How Dubai Stollen Christmas

Bloodshed, flooding, people fleeing persecution, the fodder of biblical stories from the Holy Land.  Only sadly they’re not ancient stories trotted out for the Christmas season. They are present day Christmastime in the birthplace of Christmas.  But Noel in its current incarnation is supposed to be about fun.  And really, why shouldn’t it be? A virgin birth isn’t a downer, after all.  But this season’s headlines from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, those places that fill up religious texts, are hardly the stuff that make you want to decorate cookies and write a letter to Santa Claus asking for a new Xbox One.  You can understand why Christmas-celebrating people around the world choose to tune out the modern day Holy Land stories.  They are not fun.

Stollen Day

Stollen Day

But there is a part of the Middle East that didn’t make it into the holy books, where not only is it peaceful enough for one celebrate the holiday season, one is encouraged to do so.  By shopping.  I love Christmastime in Dubai. The weather is the usual sunny stuff but the heat is pleasantly mild, and the humidity is usually on holiday somewhere else.

If you’re more hardcore about needing a Christmas TV special atmosphere, there are the heavily air conditioned malls, which year round feel like a blizzard is just around the corner.  Plus, the malls are festooned with some of the best Christmas decorations south of the North Pole, including the finest fake snow and ice on earth. Certainly enough that Santa Claus feels at home at Dubai’s Christmas parties.  And if you insist on real manmade snow, there is the indoor ski slope, transformed into an Alpine Christmas village. (Normally, it’s just an Alpine village where the snow never melts.)   Forget Moses crossing the desert—in Dubai, he’d do it in style and without breaking a sweat.

Best of all, not far from the ski slope, there is stollen day at the Mall of the Emirates, when tables as far as the eye can see from Harvey Nichols down past Tiffany’s and beyond, are lined with stollen. People in elf hats even offer us free stollen samples, this sweet roll that is the greatest invention of Germany after cars and gummy bears.  Dubai Christmas follows the city’s principle of do it big or don’t do it at all.  It can’t be a little fun.  It should be a lot of fun.  It can’t be 100 stollen but rather hundreds.  Dubai does birthday parties big, no matter whose  birthday we’ve decided to celebrate.

The religious has been deleted from Christmas—there is no devout imagery, no crèches, no wise men.  Just wise shoppers.  And some reckless ones, too.  No pretense of anything else but keeping Christmas commercially honest. Competition between the blinding number of sales signs and billboards and the Christmas decorations is friendly and beneficial to both.

This isn’t to say that Christmas doesn’t bring out the best in Dubai.  Profits from the stollens are for charity.  And the festive season builds some multicultural community fun for everyone, including for those who can’t afford most of the items the malls, which in reality is the majority of the population.  Including the workers who built the malls and the team making the stollens, who are Filipinos not Germans.  No one talks about the floods in the Philippines or other troubles in the rest of the world and we all get along.  Indeed, in this country where 100% of the native population is Muslim but every religion invented has people living here, the absence of religious depictions works out great.  Without the religious icons on display, everyone joins in the true spirit of fun and oblivion without feeling left out on faith grounds.

Stollen Charity

Stollen Charity

I heard a story once that the shape of a stollen represents the hump on the camel caravans that carried presents to Jesus when he was born. The dried fruit and raisins represent the jewels and gifts.  Who knows if there is any truth to that stollen story, but if you need a gift, there are plenty of places to get one here. And if you’re looking for a camel, better to exit the mall and go to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, which at this time is gearing up for the camel beauty pageant.  And for a while you can forget about camels and people elsewhere who 2,000 years later still need a caravan to bring them good news. Now that’s a holiday season everyone can hope for.

Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight)

It’s plane…No, it’s a bird…No, it’s a bird on a plane…

At the Amman airport yesterday, I ran into an old childhood friend and her family. Coincidence as neither one of us lives in Amman.  Then we all ran into Arab Idol winner Mohammad Assaf and posed for a photo with him.

