated again and again. I was attempted to play with one of them and say I was insulted that he assumed I couldn’t afford the real deal, but I figured that something would get lost in the translation and it’d open a can of worms.
From the gold souk, we cut through various side streets towards the perfume souk. You could smell it from several blocks away; once getting there, each shop was crammed with Arab men negotiating prices for perfume, hand mixed on the counter from a vast selection of essences stored in ornate glass bottles along the wall. Continuing towards the creek, we passed the electronics souk and what appeared to be a kitchen wares souk. Ivar stopped at a couple of shops looking for a particular onion slicing contraption but never found what he was looking for.
It was now approaching 9pm; I suggested we get something to eat at one of the Persian restaurants along a strip of shops one block away from the creek. We passed several options, including the Hatam Restaurant, where I’d eaten in 2002, before finally settling on the Teheran Restaurant, which offered outdoor seating. The eccentric waiter insisted on getting us to order before we’d looked at the menu, which Ivar and I declined; he also didn’t understand why we would want to order something to drink with dinner.
Eventually, Ivar and I ordered kabobs — no surprise, since kabobs were the only options on the menu. I picked a mixed grill for 25 dirhams (about $7). The platter included ground beef, lamb and chicken, with a side order of yogurt, an enormous piece of flatbread (about the size of a tabloid newspaper), and a large plate of vegetables, including mint, watercress, radishes, onions and scallions. The food was delicious, though a bit messy; rather than napkins the waiter gave us a box of Kleenex, which couldn’t compete with the kabob juices and yogurt drips. Meanwhile, several Emiratis sporting Bluetooth wireless earpieces smoked shishas while watching the horrendous Bruce Willis film Hudson Hawk. An Arabic translation of each character’s lines was read by a single narrator, no matter the character’s age or gender.
After dinner, we walked along the creek and the dhow wharf towards the water taxis, past the beautiful and modern Iran Bank Melli building. We were tempted to catch a taxi from the Deira side of the creek, but traffic was terrible and we didn’t know how long it would take to cross the creek over a bridge due to the gridlock. Besides, taking an abra gave us one more chance to experience Dubai from the water.
View of a mosque in Bur Dubai as seen from the water taxi
Climbing onto an abra, I handed the driver a single dirham coin for both of us; we then navigated down the creek towards the Bur Dubai side. The minarets were still glowing a golden hue from the floodlights at their base; there was also a charming creek-side restaurant not far from the Bastakia quarter and its famous wind towers. I shot some video on my digital camera as we rode back; hopefully I’ll be able to edit into a short Web documentary when I get some free time.
Once back on dry land, we walked one block to an intersection and quickly hailed a taxi. The ride back to the hotel was a fraction of the time it took to get there during rush hour, which was a major relief. This gave me just enough time to head upstairs, skype with Susanne and the cats back in Boston, and get to sleep by 11:30pm.
May 22, 2005
After the end of the first day of the conference, a small group of us joined Datamatix founder Ali al Kamali for dinner at the Rotana Al Bustan Hotel. We ate at the hotel’s fabulous Lebanese restaurant. Within a few moments of sitting down, the table was filled with a fine collection of Lebanese mezes, small platters similar to Spanish tapas. A waiter walked around the table, serving us fresh scoops of tabouli on our plates; otherwise we got to pick and choose from the selection on the table. Some of my favorite mezes were served, including shashlik (a very sour Lebanese cheese) and moujadara, a lentil and roasted onion dish.
The group of us included people from Singapore, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Estonia (my online colleague Ivar Tallo from the Estonian E-Governance Academy – the first time we’d met in person). Everyone seemed to enjoy the mezes, which we ate for almost two hours. I particularly enjoyed getting to know our Saudi Arabian colleagues — a father and daughter, both PhDs. Everyone was very open about talking about all sorts of issues, including religion and politics, so it was quite an enlightening conversation.
Just as I finished my last bite of hummus, a waiter went around the table again; I assumed he was taking orders for coffee or tea. I was quite wrong.
“Would you prefer the mixed grill or the seafood grill for your entree?” he asked.
I thought he was joking. But he was serious. The mezes were indeed appetizers, not the meal itself. James, my colleague from the Singapore, seemed just as shaken as I was when he realized we had a whole meal still coming our way.
Fortunately, we somehow managed to eat the entrees. I had the seafood grill, which included delicious samples of lobster, shrimp and a grilled white fish. Dessert was much harder to polish off; the waiter brought over enormous trays of fruit, accompanied by plates of Lebanese pastries, figs soaked in honey and rosewater, and a camel milk pudding.
