29 October 2004

An Iftar Invitation - more Ramadan stories.

A friend invited us to break fast with her and her family a few days ago.

Dina and her family are Lebanese-Palestinians who have lived in Jordan, Egypt and Abu Dhabi before arriving in Dubai. They were kind enough to invite us for Iftar and put up with our barrage of questions about Ramadan, traditional foods and the finer points of fasting.

We arrived at 5.30pm. Louisa had fasted for the day, too, to get a feeling for the sacrifice fasting entails. This meant that she had not eaten or drunk anything since 5am that morning. Those of us who weren't fasting were offered drinks such as home-made raisin juice with rose water and apricot juice, which are traditional at this time.

Louisa was put out of her misery by an offer of laban and dates, a standard way to break fast. We then went to table, which was laden with a real feast. There was a clear order to the dishes: first lentil soup with lemon, then a salad made with lots of different chopped herbs, tomatoes and crunchy crisps of dried flatbread. After that we all dug into a variety of dishes, roast chicken with spiced rice; an aubergine and sour cream bake, savoury pastries and lots of hummous. The olive oil used in the dishes came from the family grove in Lebanon and was imported specially.

26 October 2004

Subsidised Petrol - Is That Really Necessary?

With the increase in international oil prices fuelled by the crisis in Iraq there is pressure even here to increase petrol prices. Strangely, local companies don't buy petrol direct, but have to pay international prices. To our surprise local petrol prices are capped by the government, which means that at the moment fuel is sold at below cost price.

25 October 2004

George Clooney?

Rumour has it that George is going to be filming part of his new movie Syriana in Dubai.

The film website doesn't mention the location, but there have been casting calls in the papers, so it must be true. Excuse me while I go and look for him ;-)

Update: There are now articles about this rumour in the local version of Hello! magazine, and Gulf News thought that it is an important enough item to send a reporter to cover the casting call - for three days! - to find out if the rumours are true (despite a two page article with pictures the research was not conclusive). So we are still none the wiser. If anyone has more news on this, please let me know, I could break the story here ;-)

23 October 2004

Interesting Signage of the day #3

Oman has its own interpretation. Would that there were more local variants of internationally recognised signage, the world could be a more interesting place...



Wedding Anniversary in Oman

The sea is slowly turning from turquoise to grey, the sun is setting behind the mountains somewhere, a lazy breeze is fanning the palm trees. Yes, we got away for the weekend.

Stuart had a voucher for a night at a Hyatt hotel, so we took the opportunity to drive over to Oman. Muscat is the capital of a geographically large but otherwise pretty empty sultanate on the Indian Ocean. It is about 4 hours drive east of Dubai on very unused and well-maintained roads. It's a long drive, but only occasionally boring. The terrain is more varied than we expected, ranging from rusty desert sand to craggy mountains, with fertile stretches of banana and date farms lining the road between dusty villages. After Hatta, which we had visited earlier this year with Anna, we quickly arrived at the Omani border post. Or rather the first of many. We had already picked up our exit stamp in Hatta. Although it's another 60km to the border from there,t the customs people had obviously preferred the pleasant surroundings of the Hatta Fort Hotel to the huts at the actual border. At he first Omani post we were waved through, only to be stopped at the second one, where we spend a futile half-hour filling in badly-designed visa forms and purchasing extra car insurance to cover us for driving in Oman. The place was so non-busy that the insurance salesman had gone to sleep on his sofa and Stuart had to wake him up!

After that rigmarole we had to stop at the third border post down the road to open our boot and show our luggage. It is illegal to carry alcohol into Oman from the UAE, so we were glad we hadn't stashed a bottle of champagne for the celebrations. After this we thought we were home free, but as it turned out there was one more stop, where a slouchy looking guy took back the slip of paper the luggage searcher had stamped for us that the visa guy had handed us what seemed hours ago at the first stop.


Oman's Roundabouts are Many and Imaginatively Decorated

Oman looks very like the UAE, except it has real clouds! In the 1970's Oman had only 10km of tarmac road (probably just enough to circumfence the palace), but that had changed a lot. What little oil money they have goes into creating a well-educated population, public services and hospitals. This means that unlike Dubai a lot of the workers here are actually locals, since the sultanate can't afford expensive expat labour.

Oman has a long history as a trading nation whose influence used to stretch as far as India, Pakistan, Zanzibar and Estern Africa. The Portugese arrived here in the 17th century worried about their own trade routes to India, and kept Oman subdued for about 200 years. Apart from a few forts their impact here seems to have been negligible. Local architecture, culture and arts are fiercely Arabian, and adherence to local style is required when seeking planning permission for local buildings.

Anyway, I am rattling on. The sun has set, there is a lone swimmer in the pool and we are getting ready for dinner. A good first wedding anniversary.


The Views Were Pretty Good

22 October 2004

Ramadan - A Primer

Ramadan has been with us for a week now. Three weeks to go and we are just starting to get the hang of it. Here is some background, in case you don't know what it's all about.

Ramadan starts on the night that the first new moon is visible (or on the night before, if you are a Shiite - thanks, Muffadel). Because the Muslim calendar is lunar, the beginning of Ramadan comes earlier by a few days every year. It lasts for a moon cycle and remembers the time when the Prophet Mohammed received the first verses of the Koran from Allah. For Muslins this is a time of prayer and fasting, charity and family gatherings. It ends with the two-day celebration of Eid al Fitr.

I have been trying to find an equivalent in the Western (Christian) year for this and there really isn't one. Lent comes closest, where Christians are supposed to live simply and donate money to charity for 40 days. Not that many people still do this... Fasting during Ramadan really means eating, drinking, smoking nothing, not even water, during daylight hours. The newspaper publishes sunrise and sunset as well as prayer times daily on the front page so that everyone can get home in time to break fast.

This has major implications to the daily routine here. Shop and office opening hours are changed to give people shorter hours, but also to allow customers to attend to business late in the evening after they have broken their fast. The vehicle inspection office, for example, is open until 1am in the morning. Rush hour is at totally different times now, and the town is even emptier during daylight hours that it was already during the hot summer months. During Ramadan workers are entitled to a 6 hour workday, although this doesn't always work out in practice.

The first meal of the evening is called Iftar and all the hotels and restaurants provide Iftar buffets, often setting up tents on the beach with barbecues and shisha (water pipes). It is a big event at the mosques, of course, where charitable organisations serve food after prayer. Ramadan is also a time for charitable work, donations and neighbourliness. In that way it is a little like the Christmas spirit, families coming together in the evenings, helping each other cook for Iftar and such-like. At the same time businesses are taking the opportunity to make as much money out oft the event as they possibly can. Because of the restricted opening hours shops try to lure customers by offering raffles and competitions. One chain of petrol stations is even hoping to increase business by offering dates and water free to customers during the first hour after Iftar.

21 October 2004

We Are Back (by popular demand)

We thought the blog had come to a natural end at the beginning of the summer, but it seems someone out there was actually reading it.

After the summer holidays with trips to France and Germany (and a small detour to Stockholm) we had barely returned to Dubai when both of us were off again. Stuart took his umpteenth trip to Paris, but then moved on to the more exotic Hongkong and Mumbai for business meetings, while I celebrated my birthday in London and photographed Stephen and Caroline's wedding in Nottingham. I was surprised to find various people who expressed interest in further installments of our new life story here in Dubai. So of course I can't say "no" to a bit of self-promotion.

Expect more wondrous tales from the mysterious Middle East!