Archive for the ‘United Arab Emirates’ Category

Goodbye to Muscat, Return to Dubai

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

Had an early breakfast with Margaret before checking out of the hotel and catching a taxi to Muscat Airport. I arrived two and a half hours ahead of the flight, but quickly discovered that the check-in desks don’t even open til 2 hours before the flight. So I sat around the stuffy check-in hall listening to Musak renditions of Stevie Wonder songs over the PA system.
Eventually I checked in and waited for my flight, which departed on time and arrived a few minutes early in Dubai. When I arrived there was a man from Dubai internet city there ready to help me through customs. It also turned out that he was there to pick up Osama Manzar from India, whom I met a couple of years ago. Osama didn’t know I was coming, so he was very surprised to see me.
After going through customs we went to get my luggage, but it didn’t come off the plane. They said it was stuck somewhere in another cargo hold, so they took my hotel info and had me catch my ride to the hotel. Needless to say I was a bit worried about my bag’s whereabouts.
The drive to the Jumeira Hilton took us along a 10-lane superhighway through the heart of Dubai’s new commercial district, a magnificent mile of audacious skyscrapers. Eventually we goot to Jumeira Beach, Dubai’s luxury tourist enclave. We passed the famous Burj al-Arab, the tallest hotel in the world, shaped like the sail of a dhow boat. The Emiratis are truly at the cutting edge of modern architecture.
At the hotel, check-in was very slow, and they weren’t particularly helpful about my lost bag. I had a few hours before our first official gathering, and I really wanted to use the time to enjoy the beach. Since I didn’t have my bag, I went to the gift shop to see if they sold bathing suits. It turns out they did – billabong bathing suits priced at nearly $100 each! It was totally outrageous. The woman there then told me they had boy’s bathing suits for only 10 dollars, and she showed me the largest they had, the equivalent of a size 24. Given the fact I’m a size 33, I was skeptical, but she encouraged me to try it on. I managed to get into the bathing suit, but wasn’t convince a) I’d ever get out of it without ripping it, and b) would ever want to appear in public looking so ridiculous. I concluded that this might be my only chance to go for a swim — and besides, I didn’t know a single person here, so who cares how silly I looked? So putting all logic aside, I bought the bathing suit, spent 10 minutes stretching it to its limits, then wriggled my way into it.
I went to the beach, which had a boardwalk down to the shore, a nice outside bar, and countless lounge chairs set up along the water. Noticing how many people who were wearing speedos and thongs — and probably shouldn’t have — I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about wearing a boy’s bathing suit. I quickly took off my shirt and darted into the water — warm, salty water — and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours relaxing in the surf. Given the long days we were about to spend working, I relished every moment.
our thai boxing filmI spent the better part of the evening on the phone with Emirates Airlines, which was thoroughly unhelpful, and my contact at Dubai Internet City, who fortunately made every effort to assist me. Our group was supposed to meet at 8pm, but I had to wait by the phone for an update. I turned on the tv and left the National Geographic Channel running in the backgroud. Suddenly, around 8pm, I heard familiar music and the voice of Jason Statham saying, “Early morning, as the monsoon rains cut through the haze…” It was our Thai Boxing film! Susanne and I had sold the premiere rights to it to National Geographic, and it had aired in over 140 countries, but since it hadn’t aired in the US we’d never seen it on TV. And now out sheer coincidence, it was on here in Dubai! (See screen shot, right) So thanks to the loss of my bag, I managed to watch the film for the first time with commercials added to it, along with Arabic subtitles. It was truly wild to see it this way.
By 9pm, having enjoyed our film for the umpteenth time, I gave up on my luggage and went downstairs to meet with some of our group, who had gathered for an informal chat and a drink. A dozen of us sat around outside at the bar, getting to know each other. By 10ish people began to disperse, so I returned upstairs and was relieved to find my luggage sitting in the room. I unpacked, relished in the fact I wouldn’t have to wear the same shirt for five days, and slept soundly.

