Monday, June 7, 2010

Fashion in the Emirates--by Jason

Unlike its glitzier neighbor to the north, Dubai, Abu Dhabi fashion seems to be a virtual oxymoron. Or perhaps eclectic would be a more culturally-sensitive description of local fashion in the city. Emiratis comprise about 10% of the population in Abu Dhabi (even less in Dubai), and their 'look' makes them nearly impossible to miss in a crowd.

Abu Dhabi fashion is very much a reflection of its diversity: socio-economic, cultural, and religious. Attire in this region, as in much of the world (and particularly in the developing world, I might postulate) tends to be a statement of one’s culture and socio-economic standing as much as one’s aesthetic or personal style. As crass as it may sound, it doesn’t take long living in this town (and Abu Dhabi often feels like a small town on some nameless modern frontier) to be able to discern where someone is from, who they pray to, and on which socio-economic rung they are perched. This assessment can be made based largely on their wardrobe. Work with me here.

For this blogpost I will focus on modern Emirati fashion, which is similar to that of other Khaleejis (Arabs living on the [Persian] Gulf). The look is black and white, depending on gender. I have met only a small handful of “locals” (as UAE Citizens/Emiratis are referred to here) who do not wear the traditional attire.

Emirati women wear what is called the abayya, or thin black floor-length robe. This is worn with the sheyla, or matching black headscarf elegantly wrapped around the shoulders and over the head. The young and hip tend to clip something onto their hair reminiscent of a large, fake chrysanthemum to create the appearance under the veil of voluptuous tresses. Then there are the accessories. This is how Emirati women display their individuality. The key words here are bling bling. The arms of the robe are often elaborately embroidered with all things shiny. Jewelry: two options- diamonds and gold. Shoes: colorful, tall, strappy, often gem-encrusted- usually not so subtle. And let’s not forget the perfume- really not even a remote possibility once one has experienced it. In a couple words: excess and oud. Oud is a traditional Arabic scent derived from a fragrant plant (like frankincense) which is often used as exotic air-freshener in public places. Usually an acquired taste among most Westerners (or foreigners as we are often referred to here). Did I really almost forget to mention the purses? I think the UAE alone keeps Gucci, Prada, Armani, Coach, Louis Vuitton accessories in business.

As for Emirati male fashion, it is very much the male equivalent of the female Emirati look, and just as consistent. White floor-length robes, referred to locally as the kandora. The Emirati dish-dash is similar to that of other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman. Kandoras are usually meticulously tailored and starched, and are a source of pride among the lucky roughly 10% of UAE’s population (Emiratis) who are the only ones sporting these striking ensembles. The male Emirati look is not complete without the gutra wa hajal, or the generally white (and sometimes checkered red and white) headscarf, held in place by a couple black wool hoops. The Emirati headscarf seems to have a life of its own, and is worn in different styles. The younger or less formal wear the scarf without the hoops, tied around the head.

Male accessories? Ray Ban and Rolex rule the roost here. Designer shades are often worn for all occasions, including often indoors, which is understandable given the exorbitant price tag. Shoes are usually short platform leather sandals- something marketed en masse to Emiratis from Italy. The designer watch market is by no means suffering in these parts either, as the watch is an obvious way to display wealth and individuality. The designer man purse craze has yet to arrive on these shores, but when it does someone in Italy or New York will make a killing. Somehow I’m not holding my breath on this one.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Food resolves conflict

In the UAE, the importance of food is obvious, especially during Ramadan, when almost everyone in the country fasts from sun-up to sun-down, and feasts with family and guests every night for a month. While the longest American holiday lasts about 3 days, Emiratis fast and feast for 30 days, and socialize and give gifts and food to friends and strangers.
Whenever someone in our office celebrates a special occasion such as the birth of a child, a graduation, or a car purchase they bring a large display of chocolates and offer some to each person in the office. Now that it is date season, one colleague brought in a large dish of fresh dates from his trees to share.

The two most remarkable food events in the office involved Knafe and Mansaf, one a traditional Lebanese desert, the other a traditional Jordanian meal. First, I must explain that the men in our office are highly communicative and emotive. The men nose kiss, hold hands, and put their arms around each other. They take each other to doctor’s appointments and hospitals. They talk about their kids, wives, girlfriends, and share specifics of their salaries and performance reviews. During the performance review process, several staff asked me “How could you give so-and-so a 5 rating on inspections when you only gave me a 4.5?”

