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Friday, June 27, 2014

A Ramadan Knock-Knock Joke


Who’s there?


Ramadan who?

Sorry to say, I don’t have a punchline. It’s just that Ramadan is knocking on our door and it’s no joke. It's serious. There is no Muslim equivalent to being a ‘Christmas Catholic’ here. People are preparing, discussing, and fleeing town. The holy month begins here on Saturday evening, with the first full day of Ramadan on Sunday.  And John and I are here to see our way through it.  

As most know, Ramadan is a time when Muslims around the world fast during daylight hours. But what I didn’t know is that the month of Ramadan is not about atonement, and the fasting that Muslims do is not about looking for forgiveness for sins. It’s actually about living more simply, self-reflection and becoming closer with Allah. So, this is not exactly a somber time, even though I suspect I would feel a bit somber if I had to abstain from food and water for 14 hours a day for 30 days. In fact, the word ‘celebrate’ is used a lot when referring to Ramadan and there are sparkly lights being put up all around the city that reminds me a lot of… Christmas.

A light display in our neighborhood

Christmas? Well, that’s confusing, right? Let’s confuse things more. Because, right now at the supermarkets, there are heaploads of foodstuff on display complete with point-of-sale promotions, discounts on staple items and festive decorations that say “Ramadan Kareem!”

But it’s all about fasting, right? Yeah, but, after the fasting comes the celebrations.  This is where we get into Iftar, which are these large elaborate meals that ‘celebrate’ the breaking of the fast.  Iftar meals seem to be large banquet-style affairs or family meal gatherings, usually set up in a tent. So far I’ve seen iftar tents set up at hotels, in town squares next to a mosque near Hatta a few weeks ago, and even next to a private villa in our neighborhood. John and I have even been invited to an Iftar hosted by his company. (I can’t wait.)

Of course, being non-Muslim, I haven’t bought anything to prepare. I wonder if it’s like not buying milk and bread in advance of a snowstorm, or not having flashlights and a generator at the ready in advance of a hurricane. Right now our pantry is not exactly stocked (I’m kind of a buy-as-you-go kind of gal) and I feel like I should be squirreling away food, putting together meal plans and hoarding a supply of pork products or at least a package of dates. Oops?

As an expat newbie in a Muslim country, I’ve asked everyone from my seasoned expat golfing ladies to my taxi driver what it all means and how it will impact my life. On the surface it seems simple enough. Work hours are shortened. Restaurants, cafes and food courts at the shopping malls are closed during daylight hours and shops may or may not be open. If they are, the hours may be odd. The other thing I was told is that dress needs to be really kept in check, so any knee-baring skirts will be put into the back of the closet for a few weeks (as a rule, I generally don’t wear shorts outside of the home or on the golf course). Oh, and there’s also the issue of food and drink. No food or drink (even water) out in public during the fasting hours.

Seems simple enough, right?

Well… yes and no. The challenges begin to dawn on you when you start preparing for your day-to-day activities…

For instance, Sunday is a golfing day for me. Usually I get up, throw on my golf shorts/skirt, crack open a diet coke and grab a granola bar and depart the apartment with both in hand. Then I drive to the course, radio (sometimes) blaring with one of the morning shows from Dubai. Out on the course, I’ll drink lots of water, eat a pineapple Popsicle, and then meet the ladies for coffee or tea and maybe a bite of lunch in the clubhouse before heading home.

But this week, I will wake up earlier so that I have time to eat in my home (if I’m seen drinking water or eating in public or even in my car, I could be arrested, fined or publicly scorned). I’ll put my golf shorts on, but will throw a long skirt over it as well. In the car, I’m not sure if radio stations will be playing music (music is not allowed), so Lady Gaga may be on hold for a while and I’ll have to be more mindful of drivers who are fasting as there are warnings about increased accidents and road rage. As for what happens on the golf course, it’s anyone’s guess. I suspect thirst will be an issue and forget the Popsicles, and it’s only about 104 degrees here at Midday at the moment. Back at the clubhouse, they may serve food and drink, but it may be in a partitioned area away from any public view. Or it may be closed until the evening hours. I just don’t know.

When I asked the taxi driver the other day how this will all go down, he responded, “It will be extremely quiet. No one on the roads. Everything shut down during the day.” I asked if he will continue working during the day since the hubs relies on cabs to get to and from the office. He shook his head. “I will stop work from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m.” He explained that he will rest during this time, waiting for his fast to end… which means if my husband hangs out at the office, I may become his personal chauffeur for the month. In the evening, “everyone will be out, the streets, the malls, the hotels will all be busy, people will be everywhere.”

