Thursday, December 30, 2010

A reasoned take on the UAE-Canada visa issue

As we know, I am biased here, but I fully appreciate this editorial in The Globe and Mail's on the dispute, particularly this part:

Canada should change its landing slot regime, but Canadians should not be forced to interpret tea leaves.

It's things like this that make the whole "we value women" thing hard to swallow

The Supreme Court has ruled that the blood money that must be paid in the case of death under Sharia Law (and people wonder why I don't drive here) is, for a woman, exactly half of that owed for a man. From The National:

The decision was issued as part of the court’s reasoning for fining an insurance company Dh1 million for the death of a foetus in a 2007 traffic accident. The gender of the foetus was not determined and the courts said the blood money should be equal to that of a woman, Dh100,000. The blood money for a man is Dh200,000.

My reaction, 2 days later, remains the same: Really UAE? $250 for a visa to visit? Really?

The more I think about this, the madder I get. And judging from the response I get from others when I talk about it, either on Twitter or here, this is an issue that inspires passion on both sides.

UAE arugula, known to Brits as "rocket", appears to be generally and overwhelmingly disgusting

When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi there was one meal I enjoyed more than any other. There I'd be at my copy editing desk, happily munching away on pita bread slathered in the now, sadly, defunct Al Mashwa's outstanding hummus, topped with delicious, peppery arugula. My mouth waters just thinking about it. Arugula, in all it's peppery, vitamin-packed goodness, is awesome. Well the days of loving it are over, now that a professor at the American University of Sharjah had to go and reveal the results of his research: for some reason he collected arugula from basically everywhere and found it is riddled in more e-coli than you'd find in a typical toilet bowl.

Yes. Riddled. He was not able to remove it with soap and water. Or bleach.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I strongly urge you to click on this link...

... Emirates 24/7 has managed to choose the world's most inappropriate photo to illustrate a court case over an attempted rape and kidnapping in Satwa. Please, please please click. You will not be sorry. Comments strongly encouraged.

UPDATE: It looks like they have taken it down, probably due to extreme embarrassment, so let me describe it for you. It was a stock photo, of the back end of some sort of late 1950's-era car in a place that looked nothing like Dubai.  A woman's legs, clad in stockings and high heels, were sticking out of the closed trunk! I would not have believed it, but I swear to you I saw it with my own eyes.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Facebook update aptly sums up much of what ails the UAE

"Woke up yesterday morning to the sound of chainsaws, looked out my window and saw an army of Abu Dhabi municipality workers chopping down everything that didn’t move – including a very large and beautiful self-sustaining ghaf tree. I asked the man with the clipboard what was happening and he said they were going to build a park with lots of beautiful flowers."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I knew there was a reason I bothered to get an alcohol license

Actually it was all the news stories where Westerners get into a variety of only-in-the-UAE scrapes – forgetting where they are and giving their significant other a kiss, go for a post-brunch cuddle on the beach, arrested after an altercation with a taxi driver, charged with having sex outside of marriage after reporting that you've been raped – and the fact that they were drinking illegally seemed to become the issue that prompted me to go through the hassle and expense of getting one. It's not because the booze stores ask for it. They don't, unless it's sometime in November. Then there is this, a pre-New Year's Eve examination in today's The National of how random and confusing this country's liquor laws really are.

So you shell out $700 for a night at the Burj al Arab and understandably because it's just so darn exciting to be on vacation in Dubai, get a little giddy on champagne in the Skyview Bar before heading out to see the Burj Khalifa. Then you step outside the building, something weird happens and voila, you are being held in a jail cell, having prompted a minor international incident, wondering why you didn't just go to Majorca.

Just be careful, is all. It all boils down to a simple fact that is easy to forget, even as we are reminded five times a day by the sound of the call to prayer: this is a Muslim country, and we are just guests.