Around 11pm, as we finished our meal, a Lebanese pop band performed at a bone-shattering, passenger-jet volume. They were soon joined by a belly dancer from Brazil, who left no doubt in anyone’s mind that she’d been, shall we say, artificially enhanced. Mercifully, she didn’t pull anyone from the audience onto the stage with her, though a middle-aged businessman in the crowd kept approaching her with cash, perhaps in the hope of her doing so.
“Do you have belly dancers in Saudi Arabia?” one of us asked our colleagues.
“No, her head would have been chopped off before the end of the first song,” they replied.
May 20, 2005
I’ve just returned from dinner at the Burj Al-Arab Hotel. Billed as one of the world’s only seven-star hotels (though in reality it’s just a five star), the Burj is the tallest and one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. It’s shaped like a giant sail, located on a man-made island off the Dubai shoreline. Visitors are usually charged an arm and a leg just to look around, so instead I decided to just have dinner at the buffet.
The hotel was indeed gorgeous; I’ll have to post some pictures later. The food was excellent as well — the buffet had rack of lamb, lobster, king crab legs and a host of other sumptious dishes. It was well worth the expense (the buffet was around $70). My only complaint was that there were children running around everywhere; parents were letting them play hide and go seek behind my table, and when the kids wanted to be seen, they’d jump from behind the table and screamed. No one seemed to care. I don’t know about you, but if I’m gonna go out of my way and put down my hard-earned money for a really nice meal, I don’t want to feel like I’m eating at a Howard Johnsons across from a Kissimmee motel near Disneyworld.
Anyway, lots to write about, but lots to do to get ready for the conference tomorrow. More stories about today later…. -andy
My plane arrived in Dubai a few minutes before 10pm local time. The pilot said the current temperature was around 35 degrees – 90+ for us Americans. I expected to be greeted by a rush of oven-hot air as I stepped off the plane, but instead I was met by a gale of icy wind. I’d forgotten that Dubai was the Magical Land of Ubiquitous Air Conditioning; wherever you went, as long as it was indoors, you’d be blasted by the coldest AC you’d ever experienced. (I’m actually sitting in a cafe right now drinking the coldest Diet Coke I’ve ever been served — so cold you’d think it should be slush.)
I followed the crowd of travelers as we weaved through the enormous airport, up and down grand escalators and along endless moving walkways, passing sign after sign touting the latest smartphone or flat-panel TV. Immigration and customs was easy; the only question they asked me was whether my flight came directly from the US or through Europe. And to top it all off, my suit bag was waiting on the carousel when I arrived to pick it up.
Outside customs, I went to the Avis rental car desk and informed them that I’d arrived. Avis apparently had a drop-off service with my hotel. Soon, I followed one of the staff outside, where I nearly got knocked over by the blast of hot air waiting for me in the parking lot. At the edge of the lot, an Emirati pulled over in a minivan, inviting me inside. When he opened the door, the van was pulsing with the THUMP-THUMP-THUMP of an electronica CD. Once I got in, he turned down the music to manageable levels.
While the music felt more like a Berlin disco, the scenery outside the van was pure Dubai: flat, open space with construction everywhere; enormous billboards for a range of high tech, luxury resorts and investment opportunities; 21st century highrise architecture dotting the city’s Miracle Mile.
We zoomed along the highway until we got a few blocks from the hotel, then traffic crawled to a halt.
“Bad traffic because of the holiday tomorrow,” the driver said.
“What holiday is it?” I asked.
“Oh yes, of course.”
“Everyone wants to get home and get off the road to begin their weekend.”
I finally arrived at the Rotana Towers Hotel around 11pm. Check-in was quick, which was merciful, since I was desparate to crash for the evening. I’d only slept one or two hours in the last day and a half, so I was more than ready to drop my bags and fall asleep as soon as possible.
October 20, 2003
Last night Megan Knight of South Africa and I took a break from the formal evening events and went to central Dubai for a few hours. We caught a ride from one of our Dubai colleagues to Bur Dubai’s textile souk, then caught an abra water taxi to Deira, where we did a whirlwind tour of the souks — which I must admit are much more vibrant at night than they are in the day. We each bought some frankincense and sandlewood in the spice souk, and Megan picked up a couple of silk shawls. We had a quick bite to eat at the Persian restaurant along the corniche where I ate a week ago last Sunday. We weren’t particularly hungry so we split a lamb kebab, but they piled on huge complimentary plates of mixed salads, Persian bread and soup I felt like I was going to explode.
We caught a water taxi back to Bur Dubai and hailed a taxi for the 40-minute ride through Jumeira Beach back to our hotel. We met up with Garegin Chugaszyan of Armenia’s IT Foundation (see picture), Martin Casey of Ireland and Suzanne Stein of Canada and hung out at the hotel bar until nearly two in the morning, recounting the work of each of our panels and lamenting the fact that our work here in Dubai would soon come to its conclusion… -ac