Friday, September 25, 2009

Comments on my last Post

I got two comments on my last post, one reasonable.

As Farook says, 'Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all tell people to do good things, but then people do bad things.'

One comment said I should leave the Middle East since I hate Islam. I have no idea where he got the idea that I hate Islam, though I do not approve of Muslims who think their particular school of Islam is the only one that is correct, any more than I approve of Christians who think their sect is the only one that is correct. But my criticisms of misguided Muslims or misguided Christians are not an attack on either Islam or Christianity.

Both Christianity and Islam call themselves 'Religions of Peace,' and both, religions, I think, strive to achieve that status. I have not observed either religion achieving perfection, this world being a place of fallibility and sin.

However, any objective observer is required to admit that Islam comes much closer than Christianity to achieving the goal of being a 'Religion of Peace.' A relatively small number of people have been killed or injured in the name of misguided versions of Islam compared with those killed by misguided Christians.

World War II included one atheist nation, but most of the 50 million killed were killed by the Christian nations who took part in the war, and most of those killed were civilians. The controversial concept of a 'just war' under some versions of Christianity and Islam does not includes killing innocent civilians.

The 'War on Terror' in Iraq has resulted in more than 93,000 confirmed deaths of innocent civilians according to Iraq Body Count, and this war was initiated by Christians and largely prosecuted by Christians against people who had absolutely nothing to do with any attack on the US.

I am not condemning Christianity, but I do condemn Christians who violate Christian principles.

The commentator was also furious that I quoted a hadith about giving water to a dog and he said there can never be any such hadith in Islam. The hadith was Hadith 1:174 Narrated By Abu Huraira:

The Prophet said, "A man saw a dog eating mud from (the severity of) thirst. So, that man took a shoe (and filled it) with water and kept on pouring the water for the dog till it quenched its thirst. So Allah approved of his deed and made him to enter Paradise."

The trouble with hadiths is that not all Muslims accept all hadiths, and the person who posted the comment obviously does not accept this one, which I grant is his right. I have a bit more trouble with his saying that no true Muslim accepts any hadiths that the author of the comment rejects, and anyone who is not 100% in agreement with the author is 100% wrong and must immediately leave the Middle East.

The comment also said that Christians should help Christians and should not expect Muslims to help Christians.

But I've known Christians who donated generously to help people in need regardless of whether the people were Christian, and who considered that to be part of their tithe, and I've known Muslims who consider it part of their Zakat to help anyone in need, regardless of the needy persons' religion.

Overall, I've seen more tolerance and hospitality in Dubai than anywhere in the West, but I know that this tolerance and hospitality does not meet with universal approval, since, in this vale of tears, nothing meets with universal approval.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Eid al Fitr, 1430

Today is the third and last day of Eid al Fitr, the Islamic festival after the end of Ramadan. For the last two days, I've seen relieved smokers puffing away during the day, and most businesses are closed for the Eid (since, if they don't close, they must pay a special tax), so people have the time to stand around and smoke.

One commentator said I was 100% wrong because I didn't get all the details about Zakat correct. Zakat is the mandatory contribution every adult Muslim must make, and is approximately 2½%, but the details are a) quite complicated; and b) I wouldn't have gone into all of them if I'd known them; and c) I don't know all the details.

According to the commentator, part of Zakat must be paid during Ramadan, and it has a different name from the part that's paid in other months and the two Zakats must never be co-mingled in anyone's mind, such co-mingling being 100% wrong. The easiest way to describe Zakat is just to say that it's similar to the Christian tithe, but the word 'tithe' means 10%, and Zakat is not 10%, but saying it's similar (but a different percentage) is close enough for me.

Several years ago, a Muslim told me that all Zakat must go to Muslims; Farook says it can go to any meskin, Muslim or not. I suspect, after reading some Islamic writings, that Farook is closer to being correct than the person who said it can only go to Muslims: there's a famous Islamic saying (called a hadith) about a man who barely made it out of the desert. Almost dead, he came to a well, climbed in, and drank until he was fully revived. On climbing out, he saw a dog panting, almost dead with thirst, and climbed back in to get some water for the dog, which, the hadith assures us, was the correct thing to do. Which should mean by analogy that feeding non-Muslim meskins is acceptable.