My Fellow Passenger

My Fellow Passenger

Small world that got smaller when I realized 14 of the passengers on my return flight to Abu Dhabi had also been on my flight to Amman.  Eleven of them were sitting in business class when I boarded.  There was no mistaking them. Handsome dudes, I thought.  But I was about to learn they weren’t dudes when three of them got bumped down to coach.

It was a full flight, and I had thought I was lucky having the only empty middle seat, which lay bare between me and the Islamic fundamentalist on the other side, each of us sizing up who would claim the seat as his or her storage space.

But then one of the three bumped down from business flapped its wings as it crawled over me with its trainer and claimed the seat with a spray of pee (bird not trainer).  I didn’t scream or demand to be bumped up like the lady in the emergency row in front of me when the other two downgraded falcons joined her.  After all, the rearranging of these falcons had already delayed the flight almost an hour and their poop, which sparkled down the aisle, was beginning to stink.

Normally I respect that the person sitting next to me on the airplane probably doesn’t want to talk with me.  But with the trainer carefully petting the falcon on his arm, so that we could take off without any hysteria, I couldn’t resist.

Just as I had heard Mohammad Assaf, also in business class, far from his home in Gaza, ask his friend how it is that falcons travel business class, I asked the trainer what they had been doing in Jordan.  Unlike Assaf, I have lived in the Gulf long enough to know how venerated the falcon is—symbol of the UAE and the falcon hospital is one of the top medical facilities in the country.  The trainer, who was dressed like an Emirati but was actually Bangladeshi, said they had been hunting in Jordan.  But sometimes they hunt in Saudi, Pakistan, many places.  Syria used to be good but now too much hunting of people.  Their favorite hunting spot is Morocco.  Our conversation proceeded with a mix of pigeon Arabic and English.  I can’t resist using the word pigeon because that was what the falcon had for breakfast, one pigeon a day.

Movie Time

Movie Time

Baggage Claim

Baggage Claim

We were joined in our conversation by the Muslim fundamentalist, who wasn’t really a fundamentalist but a charming, bright science professor.  The falcon didn’t say much, just pooped on the floor and on the trainer’s dishdash from time to time and turned HER head very now and then as if that might help HER see through HER leather blinders.

Indeed one of the first things we learned from the trainer was that female falcons are the real hunters.  Bigger and more focused than the male falcons.  (This reminds of a turtle I met in South Africa, but that is a different story.)  The trainer told us his falcon was one of the top ones in the group.  She was eight months old.  He had been taking care of her since she was born, and I don’t think he could love his own child more. This falcon wouldn’t be having any babies until she was three or four and she would probably live to be around 10-years old, the age he was when he began learning the falcon training trade.  She was worth $50,000, and maybe one day would be worth as much as $280,000, like falcon that a friend of his boss had.

Waiting to Board

Waiting to Board

We also learned that the bird has full medical check up once a week.  This was his indignant response to both the professor and I declining lunch service.  I was thinking about the falcon pooping digested pigeon and remembering avian flu, but the falcon apparently was getting better health care than we were.  We still didn’t eat, though.

The falcon is a majestic, beautiful thing, like the adorable babies that you sometimes find yourself next to on flights.  But when take off and landing freaks them out and you can’t get the smell of their poop off of you, then some of the majestic charm is gone.   I don’t remember too many of the babies I’ve sat next to—but I’ll always remember my two trips with this lady and her personal trainer.  I wondered if Mohammad Assaf was humming his hit Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight) for the other eight ladies still in business class.

The Right To Drive Well

I support jailed Saudi Manal Al Sharif’s right to drive.  I support her right to join the men on the roads in her country, a country that has one of the highest car accident fatalities in the world, like most of the countries in the region.

The Right To Drive Well

See, having spent big chunks of my life in the Middle East, I most importantly support Manal’s right to drive well—to stop at traffic lights, to use her turn signal, to look both ways, to wear her seat belt, move a speed lower than your body temprature, to remove her child from the dashboard, and tell the other kid hanging half way out the window to sit back in his car seat. This I wish for all the male and female drivers in the Middle East.

