Tuesday, October 31, 2006

It Started with Mink Oil

About a century ago, a man started a business selling mink oil. People who wanted jobs as salesmen had to pay him $81. When they sold jobs, they got to keep $27 of the $81 paid by their customers, and gave $54 to the first man. When the people who’d bought jobs from them sold jobs, they got to keep $18 of the $54 their customers gave them.

So, if a salesman sold just three jobs, he’d get his $81 back. If each of his customers sold just three jobs, he’d get $162. And if each of those sold just three jobs, …

And, to simplify matters, there wasn’t any mink oil.

There was, however, jail time for the salesmen when the government found out about the business. They said it was fraudulent selling jobs selling non-existent mink oil.

Next came a company selling soap. The salesmen are told to sell jobs, not soap, but there really are boxes of soap, which makes the whole thing legal. The power of exponential increase (3x3x3x…) means that many people eventually get corralled and offered a job as a soap salesman salesman. This happened to me back home about 20 years ago.

I was told they had a great computer program that I really had to see, and I can’t resist looking at great computer programs. I never saw a computer program: I was just told of the money I could make selling jobs selling soap.

Today I was introduced to a Dubai company that is theoretically selling air filters, water filters, and juice machines. Or, more practically, selling jobs selling air filters, water filters, and juice machines.

I’d been asked to drop by and look at their computer system, but, of course, I never got to see a computer system, only an air filter, a water filter, and a juice machine. It made me feel right at home.

Lost in Translation

About three weeks ago, a friend said (as best he could) that
he had something I absolutely had to read, only it was in Arabic. His English is very limited, my Arabic is non-existent, and I was desperate to know what he was so excited about.

He had a copy saved on disk, so I thought I could use a
computer translation program to get the gist of whatever it was he wanted me to read.

I Googled the Arabic-English translation programs, and then clicked on all the ones that said they were free. I copied his text and pasted it into the boxes labeled 'Arabic text.' Then I clicked 'Translate.'

But when I clicked, ‘Translate,’ I always got:

We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.

He said that he thought that was probably a very good policy
on the part of the TRA to prevent the many English-speaking terrorists in the UAE from using materials found on the Arabic-language sites, but he was sorry that I couldn’t read the letter, and I am sorry that, since I couldn't read it, I can’t tell anyone what it said.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Cyclone at Halloween

As I was walking past the Cyclone (a nice, quiet place to watch cricket in the afternoon), I saw that it was decorated for Halloween: animatronic ghosts, skeletons, vampires, pumpkins, sound effects, and all the other things that normally accompany Halloween in Western countries.

In fact, its decorations were more elaborate than any I have ever seen in the West, though, I must admit, I never saw The Mustang Ranch (Nevada, USA) or The Chicken Ranch (Texas) at Halloween.

Dubai Culture Village

As I was wandering around (in the vicinity of Trader’s Hotel, if anyone cares), I saw a huge billboard for Dubai Culture Village.

It depicts a scene with the usual Dubai assortment of people in Western business outfits mingling with people in abayas and dishdashes, all standing in an art gallery featuring original (copies of???) European Renaissance paintings. The billboard is deliberately blurred, but it is still possible to make out the paintings being depicted, and they are similar to ones that sometimes appear in the Arts section of the European newspapers on sale in the Emirates. Only, when the paintings appear in the newspapers, they are invariably covered with the censor’s black ink, since the censor is convinced that representational art is “inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.” (Especially when the art represents such things as odalisques.)

Will Dubai Culture Village be a free zone where European representational art is allowed?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Visit Visas from Farook

The labour laws of the UAE are fair, just, and reasonable. (The problem is in how they are enforced.)

I was invited to Fahad’s for dinner, and the conversation turned to Farook. I told Fahad some of my experiences with Farook. And Fahad reciprocated.

Farook has a business, and is allowed to issue two visit visas at a time for employment interviews.

Formerly, visit visas cost about €30 in fees, and were sold for about €200, after which the person came to the UAE on the two month visit visa and remained, and the business had a profit of €170.

Now, companies must make a deposit of about €400, and also pay fees of about €30 for each visit visa. If the person does not leave on time, the company forfeits the deposit.

