Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Death of Saddam Hussein

In 2003, I watched the Iraq War on Al Jazeera, which was then only in Arabic, and on Fox, which was then free to air.

On Al Jazeera, Baghdad was just like Paris in 1939. It was all in Arabic, which I do not understand, but a war movie is a war movie. I kept waiting to see Ahmed Bogart at the train station waiting for Fatima Bergman.

On Fox, Baghdad was just like Paris in 1944. I kept waiting for Hemmingway to appear and comment on the victory.

Strangely, I now believe both Al Jazeera and Fox were reporting equally valid versions of the truth.

Today, I watched the announcement of Saddam's execution on Al Jazeera, English, and on CNN.

On CNN, the death of a dictator after a fair and just trial was putting fear into the hearts of all the other dictators on the planet, who were hurriedly packing their bags and preparing to depart, leaving their countries in peace and freedom.

On Al Jazeera, a Mafia-style murder had silenced a former mob hit-man before he could spill the beans on any of the Capi.

Shiites say that Saddam's death was on Arafa Day. Sunnis, who almost always have a different Islamic calendar than Shiites, say that Saddam was executed on Eid al-Adha, the day of sacrifice. Under the Sunni calendar, Saddam was sacrificed along with the Sunni goats.

Not so strangely, I believe one of these versions is much closer to the truth than the other.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Tomorrow is Eid Al-Adha

Today is Arafa Day, so, unless things have changed, there will be goats tied to trees in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, and goats running around freely in the Northern Emirates.

By tomorrow evening, the number of goats will be greatly diminished.

Eid Al-Adha (or ul-Adha, depending on the transliterator) commemorates the day when the Prophet Ibrahim (or Abraham) started to sacrifice his son Ismael (or Ishmael) but was stopped by an angel who provided a goat in the boy's place. Consequently, every father is expected to go out with his sons and a goat to commemorate.

I witnessed this in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi back in 2001.

So I advised my squeamish vegetarian friend in Abu Dhabi to stay inside tomorrow morning.

I, however, am back in Dubai for the holidays, and Dubai doesn't allow the traditional commemoration of Eid al Adha.

So there won't be any scenes to appal the squeamish vegetarians in Dubai tomorrow morning.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Poetic Justice?

A kangaroo appeals court has ordered Saddam Hussein executed within 30 days, confirming the order of the kangaroo tribunal that convicted Saddam of allowing kangaroo courts to operate under his dictatorship.

Of course, Saddam's courts usually finished trials in minutes, while his own trial took months, so there seems to have been a loss of efficiency, but identical conclusions.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Geometry of the Northern Emirate

From the place where I'm staying, some taxis go to the first round about, turn right, drive about 2 km to the light, turn left, drive about 6 km, and arrive at the place where I work. Others go to the second roundabout, turn left, drive about 1 km, turn right, drive about 5 km, and arrive at the place where I work.

In Euclidean geometry, this is not possible.

So the Northern Emirate where I'm working has a non-Euclidean geometry.

Which doesn't surprise me.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


It is clear that many world leaders prefer a Roman banquet to the cuisine offered by their own countries. In alphabetical order, Ahmadinejad, Bush, and Kim (plus many others) come to mind.

This is because every Roman banquet serves soup to nuts.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


It is nice to know that lawyers are the same the world over. I have paid lawyers, but have always had my lawyers take my money and either do nothing, or side with the opposition ('You may be paying us, but we are officers of the court, and are working for justice.')

The US regularly reports that condemned prisoners had lawyers who asked for the death penalty, even when the prosecution was reluctant to do so. I spoke with one criminal lawyer, who said he knew all his clients were criminals, and he not only wasn't about to defend them, he would try a 'plea bargain' for more than they would have gotten if convicted.

Civil suits in the West are about the same. If the suit has a chance, the lawyers will take the case on contingency. If they don't, it means a) the case hasn't a chance; and b) after taking the retainer, they don't intend to waste any of their time pursuing the case.

