a pine tree David Atwood: Pine Tree Productions

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Letters From a Yankee In the Middle East: 2002
(stories from my time in the United Arab Emirates)

          1  Sir Bani Yas
          2  The Corniche
          3  The American Embassy
          4  Five banks and a blood test
          5  Fingerprints
          6  Haircut
          7  Exit  May 9th

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LFYITME #1     Sir Bani Yas     24 Feb. 02

Dear readers,

Safely back from the trip to the island game preserve of Sir Bani Yas with the group from work. I'm really glad I went. I'd have either gone nuts or gone home if I'd stayed here for two days alone. I'll try and tell you about it but I don't think I am good enough writer to really tell the story.

So just a word of reality here: As I write this I've been in this country - the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East - for four days. To take off on an overnight trip to a place I knew nothing about, with people I don't know from Adam, in a country I've been in for two days was just a little scary. But somehow the vibes I was getting was this was OK to do. So I went.

This whole thing was organized by Mo, the IT guy, heavy set, 22 years old, heart of gold, self appointed care giver and tour guide. (he is directly behind me in the picture above) Mo's brother in law is close to someone with a lot of influence on this island. The island of Sir Bani Yas is a 280 square kilometer piece of desert in the Persian Gulf that Abu Dhabi's ruler Sheikh Zayed has designated as a game preserve. And planted as if he expected it to look like a combination of the Caribbean and the African Serengeti plain. Every tree, every blade of grass on this island has been put there and is being irrigated. I was told that 7 millions gallons a day are used to irrigate the plant life on the island. And that is fresh water in a place where there's no natural water source. It's all reclaimed from the sea water. They have brought in animals from other continents: giraffe, zebra, ostrich, peacock, and who knows how many deer-like animals with strange horns that certainly are not indigenous to this part of the world. Access to the island is open to the public for a very limited area. We had access to the whole thing (except the Sheikh's private palace of course).

Mo picked me up at my hotel in his SUV Friday late morning and them drove like a crazy person through Abu Dhabi city to the place were everyone was meeting the bus, basically an air conditioned school bus. All concern about the trip was eclipsed by gratitude that I had survived that car ride. As we hit the road the group's extroverts got a fancy boom box going up front, got the PA microphone away from the driver and was entertaining the bus with loud music with a louder narrative. Kareoke has a lot to learn from this group. It was mostly that for three hours. I sat to the rear with a 3 seat bench to myself, reading Huckleberry Finn and loving the contrast and irony. Towards the end Ihab, a Lebanese guy about 30, must have taken pity so came to sit with me and chat. We talked a little about the show and his experience, then got his reaction to 9/11 as he was in Beirut at the time. They were as scared as we were according to Ihab.

After three hours we pulled up to a parking lot next to a small dock and waited for the boat. The craft that appeared from the breakwater was exactly like the pictures of the traditional dhows I'd seen in the UAE book: the unique shape of the bow, the raised stern, the sloped canopy starting from the stern, working forward. As we all piled onto the boat I realized the joy in boarding a boat in another part of the world; if you decide to climb on board in a place other then the designated place: no one cares. I hopped on over a rail. Both the captain and his one crew were in traditional Arab robes with a checkered headdress wrapped around the head and face. The half hour trip to the island was breezy and cool. As we approached the dock at Sir Bari Yas a lush residence sat back form the dock, one of the Sheikh's palaces. In fact I think we drove through the grounds on out way to our place, this time in a very basic silver school bus-type bus.

