UAE: Fujairah and Sharjah 2001-03

Woodrow W. Denham

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Kristi Visits the United Arab Emirates

Fujairah , United Arab Emirates
17 January 2001

Last September Nancy accepted a permanent faculty appointment teaching English as a Second Language back in the United Arab Emirates. I joined her at the end of November for a two month working vacation, and our daughter Kristi visited us for ten days at Christmas – her first visit to the Middle East. This letter picks up where I left off two years ago in telling you about our adventures in this part of the world.

The small city of Fujairah where Nancy works now is on the East Coast of the UAE, facing the Indian Ocean just a few miles north of the border with Oman. Fujairah Emirate is one of seven emirates in the UAE confederacy, and is the most isolated of the lot. The mountains that run south from the Straits of Hormuz deep into Oman form the backdrop for the city, and the single highway that connects Fujairah with the rest of the UAE goes through a fractured mountain pass. The road surface is being upgraded now and is in a state of disrepair. It's less than a hundred miles from Fujairah to Dubai, and we saw five major accidents one day as we drove home from Dubai through that combat zone.

Nancy spent her first two months here "on hold" since somebody lost her paperwork and she couldn't get her security clearance. The implications of the delay were that she couldn't get her driver's license or buy a car, it was inadvisable for her to spend her housing allowance in case her security clearance never came through in which case she would have had to repay her housing allowance and leave the country, and I couldn't travel to the UAE because I couldn't get a visa until she got her security clearance. But eventually the security clearance materialized, the hapless soul who lost the paperwork also probably lost his head, and life got back on track.

So Nancy was assigned to a fine new apartment on the tenth floor of a new housing block in downtown Fujairah, and in effect had to camp out in it with minimal furnishings for two months. Views from the apartment are superb. There is only one street in Fujairah that has tall buildings, including a 46-story hotel and apartment block that is under construction now, and mercifully it is not visible from the living room. Everything else is flat, west to the base of the mountain range that juts almost straight up out of the coastal plain, east to the Indian Ocean about a mile away beside the Hilton Hotel, and south to the runway at the international airport where the US Navy and US Air Force land about a dozen cargo aircraft weekly bringing supplies to support our military presence in the Gulf.

I arrived near the beginning of Ramadan and for a solid month was treated to endless cacophony emanating from holier-than-thou loudspeakers. During that month of fasting, the feasting was superb. Fasting means that you eat a huge breakfast early in the morning, skip lunch, and have an all-you-can-eat Iftar feast about thirty-four seconds after sunset.

While Kristi was in Fujairah, we did our best to show her a tiny sample of everything that constitutes life in the UAE. By arriving a few days before the end of Ramadan, she too learned a lot about very loud loudspeakers operating around the clock, and about living amidst utter unpredictability when Nancy's work schedule fluctuated on a daily or hourly basis. The upside was that after having been assured that everyone would have a three day Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan, everyone in fact got a six-day holiday. The downside was that the banks got six day holidays too, and all of their ATM machines ran out of money since nobody was on duty to refill them.

Kristi and I took a day-trip around Fujairah Emirate one day when Nancy had to work. Our first stop was a fishing village that has been separated from the beach by a new freeway. Life in the village and on the beach remains highly traditional, with old men tending their nets and going to mosque five times a day, and women raising their goats and children in the shade of date palm plantations irrigated by ancient aqueducts that bring water from the mountains. But between the village and the beach, life has changed a lot since the new freeway and its guardrails constitute a nearly perfect barrier between them. Watching old men leap over railings and sprint across the freeway to avoid oncoming LandRovers isn't funny at all.

The village of Dibba, north of Fujairah at the base of the Musandam Peninsula, has a major dhow harbor where ancient wooden fishing boats and cargo ships, retrofitted with diesel engines, line the wharves and lie on the beaches. For a fascinating look at traditional life on Arabian Gulf dhows in the 1930's, see Alan Villiers' (1940, 1968) Sons of Sinbad.

Several years ago the main mosque in Dibba was a funky old blue building modeled after rural Pakistani mosques with multiple towers and sculptured turrets and frills of all sorts. While we were away, somebody replaced the delightfully quaint structure with a modern mosque that is big, flashy and air conditioned, and has all the character of a Holiday Inn Express.

South of Fujairah a magnificent broad sandy beach runs for miles down into Oman. Seashells litter it after a storm, and the UAE's only significant stand of mangrove trees occupies the bay behind the beach and coastal dunes. The day we were there, a number of people were using the park facilities facing the bay and the mangroves, but we saw only three or four other people on the beach itself. The tide was out and the sea was calm.

From the beach we could see fifteen cargo and/or combat ships anchored in the roads here to be refueled and re-supplied before going into the potentially deadly waters of the Straits of Hormuz and the Arabian Gulf. The port at Fujairah can handle as many as five hundred large ships at one time in what is the world's second largest bunkering facility, second only to Singapore.

After Ramadan ended, all three of us spent a day in Dubai visiting cultural sites, a day in the desert oasis of Al-Ain where we lived for several years, and another day in Dubai and Sharjah on a shopping trip.

Culture in Dubai The cultural outing to Dubai began with a vegetarian thali at a South Indian restaurant deep in Bur Dubai, the old souq (market) neighborhood that occupied much of the walled city as recently as fifty years ago. The Indian population continues to grow in size and power here, and their dominance in Bur Dubai is nearly complete now.

The Dubai Museum, across the street from the restaurant where we had lunch, does an amazing job of capturing the essence of Dubai as it was in the days before oil. It is simultaneously a near-perfect re-creation of the ancient souq and a high-tech wonder that will knock your proverbial socks off. The re-creation has been done in an underground chamber beneath the old fort that houses the museum, so it has the feel of a traditional enclosed market. The winding lanes take you past each exhibit which is a small diorama of sorts, entirely open to visitors who must carefully step over and around fishnets and cargo and replicas of people who are so lifelike that you can't tell which ones are manikins and which are visitors taking a rest. The most impressive demonstrations of high-tech wizardry are "shops" where people are making brassware or pottery or fishnets. In fact people were recorded doing those jobs - perhaps for uninterrupted hours - by stationary video cameras and sound recorders. The resulting uninterrupted videotapes are played back on life-size monitors cleverly disguised in doorways so it feels like you're watching and hearing living people doing these jobs back in their shops.

The old houses in Bastakia neighborhood, adjacent to the museum, have wind-towers which served as traditional air conditioning by sucking air in through the doors and windows and out through a cleverly contrived tower on the roof. For centuries the towers turned the gentlest breeze into a cooling zephyr, and continue to do so today in places where they have been restored.

The old souq, the museum and Bastakia are adjacent to The Creek, the short but important waterway that was Dubai's traditional harbor. It still is a busy waterway for dhows and other small craft even though Dubai now has two deepwater harbors elsewhere for cargo ships and oil tankers. Part of our fun at the Creek was renting a small boat called an abra and riding it up the Creek for half an hour. On the Bur Dubai side of the Creek, we saw the old souq and the wind-towers in Bastakia. On the Diera side opposite, we saw an astonishing collection of 21 st century high rise architecture - towers, domes and reflections of the late afternoon sun in the undulating walls of this brilliant new city of glass.

At the end of the Creek, Al-Shindaga Tunnel carries a freeway full of traffic between Bur Dubai and Diera, but since it is a tunnel the traffic is invisible. Dubai Heritage Village sits between the Creek and the entrance to the tunnel, another museum but one in which all of the exhibits are 100% alive. Old men and young, from the UAE, Oman and Qatar, participated in traditional music and dance performances on the sand near the center of the village. Another group had brought their hunting falcons to sit with them while they made and drank coffee in a Bedouin camp. Some women cooked and served traditional Bedouin foods while others spun wool and still others wove Omani carpets and huge sheets of woolen fabric used to make Bedouin tents. A group of young girls, young enough not to be veiled yet, came from Bahrain to sing and dance on a small stage at one end of the village. A helicopter dropped about ten paragliders, each painted with the UAE flag, whose pilots brought them down in a small open area within the village just as the sun set behind them.

From Heritage Village, which was a multinational Gulf Arab event, we went across the city to Safa Park where the Indian community was having a party. The park is huge and the crowd was too, having a picnic in the cool of the evening after the sun went down. Whole families who emigrated here recently or long ago were laid back in every sense, enjoying the freedom, the weather, the safety and security, the relative wealth, and the absence of mud and beggars and violence that they knew in India. Even though nothing in particular was happening there, the experience was delightfully mellow. Since we didn't take food for a picnic, we had dinner across the street at McDonalds.

For our last act of the day, we took a new freeway out of the city and discovered that we were driving past Nadd Al-Sheba Horserace Course where the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horserace, is held annually. The lights were on, races were in progress, we could see some empty parking places, and entry to the spectator areas is absolutely free to anybody who wants to go. So we went. Although Emiratis own the horses and the track and Pakistanis handle the animals, the audience consists largely of Sudanese lawyers and their families who constitute something like an occupational caste in these parts. We knew that Kristi was enamored of horses, but didn't realize that she had never been to a real horserace. So we spent a couple of hours watching them run and getting right up to the rail at the winner's circle so she could reach out and nearly touch some trainees from Godolphin Stables. We finally made it home about midnight, and at 6 o'clock the next morning we left to spend the day in Al-Ain.

Al-Ain A few minutes after 8 o'clock, we arrived at the camel racetrack out in the desert near the oasis city. It isn't a world-class affair like the horse track at Nadd Al-Sheba, but rather is more of a training facility where racing camels and their handlers learn their jobs. But the camels were there in profusion, wearing brilliant finery, moving like the wind on great clumsy feet, ridden by tiny little Pakistani and Sudanese boys who are attached to their saddled with Velcro and function more as ballast than as jockeys. Unlike at Nadd Al-Sheba where women made up much of the audience, Nancy and Kristi were the only two women at the camel track.

From the camel track, you can see Jabal Hafeet, a strange isolated monadnock that juts 2500 feet up out of the sand at the very edge of the Empty Quarter. That was our next stop. The freeway to the top makes it a popular destination for people on holiday. When we got there, the crowd included a truckload of Afghanistani gentlemen dressed in their finest traditional turbans and robes. They were enormously photogenic and when I began to photograph them, one of them found an empty water carrier that he immediately turned into a drum, and the others staged an impromptu dance on the top of the world with the red sands of the Empty Quarter far below them serving as the backdrop.

At the bottom of Jabal Hafeet, we drove a few miles into the Empty Quarter along a highway used to patrol the border between the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The desert area along the border is being reclaimed by planting trees and establishing small farms where camels and goats are raised. We stopped for a while and let Kristi experience at first hand the fine red sand that covers thousands of square miles with dunes as much as six hundred feet high, and used to cover every surface in our apartment in Al-Ain.

In Al-Ain we visited the old souq filled with fruits and vegetables, leaf tobacco, dried dates, dried shark that is a favorite Bedouin food, camel gear and Quran shops. Across the street from the souq is one of many entrances to the Al-Ain date palm oasis, so we went in for a short walk along a shady walled lane that winds among the towering trees, with birds singing overhead. The harvest ended in October or November, and work on the new crop doesn't begin until March or April, so the oasis was empty except for us and the birds.

Then we crossed the border into Oman and drove toward the Hajar Mountains that separate Al-Ain from the Indian Ocean. One of our favorite places when we lived in Al-Ain was Kutwa Oasis in the foothills where we could walk through the oasis, up a huge dry wadi and along the falaj (aqueduct) that brings water down from the mountains to the palm grove. So that's what we did with Kristi. By then the day was late and the sun shown fiercely on the yellow and brown sandstone through which the dry riverbed meanders. In a region that has become pretty noisy in a lot of places because of cities, freeways and the oil industry, it is amazing how quiet it can be back up in the mountains where every sound is filtered out.

On the drive back to Fujairah, we stopped to visit a mosque that Sultan Qaboos dedicated in the Omani border city of Buraimi while we lived in Al-Ain. The Ibadi version of Islam that is practiced in Oman is different from that in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, and like all of the larger Omani mosques, the one in Buraimi has a distinctive bulbous dome that clearly announces its Omani lineage, like a great glorious turban floating over the base of the structure.

For a detailed look at life in Al-Ain and the interior of Oman late in the 1940s, see Wilfred Thesiger's (1959) Arabian Sands.

Shopping in Sharjah and Dubai The next morning we slept in for a while, and shortly after noon were off for our shopping day in Sharjah and Dubai. Like Dubai, Sharjah has a busy waterfront, and one of the most beautiful pieces of older architecture in Sharjah is located there. It is an Iranian mosque that is unlike Emirati mosques that tend to be a fairly disparate lot and Omani mosques with their floating turbans. Iranian mosques, coming from yet another tradition within Islam, often are vertically oriented with a pair of very tall cylindrical minarets on the front, and are covered with blue tiles forming inlaid arabesques and magnificent calligraphy. The one in Sharjah is not uniquely beautifully, only typically beautiful, but that is beautiful enough.

Next came some serious shopping at Sharjah's famous Blue Souq where oriental carpets greet buyers from around the world. We're especially appreciative of the value of these carpets after spending a while in Istanbul and discovering that the quality in the UAE is the same as in Istanbul, but the prices are about a third what they are in that great Turkish carpet bazaar.

Finally Kristi had to visit the Dubai Gold Souq, the absolute center of the Asian gold market that supplies not only the oil rich countries of the Gulf, but perhaps even more importantly the enormous market for gold in India where savings banks are unreliable and a huge dowry including many kilograms of gold is the standard for the burgeoning middle and upper classes among the billion people who live there. We walked for kilometers along lanes and through markets where every shop was filled with massive 24k gold necklaces and breastplates, as well as bracelets, rings, diamond studded gold pins and other smaller objects. At $264 per ounce - plus whatever is charged for the workmanship - we must have seen at least a billion dollars worth of gold on display in that souq.

Bull Wrestling After Kristi left, we finally had time to begin exploring new things here. The coastal plain where Fujairah is located extends down into Oman. The entire plain in both the UAE and Oman was known traditionally (as much as 1500 years ago) as the Batinah Coast. We have no idea what the name means - if anything - but we do know that the Batinah Coast was and still is the home of a peculiar kind of bullfighting. Actually bullfighting is a misnomer. "Bull-wrestling" might be better.