I’m not sure how this will all shake out. In the big scheme of things, this isn't going to be too big a deal. At least I hope that's the case. And there are several things I like about Ramadan. I like the idea that fasting (and also refraining from water, caffeine, cursing, smoking and a few other things) is a way to get closer to one’s faith versus what I originally thought was some sort of self-punishment. I also like that getting closer to Allah (or any god or higher power) is seen as something to celebrate. I’d like to believe that if there is a god, then s/he needs to be a kind and generous one. I also like the focus on celebrating iftar with others, whether it be family, friends or friends you just haven’t met yet at the iftar tent. The sparkling lights are nice, as are the small acts of kindness and generosity that also go with Ramadan. Charitable giving is in focus during Ramadan, as well as just being kind to your neighbor.  And just like Christmas, there are megasales going on, if you're up for going to the mall at 10 in evening…

Anyway, I suspect this slowed pace will provide for some introspection and stock-taking of our own as well, but for now I do have a few Ramadan projects:
  • John and I have a ‘playlist’ of television shows and dvd box sets we are going to watch. Apparently, our Muslim counterparts will be doing the same, as AIrabic television shows will premiere their newslate of shows, with series’ running through the month and ending at Eid. (Fascinating!)
  • I’ve got to clean my computer files, and rejigger my email folders. This could take weeks.
  • I’m going to begin writing a new script. It would be amazing if I could jam out a first draft in thirty days, but that’s not going to happen, I just don’t write that way. At least it will get started. 
  • I will be focused more on developing my writing life here. I need to develop a schedule, set some goals, treat the writing like a very important but (for now) unpaid job. Until a paid job appears or I sell a screenplay. I will continue to job hunt in the travel/tourism sector here.
  • I’m already reading more, but I will read EVEN more! I’m aiming to read 15 scripts in 30 days and finish reading two books. 
  • Finally, I am going to attempt to construct a cat tree for my two furry housemates. I think our apartment suits them very well, but they are tree dwellers and need high perches, of which we have none at the moment.  I tend to start and not finish projects like this, so I will be mindful to only start what I know I can finish. This will take planning, and tools, and possibly the use of a saw and staple gun (thank god for that upholstery class I took last year!).

I will play less golf, socialize less during the day (lots of people have left for the summer anyway) and not go to the beach (can’t drink water unless I sneak into a toilet stall). I will shop early in the morning instead of in the afternoon as I usually do. We’ll likely not go out much in the evening, though we’ve been told our local will be open after 7:30 p.m. each evening.

I’ll keep you all posted on our Ramadan experiences. In the meantime...

Ramadan Kareem!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Road Trip: It's Getting 'Hatta' Here

It's getting hot here. Not in the way where you're psyched to be hanging out with your friends at outdoor cafes in little tank tops and drinking rose wine full of carefree thoughts and wispy feelings. No. It's not like that at all.

It's more like a worry, the heat. I'm trying to figure out how to get around it... how I'm going to walk to the supermarket without keeling over dead, or spontaneously combusting. It's not like I didn't know this would come. It's just that I have never actually 'felt' 111 degrees in the shade. Now I have, and it's only getting hotter. And for a gal who always loved summer, gets into a funk when it ends and has been known to curse all other seasons, all I can say is - be careful what you wish for...

So, in advance of the heat, John and I set out to the Hatta Pools in Dubai/Oman with a group called the Sandpit Hash House Harriers (best described as a 'social' running club). It was their last overnight excursion for the season and seems to be a much looked forward to annual event. We were in.

The drive from Abu Dhabi -- taking the scenic route -- was just about three hours. The drive included crossing the border into Oman in Al Ain, driving along the stunning Al Hajar mountain range.

The road to Hatta. Glad it's paved!
Instead of camping like we did when we helped celebrate the Al Ain's 30th year of hashing antics in the desert, we took up residence at the Hatta Fort Hotel, a darling spot with the 'throwback' feel of a family resort in the Poconos that has been transplanted to the Middle East. There was a fish pond. Bungalow rooms. Continental cuisine (onion soup, prawn cocktail and flambes made tableside). Two swimming pools. Welcome glasses of orange juice. And just about the nicest staff ever.

But the hotel wasn't why we were there. We were there for the wadis... the dried river beds and carved out rocks with water still running through them to explore. We met up with about about 15 other hashers and set off, caravan-style through the town of Hatta then pulled off to the pools... then we parked, got our act together and floated down the first of two wadis...