But, as is implied by the commentator who said I was 100% wrong, these things are a) quite complicated; and b) vary between the different schools of Islam (of course, only his school has things 100% correct).

I tend to go back to my basic understanding: Zakat is an obligatory contribution every adult Muslim must make, is similar to the Christian tithe, and includes (among other things) feeding meskins after sunset during Ramadan.

Several of my sources (including the aforementioned commentator) said that the food (and/or money) handed out for Eid al Fitr should be given during Ramadan, so the recipients can prepare for a bounteous Eid. The next Eid in about 10 weeks time celebrates the time the Prophet Ibrahim (AS) (Abraham in the Anglicised form), went to sacrifice his son but was told at the last minute to sacrifice a ram instead, so for that Eid (but not this one) fathers should take a kid or lamb and their sons out to commemorate the day. There doesn't seem to be any requirement to sacrifice a kid or lamb for this Eid, Eid al Fitr.

However, my first Eid al Fitr in the UAE, I heard the bleating of lambs and kids coming from many of the villas in town the last day or two of Ramadan, and shortly after the early morning Eid prayers, I saw people leading their lambs and kids out to make a feast for Eid. I assume some of the meat went to the meskins these people knew. It's not clear where the custom of sacrificing a kid or lamb on Eid al Fitr came from, but it seems quite common in the UAE outside of Dubai.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Last of Ramadan, 1430

It is now Saturday, 19 September in the Western calendar.

Today should be the 29th and last day of Ramadan, since, according to my Chinese lunar calendar, the crescent moon should be clearly visible tonight at sunset, so tomorrow should be Eid al Fitr, the festival at the end of Ramadan. Of course, if there is a dust cloud obscuring the moon in Saudia, then the crescent won't be seen here, and tomorrow will be 30 Ramadan 1430.

As Ramadan runs down, Farook must pay his Zakat, the Islamic equivalent of the Christian tithe, only a bit less (2½% rather than 10%). Farook showed me his pot, which is huge, much too large to fit into any home cooker. On alternate nights, he either buys a goat and a 20 kg sack of rice, or a bunch of chickens and a 20 kg sack of rice, then takes them to a public oven for cooking and gives some to the Dubai religious authorities (called the Awqaf) to distribute, and distributes some himself to the meskins he knows. One of these meskins is Dubai@Random, so I've been given huge quantities of goat or chicken biriani and harees (whatever that is) every night for the last 10 days or so (and I've managed to put on several kilos as a result).

Last night, we went to a Ramadan tent. People sit around and talk from around 10 pm until 11:45 pm when they bring out six roast goats on beds of different items, plus accompaniments such as pancakes with date syrup, pasta, and beans, and everyone digs in for fifteen minutes, then goes outside the tent for tea, coffee, thanks to the host, and goodbye (in Arabic is masalama).

As we ate, I kept asking, 'What's this,' meaning, not the goat, of course but the different items on which the goats were sitting. 'Shhh,' I was told.

After, Farook explained that it is very rude to talk while eating.

'But I want to know what the dishes are called,' I tried to explain.

'Why? You must eat what is put before you. No need to know name.'

So (other than goat) I have almost no idea what I ate, except for the pasta, pancakes and beans (and they wouldn't tell me the Arabic names for the type of beans or for the pancakes or pasta).

So, after today, Eid meaning festival, for a few days, then back to what is considered normal for this part of the world.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

New York Times on Dubai Financial Laws

The laws in the UAE are remarkably similar, qualitatively, to the laws in the West; the differences are quantitative. In the West, if one buys something on credit, one signs a note, and, if the debtor fails to make the payments, the creditor might send someone to repossess, or might ask the courts to garnish the debtor's wages. But this is civil law, so debtors cannot be gaoled just for debt. And, as I understand it, neither must one necessarily be gaoled just for debt in the UAE.

