Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Trip to a Department of Health Clinic

Farook called on Sunday to ask me to join him at 9:00 a.m. sharp on Monday morning, so I was waiting for him and he picked me up for a trip to Satwa.

Near me are two supermarkets. One has mushrooms for $1.50 a packet and capsicum for $2.50 a kilo; the other has mushrooms for $2 a packet and capsicum for $1.25 a kilo. So I try to buy mushrooms at the first market and capsicum at the second, unless I have a senior moment and get my purchases backward. So I understand trying to save money, but I won't wait in a queue for two hours to get mushrooms for $1.25 a packet when I can pick up a packet instantly by paying an extra 25ยข.

Farook had a medical report for his daughter (the younger one, not the one that just had a baby and made him a grandfather). I have no idea what the report was about, since a) Farook made sure I didn't get a close look; and b) it was all in Arabic. But he needed to get it stamped by a Department of Health Clinic, and, for reasons that escape me, he decided to use the one in Satwa.

I have quoted an unknown source before that, in a Middle Eastern queueing system, the queues are always as wide as the number of people queuing, and only one person deep. So, with me in tow, we went past the sign that said, 'AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY!!!' and Farook presented the report to receive an official stamp from the Department. A long discussion ensued in Arabic. Then we went left the first office and went through another door marked 'AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY!!!' for another long, heated discussion in Arabic. Then back to the first office, and back to the second office, repeated several times, always with long, Arabic discussions between the person in charge and Farook.

I should note that we passed through two huge crowds, one of men from the sub-Continent and the Philippines, and the other of women from the sub-Continent and the Philippines, both queueing as patiently as Communists (a group once widely known for being the very best in the world at queuing, but now largely extinct, except in the PRC). But Farook marched straight past the crowds and past the signs prohibiting us from entering, following the traditional Middle Eastern queuing system.

Finally, Farook paid about $4, we departed, and I asked, 'What was that all about?'

It seems that the current method for getting an official medical report is to stand in the queue until your number is called, then to hand in your document for stamping with $4 to cover the cost of couriering the stamped document back to you, and Farook was trying to avoid spending the $4 by getting the stamped document handed to him.

He was told that, for $120, he could pay for same-day processing, but someone trying to avoid the expenditure of $4 is not at all inclined to hand over $120.

Officially, everyone is now supposed to have two options: 1) stand in the queue, hand over their document and $4, wait about a week for the document to be stamped and another few days to have it couriered to the requested address; or 2) stand in the queue, hand over the document and $124, have the document stamped the same day and then couriered to the requested address.

Farook, with all his wasta, was able to get the document stamped the same day and handed over to him, but he was still required to pay the $4 courier fee, even though they handed him the stamped document so there was no necessity for anything to be couriered. But under the new and improved system, everyone must pay the courier fee disirregardless, wasta or no wasta, and also fill out the official form for where to courier the document.

I assume I was along as a Western consultant to help intimidate the staff at the Clinic. If so, I was unable to spare Farook the $4 courier fee, which now seems as inevitable as death and the other usage taxes that help keep Dubai running.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Grandfather Farook in the Gold Souk

As eventually happens to the majority of men today, Farook recently became a grandfather, and, as is the case in most societies, he is expected to buy a gift for his grandson.

The Arab culture, unlike the European culture, is a patriarchal society in which men rule, a society in which a man always has the final word in his own house. In other words, Farook is terrified of his wife and his eldest daughter, so he insisted I join him as he went gift shopping. My guess was that he'd ask me if I liked something, and, if I did, then he'd know it was out of the question, but if I hated the gift, then he'd be sure it would be appropriate. But, of course, inter-cultural relations are far more complicated than that.

We went to the Sharjah Gold Souk, which was an adventure in and of itself since Sharjah has closed the main road leading to the Souk, the only road Farook knows, and he didn't know any other ways to get there, so he kept rolling down his window and asking directions to the Gold Souk. Sharjah has several institutions that go by that name, and the cars we pulled next to and shouted at kept directing Farook toward souks he knew and did not like. 'They tell me way to harami souk,' he explained, 'harami souk' being the Arabic for 'den of thieves,' but we finally found the gold souk Farook was looking for.

We went in and Farook said, 'You have tola 21K pure gold?'

'Why?' I asked. 'Pure gold is 24K.'

'I want them to think I know nothing.'

I understand a seller trying to convince the buyer that the seller knows nothing and is letting a real gem go for the price of a zircon (when he's letting a real zircon go for the price of a diamond), but it's not at all clear to me how it helps if the buyer convinces the seller that he knows absolutely nothing.

In the UAE gold souks, every shop starts with the actual price of the gold (non-negotiable, weight times published, official price) plus a 'service charge' (completely negotiable). Farook maintained that the shops buy gold wholesale, and the official price is the retail price, so a good bargainer can get gold below the official price. If this is true, I've never seen anyone manage to achieve this feat. Nor did Farook.

He found a bar of gold for which the official price was $90, and, after weighing and multiplying, the clerk offered to let Farook have it for $130. Farook offered $85. I suggested they compromise at $107, and Farook said I should have supported his offer of $85, not offered more, but, finally, the deal was done and Farook had $90 worth of gold for which he'd paid $107 (and he got two cups of 'free' tea out of the deal).

Than he began agonising: 'You think my daughter will think this too small? No, it is a gift, and a gift can be anything, it is not the size that counts. No, my wife and daughter will be angry.' & etc.

So we went for a hookah. Farook wanted us to get two hookahs, but I said I can't manage more than half, and didn't want to waste one, so we ended up sharing. I suppose I should stop clinging to the past, when the proper name for the pipe was a hookah, as smoked by your typical Caterpillar in Wonderland, and use the modern English word, shisha.

In any case, gold in hand we went to a shisha parlour in Ajman, where a shisha is around $2.50 (the cheapest in Dubai is around $5). The parlour was a bit more primitive than the parlours in Dubai, and it had a raised platform.

We stepped up onto the platform and were searching for a couple of empty chairs when I managed to trip and fall on my face. They helped me up and I made it to a chair and shared a shisha with Farook, and we finally made it home around midnight.

This morning, Farook called at 9 am, picked me up, and we went to wander through some more gold shops to buy a bit more gold to go with what Farook bought yesterday.

As I said, in this strictly patriarchal society, Farook is absolutely terrified of what his wife and eldest daughter will think of his gift to his first grandson.