Woodrow W. Denham
United Arab Emirates University
Al Ain, UAE
8 September 1993
This begins what we hope will be a long series of letters from our new home in the United Arab Emirates.
The first leg of our trip from Boston gave us an opportunity to rest after the weeks of frantic activity that preceded our departure from Franconia. We slept all the way to London, then Gulf Air gave us a room at a fine hotel near London's Heathrow Airport where we slept and ate and did nothing else for fourteen hours while we awaited our connecting flight to Abu Dhabi.
The computer screen on the wall in front of us in the Gulf Air 767 displayed our zigzag route as we flew eastward over the North Sea to Germany and Poland, south over Istanbul to the Zagros Mountains near Adana, Turkey, east over Diyarbakir with Mount Ararat on our left reaching far above the clouds on the border between Turkey and Iran, then southeast over the Iranian cities of Qom and Isfahan. We began our long gradual descent above central Iran at sunrise, approaching the Emirates over Bandar Abbas and the Straits of Hormuz. Twenty-seven hours after leaving Boston, we took a last sharp left turn over the beach and landed at Abu Dhabi International Airport, one of four world-class international airports in a space of 200 kilometers along the Emirates coast.
The airport terminal building is a low sand-pink dome crouching in the desert, almost invisible except for the passenger and cargo planes huddled around it - Air France, British Airways, Saudia, Air India, PIA, Aeroflot, Emirates Air, Gulf Air, Air Djibouti ... But like much else in the Emirates, the terminal building looks inward: nondescript on the outside but absolutely gorgeous on the inside, a gently illuminated multicolored seashell, silent and soft, filled with arches and fountains and green plants, showing extraordinary attention to functional and visual detail, a subtle display of wealth and taste.
Since our flight carried about seventy people who were headed for the University in Al Ain, a couple of University busses and several staff members met the group to help with immigrations, customs, air freight and the cats - our Magnificat and one other cat arrived as accompanying dependents. Since Magnificat prefers to do things his own way, he flew on Swissair through Zurich, arrived in great shape eight hours before we did, and promptly made friends with assorted baggage handlers, customs inspectors and veterinarians.
Welcome to Al-Ain
The five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Al Ain was our "dormitory" for a week while we went through countless orientation sessions, filled out forms for almost every bureaucracy in the Emirates, were assigned an apartment, rented a car to use for the first month, began to learn our way around the city, and ate ridiculous amounts of fine food thrice daily at the hotel's buffet. The Bangladeshi man who cleaned our room viewed Magnificat anxiously, but after touching him carefully, confirming that he was not inclined to eat people, and learning that he really likes flowers, the man joined Niff's fan club and brought him a bouquet the day before we moved to our apartment.
The city of Al Ain is in a shallow depression called Buraimi Oasis at an elevation of 400 meters about 130 kilometers inland from Abu Dhabi. The depression, dotted with springs, is shaped like an arrowhead, about 30 kilometers long on its east-west axis and half that on its north-south axis. South of the depression a lone mountain, Jabal Hafit, rises to about 1200 meters. All else is open desert, red and brown sandhills, rocky outcroppings here and there, low scrub vegetation interspersed with bright green trees so isolated they could be in flowerpots, a few dry wadis that carry rare flash floods southwest into Rub al Khali, Saudi Arabia's famous Empty Quarter that begins at the edge of the oasis.
History goes back five thousand years here, and seems to show very little change during the first 4960 of them - a small market town in the center of what is now the city of Al Ain and another called Buraimi across the border in Oman, a good many small fortified villages occupied by sedentary farmers raising date palms and goats beside the springs that form the oases, and migratory camel nomads living off their herds out in the desert, their relatives in the oases, and their incomes as caravan traders.
The new city was created after oil money began to flow into the Emirates in the 1960's and 70's. It's a grid of six lane boulevards spaced at roughly one to two kilometer intervals throughout the depression, the boulevards carefully landscaped to create an impression of driving through an endless woodland, the intersections holding roundabouts that control traffic without traffic lights. Each block within the grid is further subdivided depending upon the nature of the neighborhood in which it is located. The central business district occupies about six blocks, each of which contains many short streets, plenty of parking lots and an enormous diversity of shops and markets (souks) selling almost everything you can imagine including camels, carpets and gold. The University occupies several blocks scattered throughout the city, one block contains a magnificent assemblage of municipal buildings, and a good many blocks hold palaces belonging to the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Our residential block contains dozens of short streets that lead to apartment houses for expatriates like ourselves, but prevent even the wildest driver from speeding. Every block contains one or several mosques, and most contain at their cores an extensive oasis covered with date palms and surrounded by traditional village houses, with mud walled forts that have been transformed into beautifully illuminated parks for people to use at night. The city is uniformly beautiful in the same low key manner as the airport terminal building.
Our apartment is in Al Jimi district, a northwestern suburb built around Al Jimi Oasis. The oasis itself retains its mud walls, upgraded in some places with cement blocks, and continues to produce huge quantities of dates that are being harvested now. Ours is one of many brand new apartment buildings in the neighborhood that has been rented by the University to serve as faculty housing.
The apartment building is not so low-key. It's a two story cement block structure surrounded by a high privacy wall, containing sixteen enormous apartments. A covered carpark inside the wall separates the building from the street, and three spectacular but tasteful arches adorn the front and back edges of the flat roof where two water tanks, a clothesline and two satellite TV antennas live, and where we and our neighbors socialize outside at night. The outer walls are smoothly plastered and painted brilliant white, all the trim is high-gloss black, and the arched, mirrored windows, shining like massive jewels, admit some light while reflecting most of the heat back out to the desert.
Our apartment is just over twice the size of our house in Franconia. A foyer and a long central hallway lead to a living-dining room, two large bedrooms, and a study all facing out on the privacy wall, and three baths and a kitchen facing in on a central light shaft. The ceilings are ten feet high, the floors and kitchen counters are of marble, five air conditioners whir peacefully in the background. A huge old tree stands just beyond the wall beside the study providing a graceful scene for us and a pleasant home for birds.
The apartment came without any furnishings, not even a stove or refrigerator, but the University provided a generous furnishings allowance with instructions to spend it wisely. So we have raced through the last three weeks on a spending spree that has been entirely out of character for us. Having never gone directly from no furnishings to complete furnishings on a moment's notice, we may have displayed more haste than wisdom in this matter, but at least we're up and running now. The furniture is sort of Scandinavian modern, manufactured in Malaysia and Indonesia. One carpet is Indian, the other is a local design that Bedouins use in their tents. The master bedroom is functional but severely under-furnished, while the other bedroom has been declared temporarily redundant and serves as the laundry and storage room. The study is in pretty good shape now that the new computer and printer are speaking to each other.
A Quick Look at the Emirates
Our shopping has taken us all over Al Ain, as well as across the marvelous freeways spanning the desert to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Those two coastal cities put Al Ain into perspective fairly quickly: both are large, very rapidly expanding cosmopolitan business centers for the entire Gulf, building on their traditions as major ports for trade with India and Southeast Asia on the one hand, and the Middle East and Europe on the other. By contrast, Al Ain is a small provincial city that has a great deal of charm, but owes its recent development largely to the President’s having been born here and his subsequent decision to locate United Arab Emirates University here.
The population of the Emirates is only 2.5 million, but is quite complex. Traditionally among the indigenous Arabic-speaking Emiratis there were several major subdivisions: nomadic bedouin in the deep desert, sedentary villagers in the inland oases, coastal peoples who specialized in fishing and pearling in the Gulf, and urban merchants who operated the ports and managed the long distance trade both over land by camel caravan and over water from Indonesia to Egypt using wooden ships called dhows that still number in the thousands. In addition to these groups, slaves were imported from Africa, with Al Ain reported to have been a major slave trading center well into the 20th century.
The oil boom and the gigantic construction programs that produced an international urban infrastructure here almost overnight attracted a great many Western designers, managers and technicians for a while, but their numbers seem to have diminished as they have been replaced by operating staffs from the Emirates or by skilled people from the so-called Developing World. The current estimate is that Al Ain has a total population of about 100,000 of whom only about 1000 are Westerners.
Then there are the South Asians, by far the largest group in the country. Many came recently from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in pursuit of oil money and are supporting families back home with their remittances. But a great many belong to families that emigrated long ago following trade routes to Basra, Cairo and Mozambique, and pilgrimage routes to Jeddah and Mecca. The preponderance of South Asians in shops and offices, Indian goods and foods in the souks, Indian restaurants everywhere, and Indian music in cassette shops and on the radio, combine to make the Emirati cities look, feel and sound like up-scale versions of Madras and Bangalore.
Arriving in August, we have experienced the heat at its worst. Afternoon temperatures regularly touch 115 F, then drop rapidly to reach a pleasant 80 F by sunrise. As is true of many warm places, the workday has two parts, the first from 7:30am to 1:30pm, the second from 4:30 to 11:00pm, with most activities occurring at night. We've had two tremendous thunderstorms and three days of blowing dust; but most of the time since the moment we arrived the daytime sky has been a dome of deep blue. We've watched the moon go through one full cycle now, its waxing and waning inescapable here, what with no clouds or trees to hide it, and a rhythm of life that takes us outside most nights.
Despite everything that's happened since we left home, a great deal remains to be done before we are truly established here in Al Ain. Nancy has begun teaching now, but her schedule and job description seem to change daily; I have had several job interviews for administrative positions at the University, but a final decision awaits the return of a person who is on vacation; we still don't have residence visas and until they arrive we can't get a post office box or buy a car; getting a new printer and making the new computer work properly with un-American cables were more difficult that we had expected; and so on. But these are normal problems that will fade in time, insh'allah. All things considered, we are delighted to be here and feel that our decision to come was a good one. When we get our own mailbox, we'll let you know its number.
To understand something of life in Al Ain and the Rub al Khali fifty years ago, you might read Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands, available in paperback almost everywhere.
Working at UAE University
15 October 1993
As you already know, Nancy teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) at the Basic University Education Center (BUEC), and her job got us here. Three weeks ago, I was appointed Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Arts Faculty and permanently loaned to the University Computer Center as Head of Academic Support and Client Services. Our two positions provide radically different perspectives from which to see the University.
Numbers are elastic here and serve as order-of-magnitude indicators rather than as precise measures. The University seems to have about 600 faculty, 2000 administrators, and 10,000 students of whom about 80 percent are women.
The academic program centers on eight Faculties: Agriculture, Economics and Business, Education, Engineering, Humanities, Medicine, Science and Sharia (Islamic Law). In addition to the Faculties, there are the BUEC, a semi-autonomous program that gives extra training in English, Math/Computing and Arabic to all first year students; Zayed Central Library, which is in effect the UAE's National Library; two major research institutes that deal with marine, desert, agricultural and environmental issues; and the University Computer Center. The Faculties and other academic units are distributed over campuses within walled compounds scattered about the city.
