Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Okaaaay: One more thing I don't understand about Abu Dhabi

I left the gym tonight, tired, with a big bag and a big purse. The hotel porter opened the driver's side taxi door for me so I could climb in. I was very grateful.

I asked the taxi driver to make a stop about 3 minutes later and when I tried to get out the door I had entered through (as all my bags were piled up on the passenger side and I didn't feel like climbing over them) this is what he said: "Door doesn't open ma'am".

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How I went to pay for my yoga retreat and ended up feeling as though a couple of people thought I was a terrorist

I am heading to the Sri Lankan jungle for a two-week yoga retreat next month, in a place with no electricity, wireless, cell phone reception or hot water. All that to say, when it came time to pay for it, rather than slapping out my credit card, due to the rustic nature of my destination I had to do a bank transfer.

As I kept missing the hours I could do a bank transfer at HSBC and have not gone through the process of setting up transfers online, I just couldn't seem to get the thing done and after a few days was getting a little stressed about it. Definitely not the point of a yoga retreat.

So it was that one day I was darting through Al Wahda Mall and took a little meander into the UAE Exchange. As usual there were lines of people sending their money back to family in the Philippines, India and Pakistan (in what is a complicated, interdependent economic system known as remittances. The National did a good piece on it here. I particularly enjoyed the subhead: Does the astonishing volume of global remittances redeem the moral ambiguities of migrant labour?) and so forth. I approached a kiosk and asked if I could transfer money from my credit card and was told yes. After about 10 minutes of the teller typing many, many things into his computer, he began to look concerned at where I was sending it.

"Oh ma'am," he said. "Problem."

The name, you see, ends in the word "foundation" and not "spa & resort". He got his superior. He got his superior. Soon there was a small crowd of men standing around behind the glass, all staring at the note I'd handed him. As I explained that I was sending the money to yoga retreat, the man gave me a quick look that screamed to me "do you think I was born yesterday?" and told me it was "illegal" to transfer money to a "foundation". Even if they bank with HSBC.

"Illegal where?" I asked. "In the UAE?"

"Everywhere," he said. "All over the world."

This I doubt, because when the weekend rolled around, and I finally made it into HSBC, a staffer handily conducted the transfer without getting the slightest bit judgy about it.

A primer on international intrigue, elite squads of hit men and at least one wig

I spent some time this weekend catching up on accounts of the wild goings-on surrounding the murder of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last month. Today, the Times delivers this detailed primer, meaning you don't have to.

I urge a read as this is certainly one of the stories of the year. Very eye-opening. Although I have to point out that the world-wide trend of cutting copy editors (that's sub editor in British) can even be seen here. The story is marred by a typo.

If you are trying to save time though, don't get caught up in the comments as I did. One of my favourites: "Basically, all I'm saying is can you do your dirty work without placing British and Irish people in jeopardy as a result?" followed closely by "Call when you need the dogs to locate your dead."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

And then there are all the people who are not incarcerated

A Khaleej Times report that more than 4,400 inmates in Dubai prisons have joined the Inmate Holy Quran Memorisation programme since it was launched in 2002 got me thinking... about what I see around me every day.

This year 13 inmates – two of them women – memorised the entire thing, some having 20 years of their jail terms mitigated, according to Ibrahim Bu Melha, an adviser to the Ruler of Dubai for Cultural and Humanitarian Affairs and head of a Quran award organising committee.

This isn't really all that surprising, although I am in no way suggesting that memorising any part of the Quran is a walk in the park. I for one would spring into action if meant I could significantly trim a hefty prison sentence. And really, what else is there to do? I doubt they are showing episodes of MTV's Jersey Shore in there.

What does amaze me is the level of devotion I see all around me here. It's not just men streaming to mosques five times a day, washing their feet outside, bending and bowing together; females nipping off to corners unseen and rooms tucked away for their own rituals. There are the men bearing a zebiba, worn dark from years of touching their forehead to the earth. And others with their henna-dyed beards and hair, a sign they have been on Haj.

The Quran is everywhere, too. Whether it's the guys working in the laundry near my house reading it on their break; or it's being read aloud on the channel the television in the falafel shop around the corner is always tuned to or inscribed on the CD dangling from the rear-view mirror of a passing Mercedes, the taxi driver listening faithfully – all day long.

