Monday, April 30, 2007

Learning Arabic

A friend suggested I join him at a conference. He promised free food, so how could I resist?

The only charge for the 'free' food was listening to the presentations at the conference, so I sat down in the auditorium.

The first speaker began in Arabic. I didn't understand one word, but at least I recognized that he was reciting poetry by the metre and the rhyme.

At the end of the poem, he got a standing ovation. Only two of us (a Frenchman and myself) didn't stand up and cheer wildly (apparently, the Frenchman doesn't understand any more Arabic than I do).

Then the English portion of his presentation began: "Analytic and Algebraic Topology of a Locally Euclidean Metrization of an Infinitely Differentiable Riemannian Manifold."

And I am happy to report, for that one brief, shining moment, I understood the Arabic every bit as well as I did the English.

At the end, there was just one question, 'Who wrote the poem?' followed by another standing ovation.

As to the food, when I arrived, a breakfast buffet was laid out. When that was cleared, we had a very nice lunch. As soon as lunch was over, they set out cake. So my friend's promise was more than fulfilled.

Fatter but not much wiser, I waddled out after the final presentation.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Flame Trees

Yesterday, I saw my first blooming flame tree of the year. I was in a certain Northern Emirate, so I'm not sure if they are blooming in Dubai.

I keep meaning to look for the Flame Trees of Thika, which I saw in many book stores just before I came to the UAE, but I haven't seen it since.

The flame trees deserve the name, since their inflorescence is an incredible flaming red, and I enjoy the sight, but not what it represents: that summer is rapidly approaching.

But at least we can brace ourselves in beauty.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Before coming to a certain Northern Emirate (where victims of fraud will now be prosecuted for stupidity, but that's another story), I never saw any mosquitoes in the UAE. The Northern Emirate where I'm working abounds in them.

At the room where I stay at night, I burn incense and spray pesticides.

At work, the place is too large for me to spray everywhere, and management says, 'We will spray bukara, inshallah (English translation: "Those mosquitoes are safe.")

The worst place I've seen has been the men's lavatory, since there is ample water there. The organization where I work took over an abandoned building that once held several hundred workers, but we only have about thirty, so the lavatories have far more facilities than we can use, there is always plenty of stagnant water, and the mosquitoes love it.

So, when nature calls, one is not only faced with mosquito bites on sensitive parts of one's anatomy, one must try not to think about where those mosquitoes have just been.

Monday, April 23, 2007

In Memoriam: Kurt Vonnegut

It's been a week since Vonnegut died, but none of his obituaries seem to have noted that he changed history.

After the Axis were forced to unconditional surrender, they were required to take full responsibility for the wars of the first half of the 20th century.

After the war, the Allies wrote the history books and distributed endless documentaries about how the wars had been between good and evil. While the Axis were bent on world domination for lebensraum, i.e., exterminating their enemies so that members of the Axis would have plenty of space, the Allies fought a war strictly in accord with international law. The Allies only bombed military targets. They didn't claim 'smart bombs,' but they did claim precision bomb-sights that enabled them to avoid civilian targets. The Allies only bombed factories making tanks and aircraft, they did not wantonly take lives as the Axis did.

And then Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five. He had been a prisoner of war in Dresden, and had witnessed what the Allies had done to Dresden

The bombing was to test a new, anti-personnel strategy. For the test, the Allies had selected Dresden, because it was a target with no military value, hence it was undefended, so the planes could bomb without worrying about anti-aircraft defences. The new bombing strategy rendered bomb shelters useless. Almost everyone in Dresden-- mostly elderly men, women, and children--was killed. And Vonnegut was an eyewitness, and later wrote a novel about it.

History, by which I mean what is in the history books, was forever changed by that novel.

It was not so simple any more. The Axis were still just as evil as they had been depicted, but the Allies had managed to kill almost as many innocents as the Axis, and with very little more justification.

After Vonnegut's novel, history was no longer about the glorious triumph of unadulterated good over unmitigated evil: such triumphs were relegated to fiction by authors other than Vonnegut.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Return of Archy?