Fahad asked Farook to get him two visit visas for some friends to visit. This is illegal, but Farook said he would be happy to help, only he had no cash, and asked for the €430 required for each visa.

Fahad is very wealthy, and had no problem giving Farook the €860.

Then Fahad found that one of the people he had invited would be unable to come, so he asked for his €400 deposit back.

Four times, Farook called Fahad, said that the agency that had taken the deposit was only open early in the morning, and told Fahad that he had to meet Farook and go to the agency if he wanted to get his deposit back.

Four times, Fahad (who normally gets up after noon) got up at 7:00 a.m., drove from Sharjah to Dubai (a short journey that takes from one to two hours because of traffic), and was told by Farook that some problem (that had arisen at the last minute) prevented them from going to get the deposit.

The fourth time, Fahad was furious, and asked, ‘What the [deleted] is going on???’

Farook told him that illegal visit visas normally sell for €800, and that a charge of €400 was a very special deal, only given to close friends.

Fahad told me that he didn’t mind being cheated out of €400, but he was furious at having to get up at 7:00 a.m. and to drive from Sharjah to Dubai (four times).

The Upcoming US Election

For those interested in reliable predictors for the upcoming US elections, one of the best is THE IOWA ELECTRONIC MARKETS.

This predicts that the Democrats will win control of the House, while the Republicans will retain control of the Senate.

Another fairly reliable indicator, but one which is inclined never to predict anything, is the
New York Times

To be safe, it says both the House and the Senate are too close to call, so it can’t be wrong.

From reading the local newspapers, it appears that many people here do not understand the US system, what this election is about, or what impact it might have.

The US is burdened with a House, a Senate, and a President.

House members must stand for election every two years; Senate members must stand for election every six years; and the President must stand for election every four years.

This year, the entire House and a few Senators are up for re-election. No matter what happens, Bush will remain President.

Still, the House and Senate matter.

No law can be passed unless the House and the Senate both agree. If they both try to pass a law, but their proposed versions of the law differ by a single word, the law does not pass.

For example, if the House passes the law, ‘There shall be a solid wall built on the border,’ and the Senate passes the law, ‘A solid wall shall be built on the border,’ neither law passes.

When (as has been the case since 2000) one party controls the Presidency, the House, and the Senate, it is easy for the President to propose laws that are quickly rubber-stamped: both the House and Senate pass the law with the exact wording proposed by the President.

So the speed of the current US descent might be slowed if the Democrats win either the House or the Senate, and the Iowa Electronic Markets are predicting that there is a 70% chance that this will happen.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Long Wait?

One of the problems with buying UAE properties directly from the developers is that handover may be late. Or never, as in the case of The Lighthouse. So it was comforting to read the following headlines in a local newspaper:

[Developer name deleted] unfazed by project delay
By April, 3,000 [development name deleted] apartments and villas will be ready

I'm very glad to know that, in just 994 years and 5 months, the patient investors will be able to move in.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Eid Mubarak!!!

When I was in Al Ain five years ago, as I wandered around the night before Eid Al Fitr, I could hear lambs inside almost every villa. Early in the morning, I saw the men of these households leading their lambs out. By noon, there was the silence of the lambs.

The next Eid Al Fitr, I was in Abu Dhabi. Downtown Abu Dhabi has towers of flats rather than villas. The night before Eid, I saw goats tethered to a small tree just outside my apartment building. And, as before, by noon of Eid, all the goats were gone.

(This is something I haven’t seen in Dubai, which prohibits families from sacrificing their own goats.)

The tradition is that families who can afford to do so buy a lamb. They take what they need for themselves, but give most of the meat to the poor. Sacrificing a lamb isn't required for Eid Al Fitr; however, giving food to the poor is required, and this was how I saw it done in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Swimming Pool Project

Today, as I was wandering around Oud Metha, I saw a large number of signs that were not there last week. They said either, ‘Swimming Pool Project,’ or ‘Swimming Pool Project Site,’ and ‘Dubai Municipality.’ There were signs planted along the roadside for several hundred meters on both sides of the site. Each sign had an arrow directing some person or persons unknown toward the site. The contractors have started digging a large hole in the centre of the site, which seems reasonable for a swimming pool site.

