Sunday, April 30, 2006

Punjabi Thali at Madras Café

The main Dubai Postoffice in Karama moved its main office from what used to be the front of the complex to what used to be the back. In front of what used to be the front of the main Post Office is a stoplight and a road that leads to the Trade Centre Road. All along this road, and off it, is deepest, darkest Karama, with an incredible variety of restaurants. There is Indian vegetarian, Korean, Indian non-veg., Indian veg and non-veg combined, more Indian, a Phillipine, and a Pakistani. Tonight, I started walking until hunger became so intense I had to enter the next restaurant, and I found myself in Madras.

I didn't see any menus, as such, but there is a whiteboard with about 8 items. I asked for the Punjabi Thali. The waiter asked me a perfectly reasonable question. In Hindi. I naturally said, 'What,' as loudly as possible. I figure, if you're loud enough and forceful enough, these Orientals will respond in English.

Unfortunately, the theory says, you have to wake them in the middle of their night, and nights vary here. Mine starts about 8 p.m., and, after a few nocturnal activities, I usually go to bed around 11 p.m., so my 'middle of the night' is 2:00 a.m.

My Saudi friends get up at 3:30 p.m., say the noon prayer, quickly followed by the afternoon prayer, dress, say the sunset prayer, and begin their workday. They go to sleep right after the dawn prayer. Their 'middle of the night' is around 10 a.m.

Since I don't speak any Hindi, I didn't understand when my waiter explained, i.e., that most diners tell their waiter which options they want with the Punjabi Thali. So I got a plastic cup of hot and sour soup. I don't know if this is the Indian version of a Chinese soup, or an Indian dish that tastes Chinese. Nor could I ask. After about half an hour, I got a round piece of fried bread. I was starving, so I ate it.

Then came the Thali, with a number of Hindi questions that I couldn't answer. Nine bowls. One with white rice, one with rice and vegetables, one with raw onions, carrot, and lime. One with some sort of vegetable I couldn't identify, one with peas and cauliflower (Gobi Mutter). One with chickpeas, one with yoghurt, one with cottage cheese. Finally, one with something yellow that was slightly sweet and had the aroma of cardoman. After a few minutes, a plate with three pieces of Indian flatbread (called chappatti) appeared.

Some thalis come with unlimited re-fills, but here, apparently, you have to ask for refills in Hindi, which is difficult for me. So no refills.

The cost is about €2.25. I had a masala tea, which added €0.25. €2.50 is about the price of an American hamburger, but since I'm vegetarian, I prefer my Punjabi thali.


I know a sophisticated Chinese man. He used to say, when Mao had eliminated all social classes, that there were only 5 social classes left in China, and he was in the top class. Since he told me that (many years ago) sociologists have decreed that the Chinese social classes have expanded to at least 10 (there were many more before Mao). My friend, I think, is now in the second or third highest class. He once expressed (to me) sympathy for Europeans: 'In Europe, only have one kind food. Every country, every restaurant, have same food. Every day, must eat same food. Every restaurant same. In China, we have many kinds food. In China, every day, I eat different kind food. In West, I miss variety.'

I'm sure there is a lesson here. I don't know what it is, but I'm sure there is a lesson here.


One of my textbooks said that the sub-continent is roughly the same size as Europe, and has the same variety of cuisines (and cultures and languages, except that 1000 years of colonization have rather homogenized a lot of things). But I never heard my Chinese friend's sentiments from anyone I know from the sub-continent. Probably, that's because I've never known anyone from the sub-continent from the top three social classes.

Unsophisticated people are the same the world over: I once met a Scot from a welfare estate. She'd tuck into her haggis and chips, but offer her French or German food, and she'd figure the dishes were from the cauldron of one of her three countrymen recorded by the Bard (i.e., 'Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.')

I tried showing a lady from Southern Italy around, and she not only wouldn't taste any of the obviously inedible concoctions of the French and Germans, she refused to taste anything from Northern Italy.

I took a Pakistani into an Indian restaurant, and he said he had no idea how to eat any of the dishes, and left hungry.

But take any sophisticated member of any society, and they insist on having variety in their cuisine. In New York, the sophisticates insist on having the major European cuisine (i.e., Italian) several times a month, Chinese several times a month, and Kosher deli several times a month. They also have Middle Eastern, French, Japanese, Korean, and other cuisines from time to time. In October, they eat German cuisine.


The sophisticated Chinese insists on eating from a wide variety of cuisines: all the different schools of Chinese cooking, of course, but Chinese Indian at least once a week, and European at least a few times a month.

But the unsophisticated Chinese (like everyone else) prefer to eat at home. If they must eat out, it will be at a restaurant run by a member of their extended family, who cooks what is, for them, good home cooking.

Just like the Europeans.


At the end of my meal at Madras, I got a nosebleed. This is either good or bad. If it means Indian food makes my blood pressure skyrocket and make my nose bleed, that's bad. If it means Indian food thins my blood and prevents clots, that's good.

I guess I'll see if I'm still alive tomorrow?

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Best Language

I overheard some university teachers complaining because the UAE ministry of higher education (and their bosses) require them to teach in English. It would be so much easier if they could teach in Arabic.

