Monday, October 27, 2008

Really? Not really much point in having a contest, now was there

Back at home Amy Poehler and Seth Myers do these awesome routines where they act sarcastic and say "Really?" making fun of the most preposterous things, like AIG's multimillion corporate retreat or a basketball star being caught carrying his own stash through airport security.

It's all I can think about when I hear the results of Emaar Properties fountain naming contest. There were 4,000 entries and the prize was 100,000 dirhams (about $35,000 Cdn). The winning name of that thing flowing water outside the Burj Dubai? The one that will be, I imagine, a bit like the fountain outside the Bellagio in Vegas?

Dubai Fountain.

Poor, tired man in the middle of the day



I took this picture after leaving a yoga class down by The Corniche. It is a nice place for a nap.

Prepping the Tyras, Kates and Naomis of tomorrow, I presume

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Voicemail: a multimillion-dirham idea

One of the biggest surprises upon arriving here was that barely anyone had voicemail. Not on office phones, not on personal phones. I wrote about it today in The National. Check it out here.

And then one day, I found the secret bacon room



I had always wondered about people who buy bacon. They say they got it at Spinney's, an overpriced yet much-appreciated grocery store that caters to expat tastes. I must have been there eight times, and sort of cast my eye around for bacon, never to find it. I heard the pork was kept in a special room, but I always forgot to look for it. And then, this week, I found myself at the back of the store and there it was: the pork room.

Inside, there was everything from sausage spaghetti sauce to bacon-flavoured chips. And, oddly, a shelf full of strawberry Pop Tarts.

Although I wanted to buy everything, I kept my purchases as modest as was humanly possible for a person who has not eaten pork for more than a month: salami, ham, bacon. Mmmmm.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It is consistently shocking, all the things the UAE does not have

Yesterday, we had a front page story about how the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi was going to launch the Abu Dhabi Air Quality Index to measure air pollution at 19 sites around the emirate. Many days, as I've wandered around the city, gasping for air, I've pondered what the air quality (or lack of it) might be.

Add it to the long list of things the UAE is adding to move into the present: Aids and HIV awareness training for prison guards, city buses, a system of elected municipal councils, and so on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

This was such a lovely piece

John Gravois, who writes in the Arts & Life section, wrote a beautiful essay in The National today.

Mohammed Amin called to say hi last night, just as we were getting ready for dinner. He asked how we were doing and reported, via the usual mix of broken English and Urdu, that he’s been under the weather for the past few days. Then he said he had to run and sing the athan – the call to prayer – at the tiny mosque by the fish market where he is the muezzin, and hung up.

Mohammed Amin called to say hi last night, just as we were getting ready for dinner. He asked how we were doing and reported, via the usual mix of broken English and Urdu, that he’s been under the weather for the past few days. Then he said he had to run and sing the athan – the call to prayer – at the tiny mosque by the fish market where he is the muezzin, and hung up.

Make sure to check out the rest of it here.

Real men do yoga, just not in Abu Dhabi

An editor in the office, of the male persuasion, enjoys going to the local yoga studio. I ran into him there one Sunday, in an ashtanga class. Unlike Canada, where yoga classes are increasingly a 50/50 split between women and men, here he was the only one in the class.

But this is a different place, a place where men do not do yoga. Yoga classes are packed here. I have only ever seen one other man in a yoga class. Anyway, I asked the editor today how he was liking yoga, and if he'd been going, and he told me an Emirati woman had complained about him, and now he is limited to three specific classes a week.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The case of the non-existent wallet

I am not really sure what the swindle is. Some man, or men, ripped off some other people, and now it's all in the hands of the police and we seem to write about it several times each week. It's the name I love: "the case of the non-existent wallet". What does that even mean?

My editor tells me Emiratis love giving nicknames to things. Well, I am pretty sure I now love it too.

An entry from Abu Dhabi Nomads...

...the group blog of The National

Somewhere between the garbage truck and the dawn call to prayer, I get lost
Ann Marie McQueen

I have a very hard time sleeping in Abu Dhabi. I have suffered from some of the most severe bouts of insomnia in my life over the last six months. Just as the dawn call to prayer signals I have stayed out way too late, hearing it when I have failed to grab even one Z is incredibly disheartening.