Emirate's Palace $11 million tree: denied

A word to unsuspecting tourists: sometimes you can't actually go inside Emirates Palace just for a look. When you are least expecting it, say when you've decided to take your dad there for high tea or you fancy a peek at a massive Christmas tree decorated with diamonds and sapphires while on a Christmas day ramble, the guard will tell you they aren't letting anyone one in without dinner reservations. And there you are in your sneakers, tank top and Lululemon pants, without any. So I can't say I've seen the thing. And I get that Emirates Palace may indeed regret the whole affair, and that they didn't actually go out and spend $11 million on the thing. Rather they just trotted out the same tree they've had other years (not much more snazzy than half the other hotels in town are boasting) and got a bunch of jewels out on loan to decorate it and then, and this is the part I think they might be smarting about, publicised it. But hey, this is the hotel with the vending machine that dispenses gold bars, remember? The one where the jaw drops upon entering the lobby, that a major Hollywood film with massive bucks and a terrible plot (Sex and the City 2) couldn't even begin to do justic to, even with the entire imagination of the industry's top set designers. This is Opulence, with a capital "O" – no matter what temperature the global economic climate.

Although I am quite sure the staff at Emirates Palace did not mean to be insensitive (no one ever does, do they?) I enjoyed John Oliver's take over at The Bugle podcast – "It's like a 43-foot f***you to the poorest countries in the world" – all the same.

A different Christmas, in Abu Dhabi

I was walking around my neighbourhood Christmas Eve and day, smiling because so many people took care to wish me well. The little man at the corner store, his Sri Lankan newspaper spread out over the cooler, rushing to get me a bag for my soda water, smirked a little before saying a shy "Happy Christmas". Someone yelled it out across the street to me, waving. On the 23rd I had to compose myself, feeling a rush of tears when one of the tea boys at work, a regal man, handed me a Christmas card he made. He made them for all of us, all of the people at the newspaper who barely give him the time of day. As I thanked him, he explained that he took one printout to a copy centre because it would have cost too much to print out all the copies. He put them in envelopes! How freaking kind.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Scenes from Christmas Day, Abu Dhabi, 2010

Gulf side, Corniche beach.

Corniche, by Hiltonia Beach Club.
Picnic at the beach.

Spinney's, Khalidiya

Finishing work, Hamdan St

Evening prayers, Tanker Mei.

Not your typical Christmas Eve: Top of the Burj Khalifa

View from the ground, outside Dubai Mall.

A friend is leaving Abu Dhabi, going back to Canada next week, and for a variety of reasons he did not get to see and do all he wanted to while he was here. So yesterday we rented a car and drove to Dubai so we could go up to the top of the tallest building in the world. It's a bit misleading, because the Burj Khalifa is 160 floors, and the highest you can go as a visitor to the building is 124. But it's pretty cool, all the same.

Burj casts quite a shadow.

The last 36 floors.

Looks like an artist's rendering, doesn't it?

Merry Christmas! Hope you are all with family and friends

Me and my brother James, Christmas, sometime in the '70s.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

If you've got a spare hour, then carols at the Intercon Abu Dhabi it is

Each night from 6-7pm the staff gather to sing in the hotel's lovely lobby bar (there is a great tree there, I wish I'd gathered round it and pretended it was my own for this year's Christmas card). The press release says up until now performances have given "the listeners a wondering facial expression if this Choir was really an unprofessional one, many have approached the management and wondered from which musical institute they have booked the signing group".

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For those who don't believe that people in the UAE keep cougars as pets...

... I give you this shot, snapped in Abu Dhabi's British Veterinary Clinic earlier this year. That bad boy is on a leash. When it comes to cougars, better on a leash than swimming and terrorizing the local mosque, I always say.

I overcame the 'M' word and came out pretty chipper

I did it.

I've been putting it off for six months and I finally did it - my first breast cancer screening via mammogram. I turned 40 this year and well, that's when they say you should do it and keep doing it once a year. I am fortunate to have great healthcare coverage, and so there was nothing but my own (considerable) trepidation holding me back. 