Their students are currently about 30% Arabic speakers, 30% Farsi speakers, and 30% Urdu speakers. Early Caliphs told the Farsi speakers and the Urdu speakers that they should all learn Arabic, and they all agreed, but they never did. Have I ever heard of such a thing in the West? Never. (I carefully covered my ears when my history teacher was going over the history of the Papacy and the Catholic Church, and the equally short lifespans of early Popes and early Caliphs, all of whom were miraculously preserved from the ailments associated with old age.)

I once 'borrowed' a book on English by Bill Bryson (full of errors, I might add, but then Bryson, asked how one gets into the writing business, eplained that non-fiction doesn't have to be true, it just has to be something people will pay to read, or, in the case of this tome, that someone's aunt will buy for her nephew, who, not liking the book, will then lend it out). The book explained that English is the world's best, most advanced language. Upon reading this, I tossed the book across the room, feeling that this was one of Bryson's more egregious errors.

All languages do what they have to do, and seem to do it well enough. One serious polyglot, who knows Polish, German, French, Dutch, and English (and she's not even German) said it was easier for her to express herself in German than in any other language, because German was the strongest, most powerful language. Of course, English stole all the good German words Englishmen needed, good words like schadenfreud and ausgeschictenliesermachtenbefallengesuntschlagenhosen. But still, this lady said, she'd rather say it in real German. And she's not even German, it was her third or fourth language.

So I had to ask these Arab teachers, 'Why?' I got two answers. First, that Arabic is the most precise language, because it has 105 words for lion. I wondered if that was true, and found several Orientalist sources that said Arabic has 500 words for lion. (Apparently, the Orientalist didn't understand enough Arabic to know whether his source was saying '105' or '500.')

English has lots of words for types of boat, and types of sword, though 'ship,' and 'sailboat' are about it for me and ocean-going craft. I have no idea what sloops, ketches, and yawls do with their ports and haulyarks. Similarly with swords, I can't go much beyond cutlass and two-handed broadsword (which I found, enchanted to +5, in a computer game, once). I'm completely foiled about other words that might serve for types of sword.

But we have, for lions, only lion, lioness, and cub. So English is clearly deficient. I tried to point out that, if one lives somewhere that doesn't have any lions, one doesn't really need a language that has 105 words for it. I asked if Arabic had any other features that made it the best language.

'It is the language of the Holy Koran!'

Of course, I can't argue with that. Saying, 'Well, English is the language of the King James Version,' doesn't have quite the same cachet, especially here. So I let it go at that.

Dubai Stocks Falling (yet again)

A big fall in the Gulf stock markets on Thursday was enough to make page 1 of the business section (though not the front page) of the Gulf News. Difficult as this is for me, I actually have to agree with what the Gulf News said about this market: over the long run, stock markets tend to do OK. (Of course, as John Maynard Keynes said, 'In the long run, we are all dead.')

Over 2005, the market went up more than 100%, then from late 2005 until today, it dropped more than 50%.

It could easily drop another 50%. Or 90%. Or rise 200%.

This is a very thinly traded market, with most shares restricted to Gulf Nationals, so it is subject to fluctuations far greater than the world's developed markets: one sheikh can move this market more in a month, up or down, than it has moved in years (he can't move it very much in one hour or one day, due to trading limits, unless he's a really important sheikh, to whom limits do not apply).

The average stock is now earning about 6%. Possibly. (Financial reporting here is not quite what it is in developed markets, but the 6% does not sound unreal.)

This means that long-term investors should earn a reasonable return on their money. On average. In the long run.

Traders on margin will eventually get margin calls, which, as we know, can have an adverse effect on bank earnings, even here where debtors' prison was never abolished, and banks have a bit more leverage to get debtors to repay loans than they had in the West in '29. But even with debtors' prisons, the old adage about blood and turnips still applies.

Short term investors, here like anywhere else, should lose. On average. In the long run.

But just remember what John Maynard Keynes said about the long run.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Change of Seasons

The UAE has a full, four-season climate: warm, hot, unbearable, and summer.

Today, I was watching a thermometer as it rose about 100 (for you Americans and older persons from English speaking countries), and another as it rose above 40 (for the rest of you), two of my little milestones.

Daytime highs will hover between 40 and 49 for the next six or seven months.

Still, tour guides will show the sunny beaches, and mention the Dubai Summer Surprises (surprise, it's 47 today), and European tourists will still flock to Dubai.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Winning The Canadian Lottery

Saturday, a person I know told me he'd won C$1,000,000 in the Canadian lottery. This isn't the first time I've met a lottery winner, winning a lottery is actually fairly easy.

It seems, according to my e-mail, that I have been fortunate enough to win quite a few lotteries I never even bothered to enter. Generous of them to award the prize to someone who didn't even buy a ticket.

But I actually did win a lottery once: I bought 5 tickets, and one of them was a $3 winner.

And I had an uncle who spent more than $1000 every week for 50 years, and one time won $250,000, or about 10% of what he'd put in. He'd purchased over 2,000,000 tickets, one of which finally won.

