Tuesday, January 25, 2011

You won't find this on Groupon

I recently took this photo from the passenger seat while Sam drove behind a city bus (thus the poor quality as it was taken through glass, completely zoomed in, while moving). It's an advertisement for coupons in various increments that people can buy to contribute to a less fortunate Muslim family's observance of Eid al-Adha (which was in November, but I only now saw the ad for the first time).

Left to right, the coupons read "Eid Clothing", "Adha (Sacrifice)", and "Easing Haj"

Eid al-Adha, which means Festival of Sacrifice, is the period following the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, when Muslims remember Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, to God, and the graciousness of God in providing an animal to sacrifice instead. Sound familiar? The Torah, and thus the Christian Old Testament, has a very similar account with one major difference – the name of the son (Isaac rather than Ishmael).

In the Eid al-Adha tradition, Muslims divide up the sacrificed meat into three equal parts, one for the family to keep, one to give to friends, and the third to give to the poor. It's a noble concept, and before you get all huffy about the death of innocent animals, I'd just like to point out that all of us non-vegetarians regularly sacrifice them to our stomachs, with much less significance attached.

So, the idea of using a filthy city bus to raise money for people to sacrifice animals to Allah is somewhat disturbing to me. Combine that with the use of coupons, and it seems downright offensive. Not that I blame the marketing company for following an instinct to use all the modern methods at its disposal, but it seems like such an unholy way to fulfill a holy tradition. It calls to mind images of a concessions vendor at a baseball game, weaving through the crowd, yelling "Popcorn, peanuts, sacrificial rams. Get 'em while they're hot!"

Sam has just rightly pointed out to me that similar crudeness likely occurs during efforts of the Christian faith to raise money for its charities (in fact, our own church once organized a casino night as a fundraising event to refurbish the church grounds; which may seem like a contradiction in interests to some), so I'd like to add that I'm not limiting my critique to the Muslim faith, just to those who promote the sacred with coupons.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sense of humor required

I’ve lived overseas long enough that I can no longer recall whether the following scenario, which is representative of many of my customer-service experiences here in the UAE, would be considered normal back home. My American readers can judge for themselves.

On Monday, I went to a local supermarket to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. I stopped at the HSBC-owned ATM machine to get cash to pay for the prescription, but absent-mindedly inserted my credit card instead of my debit card. I didn’t notice though, because the machine went through the normal motions - asking for my PIN number, which I entered, and then asking me to choose the amount of cash I wanted, which I did.

I still wasn’t aware anything was wrong until it suddenly spit out a receipt with the following message: “Cash withdrawal cancelled. Card retained. Please contact the bank.” I opened my wallet to find my debit card snugly tucked inside, and I finally understood my mistake. But there was no second chance, no “invalid pin” or “invalid card” error messages to alarm me to my idiocy. It just ate my card without warning! I could almost hear it belching with satisfaction.

Fortunately, this particular store has an in-house branch of HSBC, so I immediately went in, showed a teller the receipt and asked if he might retrieve it. Unfortunately, his reply was “Oh no, ma’am, we don’t have a key to the machine. You’ll have to wait a couple of days and then go to the main branch to pick it up on any week day between the hours of 10 and 2.” I told the man in no uncertain terms how ridiculous I thought the situation was, but rather than defend his employer, he smiled and said apologetically “welcome to HSBC.”

I guess he was trying to appease me, but it actually made me angrier to know there wasn’t a good reason for this inconvenience. HSBC is already on my list for its website constantly crashing and for making it nearly impossible to pay for things while we were in Istanbul [note to international travelers: always carry several methods of payment, from more than one banking source], so I was low on patience.

The man then conferred in Arabic with his colleague, turned back to me and said, “I tell you what, I’ll give you the number of a man to call at the main branch so you can call ahead and make sure he has it. His name is John. That way you won’t waste your time.” Right, I thought, wouldn’t want to waste my time. To top it off, the pharmacy was out of my prescription so I left the store even more empty-handed.

It has now been two days since the incident, so a few minutes ago I called the number for "John." An automated female voice with a refined British accent told me that no one was available at that number (no mention of John was made, or even of HSBC come to think of it) and that I could leave a message except for the fact that the voicemail box was full.

“I shall now transfer you to an attendant,” she chirped, “but, oops, no alternate extension was entered by the owner of this mailbox, so there is absolutely nothing I can do but end this call. Too bad, so sad.” Click. (There may have been a bit of paraphrasing there, but not much.)

