Diplomacy

Today, it is being reported that Congress voted to accept the Iran Nuclear Deal.

The insane U.S. media circus and especially election politics, is something I never miss when overseas. When I was at home this summer, I admittedly, like a car crash, couldn’t look away.

Before coming to Kazakhstan, I got to say another little ‘goodbye Dubai’. My hotel, Deira Comfort Inn, was in one of the older neighborhoods of Dubai. More grit and less glitz. It’s brimming with lots of cheap, little, delicious restaurants for Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Korean, Arabic and Pakistani food. My hotel was right by a nice, big shopping mall and conveniently close to the subway.

Despite its less glamorous exterior, the inside of the lobby was all rich, red-brown wood and marble. My room had a royal feel with its red faux velvet curtains and chairs.

There was a boy, about 11 or 12 that I kept seeing in the elevator. He was always polite, using broken English to chat and had a big smile. One morning he asked, “You American?”

“Yes.”

“I am Iran. America like Iran?”

I was dumbfounded on how to respond. The American-Iran deal had been all over the news recently.

The boy had a huge smile as usual and was looking at me inquisitively.

A myriad of thoughts about geopolitics swarmed my head. The relationship status between Iran and American could read “It’s complicated”. Finally, I responded, “I like Iranians”. This is the true and diplomatic thing to say. The elevator stopped at his floor.

“America, I like America. You have a good country”. And with that sentence he was out the door.

This encounter reminded me of other conversations with my Dubai students who want to know why Americans think every Muslim is a terrorist. My students always say that terrorists are not Muslim at all.

Traveling and living overseas, I’m often put on the spot to explain America. Americans living and working overseas serve as unofficial ambassadors.

Personal views aside: Does America the country like the country of Iran? I think it would be dishonest to have answered ‘Yes’. The news keeps saying Iran is untrustworthy and I wonder why the Middle East should have trust in us.

Dubai is incredibly diverse. Alongside people from the Americas, Africa, Europe, the Far East and Southeast Asia, it attracts Arab nationals from the region and has a sizable Iranian population, which is considered Emirati and has been there for over 100 years.

The Middle East is so diverse. I used to picture in my mind a kind of Lawrence of Arabia vast desert, but there are ski resorts, forests and beaches, rivers and dead seas. Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon have large Christian populations that have been there for millenia. Some of my Arab students had these beautiful blond manes and piercing blue eyes. Beautiful, local Emiratis can have mostly African heritage. At the same time that there is this linguistic, cultural, and physical diversity, people are people. The Muslim students and families I met are the same as my family and your family.

We cannot paint the whole region with one brush of fear and mistrust. I am glad I got to live in the Middle East. And no, I did not have to cover up.

Schlemiel, Schlimazl, My neighbor probably thinks I’m crazy

I don’t want to think I have bad luck. In fact, despite life’s major ups and downs, I have a positive outlook. Have even been referred to as bubbly. Everyday I am thankful for my apartment, which my job pays for, which means I will never be homeless and burnt to death by the unforgiving Dubai sun. I am thankful for my family, friends, toes, eyes, coffee, books, chocolate. I am thankful for the ocean, the palm trees and fresh juice. The list is possibly as endless and infinite as the universe.

A friend posted to facebook: illustrations for words that do not exist in English, by Marija Tiurina  It’s awesome. Then she said as soon as she saw ‘Schlimazl’, she thought of me! A chronically unlucky person. Not so awesome.

This winter, I had bed bugs. It was awful. I had my apartment treated. Twice. Bagged all my knick knacks- bric-a-brac-everything into black garbage bags, after cleaning it all with rubbing alcohol. Then I put the black bags in my car. The heat is supposed to kill the eggs. I had Post-Traumatic-Bedbug-Disorder, sleeping on an air mattress instead of my bed, for an extra month after the treatment.

This winter I spent weeks shopping for the (expensive) gear I would need to hike the Great Wall. I don’t have winter clothing in Dubai; I needed thermals, a really warm jacket, boots and more. I packed it all in my carry-on…in case my checked baggage got lost. So smart! Until my carry-on suitcase, was stolen, at the airport. “Oh, it will turn up…it won’t be stolen! People wouldn’t do that in Dubai!” It was never seen again.

My neighbor probably thinks I’m crazy.