The University was established at the Islamic Institute Campus in 1978. This campus houses the University's executive offices and most of its administrative offices, the Grand Mosque and the Faculty of Sharia, the University Computer Center, the administrative offices of the BUEC, and a small but significant number of classrooms and laboratories for men students.
To understand the operation and physical layout of the University, you must remember that Islam requires much more separation of men and women than is common in Europe and North America. While sexual segregation is not nearly as extreme here as in Saudi Arabia, it is applied very strictly to university students. Some adult women work at the Islamic Institute Campus, but no women students are admitted to it. Rather, women students live in dormitory complexes and attend classes at the women's Maqam Campus in a western suburb of Al Ain. It is by far the largest campus and courses in all of the faculties are offered there. Nancy teaches at Maqam and all of her students are women.
Most classes offered to men are held at Jimi and Muwaiji Campuses. The Jimi campus houses Agriculture, Economics and Engineering, while the Muwaiji Campus houses Education,Humanities and Science. Although the Faculty of Medicine is officially a part of the University, the Medical School and the National Medical Library are highly autonomous and are scattered over several independent campuses and throughout all three of Al Ain's major hospitals.
Zayed Central Library occupies a separate campus opposite the Islamic Institute, and houses a large and growing collection of books and periodicals in Arabic and English. Both men and women students use it, but at separate times of the day and week. Faculty are considered neuter. To facilitate use of library collections by women students, Zayed has two major branch libraries at the Maqam Campus, and the National Medical Library has a branch there as well.
Clearly the importance of sexual segregation of unmarried women has many implications for the academic organization of the university, but it ramifies into other areas as well. For example, during the week a fleet of 80 shuttle buses scurries about the city moving the women from dormitories to classes to libraries and back again. Shortly after noon each Wednesday, all of the women students at Maqam board 160 enormous superbuses and race home for the weekend in air conditioned convoys escorted by guards and repairmen to handle possible breakdowns. Men students live in men's dorms on the opposite side of the city and use their own cars for transportation.
This is the country's only university, but another system of tertiary education is available here. Each of the seven Emirates has a men's and a women's Higher College of Technology (HCT). The HCT system resembles American community colleges in that they are scattered all over the country and do not confer University degrees. The UAE is in a hurry to develop the labor force that it needs to become independent of expatriate professional and technical personnel such as the two of us, and the HCT's are important for reaching that goal. They are high prestige technical schools for training managers of seaports and airports, the petroleum industry, computer operations and maintenance, military and police establishments, irrigation and highway construction projects, and so on. Many of the men who might opt for an "academic track" at the University instead opt for a "technical track" at the HCT. But women typically select the University, and this difference accounts for the disproportionately large number of women at Maqam.
The BUEC where Nancy works is in its fourth year of operation. It is responsible for preparing students to study effectively in a high technology bilingual Arabic/English university after having graduated from secondary schools that, in many cases, follow traditional Islamic curricula that emphasize study of the Quran and the Arabic language. Many of Nancy's students speak little or no English on entering BUEC, but following a year of intensive study are expected to be proficient enough in the language to take many of their university courses in it. The expectations are high for both students and faculty.
Nancy's students come from all over the Emirates: a good many from Al Ain, a lot from the much larger coastal cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, and the remainder from small coastal cities such as Umm al Quwain and Fujaira, desert oases such as Liwa on the edge of the Rub al Khali, market towns like Hatta in the mountains northeast of Al Ain, and even a few from islands in the Gulf where their families traditionally engaged in fishing and pearling. About ten percent are foreign. Although women are not required to wear veils and black outer garments in the UAE, many do, including a majority of the women students at the Maqam campus when they are outside their dormitories and classrooms.
The University Computer Center where I work, and everything having to do with computing at the university, are undergoing rapid changes. In the past, the Computer Center's staff of twenty-five almost exclusively supported Administrative operations such as student records, finance, and purchasing. Recently, the Chancellor Sheikh Nahyan, who is the nephew of His Excellency Sheikh Zayed, the President of the Emirates, decreed that the Computer Center should move rapidly to support Academic computing. The most conspicuous project underway now is to attach every office, classroom and library to our new University-wide computer network within the next twelve months, and to attach the University to the Internet. If all goes well, our Computer Center will become the third Internet node in the Middle East on 15 December of this year, thereby giving us access to Bill Clinton and Al Gore's "information superhighway". Also the new computerized Library Information System at Zayed Central Library, scheduled for installation by the end of the year, will be one of the few libraries on the Internet to support Arabic language cataloging.
Both of us are working utterly ridiculous hours. My schedule is out of control because the normal Emirati work schedule (7:30am to 7:30pm with a three-hour lunch break) remains psychologically alien, and because all Academic support from the Computer Center has to be created entirely from scratch with some expectation that that will happen in a week or two since the Sheikh said, "Do it NOW." Nancy is on an American style schedule that is out of control because she teaches twenty hours per week and the busywork associated with teaching (like grading quizzes) hasn't been computerized yet. She has accepted much of the responsibility for getting it computerized by next term.
In addition to the things that are going too fast, some things continue to go too slowly. We still don't have our residence visas, which means that we still haven't received our medical insurance cards and part of our housing allowance. We were told that we couldn't buy a car until we got our visas, then discovered that the instructions really meant that we couldn't get a car LOAN without the visas. So three days ago we bought a 1988 Honda Civic for cash from a colleague who was upgrading to a new Landrover. Riding in Pakistani taxis is great fun for a while, but not as a way of life. Now that we have a car, we hope to regain some control over our schedules, get out of town now and then, and begin taking photographs, for this is a wonderfully photogenic place.
We now have a TV set attached to the satellite antennas on our roof and get twenty-two stations including CNN, MTV, BBC Asia Service from London, the French equivalent of BBC from Paris, national TV networks from Hong Kong, Singapore, Delhi and Karachi, a Chinese news station from Beijing, a Japanese music station like MTV from Tokyo, Arabic stations from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and of course stations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This is much better than watching Channel 8 in Franconia.
Since writing the last letter, we haven't seen a single cloud. The dreadfully hot summer has passed, and temperatures rarely reach a hundred degrees now. In the cool of yesterday morning, on our first off-duty ride in the car, we visited Hili Archaeological Site where a stone tomb dated at 3200BC sits with bas-relief monkeys decorating it. The domed igloo-like structure is the centerpiece of a grassy park filled with gray-green acacias, emerald parrots, and flaming pink bougainvillea. The only other people there were a Pakistani lawn crew meticulously trimming the grass with tiny hand scythes. Most trimmings go to the Al Ain Compost Plant to make more soil and the rest are fed to livestock.
For a fascinating Arabic view of life in the Gulf during the early years of oil exploration and development - roughly the 1930s and 40s - we strongly recommend Cities of Salt, a set of three novels by Abdul Rahman Munif, translated from the Arabic by Peter Thereaux, published by Vintage. Your local bookstore may not have them, but you can order them. They are demanding books, but are well worth the effort.
22 Dec 93
After struggling for almost four months with the most paralyzing bunch of bureaucratic fiascoes that we have ever experienced, we have finished most of our arrival processing. A bit remains to be done, but at least both of us now have our residence visas and are getting paid predictably. The problems didn't pertain specifically to us but rather to our entire group of almost a hundred new arrivals, and were serious enough that several of them fled the country before the disaster finally got resolved. We must be mellowing. We never even considered the possibility of going AWOL!
Also, we finally have just about everything that we need to make the apartment work properly. We gave up on the TV set after it broke twice in two weeks, the leaky plumbing kept us pretty busy for a while, and we still haven't been able to make the computer send faxes. But in the grand scheme of things, these count for naught.
It's all too easy to look at the UAE's glamorous shopping centers, freeways, palaces and parks and forget that this really is a developing country despite its enormous wealth and extraordinarily rapid growth since the 1960s. Our months of bureaucratic problems and endless hassles with things such as leaky plumbing gave us an intensive behind the scenes introduction to the real UAE. Our Saturday through Wednesday schedules continue to be ridiculously busy, but we have our weekend (Thursday and Friday) schedules under control so that we can begin to explore the country. From now on, we'll try to tell you more about the UAE and less about our problems.
The Al Ain Museum is located in one of the city's many forts, and was established in the 1970s and 80s to house archaeological and ethnographic materials from numerous sites in the vicinity of Buraimi Oasis. It has become an important research center, and now holds objects from throughout the Emirates, many dating from more than 5,000 years ago. The displays are both beautiful and informative, and the fort itself is undergoing extensive restoration. When we visited it, the director had a hooded falcon sitting on his desk.
If you own a four-wheel drive vehicle (or have friends who own them) it's easy to take day trips westward into the sands of the Empty Quarter and eastward into the Omani mountains. Our first excursion of this sort, with a group of about twenty people in a convoy of Land Cruisers and similar vehicles, was to a site in Oman where water erosion has cut narrow but very deep canyons into loose conglomerates at the base of the mountains. In the midst of absolutely dry and extremely rugged mountains with almost no vegetation, we hiked down into the canyons and found running water with pools as much as ten feet deep, and tiny date palm oases that probably have been maintained for centuries. We though we would have the place to ourselves, but found a group of Polish expatriates from Dubai sitting there when we arrived: sort of like landing on the moon and finding a CNN camera crew waiting for you.
We spent last Wednesday afternoon and Thursday on the east (Gulf of Oman) coast, near the cities of Fujairah and Khor Fakkan. We drove for three hours through the mountains and a number of small country towns to get there, and spent the night at a hotel, part of the Emirates' new and rapidly expanding tourism infrastructure, that caters to tourists from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. The mountains are not especially high there, but in some places they run right down to the shore and dive into the sea, with sandy beaches interspersed between the rugged headlands. Our direct contacts with the sea were limited to a brief swim at the hotel, and an hour of gazing intently into a busy tidal pool in one of the rocky areas.
Fujairah and Khor Fakkan are ancient shipping ports that have entered the modern era with a vengeance: we counted about fifty freighters and tankers at anchor off shore waiting to come into the harbors. As a result of our experiences in the Caribbean, where the east coasts of islands tend to be desolate and underdeveloped, we were surprised to discover that these port cities have been extensively modernized, with nothing left of their former selves but a few small fortifications and an excellent museum.
Since Dubai is only an hour away from Al Ain, we expect to spend a lot of time there. Early in November, as part of our jobs, we attended the 1993 Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX 93) at the spectacular new 33-story World Trade Center in Dubai. As computer trade fairs go, GITEX is quite interesting because major issues addressed there are the development of Arabic language software, and the problems of developing bilingual software such as word processors that can handle both left-to-right writing as in the English language and right-to-left writing as in the Arabic language. It's easy enough to do one or the other, but its kind of tricky to do both at the same time.