But this person explained that, unlike my own e-mails, he really had purchased tickets, two in fact, for C$10 each, and gave the half you hand in to someone who promised to see that his money and tickets reached the Canadian Lottery Authority.

On the tickets, he put his e-mail, his mobile, & etc. A few weeks later, he got an SMS and an e-mail, saying he'd won the grand prize of C$1,000,000. The letter said that he had to contact the bank administering the prizes. The letter gave the bank's phone number and website.

Since he normally doesn't give out his e-mail, and since the e-mail had his correct name, address, and the number on his lottery ticket, this was not at all like the e-mails that I normally get.

Naturally, he called the bank. Since he called the bank's phone number (given in the e-mail) he knew that he was actually talking to the bank. It was not like he'd gotten an unexpected call from someone claiming to be at a bank.

When he gave the administrator at the bank his winning number, the administrator confirmed that everything was legitimate. They said the money would be transferred to his account if he'd give his account number and PIN, which, of course, he promptly gave the bank. They promised to transfer the money by 15 May.

Only I asked to see the e-mail, and typed the banks' name and address into Google, and the bank did not appear. Next we tried the bank's name, without the address, and the bank still didn't appear. Searching white pages, yellow pages, and any other colour pages we could find, we still didn't see anything about this bank.

Next I tried the bank's website, which, I admit, looks like a legitimate bank website (they probably used the CD, "Put your Bank on the Internet," which works for people even if they don't actually have a bank).

Still, the ticket holder is hoping his money will appear in his bank by 15 May.

Meanwhile, this lottery already has C$10 for every ticket they sold, plus the names, addresses, e-mails, and phone numbers of everyone who entered. And people who enter the Canadian National Lottery in Dubai are not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer.

As usual, I regret not asking him for all the details about where and how he entered this lottery: it sounds like a good business to get into.

Dubai Stocks

Today's newspaper reported a big drop in UAE (and especially Dubai) stocks. More men who can't perform their marital duties (whatever they are). Fortunately, today the market rose. As, we hope, did certain marital attributes of Dubai investors.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Tertiary Education in the UAE

Post-secondary schools here fall into two types: public and private. The Public schools consist of the University and the Higher Colleges of Technology (and, paraphrasing Hammet, how many lies can you count in the name 'Higher Colleges of Technology?').

There is only one National University, in Al Ain, with separate facilities for men and women; there are (in most Emirates) two Higher Colleges, completely separate, one for the men and one for the women.

The original plan was much like Western primary education: free for the students. Textbooks would be issued at the start of the semester (or year) either as a permanent gift to the students, or to be returned at the end of the course for the next batch. Students wouldn't pay for tuition, room, or board. Then the number of students (especially women) skyrocketed, and oil fell to $9 a barrel, and the Higher Colleges ran out of money. So they told the teachers to write their own textbooks. And Dubai figured out how to charge the female students, by selling them computers (at a fat markup).

The women work very hard, as standards are high, and failure means the student has to leave the college.

The men don't work, as standards are such that, should a man fail, his teacher has to leave the college.

The private institutions are on a strictly for-profit basis, and do whatever maximizes profit. The same as everywhere else. Only, in the West, for profit institutions give very little advantage for the money: graduates have a very hard time finding jobs, so these institutions have a hard time attracting student dollars. The most profitable institutions are the non-profits who don't chase after student dollars, and whose graduates are known to be a very select group of high achievers.

Here, most of the private market was aimed at students applying to firms that require a diploma, but who don't ask too many questions about the diploma. Until the Ministry of Higher Education said they were going to start enforcing standards.

Private universities panicked, and are afraid they will soon be held to the standards of mid-range Western universities.

Fortunately, the standards of mid-range Western universities have been steadily declining. At least one Western country changed its funding for state universities: now they only pay the university for students who graduate, so most (all?) of the universities in the country changed their marking policies to guarantee a 100% pass rate (they call it, improved pedagogical techniques). Then, to increase funding, the country's universities lowered their admission standards to increase enrollment. So now everyone in that (Western) country can easily obtain a university degree.

But what will happen in the nascent UAE tertiary education market remains to be seen.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hectic Weekend

About two weeks ago, a young lady told me, 'Thursday the 20th is my birthday.' Naturally, I asked, 'Would you like to go out?' but she said, 'Thanks, but I already have plans.' I later found out she has a new boyfriend, and just wanted to spend her birthday with him.

Then, Dubai put on an art/antique show with lots of Egyptian pieces. I have a friend who has been subscribing to Egyptian antique journals for years, but hasn't had the opportunity to see much of the actual stuff. I told her about the show, and she asked if I'd please go with her and her husband to keep her husband occupied while she looked at the scarabs and other junk. Otherwise, he'd get bored and drag her away before she could see anything. So I agreed.

At the show, I got a call saying that the first lady's girlfriend had put on a birthday party for her, and they wanted me to come. She said it would be around 8. Or 8:30. Or whenever.

After the husband dragged his wife away from the Egyptian antiques and went home, Ann called. She and I had been talking about selling a school in Sharjah, a school Farook had showed me about a year ago. Farook was hoping to charge us double the asking price. He said we didn't need to see the owner, just give him the money and he'd take care of everything. Finally Ann and I met the owner. The school was a gift from her Sheikh, and can't be sold, but the owner was hoping someone would see it, think it was for sale, and give her about €7,500,000 for it. When we asked about the school, the owner said it was no longer available, but we could talk to her niece.

