30 December 2005

Amsterdam

Stuart needed to make a trip, which involved us taking him to Amsterdam airport, spending a day in Amsterdam and picking him up again in the evening. Simple.

So we leave at 5.30am and it's snowing. Never mind, we make it to the airport in time for the flight, only it's delayed for one and a half hours arriving into Copenhagen. Even more snow there, not surprisingly. We spend the day in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum looking at lovely Rembrandts and Holland's grand history of empire. Wander through the park, chill in a cafe, buy some shoes for Anna.

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It's freezing, but still everyone gets on their bike

When we get ready to go to the airport to pick Stuart up from his 8.30 pm flight we find out that there is a delay, Copenhagen is snowed in. The flight will go that day, but no-one seems to know when. There are de-icing problems, runway problems, just general too-much-snow-and-ice problems. We decide to wait. Matthias goes to sleep in the car and Luca is a trooper and sleeps in the play area next to beeping, whirring, flashing playground rides. DSC01484-2005-12-30-10-46.jpg Tired, but undeterred Eventually, at midnight, the plane arrives. We get home at 3 am, after another snow flurry on the Dutch plains. The lesson? Don't expect easy travel in Northern Europe at the end of December.

17 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 5

It's Friday, which means the Mall is actually populated by people other than film festival attendees.

Actually, I started out with a screening of 'The Constant Gardener' at the Madinat Arena, again the most glamorous of occasions. This one was sold out with a long stand-by queue while outside the waiters were setting the buffet for the night's entertainments. Next year I have to make sure to get myself accredited or invited. The Madinat looks like the perfect networking location.

Anyway, after days of intelligent and relevant films it is really quite a shock to be reminded of the kind of films Hollywood undoubtedly terms 'discerning', it being set in Africa and starring the smart woman's crumpet Ralph Fiennes. Unfortunately it insults and abuses Kenya by portraying the whole country as a savage and criminal cesspit with the usual visual clichés of poor, but brightly-dressed black women queuing for hand-outs, noble but doomed black intellectuals, colourful crowd scenes amidst dirt and rubbish and vicious tribesmen who enslave children and raid villages. 'The Hero' has to be lauded for showing a more complex image of African reality, where Blacks are involved characters and not just ciphers. I am not looking forward to going back to this for another year.

This afternoon saw the screening of five short films in the Emerging Emirati section of the festival. There has only been a film industry in the UAE for the last four years, according the programme scheduler Masoud Amralla Al Ali, and it shows. The outstanding film in the group was 'Dying for fun', a documentary about chicks that are sold in Sharjah market after being dipped in colourful dyes. It was simply powerful, not relying on a voiceover to explain the situation, but letting the pictures speak for themselves, as the chicks are hatched on racks behind metal doors in a vast factory and dipped into dye at the pet shop until they almost drown before being sold to children in paper bags. After the screening there was a lively discussion about the support local filmmakers think they need, undoubtedly fuelled by the presence of Sheikh Abdullah, the UAE minister for information and culture, and Amina Al Rostamani, head of the soon-to-be completed Dubai Studio City.

'The Last Moon' is the autobiographical story of the Chilean director's grandfather, a Christian Palestinian, who helped an immigrant Jew build a house in Palestine after the first World War. It was a personal story that threw an interesting light on the historical background of a country ruled always, it seems, by others. At the beginning of the movie it was the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, later the British. The narrative was simple, with beautiful characterisations of each individual. The story came from a different angle, being that the main protagonists were a Jew and a Christian, rather than the usually perceived Jew vs. Muslim issue.

I was lucky to get a ticket for 'Underexposure', the first film to come out of Iraq since the beginning of the latest war there. Whether the fact that a film can be made in Iraq is a sign that normal life is returning remains to be seen. The whole films runs through with a certain desperation and sadness, like moments snatched. It's about a film maker trying to capture the feeling on the street of Baghdad in August 2003 and 6 months later. It has a documentary feel, showing the crew on location and witness interviews, discussions between director and camera man and musings to camera.

16 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 4

Another day at the mall...

I finished early today, to have dinner with Stuart and Mark, my brother and his wife, Martina, who are here on holiday (not Stuart, obviously - oh, this sentence doesn't really work, does it?). Still managed to get three movies in, specially as I didn't have to shuttle between the Madinat and here. It was sufficient to wander out of one screening over to the cafe, stock up on coffee and wander back in for the next one.

Today I watched two very different documentaries and a super-stylish crime/love story. 'A Decent Factory' sees the filmmaker follow the manager responsible for ethical management at phone manufacturer Nokia to China where she oversees the audit of a local supplier. It was pretty straightforwardly observational, and didn't expose anything most of us didn't know before: Namely that Chinese workers, mainly young women, are not paid minimum wage; don't get work contract so they can't complain if agreements are broken and live in terrible conditions sharing rooms with eight people and always in fear of being sacked if they complain. So far so simple. The strength of this film is the portrayal of individuals like the dogged consultant trying to get round the tricks of the factory managers; the fake-chummy overseer who treats the workers with less than disdain; the English manager who passed every contentious question (and responsibility for awkward answers) to his local sub-ordinates. The tension of everyone trying to be polite while trying to hide/expose as much exploitation as possible, is palpable.

'Stroke', on the other hand, is an intensely private history, filmed by a German artist whose husband has a stroke, and the recovery process. She was relentless in her filming, even at the hospital where her husband is in a coma, at the rehabilitation clinic while he is struggling to regain use of his legs and during arguments after he returns home. In the discussion she said that she did the film initially as a form of coping, to deal with this sudden change in her life situation and to make sure that no mistakes were made. I was equally impressed with her consistence in never putting the camera down even when the situation was difficult, as well as with her husband agreeing to be subject to this intense scrutiny during an extremely vulnerable time of his life.

'The Consequence of Love' starts very subtly. Like the life of the protagonist, a quiet man living in a hotel in Italian Switzerland, nothing much happens. He goes to a cafe, suffers from insomnia and uses heroin every Wednesday at 10am. Oh, and every now and then a suitcase arrives in his room, at which he springs into action as a money launderer to the Mafia. His solitude is occasionally interrupted, first by a visit from his brother and then by calls to his wife and children, but it's not until a young waitress confronts him in the cafe he frequents does he take a step out of his isolation and everything goes out of control. The story is spare to the point of simplicity, the cast is minimal with no extraneous crowds - the town is deserted whenever we see an exterior shot, and the atmosphere is smooth and elegant. Lovely.

15 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 3

Dashing between sites today, I realised that the Madinat venues are way more glamourous, they even have red carpets.

But then again, the movies I want to see are mostly here at the thoroughly populist shopping mall. I only dashed over to the Madinat to watch 'Walk the Line', the new Johnny Cash biopic. That's when I noticed the glamourous red carpet, complete with huge spotlights and black-suited bouncers. All the gala events are at the Madinat arena, which houses a huge auditorium with super-comfy seats and a massive screen. Pity I never get invited to the star events...

Anyway, after all the hard-core films I watched yesterday it was a strange experience to see a Hollywood movie like 'Walk the Line', albeit a serious, unfussy biographical effort like this. The production values were way up there ('The Hero' by comparison, one of the more expensive films so far, had cost €800k, while I suspect that most other films have been self-funded), as was the emotional manipulation, using well-worn techniques we have all learned to react to in just the way the filmmakers expect. Still, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were quite believable and those kind of films are certainly an easier ride than heavy-duty docs like 'Massaker', for example.

'Kiran over Mongolia' was not heavy-going at all, but certainly illuminating about other cultures and remote parts of the World (to us). A young man who wants to carry on the tradition of eagle hunter that his grandfather once practiced goes out to find a teacher and learns how to catch and train an eagle to hunt for foxes and rabbits. A film in the vein of 'The Story of the Weeping Camel', this film was four years in the making, entirely self-funded by the director and sound designer, and had a lightness of touch that came through despite the utter remoteness of the subjects. Why don't they show films like that on the discovery channel?

And at last some more shorts! I love shorts, they give you so many stories in such a short space of time. Plus the filmmaker can be more creative in a short, as it's not such a financial commitment as a feature film. The films were all made by Arabic filmmakers, based in Algeria, Palestine, Egypt and Switzerland. 'Haunted' was a scary and accomplished ghost story about a murder in a house at night time. Can the burglar solve the mystery before he is the next victim? 'Cow and Company' (I liked the French title '100% Vache' better, somehow) is a circular story of a peasant swapping milk for a car repair, the car repair man using his satellite box to bribe the teacher about to expel his son, and the teacher's husband who picks up the milk from the peasant. It was badly let down by terrible sub-titling, which ruined any funny moments there may have been. '6 Girls' takes a simple premise, that is to film one's own living environment and creates a spirited result. A documentary of 6 students living in a communal flat in Port Said, it shows an unexpected reality for women in a Muslim country as well as general acceptance of their lifestyle choice from family and neighbours. Unfortunately it was way too short. The last last short, 'Yasmine's Song' was a beautifully developed love story set in a Palestinian area of Israel with the added urgency of the building of the wall by the government. The increasing enclosure of the community is brilliantly visualised when more and more obstacles appear in the path of the young man cycling to see his lover's father to ask for her hand in marriage before she is given to someone she doesn't love.