The bulls are enormous so-called Brahma bulls native to India, each with a great hump on its shoulders and a streak of Gandhian nonviolence in its heart. The bullring is about twice the size of a football field and is surrounded by nothing at all. Guardrails here would take much of the fun out of the sport. By the time the first of many rounds begins, hundreds of cars have lined up around the edge of the ring, filled with women and children as if they were at a drive-in theater, while their husbands / fathers sit with the other men on the ground in front of the cars.

Typically bulls arrive in tiny Toyota pickups, weighing so much that as their handlers unload them from the backs of the trucks, the front wheels of the trucks lift about eighteen inches off the sand and crash back down with a resounding thud.

When it's time to wrestle, two bulls are brought to the center of the ring by their handlers and are encouraged to more-or-less gently lock horns. The handlers back off and the bulls begin to wrestle. Each match lasts no more than a minute or two. Apparently the winner is the stronger or larger - skill doesn't seem to be part of it, and blood definitely is not part of it. Occasionally one of them falls over or is pushed onto the top of a car parked by the ring (crush!), but a more likely outcome is that one of them backs up quickly, disengages its horns, and flees. Of course whichever way it goes, it must pass through the mob of people sitting around the ring, who scatter with remarkable alacrity and much good cheer when a nonviolent thousand pound bull heads straight toward them. The last time we were there one of the bulls got halfway to the veggie market before being caught, pacified and tied to a light pole in the median strip of the freeway. Clearly bullfighting was not his sport, but it's great fun for non-bulls.

Being in Fujairah has been a lot of work too. After I arrived, I spent about a month helping Nancy finish furnishing the apartment. And it took a month to get my residence visa so I can return to the country for an extended period if necessary. And it took a month to get my driver's license - visa first, then blood typing and vision testing, translation of my US license into Arabic, four trips to the traffic police to do paperwork and pay assorted fees, etc. And it took a month to buy, insure and register a car, and a month of daily trips to the travel agent to make all of the arrangements for our upcoming holiday in India. Doing all of that on top of Ramadan, the three-day Eid al Fitr holiday, the National Day holiday that co-occurred with the Eid, Christmas, New Years and Kristi's visit made it a busy time.

Lest you forget my undying animosity towards drivers here, let me assure that, contrary to the optimism that some people have expressed over the years, nothing has changed. I remain convinced that giving these people powerful cars and world-class freeways without teaching them appropriate attitudes and values concerning safety, courtesy, cooperation, responsibility and common civility is like letting small children take loaded guns to school. Therefore Nancy's new car is a big black '94 Volvo 940 that has far more weight and safety than the Hondas we had in Al-Ain. But in fact its appearance may be more valuable than its architecture. It looks like it belongs to somebody worthy of respect by local standards. When I wear a dark suit and tie and drive that massive Volvo, people behave respectfully; when I wore a T-shirt and drove the little red Mazda 323 we rented before the Volvo arrived, they acted as if I didn't exist. Perhaps I'll start wearing my jacket and tie over my swim trunks when I drive to the pool at the Hilton.

The day after I finished the preceding paragraph, we began a two-week holiday in the desert state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, entering at New Delhi and staying five days each in Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer. We were there when the earthquake hit Gujarat, but it missed us by about 300 miles. My account of that trip appears elsewhere in these documents.

 

Evolutionary Implications of Driving to Dubai

Sharjah , United Arab Emirates
18 December 2001

In the 19 th and 20 th centuries, Western biologists engaged in a multitude of heated debates concerning the nature of biological evolution. Two of the most important problems they addressed had to do with a) the fundamental mechanism by which cumulative changes occur in plant and animal species and b) the rate at which those changes occur. By the end of the 20 th century, Darwin’s (1859) theory of gradualistic natural selection was accepted by virtually all respectable scientists, while theories based on the notions of inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarck 1809) and punctuated equilibria (Eldridge 1985) were in disfavor.

After living and driving in the United Arab Emirates for eight years, I can assert with absolute certainty that Darwin’s currently accepted secure theory (sensu Scheffler 1982) is of limited applicability and that the competing Lamarck-Eldridge model has a lot going for it. Perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift (Kuhn 1962).

Pro Natural Selection and Gradualism I begin by summarizing the debate over mechanisms with reference to two intellectual giants, Lamarck and Darwin. Consider the giraffes we saw while driving through Kenya’s Rift Valley yesterday morning. Why are their necks so long?

Lamarck said short giraffes needed long necks in order to eat leaves high on tall trees, so they stretched. Stretched adult giraffes then made stretched baby giraffes, and pretty soon all giraffes were about eighteen feet tall. The characteristic was acquired by stretching and was inherited by the next generation.

Darwin on the other hand said no known mechanism could account for the inheritance of acquired characters, but came up with a slightly more complicated notion that seemed to work better. He said that some short giraffes were shorter than other short giraffes and some were taller, even though all of them were pretty short. But the taller giraffes were able to eat leaves higher on trees more easily than the shorter ones. Taller giraffes, having better food supplies, made more surviving babies than shorter giraffes, and on average these taller adults made babies that were taller than the babies of short giraffes. As that process continued slowly through centuries of reiteration, short giraffes gradually were outnumbered and became extinct, while tall giraffes came to rule the savannah. Stretching had nothing to do with it; natural selection simply eliminated the short ones.

Darwin ’s theory argues that on average each generation of giraffes was ever so slightly taller than the preceding generation. Over some unspecified long time (thousands or millions of years) the shift from short giraffes to tall ones occurred gradually with no gaps in the series, in accordance with Leibniz’s (1799) famous dictum: “natura non facit saltum” (nature makes no leaps).

But when we dig up fossils, we generally find either short giraffes (early ones) or tall giraffes (recent ones); only rarely do we find any of intermediate height. According to Darwin, the absence of medium sized giraffes is simply a sampling problem, an optical illusion that would vanish if only we had a complete series of fossil giraffes. The medium sized giraffes that nobody can find are “missing links” in the so-called Great Chain of Being (Nesbit 1956).

Eldridge felt that Darwin’s theory was weak since an optical illusion was a key element in it. He and others who were bothered by great gaps in the fossil record argued that they occurred because tall giraffes replaced short giraffes much more quickly than Darwin’s theory would permit. He proposed that tall giraffes sprang more-or-less full blown from short giraffes by way of spontaneous gene mutations that could give rise to new species in a single leap. From this perspective, nature spends most of its time in a kind of equilibrium state that is punctuated now and then by a sudden change. Since it is difficult to explain just how these leaps of nature might work, Eldridge was besieged by a very conservative biological community who were delighted with the paradigm shift that brought Darwin into power but were loathe to accept another one that might remove him (and them) from power.

The bottom line is that Darwin still reigns. His theory of natural selection has forced Lamarck’s theory of acquired characters out of science, and his insistence on gradualism has forced Eldridge to take the theory of punctuated equilibria back to the drawing boards.

Pro Inheritance of Acquired Characters and Punctuated Equilibria I offer myself as living proof that Darwin’s theory is flawed and the Lamarck-Eldridge model is superior in some regards. I know precisely what I am talking about, for I belong to a rapidly growing population of hopeful monsters intellectually sired by Lamarck and Eldridge.

When I arrived in the United Arab Emirates in 1993, I was a more-or-less normal Western human being. But in the intervening eight years, I have experienced massive structural and neurological changes that one can observe not only in me and other adult expats who drive cars here, but also in the offspring of my generation. These events have changed my fellow expats and me into something new under the sun, the new characters were acquired as Lamarck foretold, the changes occurred instantaneously on the geological time scale, and they are both heritable and irreversible.

When I got my UAE driver’s license, I had ordinary binocular vision that functioned well enough in standard lighting conditions but was not exceptional in any way. Now, as a result of responding to needs not unlike those of short giraffes, I and most other expats have acquired an entirely new kind of vision that permits us to survive in an extremely hostile environment. At all times I have a complete 360 degree view of cars that are about to run into me, and I can see at all electromagnetic frequencies from infrared to x-ray. On cool dry days I can see through freight trucks and black windshields, and soon will be able to perform this feat under all weather conditions. And during a fit of hubris, I disconnected my fog lights with no ill effects.

My sense of hearing has changed even more marvelously. Although I have a slight hearing loss from ear infections in my youth, I can detect Arabic-speaking drivers from a distance of 3000 meters even – EVEN, mind you – in those fleeting microseconds when they are not screaming at their cell phones or their kids.

At the same time that my perceptual capabilities have increased exponentially, my cognitive functions while driving have shrunk almost to the vanishing point. To paraphrase the great Belizian singer Calypso Rose, “Since I come to Dubai I get stupid.” It is oxymoronic that anyone might learn to be stupid; therefore I am certain these changes are much more profound.

For example, it is patently stupid for anyone to drive 80 miles an hour in a school zone, but as part of my evolutionary transformation I regularly drive 80 miles an hour in school zones and nobody ever rear-ends me.

When I lived in the West, I learned that “nature abhors a vacuum” and “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line”. In a brilliant cognitive tour-de-force run amok, the favored aphorism here is “nature abhors a straight line”, and I have come to accept that proposition without question. It is impossible for any driver here to stay in lane, and it is not uncommon to see a car change lanes as many as five or six times in a single block, especially in heavy traffic. I can do that better than most of them. Trying to drive through the city under these circumstances is a lot like navigating through a herd of goats. If you must be a goat, ‘tis best to be a 600 pound goat. Such a one am I.

The expansion of my perceptual functions and the demise of my cognitive functions have led to major structural changes in my skull. When I arrived here, the sides of my skull were parallel with each other and perpendicular to the ground, and the top was nicely domed. Several months ago I awoke one morning and discovered that my dome had subsided (collapsed, if you must know) since the cognitive tissue inside had all but disappeared and the sides curved far outward to accommodate the all-frequency radar-like machinery associated with seeing and hearing, and to provide shade for my shoulders which is quite valuable in the heat.

I have a number of friends who went through this experience years ago and eventually returned to the West to live. I thought they were just going through a phase, but all of them report that their skulls remain misshapen to this day and it has been impossible for them to drive normally again. Hence there is strong reason to suspect that these changes are irreversible. Furthermore, those who live in certain coastal regions of North and South Carolina report that they use their newfound sensory gear to eavesdrop effectively on both bats and dolphins, which suggests that preadaptation is at work here.

Although I experienced the UAE’s hostile environment for several years before the awesome changes occurred, the fact that they became manifest overnight, are widespread in the expat population, and are both heritable and irreversible establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that I am a member of a new species in which the defining features emerged in complete accord with the Lamarck-Eldridge model.

Darwin is a special case! Long live Lamarck and Eldridge!

 

Dubai Ascendant

Fujairah, United Arab Emirates
4 June 2001

I’m worried about Sheikh Mohammed. Each new initiative, each new achievement is amazing by itself, and he keeps pumping them out as if they came from a bottomless well. Where will it all lead him? Most importantly, can he fail?

When we arrived in the United Arab Emirates in 1993, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan was the president and sole leader of his country, a charismatic ruler whose position of power and authority had been secure for half a century. Beginning as a tribal leader in the remote Buraimi and Liwa Oases in the 1940s when Wilfred Thesiger became the first European to penetrate the area, he emerged in the 1950s and 60s as the leader of the region and people who later formed Abu Dhabi Emirate. In 1971 he forged the new country of the United Arab Emirates out of the former British Trucial States, and became its founder-president who is known as President His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

So long as Sheikh Zayed lives, he will be president. But Sheikh Zayed is in his eighties now, and last autumn he spent several months in the United States receiving a kidney transplant. He returned in December to a triumphal welcome after his partial recovery, and two weeks ago another day of national celebration greeted the announcement of his complete recovery.

But the country gradually is being weaned away from Sheikh Zayed, and it appears that Sheikh Mohammed is being groomed to replace him. For many years Sheikh Zayed's photograph was on the front page of the Gulf News every day as he met dignitaries from around the world and engaged in the many acts of personal, national, Arabic and Moslem leadership that made him so beloved by his people. But during his major illness, more and more photographs of Sheikh Mohammed began to appear.

Now that Sheikh Zayed is well again, he and Sheikh Mohammed tend to share the front page and recently the daily photos show Sheikh Abdulla, the youngest son of Sheikh Zayed, working beside Sheikh Mohammed in various governmental contexts almost as an apprentice. Perhaps even more importantly, Sheikh Mohammed's face has appeared recently on prayer rugs hung beside Sheikh Zayed's at carpet stalls in the Friday Market near Masafi and at carpet shops in Dubai. That is neither a coincidence nor a symptom of hubris. Rather, it is a symptom of much more important changes that are occurring off the front pages, to a large extent on the business pages.

The transition that seems to be occurring is most interesting for Sheikh Mohammed is not Sheikh Zayed's Crown Prince. That position is held by Sheikh Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of Sheikh Zayed's family from Abu Dhabi and a logical choice for next president if he had a more powerful personality. Furthermore, Sheikh Mohammed is not the ruler of Dubai Emirate either. In the past there was some speculation that upon Sheikh Zayed's death, the presidency might go to Sheikh Maktoum Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, and another logical choice for President in terms of his own position of power nationally, and as head of the second largest and second wealthiest emirate.

But here comes Sheikh Mohammed, storming into leadership from a less auspicious starting position. Who is he? What is he doing? Where is he going?

Sheikh Mohammed is known in full as "Crown Prince of Dubai and Minister of Defense General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum". Probably somewhere in his 40s, he is forty years younger than Sheikh Zayed and about twenty years younger than the generation that now rules Dubai and the northern emirates. In his position as Minister of Defense, he could focus all of his attention on the military and stay away from other domains that might cause problems for him. In his position as Crown Prince of Dubai, he could do nothing in particular except be a stand-in when the real ruler of Dubai was away, and wait patiently for the real ruler to die. But that is not the nature of Sheikh Mohammed.

Sheikh Mohammed is perhaps one of the most dynamic rulers on Earth today. From his position as a young man in the governments of Dubai and the UAE, he has begun to make a mark on his country that may forever change its nature.

The UAE has 10% of the world's known oil deposits and it is divided mainly between Abu Dhabi and Dubai Emirates. Abu Dhabi has 90% of the UAE's oil, so it has an enormous amount of oil wealth at its disposal and has used it to build a new city that simply reeks of royalty, diplomacy and bureaucracy. Dubai on the other hand was a trade center long before anybody found oil in these parts and has used its much more limited oil wealth to enhance its position as a trade center.

Abu Dhabi in 2001 is an extraordinarily wealthy but nonetheless sleepy city, while Dubai is almost frantically expanding as a trade and business center that aspires to become the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East, and to do it as soon as possible. Much of the astonishing development that is occurring here now is directly or indirectly under the control of Sheikh Mohammed.