The surprising part, for me, is that at no time in the last two years has anyone trying to proselytize, to judge overtly, to deign to tell me that in their eyes, I have chosen the wrong way. That is interesting, I think, and so different from my experiences with believers of a different stripe back home.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How can you interview a shopping festival?

People in the UAE take their shopping very seriously, and shopping festivals – particularly the one that just passed in Dubai – get a lot more press than you would think.

So I was killing myself when I read this hilarious take on an Arabic daily's interview with the Dubai Shopping Festival itself over at the brilliant blog Fake Plastic Souks. Maybe I just liked it because it reminded me of the embarassment that was the time I was forced to do a phoner with the children's character Barney (who, in an interesting side note, seems to be called Jim Jam here. Any parents care to illuminate that for me?)

While you're at Fake Plastic Souks – you'll want to bookmark and return often – I would also read the sound advice given to all the people who work in communications in this country (stemming from the murky-seeming closing of the Burj Khalifa earlier this month for "maintenance").

Well done.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What is this place, Ca-na-da?

The true north strong and free is in the spotlight in a major way, what with Vancouver hosting the Winter Olympics. I am in a depression, for lack of being able to have good long watches of the events and having to make do with pitifully unsatisfying internet moments. Why and how do websites know where I am, and block their frosty footage from my homesick eyes? Anyhoo, someone sent me these questions, which were found on an "international tourism website". I'd do some legwork and find it, as I doubt it exists. But a favourite Canadian, smart comedian Rick Mercer, went south a couple of years ago for a few specials called Talking to Americans; what he turned up proves the questions below are not that far-fetched.

Sort of reminds me of an Aussie colleague who asked if Alberta was in Calgary. :)

Q: I have developed a new product that is the fountain of youth. Where can I sell it in Canada ? ( USA )

Q: Can you tell me the regions in British Columbia where the female population is smaller than the male population? ( Italy )

Q: Do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada ? ( USA )

Q: Are there supermarkets in Toronto and is milk available all year round? (Germany )

Q: I have a question about a famous animal in Canada , but I forget its name. It's a kind of big horse with horns. ( USA )

Q: Will I be able to speak English most places I go? ( USA )

Q: I have never seen it warm on Canadian TV, so how do the plants grow? (England )

Q: Will I be able to see Polar Bears in the street? ( USA )

Q: I want to walk from Vancouver to Toronto - can I follow the Railroad tracks? ( Sweden )

Q: Is it safe to run around in the bushes in Canada ? ( Sweden )

Q: Are there any ATM's (cash machines) in Canada ? Can you send me a list of them in Toronto , Vancouver, Edmonton and Halifax ? ( England )

Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Canada ? ( USA)

Q: Which direction is North in Canada ? ( USA )

Q: Can I bring cutlery into Canada ? ( England)

Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? ( USA )

Q: Do you have perfume in Canada ? ( Germany )

Overheard phone call at the office

"Hello? Yes, I think I just ordered takeout food from you, but I can never be sure."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Don't you just hate when this happens?

From today's Gulf News:

An Arab ambassador said he decided to call off his wedding immediately after he discovered that his wife-to-be, who wears a niqab, was bearded and cross-eyed.

Apparently whenever they met, his would-be bride did her best to conceal herself. She must have done a good job, as he laid out Dh500,000 (Cdn) on goodies for her during their courtship. Her mom appeared to be involved too, as the man claimed he was shown pictures that turned out to be of her sister.

When I first read this story, I thought we had a chaste case of Madame Butterfly on our hands. Now I don't know what is going on:

Gulf News also learnt that the ambassador requested the Sharia court to refer the Gulf national woman to a specialist to have her examined for hormonal deficiencies.

The court referred the bride to a specialist who countered the ambassador's claims and reported that she did not suffer any hormonal problems.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I have been invited to a Superbowl party...

...that starts at 3am.

Four days in Cairo and it's hard to tell what impressed me most

These:





...or this super-fantastic creature created by Ahmed, the extremely enthusiastic cleaner assigned to our 17th-floor room at the Hilton.



(Augmented by our partially-consumed bottle of Egyptian scotch, a glass, mobile phone and two carnations)