Sunday, January 20, 2013

Looking Back


Dubai.  The name has become synonymous with wealth, innovation, and the future.  To many, it is the land of opportunity, and to those unfortunate ones, it is also a land of vast inequality.  It is a place where dreams can be realized and just as quickly taken away again; it is truly the Las Vegas of the Middle East.  The leaders should be commended for their outstanding work in the progress of the nation.  After all, how many places in the Middle East (or even the US for that matter) can you stroll along any neighborhood at night without fear of being robbed?  More than safety, the modern living conditions that have been afforded to the nation’s citizens over the past forty-two years are incredible; it has gone from a desert trade post to a thriving modern city in only a few decades.  That progress has certainly come with a price, however, and my eyes were definitely opened to the people who get caught on the underside of the nation’s progress. 

Living in Dubai can feel like stepping back in time to the American South fifty years ago.  The concept of “The Help” is still very much thriving in Dubai, with stark contrasts between social classes.  At the dorms, for example, there are cleaners who came into my room every week to clean up after me.  When I ate a snack in the common room, they would immediately come and collect the trash from my table and wipe up after me.  There are always people (typically from India or the Philippines) to serve and look after the better off residents, and they are often not treated any better than the housemaids in “The Help.”  Furthermore, there are massive problems with workers in Dubai who have been brought in to construct the engineering marvels and modern developments.  Though I personally did not visit the labor camps, I heard countless stories of the treatment of these workers who often send most of the money they earn back home to their families, leaving them with only the bare minimum to survive.  Fortunately, the government has faced outside pressure and bettered the living conditions of these people in recent years. 

With this influx of a mostly male workforce in their 20’s-40’s come a variety of other social issues, chiefly among them the inability to start families and to rise from poverty.  There is a lack of women for these workers to marry, creating discontent among the workers who have no goal but to continue working for money to send back to their families.  This causes a largely under-the-radar issue with prostitution in the poorer parts of the city especially.  The women in these prostitution rings are almost exclusively from East Asia who are often conned into joining these ventures in order to earn back the money they borrowed to escape poverty in their home country in hopes of a brighter future in the UAE. 

Despite these issues, the government has taken great strides toward a modern society acceptable by Western standards.  Though there is next to no democratic representation in the country, the leaders have done a good job of ensuring that the money gained from the oil exploration over the past several decades has been distributed to the citizens, and developments have increased the wealth of the nation, bettering everybody’s position.  Though only 10% of the population in Dubai are citizens, they have been able to retain an identity of their own with a culture and traditions that I was fortunate to experience.  The Emirati people were incredibly kind and generous, welcoming us into their homes for dinner and conversation.  Furthermore, the country was very modern and accepting of other cultures and religions.  Unlike some of its neighbors, the UAE has Christian churches and Hindu temples, much of the land for which was donated by the sheikh to increase religious tolerance in the emirate. 

Over the semester, I experienced just a taste of the Middle East but learned an incredible amount about the region.  Before leaving the States, I thought of the Middle East as one people and one culture.  Due to the constant news casts which focus on the violence of certain areas, I was more than a little nervous about going to the region.  It took a while for me to realize that you cannot group all the Middle Eastern countries into one unit any more than you can say that Mexico, the US, and Canada are the same.  Each country has its own problems and benefits, and it surprised me to find out that many parts of the Middle East are actually VERY friendly to tourists.  Furthermore, the violence seen on TV tends to be sporadic and contained to certain areas.  I can’t count the number of conversations I had with people from countries such as Lebanon, Israel, or Saudi Arabia that ask why Americans think of the Middle East as such a dangerous place when the US experiences random acts of violence such as the number of recent shootings which often take more lives than events in Middle Eastern countries.  They have a point.  It was surprising to realize that I am statistically safer walking around downtown Dubai at midnight than walking back to my dorm from the library in Birmingham.