The last movies today were by far the best, with 'West Bank Story' topping the chart of today, and 'Being Osama'. 'West Bank Story' is a hilarious take on West Side Story set in the West Bank where the Kosher King fast food joint fights for business with Hummus Hut while a love story develops across the border between a Palestinian girl and an Israeli soldier. It has a great future as a Broadway musical, but funnily it's the most contentious film in the post-screening Q&A so far. 'Being Osama' takes the very simple premise of Canadian Arabs who have the feared name of Osama in common. They talk about their background and their reality, how 9/11 has affected them when people find out they share the name of the most hunted terrorist in the World.

14 December 2005

Dubai Film Festival Day 2

More film reviews, still no star sightings (if you don't count the lead actors of 'The Hero').

Another day spent at the Mall of the Emirates, not to shop, though, but to cram in as many movies as possible. Donna kept me company, so it wasn't just me and a Starbucks frappuchino during the breaks.

The first two films of the day were pretty intense, while the third was incredibly funny and encouraging. They were set in Lebanon, Angola and Turkey respectively. Hoorah for cheap film making technologies that bring the World to us!

'Massaker' is a documentary of interviews deconstructing 'individual and collective violence', according to the director. It was filmed by a Beirut-based German team who miraculously managed to find 6 of the military perpetrators of the Sabra and Shabila refugee camp massacres during the Lebanese civil war. Amazingly they got these men to speak about their training, which took place partly in Israel, their preparation and reasoning and the attack on the two villages. It was visually relentless, mainly because the device they used to assure anonymity for the interviewees was extreme close-ups on hands, shoulders, knees and other parts of the body, avoiding faces, which were also kept in the dark. According to the director this film was not meant to be a reconstruction of this specific massacre, so there was very little visual information about the events: all descriptions came from the speakers apart from some stills which were shown to the interviewees to elicit their comments. The viewing experience was deeply disturbing and focussed on those voices calmly describing unspeakable events.

'The Hero' is a first feature film for Angolan director Zeze Gamboa. It is a 'City of God'-esque story of a street kid in search of his father lost in the Angolan war; a veteran of that war who lost a leg to a land mine and tries to get back into peaceful society; and the kid's teacher. Filmed partly with amateur actors and partly with professionals, the narrative jumped between these people's attempts to re-create some normality in a land recently recovering from 20 years of war. One of the most poignant moments was a scene in a public square where children and adults queue up for the opportunity to speak to camera searching for lost relatives, to be broadcast on public television, an initiative to re-unite families torn apart by the fighting.

'The Play' was an entirely lighter and funnier experience. A documentary following a group of village women in rural Turkey who are determined to stage a play about their lives to the rest of the community. They tell their stories to the headmaster of the local school who scripts them into a play for them to rehearse. From an opportunity to do something away from the daily drudge the rehearsals become a forum for the women to open up about their personal histories, from drunk husbands to forced marriages, from lack of schooling to elopements, from mean mother-in-laws to lack of healthcare.

Top film today: 'The Play', by a long shot, because the characters were so much larger than life.

13 December 2005

Dubai International Film Festival Opens

It opened yesterday, actually, with a gala showing of Palestinian film 'Paradise Now', but I wasn't invited to that, of course.

Laurence Fishburne was, though, and Morgan Freeman was back, as well as assorted Hollywood, Bollywood and Arabian film stars. The festival lasts till December 17th and most films are shown either at Mall of the Emirates or the Madinat Jumeirah. I have tickets for 19 movies, so will be living at the local Starbucks in the Mall of the Emirates between movies. I expect my diet to get even worse than it normally is.

Todays films have been 'From Dust', about the aftermath of the Tsunami on Sri Lanka's fishermen; 'An Ordinary Day', a fiction short; 'Under a Desert Sun', a collection of sequences from a nature series about the desert; 'Shooting Dogs', set in Rwanda during the genocide; and 'The Axe', a French black comedy.

'From Dust' is a rough and ready documentary filmed on mini-DV over most of this year. The director/camera operator went there in January to capture a story of how people re-build their lives only to find himself without a crew, having to teach his Tuk-Tuk driver to become his sound man and living with people who were not actually able to re-build their lives because of government policies and inefficiency. Soon after the Tsunami struck the Ministry for Tourism realised that by creating a 100 meter exclusion zone for re-building for local residents they could claim valuable coastal lands to sell to international developers for tourism projects, even if that meant that people who had lived there (and some of whom needed to live near the sea, being fishermen) were made homeless. The film follows a few young men struggling with red tape and empty promises who try to be re-located or re-build, as well as an Australian acupuncturist who travels the coast trying to organise new housing for families.

'An Ordinary Day' won best short at this year's Abu Dhabi film competition. It was snappy and looked good, with the clever idea of being non-verbal, thus broadening its potential audience, but I felt that the initially straightforward story of a man who, while minding his own business in a cafe, suddenly sees lots of people who look just like him everywhere around him, got a bit lost when he is suddenly transported to roam the desert until he falls over from exhaustion. The titles were cool, though, with nifty animations based around the debris on the cafe table.

'Under a Desert Sun' is a collection of sequences culled from a nature programme about the environment of the Arabian Peninsula. It focusses on the conservation efforts being made to rescue the Arabian oryx and local variants of the gazelle from extinction. It documents the efforts of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and other countries to take the fast disappearing animals from their natural habitats to breed them in safety at wildlife centres before attempting to re-introduce them back into the wild. This last step has been thwarted over and over again as the main threats to the animals survival, poaching and human encroachment onto their natural habitat, can't be prevented from endangering them again. While the film itself was mildly critical of the fact that there seems to be little official will to stop poaching, as some of the demand for animals (they are captured live for private zoos) comes from very high levels of society indeed, I was gob-smacked to hear from the director in the Q&A session afterwards that some of the so-called eco-tourism hotels in the desert buy these animals from possibly illegal sources to use in their own 'wild habitats'. Oman actually has to guard its herds of oryx with armed rangers who trail the animals across the unfenced nature reserve.

'Shooting Dogs' is Michael Caton-Jones' (director of 'Scandal') latest offering, a fictionalised account of the events taking place in a Catholic school compound during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. An important subject, that has this year already been covered in 'Hotel Rwanda' (strange how there is nothing on a subject and then two films come along at once), this film is let down by the symbolic characters that turned the story into more of a series of tableaus than an engaging narrative. There was the wise Catholic priest, the naive NGO teacher, the jaded journalist and her hardcore camera man, the helpless UN commander, the promising black student, and fated pregnant woman, and so on. From his post-film talk it sounded as if it was a life-changing experience for Caton-Jones and his lead actor, who filmed on location in Rwanda and had a lot of help from their local crew and extras who had actually lived through the genocide. Their first-hand knowledge saved the film from too much cliché, as well as the director's attempt not to sensationalise the subject matter - "almost like a horror movie, where there is more tension because the monster isn't shown".

'The Ax' is a French black comedy directed by Costa-Gavras, of an unemployed man who attempts to get his dream job by killing any potential competition. It's smirky rather than hilarious, and I swear the lead actor is a re-incarnation of Jack Lemmon.

Best film so far: 'From Dust', for the directors persistence in the face of adversity.

That's it for today, more films tomorrow.

PS: You can download the complete festival guide with a description of all the films in the festival from the DIFF website. Very useful if you want to get an idea of what's new in Arab cinema.

06 December 2005

Dubai Ski Club

Yes, you read correctly, we are now officially members of that elite group.

This week Dubai skislope finally opened, almost three months behind schedule. It's a 400 meter long indoor slope with 5 runs of varying difficulty, all attached to Dubai's newest and shiniest shopping centre, the Mall of the Emirates. Finally I will be able to learn to ski, and for the rest of my life, when asked where I learnt, be able to say: "Dubai, of course!"

Admittedly it is the most strange sight to see parents buying fleece gloves for their children and men in dishdash trying on big puffer jackets prior to hitting the piste. There was a very cute picture in the paper on the day of the opening of Sheikh Mo and his mates with warm hats and coats going up on the ski lifts.

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30 November 2005

Maldives Diving

We just returned from the best holiday ever - ten days diving in the Maldives.

