Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How the other half goes to the movies

Every year, prior to the Academy Awards, Sam and I attempt to see all of the movies that are nominated for Best Picture that year, and then we compete with each other on Oscar night to see who correctly predicts the winners in the most categories (it's very official; we use ballots and everything). We've done this as long as I can remember, and I believe Sam has won every year - thanks to his upbringing and wicked smarts, he's darn good at it!

This tradition has been significantly more challenging in the UAE, as there is usually a lag time of a month or two before films make it over here, and then the good ones seem to stay only a week. And let me just say that doubling the amount of nominees from 5 to 10 has not only diluted the weight of the honor, but has made our annual attempt much more expensive! We also can't actually watch the Oscars live here since we don't have satellite; besides, they air at 5 am our time. But we press on, and are actually 9 for 10 this year, with Black Swan being the only exception (it probably won't ever release here).

Two weekends ago we noticed that The King's Speech was finally showing, so we went to Marina Mall Cinema at the scheduled time only to be told there was a problem with the film and it wouldn't show after all. So we drove across town to the Khalidiyah Mall Cinema, to find out it was only playing in "Platinum Class" for a whopping 100 dirhams ($28) per person! We asked if the film would be available anytime soon at the regular price of 30 dirhams and were informed that this was the last day it would be in theaters at all. After a private consultation, Sam and I agreed we had come too far to turn back and coughed up the extra dough. 

So, what does 100 dirhams get you at the movies? Well, not much. We were directed to a separate entrance to sit in a private lobby that looked, well, like a smaller version of the main lobby. I visited the "platinum class" bathroom to see what extra amenities I might find, but apart from a more stylish sink basin, it was the same as the regular class bathroom (and out of paper too). Our movie was shown in a smallish room with a smallish screen, with just two distinct differences from a regular-priced movie: 
  1. Rather than wait in line at a concessions counter, theater employees come around to your seats to take snack orders. There are no special offerings; same candy, same prices as always, but in Platinum Class you get to listen to everyone around you give their orders during the previews, then wait until 20 minutes into the movie to get your M&Ms, all the while being distracted by the waiters attempting to discreetly distribute popcorn in the dark (not an easy feat).
  2. The seats! Everyone gets their own personal Barcalounger (aka Lazy Boy), soft as a baby's bottom and fully reclinable. We took off our shoes (everyone was doing it) and settled in for the duration, deciding the ticket was worth every last dirham.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A tale of two tailors

It was the best of days, it was the worst of days…

I accidentally cut a hole in my brand-new black pants (don't ask) and needed them mended before my big trip to Paris (that's right, I'm going to Paris in a few days!). Despite a sewing class in high school (again, don't ask), I have absolutely zero affinity for anything involving needles and thread, and so I began to look around for a professional tailor.

I first went to my dry cleaner, because back home that would be the place to go if you needed to replace a button or tighten a seam; but alas, neither do they mend or know of anyone who mends.

I turned to the internet next. But since it is rare for a business in Abu Dhabi to have its own website, the results of a Google search produced mostly discussion forums where other expats had relayed their various tailoring experiences. After reading several posts, I decided to go with Noor Al Balooshi, a tailor who had received decent recommendations, but also, and possibly more importantly, for whom someone had posted directions with street names and even a couple of landmarks. In a city that does not use a street address system, good directions are worth their weight in gold.

So last Saturday, I kissed Sam goodbye and told him if I wasn’t back by lunch to come looking for me. Why the drama? You see, I could tell from the directions that Noor Al Balooshi was going to be found deep inside one of Abu Dhabi's countless labyrinthine-like neighborhoods that are enclosed within a city block. In other parts of the developed world, the areas of concrete which surround buildings are typically used as dedicated parking lots. But here, these patches of pavement have morphed over years of improper zoning into intricate mazes of alleyways, overgrown with mom-and-pop grocers, pharmacies and specialty shops, barbers and mosques. There are cars parked and double-parked along every inch of curb, allowing room for only one vehicle at a time to pass in many places, with no traffic signs, and few exits to the main roads. I usually avoid these areas lest they swallow me whole; going in on purpose shows how badly I wanted my pants fixed.

Long story made short not as long, the directions turned out to be little help, lacking crucial details like whether to turn left or right at said landmarks. Nearly an hour later, after backing out of (literally) a traffic-jam in which I briefly considered abandoning my vehicle, and then miraculously avoiding a collision when a taxi on my right, without warning, took a sharp left in front of me as I was going straight through an intersection, I had not found the tailor, nor any other establishment appearing to contain a sewing machine.

