Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Real Middle East

The Kandora
On Thursday morning, the office where I had interviewed called to let me know that I had landed the internship.  I told them that I wanted the weekend to think about it and would let them know first thing Sunday morning before class.  I had a lot to think about over the weekend as well as a ton of work from classes that week.  Naturally, it was time to go out for a good time to clear my mind to make these decisions.  When classes ended on Thursday, I called up a few friends and decided to go to the Belgian Bar fairly close to campus.  According to the Europeans, it was a really great representation of what a bar in Belgium actually is like – complete with the correct design and drinks.  We chilled on the rooftop terrace for an hour or two before the heat became too ridiculous.  We hopped in a taxi and cruised down the boulevard to a well-recommended karaoke place.  When we opened the door, the place was packed wall to wall; we could barely move.  Eventually, we found the microphone and it was “Sweet Home Alabama” all the way.  Half of the songs on the system were Korean, and I started having massive flashbacks to my summer in Korea at the noraebangs.  We hung out there for a while watching Marc’s crazy dance moves and listening to Tom’s rather startling scream-o bit before deciding to call it a night. 
In the old city

Friday was quite a lazy day; all we wanted to do was relax.  We spent the afternoon chilling at the pool and shopping at the Mall of the Emirates.  That evening, I went to dinner with Marc, Vanessa, and Martina who have decided that their goal for the semester is to make me European in all aspects.  After being approached three times last week to be told that I look distinctly American, I told them good luck.  Their first attempt at the transformation by feeding me sparkling water was an unfortunate failure. 

Middle Eastern Culture Crash Course
As I said in my last post, Dubai is such an international city that it often feels like being in the US, so I made it my mission for the weekend to explore some areas that were a bit more Middle Eastern.  Though I’ll admit that this desire mostly stemmed from wanting to sing themes from “The Mummy” and “The Prince of Egypt” while walking around an old Middle Eastern-looking area, I was no less excited when I found out that the study abroad mentors were taking us to an old market (called a souq) Saturday morning.  We took a bus from the school to the old section of Dubai next to the creek area where we were greeted by a man dressed in a traditional kandora at the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding.  I knew that it was going to be a good day when he started by saying, “Today I will answer all of your questions about the Middle East and Islam.  It’s a day of learning, and no question is off limits.  For example, many say that if you commit suicide you’ll get 72 virgins; I’m dead and that’s a lot to manage!  What would I do with 72 virgins!?”  He proceeded to take us on a tour of part of the old city area and demonstrated the standard procedure in a mosque.  After the tour, we ate a traditional Middle Eastern meal in the courtyard of a house while sitting on pillows and rugs.  It was seriously the best food I’ve had since arriving.  The rice had a cinnamon taste and was mixed with incredibly tender beef and vegetables.  He let me take some to go. 

A cruise down the creek
After leaving the Islamic Cultural Center, we took a voyage across the creek in a rickety old wooden boat as people have done for hundreds of years.  We arrived in a whole new world, completely different than the high rise metropolitan area that typifies downtown Dubai.  There, we toured a gold souq, a spice souq, and a textile souq.  I had been dying to buy a kandora since arriving here, and I finally got the chance to buy one for a really cheap price!  At the souq, you have to haggle with the shop owners to get a good price, so you don’t want them to know how much you’re actually willing to pay and how much you really like the product.  We Americans would go into the store and discuss in Spanish what we actually thought, throw a price out in English to the shop owners.  The shop owners would discuss amongst themselves in Arabic or Urdu before replying in English.  To get a better price, I told them I was Ukrainian, so they were too confused when we began speaking in Spanish.  Their faces were hilarious.  