My ground floor hallway, with its perpetually propped open side door, near the garbage, attracts massive, fatty, monstrous cockroaches. Recently I saw three of these saunter in the side door. I’m in a horror movie fussing with the sticky key. When my door finally opens one of the giants slips in! I screamed so loud. I screamed so loud my cat hid in the bedroom for two hours. I screamed so loud my throat hurt. I screamed so loud that my neighbor poked his head out. I heard him in the hall “Is someone being attacked!” I didn’t answer. Embarrassed and still too panicked trying to find a weapon. I’m proud I managed to kill it with Windex.

Not too many days later, I am playing with my cat. He’s got that bushy tail, huge-eyes- hyper, pouncy look. He’s running back and forth, jumping at the wall. Skids under the kitchen table, pulls the computer plug, sending my computer flying, until it crashed. Hard. I screamed. Loud. This time like an angry mad woman. Then swore a bunch. The screen blinking a question mark.

In the morning I saw my neighbor for the first time ever. I wanted to tell him, ‘There was a huge cockroach and then my cat broke my computer. Okay. I’m not crazy Thank you for asking if there was an attack’.

More things, like having a super-exploded tooth, needing laparoscopic surgery, winning a phone that doesn’t work…also: banks. A string of years of stressful life events, are probably a few reasons my friend thought of me, when she saw “Schlimazel: a chronically unlucky person”

Sometimes it feels like one thing after another. Always some problem to solve.

When your friend tells you she thinks of you as a chronically unlucky person, you have to wonder about your luck or lack of luck. What is this luck thing anyways? Being born without all my molars?

Am I a negative person? I don’t think so. Is it random? Is it fate? Part of my karmic cycle? Do any of us deserve it? Do I need to read ‘The Secret’? You could read this blog and think I’m lucky with the travels and living in Dubai, the so-called lap of luxury. It’s all somewhere in between. In the end, the good luck and the bad luck both make good stories.

Top 3 Must-See Tourist Traps in Dubai: Part One

After incredibly informal polls on students and friends, regarding where people must go when they come to Dubai, I have my first contender.

Coming in at number 3, in the top 3 terrifically tourist things to do in Dubai, a must-see is Atlantis!

Atlantis is a choose your own adventure destination, with lots of lavish to cheap options. It’s on the man made island Palm Jumeirah, which in and of itself makes it a top attraction. You can splash out a fortune for rooms that look into the aquarium. Or just stop-by.

Aquaventure is a popular destination for families or people who like fun. Ride the lazy river, hit the slides or rent a cabana on the Aquaventure private beach, where you can kayak or ride the banana boat. Get lunch at one of the fast-food type joints then buy expensive shaved ice.

Less fun: the dolphin encounter, dolphin swim, dolphin royal swim or dolphin scuba dive, depending on the price you want to pay. Not only would this freak me out, it’s too sad.

A positive: Atlantis aquarium breeds and release seahorses. Seahorses are going extinct. Because they are taken from the ocean to be pets. Seahorses are awesome. The males give birth. At night. Mysterious little creatures seahorses. Let them be free!

The Atlantis aquarium design is based on the Atlantis myth. We took our students this year on a great field trip and the guide said things like “These are the pods where the Atlantans slept…this is an ancient ATM…see this is for the clam shaped money”. There is a fake ancient language carved on fake ruins, which the huge variety of fish swim around. We saw massive, creepy groupers, those going-extinct-teeny-tiny sea horses, bright jellyfish, sting rays and of course, sharks.

Feed the sharks

Feed the sharks

Divers are in the tank on a regular basis, cleaning, feeding, checking on fish. You can scuba dive or snorkel in the tank. I will not be doing this activity.

The groupers were eating the sharks and had to be separated. They are horrifying with their slow mouths and dead-eye stare. They are one of the reasons everyone should be scared of fish.

“Epinephelus malabaricus” by jon hanson from london, Licensed under CC http://commons.wikimedia.org

A less family-style day can be had at Nasimi beach club, for the young, beautiful, bold, and restless, showing off tans in trendy bikinis. Popular at night for DJ’s, you can also rent a day bed.

Saffron is a popular Friday Brunch. Brunch in Dubai is not the typical eggs benedict, waffles, and bacon that Americans are used to do. A better nickname is Drunch, because these are all-you-can-eat all-you-can-drink affairs. Emphasis on the drinking. A Friday brunch in Dubai, is an experience.