What I had found was a new disdain for the city of Abu Dhabi. Why should it be so hard to complete such a simple errand?! Fighting back tears of frustration, radio blaring, I made my way out of that cramped part of town and headed out to the Corniche (the road hugging the coast) so I could drive fast and blow off some steam.

Feeling a little calmer and heading back toward home, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a sign on a small side-street that might have said something about tailoring. I had already passed the street so I started the laborious process of turning around (this could be another post in itself). After what seemed like an eternity, I approached the same side street again, and...voilĂ ! A tailor!

Five minutes later, I had left my pants plus a few other altering projects with Amin and his lone sewing machine in a tiny but immaculate shop called Senyorita Ladies Fashion Tailoring (gotta love the use of misspelled Spanish).

Amin was cheery, and despite his limited English, understood each of my requests, quickly measuring and marking for a hem here, a patch there. I asked how much time he needed to complete the work, expecting to wait a week or so, but he responded, "I finish today. You come tonight." I asked the price, and he thought a moment then said tentatively, "Fifty dirhams?" I think he was waiting for me to negotiate, but to me fifty dirhams (less than 14 USD) for mending seven items seemed outrageously low. Best of all, the work he completed turned out to be flawless, way better than my tailor in Boston who would charge me 14 bucks for one hem. I left his shop glowing from my find: a reliable tailor and a new reason to love Abu Dhabi.

I told Amin I would tell my friends, so here they are, drama-free directions to Senyorita Ladies Fashion Tailoring, in Al Khalidya:

Get on Sheikh Zayed the First (7th) Street, heading away from Khaleej Al Arabi (30th) and toward 26th. Go past 16th street, and then be looking for a small street on your right in between the blue First Gulf Bank building and the pink Folklore Gallery building. Turn onto this street (8th), and you'll immediately see the tailor on your left, a couple doors down from the gallery. (Incidentally, there is an African + Eastern nestled in the parking lot behind First Gulf Bank, which I never would have found otherwise.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tourism 101

During their five days as our guests in Abu Dhabi, we took Marcel and Anina to many of the popular tourist stops (Emirates Palace, Grand Mosque, Yas Island, Qasr al Sarab, Dubai Museum, Burj Khalifa, etc, etc.). They explored each place with energy and enthusiasm, but they were also content to venture out on walks around our neighborhood, pop into a local bakery, see where we work and where we buy groceries, or just hang out in our apartment, observing what it feels like to live here. 

We appreciate this kind of tourism, the kind that doesn't merely seek to be comfortable and entertained but is willing to spend the effort to go beyond the facade of a place, to ask questions about the culture, history and philosophies of local inhabitants, and seek to understand them rather than pass judgment. Sam and I agreed that our Swiss visitors cared more, and thereby came to know more, about this place we currently call home than do many expatriate residents.

The following photos are courtesy of Marcel and Anina. Most are taken in places we've seen countless times but are now able to view through the eyes of our intellectually curious friends. 

Men dispersing after Friday prayers as seen from our apartment balcony

Shop closed for prayer, near our apartment in Al Dhafra neighborhood

These advertisements are so common around town I barely noticed them anymore; the meaning implicit in these kinds of signs is a discussion for another post (note to self).

Marcel and Anina agreed that dinner and shisha, plus the show provided by the waiters and managers seating, serving, and schmoozing customers on the patio at Lebanese Flower, was one of their favorite activities of the week. 

February 4th, 2011 gave us the most perfect weather we've had since moving to Abu Dhabi - made even better by strolling the Corniche with good friends

Towering 30 feet over the road way, this sign a testament to the power that the late Sheikh Zayed, the "George Washington of the UAE," had in fostering a national identity, where only 40 years ago, one didn't exist at all

Sam and me, sharing a moment at the fountains in front of the Emirates Palace

Anina, donning the abaya for the first time

Deserted shoes at Sheikh Zayed Mosque

13 years in the making, the newly-completed Sheikh Zayed bridge, designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid 

Here's something you don't see every day - a sunken dhow in the Dubai Creek

Quiet, shaded walkways of the seemingly under-utilized-for-a-Saturday Bastakia Quarter of Old Dubai

New Dubai through the rear window

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Al Bidyah Mosque

After our time in Muscat, we drove up the coast, back across the UAE border, and stayed one night in the emirate of Fujairah. It shares much of the same landscape as Oman with beaches flanked by mountains. We experienced some unusual winter weather there, with gusty winds and foreboding clouds, causing the beach to look more like the coast of Oregon in the 80's film The Goonies than what we are used to seeing in the UAE. It was stunning, and we enjoyed sitting on the sand soaking in the cool, salty air and sound of crashing waves.