We went back to Dubai last Thursday and spent the day on the waterfront. The Creek is the short navigable waterway that made the city a seaport long before the oil boom. It is home to a large fleet of wooden fishing dhows, and holds wharves for thousands of cargo dhows that serve the islands in the Gulf as well as to ports in Iran, Oman, Yemen and India. Cars cross The Creek via freeway bridges and tunnels, but pedestrians do it via abras, tiny wooden ferry boats probably from India that zoom around carrying about twenty passengers on top for each crossing. The boats, docks, cargo and people on the waterfront mirrored in glass walled hotels and offices just across the street make for some spectacular photography.
The Indian community is both enormous and wealthy here, and they retain close contacts with India. This means that we can nurture our interests in India very easily. For example, last night I went to Dubai again to attend a performance of classical North Indian music and dance by a group who recently completed tours of Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. And it was just announced that when Al Ain's International Airport opens in April insh'allah, the first regularly scheduled flights will provide nonstop service to South India.
It is going to take us a while to get over the contrasts with Saudi Arabia where the name of the December 25 holiday was utterly forbidden (haram). Here, all the shops have seasonal specials running concurrently on everyone's holidays: Thanksgiving; Diwali, the Hindu New Year marked by candles and gift giving; Emerati National Day marked by stringing colored lighted over every roundabout and major building in the country; and Christmas complete with Santa, lights, and pointy trees. So we close by wishing you all the best for all your holidays, whatever they may be.
People and Sanaiya
12 March 1994
We've been here long enough for the dawn prayer call to have become just another night sound, usually unheard, never romanticized, long since replaced by my Timex at a more seemly hour.
Nancy left at seven this morning to get to Maqam before the fifteen minutes of mayhem around seven-thirty that passes for rush hour in Al Ain. A couple of months ago, a long red Mercedes with too many doors and a low license plate number hit our Honda in a roundabout as Nancy approached the campus. It did minor damage to the fender but major damage to Nancy's attitude toward local drivers.
I caught a taxi and got to my office at the Islamic Institute just as Con Dietz phoned from Illinois. Con becomes our next Computer Center Director in May. He has a lot of technical and management experience, but no Middle Eastern experience except for a couple of consulting trips to Al Ain last year. He'll be a good director if he can keep his expectations low and remember that every expat here, regardless of how high his position, is by definition a middle manager, always outranked by the nearest Emirati, outnumbered by vast legions of Egyptian bureaucrats, and expendable.
Tony Iannone from Los Angeles, Senior Technical Trainer and editor of the newsletter, is almost ready to send the next issue of the newsletter to the printer, so I spent a while this morning proofing the final draft. Soliciting articles and editing six pages in English are pretty straightforward, but getting the English text translated and laid out in Arabic is tricky, and sticking to a tight schedule is just about impossible here. I took a bunch of photos at the Computer Center last week and plan to use ten of them as a "center fold" in this issue.
A week ago, Paul Metcalf, Acting Director of the Computer Center - of South African extraction, more recently from Houston, Texas - suggested that we urgently replace our ancient computers in the PC Training Lab with new machines, and use the old PCs that still work to replace a number of terminals that have failed recently in places such as the Libraries, the Registrar's Office and Purchasing. The idea was warmly received on high, so Tony and I spent much of the week preparing a major proposal for twenty top-of-the-line workstations, a file server, a laser printer, a color datashow, and a lot of new software. The technical committee approved it yesterday, and I presented it to the Deputy Vice Chancellor and the Executive Committee today. What with the price of oil continuing to drop and technical training having a lower priority than it should, the cost was deemed excessive and the proposal was tabled. Another near miss as the oil rich Middle East comes to grips with reality.
After the Executive Committee meeting, Tony resigned. Of ten Western managers and technical experts who joined the staff last March, he's the third to sign off in the last six weeks. He feels socially and culturally isolated here and has spent most of his earnings on phone calls to the US and vacations in Cairo, Moscow and Chingmai. He says he's got to get back to civilization, so I guess we've lost him. We've been attempting to recruit new senior staff for almost six months but with no success. We need people with good technical skills, Western management experience, fluency in both English and Arabic, and modest salary requirements. Such people don't exist.
A couple of weeks ago, when the library's circulation software moved from our obsolescent Prime computer to our brand new VAX, the system went crazy and Carla Higgins from South Carolina, the librarian at the Maqam Campus, did likewise. Manal Khalil, the Egyptian who runs the Help Desk, is trying to coordinate the repairs and has recruited me to help out. Whenever a crisis occurs, she asks Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian technicians to fix the system, and me to fix Carla. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on that project this morning.
Ra'ed Al-Hemairi, a young Emirati who graduated as a computer engineer from the Higher College of Technology last spring, joined my staff as a Client Services Specialist in November. He's highly competent and enthusiastic, and as one of only three Emiratis on the Computer Center staff, his future is very bright indeed. Also he is quite photogenic. This morning he brought in a copy of a new international advertising brochure produced by Emirates Airlines. Ra'ed is on the cover looking most handsome in his flowing white thobe and ghutra, holding the reins of a fine white Arabian stallion, and inviting foreigners (presumably nubile females with vivid fantasies about princes and harems) to come to the Emirates for their next winter vacations.
Since we're in the Holy Month of Ramadan during which Moslems fast during the day, the length of the workday has been reduced. When Nancy picked me up at the office at two-thirty, we went home for lunch, then got our swimsuits and drove to the club at the Intercontinental Hotel. Nancy swims at the Intercon almost every day; I go sometimes to lie in the sun and read. Today was windier than usual so the flies were absent for a change, but when a gust blew a lawn chair into the pool we left early.
Paul and his wife Sarah had reservations late tonight to fly south to the Seychelle Islands for a brief vacation and asked us to take them to the airport to catch their plane. We left their villa at sunset and had dinner in Dubai - a sampler with six kinds of salads and five kinds of kabobs at a Turkish restaurant. Afterwards we searched several shopping malls for European classical music which remains as scarce as hens' teeth. The malls were extra busy tonight with people buying gifts to distribute at Al-Eid, the three day festival that begins tomorrow and marks the end of Ramadan - a lot like shopping on Christmas Eve.
With a couple of new cassettes in tow and Paul and Sarah safely deposited at the airport, we headed home and found that the afternoon wind had turned into the first serious sandstorm that we've seen here. Sand was roaring in from the dunes and forming drifts on the freeway like snow in a blizzard, the normal visibility of about 40 miles was reduced to less than one mile, and abrasive gusts rocked the car. Although we didn't see any accidents, it was a fine night for a camel to have wandered onto the freeway and been flattened by a Mercedes or a Landrover driven by a pubescent Emirati who puts his faith in God and his accelerator on the floorboard, and refuses to slow down for anything including zero visibility and stray livestock weighing close to half a ton each.
So I'm sitting here in the study with a gale battering the tree outside my window and sand sifting in through invisible cracks around the silent air conditioner. This is the first time I've heard wind in our tree, and it sounds like we may lose a limb. Local wisdom says that sandstorms are harbingers of rain. If the intensity of this storm implies anything about the amount of rain to follow, we're in for a flood. Except for the sandstorm, it was a typical day.
Sanaiya Ramadan ended and the flood never came. In fact, we haven't had a drop of rain since September except for a brief downpour on Christmas Day. The cool season ended on Easter Sunday when the temperature broke a hundred degrees for the first time this year. I usually walk about a mile each way from my office to have lunch at a small Indian restaurant that serves a huge plate of rice, two kinds of fish, three kinds of vegetables, a salad, hot mango and lemon pickles, paper thin papadams and tea for the equivalent of $1.35 - good food, reasonable price, useful exercise - but I'll have to give it up soon as the midday temperature climbs out of sight.
In my earlier descriptions of Al Ain, I didn't mention the district called Sanaiya, meaning "industrial", which is utterly different from the rest of the city. Sanaiya used to be a working class immigrant neighborhood with narrow unpaved streets and poor facilities such as you would find in comparable quarters of most cities in the developing world. Early in 1993, the city began to upgrade Sanaiya, but rather than doing it incrementally, they went in with a fleet of bulldozers and ripped up every street in the district. Now they are rebuilding all of them so that Sanaiya is merging into the rest of "Al Ain the Garden City", with broad boulevards and fine sidewalks, tree lined median strips and proper facilities. But in the meantime, navigating through the shattered streets, dodging pedestrians who have no place to walk, and breathing the pall of dust that hangs over the district are not fun.
Aside from the fact that Saniya houses a large population who must be slowly suffocating, these things matter to me because Mr. Abbas's auto repair shop is one of hundreds deep in the bowels of Sanaiya. Mr. Abbas left Lebanon during the civil war, worked for a decade with a chemical distributor in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and settled in Al Ain in 1990. He's fluent in Arabic, English and French, has used computers for years, and came to the Computer Center looking for a job that didn't exist. But he got me as a customer, even if I didn't get him as an employee.
Unlike the local Honda dealer, Mr. Abbas deals in quality service rather than in prestige. His shop is a modest sized walled compound with bits of shade around the edges, jam packed with cars and trucks several of which haven't moved in the last six months, old parts and new equipment, and a staff who speak a little Arabic along with Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu, Pushtu, various East African dialects, Tagalog and a word or two of English. How anything works properly in the place is mysterious, but indeed it does. He doesn't have a parts department, but dozens of scavengers-cum-suppliers throughout the district provide good used parts almost instantly. He serves Lipton's tea with ample sugar, he delivers on time and the car runs beautifully. But when the car, coated with dust, returns home from a visit with Mr. Abbas, we always get a disappointed look from Mr. Abdul Gafur. He washes the car every morning and thinks we should go to the Honda dealer.
Also Sanaiya contains other useful and fascinating shops that don't exist elsewhere in the city. For example, that's where you go to buy untrained hunting falcons and all of the accouterments required to pursue the sport, including leather arm guards to keep the bird's vicious talons out of your flesh. The shops are small and bare with the equipment stored in a back room and a simple wooden rail standing in front of the back wall. During the day, a busy shop might have half a dozen falcons perched on the rail with hoods over their eyes. At night, shop owners spread carpets on the ground outside, bring out their birds and serve tea to all who come to bargain. Even amidst the chaos and air pollution of Sanaiya, prices range from a few hundred dollars for an ordinary bird to perhaps $10,000 for a fine specimen. They all look just alike to me.
Speaking of things that fly, Al Ain's new international airport opened last week amidst much fanfare to which Sheikhs were invited but we groundlings were not. After the ceremonies ended, we drove out for a visit and watched one of the first scheduled flights depart. By world standards, the airport is tiny with just one gate and space for only five aircraft on the apron. Nevertheless it was difficult and expensive to build. In order to avoid paving over highly productive agricultural lands of the oasis, the engineers put it on leveled sand dunes in the Rhub Al Khali, some of which reached 160 meters above the current elevation of the runways. Service began with eight flights a week to India, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt and Russia with more to be added soon, including a possible nonstop flight from here to New York as soon as Emirates Air receives its new long range A340s. And construction is about to begin on another five-star hotel to handle the crowds that are expected to inundate our existing Intercon and Hilton Hotels as Al Ain becomes a major tourist destination for Europeans, other Middle Easterners and Southeast Asians.
