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. 


  1. Ok what is with the foreign Karaoke infatuation??! It kills me! I'm just going to take a wild guess and say that the Korean song, "Gangnam Style" is the latest craze there?? If you have not listened to this yet, you HAVE to youtube it, watch the entire video, then search the lyrics in english, and cry in me, it's totally worth it ;). Did you ask the tour guide anything awesome about the Middle East or Islam that would completely surprise us sheltered Americans?? and i absolutely LOVE the fact that the churches are in the desert- so much for easily accessible. CONGRATS on your internship! "Research Analyst Intern in Dubai" is going to look pretty stinking cool on your resume! and are you up to speaking 4 languages now?!

    Thanks again for sharing your adventures! This is such an entertaining way to learn about the outside world ;).

    Be safe!!

    p.s. When you return to UAB, i best be seeing you in that Kandora ha!
    p.s.s. my response posts are probably always going to be this scattered haha

  2. Hey Alex,

    Yes I have heard of Gangnam Style! The video went viral in Korea in July and pretty much described my summer haha. Actually, we made a parody of it when we were in Jeonju this summer. Enjoy:

    And yah, the Emirati tour guide taught us quite a bit! I think the main thing I learned was just how close Christianity and Islam are to each other. Most scholars say they are 99% identical in their teachings, and they of course came from the same roots, essentially breaking from the Judeo-Christian tradition when Mohammed began preaching about his prophecies. Anyway, it was certainly eye-opening to learn just similar they are, and how humans from all sides can distort the message of true religion, whether it be Christianity or Islam. It's an interesting topic for sure!

    Glad you're enjoying the blog! Hope you're having a great semester :)


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