We lined up along a rock-carved slide and each took turns plunging in, wearing our shorts, t-shirts and footwear. From there we kind of swam along until it got shallow, walked a bit and then plunged in again.

[Okay, okay... here's the thing. The guidebooks and stuff warn Westerners about bringing valuables to the pools. We read that cars get broken into, passports and wallets stolen, etc. Also, since I was going to be wading or swimming in the wadi, I couldn't bring my camera. Therefore, if you want a good sense of the Hatta experience, please refer to this uber-cool video below...FAST FORWARD to 1:45 for wadi wading.]

After the first wadi, we had a bit of a regroup and then proceeded to the second section. It was here that I decided not to continue on. Apparently there was a rather large narrow jump to maneuver, and quite frankly, like the guidebooks said, the water was, sadly, polluted with empty water bottles, orange rinds and food wrappers. All I could think was how sad that such a beautiful spot could become so... trashed. It's like another 70s throwback, how folks handle their litter here.

After the pool adventure, it was back to the hotel and a bit of a hanging out for the evening.

Then the next day, John and I took another road excursion... hoping to make our way up to Fujairah. Armed with our cell phones and map, we hit the road and followed the PAVED parts until they turned into UNPAVED parts.

Of course, this left me nervous. There were lots of rocks so I was worried about changing flat tires in the 115 degree heat. And even though there were homes here and there, I don't know, it kind of made me nervous in the same way that driving down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the U.S. might feel... like something could go terribly wrong.

Luckily for us, the only danger we encountered were these 'free range' camels...

And goats...

But here was the road... [It's times like this that I thank god my mother isn't on the Interwebz!]

Deliverance, Middle Eastern-style.

When we finally made it back to civilization, we headed to Al Hayl Castle just outside of Fujairah. 

There, we were met by a 'guide,' who, to be honest, seemed to be making things up as he went along. "This place, for people shower... shampoo, razor, conditioner." Hmmmm... 

Still, the place, which we still can't determine whether its 300 years old (according to the guide) or built in 1930 (according to a brochure that was given to us as a memento by our guide), was pretty cool. 

The fort at Al Hayl Castle

John taps his fingers, he doesn't suffer poor tour guide information gladly...

Our guide explains his wealth of useful information, 'The big man uses the big door, the children, the little door...' Really, we didn't have that much of a problem with this, except for the pretty aggressive shakedown for a larger tip than we had given after the tour...

Anyhoo, back on the road, we hit up downtown Fujairah... which looked like what downtown Abu Dhabi might have looked like twenty years ago...

Downtown Fujairah
A drive along the coast of the Indian Ocean (the waves were rough because of a tropical storm that had been heading to the area)....
Indian Ocean, Fujairah's Corniche

Then back to the hotel and poolside in the late afternoon.

Hatta Fort Hotel...
Where you can hang at the pools, play mini golf, hike the on-site mountain top,
check out the koi pond and peacocks... or do nothing at all. 

Our bungalow.
It was a lovely weekend and one of the things we've been told is that it's important to get out of town every few weeks. Not only because there is so much to see, but because a little decompression from Abu Dhabi 'city/work life' can be a very good thing.

The town of Hatta.
 Til next time!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Superstar, Supermarkets and Shangri-La

About a month after my arrival in the UAE, I learned that blogger ManhattanMama was giving a lecture on New York University’s role in the UAE. I went along and it was a fantastic talk that swirled around a number of subjects including the UAE’s vision, the Emirati people, the education process, Frankenstein, what it means to be female here, day-to-day expat life and what they might think at home and so many other things that I wished I had taped it.

Afterwards I went up to chat with ManhattanMama in a small group of other new expats and one of the things she asked us was ‘Have you cried in the supermarket yet?’

At the time, I thought it was such a strange question. I mean, sure, I had experienced the frustration and chaos of not knowing that I needed to get my produce weighed and priced BEFORE going to the cashier. And I had also survived the one or two glaring looks (scowls actually, and I think I might have heard growling) by women who I suspect thought my cart was getting a bit too close to theirs, but whateves, right?  So, I kind of shrugged at ManhattanMama, not really sure what she was getting at.

But fast forward a few weeks and one day, there I was, standing in front of the abbreviated pasta section of the local Spar supermarket, trying to remember the difference between Spaghetti No. 2 and No. 3 (and wishing the box just said 'angelhair' like it does back home) when it started…

“Long ago, and oh so far away….”

A familiar song over the supermarket sound system. A song and soundtrack supposed to cheer shoppers to buy more. Then came the sad clarinet, the grieving sound of brass and violins, and the wistful croon of Karen Carpenter. My lip quivered. I started wincing.

