28 December 2004

Bastakia Quarter

One of the good things, apart from the obvious benefits of having friends visiting, is that we get to see parts of Dubai we don't go to in our normal routine. I think it's called touristing.

Today Naime and Thomas had finally finished sleeping off their busy German lives and we went in search of old Dubai. After a short walk along the Creek we turned into an unassuming-looking car park to find a whole neighbourhood of 19th century houses. They were initially build by Iranian traders who settled here because business was good, the name of the area stemming from the Southern Iranian district of Bastak.


Houses in the Bastakia Quarter near the Creek

The houses are designed in the local style with wind towers and an inner courtyard, all aiming to keep the interiors and their inhabitants cool. Wind towers are an ingenious form of early air conditioning. It uses convection to draw in cold air and breezes from the outside and funnels them into the room below, thus creating a pleasant atmosphere even on very hot days. The rooms are arranged around a central courtyard, usually planted with a tree for extra shade or featuring a fountain. The courtyard would be surrounded by covered walkways and there was often a covered corridor on the first floor as well. The outside walls were thick to keep out the heat and the sand, also so that the house could be extended upwards easily, should the family grow.


Courtyard and Walkways inside a Traditional House

27 December 2004

Solar Power Arrives

Solar power may be used to run a new generation of abras on the creek.

Abras are the small boats that ply across the creek which cuts Dubai in half. They are used by thousands of people every day to get about their business, as they are cheap at 25 fils (2 pence or 3 Eurocent) and easy. There are only two bridges and one road tunnel crossing the creek, these are mainly geared for car traffic and are always complete bottlenecks anyway. Much easier to catch one of these little boats, as long as one is nimble enough to get on one.


Now the government is going to build two more abra stations to add to the four existing ones. At the same time they have contracted an unspecified private firm to look into adding solar power while keeping the traditional look of the boats with their simple seating and fabric-covered shelters. The project is to have a trial run next year sometime.

25 December 2004

Christmas, Visitors and Rain

Naime and Thomas are here from Germany, our very first true tourist trippers, as opposed to the previous visitors who were here on business. And all we can offer them is rain!

After all the boasting of fine blue skies every day and no need for cardigans we find ourselves in a low-pressure system coming from Bahrain which has brought sand storms, low visibility and even rain for three days now. It's not so much cold, although 17ÂșC is freezing in our book nowadays, but miserable like a shivery March in England, grey skies and blustery showers. Very embarrassing. The newspapers are of course full of pictures of rainy streets and advice for safe driving in a sand storm, as the weather is always big news here.

22 December 2004

Back From Egypt - Update

We are back from what could loosely be termed a holiday, if it weren't for the 5am wake up calls and the complete disorganisation of the trip which meant that we only saw half the promised locations. It's nice to be back home where people are nice and life is a bit more predictable.

Egypt is an incredible, infuriating, beautiful, strange, messy country. I am definitely hooked, Stuart less so, but always in small doses. More on this later.


There are a few entries, in date order so as not to confuse later readers, from 12th to 19th December 2004. If you want to know how we fared, read it there.

Oh, and there are some more pictures here

20 December 2004

Seeing the Sights

Our two week sleep-in-the-desert, live-the-archeologist-life trip turned out to bear little resemblance to the original offer.

On the first half of the tour nothing went as planned, we didn't get to camp, we saw few of the promised sights and we had to put up with annoying military convoys. The hard part was trying to work out which bit was lack of organisation on the part of our tour organisers, Ancient World Tours, and how much was just general Egyptian chaos. "Inshallah" is a most used word here, and the most appropriate. There is a mixture of arrogance and deal making (on the part of officials), welcome and total lack of responsibility, combined with inefficiency and a general state of disrepair that borders on dereliction. This makes for an often unpleasant experience, always teetering on uncertainty, often frustrating where it not for the occasional astoundingly wonderful sight.


Abandoned Pillar at the Roman Quarry of Mons Claudianus


Greek Inscription at an Ancient Rest Stop in The Eastern Desert


Statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten at Luxor Museum


Sunset at Nabta Playa, near Sudan


Dawn over the Nile in Cairo


Giza Pyramid Complex

18 December 2004

Roughing it - sort of

I never thought I'd look forward to camping quite so much. But after a week of delays, empty promises and broken plans, we were desperate to get away from civilisation.

