Bahrain Again

Since the uprising in Egypt, I’ve been getting e-mails from people asking  me if I’m okay, if I’m safe with

Dubai, not Bahrain

everything going on the Middle East.  Safety in the Middle East is just a question of where you are standing at a given moment.  Sadly, I have never known the Middle East not to have a troubled spot, and if all else fails to scare you, there is always Gaza or Iraq.  But just like I wouldn’t ask some one in Florida how they were handling the snowstorm in Minnesota, not all the Middle East experiences its storms together.  So on that note, I’m going to re-post a blog I wrote about Bahrain in Oct. 2009

Cue the Camels and the Donkeys…and the Cool Cats

It’s time that we get our Middle East animals straight.  The other day when I was watching men on camels and horseback charge through Tahrir Square in Cairo, whipping demonstrators, I felt like I was witnessing a bad Hollywood remake of Ben Hur or any other “cue the camels” movie depicting battle in the Holy Land.

Only Hollywood wasn’t guilty of this travesty.  It was the fat cats of Egypt.  In this case, when I say “fat cats” I mean it metaphorically, although there are a lot more real cats in Cairo than camels.  It’s just that camels do seem to be the default animal of the Middle East.  They show up in movies, t-shirts, billboards, souvenir mugs and any other item meant to say “look, this is about the Middle East,” even seemingly used by a besieged president to show the few television cameras allowed to film Tahrir Square that “we mean business,” because after all, he had sent in the camels.

If you know Cairo at all, you know that the only camels you’ll meet are at the pyramids, used as props for tourist photos.  In truth the Arab animal kingdom is a lot more about donkeys, goats, and sheep.  Even in the Gulf Arab countries, where there actually are a lot of camels, the horse is the gold standard of animals.  In Cairo, you’re much more likely to have an encounter with a sheep or of course, a donkey. The donkey is the favorite animal of the Arab countries sharing the Mediterranean Sea—not only does he provide transport, he provides plenty of humor, being a symbol for stupidity.

The other day my friends from school days in Beirut were sending back and forth quips on Facebook about what to name the donkey necessary to complete a Middle East farm scenario. There was even some talk about the goats’ and chickens’ names.

No mentioned the cats. But the Middle East is really about the cats. Go to any Arab country, and you’ll find feral cats perched on windowsills, patrolling the back alleys of restaurants by the dozen, peeking through military sandbags, chilling out on beach rocks, and in better times scurrying amongst the masses in places like Tahrir Square.

No one feeds them, as they have plenty to eat in the overflowing garbage dumps of the Middle East.  No on brings them home as pets.  No one even seems to notice them much.  They are the most universal sight in the Middle East, and the least thought about. Unlike the wild dogs that are rounded up, the cats continue to roam free.

Cats tell you a lot.  They sense earthquakes coming before we humans do, including manmade earthquakes like war.  And they are barometers of a changing society.  For example, when I first moved to Abu Dhabi two and half years ago, the cats were so skinny they looked more like bald mice.  Today, they are far furrier and plumper, just as Abu Dhabi fortunes have become far plumper.  In Beirut, the cats are very adept at taking cover, and in Jordan, the one cat in the pack seems to always take on the role of king with his loud meows.

The metaphorical fat cats (it would be too easy to continue with Middle East leader animal metaphors) can send in the camels, but the real cool cats bask in the Middle East sun, happy to be ignored as they take in or avoid what their home countries have to offer them in these changing days.