There is nothing to do but laugh. Oh, and call back. Because I still need my credit card.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: thank God, it's organic!

Yesterday, I went to the mall on my lunch hour to look for fresh rosemary to use it in last night's soup. [I should explain that every mall in Abu Dhabi has a huge supermarket (which they call a hypermarket) as one of its anchor stores; otherwise, I would not typically go to a mall looking for herbs.] Anyway, entering the mall I was greeted by the sound of live music, and as I approached the grocery store I could see a line of Emirati men singing into microphones while a half a dozen others did a traditional dance.

Apart from on National Day, seeing Emiratis singing and dancing in a public space is very unusual. I was intrigued, but short on time and on a mission, so I kept walking toward the store. But then I stumbled upon what appeared to be the World's Longest Cake, elaborately decorated as a cityscape of Abu Dhabi, at which time I stopped a few moments to take it all in.

I didn't know yet what we were celebrating. All of the signs hung around the cake were in Arabic, so I thought maybe it was a local holiday I wasn't familiar with. I decided to run quickly into the store to complete my errand and then find out the reason for the excitement.

In the produce section I didn't find any rosemary but I did find this--

I gasped as I grabbed the most beautiful head of lettuce I've ever seen, which was flanked by bushels of exquisitely fragrant tomatoes, peppers, onions, and squash. Where did all this come from? In 17 months, I haven't seen vegetables near this caliber. With the ordeal of importing and the ornery heat, most produce arrives on shelves bruised and sad-looking. Even the wimpy "organic" sections of the grocery store offer up wilted leaves that costs a week's salary. I circled the display until I found a sign in English - and I think I heard the Hallelujah Chorus playing in the background as I read: Organically grown in Abu Dhabi.

Around the corner from the store I found a pseudo-farmer's market showing off the treats that we can come to expect from Mazaraa, "the first organically certified products in the UAE," according to the free pamphlet.

I now understood what the singing and dancing was about. I felt a bit of pride for this little country for moving in this direction; finding sustainable ways of producing their own food will be key to the UAE's continued growth and progress. It looks like they are pretty proud of it too--

UAE flag in vegetables

Not only are these vegetables divine to look at, they are surprisingly inexpensive. Typically, to buy four non-organic, average-sized bell peppers and barely edible lettuce would cost me at least 25 dirhams (nearly $7). But four huge peppers and a giant head of Romaine from Mazaara cost me about 10 dirhams (not even $3). And check out these beauties! Stuffed peppers are on the menu tonight --

Monday, January 10, 2011

Talk about the weather

Today I woke up to fog so dense that when I stepped onto our balcony it was like stepping into the clouds. I couldn’t even see the mosque next door (the one so prominently pictured in our blog header). Talking of the weather is supposed to mean you’ve run out of things to say, but in my mind, any variation from the sunny, blue skies found over Abu Dhabi 98.7% of the time, is worth a post.

What’s interesting about the weather here is that it’s so uninteresting that no one even bothers to report on it. Granted, I don’t watch TV, so it’s possible that there is a local meteorologist who reiterates the fact of sunshine each and every day, but I do know that there isn’t a weather section in The National, one of the main English-language daily newspapers of the UAE. If there was, it certainly wouldn’t help to sell papers. And the only time it’s ever mentioned on the radio is when an over-caffeinated DJ says “Hey, I think we may hit 50 degrees today!” (that’s Celsius, folks).

In the seven years that we lived in New Jersey and Massachusetts, looking at the forecast was part of my morning routine; how else would I know what to wear that day? In fact, I sometimes checked weather.com a few times a day (it could change so drastically between my walk to and from the office), and I loved watching the weather segment on the evening news – it was so exciting to watch a system roll in from the west and not be certain until the last minute whether it would sit over New England giving us a good soak or bypass us and head for Nova Scotia, allowing us to sigh in relief that we didn’t have to cancel our apple-picking plans.

But in Abu Dhabi, from March to November I dress for hot weather, and from December to February I throw a cardigan over it. There are no questions as to whether I can get away with sandals (I can), need a coat (I don’t) or should grab an umbrella (we don’t own one). So, on the handful of days when inclement weather does occur, it takes us completely by storm (I know, I know, couldn't resist).