Monday, January 29, 2007


I don't know why it is that the small, neighborhood barber shops are always populated with young men who seem to just be hanging out. The shops I am familiar with usually have on hand their two or three barbers--Bangladeshis, Tamils, Keralites, et al.--in addition to two or three other young compatriots. They sit quietly against the back wall, hang outside the front door or just wander in and out. Sometimes they'll chat with the barber, until he needs to turn away to attend to a customer. That would be someone like me.

These little salons are like relics of times soon to go by, an endangered species on the UAE's quickly modernizing urban landscape. Haircuts go for as little as 10 dirhams, and at times you get what you pay for--a quick, no-frills chop and a shave of questionable hygienic standard. Often, however, you leave with not only a good trim but a complete, invigorating experience.

You are likely to get a close, attentive shave with multiple fresh razors, followed by a spicy aftershave and a good facial rubdown. Next comes a brief, but thorough, massage to head, shoulders, back and arms. There is also the standard, but not-to-be-recommended neck popping. The experience can really amount to a rather extensive, one-stop solution for the man who needs a makeover.

For years I had a favorite barber, who spent up to an hour performing his craft. And that is exactly what it was. He was a barber, his father in Bangladesh a barber and I wouldn't doubt that his grandfather had been one, too. One day, however, he was gone--not on leave, but on an indefinite return back to his homeland. I didn't imagine I would easily find another who could replace him. His skill at giving me just the right cut--and all the little frills--had been, by my reckoning, second to none.

With no alternative, I sought out a salon I had gone to once or twice some years earlier. As expected, the cut I was to get would not be up to my favorite barber's standard, but that was made up for by the excellent service I got at the discretion of the young barber. The eager young man sat me down in a chair in one corner, curtained-off the rest of the salon and turned on a little counter top TV giving me the choice of channel. "This is going to be nice," I thought, and indeed it was.

He followed the trim and shave with a cool, tingling facial and then began the routine massage. Unfortunately it was time for the mid-day break and his colleagues began urging him on. So the massage was abbreviated. Still, it was more than I had expected, and worthy of the wonderful salon attendant's craft that I have come to appreciate in this country. "How much," I asked, prepared to give him whatever he requested. "Thirty-five dirhams," he replied. I gave him 50.

That was far too many days ago. I was looking forward to my next visit, but it was one of those bad hair days that meant I couldn't put off going to the barber any longer. Not on my home turf I had to once again find a new place. Since I was in the Dubai Marina I thought I'd see what was on offer there. There is one side of the Marina where a few of the newly completed towers have small shops on the ground floor. This would probably be cheaper, I thought, than in the more upscale Marina Walk area.

I entered the one salon for men, but no one was in attendance. It was just as well, as I spotted the service menu which read, "Haircut only, Dhs 85." "Eighty-five dirhams! No way," I thought as I made a hasty exit. It was time to head for the cheaper side of town.

That led me to Satwa where a came upon a few shops located within a single block. "Now, which shall I go with," I wondered. My instincts, as it turned out, were not very good that day. What I got was a quick, gruff job. I passed on the shave, and the usually pleasant massage was more a rough smudging of the face and a few hard pats on the head. The barber asked for Dhs 15. I gave him 20, and thought I can't wait till my hair grows out again so I can return to my newly favored barber to get that special salon treatment.

783 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.

Technorati Tags:  , , ,

Sunday, January 28, 2007


The not-in-my-backyard (n.i.m.b.y.) attitude is alive and well in the Dubai Marina. One forum contributor to's Dubai Marina thread bemoans,
Dubai Marina is absolutely stunning, and with Jumeirah Lake Towers in the background it will become a great skyline; but one thing that ruins it is that UGLY POWER PLANT directly to the left of these developments. I know the power plant is necessary but it is truly unsitely; you can even see the plant from the Palm Jumeirah. I wish there was someway they could relocate this plant!!!
It's an easy sentiment to appreciate. The Marina is billed as an exclusive, upscale high-rise community, where any plot of land large enough to construct a multi-story condominium tower sells for a cool US$40 million. Residents pay top dirham for views of sea, boats and twinkling tower lights--not for smokestacks! But the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority's massive Jebel Ali plant flanks the Marina and occupies as much prime beachfront real estate as all of the Marina.

