Thursday, September 25, 2008

Local Encounter...Part 1

The last two weeks have flown by. This week is fortunately short because its Eid! Yeah! (This means Ramadan finishes and no more fasting and time off). We usually have to wait for the moon to show itself so the Imams can call it - I think we're waiting for the new moon. However, the government announced today that Tuesday is also off - we were expecting only Wed and Thurs. Now, I won't complain about extra days off, but its always nice to know in advance so you can make your travel plans accordingly.

Anyway, last week we had some locals over to our home. This was our first time to do this. I make it sound like a big deal, but considering how infrequently this happens, I think it kind of is. As I mentioned before the locals here account for less than 20% of the population, so if you interact with them, its often only at work, which is really unfortunate. So how did this come about...

Back in the early months of summer this year, a girl who used to work for Sarper invited us over to her father's home one Friday afternoon for dinner. Friday is a big family day for locals - and many people in general, because its the Christian equivalent to Sunday. So religious locals would go to the mosque I assume and then come together to be with family.

We had a lovely time. They were so nice and welcoming - as Arabs are - and it was just a really lovely afternoon. Erin had a great time. Its good he was a small baby - maybe 3-4 months at the time - because he couldn't keep his mouth closed when we were sitting in their majlis -a large sitting room where guests and visitors are received. It was a very large room and very Arabic and colorful in decoration. Of course for a room that large, you need a big chandelier. Erin was in awe of it all as our house is not that colorful and we don't have such a large light hanging from the ceiling. His mouth was open the whole time as he was mesmirized by it!

Everyone in their family came. It was like Thanksgiving, only they do it every Friday. We had a nice visit in the majlis and then it was time for lunch. So, think of Thanksgiving dinner, but maybe 3 times the variety and portions of food. And it was all sooo good. Everyone in the family insisted to hold Erin so we could eat. And they just kept kept feeding us! For sure we enjoyed every bit of it, but it was a lot of food. And just when we thought we were done and then some, we went back to the majlis for dessert...several kinds of dessert. Again delicious. The family wasn't eating near as much as we were because they had us try everything! And you don't want to refuse their hospitality and excellent cuisine, so you eat!

And they were so generous. Of course we took a gift to their home when we visited which is standard custom in a lot of countries. However, they gave us gifts back! We know it is their custom to give gifts, but really I felt almost embarassed because they were really nice gifts. I was totally humbled for lack of a better word.

Discussions were very interesting and we learned a lot about the culture and history of Dubai. As I was still on maternity leave, we were discussing when I would go back to work. All of the women in this family are working, well educated - all doctors. Their father, also a very well educated man, said he understood my personal choice to go back to work, but he asked me a very interesting question....As a society, do I really think its beneficial that the woman works outside the home. I kind of felt the room go quiet at that moment as everyone seemed to be waiting for my pressure!

He gave his wife as an example - she has a wonderful family, is happy, secure. She is not working and has everything that most people who work are striving to achieve one day- comfort and the freedom to enjoy life as she pleases. In his words, she lives like a queen - which is probably true. So considering that, is it really beneficial for her and other women like her to work or will their be a breakdown in society if that becomes the norm. At some level I could agree with him. There are many people who work because we have to - we weren't born into wealth. And in addition to support, it is fulfilling if you do something you enjoy. I know I've read some articles in the past about the demise of society due to more women working outside the home. Is it not true? - I mean if parents in the US are more involved in their kids lives would we have fewer problems with our youth? Maybe? Its all very philosophical.

I am told I have the ability to be very diplomatic when put in certain I imagine I went into that mode in this case. At some level, I do agree with him. However, I felt that maybe his daughters did not exactly agree by their responses. And for them it might mean more to them to work than it does for my American generation, so its something I might be taking for granted. There are no issues about women's freedom here. Local women here are really finding their own way - they are very successful and a great role model for others. There is no doubt that this man is proud of his daughters' accomplishments, but there is the flip side that why must we work so hard if we don't have to...I ask myself this question often!

For example, we have friends who live on an island in the Agean Sea off the coast of Turkey. They have a company that sells promotional products to a certain sector of companies in Turkey. They could easily grow their business and make a lot more. "But why?" they ask. They are happy, have enough to live on and only have to come to Istanbul for work a few times a year. They have set the business up to run itself for the most part and spend the rest of their time making wine and olive oil. Pretty nice, eh? And if I think of what my ideal would be, this wouldn't be too far off. Something where I could work and be professionally fulfilled, but still have time to enjoy what I like to do. While I believe most of us do enjoy life, we are always trying to find more free time...