In the past seven months, I’ve been introduced to the world through studying and traveling abroad.  It’s been quite a ride, meeting countless people who have been tremendously influential on the life and taught me things that I never would have learned otherwise.  I have discovered opportunities and made connections around the world through people I will never forget.  But as I sit in the Atlanta airport listening to the continuous drone of Christmas music and freezing in my warm-weather clothes, I am remembering why I love the US.  The ability to better oneself regardless of your upbringing.  The right to post and say anything we want, even if the political leaders disagree.  The power of the people to decide who rules over us.  But besides all that, it just feels like home. 


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.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Middle Eastern Adventure


Amman, Jordan
 Adventure, conquest, discovery and perhaps a dose of American Pie – such were our goals and themes for the Eid Break trip to the Holy Land.  With limited planning, little knowledge of where we were going, and only a basic knowledge of the Arabic language, we set out on an expedition to discover the unknown and make our own stories to marvel the masses.  So on Saturday morning, with three hours of sleep, we hopped on the 6AM train to the Dubai bus stop, and we were on our way.  We checked into our flight at the bus stop and took the bus to the Abu Dhabi airport, about ninety minutes away.   The airport security was extremely lax.  Over half of the people set off the metal detector, and, when they did, the security guard would simply do a quick pat-down and wave them along.  I felt less than confident about the safety of our flight, but this was supposed to be an adventure right?  Our flight took us over the Saudi Arabian desert; all we could see was the plane’s shadow over miles and miles of rolling desert sand dunes straight to the horizon until out of nowhere we saw khaki colored structures, and we knew we had arrived in the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. 

The Roman Theater
After landing in Amman, we hit the duty free shop, grabbed some cash from the ATM, and found a taxi into town.  The taxi was really cheap – only $25 for a 45-minute ride into city center!  The ride into the city was quite a culture shock coming from the skyscrapers and high society of Dubai.  Much of the area was full of poverty, with shepherds herding goats and camels next to their desert dwellings.  As we moved into the city, the most incredible things to see were the ancient buildings hugging the mountains and plunging into the valleys.  We drove through the crowded streets with merchants running around with their various goods through the back alley markets before arriving at an ancient Roman amphitheater, built in 70AD, located directly across from our hotel.  We checked into the hotel just as the sun began to set and decided to do a bit of exploring in the town.  At the Roman Theater, we got a picture and took a brief tour of the structure.  We then checked our map and headed up the street that looked like it would have the most going on for dinner and decided on a place called Sara’s, hoping for an English speaking waiter.  The main dining area was full, but before we could check somewhere else, the owner whisked us into a back stairwell, into a small closet elevator without an inner door, and, just as we were beginning to wonder if we were being abducted, into a second dining room overlooking the street below.  It was then that we realized that in Jordan, few people speak English despite the Western names of different establishments.  The only Arabic food vocabulary we knew were hubz (bread) and dajaj (chicken), so we decided that bread and chicken would make a fine dinner.  Unfortunately, it was a seafood restaurant, so we sat with just hubz and no dajaj for twenty minutes while the waiter looked for an English menu.  After dinner, we returned to the hotel, got dressed, and went to explore some of the Jordan nightlife on the much-anticipated Rainbow Street, oddly not the gay district. 

Roman Ruins in Amman
It took us an hour to find the place on foot due to our lack of map reading skills and our inability to express anything in Arabic other than “I’m Jacob the American; bread and chicken.”  We went up and down the street, eventually settling on a bar that overlooked the city valley.  Afterward, we went into another local restaurant only to realize it was Arabic Bingo night.  With dozens of old Jordanians staring at us and yelling things in Arabic, we got the feeling that we shouldn't be there, so we started the search for our hotel.  We immediately took a wrong turn and asked for help as best we could from some local kids who were roaming the street.  It was amazing to see how safe the city was, with kids and women walking alone or in small groups at night in areas which I would have deemed “sketchy.”  It felt like reading Kite Runner’s opening where he talks about roaming the city safely as a child.  Anyway, the kids showed us a dirt “staircase” carved into the rocks of the mountain that ran next to some apartments hugging the slope and wished us good luck (or maybe just laughed at us – it was hard to tell with their broken English…).  After some hiking and unanticipated exploration of what we called the "Jerusalem Staircase," we made it safely back to the hotel and called it a night, but not for long.

