Monday, April 28, 2008

A conversation with two colleagues, one from the UK, another from South Africa

Me: "Abu Dhabi really needs a diner."

UK fellow: "Doesn't it mean antelope?"

Me: "Umm, a place where you can get bacon and eggs and toast?" (On second thought, the best I could hope for would probably just be eggs and toast.)

UK fellow simply sports a confused facial expression.

South African fellow: "Oh, she's speaking Canadian."

They thought I said Abu Dhabi "means" a diner. Which it doesn't, obviously. It's Arabic for "Father of the Gazelle", because in 1961 a hunting party came here and tracked a gazelle to a spring.

An story about some men who love their camels...maybe just a little too much

There was actually a camel festival in Abu Dhabi this month, which made me giggle. But this story was the best. My favourite quote is from the fellow who saves the freshest milk and honey for his camel. Or maybe the one who said 'don't take a picture of me, take a picture of my camel.' From The Khaleej Times.

Camels are a breed apart in Abu Dhabi
Silvia Radan (Staff Reporter)

10 April 2008

ABU DHABI – O rider of a pure, unmixed, well-chosen mount, perfect of limb and with sires beyond count...Thus begins a Bedouin poem, believed to be written in 1971, describing a beautiful camel.

The desert animal, praised in the Holy Koran, and a fundamental part of the Bedouin poetry, has always been the centre of the Arab way of life. At the Mazayin Dhafra Camel Festival in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, this praise is reinforced not only in poetry recited by men sipping tea and coffee in front of their tents, but also in the prizes that the winners of the camel beauty contests walk away with — four-wheel vehicles and cash of up to Dh30,000.

The first of its kind, the festival has attracted tens of thousands of camel owners from all across the Gulf region.

"The camel is always beautiful in the eyes of the Bedouin and he will never tire of showing his affection for it," said Mohammed Al Mazrouei, who has come to attend the camel festival along with his father.

"For hours, my father can go on reciting poetry on the camel, which he learnt from his father or composed himself while sitting under the stars in the desert," added Mohammed.

Mubarak Al Mazrouei, who has a camel farm not far from the competition grounds and is here to participate with a black camel of his, agrees how camels are the centres of their lives.

"We really care about the camel a lot," noted Mubarak, while quickly adding that they often give the best fresh milk and honey to the camel. "We add best quality hay and grass to the camel's diet to improve its hair, body and general outlook," he revealed.

"If you want your camel to win a beauty competition, you must feed it like this for several weeks before you take it to the show," explained Mubarak.

"Of course, it doesn't come cheap. It may boil down to nearly Dh5,000 per month on one camel," he pointed out.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Rashid Al Dosseri, whose camel is vying for the honours, shouted from across the road: "Come, come and take a picture. Not mine, my camel's! Can you see how beautiful she is?"

He and his black camel have travelled all the way from Riyadh to participate in the competition.

"Back home I have around 150 camels at my farm but this one is the most beautiful one I have," said Mohammed, while adding that if he were to sell it, he would not accept anything less than Dh100,000.

UAE, the land of modesty

Almost everyone has Fridays off here. And they flock to hotels, where there is a strip of beach and some pools and you can chill out. Last week I went to the Hiltonia Beach Club for a good chunk of the day. It was hotter than hot. Soon, I notice a woman sitting in the sun with her husband. He was wearing swimming trunks. She was wearing a head-to-toe black wetsuit, with a gold-applique one-piece over top.

Can you imagine, in the blazing sun? Later, as I relaxed in the hot tub inside, she entered. And got in the hot tub. In her wetsuit.

So there it is, the answer to a compelling question: yes, women who cover themselves daily for religious reasons do go to the beach. They just do it a little differently than the rest of us, that's all.

I was waiting for an x-ray the other day...

...and as we waited, a roomful of ex-pats trying to get a visa in the UAE, seven South Asian men entered, and sat in a bench on a row.

That's when I noticed: they all had moustaches.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Trends of the week (a semi-regular feature where I will try to keep up on and group together thingzzz going on in the world)

1) "Art Projects." First, Yale's Abortion Girl. Seriously. And now an award-winning German artist is looking for a dying subject to bounce light off of. And though he doesn't really fit in this list, I will add the state that British CNN correspondent was found to the list.

2)Peace and quiet. Silent raves are, well, all the rage. Last weekend 1,000 people gathering in NYC's Union Square for one. Apparently this is objectionable, as a silent rave planned for Washington, D.C. has been kiboshed. Then again, they aren't much for biting their tongue in the American capital, are they? The largest Silent Rave so far was apparently held in London, England in 2006, where 3,500 people gathered.