Our place turned out to be not quite as nice as what I imagine the Sheikh's occasional place would be. Ours had two rows of cabins, actually house trailers permanently fastened to concrete. Each unit had an entry and a bathroom in the center, then a bedroom on each end, each with a door. Each bedroom had two plywood beds with a thin mattress, one sheet, one thick blanket and a pillow. Plus a small, plywood clothes closet, one chair and an air conditioner in the wall. I was given Ahmad, a researcher on the show, as a roommate as they thought it would be good for his English and my Arabic. (hah) Ihab and Fadi had the room on the other side. In the bathroom was a shower stall, a sink, and a place where the toilet had been removed. I quickly went to another unit and sure enough there was a toilet. So I returned to bargain for a bathroom with toilet. Ihab checked it out, and then another, and pronounced ours as the cleanest so we should keep it. With a closer look it seems someone had sunk a rectangular, porcelain sink with a large drain hole into the floor and called it a toilet. Then I noticed a flush tank above. It was my introduction to what I assume is a Middle Eastern toilet. A "squatter" we'd call it in Maine. A least in Maine there usually was a log to sit on.

Mo told us to relax, Ahmad took off and I tried to take a rest. That lasted until Mo came pounding on the doors for us all to return to the bus to see the animals. Not very far away we came to a heard of mixed animals, I'd guess Thompson's gazelles, elands, possibly Arabian oryx, and I don't know what else. There was no running description from the driver, the signs on the fences were in Arabic, you were on your own. Getting out for a closer look with the group I realized the fences were around the trees not the animals. The animals in this case were free. We toured for about an hour occasionally leaving the bus although it became apparent that the more people that got out of the bus the further away the animals moved thus defeating the purpose.

Dinner turned out to be twice. Mo had brought a dinner for all of us that we had lugged in coolers and cases the whole way; bus, boat, and all. But dinner first was served in an adjacent building that was dinning hall and a kitchen. Humus, flat bread, chicken in some sauce, barbecued quail, soup, water to drink and Kleenex for napkins, served buffet style and eaten at very long tables and plastic chairs. Summer camp. The group quietly declared the dinner disgusting and we headed for the pavilion on the beach and Mo's meal. The pavilion was like a large dance hall, covered with sides open and smooth, concrete floor. Mo had placed self starting charcoal pans on an outdoor grille and we lit them up. After a lot of waiting and no drinking, (we were told there was absolutely no alcohol there and not to bring any and if we did not to let anyone see it both I think through custom of the Sheikh's island and it being the Eid holiday.) the kabobs were ready and we hit the plastic plates and ate: humus, tabouli, Pita (Arabic) bread, and delicious beef, veal, and chicken kabobs. Pepsi to drink, no diet, just Pepsi. Or water: three cases of Masafi, a local brand of spring water which I came to rely on later..

The night was chilly - sweaters. The Arabian sky was totally cloudless. Across the bay a power plant rumbled obviously the power source for the island. I suspect this plant also de-salinated the sea water. Lights of a city twinkled on the horizon. Later I learn this wasn't a city but off shore oil wells as the coastal area we drove has the richest oil fields in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. A boom box provided the entertainment under the pavilion: Arabian music, mixed with some British "garage" and some rap, and an occasional American pop song all with interruptions from the group members grabbing a PA mic hooked up to the boom box and entertaining the group in Arabic. So while they shrieked and laughed, I smiled as if I would understand it someday which I never will. (I'm told Arabic is very difficult to learn..) . After that we moved to the sand to play several games of dodge the soccer ball: you run around in a heard (similar to the wildlife we saw earlier) and a couple guys try to get you out by beaning you with a soccer ball. After that dancing. I was dragged out to join the group dancing to Arabian music but found my hips fused from birth compared to the way the women could move. These amatures had moves I've never seen, even when I directed a belly dance show years ago with belly dancing professionals. The word was the group was going to stay up all night. I lasted a few dances then turned in. Mo tried to get me to stay but I pleaded advanced age and got away with it. After brushing the sand off the sheet, rearranging the blanket, accepting the circumstances, and reading, I fell asleep. When I had my jet lag wake up, I read Huck Finn with a flashlight so as not to disturb Ahmed.

