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.

LIVING IN THE SOUND OF MUSIC:What Does A Small Alpine Village Have In Common With Abu Dhabi?

I’m in Obervellach in southern Austria, population 1,500, where the hills are alive with The Sound of Music—the movie that is.  Everywhere you turn, you’re waiting for Julie Andrews to come twirling down the mountain or the Von Tramp children to pop out of the bright flower boxes on the Alpine homes and break into song.  It is Sound of Music picture perfect.  Turns out the folks around here aren’t big fans of the movie, in the way Irish people don’t dig Frank McCourt’s Ireland.  They’d rather you go home talking about the amazing views from the alm—yes, just like Heidi’s alm– where the cows are sent for the summer and everyone can practice yodeling, hiking through waterfalls, swimming in the incredible lakes, embracing local gossip at one of the pubs along the river over lemon beers (not being a drinker is just one of the many ways I’m an obvious outsider here), eating ice cream sundaes the size of mini Christmas trees.

I’m not in Abu Dhabi for sure, but that’s not to say there aren’t some similarities between Abu Dhabi and a small Alpine village, and I’m sure that’s just not too much fresh air talking:

1.    In a small Alpine village, just like in Abu Dhabi, lots of families have little farms with goats and sheep.  In the small Alpine village, they usually also have cows, and in Abu Dhabi they have camels instead.
2.    In both places everybody is everybody’s cousin.  But in Abu Dhabi no one bothers to explain the relationship.  In a small Alpine village, they go through the whole family branch involved.
3.    Both the small Alpine village and Abu Dhabi, have a word that seems to pop up in every other sentence:  In the small Alpine village, it’s “super;” in Abu Dhabi, it’s inshallah.
4.    In the small Alpine village, you can literally smell the green around you.  Abu Dhabi does have a lot of green, but it’s mostly money.
5.    In both places, umbrellas are a necessity, in Abu Dhabi to stave off the sun that never gives you a break, and in the small Alpine village to hold off the rain that seems to come and go throughout the day as quickly as winter in Abu Dhabi. (Water is a topic of conversation in both, but in the small Alpine village it’s about too much water, and Abu Dhabi too little)
6.    In a small Alpine village and Abu Dhabi, people eat of a lot of meat.  In the small Alpine village, it is pork.  In Abu Dhabi it is not.
7.    Both places draw in tourists interested in hiking.  But in the small Alpine village it’s mountains, and in Abu Dhabi, it’s sand dunes.
8.     And in both places, Michael Jackson is playing on the radio now, and in both places I remember that I was planning on marrying him in seventh grade and looking like Farah Fawcett on that big day.

Living in the Sound of Music

Living in the Sound of Music

Abu Dhabi or the small Alpine village would have done fine for the occasion.  Weddings are a big deal in both.

Cartier Comes To Campus

Pretty Jewels

Pretty Jewels

Today I could have put my name in for the raffle on campus, but I felt that I’d be taking away something from a student if I were to win (not that I’ve ever won a raffle). And I’m not sure I needed the prizes: four Cartier handbags, not the $20,000 plus alligator skin one on display on campus this week, but rather the lower end$1,200 to $3,000 variety. That’s how we roll here in the Persian Gulf.

Amnesty International and the Humane Society don’t come to campus with their hands stretched for donations to support human and animal rights, as they do in the U.S. Cartier comes to campus, intent on proving its commitment to the young women of the UAE. They set up a salon with fresh flower arrangements worthy of any royal wedding, brought in knowledgeable and attractive sales personnel from one of their corporate offices, the doormen dressed in the red traditional uniform welcomed you to the campus’ main lobby, where the jewels, encased in glass boxes. In a generally brilliant marketing strategy,  Cartier customizes its jewels for its target markets, including a special Arabian horse watch made just for the Gulf. And the stories of love and romance spun around the jewels for the students has been worthy of any Harlequin Romance. The stories were dreamy, as one girl described, wondering where the prince to her Wallis Simpson was waiting–and would he know about the Cartier love bracelet?