Turns out it was fine, it was absolutely fine. Like most things that scare us, the reality was much better than the scary scenario I had created in my head. It's like an unexpected Christmas present to myself.

Although I've argued before that there is enough in the way of breast cancer awareness in the west – there I believe the whole "pink" movement has reached a level of consumerist insanity, and any cash raised should instead be funnelled into research – that is not true in the Middle East and particularly the Gulf. Here cultural differences and long-held taboos mean breast cancer is still often left untreated. Yet cancer is the third leading cause of death in the UAE, and among women, breast cancer is the most common malignancy. Adding to concern, in September the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies revealed their results of an analysis of national statistics on cancers dating back to 1981, which found women in the UAE tend to develop breast cancer at least a decade earlier than their counterparts in the West.  

Emirati women over 40 must obtain a mammogram to renew their Thiqa insurance card, but there is no such safeguard in place for many other nationalities. It makes me sad thinking about how many women in the UAE who might like/need the screening cannot afford it or do not know how to arrange it. 

And then there is everyone else: worried about what they might find, fearful the test will be unpleasant, or just plain lazy. There is so little in life that we can control, we owe it to ourselves to take care of the things we can.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

FLU: Well THAT was interesting

I went to London last weekend to say good-bye to a friend. On my return Etihad flight Sunday afternoon, I grew increasingly alarmed at the state of the cabin around me. It was filled with hacking, coughing, sniffling, sneezing, wheezing – what do you call that thing where people are snorting, but with that gross sound at the back of their throat? Old men do it. ANYWAY – and just generally grossly sick people. It was like an orchestra of germs.

All that to say I started to feel sick about halfway through the flight and things deteriorated from there. When I woke up the next morning, flu. Then bronchitis. Etc. Just wanted to explain the radio silence. It was not, thankfully, due to any backlash from the fork finger. (Although admittedly, I did go out on a limb a bit on that one)

My colleagues at work won't want to hear this, but I have made it through season four of How I Met Your Mother (may I recommend that show? Warmly funny, often clever, it is Friends for the 2010s) and am up-to-date on Private Private Practice, Grey's Anatomy and all things E! and Oprah. Between naps and two plane rides I also plowed about 2/3 of the way through the 12kgs of magazines that were previously haunting me.

Thank you for your nice comments – Verdi and Anonymous, I mean you. I have loads to write about, including a surprise Santa flash mob in London, Dr Fatema Vahidy, the Best Doctor in the World™, the merits of fresh pomegranate juice, a strange ayurvedic medicine called Peyawa and, as always, general Abu Dhabi silliness.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fork finger says in plastic what the flesh cannot

It is illegal to make rude gestures in the UAE, and that most definitely includes those of the middle finger variety, something people should know when they arrive but sometimes figure out the hard way.

One of my colleagues, a veteran journalist who engages in hilarious, daily mock arguments with our boss (at least I think they are mock), devised this little alternative a couple of months ago:

Friday, December 10, 2010

National Day, 2010: Stilts, dixie land bands and all those freaking car decals

December 2 is but a faded memory now. The Sheikh Khalifa trucker hats have been tucked away, the red, white, green and black faux mohawk wig folded, the cars taken into the shop where an underpaid worker will toil for hours removing the hundreds of heart and star-shaped decals he placed only days before. Next year will be a big one, that's for sure. But for now, here are a few more shots from this year's celebrations:

The cars, of course.
Because nothing says "national pride" like a person on stilts...

...or a dixie land band...

...that, like most live mall events here, the crowd was obsessed with. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like...

... okay, a tiny bit like Christmas. I was a little cranky walking home from work the other night, thinking about how much I missed my family and wishing I was going home for Christmas. Boy did this cheer me up. Thank-you Golden Three M Heat Insulation. I have no idea what it is you do in your shop, but with your pretty plant garden and now these festive lights, you somehow manage to make things nicer in Tanker Mei, and that is no mean feat. I also like to admire and wonder about this awesome fountain around the front of the building, facing 15th:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Only in the UAE: Cheetah roams Sharjah streets, terrifies mosque-goers at prayer time

According to an onlooker, police ended up playing a game of hide and seek with the big cat after cordoning off an area near the Radisson Blu Hotel. For reals. From The National:

"Ahmed, another local resident, said the cheetah, which was handed over to the Arabian Wildlife Centre, was first spotted swimming behind the mosque."