At 8:30am of my fourth day in the Middle East, camp director Mo came down the line of cabins pounding on the doors, windows, and yelling like a fool to get us up for breakfast which turned out to be beans, an angel hair pasta-like substance, hard boiled quail eggs, hard boiled regular eggs, Arabian bread, small cans of processed cheddar cheese, and coffee. No juice in sight. Disgusting but edible. Then onto the bus and off on another tour, this time to the small mountains roughly in the center of the island. On top were clean and stylish lookouts where you could see the whole island. The highest was a square pavilion that we could not have access to as the sheikh's son was about to visit the island and it was being prepared for him. There were a couple of ornate wood and red velvet couches plus two piles large. embroidered, silk covered pillows waiting for someone to arrange them. Seeing trees, shrubs, and grass 360 degrees around, all planted and irrigated, gave us a picture of how massive a planting project this was. Continuing the tour we saw birds, Zebra, llamas. ostrich, giraffe, and more, all imported and maintained for the Sheikh's pleasure as Mo tells us that the regular public never get to see these animals.

After the tour some real beach time. The Arabs in our group plus two families that came with us on the trip (relatives I think of Mo's) to a person took metal, folding chairs from the pavilion and set them up in a line on the beach facing the water. The only two "white" people, a young Norwegian woman and myself, took towels and spread them on the sand Western fashion. The families included one woman in traditional dress who of course didn't remove anything, one woman in western dress but with a shawl/veil who let down the veil. The young kids all dressed and acted like westerners at a beach. The adult men in the families swam but in their clothes. Perhaps one took off his shirt. Our group ranged from conservative bathing suits to swimming fully clothed. The beach was clean and empty other than us. The water was calm, probably 65 or 70, aqua colored and clear. We were in a bay so there were no waves. The day was, ...well, like every other day so far here, hot and sunny.

After the beach we all got cleaned up and went to lunch which was similar to supper the previous night except that after we filled our plates, the cooks came around with freshly caught, grilled, whole, medium sized fish, two to a plate. I passed at first but my colleagues dug straight to the meat with their fingers leaving head, tail and bones. I was urged to join and did, enjoying the fish a lot and wishing I had eaten only the fish and not the other stuff. But I'm plainly not used to having a whole fish on a plate set in front of me and if I were to get used to it in the States, I'd expect it to come decorated with lemons, parsley, and sequins not just lying on a plate.

Then after packing and waiting we were bussed back to the dock. The same dhow pulled in letting off 25-30 people carrying as many platters of food, all prepared and fancy wrapped. I was told that the people were the sheikh's son's servants and the food was for him. On the trip back to the mainland we passed a military craft transporting the son's vehicles to the island. With the drive near the palace, seeing what came off the dhow, and the car ferry I'm beginning to get a picture of what the ruling family's life is like. All of this totally coincidental.

As we rolled our way home back I finally closed my eyes to take a rest. Ten minutes later the driver slowed down, pulled off the road into the sand, got out leaving the engine going, and disappeared into the palm trees. Time for Muslim prayers. We waited, he returned and finished the trip.

I haven't done too well describing how amazing this simple trip was to me as an introduction to the Middle East. In a couple days I learned an incredible, almost overwhelming amount about my colleagues, living over here (remember, the whole group are all from other places not he UAE) the show's preparation so far, nationalities, languages, safety (see note below) , and generally how things work getting along for an expat in the U.A.E. I'll take me weeks to absorb it all.


abu david

Safety: I asked several about safety here and was emphatically told that the U.A.E. is one of the safest countries in the Middle East. Women told me they go where they want, when they want in Abu Dhabi, and are never afraid, no exceptions. I think I was told there is no crime, it isn't tolerated in this country. If you break the law the least that will happen will be that you will be deported immediately and your cash flow joy ride will be over.

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LFYIME #2     The Corniche     1 March 02

Several times since I've been here I've thought of my trip to Cuba in 1960. Of course at the time I didn't remember how important that trip would be in my life. Somehow my mother came up with the dough for the flight, somehow I got out without my father preventing it, going with my high school roommate Scot Perkins to visit another roommate, Jorge Diaz Silvera, in and around Havana. Castro had just taken over the country the year before, there were almost no Americans in Cuba, but flights were still going there. All I needed was permission from a parent to fly on the airline. It was a wonderful couple of weeks.