We planned to join a group from the Natural History Society last Friday to sail all day on a dhow off the east coast of the Musandam Peninsula, the point of land that juts eastwards toward Iran to form the Straits of Hormuz. Earlier in the week, a huge oil slick formed in the area when two tankers collided about ten miles off shore. The first news report said everything was under control, the next was a plea for international assistance in containing the spillage, the third was a morose announcement that 17,500 barrels of light Iranian crude were headed straight for shore. And then our trip was canceled. Not exactly the Exxon Valdez, but enough to kill a lot of fish and birds and make a real mess of the beaches.
Through the Veil of Oil Wealth
2 June 1994
When we had lunch recently at an Iranian sea food buffet at the fishing dhow harbor in Abu Dhabi, we found a mysterious concoction resembling fiberglass insulation in a serving dish. Noticing my puzzlement, the Emirati man beside me said it was "local caviar" made of dried, pounded shark, curry seasonings and lots of lemon juice. It originated as a festive dish back in the days when this was a poor country and eating shark was a necessity rather than a treat. Despite its strange texture, it was delicious. Our waiter, wearing a white turban and traditional Gulf pearl diver's attire, said it's the favorite - the only item that must appear on the menu every day. Like saltfish in the Caribbean, for centuries a sign of poverty, now a symbol of national pride in a land where wealth is new.
Although the UAE has one of the world's highest per capita incomes, its distribution is uneven. When I press a button by my desk, Ali comes to take my order for coffee or tea. That's uncomfortable for me, for Buraimi Oasis had a slave market only thirty years ago, and the idea isn't dead yet. Ali's a forty-three year old Indian who, like several others, has worked at the Computer Center since it opened in 1980, earning the same day laborer wage he's always earned. Recent attempts by Western management to increase that rate at the Computer Center were flatly rejected. For someone in Ali's position, earning about a quarter of the US minimum wage for fourteen years while holding a government job as "tea boy" in a clean, air conditioned university computer center where most people are pleasant certainly doesn't qualify as slavery, and it beats the hell out of working in a rice paddy or a refugee camp, earning a dollar a day if he's lucky and getting shot at if he isn't. So I press the button and place my order, even though Ali's salary is pretty low.
Paul faces a more difficult situation at home. He and Sarah as ex-colonials from South Africa are not naive, but even they were surprised that the maximum wage they're allowed to pay their Sri Lankan maid is about half of what Ali earns, plus room and board, minus annual air fare to and from Sri Lanka, and Harriet is on call twenty-four hours per day. That's not exactly slavery either, but it comes pretty close - or does it? Harriet has a cousin in Colombo who would be delighted to work for us under these conditions. Should we bring her here or leave her in Sri Lanka to fend for herself?
Ali and Harriet aren't alone in their concern for money. Ra'ed, my young colleague who graduated from the UAE's Higher College of Technology last year, has battled the University's Finance Department for months because they can't get his pay right. It's refreshing for us expatriates to know that Emiratis have trouble with that department too, but Ra'ed's situation is quite different from Ali's. Ali's primary objective is staying alive, while Ra'ed's is achieving parity: getting the same salary that others with his qualifications receive. Since the normal starting salary for an Emirati with a B.A. Degree is many times a day laborer's wage, Ra'ed is annoyed because he receives less monthly than Ali receives annually. So Ra'ed grumbles a lot and complains to the Sheikh, while Ali smiles a lot and prays to Allah that recent rumors about staff reductions among day laborers aren't true.
Then there's Sheikh Khalifa, the Crown Prince, whose farm is a couple of blocks from the Islamic Institute Campus. I often walk deep into the date palm oases that cover much of Al Ain, including the Sheikh's farm. Old mud walls surrounding and dissecting the plantations shut out street sounds leaving only the rustle of wind in the palm fronds, the songs of birds, and prayer calls from nearby mosques. It's remarkably cool and pleasant in there. As the summer advances, the brilliant green fruit matures and darkens in huge bunches on stalks that radiate from the crowns of the trees. Millions of pounds of Al Ain's dates will be ready to harvest in August and September, at which time Sheikh Khalifa will buy the best from his neighbors, package them, and distribute them absolutely free to principal Emirati families, Gulf Air, Emirates Air, and the country's fine hotels and restaurants. Sheikh Khalifa probably doesn't worry much about money.
The Arts One of the things that money can buy is Culture with a capital 'C', and the liberal version of Islam practiced in the UAE is entirely accepting of most aspects of world Culture. The result is an astonishing fluorescence of the arts in this most unlikely place. For a little touch of class, the Al Ain Intercon recently hired a flute and piano duo from Moscow to play classical and semi-classical music every afternoon in the lounge near the main entrance. The first time I heard them, they were playing the theme from Dr. Zhivago with feeling.
The expatriate community in Al Ain has a Choral Society to which Nancy belongs as both solo flautist and singer. About a week ago, the Chorus presented a dinner theater production of The Automaton from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann in the Intercon's Grand Ballroom. The singing, acting and instrumental accompaniment, featuring Richard McKewen on piano and Nancy on flute, were excellent even though almost all of the performers teach full-time at the University and the performance fell during final exam week. Not only did everyone in the Society do a great deal of work, but also the Hotel did a fine job with sound and light systems, set construction, rehearsal rooms and all other support required to make a major production work properly. And the Hotel's kitchen catered an outstanding buffet for about five hundred guests, just as they did a couple of weeks earlier for the Natural History Society's annual poolside Garden Party.
At the Al Ain Hilton's Ballroom in April, a troupe from Prague presented Aida, Verdi's opera about a slave girl in ancient Egypt that contributed much to the development of 19th century European views of the Middle East. Although opera isn't my favorite art form, I thought it would be good to see this one in situ, so to speak. I knew it would be grand, powerful, majestic, complex, demanding and loud, but I didn't expect it to be hilariously funny. Imagine six massive men and women standing in a rough circle on stage, gesticulating wildly and screaming endlessly at each other at the top of their voices in an incomprehensible language with nobody paying the slightest attention to anybody else. Not only does that make for extraordinarily difficult opera - I would have noticed that much anywhere - but also it perfectly parodies conversations I hear among my Arab colleagues every day at my office. There's a huge cultural difference in conversational styles between East and West, and intentionally or otherwise, Aida captures it superbly.
Now shift a hundred miles across the dunes to the first annual Dubai International Arts Festival, supported in large part by the elite of Dubai's Indian community. I made the trip three times during festival week - alone to the Astoria Hotel's Ballroom for a qawwali performance by the Sabri Brothers, and with Nancy to the World Trade Center for a sarod recital by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and to the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza for a Bharata Natyam dance performance by Tripti Bhupen. I'll tell you a bit about the qawwali and sarod performances, but my mastery of the language is not sufficient for me to describe what we saw as the beautiful young woman wearing a brilliant green and pink costume performed the intricate face and hand movements that comprise the ancient South Indian dance.
Sabri Brothers The roots of qawwali lie in sufi mysticism where trance-inducing music and dance enable worshipers such as the famous 'whirling dervishes’ to achieve union with God. This musical tradition has developed in various directions ranging from ancient, highly repetitive and very powerful chanting that would put almost anybody into a trance in short order, to avante garde fusion rock by people like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who leave the rhythm intact but encourage their singers to improvise their way right into the stratosphere, if not into heaven itself.
The Sabri Brothers from the Punjab use yet another style. Their party includes three lead singers two of whom also play harmonium, two supporting singers and a drummer. The group's composition isn't exceptional, but their practice of singing nothing but Classical Urdu poetry is. Only a few people in India and Pakistan really understand classical Urdu, and even fewer understand the esoteric language of Urdu poetry. For many Indians and Pakistanis in the audience, the experience must have been something like my attending a rock concert featuring songs composed by Geoffrey Chaucer and sung in Old English.
The major piece of the evening was an epic poem with well over fifty verses that took two hours to complete. Each verse had five to ten lines, spoken more than sung, and accompanied softly by harmonium and clapping. A loud and vigorous refrain with lots of drumming and clapping separated the verses. It seemed from the explosive laughter at the end of each verse that the audience thought this was really funny stuff, but the man beside me said 'No'. The poem's story was serious, but the crowd laughed with satisfaction because the singers were so clever with the language - puns, rhymes, allusions, double entendres, all sorts of cleverness that escaped me since I couldn't understand a single word that I was hearing. I stayed right to the end at 1:30am, entranced partly by the music but also by the skill of the performers in fully involving the audience in the performance.
Amjad Ali Khan The sarod recital at the World Trade Center was a much more formal event. Amjad Ali Khan, who holds the Chair in Indian Music at England's York University, is considered by many to be India's finest performer on the sarod, a large guitar-like instrument with thirty-six strings, as complex and versatile as the sitar made famous in the West a quarter of a century ago by Ravi Shankar and the Beatles, but with a sound that is much warmer and mellower, not twangy and metallic like the sitar. A key to understanding the performance, and most Indian classical music, is the notion of improvisational freedom within rigid structure.
Amjad was accompanied by tabla, or hand drums, and santoor, a small stringed instrument similar to a dulcimer, and for the second half of the performance was joined by his two teenage sons who have played sarod professionally since they were seven years old, but who continue to study with Amjad, their master.
As the house lights dimmed after the intermission, the performers seated themselves on cushions on the large, austere white stage. The woman on santoor began with a single note and held it without pause or variation for an hour and forty-five minutes, until the piece ended. That constant tone was the thread that tied the entire performance together.
With the drone playing softly in the background, Amjad and his sons began to tune the many strings of their sarods, a slow process that was part of the program itself, for the piece that they played emerged from the sounds of the instruments being tuned - not a sharp beginning, but rather a gradual realization by the audience that Amjad no longer was playing notes at random, but instead was introducing the rag that defined the tonality of the piece, a combination of scale, key signature and the skeleton of a melody, an ascending and descending series of tones that floated above the sounds of the other instruments without rhythm or embellishment of any kind. As the other sarods were tuned they faded out, leaving Amjad to develop the rag for a while, adding variations here and embellishments there until the theme and mood took shape. Next he imposed a tal, or rhythm, onto the rag, sixteen counts to the measure with a particular combination of beats and rests that gave the piece a distinctive temporal structure that he could begin to embellish and modify just as he did the tonal structure of the rag.