The desert church
On Sunday after class, I decided that it had been too long since I’d been to church and found a night service at an Anglican church not too far from campus.  Well, Google maps can be a bit deceiving, especially when it gives directions via public transport.  I was doing pretty well, taking the train to the right stop then taking the correct feeder bus just outside the city proper.  I got off the bus with about ten other people, looked around, and realized that I was in fact in the desert.  To my right was a compound of houses that looked like something out of Star Wars, to my left lay the desert, and behind me was the skyline of Dubai in the distance.    The small crowd of people all started walking in one direction down a dirt road, so I decided to follow, asking one on the way where the church was.  "The Catholic church?" she asked.  I thought for a moment before saying yes, figuring it was better to sit through a Catholic mass than sit through a half hour alone in the desert hoping the next bus would show up.  After a ten minute sojourn through the desert under the starry night sky with the huge moon looming in the distance, we arrived at the Christian compound.  She asked if I was Catholic, and I told her no, that I was in fact looking for the Episcopal church.  A guy also in the group of desert wanderers turned around and said in a British accent, "hey mate, I'm Anglican.  That's pretty much Episcopal right?  Just come with me."  Come to find out, all of the Christian churches in Dubai are required to be on specific compounds, so the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and whatever others are all on the same plot of land.  Thankfully, my new friend Neil showed me to the right place.  The service was small but nice, and one of the church members fortunately gave us a ride back to the train station rather than having to trek through the desert to a bus on the side of an old dirt road.

Okay, so not where I work, but a beach sunset is a
better picture than a gray office.
On Monday afternoon, I started my internship with Korn/Ferry International as a research analyst intern.  Their office is in the airport free zone which is about a 45 minute train ride from my dorm and quite removed from the skyscrapers of downtown.  When I exited the train station, I was really thankful that I remembered my sunglasses because without all of the buildings around, the wind whipped all of the sand straight into my face as I walked to find a cab.  I hailed two cabs, and just like in a movie, two incredibly rude people swooped in front of me and stole my taxi.  I would have been mad, but I was too busy laughing - I couldn't believe people actually did that!  Anyway, my orientation into the office was really interesting; I learned all about the different projects that the firm is involved in and got assigned to my first project.  The staff is all incredibly friendly and interesting.  I'm the only American in the office, and the staff has adopted many British words used by our English boss.  I have to keep a tab open on the internet just to search words like "gobsmacked," "botch job," or "dodgy."  It's almost as hard as learning Arabic.  

Dubai Nightlife
Thursday night, my friends and I decided to go out for a night on the town.  I started off at a friend's sister's apartment in Marina hanging out for a bit before meeting up with the rest of the group.  The view from the balcony was absolutely amazing, overlooking campus and the twin Empire State Buildings.  Afterward, we headed out to the Palm to chill for a bit with some friends.  The pool where we stayed overlooked a marina, surrounded by villas and canals.  In the distance was the Burj Khalifa and the Burj Al Arab protruding from the water.  After a bit, we took a taxi downtown to meet up with the rest of our group at the club.  We weren't allowed into the VIP area but still had a great time hanging out and dancing.  It was a great night full of a lot of good stories.  

I started the week wanting to explore the "real Middle East," but in the end I realized that even though downtown Dubai may not be dotted with minarets or filled with winding corridors with little shops on the side, it is just as important to the region and its culture.  With all of the events of the past week, I realized that it's important to remember that parts of the region, such as the UAE, aren't filled with violence and are modernizing and progressing at an amazing rate.  Finding the real Middle East is realizing that the region can't be grouped under one umbrella and learning to enjoy the good experiences that come no matter what the surroundings. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

United States of Arabia

Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building
When AUD students ask how we Americans are adjusting to life in Dubai, they are always surprised when we tell them that it is really not that different from the US.  In fact, I would say that Dubai feels very much like being in Las Vegas.  Well, other than hearing the call to prayer over the mall's loudspeakers.  And of course there are a ton of men in kandoras and women in veils.  Well, and alcohol is only allowed in hotel bars.  Oh, and nobody here speaks English as their first language.  And of course there are the workers who clean our dorm rooms every week for us.  Okay, so maybe it's a bit different than life in the US, but it's certainly not the culture shock I expected moving to a country on the Persian Gulf!