3) Pirates. Real ones.

Booze and the British kitty

The Brits here have a fun style of heading out on the town to drink. And because the United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country, alcohol is available here in a weird way. No booze is served at regular restaurants. Just really good food. But it's odd to be having a lavish meal with a group of people, sipping on an iced tea.

You could have a meal with alcohol, but it would be more expensive. Really the only place you can drink are in the hotels. So what's happened, as hotels have evolved to cater to tourists from the West, is that they each have a half dozen bars or so. You could stroll down a walkway at Le Meridian, for example, on a Saturday night and see packed patio after packed patio. People are not sipping, either. Nightclubs have bottle service at the tables, there are shooters, wine, everything you could want. Smoking everywhere, of course.

So while it's easier to drink less regularly here - I mean, how many of us go out for dinner back home and turn it in to an event after a bottle of wine? Of course, that could have just been my social circle - when you go out for drinks, it seems you go out for drinks.

And the Brits do this thing where you put money into a "kitty" - last time it was 100dirhams, say just under 30 bucks or so - and one person takes care of paying. These people are not sippers, either, so there is always a fresh drink appearing. Every so often someone will ask 'how's the kitty?' If it's getting low, we'll all pop in some cash.

Of course, everyone gets very tipsy. And no one worries about who bought what. It is, as the Brits would say, lovely.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

There was just something about this sign that made me look twice

A little closer, now:

This sign is the best for two reasons:
A) The glamour shot might indicate otherwise, but I am pretty sure Tom Cruise does not get his hair cut at the Abrah Gents Salon in Abu Dhabi.
B) Most of these shops are called "saloons" here, not "salons," which leads me to believe the extra 'o' was sacrificed for space reasons.

Every fourth or fifth cab ride, the same conversation

It's like the cab driver is so afraid to stop in the right place, he stops in the wrong one. It goes like this:

Me: Can you let me off up there, on the right?

Driver: On the right?

Me: Yes, on the right.

Driver: Up here, on the right?

Me: Yes, up there.

Driver: Here?

Me: No, up there, to the right. (Pointing)

Driver: On the right?

Me: Yes, over there, on the right.

Driver: Here? (Putting on the brakes, possibly signalling, jerking the car) Here?

Me: Yes, here! Stop, please! Here!

Driver: The right?

Me: Yes, here, on the right! (Sighing, pleased the car has stop moving, and the "Right? Here? Right? Here?" business is over. For now.)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's here! It's here! Read all about it!

I am holding a proper newspaper in my hands: The National. I am so proud to work for this paper, a thick broadsheet with a 30-page A section, a 20-page Arts and Life section, 20 pages of business and a 23-page sports section, done in a smaller, tab-size (but not style) manner. The layout is gorgeous and so are the photos.

Check it out at

And if I, who has been here working on this startup for a mere two weeks, am excited, I can just imagine how the people who've been building it for the past many months must feel. Something like this does not happen anymore, in our world, and I am very glad to be part of it.

There was a fancy launch party at the mind-boggling Emirates Palace hotel yesterday. I am a bit sick - most people are when they get here - and did not go. But yesterday I was giggling as I worked away: a British camera crew was there filming the process, and the reporter was walking behind me doing his standup. "It's a huge operation, with a huge workforce and a huge amount of money behind it. But at the end of the day, this newspaper's success depends on you."

Of course he was talking about the television viewers, but I kept imagining he was pointing at me as I sat there, editing just one story out of all those pages.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

One of the things I love about life in Abu Dhabi

All the varieties of delicious lemonade mixed with fresh mint. Murderous for the teeth, of course, but yummy and refreshing.

T-minus I can't tell you how long until the new paper launches

But stay tuned for the United Arab Emirates new daily, The National.

This is the Emirates Media building where it is being assembled as I write this. (I am on a day off, for anyone who thinks I am shirking any editing responsibilities) There is a sign in the middle of the newsroom, on just a regular-size piece of paper, that I completely love, that sums up the frenzy and excitement that is afoot here.

"Keep calm, and carry on."

Abu Dhabi is a sea of men on Friday afternoons...

...after prayers get out. Abu Dhabi is a sea of men most of the time, I am realising. But Friday afternoons? Definitely. This is the beautiful Corniche area, along the Arabian Gulf.

I wasn't going to press the issue

This is the first of these signs I have encountered here, at the health clinic where I went to make an appointment to have the TB and HIV/AIDS tests I need to get my work visa.

Abu Dhabi has a parking crisis

And here is a look at it from my hotel window. This car is parked like this. Can you imagine?

Loads of people at the paper are getting their driver's licenses here, and talking about buying and/or leasing vehicles. The idea of driving here troubles me for a number of reasons.