Driving means respect for the lives of your fellow human beings with whom you are sharing the roads, and I don’t see a lot of that from my steering wheel.  It’s why I sometimes envy the women here who are only allowed to have drivers.  They don’t have to grind their teeth while someone makes a U-turn out of the far right lane, they don’t have to patrol narrow streets looking for a place to triple park their car, they don’t have to drown out hundreds of randomly honking horns.  Whenever they need to go somewhere, they just call their driver and he drops them right at the door.  While the driver is negotiating the roads, a woman can make her phone calls, grade papers, and listen to her iPod, take a nap, answer her e-mails.  Of course, some people do all this while driving, too, further making me wish I had a driver.

For some women, like me, a driver is s a luxury, for others a form of subjugation.  However, living without luxuries is easer for most—but not all–women than living under someone else’s control.

I too remember when driving was my form of emancipation.  I turned 16 and just like every American-born 16-year old, the first thing I wanted to do was get what I was entitled to:  a drivers license.  The only problem was we were living in Beirut.  That meant no testing center for eager American teenagers.  However, I wasn’t about to let a license get in the way of my right to drive.  We were in the middle of war, I explained to my mother, so who really cared about licenses.  I figured the soldiers and the militias patrolling the roads wouldn’t be interested in my legality as a driver so much as what I might possibly have hidden in the trunk.  My incessant droning on about this, with the support of my brother, who at 15, was  little Datsun on the Corniche  one Sunday morning and tossed the keys at me.  “You can go up to the Rouche and back,” she told me.  “That’s it?” I complained.

But in that short drive, I skidded to avoid a car going the wrong way and forced my way into the other lane.  Actually, it wasn’t another lane so much as a funeral procession, and I was right behind the hearse of a militiaman whose people didn’t take to kindly to my nouveau driving.  After my mother negotiated us out of the situation, explaining that I had too many American notions about being 16 in my head, she took her place behind the driver’s wheel and said, “You think driving is some kind of way to get your entire family killed?” my mother shouted.  “This is not a game.”

Middle East roads are stressful, requiring vigilance and patience.  Most women who have fought hard for their right to drive did so with vigilance and patience.  I hope they remember that on the road, along with all the others, male and female, behind the wheel.

People should also remember that driving isn’t just a right.  For all its stresses,  it is also a privilege.  I remember a well-intentioned European asking a boy from Gaza if his mother drove.  “No,” he said.  “That’s a shame,” the lady said, her feminist indignation not registering with the boy.  “Yes, imagine one day if I could make enough money to buy my parents a car,” he answered.  Many women here—clerks, maids, nursing assistants–must say that, too, as they stand in the 120 degree weather, often more than twice a day, hoping that an empty and affordable cab will eventually stop to take them to their jobs.

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

http://nightcounter.wordpress.com/category/bahrain-2/

STILL COOL ENOUGH FOR SEVENTH GRADE

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.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR THE MIDDLE EAST

I’m opposed to making lofty new year’s resolutions–aside from the token and easily forgettable “I’ll try to eat less chocolate”—as

New Year Resolutions for the Middle East

they sometime trivializes a dream.  But I’m happy to make resolutions for others, kind of like the UN.  Here are my new year’s resolutions for the Middle East, and I know they’re laced with loftiness and high expectations, and they probably need to be broken down into baby steps, but they wouldn’t be new year’s resolutions any other way.

1.    People stop smoking like life is a 1950s film noir or a 1970s disco.
2.    People put their cigarette buds, candy wrappers and other litter paraphernalia in the trash can they’re leaning on rather than toss it on the sidewalk.
3.    Let there be water—not just water to drink and help plants grow, but the kind that doesn’t make your hair fall out in shower.
4.    It would be a bit over the top to ask people to follow traffic rules, but maybe they could stop honking incessantly for no apparent reason.  And in relation to that, people should resolve to stop triple parking in back of your car when you’re already late for work, forcing you to honk your horn incessantly for an apparent reason.
5.    Let falafel, hommos and fuol continue to be affordable for everyone when so much else isn’t—and that they remain the best darn fast food man has invented.
6.    People will learn history here didn’t begin with an oil well or Al Qaeda.
7.    Crowded out Cuba won’t have to share its place on the TSA’s “terror prone lands” with more than the 13 Middle Eastern countries already joining it.
8.    Let electricity outages remind us that technology responds to the human condition it lives in.
9.    The word  “inshallah” continues to be a satisfactory answer to most questions.
10.    The peace wins, inshallah, not just people’s hearts and mind, but also on their streets, litter and all.

