Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Justice in the UAE

We only get a few reports about the criminal justice system here, since the papers are not allowed to report anything about crime except what is handed to them in the official police reports. If there is a clear pattern in what the police choose to report, it has escaped me.

Todays Gulf News reported that one man got seven years for pre-meditated murder, to be followed by deportation. Another four men who stabbed and severely injured a c0-worker received suspended sentences. Finally, a man who got into a fight with his employer and killed him was ordered to be executed (but his case is being appealed).

The year before I arrived here, back in 1999, there was at least one public execution, and the government was demanding extradition of a British man who had fled back to Britain from Dubai, saying he had been sentenced to death (in absentia) for drug offenses. Britain declined to extradite.

Since my arrival, if there have been any executions, they have been private and unreported. There may have been none, or many.

The current sentiment is that the published sentences of two years for gang rapes (of Europeans), seven years for premeditated murder, and no sentence at all for beating and stabbing are much too lenient. But we don't know what the unpublished sentences might have been.

Dubai wants to be the new Disneyland, and Disneyland is supposed to be free of crime (and punishment), so that's what we read in the local papers: break the law, you'll just be deported and permanently banned from returning to paradise.

Two acquaintences who received tours of the men's and women's gaols both report that the gaols were full. Apparently with all those people awaiting deportation.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Dosa Mela in Dubai

I was introduced to the Masala Dosa back in 2000 by a Dosa fanatic. A masala dosa is an Indian crepe wrapped around curried potatoes (or some other masala) and served with a coconut chutney. All for €1.

Last month, a vegetarian restaurant started offering up to 20 Dosa (called a dosa mela) for €2. That's a lot of Dosa. They have, in addition to the Masala dosa, dosas filled with spinach, onion, and puri. They also have Chinese dosa, Spring dosa and at least fourteen more kinds of dosa which the waiter failed to name. The chef cooks a round of one kind of dosa, preparing one for each person in the room. The last round was onion, and everyone else was finished, so he offered me all of them, but I only managed one. Ten dosa for the price of 2, and I was only half way through the special, but I was done. I waddled home.

They promise that, if the diner is still hungry after 20 dosas, there is unlimited sambar soup, but I didn't see anyone order any extra soup.

I don't see how anyone could possibly eat all 20 dosa, but I suppose there are people who can. After all, there are people who can eat 2 kg of steak in an hour. Of course, steak people rarely eat dosa, and dosa people never eat steak, but still, I'm sure that proves there are people who can make it through all 20 dosa and ask for more soup. Or even another dosa mela.

Pity my dosa fanatic left back in 2002. If she comes back to Dubai, I hope she tries the Bombay Woodlands in Karama.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Cartoon Controversy

A Dubai newspaper, The Gulf News, asked for opinions about the Danish cartoons:

It is now the 15th Islamic century. In the 15th Christian century, all the Christian European nations promised that the artists of any drawings considered irreverent in the slightest would be feted at a big barbeque, called an auto da fé. To my knowledge, there were, at the time, no drawings as obviously disrespectful as some of the Danish cartoons, but some drawings which the artist considered harmless were declared irreverent by the Inquisition and were burned. Along with the artist.

Then came the Enlightenment.

Forward to the 20th Christian century. A few years ago, in Brooklyn, Christians protested at an image of Christ displayed in a specimen bottle filled with urine. The same exhibition also displayed a portrait of the Virgin Mary covered with pornographic images and elephant dung. But the art show, which had already appeared in England, continued, supported with public funds.

Today, Western Christians may not approve, but they sadly expect their secular governments to not only allow, but endorse and sponsor such attacks on Christianity. Liberal Western Christians felt that Islam is very similar to Christianity, and expected that Muslims would respond no more harshly than they themselves would to such exhibitions mocking their religion.

Another problem is that Western Christianity has, for the most part, been iconophilic, while Islam has, for the most part, been iconoclastic. Many Christians venerate (not worship) images of Christ, and of the other prophets and saints. The museums in the Catholic countries of Europe are full of such images. It is difficult for a Christian to understand the concept of iconoclasm.

A few years ago, I was very interested in learning more about Islam, and was delighted to see that there would be a movie about the Prophet (pbuh). Since I had seen many movies about Christ, I was confused that the Prophet (pbuh) never appeared in the movie, we only saw the reactions of his companions as they gazed on him and listened to him. This seemed strange, since movies about Christ almost always show Christ (a few do not, fearing that no image could do Him justice). I asked, and was told, 'Out of respect, we must never show an image of the Prophet (pbuh).' I still found it strange, as do most Europeans. If devout Christians always keep (respectful) images of Christ prominently displayed, why would Muslims be offended by all images of the Prophet (pbuh)? (In fact, the Muslim author Amir Taheri states that Islam does not actually prohibit images, that this is just a misinterpretation of Islam held by many Muslims.) But, as I now understand, the overwhelming majority are offended by such images.