Doner Kabob and Schweinefleisch

At the baggage carousel at the Stuttgart airport, the first stop of the book tour for Feigen in Detroit (Aufbau  2010), I waited for my suitcase while four Gulf women dressed like they had arrived at a spa at the North Pole waited for their 10 gargantuan suitcases.  From eavesdropping, I gathered the baggage was for a five-day stay.
They had no idea how to get the luggage off the carousel themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any baggage handler around, clearly a first for them.  Meanwhile, on the other side of me, two middle-aged German women who had just spent 10 days in Jordan each briskly grabbed her lone backpack off the conveyer belt and headed home. The Gulf women were still watching their suitcases turn, waiting for someone—anyone–to lift them off for them.  I was somewhere in the middle of all these women, neither able to briskly whip my suitcase over my shoulder nor waiting for someone to carry it for me.  I have lived most of my life between “can demand help” women and “can do” women.
I spent eight days in Germany in six different cities.  It was cold, it was rainy, and went by so fast that I only added one word to my German: Schweinefleisch. In English pork sounds just like pork, but in German it seems like I might be missing out on something.  I loved  Germany.  Not that I don’t like living Abu Dhabi.  It’s just a little different.

1.  In Germany, a train scheduled to leave at 8:52 a.m. leaves at 8:52 a.m. If for some reason it can’t do so, you will be informed in plenty of time of the delay.  In the Middle East, there is no such time as 8:52 a.m.  “Around let’s say 9 in the morning” would be more accurate, and you don’t really have to question if someone is late until around 10 in the morning, perhaps even 10 the evening.

2.  I found “Feigen in Detroit” at the Stuggart train station bookstore just to the left of the erotica section, which was next to the children’s Christmas book section.  In Abu Dhabi, you might find “The Night Counter” if you can find a bookstore.  It won’t be carrying erotica, or porn as we call it in America.

3.  I was in Germany for several days before I noticed what I wasn’t noticing—German flags.  In the UAE, the flag seems to decorate everything—from doorways to camels.  In Germany, the flag appears primarily on federal buildings. Nor can the German flag pass as a Christmas decoration, which is what a recent arrival told me she thought all the red and green lights festooning Abu Dhabi were for. They were for a different season– neon versions of the flag for National Day (which is like Christmas—one day that lasts several days)

4.  In Germany, they recycle everything everywhere. People throw their trash in bins marked paper, plastic, and waste.  In the Middle East, you just hope people put their trash in a bin, any bin.

5.  In Germany, all the pharmacies boost about “bio” (organic) products.  In Abu Dhabi, the pharmacies heavily promote facial whitening creams even when you’re not asking to be whiter.

6.  There are a lot of kabob shops in both Germany and Abu Dhabi.   Thanks to a large Turkish population, Germany has way better kabob, doner kabob that is, which we call shawarma here.

7.  Anywhere you see “schweinefleisch” in Germany substitute “lamb” in Abu Dhabi.  The cow has it easy in both places.

8.  Germans love dates—as a treat.  Arabs love dates—as a staple. In the Middle East, you can buy a kilo for about 4 Euros.  In Munich, one date costs one Euro.

9.  In Germany, the VAT tax hurts.   Abu Dhabi is tax free.

10.  In Germany, people read everywhere they go—buses, trains, airplanes.  On my flight from Munich to Berlin, everyone was sitting and reading.  This made me happy.  On the plane coming back to Abu Dhabi via Jordan, the Arabs on the plane were just sitting.  No books, no computers, not even any iPads.  Sometimes it’s good to just sit, but en masse like that, it made me sad.

Zayed University Film Festival In San Francisco

There has been more than one time me in my life when the call to prayer has been a comfort to me, and that includes at 4:30 a.m. yesterday when I had to walk to my car in the dark to go get to school in time for “The Best the Zayed University Film Festival” showing at the San Francisco Arab Film Festival, followed by a live video conference with San Francisco State University and the student organizers and me over here.  Walking in the darkness, I was cursing myself for doing this, but when the call to prayer went off, I felt safe again and remembered that it was to celebrate the great job my students did.  Thanks to Bill Lex for making it happen.