There is no real easy way to wrap this up. I know that I do like to work and am grateful I do - I like my job, my independence that brings, the mental stimulation and fulfillment that goes along with it. I don't think its any different than the same reasons this man's daughters work.

While I constantly proof read my posts and strive for clarity and good writing, I will leave you with that for now as its getting very late and I need to get some sleep before my morning baby wake up call! I've gotta go to work tomorrow!!!

Hopefully I can get to part 2 of this story before we head out for vacation at the end of the week!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

TV in the UAE

I am sitting at my laptop with the TV on as I write this. We really don’t watch a lot of TV – didn’t have time before and now that we have a baby, we watch even less. I think to cancel my cable because there is nothing on really, and what is exported from the US just doesn’t seem that good to me – and there is a lot of other stuff I would rather do. We seem to get a lot of the latest shows, but I’ve just not gotten into the majority of it. Anything I want to watch I can download, get on the Internet free (Jon Stewart) get on DVD or borrow from someone. And while its good to empty your brain sometimes, its not really the way we want to do it.

One thing I do find interesting is what “we”, meaning the US exports to the rest of the world as entertainment…and we wonder why people think we are nutts? Well, TV doesn’t help a lot…or maybe I’ve just been away that long that I don’t get it. The first thing I saw on TV when we moved into our apartment and connected the cable here was Jerry Springer! Eek. Changed the channel and one or two numbers away was Maurie Povich (sp?) trying to help someone figure out who the father of her child was because it could have been one of three or four guys....quality stuff, eh?

Right now I have the E! channel on – which I don’t know if that stands for Extra, Entertainment or Extraterrestrial? Apparently Denise Richards now has her own “reality” show. Sarper’s question is who is she…I think she was a model, but don’t know if she was in any shows or movies? Not that important, but her show is kind of entertaining because its one big oxymoron. She just went on vacation with some of her girl friends and the paparazzi is chasing her..bummer dude. But quotes like “Gosh, I hope we don’t have to spend our entire vacation with cameras in our faces. That would really suck.” - Hmm…this coming from someone who has a cameraman filming her in the seat next to her?!!! What is wrong with this picture?! Is this network making her look like an idiot on purpose? If so, they have achieved that goal.

There are hundreds of television channels available here – from all over the world. Several Arabic channels, obviously. This is followed by several American channels and some from other countries – the UK, Germany, a French channel in there, etc. The local English channels tend to show only US shows with Arabic subtitles – for example, Grey’s Anatomy, which I really like, but can fortunately download.

Someone once asked me why are there so many shows about hospitals. Is it really that crazy? As the quote goes “life is stranger than fiction” and there is a lot of crazy things that go on in a hospital - both with the patients and the personnel who work there. But when you deal with life and death I think that creates a very unique organizational culture. While it was crazy at times, I really did enjoy working in the hospital environment. Even though I was in administration and not interacting with patients, one thing is for sure; it was never ever dull or ordinary.

Anyway, I digress….The local channels show a lot of US sitcoms and other popular things like CSI, American Idol, Jay Leno, Ellen etc. You can even get the US morning news shows – although they are a day old. Even better, you can subscribe to the Fox News channel here. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who does.

The one good thing we seemed to have exported in the 2-dimensional world is Oprah Winfrey. Women in the Middle East love her. There was even an article in this weekend’s International Herald Tribune writing about her appeal to Saudi women. They watch Oprah on a channel that is broadcast from Dubai. They interviewed some Saudi women who like her and her support for women to empower themselves. She is also admired because she is a self-made woman and worked hard to get where she is. Say what you want about Oprah, but that is pretty darn cool.

About a year ago there was a lot in the US press about 24 and its bias against Arabs. We’ve been following 24 religiously since the first year when they released it in Turkey. The entire city of Istanbul was addicted to this and Sex in the City in those days.