This is an understanding which came rather too late to the Danes.

As Strother Martin said to Cool Hand Luke, 'What we have here is failure to communicate.'

Dubai in the Rain

We seem to have an Unidentifed Falling Object today.

Actually, it's kind of like West Texas, which gets only 20 cm of rain a year, but you should be there on the day it comes. For Dubai, that's 3 cm of rain a year, but it's still impressive, since 3 cm of rain does not justify any storm sewers at all. As Secret Dubai observed, the Dubai Lakes (an expensive residential area, normally in the desert) really are today.

I had to take two taxi rides today, and, when it rains, it's difficult to see out the windscreen. The taxi driver had no idea how to clear the fog from the windscreen, and so was driving from memory. Since I didn't trust his memory, I turned on the defogger until I, at least, could see where he was taking me (to see Pride and Prejudice, actually).

The return was via the scenic route, a somewhat common occurrence here. The taxi had been waiting in the taxi queue for some time, and was in the middle of an important conversation. When I got in, rudely trying to interrupt, he continued to talk for another 10 minutes. Finally, we left, and he took a much longer route than necessary, so the fare would make up for the long wait. Since he was driving at around twice the legal limit, he'd already taken the wrong route before I noticed he'd missed the turns for the short route. Twice.

Still, I survived riding in two taxis in the rain, so I suppose I should be grateful.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dubai Haute Cuisine

The typical (Hindu) Indian restaurant in Dubai has what is called thali, which means all the vegetarian curry, rice, and bread you can eat, for around €1.75 (€2.00 with tea). (Actually, that's curries, since there is a selection of at least seven, one of which is sweet, but all of which taste like curry.)

Of couse, one can spend much more than this in Dubai: sub-continental cuisine is by far the cheapest around.

Some Muslim Indian restaurants offer a thali with meat, but the price is a bit higher. Most Pakistani restaurants sell by the dish, not a thali, for as little as €1.00, or a mutton sandwich (in the form of a Greek giro, in Arabic shwarma) for €0.50.

Friday, I ate in an upscale Egyptian restaurant, where the meal was €35.00 per person, not including a few puffs on a hooka, which would have added €5.00.

In the (Western Oriented) hotels, meals can easily cost €100.00 or more.

But in the small Indian restaurants, not in a mall or hotel, €2.00 buys more food than one can comfortably eat*.

And, since I normally spend €2.50 on ingredients when I cook for myself, I don't see how they do it.

*Actually, both my parents agreed that, curry being curry, €0.02 buys more curry than one can comfortably eat, but my tastes are a bit broader than theirs were, which is fortunate, since my pocketbook is a good deal narrower.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Business in the Middle East

I got a call on Monday (while I was in a meeting) saying I had to meet with Faisal (who works in Sharjah) on 'urgent business.' Since I can't walk out of a meeting, I said I'd call when I got home. I called, but Faisal didn't answer. While waiting for Faisal to return my call, Fahad called. Again, urgent business in Sharjah. Since I have a regular job, I eventually told both Faisal and Fahad I could meet with them for an hour (each) on Friday, which is the same as Sunday in the West. Normally, I spend Friday night from 6 until 10 preparing for Saturday's meetings, and go to bed at 10.

I arrived at Faisal's, and we had to chit-chat for an hour before we could discuss business. Finally, I mentioned the urgent business. 'Oh, it's not ready yet. I'll have it by 9:30 tonight.' Why he expected me to drop everything and come Monday, when nothing was ready by Friday, I do not know. So I left and went to Fahad's.

Fahad said he had a statistical problem he needed help solving. Actually, it's a simple problem, but the numbers, all 3,000 of them, need to be entered into Excel before Fahad can click the 'Average' and 'Standard Deviation' buttons. So I promised to find someone to enter the numbers, then I said I had to get back.

'Please, since you come all the way here, let me give you dinner. We be very quick, then I drive you home.'

I foolishly agreed. After dinner, I said I really had to be going. 'Please, just five minutes. I ask friends to meet you, they already drive one hour, they be here in five minutes.'

An hour later, 'Now I really, really have to be going.'

Fahad picked up his mobile, rang someone up, spoke in Arabic. 'Now he drive for two hours, but he lost. Now he find where restaurant and come in five minutes. After he drive for two hours, we must wait, but really, five minutes.'

An hour later, 'I'm sorry, I have to go. I'll take a taxi.'

'No, I promise I take you home, now we go.'

Only, of course, we didn't. We headed away from Dubai, trying to find the lost friend. After an hour, we found him.

'Why you tell me go left? No have left turn. How can I find restaurant?'

'I speak, "Turn left at traffic circle," left means third right.'

