Monday, March 31, 2008

Father Michael Visits Dubai

I was wandering on my way to Wafi Centre when I saw another elderly, befuddled-looking Western man standing on the pavement. I stopped, wondering if I should proffer assistance, when he asked me, ‘Sir, could you please tell me where I could find one of the famous Dubai shopping centres?’

(NB: Dubai@Random is always an elderly, befuddled-looking Western man.)

I offered to lead him to Wafi, since I was going there anyway, and he accepted.

‘My name is Michael. I’m a priest, and I came here to attend Mass,’ he said in a thick brogue.

I found this a bit strange, since I’d always heard that people with a brogue use the name ‘Mickey’ rather than ‘Michael,’ but I decided that priests must use the formal form of the name.

‘It’s amazing,’ he said, ‘I was told that Christianity is banned here, and is strictly underground, but, when I asked the taxi to take me to the Catholic Church, he dropped me right in front of it. I went to Mass, and the church was packed. In Ireland, which is supposed to be a Catholic country, all the churches are empty, mine not excepted. Also, I have been treated with the greatest hospitality here.’

I tried to explain that the UAE is a former British colony, so Catholic churches here are much like they were in Britain—behind walls so they could not be seen. Only, in England, this only applied to churches that were not Church of England, while here, even the Church of England is behind a wall, and no Christian signs can be seen from outside the wall. He agreed that, had the taxi not dropped him in front of St. Mary’s and told him, ‘This is Catholic Church,’ he might not have realised what it was.

As we walked, he apologised for slowing me down, though I was not at all uncomfortable walking at his pace.

I told him that, back in ’73, I read a Telegraph article trying to assuage the British guilt about eating 3,000 calories a day while Indians only had access to about 1,200 calories. The article said that, because of the British climate (and lack of any heating, central or otherwise), a Briton needed 3,000 calories a day for mere survival, while an Indian only needed 1,200. So I asked about heating in Ireland.

‘We’ve had central heating,’ he said, ‘since before I started secondary school.’

It turned out that Father Michael had started secondary school the same year I started primary school, so that ‘apostolic succession’ came unbidden to mind—i.e., the fact that he must have been ordained by one of the apostles.

‘What brought you to Dubai?’ I asked.

‘The Dubai World Cup,’ he answered, ‘and I’m glad to say I won.’

I was confused. The Dubai World Cup gives race-goers a card, and anyone who fills it in with all the winners of all the races wins a big prize, but that prize is seldom awarded. Those who come close get smaller prizes, but even the chances of those are remote.

‘I placed a bet at an OTB shop before I left Ireland,’ he explained.

‘Mabrook,’ I answered, and explained, ‘That means congratulations in Arabic.’ Of course, I have no idea what mabrook really means, but it sounded like a good response.

We finally arrived at Wafi. ‘None of the restaurants in this part are licensed,’ I explained, ‘but the section over there is fully licensed if you’d like a pint.’

‘I don’t want to keep you any longer,’ he said, so I took his hint, left him, concluded my business at Wafi, and returned home.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Return to Normalcy

When a US president introduced the neologism 'normalcy' after World War I, it was generally agreed by speakers of standard English that, for some places, the closest they can ever come to normality is normalcy.

In the case of Dubai, the heightened security for Easter is now over.

Dubai has two main church districts, one in the older part of Dubai, and one in New Dubai, about 30 km apart. Both were heavily patrolled during Holy Week and Easter, with church car parks cordoned off, a luxury Mercedes bus service from remote car parks to the church districts, and large numbers of policemen and policewomen searching passers-by who wandered through the districts.

Today, I was walking through the older district and found that the security is gone, and the once-cordoned car parks are, once again, filled with parked cars.

Presumably, there was a threat, though no one would say anything about what rumours had prompted this new, heightened level of security for Easter 2008 (there was no extra security visible during previous Easter seasons in Dubai).

So the police presence managed to deter any incidents over Easter, for which those of us who have to walk through the church districts are quite grateful.

There was one explosion, but it was more than 10 km from both church districts, and just seems to have been caused by a group trying to smuggle illegal fireworks, and presumably had nothing to do with Easter.

So things have returned to normalcy for Dubai.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Blocking Secret Dubai: Local Execution of a Universal Impulse

According to the New York Times,

“Last year,” Mr. Manjoo writes, “I praised the iPhone in something of the way Romeo once praised Juliet: The device, I said, is revolutionary — ‘it marks a new way of life. One day we’ll all have iPhones, or things that aim to do what this first one does, and your life will be better for it.’ ”

But because he mentioned that the phone was a bit pricey, “several readers alleged that I was an Apple-hater.” One wrote him to ask, “Does Salon actually pay you or are you being paid under the table by rival companies?”

Obviously, the Apple fanatics would like to see all of Mr. Manjoo's web-postings blocked, along with Mr. Manjoo. According to the New York Times article, this is all too common: large numbers of fanatics on the web want every site that disagrees with them totally obliterated. Only, in the West, fanatics have limited ability to block websites, a limitation that does not apply to fanatics in the Orient with what Arabs call wasta and Chinese call guanxi.