They also show both here and a few years ago we started to catch up on 24 via DVD. Often things are at least a season behind here if not more. We’d share them with all of our friends and they were like crack! I’d give it to a colleague on Thursday (the last day of our work week here) and he’d walk in all red-eyed on Sunday begging me to not share any more seasons if I got them. However, a few days later the monkey was back and they’d always come back asking for the next season. While there might be some Arab groups in the US and perhaps some here that find it negative toward Arabs, I haven’t met any Arabs here that have expressed the same feelings. The Arabs I know are equally as addicted to it as we were! Personally, I don’t feel they necessarily singled out Arabs. For example, there are corrupt politicians with bazaar visions of grandeur. – Imagine that!

I think I will leave you with that for tonight, as I need to go change the channel because the real life story of Britney Spears is now on! - All of 20-something and she already has a life story out there.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nazar Strikes Again

Just another little example of Nazar today....

...Earlier today Sarper was thinking how fortunate he was b/c its been a long time since he was in a car accident. At probably about the same time I was with some coworkers and one of them mentioned my previous car before Erin. A shiny, red Mini Cooper.

Now I'm not really big on cars and material things, but I've always liked the look of the Mini..and since there is no tax on cars here, its affordable. No chance to have a practical "green" car here..they are not in the market yet. Its not "desert package". And back when I was buying it, a friend of mine pointed out that if a hybrid here broke, there would not be anyone to fix it. So, for sure I got over my environmental friendliness during my car purchase.

Anyway, I was telling my colleague that I now drive the family car - a red Volvo SUV - Sarper thought the red would help us not loose our cool factor..Now our cool factor firstly is easily debatable, and secondly if our son was old enough, he'd probably hate it and definitely think we were not cool. I was very skeptical at first, but now that I can find my transportation in the parking lot very easily, I'm okay with it. And as another friend pointed out - we have very wise friends in Dubai - we don't have to look at the outside!

Very tongue in cheek I was telling my friend at work that Sarper now drives the Mini b/c he doesn't have a car right now. He was planning to sell his around the time we needed to give up our fun cars and get a family car, so we decided to keep the Mini since it was newer than our other car and almost paid off.

Well, unfortunately today he had an accident. He underestimated a car wanting to go all the way around a round about and jumped in a little too soon. It could look worse than it is, but we'll see. Mini is even minier now and may be totalled. Fortunately, and what matters is that he fine and nothing happened to him. It was in a residential area, so neither car was going very fast.

The most painful part of the ordeal was that he had to sit in the car forever to wait for the tow truck. His mobile battery went dead so he could not follow up. A good samaritan stopped to ask if he needed help because she had passed him a few hours before and he was still there. She kindly let him use her mobile to call me so I could come get him. I spoke to her again later to get his exact location and I think she could have been Australian or South African - both accents are quite different, but I was in another place and not paying attention. So, fortunately he had his laptop to keep him busy. But, he was sitting in a hot car for 3-4 hours with no a/c fun. Finally we got the tow truck to come - about 1.5 hours after I arrived.

Another example of nazar. I hope we don't have anymore - I'm kind of nazared out for a while!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Nazar Degmesin!

While I'm having a pretty quiet weekend of just getting things done, this is a weekend of wishing good luck and good vibes to all our family and friends and their families in Texas who are facing Ike right now. I'm trying to get what information I can on the news and the internet, but its still dark there and for sure noone has gone out to assess any damage yet because the storm has not blown through. Hopefully that will be uneventful with only minor damage for everyone. "Nazar degmesin", "nazar olmasin", as they would say in Turkish, which means knock on wood, or in certain context, I would say more than just knocking on wood.

