Sunday, August 30, 2009

Preparing for, and Remembering, Dubai

This journal entry from my August 2004 trip to Dubai is proof that writing improves with practice. Since we'll be heading back in two weeks, this time with children, I thought it fitting to reflect back on my last journey, as we contemplate the next one.

August 8th, 2004
Day 0
The culture of Dubai began to unfold before me in Frankfurt, prior to boarding the plane. There was a stark contrast between the European travelers in shorts and tank tops and the Middle Eastern women in long black robes. Surprisingly, those women in the more conservative Muslim attire did not appear concerned about covering their face while in Europe.

The plane was crowded and space was limited, but the middle-eastern style food was tasty. Since this was an evening flight, I slept through most of it, using the last 30 minutes to study some basic Arabic expressions before heading out into the city of Dubai.

Day 1
On the bus ride into the terminal I caught a glimpse of the first women with full facial coverage, and only their eyes were visible through their long gowns and veils. Entering the airport, I saw both men and women working at passport control counters. The women were not required to cover their faces, but were all wearing black robes and head-scarves, and their male counterparts were dressed in the traditional white robes and head-scarves. The line I was in lead up to one of the female authorities, who wore a very serious expression, until she dutifully returned my smile in a sort of mechanical way (which made me wonder whether it is taboo to smile at strangers in the Middle East). Adding to this surreal welcome was her flawless, heavily made- up face, which she had strangely complemented with one continuous line where two brows might be.

Moving onto the area where baggage is examined, I began to notice the tension between the sexes. From that point on, the only men who spoke to me were taxi drivers, those associated with the hotels or shops, and foreigners. Since very few women go out alone, once I set out, I struggled to get better oriented with the city on my own, and despite my conservative dress, I was either stared at or completely ignored, depending on the man.

A complimentary shuttle bus brought me to my disappointingly expensive hotel, for which, since I hadn’t done my homework before, I ended up paying twice the norm for something beyond what I needed (which was just a simple night’s rest). After checking into the hotel (early in the morning, for no extra charge), I got settled in and took a short nap, before noticing a couple of interesting accessories in the room. To begin with, there was a green sticker on the nightstand, which I thought maybe a child had left behind, but upon closer examination it turned out to indicate the direction of Mecca for the Muslim guests. Also interesting were the toilets, accompanied by a neighboring hose and nozzle. These tools apparently take the place of toilet paper for many locals (along with the use of the left hand, which is, needless to say, not used when eating).

The water coming from the sinks, showers, and hoses came in two temperatures, hot and hotter (at least at this time of year – but is refrigerated at some 5-star hotels). Having spent several hours in the hotel room, I set off around noon, well rested, in search of food and the sights of the city. I started on foot, not wanting to immediately jump in a taxi after having just arrived. Much to my dismay, I soon understood why the people at the hotel had recommended a taxi. Walking in August is comparable to exerting oneself, in a sauna, while ensuring that the entire body is covered at all times. As I attempted to redirect the streams of water pouring down my face using may hands, I noticed chanting, which was being projected from a nearby mosque at one of the mandatory Muslim prayer times (I had read about this).

A short time later I decided that nearly an hour of walking in this desert-turned-oasis at midday was enough, and found a taxi to bring me to Dubai Creek Golf Course for lunch. The restaurant there is called the Boardwalk, and the view, food, and service is excellent.

Despite the ideal location, this is not a place where the locals dine, and most patrons appeared to be American, European, and Australian nationals (it’s not often that you hear a ‘deep-south’ American accent an exclusive restaurant on the other side of the world). After a good meal, a few notes in my journal, and a glance into my Lonely Planet travel guide, I decided to take (what I thought would be) a quick stroll to the neighboring mall, to see how it compared to the famous American malls of my youth. The mall is less than a mile from the golf club, but a huge construction projects makes it necessary to walk twice as far, and since it was mid-afternoon it was still very, very hot.