Her niece had been given a small piece of land by the Sheikh, and sort of had permission to build a small school on it (although the permission was conditional, and might not actually be granted, and the permission was for such a small school that it couldn't be very profitable), and the niece was hoping someone would give her at least €1,500,000 to build the school (which would still be her school, and which might not be allowed to open). Ann wanted to give me the update that she'd given up on selling any UAE school, at least any school that Farook might have found, or any school these two Sharjah ladies might be selling. As Ann was explaining this, the birthday girl called to ask where I was.

So off to drop by at the birthday party for a few minutes, then home.

Friday morning, a frantic Saudi professor called. His university wants to become a famous research institution, and ordered every professor to get a paper published in a Western scientific journal by June, and they want the acceptance letter by Tuesday. Letters saying the paper had won a big prize for major scientific contribution of 2006 would also be appreciated.

I'd offered to help. The Saudi called to say he needs the acceptance letter. He wasn't planning to actually do anything about writing the paper, he just wanted someone to write it, get it accepted in a major journal, and then he would give the actual author 1% of the Nobel prize award after he got it. I said I'd go over what remained to be done to get the paper published, and went to meet him. Naturally, he was an hour late for the meeting.

As I'm going over the outline I've done for him, and explaining what he has to do to finish ('No, you go ahead and finish it for me, and give me the acceptance and letter from the Nobel Prize committee, and I need it before Tuesday,') I get a call from Faisal, whom I've been trying to call for more than two months now for some rather important business. So I dashed off to see Faisal, and he still hasn't finished his part of the business.

And now it's Saturday, and all the work I needed to do over the weekend is still sitting in front of me.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Return of the Faisal

I owe Faisal some money, so one wouldn't think he'd avoid me, but, about two months ago, he stopped answering his mobile. I couldn't understand it.

Today, finally, he called. Not a good night to meet up, as I have to leave for work tomorrow at 6:00 a.m., but I wanted to pay up and get things finished (only he didn't have the completed work, so I still owe him the money).

He said his shop had been raided. Like most small UAE businessmen, he uses some workers without asking too many silly questions about their employment visas. The cops came in, arrested all his workers, and asked where the boss was. His workers gave the police his mobile number.

The police called, said he had to come to the police station to be arrested, and he responded by tossing his mobile. So I couldn't call him, and he didn't call me for two months.

He said, after he got the call from the cops, he now spends every day in various bars drinking to forget about the fact that he's now wanted in two hemispheres.

He told me to meet him at the Dulf in Deira (the GPS said it was in Bur Dubai, and, between the GPS and Faisal's directions, it took me almost an hour to make a 10 minute journey). Then he took me to Chelsea, where, he said, Halliburton provide free American girls for their workers' R and R (but we didn't see any).

So I got home late, and have to get up early tomorrow. And I still haven't finished my business with Faisal.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Rumours of The Lodge

According to The Desert Weasel, they are bulldozing/have bulldozed The Lodge. I had lunch there today. None of the staff had heard anything about any plans to bring on the demolition crews, none had received notice, and all were planning the various evening events that will take place over the next several months or so (evenings at The Lodge are too loud, too expensive, and too late for me, but de gustibus).

The Lodge staff asked me if the message had been posted on 1 April, which would explain a lot, but it was a week too late for that. I know the printed 'newspapers' here are unreliable, but I thought the blogs were better than that.

So, for now, lunch at The Lodge is three courses: soup or salad, main, and dessert, with three to five choices for each. Today, the first course choices were chicken soup, calamari, or cucumber and strawberry salad; main course was lamb, fish, chicken or spinach pie; and dessert was cake, ice cream, flan or fruit salad. With beverage. All for €5.50.

The Lodge is part of Al NasrLeisureland, which includes football fields, cricket fields, tennis, ice skating, a water park (possibly abandoned, I can see it towering over the wall, but can't see any kids on the slides), a South Indian (not Bollywood) cinema, and at least three restaurant/nightclub complexes that don't seem to talk to each other. The Lodge website (a website in a box, just type your name in and it's up and running) lists a Thai, Tahiti, Cheers (where they serve the lunch), an Equator (whatever that is), a Scottish poolhall, and a nightclub. At least one of these is outside, but I'm not sure which one.

Next to The Lodge is a Goan restaurant and club. Around the corner (but still on the same beverage license) is a Chinese, an Indian, and the infamous Cyclone. The posting that bulldozers are approaching The Lodge included all of Al Nasr in their path of demolition, but the staff at The Lodge said they only knew about the Lodge restaurants, not about the football fields, movie, ice skating, or any of the other restaurants or clubs that are part of the complex. So maybe all or part of the rest are indeed under the axe. Or not.

If I see Al Nasr Leisureland being demolished, I'll post the eulogy here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Still Falling

Like Snow on the Cedars of Lebanon, the Gulf Stock markets in general, and the Dubai market in particular, are still falling, though the Dubai market is still above March levels (but not by much).