The first thing we did is make major use of our recent diving qualification by spending every possible moment underwater in the Maldives. We had planned the trip to be the relaxing break for Stuart after go-live, so we chose the hotel because of its 'no news, no shoes' policy. And then we ruined it by getting totally hooked on diving so that we went on the boat every day to see more fish. In between we just had enough time to catch some rays, eat lots of great food and read a whole pile of books.

There were so many highlights on this holiday - and that's without ever leaving the island except to go diving - that it's hard to begin. Everything was taken care of, from the little things, like aloe vera after-sun lotion in the bathroom and bicycles to get around, to the big things like fresh fruit cut up to order in the morning and being able to leave our dive kit at the dive school to find on the boat whenever we went out. The rooms were ideal, large with sofas in all the right places, like next to the - outdoor - bathtub, so that I could keep Stuart company in his favourite way to relax. We had a piece of beach to ourselves and loungers, table and chairs and a hammock with our villa number on them so that they were reserved for us, and we were in the most basic accommodation there was on the island. Other villas had pools and sunken living rooms on multiple levels.

But it was the diving that really got us hooked (can you tell?). We thought we'd take it easy and not go diving every day, but after the first time over the drop-off of the house reef it was all we could do not to go out twice a day. The reef is really beyond description. There is more animal and plant life there than I have ever seen, and in such variety that we stocked up on books on fish, coral, invertebrates and every other creature to be found below the water line. I have never been so glad to have a camera! We saw every kind of fish from parrot fish to mantas, sharks and turtles, schools of bat fish and huge swarms of little silver fish so dense we couldn't make out the reef. There were corals in every colour hiding the most incredible life, poisonous stone fish and coral groupers, sea anemones housed pairs of clown fish, shrimp and lobsters hid in caves, moray eel looked more dangerous than they are, star fish and sea cucumbers, and on and on.

Lots of pictures here and here.

18 November 2005

15 November 2005

Lunch with the Sheikh

Well, not quite literally, but almost...

Stuart and I met at the Noodle House for lunch as usual. At the table behind us were a bunch of local guys, but only when Stuart pointed it out did I notice that Sheikh Mohammed (bin Rashid al Maktoum - UAE Minister of Defence and Crown Prince of Dubai, as the local papers like to add, also called Sheikh Mo) was lunching with his gang. Apart from the fact that the group had a serious number of waiters fawning over them and the head chef was in attendance there was really no way of knowing that the de-facto ruler was lunching in the local noodle bar. No visible security or protection from the unwashed masses. They must be doing something right here considering the danger that most other Middle-Eastern rulers expose themselves to when they step out of their front door in the morning.

He should really get some more stylish glasses, though.

13 November 2005

London in Autumn

The air was cool, there was a smell of wood and leaves in the air, and the theatres were filled with good shows. Summer is definitely over.

We managed two shows, despite the fact that Stuart was working his socks off as usual. The first, "I Am My Own Wife" was a Tony (and other)-award winning one-man show about a transvestite who had lived through both the Nazi and the Communist regimes in ex-East Germany, in the process creating a famous museum of daily life in the late 19th century, the 'Gründerzeitmuseum'. Brilliant, if a little whacky. And we were all given a string of pearls to wear on our way home.

We also saw Kevin Spacey as Richard II in the Shakespeare play of the same name. He was good, but from our vantage point looked like he had rather large feet, which was a bit distracting (although we were seated in the upper circle at a 90º angle to the stage, which might have skewed our view a bit). Star of the show though was Ben Miles of 'Coupling' fame, as Harry Bollingbrooke, he cut a fabulous Blair-esque figure. V. creepy.

I also saw a few exhibitions, mostly at the Tates. This year's Turner Prize show was a bit thin, I thought, although I liked Darren Almond with his very imaginative ways of visualising environments and journeys. Rachel Whiteread's installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern had only one thing in common with the Kabakov's piece in the Serpentine Gallery, and that was that they were both white. But while Whiteread's jumble of translucent casts of the inside of one of her grandmother's cardboard boxes was evocative and beautiful, the Kabakov's 'House of Dreams' was unimaginative and lacking in atmosphere. But they were both white.

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Rachel Whiteread at Tate Modern

The best thing I saw all week were the cute, beautiful and ambitious, but futile paintings of Henri Russeau at Tate Modern. He really couldn't paint, but he was so determined to be accepted by the establishment that he never gave up trying. His allegorical paintings are so bad that they are good, but his jungle images full of damp leaves and succulent flowers, shrieking monkeys and growling tigers are a triumph of ambience over technique.

11 November 2005

Camel Jockeys

Good Article on Wired about the newly invented camel robot jockeys.

The Swiss came up with it, of all people.

10 November 2005

Things I Had Forgotten

Back in the UK for a few days feels like visiting a long-lost place. 

I had forgotten how cold tap water can be. It's strange to need to wear a coat despite the sun shining hard. It's a shock to be surrounded by so much old stuff, houses that have stood for more than 30 years and heritage oozing out of every street. Pork bacon and sausages for breakfast make Stuart happy, as does the fact that cold milk comes with strong tea - without having to ask for it. It's a joy to read a newspaper where articles are well-written and original, not copied from press releases.

And that's before I have even left the hotel.

09 November 2005

Residence Committees

A quiet revolution is washing across parts of Dubai, a revolution of empowerment and self-help.

A few weeks ago friends who had recently moved to Dubai found - after a frustrating and long-winded search - a house in the Springs community in what is now called New Dubai, way out of town along Sheikh Zayed Rd (or SZR, as it is known). It is a brand-new house, but there is lot of cosmetic damage in the rooms. The stone surround for the sinks had been gouged, for example, and the bath tub surface was heavily scratched, as if tools had been dropped on it from a great height.

It had taken them so long to find a place that they were willing to put up with these faults, even though they had no great hope that the developer would rectify them, but now it seems that help is at hand: Residents committees are springing up in the large new communities in New Dubai in response to a lack of interest from developers to deal with complaints. Some developers even tried to raise maintenance charges without giving residents access to accounts or insight into spending requirements, which never goes down well with those who have been through the harsh fires of UK-landlord practices. This is a first in Dubai, where the newspapers are full of letters from people complaining about problems and then demanding that "the authorities should do something about it" rather than setting up a group to address issues themselves.

07 November 2005

Qualified - Diving Part 3

Today was our last dive to qualify as PADI open water divers. We had to go out to Al Boom's dive centre at Fujeirah to do this, but it was worth it, diving there is really something.

We had actually gone out towards the East Coast yesterday for a bit of wadi driving with Peter, Sabine and Jannek, their Danish visitor, so we stayed at the Fujeirah Hilton for the night. A lovely place with a cute little beach (home to many crabs), where we enjoyed the sunset on our balcony.

Diving off a boat brings a whole new set of challenges for the inexperienced diver, including having to roll backwards from the edge of the boat into the water like they do in spy movies (called back roll entry, surprisingly). The other is having to share a boat with the inevitable dimwit show-off who has seen sharks, whales and turtles in every ocean of the World.

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So far no underwater pictures, just us (and a German guy in the background checking his kit) Luckily there is no talking underwater so we could enjoy the sights of colourful fish darting in and out of rosy red corals in peace. We also followed the lazy path of a turtle and discovered a flounder disguising itself as the seabed. On the beginners-mistakes front we managed, in the first minutes of our dive, to: get tangled in the descent line from the boat (Fiver); get detached from the tank (Stuart); get stung by a sea urchin (Stuart); and almost lose the snorkel (Fiver). Despite this we were allowed to qualify, so now we are now able to borrow tanks and dive where and when we like. Maldives - here we come!

05 November 2005

Cinema Saudi Arabia

I don't normally comment on the culture of a country I haven't even visited, but I'll make an exception in this case.

The local newspapers provide good coverage of the goings-on in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, so we can follow its slow and painful movement towards becoming a more modern and liberal country. Most people know that women are not allowed to drive (although a government official was quoted as admitting that some do in rural areas - which would cover most of Saudi), and recently a law was passed that allows women to work in any part of the economy "according to their nature", whatever that means.

But I was still surprised to read that this Eid celebration will see the first public film screenings in Saudi Arabia in 30 years. Apparently the depiction of the human form has been considered immoral and the US-dominated film industry with its emphasis on sex and violence is specially bad (there's a discussion for the next film studies course). There is a lot of opposition to film screenings from religious traditionalists, who consider film to be the thin end of the wedge, despite the fact that only children's cartoons are going to be shown and audiences will be segregated.

In another revolutionary move women will be allowed to stage plays, although only with other women actors and in front of a female-only audience, which is not immoral according to Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Mohammad, mayor of Riyadh. I see an opportunity for some radical re-working of Shakespeare, taking on some of the issues desperately needing airing in Saudi. 12th Night, maybe?

03 November 2005

Real Fish - Diving Part 2

Today we met Nemo, who moved to Dubai to live here incognito after fame got too much for him in Australia.