NOT ALL GULF COUNTRIES FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT MICHAEL JACKSON

As I got into my first taxi in Bahrain last weekend, the taxi driver shocked me:  He was Bahraini.  He dressed and looked like someone from the UAE, but he was most definitely not Emirati.  Emiratis may live just down the Gulf from Bahrain, but they do not drive cabs.  Heck, they barely ride in cabs.  But

The Night Counter in Bahrain

The Night Counter in Bahrain

Bahrainis are taxi drivers, clerks in their own shops, gas station attendents –and they don’t hesitate to give complete strangers their take on the government.  In fact, in another cab, where I slouched in the back, zoned out after a long day of book promotion, the driver broke the silence by asking where I lived.   When I said Abu Dhabi, he sighed, “How can my criminal government give millions to Michael Jackson to live here, and then refuse to help its own people pay their electrical bill?”  He threw in some ugly adjectives about the royal family and Michael Jackson, which I’ve deleted out of respect to my childhood fiancé, the aforementioned Michael Jackson, but it made clear one thing:  Not all Gulf countries are the same, which I had always assumed, having been to more than one.  But I had never been to Bahrain.

Bahrain, like all the GCC countries, has oil, a beautiful corniche to walk along the water, and construction cranes everywhere in an ever-increasing skyline of skyscrapers.  It also provides a social life that revolves around the huge malls as elsewhere in the Gulf.  But surfaces can be deceiving. Emiratis do not curse their government in public—that is simply not okay, and quite frankly, they have very little reason to curse it.  The ruling families in the UAE have in general been very generous to their citizens.  The people certainly do not have weekly street protests, as they do in Bahrain.  I’ve never heard of a protest in Abu Dhabi of any kind, and I doubt such things would be allowed—although, again, I’m not sure what the people would have to protest, which is perhaps why, unlike Bahrain, they don’t have elections either.  Unlike the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait, Bahrain’s most reliable source of income is not oil, but rather Saudi tourists who cross the causeway every weekend to party, i.e. drink.  In Bahrain, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol do not have to be in hotels, as they do in the UAE, and residents in Bahrain live in dread of the weekend traffic jams from the street-clogging arrivals from Saudi, where no one can drink at all, at least legally.  Bahraini men where the traditional kandora and headdress and the women the abaya and shayla –but not all of them, and, as I did my book signing at mall, I marveled at the creativity the women had with the shayla, from the colors to how they wrapped it. Most of the people who came up to talk with me were Bahraini, which I don’t imagine would be the case in the UAE.  For one thing, Bahrainis make up 50% of the country’s population, where in the UAE the figure is more like 15 percent.  Perhaps because they are more present in the work force and perhaps because the entire country’s population is so small compared to its neighbors, the Bahrainis seem to mix in with the other 50% quite comfortably, and they are a very chatty nation. Government protests aside, they smile a lot, make eye contact easily, and love to just make small talk. In the UAE, people of all nationalities tends to keep to themselves. I could go on about the little differences, such as Bahrainis are proud of their art galleries and restaurants, with top-notch international cuisine*being more of a source of pride than it is in Abu Dhabi, but I’ll just end by saying there’s no denying that people in Bahrain get “island fever,” as they described it, and so they need to escape—and most likely escape will be to the UAE, particularly Dubai.  And as for Michael Jackson—in the UAE, he’s a one-of-a-kind pop icon, just as he is in the rest of the world, but in Bahrian residents both understand and are baffled by his decision to live there for several years.

*Of Bahrain’s many restaurants, the one that caught my eye was “The War Gourmet.”  I knew right away it would be Lebanese, and it was the best Levantine food I’d had outside of the Levant ever.