The site is located next to St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which is also a big construction site: the church seems to be adding a new wing, almost doubling its size.

Dubai TV on the Last Night of Ramadan

When I first came to Dubai three years ago, Dubai TV ran a film about the Prophet (PBUH) at the end of Ramadan.

This year, they ran the colourized version of ‘The Maltese Falcon.’

‘The Maltese Falcon’ is one of the best movies ever made, as filmed in its original, black and white version.

It has no need of colour. The colour, added by some program similar to (but not the same as) PhotoShop, detracts from the original artistic vision.

‘The Maltese Falcon’ is one of my favourite movies (I like the movie better than the book), but only if shown as it was originally filmed.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Today is 28 Ramadan. It is still Thursday, 19 October, since the Islamic date changes shortly after sunset, not midnight, so it will still be 28 Ramadan during daylight hours tomorrow. This means that Saturday, 21 October will be 29 Ramadan, and the moonsighting committee must go out and look for the crescent at sunset. If they say they have seen the crescent, it will be Eid, the first of Shawwal.

The moon will, in fact, be new at 9:14 a.m. on the 22nd, and will first be visible on the 23rd October, according to the astronomers, so if they do see a crescent on the 21st, it will be a waning crescent, not a waxing crescent.

The astronomers say that the moonsighting committee won’t be able to see a crescent on the 22nd, either; however, no Islamic month can last more than 30 days, so Eid must be on 23 October.

Astronomers say that a moon must be at least 12 hours old at sunset to be visible, so the moon may be easily visible in the West, while it is not at all visible in the East.

At the end of the first Islamic century, the Islamic world included Andalusia in the West and ran continuously to Sind in the East. If the Caliph wanted to declare the first of Ramadan or Eid for the entire Caliphate, people in Andalusia might easily see a new crescent that was quite invisible in Sind, but there was no way to convey this information throughout the entire Caliphate, so each village had to send its own moonsighting committee out, and not only might it be Ramadan or Eid a day earlier in Andalus than in Sind, the starting dates could be different in Western Andalusia than Eastern Andalusia.

But today, the rulers of most Islamic countries declare when a new month starts for the entire country, and moonsighting committees from one country can call other moonsighting committees to reach a consensus on whether the new month has started, so an entire region can celebrate Eid together.

In fact, on the 29th of Sha’ban, the crescent would have been visible in Western North America, but not in the Middle East. Still, the Gulf moonsighting committees declared that the crescent was seen, accurately predicting that it would be visible later than evening a few thousand kilometres to the West, so Ramadan started on 23 September rather than 24 September.

Since the crescent will be visible nowhere in the world on the 21st, it seems fairly safe to say that Eid will be 23 October.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Iftar Recommendation: Ramadan Nights at Al Nasr

Since the first of Ramadan, Al Nasr has put up a large banner promoting its Ramadan Nights. When I went by to ask, they explained that these nights are only Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, so there are only two more nights left this Ramadan.

So this recommendation is a bit late: Al Nasr has the best under-€10 iftar buffet I’ve seen this Ramadan in Dubai.

I was there with two other tables of diners. At one was a Muslim family, and at the other were four English women.

About 10 minutes before sunset, the oldest boy from the Muslim family went and got a plate of dates and set it in the middle of their table. Each member of the family also had a glass of water in waiting.

The PA system started playing a recitation of the Quran. I’d made this mistake before, since I can’t tell the difference between the recitation and the azan, and one iftar I started eating too early. This time, I knew to watch the Muslim family, who knew the difference. As soon as the azan sounded, the family all took a few dates from the common plate, and drank their water, and so did I. Then the family went to the prayer rooms.

This is not advisable in most of the under-€10 iftar buffets, since, after praying, there won’t be any food left, but, at Al Nasr, there was no problem. The buffet had enough food for about 100 people, and there were only 12 of us. So, after the family had finished praying, they were able to enjoy a very nice dinner.

The English ladies waited until they were certain the azan had sounded, then went to fill their plates, breaking their fast five or ten minutes after sunset. This does not seem to be allowed for Muslims, but the English ladies, like my companion last week, didn't see what difference a few minutes would make.