But really, we did our first open water dive today, nowhere exotic, only on Jumeirah Public beach, but what amazing things we saw: Sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, sea urchins and the famous Nemo (or another clown fish, it was hard to tell). Diving for the first time in the sea is a bit scary, but exhilarating at the same time. The surface is suddenly a lot further away than it was in the training pool (as in 6 meters, although we will be qualified to dive to 30 meters eventually) and there is a vast expanse of water all around. But we are down there and still able to breathe, which is a cool feeling. There is a lot more going on down there than is visible on the surface, all kinds of fish and invertebrate life, all just an arm's length away.

The least enjoyable bit was the fact that we had to lug all our heavy kit down to the beach and back again - not the easiest when you're wearing a wet suit and you're loaded with bit and pieces and 10 kg of extra weights.

After the dive at the beach, and the pool dive to practice swimming without a mask and keeping neutrally buoyant (i.e. not floating upwards or dropping to the ocean floor, but hovering just above the ground and controlling your diving level by breathing - one of the trickiest things to learn so you don't go off in unwanted directions while distracted by a pretty fish) we went on a shopping spree. It's better to dive with your own equipment, although it is possible to rent everything from the dive centre. But we decided to get at least the main pieces, a wet suit, a BCD (buoyancy control device - kind of like a life vest with pockets that the tank and other kit is attached to), mask and fins. That way we know it fits and we can look after it and ensure nothing is broken. So now when we travel to hot countries on diving holidays we will be carrying as much luggage as on a two week skying trip to Norway in winter. Oh goody!

29 October 2005

A Theory of Driving Cultures

I mentioned the crazy driving in Dubai before, and I have now formed a theory to explain the phenomenon.

I have decided that most people (there are exceptions) don't drive badly per se, rather this is a place where driving cultures collide. These cultures are diametrically opposed to each other and derive from the vastly different infrastructures of the countries where people learned to drive. So you get drivers from the sub-continent who are used to terrible road conditions, potholes and non-existent curbs; who therefore don't have any lane discipline, instead using the road space as efficiently as possible even if that means making four lanes out of three; and who consider road signs and traffic lights optional. On the other side of the spectrum you have Europeans who are genetically imprinted with the traffic rules handbook and who are used to being fined large amounts of money for any infringements of the law.

A variation of this culture clash is the European versus the American systems of over- and undertaking, which are incompatible. And amongst all this potential for chaos you have Arab drivers who routinely break the speed limit because they factor the cost of fines into the annual re-registration fee for their car, who seem to have a different understanding of road curtesy and who think nothing of making use of the hard shoulder to avoid a traffic queue. All this coupled with the atrocious local traffic situation and short-sighted infrastructure planning has seen Dubai's roads become an increasingly frustrating place to be, with accidents and jams making journeys impossibly long.

Statistics fromDubai's General Department of Traffic quoted in today's Emirates Today newspaper mention that while a third of all fatal accidents in Dubai last year were caused by UAE nationals, only one fifth of the dead were UAE nationals. The head of traffic safety, Khalfan M Al Barwani, pointed out that most of the drivers are young men, and that most of the accidents were due to speeding. Recently a driver was arrested after doing 200kph without a driving license.

24 October 2005

So You Need a Crane?

That'll cost you...

It's hard to get hold of a crane in Dubai, unless you steal it from one of the endless building sites (and that'll get you deported, so don't). If you want to hire one, you'll have to wait for it for anything between 6 to 14 month, according to an article in 7 Days. That's because it's not just local hire companies buying up all available equipment coming into the country, but Omanis, Qataris and Bahrainis coming here to try and fulfill their huge building plans. Prices for mobile cranes has gone up 30% this year.

20 October 2005

Ramadan Working Hours

During Ramadan working hours are officially reduced for everyone, although that is not necessarily the reality for most. And there are endless discussions and complaints.

The theory is that during Ramadan working hours should be shorter to allow fasting Muslims time for their prayers and to prepare for Iftar (breaking of the fast, a big social event every evening after sunset), as well as addressing the fact that someone who abstains from drink and food all day is less productive.

To keep things simple working hours are officially reduced for everyone for the whole fasting month, although in reality this results in a) lots of people still working long hours because their bosses don't allow proper breaks, and b) complete chaos where opening times are concerned because some shops let their workers have Ramadan work hours and some don't and some close because Ramadan daytime shopping is much reduced.

Then there are complaints of slacking because of the shortened hours, which are countered by fasters by pointing out that they have to get up before sunrise for Sohoor (last meal before the fast begins) and need to sleep in the afternoon to make up for getting up at 4 am.

Unfortunately for Stuart it's all pretty academic. The European and US businesses he interacts with have a hard time understanding that Friday is a holiday here, never mind remembering when Ramadan starts.

17 October 2005

The Price of Looking Good

"UAE national women drive up price of abayas" - a headline that encompasses so many of the pre-conceptions and realities of local culture.

Traditionally the point of the abaya, an ankle-length black cloak worn by women in this region of the Arab world, is to hide the female form as the Koran describes (although this is open to interpretation, as witnessed by the many different forms of dress in the Muslim world). In the UAE the abaya is considered national dress, as is the dishdash for men. So many working women consider wearing it as a suit substitute when they attend meetings with local companies, even if they wouldn't wear it for religious reasons.

What was once a shapeless cloak has turned into a fashion item, with designer-abaya fashion houses springing up (and marking their designs with logos on the outside of the abaya - what would Naomi Klein have to say about this?) and boutiques lined with rails of black items like goth shops that only sell one outfit.

The main way to individualise an abaya is to apply embroidery, mostly along the edges, but sometimes all over and combined with lacing and applique. Then there is the shape of the item itself, which, according to Fatma Abdi Mohammed, a local abaya designer quoted in 7 Days newspaper, is tending to be tighter and more form-fitting, specially round the waist. This is called the French design. All this illustrates the shift in local society which is trying to adapt to the fact that so many of its children are exposed to Western ways and still try to hold on the traditional aspects of their culture.

14 October 2005

Naime's Favourite Lemon Cooler

A great drink courtesy of the Noodle House.

Take: 1 handful of ice cubes

some fresh mint leaves

freshly pressed lemon juice

sugar syrup to taste

some water

Blend ice cubes, mint leaves and lemon juice as well as sugar syrup in an electric blender till well crushed. Add a little water. Drink.

13 October 2005

Visitors

It's that time of year where we start turning our flat in to a mini-boutique hotel, the time of visitors and trying to avoid double-bookings.

It's always nice to go to our normal haunts with someone who has not been to Dubai before. Their reactions remind me what an exotic place this is to live in, it reminds me of our own reactions on our first visit and makes me realise again how much I enjoy living here. Naime is an old hand at Dubai, of course, she just shuttles between Satwa with visits to the tailor and shopping for real fakes in Karama, occasionally breaking with a bit of relaxation by the pool.

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But Maria is here for the first time, so we are showing off to her with a day at the beach club, all azure water and palm trees with great service; evening drinks at the Madinat, gazing at the colour spectacle playing across the sail of the Burj-al-Arab; and lastly a visti to the Skyview Bar at the Burj itself, with a splendid lunch and more splendid views of the Jumeirah Palm in the making.

Later in the week we have a flying change as Naime and Maria leave and Stuart's parents arrive - all in the same night. We are geting really good at finding car parking at the airport...

10 October 2005

Blacklists for Bad Employers?

The latest organisation to get involved to help improve workers' conditions is the Indian Government.

One would have thought that in the absence of labour organisations and in the light of the fact that most of the labourers in Dubai are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that the consulates would have an active role to play in representing their citizens' interests. But it is only now that the Indian Embassy has spoken out to state that the company involved in the strike and blockade of Sheikh Zayed Rd by unpaid workers last month is going to be banned from recruitment in India. This means that for a limited amount of time (six months or more, how long is unclear) this company will not be able to recruit Indian workers and will be refused consular services such as attestation of documents, according to Emirates Today and 7 Days newspapers.

The embassy is also overseeing the payment of arrears to the workers, although two months wages will still be held back by the company "to prevent the workers from absconding" according to the company quoted in 7 Days.

08 October 2005

A New Discovery

Wandering round the Madinat brings new surprises every time.

This time, in our attempt to amble away from the shisha-smoking Iftar crowds we came upon a secluded bar overlooking a canal, with wind towers all round. No other customers were there to occupy the seats, so we chose a huge sofa that held all three of us, and whiled away the evening sipping mineral water and chatting. A waiter with impeccable timing ensured that our glasses were regularly topped up, and there was no piped music or loud chatter to disturb our night-time idyll. Just stars above, candles on the tables and calm.

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The place: Segreto

06 October 2005

Revealed at Last: Karama's Real Fakes!

