Thursday, January 29, 2009

The best video ever, if I do say so myself

I paid a visit to the camel dairy in Al Ain this week. It's not so much the two workers milking a camel that I found entertaining, although that is weird enough. What has me obsessed is the soundtrack of all those crazy, cranky camels.

I have already watched this video way too many times.

I have now heard of four people at The National who have lost their wallets in Abu Dhabi or Dubai...

...and four people who had them returned, like me. Two with cash intact. Not like me, not that I'm complaining.

A woman's gym, in the penthouse of a building on Al Falah

Random Facebook come-on of the day

"hi sweetie , you look really nice , i would love to know you ,
maybe i can invite you for dinner if you dont mind
it will be good to see you

take care

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I thought it was the end of the call to prayer, at first

And despite complaining sometimes, that the call to prayer wakes me up - the one at dawn, particularly - you know what? I was bummed. I would really miss it if it was gone. Then I realised, upon closer inspection of the news article, that it isn't the azan at all, but the iqamat-as-salat, which comes later and signals the beginning of prayers.

I am not sure why the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments discontinued the after-the-call call, but people aren't very happy about it.

Oh no you didn't Time Out Abu Dhabi

I really thought I had escaped this tiresome January phrase. Then I spotted this in the supermarket:

Comedy Arabia: Me & Bobby Lee

I am not quite sure when I became the sort of person who accosts celebrities and demands a picture with them. I did not used to be like this: I have interviewed all sorts of famous people and managed to maintain my composure and avoid breathlessness. 

But I wasn't working last night. And as we lined up for drinks at the bar before the Comedy Arabia show at the Beach Rotana, I looked over the merchandise table and saw the MADtv comic  standing there, all alone. 

Him: "You know who I am?" 

Me: "Of course. Doesn't anyone know who you are?" (I like to say redundant things when speaking to people I admire, apparently)

Him: "No! That's why I'm going on first."

He wasn't very funny, in the end, although I won't blame Bobby Lee. It was a tough crowd, and no one knows how hilarious he is on MADtv, and I think he had to tone things down quite a bit. I just give him credit for coming; it would have been heaps easier to do some shows in LA, I imagine.

It was a good night, all round, acoustic issues aside. The other comedians were better, mostly because their acts seemed more tailored to a diverse, Middle East crowd. And although we were laughing at them, a lot of the times we just laughed because we had no idea why the crowd - full of nationalities from around the region and outside of it - was laughing. 

Like when one said "My name is Erik Griffin. And no, I am not Egyptian," everyone just killed themselvesg. We just looked at each other. Is it because his name doesn't sound Egyptian, I wonder? One of them mentioned the word "week" and people all but stood and cheered. Three Emiratis in the front row took a ton of ribbing, being called Sheikhs and teased for being rich, and they laughed along too. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The dark, dark side

She had only just been brought there and put to work as a prostitute; on her first day she was forced to be with four different men. 

The next morning the watchman heard a thud and found her on the pavement.

A random thing I feel the need to semi-publicly confess

I enjoy the music of David Gray. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

Why wouldn't you wear this to work out?

I was buying a tennis racket the other day when I spotted this two-for-one offer on the his-and-hers "Sauna Suit" for weight loss.

Also note: the man is very serious about exercise; his wife looks a bit more easygoing about the whole thing.

The economy: What a difference 10 months makes

When I arrived in the UAE on April 2, it really was the land of opportunity. Immediately I felt the difference: first off, I was to work for a brand-new, fully resourced newspaper, something that and unheard of in the West, even before the latest journalism bloodbath.

Property prices were rising steadily - in the early days I was seized with a desire to buy a flat that would quadruple in price and perhaps enable me to retire early. Very early. There were the tax-free salaries, the bar-hopping, the taller-than-tall buildings that seemed to be announced in Dubai every other day, not to mention a skyline full of construction cranes.

The cranes are still there, and in many cases, in Abu Dhabi at least, they have been replaced with buildings that are almost finished. But the signs of the credit crunch/global economic downturn/plunging economy/credit crisis are popping up everywhere. People are abandoning cars at the airport as they leave the country. Classified websites like are reporting huge spikes in business, as people who have been laid off dump the entire contents of their apartments online at cut rate prices. Today The National reported that parents who can't afford the hefty fees are pulling their kids out of private schools. recently reported that there are workers in Dubai who aren't working, or being paid, but they can't leave and go back home because their employers still have their passports. 