A brief review of Sheikh Mohammed's activities in recent years - or even in recent months - probably could land him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the mid-1990s, Sheikh Mohammed with the cooperation of other leaders in Dubai, took a number of initiatives that are paying off now. The Dubai Shopping Festival which occurs every March has become a global shopping spree that attracts businesses from Morocco to Indonesia to establish shops at the Global Village, a kind of regional World's Fair, and likewise attracts visitors from throughout Europe, Africa and Asia to come here to spend their money. Dubai produces little that is sold during the city-wide shopping festival, but by hosting the event and providing superb facilities in an environment of safety and freedom, the city has taken a giant step toward becoming the region's number one shopping mall serving a market of something like 1.5 billion people.

Sheikh Mohammed has seen the potential importance of tourism and has embraced it totally. Much of the rest of the Middle East remains cautious or even terrified of tourism, but Dubai has used the Shopping Festival as the basis for building a tourism infrastructure that will be among the world's finest in a few years. The city currently has a profusion of five-star hotels that serve the business market and an increasing number of up-scale tourists. However, at Sheikh Mohammed's urging the UAE recently relaxed its requirements for visitors' visas and Dubai in particular is mounting a huge campaign to sharply increase tourism here.

The first major thrusts of that campaign are at Dubai International Airport and Emirates Airlines. Sheikh Mohammed's cousin, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, is Minister of Civil Aviation and Director of Emirates Airlines. Together they form a powerful team.

Dubai International Airport has recently added a new passenger terminal exclusively for Emirates regional flights to and from other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between which visas are not required. Secondly, the futuristic Sheikh Rashid International Terminal, named for Sheikh Mohammed's father, recently opened to handle Emirates and all other international passengers for a couple of years while a new Emirates International terminal is under construction to handle the rapidly expanding operations of Emirates Airlines alone. And Dubai Cargo Village has rapidly changed from being an empty patch of sand to being one of the finest and fastest growing cargo terminals in the world.

In conjunction with building the new state-of-the-art terminals, Dubai is building its own airline. Emirates Airlines, already rated as one of the world's finest even though it remains small in comparison with major European and US carriers, is set to expand its fleet from 35 to 110 airplanes by the end of the decade. Emirates was one of the first airlines to adopt the Boeing 777 and now has a fleet of ten. It was among the first to place orders for the new 550 passenger Airbus 380 which will not be available until 2006 or sometime thereafter. And its representatives have joined Boeing's design team to make sure that the new Sonic Cruiser meets their requirements when they receive what they hope will be the first one off the assembly line whenever that happens. Emirates is moving directly from being the best of the small airlines to being the best of the large airlines providing non-stop service to destinations around the world.

About two weeks ago at an international tourism conference in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed unveiled a plan to develop two new resort islands in the Gulf a few hundred meters off the coast of Dubai Emirate. There will be two Palm Islands, one at Jumeirah, the other at Jebel Ali, to be created by dredging material up from the floor of the Gulf. They will be shaped like palm trees, the fronds radiating from a core that is attached to the mainland by a 300-meter causeway resembling a tree trunk. Each structure will be enclosed by a reef-like breakwater that will protect it from the elements. This design will give the islands an enormous amount of coastline since each frond will be a long narrow finger jutting out into the calm water inside the lagoon. The first phase of construction has already begun, and within two years each island should have forty hotels, about a thousand luxury villas, two marinas and plenty of shops.

Another spin-off from the important role of aviation in Dubai's economy as manifested by Dubai International Airport and Emirates Airlines is the Dubai International Air Show under the direct command of Sheikh Ahmed. Begun a decade ago and held every two years, it rapidly outpaced most of the competition and now is the world's third largest, following only the shows at Farnborough and Paris. The first few shows focused more attention on military than on civil aviation, but in the up-coming 2001 show the emphasis has shifted markedly toward civil aviation as the Asian market for passenger aircraft continues to grow.

Generally speaking the Middle East as a whole has been quite aggressive in adopting mobile telephones because of the lack of wired infrastructure in areas of low population density and difficult environments, but has lagged far behind the rest of the world in adopting satellite television and the Internet. In countries where government and religious leaders feel that they have both a right and a duty to control the flow of information, satellite TV and the Internet seriously threaten that prerogative. Consequently, throughout the region the adoption of these new technologies has occurred slowly as the old guard has gradually lost the battle to control information as they did back in the good old days maybe a decade ago. But Dubai is different.

Sheikh Mohammed has vigorously welcomed the Internet as yet another means to make Dubai great. Recently Dubai's Internet City opened to accommodate businesses devoted to making Dubai the technical and financial center of Internet activity in the Middle East. With an initial complement of five hundred Internet businesses in operation or in the queue, Sheikh Mohammed probably will succeed. The ones already there include multinationals such as Microsoft, Oracle, Compaq and a host of others whose combined investments here are enormous, and they are here in large part because the UAE has moved far ahead of all other Middle Eastern countries in protecting intellectual property rights.

The Internet revolution is taking yet another leap forward as Dubai comes on line in the immediate future with "e-government". In the new scheme of things, Dubai will become one of the first cities in the world where all government customer services paperwork is handled entirely on the Internet. Everything from visa applications and renewals to automobile registrations and speeding tickets will be processed on line.

Although trade lies at the heart of life in the Middle East, strange new activities like international tourism, the aviation industry and the Internet are just about as far from local traditions as you can get. However, Sheikh Mohammed has found at least one other traditional activity to add to the mix - horse racing. The Dubai World Cup has deep roots in raising and racing Arabian horses, and Godolphin Stables, with Sheikh Mohammed as its dominant force, has been developing in the UK for several years. But the Dubai World Cup Race, now held every April, recently sprang from the sand as something new under the sun, making the transition in a single step from not existing to being the world's richest horse race.

In addition to building Dubai's Nad Al Sheba Race Course and all of the infrastructure to support both the people and the horses associated with it, Sheikh Mohammed and his team have been winning races in the UK, and for the last three years have raced in the Kentucky Derby. They haven't won yet, but give them a few more years to learn how things work in Louisville, and they'll win there too.

Dubai is an exciting place to be in 2001, but not all is well. My real reason for writing this article is not just to sing the praises of Sheikh Mohammed, but also to examine some of the problems he faces.

An old Egyptian proverb says: "If you do too much you will make a mistake." As the single most important guide for conduct among Egyptian bureaucrats, it's corollary is: "So don't do anything". In a world in which people are not punished for doing nothing but are severely punished for making a mistake, the proverb is valuable advice for one who wishes to live a long if totally useless life. Obviously Sheikh Mohammed rejects this kind of advice.

Yet he lives in a world in which making a mistake can be fatal, and he is so hyperactive that he is certain to make a mistake now and then. He thrives on conducting social experiments, and a lot of experiments fail. Can he survive if he makes a mistake? Probably.

One of the fringe benefits of being a leader in this part of the world is that leaders take all of the credit for things that work, and underlings take all of the blame for things that don't work. Hence the Egyptian proverb applies to bureaucrats but probably not to people like Sheikh Mohammed. In any event, Sheikh Mohammed seems to have an excellent staff who make sure his projects never fail, and presumably they understand that they, and not Sheikh Mohammed, will fall if a mistake occurs.

A potentially more serious issue is common to all visionary leaders who are far out in front in any field. It is the problem of looking back over your shoulder and discovering that nobody is following you. Sheikh Mohammed seems to be entirely aware of this problem and daily strives to make sure it won't bring him down. His performance before the cameras all over the world is nothing short of astonishing, and he uses the photographs to assure his people that he is looking after their welfare.

During the last three months, his well-photographed activities have included a five day visit to Singapore and Malaysia, in western style clothing, spending several days there with Dr. Mahathir, Malaysia's Prime Minister, discussing economic cooperation. That visit was followed by several days with Dr. Mahathir in Dubai for more discussions that culminated in major investments by Malaysia in Sheik Mohammed's Internet City.

Sheikh Mohammed was at Nad Al Sheba for the Dubai World Cup and presented prizes to the winners of several races that day, including of course the World Cup itself. A few days later, one of his most valuable horses became ill in the UK and he was personally involved in making the decision to destroy it. And only a few days after that he was photographed all over Churchill Downs where he attended the Kentucky Derby, watched his horse come in fifth, and hobnobbed with the rest of the world's racing elite.

In Geneva and Cannes a few days ago he received environmental awards on behalf of Sheikh Nahyan and tourism awards for himself.

Here at home, he attended the tourism conference where he announced plans for the Palm Island Resort development, and presented Middle Eastern journalism awards at a conference where Sheikh Abdullah spoke out clearly in favor of responsible freedom of the press in a manner that was entirely supportive of open access to the Internet and satellite TV.

During a couple of quiet weeks on the international front, Sheikh Mohammed attended an education conference where he addressed a sharp criticism of K-12 education to the Minister of Education, specifically challenging him on his failure to improve information technology training throughout the school system. Then he seems to have made inspection visits to just about every major ministry in Dubai - not just social calls, but rather occasions to stress specific ways in which he expects those agencies to improve their services to the people of Dubai.

It is not unusual to see photographs from a single day in the life of Sheikh Mohammed when he is wearing four or five entirely different sets of clothes - royal Arabic robes, Western business suits, racing attire, whatever is appropriate - at four or five different major events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and outside the UAE. Often it seems that there must be whole battalion of Sheikh Mohammeds.

So Sheikh Mohammed constantly looks far forward, but he just as constantly looks backward to stay in touch with his constituents and make sure they are following him. He may leave some of them behind, but somehow I doubt it. More likely he will drag them forward with him, albeit with some of them kicking and screaming all the way.

Those who kick and scream may be the most serious problem.

The religious right in this part of the world seems to come in a great many varieties. Two, at approximately opposite ends of the spectrum, are the passive and the militant.

Passive conservatives want to prevent change from occurring so as to maintain the status quo of 1400 years ago. They are sort of Moslem Luddites who are opposed to change of any kind, not just to technological innovation. They consider the period in which the Prophet Mohammed lived to have been the golden age, and strive to experience that golden age here on earth now. They are devout, sincere and peaceful Moslems whose primary goal is to do what is good and right according to the Koran.

Militant conservatives, like Osama bin Laden and some of the leaders of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, are angry about changes that have already occurred and are prepared to take any measures necessary in their attempts to right those wrongs. They may be good Moslems too, but their style will win them few friends in the rest of the world.

The United Arab Emirates in general, and Dubai in particular, seem to be generally free of right wing activities. That doesn't mean that the people of the UAE are liberal; rather, it means that they don't deal so much with this issue. The country is at peace, and most of the people in Dubai are wealthy and contented. What could they gain by rocking the boat?

Now and then I see men in Dubai's City Center Mall who look like Saudi Arabia's mutawah or morals police who, among other things, use camel whips in Jiddah to beat the legs of western women who are stupid enough to venture outside in short skirts. But when mutawah-like people go to Dubai's City Center, they take their wives and kids and buy stereos, eat ice cream and talk on their cell phones just like everybody else. They look kind of peculiar in their short thobes and long beards, but they seem to be quite harmless. Or at the very least the prevailing ethos has de-fanged them.

The only times we have ever seen anything even vaguely suggestive of militant conservatism was when the Palestinian-Israeli conflict got out of hand in September 2000, and even here in Fujairah crowds in the streets were screaming at Israelis and Americans. But that really wasn't religious conservatism in action. Rather it was a combination of street political theater and extreme frustration with a war that has been going on for more than a century.

Yet there is always the chance that conservative sentiments will come to the fore and bring Sheikh Mohammed down. Parallels with the Iranian Revolution are tantalizing but probably are misleading. The Shah of Iran generally was perceived as being under the control of Western governments, not just hooked on technology, power and money. Furthermore, he definitely was not paying attention to his people who were trying hard to tell him they were not following him, and he seems to have done a lot less to benefit his people than Sheikh Mohammed has done to benefit his.

Nevertheless, Sheikh Mohammed undoubtedly is aware of the potential threat from the right and seems to be handling it deftly. As one example, consider Dubai Internet City. That undertaking could not exist without excellent coordination between Sheikh Mohammed and the virtually invisible sheikh who is in charge of Etisalat, the government's telecommunications monopoly. But what is the nature of that relationship?

In a recent Newsweek article on Internet access in the Middle East, Richard Dickey who knows the region well failed to discuss the ways in which Sheikh Mohammed is working with the "telephone sheikh" to make sure the reactionaries won't sabotage him. In reviewing the extent to which governments in this region continue to control communications, Dickey argued that government control generally is problematic and private control generally is beneficial. However, in the case of the UAE in general and Dubai in particular, Sheikh Mohammed's insistence that Internet service be among the best in the world combined with his insistence that it remain totally in government control gets him the best of both worlds. The liberals cannot complain about poor service, and the conservatives cannot complain about loss of control. I think that is nothing short of brilliant.

An equally dangerous situation surrounds the roles and actions of his wife and daughters. His very attractive teenage daughters have reached the age where they should be covered in public, but they are not. Indeed they have become misunderstood role models for some of the young women of Dubai, often referred to as "Dubai chicks", who are pushing the limits with miniskirts and bare bellybuttons in places like the City Center Mall. From a conservative perspective, Sheikh Mohammed's women probably should be seen a lot less in public even if they were covered. But that is not Sheikh Mohammed's way.

In fact, his wife and daughters are visible, active and highly significant players on Sheikh Mohammed's team. The recent celebration of Sheikh Zayed's recovery from the kidney transplant was orchestrated by Sheikh Mohammed's wife Hind. She got together a cavalcade of over 2000 cars driven by nationals which paraded from the World Trade Center in Dubai to the festival location in Abu Dhabi. She coordinated their departure from Dubai and arrival in Abu Dhabi, the dropping of rose petals on the parade from police helicopters as they began the trek, and saturation TV coverage of the entire event. She organized the entertainment for a full evening of celebration and fireworks, and so on. Sheikh Mohammed was at the Trade Center to see off the cavalcade and in Abu Dhabi to greet them, being air lifted to both sites by helicopter. At the celebration, Sheikh Zayed paid special complements to all of Sheikh Mohammed's family, including his young son who would become Crown Prince if Sheikh Mohammed became the next President.

With Sheikh Nahyan explicitly supporting him in such public ways, Sheikh Mohammed does not even deal with the issue of his women's not covering in public. He just makes it clear that his family are part of his team who are working tirelessly for the good of the country, and in the process sets new precedents for the entire country to follow. His is by no means a one man act, but rather he leads the performance of a truly impressive team.