Horse Power and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Everyone says the UAE has only two seasons, hot and hotter.  But there is a far better season, the film

Sheikh Mohammed

festival season.  The Abu Dhabi Film Festival kicked off last week and is now going strong with 170 films from around the world.  Tops on my list to see are Miral, Carlos, Kingdom of Women, Homeland, Virgin Goat, and the Life of Fish.  The problem with film festivals is that they’re not national holidays so there are so many films we don’t get to see, and it is such a short season, kind of like winter around here.

The festival’s opening film was Disney’s Secretariat, sort of perfect for a country obsessed with horses.  And on that note, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of one of my students, Iman Nawfal, who is interning at the festival this year.

Secretariat is a promising story that will reveal its greatness & beauty on the screen of Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Secretariat is a famous horse with a lousy history in the racing world, but that doesn’t stop Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) from having faith in this particular horse and choosing him to join her team to conquer the male-only-horse-racing world. This movie is not just for leisure watching in the Arab world.  We as Muslim Arabian Emirati relate to horse riding in many ways. As Muslims, it is in our religion to learn horse riding as our prophet Mohammed said that we need to teach our kids horse riding because it’s a symbol of bravery and leadership. As Arabians, being an equestrian is sign of nobility and authenticity as years ago, famous Arabian tribes used to own and bred horses. the passion for horses for ages and they flourished in this area remarkably.  In the UAE, horse racing is a famous sport that is celebrated annually in many emirates. Horse riding is not just a sport to us:,  It is a noble relationship that bonds between the horse and the equestrian. It is a symbol of beauty and greatness. It is as His Highness Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid said “Horse riding is more than merely sitting on a horse’s back. It is nobility and chivalry.”  In this American movie, we Emiratis can see our love of horse mirrored in the determined Penny Chenery.”

–by Iman Nawfal, Zayed University senior

Kimchi Falafel and Other Great American Meals

Falafel is not falafel–heck it’s not even good food– when it contains eggs, is yellow inside and out, weighs more than a tennis ball, is bigger than a tennis ball, or worst of all, refried.  But such have been my sad falafel encounters in New York, where everyone seems to be peddling falafel, including the pizza joint down the


Really Good Just Falafel

Excellent Just Falafel


street.  There are some pretty passable falafel spots, most particularly Maoz, where the falafel is actually hot and where, in respect to America’a all-you-can eat approach to life, you can add all the fixings you want, which is a good thing except for the inexplicable fried broccoli.  The only item that should be deep fried on your pita is the falafel.

When I was a kid in Minnesota, no one knew what falafel was unless his or her parents were born in the Middle East, but now it’s so ubiquitous that it’s in Microsoft Word’s spell check, like tacos, sushi, and pasta, which used to simply be called noodles before the US fully embarrassed its multicultural obsession with food.

Not that the idea of the falafel hadn’t already been brought over by someone, as when, as a kid, my brother bit into his first veggie burger and declared it “a falafel pancake with ketchup on it.”  Not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, just because you’ve called something falafel, doesn’t mean it is falafel, just like my Japanese students in Los Angeles explained to me that the rolls at Ralphs supermarket are not sushi as they know it, my Mexican students have never eaten jarred cheese product nachos at the movies, and my Taiwanese students in addition to not knowing the fortune cookie, don’t recognize the cuisine at the one-dollar Chinese restaurant.

Different and bad don’t necessarily go together when we look at the Americanization of ethnic cuisine.  Food gets changed here because of economies of time and money, lack of ingredients, and the different taste of the ingredients, including  the local water.  In the spirit of its birth and growth, the US gives you plenty of ways to eat around your cultural and religious restrictions, with creations such as turkey bacon, soy cheeseburgers, and meatless meatballs.  And it accommodates our health issues–although to look around at us not all of us  are paying attention to that part–with fat-free and sugar-free versions of everything, and it can enrich anything, even Turkish delight, with vitamins and minerals and lately even make your gelato—also in the spell check today—organic.
Some American embellishments, like thinking every desert can be dipped in chocolate, even baklava (wow, also in the spell check now) or constantly embellishing savories with roasted garlic are unnecessary, even annoying.  But the country has created a diverse cuisine all its own.
When people disdainfully say the U.S. doesn’t have any real cuisine other than the hamburger, I would ask them what are breakfast egg rolls, pineapple pizza, and wasabi hummos?  American marketers, as if also holding their own food in contempt, have labeled them as Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or Chinese perhaps to give them an exotic edge.  But they are American in reality, ketchupfied and cross-culturized—that’s why it’s called the melting pot, a big culinary helping of food from all over the world.