Like many nimby scenarios, there is little to do but learn to live with it. This power station, Dubai's largest, is crucial if for nothing else than to power and water all of the city's massive new developments. It is almost poetic justice that the huge power station reside beside the Marina, one of the city's first and largest new projects. Although there are rumors (or more accurately, hopes) that this plant will in time be shifted, all indications suggest otherwise. Like the Marina itself this baby is growing larger by the day, as more processing capacity is being built in.

In July 2007, the power plant is due to begin receiving a flow of natural gas via pipeline from Qatar, some 350km across the Gulf. This plant isn't going anywhere. At least, the natural gas feed may mean that it can begin burning more cleanly.

Another Dubai development at which nimby frets have surfaced is the expansive new residential community, International City. Buyers and residents have reported the smell of sewage wafting in from a nearby waste treatment facility. Rumor (or more accruately, hope) was that the plant would be shifted. Instead, master-developer, Nakheel, has announced that the sewage plant would be upgraded and expanded in order to better serve the needs of the sprawling community. Like the power station, the upgrade should mean, at least, that the discharge will be cleaner.

Perhaps I am the eternal optimist when it comes to Dubai. I think it is wrong to take the nimby stance when one clearly benefits from the object of one's opposition. No doubt, the huge Jebel Ali power station is needed now more than ever. There has to be a way to take pride in this mammoth facility rather than begrudge it. It can even be beautiful at times, when seen from Sheikh Zayed Road with the setting sun as a backdrop.

High-tension wires (in the hundreds, it would seem) fan out from the plant, pass over SZR's 10 lanes, brush up against the new Discovery Gardens development and then trail off into the desert. An amazing eyesore, no doubt, but perhaps this along with the power plant can be viewed as an impressive testiment to progress. Dubai, after all, has emerged as not only a tourist mecca but as an economic and industrial powerhouse. There is a measure of pride that one can take in this. One can learn to see beauty not only in presence, but in function as well.

605 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.

Technorati Tags:  , ,

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Not sure what to entitle today's post, I settled on Dubai as being closest to what's on my mind. This won't, however, be any sort of overview or particularly representative account of Dubai. Instead, just a few snapshots, so to speak, of the bit of Dubai I experienced today.

One compelling image of the day was smog, in that it made for a particularly striking image. It was in fact a beautifully clear day. I was cruising along Sheikh Zayed Road at about noon, leaving Bur Dubai and heading in the direction of Jebel Ali. As I made my way toward new Dubai the Burj Al Arab was off in the distance in all of its postcard splendor. However, that perfect image was being transformed right before my eyes as two streams of brown-colored atmosphere moved toward and beyond the tower, creating an almost pretty contrast against the rich mid-day blue.

I wondered where it was coming from. I thought I might be lucky to be able to determine, definitively, the source of Dubai's smog. "It's probably coming from the Jebel Ali power station," I surmised, as I had recently read that due to a shortage of natural gas supply the plant had been forced to burn oil for electricity, apparently a much dirtier fuel. But as I approached Dubai Marina, just before the power station, it was apparent that that was not the primary source of the brown haze. The Marina was already enveloped in it, though it seemed more diffused than the streams that flowed past the Burj Al Arab. The source, now undeterminable, was somewhere out in the distant inland desert.

Was it perhaps sand turned up by the countless construction vehicles that incessantly plow the desert? Were there factories of some kind out there? Unfortunately I'd have to remain in the dark a bit longer on the source of Dubai's pollution.

As I continued on with the rest of the day, I soon forgot about that little quest to find what was dirtying the air. I walked around Dubai Marina, where I was instead mesmerized by the towers against the blue sky backdrop and the green and blue waters of the Marina and nearby sea.

The number and height of towers are steadily on the rise. Although I've been in the Marina countless times it appears more and more built up with each visit. But I have no qualms with the ongoing construction and endless detours on the roads. It is clear that what is emerging is something that will be quite spectacular when most of it is said and done.

Later, I made my way to the Ibn Battuta Mall, with its beautiful and varied Oriental themes. Some complain about its Disneyland quality, its artificial and rather superficial display of history. Its Indian, Chinese, Persian, Egyptian and other styling is picture perfect, and all too new. But it is so wonderfully colorful and eclectic. That sufficiently makes up for the fact of having to cross great lengths to get from one establishment to another, as the mall stretches on for hundreds of meters--one or two kilometers I would guess.