I attribute the emotive culture to the reason that a professional meeting turned into an airing of grievances during which 3 individuals accused the others of not considering them professionals, etc. I did not attend but I did hear loud voices coming from the room and the meeting dragged on for 2 and a half hours, leaving several people escalated and upset.

The meeting was re-scheduled for the following week. A few hours before the meeting, rumors started flying about a knafe coming. Everyone gathered in the conference room to wait for it, joking and talking. The legendary dish finally arrived, a large flat pan full of warm, mild cheese under a sweet breaded topping. People handed each other generous offerings and moved quickly to serve people before someone else did. After enjoying the delicious desert, everyone settled down to the meeting. One colleague explained to me later, “They brought the knafe to say everything is ok and we forgive each other for what was said last week.” Google knafe and you can see some pictures for the dish.

Next time I’ll tell you about Mansaf.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Emirati Wedding: Bling on Parade

Gowns: Imagine Cinderella’s ball in vivid, dark colors. Half the dresses sported trains; most were bling-encrusted and sparkly. One guest wore a white dress of satin and tulle- perhaps a desperate attempt to upstage the bride. Even the little girls wore over-the-top dresses and hairstyles. Five women had waist-length hair; two with hair to the knees. The Emirati next to me confirmed that most have their hair, makeup, and henna done at salons. There was an abundance of fake eyelashes and some pretty spectacular henna designs on hands and feet.

Setting: Fancy hotel ballroom with massive chandeliers. An elevated runway, where women danced and the bride entered, led to a stage with an elegant white sofa and silver pillows. Beautiful flower displays graced the 40 round tables. Lights dimmed and swirled like a major theatre production.

Food and Beverage: An abundant spread of hummus, tabouli, vine leaves, eggplant salad, flat bread, and other appetizers was artfully spread across the table. Women servers (no men allowed) circled to offer fried dough balls dripping with honey, delicious chocolates from ornate displays, Arabic coffee, hibiscus and rosewater iced tea, and soft drinks. As soon as the bride sat on her throne, the full feast appeared: a massive platter of rice and goat; dishes of curried chicken, okra stew, and fish in a red sauce; a plate of mixed grilled chicken, steak, and lamb kabob; and salads. Suddenly, the chocolate mousse, umm ali (bread pudding), flan, fruit salad, and local pastries appeared. Servers roamed again with tea and coffee in delicate, intricately-decorated cups and tiny cakes.

Music: Loud Arabic music punctuated by ululations and greetings. (I want to learn how to ululate but only saw one woman in action.) Woman sauntered up the runway to dance barefoot. Some tied scarves around their hips to accentuate belly-dance-like grooves; others shimmied shoulders and delicately waved hands. One woman got up to do the traditional hair-waving dance. Follow these simple steps: swing hair to one side, bounce, swing to other side, bounce again. End number by swirling head side to side letting hair swoop down, up and over, and back down. My friend Clare asked, “Who says these women are oppressed?”

Bride: All eyes turned to the door to see her enter in a shimmering white wedding gown with full hoop and ten-foot train. The sleeveless dress accentuated the henna designs that reached from her hands to her shoulders. She gracefully moved about an inch per minute as if in slow motion. Her sisters and other women in the audience reached down to fluff and straighten her train as she took one step; turn and posed on one side; stepped, turned and paused again. It took four women to hoist her dress up the steps to the runway. She looked as magical as a fairy-tale and completely different than the chemical engineer with no makeup and full black abeyya and shayla I’d seen at the office. Eventually, she arrived at the stage; waited for attendants to adjust her dress so she could sit; and small groups of women approached to congratulate her before dancing before her on the stage.

Noticeably absent: Alcohol, cameras, and men. The only camera that appeared all evening was the official one for the bride. Emirati women generally do not approve of photos of themselves. My friends explain that a photo of oneself that appears on the internet, TV, or elsewhere can decrease marriage options. Many women cover their faces completely with a black shayla when a camera appears in a room. However, brides often have one official camera to document the day, but only show the photos to other women and male family members. I wish I could have taken my usual thousand photos.

After dancing and feasting for a few hours, a sudden hush descended as women began covering themselves with their black abeyyas. Once all covered except the bride, the bride’s brother, father, and father-in-law entered from the men’s wedding party, followed by the groom dressed in a traditional white robe covered with a long black and gold robe. The little brother twirled a wooden gun and threw it in the air like a baton. The brother and fathers left and the groom took a seat next to the bride. Later, the groom cut the wedding cake with a sword.