So a friend in the UAE has filed a lawsuit because he put down a deposit on a villa. 'What about the broken windows?' 'They'll be fixed before you move in.' (They weren't.) 'What about the fact that the A/C doesn't work?' 'It will be fixed before you move in.' (It wasn't.) My friend refused to move in, since the promised work hadn't been done. 'Sorry, your deposit is non-refundable.'

My friend, furious, went to a lawyer who said, 'I need a retainer of €2,000.' That was the last my friend heard from the lawyer. Calls went unreturned.

So my friend went to another lawyer to sue the first lawyer to get his retainer back. He gave the second lawyer a retainer of €2,000.' That was the last he heard from the second lawyer. His calls are not returned.

Now he's planning to get a third lawyer to sue the first two lawyers and the original landlord. I wish him the best of luck. But the lawyers here seem exactly like the ones I met in the West.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Attraction in the Northern Emirate

I was checking an on-line encyclopaedia in a small Internet facility when I heard the lady next to me laughing. She was a little embarrased to be laughing so loudly, so she explained that she was engaged in a really funny chat program with a friend.

I asked her what had brought her to the UAE, and found out she was here with her husband and children for the water-skiing (she never told me what was so funny). Her husband is coach of the National Team from her country, and her daughter is on the team. The team used to go to the US during the December holiday break, but the UAE is much cheaper and is also warmer.

Her husband and children are quite busy with the water skiing, but she says she's quite bored, so she's spending a lot of her time chatting with friends from back home. But at least she seems to be enjoying the chat.

And, she says, her country's Water-Skiing team is in the Top 10.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Life in a Northern Emirate

A young Citizen (shebab in Arabic) called me one night to invite me to meet the Ruler of the Emirate. He sounded very excited, and said he would pick me up promptly at 9:00 a.m. On the day in question, I didn't have to be at work until 11:00 a.m., so I was free at 9:00 a.m., and thought it might be a good idea to meet the Ruler.

At 10:00 a.m., the Citizen had still not arrived, so I called. I could hear that he was in a coffee shop with some friends. 'Sir, the Sheikh said he could not meet with us before noon.' 'I told you I have to be at work at 11.' 'Sir, if you miss work because you see Sheikh, no one can say anything. Sheikh is owner of business.' 'I have to be at work at 11.' 'It is up to you sir, but you should meet Sheikh.'

This Citizen had taken me to one of the Ruling Family's palaces before. A servant gave us each a cup of Arabic coffe. It appears that any male Citizen can go at any time to any palace belonging to a male member of the Ruling Family and get a free cup of coffee. (I think the female Citizen's can go to any palace belonging to a female member of the Ruling Family, but I don't have any first-hand knowledge of this.)

The cups are very small, and the members of the ruling family have the financial resources to give every citizen free cups of coffee. The resident of the palace, one of the Ruler's brothers, was just leaving as we arrived.

As best I can tell, all the men in the Ruling Ramily know every single Citizen by name. Of course, this isn't as hard as it sounds, since almost every male Citizen is named Ahmed or Mohammed. And even if that's not their first name, it's their second or third name.

So I decided I'd better straggle into work rather than going to the Sheikh's Palace for a free cup of Arabic coffee.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Northern Emirate Taxis

Some Emirates, such as Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, have recently revamped their taxis. Sharjah taxis were once meterless, and all fares subject to 'negotiation,' but the Emirate introduced metered taxis which have largely replaced the older meterless taxis.

Abu Dhabi taxis have had the same meters for 20 years, and the drivers have watched as their real earnings during the day steadily dropped. They had a way of trying to make ends meet: they don't use the meter late at night.

In the Northern Emirate where I'm now working, all the taxis seem to have meters, but don't use them. Or, on the rare occasions when they use the meter, some expect a surcharge.

I had heard the taxis were meterless, and the meters were covered up so I didn't see them. I tried to negotiate my first day here, but the driver uncovered his meter and used it. About €1.25 for the fare. The next day I got in, sat down, and gave my destination. The driver didn't use the meter, and demanded €3.50 for the same ride when we arrived. Since I hadn't asked, I gave him the money with a snarl of 'Thief.'

Another taxi used the meter, but demanded a 20% surcharge. Which I refused to pay. (The taxi driver's screaming caused the person I was meeting to give him the 20% to shut him up.)