This incident follows hot on the heels of Monday's "snakes on a plane" incident, which saw a passenger arrested at Abu Dhabi International Airport's first security checkpoint (there's a relief) after carrying a bag with some interesting cargo onto an eight-hour flight from Jakarta. It's almost too much to even type:

"The Saudi passenger was said to have been carrying four snakes, two parrots and a squirrel in his hand luggage."

Update: I forgot to mention, this was someone's pet. Wild and exotic animals are prized possessions here, but they often get more than they bargained for. More on what can happen due to that phenomenon here. Also, Gulf News has not-to-be missed pictures of the spectacle, and the cheetah.

Monday, December 6, 2010

One of the things I would miss about the UAE...

... and I can't believe I am saying this, but it's the honking. The honking sometimes bothers me, usually when the car is passing close to me and I am startled or scared by it.

But on mornings like today, when I took extra care to blow-dry my hair and wear a dress because I woke up feeling not-so-hot, it's a-okay.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Happy National Day!!!!!

The United Arab Emirates turns 39 this year, and though I can't help but get the feeling that people are holding back slightly for next year's big 4-0, all the ingredients are there – lights, decorated cars, honking, whoops and loud music – for a big old party. Here are some of the things around our office:

One of my favourite decorations of the year was this: some sort of creche erected on top of the security scanner. It is all sorts of awesome. (Although that giant horse head to the left led to nightmares - I went home and dreamt that a giant horse was attacking the building.) It warrants a closer look:

This is Kareem Shaheen, one of our national reporters, and below Haneen Dajani, even further decked out.

Someone even gave me a little of my own bling.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Snap caption: Ummm, guess not that important

Dear Aramex: I ♥ you

It was just a few days ago that I complained about my Aramex service; excellent service had turned into no service, which last week turned into a very expensive delivery of 12kgs of magazines dating back to July.

Well, all that changed just now, when a big delivery of my December issues was delivered, gratis, in an arrangement made by Alaa the general manager of Aramex in Abu Dhabi hours earlier. In fact it was just a few hours after I first posted about this magazine saga  that the company's CEO, Fadi Ghandour, had posted a comment on this blog apologising for the situation and saying it would be rectified after the weekend. "I am taking a personal interest in your story," he wrote, explaining there was no reason "whatsoever" for the delay.

Now I feel bad for joking about Aramex's love of "reading the Economist", but Alaa didn't seem to take it personally when he mentioned it on the phone this morning. He knew about that too.

With all this prompt attention I can't help but wonder what would happen if I started blogging about jeans that are too tight, bank accounts too empty, a lack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in the UAE, you know, easy-to-fix stuff. Joking aside, I can't help but be impressed at how on the ball they are (and want to make another joke about the importance of their magazine-reading preparatory work). I guess they feel, rightly, that in this viral age, a company can ill afford even one tiny old blogger complaining about a couple of magazines.

These are cute: Carolina Herrara-designed National Day bracelets

The bracelets commemorate the 39th National Day, this Thursday, December 2. They are available at the CH Carolina Herrara store in Mall of the Emirates and Mirdiff City Centre.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Toki has excellent Japanese food and funky bidets

Toki, the Japanese restaurant at the Hilton Hotel on the Corniche, has great Japanese food and I also really like the atmosphere – very private rooms that make you feel as though you are in your own little world.

What really impressed me though was these futuristic bidets. Almost all bathrooms at hotels, restaurants and malls here have a version of "the hose". So far Toki is the only one I've seen with something so high-tech. Note the "front cleansing", "rear cleansing" and "dryer" functions. I have no idea what the buttons beside that square box do.

Don't even get me started on "oscillating".