I was mesmerized for over four hours watching these beautiful creatures celebrate, bond, and search for brides for their brothers. One son’s mother saw her desired daughter-in-law at a wedding and it took her two years to find out who the woman was. Families are quite secretive about the number and ages of their daughters. The bride’s name is usually not printed on the wedding invitation. My only regret the whole evening was missing the henna party two nights before. The girls sitting next to me said it was as equally elaborate, only the bride wore a traditional Arab dress and showed off her gold dowry.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jason's Weekly Slice: Why I Heart Oman

I'm coming to terms with my mild obsession with our neighbor to the east of the UAE, the Sultanate of Oman.  In fact, like most obsessions, I’m quite enjoying it. My love affair with this classically Arabian country is as much about what it isn’t as what it is.  While there is cultural heritage, natural beauty, and no shortage of friendly Emiratis in Abu Dhabi and throughout the UAE, perhaps it’s easier to

overlook than in Oman.  As opposed to a race to the biggest, tallest, and 7 star-est of everything, Oman is known for the natural beauty of its people and land: spectacular and nearly deserted beaches of white sand and turquoise waters; hilltop villages of stone and adobe surrounded by date palm oases; some of the most authentic Arabian souqs (traditional covered markets) on the peninsula; 

wadis (ephemeral river valleys or washes) providing a dramatic lush contrast to the surrounding dry, rugged moonscape; Omanis in traditional clothing opening their homes to complete strangers for coffee; and, not to be overlooked, herds of wild, and voraciously hungry goats.

I remember my first trip to Oman. This was after maybe a month in Abu Dhabi-- the hottest month of my life to date-- spent in close proximity to the Beach Rotana Hotel’s temperature-controlled pool. I set out on a road trip first with a couple new friends. The anticipation of exploring a new country was accentuated by my new, and surreally confined subsistence existence in Abu Dhabi.

First we drove up to the Musandam peninsula, which sticks out into the eastern Persian Gulf like a dagger, coming only a short boat-ride from Iran. The land here is like Norway’s fjords after millennium of global warming. I saw little villages, palm oases, pristine beaches, dolphins, and rocky cliffs descending into turquoise waters. And wild goats.

From Musandam, one has to leave Oman, travel back into the UAE, and re-enter Oman to reach the road to Oman’s capital, Muscat. The roads in this recently modernized country are excellent. Only the occasional lost camel (or goat) crossing the road will act as a reminder that this is still a (well) developing country.  A few hours later I arrived in Muscat, in many ways the most livable Arabian Peninsula city. My favorite part is known as Muttrah- famous for its historic architecture, covered souq, and wonderfully active and atmospheric fish market. The old town nestled between a half-moon bay and rocky peaks, many of which are crowned by an old Portuguese fort- a reminder that, unlike most of the Gulf countries, Oman was colonized for a time. It also had colonies- including Zanzibar, in Africa. The souq smells of frankincense and myrrh.

One of the highlights in visiting Oman for me is the wadis. These mostly dry washes, some reminiscent of slot canyons in the desert southwest of the USA, are found throughout the country. Wadi Damm ends in crystal clear pools of fresh water (a rarity in these parts), and a luminescent blue pool in a cave, perhaps one of the more atmospheric spots I’ve ever seen. Wadi Tiwi, on the eastern coast where the Gulf of Oman turns into the Indian Ocean, is Oman at its finest. Date palm oases, children in bright-colored traditional clothing running up just to say hi- and occasionally ask for a buck or two, little hilltop villages, traditional narrow canals for irrigation purposes known as felajes. All nestled in a narrow, rocky canyon.

Oman is where I fell in love with Arab culture. Every time I return (four times this last year) I realize why I feel such a strong connection with the people and land. It feels real to me. Simple. The people seem aware of their connection and reliance on the land. Omanis seems to have (so far) found a balance between embracing modern conveniences while not sacrificing their traditions, or souls.  