The banks were throwing credit at us when we arrived; they began scaling it back for some people, without so much as a phone call of notification. And due to the country's visa laws, if you are laid off there is no sticking around - you have got to go because the visa goes with the job.

Many times I've wondered why I've not bought so much as a kettle here and other people have laid down heavy investments in belongings for a comfortable life. Mostly it's because I didn't come here to have a life like I do back home; I'll have a car again, and a great place to live, and my full wardrobe and extensive collection of shoes and boots not to mention wireless internet, premium cable and a cell phone that takes messages. Also because as great an experience it has been, and continues to be, I am just not sure I am cut out to be an expat for the duration.

Whatever the reason, I am glad I haven't invested a ton. Because you just never know.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The weather: As dull a topic as it has ever been, with snow

It has snowed in the north, in Ras Al Khaimah, this week. This is a very big deal. This is such a rare occurrence the local dialect doesn't even seem to have a word for snow. Jebel Jais (Jebel means mountain) is blanketed... the three dudes on the front of our paper today have built a snowman in what is one of my favourite photos since coming here.  It is only the second snowfall in recorded history – a word has failed to include today, also attributing the UAE's snowfall to global warming, which I am not sure is the case – but remember, there wasn't much here even 30 years ago. Not much recording going on. Perhaps no pens even. There is snow story and photo gallery here, and as good as it is, I caution that it will probably prove exceedingly dull for Canadian readers.

There is snow on stuff, basically.

A friend wrote to me the other day from Canada and mentioned that I hadn't complained about the weather lately. The truth is, it's pretty gorgeous out now in the UAE. The days have a hint of cool in the air, mostly with bright sunshine. You can still sit out at night, and lots of places have heaters, which strikes me as pretty hilarious. In Canada, the heaters are pulled out in October. 

It poured rain on Friday night for about 10 minutes; a friend and I enjoyed it from the balcony.

You appreciate these things, knowing that the toaster is on the way. When it's the humidity, not the heat.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bobby Lee is coming! Bobby Lee is coming!

I am so excited right now I can barely type. I was just editing a story about the Comedy Arabia show at the Beach Rotana Tuesday and Wednesday night (the one on the sign I've barely acknowledged on each gym visit by thinking sarcastically 'now that will be funny'). I went to the website to check some facts on the headliner, Ahmed Ahmed, when I saw it: a tiny picture of MadTV's hilarious and frequently naked cast member Bobby Lee. 

I almost started hyperventilating. Bobby Lee is going to be in Abu Dhabi. He may already be here. So far I have had a lukewarm reception from the Brits about accompanying me to this show. I imagine they suspect the humour will be too American (read: obvious). But I am undeterred: I will go by myself if I have to.

Even better, Ahmed Ahmed toured in Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show. I am putting on my laughing pants RIGHT NOW.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The atrocious cat is named: Mickey (Tumbleweed) it is

Thanks to Bob and JP, both freezing their ***ses off in Ottawa at the moment, for naming this hideous creature, which is, by the way, most definitely a boy. 

The first name is a nod to the come-back story of the year, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Tumbleweed – well I am not quite sure where that one comes from as JP did not elaborate, but he is my friend and I like it. Plus, only two people made suggestions. 

So mostly I will call the cat Mickey (though I can always add the Tumbleweed, for effect, when it is in trouble and I want to speak sternly).

My next job will be to have it spayed (CORRECTION: neutered), so it cannot impregnate any of the Al Dafra cats. Of these, there can only be one.

Now, on to the next pressing issue: can anyone explain why I am so obsessed with this cat?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What Canadian wouldn't hit a Chinese restaurant in an Abu Dhabi hotel on July 1?

I was having dinner with some friends last night at Raj Palace, the yummy, over-the-top Indian restaurant in the Capitol Hotel, when one of them noticed a sign outside Shanghai Surprise, the restaurant just opposite, advertising just how versatile it can be.

