Friday, February 22, 2008

Religious Conflicts?

Farook once said to me, more than a year ago, 'The Vedas tell the Hindoos to do only good things; the Torah tells the Jews to do only good things; the Gospels tell the Christians to do only good things; and the Koran tells Muslims to do only good things. But then people do bad things.'

Last week, Farook asked me about Northern Ireland. The question, I assume, was about the period that ended around 1990. My answer, which he did not accept, was that the conflict was similar to that between the Sunni and the Shia, although I knew my answer had several problems. Farook pointed to another Sunni and said, 'We are both Muslims, we never fight,' a rather disingenuous answer in my opinion. I pointed out that both were Sunni. 'I never fight with Shia.' Also true, but only because Farook refuses to associate with Shia.

I have read that Sunni and Shia never fought before the US interfered; however, there was no US at the time Ibn Batutta was writing, and he wrote that, while the Koran strictly enjoins Muslims from killing Muslims, it does not prohibit Sunnis from attempting to convert Shias by beating them with sticks, and he was proud of threatening Shia with a stick until they agreed to say they accepted Sunni doctrines. Also, the word 'never' when used with respect to human conflict is almost always false. However, it is certainly true that lethal engagements between Sunni and Shia were less frequent and involved fewer fatalities before the rise of the US to the status of world power, though this may or may not be a causal relationship.

I finally tried to explain the conflict in Northern Ireland by quoting Farook's own statement back at him, but he denied ever having made it, so, at that point, I gave up.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Waiting with Farook

Yesterday, Sunday, Farook called, and asked if we could get together. 'Sure,' I said. 'Tuesday OK?' he asked. 'Yes,' I replied, 'Tuesday.'

Today, Monday, my phone rang at 11:00 a.m. 'I'm downstairs. Please come now. Very important.' It was, of course, Farook. That Arabs have no sense of time is not a Western mis-perception; that Arabs are always late is.

A UAE Citizen was with Farook. Farook speaks about 100 words of English, which is 100 more words of English than I speak of Arabic. The UAE Citizen must have had a semester of English, since it is a UAE law; on the other hand, I had to have a semester of German. My German, the day after the final, immediately dropped to the same level as my Arabic, and the Citizen's English had managed a similar disappearing act. So Farook and the Citizen conversed in Arabic while the Koran played on the radio.

A few weeks previously, Farook had abandoned his small, fuel-efficient car for a Mercedes SUV that looked new, but was really just detailed. The SUV kept beeping, and the red light saying, 'Please Check' kept flashing. 'Is this Mercedes new?' I asked. 'Friend,' answered Farook, which I mentally translated into English as 'Used.'

We proceeded to a building that had the usual ground floor of retail shops, but had, rising from the ground floor, two residential/commercial towers. Farook led us to the wrong tower, and up to suite 606. We could hear children inside, but the woman refused to answer the door. We went to the other tower, and there in another suite 606 found the company where Farook hoped to broker a deal between the owner, a lady from Morocco, and the Citizen. The three conversed for about an hour in Arabic, then we suddenly left.

From there, Farook took us to lunch, but did not join us in eating. 'I'm not hungry,' he said. He ordered for me and the Citizen without asking us.

After lunch, we proceeded to the Meridian Hotel.

Farook usually calls on me when he thinks I might bring him luck in one of his deals. Farook's customers are those discovered by the sociologist Professor Barnum to be so rare that a mere 60 of them are born in the course of an entire hour. Today's customer, the one with whom Farook thought I might bring luck, was a German family Farook had met about ten years ago. Farook had found the Germans a flat, and they had found the Dubai winter weather far superior to Germany's, so they have come back to the UAE several times, and each time they returned, they have had Farook broker accommodations or other tourist necessities for them, in a transaction that was mutually beneficial. They really appreciated Farook's help, which they found to be very reasonably priced and extremely useful. What is very reasonably priced to a German is very lucrative to a local agent, so Farook appreciated their business as much as they appreciated Farooks's pampering them.