Heading out of Jordan
At 5:30 that morning, we were awakened to incredibly loud sirens right outside our window.  Coming from Alabama, I thought for sure a tornado was on its way.  When the four of us woke up and came to our senses, we realized that it was actually the morning call to prayer and that we had unfortunately been given a room right next to the outdoor speaker.  A few minutes later after the echoes of “Allah is great, Allah is good” had ceased, we fell back asleep for another hour before breakfast.  That morning, we ate an Arabic breakfast that the hotel provided – a plate of pita bread, jam, something that had a picture of a penguin on it, olives, hummus, potatoes, and of course cups of tea and juice.  After breakfast, we began our journey into the forbidden destination – Israel.  For months, we had been warned against visiting the country of Israel because, if a visa stamp appeared on our passports, we would be unable to reenter the UAE, and would be deported back to the United States, unable to finish the fall term at school.  Needless to say, we were more than a little nervous as our car drove us back out of the city, through the mountains, and toward the West Bank.  It certainly didn’t help that our driver kept playing chicken with cars in the opposite lane as he passed people going too slowly.  It also didn’t help when we pulled over on a street corner, he said, “I go no more!  Police at King Hussein Bridge!  F**k the police!” threw our bags into another taxi with the words “give him no money!” and sped back in the other direction.  Weighing our options of trying to communicate with the locals in this one-stoplight outpost or getting in the car for no money, it wasn't a hard choice.  The second car delivered us to the Jordanian border control gate where we gathered our bags and walked into the compound, passports in hand, and fingers crossed for a speedy and safe journey through the West Bank.  If we had only known... 

We went to the first counter where I insisted that I didn’t get an exit stamp; the guy laughed at me, took my passport, and fed it through a window to a guy behind another counter.  I went to counter two, asked for my passport, and they guy said, “I have passport.  Get on bus.  You get passport later.”  There was not much to do other than comply and pray our passports were returned without a stamp, so the four of us bought a $5 bus ticket and hopped on with the fifty others waiting to cross into the West Bank.  After waiting for a half hour, the border control agent came aboard the bus with a stack of passports and began redistributing them to us along with a separate piece of paper with an exit stamp and our names.  With a thankful prayer, the bus got moving and stopped just outside of Israeli immigration.  We sat on the bus for two hours, not knowing what was going on but thankful that we at least had our passports in hand.  Our bus finally made it to the end of the queue (3km in 2 hours…), and then the harassment package began.  At passport control step one, Tom made the mistake of not knowing the name of our hotel which was deemed sketchy behavior by the border security.  They called me over to explain where we were staying and our purpose for visit, and we hoped that would be the end of it.  The next step was security.  After making our way through the line, we were called aside by the same guy who questioned us earlier. “We just want to ask you a few questions about your visit to Israel,” he said as he flashed a creepy grin.  I knew from movies that this phrase is never a good sign.

The Western Wall
Tom and I were separated and questioned individually for twenty minutes about our reasons for visit, our backgrounds, why we wanted to go to Dubai, etc. Nothing was off limits for these security guards.  They first questioned Tom and started on me afterward.  Luckily our answers matched up, and after we had satisfied their requests for information, they decided we weren't a threat and let us proceed to the final passport processing desk where we were granted a tourist visa into Israel.  From the border, driving through the West Bank and the Palestinian Territories was an unreal experience.  In the US, the media often groups the Gaza Strip and the West Bank together, equating the two in our minds.  So when we drove through the West Bank and weren't avoiding rocket fire, I was happily surprised.  The West Bank, like much of the Middle East, is a relatively safe area despite occasional outbreaks of violence.  Like my friends who traveled to Lebanon said, violence tends to erupt in brief periods, but, so long as you avoid those areas for a week or so, they are perfectly fine to return to later.  After forty five minutes of driving through the desert, we entered the city of Jerusalem which was a total culture shock from the old Middle Eastern streets of Jordan we had been on earlier that morning.  Jerusalem was like 1930s provincial Europe – trolleys traversed stone streets lined with shops, cafes, and four-story apartment buildings with flower window boxes.  Hissidic Jews were all around, dressed in full suits and long skirts, heads topped with yarmulkes.  The only thing that interrupted the vibrant creative atmosphere were the teen-aged Israeli defense members walking around with M16s at their side.  Something about a girl younger than me dressed in military standard issue and carrying that kind of gun was incredibly intimidating. 