In the West, if one knowingly writes a bad cheque, that's fraud, and one can be gaoled for fraud under the criminal law.

In Dubai, if one borrows money, the lender always demands a post-dated cheque, and, if one fails to repay, the cheque is used as proof of criminal fraud and the debtor/bad-cheque-fraudster goes to gaol.

So the laws in the West and in the UAE look similar, but in practice debtors who cannot pay usually do not go to gaol in the West, and generally do go to gaol in Dubai.

The New York Times writes that debtors in Dubai go to prison, unlike in the US where writing a fraudulent cheque is a civil offence which cannot possibly result in criminal penalties such as imprisonment. They find this terrible, and think Dubai must modernise and implement the New York City criminal and civil code.

The problem is that, on paper, the UAE laws look very similar to New York City laws: people must dress modestly in public; fraud is illegal; the rights of immigrant workers on H1 visas are similar.

But 'modest dress' has a different meaning; debtors are forced to write post-dated cheques in the UAE; and workers on H1 visas are less than 1% of US residents, but more than 80% of Dubai residents, so, as I said, the laws are qualitatively similar but quantitatively, drastically different.

Dubai Metro

On Wednesday 9/9/9 at 9 pm the Dubai Metro carried a trainload of sheikhs from Mall of the Emirate to Rashidia. I have no idea where Rashidia is, but I trust the sheikhs' drivers were able to find it to deliver the sheikhs' cars.

On Thursday, 10 Sept, meskins were allowed to ride, and I meant to be among those first riders, but on 9/9/9 at 11 pm, Farook insisted I join him for shisha and discussions of the Holy Koran, and I didn't get to sleep until 6 am, and wasn't up to taking the Metro. When I finally got up Thursday evening, I found an e-mail of what was captioned as the Thursday morning, 10 Sept, first public run of the Metro, and it was empty.

For the last 10 days of Ramadan, devout Muslims spend much of each night (especially the odd numbered nights of Ramadan) inside the mosque, so I was not shishaed out Friday night, and made it to the bus stop today. Two busses pick up travellers from my stop, one goes to Union Square (next to Al Ghurair Mall) and the other to Bur Juman Mall. The bus to Union Square came first, so I got on and read the local paper about how great the new Metro was.

The Union Square Station is underground (as is the station at Bur Juman, called the Khalid bin Waleed Station, since Bur Juman refused to pay to have its name on the station). I went to a machine, but the machine only recharges tickets, so I had to buy a ticket first. I stood in line until I reached the teller who said her computer wasn't working. So I had to get in another line and wait until I reached the next teller.

There are First Class tickets (called Gold Tickets) and Cattle Class tickets (called Silver Tickets) and I got a Gold Ticket. I wanted to put $25.50 on the ticket, but the teller only took $5.50 and gave me a ticket and $20 change. Of the $5.50, $2 was for the card, and $3.50 was for fares on the Metro or on Dubai buses.

They announced the next train, so I tried to race to the platform, but the station was congested, and I missed the train. By the time the next train arrived, there was quite a crowd on the Gold platform, and I was crammed into the already full train by the people behind me. Not only were all the seats filled, so were all the straps, so I couldn't even find a strap on which to hang. The Gold Car was the front half of the front car, so, had the front window not been completely filled with people, I would have had a great view of the Metro's progress.

We stopped at the Khalid bin Waleed station, where a large crowd was waiting, but there was no room. We skipped the next station (not yet finished) and stopped at Jaffiliya, which is where the Immigration Department is located. Again a crowd, and again no room.

We skipped a couple of stations then stopped at the Dubai Financial Centre, then skipped a few more stations, and finally ended up at Mall of the Emirates, where I pushed my way off the train. The Mall of the Emirates station is small, with only a few tellers and machines and long queues to use them, so I thought I'd recharge my card when I got back to the larger Khalid bin Waleed or Union Square Station.

I made a quick trip to Carrefour at the Mall, then went back to the train. A long queue was waiting to get on. When a train arrived, a few people managed to cram onto the already full train, and the queue moved slowly forward. Eventually, I was crammed into the Gold car, where, again, all seats and straps were already taken. Going back from Emirates Mall, the Gold car was the last half of the last car at the end of the train. If this was First Class, I can only shudder to imagine conditions in the Cattle Class (Silver) cars.