The buffet included all the usual salads (or mezzes):, fish, chicken, and goat dishes, vegetables, rice, a full complement of desserts, and a cheese tray, all for less than €6.

And nothing ran out before I could try it, as happened to me last week.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

UAE Government to Stop Propping Up Stock Markets

According to the Gulf News, the IMF is demanding that the UAE must stop propping up stock prices on the DFM and Abu Dhabi Exchange. Since stocks have fallen 60% with all this 'propping,' investors probably ought to worry about how far stocks will fall now that the UAE government has been ordered to stop.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ramadan Nights at Al Nasr

Since the beginning of Ramadan, Al Nasr has had a huge banner advertising Ramadan Nights. Today is 24 Ramadan, so there are only about 5 of these nights left, and I thought I’d better check them out while I had the chance.

It’s not on the banner, but, when one reaches the door to Al Nasr, the sign explains that Ramadan nights are only Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Since I have engagements for Wednesday and Friday, it looks like this Thursday will be my only chance to find out what an Al Nasr Ramadan Night is like.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cyclone Litter

As I was wandering around Dubai, I passed The Cyclone around 4 p.m. today, so it was closed (it can’t open until 7:00 p.m. during Ramadan).

I spotted in the sands in front of The Cyclone an empty package of Cialis®. So I guess someone was planning to get his money’s worth last night.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Chicken, Rice, and Saffron

In Spain, it’s called arroz con pollo; here, it’s called chicken biriani. In either case, it is normally prepared with saffron, turning the rice a pleasant yellow colour. Whether the Arabs brought the tradition to Spain, or picked it up from the Spaniards and carried it all over the Islamic world, or however it originated, arroz con pollo or chicken biriani is popular through a very large part of the world.

In particular, it was very popular with my mother and grandmother, who served it several times every week for as long as they were able to cook (and asked for it frequently after they were too old to reign in the kitchen).

Only neither my mother nor grandmother knew where to find saffron in a small village in an English speaking country, so they used a bright yellow mustard, which gave the dish the proper colour, but a rather different flavour from the original.

When I arrived in the UAE, I found that almost all the shops in Al Ain sell saffron, thought I’d try it, and discovered I prefer my chicken biriani with saffron rather than mustard (though the colour is about the same). A little saffron goes a very long way, so I didn’t need to buy more for several years, and then I couldn’t find any in Dubai.

I kept looking in the exotic foods section (which, for me, is almost the entire store for every supermarket in Dubai), and particularly in the spice section, but no saffron.

This is because it’s usually kept with the cigarettes, for reasons which escape me, and, as a non-smoker, that was the one place I didn’t think of looking.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Missing Iftar

I asked an English Teacher if he’d like to join me for iftar. By ‘English Teacher,’ I mean that a) he’s from England; and b) he teaches English.

He said he’d been asked to iftar by a Muslim last year.

‘He got very upset when I was late. I don’t understand it. He wasn’t at at all reasonable. Nothing here ever takes place on time, and he was so angry because I was 15 minutes late for iftar.’

‘Well, for Muslims, Islam says that they must break their fast as soon as the sun sets. It’s an important part of their religion that fasting start at the proper time and end at the proper time,’ I tried to explain.

‘What possible difference could 15 minutes make?’ he asked. ‘He was so unreasonable about it.’

This year, he was marking papers, and we didn’t make it to iftar until half an hour after sunset.

I’m not sure about the €30 iftars (for that price, I hear, the iftar buffet lasts for three hours), but we went to a €6 iftar, where everyone arrives about half an hour before sunset and fills his plate (or plates), then waits patiently for sunset to dig in.

By the time we arrived, all the popular items were gone. About 20 minutes after sunset, they start clearing the salads (called mezze), so we only found a few salads by the time we arrived; about 40 minutes after sunset, they start clearing the main course trays; finally, about 50 minutes after sunset, they clear the dessert trays, the iftar buffet is over, and they serve from their normal, non-Ramadan menu.

The English teacher said, ‘Well, this iftar buffet didn’t have much of a selection.’