I was at work in a certain Northern Emirate (using my mouse) when a movement on the keyboard attracted my attention: sitting on my keyboard was a cockroach. I shouldn't complain , as it was only a small problem, perhaps 10 cm long, and barely able to cover all the letters in its name.

My first thought was that a co-worker was studying Kafka's Metamorphosis, and had brought the roach in as a prop, but we also have a biological project, and my second thought was that a specimen might have escaped from the lab.

However, the people who work in the biology lab denied the cockroach (three times), and everyone denied attempting to read anything by Kafka (in German or in translation), so I called and asked if something could be done about the infestation.

The answer was the usual, 'Bukra, inshalla, we will have someone spray your building,' which translates into English as 'No!'

I finally realized that a cockroach that takes up residence on a keyboard and cannot be eliminated must have a lot of wasta acquired from some influential Marquis, so I'm waiting for Archy to jump onto my keyboard and write something.

Unless my personally purchased can of Pif Paf doesn't send him to his next re-incarnation sooner, rather than later.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Construction: Park and Centre

As I was wandering along one of my usual paths a couple of years ago, I was forced to detour by the erection of barriers around two sandy lots that I had been accustomed to cutting across.

I asked several people, 'What are they building?' and was told, 'A new high-rise apartment building,' 'A new shopping centre,' and several other guesses, all of which turned out to be inoperative.

On my latest walk past the construction sites, I saw the signs proclaiming what, exactly, was being erected.

The smaller site is to be a 'Landscape Park.' Meaning, it will have some Islamic-looking structures set among date palms with a wandering path leading through the park. It is being built in something that looks like white marble, and it looks like it's nearing completion.

The larger site will soon be an Ismaili Centre. I'm not sure what an Ismaili Centre is, but the development of the Centre was announced by the Aga Khan, as it will be one of the world's major Ismaili Centres.

I'm hoping it will be open to non-Ismailis who want to learn more about the Ismailis.

In any case, I'm looking forward to the opening of the new park.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Misread Sign

Wandering the streets of a certain Northern Emirate a few months ago, I saw in the distance a sign that I misread. The sign actually said
Bee & Honey.

Somehow, I missed seeing the "&".

This week, I wandered into the shop, and saw honey with about six different labels (all in Arabic), but it was all either black or honey-coloured. The black was priced at around €30 a bottle, and the honey-coloured at around €20. The bottles looked like they held more honey than I'd use in a year.

I asked about the bees, and was told they don't keep them in the store, but they can deliver African bees whereever I'd like them delivered.

And I always thought African bees were just for sending to someone you didn't like.

Some African bees made it to Latin America about twenty years ago, and people in North America were panicking at the thought of these bees crossing the Rio Grande. Hollywood even made a movie about a swarm of African bees wiping out most of South Texas, but I think (in the movie) that the Union Army managed to stop the bees before they crossed the Mason-Dixon line. I'm not sure about the ending, though. The movie was so bad, I didn't stay to see the end.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Property Investments

Grapeshisha is advising people interested in investing in property in the UAE to invest in real estate in fantasy games like Second Life.

There are people in China who play these fantasy games all day long and then sell the stuff they earn for real money on e-Bay. In fact, there are even reports from China of people murdered for their virtual property.

Meanwhile, the alternatives in the UAE remain as terrifying as ever. From the time, several years ago, when Emaar starting selling empty sand while Nakheel sold empty Gulf for 30% down, and no history of freehold in the UAE, to today, when prices are up by more than 300% and the buyer must put 80% down before the villa is completed.

Since the actual costs were covered by the old prices, and since the UAE has lots of sand and lots of Gulf still available, it's hard to see how current prices can be sustainable. Emaar had to cut its dividend.

And, perhaps scariest of all, the local newspapers report that the demand for property is so great that prices can only rise, and the developers can only continue to mint money.

Meanwhile, the big developers have raised their asking prices by 50% just in the last four months; however, it is not clear if they are actually selling property at these prices.