Dinner Time
We spent the afternoon exploring the Old City, going to the Western Wall and checking out the various alleyways of Jerusalem.  If walking through the downtown area was like entering the 1930s, traversing the Old City was something like entering the 100s AD.  Though the city has been built upon itself many times over the past two millennia, it still feels like walking the streets during Biblical times, with car-less streets, winding alleys, secret staircases, and souqs lining the walkways.  It was incredible.  That evening, we returned to our hostel, the Abraham Hostel, just outside the Old City.  Noticing that it was happy hour at the hostel bar, we of course had to stop by to try some of the local drinks.  Israel has two national brews, one darker and one lighter as well as a national liquor called araq (pronounced sort of like the country Iraq) which tastes like black licorice.  The bartender had worked at the hostel for a few years, and we actually had a common friend from Alabama who I went to high school with.  She gave us some suggestions for evening entertainment, and we set out on our way.  We stopped at a street café for some good Israeli food – semi spicy egg and tomato with fresh bread.  Afterward, we stopped at a couple bars, found a McDonald’s, and headed back to the hostel. 

The Crucifixion Site
The next morning, I headed out on a tour of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus is said to have taken through Jerusalem on his way to Calvary.  It took me forever to find the starting point, and I at one point found myself roaming around the Mount of Olives, not even close to the gate.   Stations one through nine were amidst the still populated city which was a bit of an adventure, avoiding merchants with carts of goods racing through the streets.  Starting with station ten, though, it is removed from the main street as the path moves to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (pronounced sep-uhl-ker), built on top of the site of Calvary.  Walking through, you can feel the chaos of the street on the path where Jesus carried the cross through the crowded streets, with crowds of people rushing about, confused, not sure what was happening; however, when you get to the last four stations at the church, you are suddenly removed from the chaos of the street and, despite the masses of people, feel a much greater sense of peace and finality than the frenzied, uncertain streets.  At the church, my map ran out, and I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, unsure what was what.  I ran into a monk who lived there, and, through his broken English, was able to give me an overview of what everything was in the church, from the crucifixion site to the tomb and resurrection location.  It was amazing to see thousands of pilgrims roaming about the church in a candle-lit mass, finishing a sojourn that for many was months and years in the making. 

Victory!
From there, I met up with the others for lunch at a café on the main street.  It was about this time that we realized that none of our credit cards would work.  That meant no cash withdrawals and limited use at restaurants and shops, many of which didn’t even accept anything but cash.  Some may call it bad planning, but we called it adventure.  Not having money in a tourist city has many consequences including: the inability to provide a sufficient tip to our free tour guide (shout out to tour guide Mitch – we’ll get you next time), lack of souvenirs, and general loafing about looking for free activities.  That evening after dinner at a restaurant that accepted Visa, we ended up back at the bar in the hostel, limiting ourselves to one drink.  As we pondered what to do that evening, the hostel staff announced that it was Pub Quiz Monday!  We scraped up 20 shekels (about $5) to enter our team and hinged our future, or at least evening plans, on our knowledge of random trivia.  The game began.  World capitals?  Check.  Nobel Laureate history?  Check.  Major films?  Check.  Israeli folk music???  And that’s where it started going downhill...  Soundhound was no help, and we were on our own with no background in Hebrew or Jewish tunes.  It was a nail biter as they scored the quizzes and called out the right answers.  We listened in disbelief as the obnoxious Yankee team in the back called out the correct Israeli folk music song titles and knew we had lost it.  But miracle of miracles the bartender called out our team name, and the 100 shekel prize was ours!  We took our winnings and went to a market just down the street to explore some of the underground music scene and spend our fortune.  Yah, that money was gone in about fifteen minutes, but at least the music was good. 
Saying goodbye to Jerusalem