An evening in Dubai.
The past week has been a whirlwind of activity - starting with last weekend.  Since this is a Muslim country, our week is Sunday through Thursday with our weekends being Friday and Saturday, something that definitely took some adjustment.  On Thursday night, some friends and I decided to do a bit of exploring and head to the world's largest shopping mall, conveniently located right next to the world's largest building.  We took some obnoxiously touristy pictures in front of the Burj Khalifa before heading to the mall.  I really underestimated what it would be like to be in the world's largest mall, and it probably goes without saying, but this place was MASSIVE!!  We spent four hours walking around the different souqs and shops and never doubled back on ourselves.  There was an aquarium, countless fountains, an ice skating rink (still blowing my mind that it's in the desert), and tons of fantastic restaurants.  We finally stopped at a Lebanese place to eat some dinner before we collapsed.  Out the window, we had a fantastic view of the Burj Khalifa fountains which are very much like the Fountains at Bellagio in Las Vegas.  Every half hour, there was a water, lights, and music show with the Burj Khalifa and a souq in the background.  It was a really fun evening!

Chillin' at JBR
On Friday, it was time to go to this beach that everyone kept talking about.  We took off for Jumeirah Beach Residence public beach, right at the base of the Palm Jumeirah.  I am going to get way spoiled with such a nice beach only a $3 cab ride from my dorm room.  The water was so clear that we could see our feet no problem, and there was hardly any wildlife near the beach, though I did get stung by a small jellyfish twice.  We ate a late lunch at a beach-side cafe before heading back to campus to escape the heat.  Later that afternoon, we met up again to go to the largest IMAX in the Middle East and Asia to see the latest Batman, which was just released in the UAE.  It was a strange trip, and I seriously thought I was being abducted.  The taxi driver left the main strip of the city and started driving into the desert.  I was pretty sure that he was taking us right into the heart of the Saudi Arabian desert, but fortunately, like a mirage in the distance, a huge structure appeared in the middle of the desert, just outside the last buildings of Dubai.  At a random camel race track, there was the giant IMAX.  I think that the trip out there was better than the movie itself.  That evening, all of the study abroad students ended up heading to our favorite local standard, conveniently located just behind the dorm, to hang out before calling it a night.

Dubai Mall keeping it classy with
some first class fountains
Though it had been a really fun weekend, I couldn't help but dread the coming week of classes.  Since I'm only taking 12 hours here, I get really bored in the afternoons and decided that I needed something to occupy my time since the homework load is incredibly small.  So, I decided to look for an internship and found a few through the career services office and by word of mouth through some of my friends.  I have a couple options, but for now only one carries a story to share.  I got called into an interview for a research intern position at a company on the other side of town and went to meet them yesterday.  After class, I suited up and took the Metro to the office.  I probably should have at least read an article about doing business in the Middle East before diving right into it, but that just wouldn't be near as exciting.  The interview lasted an hour and forty-five minutes and included intense questioning by the four people who work in the office.  It actually wasn't that different than an American interview; I just met with each of the office staff.  The office manager is British and absolutely hilarious.  He looked at my resume and noticed that I had spent the summer in Korea and spoke some basic Korean.  He pointed to me and said, "Give it a go!"  So, I commenced to give him a rundown of my daily schedule in Korean.  I was glad that I could remember some Korean language, because at the end, he told me that he had lived in Seoul for a decade and knew some basic Korean.  Regardless of whether or not I actually get the internship, it was quite an entertaining afternoon.