Consequently, shortly after they arrived in the UAE, they called Farook and said they were staying at the Meridian Hotel.

The problem was that Farook was not sure of their room number, and his Arabisation of their name had little semblance to the German. His plan, such as it was, was to ask that the Meridian page the Arabised name while we waited in the lobby. Farook seemed convinced that they would, upon hearing their name, immediately come to the lobby, but, in any case, they eventually had to cross the lobby, at which point we were bound to see them.

At 4 p.m., I said I had to be going, and Farook was quite disappointed, since his plan involved remaining in the lobby until midnight if necessary. 'You said you were free today,' he complained. 'I said I was free at 11, but I have another appointment at 5.'

Since he didn't expect to see the Germans until they returned from wherever they'd gone, he took me home and dropped me off, but he seemed quite annoyed at my desertion.

At this point, I imagine Farook and the Citizen are still sitting in the Meridian lobby, waiting for the German family, who, after all, have to cross the lobby at some point.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Invitation to a Wedding

The daughter of a friend was getting married, and he wanted me to attend. He thought he knew the spelling of my first name (he didn’t) but he had me spell my last name, so that, at least, was correct.

He hand-delivered the elaborate gold-engraved invitation, which was, except for my name, all in Arabic. He read it to me.

‘This side is verse from the Koran. This other side says Rami and Fanar will be married on Friday at 8:30 p.m.,’ and then he told me the name of the hotel.

My last wedding was that of a Citizen who got married in Oman because of the more relaxed gun-control there, and I was Shanghaied rather than invited to that wedding. All the men in the family came armed, some with swords, some with battle-axes, and the rest with firearms ranging from single-shot Martini muskets to Kalashnikovs and RPGs, enough firepower to successfully invade a Balkan state, and all shooting into the air.

However, this latest wedding was to be an ex-pat wedding at a Dubai hotel, so I didn’t expect any firearms, and I was not disappointed.

Promptly at 8:30 p.m., I arrived at the hotel. The Father of the Bride met me at the door and escorted me to the roof, which was the area reserved for all male guests. ‘Sit here,’ he said, and ran back down to stand by the door. I stood and watched the DSF fireworks until the Father’s second son came and said, ‘You must sit down sir, but you can’t sit here. Please sit over there,’ and he pointed toward a table some distance from where I was standing, so I wandered over in the direction he'd pointed, and continued to stand and to watch the fireworks.

Most people arrived around 10:00 p.m. When the roof was full, the Father of the Bride came up to tell us all to go down to the mezzanine. The women, it seems, were all inside the mezzanine ballroom, out of sight. We gathered outside the ballroom, and a 5-piece band in traditional Palestinian outfits came out and began to play and dance. There were bagpipes and several percussion instruments. Then the bride and groom came out following the band and proceeded slowly along a path to the mezzanine ballroom while we all clapped in time to the music. The bride wore a traditional white Western wedding dress, the kind with a veil which is, in the most traditional Western weddings, only lifted after the minister says, ‘You may kiss the bride.’ The groom wore a dark Western suit. The bride’s sister followed the couple, holding the bride’s train.

I'd been told that, as the bride and groom passed me, I should say, 'Allah ya hanikum,' but, under the pressure of the moment, the phrase managed to conceal itself so successfully that my memory could not manage to locate it until it was far too late.

Most of the male guests were in Western attire, except for a few in dishdashes. Some had a dishdash and a Western sport coat. The Father of the Bride wore a dishdash with a jerkin.

When the procession was ended and the bride and her sister had disappeared into the ballroom, the men returned to the roof to eat. It was a little after eleven. The wedding buffet was a typically Dubai mixture of Arabic and Western food.

I did not see another Westerner at the wedding. The handful of guests who spoke English took turns talking to me. As we spoke, I found that most of the guests who spoke to me were from Gaza.

‘Gaza was beautiful, and I miss it so much, but I cannot go back there now.’ I heard that several times.