Forty two years later, being in a strange country, I now realize how well that little trip prepared me for travel. Just to know that so much will be different, that time, currency, language, customs, dress and especially the view of the States will all be very different. And of course so it is here. One of the most amazing parts of being here is the different view I get of the world. Just like Cuba, to understand that our view, the US view of the world, is simply ours, not necessarily right or wrong but the world seen from that place. Here, news topics, conversations with colleagues, daily newspapers, are not just about local issues but very much international issues. There's always news about the Arab Israeli conflict and as you would expect it's a very pro-Arab view. (Interestingly there's almost universal approval of the recent Saudi proposal to recognize Israel in return for the occupied lands). And as you would expect there's a lot of articles about oil and oil supply, and oil prices. But it's really more than that. There's just a lot more about things happening in other parts of the world so in a way I feel like I can see the world clearer from here than from Acton. Strange.

This morning, just like every morning, I woke up, took my "rest", went down to the restaurant with the "Gulf News" paper and had breakfast. Then took what is becoming a daily habit, my walk along the Corniche. The Corniche is a park between the front of the city and the bay. It has a wide, brick paved walkway next to the water with large fountains at the ends of the main streets. Quite lovely. The weather now is ideal, 70s, 80s, sunny ever day (it rains only 4-5 times a year here they tell me) occasionally there's some light clouds. This morning there was a nice breeze coming of the water. Across the bay there's a barrier island between the bay and the Persian Gulf.

The park is nicely gardened, pansies on the borders of the grass, hollyhocks, marigolds too. Lots of shade trees. (remember, everything here has been planted). It's all grassed, very green and neatly cut. This morning I passed a woman doing Tai Chi on the grass. Couples sit on octagonal benches, men sit on the grass in groups and talk, .people of all types and nationalities stroll, walk, amble and jog along the walkway. The range of dress goes from locals in traditional dress; men in white robes with head coverings (and today one man in sneakers) to Pakistani and Indians in their traditional robes, pants and head covering, to lots of other nationals in open sport shirts and pants, others in jogging outfits, and occasionally "westerners" British, Americans, western Europeans in shorts and sneakers. It is amazing. It feels like half the world is here although you don't see Africans almost at all, certainly not in traditional dress. There are a couple blacks at work; one and executive and one a consultant who are black but they are the only two I can think of. When I get a digital camera I'll take pics and post them on a web site for you all.

Today I headed out with Mo, a guy from work, to look at potential places to live. The ranged from a 3-4 bedroom apartment in a high rise on the waterfront, brand new. Incredible views, too pricey to a flat in the city, nice, nothing special, to a furnished place that was awful, then tonight a saw a villa. For lunch we went to the Havana club next to the new, Marina Mall, all brand new, sitting on a stretch of land near the ocean. There we found three others from work and settled in for an hour of work conversation with a light lunch of delicious Lebanese food.

Tonight I was invited to dinner with an American couple, A colleague of mine at Lotus was telling his brother about me and the brother has a close friend here. Contact was made by email yesterday, I called the guy and he invited me over. It turns out they are lovely people, originally in the Peace Corps now living abroad, making money and raising their son He's a technical writer, she's and English teacher. Dinner was vegetarian lasagna, salad, bread and wine. It was delicious. As you would expect they were a fountain of knowledge on what to do, where to go, how to act etc in the Emirates.

So it's ok for now. I have concerns, I don't know if it will work out, but I'm healthy (more so than living at home as I'm eating well and exercising daily) and although lonely I'm not desperately lonely. The work is challenging, and although it's boring to be confined to a hotel room, I can last for now. I've got tons of paperwork to still be completed. I did sign a couple employment papers that were in Arabic with a co-worker (from Iraq) who was very, very, careful to assure me he was translating accurately but the couple I visited tonight said never to do that again. Always make sure what you sign is in English. So that's the first mistake. I won't do it again even though Waleed, the Iraqi was very genuine in his help. (He invited me to Baghdad --- after Sadam) I have to get my work permit before I can get a place to live. I have to get a place to live before I can get a cell phone. I have to have a residence and a letter from work before I can get a bank account. I have to go to the police, turn in pictures and be finger printed before I can get a card saying I can buy liquor. Then I can purchase only an amount relative to my income.