Secretary's Day? 30th Birthday? Canada Day? No problems!

They've got me thinking: on July 1, instead of being here, one of my favourite places on the planet... should I stay in Abu Dhabi and join my fellow countrymen at Shanghai Surprise?

Only in the UAE, where most people seem to be diabetic already

The Ras al Khaimah Half Marathon goes down Feb 20 and one of the main sponsors is none other than:

I ran a half-marathon a couple of years ago in Toronto and when I crossed the finish line I almost threw the medal back at the person who handed it to me. It was a half-medal. That would only be funny later. 

 I would have much preferred a doughnut, I think. 

Do you think the people who run in RAK next month will pass tables full of fritters and glazed, instead of Gatorade and water? Will their medals have sprinkles, and holes in the middle? Although I am physically unable, after moving here and becoming mired in pubs and cheap cigarettes and takeout food, I almost want to sign up just to find out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yep, I thought as much

The inauguration, from Abu Dhabi

Well, that was inspiring, wasn't it? President Barack Hussein Obama. It was like one of the signs the cameras captured in the crowd, the one that said "Wow". Still, I am left wondering... is it possible that the BBC's cameras, out of about a million people packed into the National Mall, would focus in on the same attractive white woman not once, but twice during Obama's speech? Obama can be such an impressive orator, yet muck up an Oath of Office he simply has to repeat?

...where Aretha Franklin got her awesome hat.

...why George Bush Sr was wearing a yellow turtleneck, and he and Barbara matching purple coats and scarves.

...who is responsible for this line in Obama's speech, aimed at the dictators and undemocratic of the world: "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist".

...if any media will pluck out this shout-out: "to the Muslim world a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect".

...what the very first thing is that George W will do when the helicopters have gone and he's back in his ranch.

...if the BBC reporter's pre-speech interview with "average black woman" could have been more awkward. Also, why television people persist in asking closed questions like "did you ever think you'd see anything like this in your lifetime?" That reporter in particular is obsessed with "never having seen anything like it". He said it three times when they went to him after the speech wrapped.

...if there is anything cuter than Malia taking snaps of her dad giving his inaugural address.

...if the speechwriters meant to conjure Albert Camus with the "in the depth of winter" stuff. Cause there ain't anything the world needs more right now than a little of that sentiment: "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me, there was an invincible summer".

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gaza: This is so sad

Dr Izzeldin Aboul Aish, a Gazan, doctor, widower and peace activist, lost three daughters and a niece in bombing Saturday. 

The Israeli public witnessed his misery when he phoned into a television station – he had been providing staff there with first-hand accounts – and sobbed for help during one of the main evening newscasts. 

"Could somebody please come to us?" he pleaded.

The anchor just held up the phone, and for three and a half minutes Dr Aboul Aish's wailing was broadcast across the country. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Abu Dhabi protests what's happening in Gaza

As Israel intensifies its offensive on Gaza, I wonder if people will protest here again tomorrow. Last Friday I went for a rollerblade along the Corniche, where I was met by about 4,000 people marching for peace there. I was a bit shocked - protests do not happen here, save for the rare silent versions - and quite moved. They were joined by demonstrations all over the emirates. 

Crikey! More censorship

Three different people have sent me news of this job

Have you heard about this? An island in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef (or is it in the Great Barrier Reef? I realise I know so little about the Land Down Under, despite working with so many of their great people. Then again, one of them once asked me if Alberta was in Calgary) is going to pay someone more than $122,000 for six months to blog about their experiences living there. 

AP reports 20,000 people have already applied online, and the ad doesn't expire until Feb 22. Unfortunately, you can't get on the site at the moment to apply. 

Don't ask me how I know that. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Snap caption: The "greening Abu Dhabi" initiative stumbles ever so slightly

Aimless police officer not really sure why he stopped woman

My friend was driving back to Dubai from Abu Dhabi the other night - very late - when she was pulled over by a police officer. This is her strange tale:

"He didn't really elaborate on what I had done and just loitered there asking me strange questions. Luckily he didn't speak much English. Did I speak Arabic? I just shrugged and said no, sorry. Wasn't I tired? I held up my coffee cup by way of explanation. Was I going to Dubai? Then he took an inordinately long amount of time to examine my licence and my car registration card, while referring to me by my first name.

