Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Catching Up

Our Thanksgiving Table
Wow!  I cannot believe it has been over a month since my last blog post.  With demands from class projects, interning, and trying to have some fun here and there, Seat 9A has unfortunately taken a back seat to everything else.  Though I know I can't do everything justice, I hope to recount at least a little bit of what has happened since our Eid Break trip.  Over Christmas break, I'll finish the tale of our trip through Jordan, the West Bank (or should I say the newly UN-recognized Palestine), and Israel for those of you interested in hearing the end of the saga.  Finally, look for a short final post around December 22 about my overall experience in the Arab world.  I think it would be wise to wait until the plane touches down in the US before writing that one.  Anyway, the story continues...

Sometime prior to staying up all night...
We arrived back in Dubai after a crazy journey backpacking through disputed Middle Eastern territories to find a pile of homework left by professors who don't really understand the concept of a school break.  It was two weeks of non-stop work trying to make up for lost time.  We did find the energy for an election night get together where we decided that we would stay up all night and watch the results as they came in.  We unfortunately really underestimated the time difference, and at 3AM, when the polls had still not closed, realized what a bad decision that had been.  The next morning after Obama had been declared the winner, we returned to campus from a friend's apartment to find people incredibly excited over the results.  I'm sure it will come as no shock to find that Romney is generally hated by most people living here.  There is also no concept of voter secrecy, and nobody here finds it rude to ask random Americans on the elevator whom they voted for.  I was really surprised the first couple times this happened, because simply answering the question is not good enough.  You will be quizzed on the policies of the candidates by these random strangers who know a surprising amount about US politics despite never being in the country.

Changin' that Tire!
Later in November, fifteen of my friends and I decided to take a trip outside of the city to a mountain on the border of Oman called Jebel Hafeet.  It's the highest accessible point in the UAE and makes for some incredible sunset pictures.  We had planned to get there in mid-afternoon and grab a bite to eat before watching the sun set over the desert.  But by now you probably know that our trips rarely go as planned.  The morning started well, with everybody showing up on time (in the Arab world, "on time" means 45 minutes late) and all cars rented and ready to go.  Everything seemed to be going according to plan until we reached kilometer 50 outside of the city.  In the rear-view mirror, we saw the last car in our caravan swerve, throw on its hazards, and spark on the road before pulling off to the shoulder.  We got a call from the people in that car telling us that the tire had exploded but nobody there knew how to replace it with the spare.  Chris and I hopped out of the car, looked around, and realized how far back they were.  We hiked for fifteen minutes through the sand back to this car and saw Oliver standing there holding a jack and staring blankly at the wheel.  We eventually got the tire changed and replaced at a mechanic on the way.

In the Clouds at the Top of Jebel Hafeet
We stopped in the border town of Al Ain for a bit to eat before heading up the mountain.  As we stepped out of the car and looked around, we quickly realized that our group had the only non-Arabs around, perhaps in the entire town.  The restaurant served some amazing lamb and chicken mandi (meat, rice, yogurt, greens, and sauces) at an unbeatable price.  With some difficulty, we ate the mandi with our hands and washed up the Emirati way by squeezing a lemon through our hands which was a bit uncomfortable.  After lunch, we made our way up Jebel Hafeet just as the sun was setting over the desert horizon.  They had just closed the hiking path to the tallest point on the cliff, but we jumped the fence and went up anyway.  Equipped with the iPhone flashlight app, we were ready to go.  The view from the peak was fantastic, although looking around the top, I'm pretty sure some of the staged NASA moon landing photos were taken here.

Armani Club at the Burj Khalifa
Thanksgiving was the following weekend, and people had been planning for weeks what we should do.  We decided to hold a pot luck dinner on campus with everyone bringing something that represented where we were from.  There was pigeon from Saudi Arabia, chicken enchilada from Mexico, biryani from India, blue cheese potatoes from France, and sweet potato casserole from Alabama.  It wasn't the most traditional Thanksgiving, but it was certainly one of the most memorable.  After dinner was the school's annual Winter Ball formal at one of the hotels downtown.  We suited up and donned our masks for a masquerade night.  Even though it felt a little bit like a classier, more Islamic version of my high school prom, it was certainly a good time.  When the ball ended, we decided to continue the night at the Burj Khalifa's swanky Armani Club in the basement of the world's tallest building.  Inside the building was like being in a dark dream with halls of reflective black walls winding back and around on each other around the central dance floor.  It was quite an interesting experience.  It was sad not to be with the family for Thanksgiving, but I was thankful to spend it with some amazing friends.