Eventually the tabla entered gently but firmly, the rhythmic structure became clearer as defined by the drum accompaniment, and Amjad was free to improvise more vigorously, secure in the knowledge that the tabla would hold a steady rhythm just as the santoor would hold a steady pitch. After a few samples of the excitement that a sarod master can generate by plucking a few strings, the audience began to break into little fits of applause. Then the performers changed roles as the sarod faded into the background to accompany the tabla. The beat stayed exactly the same, but the drummer's fingers, hands, arms, entire body merged with the two small drums to produce an extraordinarily complex crescendo that drove the crowd wild, then faded into the background as the sarod emerged from the shadows.
The complexity increased as Amjad played the rag and his sons played in unison with him. If one sarod is rich and mellow, three of them are infinitely moreso. Then the tabla assumed a role as equal partner to the sarods and a long crescendo began, an absolutely incredible amount of sound coming out of all of the instruments together as they reached the climax. The crowd went wild again, the sound faded and the tabla resumed its role as accompanist. Amjad played a variation on the rag, his first son repeated the variation, and his second son did the same in a pattern that continued for a while as the variations become increasingly subtle, difficult and fast, punctuated again by another astonishing tabla solo. Then Amjad played a variation and each son responded with a different variation in rapid call-and-response form that enables each one to display his own virtuosity within the structures of rag and tal.
Amjad, his sons and the tabla player blended into a single person as they approach the conclusion. Each time Amjad played a phrase, someone echoed it, slowly at first, then faster and faster as the phrases got shorter and shorter until finally each phrase was a single note echoing around the stage from father to son, from sarod to tabla, the interactions among the musicians so intense that the crowd went berserk. And suddenly it ended - the tabla withdrew, Amjad's sons became silent, Amjad played a final soft note that resonated and faded, and the young woman playing the santoor at last released the tone that she had held so faithfully for so long. In the silence and scattered applause that followed, the crowd and the performers were exhilarated and exhausted, and nobody even thought of an encore.
Now for some news from the home front. Nancy was really busy during the Spring Term. In addition to playing flute with the Choral Society, she prepared and taught an English course that met every day, developed computer assisted language learning materials for the BUEC's English Unit, and took a personally important but fiendishly difficult introductory Arabic course in which she got an 'A', so she can learn the language and better appreciate problems her Arabic students face in studying English. After having a week off at the end of the term, she immediately began teaching summer school.
My big achievement of late has been getting a car of my own. After spending eight months with only one car and just about going bonkers as a result, we finally bought another one - a red '91 Honda that looks just like the blue '88 Honda we bought last Fall, except for the color. Due to BUEC management problems, about 35% of the Westerners who joined the faculty when we did and bought high have not renewed their contracts for next year and are selling low - the '91 Honda was cheaper than our '88 Honda. We hope that staying on is the right thing to do, but won't know for sure until the confederacy experiences a successful succession without secessions.
23 September 1994
We begin our second year here with increasing, but still very limited, insight into how things work in the Emirates. The summer has been extremely busy for national policymakers who are trying to cope with several fundamental economic, demographic and social problems. One of the most refreshing aspects of all of this activity has been wide newspaper coverage of new policies and proposed policy changes. Only a few months ago, domestic news coverage was conspicuous by its absence or triviality. Now it's pretty lively. Policy debates are not public affairs here as they are in the US Congress or the British Parliament, but the invisible policy change that increased domestic news coverage is most impressive.
Let's begin with oil. Oil prices are down and known oil reserves of the Emirates are good for only fifteen years (or is it fifty years? Or is it a millinneum?) at current consumption rates, so the country is running out of time. Unless other sectors of the economy can carry the load that oil carries now, it's in for big trouble, and making that change when oil income is down is especially difficult. The problem has many tentacles.
The expatriate problem is especially dear to me since I am one of them. Expatriates, who constitute about 80 percent of the population, are both assets and liabilities here. We were imported to build the infrastructure, run the industries and businesses, provide the training and other services, and so on, but our numbers got out of hand. Yet there are not enough nationals to do the work, and much of the work is beneath the dignity or above the skills of the current adult generation of nationals even if there were more of them. So how should the country rid itself of expats who are expendable and get more for less from the ones that remain?
One way is to reduce the number of unemployed dependents who accompany working expats. A new policy prevents expats earning under $1025 per month from bringing dependents into the country. That sharply reduces the number of dependents and the cost of services for them.
Another new policy requires all people - nationals as well as expats - who hire maids to pay an annual tax that is equivalent to 100% of the maid's salary, and the minimum salary for maids has been lowered to $110 per month. In one of my previous letters, I talked about Harriet who works for Paul and Sarah. Harriet has had her salary cut from $165 per month to $110, but Paul now pays $220 per month - half to Harriet and half to the government. Both Paul and Harriet suffer, while the government earns a lot of income on about 200,000 maids in the country, reduces the incentive for people to import maids, and in the long run hopes to reduce the number of maids and their demands for medical care, etc. It also increases the incentive for both Paul and Harriet to find additional work for Harriet in other homes where live-in maids have been repatriated. So Harriet now has a couple of part time jobs on top of her full time job - she is being squeezed - but she is much more mobile now and emphatically would rather stay here than return to Sri Lanka, poverty and the Tamil Tigers.
Fees for all government services have been raised for expats by 100 to 600 percent. Our annual medical insurance premium has jumped from $13.50 to $81.00 - not a problem for us, but a major problem for Harriet. Our drivers' license fees are up from $27 to $81 - not a problem for Harriet since she doesn't have a car, but for the two of us, with two cars, that's uncomfortable. In the past there was no airport departure tax; now it's $5 per person per departure. And so on. Since salaries here don't include cost of living increases, expat salaries are in fact declining, by a small percentage for people like us, but precipitously for those at the bottom of the scale.
All things considered, these policy changes have been extraordinarily well conceived and executed. They don't constitute a "magic bullet" to cure all of the country's economic and demographic problems, but they contribute a great deal in many dimensions without being severe enough to seriously upset anybody who "counts" - and the Harriets of the world are free to go home whenever they wish. I don't like some of the implications of the new policies, but I admire the cleverness of whoever created them.
Another major policy change has made the UAE into only the third country in the Middle East to recognize and enforce international copyright laws. In September 1993, the government announced that it would abide by intellectual property rights laws, and in mid-1994 it announced that 31 August was the final date for shops to sell pirated software, videotapes and audiotapes. Not surprisingly, August was a great month to buy pirated stuff at ridiculously low prices. Then about three weeks ago, government inspectors began raiding shops that continued to violate the law. A good many shops have gone out of business and a fair number of nationals who owned them have screamed loudly, but the nationals who want to improve trade relations with the rest of the world and who have established legitimate import and licensing arrangements with Microsoft, Lotus, Sony, EMI, etc., seem to have won the battle. So the cost and quality of these products have increased dramatically in the last month, while the number of pirate shops has dropped almost to zero except in villages that are too small and isolated for the inspectors to control them.
The copyright issue has affected me directly in two ways. First, since we arrived here I've bought a lot of cassettes from India, and my collection grew rapidly as the deadline approached. Now most classical Indian recordings have disappeared from the shops. Second, the University has been one of the country's major consumers of pirated software. Since my department handles software site licenses for the entire university, I may learn that I'm to be the University's "policeman" who is responsible for eliminating the pirated stuff. On the other hand, replacing the pirated software with legal products would cost the government millions of dollars, so we may be "grandfathered". Thus far the silence has been total.
Then there is the problem of freedom of information in a society that traditionally did not entertain the notion. The dramatic increase in domestic news coverage is only a part of what's happening in this area. Two other important components relate to television and the Internet. In recent weeks, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been busily shutting down private satellite TV receivers in the wake of the liberalization that accompanied the Gulf War. By providing something like a national cable TV system, they can have their cake and eat it too - provide TV reception to all residents including the many who lack satellite antennas, and at the same time eliminate culturally offensive content from the broadcasts in response to popular demands for less pornography and violence in people's homes. The UAE has taken no similar steps and satellite TV antennas continue to proliferate here. On the other hand, the Internet is minimally functional in Saudi Arabia but still is not operational here, for the Ministry of Communications has not accepted the University Computer Center's repeated requests to activate the system. The protracted delay may be due to normal bureaucratic problems, but it may not. I'm ambivalent on these public policies. Although I'm fully aware of the risk of censorship when the government controls access to information, I would be delighted to have somebody else clean up the garbage that comes out of our TV set and eliminate the mind pollution for which the Internet is rapidly gaining some notoriety. Being an American, I opt for freedom; being an anthropologist, I have no difficulty in understanding the opposition.
Driving to Dubai
23 September 1994
The problem of hazardous driving may be intractable here. To its great credit the government is trying to enforce policies to reduce the risks, but I am not optimistic. I spend a lot of time thinking about automobile accidents for Nancy and I have several "near misses" every day. Strange as it may seem, they provide insights into many facets of life here.
The country literally went directly from camel caravan routes to six lane freeways. Obviously it will take a while - perhaps a generation - to make an effective transition from the one to the other. This notion suggests that older folks should be the locus of the problem and the current crop of teenagers should belong to the generation that does it well. Unfortunately, this is not true.
Auto accidents here often involve one to three Emirati men in the 18-25 year age range, in single- and multi-car collisions, frequently with each other. Making allow¬ances for under reporting in newspapers, maybe four or five die on an average day. That's remarkable, for people in this group account for only a small percentage of drivers. Why are they over-represented in accidents?
Here the ideal whereby a man marries his father's brother's daughter (first cousin) is frequently realized, and that practice has all the biological costs and benefits normally asso¬ciated with close inbreeding. Furthermore, trachoma is common here, and impaired vision often results. These problems are exacerbated by policies (or exceptions to them) that seem to exempt some people from rigorous testing that would reveal physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities that disqualify US citizens from holding driver's licenses at home. A recent newspaper article emphasized the importance of stringent driving tests for all. That's new and welcomed.
Some other aspects of the problem are more difficult to address. For example, Middle Eastern anthropologists reporting on child rearing practices in the region indicate that boys in the upper classes are taught to be highly demanding, maximally self-confident, assertive, competitive and impulsive. This produces proud, powerful warriors su¬perbly equipped to ride their steeds solo across the Empty Quarter, but the resulting personality type is sub-optimal for drivers of big cars on busy freeways where co¬operation and courtesy are keys to survival.
Educationally, if your grasp of physics, geometry and Sir Isaac Newton are tenuous, you really may not understand that a three ton vehicle with a high center of gravity will always flip over when you try to drive it through a small roundabout at 160kph. It's not a matter of luck, skill or divine intervention; rather, it's a matter of mechanics. But for religious reasons, here the universe often is viewed as intrinsically unpredictable (ca¬pricious rather than uniformitarian), and nobody pays much attention to Sir Isaac.