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Overheard at the Marina Mall Starbucks: Two incredibly fat men talking

Incredibly fat Western expat man #1: Lisa's put on quite a bit of weight.

Incredibly fat Western expat man #2: Mmmmhmmm.

Incredibly fat Western expat man #1: But she still looks well. Pretty face.

Dear Aramex, the tremendous love I once felt for you and your US mailbox/courier service has most definitely waned

This is what almost 12kgs of magazines look like:

I have never trusted that mail or packages will arrive to me here in Abu Dhabi via regular routes since the birthday-packages debacle of 2008 and 2009.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mmmmm, dates, yum yum yum, delicious, scrumptious, mmmmm yum yum dates

Today is day one of the International Date Palm Festival, which runs until Thursday at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. When reading today's press release, in particular a section about products from the Emirati Al Foah Company, I couldn't help but think of that scene from Forrest Gump where he talks about his love of shrimp:

"Other Zadina products include date ice cream available in 12 flavors, cakes and cookies, fine jams with dates, other fruits and spices available in 10 flavors, a caramel made of date honey, truffles, chocolate coated dates and chocolate coated date pieces infused with other delicious spices such as cinnamon, ginger and rose, as well as the ingenious date gummis which are made almost entirely of date honey, with only a natural plant based thickening agent added to be able to form the sweet into the gummi shapes which children love, thus enabling parents to smuggle some goodness into their children and teach them the benefits of dates and healthy eating from a young age."

Update: I am only really now noticing the genius of the phrase "smuggle some goodness into their children."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Snap caption: Stove is the very picture of shoddy design

Because all the knobs shouldn't melt off while you simply make dinner, right?

Midwakh & dokha: the latest thing in smoking

Wikipedia says dokha is Iranian tobacco mixed with leaves bark and herbs, and that this is a midwakh, or the pipe. Well, it's mixed with something all right, because smoking it renders speech impossible for about 1.5 seconds. This here is the number 2, which is apparently the strongest - a colleague let me try some this week.

These pipes are quite legal and very popular in the UAE, and the smoking of the dokha seems to have as much ritual attached as shisha - just in a more portable fashion. I am sure it is just as bad for you too, if not worse.

My friends from the West have increasingly been smoking these pipes, men AND women, and that alone cracks me up. It is also addictive, because none of them can seem to stop.

Also, one fellow is trying to take some home for his friends to American Thanksgiving. I will try and report back on how that went, if we ever hear from him again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Shall I play a song?" Hey Rob Evans - I didn't say good-bye, and I still can't quite

This has been a very tough week for a lot of people. Rob Evans, an assistant photo editor at The National, 37 and a dad to a nine-year-old boy, died suddenly early Saturday morning. I still can't believe it, keep checking Facebook, reading the obituary in the paper, looking at pictures, trying to have it sink in. Gerry Doyle, a senior editor at The National, wrote this fitting tribute yesterday.

Rob was a pure delight who I have known from the earliest days of this paper, who has given me more laughs and more to think about than most people I've known. He was one of those who, even when he was annoying you, left you feeling better and lighter. He had a wicked laugh, an ever-present smile, a tremendous sense of fun and enthusiasm for life that you couldn't help but catch just by being around him. During a short car ride on Thursday night, so temporary all I could think about was when we'd be out of the car and into the pub, Rob piped up from the back seat to say "Shall I play a song?" Three minutes really wasn't an interval for him; for a music lover and afficianado, for someone who was really good at being in that elusive "present" we all strive for, it was an opportunity for a moment.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Snap caption: Slogan on Kleenex box at falafel shop seems like a tall order

Qatar Airways gets flight landing deal; Canada fails to understand the importance of "timing"...

... and the UAE is sure to be even more p*ssed. According to yesterday's Montreal Gazette, the deal allowing Qatar Airways three passenger and three freight flights a week happened back on October 25.