Then he explained to me I was fine to speed at up to 140km in Abu Dhabi but told me to watch out for cameras in Dubai. (incidentally I wasn't even doing 140)

Finally he sighed and said: 'ok, need to clean your car'."

This might be the ugliest cat in all of Abu Dhabi...

... and that is saying quite a lot. 

Perhaps it was born laden with this appalling smear of gray, which gives the appearance it just ran through a dust storm or under some dirty drapes. The eyes! It slinks around too, lurking by the dumpsters in front of my hotel. I noticed it last Friday, standing there, barking at me and the cab driver, making us both laugh. It is quite cheerful, if insistent and overly talkative. I can hear it yowling out there now, through two hotel floors, thick windows and over the air conditioning, short staccato bursts without an space between them, forming a sort of monotone: "Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow."

I think it makes an excellent addition to the neighbourhood. If anyone can think of a name, I am all ears. (Sort of like our friend here)

Say what? Things I cannot believe I have read in a newspaper

The National had a story yesterday reporting that Sharjah, one of the seven emirates, has decided to implement a 10-year-old federal law banning people working in low-income or low-skilled professions from applying for driving licenses. So, apparently, if you are a lawyer, you can drive your car. Tailor? Not so lucky.

The really odd thing about this story is one of the professions not allowed to get a license under this law is newspaper distributors. Um, how exactly does a person distribute newspapers without a driving license?

Sharjah Municipality put the law in action late last year to cut congestion on the roads. I might have gone the toll route, but what do I know?

The story goes on to interview a man who was not pleased when, after complaining about not being able to get a license, was told by the counter officer: "if you want a license, go back to school and upgrade for a good profession".

Oh, they also interviewed a driving instructor who was quite pleased with the changes. Before the law, he was exhausted teaching 10 people a day; now he is at an easier pace of four or five.

Is Gmail messing with my head?

Just now, across the top as I was searching for something in my trash, was this "recycling tip":

"You can make a lovely hat out of previously-used aluminum foil".

Monday, January 12, 2009

Funny how you can know someone a short time, #2

It's just part of it, isn't it? We come to work here from all over and some people like it, and others not so much, and they leave. And I guess you can stop yourself from getting closer to people you probably won't always know, but that wouldn't be any fun. And besides, when it comes to personal relationships, I find I have increasingly been tending to err on the side of tepid restraint. While I am not advocating a return to the headlong passionate messiness of my 20s, caution was never really my style either. I vow here and now to try and find some sort of middle ground.

My good friend and Jordan travel partner got on a plane today; he's moving on after just a few months here - and it's a good move for him. I was really sad when we said goodbye, because even though he has infuriated me on more than one occasion, I am seriously going to miss that guy. He is one decent person. Ordering lunch will not be nearly the event and I don't know who will help me sort out all my IT-ish issues or give me lots of useful stuff. And not to sound too dramatic, but he is going very far away and I will probably never see him again. So, you know, bummer.

He took the piss a lot, as the Brits say. It made me laugh. The most gullible I've been was last week, when he showed me a video about new Mac laptops that replaced the keyboard with an iPod-ish click wheel. As I seriously pondered whether I would be interested in such a feature, he revealed it was, of course, from The Onion. I shall never again pass through groups of families reuniting in an airport reception area without giggling at the thought of him saying "it's a scene the world over". And I did not put a Gloria Gaynor song on the CD I made for him, even though he joked about one being there. Then again I gave him the nickname Mister Spaz Pants, for frequent fits at work due to high standards he won't compromise - he's a cracker journo. I am pretty sure I told him about that. The nickname, I mean.