When I got back to Khalid bin Waleed Station (i.e., Bur Juman Mall), my card didn't have enough for the $4.50 round trip fare, but it let me out of the train with a $1 deficit. It's not clear why I really had to pay the deficit, but I paid it anyway, plus what I thought would be enough for the bus home.

However, when I used my Metro Card on the bus, no money was deducted. The newspapers had announced that, if one uses the Metro, the Feeder buses (labelled 'F' buses) are free, but I didn't take an F bus; however, it appears that, if your bus leaves from a Metro station, there's no additional charge to take the bus from the station to your final destination.

So my ride left me with one question (but two parts):

Once the novelty has worn off, will riders be able to find seats, or at least straps, a) in First Class? b) in Cattle Class?

I noticed that a lot of the riders had neither silver nor gold cards, but just one-day (or one-way, or single round trip) tickets, so many of the riders were strictly there for the novelty. Many drove to a station at one end of the line and purchased a round trip ticket to the station at the other end, and do not plan to use the Metro for commuting, they only wanted to ride it one time just to see what it was like.

And, of course, it was clear that the video of an empty train was taken Wednesday on a Press run where only card-carrying photo journalists were allowed, and, at least for the first weekend, it was not representative of an actual rider's experience.

So I'll be riding again in a week or so, to see how things are progressing.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

18 Ramadan 1430: Farook's Zakat

There are only 11 days left in Ramadan. It's not clear to me that the Muslim tithe called zakat must be paid during Ramadan, but many Muslims try to pay a significant portion of it during this month.

For his zakat Farook donates iftars to the poor, and Dubai@Random qualifies, so Farook wanted to give me an iftar. I had just gotten home and turned on Ramadan Murder Mysteries, a regular feature on MBC4 every Ramadan, when my phone rang and Farook said he was desperate to see me, but he had no vehicle. So I had to walk across Karama to meet Farook in a shisha parlour near his flat.

When I arrived, Farook gave me a very late iftar or a very early sohour, consisting of hamees and biriani. Farook bought 20 kg of what he said was mutton, but which tasted more like goat, 20 kg of rice, and some wheat, then he took the lot to a public oven that cooked it all up into a rather spicy harees (goat and wheat cooked until it forms a paste) and goat biriani, which means goat and rice. Now he has to distribute the result to the poor, called meskins, who include Dubai@Random, so he was desperate to see me and give me some harees and biriani. Which, I have to admit, were quite tasty after walking across Karama.

Farook's biriani is quite spicy (at his insistence: I assume the public oven would omit the chili if the customer didn't want it), so we washed it down with diet soda and mint tea.

In Christendom, it is customary to give gifts (generally cash) at Christmas to the workers who provide service all year, e.g., security guards for people living in flats with security guards, porters & etc. In the Islamic world, it is customary to give the poor workers who provide service a little cash for Eid, but this should be given several days before Eid so they will have the money to buy the things they need to have a proper Eid celebration. So, for those people living in flats with security guards, it's time to start thinking about envelopes for Eid, which should be in about 12 days.


Saturday, September 05, 2009

Dubai Holy Koran Contest

Thursday, Farook invited me to iftar, which meant he picked me up at 5:30 pm even though iftar wasn't until 6:45. Farook believes it is very dangerous to continue the fast for even one minute past the first sound of the azan, so he didn't want to be late.

Actually, even being on time to an iftar can be a big disappointment at many of the Dubai iftars: they try to put out just enough food for the expected crowd (which is difficult to predict); as a result, diners who arrive early and fill their plates have often exhausted the iftar buffet long before the iftar actually begins. The early diners, having filled their plates (several plates per person) must sit until the azan sounds without eating or drinking, but by being prepared, they can start on their dates and water at the very first sound of the azan. And, by being early, they ensure that they get some of the whole roast goat, which is usually the first thing that runs out.