If I negotiate in advance, the price is about €2 if it's sunny, or €3 if it's raining, but a few drivers (one, in fact) use the meter, or ask €1 for the ride.

But mostly it's €3-€3.50 if you don't ask, or €2 if you demand a price in advance.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Arabic Night Club

My boss told me that the hotel where I'm staying is notorious for young ladies of negotiable virtue. I haven't seen any. An Arab friend came to visit, and looked at the receptionist, who smiles at all guests and wears neither abaya nor veil, but is practically naked in the official hotel uniform (i.e, standard Western dress). He immediately concluded that she was renting more than rooms (though the only encouragement I've ever seen her give anyone is a smile of 'Welcome to the Hotel').

My Arab friend went with me to one restaurant/bar, but they don't serve dish-dashes. We then went to the Arab restaurant/bar, where we were promised Lebanese dancers and Syrian singers. On stage, 11 young women stood around, moving very little, and looking bored. Behind them, two singers performed some Arabic hit songs. 'So those are Lebanese dancers,' I said. 'No. Lebanese are much prettier. They must be from [name of country with undeserved reputation for ugly women deleted].'

A man came by selling plastic bracelets for €5 to €100. In front of the stage were three bottles of expensive French champagne. As we watched, the waiters started putting bottles of expensive Scotch on each table. My friend said that most customers spend several thousand euros to impress the girls, then take them home when the dancing finishes at 3:00 a.m.

But I don't have €1,000 to spend, and I can no longer stay up until 3:00 a.m. when I have to work the next day, so we left.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Still in the Northern Emirates: TV

The place where I'm working put me up in a €40 hotel. The TV has most of the channels blocked. I can't watch cartoons (I like "Tom and Jerry") or any of the English channels (like MBC or Dubai One), but I do get a channel called "Arab XXX."

Since it was the only thing on, I ended up watching.

A young woman appeared, initially modestly dressed in an abaya and veil. As Arabic music played, she began slowly removing her clothes. The progress was excrutiatingly slow as she tried to elicit the greatest possible erotic anticipation out of her strip tease, but, eventually, she removed the very last stitch...

...of her veil.

Of course, she was still fairly modest by Western standards, since she had six more veils.

At this point, an offer came on in Arabic that, for just €259 the viewer could purchase a passcard allowing him to see all seven veils removed and the woman's entire face displayed in full frontal pose. For a few euros more, the viewer could also have pictures sent directly to his mobile.

I was almost overcome with the excitement, but I'm afraid this job doesn't pay enough to put €259 on my credit card.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Wedding in the UAE

I have been asked to help out in a northern Emirate, and, if I decide to go up there, I’ll need a cheap place to stay, so Fahad recommended Mohammed, who is from the Emirate. Mohammed called me at work and invited me to a wedding. He told me to take a taxi to the Khatt roundabout, and he’d meet me there. (The guidebook says Khatt is the location of a spring, famous for being hot, especially in the summer months.) The taxi asked for a bit extra, above the meter reading. This tends to annoy me, but, when Mohammed arrived, there was an interchange in Arabic, and Mohammed gave the taxi driver the surcharge (I still don’t know why the driver deserved it). The wedding was a few kilometres further. Mohammed had a new laser pointer that, according to the salesman, is good for three kilometres. Mohammed kept saying to me and to everyone he met, ‘Three kilo,’ as he pointed to the beam coming from his pointer.

We reached the wedding, parked, and a young man led us to the men’s section. There were tents with food, but we never went inside. Thankfully, Mohammed seems to prefer mall food to roast goat served on a bed of spicy rice, which I saw being carried into the tents. Outside the tents were two rows of men, about 10 meters long, facing each other. The rows were about 5 meters apart. The men in the rows were all chanting and holding camel sticks, and waving the camel sticks up and down in time to the music. Between the two rows a group of men danced in an oval, while the men not standing in line or dancing watched. A few of the dancers beat the Arabic drums (I forgot to ask the name of the drums in the UAE; the name varies depending on location). Most of the dancers held camel sticks, which they twirled like batons. A few rather young boys held steel swords (not sharp, but still swords) which they tossed high into the air, then tried to catch. Several young boys had plastic guns from Toys ‘R’ Ahmed’s, which lack the bright orange tips required in the West. They twirled the guns, sometimes tossing them high in the air and catching them (safer than the swords, I’d say.) One older man had a .22 rifle, which he twirled.