First off, as you can see, there is rarely anywhere to park. In fact, while out and about, I have yet to notice an open parking spot. Secondly, people drive like maniacs, and near as I can tell, every street is a main thoroughfare. Third, I am dead afraid of getting into an accident.

I heard a funny story the other day. A couple of people went to get their licenses, and heard a woman in the line in front of them trying to get hers. She is married, but her husband isn't here yet. Well, he needs to be here, she was told. What's that, she said. He needs to be here to give his permission for you to get your license, was the answer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Have you ever seen an airplane fly through an obstacle course?

Mind-boggling. It's called the Red Bull Air Race and it transfixed Abu Dhabi Thursday and Friday. Real commercial pilots - the winner works for British Airways - flinging propeller planes at ridiculous speeds through giant, inflatable pylons over the water along the Corniche.

I would, however, feel safe with that pilot at the controls.

Random Abu Dhabi pics, week 1.5

Overheard in my new office

Co-worker, taking a call from a friend in another country

“What’s that, you’re on strike? (pause) Ohhhhhh, you’re on SKYPE.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Man do I miss constant Internet access

It’s amazing how you can be so immersed in a world and then just… drop out of it. I feel so disconnected over here – I have to pay for Internet access at the moment, and it’s not been working at the hotel anyway, so can’t spend lazy hours browsing the papers back home – yet at the same time, much of what I would have cared about is so muffled now that I’m so far away.

Like whether the Ottawa Sens are in the playoffs, or a federal election is in the offing, or what’s happening in the latest celeb news. Mostly I am just trying to learn how to properly edit other people’s copy, which, only having reporting experience, I am still finding hard to do. Rather than waking up in a cold sweat thinking I have mucked up a fact, I woke up this morning worrying I had screwed up someone else’s fact. There really is always something worse to worry about, isn’t there?

Speaking of the Sens, I don’t have a computer yet and so am shifting around our new, enormous newsroom (I will try to post some pics, it's amazing) like an extremely old intern. Turns out that’s not so bad, because I get to meet new people everyday. Yesterday I sat in the online section, beside one of the editors from the U.K. Turns out he’s a massive ice hockey fan, and has been corresponding with the three guys who run the Sens Underground podcast. How cool is that? I bet he couldn’t believe I when I said I was from Ottawa.

Speaking of where you are from, I heard a group of girls agreeing that home is where your parents live. It got me – who has more than a few years on them – thinking that the beauty of home is, as you get older you choose where it is. Home for me is very much Ottawa, the place I lived for eight years before all this madness. Well, right now, home is a hotel room in Abu Dhabi, actually, though it doesn’t quite feel like it yet.

I am settling into life here, though everything is still temporary and I won’t be in an apartment for about a month or so. (The cockroach situation – solved when I moved out of my room into a much nicer, and farther away, one) It is funny how much I have taken for granted about my comfy life back home. Things like getting on the Internet or flipping on the TV or finding a bank machine or joining a gym – or reading a newspaper! I do miss the papers back home. The ones here, like the Gulf News, which I picked up today, are often filled with local stories about dignitaries visiting each other. And the gym situation is a bit bonkers. There are waiting lists for all the beach clubs, and the other gyms I see have caricatures of pumped-up men outside of them. I’ll post some pics, it’s hilarious.

I am so excited about the new job and can’t wait for the paper to launch. Soon! Days, really. It is a massive undertaking and I have to say from the pages I’ve seen, it looks fabulous. I have only been in the country for a couple of days but I can already see there is a need for the sort of national conversation the editor-in-chief, Martin Newland, has suggested it will offer. I keep looking around me, at editors from top papers in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., and can’t believe I am sitting among them. There is also a sizable Canadian contingent here – it’s been dubbed the Canadian mafia, and at the launch party last week, the CEO suggested the paper was going to be “the best in Canada.” But I have to say it’s mostly Brits. This leads to fun confusion over newspaper terms. One of my superiors is from New Zealand, and the first day I giggled a little when she called the first line of a story – a lede back home – the “nose.” Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

Each day they post dummy pages and the editors make notes all over them, style, facts, etc. Someone put "neighbor" in a sub-head (which they call a deck over here) and the editor had circled it, with a line pointing to his comment: "GO HOME!" Funny, if its not you that forgot the 'u.'

But each day brings more Britishisms, like mobile, not cell, rubbish, not garbage, and I know when I get back to Ottawa and say just one of them, in a possibly faux British accent I am struggling not to pick up from my new surroundings – yes I am THAT woman – I will face immediate ridicule.