I suggested the Al Nasr Ramadan tent, a tent where, if I can't convince a friend to join me, I'm usually the only one at the iftar. It's Anglo-Egyptian, meaning taboulli and fatoush salads, followed by chicken and mushrooms, grilled fish with tomato sauce, and mutton biriani, followed by custard and umm Ali, so an Arabic start, mixed Arab-English entrées, and mixed Arabic-English desserts. They put out enough for about six people, so Farook and I had more than we could eat, and no competition.

About five years ago, the Al Nasr Ramadan tent was about $5.50, but it's gone up to $10.75. A nearby iftar was about $6 five years ago (when I'd alternate between it and Al Nasr) but the other iftar has gone up to $20, so I stick with Al Nasr. Hotel iftars used to cost about $8 five years ago, and I'd go to several during Ramadan, but most hotels charge $50 or more now, which is out of my price range.

Farook tried to bargain them down by saying, 'There are better iftars with whole roasted goat for only $8, so why you charge $10.75?' Of course, there aren't really any such iftars any more (though there were many such just a few years ago), but Farook has to try.

After we'd finished eating, Farook waddled off to pray. When he got back, he asked the (Indian) waiter for a shisha. 'We no have shisha, sir. I sorry.' I, however, could see a large pile of hookahs in a corner, and they didn't look at all dusty, rusty, and abandoned. A young Egyptian wandered past, and Farook recognised a fellow Arab and ordered a shisha, which lasted until the evening call to prayer when Farook had to go pray. After the evening prayer, 1/30th of the Holy Koran is read every night during Ramadan, but Farook skipped that reading and took me to the Dubai International Holy Koran Contest.

Every Ramadan, Dubai has a Holy Koran Contest for Citizens, one for permanent residents, and one for the winners of national contests who come to Dubai from all over the world.

At 9:30 pm, the first contestant, who was from Lebanon, picked a slip of paper with three verses (called ayas) from the Holy Koran out of a jar next to a person called the Secretariat, who is a UAE Citizen. The contestant then handed the slip of paper to one of the five judges, one each from Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The judge then recited the first verse. Recitation of the Holy Koran must follow some very complex rules which I don't understand, but it's not at all like normal speech. The contestant must then repeat the recitation of that verse and then continue reciting the following verses of that chapter (called a surah) for about ten minutes until the judge says to stop. I think the contestant made one mistake, because the judge rang a bell and the audience said (in Arabic) 'Go back,' to encourage the contestant to go back to a verse he recalled perfectly and re-start. Farook said he didn't get a very good score because he had a pronounced lisp of all his sibilants.

Then on to the next two verses, and then on to the next three contestants, one each from Lebanon, Guinea-Bissau, and the Philippines. Some of the contestants got stuck, and the judge would help them out. Some got lots of bells.

At 11:30, we got a break where they passed out boxed snacks and cups of water. A little after midnight, we started with the last three contestants, one each from Thailand, Barbados, and Sierra Leone. The poor candidate from Barbados couldn't pronounce one Arabic word correctly. Even after the judge spoke the word, when the contestant tried to repeat it, the bell rang. Eventually, he had to skip that verse and try to proceed from the next verse.

For the contest, all the contestants were dressed in their Friday best (Friday being the Islamic equivalent of what Sunday is in Christendom).

Finally, about 2 a.m., all seven contestants had completed their recitations. One of the judges gave a speech thanking the contestants, and 20 members of the audience were selected at random to receive prizes. Since I wasn't one of the 20, and since everything was in Arabic, I have no idea what the prizes were.

Finally, Farook dropped me off at my home, quite exhausted.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

3 Sept

Seventy years ago today, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Germany had invaded Poland, but had prepared a scene 'proving' that Poland had waged an unprovoked invasion of Germany, an invasion that had been repulsed by the German Army. Then, given this provocation, the German Army had counter-attacked Poland. No reputable historian believes the staged 'Polish invasion of Germany,' even though Hitler showed dead men in Polish uniforms on German soil (I'm sure there are some disreputable historians who believe Hitler's version, and, had Germany won the war, this would be the version in all the European history books, though Poland would never have wished or dared to attack Germany.) Britain and France had agreed to protect Poland from any aggression, but Hitler hoped they would use the excuse he gave them that the German 'counter-attack' was a reprisal against Polish aggression, for which neither Britain nor France was obligated to assist Poland.