I knew that if a US pilot saw so many guns without the bright orange tips, he’d bomb first and ask questions later, so I was a little nervous, though I know that US F-16s don’t fly over the UAE.

The men who weren’t in the two lines, or dancing between them, stood around and watched as several servers came around with Arabic coffee. Just handing the server the cup back is a request for a re-fill. Wagging the cup before handing it back means the person has had enough coffee. I watched Mohammed, and drank as many cups as he did each time. Then a break, then another server would come with more coffee.

After the song had gone on for more than two hours, I began to hope for an F-16.

So I said I was tired and had to get up early the next morning, and Mohammed insisted we first go to the mall for dinner, then he took me home.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Northern Emirates

I am currently visiting one of the northern emirates. I am surrounded by mountains, and the natural state is much greener than Dubai (though the emirate is still not exactly lush green, and there is much less of the artificial grass and flowers that are charcteristic of Dubai). I've seen a herd of goats beside the road, standing on their hind legs trying to graze on the trees. And several Citizens carrying sub-machine guns, but they said it was just for a wedding.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Water Problems

In wealthy desert cities (which are largely limited to the south western US), little provision is made for the few days when it rains. (A Saudi friend was saying that Jeddah is a very wealthy city; but Jeddah isn’t really a wealthy city: cities with industry have much more money than Jeddah.)

The basic economics is that the cost of having flooded streets is inconvenience and economic losses for a day or three a year. The cost of a storm system that would prevent the flooding would mean taxes payable 365 days. So, when it rains, the streets flood and people can’t drive on the streets.

That this is what’s done in wealthy countries was little comfort to those stuck in Sharjah yesterday. The water was high enough in some places to flood cars, and several got water in the engines and stalled. All were stuck in traffic.

My day started in Dubai with a small boy jumping in the puddles he had probably never seen before. Many onlookers smiled as his mother grimaced, chased him, and dragged him to dry ground. Then I had a meeting in Sharjah.

The bus dropped me at a taxi stand, but no taxis came to the stand. I went to see if I could make it to the street, but water, a meter deep and a street wide separated me from the main street clogged with taxis. I saw several people taking off their shoes, but I have a vivid imagination for what might lie beneath the muddy waters. I went back to the taxi stand. Still no taxis. Finally, I rolled up my pants and waded across. Lots of taxis, though the one I got into wondered why I was taking a taxi when it was faster to wade (dry ground on which to walk being unavailable). As we sat in traffic, I saw several people walking through the meter deep water, their shoes in their hands. And I wondered if they had any idea what they might be stepping on.

When I arrived, I was soaked, and my friend gave me a dishdash to wear while my clothes dried. Since my clothes were still damp when I had to leave, he said the dishdash didn’t fit him, and I could keep it. He was probably lying, but I liked having a dishdash, so I accepted.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Weather Has Turned

Suddenly, the weather in the UAE is nice. A friend visiting the Northern Emirates reports that it is actually cold up there. Dubai is just pleasant, with light rain, which, after being in Dubai, I quite enjoy, and so I went out walking this evening.

I turned on the hot water heater and it exploded. The flat management replaced it, but set the thermostat much cooler than the cold water was during the summer, so I can no longer take a hot bath.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Winter Flora of Dubai

This time of the year, Dubai is particularly beautiful. The typical roundabout or median has a green base, with rows of spectacularly blooming fauna (which by a system of judicious transplantation are kept in perpetual flower).

Near my flat, there was a roundabout. At the centre, there were a few date palms, around the date palms were flowers, and around the floral display was grass, greener than I’ve seen in places more amenable to flora.

This roundabout was first stripped of its trees, flowers, and grass. Then it was expanded to four times its former size. Now it is an unsightly traffic hazard, consisting of nothing but sand and debris.

But, we are promised, in just 1,000 days, it will be a subway station.