Bottom line? So far, I'm glad I did it.

Cheers all,

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LFYIME #3     The American Embassy     3 March 02

I went today to "register" with the American Embassy, something their web site says you should do if you plan to be in the UAE for a while.

The embassy is a little outside the downtown area, in a semi residential section of two story villas, a nice looking hospital and some unexplained serious walls. For the embassy, I was expecting a nice looking building, well designed and constructed with possibly a high wall, archway entrance, with neatly dressed US Marines out front, the Stars and Stripes flying.

I got the Stars and Stripes.

The flag pole sticks up from a parking lot. The cab dropped me off on a curb at what used to be a small, residential intersection. Now the street is filled with a guard house, fences and concrete highway barriers. The guards wore the same uniform as the guards at the entrance at EMI; purple and gray ( I think) camouflage pants and shirts with belts, boots and here, serious guns carried openly. The guards were Arab, not American. They checked me out and pointed me to a walkway that seemed to lead to a white, singly story, ill defined building and another guard. I hoped this one would be American as he had on a different uniform but he was Asian in a uniform of white shirt, dark pants, some kind of badge on the shirt and emblem on the arm I didn't recognize. I told him I was there to register, he checked his watch and reminded my that they were not open until 1:00pm. I checked my watch. It was 12:56pm. Wouldn't want the Embassy to open too early, might strain the national budget. (Citizen services is only open from 1-3, five days a week...)

I was pointed to a series of white, wooden benches facing the parking lot under a canopy. Next to me were two Emirati in traditional dress. I took out my novel and read for a time. Then there seemed to be a stirring at the door beyond so I started to the door. To my left was a guy behind a guard window, so I veered to that. From under the thick glass the man (not American) offered me a blank registration sheet and pointed me to the door. I had the feeling that I was entering a reinforced, series of construction trailers, not the Embassy of the United States. Inside, another guard, a bag scanner, a person scanner. He checked my plastic shopping bag obviously relieved that it contained only a package of new socks, a small unopened package of QTips and my paperback. He flipped through the paperback just in case then sent the bag through it's scanner and me through mine. Beyond that another guard had me stand legs apart, arms out and scanned me front and back with a body scanner. The passport in my front right pants pocket set it off something awful so he asked to see that.

Scanned and passed I was pointed to a heavy, gun metal door that must have weighed three tons but opened smoothly into a waiting room. Had I not known I was in the embassy I'd have sworn I was in the waiting room of the unemployment office, The seating area was furnished in 70's airport lounge style. There was a TV tuned to CNN up on the wall. Along another wall was a series of wooden doors, numbered and named. Beyond the glass in each door was a small empty room with a glass window on the far wall. The one furthest to the right labeled "citizen services" was occupied. A couple of people were ahead of me so I took a seat and watched CNN. When my turn came, I went in to face a woman behind another very thick piece of glass, small speakers on the counter on my side. She could have been American, I couldn't really tell as her accent was masked by the thickness of the glass and the sound system. I showed her the form and asked for a pen as there wasn't any place in the waiting room for filling out forms. She looked surprised, found one and using the metal tray under the glass partition, slipped it to me.

Returning to the same booth after filling out the short form checking the box on the back to share this information with "friends" only , she took the form and my passport, made a copy of the passport and told me I forgot to put my email address on the registration form. I gave it to her asking why they wanted it and learned that is how I would hear from them. I asked how I could tell them my permanent residence and was told to fax it in. Or email.

I returned to the waiting room and started towards the entrance door but was quickly redirected to another door, poorly marked, to exit. This door, same heavy metal type, dumped me outside the building in a closed alley with no clear exit. But to my left was a soldier-like guard and a revolving, tube-metal turn style, similar to the old Boston subway system, and that dumped me outside further down the parking lot. I turned around to see if I could see an embassy but there was none. There was some kind of small, two to three story tower rising from the complex but I couldn't tell it's purpose.