In April, 2004, the Dubai stock market was at 200. In Fall, 2005, it rose above 1,300. Now it's a bit above 600.

It is said (in the local 'newspapers') that, when the Gulf Stock Markets fall, so do other things, causing marital difficulties. It was also promised that the Gulf governments would do something to support the markets (and, a fortiori, certain marital assets). But the promises seem more like jawboning (jack)asses than actual support.

As one of my favourite sites reports, Gulf Governments have good memories, they recall when markets went up by a factor of 6, and they want to keep those kinds of profits for local Citizens. So, while they are now hoping non-Citizens will invest enough so that Citizens will get all their money back, they put enough obstacles that most cannot.

What we have, then, in the Gulf, are very thin markets. They could go up or down by much larger percentages than are possible in mature markets. For any reason. Or for no reason.

One day trader told me last Fall that he'd never trade in Gulf markets, because of the thinness and lack of transparency. Like many day traders, he now says he trades the Gulf Markets regularly, and easily makes money as stocks move up and down.

Which sounds better than the rest of us are doing.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Dreaming of Walter Mitty

One of the most often anthologized American short stories is James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," about a hen-pecked husband who, while forced to run errands for his wife, keeps imagining that he is a war hero, flying a transport plane or bomber through heavy anti-aircraft fire, or racing across no-man's land under a machine-gun barrage.

An acquaintance recommended I read Thurber, and, finding a copy in Magrudy's (once the only major bookstore in Dubai, and still one of the best bookstores in the Emirates), I bought it. In 2000.

Finding it behind a pile of other books, I started reading last week, unfortunately: This morning, I started dreaming that I was in the middle of a war.

Conflicts and machine-gun fire are common not far from here, though the last time anything remotely resembling organized armed combat occurred in the UAE, the weapons were smooth-bore Martini single-shot muskets, which sound nothing at all like machine guns.

As usual in dreams, as the machine-gunner's aim improved and the shots were about to hit me, I woke up, but the sounds of machine-gun fire persisted.

Then I remembered, there is a new building going up next to my window, and the machines (which start promptly at 5:45 a.m.) make a racket not unlike the sound of a machine-gun in a Hollywood (or here, Bollywood) war epic.

So I guess it's a bit unjust to blame Thurber.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Dubai Stock Market (again)

The market is almost back to its lows, after a rise of about 20%. The faith that the governments had to intervene to protect local marriages seems to have been shaken. There's a Russian saying that first, love dies, then faith dies, and finally only hope is left.

But it's not clear how much longer hope for the Gulf markets will last.

As usual, the declines are tucked away in a small section of the Gulf newpapers, unlike the recoveries which tend to be on page 1.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Coals to Newcastle?

Normally, as I'm leaving for work in the morning, I see women returning to my apartment building after a night's work. I'd guess my building is at least 80% female, and that most of them work the night shift. The first ones return around 7 a.m., usually in taxis. The last ones straggle home around noon. The ones returning at noon are almost always dropped off from huge SUVs with windows blackened well beyond the legal 30% limit, so it's impossible to see inside the SUV at all, and it's left to my imagination what might be inside.

So I was a bit surprised to see a young lady leaving my building at 7:00 a.m. this morning and summoning a taxi. One would think it would be easier for the young women and the desperate men in my building to get together and save the taxi fare, but apparently not.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Holidays in the Gulf

In the West, holidays are known years in advance. Many companies have already announced their holidays for 2009.

But this is the Gulf, and some of us still aren't sure if today is the official holiday for the Birthday of the Prophet (pbuh), or not.

All Muslims are supposed to celebrate two holidays, called Eids. The first Eid starts with the first crescent moon after the Holy Month of Ramadan, and the second Eid is on the 10th of the month of Dhul Hijja. In addition, many Muslims celebrate the Islamic New Year, 1 Muharram, the Lailat al Miraj, 27th Rajab, and todays holiday, the birthday of the Prophet (pbuh), 12 Rabi'-ul-Awwal.

Islam uses a purely lunar calendar, with months lasting either 30 days or until the new crescent moon is spotted, which can happen on the night of the 29th. The Moon Sighting Committee goes out on the night of the 29th of each month and announces whether or not the next month starts the next day, or the day after next. Or (if one believes the US Embassy) all these dates have been determined years in advance by Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia and published, so there is no need to go out in the desert once every month to look for the crescent moon.

However, far be it from us to put the Moon Sighting Commitee out of business. So we don't know if it's Eid or New Year or not until the Moon Sighting Comittee gets back and makes its announcement. If it isn't, we all have to go to work; if it is, we don't.

Only this year, the government announced that New Year's Day would be on the first Wednesday after the New Year, which turned out to be 3 Muharram.

As of last Friday, the official government body hadn't announced if the Prophet's Birthday would be on 12 Rabi'-ul-Awwal (today, Monday, April 10) or the following Wednesday (April 12). An unofficial announcement of Monday was issued by the Arabic Al Khaleej last Thursday, but the other newspapers (Arabic and English) didn't report anything.

