Monday, September 29, 2008

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ramadan ends Monday... probably

It depends on the moon really, and as of now, no one really knows. I say this as someone who has not had to fast every day, or get up at dawn to eat, but it really cannot come soon enough.

It's a weird time, Ramadan in the Middle East. And it's not nearly as bad as people think it is. For example, you don't have to fast if you aren't Muslim. But out of respect to Muslims who are caffeine, liquid or food-deprived, or jonesing for a cigarette, you don't eat or drink or smoke around them. Before Ramadan began, there was some confusion about whether this was an actual law or more like a custom or policy. I wasn't going to whip out my water bottle while almost perishing waiting for a taxi ride to find out. Another reason I am glad for Ramadan to be over: cab drivers seem to either leave the roads or drive around in empty cabs. They are always going somewhere I cannot come. It's also quite strange, because many bars and restaurants aren't open during the day. And when bars open at night, which many don't, there is no music. We were in a popular bar called Heroes the other night, one that was overpacked with people, and it was the strangest thing, not a note playing over the loudspeakers.

The not eating and smoking thing in public really is a law, though. I have a friend who was stopped and ticketed because a police officer saw him smoking a cigar while driving in his truck in Dubai. Another couple was arrested and detained for drinking in a waiting room. Some offices are more strict than others; ours is pretty strict. It's sort of funny, when that evening call to prayer goes, after 6 pm, it's like a nightly party.

Anyway, depending on the moon, we are in for a four or five-day Eid holiday. It's like Christmas in October around here.

It's a little late, but below I've included a few shots of the nightly iftar tents and a bunch of shisha pipes.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

If you ever need to speak directly, if briefly, to the guy upstairs...

...may I suggest standing on the edge of Santorini's Caldera? It is, most definitely, worth the ferry ride.

Sarah Palin most definitely needs a trip to Mykonos

Interesting name for a pub

Singing along to showtunes with the boys at the Montparnasse Piano Bar

A Pelican

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In Athens, one should eat the moussaka and avoid martinis

One more Shirley Valentine joke and I'm gonna...

... well, I won't do anything, actually. I am back after two weeks touring Athens and a few of the Greek islands. As always this trip – a glorious one – has left me with more questions than answers.

1) Why do so many tourists – wait, make that people – have issues with waistband placement?

2) How is it possible to be so far from one's home and yet still be dogged from place to place by an assortment of irritating characters, the sort who grow progressively more annoying with each unwanted encounter?

3) How could it take a couple of intelligent adults almost 10 days to realise they are being charged for the bread that appears on their table at each meal, bread they do not even want for caloric reasons, but that they gobbled down each time nonetheless?

4) How could someone wait so very many years before experiencing the pure joy that comes with renting a moped?

5) How could that person not realise that with their very round, extra large helmet and aviator sunglasses, she looked very much like a nerdy state trooper?

6) If the sea is so powerful and restorative, why can't we all live near it?

Monday, September 15, 2008

On a tour...

... of the Greek islands. Pics and commentary to follow when I return. Opa!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

How my "Made in Canada" t-shirt made me some new friends

I was tired, and sweaty, and hungry. It had been a long day of work, and then I went to the gym, and then I went to feed my friend's cat, and then I spied the awesome Arabic bakery near her hotel and before I knew it I was in front waiting for a hot round of the world's best bread. Then the man in front of me spied my "Made in Canada" T-shirt.

He became extremely excited. He was visiting from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with his entire family.

"Can you come to my hotel?" he pleaded.

Turns out he really wanted me to meet one of his daughters, who has completed her medical school training and desperately wants to do her residency in Canada in radiology. It was one of those moments where I really, really just wanted to get home. I'd planned to call someone back in Canada and, after all, it was almost midnight. "Oh," I said, "I can't. I have to get back to my hotel."

He pleaded. And pleaded. So I relented, telling him that while I couldn't go up to his hotel room, I would wait in the lobby until he brought his daughter downstairs. I waited for quite awhile, and when they got back downstairs I felt bad (though really, what women in their right mind would head up to a strange man's hotel room, no matter how nice he seemed?) because she had to put on her burqa and if I had gone upstairs, she wouldn't have.

Now that I know how hard it can be for Arab women to study abroad – they are largely prevented from doing so by their families, for religious and cultural reasons that mean they aren't allowed to even travel alone, especially those from Saudi Arabia – I am even more impressed by her, but also her father. You have not seen a man more welcoming to a stranger, and more proud of his daughter.

We talked for awhile, me and her, and exchanged email addresses and then took this picture. As I walked away - feeling completely energised and happy, because that's what happens when you expand your world and meet new people – I was thinking about how easy it is to get in a rut, even if you've just upped sticks and moved around the globe within the last six months. And how good it feels when you fight that part of yourself that doesn't like anything different, or new, and just say 'yes'.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The amazing mosaic at Safari

This mosaic hangs in a bar I tend to visit several times a month, which I have already written about extensively. Mostly because I simply cannot get over the decor.

Voila, the tiger.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Ramadan story

Muslims are fasting between sunup and sundown: no water, food or cigarettes.