I am in the UAE because I think it is the best place to live, but that doesn't mean I think it's perfect, only better than any of my alternatives. Many Citizens think my faint praise justification for immediate deportation: anyone who doesn't think that the UAE is absolutely perfect should leave immediately to go find someplace else that is. (Even those of us who think that no place is perfect, but the UAE is the closest to perfection we can find this side of Paradise.)

I have heard Citizens condemn Secret Dubai, though I could not, for the life of me, understand their complaint. I don't know anyone, Citizen or ex-pat, who doesn't complain about Dubai traffic or the cost of living in the UAE. And six out of seven Emirates laugh at the stories that the RAK government PR department releases to the local newspapers, stories that Secret Dubai likes to post. But anyone who has checked out the UAE Community Blog knows that a TRA official considers this totally inappropriate on the part of Secret Dubai, and offensive to the customs and norms of the UAE.

So, Secret Dubai is blocked for now, except for infrequent periods when she is unblocked, as she was unblocked for St. Patrick's Day, for reasons that escape me.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Dire Warning for Easter

In November '41, every US military base in the Pacific received a dire warning from Washington about an imminent Japanese attack. The US military textbooks made it clear that aircraft were only suitable for reconnaissance, and that it would be a court martial offense to squander precious resources preparing for an aerial attack, which could not possibly damage US capital ships. So, following the textbooks, the US military worked hard building fortifications against a naval amphibious attack. After weeks of exhausting work on the fortifications, all Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel took a well-deserved rest on Sunday, 7 Dec.

In summer of '01, US intelligence received reliable reports about an attack that would occur before the autumnal equinox. US customs and immigration security was intensified, and US airport security tightened, so that a domestic attack was absolutely impossible. All US MENA embassies therefore prepared for the imminent attack, and I was almost shot when I wandered a bit too close to a US embassy. Admittedly, I looked a bit suspicious: a Pakistani friend had asked me to meet him by a US embassy (the most noticeable landmark in the city where we were), but, after I'd agreed to meet him, he'd heard (in Urdu) about the new security measures, and kept well away from the embassy, while I wandered around looking for him. Until I was almost shot, whereupon I removed myself as far from the embassy as I could manage. (My Pakistani friend hadn't bothered to inform me, since he assumed that, as a Westerner, that I would be in no danger. At least I hope that's why he hadn't bothered to inform me.) US security remained on high alert until the second week of September.

Now we have a Dire Warning that an attack is imminent for this Easter. I have already reported that the Dubai police have surrounded all the churches in Dubai and are searching all passers by, and that they have banned parking in the car parks near the churches (though DURL is also partly responsible for closing those lots).

According to my own intelligence sources, Al Qaeda has recruited a large number of disaffected bunnies, and they are expected to be distributing eggs with very high levels of bad cholesterol.

So beware.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Secret Dubai Re-Blocked

I wrote on St. Patrick's Day that Secret Dubai and Single in Dubai were unblocked, but I wasn't sure for how long. Samurai Sam accused me of being so Internet unaware that I didn't realize that there are 'free zones' in Dubai from which the entire Internet is readily available.

In fact, I am located in a part of Dubai that goes through the TRA censors.

In the case of Secret Dubai and Single in Dubai, both were unblocked for a (very) few days.

'Proof' that Secret Dubai was blocked on St. Patrick's Day was provided via a statement by TRA spokesman Mr. Rasheed Joumblatt to 7DAYS stating that she was blocked.

This 'proof' was as good as Mr. Rasheed's widely publicized statements that Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, and the other Dubai Free Zones must all go through the TRA censorship machines, as per UAE law, when, as of current date, the Dubai free zones still have full, uncensored access to the Internet.

That they are fully censored was widely publicized in hopes that such statements in the local press would be enough, and actual censorship of the Dubai free zones could be avoided.

But I just tried again, and both Secret Dubai and Single in Dubai are now blocked from my Internet access point, as of 21 Mar, just as Mr. Rasheed Joumblatt promised they would be.

So thank you Mr. Rasheed, for making Samurai Sam's comments that Secret Dubai is blocked, once again quite correct. I feel certain that Samurai Sam must be grateful that you have corrected what appeared to be an error on his part. (Depending, of course, upon what one's definition of 'is' is.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Private Mercedes Limo for Easter

For Easter, Dubai has set up two car parks, one for each of the two main church districts, with luxury bus service from the car parks to the churches. This is new. There was nothing like this last Easter.

I was wandering past one of the car parks, and thought I'd ask, 'How often do the buses run?'

'Get in,' was the response. So I did, and found myself alone in a Mercedes bus that was, in effect, the longest private limo I've ever seen, since it turned out to be just for me, and departed immediately upon my seating myself. Before I got on, the bus lowered itself until it was at street level, so persons in wheelchairs could easily wheel themselves onto the bus.

This was not like the regular buses that ply the streets of Dubai: it was larger, with wider seats and it also had luggage racks for those bags that worshipers might have felt the need to bring with them to church. It had a TV that seemed stuck on a single channel with a message about traffic that remained on the verge of playing for the entire trip.