It's all relative, of course. We arrived in three Toyota Landcruisers, the basic model, not like the flash monsters populating the freeways of Dubai. But we had a support vehicle carrying tents and mattresses, our drivers doubled up as cooks and had even managed to get supplies of fire wood. So not that basic. We put up our tent next to one of those marching sand dunes, a vast and perfect crescent with a sharp edge over which the sand flows slowly but inexorably at the thinnest whisper of wind. From the top we could see columns of similarly shaped dunes, all lining up in the direction of the prevailing wind, all pointing their crescents into the lee of the breeze, curves like the quarter moon.


A Marching Dune

There were car tracks on the desert floor when we arrived, no doubt from previous travellers. They disappeared into the body of the dune as if swallowed up, as if the drivers and their cars vanished into the twilight world of the sand. Of course what really happened was that the dune moved and the tracks, made a few years ago, have been preserved by lack of weather until the dune moved over them.


Disappearing Car Tracks

The further we drove into the emptiness the more ground down the environment became. It was like looking at the fast-forwarded development of the end of the Earth. This is what land will look like when weather is finished with it. Erosion has done it's damnedest here to reduce mountains, valleys, rocks and any kind of landmark to an even yellowish brown mush of small pebbles and coarse sand. It would be difficult to find a more homogenous, more arid and dead landscape. Sure, there is life here: We have seen tracks of dogs, snakes and mice, also ants and crows appear occasionally together with the ubiquitous flies, but the overall impression is dead emptiness at the end of time, all variety turned into inertia.


17 December 2004

The Nile Valley

After the day-trips to the desert - to view rock art from pre-historic times to Pharaonic, Roman and Greek inscriptions - in our first week's stay in the Eastern Desert (or rather in the dive resorts of the Red Sea) we crossed back to the Nile.

After 5 hours of driving as part of the military convoy from the Red Sea through the Eastern Desert towards Luxor we suddenly arrived in the Nile valley. It really was a shock, coming out of the arid, grey-brown wasteland of the Eastern mountains and, like a line drawn with a ruler, the edge of a field. After that every piece of land was used, either as a field, road, irrigation canal or building plot. No waste. The felaheen, subsistence farmers, work the land in small strips of cabbage, banana, papyrus and tomatoes, gourds, oranges and alfalfa. They keep cows, donkeys, geese and dogs, all straggly looking and filthy.


Farmstead near Luxor

The lush green is incredibly restful after the sharp grit of the desert, bleached ocres and dust. That one river (and it's canals) can nourish all this land which would turn into utter barrenness without water, is incredible. From a viewpoint above the river near Luxor we could see how narrow this strip of arable land rally is in the Nile valley. How does this very peculiar geography influence an inhabitant's thinking and outlook on life? The same way that America's endless spaces have made them believe that resources are equally endless, the way that Britain's island empire has created this particular inward/outward metropolitan culture. what does it mean to live in a country that is basically a big desert (the Sahara sands reach all the way over here) bisected by a river?


Western Desert Dunes

After a night's stay in Luxor we took off again, this time towards the Sudanese border, into the Western Desert, to visit an ancient stone circle. The fertile farmland disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared the day before, cut off by lack of irrigation. The desert doesn't so much encroach on the fertile areas as there is a very clear and sharp edge one side of which is an almost unnaturally bright green, fluorescent in its vitality, and on the other side there is nothing but endless plains of grey gravel bordered by sharp and unforgiving mountains. Donkey carts, mangy dogs, tethered cows and crazily waving children all disappear from the wayside, no more palm trees shading mud brick houses, no more papyrus tied into bunches ready for harvest, no strips of subsistence field in patterns of brown and green.

13 December 2004

Cairo - an Anagram of Chaos?

Dubai's tagline is "Welcome to 21st Century Arabia!", Cairo's could only be "Welcome back to 11th Century Anywhere!"

Cairo is loud and in a general state of disrepair, such that it looks like a recent survivor of natural disaster. Outside our hotel is a busy road populated by banged-up cabs, donkey carts and overcrowded mini buses. Over the roar of cars and the honking of horns we occasionally hear the bleating of goats grazing in the debris-strewn lot next door. A group of abandoned houses, bricks and concrete blocks littering what once were back gardens, it's a mystery why they are uninhabited when the rest of the city is overcrowded with apartment blocks, some of which have hand-constructed hovels attached alongside and on the roof. Some of these huts are literally on the footpath, washing hung out to dry creating a thin protective shield from the outside world.


These living conditions didn't change, but only became more primitive, as we left Cairo. The geography of Egypt is such that there is a very clear line between the fertile areas on either side of the Nile which suddenly give way to the complete barrenness of the Eastern and Western deserts. While Cairo retains many aspects of a rural lifestyle: goat and sheep herds in the road, farming communities butting up to main roads and industrial areas, anywhere else farming is the only occupation for those not working in the tourist industry.