As I was about halfway there, a man in an SUV pulled up alongside me and asked if I’d like a ride. It was broad daylight, there is very little crime in Dubai, and my traveler’s instinct told me that I could trust this stranger’s face, so I agreed. Fortunately my intuition turned out to be right, and what I soon learned was a good-doing Indian man dropped me off a few minutes later at the neighboring mall. I was later told that this foreigner’s behavior was very risky, since a man had recently been arrested for picking up an unknown woman (the officials suspected he was looking for a prostitute, and how could he prove otherwise?) Upon arriving safely at the City Center mall, I immediately realized that it was very large, very modern, and very popular, with both the locals and visitors. I had not planned on spending long here, since I’d expected it to be a typical mall full of clothes and shoe stores (not to mention that my luggage was already exceeding the limits set by the airline), but there were several things that set this shopping center apart.

First, there were huge pictures of the current King off the UAE adorning the main atrium of the mall, etching the face of the royal ruler into the minds of all visitors. Moving onto the shops, the perfumeries are irresistible to the curious Western nose with exotic Arabic fragrances in exquisitely designed packages. There are also a few stores with the highly conservative traditional clothing, with polite salesmen who are more than willing to explain the garments to the respectful tourist. Lastly, there are some neat furniture and souvenir shops, loads of great restaurants, and even a movie theater. Those intrigued by the Muslim faith should also be sure to take a peek into the prayer rooms provided in the mall, along with the neighboring foot cleansing areas. In short, the City Center Mall is a must-see for all visitors, as it truly offers something for everyone.

After a few hours shopping I flagged down a passing taxi and requested that he take me to the main Le Meridian property with a pool, a partner hotel to mine, where I’d go for a swim after spending most of the day in the hot desert sun. It had cooled off a bit, so I sat in the Jacuzzi for a while as well, where I met a man from Lebanon who had grown up in Saudi Arabia, but had studied in the U.S. He introduced himself as Mohammed, and was staying at the hotel with his Canadian wife (who is also originally from Lebanon), Leila.

We discussed the stark differences between the East and the West and life in Saudi Arabia. Our conversation was cut short, since they had plans for the evening, but we agreed to meet up the following day to share more past experiences (and hopefully create some new ones).

After showering off, I got dressed and took a limousine (arranged by the concierge, despite the fact that I had requested a taxi) to a restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet as a low-end’ location with good food… just the kind of place where I’d find locals. Known as Hatam, this Iranian restaurant on Baniyas Road is known for its kebabs and complimentary soup and salad bar. After walking in and finding a nice, cozy, table, I ordered a water, and only then did I notice a sign across the restaurant labeled ‘family’.

Although I had read that some eateries have a separate area for women and families, since this restaurant was nearly empty, I disregarded the sign and ordered my meal. After returning from the salad bar, I noticed a few new guests had arrived, all of who were male and were dressed in the traditional Muslim attire. Finally, two men walked in with their fully covered wives, quickly whisking them away to the family area, to avoid their being stared at by unrelated members of the opposite sex.

My kebabs arrived quickly, and although it turned out to be far too much for one person, the food was very tasty, and I ate as much as I could before asking the waiter to pack it up. Throughout my meal I had noticed a couple of stares, but it was not unlike the stares I might receive from Western men, and this didn’t bother me. As I was finishing my water a group of men walked in and sat down at a nearby table, then getting up to go to the salad bar. As one of the men caught a glimpse of me, however, something rather strange happened. Quite obviously confused to see a woman in the normal (or men’s) section of the restaurant, he stumbled, nearly knocking a large table over in the process. The waiter had obviously seen this happen before and smirked. Needless to say, I quickly requested the check, telling the waiter that I wanted to leave quickly, “before more tables are knocked over.” He smiled again and then reminded me of the family section, to which I explained that I had simply forgotten. Wrapping the scarf around my head, I was ready to go, and I cautiously avoided eye contact with the other patrons as I left the restaurant.

Not far from where I had dined was a bar with a view, which I had read about, on the top floor of the Intercontinental Hotel. This would be my next stop. As I was walking, I became very aware of the absence of women on the streets. Finding this strange, but remembering what a safe country this was reputed to be, I continued on, knowing that the hotel was less than a mile away.
The weather was much more bearable, since the sun had set several hours earlier, so I barely broke a sweat on this short walk. As I was about halfway there, footsteps grew nearer, causing me to grow a little wary. Since the streets were not empty, I reassured myself that there was no need to be alarmed. A young, darkhaired Arabic man (not dressed in the traditional religious attire) began to walk alongside me, finally getting up the courage to ask me if I was “free”. Following my first instinct, I said “No” and quickly walked away. But then my curiosity overcame my sense of unease, and I slowed down until he was once again at my side. The conversation then continued, and went something like this:

Me: What exactly did you mean by “free”?
Him: Oh, nothing like that! I was just wondering if you were free to come and talk with me, since I’m alone and am staying here in the Carlton Towers (hotel).
Me: So since I was a woman walking alone, you just approached me and asked if I was free? Do you do that often? Is that your pick-up line?
Him: Well, um, no… (speechless) Probably realizing that he had bitten off more than he could chew with this Western woman, the man blushed, and before he could say anymore, I bid him farewell, wished him a nice evening and entered the hotel.

Taking the elevator up to the bar, I pulled down my scarf and replayed this strange conversation in my head, trying to make sense of it all. Having found a quiet table with a nice view of the river, I took a seat and ordered a glass of Shiraz. Once again, a stranger approached me, this time an older Arabic man (who was also dresses in simple Western attire). At that point I thought to myself, this is clearly not a country where women often go out alone. After he introduced himself (as Abdul), he chose to remain standing, despite the empty chairs surrounding me, which led me to believe that his intentions were good. Since I had not yet spoken with anyone since the bizarre events of the evening had begun to unfold, this new acquaintance was bound to hear my stories in full length… which probably made me appear quite strange to him! With family in the U.S., and having traveled often to Europe, Abdul was a very open-minded man with a Muslim background, who was born in Jordan but had traveled all over the Middle East over the years. He was a civil engineer by trade, but was obviously intrigued by cultures, and time flew by as we talked about everything from the events of the evening to the many cultural and religious taboos around the world. Regarding the stranger approaching me on the street, Abdul supposed that he was looking for a prostitute, many of whom have blonde hair and try to disguise themselves with head-scarves to avoid arrest. He expressed surprise, however, that there weren’t many other women on the streets (perhaps this is was due to the extreme summer temperatures).

Despite his excellent English, Abdul admitted that there were some words that I had used which he did not yet know, and anxiously wrote them down, along with their meaning to help him continue to expand his vocabulary. His use of the words will probably be limited, since they were words like prudish, promiscuous, and the word ‘taboo’ itself, and I had a heck of a time explaining such words without constantly using the ultimate taboo term: ‘sex’. Since he sometimes ate and drank after sunset, and indulged in the occasional alcoholic beverage, Abdul wasn’t as conservative as many Muslims, but still struggled to understand that mixed saunas and the general openness of many European countries could be either healthy or normal, viewing this as ‘dirty’ behavior. We also discussed the striking similarities between the Muslim and Christian faiths at their root. In the strictest sense, in both religions you are required to keep ‘private parts’ covered and avoid alcohol (and even sex, unless for a purely reproductive purpose – which we didn’t discuss).

From time to time, the waitress came to check on me, seemingly wanting to make sur e that I wasn’t being harassed. Once I assured her that I was fine, she retreated, and after a while my newly made friend agreed to take a seat at my table.

The very discussion of taboo by women in the Middle East is undoubtedly taboo, as is inviting an unknown man to join you at a table for such discussion, but my new acquaintance wisely read nothing more into it than I meant it as, and once midnight came we both paid (our own bills) and prepared to go. He gave me his business card and kissed me on both cheeks, saying that if he had not done that, it would have been an insult and would have mean that he had not enjoyed our discussion.

A bit uncomfortable with the thought of actually leaving the bar together, I first thought it best to straggle behind, until he offered to point me in the direction of my hotel, which I kindly accepted, again trusting my intuition. After he quickly said goodbye to a friend at the bar (another woman who appeared to be from either Europe or the Americas), we left, undoubtedly looking like an unlikely pair to be leaving the bar together.

A short distance from the Intercontinental, we parted ways and I headed towards my hotel, entering it much more differently than I had left it, in both my appearance and what I had experienced. The woman at the counter smiled at my new head-scarf, and as I entered my room I collapsed into bed, too tired to shower.

Day 2
The next morning I had hoped to be woken up by the loud, broadcasted chants of the neighboring mosque (which I had read began at 4:30) but I had no such luck, and instead awoke at 6:00. I showered and packed (since I had arranged a different hotel for the second evening), leaving the hotel around 8:00 to find breakfast and explore the famous souqs, or traditional markets.