I didn’t bother replying, ‘Well, it did for those who arrived on time.’

The next day, I was invited to iftar by a Muslim, and expected a reasonable meal.

However, the UAE labour laws require a reduction in hours worked for Ramadan, which means that the public transportation service cancels many of the busses and taxis.

I went out at 3:00 p.m. to get a ride to iftar. The sun set, and I still hadn’t seen a bus or a legal taxi (though I did see some illegal taxis, but was afraid to try one), so I never made it to iftar. I tried to call my host to apologize, but he didn’t answer his phone, either because a) he is angry that I failed to make his iftar, or b) because iftar is much too important to interrupt by answering the phone. I suppose I’ll find out why he refused to answer his phone in a day or two.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Aza with Farook

Farook called and invited me to join him. I never know what to expect with Farook, as he generally has plans he does not confide in me when he calls and invites me to join him. He said he’d pick me up at 6:30 p.m., which turned out to be 7.

He said ‘a very close friend’ had just died. Farook had not heard that this ‘close friend’ had been suffering from cancer for several years, or that he’d gone to Europe for treatment, but he’d read in the Arabic newspaper that his friend had died, and that the friend’s brothers were holding an aza, which is like a wake.

I am probably abusing the term ‘wake,’ which in the West refers to a period of visitation between death and burial. Islam requires quick burial, so the period of visitation, I believe called aza, occurs after the burial. The newspaper had given the address, but the concept of street address is foreign to Farook. Farook had gotten as far as the fact that the aza was in the Al Barsha district, close to the Emirates Mall, so we drove near the mall and Farook kept asking people if they knew where there was an aza going on. They didn’t.

Finally, Farook told me the address, and I was able to direct him, being familiar with the basic concept. We’d driven past several times without realizing it.

We entered and found a majlis, a large room full of men. A sound system was playing the Quran. I followed right behind Farook and shook hands with everyone, just as he did. (I skipped the nose rubbing and kissing, though.) Then we sat in the two chairs next to the brothers for about one minute, until the next guests arrived, when we moved to the other side of the room so the new arrivals could sit next to the brothers.

About half the mourners had prayer beads, and the clicking sounded like the rosaries at an Irish wake. The traditional Irish clinking of glasses holding beer and liquor, however, was of quite different vessels, namely coffee and teacups. When the coffee cup is empty, handing it back to the server will result in its being refilled and returned. One must shake the cup to indicate one has had quite enough coffee. The coffee was, of course, traditional Arabic coffee, very weak and flavoured with something, perhaps cardamom. The tea was very sweet.

I looked around the large majlis. Two oil painting of dishdashed subjects hung on the walls, along with a ceremonial dagger in a silver sheath, and Islamic calligraphy. Everything about the majlis radiated understated wealth.

The brothers were wearing the traditional dishdash, as was Farook, but most of the mourners were in Western suits with ties.

Two men came in wearing tunics not quite like the usual dishdashes, and with thin, semi-transparent black capes. They wore turbans that, I thought, looked Iranian, but they spoke Arabic.

After ten minutes, we left, and I asked about the two men.

‘They are very holy men, Shia imams,’ Farook explained. ‘Very good men.’

‘From Iran?’ I asked.

‘No, they are Citizens of Dubai.’

I was impressed. Farook is Sunni, but he still holds Shiite imams in high regard.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Columbus: What Really Happened

Columbus reached an island in the West Indies on 12 October, 1492. Four hundred and six years ago today.

Most history books tell us that Columbus died without realizing that he had reached a new continent. It is true that he died swearing that he’d travelled to India. Four times. But there are reasons why he’d swear this, regardless of whether he really believed it.

The history books I had to read as a schoolboy also said that, before Columbus, Europeans thought the world was flat, and sailors were afraid, if they sailed very far from land, they could fall off the edge. But the sailors had a very different worry.

In the 14th century, sailing ships could only go in the direction of the wind. To go against the wind, it was necessary to use galleys, and galleys have very limited cargo and passenger capacity, since most of the galley is full of galley slaves. Given a strong east wind, a sailing ship could get away from Europe, but couldn’t get back, and the entire crew could expect to die of thirst and hunger.