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jason's Weekly Slice: Life in and Around Abu Dhabi

A Day on the Road in Syria

Camille and I spent a day in Palmyra, Syria a few weeks back. Ancient desert ruins- a spectral sight, surrounded by sand and errant camels, and nouveau Bedouins on old motorcycles selling trinkets. As the new town is only a few ramshackle streets, it is virtually impossible to completely ditch a local trying to sell you something. This leads us to Mahmood, a charismatic, and shamelessly persistent cab driver who tracked us down multiple times to “offer” us a ride to our next stop: the crusader castle, Crak des Chevalier. After attempting to lose him- or get a better fair- through playing hard to get, or whatever one does when being stocked by a cabbie- we finally caved in. In no time, our bags were pack

ed, we had checked out of the rather bohemian one-star Ishtar Hotel (hopefully not named after the circa 1980 bomber film starring a much younger Dustin Hoffman), and we were off on another blind adventure in Syria.

I can’t think of the last time I spent the entire day with a cab driver- probably because there wasn’t one. Mahmood told us all about his wife and kids, his taste in women (an unsettling combination) and his political views. He seemed to leave out the fact that he was rather directionally-challenged and with a penchant for total denial. 

We drove west through the sandy desertscape of eastern Syria, as the landscape gradually came alive with rows of cypress and olive trees, brilliant fields of yellow wildflowers speckled with red poppies; fertile patchwork fields with a view of the distant snow-covered peaks bordering Lebanon. An old cement smokestack or other industrial artifacts the occasional reminder that this was still Syria.

An hour later we arrived at Crak des Chevalier, perched atop verdant green hills. Much like San Diego, or other Mediterranean climates, this grass will be golden yellow in a few months. Mahmood told us he would wait an hour or so for us, take us to our next destination, and we would call it a day.  We explored the castle, in all its textures of time- ranging from the 10th century to the late medieval era. We met a Swiss biker outside who had just arrived, after motoring through the Caucasus and Iran en route from the motherland. We felt small and unadventurous- a feeling only exacerbated as the geriatric tour buses rolled up behind us.

This is when our linear plan became more circular. We decided to visit the beach, to make a loop, and end up in Apamea. We found our way to derelict Tartus, an industrial, litter-strewn port on the Mediterreanean. Seduced by the cobalt blue waters, careful to stick to walk between rubbish piles. No tour buses to be seen here. Mahmood smoked apple-flavored shi-sha under a colorful umbrella, looking on into the azure. This is as good as the job gets- certainly not saying much.

An hour later we found ourselves again in the green hills of central Syria, hairpin turns en route- we thought- to Apamea, another ancient Roman settlement. Numerous hilltop towns and hairpins later, Mahmood casually points out Crak des Chevalier on our right. It was then that our faith in our friend’s orientation prowess crumbled to powder. Perhaps out of spite for having been on the receiving end of Mahmood’s testosterone-driven denial, I insisted that he take us to Apamea, and that we arrive before sunset. He gave me a look somewhere between bewilderment and mild disgust, and we were off. Still silently lost. And full-steam ahead.

An hour later we were still speeding, the liquid orange sun creeping dangerously close to the horizon. In the last town we came to Mahmood did not bother slowing down at all. Mothers and children, and the occasional goat cleared a path for this runaway taxi, slowing for no one- despite anguished words of caution from the back seat. This man was going to get us to Apamea before sunset- dead or alive.

Minutes later, we arrived, noticeably shaken, but alive-- and euphoric with relief. Think Ebeneezer Scrooge the morning after.  This spot was stunningly worth the  risk. The golden hour was upon us, bathing in tangerine light a two-kilometer-long Roman colonnade. A redheaded shepherd boy grazed his sheep nearby. I ran through the fields of waist-high thistle to watch the sun set on one of the most dizzying days of our trip. It seemed to hesitate for a moment, setting the valley awash in diffused gold, before sinking out of sight.



Jason's Week in review:

1. Watched Pixar’s latest, “Up” at Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi. Delightful film, I thought. Even shed a tear. A typical movie-going experience in the Emirates:  the food line was packed with overweight robed Emiratis who walked away with two bags of food in each hand for a 2-hr movie. Emergency preparedness? The “less is more” movement has yet to hit the UAE. Then there’s the stream of locals waltzing through the theater,  talking loudly into their mobiles a few minutes after the movie starts and before it ends. Why, one might ask? The universal answer in these parts: Because they can.  Just go with it. More fun that way.

2. Spontaneous pool party at Camille’s work ‘villa,’ replete with Lebanese take-out. Fun for me, maybe awkward at times for Camille, with a steady stream of unexpected coworker guests.

3. Aerobics class at Abu Dhabi Health and Fitness Club- now called Abu Dhabi Country Club (yawn). Body Pump, led by the ever eccentric Kiwi, Leonard. Good times. Sore legs.