As I entered the Chinese court with its huge life-sized replica of a Chinese junk, I marveled to myself, "This is Dubai." I really thought that. It was a completely spontaneous thought, and soon forgotten, until now. At that moment I imagined myself having friends and family visiting me from overseas and showing them this place and saying, "This is Dubai."

605 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.

Technorati Tags:  , , ,

Friday, January 26, 2007


It may be useful to view the collection of nationalities that co-exist in the UAE as a patchwork of colorful fabrics, which while interconnected remain separate and distinct. As one walks in a shopping mall or down a street--in those parts of cities where one walks rather than drives--an individual's nationality can often be understood by how he or she dresses. Among the various Arab groupings, the color, design and style of the traditional gowns and headpieces are distinctive. Some also wear Western-style clothes, which distinguishes them from those Arabs who generally do not.

It is the same for those from the varied countries of South Asia, who populate the country in large number, where there is a mix of traditional and Western-style clothing, which together with other identifying features--such as hair styles, facial hair, mannerisms, etc.--distinguish one from another. Among Europeans, both Eastern and Western, and among Westerners of various ethnicity, dress is less a distinguishing characteristic than mannerisms or behavior. And of course, among all groupings language, dialect and accent play a big role in identifying nationality.

By way of comparison, one might similarly come across a plethora, as such, of people speaking various languages and dialects, wearing national dress and exhibiting other features of their national origin in other cosmopolitan centers, like New York City, London or Paris. But on the streets of New York, for example, there would appear to be greater intermingling, or at least a tendency for non-locals to begin taking on aspects of the dominant or native culture, whether that be in language, behavior, dress or other forms of expression.

In the UAE, by contrast, this generally does not happen. While all here co-exist, living peaceably and sharing the public and common spaces, the roads, shopping malls, restaurants, parks, etc., the separateness of each group or nationality is quite remarkable. It is rather colorful, and in that sense positive and very much like a tapestry, which can be admired for its richness, contrasts and color. But, this separateness has its negative sense as well, including the commonly recognized failure of different communities to understand and appreciate one another.

Having been in the UAE for over six years, I have always been struck by this notion of distinctiveness among groups with both its good and bad aspects. On balance, it is obvious that people find this arrangement comfortable as it allows them to feel more at home in what might otherwise be an alien environment, even, if not especially, for the native Emirati.

As a Westerner, myself, of United States origin, and in terms of what I consider unique affinities from having lived and travelled in different parts of the world, I find that what I like most in the UAE, and especially in Dubai, is that I can live largely uninhibited the lifestyle I feel most comfortable with. I am bound by neither local traditions nor by my own Western or American heritage. There is a definite and distinct level of freedom in this society that is even somewhat lacking in societies traditionally described as liberal or multicultural.

In America, for example, despite its freedoms, there is sometimes the overbearing sense of Americanism in terms of attitudes, behaviors, outlook, etc., even though the culture accepts a great deal of individual expression. In the UAE, by contrast, I feel I can be as American or un-American as I want to be and not feel out-of-place either way. If I desire I may indulge in Arab, Indian or any number of other cultures without the sense that I am being un-American. This is not to suggest that the UAE is a more free or liberal country than the US; it clearly is not, especially in terms of freedom of speech, religion, politics, etc. But in the sense that such a great variety of lifestyles and cultures co-exist here, UAE society is in many ways more pluralistic than that of the United States and most other countries.

In contrast to the explicit distinctions that exist among the various nationalities here today, I believe that a more assimilated national character will develop within the UAE in time. The fact that this does not exist today is in large part due to the relative youth of the nation and its constant evolution demographically.


The thought behind today's word came to me yesterday as I was sitting at a table in one of the Adnoc Oasis stations between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I was once again struck by the apparent separateness among nationalities here--an Indian (Keralite) family at one table, a group of local (Emirati) men at another, a middle eastern (Lebanese, Jordanian or Syrian) family at yet another, and so on. The first thought that came to mind was, why do they (we--myself included) remain so separate and distinct from one another? But then I thought, this is what works for us here. It is how we are all able to feel most comfortable, whether expat or native.

Then again, there are the so-called local-expats, those born locally of expatriate parents, who could well serve as a bridge across the various divides. They represent, perhaps, a preview of what in the future could be a more assimilated UAE national character.