A friend had been telling his wife all about Ramadan, so she wouldn't offend anyone. Then he apparently just plumb forgot about the whole thing.

While they were waiting for a doctor's appointment, he strolls over to the water cooler, pouring himself a cup. He looks back, casually, gesturing to see if she would like some. She shakes her head, acutely aware of a roomful of people who haven't had anything to drink in hours. He takes a nice long drink.

Then his cell phone rings, so he answers it. Strolls outside for a chat, where he can soon be seen outside the window, puffing away on a cigarette. Then he came back into the waiting room, still oblivious, everyone glaring, wife mortified.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ramadan: Week one

Things are going pretty well. It's fun having lunch in a lunchroom and meeting other colleagues, and I swear I am eating less simply because I am not munching at my desk all day. In answer to a question posted here, no I am not fasting. What would be the point? That would be like asking a Muslim to take communion. We don't eat or drink or smoke or swear (that one is proving the most difficult, I am afraid) in front of other Muslims during Ramadan during sunup to sundown because they are fasting, out of respect. Because let's face it, it's not easy to go that many hours without so much as a drop of water.

Most accounts indicate Ramadan is getting more liberal, particularly in Dubai, but there is a definite change to the mood of the city. Most cab drivers take the afternoon off, to sleep, I imagine. Government offices and banks work truncated hours. And it's very busy out at night, particularly after the Maghrib call to prayer, before 7 pm, which breaks the fast. Most everything is open later - the cleaners I go to was open until midnight, as was the gym - and you can see things are slower during the day.

I was in a pub on the first night, and it was eerily quiet because that's another aspect: no music, or bands, or anything like that, for the entire month.

Being here at this time is really driving something home for me: I never paid attention to any of this stuff before. Islam was like a vague sort of mysterious thing to me; I dreaded being asked to write stories about anything to do with it because I understood so little. I remember years ago, in Woodstock, On., writing a story about Eid ul Fitr (the celebration of when Ramadan ends, signified by the sighting of the new moon). I had arranged to interview a Muslim family from I cannot remember where now, and when I showed up, they had made an entire feast, just for me. Of course it was one of those workhorse daily newspapers and I had to rush back to the office, and I felt terrible. It gives me a little lump in my throat, even now, remembering those sweet people, helping me with my story.

And now, being immersed in it, I cannot imagine how I could have not bothered to learn more.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ramadan, Day One

So the call to Magrib prayer just sounded at 6.39pm and I whipped my Sigg bottle out from under the desk and took a giant swig of water. Day 1 of Ramadan - the hard part - was over. And by hard part, I do not mean hard for me. I mean for all the Muslims who didn't eat a bite or drink a drop of water all day.

I really enjoyed my water, and that was only because I didn't have to go to a private room to drink it. I can only imagine how much fun everyone is having at all those iftar tents around town right now.

I would have to say after a rough start, today went rather smoothly. By rough start, I mean to say I could not get a ride to work. Not for love or money. Well, in the end, money and some gestured begging did the trick. Apparently most of the cab drivers, fasting as their religion dictates, head home by midday for a nap. One would get drowsy, I imagine, not drinking or eating since dawn. That would explain all the empty cabs driving past. I waited for about a half-hour with two school children, a brother and sister who could not have been more than 8 and 5. I tried to negotiate with them, so that when a cab did come, we could get in it together. But the older brother wouldn't have it, and when after 30 minutes he finally grew exasperated and grabbed his sister's hand, making off down the road, I knew merely standing and waiting was futile.

So I started walking, in heels, down the hot road. Cabs whipped past. None of the buses carrying workers took pity, like yesterday, though I still held out hope. I grew thirsty, but did not withdraw my water bottle for fear of being arrested. Then I finally begged a driver on his way home for a ride and arrived at work, 45 minutes late.

A lot had gone on in my absence. The idea of a combined smoking/eating room – which also houses one of the designers working on the launch of this fall's Saturday's paper – had not gone down well with the non-smokers. So the industrial ashtray, the one with the sand and all the cigarette butts sticking out of it, which was just a few feet from the designer's desk, thank goodness he was a smoker, was moved to the multimedia room. I went in there for a chat several hours ago and emerged smelling as though I had smoked an entire pack in a car with the windows up.

There had already been a series of e-mails about the tea boys. (I had been surprised to see Ismail pop into the newly smoke-free lunch room and ask if I wanted a coffee) They were fasting for Ramadan, some said. It would be rude to ask them to make you a drink. Ismail had looked quite cheerful to me, and decidedly a go-getter in his job just like every other day. Then more e-mails came, saying that the tea boys couldn't afford to take the day off even though they were fasting, and so if you did order from them, you should tip them heavily.

Then I went to eat some lunch, but wasn't a big fan of the conversation. A few co-workers were talking about how they had tried to fast for a couple of hours, but didn't feel well, so they ate and drank something. What, I have to ask, is the point?

My impression of the entire thing, so far, is that like almost everything else, things are scary when they are unknown. Then, when you are confronted with them, they are just not that bad. As one editor commented, this whole lunchroom-we-have-to-use idea forces us to mingle with those we do not know. Never easy; never a bad thing either.

How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie.  After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and ...