One more nagging worry is that if Sheikh Mohammed moves up to the Presidency, he will then have a number of national constituents who are far less affluent than the urban elite in the new Dubai. Once you move outside the dazzling cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Al Ain, you find yourself in the Developing World. Country towns such as Dhaid and Masafi, as well as provincial cities like Fujairah and Ajman, get whatever trickles down from above, and in some cases it appears that the trickle is minimal.

Can Sheikh Mohammed avoid making a fatal error? Can he keep his people with him? Can he continue to finesse his way through the conservative-liberal minefield? Will he be able to solve the problems that leave the hinterland unaffected by his vision? Only God knows, but at least for now God certainly seems to be backing Sheikh Mohammed's team.

Go Shop! Go Play!

Sharjah , United Arab Emirates
September 2002

A discussion of 21st century life in the UAE that mentions shopping malls and rampant consumerism only in passing would be as meaningless as a discussion of Palestine that omits self sacrificing freedom fighters, of Bangladesh that glosses over corruption, poverty and flooding, or of the Caribbean islands that ignores sun, sand, sea, sex, sugar and slavery.

Following World War II, shopping in the West came a long way toward catching up with shopping in the East, but with the infusion of oil money into the economies of the Arabian Peninsula in general and the UAE in particular, the West is once again falling behind. The marvelous covered markets of Esfahan and Istanbul are but the grandest developments of a tradition of souqs and bazaars that characterizes the Moslem world from Marrakech to India and beyond, a tradition that predates Western shopping malls by much more than a millennium. The infusion of Western technology and oil money gave the tradition an awesome kick in the pants, and it is in the process of taking a quantum leap back into the lead. An ordinary shopping mall in Dubai makes some upscale shopping malls in American look like modest experiments that failed.

To see the situation in perspective, we must understand that Dubai, a tiny city-state with a population under one million, is the shopping hub of a region reaching from Central Asia to southern India to Zanzibar with a total population of about 1.5 billion. The explosive development of shopping facilities in the UAE in recent years, and the promised exponential growth of them during the first decade of the 21st century, make it futile for me to attempt to describe them here. By the time I finished writing it, it would be seriously out of date. But the UAE has gone onto the World Wide Web with a vengeance. To see what you are missing if you do not Buy! Buy! Buy! in Dubai and elsewhere in the country, turn to the web and use a little imagination. The Dubai e-government site contains a wealth of links, but for some fine examples of UAE consumerism at its most ostentatious spend a few hours taking virtual tours of Dubai City Center Mall, Abu Dhabi Marina Mall, Sharjah Sahara Centre, Sheikh Rashid Terminal at Dubai International Airport, Burj al-Arab Hotel, and the Palm Island Resort Complex which is under development as I write. Obviously these are not just shopping malls; rather, distinctions between shopping malls, hotels, airline terminals, recreational facilities and supermarkets have just about vanished.

Let’s talk about shopping for food. When we moved to the oasis city of Al-Ain in 1993, then with a population of perhaps 200,000 people, we found a small supermarket from France and an even smaller one from India, the modest Al-Ain Co-Op supermarket, a good many miscellaneous Arab food stores that catered mainly to people living in outlying rural areas, the old souq that sold fruits, vegetables and fish, and the livestock market that sold camels and goats on the hoof. There was no risk of starving under those conditions, the range of Indian foods available there was greater than anything we had ever experienced in the United States, and going to the old souq on Thursday morning was great fun for a while. According to Western colleagues who had lived there for a decade, the transformation of the oasis during that period had been nothing short of marvelous, but monotony nevertheless set in quickly for us.

Now, a decade later, all has changed, not only in the smaller cities of Al-Ain, Fujairah and Sharjah, but even more conspicuously in the major cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Nancy and I do a great deal of recreational food shopping now. Living in Sharjah, we can buy the necessities at any of a dozen stores near our apartment, but shopping for food at an enormous diversity of world-class supermarkets provides much of our entertainment as well as our nutrition.

Carrefour, the French term for “crossroads”, is a worldwide chain of French supermarkets and hypermarkets. In recent years Carrefour has opened at least eight enormous stores here and more are scheduled to open soon. About a quarter of each is filled with electronics and household goods; a quarter with clothing and toiletries, less than a quarter with canned, packaged and frozen foods, and considerably more that a quarter with fruits, vegetables and dates; enormous open vats of olives, spices, nuts, legumes and rice; meats and fish; milk, yoghurt and cheeses; caviar; breads, pastries and other baked goods; and a huge delicatessen. The emphasis throughout the food sections is on French products, especially among the packaged items, smoked fish and cheeses. This afternoon at the Sharjah City Centre store about a block from our apartment, I found 61 different varieties of olives from every country bordering the Mediterranean and the specialty cheese counter had 116 varieties on display with about 100 additional varieties prepackaged in the dairy section. We visit Carrefour about once a week.

Spinney’s is a British supermarket chain that deals only in foods. It began here in the early 1990’s with a store in Abu Dhabi, has added several more in Abu Dhabi since then, and has reached out to Al-Ain, several Dubai suburbs, two locations in Sharjah, and several smaller cities. The emphasis here is on British products and British tastes right down to mushy peas, Marmite, Branston Pickles and Bisto gravy mix. And in a small display of anti-anti-Israeli sentiment, they sometimes sell bagels. The flagship store in Abu Dhabi is in the diplomatic section of the city, and the quality and range of goods available there reflect the cultured and very expensive tastes of embassy people from around the world. One of the Spinney’s stores in Sharjah is located at the other end of our block, so it is our “default option” where we stop on the way home from the campus nearly every day.

Choithram’s is a chain that has its cultural roots in India and its financial and administrative roots in England. It sells both foods and household goods. Most of the goods are from India and most of the customers belong to the enormous and often wealthy expatriate Indian population. Choithram’s has scattered itself throughout the country, even into some of the country towns where they serve Indian laborers in stores that are not fundamentally different from what you would find in Bombay or Cochin. Their flagship store is in Dubai in one of the wealthiest expat neighborhoods, and we go there perhaps once a month for Indian specialties. Among other outstanding features of that store is perhaps the world’s largest selection of sauces and sauce mixes – very broadly defined – not only from India, but also from Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, the UK, North America and Australia. The selection is 2-meters high on both sides of a 20-meter aisle. On a good day, they have well over a hundred kinds of Indian curries and chutneys from Patak (another Indian company based in the UK).

Co-Op Supermarkets seem to have begun here many years ago almost exclusively to serve the indigenous Arabic population and have retained that focus despite a great deal of expansion and upgrading. This is the place to go if you want to buy 20 kg bags of rice, 5 kg cans of camel ghee or a truckload of recently butchered sheep. They have by far the broadest selection of mutton that you can imagine, some of it local but most of it air freighted in daily from Australia, India and Iran. They recently upgraded their dried date selection to offer as many as 25 varieties from the UAE, Oman, Tunisia and especially Saudi Arabia. Generally their dates are not the most expensive varieties available here, but the quality is consistently superb – they serve a highly discriminating clientele who demand the best. Arabs are really serious about their honey for religious, nutritional and aphrodisiac purposes, and the Co-Op is the place to get it. Ordinarily the selection includes perhaps 10 varieties from Australia and New Zealand, 7 or 8 from Europe and North America, 3 or 4 from Turkey and Greece, and many bottles of Omani and Yemeni honey with special religious properties that sell for as much as $400 per pint. Comb honeys, royal jelly and assorted other specialty items are available in profusion. In addition the Co-ops have added bakeries that specialize in traditional Arabic pastries and baked goods, offering date rolls, many kinds of sweets based on marzipan and pistachios, a dozen varieties of pita and other flat pocket breads, and a broad selection of cakes and cookies that look great but are far too dry for our tastes. I go there specifically for honey, dates, date rolls and boneless lamb shanks that melt in my mouth.

LuLu (Arabic for “pearl”) is another supermarket chain that began with an Arabic focus but has shifted to include an Indian focus. Carrefour and Choithram’s consistently offer a small range of fresh fruits and vegetables from India, but somehow they missed an opportunity to provide those products on a grand scale. LuLu saw it and seized it. Recently Nancy did an informal inventory of the fruit and vegetable section of their store nearest us and concluded that she had never heard of 40% of the products for sale there, and that is from a person who has been an enthusiastic and adventurous international cook for 35 years. During April and May, LuLu has five or six different varieties of mangoes from India, a couple of varieties from Singapore, and at least one variety from Kenya, all air freighted to Dubai on a daily basis. The standard range of bananas includes not only the common yellow variety from Latin America and the Caribbean, but also four or five smaller varieties of red and yellow bananas and a couple of really robust types all from India. We visit LuLu every couple of weeks to stock up on fruits and veggies, often including kangkong, a form of watercress that looks like radish leaves, tastes like spicy spinach and works well when mixed with tiny shrimps.

Pork and alcohol are prohibited to Muslims. During our early days in Al-Ain we bought small quantities of very poor pork products at the porcine equivalent of a speakeasy at Choithram’s in Al-Ain, or went on special “pork runs” every couple of months to a “pork boutique” at Spinney’s in Abu Dhabi. Buying pork remains a bit of a challenge, but the stores that sell it now have plenty of variety and excellent quality, mostly from Kenya. We still can’t buy pork in Sharjah with its close ties to Saudi Arabia or at any of the Carrefour hypermarkets, but there are no problems at Spinney’s and Choithram’s in Dubai.

Similarly, buying alcoholic beverages can be a schizophrenic sort of experience. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, non-Moslems must go through a deliberately degrading exercise to obtain a license to purchase alcohol; however, the license is based on your income and if you have a decent income your monthly allotment allows you enough alcohol to float a kayak. It is illegal to buy alcohol in Sharjah but not illegal to drink it, so people who live here go across the border into the adjacent Emirate of Ajman where there are no licenses or limits, and come home with as much as they can carry. There we regularly encounter Emirati Nationals and other Moslems – or people disguised as such - buying carloads of the stuff along with everybody else.

The broad ethnic diversity and the fresh-as-air-freight quality of the foods are astonishing, at least to those of us who come from more modest traditions. Furthermore, prices for most items are about one-half to one-third of what they are for equivalent items in the United States. We assume that has something to do with the international oil trade, subsidies on necessities (here caviar is a necessity) and the complete absence of taxes.

So shopping here is as much a recreation as a survival strategy. The idea that shopping is a form of play is emphasized in many malls that offer multi-screen movie theatres, myriads of Starbuck’s coffee shops, fine restaurants and sprawling food courts, and children’s entertainment facilities featuring full-size indoor amusement parks. In another sense of “play”, going to one of the major malls during the Thursday evening crush is a contact sport not unlike soccer and football, with shopping carts and elbows being used indiscriminately to attack opponents who won’t get out of the way voluntarily.

Most unfortunately the supermarkets and all of the other stores in the malls are totally computerized now, so the fun of bargaining - using skills that we developed in our early years of shopping in the old souqs - has been lost. We still bargain for carpets, but in the decade since we arrived, bargaining has virtually died throughout the coastal cities and in shopping malls throughout the country.

 

The War on Terror Begins

Sharjah , United Arab Emirates
16 October 2001

The Attack I picked up Nancy at the College on Tuesday at 16:45 and we headed for our apartment on the Buhaira Corniche in downtown Sharjah. About half way home, as we approached Spinney’s Supermarket, I decided on the spur of the moment to stop for some breakfast pastries. The Indian film music and British rock that ordinarily serve as mindless noise in the background were missing, much to my satisfaction.

As we passed the fruits and veggies and approached the meat and deli counters, we became aware of a news broadcast coming from the overhead speakers. The sound quality was poor and the volume was low, but we were struck by the obvious tension in the announcer’s voice and began to pick out references to the United States, the World Trade Center, an airplane crash, fire, terrorists and so on. From his references to things happening on the screen, it was clear that we were listening to the audio channel of a TV broadcast, but we didn’t know which one.

After struggling for several minutes to understand what the announcer was saying and having only limited success, we bought a couple of pastries and headed for the Sony / Jumbo electronics store on King Faisal Avenue between King Faisal Square and King Faisal Mosque, a block from our apartment. Sharjah is heavily subsidized by Saudi Arabia, and names in our neighborhood show it.

The radio in the Volvo picked up the British ‘Channel 4’ rock station in Dubai that was transmitting sound-only from CNN, which was what we had heard on the speakers at Spinney’s. In the car, it became clear that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked and that America was in the midst of another Pearl Harbor. It was 11 September 2001.

We drove through the appalling heat and humidity to Jumbo Electronics because we had no television in our apartment. We have a longstanding animosity toward television, and simply never got around to buying one until Tuesday a couple of hours after the attack on the World Trade Center.

Five or six young men were standing in front of a TV set at the back of the Jumbo store watching the towers burn. They were smiling and laughing until one of them saw us and the group virtually imploded. Their dead silence and embarrassed looks lasted only a moment until they dispersed like dust in the wind.

While we were looking at the sets, trying to see which features they had at what prices, the first of the two WTC towers collapsed. Not an instant replay, but the real thing, tucked in among all of the replays of passenger aircraft impacting the towers, explosions and fires, here was the horrific vision of the collapse of one of the world’s largest buildings right in front of our eyes from 8000 miles away.

Quickly we decided which set to buy, drove to two nearby ATM machines until we found one that would give us some cash, and returned to do the paperwork. Then we grabbed a couple of sandwiches from the Burger King in the building adjacent to the one we live in, and waited impatiently in the apartment, listening to our little portable radio and searching the web for information. At 21:30 an Indian man arrived from Jumbo to install the TV and set it up to work on the building’s built-in satellite/cable network. The only English-language channel available in our building is CNN International; the remaining 21 are in French, Arabic, Hindi, and assorted other Asian languages that are incomprehensible to us.

As I continued to watch CNN’s saturation coverage and as Nancy spent more and more time scouring the web, each calling the other whenever something important happened, we began to hear and see Osama bin Laden’s name with increasing frequency. Not only are we well acquainted with it because of his history of terrorism, but also because his family’s business built much of the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and specializes in constructing huge buildings throughout the Gulf, including one just around the corner from our apartment block where the Bin Laden logo hits us in the eye whenever we drive past it.