If you don’t want to go all day or spend on attractions, just go for dinner.  Choose from a steakhouse or seafood, Italian, Japanese or French.

Lowest budget option: take the Palm monorail to Atlantis, walk in, wander around the interesting lobby sculptures and scope the place out. See a couple shops. Get a coffee and people watch. This will cost you less than $20. Again, part of the appeal is being on the palm, and you get a mini-palm tour just by going. Whenever I’m on the palm, it’s a bit surreal and though you may have seen pictures and views from above, when you’re there, it’s hard to believe. It’s one of those, pinch me, ‘I’m in Dubai!’ moments.

The following megastructures documentary gives you an idea of what an incredible engineering feat the Palm is. Atlantis, other hotels, homes and apartments, all that stuff is sitting on sand and rock. Dubai defied those who said it wasn’t possible.

Capitol G: when I reach my maximum capacity, I’ll be livin’ large!

Its been a little over four years since Geoff left this world, and I think about him everyday. Everyday some little thing reminds me of him.This afternoon it was legos and spicy food at lunch. More and more the remembering makes me happy.

Today, May 12th, would be Geoff’s 40th birthday. His birthday is near Mother’s Day and I’m sure it’s terribly, unbelievably, beyond my capacity to understand- hard. I think of his incredible parents often. When he was ill they moved from Florida to Oregon, to help take care of him and be with him. I am forever grateful. Geoff was happy they got to see the place he loved so much. I love his parents forever too.

I would like to tease Geoff about turning 40. People complain that they are getting older, I’ve done it too. Time passes so fast. But the truth is we are lucky to grow older.

Geoff was a nerd and into the internet before nerds and the internet were cool. He loved Lego robots, cartoons, and was a lifelong Whovian. When he was sick we watched the entire Battlestar Galactica series and had long philosophical talks about it.

I miss discussing the meaning of life, the universe and everything with him. He knew it was 42.

The first few weekends we ever hung out, we went to Bagby Hot Springs, the Oregon Coast, and Mt, Hood, respectively. He would make omelettes, spicy potatoes, and coffee before we set out in his truck. We continued all along to take these road trips. I fell in love with Geoff and Oregon simultaneously. Long before we said ‘I love you’, I would tell him, ‘I am so in love with Oregon’, ‘me too’ he’d respond.

Beyond nerdy indoor activities, Geoff was ready to kayak, hike or snowboard every chance he got. He taught me how to snowboard. Once, I proudly made it down the mountain without falling. I accidentally told his parents he had a motorcycle, but now that the cat is out of the bag, I can say he loved that too. He had an adventurous spirit. And follow through.

He took me on top of the mountains in the wilds of Oregon to shoot a gun and I liked it. He made me feel like he could protect me in some post-apocalyptic wasteland. Geoff said he would only join the military to fight for Cascadia, the region from Northern California to Vancouver, British Columbia.

He was fun-loving, happy go-lucky and generous to a fault. A bouncy, smiling presence.

He always said he had a truck so he could he could help people move. He had the nickname of a superhero from Dexter’s Laboratory, and painted a big G on his kayaking helmet, made to look like Superman’s S.

We both loved Oregon’s outdoors, but we loved Portland too. We first met at Portland institution Stumptown coffee. For some time Geoff lived by the Willamette river and could carry his kayak there after work. Then go for a Bison burger at Buffalo Gap.

Sometimes I miss the simple pleasures of Portland, the bookstores, coffee shops, neighborhood eateries, McMenamin’s cinemas, craft beers, parks and walking along streets with lovely homes that have gardens bursting with flowers. Roses taller than me, And the trees. The magnificent, massive, magical trees. When I first saw the Columbia River Gorge, just outside of Portland, my heart swelled and it felt like I was home. Geoff used to say he’d had prophetic dreams of living in a valley and found it in Portland.

When Geoff died, I decided to look for an international gig. I needed to bring new energy and life into my life. I also worried about being unable to find work in Oregon. When I came to Dubai, I didn’t know if it would be for a bit, and then I would go back to Portland. My home. In the beginning it was hard. Leaving Oregon, I was grieving him all over again. But, with time and new adventures, I have found I’m enjoying my traveling days. Too much to return. For now.

I was recently reminded that all the bookstores and coffee shops, all the things I love will still be in Oregon when or if I choose to go back.

All the things, but Geoff.