And even though as I understand it, Qatar Airways (the world's only five-star airline, as the pleasant commercials go) has now obtained landing rights where Emirates and Etihad already had them and are seeking additions, in a week when the UAE has made Canada the only Western country whose residents need to obtain a visa before coming here, the optics ain't good.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Oh Snap: Grumpy UAE insists Canadians visiting the UAE as of Jan 2 need a visa

First Camp Mirage, now this.

What's next, for those of us who live here? Visas revoked? Internment? (Not that I'm suggesting anything)

Eid holiday inconveniently located in the middle of the week

Holidays are funny here. For example we only just found out from WAM, the state news agency, that public sector employees will have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off for Eid al Adha (Schools will be off all next week, however).

Can you imagine if there was a three-day holiday in Canada but no one knew for sure when it would fall until 7 days before?

No, neither can I. But it seems to work here. I mean, the scheduling editor is drawing up a plan as we speak, and everyone was just chilling until now, not knowing for sure when they would be off.

The news is bad for many people though, as beause work-week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday, they are unable to tack on days from either weekend for a proper getaway. Everything is full and expensive anyway, or so I hear. I think I will wait until it's all over, then book a holiday somewhere rainy and balmy.

Press release of the day: Habib the Hand gets around


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Jann Wenner, not your typical Arab success story

The National's Weekender had a nice piece on Jan Wenner in honour of Monday's launch of Rolling Stone Middle East. It helps answer the question: "So how does an uber-rich left-leaning secular Jewish pop culture media tycoon mesh with the Arab world?"  (Less so, although I shall be Googling, how after decades of marriage and children he announced he was gay and left his wife for a man. Someone needs to make an "it's get better video", pronto.)

I am not sure how I feel about all these Middle East magazine editions. The snob and magazine lover in me doesn't want to like them. I've already shunned the Middle East's Esquire while continuing to get the American version shipped over via Aramex. Not sure why. From what I can see, most of the articles are the same. And the price is right. Tens of dirhams less than the newsstand price or what I pay for shipping, not to mention a fraction of the ecological footprint.

Ditto Shape, which I've also basically ignored and continued to buy for about four times the price. The thing is, they won't be the same, will they? First of all I won't get those fun black squiggles the censors put over breast and bum cleavage. And Esquire won't be as fun-filthy, I know it won't. But the time is coming where this is no longer going to be tenable: the Middle East is the money maker, and there are loads more of these editions on the way, including, it is rumoured, a Vogue edition. (I am guessing probably not Cosmopolitan though. I mean, there is just no way to do the cover lines justice)

I am going to try, if only for my pocketbook and because these editions are going to become increasingly harder to ignore. So next month, the great Middle East edition magazine-reading experiment begins.

Passports, etc

So it's time for a new passport a) because the one I have is full – all those in-and-out of the UAE stamps (not to mention 12 countries in 2.5 years!!!) mean there is no room for a visa should I need one, and I will – and b) because mine expires in March and this is one thing I am not leaving to the last minute.

I have been curious to find out that Canadians face much stricter rules than a lot of nationalities when it comes to this issue. Our passports must be renewed every five years, and we need a proper guarantor: a lawyer or doctor or the like, not always that easy when you haven't lived in a place that long.

Brits, for example, only need to renew their passports every 10 years and any old person they've known for two years can vouch for them. I'm still waiting to find out if I need to part with my passport at all during this process. That prospect scares me. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Camp Mirage: A $300 million moving bill

I don't profess to know very much about diplomacy, but it is kind of hard to imagine that the Canada-UAE spat has come to such an expensive and childish conclusion. It reminds me of when I used to play with my neighbour as a kid: it always ended with one of us slinking home, in tears. Usually me.

Speaking of falcons...

... my colleague was cracking up yesterday, because during her morning commute from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, she saw a man driving a car with a falcon sitting in the passenger seat.

She said you could see the top third or so of the bird, facing forward just like a passenger, so it must have been perching on something. No word on a seatbelt.

Snap caption: Sheikh Mo. Tom Cruise. A falcon.

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 ...