We stayed with CNN until about 01:00 on Wednesday when we went to bed. By then we had concluded that everybody responsible for security in the US had failed – all of the intelligence agencies, airport security which we have always considered to be an embarrassment in the US, the FAA who seem to have been dozing peacefully while the planes were being hijacked, and the military at the Pentagon who have ground-to-air missiles to use in situations exactly like this one. God willing, additional information will demonstrate that we are wrong.

At about 02:00, shortly after we finally got to sleep, my Mother telephoned from Mississippi, concerned since she had not heard from me since the attack began. CNN had reported that all international telephone service in and out of the US was out of operation, so we had not tried to telephone anybody. As soon as the call ended, we went back to sleep. At 05:30, half an hour before our alarm clocks were set to go off, our daughter Kristi telephoned from Boston, needing to talk about her awful day as an American and as a Bostonian since that is where two of the four aircraft were hijacked. Apparently a child in her preschool was related to people who were on the hijacked planes. Just how they were related is not clear to us.

We did not enjoy seeing CNN’s coverage of Palestinians dancing in the streets. There are a lot of Palestinians here and their attitude toward Americans is unfriendly at best. To see their relatives on TV, being overjoyed with the deaths of perhaps tens of thousands of Americans, was frightening and infuriating.

A lot of Arabic leaders didn’t like those scenes either, and instantly distanced themselves from them as much as possible. They said they could understand the frustration of the Palestinians, but condemned their behavior and repeatedly stated that no responsible Arab or Moslem wants to alienate the US at this time for the Arabs need US support and cannot possibly benefit from being the target of US wrath. Since that Wednesday, we have not seen Palestinians dancing in the streets on TV, but don’t know whether that reflects a change in their behavior, a change in their underlying attitudes, or just a bit of politically correct censorship by CNN. We do know from other sources on the web that similar joy at the attack on America has been displayed widely in Iraq, that Kuwait arrested and deported some Palestinians who were behaving that way, and that other instances have been reported in Iran, Indonesia, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab / Moslem world. The common theme is that America finally got what it deserved.

CNN reported that at least two of the hijackers carried UAE passports. The UAE government immediately issued a knee jerk denial in Thursday’s Gulf News, but the Friday paper indicated that things were not so simple. Both people are under investigation, and one of them is said to have had his passport replaced last year, perhaps because his original passport was stolen. Whatever is happening locally in this regard goes on out of sight.

Our 9 th floor apartment overlooks Buhaira Corniche, and the park and lake are opposite our bedroom windows. From late each afternoon until after 01:00 each morning, auto and pedestrian traffic down there is extremely heavy. That pattern continued through Tuesday night, but since then the crowd seems to be much lighter than usual. Certainly the area is not deserted, but it is a long way from being its normal madhouse. UAE nationals are quite reasonably concerned about the safety of their relatives in the US in terms of both the terrorist attacks themselves and the potential repercussions both here and in the US if Americans condemn all Arabs. Non-Resident Indians and other Asian expats who vividly remember the Gulf War are anxious for their own futures since any destabilizing event seriously jeopardizes their own quite tenuous lives here in the Gulf.

Afghans and Pakistanis are in a terrible bind as described below. Everybody went to ground for several days, but now things have returned to normal.

On Wednesday, the day after the attack, Nancy felt it was necessary to go to work for failure to do so might draw unnecessary attention to her as an American. In the event, it was a reasonable sort of day. Several of Nancy’s students expressed their concern while discussion of the attack among the faculty was confined to private places and conducted in hushed tones. Of the 100+ faculty members at her college, many are British or Irish, some are Australian and Canadian, many are Arabic and only a few are Americans, so the feeling of isolation among the Americans was pretty serious.

Afghanistan and Pakistan. CNN soon began to quote sources and broadcast live interviews in which responsible US officials cited Osama bin Laden as the most likely person behind the attack. The reasoning was clear since Osama seems to have done everything in his power to support his own declaration of jihad. Clearly he wants to be seen as the most powerful Arab in opposition to the United States. Since he insists on making himself into the most wanted criminal in the world, he shouldn’t be surprised to discover that people eventually see him as the worst criminal in the world. He deliberately made himself into a lightening rod, and now the lightening has struck.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were the only three governments that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

The UAE’s recognition of the Taliban was benign, it did not imply any support for Osama, it enabled the UAE to talk to the Taliban in ways that others couldn’t, and most importantly it permitted the UAE to help the people of Afghanistan who desperately need all the help they can get. The UAE terminated its recognition of the Taliban a week after the attack.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is quite different. It mainly recognized the Islamic connection, but in no sense did it ever support Osama since his efforts have been directed toward overthrowing Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al-Saud government, for which the Kingdom long ago revoked his Saudi citizenship. The Kingdom soon terminated its recognition of the Taliban as well.

Pakistan ’s recognition of the Taliban government is vastly more problematic for the rest of the world. The Taliban originated in Pakistan and has received a great deal of support from that country over the years, including the Pakistani government’s refusal to authorize the US to use its airspace to attack Osama after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The US used Pakistani airspace anyway, which did not improve America’s popularity among Pakistanis.

The daily Pakistani page of the Gulf News reports that President Musharraf of Pakistan is in a terrible position. The US government has made it clear to him that he can either assist the US in dealing with Osama now or be treated as a supporter of Osama and face the same kind of attack that Afghanistan faces. His own military opposes any support to the US and assures Musharraf that he will lose Pakistan if he goes against their wishes, but the President has enough sense to understand that Pakistan will be reduced to a pile of rubble if he fails to cooperate with the US. That is a lot worse than your average Catch-22.

Some background information to help you understand our situation is in order. Here in Sharjah, we live in the midst of vast numbers of Afghan and Pakistani workers of various unknown political persuasions. They mill about by the hundreds or thousands in Rolla Square and adjacent streets almost as if that part of the city were a high class refugee camp. No doubt many of them are here because religious, political and economic conditions in their own countries are intolerable. But that doesn’t tell us whether they support or oppose the Taliban or Osama, or how they view us.

The problem isn’t just a vague generic concern about this horde of people. Rather, the devil is in the details. Consider several examples.

A few days before the attack, we took a taxi from our apartment to Sharjah’s Blue Souq. The Pakistani taxi driver was from Peshawar. His native language was Pushtu but he also spoke some Arabic and wanted to talk. Nancy was in a good mood and chatted with him in her own limited Arabic. In less than two minutes, he moved the subject to the Taliban, whereupon the conversation abruptly halted. We simply don’t talk about the Taliban with Pakistani taxi drivers.

In 1992 just before we arrived in Al-Ain, the oasis city where we lived from 1993 to 1998, the Pakistani community got itself into a lot of trouble when Hindu fundamentalists in India did something terrible (I can’t remember what) at a Hindu temple in Ayodya which is the site of a former Moslem mosque which was built maybe 500 years ago on the site of a former Hindu temple, and so on ad infinitum. Thus South Asia’s communal violence is a vicious spiral that reaches back forever. As a result of the violence against Moslems at Ayodya, hordes of Pakistanis marched on the predominantly Hindu Indian school in Al-Ain. The UAE government immediately rounded up thousands of Pakistanis and expelled them, including many who had overstayed their visas and were here illegally. As a result, Al-Ain was seriously lacking in taxi drivers for several months.

While we lived in Al-Ain, the building manager who occupied a small apartment near our parking lot was an enormous bearded Afghan refugee with hands the size of bear paws. Abdul Ghafur was a delightful person always ready to help us and very protective of the property and the tenants. We visited with him for a few minutes when we were in Al-Ain in January. His English is virtually nonexistent but his smile upon seeing us was as huge and warm as his hands. Just before we went to the US on summer vacation a few years ago, he asked me to bring him a pair of 10x50 binoculars. I didn’t do it.

Back behind Al-Ain’s Sanaiya, the industrial sector of the city, sits an Afghan community that could easily be in Kabul or Peshawar. I found it quite by accident one day in 1995 and told some of you about it then. I spent many delightful hours there, walking through the dust, talking with the men who live there, having tea and kababs at their open air cafes. When Sanaiya was totally upgraded a few years ago, the city fathers sort of forgot the Afghan community. The new multilane highway ran right up to the edge of it and stopped dead in the sand. Several thousand Afghan men lived there in minimal housing without air conditioning but with lots of satellite TV antennas, eating and sleeping on the floors of sprawling boarding houses, working as truck drivers and lower level laborers. At night the streets within the community had no lights except for vertical fluorescent tubes powered by gasoline generators intended first to provide lights for the shops selling basic necessities, plus dresses for women and children who still lived in Afghanistan but benefited from their men who worked in Al-Ain. Despite their problems, the men were relieved to be here rather than in Afghanistan and were universally grateful to Sheikh Zayed, the President of the UAE, for allowing them to live here as refugees from their own war torn country.

Over the years I have often eaten in males-only restaurants for Afghan and Pakistani workers in Al-Ain, Dubai and now in Sharjah, where the tikka kababs, mutton biryani, fried fish and tandoori breads are to my liking. But more importantly, I’m always comfortable there. The men never speak any English and have no idea where I am from, but they are consistently friendly and cheerful, welcoming and helpful, puzzled to see a Westerner there (I have never seen another Westerner in one of those places) but nonetheless pleased that I came, and especially pleased when I become a regular customer as I have in several cases.

On a much more personal and significant level, Hajji Kabir presents more complicated problems. He is from Afghanistan and his carpet shop in the Blue Souq specializes in Afghan, Turkoman, Baluch and other Central Asian carpets. Our collection of pile carpets includes a good many from Afghanistan and we have bought some of them from Hajji Kabir. In the process we have gotten to know him and his staff pretty well. When we returned from our summer vacation, he had departed for Kabul on a buying trip that he planned and discussed with us in May. He is expected to return in two or three weeks, insh’allah.

His brother, Hajji Abdul Khalil, is here from Kabul running the shop now, and we have taken several pieces to him for repairs. Most importantly in this regard, we bought a hundred year old Qashqai carpet at the dhow souq in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago and took it in for repairs and cleaning. When I visited the shop a couple of days after the attack to collect another item, an Afghan Baluch saddle blanket they had repaired for us, Khalil’s young cousin with intensely green eyes and a dull pained expression was there. He recently came from Kabul and bought a Japanese car to take back home with him. He was scheduled to load it onto a boat in a few days, take it across the Gulf to Bandar Abbas, Iran, and drive it back to Kabul. Clearly he was not eager to go home, but he had a limited visa. Furthermore, his family is in Kabul and he had to be with them. When we went to get our clean Qashqai a couple of days later, the young man with green eyes was smiling. For good or ill, he will stay here for a while. A little girl maybe five years old was there with her father who is Hajji Kalil’s assistant. She was learning to read, so the next day Nancy took her a Dover book of Islamic artistic designs to color.

So these people are not just part of the crowd in the background. Rather they are somewhere between acquaintances and friends. But where do they stand politically? We have no idea and are not especially eager to find out since we might not like the answer.

Nancy was scheduled to go to Lahore and Islamabad for four days in October to deliver a plenary address at an English teachers’ conference. On Tuesday before the attack began we set up her preliminary flight reservations, and on Wednesday we learned that British Airways had cancelled all of its operations into Pakistan. As news continued to flood in concerning Pakistan’s being caught between a rock and a hard place, Nancy phoned the travel agency and emailed the folks in Islamabad notifying all of them that she was canceling the trip to Pakistan. A few days after Nancy cancelled her trip, the US State Department told Americans to get out of Pakistan if they were there, and to stay out if they weren’t.

Current Situation Certainly Pakistan is not a good place to be now, but do we really want to be here in the UAE either? Isn’t it dangerous for us with all these Arabs and Pakistanis and Afghans? If a war begins, won’t they attack us? No. We think a Pakistani / Afghan backlash will not occur here. No demonstrations have occurred here. Anybody who gets out of hand here can be sent home instantly, and as a group they really don’t want to go home just now. So we think this is a pretty safe place. Except maybe for a few Palestinian expatriates who never are happy with Americans. The stress is real, but it probably is not any worse here than it is in the US right now.

On the other hand, we are a little bit paranoid, given the frequency with which we receive email warnings from the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi. The warnings always tell us to be especially vigilant, vary our routes and times of travel, inspect our car before we use it, don’t accept packages from people we don’t know, etc. So when I went to drive the car to the bank one Friday afternoon, I found a water bottle lying under the right rear tire, a soft drink cup from Burger King lying against the left rear tire and an unsmoked cigarette wedged under the left front tire. Since things like that blow around in the breeze all the time any one of them would not have been cause for concern, but three were too much. So I photographed each object and took the camera back to the apartment, and Nancy sat in the window and photographed me as I removed the objects with a long handled broom. None of them exploded. Al-hamdulillah.

When the attack on America occurred, Sheikh Zayed the President was on his way to Switzerland for a medical checkup, and Sheikh Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai and UAE Minister of Defense, was in Kentucky buying horses for his Godolphin Stables, one of whose horses has been in the Kentucky Derby for each of the last three years. Sheikh Mohammed immediately donated $5 million from his own pocket to support the recovery effort in New York, but CNN seems not to have mentioned that. He has returned to the UAE now and we are relieved. He is an extraordinarily competent human being, and we feel a lot better knowing he’s here and in charge. His statements of support for the war on terrorism, plus his strong statement of support for people of all countries and religions living in the UAE now, have been most reassuring.

 

Exchanges with Myself

Sharjah 2002

Before the advent of email in the UAE in the mid-1990s, Western expats were as isolated here as they were in Saudi Arabia, not so much because of government policies, but because of a broad array of logistical problems. Poor postal infrastructures within the UAE and language problems among employees here were understandable problems. Somewhat less understandable were friends in America who couldn’t tell the difference between the vigorously living United Arab Emirates and the long-dead United Arab Republic, or who somehow thought the UAE was a “state” within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Then there was our least favorite American postal clerk who several times routed our mail from New Hampshire to Al-Ain by way of Manila instead of London.

Email makes all the difference. Now we participate in the world community almost the same as Americans do in America. We still have to write our messages judiciously to avoid upsetting anybody, but that doesn’t keep us from communicating daily with people around the world. That freedom is especially important when we live in an alien environment in which maintaining a grip on reality is difficult under the best of conditions.

The following snippets are from email exchanges I had with friends in the period between Al-Qaeda’s 9-11 attack on America and America’s attack on Saddam Hussein. Generally speaking, my friends expressed the kinds of liberal American views I expressed before I moved to the Arabian Peninsula. So talking with them was a little like holding a conversation between two halves of myself – the liberal, essentially optimistic part from the 1970s and 80s that I brought with me to the region, and the conservative, essentially pessimistic part from more recent years that I shall take back home with me.