Shopping for real fake designer goods is a popular pastime for visitors and residents alike. You can get Gucci bags, RayBan sunglasses, Von Dutch t-shirts and Rado watches, all at prices closer to Woolworth than Rodeo Drive.

These sales are done extremely surreptitiously, as the local authorities frown upon counterfeit stuff, and there are frequent raids. Usually we are asked if we are interested in buying watches or bags, and then are shunted into the back of a shop, into a small room upstairs or a cubby hole hidden behind some convincing looking shelving. In this case we were in a tiny shop in the middle of Karama shopping centre, where the proprietor conjured watches from the most unlikely hiding places: fake drawers in display cabinets, innocent looking bags hung up along the walls for sale, at one point he even pulled them from inside a tissue box.

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Usually we are not allowed to take any photos, for obvious reasons, but at one point all the shop keepers had gone off to find more watches to satisfy Naime's discerning taste, and I was able to take a shot.

05 October 2005

Ramadan

Ramadan is upon us again and the newspapers are full of introductory articles explaining rules and background, running through the Five Pillars of Islam and generally explaining things for us foreigners.

It's been interesting to have a Muslim friend here (Naime, who is an old school mate from secondary school) this year who is sharing her perceptions of the local customs and how they compare to Turkey and the German Turkish community she grew up in. The most interesting tidbit of information so far has been that for a long time German Muslims would start Ramadan on the same day rather than observing separate starting times as is usual here for Shiites and Sunnis. Apparently numbers were not large enough to warrant separate celebrations. As Muffadal (a colleague of Stuart's) explained it, Sunnis start Ramadan when someone has actually observed the new moon, whereas Shiites begin on the new moon, i.e. just before the moon becomes visible. They determine this date through calculation of moon phases.

Naime was surprised at the way eating is handled during Ramadan, specially the habit of curtaining off areas in hotels and closing the blinds in restaurants so food consumption is invisible to the public. In Turkey, specially in the cities, restaurants are open as usual, and eating and drinking in public is not frowned upon (actually, it is a little more than frowned upon here, as public eating can incur a fine). I have heard the same from a friend who lived in Cairo.

03 October 2005

Diving Part 1

Today we finally got started on our diving course.

We had already gone through most of a diving course with SSI in the UK, but never got round to finishing as it would have meant diving in the chilly murk of Peterborough Reservoir, or finding a - rare - SSI school in France. So when we came here we thought it'd be a great way to spend a hot summer, getting wet and cooling down in the waters of the Gulf.

Al Boom Diving School is one of the many places offering diving training the PADI way. They are based on Al Wasl Rd where they have a shop and a training pool for learners. To start with we did some theory, most of which was a refresher for us, and then we got to put on our kit to learn how to be safe underwater. The most dangerous thing that can happen when diving is to run out of air, so a lot of the training is concerned with teaching what to do if you have air problems. We learned how to drop our weights and ascend safely, how to share air with our diving buddy (you always dive with a partner who makes sure your kit is ok and helps out in case of problems) and what to do if you dislodge your mask or regulator (the breathing apparatus).

There is a lot to learn to start with so we were glad that we had already done most of it before. Next we will dive in real open water in Dubai, and then to qualify we have to take a theoretical test and take a final dive in Fujeirah next weekend.

02 October 2005

Musandam Boat Trip

The view is of the sun setting over the mountains lining the Strait of Hormuz, colours soft and pale after a hot and harsh day. Winter is coming, time to get out of town!

As a treat for the hard-working DIFX staff and their family we were invited to a dhow trip around the fjords (yes, really! They call it the Norway of the Middle East - except for the snow and the conifer forests and the ice cold water and the 6 months of darkness, and...) of Musandam, a tiny Omani enclave on the Northern tip of the Arabian peninsula. We had been meaning to come up here before (but never made it), as it is known to be a great winter weekend getaway for Dubaians.

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Musandam Beach View

We decided to make it a weekend and booked a room in the Golden Tulip Inn in Khasab. After the usual fun encounter at the Omani and UAE border posts - where you have to pay to leave the county - we arrived just in time to get on the boat in the dusty little harbour. After that it was one breathtaking surprise after another: Majestically craggy mountains sloping unhindered into the sea; dolphins chasing our bow wave, occasionally cutting the water as they come up for air; an old British fort glued precariously to the hill on Telegraph Island, the location for the first telegraph cable connection to India; the most remote fishing village ever, only accessible by boat, crowded into a gap in the cliffs.

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Our Lovely Boat

After meandering through a series of islands and inlets we eventually stopped to go snorkelling. Stuart and I could try out our recently (as in yesterday) acquired diving kit - snorkel, flippers and all - which we bought in anticipation of our soon-to-be-completed diving qualification. Near the rocks we saw blue fish, black fish, turquoise and yellow fish, neon-bright fish, orange fish with brown stripes (must get a fish identification book), and some dangerous looking sea urchins.

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Everyone Enjoyed Themselves in Their Own Way

Lunch was a feast of salads, curries, fish and meat grilled on a barbecue crammed into the stern platform of the boat. The dhow had an upper and a lower deck laid out with cushions and rugs so we could all flounce about once we had stuffed ourselves. There was more swimming, including some bravado jumps off the upper deck into the water, before we headed homewards. The breeze as we were whisked past the craggy rocks was welcome after a pretty hot day, and we were treated to another sight of dolphins, although this time they paid us little attention as they were busy corralling a school of fish for their dinner. 'Magic', as Mike would say.

30 September 2005

Grand Hyatt Lobby

You are lucky, the occassional series on my favourite hotel lobbies in Dubai gets a new instalment already. Today it's the mysteriously shaped Grand Hyatt hotel.

I mean to visit the Grand Hyatt every time I pass it on the way to the airport, or anyplace else that requires me to cross Garhoud bridge. The Hyatt's location on the edge of the creek means it straddles two areas of Dubai: Old Dubai, centred on the creek, with its abbras and trade port, souks and once-glamorous office blocks; and New Dubai on Sheik Zayed Rd (about to be overtaken by New New Dubai with Marina and sprawling developments). But there is nothing split-personality about this place, it exudes wealth and conspicuous consumption.

Unlike the Fairmont lobby's warren of dim rooms this is an open space, almost outdoorsy. This is mainly due to the tropical paradise that form the centre of its space, with tall palm trees and lush climbers, expansive ferns and bushy shrubs grouped around pools, streams and waterfalls. All the foliage is real, not of the ever-lasting plastic variety, unlike the boulders carved from dyed concrete to give that jungle look. Still the Koi carp don't seem to mind, and all that's missing is some parrots and the noise of growling panthers over the loudspeaker.

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Light fittings galore

There is also a noticeable investment in strange light fittings, such as the oversized pineapple dangling from a UFO-shaped crystal chandelier, as well as four dhow hulls suspended from the ceiling above the aforementioned jungle. Oh, and then there is the pair of light panels on either side of the stairs covered in what seems to be the output of a Murano Glass Blowing for Beginners course, a mass of curled and twisted glass pieces in blue, red, turquoise and white. Quite stunning in size and sheer design nerve. All in all the quiet place, and if you like jungle, it's a must.

As to the mysterious shape of the hotel, the irregularly curved buildings describe the shape of the word 'Dubai' in Arabic when viewed from the air.

27 September 2005

DIFX Launch

Who would have thought it, after all the long hours, crisis and continent-crossing efforts, the Dubai International Financial Centre actually launched on time.

Since Dubai may not be the inventor of the Soft Launch, but certainly a big fan, DIFX took a leaf out of that particular book and started operations on a small scale on Monday. The building contractors, who had been putting in a lot of hours to get the building finished on time for the start of trading, pulled out all the stops to get everything cleaned up and smartened up for the press conference. This included laying a large area of turf, which has already started to go brown because the sprinkler system that usually goes into the ground before the planting hadn't been completed. Such is the desire to make it look nice, specially as there was a rumour that Sheik Mohammed may attend.

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Last minute efforts to beautify the exchange

Still, in the end it all went well, and then it was the party in the evening that was the thing. Everyone met at Lotus One at the Novotel, where champagne flowed freely and the waiters distributed delicious snacks. After that some of us retired to the Kasbar (as in "Rock the..."), my first clubbing experience in Dubai.

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There is still a lot to do at the exchange, with IPO's promised to be happening thick and fast and new members joining every week. For now I think everyone is just glad that trading is happening after such an intense effort by everyone.

26 September 2005

New Developments on the Labour Front

More protests have taken place in Dubai by workers who were demanding their overdue wages.

This time they were 100 Egyptian labourers working for Kuwait Control Company who hadn't been paid for three months. They staged a sit-in in Al Ghusais, an industrial part of town, and were paid eventually.

The late payment and bad treatment of workers has suddenly become a hot topic, with opinion pieces calling for fair treatment and the Ministry of Labour finally getting beyond merely repeating that they will consider all complaints, but then requiring formalities (and payments for form-filling and submission) and only considering a claim if the wages are two months overdue.