The disregard of Sir Isaac is exacerbated by American TV - one of America's worst exports - wherein stunt drivers doing absurd things on movie sets are interpreted here as representa¬tives of "the American way of life" just as Dallas and Miami Vice are. So teenagers who still can't see over the instrument panel may turn into stunt drivers when they get into cars, and truly believe that their behavior is reasonable for they see it on TV all the time.
Neither the vehicles nor the freeways are en¬tirely blameless. Many vehicles are high-end Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo and Lexus automobiles, and top-of-the-line LandRover, Land-Cruiser and Cherokee 4WD off-road vehicles. All are powerful and very fast. Likewise, the roads are new, straight and wide, encouraging high speed driving by their very nature. So people often DO drive 200kph in school zones and residential areas because they CAN do it so easily.
It would be simplistic to argue that Islam is just a complex form of fatalism, but it would be equally inappropriate to disregard the fatalistic world view that characterizes Islam as practiced in the Gulf. Fatalism is expressed variously, but basi¬cally says that, in the long run, whatever happens is God's will, a perspective that is com¬patible with Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism as well. Although fatalism may be seen as a confining world view that deprives people of control over their own lives, an alternative interpretation says it is enormously liberating, giving people the freedom to do what they please - within broad limits - without being responsible for the conse¬quences of their actions.
Young men who firmly believe that their own lives and everyone else's are strictly in God's hands have no interest in defensive driver training, and nothing to fear from driving in a manner that Western expats, who believe that each person is largely responsible for his own behavior, might view as irresponsible. From a fatalistic perspec¬tive, people who die while driving do so because God has decreed that it is time for them to die – it is written in the Book - and the method is of no consequence or interest. At worst the drivers' own vehicles and others they hit are instruments of God's will. In defense of this position they can argue quite accurately that they and their friends drive the same way all the time and only rarely does one of them die, while people who always drive "safely" sometimes die in auto accidents anyway. If statistics leave you cold, the argument is pretty reasonable.
Middle Eastern anthropologists distinguish between guilt and shame as mechanisms for con¬trolling social behavior. The West relies in part on an inner sense of guilt to maintain order. We know the rules, we are our own judges, and we should feel guilty when we do something wrong. Taken in moderation, the system works; people with too little of this sense we call sociopaths; those with too much we call guilt ridden neurotics. The Middle East overcomes the shortcomings of the "internal" guilt cul¬ture by relying on the threat of "external" shame, potential loss of honor or face, to do the same job. Here people are not their own judges, and shame is not associated with violating rules. Rather, shame occurs if you bring dishonor to your family which happens when you get caught violating the rules. So if you are unlikely to get caught, there isn't much motivation to obey the rule. On the positive side, there are no sociopaths or guilt rid¬den neurotics here. On the negative side, since the police can't be everywhere all the time, the result is anarchy on the roads. A tiny example: nobody stops for a stop sign unless he can see a police car or is certain to have an acci¬dent if he breaks the law. A corollary is that people who are rude and dangerous when functioning as anonymous drivers can be marvelously courteous in face-to-face encounters in which their identities are known. From a Western perspective, this is sheer hypocrisy; from a local perspective, it isn't.
Another important factor is culture with a small "c". Maybe they drive the way they do because that's the way they do so many other things. While returning from my va¬cation recently, five people including myself converged on a cash register in a duty free shop in Amsterdam. We immediately formed an orderly queue and thought nothing of it. That doesn't happen here. Consider the following paragraph from Mulk Raj Anand's Coolie (1936, Penguin reprint), set in the Kulu-Manali Valley of Northern India in the 1930's:
“For there were swarms of coolies about. And, urged by their fear of having to go with¬out food, ... they rushed frantically at the shops, pushing, pulling, struggling to shove each other out of the way, till the mer¬chants' staves had knocked a hill man's teeth out or bled the sores on a Kashmiri's head. Then they would fall back, defeated, afraid for their lives and resigned to the workings of fate, which might single them out for the coveted prize of a job. It was not that the strongest of them was chosen and the weakest had to go to the wall. The ca¬price of any merchant boy decided their lot ... “
Although drivers here are the opposites of Indian coolies in most ways, Anand's description per¬fectly fits much behavior in this part of the world, including that in banks, govern¬ment offices, grocery stores and anywhere else that a line would form in Europe and North America. Queuing simply is not part of the culture here. It isn't surprising that people who don't queue up anywhere else also don't attend to lane markers on highways, take turns going through intersections, or allow other drivers to merge safely into the main stream of traffic.
The "mobbing behavior" that I just described often appears here in conjunction with a universal human trait that pops out whenever it can - the one that Senator Fulbright explicated a quarter century ago in a book on the American military-industrial complex aptly entitled The Arrogance of Power. Here TAoP manifests itself in at least three ways: claiming a right to violate speed limits with impunity, aggressively insisting on being first no matter what, and displaying a fascination with mobile telephones that brings to mind the hula-hoop craze of the 1950s. Demanding to go first at high speed through a busy roundabout while operating a mobile phone with one hand is not good.
Killabiker combines the gentleness of chess with the lethality of bull fighting. The rules, probably unwritten, seem to go like this: Games are played by one person driving a big car and one or more labor¬ers pedaling fragile bicycles. They occur in urban roundabouts at night and typically last about half a second each. There are no referees and ideally no witnesses. The objective is to drive the car as close as possible to the bike without touching it. Rumor has it that a driver gets one point if the bike turns over, two if the rider is injured, and five if he dies. Cyclists can't win points in the game, but can feel secure knowing that a driver may lose up to ten points from his lifetime score if he actually hits somebody and gets caught.
Roadsweeper is played at night by three 4WD vehicles and any number of smaller vehicles driven by expats. The 4WD vehicles line up side by side across either the north-bound or south-bound lanes of the freeway between Al Ain and Dubai, turn on their low and high beams, fog lights and any additional brilliant lights they may have installed for the purpose, and accelerate together to about 180kph. Drivers of cars ahead of them, typically moving just over half as fast, can see in their mirrors something the size and speed of a 747 overtaking them, but can take no evasive action for they can't tell which lanes the roadsweepers are in until it's too late. If you're on my team, you should stay in your own lane, hold your speed as steady as possible, and hope the phalanx parts to pass you. Usually it does. Some think of it as a game of "chicken"; others call it terrorism. I don't know how to keep score.
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, women are permitted to drive here. Their numbers are minuscule among the nationals and most are skilled, but a few are deadly. After spending their entire lives with no freedom, no responsibility, a doubly distorted sense of their own worth as females - intrinsically inferior but highly prized - and a guarantee that anyone outside their own family who criticizes their behavior will be accused of sexual harassment and deported, they are sometimes viciously aggressive without knowing how to do it as deftly as their brothers, while at other times they destroy the flow of traffic because they lack the assertiveness required to enter a busy roundabout. Furthermore their all-enveloping clothes severely limit their vision and movements. Saudi men understand these matters, phrase the issue in religious terms, and don't allow Saudi women to drive. The Emirati decision to follow the liberal West rather than the conservative Saudis in this regard is unfortunate.
The government's greatest policy change to this point with regard to driving is that it now considers hazardous driving to be a major problem that the press can addressed. During the past year, we've seen increasingly frequent reports of government initiatives to deal with it.
First came a government press re¬lease about proposed policy changes that would require taxi drivers to stop for passengers only at bus stops and other pull-out bays off the roads rather than letting them continue to stop in the right hand traffic lane. The idea was good in principle but impossible to implement without drastically modifying the roads or reducing the utility of the taxis. Also, the argument was slightly off-target. It severely criticized taxi drivers who constitute by far the largest category of drivers but who appear to be quite under represented in traffic accidents. Virtually all taxi drivers are South Asian expatriates. If they have accidents, re¬pair costs come out of their own pockets, they are out of work while they fix their cars, and they are imprisoned and deported if they were at fault. While many are inept drivers and those who drive Mercedes limousines are pretty arrogant, they rarely jeopardize their positions here by being malicious or reckless. But because taxis are so numerous, other drivers often hit them by chance alone, then lay the blame on the cabbies. Sociologists call this "blaming the victim", a practice as common here as in the US where women and ethnic minorities often are blamed for the immoral, illegal, even fatal abuse that they receive.
The second indication of concern was a poster exhibit that the police department mounted at two university campuses and elsewhere in Al Ain. It was a virtuoso display of gore - blood and guts all over the place; teeth, hair and eyes everywhere; jaws of life ripping open crushed cars; and plenty of decapitated bodies. The students reacted the same way they do to horror movies - pointing, shrieking, saying "that can't happen to me". I saw a "live" version of the same exhibit on Saudi TV last night. Although the intent of this approach is laudable, its fatal flaw is obvious: it makes you feel sick, but it doesn't teach you how to drive better.
The third indicator may be the most significant. A few days ago my young Emirati colleague, Ra'ed, came to work fuming about the fact that his annual auto insurance premium just jumped from $543 to $1630 simply because he is a 24 year old male who drives a 4WD vehicle. He's never had an accident or been cited for a traffic violation, but he's having to pay through the nose for the egregious behavior of some of his peers. At what point will he, other responsible young men like him, and fathers of adolescents who have run amok begin to insist that the bad guys behave themselves or get off the roads?
Despite the good news on the insurance front, we've heard of no attempts by any national leaders to persuade youth not to kill themselves, each other and the legions of expatriates upon whom the society depends; no arguments that they have a responsibility to display exemplary behavior for others to follow rather than having a right to behave outrageously if they so chose; no direc¬tives to the police to stop adolescent drivers who are out of control. Perhaps terror on the roads is the price you pay for freedom here, much as drug abuse and high crime rates in the US are side effects of America's obsession with individual liberty at all costs.
The "bottom line" is that the country has the oil, money, infrastructure, technology and man¬ual dexterity required to operate an auto-centered society, but all too many people lack the values and attitudes that underlay the historical development of that technology. The results are devastating, and the government seems increasingly committed to rectifying the situation.
As a Western expat, the only ways to respond are to develop defensive driving skills that are almost superhuman and never let your guard down for a moment, accept the fact that whether you live or die ultimately lies in God's hands, and bite your tongue when you feel an irresistible urge to scream at the driver of the car that almost ran into you. That sounds a lot like the mind set I use while driving in Boston. Having said all of that, it's important to note that driving is almost the only thing that we dislike about living here. God willing, enlightenment or attrition will bring improvements soon.