Before heading back to Abu Dhabi we visited Al Bidyah Mosque. Built in the 15th century, it is the oldest still-standing structure in the UAE, not to mention the oldest mosque. Its architecture is unusual in this region, and reminded us of the adobe-style prevalent in the southwestern US, Central and South America.

The mosque is well maintained and still operational, despite being a stop for many tour buses. 

From the watch tower above the mosque you can view more of the magnificent scenery. Located north of Fujairah town on E99, about 15 kms south of Dibba, it is worth the drive to experience this piece of history and natural beauty in a country so enthralled with all things modern and high tech.

Our last stop before crossing the mountain pass back to the western coast of the UAE was at one of the many roadside farmer's markets. These farmers have shrewdly picked up on the Western affinity for "locally-grown produce." Each time the merchants would show me their wares - a bunch of bananas or a piece of orange, they would proclaim "local!" "local!" Incidentally, we bought some of the best mango that I've eaten since arriving in the UAE.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


At the end of January we drove from Abu Dhabi to Muscat to meet up with our Swiss friends, Marcel and Anina, who had been touring Oman the week prior. We spent a couple of days there, appreciating the laid-back atmosphere of this coastal town and surrounding mountainous regions.

The view from our room at the Naseem Hotel in the port district of Muttrah

Our first task was to take a leisurely stroll along the Muttrah Corniche at sunset, most welcome after our long drive-

Photo by Marcel

After our walk, we literally stumbled upon the Oman Heritage and Cultural Village at Qurum Park, one of the venues for the month-long Muscat Festival, while driving in search for a place to eat dinner. The park was full of dancing troupes (men and women dancing together in some!), displays demonstrating skills in traditional trades like silver-works, date-candying, weaving and looming, and most of all, large numbers of locals enjoying the festival.

Photo by Marcel

It had a similar feel to the cultural pride we witnessed on UAE National Day (with fewer cars and minus the silly string), and though it felt a bit like a tourist trap we were actually some of the only Western visitors in the park. In fact, we were photographed by the Arabic newspaper, likely because we stood out like sore thumbs.

Photo by Marcel
Famished after the bustle of the festival, we enjoyed a traditional Moroccan dinner of lamb and couscous at Meknes in Al Khuwair District.

Photo by Marcel

The next day we visited Sultan Qaboos Mosque, Oman's equivalent to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Our impression was that it is equally beautiful but more organic in its delivery than the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

After a bit more driving we made it to the huge Nakhal Fort, north of Muscat, which was great fun to explore-

Photo by Marcel

Afterwards, we stopped to dip our feet in the warm natural springs at a nearby oasis...

...and were attacked  tickled by flesh-eating fish! People actually pay for this treatment in upscale spas around the world, but Sam enjoyed the pedicure free of charge.

Later, we returned the favor by eating a lovely fish dinner at Turkish House, which was somewhat hard to find but worth the effort (look for the neon blue signs).

Photo by Marcel

Our final morning we spent wandering and practicing our haggling skills in the famous Old Muttrah Souk.

It's not as large of a complex as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but still pretty intricate and impressive.

Muscat is a great place to spend a relaxed long weekend away from the high rises and shopping malls of Abu Dhabi, and was a good start to our weeklong visit with Marcel and Anina. Next stop...Fujairah.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Egyptian solidarity: the Quran and the cross

Along with the rest of the world, Shannon and I have been watching the exciting, and sometimes tragic, events unfolding in Egypt as of late, feeling especially interested given our brief tour of Egypt last year and due to the large number of Egyptians expats residing here in the UAE. There are many things I could say to comment on the situation. But for now I'll highlight one phenomenon that I've found particularly moving, and that is the interfaith solidarity between the Muslims and Coptic Christians who are protesting against Mubarak. Historically, and especially in the few months preceding the revolution, there have been tensions between the two groups, but despite their differences they have been able to come together to forge a better future for Egyptians.