Even I’ve Americanized falafel, as I think it’s pretty tasty with a dollop of  kimchi—oops, looks like kimchi hasn’t made it into the spell check yet.  Microsoft Word doesn’t know what it is missing on its falafel sandwich.

*Note:  Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, American food is getting cross pollinated, like the pizza burger at Burger King, sliced up like a pizza pie.

Nannies of New York vs.Nannies of Abu Dhabi

When I first arrived in New York City’s Upper Westside this summer, one of my first thoughts was, “Wow, it’s true what they’re saying about the US—interracial couples are on the rise.”  A couple of days later when I saw women with strollers rolling into the “mommy and me classes” next door, I remember thinking, “Huh, everything they taught us in high school biology isn’t that true—white people’s genes, like that gene for blue eyes, are not that recessive.  You can’t even tell these babies have Latino, Asian or African American moms.”  The next hour, when one of these stroller pushers asked me for the time with a particular broken English I had become so familiar with in Abu Dhabi, I got it.  These women weren’t moms, they were nannies—nannies just like most moms in Abu Dhabi have, but just a different way of doing the nanny thing.

First off, you’d never confuse a nanny for a mom in Abu Dhabi because you’d never see one walking down the street with the baby all by herself.  In Abu Dhabi, nannies are there to assist the mother, who is somewhere in the vicinity, usually visible, but busy shopping, getting her hair done or socializing.  In New York, for the most part, the nanny is filling in for the mother while the mother goes to work. (Same as in Los Angeles, but in LA you don’t see the nannies or the moms or the babies, as people aren’t colliding into each other on crowded streets).

There are other differences, too.  For example, New York nannies do not wear uniforms, if you can call the pajama-like outfits in Abu Dhabi uniforms.  The age range in Abu Dhabi is much narrower, with nannies being for the most part in their twenties and early thirties, like the majority of female domestics in the country.  In New York, many are old enough to be a child’s young grandmother.  The nationality range is narrower in Abu Dhabi, too, with most nannies being from the Philippines or Indonesia at the moment.  While the country of origin preferred by Abu Dhabi mothers goes in and out of fashion with the times, it is nearly always some place in South East Asia. And in Abu Dhabi, they’re not called nannies, but rather maids.  Even if there is one maid in the house responsible for cleaning only and one responsible only for the children, the title is still maid.

Then there are the ways in which childcare givers come to be in the city.  Nannies in New York might be native born, illegal aliens or recent immigrants. In Abu Dhabi, they can only get into the country with two-year sponsorships and it would be very hard to be an illegal as the legal risk would be too high for the family.  Nor do they don’t come to Abu Dhabi with any hopes of citizenship.  The UAE does not offer citizenship to foreigners no matter how long they live there.

Nannies in New York interview for their positions, but nannies in the UAE get blind job assignments based on agency matches that are matter of calendar date logistics.  Then they arrive by airplane into the home of a family they have never met, who is probably just as nervous about meeting her, with a two-year commitment, which, on the upside, is still a far less daunting commitment than being a mail order bride.
In both places, nannies are mainly foreigners, more often than not of a different race. To be honest, I don’t hear too many nannies who are native born Americans in New York, unless they are the rare college student. No one born in the UAE would ever become a nanny because it is considered a very lowly position.  Maybe that’s the universal truth about nannies:  being a nanny is not a job anyone would aspire to but it is a job women in developing countries will take to support their own kids, even when that means leaving them behind for another country to be raised by relatives. Not that the nannies are complaining much—there are a lot worse jobs out there than helping a child have a good day, and it is still more than they would make where they came from.