After Friday Prayer Lunch
The next morning, we began filming what was to become an epic documentary.  Three of my friends, Abdulla, Amna, and Amira, decided to make a short film for their media class about Americans in Dubai and how we adjust to Arab culture.  The challenge was simple -- with the Arabs in Dubai conforming to the culture of the West, it was our challenge to conform to the culture of the Middle East through three challenges.  Challenge one was easy - to dress like an Arab.  With our kandoras and abayas, we had the first challenge complete.  Step two was participating in an Emirati family after-Friday-prayer dinner.  This was going to be a bit more difficult.  That morning, my two American friends, Santiago and Lauren, and I got in the car with Amna and were told we were going to be having lunch with an Emirati host family.  We had no idea what to expect, and the hosts knew nothing about us other than it was part of a school film project.  After the cameras were set up, we three Americans dressed in our Khaliji garb, walked up to a house in an Arab neighborhood, and rang the doorbell, unsure of what to expect.  The door was answered by one of Amna's relatives, and we walked into the living room, greeting each of the family members (around 20!) one by one.  They were a bit taken aback by our clothing choices, and the first few minutes were really awkward as nobody knew what to say or do.  After we sat down in the dining room on rugs and cushions around huge dishes of food and began to eat, everyone started getting more comfortable with each other, and we had a really great time.  Amna's mom was obsessed with the TV show "Friends" and wanted to know whether or not our lives were just like in the show, and we learned a couple really awesome recipes that I'll have to try back home.  With some after-dinner sweets, plenty of conversation, and incense at the door, we concluded our visit and were on our way back to campus.  Challenge two -- Complete.

Acting a Fool at National Day
Challenge three was the most challenging and had me way out of my comfort zone.  That week was the UAE's National Day, and our challenge at the event was to prove our camel riding skills, perform a traditional Emirati dance, speak to others in Arabic, and generally behave as an Arab.  Although Dubai is made up of 90% foreigners, it is only the Arabs who wear the traditional clothes, NEVER the foreigners.  Needless to say, as we three Americans ran around campus in traditional Khaliji clothing speaking in Arabic, riding camels, and dancing with the Emirati, there were more than a few stares.  Despite the initial embarrassment with shouts of "wallah" and "look habibi" it was an incredibly fun time.  Weeks later, we were able to see the finished product of the video (soon to be uploaded) and could not believe how insane that week was.  More importantly than the crazy times was the fantastic group of friends and our Emirati "host family" that we were able to meet.  They were no joke some of the nicest and most sincere people I have ever met.

Standing Guard Over Muscat
Over the following weekend, a few friends and I decided to take a trip to Muscat, the capital city of Oman, just a six hour desert drive over the nearby border.  We awoke at 5:00 AM and left campus at 6:00 to catch the 7:15 bus from what we thought was the Dubai bus station.  The taxi driver dropped us off on a side road in the old part of the city and pointed toward a group of people.  We got out, looked around, and realized that there was in fact no bus station.  Rather, there were two buses with a hundred screaming people beating on the sides of the bus screaming in Hindi and Urdu.  We asked around and found out that the buses were already full; we would have to wait until the 1:00 PM.  Yellah, we were out of there.  We headed to the airport and rented a car; unfortunately, we could only rent a compact due to age restrictions, and we were five large guys.  That was a long six hour drive...  We arrived in Muscat only to realize that it was Friday afternoon.  EVERYTHING was closed for Friday prayer.  We ate at the only open restaurant and showed ourselves around Sultan Qaboos's palace grounds and the breath-taking seaside cliff forts.  Sultan Qaboos's palace looked a bit kooky; I imagine the Brady Bunch would have approved of his style.  After our self-tour, we returned to our hotel just as the rains moved in.  Throughout the day, we had gotten calls from friends in Dubai who hoped we had gotten out before the rain started, and it appeared that the rain had made its way to Muscat.