Dear >>>,

I too fear that declaring war on a metaphysical abstraction (ignorance, crime, terror, poverty) is doomed to failure. A world leader who bases his foreign policy on a figure of speech has a problem.

Undeniably the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is a major cause of current woes, but from this side of the world it is not a 35 or 50-year occupation. Rather, it goes right back to the Crusades and is taught as such in public schools. Half a century is bad enough, but nine hundred years is much worse. Here the Crusades are seen as breaking news or current events, whereas in the US they are hardly seen at all. Our historical and geographical provincialism, and our appalling ignorance of European colonialism in this region, led President Bush to shoot himself in the foot the moment he responded to the 9-11 attack by launching a “crusade”. Every Arabic leader instantly told him that code word was exactly the wrong button to push.

> We in the US should have taken advantage [of the situation] to assemble a
> coalition against the causes of terrorism: economic desperation; ethnic, racial
> and religious inequities; patterns of trade and consumption; and, importantly,
> pending starvation by millions of Central Asians.

Yes BUT … ! But many of the causes are much deeper than this, and are intrinsic parts of the cultures of the region. Many here share a belief that the Golden Age that occurred 1400+ years ago was the best of all possible worlds, and any deviation from it (e.g., “progress” in the Western sense) is both evil and doomed to failure. There is a profound antipathy among many toward Western style critical thinking and experimentation, and equally profound respect for memorization and unquestioning acceptance of the ancients. There is an animosity among many toward accepting any responsibility for one’s own actions; rather, by passing the buck (both horizontally and “vertically”) people are free to engage in the most outrageous behaviors and assert with a straight face that some external agent made them do it.

Many in the region have no concept of speech as a means for exchanging ideas; rather, speech is a blunt instrument you use to beat somebody else into submission. Indeed televised interviews with leaders from the region, of ALL religions, nationalities and political persuasions, who desperately need to discuss ideas and issues with each other, often look like bad rehearsals for third-rate performances of Verdi’s Aida. Al Jazeera TV from Qatar may be “an Arabic language version of CNN”, but the discourse styles displayed by the two are vastly different.

> Instead of immediately paying attention to the necessity of creating a
> Palestinian homeland and nation state, we almost overnight offended
> one billion Muslims with our show of military hardware in [ Afghanistan],
> a country of no strategic value to us. Bin Laden won.

I think not. He may have won the hearts and minds of a good many disenfranchised Moslem street people, but his propaganda and brutality have gained him few followers among huge numbers of powerful Muslims who have bought into a world civilization based of some kind of political freedom however limited it may be, some kind of economic development, some kind of world order reflected perhaps ever so tenuously by the UN, some kind of (Western) technology underlying their communications, transportation, banking, commerce, etc. If you follow the ultra-conservatives right down to their roots, you find the total destruction of civilization as we know it in 2001, and very few people East or West even briefly flirt with that idea, just as few people were “for” nuclear winter during the last years of the Cold War.

> Most of these one billion Muslims would have watched and followed us in
> awe had we started to take their complaints, frustrations, and desperate
> circumstances seriously and sensitively, as we would have done had they
> been white, Christian and Western. We would have won.

This may be where your argument needs the most work. Although few want to destroy civilization as we know it, many are not eager to change the status quo for the better either. In a region in which an image of limited good predominates, any serious attempt to increase the resources of the have-nots is perceived instantly as an attempt to reduce the resources of the haves. Societies in this region are rigidly hierarchical, the haves depending totally upon the have-nots to do the menial tasks that make the societies operate. As I look down from my study window right now, I see myriads of economic and political refugees sent here as indentured servants by wealthy labor contractors in Dhaka, Karachi, Colombo, Manila and elsewhere throughout Asia to work for low wages driving taxis, digging ditches, collecting trash and doing a million other jobs that they would not do if they had any other alternative, and that the nationals here would not do under any circumstances whatsoever. It’s safe for people here to pay lip-service to eradicating poverty, returning refugees to their homes, etc., but in reality the have-nots are a lot more useful to the haves by staying deprived. Sorry if I sound cynical.

> But I can smell unfairness and injustice half way around the globe. And
> my nose tells me that the situations in the Middle East and Central Asia
> stink. And my sense of fairness tells me that the Western world played
> a dominant part, over many years, in making these areas smell the way
> they do.

It’s all too easy for well meaning Westerners to lay too much blame on the West. That’s just another form of “the white man’s burden” wherein the West is portrayed as having had the power to do all of these terrible things to the defenseless weaklings of the world. No! The West has done many terrible things to many people and continues to do so, but Paul Simon’s “loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires” includes LOTS of powerful people who most emphatically are NOT Western, have profited enormously from things Western, flatly refuse to eradicate the unfairness and injustice that lie at the heart of their own wealth and power, and would not follow us down such a path for one moment. The Marshall Plan worked in Europe and Japan because the people who received the aid shared our understanding of it, but giving hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid to corrupt Third World governments has simply increased the distance between the haves and have-nots in many of those countries.

> I am afraid that our Third Millennium representatives in Washington led by a
> couple of Big Oil Men and some generals who could only remember Desert
> Storm, but not Vietnam or Somalia or Iran, etc., etc., who could only smell their
> own testosterone, who saw the cause of terror and not merely its effect
> residing in Afghanistan, and whose only means of response was through
> a Western-style showdown, blew the opportunity of the 21st century.

I agree that Bush’s Wild West approach to handling the disaster of 11 September probably will go down in history as a failure. Furthermore, I’m certain that American efforts to contribute to peace in this region are doomed so long as our government’s cynicism or gross insensitivity condones travesties such as allowing the supertanker Condoleezza Rice to dock at Dubai’s Jabal Ali Port: how can I possibly reply to students’ charges that America is here only for Arab oil when that kind of insult hits them in their faces? But I doubt that any American approach to the problems would be a great deal more effective than Bush’s. I think the problems may be insoluble, and I have no idea whether my profound pessimism derives from knowing too little or too much.

* * * * * *


Dear >>>,

>The greatest manhunt in the history of the universe is concluding with a sorry
> admission: he got away!

Which says a great deal about the credibility of our allies in this effort to return Afghanistan to some semblance of civilization after two millennia of internecine warfare, a century of the Great Game, a decade of bumbling by an amazingly inept Soviet Union, abandonment by equally inept Western powers, betrayal by assorted homegrown warlords, and captivity by an epidemic of wealthy religious fanatics. But Bush was in a tight spot – he could declare some highly questionable people to be allies and get shot in the back, or go it alone and get shot in the front. If anybody had asked me, I would have recommended getting shot in the front. That way you at least know who shot you.

>I fear that it will be generations before the long memories of the Arabs and
> Central Asians forget this period.

I am certain they shall never forget this period, just as they refuse to get past the crusades and everything else they can use to justify their inherent detestation of Western civilization. They have a lot of pride and arrogance, in some areas a lot of money, and a rich cultural history that ended centuries ago. But beyond that, we could be living in Oakland, CA: There is no “there” here.

> We could have licked our wounds a little longer and taken the
> opportunity to learn more about the one-sixth of the planet's
> population that adheres to Islam. We didn't do that.

I think that is a shame, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. If we had taken the time and learned the lessons, it would have been politically incorrect to report the findings and politically inexpedient to act on them. Would you rather have our leaders behave stupidly out of ignorance or with full knowledge of what they are doing?

> The situation in Israel and Palestine has recently grown a lot worse.

A stalemate is a stalemate, and I predict that the stalemate will persist until one of them unambiguously wins or both of them destroy themselves and each other. The very idea of achieving a negotiated peace there is simply ludicrous. That would require a mindset that accommodates compromise in the Western sense of the term, and such does not exist among the extremists on either side.

> I don't see that we have done anything to address the root causes of
> the problems which incubate terrorists: hunger, poverty, oppression, etc.
> OBL was an effect, not a cause. We need to look for, and confront,
> the causes.

The world revolves around heads, not stomachs. The ideological conflict we face now makes the Cold War look like a practice set. To deal with this matter, our leaders must be honest with themselves and the world around them. But we can’t do that while we continue to swill oil. For a fleeting moment it may be useful for us to become allied opportunistically with someone who harbors a profound and undying hatred of us, but in the long term it is counterproductive.

One of my great realizations during our recent visit to Sri Lanka was that the rich nations of the Gulf are supporting Moslems in the developing world to make war on the rest of us by grinding out unlimited numbers of babies. While the non-Moslem developing world gradually moves toward improved birth control to benefit themselves and the planet as a whole, Moslems in those regions are copulating at breakneck speed with no birth control and no economic checks on fecundity, deliberately attempting to swamp the rest of us. It is bad enough that Sri Lanka has had one appalling conflict between Hindu Tamil Tigers and Buddhist Sinhalese Lions in the northeast, and another between the elected Sinhalese government and dissident Sinhalese in the south. But by far the most serious war going on there is totally unreported in the media. It is between Sri Lankan Moslems financed by Gulf Arabs set on conquering the world, and everyone else who has enough sense to understand the devastating ecological implications of an exploding human population.

> The world needs a great leader and I don't see him/her coming out of
> the US any time soon. And if not from the US, then from where?

Hopefully from some obscure group like the Inuit of the High Arctic, the Pygmies of the Congo Basin, or maybe the Aborigines of Central Australia, from a group that is so insignificant on the world stage that nobody knows anything about them and nobody is threatened by them – the pure essence of leadership, untainted by power and ideology and vested interests and history. Unfortunately a real person meeting these criteria is inconceivable.

I am delighted that you continue to harbor some hope and can feel distress when our leaders do things that undermine it. Perhaps some of it will rub off on me if you continue to write.

* * * * *

Dear >>>,

More on the “White Man’s Burden”.

An Arab writer paraphrased by Thomas Friedman in one of his recent NYT articles makes it very clear that the real problems in this region have their basis not in the West but in this region.

The United Nations Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report 2002 is the key document here. It is indeed valuable, but it has some problems. The reasons that it cites for chronic instability and underdevelopment in the Arab World are deficits of freedom, women's empowerment and modern education, and that probably is a valid assessment of the situation. But most unfortunately it sees those deficits as “causes” when in fact they are “effects”. The causes lie somewhere deep in the Islamic worldview.

Nobody can “give” Western-style freedom – with its concomitant responsibilities - to people who don’t want it, and Islam as practiced in the Arabian Peninsula guarantees that many people here don’t want it. They have their own kind of freedom that looks a little peculiar to Western eyes, but is entirely compatible with the fatalistic worldview that prevails here. It assumes the existence of a tiny elite that has the right to rule and is responsible to God, not to the people they rule, for their legitimacy. Rulers come and go but the presence of this ruling structure is a foregone conclusion regardless of who it pleases or displeases at any point in time. In this context, the “man on the street” has absolutely no responsibility for making things work, and no responsibility for fixing them when they fail. He is free to leave the driving to somebody else, and that is precisely what he does. He complains a lot, but he is free to do nothing at all. This isn’t Western-style “freedom to” and in fact comes somewhat closer to a Communist-style “freedom from”, but it is radical, absolute freedom nonetheless.

Nobody can “give” Western-style empowerment – with its concomitant responsibilities - to women who refuse to be empowered in a Western sense. A lot of women in this region already have a lot of power, not just in the home but also in public arenas. But the prevailing mindset says that women defer to men, just as men defer to their rulers, just as the rulers defer to God. It is a rigidly hierarchical society in which each stratum knows its place, insists on staying in it, and flatly rejects the idea of replacing the whole system with a radically different one. Most but not quite all of my women students are 100% committed to being Moslem women with all the rights that go with that condition, and one of those is the right to leave the driving to the men.

Nobody can “give” Western-style education – with its concomitant responsibilities – to people who refuse to be educated in a Western sense. The Islamic educational tradition as practiced even in a relatively liberal and progressive state such as the UAE has no place for Western science, Western political debate, Western notions of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Some of those concepts can be grafted onto or inserted into the local educational enterprise by Western teachers who are viewed by many as subversive agents. But they are fundamentally incompatible with both the processes and the products of Islamic education. Some of my students have learned their Western lessons well, and they frighten me most for they are best equipped to use Western ideas against the West.

Vast numbers of people here are delighted to blame the West for their problems, and all too many in the West are willing to accept that responsibility. But in fact the West is largely irrelevant, and its acceptance of responsibility reflects its arrogance and ignorance. No doubt Western influence has contributed to problems here, but it is almost trivial in comparison with what these people are doing to themselves. Even in the UAE, every attempt we make to teach attitudes and values that might contribute to solving some of the problems meets with indifference or ridicule, or teaching them is explicitly barred by educational administrators who fear the wrath of the vast conservative majority. It’s a lot easier to blame somebody else than it is to accept responsibility for one’s own actions, and America makes the easiest target since America’s successes are what make this region’s failures so conspicuous.

When Moslems invoke the “Nation of Islam”, they refer to an ideal or myth or fantasy, not to anything even vaguely resembling a 21 st century reality. I live in a grim, hate-filled society in which Moslem leaders cannot agree on anything except pious platitudes, and Moslem individuals aim their hatred at each other at least as much as they aim it at non-Moslems. It is so exhausting and debilitating to listen to the endless tirades that wash over the region every Friday morning when preachers in mosques revile just about everybody they can think of. The bottom line is that nobody can help somebody who doesn’t want to be helped, and the vast majority of the people in this region flatly reject help from any outside source regardless of how desperately they need it. I am watching, close up, the agonizing, suicidal extinction of a once-great civilization, and that is a profoundly sad situation.

* * * * *

Dear >>>,

I just finished reading an amazing little book and urge you to read it as well. The title is Mirage, the author is Bandula Chandraratna. It was privately published in 1998 and was chosen as the book of the year by two of the Booker Prize judges. Now it is available in paperback from the UK at www.abebooks.com, the international used book consortium. It is not yet available at Amazon.com.

It deals with a poor villager and his wife in Saudi Arabia. The language is simple and the tale is so gentle that for 23 chapters I wondered where the author got that title. Then in the last two chapters, 24 and 25, I realized that I had been reading the mirage all along. The reality is in those final two chapters. The mirage is delicate but the reality is hideous, vile, evil beyond words. Yet it is one of the many realities that underlie life in this region and it surrounds us at every moment.