We went to sleep that evening with a sense of victory and an alarm set to catch the bus back through the West Bank to the next stops in our desert adventure -- hiking the Caves of Petra, swimming in the Dead Sea, and hoping that we make it through four more immigration checks without deportation!  This journey was shaping up to be one of the most incredible trips of my life.

To Be Continued

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Time to Hit the Books


None too pleased to be stuck in the library.
When I first came to AUD, I was really surprised at how easy it was.  I never seemed to have to study, and I rarely did homework.  Now a month in, I feel like I've been transported back to junior year of high school with AP classes keeping me up at night and midterms demanding intense study sessions.  So after the insane weekend two weeks ago which had us traveling all over the GCC, I was glad to have some time to chill in Dubai.  With so much studying for midterms and term papers, I was looking forward to the weekend until Wednesday when disaster struck.  A few coughs and a temperature reading later, it was official - I had a cold.  After the team lunch at Red Lobster as a reward for all the data entry we had been doing at work, I went back to my dorm room and crashed.  I never get sick, and staying in on a weekend night was simply unacceptable.  But after dinner at the beach on Thursday evening, I knew that going out again and not sleeping would be a horrible idea.  So there I was with a bottle of Robitussin watching government-censored American movies on the local channel.  It was kind of sad, but after fourteen hours of sleep, I awoke Friday morning healthy and ready to go!

The Consulate General's speech on voting day.
Before dinner on Thursday, however, there was time for at least one social activity.  Thursday was absentee voting day for Americans living in the UAE.  A group of us jumped on the metro and headed to the consulate in Dubai for a voting day celebration.  We presented our passports and walked into a quintessential American festival complete with smartly-dressed sexuality-questionable greeters, stars and stripes table decorations, pulled pork sandwiches, and noticeable increases in the percentage of obese people.  After being out of the country for a month and a half, it was nice to get a dose of America.  Besides that, it was rather amusing that they served pork sandwiches and invited the crowd to the on-site Marine Corps bar right next to the Saudi Arabian embassy.  We could feel the judgement coming over the 8-foot reinforced concrete walls.  It definitely made a good story for first voting experience, even if I did spend the rest of the night taking cough syrup in bed.

Excited to be at Africana
The Band
I got up on Friday and was feeling well enough to get back at it, so I met up with some friends that evening, and we tried to decide what to do that night.  We had been to a lot of the tourist areas of the city already, and since none of us felt like spending much money at those places anyway,  we decided to go exploring.  None of the girls cared to go with us, so we decided to go into the cheap area of the city, where most of the locals and workers live.  A few hours later, the six of us set off for Bur Dubai on the same street where the Iranian restaurant and somewhat sketchy malls are which we visited for dinner the week before.  We 

started at a normal Irish pub and after a couple rounds of pool, we decided to move down the street to see what we could find.  We were a little early for the crowds and ended up chilling alone for a while in Club Africana, a club that caters to Sub-Saharan African people living in Dubai.  The waitress told us to come back in about an hour and a half, promising a crowd.  We explored down a couple side streets and found some less than classy establishments, mostly owned and frequented by the large population of construction workers of the city.  A little later, we returned to Club Africana, and the place was jumping.  I for some reason get a strange thrill from being the only white guy in a place, and let me tell you, I got more than a few stares from the couple hundred Africans as I jumped onto the dance floor with the rest of the crowd.  After a few minutes, a couple of my friends joined, and the people were just taken aback that three random American kids were dancing in the middle of the crowd of Africans.  It was such a strange experience but a lot of fun, and everyone there was really nice!  On the way out, we stopped by an Indian establishment to round out our cultural night life evening.  It was such a change from Africana and was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.  Though I can’t post much about it here, look for a post about it after I return to the United States and don’t have to worry about my speech.  For now, let it suffice to say that there is a whole underworld to Dubai; removed from the tourist areas are places that are so different from my base of experience in America and are hard to forget. 