4. I “therapeutically rejected” (sorta) a client this week who really did not need to be in therapy. Feels good to be the bearer of good news for a change: “You really don’t need to be here.” A revelation.

5. Scuba diving in the Gulf (Persian or Arabian, depending on which shore one lives). My first discovery dive. Coral. Fish. Blue water. Escape from the 110 degrees of humid heat above water.

6. Seminary Graduation ceremony with the youth and their parents today.  I’m free!

7. German Film at the Goethe Institute and Pakistani diner food afterward with a Jewish friend from Rhode Island- one of those ‘where on earth am I ?’ moments. 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Jason’s Weekly Slice: Life in and Around Abu Dhabi

This week, I:

Got my shoes resoled in one of the mostly Indian hoods of Abu Dhabi*

Swam in the warm, turquoise waters of the Gulf (Arabian, or Persian, depending on which side of this body of water you happen to live) in a thick fog 

Saw a sting ray while swimming on the Corniche

Was approached on the beach by an older Yemeni man who preached about Islam- a rather aggressive, less-effective approach I might add

Took a boat out to Lulu (Pearl in Arabic) Island, across the water from Abu Dhabi’s downtown skyline. Watched the red sun meet the horizon while bobbing up and down in bathtub warm Gulf waters with a group of friends from all over

Had an interesting conversation with the first Jew I have met since arriving in Abu Dhabi- so far, so good, “ he says in terms of his reception here. He works for New York University, which is building a new campus on Saadiyat Island (which will also house the Louvre, among other museums)

Visited Gulf Diagnostic Hospital and saw a sea of black robed women, mostly veiled, sitting, waiting, and waiting some more; a few Western ex-pats thrown into the mix,  waiting with disdainful scowls on their faces; Filipino nurses scurrying about in pale blue frocks; fluorescent lighting, marble floors.

Oh, and I worked, too. A few hours. My clients included, among others,  an Emirati man with social phobia, my first Emirati woman client who is depressed and going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, a bereaved Irish housewife, and an Egyptian woman dealing with interpersonal issues. A motley crew, indeed.  Seldom a boring moment at the American Center of Neurology and Psychiatry.

*In downtown Abu Dhabi there is a neighborhood a we refer to as Little Kerala. The mostly stucco-facaded buildings are in various stages of disintegration. The neighborhood stands out a bit in a city where 1976 is considered Medieval and glass towers are springing up everywhere to replace the ‘historic’ relics. So, I walk down a rather narrow street in Little Kerala, looking for a cobbler who will take on these rather severely-worn tan leather shoes.  

I pass shops selling bric-a-brac, useless plastic items of anything imaginable or otherwise, ‘gold’ Timex watches, and plenty of texile shops selling colorful material for Saris (as in, India’s traditional female attire). As I’m not in the market for a gold watch or a sari, for that matter, I proceed further into the south asian hood, now surrounded by cab drivers, mostly Pakistanis, looking for business. I give them the universal finger wag indicating (hopefully) disinterest in their services. I peer into a number of  holes-in-the-wall, looking for someone who may know a cobbler to recommend: a tiny “cafeteria” on my left, filled with hungry Pakistani men in traditional, flowing pastel robes, feasting on daal lentil soup, chicken shwarma; a couple busy barbershops, all men. Then I find a shoe store, whose owner points to a few buildings ahead, saying “the Pakistani man” works there, and can fix my shoes. This is progress. 

I proceed down the street as directed, and after asking at a couple more shops, I find what has to be one of the world’s smallest businesses. There is a smiling Pakistani man in the corner, sitting cross-legged in his traditional robe. Saleh, as he calls himself, bids me enter his shop. The room is essentially a two-man tent with a vaulted ceiling.- minus the tent, of course. Fortunately, I’m the only customer now, with plenty of room to take off my shoes and show him the damage. He nods, smiles, asks me to take a seat, and that the shoes will be ready in a few minutes. I sit and wait, scoping out the scene. A couple other Pakistani men came in to visit Saleh, sat next to me, reaching into their pockets to pull out a green wad of chewing tobacco, which one man placed between his gums and cheek. Salah spits into a shoebox in the corner. Ten minutes and $5 later my shoes are good as new and I bid adieu to my new Pashtun-speaking friend, Saleh.  Another day of errands in Abu Dhabi.