“Loneliness is such a sad affair….”

And then, well, I lost it.

An open, unrestrainable weepy crying jag as I pretended to study the ingredients of a box of macaroni and cheese.

What the hell was happening? Where were my tissues? I didn’t understand. Everything was FINE fifteen minutes ago… I was having a great day. It included golf. And new friends. And sunshine. WTF was going on here!?

And then it hit me. I was homesick. 



Earlier in the week, I had to say goodbye to a friend who was visiting me in the UAE from home. 

Having the time of my life when my BFF was in town.

There were lots of tears the evening of her departure, but I knew that would happen. I’ve never been good with goodbyes. Following a fantastic time catamaran sailing, visiting the mosque and dune bashing, as she and her niece packed up their things I had this sudden urge to pack my bags as well. I wanted to just continue the fun on the plane, head back to the States, flop into my bed back in NYC, recover, and just get back to my life.

My former life, that is. 

When I was a kid at summer camp, they used to tell us that homesickness wasn’t ‘real.’ But I’m here to tell you it is. It’s a low grade heaviness that sits in one’s throat and chest, and wells up into tears at the strangest and most modest of triggers…

Like when I hear The Carpenters.

Or when John and I watch DVD episodes of Person of Interest and Blue Bloods and with each new scene I try to pick out the NYC spot where it’s being filmed, and if I recognize it, then I think about what the spot means in my own personal NYC history. The Brooklyn Bridge, a park in Washington Heights, a tree-lined street in Hell’s Kitchen… The Dive Bar.  (Sigh.)

Or when I went to the Gap store at the mall and spotted a t-shirt that said, ‘Montauk, as East as it Gets!’ And suddenly I see a painful irony. Montauk is… was, my turf, afterall, growing up on Long Island, lifeguarding on its beaches and spending many, many, many summers out on its east end. 

Based on my world view at the time, Montauk was ‘As East as it Gets!’ 

Until I moved to the Middle East, that is.

Oh, the IRONY!
While I’m no expert in getting over homesickness (no 'Ten Tips!' here), I know what has worked for me over the past few weeks is keeping busy, but not to the point of being ‘overwhelmed.’ You can busy yourself to exhaustion here with all the expat activities, so I’m taking care to take plenty of time outs, as needed.

The other thing I have done is just let people know if I’m on the verge of a crying jag that I’m feeling homesick. This has resulted in a lot of great talks with great women who have been there and completely understand.

But one of the best things I did was write a note to a few friends basically saying ‘Hey! I’m homesick!’ And their response was awesome. ‘Hey! That sucks!’ they said. But then they filled me in on the day to day things going on in their lives, the things they would chat about to me if were together out for a run on the weekend. And that felt… well, great.

I don’t expect you to have pity for me. Seriously, I know these ‘expat problems’ probably sound worse than ‘white people problems.’ I know what I signed up for, and I knew that this might come with the territory.

The reality is, as pretty a place this is, it’s still real life. Despite the pretty photos, this ain’t no Shangri-la. There are bills and work and worries that mingle in with the glamour, glitz and exotic-ness of the place. And, like anything, you gotta take the good with the bad.

The Fabulous Life: Golfing with Ferrari World as the backdrop
So everyday, I get up and try to find some grounding. Lately it’s been reading a chapter of a book. And when I get up, I put on my big girl pants and think about the good stuff, the great new people I’m meeting, the great golf courses I’m playing, the prospect of work in my future, the latest screenplay I’m writing, the big and little adventures I’m having with John, our beautiful cats, and the great little spot with a waterview we call home, for now.

So yeah, even though there will be times when I will find myself crying in the supermarket, recently I also found myself in Dubai -- sexy, fast-paced, swinging Dubai -- driving past the Burg Khalifa with that ‘oh-my-god-pinch-me-now-because-I can’t-believe-I’m-really-here’ feeling. Everything was good. Really good. And there was a kick-ass song on the radio…

And it wasn’t The Carpenters.

Because that sh*t has been permanently banned from my playlist.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Licensed and Dangerous

I recently got my UAE residence visa!

And I just got my drinks license...

And I also just got my driver’s license…  

It’s like turning 18 again! I’m licensed and dangerous, people!

So for starters, my residence visa means I can stay here with the hubs. YAY! The uncomfortable part of the visa is that my official occupation is ‘HOUSEWIFE.’

For those of you who know me (and my lack of domestic goddess skills), STOP LAUGHING.