I'll file this under places I don't care to revisit. (Bus Station)









The next week was incredibly productive.  I got a lot of work done toward my professional goals for the semester and made some great contact.  One event was on Wednesday evening after work when I went with one of my coworkers to an MBA fair in the city.  It was good to learn about things I should be doing now to prepare myself as well as get an idea of what options there are for the future.  On the academic side, I decided to take a little research journey.  On Thursday after class, I headed to Abu Dhabi to interview a couple of the employees at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) as part of two research projects on the oil economy diversification in the Middle East and the international push for renewable energy.  Despite planning out which bus to take and getting directions from the bus terminal to the office, it was still quite the adventure to get there, taking twice as long as it should have.  In standard Jacob-with-public-transport fashion, I went to a random parking lot in Dubai, gave a guy twenty dirhams, and hopped on a bus that looked like it had seen one sandstorm too many.  Ninety minutes later, I arrived at a bus terminal that was seriously straight out of Indiana Jones with hordes of smelly people, stores selling dates (and racy magazines in the back), and of course the hole-in-the-ground toilets.  After taking the city bus way past my actual stop and climbing to the top floors of three skyscrapers, I finally found the correct office (and was only fifteen minutes late at that!).  It was a really good interview after I finally arrived, and I learned a lot that I'll be able to take with me back home and use for my senior thesis.  
Seems legit.

I returned to the bus terminal, got a ticket home, and stood in a line of 300 people as bus after bus shuttled us back to Dubai.  When we entered the city, we drove right past the parking lot where I got on the bus, and I had a moment of panic when we still hadn't stopped fifteen minutes later.  I knew for sure that the driver was taking us hostage and kidnapping us to Saudi.  Fortunately, we eventually stopped on the side of a road under an overpass, and I decided that was my cue to leave.  Half of the passengers also got off, and after getting my bearings, I realized that I was a half hour train ride from campus.  I kicked myself and cursed the public transportation system while following the throng of people to the metro station.  

Birthday Party!
I got back to school forty-five minutes later, ran into my room, got cleaned up, changed clothes, and headed out right away for a night out with friends.  We began the night at the rooftop bar just behind campus before heading off to one of our friend's birthday party downtown.  It was a great time, but after we left, I was exhausted and ready to collapse.  Everyone else was in the mood to eat, so off we went to the beach-side cafes for dinner/breakfast.  I really nearly feel asleep at the restaurant  and I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't even shower before falling asleep at 5:30 that morning. 

The next day was full of studying; I could finally finish the paper with the research from the interview on Thursday.  Since it was midterms week, we worked all day and decided for a chill evening at the mall -- here they call it "going malling."  I think that it's roughly equivalent to goin' to the Wal Marts back home on a Friday night.  After a delicious meal at my favorite restaurant (McDonald's), we caught a movie at the theater in the mall.  It's times like this that I remember where I live.  After sitting through the 90-minute movie, I'm still not exactly sure what the plot was about due to the excessive censorship.  Random scenes were cut out, and conversations would obviously jump, so the dialogue didn't make sense.  Any conversation deemed immoral, especially those referencing sex, was removed from the movie because such been behavior isn't acceptable for public.  It was really annoying.