The Flooded Souq
I should probably explain that rain in the Gulf is like snow in the South.  When it starts raining, people simply do not leave their houses.  Roads close, people just stop driving, everything floods, and most buildings start leaking.  When the rain started coming, we knew to just stay at the hotel where we had a nice dinner before walking across the street to the Captain's Quarters- a dive promised to have the cheapest pints in the whole Middle East.  We walked in and immediately realized why this place was called a dive -- it was possibly the dingiest bar I've ever entered with dirt on the walls, a clientele of unwashed old men, a worker sweeping rain water out the back door, and a smell that probably hadn't changed since the sultan came to power.  When our table's conversation got too political for my taste, I decided to use my Arabic skills and make some new friends with the locals.  I don't think they often see Americans in that joint, and certainly no Americans with Arabic skills (even those as limited as mine) and were slightly taken aback.  We didn't stay long and headed back to the hotel that night.  We awoke in the morning to the sound of three clashing prayer calls outside our hotel which was conveniently located in the middle of three mosques.  After a brief breakfast at the hotel, we made our way downtown to the souq and a bit of rock climbing.  The souq was absolutely incredible; unlike the souqs of Dubai which have lost much of their authenticity with the onslaught of Western tourists, this one has maintained much of its traditional feel.  Even though the main corridors were more like canals with the flooding from the rain the night prior, it was still a really cool place to roam around and explore.  Overall, Muscat was quite a change of pace from Dubai.  Though Muscat is not the most interesting tourist destination, that is part of what makes it unique.  Because there are not hordes of tourists crowding the souq and the palace grounds, it is able to maintain its tradition and culture which was very nice to see.

Great Time at Creamfields
Our next weekend was spent in Abu Dhabi for the Creamfields music festival - a showcase of the best DJs in the world in a night of non-stop music.  With Armin van Buuren and David Guetta, it had to be good.  We rented a hotel in Abu Dhabi that evening and used it as a base for all of our friends coming to town that night for the concert.  I think that chilling with everyone in the hotel was almost as fun as the concert itself as we got dressed up in insane outfits for the event.  The festival itself was huge with thousands of people coming in throughout the night.  Despite half of the school being there, I actually got lost for two hours and couldn't find anyone when my phone quit working.  At the end of the night, we walked for three kilometers before finding a cab to take us to our hotel.  The morning call to prayer began just as my head hit the pillow, ending a very memorable night with an amazing group of friends.

Dune Bashing in Ras al Khaimah
Classes and exams continued in the following weeks with a couple outings here and there including a really awesome film debut with Amira, Amna, and Abdulla to see a Jordanian movie produced by the media instructor at AUD.  The most interesting of these outings, however, was an adventure to the haunted emirate of Ras al Khaimah.  In Islam, it is believed that djinn coexist with humans in this world but in a sort of alternate dimension; it's a concept that I don't have a firm grasp on, but I think it roughly equates to the Western idea of spirits.  It's said that many areas in Ras al Khaimah are haunted by these djinn, especially a palace long abandoned by the sheikh and a run-down desert village also in the emirate.  We drove to the emirate and didn't have to wait long before running into the palace.  We briefly paused at the dark palace, hearing the constant sounds of the guard's recording of the Quran (played to keep the djinn from his post) before driving along, not wanting to mess with the unknown supernatural nature of the area after hearing stories of friends who had been forever scarred by trips to this unsacred location.  So instead we went quad biking through the desert!  It was pitch black with countless stars overhead as we raced through the desert sand dunes on the four-wheelers, climbing up the sandy hills and racing through the desert neighborhoods.  We got a bit lost somewhere around 2AM and fortunately found a helpful local on his way home who showed us the way back.  We had wandered some 15 kilometers from our original location!

Attempting to Fix the Car with Duct Tape
We were so exhilerated by the ride that we decided the night had to go on.  Why not watch the sun rise over Iran?? I'm not quite sure what our train of thought was there, but we got in the car and set out for the opposite coast of the UAE for the emirate of Fujairah.  The ride there was wrought with peril which included getting lost in a secret complex in the middle of the desert (reminded me of Area 51), running over a possessed dog (that was seriously disturbing), and sneaking into a super nice resort beach (okay, that part actually went well!).  We thought that the sun rose with the prayer call at 5:30 AM, but we were mistaken.  In fact, the sun actually rises at 7:00 AM, so there we were sitting on the freezing cold beach for three hours.  There was an incredible meteor shower and dozens of shooting stars which made the uncomfortable cold weather worth it.  We eventually saw the sun rise with Iran barely visible in the distance (unless it was our wishful thinking of seeing the forbidden land) and drove back to campus, crashing in bed at 9:00, a full 24 hours after leaving my room for class the morning prior.  It was one of the most incredible adventures of the semester.

Our Usual Shenanigans 
As the semester comes to an end, it has been a race to spend time with those who will be most missed upon leaving in just a couple days.  With a farewell dinner last night for those whose flights depart in the morning, it has been sad to see such amazing friends leave.  The past few months have been some of the most fantastic times of my life with people I will never forget.  The last adventure is not over until I board the plane tomorrow night, and I know that these people will come into my life again in the near future inshAllah.  Regardless, the people whom I've encountered during this semester have been some of the coolest and most influential individuals I've ever met, and I'm going to miss them terribly.  Stay tuned for my final post on December 22.  

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