I showed one of my English-speaking companions my invitation, and asked him to please tell me the chapter and verse (Arabic, sura and aya) of the bit from the Koran, so I could look it up. ‘That’s not from the Koran,' he said. 'It would be wrong to put a verse from the Koran on a wedding invitation, because some people might throw it away.’

Around 11:45, most of the guests began departing, and I followed one of them. First he went first to the Father of the Bride to say goodbye, but the Father of the Bride grabbed my arm and insisted I stay a bit longer, for coffee.

After a few minutes, the guest I’d been following returned, and said, ‘My wife isn’t ready to leave yet.’

I asked, ‘Before cell phones, how could you communicate with your wife when you wanted to leave a wedding?’ He replied, ‘Before cell phones, Arabs didn’t have weddings.’

A dance started, and my companion said, ‘You must see an authentic Arab dance,’ so we wandered over and watched the dance until his cell phone rang. His wife was ready, so he left, and I returned to say goodbye to the Father of the Bride. As I arrived, the hotel staff began clearing the area, since the booking expired at midnight, and it was about four minutes past.

So, at that point, the remaining wedding guests departed, and I was among them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Signs of Dubai

Dubai requires all businesses to maintain signs with both Arabic and English. English has been called a 'magpie language,' meaning, whenever English comes across a useful word in another language, English steals and then Anglicises the word. There is even a rather large dictionary consisting entirely of words that English has 'borrowed' (with no intention of returning) from other languages.

So, when a hotel is called, in Arabic, Burj al Arab, literally meaning The Arabic Tower, the English sign remains just Burj al Arab, giving the hotel a suitably exotic name to justify its once exorbitant prices (now somewhat more reasonable thanks to the declining dollar).

The same goes in the other direction. I walked past a 'Black and White Restaurant.' In Arabic, Black is 'Aswad,' while White is 'Abyad,' so the Arabic sign should have been 'Matam Aswad Wa Abyad.' Instead, the Arabic letters said 'Matam Blak and Wyt,' which makes absolutely no sense in Arabic.

It gets better: I was drinking tea with Farook and looking at a new shop under construction across the street. Farook asked me, 'What do you think this new shop will be when it opens?' Part of the reason was that the sign was not yet complete. The English name of the shop was 'The Medicine Shoppe' In Arabic, this should have been written as 'Al Mahall Al Tibb.' What was actually written in Arabic script was 'Medsin Shob,' which, again, makes no sense in Arabic.

I did, however, see wires sticking out below the English and Arabic names of the shop where, eventually, the word 'Pharmacy' will be added beneath the English sign, and the word 'Saydaliyya,' which means pharmacy, will be added in Arabic script beneath the Arabic portion of the sign.

But, for now, Farook wants to know how he's supposed to know that the place is going to be a pharmacy?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Air-Conditioned Bus Shelters

In 2006, the Dubai Road and Traffic Authority (RTA) promised air-conditioned bus shelters for summer, 2007. I've been told that, in fact, there were two such shelters somewhere, fulfilling the promise. I will accept that statement as true, the fact that I never saw them not being proof that they weren't hidden away in a part of Dubai where I did not travel.

I predicted that, from December through February, all the Dubai Bus stops would be air-conditioned. A safe prediction, since all of outdoor Dubai is air-conditioned from December through February.

To my great shock and amazement, the air-conditioned shelters have actually arrived from Canton, China at most of the bus stops around the older parts of Dubai. They do not, as yet, have any facilities to remain air-conditioned in summer, but all have a place on which to install an air-conditioner.

One problem is that inside each shelter is a frame with places to install 8 seats, rather less than the number of people currently waiting for buses at most stops.

On many of the shelters is a sign:

'RTA Work Just Finished ...
'Please Don't Enter Inside.'

With such a sign, the bus shelters I've seen have been completely full, with people sitting on the frames that do not, as yet, have the seats attached and others standing: an image of sardines comes unbidden to mind.

It remains to be seen how well these shelters will work in July and August, but even a slightly cooler place to sit and await the municipal bus will be greatly appreciated.