Getting to Know Dubai

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

After checking out the Dubai public library I made a brief stop at a local travel agent to see if I could get some tickets to Muscat. It wasn’t a problem getting a flight out for tomorrow, then turning around in time for my World Summit Awards meetings, so I bought the tickets. That meant I’d have the rest of the day to cram in as much of Dubai as I could, just in case we didn’t have much free time to play tourist during the meetings.
I briefly let myself get lost in the spice souk — Dubai’s spice market. Unlike the spice bazaar in Istanbul, which is a large pavilion hosting kiosks of spice vendors, the spice souk here is more like a spice neighborhood; storefronts here and there with giant sacks of jute cloth filled with enormous sums of coriander, cumin, pepper, henna, you name it. What was surprising was how many of these shops kept their spices behind the window, rather than displayed outside for all to see. Given the Emirati’s penchant for air conditioning, it made sense to keep precious (and easily spoilable) spices inside rather than out. So in a way the neighborhood left me a bit disappointed – I just didn’t find myself wallowing in the fumes of Arabia and Central Asia as I’d hoped.
I soon stumbled upon Heritage House and the al-Ahmadiya school. Heritage House is a small museum meant to show off traditional Emirati village life in the middle of urban Dubai. The free museum is an open-air courtyard not unlike something you’d find in Santa Fe, New Mexico, surrounded by an adobe perimeter decorated by a range of traditional bedouin tools and household items. There appeared to be an interior to the museum as well, but when I asked the attendant if I could go in, he waved his finger at me and said no. Perhaps they were renovating the place or something, but either way I was touristus non gratis.
The al-Ahmadiya school, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise – a two-story adobe structure with an open courtyard in the center, this one more akin to the homes of Cordoba. A very friendly guard encouraged me to take a look around, and motioned at me to open closed doors when I came upon them — apparently each room had a small exhibit inside. Room to room, I explored the building’s history; the al-Ahmadiya was a turn-of-the-century school, one of the few formal centers of learning in Dubai at the time. It was the first school to introduce a more secular liberal arts curriculum to go along with traditional Quranic teaching. The rooms were set up as they would have been in the early 20th century, with lifesize dioramas of students huddled around a teacher reciting the Quran. In other rooms, desks are set up in rows in the more familiar western style as recordings of students practicing grammar lessons played in the background. At one point I stumbled upon a group of men renovating a schoolroom, but they just smiled at me and apologized for the mess they were making.
Leaving the school, I took a long stroll through several of Dubai’s other famous souks, including the gold souk (perhaps the largest gold market in the middle east), the perfume souk (I still smell it in my clothes) and the electronic souk, which featured a mindboggling collection of oversized calculators, DVD jukeboxes, and karaoke machines featuring an incongruous picture of Arnold Schwarzeneggar on the box.
Leaving the souks, I stopped at a Persian restaurant for a wonderful lunch of ground lamb kebab with rice and a salad bar loaded with fresh yogurt, mint leaves and the crunchiest cucumber this side of the Straits of Hormuz. From there, I caught my first abra — giant water taxis that ply their way across the Creek every few minutes. I paid my 50 fils when I got on board and motorboated my way across the creek along with a group of 20 or so businessmen.
Having left the neighborhood of Deira, I was now in Bur Dubai, the southern bank of the creek. I walked through a textile souk that was cooled by a partial covering of ornamental wood beams jutting from the roofs. Many of the buildings had traditional wind towers– chimney-like structures used to create a natural form of airconditioning.
I soon reached the Dubai museum, hosted inside a 19th century fort. The museum was basically divided in two parts – a military museum occupying the ruins of the fort, and a history museum, adjacent to the fort in a series of underground passageways. The history section was particularly interesting, featuring lifesize dioramas on the different souks that make Dubai famous, explaining the history of each trade practiced there. The museum also featured an archaeological retrospective of Dubai, plus a fascinating section on the natural history of the desert. For such a small museum, it packed in a wonderful amount of trivia with attractive exhibits — a fine way to spend the hottest hours of the day.
It was now mid-afternoon; after a quick Diet Pepsi at Cafe Mozart, I walked down the corniche towards the big Sheraton hotel, past the Dubai Municipal Center and other archictectural experiments.
I’m now on my way back to the hotel, stopping at a cybercafe to check email and write this blog. Considering I haven’t slept since 4am Saturday, I’m amazed I’m holding up this well; but I imagine by the time 6pm rolls around, I may find myself dragging myself back to my room for a much-deserved rest…. -ac

Arrival in Dubai for the World Summit Awards

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

Hello from Dubai! It’s 10:40am Dubai time, eight hours ahead of US east coast time, and I’ve been in the UAE for just about three hours now. My flight arrived just after sunrise this morning, wrapping up around 16 hours of flight time from DC to London to Dubai. Didn’t get a wink of sleep on the flight, but at least I managed to watch Pirates of the Caribbean one and a half times along the way. I just can’t get enough of Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards homage, I guess.
Dubai is hot and sticky, probably pushing 95 degrees and 60 percent humidity. Even the Floridian in me finds it oppressive, and the thick layer of ozone hanging over the city certainly isn’t helping things. But I’m already fascinated by the place; nothing here looks more than 10 or 20 years old, yet every storefront you pass seems to be selling the wares of the Arabian bazaars of old — spices, perfumes, gold seem to be everywhere.
The streets are teaming with people, but it’s not chaotic like Cairo or Delhi. Just lots of people going about their business — Arabs, Africans, Indians, Chinese, Europeans. It’s very easy to get around the central part of Deira, the section of Dubai that’s located on the northern side of “The Creek” — a busy waterway akin to Istanbul’s Golden Horn.
I’m sitting in a public library just off the Creek in the western tip of Deira. The library looks brand spanking new, and it’s giving me odd flashbacks to the library I grew up at in Melbourne Florida — smaller, but still similar in a way I can’t articulate. I’m taking advantage of their Internet lab, a quiet, well lit room with about a dozen flat-panel computers each enjoying broadband access to the Internet. As I’m not a resident of the UAE, I’m shelling out five dirhams an hour for access – just under two bucks. So far I’m connecting to everything I want to, and access to my Benton email has been a snap.
A few minutes ago a troupe of several dozen young women from a local school came by with their teachers. They were all wearing dark school uniforms and headscarves. A few of them made eye contact with me and smiled in that shy teenager kind of way; meanwhile I was totally embarassed because I was slogging through my email in-box throwing away the multitudes of porn spam that seems to find its way into my account like flies to a camel. Fortunately the font size is small enough that I doubt anyone noticed. I really have to get some decent spam filters installed at some point.
Later today I’ll be figuring out how I’ll spend the brief amount of free time I have over here before getting to work on the World Summit Awards nominations at Dubai Internet City. I’m contemplating a trip to Muscat, Oman, which I undestand is one of the few old cities in the Gulf (outside of Yemen, at least) that manages to maintain its historic character.
Anyway, my allotment of Internet access is whittling away, so I better log out for now. More stories from the Persian Gulf soon…. -ac