Dubai: Atmosphere of excitement and hope
Dubai – one of the seven Emirates on the small peninsula protruding into the Persian Gulf on the eastern coast of the larger Saudi Arabian peninsula, is 11 hours ahead of California in its time zone. It lies between 22 and 26 degrees latitude, pleasantly warm when my friend, Scottie Hart, and I arrived (about 80 degrees F), hot and humid (99 degrees F) when we left. In New York, we boarded a Royal Jordanian flight non-stop to Amman, Jordan (10 hours flight time), then transferred to another RJ flight for the four-hour stint to Dubai.
“Diary: March 23, 1204 4:55 a.m. – my sister, Janine, and her husband, Yasser’s, house – in a new, upscale, gated community, entryway lined with palm trees, oleander, petunias, bougainvillea, watered by treated, recycled water from the sewage system. Woke up with jet lag at 3:30 a.m. – got up, ate pita bread (‘aish baladi’), gouda cheese (probably imported) drank mango juice, tried ‘mangostin’ (delicate, delicious fruit), chocolates. Dubai hums with the sound of traffic, sounds of cement mixer – space-age city that exudes an aura of prosperity and opportunity.
Fifty years ago, the desert dominated. Now, glass covered high-rises line Sheikh Zayed Street, along with multi-colored camel statues on grassy edges of the – I don’t know what to call it – traffic moves too fast for an avenue, it’s too elegant for an “expressway.” It’s a moment suspended in time – a pause. Three hundred miles north of here, the occupation of Iraq dreadfully drags on with torture (previously) unreported in the mass media, suicide bombings, retribution, an interim puppet government struggling to organize elections.
I also visited Dubai to explore places for our father’s (George S. Rentz, Jr.) papers on the history of Saudi Arabia. His 1947 Ph.D. thesis is about to be published by the Arabian Publishing House (William Facey, Ed.) in London, “Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd Al Wahhab (1703/4-1792) and the Beginnings of the Unitarian Empire in Arabia.” It describes the life of the religious reformer, Ibn ‘Abd Al Wahhab, and his relationship with the first leader of the Al Saud tribe to unify Saudi Arabia into the modern state that it is today. The bulk of our father’s library resides in the King Abd El Aziz Library (KAPL) in Riyadh. I was born in Saudi Arabia, an “Aramco brat,” but have never been back there since I was 2, when my mother moved herself, my older sister and I back to be close to her family in Cairo, Egypt, leaving my father to commute between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Dubai, pronounced “Dubei” by the locals, interested me. A far-thinking Crown Prince from the ruling family, the Maktoums, has looked beyond the prominence of oil (which they do not have a lot of, importing it from Abu Dhabi, the largest ruling Emirate to the south). The Maktoums decided to develop Dubai into a financial and communication center between the Middle East and the Far East. The city looks like something from an Ursula LeGuinn movie. Tall, curved, turquoise, glass covered high-rises reflect the sun, and mirror the turquoise of the sea. They line Sheikh Zayed Street. Gardens have been planted everywhere with palm trees, rows upon rows of red, white and pink petunias. Yellow canna lilies, reminding me of Cairo, circle the bases of the palm trees. The 80 painted life-size fiberglass camels lining Sheikh Zayed Street will be auctioned. At the end of our trip, the camels were transported to Internet City, where we could admire them close up. Names like “Camel-dude,” Theatricamel,” and “Red Crescent Camel” entertained and amused us.
There’s a kind of “wild west” atmosphere there (my sister calls it “lala land”). Lots of sights to see – the city lies along Dubai Creek (it’s as wide as a large river in places), which forms a natural harbour. A gold souk (old market), spice and perfume souks line one side of the Creek in Deira district and, on the other side, the old forts and homes of the Maktoum family have been renovated into museums and tourist attractions, with cafes and walkways along the water.
For one or two dirhams (3.6 dirhams to $1), you can ride a crowded boat from one side of the creek to the other. These boats function as taxis to locals, and you will hear Hindi, Arabic and English, etc. on the boat. Many of the owners of the spice shops are Iranian. One told me that it’s difficult to find vanilla, since it is brought only once or twice a year from Madagascar, and they had not received a shipment yet. He sold me two packages of little strands that look like cedar bark. The shops do abound in turmeric, fresh cardamom, coriander, garam masala (an Indian spice mixture used in making curry), Arabic coffee beans, gum Arabica for making rice fragrant, frankincense, and Jordanian sumac.
Other sights to see include the Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort, with realistic dioramas of the old pearl divers (the original economic base of Dubai), desert scenes, the brass shops, life on the sea, the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, Jumaira Beach Park. Janine and Yasser took me (Scottie wanted to rest) to a western style bar/restaurant with a South African dance band that played great 1960s music in English, and also sang in French and Arabic. We met a group of their friends there – more men than women for a change! – and had great fun eating and dancing till past midnight. It could have been Peterson’s Corner in North San Juan with waves painted on the walls!
The shipping company where my brother-in-law worked in Dubai was downsized, because the American reconstruction materials are being shipped on American ships to Iraq. Two days before we left, he started a new job at a port in Ras al Khaimah, another Emirate 1-1/2 hours’ drive to the north. The Arab TV station, Al Arabiya, is based in Dubai. However, conversations amongst the locals focus on business.
The population of Dubai is 1.2 million, although only 12 percent are Emiratees. The rest include Indians, some of whom have been there over 15 years, Asians, Americans, British, and Germans, etc. Dubai charges no taxes and corporations can do business there easily; billboards with Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Canon, McDonald’s etc. abound.
Restaurants serve a wide and wonderful array of both Middle Eastern and Western food. Along the creek we ate traditional Egyptian food, also tried delicious fish at a Lebanese restaurant. Supermarkets carry all kinds of American supplies (untaxed), as well as imported fruit from Asia that I had never heard of before – mangostin, a rambutan, and passion fruit. My sister and brother-in-law spoiled us with all kinds of delicious dishes – good thing we did a lot of walking while sightseeing and shopping.
After work (Janine just started a new job also as a career counselor at the American University of Dubai) she drove us to Sharja, another Emirate up the coast. Friday evening traffic delayed us for almost two hours before we reached the shopping center at about 10:30 p.m. The building spanned two blocks, with a bridge, looking something like a Venetian Ponte Vecchio. Inside, rows of shops lined the downstairs and the upstairs’ balconies. One Indian shop described the finer points of Pashmina and Shatoush shawls from the high mountains of the Himalayas. At an Irani shop, Scottie bought a beautiful Kilim rug. I thought I was good at bargaining until I tried shopping with Scottie!
One of the highlights of the trip involved practicing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” on the guitar with my 16-year-old niece, Reem. She had taken some lessons, and I brought my guitar from the states. She even knew how to download music off the Internet, something I haven’t mastered yet!
Coming home – which home? Do I belong in the Middle East or California? I feel the same sense of homesickness for family in the Middle East. I muse that, if people only understood each other, their cultures, foods, habits, there would be less conflict and possibility of war. It’s all a challenge in spite of the difficulties and fatigue of travel, to open my mind to a new place, its smells, tastes, sounds, aura.
Dubai offers a sense of excitement, possibility and hope.
Tanya Rentz is a bi-lingual marriage, family therapist with practices in Auburn, Truckee and Grass Valley. She lives in Grass Valley.
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