Not So Much Like a Virgin

Madonna’s self-proclaimed world peace tour arrived in Abu Dhabi via Tel Aviv and opened with the Material Girl mowing down with her assault rifle as many minimally dressed, mostly black men with well-oiled muscles as possible while repeating for at least five minutes, “Bang, bang, I shot my lover dead.”  Fake blood included.  Peace. It’s something to get you into the groove.

There was also Madonna swigging from a Jack Daniels bottle, a parade of monks, herself kneeled in prayer in the nativity position of her namesake, a cross, and a lot of toned flesh and cursing.  Heck, more than half the things Madonna did on stage would have gotten a UAE resident arrested.  But Madonna became known for always being able to strut her stuff where others can’t:  For example, she did what she wanted on stage in Abu Dhabi but the Sex in the City ladies were banned from the big screen here.

I’m used to pop stars in the US calling the audience motherf….and stripping down to their black lace bras.  I’ve been used to that since the 1980s, when Madonna pioneered the shock-over-substance approach to superstardom.  It was unbecoming yet charmingly unique 25 years ago when she was in her 20s.  Now it just feels unbecoming because of time and place—hers and her audience’s.

While she kept her 25,000 waiting for three hours in the 100 plus degree weather (okay, by the time she came on it, it was only in the low 90s, so maybe we have no right to complain), we had plenty of time to watch young women who had passed out from heat and alcohol get carried out in stretchers to the first aid center in back of us, little girls arrive in matching Madonna clothes, and the multinational gay brigade come out in full homage.  It was just like being in LA—but in Abu Dhabi.  What I was seeing seemed even less likely to be an outdoor event in the Gulf than if Michael Jackson had eventually taken to the stage instead of Madonna (Given how that the looped track of his greatest hits kept playing while we waited and sweated, it did begin to seem like a possibility).  But Michael Jackson didn’t make it.  She finally did, and that’s when a lot of people left.  It was a mix of the lousy acoustics of the DU Arena, her off sync lip syncing, the general fatigue of standing in the heat that long, boredom with all the tired routines, and people taking offense.

The shock value in LA would have been zero—aside from thinking, “Really? Same old stuff?  Nothing new to do? Fanning your crotch in your majorette outfit for the benefit of the audience isn’t so cute on you at 54-years old.”  At the same time, there’s something admirable about someone who can’t still do the same thing 25 years, like lip sync, pretend to play the guitar and dance all at once–and all in spike heels.  Especially for those of us who couldn’t have done it then or now.

But in Abu Dhabi, the concert seemed not so much out of time, but out of place.  Or maybe it was in place—after all it did really happen—and time is changing the place.  Certainly more than time has changed Madonna.  So how much should time change things?  Too big of a question of us with heads still throbbing to the beat of  “Bang, bang, I shot my lover dead.”   Peace out.

Where are the Actors?

Every year I ask this, and here I go again for the third time, “Know any enthusiastic student filmmakers living in the Middle East?”  If so, please let them know about the Zayed University Middle East Film Festival, which brings

ZUMEFF 2011 winners from Eygpt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine

together student films from across the Middle East to reveal an industry in rebirth, as well as a student population living in times that are  a changin’ for better and worse.

At the end of last year’s film festival, we did a ZUMEFF research project and survey of student filmmakers in the region.  We expected them to say the worst trials they face are self censorship, money, poor equipment, little technical expertise.  Some of that did indeed come up in the research.  But the number one obstacle they face–and this was from all the countries that participated–was that they couldn’t find good actors to work with, and the few they could find wanted ridiculous amounts of money just for a student film.  I’m not in Los Angeles anymore.

For more on ZUMEFF visit–submissions deadline is March 15:  www.zumeff.com

or check out this article from one of our constant sponsor and supporter, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival  http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en/year-round/magazine/2012/01/26/zayed-university-s-middle-east-film-festival

 

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.

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.

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.

A DA VINCI CODE PARIS

As a writer, there is much about the Da Vinci Code that makes me cringe, but I have to say it was the first  “work of  art” I

Alone in the Louvre

thought of at the Louvre this Tuesday, that being the day of the week the Louvre is closed to the public.  But it wasn’t closed to our students, and so there we were,–12 university students from Abu Dhabi, three professors, one curator, and two employees of France’s museum consortium, who were both as equally stunned as everyone but the students to have the opportunity to be in an empty Louvre.  That’s when I first thought about the Da Vinci Code and those opening chapters in the Louvre, especially when we took by total surprise a woman on a ladder giving the Venus de Milo’s face a little touch up, as so many women need a little help at that age. The restoration artist got so flustered I was worried she’d fall off the ladder, and security was brought out to scurry us along so that she and Venus de Milo could have their privacy.

Then of course you think about the book again when you come to Da Vinci’s paintings, which are usually so mobbed with tourists that just catching a glimpse is a wonder, especially when it comes to the Mona Lisa.  But there she was hanging all by herself in the gallery, such a rare experience that even the two French museum consortium employees asked to have their picture taken with her. Just them and her.  The students were more interested in taking pictures of themselves.