For those who don’t know me well, or at all, I find things like the residence visa, drinks and driving license to be some small karmic joke. Because when it comes to driving (for women) and alcohol (for everyone) while it’s allowed, there is a bit of process to be able to do both here in the UAE. You see, in order to do either, you need to be licensed. 

Okay, fair enough. Pretty much the same as home, right? Well, here it goes just a bit further for women.  Because in the UAE, you also need to get permission (which they call a ‘no objection’ letter) from your husband to drive (if married, or here on your spouse’s visa). And in order to get your drinking license, you go under your husband's license.

Does this bother me?


Am I going to make a big deal out of it?

(Seriously?) Okay, in truth, I’m a bit of an Alpha-Gal. I married after 40, and have always been g*d-d*amn independent and all that. Really, my marrying was like the Taming of the Shrew. So yeah, having to get the okay from my spouse stings a little.

Maneuvering through the licensing and the husband permission slips, I find I have to keep myself in check a bit and be polite on the feminist front. I realized that I a lot of times here I have to take into account the world views that I’m surrounded by. To me or you (reading this someplace in the West), this licensing stuff may seem restrictive and wrong. But from where I am now in the Middle East, next to a country where the women MUST wear abayas and cover their heads in public and NOBODY can drink alcohol and the women not only can't drive cars, but they can't even drive a motorized golf cart if they are out on the links. So in truth, I think I've got it pretty good. In fact, when I compare things here to the place next door, I consider myself lucky to be in a place that’s so progressive. 

And yes, there are many women on the road. And yes, plenty of Emirati and other women from other Arab nations drive. And talk about girl power, Range Rovers seem to be the Emirati female vehicle of choice, when not being chauffeured in a Maybach, that is.   

But I digress…

When it comes to driving, I’ve been enjoying cab rides all around town (at dirt cheap prices!). In that way, it feels a lot like NYC in that even if you have a car, most of the time it's just easier to take a cab. The only time I really want to use the car is when I'm golfing because the cabbies don't really know their way to the golf courses, and for a while, neither did I.

This has made for rather interesting encounters with local cabbies. Somehow, I managed to get a lot of new cabbies when I arrived, the ones who were on their second day on the job. Together we’d manage the roads, me pulling up my google map on my phone and co-piloting -- not always getting the directions right. In fact, one morning instead of ending up on the driving range for a golf lesson, my cabbie and I ended up taking a driving tour of the horse stables adjacent to the golf course at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club. Driving around large flower planters meant to keep the cars from going too fast wasn’t how either of us expected that morning, but it was fun teaming up, getting through it together and finally getting to the place I needed to go.

John was great when it came to getting my driving license. He managed most of the paper work and he brought me to the DMV. I suspect this is because I'm not known to be a morning person (we showed up at 7:30 a.m. when the place opened). Showing up unfed and uncaffeinated meant I was primed for a public meltdown. So John kept me calm, coached me through, and we were in and out in fifteen minutes.

It’s definitely handy to have driving privileges, but the driving here is definitely on par in terms of ‘craziness’ as New York City. No, there aren’t as many traffic jams or pot holes, but the driving style is different. You've got drivers from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Africa and other places in the Middle East all trying to get places in a hurry. You never know what side of the road the driver would prefer to be on, or if the driver’s other car is a Lamborghini… or a goat… so you have got to be always anticipating the other guy. Always. 

When it comes to drinking… Up until now I’ve enjoyed just giving the hubs a list of goodies I’d like from the discreet little liquor shops in the neighborhood. These shops are the ones with no windows and obscure names like 'African and Eastern' (which I originally thought sold artwork and furniture from Africa) or 'Gray Mackenzie & Partners' (which I first thought was a men's clothing store, night club or law firm).  

I figured that getting the drinks license wouldn't be too much of a big deal. All puffed up from having my resident’s visa and driving license, I jumped on the 'Special License' web site and began filling it out. In no place did it say that I needed to have my husband apply for it on my behalf, providing his 'no objection,' but when I got to the part about my occupation and income the quiet realization came over me that this wouldn't be an independent endeavor, but one which the hubs would have to do for me and provide permission for...

And yeah, I kind of growled at this... But an alcohol license is sort of a must have if you like to imbibe without the worry of the authorities. They ask for it at the shops and you never know when the bar you're in gets raided (kidding, this isn't the Lower East Side. Bars DON'T get raided, at least not the ones I've been to… yet.) Also, if you’re a visitor, you can drink in the hotels and other designated ‘tourist’ spots.

So, yeah! I’ve reached a few major UAE milestones. 

My residence visa… my driving license AND my alcohol license. 

Drinks are on me, peeps!  

That is, if the hubs has 'no objection.' ;-)