Near land, there is usually a strong breeze blowing toward the sea early in the morning, and a strong breeze blowing toward land in the evening, and fishermen tried to stay close enough to shore that they could get home. Sailors trapped in a storm that blew them too far from land often never made it back.

Sometime in the 15th century, the Italians discovered how to make a sailing ship that could beat against the wind. The Italians only wanted such ships to dominate the Adriatic, but the Portuguese stole the design and used it to sail south along the west coast of Africa, against the prevailing winds and currents.

Columbus took the design and a map from 1427 that showed land approximately 4,000 km west of Europe and went to Madrid, where he applied for a government grant in 1485 (he’d already been turned down by the Portuguese).

He could have written, ‘I have no idea what this land is, or what I’ll find, but I’d like you to fund my proposal to build three ships.’ What he wrote was on the lines of ‘This map shows how to get to India faster than the Portuguese, and I alone know how to navigate there, so fund my proposal and Spain will gain competitive advantage.’

Spain put him on retainer, so he couldn’t travel to India for anyone else, but didn’t fund him until 1492. For about two months, Columbus sailed against a western wind, which kept his sailors happy, since they knew that, when water and food ran low, they could get back to Europe much quicker than the outbound voyage. Finally, on 12 October, Columbus reached an island where he found some strange foods.

When Columbus got back from America, he could have said, ‘I found something, but it certainly wasn’t India. We found some plants we ate on the way back, but we have some left to show you.’

But, had he said this, there would have been questions. And they would have been asked by the Spanish Inquisition.

So he said, more or less, ‘As promised, I managed to reach India. My first trip, while a complete success, was just a “proof of principal.” You need to give me further funding so I can continue and maintain Spain’s competitive advantage in Indian imports.’ Spain made Columbus the Governor of All India and funded three more missions. (There was a slight problem when the Governor of All India ordered the execution of a nobleman, resulting in his being removed from office and gaoled, but he kept pointing out that he'd found India for Spain before Portugal reached it, and they eventually released him.)

And Columbus kept saying he’d reached India until he died.

Of course, the best salesmen often believe their own drivel, so he may have deluded himself into thinking he’d reached India, and that the Native Americans were, as he said, Saracens. But there’s no conclusive evidence for what he really believed, only for what he said he believed.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Holy Quran Award in the New York Times

Today’s New York Times features an article about the Dubai International Holy Koran Award (sic).

The article correctly states that the award is open to young Muslim men from all over the world.

I thought this was wrong, because I believed I had heard of a young woman winning in the separate women's division.

In fact, she had won the Local Holy Quran Award, which, unlike the International Award, is open to both young men and young women.

More Iftar Confusion

Farook called and invited me to join him after iftar, iftar being a time for family. Then he took me to a Ramadan tent around 9:00 p.m. The tent was erected inside a portable glass building, air-conditioned and with a large-screen TV. The building was situated on a large, sandy lot.

In large letters by the entrance to the tent was the command to refrain from smoking, in English and Arabic. Those who wished to smoke could sit on the sand outside the building and take their chances with the scorpions. Quite a few chose this option.

The tent was furnished with traditional Arabic furniture: cushions on the floor laid along three walls, and oriental carpets. Shoes were to be left outside the tent.

When we went in, the TV was tuned to a sports channel. Farook didn’t care for the tennis, so he asked me to hand him the control, and flipped channels until he found the Jeddah channel showing the mosque in Mecca. After awhile, he switched to an Arabic news channel that was reporting about the North Korean nuclear test.

Then our host, thinking of me rather more than Farook did, asked for the control and switched to a channel showing a French movie with English and Arabic subtitles so everyone could enjoy it equally.

Farook said we’d eat at 10:30 p.m., meaning 11. As we waited, more and more people came into the tent. Farook said many of them had no money, and had eaten nothing but an iftar consisting of a few dates and either water or 250 ml of juice, nothing else. Farook said this was the proper iftar.

He said they would have a very small meal, called suhour, just before the time, an hour before dawn, when the fasting starts. Almost everything they will eat for the day is from the Ramadan tent at 11.