Muslim and Christian cleric together in Tahrir Square (Anonymous Source) 
On January 28th, the first day of truly massive protests, the Coptic Christians formed perimeters around a number of mosques in order to protect those inside who were engaged in their Friday noon prayers. And later in the week, when thousands of protesters had gathered in Tahrir Square, many Muslims paid back the favor and guarded the Coptic Christian priests as they performed mass. Truly inspiring! Let’s hope this behavior continues in the post-Mubarak Egypt and serves as a model for interfaith dialogue and collective action for others around the world.

Christians form protective perimeter around Muslims as they pray in Tahrir Square (Anonymous Source)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Driving to Muscat

The past ten days were brimming with activity, giving us fodder for new posts but leaving us no time to write them. In the last few days of January, Sam finished up teaching for the semester and rushed to submit his grades (though of course giving each paper careful consideration), as we both prepared for a quick trip to Muscat followed by a week hosting friends, Marcel and Anina, who were visiting from Switzerland (the same friends we visited in 2009).

Late last night we dropped Marcel and Anina at the airport for their flight home after completing a terrific seven-day itinerary together. We now have dozens of memories and hundreds of pictures to sort through, but before we get to that, we would like to offer a public service announcement to anyone who may be considering a drive from the UAE to Muscat.

The plan was to meet our friends in Muscat (they had been touring Oman the week prior) and drive them back to the UAE. Though we've driven to Oman a couple of times, we had never attempted the route between Abu Dhabi and Muscat before, so of course we turned to the Internet to help us find our way. Unfortunately, Google Maps cannot compute directions in this region, and though general (and spotty) directions were mentioned in a couple places, we could not find comprehensive instructions on any websites or blogs.

We pieced together our route as much as possible and left the rest to fate/instinct. While Sam drove, I decided to take detailed notes along the way and then compose this post for the sake of posterity. There are a few ways to get through Al Ain to the border post for non-GCC nationals, so I'm not claiming this is the only or even the best one, but it worked for us. So here they are, step-by-step driving directions from Abu Dhabi via Al Ain to Muscat, using the Al Khattam al Shukklah / Wadi Jizi border posts:

  1. Take Airport Road toward the Abu Dhabi International Airport.
  2. After you spot the Grand Mosque on your right, exit at E22 and take it all the way to Al Ain [about 1.5 hours roughly following the speed limit].
  3. Once in Al Ain, E22 becomes Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed street. Follow the signs through several roundabouts, making sure to stay on this road. 
  4. You will come to a light at Zayed bin Sultan street. Turn left
  5. At the next roundabout, exit right onto Shackboot bin Sultan street.
  6. At the end of this street, turn right onto Omar bin Khattab street. [Note about steps 4-6: we missed the sign for Zayed bin Sultan street and went straight through the light instead. We just turned left at the next street and it brought us to Shackboot bin Sultan and we were back on track. This part of town is more or less on a grid, so it's difficult to get very lost.]
  7. Take Omar bin Khattab street past the Al Ain Mall on your right, until it dead-ends into Al Khatam Street. Take a left; on a clear day you will immediately see the mountains in front of you.
  8. Follow the brown signs for Al Ain Sports Complex - they will keep you on Al Khatam Street until you reach the border (about 18 kms). [Steps 3-8 took about 30 minutes, following the speed limit in light traffic].
  9. Getting through the Khattam border took us about 10 minutes and cost 35 dirhams per person. This may vary depending on the number in the queue. Make sure you have your passport, driver's license, car registration and auto insurance to cover your stay in Oman.
  10. After exiting the UAE, follow the signs for Sohar/Muscat, about another 25 kms, to reach the Omani entry post, Wadi Jizi
  11. At Wadi Jizi you'll need to park and go inside. With a few groups ahead of us in line, this took about 20 minutes and cost us 25 rials, or 250 dirhams, for two people (the sign said 20 rials per person, so we're not sure how that worked out). [This is a good opportunity to use the restroom, which is clean, but make sure to bring your own tissue!]
  12. From the border take Highway 7 toward Sohar about 40 kms (30 minutes) until you reach Route 1, which is the coastal highway.
  13. Take a right on Route 1 (aka A'Seeb Street) and follow it all the way into Muscat. This takes a while (for us, about 2.5 hours), as the road is peppered with speed bumps, traffic lights, and roundabouts.
  14. From our apartment in downtown Abu Dhabi to our hotel in Muttrah, the trip took us nearly 6 hours, all inclusive.
Driving through the countryside is a great way to experience the local flavor of a place, not to mention being less expensive than flying from point A to B, but it can be intimidating to drive across borders of unfamiliar countries. We hope this post will encourage others to take up the challenge. Good luck!