On Saturday, most companies announced the holiday would be on Monday. On Sunday, all the newspaper announced that the holiday would be on Monday, i.e., today. Later, several companies announced that, no, Monday would be a regular work day, the holiday would be on Wednesday. People who were out of the office on Sunday may have missed the announcement. Well, they should have called in from whereever they'd decided to go for their Monday holiday.

I can understand that it's a part of the culture and tradition that the New Year and the first Eid require a report from the Moon Sighting Committee; however, a holiday on the 12th day of the lunar month should either come 11 days after the first day of the lunar month, or on the first Wednesday, if the Gulf is going toward a Western long-weekend system. There were at least 11 days when the annoucement could have been made, but it was delayed until Saturday. Or Sunday. Or possibly Monday or Tuesday to announce the precise date of the Monday holiday.

Which, by now, I should be used to. But I'm not.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Villas in Sharjah

I had a lot of work that needed to get done yesterday. Not that any of it got done. Early yesterday afternoon, a Saudi acquaintence called up and insisted I come over.

'I'm extremely busy. I really can't come today.'

'This is urgent. You must come. I will drive you home if you come. I have another appointment for 10 p.m., so you'll be home before 11.'

'No, I must be home by six. I can only spare an hour.'

'OK, an hour enough, but you must come now, and I will see you get home by 6.'

I should have known he meant 6 a.m., not 6 p.m., but I went.

The 'urgent business' was that the Saudi had been offered 12 villas for only €3,000,000. We only had to put down 10%, then we'd use six villas for ourselves and rent out the rest. The rent would pay the mortgage, we'd all have a 'free' place to stay, plus there would be enough income left over from the six we rented out that we could all live without working. My share of the downpayment would be somewhere between €75,000 and €100,000, depending on how many other partners joined us.

'Are you sure the rents will pay all expenses? I can't afford to lose €100,000.'

'No risk. Rents only go up. We make too much money if we invest. We must do something. My university is giving me problems.'

It seems that his university used to work on the principle that good university teachers a) always get very high student evaluations; and b) always teach all their students 100% of the subject matter, so every student scores 100% on every exam. So all his students got straight A's, and they all gave him top marks on his student evaluations.

Then employers started complaining that students who had straight A's in English, when asked any question, could only answer, 'شو؟' (meaning, 'Huh?' in Arabic). These employers, ungrateful for the highly trained employees the universities provided, also complained that graduates with straight A's in programming couldn't write a simple, program in Visual Basic, even using the Microsoft Automatic Program Generator, which can write most common programs with just a few clicks of the mouse.

So the Ministry of Higher Education suddenly said, 'No more giving all A's. Only the top 10% can get A's.'

Suddenly, the rules had changed.

Next, his university wanted US accreditation as a post-graduate institution, and the university was told they needed research. So every faculty was told (in February), 'You must have at least one article in one of the top US journals by June, or you will be dismissed.' The Saudi had never written anything in his life: he had found a US university that does not require a dissertation to get a doctorate, and had gotten a US doctorate without any writing.

The Saudi was exactly what UAE universities wanted: a Gulf Arab with an American doctorate. His Arabic is excellent, and he understands the culture: for example, if only 10% of his students can get A's, it will be the 10% with the most wasta (i.e., influence), not the 10% who are the best students in a Western academic sense. How he got an American doctorate is a bit of a mystery, but we don't ask too many questions here.

But then they told him that he must write something, and he must get it printed in one of the most prestigious journals in the US (at least it doesn't matter which one, as long as it's on the list of the top 25). Which is something fewer than 5% of US college professors ever manage over their entire careers. And fewer than a dozen have managed to get published in just four months (it usually takes years of negotiating with the editor to get a top journal to print an article, though they make exceptions for huge research breakthroughs--Planck got published in a matter of weeks for discovering Planck's constant). But the Saudi isn't Max Planck.

The latest university outrage occurred when one of the Saudi's students was caught cheating by a female invigilator. When she accused the student, the student screamed at her. It is, of course, a total violation of the culture for a female to say anything to a male, especially, 'You're cheating,' but she didn't understand (which is strange, since she's a Muslim from Tunesia, but I guess she's been corrupted by Western influences). The student, one of the Saudi's best (i.e., lots of wasta) students, was hauled before the academic integrity council, where he denied cheating. The council found him innocent due to insufficient evidence, in spite of the testimony of the invigilator, but gave him an 'F' in the course for being disrespectful to the invigilator.

The Saudi wrote the university administration a scathing letter. They wrote back and said 'US methods are not appropriate in the UAE. This is an administrative matter, and faculty should not get involved.' The Saudi explained that, when he caught a student cheating at his 'prestigious' US university, the student said 'F*** you.' The administration insisted the student apologize to the Saudi, then gave the student the full mark he'd obtained by cheating. Such 'US methods' will not be tolerated here in the UAE. Not that I've ever, in more than 30 years, seen a US university where a student, caught cheating red-handed, who then said 'F*** you,' to the professor, was told that, 'Well, as long as you apologize, you'll get the 'A' you managed to copy. But maybe I never saw a university as prestigious as the one the Saudi attended.

So now he wants to resign before he gets fired, and he wants me to put up €100,000 to make the down payment on some villas.