(Farook then said that he had eaten a huge iftar with his family, and would not be able to do justice to the meal provided by the Ramadan tent.)

As we waited, they served us Arabic coffee, then very sweet tea, then sweet zatar tea, then Vimto, then plastic cups of water. Then they started over again with the coffee, tea, etc.

The tent got more and more crowded, and I lost my space on the cushions and ended up on the carpet. Finally, a few minutes before 11, the people who had been serving the coffee and tea came in with a roll of plastic of the kind used in inexpensive restaurants for table coverings. When the plastic roll was set out and weighted down, they began bringing in huge trays of food and setting it on the plastic.

The menu was roast goat on rice, roast goat on lentils, khamis, a mixture of goat and flour that's been steamed for a long time until if forms a paste, black-eyed peas, flat bread with a sweet sauce, donut holes covered in sweet sauce, vermicelli with a sweet sauce, and one more sweet, but they didn’t tell me its name.

No utensils, the idea is to grab chunks of goat with your hands, or dip your fingers into the khamis and the sweets.

By 11:15, all the goat was gone, as were all the people. Outside was a wooden platform set next to two water taps, so one wouldn’t have to stand in the mud while washing up.

Everyone stood outside, smoking, while people came by offering more coffee and tea.

Then Farook took me home, dropping me off just after midnight.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What is Iftar?

After several years in Dubai, I’m still not sure what, exactly, is iftar.

Neither was Condi Rice. My advantage was actually living here; hers was a phalanx of advisors.

I’ve been to quite a few iftars now. Some consisted of dates and juice, while others had a ‘sumptuous array of dishes.’

Perhaps the best examples of iftar invitations were from Fahad: the actual iftar consisted of an offer of dates (I think three is the customary number, so that’s what I took, but I didn’t count how many Fahad ate), a glass of juice, and a glass of water.

Then Fahad went off to pray.

About half an hour after iftar, we had dinner, a normal dinner, such as he serves when it’s not Ramadan.

Sometimes, I’ve been with people at sunset, and all they offered were a bag of dates and a bottle of water or juice. Dinner was to be much later, and was not included in the iftar invitation.

This is what Condi Rice had heard, but she couldn’t find any dates, so she set out candy instead, about three pieces for each guest one assumes, and water.

On her last trip out here, she got invited to the other kind of iftar.

The other kind of iftar involves a huge buffet laid out with salads (mezzes I think they’re called), vegetables, pakora, and lots of goat, chicken, and fish prepared in different ways. Plus fruit and sweets for dessert, especially the sweet called Umm Ali.

The buffets open about half an hour before sunset, and all the people load up their plates. Some load up two or three plates, piled as high as possible.

Everyone gets a glass of juice, or three, and a glass of water.

They everyone sits down in front of the pile of food (and dates, of course) and waits patiently for sunset. At the instant of sunset, in Dubai at least, a cannon goes off. Then, in Dubai and throughout the entire Islamic world, the azan sounds.

And everybody digs in until the buffet is empty, which usually takes about 30 to 45 minutes.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

‘Prince’ Mansour

This story is hearsay, so I’m not sure if it’s true, but it certainly sounds believable. It was told to me by Fahad.

Fahad is from Saudi Arabia, and is from the gentry of that country, so he knows the Royal Family.

He had a friend named Mansour who called himself ‘Prince’ Mansour.

Pulled over for speeding, Mansour would say, ‘I am Prince Mansour,’ and the traffic cop would apologize and send him on his way.

Fahad told ‘Prince’ Mansour that his car needed work, which normally takes at least two weeks and then isn’t done right. ‘Prince’ Mansour was with him when he took it in, and it was ready the next day. Everything was fixed correctly. Even things Fahad hadn’t asked for had been done, and all to the highest standards. And the garage refused to accept payment.

Fahad said, ‘Thanks,’ to ‘Prince’ Mansour.

A few weeks later, the police came for Fahad and took him to see a real prince. The real prince said, ‘You know what is identity theft?’ Fahad said, ‘Yes.’ ‘You steal identity of prince. You go gaol for many years, maybe life.’ Fahad was, understandably, rather frightened. ‘But I never steal identity of anyone.’