And that is when I also started thinking about other codes, as in codes of behavior.  I wondered about two things:  would the students ever really grasp the level of welcome Paris has given them and what were the French people that were hosting them really thinking about them, especially when it came to topics like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, now being designed by legendary French architect Jean Nouvel?  Actually, I could guess what everyone was thinking, so I think I was more interested in what people were thinking other people were thinking.  That is a tougher code to break.

Not that I’ve had that much time to think in Paris, kind of like you don’t think much when you read the Da Vinci Code.  I’m here helping out my colleague Nancy Beth Jackson, who is here with her “Communicating Culture” class, which received a grant to introduce Emirati students to Paris.  Just a sampling of what they’ve gotten to do—Sacre Couer during Easter mass, dessert as a reporter’s apartment in Montmartre, an invitation from a Normandy senator to visit the Senat, a meeting with one of the architects of the Louvre Abu Dhabi at Jean Nouvel’s studio, a talk with the curators of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a tour and talk with one of the directors of the Cinematechque, a tour and talk with the editor in chief of Agence France-Press and the director of the AFP Foundation, a meeting with the director general and the diplomatic counselor of the Institut du Monde Arabe,  a meeting in the VIP room at Hermes with the CEO,  and a quick look at the Sorbonne despite a day with particularly high security due to a minister’s meeting (no, they weren’t invited to that).

Indeed, it helps to be from Abu Dhabi in Paris, but there are decidedly mixed feelings in Paris about the Louvre and other French establishments coming to Abu Dhabi, perhaps best summed up in a clothing boutique we passed near the Sorbonne called “Bazar Abou Dhabi,” which my students looked at with pride, while the French students seem to look at it as a code for sarcasm.

Indeed, as my students are well aware, part of hospitality they’ve received is about money, but another part of it is about Paris’ well-deserved pride in itself as a cultural center.  So perhaps that’s why the curator at the Pompidou was a little disappointed on Monday when, despite all the fascinating stories he told them about the history of some of the works of art, the one time he had their full and rapt attention was when he said, “Now I’m going to show you the most expensive painting in the world.”  (In case you’re wondering, it’s a Lucien Freud painting that was sold to a Russian collector for $430 million, to which someone said, “But it’s just an ugly, fat naked lady.”).

While they might not be getting the codes for good art, they are figuring out other codes.  “Khadija, Fatima, Aisha,” the man selling Eiffel Tower key chains in a Paris park called out after the students here, almost running with his bundle to catch up with them.  Those aren’t, for the most part, their names, but he knew he had spotted some Gulf Arabs and was attempting to make a connection by calling out as many female names from the Koran as he could, as code for “I’m Muslim just like you.”  Of course he’s not just like them, and they know it and he knows it.  What they know is that everyone from every income level and status level has an interest in them, because they are from Abu Dhabi and because they are women from Abu Dhabi.   And sitting a Paris café watching them decipher their odd celebrity is more complex entertainment than the Da Vinci Code.

Silence As Golden As Sand

“Silence” is a relative word, referring to how quiet a place is compared to other times.  Silence in a home still involves the hum of the fridge, the heater, the creaking in the wood, the wind on the windows, and so many other things.  Outside, it means the birds still chirping, bugs buzzing, the breeze, a car going by on a distant highway.

Golden Silence

But nature showed my brother and I definite silence when I took him to Liwa on his short visit to Abu Dhabi.  Liwa is the center of the Empty Quarter, Liwa being the oasis in an the unforgiving terrain of spectacular tawny sand swirls going up and down dunes in what I’ve been told is the world’s largest sand desert.  It was just after a holiday, and so no one was traveling–the usual dune hiking was absent as we drove to the most famous and tallest of the dunes.  Merheb Dune is sadly surrounded by concession stands and race tracks that minimize its beauty.  So we went back and stopped at a spot with no duning tracks.  Like I have done for everyone that has come to visit, I wanted my brother to experience the sensation of running up and down a dune, your feet sinking into pockets of hot and cool softness as the sun creates patterns on it.  At the top of one dune, we stopped so he could take a picture.  And that’s when the silence got to us.  We hadn’t grown up with even the pretension of silence inside or outside out home, and as adult both our worlds were noisy, his with rockets and children and mine with a long list of big cities.  I don’t think we’d ever heard total silence:  not an insect or bird, not a trace of wind, no human noise except the noise that is always in our heads, and even that seemed to quiet down.  “What is that?” I asked. “Silence,” he shrugged.  “Kind of freaky, huh,” I answered.  “Cool, too,” he said.  Silence as golden as the sand literally was. We kept waiting for something in nature to make a sound, but nothing did.

I don’t know if there is anywhere else to experience absolute silence.  That’s why I was a little saddened the other day to hear about new plans Abu Dhabi has to build several resorts in the area and expand the population over the next few years by 350,000.  Perhaps it will help the Bedouins of the area have a better life, but maybe there is an easier way to give them that chance, a quieter way, a way that will not defy the reasons it has been called the Empty Quarter for so long.