Friday, April 4, 2008

And then, it was a little better

I went into work yesterday, to get started on the process of getting my visa. (That process involved getting 60 copies of a passport photo - one I was encouraged to smile for - and people tell me I will use every last one of them) The paper is housed in the big white Emirates Media building, and the newsroom is temporary, though I saw the new one we'll move into next week and it's spiffy.

First off Daniel, my boss, introduced me to Martin Newland, the reason most of us came from far-flung places to this one. He's quite young, Newland, most recently at the Telegraph, and this is his second newspaper launch, the first being the National Post 10 years ago. He looked at me, sort of squinty-eyed and smiling, and said "you're wondering 'what the f--- have I done, right?'" (I had to admit I was. I really was at that point)

It was a refrain to be repeated through the introductions, though everyone seems quite settled and all fast friends now. I met the HR director, a spicy British woman who said "sorry about the hotel." She meant it, I think. Then I met another editor who was staying on the same hotel, same floor as me. "Sympathies," she said, and I felt an immediate kinship. My editor sent me off for the photos, warning me to be "careful. Be very, very, very, very, very, very careful crossing the street." He is not exaggerating. There are two massive lanes of hurtling cars. It took me about 15 minutes, actually.

I have begun to notice the social strata here. For one thing, there isn't the sort of chatting you'd expect, or interest, as a potential tourist, from the locals. There is palpable, but polite, disinterest. And twice now, when I've been hailing a cab in the middle of a cluster of Pakistani and Indian men, the cab driver has declined them all. Then, when I approached, he let me get in and took me where I wanted to go. You don't line up here, I am told, and that is just the way it is so don't feel bad about it.

Also, yesterday, melting, I tried to get in a cab but the driver told me he was sleeping.

The rest of the day was spent getting a cell phone, and photocopies for the visa. My first real day of work is tomorrow, but last night was the paper's launch party, at the Hilton on the beach. There was a lavish spread of food and an open bar. I was told it is like that every night, but won't expect it. Have you ever walked into a party of 200 people and known only one person in a strange land, jet-lagged and still a little freaked? No, me neither. Suffice to say I met some great people, a couple of husbands and wives along for the ride, and wound up the night at an adjacent bar with a fun group of Brits who took me under their wing.

I'm still quite stunned. But I think it's going to be okay.

Re: your lovely comments
a) I have named several of the roaches (fumigation was, well, not entirely successful) trying to sympathize, as they must be traumatized at the recent attempt to eradicate them. They are quite hard to tell apart though.

b) Pictures are coming, but this Blogger takes so long to load them I am running out of Internet time at the moment.

c) I did not bring SATC with me, a large regret. But I thought it might be seized at customs for inappropriate material. Turns out, after all the hype and worry about what I could and could not bring, my suitcases were in a pile on the floor and someone stamped my passport. Welcome to the UAE, ha ha, you could have brought those raunchy DVDs et cetera with you after all.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Landing... and freaking out

They can explain culture shock to you. But there is nothing like experiencing it. Because as nice as it is here (as warm as it is here, and palm-treed and impeccably sunny) as many Starbucks and The Gap and things like that I see around me that are familiar, I am not at home. Even more important, I'm not going home. Not anytime soon anyway.

This is home. That's the part that's hard to wrap my head around. Everyone told me I would feel like this for the first couple of weeks. It's just that this - no matter that I chose it, no matter that I wanted it, deep into my bones, and still do - is just so much more freakish and unsettling and weird and odd than I expected. I even found myself buying a copy of The Secret yesterday, if that is any indication as to the emotional roller coaster I find myself on at the moment. I mean, really. The Secret? In April, 2008?

Plus, there are cockroaches in my hotel room. Quite a lot of them, actually. It's beyond upsetting. But there are zero hotel rooms in Abu Dhabi at the moment, I am told, and the option is immediate fumigation. Not an option I feel is the best option, but the only one I am being presented with at the moment. I have to wonder if the people who came here before me to start this newspaper (read: higher ups) would have been placated by the word "fumigation," and I am inclined to think 'no, I suspect not.' Developing...

One more thing: I made it to a mall yesterday. Don't ask me to tell you the name, I can barely function here. It was smaller, by a lot, than say Bayshore in Ottawa or Masonville in London, yet it had four or five lingerie stores in it. So now, every time I see these women walking around covered head to toe in black, I can know not only are they listening to an iPod or chatting on their cell phone, they are rocking some serious fundie undies as well. There are always layers, aren't there?

Pictures and more upbeat posts to follow, I promise. Blogging, it turns out, feels grounding.
Also, the comments function is unregulated here, so feel free to make this site as interactive as possible!

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