While they are pretty relaxed about a lot of things, one thing they take serious is nazar, or the evil eye. Those of you who have been to Turkey know that the blue bead is like a good luck charm and very important. They put it on the outside or entrances of their houses, hang it on the back of their cars or from rearview mirrors, wear them as jewelry (which can be really cool) and even safety pin small ones onto babies clothes - babies wear them for the first several months of their lives on the back of one of their shoulders. I'm not so organized and for sure would forget and throw it in the wash....that is not to overshadow your thought of the safety pin opening and sticking the baby.
Its also not unusual for someone to share good news if they are on the verge of something good. For example if you are going to buy a new house, or get a new job it is better to wait until its happened because the theory is that jealousy or bad vibes might interfere with the deal. Its happened to me once that someone told me they liked my necklace and then within seconds the necklace mysteriously fell off by itself! Was sharing this story of nazar with my boss who has been to Turkey several times and her watch broke after the same person told her she like her watch...hmmm. Buy a nice new shirt, spill something on it, someone will tell you its nazar.
Other cultures are superstitious as well, not just Turkey - we all have them. In my previous job in Dubai a guy I worked very closely with on a daily basis did not tell anyone in the office his wife was pregnant - not even his guy friends. We all got a text message on our mobile phones one Saturday morning announcing the birth! He is from India, and I don't know Indian culture very well so I can't make that generalization. I have heard of many Indians not buying any supplies for a baby until it arrives for superstitious reasons, but to not inform anyone and hide the pregnancy is pretty extreme. My other Indian colleagues were pretty baffled by that one too. I wondered how she managed at work, or if she quit before she started to show and never left her home for 9 months?
Today Nazar came to mind because Ester, our helper, has not been feeling well. Her blood pressure went up today. I publish to the world via this blog yesterday that we have help at home and I am so grateful for it. As a result, she gets sick today. Nazar. Now I'm sure its not my fault she isn't feeling well, but you see how it works. She is much better now, but I've insisted she rest and am going to take her for a check up in the coming days.
We're not such superstitious people, but there have been times when Sarper and I have thought we might be getting a lot of bad vibes. Most recently, we were dealing with some banking things here and nothing was going right with it. We immediately wondered if we shouldn't resort to our nazar boncuk (our little blue beads) to ward off any bad vibes. In retrospect, I think its just the banks here that are incredibly unorganized for certain transactions - everyone had the same kind of nazar. We now know how to work the systemless system.

So, just in case, I'm posting a nazar boncuk - its a photo of the one we have in our hall here - on this post just in case...sometimes things are just too coincidental and better to be safe than sorry!
Nazar Degmesin (that "g" is silent by the way)

Friday, September 12, 2008

I want Ramadan Tents all the time!...and a bit of reflection on the population in Dubai

Really, I do. I forget how nice and relaxed the atmosphere is. We met up with friends at about 9:30 - the tents usually go on until at least 2am. I'm not sure what the night time feeding schedule is for someone fasting..will have to inquire about that. Like a lot of events in Dubai, I didn't see too many locals. I am sure there are tents where more locals go, but when you go out it is often representative of the population. And also at a hotel, there can be a lot of tourists.

Sorry I don't have my old stats on me, but the majority of the population here are Indians and Western expats - the majority of that are British and quite a few Aussies and Kiwis running around. Americans are a bit further down on the list. There are a lot of Indians who have lived here all their lives and others who have moved here to work. There is quite a high number of blue collar workers - largely from India and it is amazing the conditions that they live in and the small income that they earn. There are many people here from the Far East - a large Filipino community here -they tend to work in the service industry - in all the hotels and restaurants along with others from the Far East. There is also a large number of Indians and Filipino women who work as domestic help. Live-in domestic help is the norm here.

Yes, we do have help. We thought it would be a bit strange at first, but we absolutely adore her and she is wonderful with Erin and he loves her. She is a great support for our household. And quite frankly, has a lot of experience with babies and some really great tips. I feel very fortunate that 1-I live in a place where I can afford it and 2-we have found her. She is one thing that I do not take for granted. I often say that I want to get her name tattooed on my arm! If only I could convince her that I really am serious and would love for her to speak Tagalog, or her other dialect to Erin. Perhaps its something that previous employers have frowned upon, but I'm all for it.

I am in awe at these workers and domestic helpers. They all work very hard, make a low wage - probably 500 - 1000 USD per month - maybe more if they are lucky like those in a nice hotel. Their accommodation is payed for. They usually stay in a "dorm" with very small, shared rooms. They all send money back home to support their families. In most cases it is usually to their children. They leave their small children behind - sometimes even when they are still toddlers - with a parent or sibling and send money home so they can send their children to a better school so they can have a better life. It is the biggest sacrifice because many of them are often away from their children for several years. Some employers do not provide return tickets home once a year, so they may not see them frequently. I am in awe at their dedication.

When I hear people complain about the service in many cases I think of their situation. When comparing the service to Turkey where it is usually fast and efficient I note that in Turkey, that person is with their family and likely a professional waiter or barman so there is a certain sense of pride that comes with that. Here, it is a means to an end. And while they are dedicated and do a good job, there may be some days that their heart isn't in it in the same way...not saying I excuse the genuine bad service I had a few weeks ago where it took someone 40 minutes to bring out food that was already prepared from a buffet style restaurant where you go and choose what you want, but I'm much more relaxed about it on many other occasions....Ya, I know what you are asking - we were catching up w/ friends who were away for the summer and you know how time flies when you are chatting w/ good at least the wait for the food was enjoyable.