This reality makes a mockery of all suggestions that women here should be treated fairly and with respect. Until the culture changes enough to civilize the males, to make them stop acting on cultural and religious stereotypes concerning relations between the sexes, every woman in this region is a potential victim just waiting for a crime to happen to her – a crime for which she will be blamed and executed. Males may be punished AFTER they act on the cultural stereotypes, but there is no notion in this culture that male-female stereotypes themselves create many of the problems that plague the region, and any attempt to challenge the stereotypes is met with instantaneous and violent rejection from both men and women.

I am not reporting on hearsay evidence. I know whereof I speak. Recently I have been teaching courses in sociology and psychology at a university in Dubai that has a very bright international student body of both male and female students from 64 countries - mostly coreligionists from Asia and Africa including about 20% from this country.

It is not possible to teach the social sciences to these students, using Western textbooks, without dealing directly with concepts and issues such as sexual stereotypes, sexual discrimination, women’s rights, exploitation of minorities (including women), and a whole host of related topics. I expected the men to oppose and reject many of the ideas addressed here, but I have been amazed at the strength of the opposition from bright and articulate women students. From a Western perspective, their acceptance and defense of the status quo suggests the kind of “brainwashing” one normally associates with fringe cults. It is both appalling and terrifying.

But their reasoning is quite clear. For example, consider veiling and the hi-tech version of it that makes automobile windows absolutely black on cars used by Emirati women as drivers or passengers. Emirati women in my class assert that they would flatly refuse to drive a car whose windows were not blackened. If they drove with less-than-black windows, Emirati men would harass them, chase them on the highways, and rape them if they could. The message they transmit is quite clear: Emirati men are terrorists and Emirati women need all the protection they can get. The next question is: from whom did the men learn to act that way? Answer: their mothers did a lot of the training beginning in infancy – just watch ‘em in action in public all over the UAE.

Having grown up in Missisippi, I know a lot about stereotypes, bigotry, discrimination, crimes for which victims normally receive the blame, etc. But in retrospect, Mississippi in the 1950s was pretty benign.


Descent into Ramadan

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
5 November 2001

It's 2:30 pm on Sunday, 4 November 2001, and I am sitting in the sand under an intensely blue sky just beyond the end of the runway, exactly on its centerline, waiting for something to happen. Suddenly nine jet aircraft leap screaming from behind the dunes in tight formation heading straight at me. Dense red and blue smoke trailing from their wingtips says they are friendly forces, here at Dubai International Airport to launch Dubai 2001, one of the world's great air shows and a major event in the economic and cultural life of the Middle East. In a region where many things don't begin on time, this one does.

The Royal Air Force's Red Arrows flight demonstration team presents a beautifully choreographed twenty-two minute opening performance without a moment's pause, the tight formation sweeping back and forth across the brilliant sky, shifting from diamond to trail to arrow formations in perfect synchronization, rolling and looping like a school of dolphins, sometimes far enough away to be silent then exploding in front of the reviewing stand in bursts of color and sound befitting a fireworks display, flying directly toward each other from opposite ends of the runway, right side up, upside down, cavorting and frolicking in a serious but joyful display of the technology and the skills of their pilots as technicians and artists.

As the British team sinks behind the dunes the last time, a horrendous deep-throated roar erupts behind me. The pilot of a Sukhoi SU-30 sets both engines to full power at the end of the runway, ignites the afterburners, and launches his awesome Soviet era fighter from a dead stop into a high speed vertical loop directly in front of the reviewing stand. For the next seven minutes, the plane is a demented ballerina pirouetting gracefully in a demonstration of sound and fury like few I have ever witnessed. The most breathtaking moment comes when the pilot climbs the plane straight up several thousand feet, reduces the power to zero, stops the fearsome fighter dead in the sky, slips backward into his own smoke trail, then breaks into a sharp dive with engines at full power again emitting the earthshaking roar that is their hallmark.

Next appears the Airbus 340-600, the newest and largest of the current Airbus breed, longer than a Boeing 747 but much more economical to operate. It lifts quietly into the sky on its public debut just as the Sukhoi touches down on the other runway. If the Sukhoi is a demented ballerina pirouetting, the 340-600 is a docile elephant waltzing, ever so gently promenading before an audience of potential customers who relish the thrill of dazzling flight demonstrations but are spending five days at Dubai 2001 mainly to buy and sell commercial airliners like the sedate Airbus. Its seven-minute flight is tranquil rather than exciting, and it lands so silently that anybody living at the end of the runway would never have reason to complain.

Lest we forget when and where we are, a muezzin begins the mid-afternoon prayer call, Allahu Akbar, God is Great, at a nearby mosque as a bright blue MiG-21 fires its afterburner overhead and begins another climb toward heaven. Briefly the roar of the engine mixed with the call to prayer seems incongruous, but I have been in this region long enough to realize there is no incongruity.

The British Harrier jump jet begins its demonstration by doing one of the things it does best - rising straight off the ground like a helicopter, tipping its nose down in a slight bow to the audience, rotating its thrusters ninety degrees, and streaking away as if it were a conventional airplane. But it is far from conventional, and its performance, varying widely from high speed to low speed to no speed at all, is most impressive. As a combat ground support aircraft wearing dark camouflage paint, it dangles lots of weapons under its wings that are not pleasant to see especially at this time of world conflict, but the fact that this and many other aircraft participating in the flight demonstrations were designed as weapons of war does not detract from the skill, grace and consummate beauty with which they are flown here today. The Harrier’s demonstration concludes with another slight bow to the audience and a loud growl as the engines lower the plane back onto the tarmac in the spot from which it departed eight minutes earlier.

As the end of the show approaches, a pair of Sukhois blast off, twice as loud as the solo Sukhoi that performed near the beginning of the show, and in some ways perhaps twice as dramatic. These two very large fighter aircraft, sixty thousand pounds apiece, spend most of their fifteen minute performance flying so close together that they often appear to be a single plane. The pilots know nothing about going quietly into that dark blue sky. The roar of the afterburners is incessant, and the very low altitude at which some of the action occurs has people leaping from the tops of their LandRovers at the end of the runway where I sit in the sand hoping the planes will miss me. They may be living fossils since the demise of the Soviet Union, but they have a lot of miles to go before they sleep.

With the roar of the Sukhois still reverberating across the desert, the French Air Force flight demonstration team performs a formation takeoff with eight aircraft rising as one to begin a half-hour presentation of formation flying that is strikingly different from the British team's performance that opens the show. The Brits sometimes work as a close group, but mostly they are all over the sky, using the whole thing as an infinite canvas for solos, duets and trios that highlight the skills of individuals as much as that of the team as a whole. The Frenchmen demonstrate close formation precision flying at its best, with all eight aircraft generally flying as a unit to emphasize teamwork in every movement. Today’s flight demonstration ends with a flourish as the team performs an eight pointed starburst in front of the reviewing stand, then lands discretely and silently at the opposite end of the airport.

Unlike in the past when the US Air Force has sent representatives to participate in the flying display, there are none today. In a better than average piece of understatement, a US government spokesman sends his regrets and says all US military aircraft are "busy" this year. Never mind. Dubai 2001 is highly symbolic even without the American military.

Sheikh Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, has declared that the United Arab Emirates is a "neutral country" in much the same sense that Switzerland presented itself as a neutral country during the wars of the 20 th century. The UAE is absolutely against terrorism in every form, has defined itself as a force for economic and political stability in a time of instability, and is seeking to establish itself in that role with increasing vigor.

While airlines in many other countries are experiencing sharp declines in every dimension, the UAE’s Emirates Airlines is doing exactly the opposite. Yesterday when Dubai 2001 opened for business, Sheikh Mohammed and his cousin Sheikh Ahmed, CEO of Emirates, signed contracts worth $15 billion to purchase 58 new aircraft by 2010, including 25 Boeing 777s, 22 550-passenger Airbus 380s, 8 Airbus 340-600s like the one that made its public debut during the flying demonstrations, and three more Airbus 330s. Furthermore, Emirates has announced its intention to buy a fleet of the new Boeing Sonic Cruisers as soon as Boeing decides how much to charge for them.

In addition to buying $15 billion worth of new airplanes, Sheikh Mohammed also announced that construction will begin soon on another new concourse at Dubai International Airport. This $2.5 billion expansion will enable DXB to double its passenger handling capabilities by 2006. A new mega-cargo terminal is under construction to be completed in phases between now and 2018, the multi-billion dollar Palm Island resort development project is underway to add approximately 100 new resort hotels and everything associated with them within another few years, and last week the Dubai e-government project made the government of Dubai the first in the world to move all of its customer services to the Internet.

Sheikh Mohammed says "Our unswerving aim is to make [ Dubai] the best place to do business, the top tourist destination and the transport hub of the region, and the undisputed commercial and communications capital of the Middle East."

Dubai 2001 is a spectacular affirmation of Sheikh Mohammed's commitment to that notion, and a confirmation that others believe him. Nobody knows the future and every comment about it must end with "insh'allah", God willing. But if you want to place a bet on probable winners of this war, the UAE immediately comes to mind as a reasonable choice, insh'allah.

But nothing is perfect. It is disconcerting to walk into a student computer lab and see Osama bin Laden screen savers on the monitors. It is distressing to have students whose family names are among those made infamous on 11 September. It is disturbing to hear of friends back home who are planning vacations six months from now while we must keep our hand carry luggage packed in case the Embassy orders us to evacuate. We get a bit tired of always writing politically correct letters. It is a mixed blessing to watch Al-Jazeera's television coverage of the war from Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Islamabad, not relayed via Atlanta and translated into English by CNN, but live in Arabic on Channel 19 from Qatar. It is frightening to hear that political instability may become a serious problem in Saudi Arabia. We are suspicious when we see something that looks like a crop-duster parked on the sand a thousand miles from the nearest dustable crop. Sometimes it is difficult to be surrounded by people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Egypt, Palestine and a host of other Asian countries whose worldviews are utterly different from ours, but who share our status as “economic refugees”, here in large part because of the opportunities offered by oil wealth.

With mixed feelings we watch the city of Sharjah prepare for festivities as the moon wanes toward the beginning of Ramadan less than a week from now, and wait with people around the world who are anxious about the course of the so-called war against terror as the Moslem Holy Month begins.

 

An Era Slams Shut

New Hampshire
December 2002

Over the years, anti-Americanism has gradually changed from something I heard about in other parts of the Middle East, to something I experienced rarely and sporadically in the UAE, to an aspect of daily life that has become increasingly difficult to handle. To say that another way, I came here to earn a living, experience the other side of the world and transfer Western knowledge, skills and technology to Eastern friends who could benefit from them. Now, a year after 9-11, two years after the beginning of the second Intifadah, a decade after the Gulf War of 1991, nearly a millennium after the Crusades, I feel that I’m teaching aspects of Western culture to people whose primary aim is to use them against me. Am I fraternizing with the enemy?

The strongest leaders of the assorted anti-American movements that are gaining force in the Middle East are not down and out street people. Rather they are the best and the brightest, many of them wealthy and well educated at European and American universities like the young people sitting in my classes right here, learning well what I teach and preparing to use that knowledge as they strike with fundamentalist fervor as blatant as Osama bin Laden’s or as invisible as that of so-called “sleeper cells” reputed to have infiltrated much of Western society. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11 it was politically incorrect to talk about a clash of civilizations. In the aftermath of the next Gulf War, that may change.

The Event During the first day of classes in the new term, my attempts to live, work, survive in the Middle East came to an abrupt end. Getting out of there dragged on for four more weeks, but my fate was set at that moment.

First I’ll tell you what happened. Then I’ll provide some of the background and context that may help you make sense of the events themselves.

I was teaching three sections of a course entitled Introduction to University, for brand new students. The topic of the first class was time management and dealt with such things as making daily, weekly and full-term schedules, using time productively while on the university campus, not postponing test preparation until the end of the term, and so on.

The first class for Section-C began at 11:00. An hour later I released the class for a fifteen-minute break. To be quite specific, I began the break at 11:58 and asked the students to be back to resume class at 12:15. An extra two minutes tacked on to a fifteen-minute break is not a big deal, but in fact I was being ever so slightly generous with the break time.

At 12:15, 22 of the 30 students were back in the classroom. The remaining eight straggled in during the following 10 minutes, and everyone was back by 12:25. That was entirely typical of Arab students whose attitudes toward time are radically different from what they are in many other parts of the world, and it didn’t surprise me at all. But it was incompatible with the rules, expectations and purpose of this American university.

So I took the opportunity to focus on some aspects of time management that I had omitted from my lecture notes. I pointed out that university rules said classes were to begin at 11:00 and breaks were to last for 15 minutes. I stressed that university rules applied to all people all of the time, not to some people some of the time, and that students were NOT free to wander in and disrupt the class whenever it suited them to do so. I noted that different cultures have different attitudes toward time, schedules and punctuality. I said that the course I was teaching was offered to help students enhance the knowledge, skills and attitudes they needed to function in the global economy where people from different cultures had to work together effectively.

At some point when I paused for a breath, a young national woman said in a loudly accusing voice, “You are a racist!”

I was taken aback. I told her that I most certainly was NOT a racist and suggested that we deal with what appeared to be a serious misunderstanding. Perhaps I had said something incorrectly; perhaps she had heard something incorrectly. I also said, in no uncertain terms, that if she sincerely believed I was a racist she should transfer to another section immediately.

She walked out of the room and I never saw her again.

The exchange was simple. The young woman called me a racist – in my opinion without any provocation at all – and I kicked her out of my class. Almost a knee jerk reflex: metaphorically, she pinched me and I bit her, and I did it instantaneously without thinking for a single second about my response or its likely implications.

I didn’t even know who she was, so I couldn’t report her by name to the administration, but I filed a report without her name in which I described the incident as I have described it here.

Having lived and worked in the region for eight of the last thirteen years, I had been sufficiently provoked by nationals on many occasions to have done something equivalent to kicking one of them out of my class, but for all those years I maintained my self control just enough to avoid doing anything like that. What happened this time?

When that woman called me a racist, she somehow managed to spot what may be my single greatest vulnerability – perhaps my absolutely hottest hot button – and hit it with precision.

I have spent my entire life dealing with the racism that surrounded me from the moment I was born in 1941 until I finally got out of Mississippi in 1967. I am certain that my concern with that issue contributed greatly to my working with Aborigines in Australia, and it was an overriding concern during our Caribbean years in the 1980s. One of the most powerful memories from the years I worked at the university computer center in Al-Ain was the day a national economics professor who once attended the University of Mississippi lashed out at me – along with all Mississippians – for being racists. The very idea that that man, whose culturally based bigotry makes Mississippi’s bigotry seem benign, would call me a racist was intolerable, and that is exactly what happened again in the first class with Section-C.