The bus/limo took me from the car park past the three church compounds (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, in alphabetical order, or Protest, Catholic, and Orthodox, in the order of the bus stops).

No one seems to know why or for how long this new security system will last. When I got off the bus, there were quite a few police, and they were searching some men very closely, but let me wander along untouched.

A couple of days ago, there were a lot of policewomen searching the women, but today it was mostly policemen, searching women's handbags and patting down the suspicious-looking men.

I assume things will be back to normal after Easter, but I won't know until next Monday.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Getting Ready for Easter?

Yesterday's Gulf News reported that there will be heightened security for all Christian churches in Dubai for Easter. I noticed this on Palm Friday, but now it's official.

Car parks have been set aside for Church goers, located about 500 meters from the nearest Christian church, and about 1 km from the most distant church. Some of the most luxurious buses in the RTA fleet stand ready to transport worshippers from the car park to the churches at no charge, though, when I passed by, the car park was almost empty, as were the buses. Parking is not permitted near the churches, but worshippers tried to park as close as they were permitted, rather than using the designated car park and taking the buses. This fits with the general Dubai animus toward buses.

At the entrance to all the churches, a team of police men and women are checking bags, backpacks, and sometimes doing a body search on people who strike them as suspicious.

The news article said that the heightened security will end after Easter, and the churches will all return to a state as normal as possible, given that major construction on the Dubai Metro is taking place in at least one of the Dubai neighbourhoods where the churches are located.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Just Unblocked (for Now) and Semi-Blocked

On her blog, Secret Dubai has a link to a petition to unblock Single in Dubai. On his blog, samurai-sam reports that Secret Dubai is blocked.

Single-in-Dubai was blocked last summer, but, when I went to check the status of Secret Dubai, I also checked Single-in-Dubai, and both Secret Dubai and Single-in-Dubai are unblocked, at least for now, i.e., as of midnight, 17 Mar 2008 (which would have been St. Patrick's Day, only the Irish moved it officially to last Saturday, since today is Monday of Holy Week ; however, the US is still having St. Patrick's Day today, since US law does not allow any week to be Holy).

Last week, however, the Gulf News (which does not put its comics on-line) declined to print the comic strip 'Dilbert,' semi-blocking it, since the TRA still allowed me to read 'Dilbert' on-line.

So it appears, prima facie, that the Gulf News deletion of 'Dilbert' ('sorry, this comic is unavailable today,' repeated all week) was another example of self-censorship, rather than official censorship, or the TRA would have concurred by blocking the website.

Yet another case where the UAE prohibition of Emerson's hobgoblins is operating normally.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Palm Friday, 2008

While good Muslims pray five times every day, Friday afternoon is the time of the khutba, and many Islamic countries require that every business close Friday afternoons to allow people to attend. In consequence, Christian churches operating in Muslim countries often move their Sunday services to Friday, so today was Palm Friday for the UAE Christians.

Dubai has, to my knowledge, one cathedral, located on a small side street, directly across from the Pakistan Club and the Egyptian Club.

Today, that street was blocked off to all vehicular traffic. Club goers and worshipers could walk to their destinations, but the usual parking was prohibited, and police stood at each end of the street to enforce the restriction. (I could say that this resulted in a huge traffic snarl, but saying that there was a huge traffic snarl in Dubai is merely trite.)

At the entrance to the cathedral grounds, policewomen checked all handbags and backpacks.

The conjecture is that this is a reaction to the murder, discovered on Thursday, of an Iraqi archbishop, but, as usual, Dubai police gave no explanations for their actions.

While they had to walk, Christians turned out in large numbers to observe Palm Friday, and the UAE Christian churches were more crowded than most churches will be in the Christian West on Palm Sunday.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spring in Dubai

I was wandering along a path I don't normally take, a path the authorities intend to be viewed by the tourists, so it was furlongs of spring florescence. I recalled Houseman:

'Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom upon the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.'

Or, for Dubai,

Datepalms that shade the passing dhow
Are hung with wispy flowers now.
But how it is I can't decide
They're all decked out for Eastertide.

For Easter here is not observed,
Well, maybe chocolate eggs are served.
So how do all the datepalms know
That now's the time for Easter show?

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Wanton Restaurant

Wandering around, I noticed a new restaurant with the name given in the title of this piece, the Wanton Restaurant, specialising in South Indian cuisine.

I was thinking of having lunch there in order to discover whether the name refers to their collections policy or to their waitresses, but decided to have a sandwich at home instead.


Saturday, March 01, 2008

Gainful Employment?

I have just received an offer for rather gainful employment. It would require:
  1. Abaya (provided);
  2. Niqab (provided);
  3. Surgery to enable me to speak in a soprano voice (provided);
  4. ID (provided; and, with the above, I should be able to pass for the rightful owner of the ID);
  5. Taking the IELTS and obtaining at least a 7.5.
Sadly, I felt obliged to decline.

(Caveat: Just because the rightful owners of the IDs insist on wearing the Abaya and niqab does not mean that they are Arabs, or even Muslims, only enterprising.)