The midweek pick-me-up
 When I got back to campus, it was time to celebrate a good interview, and let's be real - it's college.  Do we really need an excuse to celebrate??  Fortunately, there were quite a few people who also needed a mid-week pick-me-up.  We went back to JBR's strip of fun restaurants to chill at a couple beach-side hangouts for a few hours, watching the string of ridiculously expensive cars parade down the beach-front road.  At least there are a few affordable restaurants there!  It was a really fun evening, but waking up for class the next morning was quite painful.  Fortunately, I had plenty of time for a three-hour afternoon nap after class!  Even though living in Dubai sometimes feels like living in the United States of Arabia, the people here are some of the most interesting I have ever met, and the experiences never disappoint.  It hasn't even been two weeks since I arrived, and so much has happened.  There is no telling what the next three and a half months have in store.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Next Great Adventure

Train into Dubai!
I've been in Dubai for six days now, but it certainly feels like much much longer with all the activities and adventures I've already gotten myself into.  From the less than glamorous travel to the absolute excess that is Dubai, it has been an insane week moving to the Arabian peninsula.  But before I get into all that, here's a little background on what I'm doing here.  

The front entrance to my school.  Beautiful campus!
I applied for the Clinton Scholars program which awards ten American students the chance to study at American University in Dubai (AUD) for a semester free of 

charge.  I originally received the scholarship for the 5-week summer term but instead opted to go to Korea with CLS.  Fortunately, the Clinton Scholarship committee pushed my application back to the fall semester and offered me a place here from August through December.  What started as a 5-week trip to the desert became a four-month stint in one of the world's most incredible cities.  

This is a view from the front gate to my dorm.
We're right in the middle of the city.
After I got back from Korea last month, I spent two weeks in Alabama visiting family and friends and trying to get 

everything squared away for this next great adventure.  It was such a short visit, and I didn't get near enough time to see everybody or do everything that I wanted to do.  But time waits for no one, so on August 29th, I pulled up to Huntsville International and boarded a plane for the unknown.  The fourteen-hour flight was one of the worst rides I'd ever taken.  There was so much turbulence that a guy in front of me threw up as the lady next to him received oxygen and was dragged to the galley where she passed out.  I have never wanted to get out of a place quite that badly.  When I got off the plane and headed past the Muslim prayer rooms to the restroom, I looked into the bathrooms and saw squat toilets and a hose to clean yourself.  Welcome to the Middle East.  

Shopping mall - Middle Eastern style!
I got past immigration without hassle and found a taxi to take me to AUD.  After signing into the dorms and getting my key, I met the guys across the hall - my RA (Marc) who is French and another American here for the semester (Lloyd).  I unpacked a bit before heading to a late 9PM dinner with Lloyd at a restaurant down the street and couldn't believe how smoky the place was.  There were at least twenty tables of people smoking hookah in the restaurant.  Apparently everyone in the Middle East smokes; I'm hoping that four months of second hand smoking won't be enough to negate not smoking for the past 19 years.  Since I had come with only two suitcases and two carry-ons, I had no blankets or pillows and spent the night on an old stained dorm room mattress with a jacket for warmth.  It was a sad day.

Chillin' at the Dubai Marina.
The next morning, Lloyd and I, along with a couple other study abroad students, took the metro to the mall where we entered the Dubai version of Wal Mart and stocked up on all the dorm room essentials.  The rush hour commuters packed like sardines on the train were not happy when we entered with all of our bags, blankets, and pillows in tow.  That evening, I went for a short run around the track before heading back to the dorm dripping in sweat.  On my way in, a guy stopped me and said, "Are you Jacob the study abroad student?"  I told him I was to which he replied, "cool, we're going to dinner fifteen minutes."  It turns out that he is one of the study abroad mentors who the university assigns to find us and make sure we have a good time in Dubai.  I met up with the group of study abroad students and mentors for a fun Friday night at the Dubai Marina where we learned all the do's and don't's of Dubai.  The rest of the weekend went about the same way, with orientation sessions, dinners and outings to the mall with the study abroad group, and meeting a ton of really cool people.  Despite a couple nuisances such as getting lost on the metro in search of a non-profit where I'm supposed to volunteer, dripping with sweat in the 105 degree weather between classes, or, you know, actually having to go to class, I can tell it's going to be an amazing semester in Arabia!