What seems to be exciting most criticism is the fact that not paying workers on time makes the UAE look bad to the world. The country's reputation is at stake, therefore something must be done. The fact that these workers are housed in shacks and paid a pittance is curiously not the issue nearly as much as the idea that a local company lessens the credibility of the country as a whole in the eyes of the global community. As long is something changes, I suppose...

25 September 2005

Fairmont Lobby

Second in this series of (very occasional) lobby stories, I will tell you of the splendor that is the Fairmont hotel.

Like the Emirates Towers hotel the Fairmont is located on Sheik Zayed Rd, but on the other side of the road, which makes it near inaccessible to us the way traffic congestion is developing lately. So we rarely come here, except sometimes on fridays for their exquisite brunch buffet with fantastic seafood bar and unlimited champagne. It's a shame, really, because the lobby here is a marvel of design ideas, although also a bit of a rabbit warren. As you come in at the front there is the obligatory water fountain, a complicated arrangement of cut glass slabs, steel curves and uplighters placed strategically underneath the falling sheets of water.

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Fairmont Fountain

The masterpiece is the centre area of the building, a dimly lit cavern 10 storeys high that houses a restaurant and 8 interior glass lifts shuttling up and down the hollow interior of the building like something out of The Fifth Element. With walls of brushed steel and pierced metal light panels the place has an industrial feel, tempered only by vast amounts of dark wood for everything from seating to plant pots (plants as in palm trees, nothing small here) and gloriously OTT light projections, reminiscent of a funky night club with their swirly patterns and changing colours.

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Clubby Lunch Locale

The best part for my taste is the back of the lobby, behind all the glitz and ostentation. The Coffee Culture cafe is particularly busy today with geeks from GITEX 2005 at the World Trade Centre opposite, and always does great lunch and coffee, of course. It's not flash, but the waiters are super-nice and the muffins extraordinary. And free WiFi at lunchtime!

23 September 2005

Getting Prettier ( or: Learning to Get Done Up)

It's amazing what things we can think of to occupy our time here. Yesterday Louisa and I went to get a make-up lesson.

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The make-up artist entered the room with a stunning array of pots, tubes, bottles, bowls and brushes, then went off to get some more. We had decided that we had not changed the way we used make-up in the last 25 years, and it was time to get an update "for the mature face", as Louisa so delicately put it. Plus, hey, it would be fun. After being moisturised and covered in a base coat (sorry: foundation) we got to work on our eyes. The make-up artist would do one eye, and we would copy what she did on our other. Not as easy as it looks, specially if you have to keep your eyes closed while she is doing the work. The eyes were a major amount of effort, what with sculpting with colours and shaping the eye using only mascara and eye shadow (and getting my eyebrows plucked for the first time ever!) , whereas putting on a decent lipstick and blusher was completed in a jiffy.

After two hours we were ready to face the World again, Louisa with a great work look and I suddenly transformed into something glamorous and sophisticated (well, at least round the eyes).

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Learning to apply make-up with our eyes closed

22 September 2005

Window Tinting

Not only is the local police department cracking down on bad drivers, their latest target are cars with excessively tinted windows.

The traffic situation and anything to do with driving in this town is a perennially favourite subject for Dubai citizens. The newspapers are full of letters from irate drivers/cyclists/pedestrians bemoaning the lack of respect from other road inhabitants, it's a subject of discussion for parties and get-togethers and a constant source of fear for visitors used to the sedate driving style of the Western World.

One aspect unique to this climate is the tinting of windscreen and side windows. Some claim that it reduces heat inside the car when it is parked in the sun or when driving, others insist on being invisible to the public in the name of religion (Muslim women who also wear the hijab, usually, although more often young local drivers with more horsepower than sense). So there are rules: no tinting beyond 30% (except with special permission) and no mirror tint. Unfortunately window tinting is big business in Satwa and other parts of town, so the police is cracking down on the abuse, because windows that are too dark can be a danger, specially when driving at night. The penalty for excessive tinting is a fine of Dh 500 and having the vehicle impounded for at least a week.

In an attempt to minimise effort the police has decided to target the private cars of its own employees first. I guess walking round the car park is a quick way of making the monthly fine quota.

20 September 2005

Cityscape 2005

Dubai property development is at its craziest at the moment, and right now there is no better place to see this than Citycape 2005, a property exhibition to end all property exhibitions. It is quite overwhelming. All the local developers show here, from Damac to Emaar, Dubai Holding to Nakheel.

When we first arrived and heard about the current building projects, we thought they were impossible to achieve, just lofty dreams: the Marina and Jumeirah Beach Residences, featuring 40 high-rises along the beach, are nearing completion; theBurj Dubai, with the Dubai Mall and Downtown, has already risen above ground level and is planning to complete a level a week of its undisclosed number of floors (it is planning to be the highest building in the World, at least until it is overtaken by Al Burj, part of the crazy Waterfront project); The Mall of the Emirates is about to open its long-anticipated ski slope with real snow (the advert claims that "this year Dubai will experience its first winter"); and the World islands development is already old news, having risen from the waters for the last year and sold to the likes of Rod Stewart and Elton John.

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Models and reality in the Marina

Now that these unfeasible ideas are under development, and some are already inhabited (although famously thePalm Jumeirah has deferred occupation from this September), a whole new crop is introduced, these ones really impossible: Business Bay wants to extend the creek to curve round and end at Sheik Zayed Rd near the Burj Dubai, while building a huge business centre along this new riverway; the Waterfront project will add 375 km of beachfront to Dubai, curving round the still-planned Palm Jebel Ali (which is the third Palm island after Jumeirah and Deira, and includes a curve of stilt houses whose outline spells out a poem written by Sheikh Mohammed himself). It is joined to Arabian Canal, similar to Business Bay in that it channels water into desert areas, encircling the new Jebel Ali airport (transport concerns have never been the local developers' strong points).

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Dubailand's lofty dreams

And then there is the development that creates the biggest stir here (although it's possibly enhanced by the large special entertainment budget including at human-size robot and a dinosaur guarding its eggs with ferocious growls). Dubailand, although badly named, seems to have serious thought behind it, its brochure full of graphs showing the increase in tourism and potential rates of return for investors (it is a plan by Dubai Holding, the government-owned group with 20 subsidiaries, including the Jumeirah hotel chain). The idea is to build a huge tourism destination out in what is nowhere right now, but due to the vast increase in housing developments along Emirates Road will soon be merely on the periphery of New Dubai. It includes such gems as Ski Dome (yep, another one, this one promises real penguins) and Falcon City with its Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal and Leaning Tower of Pisa hotels, all 1.5 times life size. Restless Planet is the reason for the dinosaur in the exhibition hall, as it's one of the many theme parks planned in the 3 billion square feet project. Dubai is planning on 15 million tourists by 2010 (up from 5.4 million in 2004), by which time phase one of Dubailand should be complete.

Strike

Dubai saw its first stirrings of labour organisation this week with a demonstration by workers who hadn't been paid their wages for 5 months.

There are no unions here, and most workers are at the mercy of their employer who recruit them en masse through agencies and house them in what are tellingly called 'labour camps', large area of communal housing in the dustier parts of town. All these workers are recruited for the immense construction projects going on all over the place and mostly come from the sub-continent.

It is common practice for companies to withhold two months salaries to 'prevent absconding', but this week saw the first time workers took to the street to protest the fact that they hadn't been paid for 5 months. They blocked Sheikh Zayed Road for a short time, but moved peacefully to the side of the road after police arrived.

The manager of the company, Al Hamed Development and Construction, was taken to the police station. Al Hamed is one of the contractors working on the Palm Jumeirah project. When the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs sent inspectors to meet with the workers, they told the company that they would have to pay within 24 hours or workers could transfer their sponsorship and still claim their dues.

Their had already been four complaints against the company in the past. We'll see what happens next, as this seems to be a new development in the way workers allow themselves to be treated.

15 September 2005

Weather Report

One of the most unfulfilling jobs in Dubai must be weather reporting. "Very sunny", "sunny again", "lots of sunshine", you get the picture.

Maximum temperature this September so far is 44.6ºC, measured last Monday. But it looks like we are on the way to getting our own little micro-climate. All the construction work and artificial lawns, together with the incredible traffic increase in the last few years has resulted in higher temperatures in the area. Not enough that we live in the desert, but we are building our very own "heat island" with all the new concrete, according the Dave Thomas of the Met Service at Dubai Airport.

August was so far hottest for 5 years, with a maximum temperature of 47ºC, although Al-Ain did even better, beating the 50ºC limit. Luckily, as the weather gets hotter, it also gets less humid, so it will feel cooler. But that will not prevent you getting just as sunburnt.