The America I grew up in, a small town outside St. Paul, Minnesota, nannies were cute yet exotic British ladies on TV reruns.  Real babies got watched by the neighbor lady who didn’t work and had her own houseful of children to watch, and kids got sort of taken care of by surly teenage babysitters and the occasional boyfriend they might sneak in.  If I were kid, I’d prefer today’s nanny option—someone whose day is dedicated to me, the learning of a second language perhaps, and the chance to get out and do things that wouldn’t be possible if I had to just depend on my mom.  When I look at the faces of nannies in Abu Dhabi, I see fatigue and listlessness–you could call it a general ennui.  When I look at the nannies hustling along the streets of the Upper Westside with their strollers, I see harried women trying juggle the kid and the rest of her life, kind of like any mom.  I’d choose the latter– I’d like my days as a nanny be fast-paced rather than slow.  And then again, I’m lucky to have the choice.

Weather or not? Not Just Small Talk

I’ve been back in the US for a month now.  And, just as it is for Fatima’s children in “The Night Counter,” weather seems the first thing people want to talk about, people who aren’t even estranged relatives who can’t think of anything else to say to me.  Everyone–friend, foe and stranger–wants to talk about how hot it is.  Everyone but me.  Not that I don’t remember the days of having really good weather conversations.  But then I moved to Abu Dhabi.  Perhaps just as we often can’t think of anything else to talk about with estranged relatives, weather itself is relative.

Weather or Not: Humidity on an Abu Dhabi Morning

I spent most of the first month of my trip back in Virginia, where temperatures were hovering at 100 degrees.  While thinking I love this balmy weather, and everyone else around me is flustered, mumbling about humidity indexes and looking for lemonade all the time.
There was a time I would have been right in there with the conversation.  But honestly, you don’t know hot weather until you know Abu Dhabi hot.  A place so hot that air conditioners have to be kept on 24 hours a dayfor about six months with windows firmly shut or within less than hour you’ll see green mold spreading on your window.  So humid that the minute you step out the door, your glasses are blinded by humidity. So sunny that most people can’t see without their shades, so you have to scammer from building to car to building with those fogged up shades. So polluted that asthma attacks go way up and no one goes out if they don’t have to.  The dominant smell in the air is unbearable multi-cultural body odor. And looking good, forget it–dripping, red-faced, hair so frizzed out it looks like it was plugged into an electrical socket, and perhaps another reason the abaya and shayla is favored by women here. While it doesn’t spare you from the heat, at least it spares you some of its wrath, like sunburns, which I suspect was the origination of the local dress code.
But most people don’t know Abu Dhabi hot, not even an Iraqi professor I met up with  in New York who told me New York is an amazing city if just wasn’t so hot.  “You, too?”  I said.  “But Iraq has temperatures way higher than this.” “But it’s a dry heat,” he reminded me, reaching out for the hot air as if he could catch it while I looked upon it as a cool breeze.
I don’t question how native people in Abu Dhabi survive today, just like I don’t deny the scary aspects of weather not related to temprature, like tornadoes, but when my Abu Dhabi students claim to be weak or unable to do something, I remind that they come a formidable gene pool because it somehow survived this desert without any form of relief for centuries.  Today of course, there is almost no reason for them to ever be away from air conditioning.  If they do need something that requires them to be outside, like constructing a building or watering a garden, they can hire a foreigner who comes from a town so poor that he’d rather suffer the weather than no house for himself and his family.  Thus, the hot weather becomes relative to poverty.
But even the poorest person in Abu Dhabi gets to sleep in air conditioning and that’s not always the case the US, where air conditioning doesn’t seem like a financially wise or possible solution to dealing with relatively extreme heat, especially when an investment has to also be made in relatively extreme cold later in the year.  Just like for those construction workers in Abu Dhabi, weather is not small talk–it is life and death at the worst and extreme discomfort at the best.  So while I’m loving being back in relatively glorious weather, my thrill at being able to be outdoors is actual a relative privilege, just like it is to have family, whether or not you can think of anything to say to each other besides, “Hot enough for you today?”