The villas are in Sharjah, and were a gift from the Sheikh of Sharjah to the person who is currently trying to rent them out or sell them. This person can't be called the 'owner' in the Western sense (though he might be called the 'entailee' in the 18th century British sense). These villas are his for life, or for as long as he wants them, or for as long as the Sheikh wants him to have them (whichever comes first). If this person rents out these villas, he gets a share of the rent (the Sheikh also gets a share). Or, if someone gives him €3,000,000 for the villas, the Citizen who received them as a gift will have €3,000,000, plus the villas: a Citizen cannot legally give away a gift from his Sheikh.

My putting up €100,000 to 'buy' these villas would make several people very happy (not that I actually have €100,000). I would not be among those people.

It is now 8:00 p.m., and dinner is served. It's chicken and rice, and I left a salad at home in the fridge (I'm trying to lose weight), and my work has not been started. I say I have to go, and point out that I was promised a ride home before 6. 'But you must stay to dinner. We make chicken and rice special for you.' Actually, I'm a vegetarian, but Saudis do not consider chicken to be meat. Also, vegetarianism is associated with false religions like Hinduism, from which people must be converted to the one true religion by showing them how much better it is to eat meat. So I leave. The taxi gets stuck in traffic, and I don't get home until 10:00 p.m., at least two hours before the Saudi would have had me return home.

Actually, the Saudi works the 3 p.m. - 11 p.m. shift, and has to punch a time clock (though he usually punches in late, and then stays late to make it up). He gets home around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., has dinner, has friends over (they all work about the same schedule), prays Fajr (the prayer which must be made just before dawn) and goes to bed. For him, 8 p.m. is mid-morning. Midnight is early afternoon, and 2 a.m. is early evening. For me, it isn't. I've tried to explain this before, but, again, he hopes by showing me how good life is at 2 a.m. I'll convert (actually, they say 'revert') to the true religion. From his point of view, getting me to a 'normal' schedule of rising at 2 p.m. and going to bed at 7 a.m. is all for my own good, and he doesn't understand why I'm not more grateful.

But I tend to be just as ungrateful as the aforementioned employers.


Notes: here in the UAE, it is true that rents and housing prices have only gone up, but that doesn't mean the rent on six villas will pay the interest on the loan. Actually, it won't even pay half the interest. But the Saudi was saying, after we each put down €100,000, we won't have to make another payment for a year, and in that year, surely 'something will turn up.'

Friday, April 07, 2006

Getting Married in Dubai

Farook invited me to morning tea. He said he wanted my opinion about his daughter, or, more specifically, about a young man who wants to marry her. Farook understands the professions of Bedu and Islamic Scholar, but he wants his daughter to marry someone with a profession that will actually generate revenue, and seemed to honestly appreciate my opinion. It is common here, of course, for someone to pretend to ask your opinion as a form of flattery. First they pretend to want your opinion, then you find out what they really want is your money, but Farook only asked me what I thought of pharmacists. I said they make very good money in the West.

He explained why he was asking.

'My daugher needs to get married. Our custom is, first I interview boy and father, while my wife interview mother. If we think this is good boy with good job from good family, then my daughter get to meet him three times. Islam says that a daughter who has not been married must not marry a man she has not met, so she must also see him, but first I must see if he will be good husband. This man pharmacist, he say he doctor, what that mean?'

'It means he's a pharmacist.' Obviously, the boy has one of the new Pharm. D. degrees, and it's what pharmacists call a doctorate, but it's only five years in the US, so it's not quite like a Ph.D., which usually takes at least 10 years at university, or an MD which takes 8 years at university, plus another four of internship and residency. Anyway, he's a pharmacist, and I have no idea what they make here.

'He could earn about US$80,000 in the US.'

'Very good. I must meet him and his family. Maybe then I let my daughter meet him. In Islam, must check that unmarried daughter has never been married. If she divorced or widow, follow a different procedure.'

Another friend tried to say that, in Egyptian villages, an old midwife examines the young girls to see if they are virgins. I said that, in Dubai, they also examine the girls. 'Yes, but not by an old midwife.' It's not clear to me how the test is done, but I'd guess the old midwife is used in Dubai. But perhaps in Dubai they use a middle-aged midwife, rather than an old one.

I guess my main point is that, for Farook's branch of Islam, virgin girls may not be forced into marriage. They may not get to date, but they do have a veto if the boy is not to their liking. I heard one girl refuse a boy because he was much too old for her (he was 29, she was 22), and much too short. And her family couldn't do anything.

I've heard about other sects of Islam where the girl is given no say in her husband. Come to think of it, that's a theme in Jane Austen, so I should say, I've heard that about some Christian sects as well. But not the mainstream UAE sect of Islam: the girl has full veto over any proposed husband. So, of course, do her parents, so she can't marry whomever she likes, but she can certainly refuse to marry anyone she does not like.