14 September 2005

Moving to the Sound of Drums

It's almost time for the Dubai exchange to go live, and the last people have moved out of the temporary offices into the shiny new building at the financial centre site. They were literally drummed out of the place.

While boxes and chairs were carried down one staircase, we snuck into another entrance to get breakfast, where Dubai Drums were stirring the place up with their African beats. After 15 months in the 'shed' most people were glad to move into the final location, 'Precinct 5', next to the landmark Gate building. To say good-bye, the Marriot hotel laid on a scrumptious breakfast, and to add a de-stressing factor to the morning, everyone was invited to join in the drumming. That sounded like a recipe for a lot of noise to start with, but in actually turned out to be a powerful sound. Talents emerged with a resident didgeridoo player and some great dancers as well as a fabulous frog backing band (respect to Emily, Pauline and Muna).

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Before and After - Drumming is easier than it looks

Listen to real-live drumming here!

11 September 2005

Photoshoot

Today we are back online with news of an event that's turning our flat into a 'location'.

We have a photographer in the house to do a photoshoot for Homecentre, one of the biggest local furniture stores. Their campaign involves images of empty spaces that show where the customer could fit objects bought at Homecentre. We have new armchairs, lamps, cupboards and all sorts of lovely accessories blocking up the corridors, as well as flash lights on stands, big cameras and bags full of film (yes, still working with film).

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If you are in Dubai, look out for pictures of our living room plastered all over the bill boards at BurJuman and Sheik Zayed Rd as well as adverts in Inside/Out and Ahlan.

07 September 2005

Peas are in da House

Concert highlight of the year, the Black Eyed Peas were here for a concert at Airport expo.

A groovy session, although it would have helped if the sound had been better. Although Airport Expo is not actually based in an aircraft hangar, it certainly sounded like it. But otherwise the event was very civilised, with food and drinks stalls (even selling six-packs of Corona), free M&Ms and lots of space to dance. We got free tickets courtesy of a friend who won them in a radio competition, but I expect the people who paid something like 400 Dirhams for the VIP tickets at the back of the auditorium were probably a bit miffed to be miles away from the stage.

But the Peas did their energetic hip-hop thing and the school kids as well as the grown-ups were entertained with the usual hits and plenty of backflip action on stage.

18 August 2005

Summer in Germany

It all started out quite harmless, but ended with a 5-day stay in hospital.

Summer in Germany, a tradition for me now for the last two decades. Visit family, hang out with old friends, do some Germany-specific shopping (shoes in large sizes, green frogs, proper bread, that sort of thing). Pretty standard. Unfortunately this year was a little different. I had been having back pains all year on and off, as it turned out when I finally want to see a doctor at the beginning of my visit, I had been carrying a gallstone of immense proportions and it had to come out, inclusive of gall bladder. So what started as a few weeks respite from the heat ended up with a hospital stay and two weeks of recovery afterwards.

But it wasn't all bad. I got to spend a few days in London with Alex, Jason and Fay, combining this with a whistle-stop tour of some of London's major exhibition spaces (Rebecca Horn at the Hayward, Frida Kahlo and 70's installations at Tate Modern). London was under a cloud of fraught emotions at the time, a few days after the Underground bombings of July 7th, but seeing friends and good weather made up for it.

I also managed to spend time in Weener with Matthias, Ellen and Luca. They have settled in fabulously well at their new house by the port, surrounded by boats, sheep and assorted tourists. This summer they were inundated with visitors taking the opportunity to see the sea (or at least the Elbe) and take in the clean North Sea air.

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03 August 2005

Stuart's Day of Glory

Today Stuart was discovered for his true calling - modelling...

No really, a photographer came to take publicity shots of Stuart for the upcoming launch of the exchange. They were inside and in front of the Gate building, trying a variety of angles to get just the right balance of gravity and originality that is required for a person of public interest nowadays. Stuart posed in the lobby, next to a DIFX logo, even to the point of having to lean into the camera so that the photographer could snap him as well as the building in the background. All this suffering in the name of art (and PR).

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Stuart giving his all to the camera

09 July 2005

Interesting Signage of the Day # 4 and 5

Seen in Singapore http://www.wildlifesafari.info/hyrax_rock.html http://www.wildlifesafari.info/hyrax_rock.html IMG_4888-2005-07-9-10-46.jpg http://www.wildlifesafari.info/hyrax_rock.html Exhibit A: On the Island of Sentosa, a favourite leisure location just off the main coast http://www.wildlifesafari.info/hyrax_rock.html http://www.wildlifesafari.info/hyrax_rock.html IMG_4864-2005-07-9-10-46.jpg http://www.wildlifesafari.info/hyrax_rock.html Exhibit B: On the Underground trains. Note the prohibition on the bottom right of the sign. For an explanation, see here

Singapore, Raffles and the East

A sudden trip to Singapore meant that I went as far East as I have ever been in my life.

Singapore is more than meets the eye from a double-decker tourist bus. It all started when the customs official checking our passports had a bowl of sweets on his counter, a sign that this place takes customer-friendliness to a hew height. It's all very melting-pot here, four languages, five religions, six ethnicities. Like Dubai with history.

And some history there is: Raffles put the place on the map, of course in the cause of British Empire and for the profit of the British India Company. But in short order all sorts of people arrived, and the town was ordered into areas called Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street. Today the government has a clear policy of mixing in order to avoid the development of ghettos, so the public housing are the places where everyone lives together.

There is still a taste of each culture to be had in those old quarters, Little India with its tiny shops and large covered market selling fish, meat, veg and all sorts; Arab streets with single-sexed schools and mosques at every corner, like Fujeirah-lite. Chinatown is where it's at, though, where you can buy personalised stamps in the market and have your name written in Chinese calligraphy and colourful illustrations, where silk shirts are cheap and cheerful and the old men play chequers in the square.

28 April 2005

New York calls (Tribeca Film Festival)

Opportunity knocked in the shape of a conference attendance for Stuart, so I tagged along and got my fill of culture, film and general big-city vibes.

NYC is shockingly inspiring, specially since the film festival is on in all its glory with big name movies (Schlöndorff et al) as well as blocks of shorts on outlandish themes such as Celluloid and Digital Landscapes or Past Life Regressions. A highlight was the appearance of Nina Hagen, whose movie (7 Dwarves) was pretty unfunny - specially dubbed into English - but who is a teen idol of mine from her Rock-Punk days and proved as embarrassing/entertaining in the flesh as I had hoped.

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Nina Hagen with daughter at the film premiere

Otherwise I spent a lot of time wandering the streets, enjoying a place that is older than a few decades and where people have a history. The first few days of my stay I was based in a friend's flat in the East Village, which was a bit like actually living here rather than just visiting. Although I really just ended up doing things tourists do: breakfast with the New York Times and blueberry pancakes in a diner, then a trip up the Empire State building, later a visit to the Natural History museum. It was only on the weekend that the locals joined in with my pace of living. Still there were trips with big bags to the laundry, mopping of floors and shopping to be done. But at least there were some people in Central Park who had the leisure to amble down the lanes, go for a walk with the lover or take a long lunch. The streets gained a new pace, slower, lighter, less ordered than in the week where the mood is stern and focussed.

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Stuart finally arrived for the conference, but was very busy, so I was still treading the streets on my own. Sometimes I am paralysed by the variety. A shop in Greenwich Village has a counter for take-away drinks, offering tea and coffee in a bewildering choice: 20 kinds of tea bags, three flavours of hot coffee as iced versions, flavoured syrups, different kinds of milk, sugar, sweeteners and toppings. Compare this to the food stall in Chennai that serves tea. Hot, sweet, milky. That's it.

02 April 2005

The Friday Brunch Ritual

Friday brunch is THE big weekly event here in Dubai, where everyone and their dog fall out of bed late and find a place to stuff themselves.

It happens on fridays, because it's the first (and for some people in this overworked city, their only) day of the weekend. Whole families and groups of friends make their way to their preferred restaurant, hotel or beach club to partake in an hours-long orgy of slow but steady overeating. The buffets are so long that they as thematically split up into breakfast, lunch and desert. There are pasta and egg stations (for omelettes and scrambled eggs and such), roast and waffle stations, stir-fry areas as well as quesallida toasters ans so on. There are tables with salads and fruit, bread and pasties, freezer boxes for ice-cream, juice dispensers and cappuccino makers.

It is actually impossible to eat a bit of everything if one still wants to be able to walk home afterwards. Newcomers to the Friday brunch ritual (as we were only recently) invariably overeat early on in the session, while experienced brunchers (as we are now) start slowly with a bit of breakfast and pace themselves so that there is still space to finish off with a creme brulee and a coffee at 4 pm (the brunch having started at around noon). Good, easily manageable reading matter is a must for us, but to other groups, who arrive in large family formations, it's more important that children's entertainment is provided. Scarlett's (our favourite eatery in the Emirates Towers) has face painting and computer games, while some hotels offer free access to the pools area or cartoons on big screens. This means that everyone is happy for a few hours, until it comes to getting up and rolling home.