But these students are not so naive–they’re almost hypersensitive to luxury sales pitches, having been a logical target for them most of their lives.  Nonetheless, the jewels were certainly pretty to look, very sparkly I must say, as was the 5 kilo book on the history of Cartier they generously gave out, a book whose printing is probably more expensive than any jewelry I’ve ever purchased.

(And not to beat up on Cartier –they did help fund an amazing exhibit of historical photos of the region that is going on a global tour, including one that shows Mr. Cartier himself sitting with the ruler of Bahrain, one of Cartier’s favorite places for collecting precious pearls, pearls that fishermen in pre-oil days often died retrieving for only a negligble fraction of the profits they would fetch in Europe.)

The Differences Between Abu Dhabi and LA, or the lack thereof

Abu DhabiEver since I left Los Angeles nine months ago, I’ve been saying to myself, “That’s something I should blog about.”  Now that the opportunity has reason, I can’t think of any of those somethings.  In fact, there has never been a time when this writer has been left so wordless.   I even left this blog to go take care of some travel things, thinking I would come back with words.  But I still don’t  have any.

So I’ll just make a list, a list of things about L.A. that I miss:

1. The people–not all of them, but the ones I liked and loved I miss more than I thought I would.  The ones I didn’t like so much still make my stomach turn so I can’t even say I miss not liking them.

2.  Aitch, who really knows how to cut my hair, not to mention that of the  Kardashian girls and Monica Lewinsky, and  when the relatively poor and the famous (take your pick between the other tw0) and the infamous (again, you choose) can all share the same hair stylist, that is true L.A.-style democracy.

3. The weather–I no longer think L.A. is stifling in August and September

4.  Rain.  Anyone who says it never rains in Southern California hasn’t been to Abu Dhabi.

5. The food–for a town so terrified of and horrified by fat, it does have the world’s best, based on what I’ve seen of the world, like tacos at Don Antonios, hanging out with friends at Gaby’s in Marina del Rey, all the cake at Doughboys,  annual dinner with my brother at El Cholo, sushi at Asakuma’s, splitting a tuna melt with my mom at the Broadway Deli, just being at Papa Christos, dorso bibimbob (without the egg) at my favorite place in Koreatown whose name I can never remember.

6. All the organic stuff–health and beauty products, especially–they just smell nice.

7.  Green things, like trees and grass and plants:  Abu Dhabi is very beautiful, but as many parks as it has, I still find myself blown away by the greeness of places like Jordan when I get a short vacation, never mind Santa Monica bluff walks with my friends.

Things About L.A. I Don’t Miss Because They’re Right Here:

1.  Americans:  I think there are more of them here than in my neighborhood in L.A.

2.  Quirky People From All Over the World:  They got plenty here, also plenty with big dreams of making it in the film business.

3.  Crazy Drivers and Pedestrians From All Over the World:  The worst being the Pakistani Group Chicken Run on Sheikh Zayed Street

3. The Water:   The Gulf and the Pacific are both pretty quiet, but there are even times here when it’s not too cold to go in.  I just wish certain Europeans would stop wearing those gut-slicing Speedo bikini trunks.

4.  Yoga:  At first I missed the Cirque du Soleil aspect of the yoga in L.A., but I’ve come to appreciate my teacher here, who although he is Indian, never uses the Sanskrit words for the poses, and always makes me smile when he says “Raise your right arm. Now raise another arm.”

5.  MacDonald’s, Popeye’s, TGI Fridays, Burger King, Chilis, Papa John’s, and so forth:  But where is the Taco Bell?

6.  An Apartment Without a View:  But now my view is blocked by a solvent bank building, as opposed Tyrone I’m Still On Parole’s bedroom, so that’s a big upgrade.

7. Students:  Still fascinating, lovely, troubling, disturbing, tiring and inspiring.