Wednesday, September 14, 2011


The initial prognosis is... as bad as we expected. I wake up to a view of skyscrapers sprouting out of the sand. I am staying at a hotel where the internet has a mood of its own; the staff barely speak English and definitely don't speak Arabic; and a mini-can of coke costs nearly $5. The roads here are crazy and confusing. You need a cab to get to work, get from work, and if you want to try to be environmentally friendly, you need to take a cab to get to the metro and get from the metro. If you want to be really really environmentally friendly and walk, you will make it about five yards before the heat clogs your lungs and drenches your skin. So far, you might say, that's not so bad. So I'll go on.

I work in what is called "Dubai Humanitarian City". Dubai's government came up with this brilliant idea of creating little cities: Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Green City, etc. -- meant to be global hubs for certain industries. The vision for the humanitarian city was actually quite unique. A place where UN agencies and NGOs from around the world could set up offices, warehouses, etc in a location that could conveniently and quickly provide for many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia in the case of an emergency. The UAE gave free office space to these agencies and IRIN set up shop in the early days of the project. Sadly, the execution fell a bit short of the dream, and the whole thing sort of fizzled out, leaving WFP, UNICEF, a few NGOS... and us, in what is essentially an abandoned collection of half-completed buildings in a patch of desert lost in a web of highways. The humanitarian city is, shall we say, lacking in amenities. At noon, when the sandwich stand opens up in the bottom of building 3, people rush to line up, because the shanghai noodles and tuna salad sandwiches are all the food you'll find in the "city" for the rest of the day. Still, not so bad.

Say the sandwich stand runs out of its goodies, or you have a meeting outside of the "city". You must, as previously explained, order a cab. Like the hotel staff, the cabbies mostly don't speak English. That, I can deal with. But they also have no clue where the blessed humanitarian city is. And there is really no way I can explain it. Take Al-Khail road, but when it splits into two, take the business bay exit... but not the business bay extension... the other exit, you know. keep to the right. But not too far right. And then when you pass the bridge - which bridge? - but before you get to the other bridge - ??? - you'll see a little turnoff... well actually at night you won't see it, because it's written on a tiny little sign that you wouldn't find even if you knew it existed. When you find yourself on the wrong side of the highway, do the 10-minute u-turn and try again.

So generally, leaving the office is a two-hour procedure. And of course, if it's 8pm and you're hungry, this is slightly uncomfortable. So when the cab finally finds the last place on earth, you ask him to stop along the way for some food (because the hotel, as previously explained, charges exorbitant prices). Your office is on the side of the highway. Your hotel is on the side of the same highway. The only thing between your office and your hotel is a gas station, where you buy some potato chips - well, "yummy flakes" - and a funny-tasting sandwich, before going back to the hotel to fight the internet connection fight.

And after a day of frustrating taxis and disappointing food, you've spent at least $50. As Karim puts it, in Dubai, you piss money. I thought I'd be the last person to say it, but you need a car. And once you have a car, you need a GPS. The upside, I guess, is that the gas might as well be free.

Enough ranting? Here are the saving graces.

If you can actually get past the Pakistanis calling everyone ma'am, on very rare occasions, you might actually meet a real Emirati - and they are actually very interesting! I really enjoyed Kuwait for the same reason. The Gulf culture is actually quite lovely. It's very important for them that you feel welcome and at home.

The tradition of hospitality often expresses itself in cardamom-infused coffee served in single-sip portions in tiny little cups, while your host stands before you, carafe in hand, refilling your cup until you are fully satisfied. They wear the crispest, whitest robes and when I'm around them, I find myself constantly staring at the fabric, wondering just how they keep it so perfect all day. Apparently they have closets (and stores) full of these identical white robes and rotate through them quite frequently.

I experienced the coffee exercise at the VIP lounge at the Kuwaiti airport. I stopped over in Kuwait on the way to Dubai for a conference on Monday. An Egyptian (half the people in Kuwait are Egyptian, the way half the people in Dubai are Pakistani) met me and my colleagues as soon as we stepped into the airport and whisked us away through some glass doors and into what seemed like another universe. We sat on couches being served tea while someone took our passports, got us visas, and took care of all the arrangements. I didn't speak to a single airport official, before we were again whisked into a private car and driven to the hotel. (This has nothing to do with UN - it was the conference organizers who were over the top. And I should acknowledge the racial profiling that put a bit of a damper on the night. We spent two hours waiting while my American-Somali colleague - could you ask for a better combination? - had his passport sent to national security for extra screening. Thankfully, there was the tea).

Saving grace number two are my cousins Karim and Tamer who live in Sharja (a suburb of Dubai) and Abu Dhabi respectively. Their two-man airport welcome committee saved me from myself. Until I met them, the airport's shiny floors and flashy ads about Dubai Mall (the biggest in the world, apparently) had me lost in thoughts, after my third flight in 30 hours: 'This is my new life: airports, conveyor belts, suitcases, grumpy customs officers, taxis, loneliness.' Karim and Tamer changed that - and the lovely dinner of kebab and tabbouleh Tamer invited us to didn't hurt either!

And the last saving grace: McDonald's ice cream cones cost thirty cents here. Yes, Camille, that's what excites me about Dubai. This is my new life.

*** The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or positions of the United Nations or IRIN ***


Macaca said...

hooo boy

iain.e.marlow said...

You should bike in a wet suit filled with ice!

Pemma said...

Iain let's ask Quirks and Quarks to design one for her! Hope you can find more nutritious food soon - as yummy as those flakes sound.

salooly said...

hebster! glad you didn't take your bike!! looking forward to hearing about your own driving experiences! fill up on McD's ice cream and continue cursing in english :)