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.

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 ...