And so the UAE has a problem of unmarried Muslims: the girls all want husbands with the three heights: physical, fiscal, and social. Just like everywhere else. And most men are average height, with an average salary, and from an average family. The government blames the large number of single female Citizens on the fact that male Citizens prefer girls from poor countries who are happy to marry any old oil sheikh and don't care that he's short and (by UAE standards) not all that rich. Leaving the oil sheikhas spinsters. But, with plenty of money, the local women don't seem as bothered about it as the government seems to be.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hitching in Dubai

Last night (Monday) I was walking, which is not unusual. I was offered a lift, also not unusual, but normally it's a white Nissan operated by someone who starts by asking twice what a regular taxi would charge (subject to haggling down to about 80%, if you're good at haggling, or double the regular fare if you're not).

Only this time, it was a yellow Lamborghini driven by an acquaintence who noticed me puffing on the pavement.

'I'm sorry, it's not very comfortable.'

I couldn't speak, but got in and sat there with my mouth open. '€300,000' I muttered. 'No, it was €300,000.'

'What do you do?'

'My family has businesses in Karachi.'

I'm not sure exactly what businesses. There is not even one Lamborghini in all of Pakistan, so the family has to come to Dubai to spend its money.

The seats are not soft, and the ride isn't especially smooth, as I had been warned, but that's not what a Lamborghini is about. Not that we got to see what a Lamborghini is really about on Beach Road, a crowded Dubai street which is under construction (aren't they all?).

It is not easy for an old man to get out of a Lamborghini, a fact I must keep in mind if I ever think about buying one. Yes, that's why I don't have one, they're too hard to get out of. And the seats are not soft, and the ride isn't smooth. The €300,000 (or rather, the fact that I can't even begin to imagine that much money) has nothing to do with it.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Dating in Dubai

<Intentionally left blank. There isn't any>

Two colleagues said they'd come to Dubai because they'd heard it was a good place to be single. They found that about 90% of the full time employees where they work are men, though more than half the employees are part time, and most of the part-time employees are women. However, the company does not provide visas for part-time employees, so all these women are on their husband's visa. Which doesn't leave any available for dating.

Before I came to Dubai, I checked the CIA World Factbook, which reliably reports that, of the legal residents in Dubai, more than 75% are male. I wasn't disappointed. I'd tried to get a date in New York City, putting a recent photo on a dating site along with the fact that I'm short. I got one or two women a week who agreed to go out once, but all immediately made an excuse when they saw how short I was. As a New York Times reporter wrote for Valentine's Day 2005, men taller than 6' on my dating site get more than 100 offers every week, while she couldn't imagine any woman ever answering an ad from anyone shorter than 5'8". But not all women know what turns them on. The ones who met me said that sometimes they stand next to a man and get romantically attracted, and sometimes they don't, and they don't know why, but, in my case, there was absolutely no attraction, so goodnight.

The reporter knew why, as do most women. So I figured I couldn't be any worse off in Dubai than I was in New York City, and I was right.

In the UAE, everything in the newspapers is an official press release from the government, including a report that it is strictly illegal to date.

Everywhere except Dubai, it is illegal for an unrelated man and woman to be together in the same room. This makes it illegal for a man to hire a female secretary to answer the telephone in his office (unless he never goes into his own office, or can afford two, separate rooms, one for himself and one for his secretary, with no connecting door).

Dubai, being a place for business, does allow a businessman to have a female secretary and for them to work together in an office, but it is illegal for an unrelated man and woman to be together inside a residential building.

And outside, Public Display of Affection is strictly prohibited. Sort of.

In the West, if the authorities put up a No Parking sign, all cars parked there will find tickets. Every time. Sometimes, a new ticket every hour.

In Dubai, there isn't enough parking, so many residents park in No Parking Zones at night, and get a ticket once a month, which is cheaper than hiring a legal parking spot.

So many couples make out, and a few get arrested and the fact is placed in the newspapers. Many couples go to either the man's or woman's apartment, and a few get arrested and the fact is placed in the newspapers.

The two new arrivals are in company housing, closely monitored for unauthorized guests. One, from Columbia, invited a secretary out shortly after arriving. He was seen, and the secretary was dismissed. The one from Jordan was shocked to find how much Dubai is like Jordan.

The local culture has absolutely no dating. Your family selects a mate, and you go to the appropriate tent for your wedding (one for the men, one for the women). What happens in the tent is a mystery to me, as I've never been invited. Eventually, the woman's male guardian (father, brother, or uncle) conveys her to her new husband's harem. The Holy Koran says that a man's wife is his tilth, and he may tilth her any way he likes. The Sunnah and Hadith (roughly, Canon Law for Muslims) say there's only one way he'd better like to tilth her (hint: think Missionary) or else. And that's it.

Actually, this fits well with Columbia and Jordan: both colleagues have had wives selected for them by their families, and both will return to their countries for weddings. After which, they'll have a chance to meet their brides. And bring them back to Dubai. Where, being legally married, they can bring them into their company apartments.

Meanwhile, my own apartment building has had most of the rooms leased by people who sub-lease to illegal residents, most of whom are females engaging in unIslamic professions (or males put in, 8 to a room, as a make-shift labour camp, which is also illegal). While legal residents are definitely 75% male, the actual demographics, if known, are not publicized. There is no way of knowing what the government really knows about the actual residents of Dubai.

But whatever the demographics really are, they are colourful. At least in my apartment building.