The Abu Dhabi Zoo Effect VS. Sex and the City

  • They missed the real Abu Dhabi in Sex and the City II, and in the real Abu Dhabi, tourists and Arabs wouldn’t notice Carrie and her gang–there are plenty of scantily designer-dressed Western women seeking really rich men walking around here.  The women that get the head turns are the women you can’t really see.

They’re building a wildlife park in Al Ain, the small Emirati city that is the birthplace of the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.  In keeping with modern UAE tradition of over-the-topness, it’ll be the biggest wildlife park in the world when it’s completed in a few years.  

However, if gambling were legal here, I’d bet solid petrodollars that when it comes to Western tourists, not even the rarest tigers in the world will draw as much attention as another species here, the female Emirati homo sapiens.

High tourism season in Abu Dhabi is waning these days with the return of scorching temperatures, aside for certain subset of Europeans, the kind who go from a natural lighter shade of pink to red.  From the look of things, the more quickly and brighter red they turn in the sun the more likely they are to keep on coming with their beach towels.  And to maintain this crowd’s happiness off the beach, there has been a huge boom in tourism efforts in Abu Dhabi, of which Al Ain is part.

My colleague Sheena runs the tourism communication classes at our university, and part of the program is to take the students on official tours of Abu Dhabi, so they can see it through the eyes of tourists.  On our trip to Al Ain the other day, we discovered that the students were tourists, too. Many of them trace their heritage to Al Ain, but while they knew where their grandmothers’ houses and the mall were, they had never been to Al Jahili Fort or Sheikh Zayed’s home, the reasons busloads of lobster-shaded Europeans trek to Al Ain. The students’ interest in taking pictures of themselves rather than the museum displays initially came as a surprise to us, as they revere Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004, so much that in school speeches they often refer to him as “our father.”

But Sheena and I quickly found their self-absorption a relief:  It was momentarily distracting them from realizing that they were providing the Western visitors with their best tourist sighting.

The cameras started flashing and the whispering and pointing began.  Our students, covered in their abayas and headscarves, were getting more head turns than the “Sex in the City II” ladies would have ever gotten from the local population if they had really shot the film here.

This always happens when we go out with our students.  Sheena taught me that in the tourism industry it’s called the zoo effect, i.e. when the native people are photographed like they are creatures on display.  It’s pretty inconsiderate behavior anywhere, but here you have to also factor in that these young women’s dress is designed so people don’t look at them. Most of them have been raised by their parents to stay out of photographs that could expose their faces to unknown men.

Yes, the locals want visitors to come and feel comfortable—for example, I’ve never seen any of them start taking photos of the tourists, so they could say something zoo-like as, “Here’s my shot of white people wearing short pants”—but there are also cultural limits hard to communicate politely. Which is why we miss our former assistant dean, who’d spent some time with the CIA, and used to do a quick “clean sweep” of tourist destinations anytime he saw a camera start to emerge, rather than face a student meltdown about having her picture taken by a stranger.

“Why do they always do that?’ one student asked the Austrian tour guide accompanying us once they noticed the cameras and hurriedly turned their backs to the tourists.

“Don’t you know you’re the number one question I get asked about on tours?” she replied.  “What are they wearing under the black is the most common question.”

The students blushed, somewhere between flattered at their star status and embarrassed by it.

On the way home, the Austrian tour guide offered them the mic.  “I have a fun job,” she promised.  “Just keep people entertained by commenting about things along the road they might find unique or special about Abu Dhabi.”