10 June 95
After we returned from our vacation in Thailand at the end of January, we learned that while Nancy’s contract had been renewed for next year, mine had not been. Neither my immediate supervisor, the Computer Center Director, nor his immediate supervisor, the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Planning, had any knowledge of why mine wasn’t renewed or who made the decision. I’ve spent much of the last four months trying to figure out whether it was an administrative error, a political maneuver, a personal vendetta, fallout from a censor’s having read my letter about driving in the UAE, or any of several other possibilities. I made my final attempt to correct it in mid-May by requesting personal intervention by Sheik Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, who is simultaneously the Chancellor of the University, the Minister of Higher Education and the nephew of Sheik Zayed, the president of the UAE. There have been faint rumblings to the effect that my request may be succeeding, but still nothing definitive has happened. We decided that it was best for Nancy to accept her contract and hope that my problem eventually will be resolved in my favor. This situation is by no means unique to me, and is simply part of the price all expats pay for living and working in this part of the world. The salary is pretty good, but you earn every penny of it.
One way to cope with a distressing situation is to stay so busy you have no time to think about it, and that is precisely what we’ve done this spring.
Gilbert and Sullivan One major set of activities, with several subsets, has been musical. Nancy plays flute for both the Al-Ain Choral Society and the Abu Dhabi Festival Orchestra, and I handle the sound system, lights and curtains for the Al-Ain group. Both organizations presented Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at their Spring Concerts. Previously, neither of us knew much about Gilbert and Sullivan, but our prejudices toward them were basically negative. After having been totally immersed in H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado for four months, our attitudes are more mixed.
Gilbert and Sullivan were very clever people, and their compositions have been mainstays of British expatriate amateur theatricals the world over for more than a century. Pinafore pokes fun at the British themselves, and that production has aged well. But from the perspective of the late 20th century, The Mikado comes across as a gigantic ethnic slur on the Japanese. Even more distressingly from the perspective of the UAE, however, is the fact that minor fiddling with names and costumes would change it into an amazingly realistic documentary about life in the Gulf today. It’s about as far as you can get from being politically correct here and still survive the experience. But the music is tuneful and memorable in both operettas, and working on them was lots of fun. Pinafore required that Nancy play piccolo in addition to flute, and none could be found anywhere in the UAE. Thankfully, our thoughtful friends the Geissingers came to the rescue by sending her an instrument from Littleton, NH. Kudos to Barbara and Warren for understanding our plight!
Rabindranath Tagore Another important musical experience came from India. The First Annual Dubai International Arts Festival in 1994 was not followed by the Second Annual this year, but the Indian community nevertheless remains active. Just two weeks ago, the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi presented a week long festival celebrating the life and works of Rabindranath Tagore (1860-1941), the great polymath from Bengal who in 1913 was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only did he write an astonishing number of short stories, novels, poems, plays and essays, but also he was a fine musician two of whose compositions are the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, and late in life he became a prolific painter. In his spare time, he established an important university at Santineketan, northwest of Calcutta, and in parallel with Mahatma Gandhi, used his intellectual and moral authority to oppose British rule in India. And like J. S. Bach, he was not alone - his family included many of the intellectual and cultural leaders of Calcutta’s 19th century renaissance.
The festival at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation was opened by the UAE’s Minister of Cultural Affairs and India’s Ambassador. It included an exhibition of originals of some of Tagore’s paintings and photographs of Tagore taken throughout his long life; a symposium on the lasting value of his literary works; two evenings devoted to performances of his musical compositions; a production of one of his dance dramas; and a presentation of Satyagit Ray’s film of The Home and the World, one of Tagore’s most famous novels. Since it takes two and a half hours to drive to Abu Dhabi and the same to drive home, we attended only the opening of the exhibition, the film, and the musical evenings. Tagore’s semi-classical musical style, called Rabindra sangeet, remains popular in Bengal and is highly accessible to Western ears, having many of the defining features of Hindustani classical music including rag, tal and instrumentation such as tabla, harmonium and esraj, but using much simpler structures and rhythms. In fact, without much effort we found ourselves humming along with it.
John Chong Sing The third major musical event began when John Chong Sing joined the staff of the Computer Center. John is a former IBM systems programmer who hails from Trinidad and Tobago. Can you believe it? TRINIDAD! The home of soca and calypso, pan yards, Carnival, David Rudder, the Mighty Sparrow, V. S. Naipaul, and the whole incredible cultural mélange that attracted us to the Caribbean repeatedly for over a decade. And John knows the music, the performers, the places, foods and activities to which we were - and still are - so strongly attached. And he brought a large collection of recent Caribbean CDs that we have copied. We often sit around listening to echoes of that exciting life from the other side of the world. Can you imagine the shock he experienced when he found fans of Trinidad in a place like Al-Ain?
John is a remarkable racial mix. His mother was of Venezuelan Spanish plus Indian Hindu extraction, his father was of African plus Chinese extraction, and the aunt with whom he grew up was of Indian Moslem persuasion, which accounts in part for his decision to come here. John is a very large man whose appearance is profoundly ambiguous, and he has a great time playing with the ambiguity. One of his first stops in Al-Ain was at a dishdasha shop were he bought some traditional Emirati men’s clothing, and instantly blended in with the natives a lot better than Lawrence of Arabia ever did.
The East Coast Our other activities have been mainly outdoors. Following Nancy’s nearly disastrous diving course in January, she decided to do the open water part of the training again, this time at Khor Fakkan on the Gulf of Oman where the water is warm and mostly transparent. So we spent a weekend there with Nancy underwater most of the time, and me lying safely on the beach. Her experience was very good, she even saw fish, and she has demonstrated to her own satisfaction that she can function well at least fifteen meters deep. I can’t understand why anybody would do that on purpose, but she seems to like it. Very strange.
Oman Another weekend, we joined the Al-Ain Natural History Group on a dhow trip of the kind that was canceled last year when a couple of oil tankers collided and fouled the beaches. No trouble this time. We went to the village of Dibba on the Gulf of Oman and boarded a fishing dhow with about thirty other people and spent the day chugging along towards Hormuz on the east coast of the Musandam Peninsula which almost touches Iran with its northeastern tip. The Musandam is a great block of barren, largely uninhabited brown mountains deeply indented by steep sided fjords, many of which are large enough to hide supertankers. Despite the continuing tension between the UAE and Iran over some of the islands in the Gulf, nothing disrupted our leisurely cruising, snorkeling, eating and sleeping on the big old wooden boat. However, we had an exciting time when one of our group found a juvenile black tipped reef shark tangled in a fishing net. The four foot long fish was exhausted from its efforts to escape, so our gang cut it out of the net and gave it artificial respiration for about half an hour. Artificial respiration for a shark entails forcing water through its gills until it begins to process oxygen normally. Nancy was among those who held the little fellow in their arms and swam back and forth near the shore until it finally recovered and dashed toward the open sea. Giving artificial respiration to a shark may be even stranger than scuba diving.
In March, the Sultanate of Oman began to issue two-year multiple entry visitors’ visas to interested holders of US passports, so we immediately got them and spent two consecutive weekends there. First we stayed at Sohar on the coast north of Muscat with several other members of the Natural History group. On Thursday, we visited a number of fishing villages where we saw motorized reed boats like those used all the way from the devastated homes of Iraq’s Marsh Arabs to the temple encrusted Coromandel Coast of South India. On Friday we drove up to the edge of the mountains to visit Rustaq and Nakhl, towns with forts where the people of mountains and plains traded and fought for centuries. We were delighted to see tiny bits of green vegetation responding to recent rains.
The following weekend we returned to the interior region centered on Bahla and Nizwa that we enjoyed so much when we visited Oman in January 1994. Some of the towns in that area have awful names by our standards (Bat, Dank and Ghoul are examples), but the mountains that punctuate the plains are full of productive oases that apparently have been rich farming areas for millennia as attested by the multitude of Mesolithic tombs along the mountain ridges. After sunset we parked the car approximately in the middle of nowhere, had dinner on reed mats, and slept in the car. After breakfast the next morning, we again found the stone tool production site that we stumbled onto last year, and spent a couple of hours collecting carefully worked scrapers and cores. Rameyalata, our one-afternoon-a-week Sri Lankan maid, doesn’t understand why she dusts these things.
We arrived in Bahla shortly before the Friday midday mosque service began, and held a geography lesson with a group of teenage boys who were eating watermelons until they became fascinated by our highway maps. The old part of Bahla has been neither modernized nor destroyed, and continues to function as a classic pre-industrial Arabic city. It has a small central souq with a gigantic old tree at its center, a pottery maker, an ancient open madrasa (mosque school) adjacent to the mosque where old men in flowing white robes still congregate wearing silver khanjars (curved daggers), palm groves interspersed with residential neighborhoods of two story mud buildings, and dust everywhere. As we drove back toward Al-Ain late Friday afternoon, we spotted a great fortified city on a bare hillside, surrounded by several kilometers of high stone walls, long since abandoned, that appears in none of our maps or guidebooks. How can you simply lose or forget an entire city? The place seems to contain not a single sprig of vegetation, and feels like a set for a Biblical movie whose producers went broke.
Liwa Oasis One day during the last weekend of Ramadan when Nancy couldn’t bear to go outside, I drove alone to the Liwa oases. Liwa lies deep in the desert about 200 kilometers west of Al-Ain. As recently as the late 1940s, no Western explorers had seen it, and Thesiger’s reports were based on hearsay. At that time, the region contained many small date producing oases that stretched along a camel caravan route at the northern edge of the Empty Quarter where small wells provided reliable water supplies. Access to Abu Dhabi took several days by camel across pretty rugged terrain, but young men made the round trip annually in order to work as pearl divers during the pearling season.
But things have changed a lot. Huge supplies of desalinated water pumped through 48 inch pipes from the Gulf have allowed the little oases to merge into a single broad garden that stretches for almost a hundred kilometers along both sides of the freeway that runs the full length of the region. The brilliant green fields end at the bases of towering red dunes, and great hoards of Pakistani and Indian agricultural laborers tend them year-round. Liwa is and will remain a successful experiment in large scale agricultural development until somebody interrupts the water supply for a few days; as a remote and romantic corner of the ancient Mideast, Liwa suffers from excessive freeways and pipelines.
One of the fascinating aspects of the trip to Liwa was the 100 kilometer drive between the Gulf coast and the oases. On the morning of my visit a dense fog clung to the ground for the first thirty kilometers, making driving even more deadly than is usual here. The highway runs directly through several of the UAEs largest on-shore oil fields and past huge facilities that collect oil from various fields and pump it to the coast for export. Back in the early days before oil, the sand was white as salt, the vegetation was sparse and the air was clear, but fallout from burning gas flares has made the aspect somewhat less felicitous. Although there are no restrictions on travel along the highway, signs tell you every few kilometers that photography is prohibited, that cameras must be registered, and that you should not leave the highway (guards are there to help you remember in case you forget), while several generations of oil pipelines sprawl over the region like spilled spaghetti. Again there are ubiquitous hoards of South Asian laborers, but in the oil fields South Asian managers are fairly conspicuous too.
