Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stop your excuses, 40 years is plenty of time to build a country

Abu Dhabi can be a frustrating place. As non-Emiratis, we sometimes feel like second-class citizens, there are no street addresses (everyone uses PO boxes and you must use landmarks when attempting to tell a cabbie where to take you), and our internet connection frequently goes down. Moreover, some things here are also just really different.

Shannon and I drove with some friends to a mall just outside Dubai the other night (yes, another mall), and upon arrival Shannon went to use the public restrooms. She walked into a beautifully ornate bathroom with marble floors and gold detailing, bathroom attendants and all, but when she opened the door to an empty stall at the end of the row, she was startled to find that the toilet basin was little more than a hole in the ground. Thinking this a bit strange, she promptly backed out and found another, more properly equipped, stall. At the end of the night she found herself in need of a restroom again, and she entered one at a different end of the mall. Once again, she saw an empty stall at the end of the row, and once again she found herself staring at a hole in the ground! While I can't say I know for sure why the hole is there, I suspect it's for those generations who have not completely acclimated to the luxuries of indoor plumbing.

It's important to remember that the UAE first began to see the benefits of the extraction and production of oil from within their borders in 1966 when Sheik Zayed took the throne, and what's more, the UAE didn't even come into existence until 1971. Up until this time, the largest cities in what's now the UAE, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Al Ain, were sparsely populated villages with a few thousand inhabitants.

Here are a few images showing Abu Dhabi's drastic development:

Abu Dhabi from the air in 1965
(Source: George Bell -

The main street (yes, there was only one) in Abu Dhabi in 1966

(Source: George Bell -

Abu Dhabi today...notice any change?

And this brings me back to where I began. I have to remind myself that many of the frustrations and differences which we have experienced come from the fact that the UAE has had to develop its infrastructure and national identity over a span of about 43 years. By contrast, the United States has had roughly 400 years to do so. It truly staggers my imagination to think that as recently as the mid-1960s, the Emiratis were still living as their ancestors had lived for thousands of years, and virtually overnight, they had to leave tribal loyalties behind and learn to manage billions of dollars of oil revenue as well as all the trappings which come along with a nation-state. I think I'll be a little more patient the next time my internet connection encounters some glitches.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Movin' on up

Some have been asking for pics of our new apartment so here you go...

Here is our living room...

and here is the left-ward looking view from our balcony on the 9th floor...

now looking straight forward from our balcony; look familiar?...

this is a wonderful shot taken by Shannon looking down on the mosque from our balcony...

the view from stage right...

here is our kitchen; Shannon loves all the counter space!...

and lastly, our bedroom...thankfully, we've since bought a bed...

There are a few more rooms including a second bedroom which we'll use as a study, plus a laundry room which we understand was originally intended to be used as maid's quarters...uhh, I don't think we'll be requiring a live-in maid, but it is actually quite common here to have someone clean on a weekly or bi-weekly basis (in our case, that will be us). Anyway, that concludes our apartment tour!

Top ten

Summing up our first week in Abu Dhabi, we...
  1. Hit five malls in five days
  2. Can see four mosques from our apartment windows (including a minaret a stone's throw from our bedroom window--say goodbye to sleeping in!)
  3. Went bowling American-style with 20 expats from Canada, UK, Australia (no Americans yet)
  4. Smoked our first shisha (flavored tobacco, apple in this case)
  5. Learned that Western parking standards do not apply (people park down the middle of the road, facing any direction)
  6. Were required to sit in the "family room" at dinner at the local Indian restaurant (any group including adult women cannot eat in the main dining room)
  7. Bought an ironing board at local grocery store, which the bagger carried across the street and up to our 9th floor apartment (this service was assumed; we did not ask for it)
  8. Noticed our cable guy took his shoes off before entering our apartment (again, without being asked)
  9. Discovered that every street has three names, two of which are not posted anywhere, and there are no addresses, only landmarks (we live in the "safety building" - no street number seems to exist)
  10. Count 29, no wait, 41, sky cranes viewable from our living room window (the place is booming!)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The view from here

I thought I would take a moment to explain the choice of images used for our blog's header as it was very intentional. The shot was taken from our apartment and seems to epitomize the experiment that is Abu Dhabi, and more widely, the UAE. That is, one finds here juxtapositions galore: modern skyscrapers next to mosques, Emiratis wearing centuries old garb (dishdashas for the men and abayas for the women) and talking on their iPhones, fast-food restaurants along side traditional Lebanese bakeries, and prayer rooms located in shopping malls, to name only a few. Much of recent Muslim history can be summed up in this way: how does one (assuming the desire is even there) embrace both modernity and their own Muslim identity? To be sure, this is a challenge that has been or is being faced by pretty much everyone in the world; it's just that, as of late, we seem to be focusing on how the Middle East has approached this challenge (and there are many very good reasons for this). And, of course, the ways in which the Muslim world has tackled this challenge are legion. Anyways, we thought this image communicated some of these interesting dynamics here in Abu Dhabi. I'm sure we'll be returning to this theme, both directly and indirectly, throughout our posts.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Marhaba from Abu Dhabi! Shannon and I feel that our first post should provide some background as to how we got over here in the first place. Looking back, there seem to be a nearly infinite number of things which led us here, but because this is a blog and not the next great American novel, I'll keep it brief.

I began thinking about pursuing a PhD in comparative Christian and Islamic ethics in the summer of last year, and so then began in earnest to focus on Islamic/Middle Eastern studies and lo and behold, found it a fascinating and little-explored research area! Then, around May of this year, Shannon happened upon a job posting for a position working in higher education research and policy at a university in Abu Dhabi. She had been considering changing jobs and found this one intriguing, but quickly dismissed it, thinking it too outrageous to consider.

A few days later we were having a conversation at dinner about our potential move, and she brought up the job posting as a joke, but by the end of our evening she had decided to apply just for kicks to see what would happen. Over the next few weeks while she awaited their reply, she experienced quite a change of heart; her initial aversion to the idea was transformed into an outright desire to move there. She ended up being hired for the position and had a contract by mid-June. Long story-short, less than three months from our initial conversation about how funny it would if we moved to the Middle East, Shannon and I packed up and moved there, which is now here. Hard to believe we've already been here one week. Here are a few pics of our first days:

Shannon and me on our plane moments before wheels up!

Here we are working off jet lag in our meager 5-star accommodations (Shannon's employer was very good to us) at the Intercontinental Hotel...Sam says, "It's tired in here."

And this was our first glimpse of Abu Dhabi by day...gorgeous!

Source: Jhani (

Here is the Marina Mall, the second largest mall in Abu Dhabi, and just one of the five we hit in two days, all within a two mile radius...Emiratis sure can shop!

This is a shot from inside the Marina Mall; notice the sign providing direction both to the "Prayer Room" and "Cinestar," the mall's movie theater...this image captures much of Abu Dhabi's uniqueness.