So we started for Dubai, only first we headed for the main road, which is the shortest route, but we got stuck in traffic. Then we did a U-turn to get away from the main road and finally made it to the deserted alternate route to Dubai.

I got home after 10:00 p.m., after a meeting that should have been over by 5:00 p.m.

And Fahad expects all the data to have been entered by this morning, after all, I had all night.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Selling Schools and Apartments

Monday, I got a call from Farook, though I told him I'm always extremely busy Mondays, and I was, in fact, in a very important meeting when he called (and I'm not senior enough that it's OK for my mobile to ring during meetings). I told him never to call on Mondays. 'Sorry. Tuesday.'

So today he calls and says it's very important, and he'll pick me up at 9:00 a.m.

This story started about a year ago, when George wandered into Farook's office, and said he had a $400 a month rent-controlled apartment 'for sale.' Farook offered to take over payments and give George $25 a month. Mostly, George hasn't seen his $25.

Meanwhile, Ann had just been swindled out of all her money, desperately needed a cheap place to live, and saw an ad by Farook for a cheap apartment. Farook gave Ann a sublease for $800 a month. Then Farook didn't keep up the lease payments, so the landlord kept threatening Ann with eviction. The landlord didn't maintain the place, since he wanted to encourage tenants to leave so he could raise the rents. Ann has not been happy with the apartment, especially when she found out the landlord is raising the rent to $700, a huge increase for all the legitimate tenants, but a reduction for her, only she's already found another place, cheaper and better.

Ann called me to say she had been trying to contact Farook to relinquish the apartment, but Farook wouldn't answer her calls. Farook said he'd been calling Ann, but wasn't answering his calls.

When Farook was driving Ann all over Sharjah looking at apartments, he'd mentioned that he was trying to sell a school, and Ann offered to help.

So, at 9:00 a.m. this morning, Farook picked me up. Then we met Sid, who was looking for a cheap apartment. Then we went, I thought, to meet Ann. We went to a coffee shop near Ann's apartment, while Ann went to Farook's office. She called, and Farook said he couldn't meet her, so she went to work.

Farook then took Sid and me to see a school. It was abandoned in May, 2005, but the owner said it had been empty for two years. He didn't note the old calendars, turned to May, 2005, with notes on the days, providing rather convincing evidence of exactly when it was abandoned. He probably isn't the owner, but a broker.

'Why did they leave?'

'Who knows. Staffing problems. They couldn't get qualified people, and the Ministry forced them to close. Come see school.'

We saw the nursery building, the 'Alumbic' (sic) swimming pool, the Primary to High School building, the two canteens, a room with gas pipes to each work table. 'This is computer lab.' Must be for gas powered computers.

'When you open school?'

'I represent some European investors. They have to see the blueprints.'

'Why you need blueprints? You see school. You visualize how school look, where you put all classes.'

'I must have blueprints for my investors.'

'You see school. Tell them you see, school very good. You no want school, can open as hospital.'

This took two hours. 'I've seen enough, but my investors must see blueprints before we can proceed. Fax Farook your blueprints. We have to go now.'

As we left, we saw signs saying, 'We have moved,' with arrows to the new building where the school had moved. So the ministry had condemned the building, not the management.

Then we drove to Ann's apartment and waited an hour for Ann. Finally I called.

'When I called, Farook said he wouldn't be available. I'm in a meeting now, and don't know when I'll be able to get away.' So we sat another hour. Finally, Ann called. 'I can get away in ten or fifteen minutes, but then I have to drive from Dubai to Sharjah.'

'She'll be another hour, let's go to lunch.' Sid said, 'I see a cafeteria. We can go there.' Only Sid needed comfort facilities, which are non-existent in most Sharjah cafeterias. 'Let's go someplace on the main highway.' 'I can't wait.'

So Sid started wandering around to every door asking, 'Do you have a restroom?' After about half an hour, he found one and straggled back.

'Come on, Ann won't be here for another hour, let's go someplace we can get coffee.'

We ended up at a Pizza Hut. Ann called. 'I'm stuck in traffic. Are you at my apartment?' 'No, we're at Pizza Hut.' 'I'll meet you there.'

Farook ordered the Pizza Meal for 6. Ann arrived at the same time as the pizza, so we had a nice lunch (Farook paid), then we went back to Ann's apartment.

'I paid you for a full year, but your lease with the landlord expired on 31 Jan, and they said I had to leave, so you must refund three months rent.'

'I give you one month. This not hotel. I need two months to find new tenant.'

'You don't even have a lease. You didn't pay, and the apartment reverted to the landlord on 31 Jan. I told you in November I was leaving, and that's two months' notice. I demand you refund three months' rent.'

'I sorry, but you sign lease. I no have to give you anything, but I give you one month because I respect you.'