So I am feeling atmospheric and at loose ends today. Thinking I've had a nice start to 2009. Kinda blue, but better off than if I had not bothered.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Guest blog: On tattoos

An exclusive essay by the distinguished Rupert Wright, a senior editor at The National, one of my favourite writers at the paper. Mr Wright, take it away:

When not toiling in the office or sitting in traffic, I have spent most of my time in Abu Dhabi at The Club. Nicknamed the ‘British Club’ by taxi drivers, this is an expatriate enclave near the new bridge to Saadiyat island. It has a sandy beach, gym, swimming pool, tennis and squash courts and many facilities to entertain the children. There are lots of rules to observe and notices such as “No horseplay or disruptive behaviour”. There is even a splendid beach restaurant, where at night you can sit and eat and watch the building work on Al Reem island. It rather reminds me of a boarding school, except that you can order beer and there are women around the swimming pool.
One thing in particular has struck me: the number of those bodies that are tattooed, particularly the women’s, many of whom are no longer in the first flush of youth. I had always thought that tattoos were the preserve of seamen and Samoans. In eight years of living in France – down near the Mediterranean, so there was plenty of opportunity for observation – I only saw one tattoo, and that was on the heel of a Goldman Sachs partner. She said that she had it done with her daughter in a kind of bonding ceremony. There was a time when that could be accomplished by a trip to Harvey Nicholls, but I guess a butterfly on your ankle serves equally well.
But clustered around the pool are women in bikinis, the majority of whom have something tattooed on their shoulder blade, or on their ample stomachs, or daringly down their back. What is the etiquette here? Can one say: “Nice tattoo. Where is the head of that snake that stretches down your back?” I suspect not.
My wife holds that these middle-aged women had their tattoos when they were younger, possibly on a hen weekend, but I don’t think this is the case. I suspect that the tattoo for a woman is the equivalent mid-life crisis that sends a man to buy a sports car. The person is hoping to send the message that they are still fit, eager, sexy – maybe a little dangerous - but in most cases it rings hollow. I recall a man who used to roar around our Sussex village in England in a red Porsche. That was fine, until he stopped and tried to get out. It would take him ten minutes or so to make it from the parking space to the pub. These women with their tattoos may think they look like Angelina Jolie – but just because you have ink on your buttocks that doesn’t make you one of the most beautiful women on the planet. It probably doesn’t help that the staple diet of these tattoo-wearers appears to be chips. Those tiny butterflies on the belly risk expanding into something more resembling giant bats.

Jordan: Among other things, I floated in the salty, salty Dead Sea

Of course, as with many travel adventures, some things you just have to learn for yourself. As in, one really does not want to be in the Dead Sea for long. First off, you bob around looking like an idiot (that is why everyone is laughing so hard the first time) You cannot get water in your eyes. And it burns in funny places. They never tell you about that in the travel guides, do they?

It was a quick, greatest hits, four-day tour of a spectacular country: Amman, Mount Nebo, Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea. It was just about the best trip ever. Jordan is amazing. I had a travel partner who is interesting, considerate, fun and also looks pretty good in a keffiyah, which, if you think about it, is an excellent combination of attributes. It was too short for anything to go wrong and the Jordanian people we met were amazingly friendly and funny. (Apart from the silly, silly airport security) Then there was the wicked, kinda crisp weather, our gentle guide Awni, the rich history and the posh hotels. The best part was that I was able to just mostly sit and soak up the moment. I highly recommend it: Jordan, and the moment thing too.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A possibly useless and quite pricey product for New Year's detoxification

Why I bought this product, I have no idea. I guess I basically hoped that a five-day regimen of applying weird, smelly patches and eating lots of vegetables would be able to undo all the damage I've done to my liver since moving to Abu Dhabi by sucking it right out the bottom of my feet. Even if I didn't really believe that, a small part of me must have wished it to be true to fork over the cash, right?

And I call myself a journalist.

Crikey! Censorship!

I bought this crappy women's magazine a couple of weeks ago for a flight - for some reason, crappy women's magazines are about all I can focus on while in the air, that and completely dumb movies - and was killing myself when I noticed what one of Abu Dhabi's censors had blacked out. I'd heard about these black markings ever since arriving, just never saw it for myself. Then, there it was, in British Cosmopolitan, part of an article called... well, you can see what it's called.

The thing is, shouldn't pretty much all of British Cosmo, and Glamour, and just about every other women's magazine that fall all over themselves to write about things of an, ahem, extremely personal nature, be subject to the black marker too? I am not, repeat not, asking for this to happen. I simply wouldn't mind if things made a bit more sense sometimes.

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 ...