Following "Walking Tour 2" from the Lonely Planet Dubai guide, I explored the Spice Souq (also known as the Old Souq), the Gold Souq, Naif Souq, and others, and passing some beautiful architecture along the way. My favorites were the Spice Souq, which was dotted with importers of various spices and had windows full of huge sacks of the various herbs, and the Naif Souq, which seemed extremely well organized and was cute from the outside. The Gold Souq was also interesting, however, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much gold in one location.

I convinced myself to go into one of the gold shops in the Gold Souq for the ‘full’ experience, having convinced myself that encounter would be even better if I was to do a little haggling and make an actual purchase. I settled on an elegant white-gold bracelet and haggled until I had saved about 5%, paying the equivalent of about 50 USD after negotiating.

The man in the shop asked if I was an American Muslim, since I was wearing a head-scarf, to which I replied that I was just doing my best to avoid looking like a tourist. His colleague offered me a coffee, and before I knew it I was telling them all about my adventures in Dubai. Since they were all three from India, they were amused by my stories (or at least pretended to be). The salesman who had sold me the bracelet told me that his wife (who had just had a baby) was still in India, and that although he sent money home, he could only affo rd to visit about once a year.

After a while, I told them that I was in search of breakfast, for which they recommended a nearby restaurant. I confessed that I was a little bit nervous about asking for directions on the street, since everyone seemed to be staring at me (even with a head-scarf and conservative clothing, afterall, my face was still showing!). One of the Salesmen kindly offered to guide me there, and I noticed far fewer stares when he accompanied me. Since it was an Indian ‘restaurant’ (or really just a small room with a few tables), my guide told the man exactly what I’d like to eat (toast with jam), and returned to his shop. Seeing from the sign that they also had fresh-squeezed orange juice, I ordered that as well, and watched the man squeeze the oranges right there in front of me.

The souqs are mostly shaded and are used as rest areas by the locals seeking refuge from the scorching sun. Until about 9:30 in the morning the heat is bearable, but it was now approaching 10:00 and had become so hot and humid that the souqs swarmed with men smartly selling cold drinks to the overheated people lounging on the benches. Also needing to replenish my fluids, I bought a soda from a nearby shop to 1Durham (about .25 USD), and continued onto the last stop of my walk, the Naif Park.

A sign at the park entrance announced that it was ‘family day’ in the park, and a park gardener quickly notified Japanese tourists that they must leave, since there were no women in their group. After sitting down for a few minutes I went in search of a taxi, and a simple wave of the hand brought the next taxi to a screeching halt beside me (on a busy street). I told him which hotel I was staying at, but Le Meridien is a large hotel chain in Dubai, and the taxi driver, who misunderstood me, first took me to two other hotels, before finally finding mine (which was apparently a newer property). After this thirty-minute detour I requested that he wait there, allowing me to check-out and grab my bags, before heading onto the next hotel, the Mina a’Salam, which was in the Jumeirah area (on the beach). En route to Mina a’ Salam, we agreed that I would pay 20 Durham less because of the previous misunderstanding, and the complete taxi ride ending up costing me around 70 Durham (around 15 USD).

I knew that the next hotel would be stunning, but I was hardly prepared for what I saw. Because it had an Arabic theme and was newly developed, it vaguely reminded me of a Disney or Universal resort, but with style and an attention to detail that would put some of the best U.S. hotels to shame. Normally about 500 USD per night, I was only paying about $200 thanks to a special stopover deal with Emirates Airlines. I had read about the resort on the Internet, and knew it to be the most affordable of several unique hotels with Arabic flair. Every balcony has an exquisite view of the famous sail hotel, or Burj al’ Arab, and every room is a suite, making me feel like an Arabic princess for a night.

As I checked in I had to provide my passport, which they scanned into a special government-required passport scanner. This along with a large secret police force, helps the UAE to keep tabs on suspected terrorists (and some men had even been recently deported due to their questionable behavior and connections).