Malling
Though the past couple weeks have not been full of adventure like last month, it's been a great chance to get to know Dubai a little better and to get some good professional activities in so that my parents don't think I'm just over here being a slacker.  There is only a week and a half left until the week-long Eid break which will be full of crazy stories as we make our way to Jordan, the Dead Sea, and maybe even Israel/Palestine, but until then, it's back to the books. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Outside the City Gates

It's easy to get a false sense of security in downtown Dubai with the five-star resorts, trendy bars, and high-class restaurants.  We tend to forget that we are living in the Middle East and that things aren't as rosy on the other side of the horizon.  After a full month in Dubai, it was time to get out of the city and explore some of the area in which I live.  The week took me from one extreme to another, from dining with the nation's elite to staring down the barrel of a sniper.

The week started off as any other with a series of uneventful classes and days at work.  On Sunday, I went to an office party at a coworker's apartment; it was an interesting night hearing about the others' travels through the Middle East.  It was cool to get a firsthand account of what's actually happening in places like Syria and Bahrain, names I'm used to only hearing in news reports.  It's pretty cool how diverse the staff is, with everyone having incredibly different backgrounds and interesting stories to tell.  I decided that I needed my own stories to tell and thought that a visa run to the border would be a great place to start.

Bur Dubai - not quite like the glitzy downtown area
Iranian Restaurant, complete with live birds
On Wednesday night, the study abroad mentors organized the weekly CRF night (Cultural, Reasonable Food) to an Iranian restaurant in the old part of the city.  I ended up getting off work much earlier than I anticipated and got a ride to the right neighborhood with one of my coworkers who lives in that direction.  I arrived at the metro station meeting point an hour before we were supposed to meet, and, since the rest of the group was still a 45-minute train ride away, I decided to do a bit of exploring on my own.  Like I said, this was the old part of town, and for the first time since I've gotten here, I was the only Westerner on the street.  I entered an old mall and thought I had entered the opening scene of a horror film.  Most of the shops were closed except for a laundromat and a store full of gold and silver trinkets in the back; the halogen lights flickered as a few people roamed around the joint, fading in and out of the dark corners of the mall's main hall.  In the background, a young girl was on a mechanical car ride that sang "Frera Jacqua," but instead of the usual lyrics, the song got stuck on "mother's coming; run away.  Run away."  I was more than a bit spooked and decided it was time to go.  I walked the couple blocks back to the metro station and noticed a few oddly dressed middle-aged Asian women on a street corner.  As I walked past, I caught the eye of one of them, and it didn't take me long to realize what she was doing there.  I hurried along as she followed after me, hearing another man discussing prices with the woman.  I continued walking toward the metro station, found some M&M's, and sat on a bench inside the station, wondering how this could be the same city, just 15 stops from my dorm gate.  Side note - the Iranian food was really good once everyone finally got there!

At  the Atlantis Resort Aquarium
By Thursday, I'd had enough of Dubai's less-touristy side for the moment, and we decided to explore some of the more up-class areas of the city.  We took a cab from campus out onto the Palm Jumeirah to the Atlantis resort.  While there, we had desert and drinks at a Moroccan restaurant, complete with dancing and live music.  Though I had no idea what I was doing with the dance and instead elected to take pictures, it was a really cool place.  After we took some time to explore the incredible aquarium, amazing city views, and interesting clientele at Atlantis, we drove downtown to meet some of Mary's cousins at a bar under the Burj Khalifa.  The restaurant was all outside, situated next to a lagoon, with palm trees lining the sitting areas, and the Burj Khalifa standing tall across the water.  After a fun, chill evening, we headed back to the dorms.  I ended up going to sleep a bit too late that night, and five hours later, I was awake again for our trip to Oman.