Back to the Ramadan tents. We had a lovely big tent by the pool of a nearby hotel - I believe it is called the Palace Hotel. It is built in the old Arabic style in the complex where they are building the Burj Dubai - the world's tallest building. (We live right across the street from it). A bit frivolous, but they even put air conditioning units in each tent because the weather is still fairly warm at night. Nothing I haven't endured in Houston. There is food and drink (no alcohol served at Ramadan tents, but fresh juice is nothing to complain about) and its just really nice. So we had nice late dinner. Fortunately we were in the tent so we could not see the big screen at the end of the pool marketing some new property project - very Dubai these days.

The atmosphere is nice, its a great evening with nice Arabic lounge music in the background. You can hang out, catch up with friends and enjoy a great meal of Arabic mezzes and kebabs. I think we need to have these all year 'round. I'm getting hungry now just thinking about it!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In the beginning...

So, what can I tell you. I should have started this a looonnggg time ago because then I could better remember all those crazy culture shock things over the last 10 years and embarrassing life stories to tell you. I still recall a few of them, but have probably suppressed the really good ones!

I write this blog from Dubai, where I have lived with my husband for almost 4 years now. Before moving to the UAE, we were in Istanbul, his home town, for 7.5 exciting years. It was wonderful and is one of the coolest places on the planet. Life was great, but then he got recruited for a job, so we decided to give Dubai a try.

Dubai has been great for us and good to us. Work wise, we are both very happy and enjoy our jobs. Ya, I know some of you are saying that philosophically one should not be defined by work so why do I mention career first? This is why most people are in this city, and this is usually what people that are 30 and 40 something do so it must be mentioned. Its also usually where you experience a lot of a new culture if you move. Furthermore, if you don't have a job or own property here you can't get much more than a tourist visa anyway so its a large part of life for people who live here. We recently had a son who is now 7.5 months old and growing fast - as babies do. Its a very child friendly, safe place, so I look forward to raising him here.

It is currently Ramadan - the Islamic time of fasting from sunrise to sunset. This is when Dubai feels most "Middle Eastern" to me because I feel you have a bit more interaction - the potential for it - with the local culture than usual. (Locals account for less than 20% of the population. And even though there is a large Muslim population here from other countries as well there are so many expats that this place feels more Western to me at most times than I ever expected). And unlike Turkey, virtually all restaurants are closed until iftar time and even if you are not fasting you should not eat or drink in public. It is considered a way of showing respect. I find this very interesting because in Turkey it didn't matter. In Istanbul, life went on as normal and if you were fasting, you were fasting but people ate in public and normal life carried on. Perhaps a reflection of their secular culture. I am told it is the same for other Arabic, non-GCC countries. Also during this time, pretty much everything closes at 3:00pm - everyone leaves their office and heads home - except consultants :) While I do respect the culture, I do miss savoring a cup of tea in the morning while I get into the work day. And, honestly, I occasionally sneak a drink of water or a snack in the car when noone is looking - or when I think noone is looking. In theory you could be fined by the police for this, but I am not sure if its enforced. Perhaps someday I will let you know. - The police are very nice here by the way, but that is topic for another post.

At sunset, fast is broken with a meal called iftar and many hotels and restaurants have them every day for these 4 weeks of reflection. - Since they are usually quite large buffets, they often encourage overeating - as do a lot of restaurants in Dubai on any given day. It is especially a lot of food for those of us who are not fasting. If not a buffet, the portions are American sized and beyond which I must get used to again. But, since I have a son who currently sleeps around sunset I probably will not make it to an iftar this year. Tonight we are going to a Ramadan tent which is quite festive - its where everyone goes after iftar to socialize, hang out and well, eat more and smoke shisha.

Therefore, I leave you for now as I need to go get ready! For those of you curious about culture and dress - What does one wear to a Ramadan tent? We'll I've seen all kinds of things in the past, but I still try to respect the culture as the locals wear local dress and while festive, its not a club or a bar. I'll probably wear jeans (since I've been in suits all week - just in my second week after maternity leave, so do miss being a little more comfortable) and a nice long sleeve blouse or something like that! Its nothing so different than I would wear anywhere else.