Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Eid al Adha Mubarak

It's a bit late (I think the Islamic date changes at sunset) but I'd like to wish everyone Eid Saeid and Eid Mubarak.

Eid Saeid means 'Happy Eid.'

My dictionary translates 'eid al adha' as 'Greater Bairam.' Sadly, my English is not as complete as I'd like, since I've never heard the English word 'Bairam', but that's the official translation according to my Arabic-English dictionary, and I'm not going to question them today.

'Mubarak' means something like, 'Blessing upon you,' so 'Eid al Adha Mubarak' means, roughly, 'May the Greater Bairam blessing be upon you.'

Eid al Adha represents the highlight of the hajj, and commemorates the day when the Prophet Ibrahim (or Abraham) took his son out to sacrifice his son, but instead sacrificed a ram.

So, in much of the Islamic world fathers take rams and sons out for the morning sacrifice.

In Dubai, the law prohibits this, and fathers and sons go to the municipal abattoir where a municipal employee sacrifices the sheep or goat in the name of the father.

So this morning, Farook took his son to the abattoir, then brought me a share of the goat, and I spent the rest of Eid al Adha cooking my share, finishing just before midnight.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Farook at Work

Farook offered to find a seller for anything you'd ever want to buy, or a buyer for anything you'd ever want to sell. The fact that he ran out of his office when he saw me walking past is part of what makes him Farook: he's always looking for people who look like they might have something, anything to buy or sell. But mostly, it was finding people places to lease.

Back then, Dubai had only a few landlords, all Citizens, and some of them were very laid back. Many set rents to cover their expenses, which were fixed, based on the money they'd borrowed for building (they never gave their staff raises). And they didn't bother doing market research or advertising their properties or raising their rents. Other landlords raised rents for new tenants, but never increased rents for tenants who continued in the same place. It was said that Dubai had a Rent Control Commission that made increasing rents for tenants who remained in a property very difficult. Subleasing was illegal, so tenants could not legally take money to pass on their reduced rent to another tenant. And, of course, the illegal payment was so common it had a name: it was called 'key money'.

Farook spent a lot of time trying to find these laid-back landlords, and what they had available. Evenings, he'd go to shisha parlours (for those who can't find shisha in a dictionary of words newly stolen by English, it used to be hookah). There he'd smoke and play cards or a game called towla. Towla is played on a backgammon board, but has slightly different rules than European backgammon, rules that require completely different strategies, and the card games seemed to be in the whist or rummy family.

And Farook would try to meet landlords by playing these games. Meeting landlords was difficult (though not impossible) since there were very few of them, but he succeeded in meeting agents who worked for those landlords. Sometimes, the agents weren't even working in the real estate arm of the landlord's business, but they knew of a property available for half market price.

Farook also went to the property fair that Dubai holds every year. Like every such sales venue, the people at the booths have memorised what they are supposed to say. Stand in front of them, and it's just as if one pressed the 'Play' button on a CD player. So they might say, 'We have some very nice villas in Jumairah,' and Farook would say, 'Perfect, thank you, I really appreciate your telling me. That's just what I'm looking for, tell me more about your flats in Satwa.' 'Um, er, we don't have any flats in Satwa, we have luxurious villas in Jumairah.' Always appearing very polite, very interested, but actually trying to rattle the salesperson so they'd reveal something they were not supposed to tell, about some property renting below market that their boss wanted to save for himself or for a friend.

Farook would spend an hour or more at each stand. Often, the salespersons didn't have any information other than their canned speech, but occasionally, Farook would find the kind of place he was looking for.

His final approach was to find someone leaving Dubai after many years in the same place, and whose landlord had never raised the rent. Farook would offer to pay the departing tenant some key money to get the lease.

And, once he'd found a flat with a lease for half market rates, he'd call people who might be interested.

'I have an office for you, it's exactly what you said you wanted, for just $850 per month.'

If Farook was offering an office (or flat or villa) for $850, he would know he could lease it for $500, and that market rates were $1,000. It was what we call a win-win-win situation. The landlord, without making any effort, without paying to run any ads, would be getting rent from a property that had been sitting empty; alternatively, family departing Dubai would get a few dollars to supplement what they had saved and their end of job gratuity. A new tenant would be getting a place well below market. And, finally, Farook would be doing well by doing good, to quote Tom Lehrer.

Farook told me he was making almost $100,000 a year after all expenses for his office and the tea and sweets and other victuals he gave away so freely to potential customers and friends (of course, every friend was also a potential customer, so I guess that was redundant).

It was a good living.