I am not sure what the issue is. Problems and worries and demons always seem bigger at night, manageable in the light of day. Sometimes I just get excited about all the fun things I have planned to do in this region. Or I miss the world's most comfortable bed, which I invested in just a few months before I decided to fly the coop on my old life. Other nights it's something Seinfeld's Kramer dubbed "jimmy legs", which happens when your brain is tired and your body is jumpy and ready to go. Of course, you can also get jimmy brain, where no matter what your level of physical exhaustion, the mind just won't quit.

Abu Dhabi doesn't do much to help, either. If it isn't the sound of fighting cats, sounding for all the world as though they are being sawed in half, it's the city's love of horn honking that prevents me from sinking into deeply restful REM patterns. One night I grew murderous, counting honks — not a car alarm, an extremely impatient (yet patient?) human was at the wheel — for more than 20 minutes outside my hotel.

The people on the floor above me seem to really enjoy their late-night furniture rearranging sessions. There is the dumpster outside my window, which is loudly emptied in the wee hours of each morning — after midnight, one or 2 am, it's hard to pinpoint exactly with two pillows flopped on my head. Oh, and the call to prayer, broadcast loudly from the mosque that is steps away. If, blessedly, I manage to remain out for that one, another follows soon after that is sure to jolt me awake.

New mothers and those who work the late shift have more to complain about than I do, of course. And strong Bodum coffee administered in small amounts throughout the day works wonders in pretending to be normal.

The only thing worse, I find, than worrying about not sleeping last night is worrying about whether I will sleep tonight. Thinking like this is almost a clear guarantee that I won't, so I do my best to pretend I don't have a problem when of course I really do. I can tell that I do, because both eyelids are twitching at the moment, and I believe I actually just nodded off while recounting the problem with horns.

So forgive me if I snap, or take a few more seconds to process what it is you are saying, or make no sense at all. I'm exhausted — I haven't been sleeping. Or have I told you?

Three things one does not expect to see at a movie in the Middle East

And that would be depictions of illicit medication use, female bare torsos and, well, an elongated scene of a personal nature, if you know what I mean. And by depictions of drug use, I mean Sir Ben Kingsley playing a wayward psychiatrist wielding a giant water bong in The Wackness. Bare bosums popped up in Spike Lee's Miracle at St Anna and the personal scenes were in many, many films, including the Swedish vampire tale Let the Right One In.

The Middle East International Film Festival, running until Sunday, has brought a welcome wave of culture and star power to Abu Dhabi this week. It's only the second one, it's offering the biggest prize pot – $1 million to be shared among winners – and it looks like it will be an annual event.

It was strange though, after six months in the country, to watch some of these films. Things are so much more chaste here, with even major kissing cut out of most television and cinema. I had become so used to the overt nature of pop culture back home, I found myself really noticing whenever things were racy. I also wonder why some of the films were not censored, and others were (or seemed to be, you never can really tell, though sometimes when watching a movie here two people who are just talking will suddenly be all sweaty and laying down). But mine is to not ask why.

The film festival has been a lot of fun, with stars turning up all over town: Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda and, for some strange reason, Meg Ryan, who does not have a film or any other product here. Adrien Brody, here for The Brothers Bloom, which opened the festival, told one of The National's reporters no one recognised him as he wandered around Carrefour trying to find a SIM card so his phone would work. The celebs seem genuinely impressed with the region - mainly the massive scale of development here. Antonio Banderas, here trying to drum up Arab financing for a film project on Boabdil, the last Muslim king of Spain, yelled out to Brody during his interview that he needed to go to Dubai because "it's like going in the future 200 years!"

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians

A British friend asked me to explain Canadian Thanksgiving to him, so I did. His response? "I'm not saying anything."

Enjoy your stuffing!

The falcons would be scary if they weren't wearing their hats





Though I wouldn't go near something like this back in Canada, living abroad pushes one to do things they may not have previously imagined. That's how I came to be strolling the aisles if the International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition yesterday. That is an entirely fake camel to my left, by the way. Seeing such a large fake camel, to me, was almost as interesting as coming across a real one. By the way, did you know one is not supposed to wash camels with people shampoo? Here is proof:



I also saw loads of knives and guns - rifles, pistols, semi-automatic weapons - and people snapping them up. For some reason, when I saw this gun, I had to hold and point it. (This photo and the smile on my face in no way indicate I am some sort of advocate.)



We missed the camel competition, but did make it in time for the saluki show. Salukis are desert dogs, skinny desert dogs.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Are they joking? Falafel belongs to the world, no one can claim it."