28 March 2005

Portable Palms

Ever wondered how to create an instant oasis? Fret no more, just hire a truck and a crane...

With all the building work in Dubai comes an enormous demand for palm trees. Luckily, they are extremely resilient and can be transplanted even as are fully matured plants.

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26 March 2005

Easter Egg Hunt in the Desert

How do you keep chocolate eggs cold in the sand? How do you hide a basket of brightly coloured eggs in plain yellow sand dunes? All the questions we never had to address when we had our easter egg hunts in Germany.

This Easter we had visitors from India, who were keen to get out into the desert. So we combined the two events and had an easter egg hunt in the dunes. After Stuart had explained the significance of bunnies and eggs to the Christian tradition we arrived in Falaj al Mualla near Ras al Khaimah, an easy stretch of dunes near a camel race track, where the first-timers could thrash the cars through the dunes. After a while we found a shady spot under a stand of trees, perfect for lunch. While Stuart made tea, Anna went off to hide the easter egg boxes we had designed to withstand the gruelling desert conditions. The baskets had been stored in a cool box on the way out, to give the chocolate a fighting chance in the burning March temperatures. We had packed everything into individual tupperware boxes to keep out the sand and insects. The challenge was hiding these treats in the featureless dunes and under the few straggly bushes. Once this was done, everyone fanned out to find their easter egg box, as quickly as possible, before the chocolate bunnies dissolved or the beetles got in them. After much shouting and re-hiding of treats we finally got to scoff melting sweets and warmed up hard-boiled eggs with our tea and lunch. Divine!

So that was definitely one of the weirder Easter events of my life, not really comparable with our childhood trips shivering into a forest dripping with thaw, where we would invariably come back with fewer baskets than we took out with us, some always got lost in the dim darkness of the German woods.

11 March 2005

Mark's Stunning Pictures

Mark was lugging round vast amounts of camera equipment at all times, but it was worth it.

A selection of his stunning pictures can be seen here (at least for a time). You can even tell him how fab they are (if you can find your way round the German website).

09 March 2005

Dubai Hotels

Dubai is blessed with a lot of stunning hotels, which are really more than just places for visitors to sleep. The have great restaurants, beach clubs and shopping centres, so it is easy to meet and spend time there. In fact sometimes I feel like one of those jet setters who spend their lives passing through and living off room service.

So since I know that some of you are particularly appreciative of a well-maintained lobby I shall endeavour to write an irregular series on the hotel lobbies of Dubai, their facilities such as who provides free wifi and where the best orange juice is served, as well as pictures of stunning glass lifts and expensively decorated atriums.

Today I will start with the Emirates Towers Hotel, since it's closest to us and quite the place to be seen. I spend a lot of time there, meeting Stuart for lunch at the Noodle House, a Thai version of Wagamama, or hanging out at Starbucks. The base of the two hotel towers is a shopping centre of the flashest kind, with D&G, Prada and Dior, etc. But since I'm not a size 8 I go to the hair dresser instead (Tony and Guy is truly everywhere), or the newsagent, or to the copy shop who does a great job of printing my photos. The lobby serves a splendid Turkish coffee with lots of tidbits on the side, such as sticky-sweet baklava and little dark chocolate nibble, as well as four (!) different kinds of sugar. Completely OTT. It also sports one of the first glass lifts I sampled in Dubai, and it featured in my first Dubai short film, so it holds a special place in my heart. The best thing about it is that it goes up on the inside of the lobby walls and passes through two intermediate floors, so you can look straight into the drinks of the guests on the bar and executive lounge floor. Cool .

06 March 2005

Sharjah Wildlfe Centre

Mercifully easy to find (if you know how scary it is to drive in Sharjah, where there is no roadmap in existence), after a detour through the vastness of Sharjah University, past the impressively pointless Sharjah monument, we reached this new zoo for a rainy day visit.

I have never been in a zoo that was emptier. Apart from a bus load of Dutch people there was not a screaming child of a whinging teenager in sight (not that the Dutch people screamed or whinged, all very civilised). Most of the time it was just us and the various snakes, spiders, scorpions, gekkos and lizards. Until we got to the outside habitats: Flamingos and other water birds balancing on one leg; Ostriches and antelopes of varying sizes strolled round together and in the distance we could even spot a few of the fabled oryx antelopes, extinct in the wild now, who were a source for the myth of the unicorn, since their straight long, closely set horns look like a single on from the side.

We also spotted a rock hyrax, a small ratty looking thing, but which apparently is a distant relative of the elephant (it would be difficult to think of the shape of a land mammal that looked less like an elephant than this cat-sized furry animal).

Another highlight was a cave full of fruit bats at lunch, eating melons and apples, flying up and down a dark alley, avoiding each other by prodigious use of ears and radar. Finally we arrived at the dangerous animals section: red-arsed baboons nervously eyeing the wolves in the next enclosure, a mean hyena pacing in circles and graceful leopards and cheetahs staring bored into the distance. Perhaps they would have been cheered up by the sight of screaming children....

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Martina Has a Cheetah Encounter

Monsoon in Zanzibar

We spent a few days in Zanzibar to attend and film the wedding of one of Stuart's colleagues. Paradise! Even the rain was romantic, or maybe that's just me missing a good downpour?

Sitting on the terrace for lunch we watched the rain. Low grey clouds had been moving in from the South all morning, obscuring the horizon line between sea and sky. Suddenly it hit us, a great swell of water on the wind. There were still boats out at sea, wooden dhows with sharply triangular canvas sails, calmly cutting through the waves as if the sky was still cloudless. Smaller rowing boats are plowing the waves, a lone rower trying to make his way back to shore against the push of the water in the air.

On the terrace, as soon as the heavens broke, everyone moved back behind the line of the pillars that hold up the roof, carrying on their conversations, letting the waiters deal with the debris on the dripping tables. There was a clutter of plates, a fork falling to the ground, but shortly we were back to chatting and sipping drinks.

It is not monsoon season yet, that doesn't start until the end of March, so this is just a taster. There seems to be little in the way of seasons here, as we understand them. Temperatures are constant at 26-32ºC, with monsoons twice a year and, surprisingly (to me as a Northern hemisphere inhabitant) the best time to visit is the summer, when the weather is balmy and the downpours non-existent.

This rain, the sound of which I longed for when I had just left England last year, is quite different in texture and effect from the rain we left behind in Europe. There, rain is a signal to get indoors, turn up the heating and snuggle up. It's chilly, usually accompanied by an even colder wind, and getting soaked can be followed by serious illness. It can range in intensity from a light mist, like a cloud descending round your head, to gusting winds carrying icy drops mixed with snow.

This monsoon comes in one flavour only. It doesn't mess about with drizzle, doesn't threaten and then disperse. It starts, it pours, it stops. Clouds arrive on the wind, it becomes oppressively hot and the light becomes murky. In no time the water starts falling from the sky in great gusting sheets, pounding the leaves of the lush trees, ripping blossoms off to float down the rivulets that form on uneven ground. The gutters overflow immediately, waterfalls pouring from the roofs to add to the general flood. Drops fall so hard that they bounce off the ground and spray up again.

But it never cools down, and a good soaking results in nothing more than wet skin and coloured feet if you wear the kind of shoes where the leather dye runs. The monsoon stops as abruptly as it started. Then the sun reappears, and the puddles evaporate in the steamy heat. Everyone moves their tables and chairs back onto the terrace and carries on watching the boats.

More Zanzibar photos here

04 March 2005

Musical Double-Bill Dubai style

Living in a town where we have to grab what cultural events we can get our hands on we sometimes end up with strange combinations. Welsh opera and 80's Rock, anyone?

Wales@Wafi was a little sales show to give us a taste of the attractions of 'Wales. World Nation'. An interactive stand to show to geography of the place and a duet of opera singers were presented to attract the attention of bored designer shoppers. Sweet, but selling a friendly, inoffensive place like Wales with a slightly country-bumpkin reputation to these jaded visitors to the glitziest and emptiest shopping place of them all is going to be an uphill struggle.

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Tenor vs. Knopfler - It's Alien vs. Predator in the Musical Arena

In the evening there was Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. A whole other thing. This guy can rock on down. All the Straits hits and a lot of his own new stuff (links require iTunes to be installed), which was a great showcase for his superb guitar skills. The venue was great, too: the outdoor amphitheatre at Media City has good acoustics and when you get bored you can watch the big cranes with their bright spotlights swing round the Marina building site across the way with its 24-hour, non-stop operation like giant storks. Or watch the late-night workers in the media offices behind the back of the stage lit up by their computer screens.