A girl took the mic, and kept saying, “Just as soon as something comes along, I’ll start talking.”  We passed a camel souq, a 4,000-year old archeological site, spectacular sand dunes and date palm groves, and she still said nothing.  Then she saw a man on the road.  “There is a man standing there,” she said.  “I think he’s hot and I think he’s waiting for a car to pick him up.”   Oh well, if she can’t see the camels for the palm trees, when the day comes that she is actually giving tours, she’ll probably have to answer so many questions about she’s wearing, she won’t have to worry too much about what’s out the window.


When my world of sophisticated urbanite and Mother Nature friends come to Dubai, there is an inevitable rolling of the ideas

Cool at the Marina Mall

and what has become a cliché to my ears, “This place is all about the malls.”  Like blatant consumerism and the globalization of American brands in an air conditioned utopia is a bad thing.  Until recently, I would have agreed.  But recently I paused and looked back on the malls of my life.  They are where I would take my parents as they got older, just like they took me years ago when I was younger, the generic atmosphere being something that different generations can roam around in comfortably with each other.  It’s a safe place to get away from our psychological disconnects, in that there are things to wander amidst together, diverted from what divides, our disagreements temporally swallowed up by the high ceilings and wide concourses filled with stuff.

There, I just gave you one good thing about malls—an escape from reality.  In moderation, we all need that, and a mall is healthier form of escape than drugs and cheaper than a resort vacation in Thailand.  Of course, drugs, ice-cream, junk food, credit card abuse and several other not so healthy opportunities are also available at the mall but they are everywhere else, too, from that resort in Thailand to prison, and the mall is a good happy middle.

The mall isn’t what is once was–places that were primarily for shopping and lunch when it was too hot or cold to be outside.   In the early mall days, only one group of people saw the mall’s future potential—cool 7th graders.  They figured out it was a place hang out without their parents, flirt with opposite sex, try on make up with their girlfriends (mostly girls back then), and play video games (mostly boys back then).  To the rest of us that were never cool enough for 7th grade, malls got labeled the anti-place for people too cool for 7th grade, hot spots for boring middle America suburbanites.

But those 7th graders had it right.  They grew up and built the Mall of America—shopping, skating, movies, game arcades, deep-fried food concoctions galore.  And then others dreamed even bigger and built not just the biggest mall in the world, but the world’s grand city of malls, Dubai.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself at the Dubai Mall, the newest of the Emirate’s landmark destinations, for various reasons unrelated to shopping.  Because of its vastness, I have rarely been in the same spot twice, and I’m okay admitting that I stopped more than once to be awed by the aquarium, a couple of fountains, a painting, and the sighting of my first UAE Taco Bell.  The Dubai Mall, as well as the Mall of the Emirates, with its famed ski slope, and the history-themed Ibn Batuta Mall, are like visits to happening small towns–or as a friend of mine said, the modern souq, places where folks gather to catch up with friends and family, people watch, have some coffee, maybe dinner, visit a doctor or dentist, view some art, see some entertainment, be that cool 7th grader no matter what your age, see what’s new in the world, pray, and maybe spend the night.  The hotels and entertainment options are way beyond Khan Al Khalili and maybe one day we’ll look at what the malls offer as charming, too.

These malls are often organized like souqs—entire sections dedicated to carpets, gold, chocolate, perfumes.  And you get other things that in the heyday of souqs wasn’t so needed—exercise, easy parking and plenty of security.  Try and top that in the real world outside, especially when it’s 120 degrees.

I’m beginning to wonder if the malls, with their overwhelming number of options for the same type of product, shouldn’t throw in bargaining and make the souq connection complete. But the souqs were –and still are—connected to the greater reality around them, a place to hear the local news, good, bad and ugly.  You won’t find any of that reality nonsense at the mall. But maybe if they allow some bargaining, they could bring it down to the street level, so my too-cool-for 7th grade friends won’t feel trapped in utopia with a credit card.