09 December 2004

Film Festival

This week saw the first Dubai Film festival with the theme of "Bridging Cultures. Meeting Minds".
This is a huge event, a first attempt by Dubai to put itself on the international cultural map. Unfortunately there is a lot to learn about pre-publicity. Tickets couldn't be bought or reserved until three days before the first film was shown, and the website  was woefully devoid of actual film listings (prior to the festival). Once the festival started, though, it was a huge success. People had been waiting for such an opportunity to see all the obscure and unusual - i.e. not Hollywood or Bollywood mainstream - movies that never show up in the local cinema chains. The festival had a few spotlights on themes and actors, among them Omar Sharif. It was a stroke of genius that one of the opening movies shown in an open-air amphitheatre in Dubai Media City was 'Lawrence of Arabia'.
The actual showings of most movies were completely sold out within the first days of tickets going on sale. The events were very well organised (although photographers complained they were not given enough access to the gala screening - I guess it's essential to get yet another picture of Orlando, or Sarah Michelle), with masses of volunteers directing the viewers to their seats in one of three cinema venues. I only had the opportunity to cram in 6 movies in the two days before we went to Egypt, but I was impressed with the strangely appropriate space of the Mercato shopping centre, which houses the Century Cinema complex. It's so roomy with lots of coffee shops to sit between movies, space to hang out and recover.

04 December 2004

Before and After

Life is varied here in Dubai, desert boots one minute, tux the next.

On Friday night we went out to the desert camping. The place we stopped at is 60 km from Dubai but only 30k was on the highway and the rest was driving through the sand dunes (which is such fun) using GPS and compass to find the way. It is a place called Fossil Rock where there is a large rock in which you can find marine fossils! As it was our first night in a new tent and sleeping bags we did not sleep well, but sitting out the night before around the camp fire looking at the stars and waking up in the complete silence of the desert made it all worth while. There is a surprising amount of life in the desert and we were visited by gerbils during the night and a couple of inquisitive birds in the morning.

During the journey we passed many camels, which made Fiver very happy as she is always excited to see them.

The picture was taken at 8:30am


In the evening we went to a gala charity dinner as the guests of Olof Stenhammer, founder and chairman of OM, a company Stuart has worked for in the past and who is now a potential supplier of exchange systems to him in Dubai. It was a glittering affair attended by the Queen of Sweden and a Saudi prince who is the 4th richest man in the world. We had to sit though some very boring speeches, but it was fun people watching. Some of the dresses were incredible and we soon realised that we were probably the poorest two people in the room!

This picture was taken at 8:30pm


03 December 2004

God and Mammon

Today's trip took us from spirituality to consumerism, from Jumeirah Mosque to Bob's Antique Museum.

Unlike many places of the Muslim world, where mosques are open to the non-muslim public, there is only one mosque in Dubai which can be visited. The Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding has arranged a tour through the mosque's interior with a question and answer session on the subject of Islam. To our surprise a whole crowd had gathered in front of the mosque at 10 am this morning, rather than the few interested souls we had expected. We took off our shoes and the women donned their head scarves, then we were led into the mosque.

The space is simple and square, with few of the complex symbolic spaces of a church. There is a central carpeted area for prayer, a niche at the front, facing Mecca, for the imam, and a separate ladies' prayer room off to one side. Otherwise notable are some reading areas and the signs that show the next day's prayer times.

A volunteer from the centre explained the significance of the architecture to us and then went on to enlighten us on the basic ideas of the Muslim faith, the five pillars of Islam. We talked about the role of women, cultural differences between different Muslim cultures of the World, and the practicalities of prayer. V. interesting.


Inside Jumeirah Mosque

After a refreshment break we moved on to a haven of commerce by the name of Bob's, or the Antique Museum. Both of these names do no justice to this vast warehouse of tack, souvenirs and just general stuff. First of all it is impossible to find on a first visit, as it's in the back of an industrial estate in deepest Al Quoz, near the cement factory, the last place one would imagine shopping for curios. The entrance is in an alleyway, next to a mini-mosque, down a dusty road. But through it's humble portal one enters a huge space of rows and rows of shelves groaning with Indian, Arab, African items, from sculptures to vases, t-shirts to jewellery, pashminas to clocks, Christmas decorations and lamps and fluffy toys, picture frames, sheesha, wooden boxes, curtains, bellydancing costumes...

We shopped till we dropped.


Bob's Antique Museum