So Grapeshisha is probably right, that, right now, fantasy real estate is probably a safer investment than UAE real estate.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Walking the Streets of the Golden Sands

We were visiting my uncle's house about a century ago when I came across the word 'streetwalker' in one of my uncle's books. I assumed it was a dumbed-down word for 'pedestrian,' but more specific, referring to someone striding about the urban or sub-urban environment, as opposed to someone trekking cross country. At the time, no one would explain the word to me.

'Streetwalker' is a strange word. I was the only one actually doing any walking through the Golden Sands a couple of days ago, but I saw several young women standing there, some of whom were desperate enough to smile at me. Sadly, I only had time to smile back as I was forced to proceed at as brisk a pace as I can now manage, since I had to complete some essential business before a deadline.

I find it strange that the young ladies in the Golden Sands are generally seen during daylight hours, unlike the West (cf. 'Pretty Woman') where they usually do not appear before evening. I've been through the Golden Sands area after dark (when I was not rushed by business obligations) but didn't see any pretty young ladies palely loitering.

The story I read at my uncle's (but did not understand):

A man had just won the Olympic gold medal for swimming, and was on the obligatory swimming tour.

As he was demonstrating his technique at a Mediterranean beach, a young lady easily passed him. He swam as fast as he could, but could not catch her. Back on the beach, he saw her in the crowd, and asked, 'Why don't you try out for the Olympics? You could easily win a gold medal.'

'I'm not eligible,' she replied. 'I used to work as a streetwalker in Venice.'

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Getting Rich by Blogging

A few bloggers have gone from complete obscurity to riches via their blogs. (Washingtonienne comes unbidden to mind.) The blogger, who, from experience, must have a female persona, blogs about her intimate life and is offered money beyond the dreams of Croesus (or at least beyond the dreams of the proprietor of the La Grange Chicken Ranch).

In the old days, most of these purportedly female authors were actually men, beginning with some racy memoirs by a young lady of negotiable virtue that were actually penned by John Cleland (who died in poverty, having spent more than 100% of his considerable royalties on his research). Today, of course, the 'author' must pose for pictures for the book jacket, which means that, if a man actually wrote the blog, he would need a suitably pneumatic actress to take all the credit as the author.

Here in Dubai, we have a couple (at least the persona is of two) women who have gone from obscurity to a paid position with a print journal. Their blog is one of those I list on my 'daily reads', Single in Dubai. When they first got the print job, they said they could no longer post their blog, and I had to move them to my inactive list. Apparently, they have gotten permission to resume, so I've had to move them back from my inactive list to my active list.

This is a bother, so I have to hope they keep publishing, so I won't have to move them back to 'inactive.'

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Taxi 'Queue' in a Northern Emirate

The places where I shop in Dubai have a taxi queue. This means that they have a security person there to ensure that there is, in fact, a Western style (or Russian style, or British style) queue.

At the main supermarket where I shop when I'm in a certain Northern Emirate, there is a loading area. Standing there are some families waiting with their shopping carts full of purchases while the driver (papa, mama, chauffeur, or whomever) brings the car. Also standing, mixed with the people waiting for a private car, are people waiting for a taxi.

The people all stand shoulder to shoulder as they wait. Like a typical Middle Eastern queue, the queue is about forty abreast and one deep. Taxis pull up to a random point along the line, and the four or five people closest to the taxi make a mad dash. Being old, fat, and slow, for almost two hours I was not the first to grab any of the arriving taxis.

A driver finally recognized me, and ordered his front seat passenger to squeeze into the back with two other young men and a young lady, forcing the young lady to sit in one of the young men's laps. He then offered to take me home for about €4, but I refused, so he reduced his price to €2, about twice the metered fare. But I took it. It was after 10:00 p.m., and I was desperate to get home.

In addition to collecting double the usual fare from me, the taxi driver also collected from his original passengers, who said they lived close to where the taxi dropped me off, so the taxi driver managed a tidy profit on the run.