Christmas Tree Land

Christmas Tree Land

On a guide to Dubai

I have been working on writing a guide to Dubai. I will be leaving the city in two months. I cannot believe how fast the past three years went. It’s a strange and wonderful city. Although it is nothing like living at home, it can sometimes seem very American: malls, highways, fast food; a car culture built on consumer culture. Everywhere I go, English is spoken and I do not stand out as foreigner, because….well practically everyone is a foreigner.

I would not say I have a love/hate relationship with Dubai, but there are things that bother me. The driving is insane. Having a car has been lovely, but traffic is terrible, incredibly aggressive and roads make no sense. You cannot navigate by addresses alone. The workers sweating the day away in blue jumpsuits, scarves wrapped round their faces to ward of the sun, these men pull at the heart strings. I know many expats are bothered by it, but we sort of shrug our shoulders and feel helpless to change things. Also, the humidity, massive cockroaches and sewer smell by my apartment, because yes, sewer water is used to water the grass that doesn’t belong. The trees that barely root.

I don’t really fit into the cliché Dubai lifestyle of club hopping, name dropping, corporate ladder climbing, shop-til-you-drop in five-inch high heels and plumped lips. Although I wouldn’t mind a membership to a club with a private pool, spa and tennis lessons. Here are cartoonish, outlandish things, and we say “only in Dubai”. Take for example, their new Lotus ambulances:

It is a Field of Dreams city that is proving, “if you built it, they will come”.

I wish I had gotten to know some locals better. I’ve interacted with a few, including parents and students. All have been warm, generous and kind. To know them better, I probably should have lived in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah or Fujairah, where the foreigners are outnumbered by locals.

All of Dubai is an expat bubble. I love being able to get amazing Indian food, delicious Lebanese, Turkish, Russian and Iranian as well as a good burger and fries. In the morning, there is a cute little spot, with excellent organic coffee, so it’s not all mega chains and has an eco-granola-crunchy side hidden between the glass skyscrapers and Hummers. To stay active there are great gyms, yoga in the park, running paths, free beautiful beaches and hiking in the desert. The city still mostly caters to a posh, preppy, yuppy set, but it’s getting more hipster too. I see more beards, more tattoos, people riding skateboards, and there is the ever growing Al Quoz warehouses of gallery hot spots with its cafe, Tom and Serge. In three years, I have already seen so many changes and I wonder what will they build next.

It’s always Sunny in Dubai

I rented a Nissan Sunny today and it’s a beautiful thing.

For about a month I’ve been tutoring a 9th grade student who lives on the other side of town. It’s a good gig. Well paid and easy. I read and discuss books, assign vocabulary and comprehension exercises. I love reading and getting paid to read is supreme. The money is not worth it if I have to taxi. Also, I need a better way to get to my regular job since I recently lost my taxi partner.

Furthermore, I love road trips!

This morning a man dropped off my car and I soon found my way to tutoring. Afterwards I decided to explore and found many places that I didn’t know existed.

I get a kind of rush from knowing it’s the first time I have been somewhere: Zabeel Park, Zabeel Palace, parts of Bur Dubai and Karama, which are the oldest bits of the city.

Karamatod

I followed signs for the Corniche and found myself by a beach walk in progress, with round Candy Land shaped bushes and lots of pits of sand and gravel. The road went by many huge, gated villas.

gates

Next I stumbled upon Al Mamzar Beach Park. This was another revelation. I stopped to stretch my legs, walking the squishy path past swimmers and sunbathers. The park is near the gulf, but looked more like a lake, one half obscured, so I can’t be sure. An unfamiliar skyline carved the horizon.

Al Mamzar

After more exploring I decided to seek out a sunset over the sand dunes and began driving in the opposite direction, towards Al-Ain, which is in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

An hour later, I saw cars pulling off to the side, so I soon found my own exit where  couple vehicles were parked. When I got out of the car, you could see there was a path off the road, towards the sand. Walking around a few bushes I came to an open gate. A Western couple was leaving with their child.

Inside I could see about 50 camels in a large pen. A man sitting at a raised platform was motioning to me. As I entered he kept waving me over. As I approached I could see he was serving tea. He invited me onto the platform, which was covered in green, plastic AstroTurf. It was decorated with Arabic style furniture, sturdy pillows and carpets.

Because I had been using my GPS to navigate, my phone battery was too low for pictures and there is no photo evidence.