-Israeli falafel-maker David Peretz, in a story in The National about how the Lebanese Industrialists Association is preparing litigation accusing Israel of stealing Lebanon's trademark foods.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hilarious Facebook come-on of the day

As I have previously explained, there is no dating in the UAE. No dating sites, no speed dating. Nothing of the sort. So Facebook fills the void. Not for me, for men.

Almost every day I get the most absurd messages from men I do not know. Like this one, from Masood:

"Hi there...i am interested in woman elder to me...let me know if you are intersted...can b good friends and more...."

I have finally figured out some of the honking

There is a serious honking problem in the UAE. I was speaking to my brother once outside of Al Falah Plaza, and we could barely hear either other over the cacophony. Most days I just deal with it, but if I am at all cranky it makes me feel like going postal. I think the biggest problem is that back home, it is considered extremely rude to honk at someone. So when people are honking all the time, I tend to take it personally. And I don't even have a car, so how much sense does that make? But it's not like honking is a nice noise, so I guess I will let myself off the hook.

Anyway, oddly, a lot of the honking was sorted out for me today. It was my day off, and I have been hailing cabs all over Abu Dhabi running errands. I was having a bite of lunch in a restaurant called Ya Zaein when I heard honking coming from outside. There, a woman in a giant Toyota SUV had rolled down them window. An employee of the restaurant ran out to talk to her, then ran back in. That's when it dawned on me: she wasn't even getting out of her car to place her order. Sure enough, when her food was ready, he went toddling out to give it to her. My next stop was the bank, where I heard another round of honking, this time LOUD and ANGRY. There was a man, his car blocked in by another car. I took a picture of it, mostly because this happens all the time and if it's not your car that's being blocked in, it's quite funny.



But if it is your car, or one you are to be travelling in, not funny at all. A little later in the day, while stopping in to buy a cold drink at my local corner store, I heard more honking. There was another SUV, another woman. She was asking for him to come out and take her order. For the corner store.

Can you imagine if you pulled this crap at a 7-11 or a Pizza Pizza back home?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Back home, you can't threaten to leave because where would you go?

The truth is, you are already there, aren't you? Not so when you are an expat.

I keep telling myself this, because I find life in Abu Dhabi is quite like a roller coaster. Just when I think I am truly happy to be here – and I am – something not-pleasant happens and I immediately think "I want to go home". Though the happy-to-be here days are becoming a lot more frequent, all it takes is a sharp word from a boss or co-worker, or a missing package or a phone call to Canada that goes to voicemail when I am homesick or a mean taxi driver or a hangover or something equally insignificant, for me to want to get out of dodge. And when it hits, the feeling is powerful. Like book a flight tonight and count the hours until the plane takes off powerful. Then, suddenly, usually for no reason at all, I am quite content in my Middle Eastern adventure again.

I find this all very funny, because when you are living where you live, you never think like this. The option of leaving simply is not available, so it's not the first thing or even the fifth thing you contemplate when things aren't going so hot. I imagine this must be what marriage feels like, or so I hope.

Anyway, I think about this tendency every time I read a story about Michelle Palmer and Vince Alcors, those unfortunate Brits accused of having sex on the beach in Dubai. This event was said to have happened on July 5 – three months ago. The pair have had their passports confiscated, and have been cooling their heels there ever since. A writer from the Observer, who came to do the standard on-the-ground in Dubai piece about it last week even spotted Alcors drinking with friends in a bar. I mean, really, what else is he to do?

Anyway, imagine how much they want to leave here, every minute of every day? Makes my grumpy moments seem sort of silly.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Quote of the day

"It's the players' personal choice to use black magic and very much their own decision."

-Ahmed al Rahomi, Dubai sports council spokesman, speaking about two international football players from the UAE arrested for allegedly hiring a pair of Omani sorcerers to cast spells that would boost their team's chances of winning

Sunday, October 5, 2008

It's almost bearable, the heat

... and only going to get better. If you have any interest at all in my excitement about living life outside of the roasting pan, check out The National's group blog.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The saddest quote in the world

An article in Friday's edition of The National, about how Canadians would rather watch Sarah Palin and Joe Biden debate than any of their candidates.