‘You take car for repair?’


‘You say car for Royal Family?’


The real prince finally extracted the identity of ‘Prince’ Mansour, who was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Fahad went to plead for mercy, since ‘Prince’ Mansour was a very good friend.

‘OK, for you Fahad, we no send Mansour to gaol.’ Then the real prince slapped Mansour so hard Mansour fell down.

Mansour had a bruise in the shape of a hand on his face for several weeks.

And he has never since called himself ‘Prince’ Mansour.

Selling Schools in Sharjah

A couple of years ago, Farook called and said he was waiting for me outside my flat. I went down, and he drove me to a school in Sharjah.

‘This school only £3,000,000. You buy, you make lots of money. School very good business. My children and cousins teach Koran. You no need work.’

Farook is convinced that all Westerners, every time they sneeze, drop at least £1,000,000, so a mere £3,000,000 would be nothing to me. I must keep at least that much in each pocket.

I don’t, so I said I wasn’t interested.

Shortly thereafter, a UK lady entered into a partnership in Dubai, and her partner took all her money. She could no longer afford her villa, and had to move. She’d heard Farook was a good source of cheap flats, so she went to him. He saw a UK lady, and asked her if she’d like to buy a school. She, amazingly, said ‘Yes.’

Actually, she was hoping for a commission for selling it to some UK acquaintances.

‘I need all the blueprints and specifications,’ she said.

Farook said, ‘No need. Ask my friend, he tell you this very good school. You give deposit, school yours.’

I could see she didn’t have a tosser, but she knew people who did, so I told Farook, ‘Give her the blueprints and plans.’

Farook was (according to a mutual friend) furious. Here I was, taking her side. The idea was for me to say, ‘This is very good school. You must buy. Give Farook deposit and school yours.’

Only I never say such things.

Had she been new to the UAE, believed that ex-pats could buy schools, and was flush with £100,000 or so, Farook would have taken her deposit. Then, when she found out that ex-pats cannot buy schools and complained, Farook would have said it was ‘all this Westerner’s fault.’

Farook’s plan was that she would have lost all her deposit, Farook would have split the proceeds with a cousin (or two) and a Citizen, I wouldn’t have gotten anything except for all the blame.

But I knew the lady didn’t have any money, and just wanted to convince some of her more affluent friends to buy the school, so I kept saying, ‘Give her the blueprints.’ And Farook kept getting more and more angry because I wasn’t helping him.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Iftar after 9/11

I was supposed to meet Fahad for iftar today at his home. He had to go to the American Embassy for something, but arrived in the morning, and thought he’d be home well before iftar.

The first thing they did at the embassy was to take away everything he was carrying, including his mobile phone. Then they kept him waiting. He saw that he couldn’t possibly make it home before iftar, but he couldn’t call and tell me not to come.

Fortunately, Dubai traffic being what it is, there were no busses or taxis available this afternoon, so I was still waiting at the bus/taxi stand when he called.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Ramadan: The View from Fort Worth, TX, USA

I found the Fort Worth Star Telegram blog pages, where Paul Bourgeois wrote a blog called ‘Ramadan, here I come!’

He writes that his view of Ramadan is that it is about fasting, quality family time, and contemplation, and that he intends to do all these things this Ramadan.

He then goes on to write, ‘The toughest thing might be trying to figure out how these people can possibly have a holiday without sales in all the stores?’

I tried to check on holiday sales in Dubai vs. Christendom.

In Dubai, 15% of all retail sales take place during the month of Ramadan. In the West, they only measure sales by the month, and the holiday season runs from the last week of November through the third week of December, so they have to report sales for all of November and December, which are about 25% of annual sales in the US, and 18% of annual sales in Canada.

An average month should see about 8% of annual sales, and two average months should see about 17%, so the Ramadan season has retail sales about 80% above average, while the Christmas season in the US or Canada has sales less than 62% above average.

In the West, during the Christmas season, preachers will exhort their flocks that the season is not about parties and shopping.

And in the Islamic world, during Ramadan, imams and mullahs will exhort their people to recall that the holy month of Ramadan is not about parties and shopping.

So, Paul, there's not that much difference.