But Britain and France, who had agreed to let Hitler have Czechoslovakia, declared war. It is not altogether clear why, since it cost them their empires. Had they not declared war, Hitler might have settled for annexing all lands east of Germany, leaving lands west of Germany in peace. Or not.

Churchill had wanted a regime change as soon as Hitler was elected in '33 on a platform that was in violation of the treaty of Versailles and racist. Clearly, regime change would have been facile in the extreme in '33. But perceptions were in Hitler's favour back then: in 1800, most Germanic people lived in what the map calls 'Small States.' As hyperbolised by Terry Pratchett, the Kings of these states had to take out their own trash and mow their own palace lawns when they had some time off from sitting in state. Then a movement to form a single country with all Europe's Germanic people attracted most of Germanic people outside the Austrian Empire and Switzerland, and a large country called (in English) Germany formed in the late 19th century, annexing predominantly German regions, including parts of France. Germany had only a few tiny colonies, since Germany did not exist in the age of empire building, and only knew the mercantile model, where an Imperial Industrial power needed colonies to provide raw materials and markets for finished products, so, in 1914, Germany was anxious for a war that would provide colonies, and France was anxious for a war to restore French territories lost in the creation of Germany.

Germany lost in 1918, and all the eastern German lands were given to Poland, the southern lands were used to form Czechoslovakia, the formerly French bits filled with Germanic people were returned to France, and a tiny state formed of the centre of the former Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles to abandon all militarization and limit its industrialisation, and to pay all the German gold and much of the German GDP in reparations, leaving a tiny, weak, impoverished nation that could never again threaten the Great Powers of Britain and France.

Hitler wanted all the lands expropriated in 1918 returned, and, by 1934, many agreed that the Treaty of Versailles had been unfair, and that much of what was taken from Germany should be returned. Churchill did not agree with those willing to forgive and forget Germany's attempt to become a great power, and to overlook the racist aspects of Hitler's policies that relegated ethnic Jews and Roma to the status of vermin to be exterminated and Slavs to the status of slaves.

In '38, Churchill said that, with Czechoslovakia's 15 divisions, the war would have been difficult but winnable. Waugh wrote that, in '38, the war would have been for 'the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in painful weakness.' Waugh agreed that the war was a war of necessity in '39, when Germany overran Poland with no British or French opposition, and then, in '40, Germany turned West, and quickly defeated the combined Anglo-French Army, occupied all of France, and convinced most of the world that occupation of Britain would be a matter of weeks. As it happened, this seems to have neglected the British Navy that dissuaded the Germans from trying a naval invasion.

Still, Churchill was right that Britain could not remain indifferent to a regime determined to exterminate all Jews and Roma and to enslave all Slavs.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

11 Ramadan 1430

Several commenters have given links to Islamic website explaining the 'true' meaning of Ramadan. This, however, is like checking out the website of the Archbishop of Canterbury to see how the English really celebrate Christmas. One would certainly get a normative view, but not a descriptive view. In addition, at least in Christianity, there are websites for the Anglicans, the Calvinists, the Vatican, the Southern Baptists and many other sects, so it's very difficult to tell from any one website how Christians really celebrate Christmas, and I rather suspect the same is true for Islamic websites.

Readers who are interested will find the addresses of the Islamic websites in the comments. Dubai@Random is about what he's seen of how the people in Dubai actually celebrate Ramadan while wandering around at random.

Ramadan emphasises two of the five pillars of Islam: fasting and charity. Muslims, after fasting all day, are supposed to think of those to whom they should be giving their charity for the year, and about distributing that charity.

Farook gives iftar meals to the poor, and this is one acceptable way to distribute charity. Other Muslims give their charity in other ways. But during Ramadan, every Muslim I've met tries to get closer to perfect submission to God.