892 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.

Technorati Tags:  , ,

Thursday, January 25, 2007


On 17 January, the UAE had its own version of 9/11. It was in retrospect a rather small scale event, but when people saw images of thick black smoke pouring out of a high-rise tower in Dubai and what appeared to be people falling or jumping in desperation, thoughts of 9/11 resurfaced.

In fact the incident was a fire on the top floors of a 35-story tower, still under construction. The initial images for most were seen not on TV but on the Internet. While there were reportedly up to 300 people trapped on the tower's upper floors, many were rescued by helicopter from roof-top and the majority able to escape via staircases once the fire was brought under control some 2 hours or so after it had started. Final reports are of 2 fatalities and a few dozen injuries, most released from hospital the following day.

It was not 9/11 and rather than terrorism--never even suspected--the cause is being reported as an electrical short or other construction related mishap, aggravated by the fact that the building's fire safety mechanisms were not yet being utilized.

The hallmark of this thankfully limited tragedy is the attention it directs toward issues such as
  1. evacuation and fire-extinguishing procedures in high-rise towers--Dubai will soon have the singularly tallest building in the world along with hundreds of other towers including several over 100 floors; and
  2. safety measures in construction--the fire is only one of a number of high profile accidents in recent years at construction sites or affecting the workers who build them.
Is Dubai moving too fast, is one question that has been raised. Is the government not too negligent if not complicit in poor safety measures at building sites and poor health and safety regulations in general?

These types of questions are useful to raise, but one should not be so quick to point fingers. Although the exploding construction sector and over exuberance for grandiose projects clearly have their faults, Dubai is engaging in a social and engineering experiment of sorts which requires all parties to improve and expand their functionality and effectiveness. The country is in essence attempting a speedy transition from a third world paradigm to a first, with a substantial measure of success. Anyone who has been in the UAE over a period of a few years will be aware of how many changes there are, often improvements, within any relatively short span of time.

419 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.

Technorati Tags:  , , ,

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I'm sitting in my classroom. Like the naughty pupil who does his own thing while the teacher thinks he's studying, I work at my blog. But I'm the teacher, not the student. My small class of Emiratis are chatting in Arabic about last night's soccer match, I presume. I was told I am not to refer to them as students, as they are all adults and may be insulted by the suggestion that they are akin to school brats.

I've been teaching similar groups of Emirati young men for the past 6 1/2 years. They've ranged in age from 17 to the late 30's. It is easy to generalize and say that they are not keen learners. Why would they be, actually, when education and learning are presented to them more as a formality for the job or position they are otherwise guaranteed to get?

Despite that, there are always a few who are well-motivated and gifted. Likewise, while many are boisterous and insolent, there are the few who are quiet and reserved. This exception is one that really stands out. Such individuals seem to possess a spirit of quiet resolve and defiance. They appear to go against the grain of Emerati society which tends to enforce a common group identity above that of the individual.

My trainees, as I am asked to refer to them, are enjoying their chance to chat unfettered as much as I am my chance to blog. But it's time to get back to the job at hand.

263 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.

Technorati Tags:  ,

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Pardon the dramatics, but I'm wondering if my little blog here is as they say, dead in the water. It's definitely out of steam, but I'm reluctant to let it go. I've tried and failed once to resurrect it, but here goes another attempt. It will mean a radical shift in style, but that is hopefully better than closing shop.

The new flavor involves spontaneity and letting go of the presumption of expertise. It was my intention, formerly, to offer reflective comment based on the experience of being on the ground in the UAE. While the being on the ground part was real, my ability to reflect and then elaborate in any meaningful sense on that experience was the really hard part, especially on a daily basis. So, the alternative is just to write briefly on whatever thought that presents itself, and just hope a few meaningful images or anecdotes spill out.

And, the real kicker is that I'll give myself just 15 minutes to do it--the rough draft, that is. So, with just two minutes to go I'll add that it is worth blogging about life in the UAE because this has to be one of the most fluid and changing societies in the world today. That makes life here both challenging and fascinating. It is a place of constant change, but this change is neither random nor anarchic. It is purposeful and driven by a dream--of the state and of many individuals--to become something great. Times up!

258 words
Open a printable copy, in a new window.

Technorati Tags:  ,