Sanaiya’s Afghan Village In one of my earlier letters I told you about Sanaiya, the industrial area in Al-Ain where all the streets were bulldozed more-or-less simultaneously and everything was being upgraded. The reconstruction is proceeding rapidly. Most of the streets are done, the electricity and water are working again but the conduits are under ground now, and so on. Mr. Abbas’s garage was shut down for five months as were a great many other businesses in the district. Since he received no compensation for the interruption, he had to send his family back to Lebanon where they will stay now that the war is over. The shops selling falcons have vanished.
A few weeks ago, I saw a newspaper photo with a caption mentioning a Pakistani market “in the hills behind Al-Ain”. Since I didn’t know there were either Pakistani markets or hills where people lived behind Al-Ain, I went searching for them, and found a peculiar sort of anthropological gold mine - a large urban village of Pakistani and Afghan men who live in a neighborhood hidden behind Sanaiya, backed up against a small rocky ridge and accessible by only one dirt road. They are laborers who work in the auto repair shops and small scale furniture factories in Sanaiya, and drive the city’s thousands of taxis. Some background information about them is useful here.
About three years ago, you heard about rioting in the Indian city of Ayodhya where Hindus and Moslems both claimed rights to a sacred site. When those riots occurred at Ayodhya, sympathy riots were staged here by Pakistanis living in “the hills behind Al-Ain” and aimed at the Indian schools several kilometers away in one of the city’s affluent neighborhoods. The riots here had several effects. The entire Sanaiya residential district was quarantined by the police and several thousand people were deported to Pakistan immediately; according to people who lived here at the time, it was almost impossible to get a taxi for months after the riots. Also, the city fathers decided to upgrade the infrastructure of Sanaiya proper, but they omitted the Sanaiya residential district, whether by accident or design I don’t know. In any event, the new streets and the power, water and sewage lines run right to the edge of the residential area and abruptly halt.
The residential area covers several square kilometers. From a distance, it looks like a shantytown, but it isn’t. Although the streets are unpaved and there are common toilets and bath houses, everything is very clean and the accommodations are rather pleasant, mostly compounds that serve as boarding houses for as many as twenty men on charpoys (net beds) in unwalled areas that serve as community living, eating and sleeping areas. The shopping district consists of the open air market lighted by kerosene lanterns at night, several shops, and lots of stalls selling street food cooked over charcoal. The people have been remarkably friendly to me when I have visited there, welcoming me into their homes and shops, offering me tea, coffee and lunch, and making it clear that my camera and I are welcome anywhere. They don’t get many tourists.
By the standards of Karachi and Lahore, these people earn small fortunes - consider the short lane that has four adjacent houses with satellite TV antennas on top. But mostly they send or take both money and gifts back home to their families. The gifts include gorgeous dresses for their daughters: lots of tailors in the district specialize in making them, but they aren’t used here for women and children don’t live in the district.
One of the men who gave me a cup of tea at his fabric stall is a textile salesman in Dubai during the week and comes to Al-Ain to earn extra money each weekend. He is Afghan, was in the Russian army for a while until he decided he had picked the loser, fled over the border to Pakistan where he got a Pakistani passport, went back to Afghanistan after the Russians left, got his Afghan passport back somehow, and came to the UAE after civil war broke out among his Moslem brothers in Kabul. He is eternally grateful to Sheik Zayed for his generosity in accepting a great many Afghan refugees into this country. His would like to bring his family here, but is reconciled to sending money to all of them and beautiful dresses to his daughters until peace returns to Afghanistan.
There are a great many similar ethnic enclaves scattered all over the country. For example, I have made several visits recently to a South Indian and Sri Lankan fishing village concealed behind extravagant villas on the beach west of Dubai. It’s invisible from the highway, but if you wind back through a maze of small streets, you find several hundred fishermen living in conditions considerably more primitive than those in Sanaiya’s residential area. Actually these men don’t fish much; rather, they weave giant fish traps out of wire. The traps are taken out onto the reefs where they work the same as they do everywhere else in the world - like giant vacuum cleaners sucking in all the fish. They are ecological disasters, but nobody pays much attention to that problem here.
A village from India’s Uttar Pradesh State is located near my office in a date palm oasis across the street from one of the Crown Prince’s palaces. It contains perhaps fifty dhobis (washermen) who run a laundry. Various shop fronts throughout the city serve as laundry pick-up and delivery points, but the dirty clothes are taken to central laundries for processing. Until recently I assumed they were standard Western mechanical laundries and paid no attention to the fact that I had never seen one - I have never seen many things that I know are here, because they are locked up behind high walls. But a couple of weeks ago, I wandered into the date plantation in the heart of the city and found these men running a huge hand laundry using a technology and life style that were lifted directly from rural India. But instead of beating the clothes on rocks in a river, they boil them in outdoor cauldrons, and drain the waste water through irrigation channels to supply the trees and vegetables. My colleague Con Dietz took some shirts to a laundry, and when one of them failed to return, he began to use a different laundry. A couple of weeks later the missing shirt showed up in his package at the new laundry. For a year he puzzled over how the stray shirt found him. Now we know - and dhobis never (or hardly ever) use computers.
So on the surface, the UAE has changed from an ancient, traditional mode of existence to a high tech, Westernized mode complete with luxury cars, mobile phones and five star hotels everywhere. But when you scratch the surface, you find traditional economic and social processes that have been imported in toto from South and Southeast Asia. The high tech stuff is flashy, but the low tech manual labor is absolutely basic to the economy. It’s not just a matter of hiring lots of housekeepers from the Philippines; rather it’s a mind set that says “If you must chose between people and machines to do the same job, use people”. They are cheap to obtain but increasingly expensive to maintain, easy to replace if they malfunction, and eminently deportable if you change your mind. Which brings us full circle. Return to the top of the letter and read the first paragraph again! Da capo al fine.
UAE University Although it may seem that we spend all of our time playing, that isn’t true. The enclosed copy of the Computer Center Newsletter, which we received from the printer just today, says a great deal about my work lately. After chasing the Internet for twenty-one months, we finally got it up and running in the Computer Center last week, exactly thirteen working days before my departure on a summer vacation from which I may never return.
Nancy and her team continue to work on their computer based testing program. They were somewhat encouraged to learn at an international conference this Spring that theirs is the leading program of its sort in the Middle East, so it makes sense for her to stick with the project. The current focus of work is with data and item analysis whereby it’s possible to compile the results for every test item for all 5000 students, in case anybody ever wants to know that much. Spending lots of time in air conditioned computer labs is perhaps the best perq in 115 degree heat.
Nearly Christmas Again
15 December 1995
The summer came and went, and both of us are back in Al-Ain. On 5 August, while I was in the US, I received a telephone call from the Computer Center saying that my contract had been renewed by the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, thus reversing the contrary decision that I received in January. No explanation, no details, nothing but a one-liner saying that, after being on hold for seven months, I was no longer on hold. When we returned, I asked what had happened, and of course nobody knew. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and sometimes the Lord changeth His mind. But with the Sheikh as my penpal, I shall not want. Some people here see me as living proof that resurrection really works. Al-hamdulila!
Nancy's job as head of computer based testing for the English Language Unit has expanded enormously, from a pilot project last year to fully operational this year. She has a team of about 15 people working for her who are conducting practice tests, midterms and finals for more than 4,000 students, then processing the results to see what happened; also, she is responsible for Internet and PowerPoint training for 120 of her colleagues. And she teaches a couple of classes each week. She hopes to fly to Chicago in March to present a paper at the TESOL conference. Keeps her from being bored.
My department is upgrading the Microsoft site license software program from a manual operation to a fully automated network distribution system; our Help Desk has handled over a thousand calls in the last six months; the training program has gone from comatose last year due to lack of equipment and trainers, to hyperactive this year with more than 1400 people registered for our Fall Term classes; I am busting my backside trying to produce an international symposium on instructional technology here next March. And all the standard things like publishing newsletters and cajoling deans continue unabated. At the same time, morale has dropped to a negative value, and the ridiculously high staff attrition rate seems to be accelerating: with only fifty employees, the Computer Center has had twelve resignations and one unannounced flight by night in the past year. Now that the University is on the Internet, you can see our home page at http://www.uaeu.ac.ae .
We went to the Dubai '95 International Air Show a couple of weeks ago - 500 exhibitors from 34 countries, third in size only to the Farnborough and Paris Air Shows, and this was only the fourth year for Dubai to stage one of these events. A Boeing 777 made an appearance, as did a good many used fighters from the Russian Air Force - a good place for Third World arms merchants. The flight displays were good, but not a bit better than what I saw at Farnborough in 1964. The geographical location of the UAE half way between Europe and Southeast Asia, and its incredible oil wealth, are producing economic development here at a stupendous rate - whole cities are being built right before our very eyes.
I have taken a fancy to camel racing, but it won't last long. It's good for photography since UAE nationals are passionately attached to their animals and to racing, and since training and racing are intrinsically photogenic - sun, sand and brilliant sunsets through the dust, bright blankets and fancy regalia, tents on the dunes, eight-year-old jockeys imported by the gross from Pakistan and Somalia and held in the saddles with Velcro on their bottoms, and everybody having great fun including the camels, I think. But I can't tell one camel from another, none of them seem to like me, and the expenses involved in the sport must be absurd - one of the "stables" on the edge of Al-Ain, owned by one sheikh, seems to have several HUNDRED young camels in training. Our friend Sulayman the Anthropologist calls camel racing a “reinvented tradition”, lost after oil wealth arrived, now recreated as part of the heritage revival. He reports that Emirati automobile dealerships give away 300 new cars annually to the winners of these races – not exactly traditional, but good advertising.
We recently spent some time at the National Avian Research Center about 40 km outside of Al-Ain, where some of our friends work. The Center was established a couple of years ago by the royal family to maintain a good national supply of bustards for their falcons to hunt, and has become an international hotbed of research on both falcons and bustards, as well as on Middle Eastern wildlife and ecology in general. Bustards and falcons aren’t endangered here, but that doesn’t matter since many other species are and all are studied at NARC.
The Iranian dhows that thronged the harbors at Abu Dhabi and Dubai only a few months ago have disappeared and with them their broad selection of fine woolen Central Asian tribal carpets. Were they barred because of the dispute over the Gulf islands? We don’t know.
We spend a fair amount of time longing for snow, firewood, woodstoves and everything else that makes winter a reality in New England, except for temperatures of -30F. The weather here has cooled wonderfully now, such that my colleague from Trinidad came to work this morning complaining of being cold, though I think that was an exaggeration. Christmas shopping is the rage here, and the huge new shopping malls are fully decorated for the season, NOT just for the benefit of expatriates. It’s strange to hear Santa Claus and Jingle Bells competing for our attention with highly amplified prayer calls. And last week, Nancy spent every evening performing in Christmas concerts in Abu Dhabi with the Abu Dhabi Orchestra and Chorus. ‘Tis a peculiar place.
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