Over the following three weeks, the behavior of all of the students in my other two sections of the course was delightful. I had no problems with any of them. They were working hard, learning a lot and I think enjoying themselves in the process. But Section-C disintegrated as disruptive student behavior intensified daily.

I am virtually certain that my kicking the woman out of my class unleashed a systematic and well organized drive to kick me out of the university. “Let us reason together” is an utterly alien concept, and compromise is impossible. The culture is based on retribution – an eye for an eye – and on taking no prisoners. Solving a problem necessarily entails total victory by one party and annihilation of the other, or it isn’t accepted as a solution.

In this context the retaliation was swift and sure. During one of the classes when the disruption was most intense, one of the “good” students told me that he had other courses with some of the most disruptive students and they NEVER behaved that way in his other classes. He was mystified, and I paid little attention to what he said at the time. But in retrospect I suspect that the students who were most disruptive in Section-C became entirely decent human beings the moment I left. I kicked one of theirs out of my class, and they kicked me out of their university.

I shall spare you the details. After four weeks of something approaching armed combat with a handful of students in Section-C, I resigned and left the UAE.

Context Knowing something about the contemporary context of the event is important for appreciating its full impact.

When Nancy decided to return to the UAE in 2000, I flatly refused to go. I had lived there long enough to know that I simply could not cope with the nationals and that my going back there was a setup for disaster. But at that time my employer in the USA had temporarily run out of money and I had been laid off for two months. Nancy was unemployed at that time too, so both of us were looking for jobs. She was offered a very good position in the UAE and accepted it.

I finally agreed to go back with her on the condition that I could be supportive of her working there if I did NOT work there myself. I knew that if I tried to work with those people again I would fail, and that was not acceptable. So we went back on the basis of her job and her income and her benefits. Her employer served as her sponsor, and she in turn served as mine.

I spent the first year working on my Alyawarra Ethnographic Archive and stayed out of harm’s way. Then I relented and got an adjunct faculty appointment at one of the many American universities to have sprung up recently like mushrooms after a desert rain. I reasoned that because of its American-ness, it would be less problematic than 100% Arabic universities. My first term there was entirely successful and I was looking forward to another good experience as my second term began. That didn’t happen.

In parallel with these personal considerations there is the chronic political instability of the region. A month after Nancy returned to the UAE in 2000 and began teaching in the Indian Ocean port city of Fujairah - and before I joined her there - the second Palestinian Intifadah erupted. The entire region was thrown into turmoil once again and anti-Americanism was ascendant. It reached one of its many peaks after we were transferred to Sharjah, with several days of carefully orchestrated but potentially dangerous street demonstrations on the Buhaira Corniche below our apartment window at a time when Israeli troops had Yassar Arafat trapped in his office in Ramullah. The tensions associated with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have continued unabated since then, flaring and subsiding on a daily basis as more suicide bombers a.k.a. “Palestinian martyrs”, a.k.a. “self-sacrificing freedom fighters” proudly kill babies and old women in the name of freedom and justice. Their suicidal bomb attacks are reported exactly this way in the local media. At least when Israelis do things that are equally vicious, they don’t brag about it.

The next layer of political tension and violence began when Al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington on 9-11. Seeing people at the local TV store laugh and cheer when the World Trade Center collapsed demonstrated beyond a doubt that those people view us as enemies despite their addiction to Western technology and their eagerness to hire Westerners to run their oil industry, their educational institutions, their health care facilities, their entire economy and everything else that they are incapable of managing for themselves. We shall never forgive them for their joy at seeing 3000 Americans die at the hands of religious fanatics, two of whom were from the UAE.

Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction emerged in the foreground as the war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and Taliban began to fade into the background. As American threats to unilaterally attack Iraq escalated and eventually shifted toward winning UN support for such an attack, the anti-Americanism of the region surged again. This is the social and political bomb that is waiting to go off there now. So long as America merely threatens and Saddam Hussein continues to cooperate with the weapons inspectors, the bomb may not explode. But the deadlines of 8 December and 27 January are obvious tripwires, and not-so-obvious tripwires lie in front of every gate and doorway that the inspectors approach.

In addition to these three sets of international tensions, the UAE as a whole and particularly the city of Sharjah have their own internal tensions.

At the national level the automobile traffic accident fatality rate in the UAE is the highest in the world (that is a statistical fact, not a figure of speech) and young national males are directly responsible for that fact. These people are not specifically anti-American; rather they kill indiscriminately, take no responsibility for their own actions and appear never to be punished. We drove about 500 km per week there and were seriously in danger of losing our lives every time we got on a highway.

At a somewhat more subtle level is Sharjah itself, by far the most conservative of the Emirates. Long a client state of Saudi Arabia, it espouses radical Islamic values enunciated in a repressive moral code called the Decency Laws that became effective within days of 9-11. It is home to hordes of refugees and harbors in its industrial slums a vast army of street people from countries throughout the region. Many of these people moved to the UAE specifically to escape warfare that plagued their home countries. Some are fundamental in their views and angry beyond measure. It is not surprising that the world press often describes the Emirate of Sharjah as a transshipment point for money and supplies going to extremist groups.

In sum, the overt and covert anti-American tension in the region is unbearably high, and I should have held fast to my decision not to attempt to work there again. Both contributed significantly to my kicking the student out of my class and ultimately to my departure.

But Nancy remains there in the middle of Al Qaeda, the Palestinians, and Iraq, trying to complete her contract that supports both of us right now. She’s squarely in the middle of a hideous clash of civilizations, a hostage to her job and her enormous investment in trying to make a go of her career in that region. Her contract doesn’t end until the middle of next summer and her absconding as I did would be financially devastating for both of us. If she leaves because of my actions and before her contract ends normally, we’re talking about my having had a $50,000 temper tantrum. To some people that amount may be trivial, but not to us.

My efforts to make the best of a really bad situation totally failed. I take some consolation in the fact that two of my three classes continued to function well as Section-C disintegrated, and that for many years I coped successfully with situations almost as unpleasant as the one in which I exploded. But we finally discovered exactly where my limits were.

 

Tourism in a Rough Neighborhood

New Hampshire
June 2003

Just after midnight UAE time on the morning of 20 March 2003, Nancy’s KLM flight departed Dubai for Amsterdam. While she was airborne, the US military conducted the “surgical decapitation strike” – what lovely jargon! - that began, and was intended to end, the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Despite her accidental proximity to the attack, Nancy knew nothing about it until she arrived in Amsterdam.

She proceeded to Boston and spent a couple of days with me in New Hampshire before continuing on to Baltimore where she attended a conference, keeping one eye on CNN. She didn’t want to return to the UAE with a war raging, but her commitment to completing her contract with her career and money intact was unflagging. She would go back unless doing so was truly dangerous, and all of the news we obtained about and from the UAE indicated that the war was not attracting much attention there. So after being out of the Middle East for the first ten days of the war, she returned to Sharjah to complete her contract.

The day Nancy flew from Boston to Baltimore to attend her conference, I flew from Boston to Kentucky to interview for a teaching position at a college in Appalachia. I was offered the position on the second day of the interview and accepted it immediately. So by the time Nancy returned to the UAE, we were ready to begin our transition to Kentucky.

Five days after Nancy arrived back in Dubai, I joined her there. We had 75 days to do everything required to leave the country peacefully and successfully. For Nancy, making the transition entailed doing a great deal of clearance processing and convoluted paperwork, completing all of her end-of-year teaching and testing, and completing three book manuscripts that she was editing via the Internet with colleagues in the UAE, the USA, Mexico and Australia. My contributions to getting us out of there focused mainly on avoiding confrontations with Nationals, cleaning our carpets, selling the car and all of the other items we would leave in the UAE and shipping the items we would take with us to Kentucky. That included exchanging our stove, refrigerator, washing machine and phone/fax/printer, which would not operate in Kentucky, for two gorgeous old Afghan carpets that Hajji Kabir and Hajji Nadir were eager to send to America with us. Despite much anxiety and exhaustion, the entire process went off without a hitch. My abrupt departure in November left a lot of scars that have been slow to heal, but in fact it did not end up as a $50,000 temper tantrum. Al-hamdulillah.

A few nights before our final departure, we took a long walk through the park across the street from our apartment. The beautifully maintained green strip about 30 meters wide stretches for several kilometers around the edge of Buhaira Lagoon. We sat on benches here and there overlooking the water, and from far away saw the tiny lamp with a wicker shade glowing in our apartment window amidst thousands of brighter lights illuminating the Corniche and adorning the high rise buildings and mosques that define the Sharjah skyline at night.

In the park all was quiet, peaceful, safe and affluent. People of many nationalities strolled along the walkways with friends, children, grandparents. Some jogged as they do in Western parks, including women wrapped in black from head to ankle, wearing white sneakers that flashed with each step. We stopped for a while at a stand selling about twenty varieties of fruitshakes and drank two of them at a table on the neat lawn amidst others relaxing in the cool evening breeze.

We knew that Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and all of the other cities and towns of the UAE were filled with hundreds of thousands of people who were absolutely delighted to be there. People from poor countries in South Asia or war torn countries in Central and West Asia had struggled to get there and were willing to do almost anything to stay. Basically the culture that surrounded them was their own culture, they knew the rules and accepted them, they knew their places and stayed in them, they knew they were among the fortunate few who were free from the poverty and filth and danger that plagued their homelands. They didn’t have the kinds of political and intellectual freedom and responsibility that characterize the West, but by their own standards they were incredibly free.

But Westerners complained bitterly about being there. To a great extent Western money financed the opulence and extravagance, and that elicited a good bit of resentment. But mainly the attitudes and values were all wrong. We can look at the statistics and see that most of the political violence in the world today is occurring within or on the borders of the Moslem World. Islam simply doesn’t mix well with any other value system, and probably never will. We also know that Imperial America doesn’t mix well either, and being willing or unwilling representatives of that enormously powerful financial and military empire is not easy, especially when that empire has such questionable leadership. Defending American values and actions that are repugnant to me is at least as difficult as coping with Gulf Arab values and actions that are equally repugnant. I was born as an interstitial person, and sixty-two years later I remain interstitial.

Right on schedule we shipped our household goods by sea to the east coast of the USA and on to Kentucky, spent our last days at the gorgeous Kempenski Hotel on the beach in Ajman, and flew to Greece for our last free vacation as a benefit of working in the Middle East, delighted to leave the appalling tensions that make life so difficult there, but sad to leave the endless joys that drove our totally ambivalent and contradictory attitudes toward our years in the region.

While waiting to board our flight, we went to the Dubai Duty Free bookshop. Despite the dazzling glass and aluminum architecture of Sheikh Rashid Terminal, the bookshop was an intellectual wasteland as recently as a couple of years ago, but now it has a good selection including a pretty wide range of English-language books that deal with the Middle East and Asia. There we made our very last purchase in the UAE, a copy of Christopher Kremmer’s The Carpet Wars: Ten Years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. We hoped it would fill a few gaps in our knowledge of Afghan carpets and the backgrounds of our friends at Khaiber Carpets, and indeed it did.

But it went far beyond that. In the penultimate chapter, Kremmer recounts a parable he heard from a carpet dealer named Darius in the bazaar in Esfahan, Iran. He offers it as a warning to those who might become jaded by the carpet trade, but it can apply equally well to Westerners who go East in search of greener pastures, first as visitors, then as workers.

“Darius knew too much, his lost innocence replaced with a world-weary cynicism. Raising his tea in a parody of a toast, he began to explain:

“You are just like the good man who goes to what we Muslims call behesht, Paradise, and you Christians call Heaven,” he said, blowing on his drink to cool it. “It's lovely in Heaven, of course, but a bit boring. So one day, the man goes wandering through all the big white puffy clouds, and eventually he comes to a huge doorway.

"What's inside there?" he asks the giant who is standing guard outside the door.

"It's Hell," the giant says, and when the man asks if he can take a peek inside, the giant says, "Sure!"

So the man goes inside, and when he sees what Hell is all about, he cannot believe his eyes. Everywhere people are laughing and drinking, dancing and making love with the women, and the man realizes that this is the real Paradise, and that Heaven is really Hell. So after he has stayed there and enjoyed the hospitality - which is really wonderful - he thanks the giant, and goes back to Heaven.

For some time, this man is troubled. All night he dreams of his adventure, especially the beautiful, friendly women he met there and the men who only loved to drink and gamble all day. And day by day these fond memories weigh more and more heavily on his mind, until one day he cannot tolerate the pressure any longer. So he asks the archangel Gabriel to arrange a meeting with God.

When the appointed time for the meeting comes and the man stands before the blinding light of the Almighty, he announces that he wants to leave Paradise. Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, is shocked by his request. Nobody has ever asked to leave Heaven before. God worries about setting a precedent, but after some time He decides that even the saints in Heaven must have free will. So after thinking about it for a long time, God calls the man before Him.

"As you wish my son," He tells him. "With my blessings you shall go. But remember that once you leave Heaven, you can never return."

Overjoyed with his freedom, the man rushes off to pack his belongings, saying goodbye to all the saints and angels - who really are nice people, but a little bit dull - and goes back to Hell.

When he reaches the doorway to Hell, the giant seems surprised to see him. "You again?" says the giant." What do you want?"

"I want to go to Hell," says the man, which makes the giant laugh so much that he bends over, and can only say, "Be my guest." Darius too was laughing, so vigorously and for so long that I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable. Eventually, he regained his composure sufficiently to light a cigarette, and take his tale to its grim conclusion.

"Entering Hell," said Darius, leaning forward, his face flushed with ominous excitement, "our man is shocked to see that there is a big change there. No longer does he see beautiful women, and there is no music or laughter either. Just filthy rats running in dark corners, bats flying in his face, and cold, rattling skeletons hanging everywhere. Around his feet, small fires are burning, and his ears are full of the cries of agony of sick and starving people. The place is unrecognizable.”

So the man, who is really beginning to panic now, turns to the giant, and says to him, "Please sir, tell me there is some mistake. Where is the happy place I saw before? Where are all the beauty, and the laughter, and the sweet music?"

And the giant, who is weeping with laughter now, so much that he can barely speak, looks at the man and says to him, "You poor, poor fool! When you visited us last time, you came as a tourist. Now you live here."

Kremmer, Christopher (2003) The Carpet Wars: Ten Years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. London: Flamingo / Harper Collins Publishers.

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