video
Hiking up the Hatta Fort Foothills
I'm in the UAE on a temporary 30-day tourist visa, meaning that every 30 days I must leave the country or provide a two-week notice to AUD officials with a detailed itinerary prior to leaving.  Rather than having to plan ahead and have AUD all up in my business, a group of us decided to leave the country to get another 30-day tourist visa, a rather quick road trip through the desert to the Omani border.  Friday morning, Tom, Sid, Oliver, and I got a ride to the airport where the cheapest car rental agencies are.  We rented a car, met up with the rest of our group, and and began our drive through the desert.  We drove through small outposts, mini sand storm cyclones, and incredible sand stone mountains.  We got through the first two checkpoints without any problem - just flashed our American passports and we were on our way.  At the border crossing, things got a bit dicey.  We pulled over at the passport control office at the UAE exit gate, looked around, and I realized for the first time where I was in the world.  Passport control was housed in a run-down trailer next to a series of small concrete buildings that looked like they'd been burned down years ago.  Half of the road was blocked due to a collapsed overhang whose metal roof lay crumpled in the road  I was glad to get out of there quickly.  We drove into Oman and stopped 100 yards into the country at the visa office.  After an obligatory picture in Oman, we got back in the car and drove right back across the border.  On the outskirts of the UAE, we stopped at a resort, the Hatta Fort, and had a great dinner at a pool-side cafe before hiking up one of the nearby foothills to watch the incredible desert sunset.

A desert sunset at the Omani border
After enjoying the sunset and the first rain shower we had seen since arriving in the Emirates, we got in the car and began our journey back to Dubai.  The first checkpoint was similar to the one on the way - just flash our passports and on we go.  The second, however, was a bit unnerving.  We pulled up to the checkpoint guards who had AK-47s at the side, ready to go.  The guard took each of our passports and took his time going through each of them, looking for issues with our visa statuses.  We sat in the car, watching as cars in the other lane zipped past, while the armed security officer scrutinized our entry.  With a nasty look and a wave of his gun, he tossed us back our passports, and we were home free.  After the sketchy checkpoints and border crossings, I was really glad we were back in time for happy hour at our go-to local standard.  It was a fun night, just relaxing at the rooftop restaurant next to campus and hanging out on the beach walk.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Chillin' in the palace
As if we hadn't done enough the day before, the study abroad mentors had arranged a day trip to Abu Dhabi for us on Satuday.  I crawled out of bed at 9:30, completely exhausted from trip the day before, and headed out for a new day of exploring.  Abu Dhabi is about a 90-minute drive from campus via a huge highway, so there wasn't much to see on the way there which was good since I spent most of that time catching up on sleep.  Our first stop was at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, an incredible building that looks like something straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights.  All of the men had to wear long pants and sleeved shirts, and the women borrowed abayas from the mosque to wear as we toured.  The courtyard was huge and seemed celestial, made completely from white stone and highlighted with gold on the minarets   Inside the main hall, there were three domed sections, each with elaborate chandeliers hanging in the center.  The floor was carpeted with one enormous Persian rug, the largest in the world.  In all, the mosque and courtyard can hold 50,000 people when completely filled on the holiest of days.  After a quick lunch, we made our way to the Emirates Palace Hotel.  Years ago, some of the royals lived in this palace, but it was converted to a hotel after the royal family upgraded to a nicer palace.  It's actually the same hotel featured in the Sex and the City movie.  I don't know if I'm more amazed at how opulent and luxurious places here are or at the fact that it's incredibly easy to get into them for free.  Though we of course didn't have a room, nobody questioned us as we roamed about the palace hotel, sat in the plush lounges, watched performances, took pictures in the porticoes, or gazed in amazement at the gold ATM -- yes, this ATM seriously dispensed pure gold.  I thought back to 24-hours before when we were at the dilapidated border buildings and couldn't believe how two such different worlds can exist so close to one another.

Our Group at Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Dubai is an amazing city, full of some of the world's finest resorts, restaurants, bars, malls, and countless other attractions, but to truly get a sense of the UAE and the Gulf area in general, we had to get out of our comfort zone and leave the tourist areas.  Though many visitors choose to ignore the old city and other less-refined areas of the country, these places offer some of the most incredible experiences and can be even more exciting than another fancy meal or another beautiful beach.  This week, I set out to get my own Middle Eastern adventure stories; it never occurred to me that all it would take is a quick trip outside the city gates.

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.