Journey to Middle Earth.. uh, no – Middle East!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The first impression of Dubai is wealth. Glittering glass, chrome, marble. Often also glittering gold, diamonds. Everything spotless and perfect. This is a man made world of artificial trees, super malls, expensive cars and jewels.
But I am not a shopper. And I am not interested in hobnobbing with the jetset.
So I look beyond the glitter, at the history of this United Arab Emirate and fall in love with its hues and textures: of robes, headscarves, spices, sand.

From a world of black and white robes in Saudi Arabia, I arrive in full technicolor Dubai. Head scarves change from black to many vibrant colors. Even the skyline is outlined in setting sun with an orange haze from two days of sand storms. From the plane I saw nothing but orange sand of the desert, blown and shaped into soft rolling dunes. Whereas customs in Saudi had been swift and efficient, this customs line-up took forever but Sue, the librarian at one of the school where I was to speak, and my new friend, was waiting and whisked me home. Women can drive here. There’s quite a difference among arab countries with Dubai being the most liberal of all. They’ve even moved up their weekend, to Friday and Saturday, to coincide with western days off.

It’s a perfect 24 – 26 degrees and no humidity. Is the weather here man made, too?
Around noon, the next day, I take a taxi across the city to Jumeirah Beach. The white sand beach fringes the Arabian Sea, next to the famous building Burj Al Arab, the sail shaped tower. The hotel in Burj Al Arab is the only hotel in the world with a gold bar dispenser… An ATM with gold bars, just in case you want to buy your gold after the bank closes…
To use the beach right by the hotel costs some US $50 but next to it is a free public beach which is identical. Everything is very expensive here.
I swim in the strong waves, then read my book on the beach while women in scant bikinis and women in black abayas walk by. Men are jogging, even in long white robes.

Later on, I have coffee in a posh hotel and watch people from all nationalities: haughty Russians, Italians wobbling on too high heels, Americans in cut-off blue jeans, pristine Arabs and everything in between.

My favorite spot is “The Creek.” This is the name of the wide river that divides downtown Dubai. Not really a creek at all but an inlet from the Arabian Sea. Once it was a creek but the then reigning sjeik borrowed money and dredged the creek until it was a wide flowing river. Now you can take a small wooden boat called an abra to cross to the other side. On one side I had lunch at a small arabian cafe: fallafels with hummus and chicken and naan bread and the best fruit shakes ever.
Then I crossed the water in a swift taxi, an abra, and walked across the fabric market to the Dubai museum. Nice displays of the history: archeology, water, desserts, trading posts, pearl divers.

I strolled all over the oldest part of Dubai where ancient windtower houses have been converted to modern art galleries. This whole part of the city has been preserved because a western woman, who had lived there for a long time, refused to leave when it was to be demolished. Because she brought such attention to it, the ancient Dubai was preserved. I was told this would not have happened if she had not been western. Good for her.
I felt very safe, strolling here – a woman alone. As the call to prayer echoed through the terracotta colored streets, and doves fluttered onto the roof tops, I walked back to the abras.

One night I booked a ‘desert safari’. With about 5 other people we drove an hour out of the city, in a suburban, then embarked on a wild cross-desert drive through the sand. We had to hang on for dear life and hope the jeep wouldn’t flip over as we raced over high sand dunes, up one side and down the other edge. Not my idea of a fun night in the desert.
We then arrived at an area where you could ride a camel (pretty touristy) and sit at long, low tables to eat a middle eastern meal while watching Bedouin dancing, including bellydancing. Fairly tacky but fun to experience once.

One day after working at a school, I strolled to the fabric market, the old sook (or suq). These old market streets are narrow and sheltered by a high ceiling made of teakwood beams and corrugated metal. Each stall has wooden shutters, many of which were closed between 2 and 4 PM but things really come to live at night.
I strolled the narrowed streets, bought some gorgeous clothing and scarves and just took in the sights. Old men in sandals, young Arabs in crisp white thobe and red/white checkered head scarves. On one intersection I watched two islamic women in black abayas and burkas, only their eyes visible. They were passed by two woman of about the same age wearing tight tanktops and teetering on enormous heels. Across the street walked two black women with colorful African headdresses and large kaftans. What a cosmopolitan world.
At a small street cafe I ate shredded chicken and hummus wrapped into pita bread. Hordes of Arab men sauntered by, some of them followed by several women, likely their wives, and small children. I have been told repeatedly that Saudi women especially are very smart and that keeping a man happy with several wives is much smarter than getting divorced and not having the income and support of a husband anymore…

After taking a abra across the water for 1 dirham (about 30 cents) I  walk through the Gold souk and more narrow streets. Not far away, is a huge IKEA (where I actually ate meatballs for dinner one night!) and a huge mall where the large, local grocery store is fun and I buy chocolate covered dates, date jam and date syrup to take home.

Dubai has been one oxymoron of warm air and air conditioning, glittering buildings and gritty sand, snow white thoubs and dark skinned construction workers.  An interesting mix of ultramodern solar panels but no glue on the postage stamps; black abayas but strong, outspoken women, steel buildings built on slowly sinking sand; camels and iphones.

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