I spent the first hour exploring and taking pictures of my suite, finding some very surprising accessories, such as my very own printer and fax machine tucked neatly into the desk, a robe and Arabic style silk slippers, a decadent bathtub complete with bath salts, and a large variety of teas in a classic wooden box. The bed was large enough for four, and yet I would be the only one fortunate enough to enjoy it, and there was even a pullout couch in the room. They brought me a tray of fresh fruit, and I decided to stay in and pamper myself fo r the few hours of unbearable heat remaining.

Once the sun had retired I set off to explore the resort’s souq, which turned out to be an overpriced, air-conditioned reproduction of a souq (how glad I was that I had seen the real thing!). I had hoped to have enough time to have my hands or feet painted by henna artists, as is tradition there, but since I had arranged to meet Mohammed and Leila for dinner, I was too tight on time and would have to do this on my next trip to Dubai. After a quick drink at the bar I headed out to the lobby to wait on my guests, ordering a glass of red wine and enjoying the live, traditional music being played be an Arabic Antonio Banderas look-alike and his partner. Soon Mohammed and Leila arrived, along with their friend, Heini (I’ll have to check the spelling on that), and joined me for a drink. A musician himself, it wasn’t long before Mohammed had made friends with the men performing in the lobby, and before heading off to dinner, managed to borrow the Arabic-style guitar to play us a tune. Prior to eating we decided to take advantage of the guided and complimentary Abras, or boats, on site, by which guests can see the growing resort via 4 kilometers of waterways.

Although still hot and humid, we enjoyed the boat ride, ending it around 10 PM in search of food. Only a select few of the (many) restaurants on the resort grounds are open 24 hours, and to dine at most you’ll need reservations. Hungry, we all agreed to dine at the overpriced Moroccan-style buffet restaurant in the main building (at around $35 per person, plus drinks). Although it was nothing to write home about, live music added to the ambiance, and I made it a point to try some of the Arabic dishes while I was there. Especially interesting were the pickled lemons, which had apparently been pickled in lemon-scented Lyscol cleaner (ok, maybe not, but it sure tasted like it!).

More interesting than the food were the discussions held over the course of the evening. Mohammed, Leila, and Heini were all born in Lebanon, but raised in different countries, so we had some very mixed opinions at the table. Of course, when it came to Iraq, I was alone in my more neutral perspective. I explained that I’m not pro-war, but that I personally do not believe that there’s a peaceful solution to combat terrorism. They of course countered with the argument that terrorism has been created by the U.S. and can be resolved if they stop meddling in Middle Eastern affairs (I think this was the general direction of the discussion). It got a little tense at times, but as the evening came to a close, laughs, smiles, and photos replaced the tension, and there were no hard feelings. It’s so neat to find people like this to talk to, where you can respectfully disagree, and move on, and I was thankful that there were no judgments passed after the discussion of such controversial topics.

Day 3 (Departure)

We left the restaurant shortly before 2 AM, and I insisted that they take a look at one of the rooms before they headed home. Just as awe-struck as I had been with the attention to detail and luxury, they examined the room and then went out on the balcony to watch the Burj al’ Arab as it performed its spectacular hourly color-changing ceremony (which can be seen after sunset). We talked for a little bit longer before they left, allowing me to get some sleep before my early departure that morning. I had hoped to be up early enough to grab some breakfast, but the complimentary airport pickup (arranged by Emirates as a part of the package) arrived punctually at 6:30, which left me with just enough time to take a quick peak at the buffet before leaving. Had I not looked, I would have only been half as disappointed. The buffet selection was huge, with everything from fresh fruit to pastries, and from cold cuts to fish. Maybe next time!

Upon arrival at the airport, a man offered to take my luggage, but only pushed it to the check-in counter (something I could have done in retrospect). Since it only cost me about US$2.50, though, it was a manageable expense. Having checked- in a bit late, I didn’t get a window seat, but could still see from where I was. Unfortunately, we flew the opposite direction of the palm and globe islands being created nearby (and on arrival I was on the wrong side of the plane), plus it was a little overcast, so I spent my time getting to know my neighbors. On my right was a Singaporean returning from one month in Iran, and to my left was an Australian headed back after one month in Oman.

I was just an American who had spent two days in Dubai, but in the course of just 48 hours my perspective of the Middle East, and the world, had evolved nonetheless.


Beth said...

Very enlightening post about Dubai!

Viera said...

Thanks for a story . It brought back lost of memories.Thank you Liz.