'Three months or I call the police.'

'I give you one and one-half months.'

The haggling lasted for an hour, and ended up with Farook giving Ann a post-dated cheque for two and one-half month's rent, Ann giving Farook the apartment keys, and Farook giving the keys to Sid.

I asked Ann for a ride back to Dubai, since I'd had about as much Farook as I can stand for one day. As we drove, I asked her about how she'd gotten into the school business.

'I'm not in the school business. Farook just told me he had a school for sale last May, and I said I knew some people who might be interested. I said I needed full blueprints and a contract. I'll was going to make some phone calls to Europe, and fax the blueprints. But I need a contract that says, if I do find someone, I'll definitely get a commission, or I'm not spending my money on calls to Europe and a feasibility study.'

'Farook sells school the way he sells apartments. You know he found yours for $600, then told you it was available for $800.' I tried to make Farook a bit less of a conman than he really was. 'You thought the rent to the landlord was $800, but it wasn't. The schools are the same. The owner asked $3.8 million. A Sharjah broker heard about it, and offered the school to Farook for $4.5 million. Farook then offered it "below his cost" to you or me for $6 million. Give Farook $6 million in small, unmarked bills, he gives $4.5 million to the Sharjah broker, who gives $3.8 million to the owner, and the school is yours.'

'But no one wants to buy a school, they want to lease it.'

'Then Farook and the Sharjah broker would do with the rent just what Farook did with your apartment.'

'Well, if we can talk to the actual seller of the school, I do have friends who might be interested, and maybe we can get a small commission, but I don't want to go through Farook.'

'I called the seller's niece, who speaks English, and they do have three schools to sell, but they never call back or send blueprints or anything. She always says she'll send the blueprints "tomorrow," but she never does.'

'They've all got too much money, so they don't care.'

'Well, many thanks for the ride. I hope I can see you again.'

'You're most welcome.'

And with that ended a completely wasted day. As usual. Had I come back with Farook instead of Ann, I wouldn't have gotten home before 9:00 p.m., and wouldn't have had the time to write this blog.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Selling Schools

Farook called me up about a year ago and said he had a school in Sharjah. Actually, the owner had mentioned that she wanted to sell a school for US$3,800,000. Someone heard her, so he naturally called up his friend Farook and said the school was for sale for US$4,500,000 cash, and Farook said he was willing to sell it to me at a loss, so I could have it for just US$6,000,000.

'What am I going to do with a school?'

'Open it. Schools make lots of money. My children and I can teach in it. You'll be the director and the owner. You won't have to do anything but make money.'

I declined to purchase and direct the school, so Farook asked me to write an English ad to run in the newspapers, which I did. He wrote the Arabic ad.

Ann replied.

Ann doesn't have US$6,000,000, but she says she knows people who do, and, for a fee, she'll do a feasibility study and promote the school. She says she'd need a contract. Farook said, if she wants the school, hand over the US$6,000,000.

Ann called about a month ago, and said she has someone who is very interested in a school, so I called the original lady, who agreed to meet with us all, myself, Ann, and Farook. Farook offered to drive.

We drove from Dubai to Sharjah, arriving about 15 minutes early for the meeting, only we didn't go to where the meeting was, Farook had another school for Ann, only he wasn't sure where it was. So we drove around in circles, then he called his cousin, who met us and led us to a rather small madrassa covered with Arabic writing (no English). The stucco was falling off. Apparently, the school had been a Pakistani school, but it had fallen on hard times. The Ministry of Education is closing schools which fail to meet certain minimum requirements, and this madrassa was, apparently, in that category.

So Farook had a very good deal for Ann. He wasn't interested in meeting the original lady, he said Ann would be much better off buying the building we were looking at. 'Let's get out and see this school,' he suggested. Then I figured out what was going on.

'Not now. We have a meeting. We're already late.' Ann added, 'I have another meeting in an hour, I don't have time to look at other schools now, I just want to meet the owner.'

So we arrived half an hour late. But this is the Middle East. The owner was almost an hour late. The owner speaks only Arabic, and spoke with Farook while Ann and I talked. Apparently, the owner has a school which she has already leased to a management team, and they don't have to start paying rent until the school opens. After a year, they haven't opened, and the owner is thinking of getting a new management team. Ann is interested.

The owner also has a piece of land, with all the necessary permissions, to build another school, if Ann would like. Ann says, if she gets a contract, she'll find a management team for the school when it's built.

The owner's niece also has her own piece of land with all the necessary permissions, and will be happy to build a school on it. Ann is interested if she gets a contract.

Then we have to dash back to Dubai.

Farook is seeing his expected profit of US$1,500,000 getting farther and farther away. Ann is thinking her commission of 1%, or about US$38,000, is not getting any closer. And I've managed to put together a meeting for reasons which now escape me.