He spoke no English. Soon a father and his young son drove in and climbed the platform. They were talking and the first man kept refilling my little glass tea cup. I watched workers bring food to the camels and stared at the soft peaks of the dunes. It was surreal, sublime. The sand pouring into the distance. The men and their incomprehensible Arabic. The camels with their long necks and heavy lids began to remind me of giraffes.

The Father asked if I understood their talk. I smiled and shook my head. He told me the tea maker was from Yemen. He explained they were discussing the political situation and recent protests.

The sun was beginning to set, and the men told me they were going to pray. I went to leave but then the Yemeni poured me more tea and the Father told me I could stay and listen. They took out their prayer mats. A worker joined them. The Father led the prayer, singing out a call, which the others responded to in their own serious, mournful tones. It was the last of the five daily prayer times.

When the tea maker was done he sat down and poured me more. “Hallas” I said in Arabic. It means, ‘over/done/ finished’. I drank the glass and stood up, before he could offer more. “Shukran…thank you” I said as I descended.

I walked slowly back to my car, savoring the sand dunes, the dusk and camels, before climbing in my Sunny and driving home.

Girls of Riyadh, Don’t Drive

‘Girls of Riyadh’ is worth a read. It has flaws and many critics, but the facts remain:

  • It was written by a Saudi Arabian woman
  • It was banned
  • It caused an uproar in Saudi Arabia
  • It went further and shook up the wider Arab world
  • It remains extremely popular in the Arab world

The author, Raaja al-Sanea left Saudi Arabia and moved to Chicago, because the book was causing such havoc in her life. An older article on al-AKhbar, says that she is now a practicing dentist, but still answering questions about her book: its artistic value, the lifestyle it represents, whether the book is feminist and more.

I find it interesting that in the article, she says she prefers to think of her book as “humanist”. She sounds uncomfortable with the title “feminist”. As the hubbub around #WomenAgainstFeminism shows, she is not alone.

At bookstores in Dubai, the book is consistently on the top selling shelf, in 2nd or 3rd place. It has been called the “Sex and the City” of Saudi Arabia.

The book has been criticized for not being literature with a capital “L”. It is gossipy and girly. On Good Reads it gets a 3/5 rating. A lot of the criticism stems from the fact that the girls are obsessed with finding a fairy tale love, a shallow and immature pursuit.

It’s true that the book revolves around four women looking for love. And they often have a naive view. At the same time, one has to remember that these women live extremely sheltered lives, segregated from the male population. One of them does become a Dr., but it is very clear in the book that a women depends on a man for her existence in the Kingdom.

This dependence is not due to a character flaw, like immaturity or weakness. A women can do very little without male permission.

She also depends on her good reputation as a chaste woman. She is being constantly watched and judged by other men and women and these judgements control her fate.

The book has an intimate feel being in the voice of 1 woman. Although it is about Saudi Arabia, I felt like it gave me some insight into Emirati, or Gulf culture as well.

To marry for love is what the Girls of Riyadh want, but their families choose for them and are more interested in a ‘good match’. A good match comes from the right tribe, from the right family, and means to take care of the woman.

In terms of the characters being obsessed with marriage, I know many teachers here that have worked at local schools and by 16, 17 the girls’ talk is all about getting married. I’m sure there are women who have other dreams, thoughts, and desires. I’m sure they wonder about the meaning of life, existence, truth and everything else. The character Michelle, who moves to America and then Dubai, does care about a lot more than just boys.

The reality is Emirati and Saudi girls are destined for marriage, in their late teens/early twenties, and they usually have very little to no choice over who the person will be. The men often don’t have much choice in their marriage either as its arranged by parents, aunts and uncles.

Women in the Emirates do have more freedom than in Saudi Arabia. In my neighborhood, I met a completely covered  woman while waiting to cross the street. I could tell she smiled by the crinkly in her eyes as she told me, “I love it here. I can be out and take a walk and cross the street by myself. In Saudi- never. Dubai, I have freedom.”

Women here can drive. In the book, a woman dresses up like a man to take her friends for a ride. Last year, women in Saudi Arabia defied their culture and took to the roads, posting on social media. It prompted a Saudi Arabian comic make a great satire

Is the book perfect? No. Is it a full picture of life in the Kingdom? No. Does it convey an experience to which many young people in the Kingdom can relate to? I think so.