"What's happening there in the States is pretty riveting," said Peter Mansbridge, chief news anchor of the CBC. "Ours is not so riveting."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Have the men in the cars ever convinced any woman to take their offer of a lift? Just wondering

A group of us went out for a posh and delicious dinner at the Shangri-la Hotel's Vietnamese restaurant, Hoi An, last night. I figured it would be nice to dress up. So that's how I found myself, in the taxi stop outside my hotel in a pair of 3.5-inch heels and a scarf covering the top of my halter dress, telling two separate men that no, I really could not accept their offer of a ride.

"Don't be afraid of the beard!" yelped the driver of the black Toyota Yaris, which, for some reason, had a yellow light on top of it. "I give you ride. Get in."

The man, like many from South East Asia, was quite small. I could have easily taken him in a scuffle, or so I figured, but why risk it? When I thanked him and said no, I really could get my own taxi, he wouldn't drive off. But soon he had to move forward in the taxi stand, because another man had pulled in, this time driving an empty short bus used to shuffle labourers to and fro. He also wanted to give me a ride. Again, I apologised, and both of them sat there, waiting, like I was going to reconsider. So there I am, in the high heels, motioning for the two of them to drive off so I might have a hope of getting a taxi.

Men do this all the time in Abu Dhabi. I would say every other day a strange man pulls over in his car and offers me a ride. Emiratis are much more low-key about it. I will be hailing a taxi and notice that a Mercedes or a Landcruiser has pulled over and is idling just up ahead. If I glance in its direction, the heavily-tinted passenger window will slide down, and inside I will see a bit of a dishdash, the corner of the driver's ghutra, a snippet of an igal (the white cotton scarf and black cord to secure it worn on the head), and a beckoning hand. In the early days this really freaked me out. Now I am able to ignore it. (And during Ramadan, when it was nearly impossible to get a cab, more than once I was severely tempted to take them up on it. It was those jet-black windows that tripped me up, every time. It's like if I got in, I would disappear from the world.)

But I can't help wondering, they aren't all be would-be attackers, are they? There just aren't that many sinister people in the world, right? And there was that time in early Ramadan I hopped on one of the short buses, full of labourers, and the sweet driver dropped me off at the front door of the office, wanting nothing more than to help me out. So, what is going on? Is it some sort of bizarre dating technique? And if they are just nice men - or you know, interested men - does their offer of a ride ever get accepted? What woman in their right mind would ever say yes?

It's a lost opportunity, but I really wish I'd had the temerity to ask the bearded Yaris driver one question:"Has this ever worked for you before?"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Today is my six-month Abu-versary

Six months ago, on a Wednesday even, I was crying about cockroaches in my hotel room and wondering what the heck I'd done. Now, I kinda like it here.

Eid Mubarak



I woke yesterday at 6.50am to the sound of a sermon being blasted from the mosque near my hotel. I had left my hotel room window open the night before, so not only could I hear the whole thing, it was crystal clear. If only I spoke more Arabic than "Shukran".

"When is this thing is going to be over?" I thought to myself, grumpily. It took awhile. I really should have gone outside, because I would have seen people streaming to the mosque.

After all the new moon was spotted the night before, ending a month of daily fasting for Ramadan.

Eid Mubarak, as they say.

Until yesterday, Muslims would rise at dawn, eat and then go back to bed for a bit. That was it for eating and drinking until the evening prayer. Yesterday, people rose for the 4.49 Eid prayer (thank goodness I didn't wake up for that one) and then joined their friends and family for feasts. A friend said her husband took their little girl to the park at 630am and people were everywhere having picnics.

Today is the actual Eid, and the city feels empty. Except the bus station, that is, which was completely mobbed last night and this morning. And in Dubai they just had to close the doors to the Mall of the Emirates (the one with Ski Dubai attached to it) because there were too many people inside. It seemed weird to me, until I remembered Boxing Day in Canada and the security guard posted outside Aldo. However, it is a spiritual holiday today, so I find it jarring malls are open here at all.

Some friends and I had planned to go to Liwa, an oasis in the Empty Quarter desert near the Saudi border, over the next two days. The hotels there, of course, are completely booked up because only fools would not have known it's one of the biggest holidays of the year. We then considered camping in Oman, but settled on going out to a nice dinner at Hoi An, the Vietnamese restaurant at the Shangri-la Hotel. I guess I will see the desert later.

Anyway, back to the early wakeup call. One of the sermons preached that Eid is about being grateful. And I guess that means for everything, and I guess it was right.