I guess you don't need to be an architect to figure out that whatever building there was is now surrounded by reinforced one story buildings and that is protected by a series of reclaimed streets and parking lots filled with extremely sturdy flower planters ringed with painted concrete highway barriers plus some steel barriers that used to rise from the roadway close to the embassy but now remains in the up position lost in the crowd. The parking lot was mostly full.

It wasn't a very pleasant experience. I won't go back unless I have to. Clearly they don't want you to go there. Too dangerous. I realize the United States is a target for terrorists and that we have declared a war on terrorism. I support that totally. But as to the Embassy vs.the rest of Abu Dhabi, I feel a lot safer walking around the city at night. Perhaps that is the state of the world for Americans at this time in history

Never did see a Marine.

Abu David

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LFYIME #4:    Five banks and a blood test     13 March 02

The neglected topic for me is housing. And before I can get housing I have to get my work or residence visa. Before that a bunch of stuff. Did I mention that the first step in getting settled was to have a passport photo taken? And to have 30 copies made with the expectation that you would have to go back and have more printed? I've used at least half of my envelope of 30 pictures. Never without them.

So next in the series of getting things done was to have my blood test (mandatory AIDS test) and get fingerprinted at the police station. Monday the admin person at work gave me two letters (each with a picture stapled onto it) and created a plan to rush me though these steps in the process. Yesterday an EMI driver picked me up as usual but this time with instructions to take me to the clinic, then to the police station. At the clinic I went in alone confident I had the right papers. But the guy behind the bank teller-like window wanted something else beside the official letter and there were other nationals quite rudely crowding in around me. I couldn't understand at all what was needed although I could see that all the others had what appeared to be a special charge card. My driver didn't speak enough English so I gave up, returned to the office, and politely requested that in the future someone be with me. So Ghida our operations person, said she would take me the next morning which was today.

But it wasn't Ghida who showed up, rather her husband Nizar, a Dunia segment producer. Nizar arrived in their SUV handsomely dressed and grinning as always . (Nizar has a plan to take us big game hunting in East Africa) Although he claims not owning much English, Nizar explained that after thinking about it, having Ghida accompany me wouldn't work. Here in Abu Dhabi where she is a woman and we are not related it wouldn't be a good thing so he had been pressed into service as driver/interpreter. This proved to be a very good thing.

But I was still confused so Nizar grabbed his hitech mobile, got Ghida on the line who explained that the clinic I needed an Dh300 e-dirham card, i.e. a smart card worth Dh300 ($81.60) as they cannot accept cash for the tests. Right.

So we went way up into the city, to a bank for the required card.

The National Bank of Abu Dhabi explained the card could only be purchased at the Commercial Bank of Abu Dhabi.

Returning to the Corniche, and The Commercial Bank of Abu Dhabi a teller explained the card could only be purchased at four branches of Commercial Bank of Abu Dhabi, not that branch.

Returning back across the city to the Airport Road branch of Commercial Bank of Abu Dhabi we were sent up a circular stairway, asked at a desk, were sent down a corridor, asked at a desk, were sent to a window to learn that they were out of Dh300 cards and they would not have any until Sunday (Closed Thursday and Friday, and that window was not open Saturday).

Amused, frustrated, and starting to give up as we had a 11am meeting at work we stopped nearby on speculation at the Middle East Bank. They of course couldn't issue the card but sent us back down the road to the Al Mashreq Bank.

At the counter of the Al Mashreq Bank we learned in seconds they had the card. I asked if I could pay with a credit card. No, cash only. Fortunately I had Dh300 and got the card. On the way out Nizar allowed how Ghida told him to go to the Al Mashreq Bank before he left home this morning.

Two days, one hour and five banks later I had the right card but not the medical test or the fingerprinting We came to work for the meeting which lasted maybe 7 minutes.

Sensibly as the meeting concluded, Nizar suggested we go to the Clinic to get that done so we headed out back through EMI security to the SUV.

At the Clinic the Dh300 card was accepted immediately with my letter. The paperwork was repeatedly stamped then issued and I started through the process: Room 4 for blood pressure - keep a copy and a picture, Room 2 for medical interview - keep a copy and a picture, Room 1 for a chest Xray taken with an Xray machine obtained from MGH, Boston in the 50s, Room 3 for eye test, weight and height, then a room down the corridor at the back of the building to take blood. Nizar stood in the doorway and charmed the nurse who was swift and painless with the needle. (Disposable, thank you) Then I was sent with a plastic specimen container past all the rooms to the bathroom at the front of the building for a urine sample, returning with the sample through the lobby, past the exam rooms to the same room as the blood test.

Standing awkwardly at the door of the blood test room, holding the specimen, facing the nurse with two other people, one of which was a woman in the traditional Arabic dress, Nizar explained to me that I needed to unscrew the top. I did, the nurse dipped a stick in, it didn't turn any color, I was instructed to cover the sample and throw it in the waste basket at my feet which of course was filled more than half way up with other such samples. And we were done.

On the way out Nizar explained they will have the results of the AIDS test in a week. I suggested we do the police. He said it was too late. They would be closing. It was about 12:15.

Glad that is over. Tomorrow morning I'll go and do the fingerprints with an EMI driver. Hope I don't need a money card or a translator.

abu david

Nota Bene: As I changed rooms 1 though 5 Nizar gets my eternal gratitude for staying just close enough to the always open door so that if there was a question he would be in the doorway in a flash, moving the process along in Arabic, (He speaks Arabic, Italian, French, English and pure charm with the savvy of a veteran TV Producer) gesturing, and generally overcoming slowdowns and obstacles in seconds.

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LFYIME #5     Fingerprints     18 March 02

Part of getting my work visa is a visit to a police station to be fingerprinted. Like everything in the process of getting adjusted and settled here, finding out what is needed and how to get it done isn't exactly easy. Your employer provides little information. You get most of it from your colleagues in the office who nod understandingly and instantly offer advice. But since they go through the same thing only once, their memory fades plus the process has a way of changing so what you hear about what you need to do isn't really consistent at all.

What I did understand was that the police station deal was a critical part of getting the work visa. And like everything, it starts with a letter from my employer telling the police something unknown to me as my Arabic is still terrible and probably will remain that way. Finally I was given the letter I needed. I was told to have an EMI driver take me to the police. But they wouldn't, I needed someone with me who spoke English they said (and they don't speak it well enough...remember they are probably Indian or Pakistani and are here just like me) After several days trying to get a driver or someone to take me, plus getting several versions of whether I could I do it alone or need a translator, a man, with me, I complained to Rasha, who sits near me. She had been following the saga and she said she would take me. We discussed the issue of having woman accompanying a man who is not related so she said she would take me there and drop me off. (Again, where my colleagues come from, having a woman accompany a man is not a problem.)

But when we met the next morning in the parking lot of TV there was a man in the back seat of her black, VW beetle. She introduced him I think as her brother in law and said he would go with me and he knew this procedure well. She drove us to the police station which is not a building but a walled complex. We went to the main gate but there they sent us a couple blocks to another gate. At the window my guide cut through the swarm of Emiratis, Pakistanis, and Indians with my papers and had them back in seconds. He then made directly across the parking lot for the other side of the street explaining my application needed to be typed. On the curb in front of the shops were guys looking at us, yelling, and calling to him like crazy. I thought he would stay away from those nutsos, instead he went right up to one and together they headed into a storefront with me trailing. Inside three women, all in veils, and a man were all typing forms. My guide negotiated in Arabic as I stood by dumbly. When requested, I dished out more passport size pictures, had to sign something, requested a Xerox and we headed back to the Police gate.

The fingerprint line was against the wall next to the gate house and about 20 people long. He put me in the line and we waited, chatting, as he looked for an opening. After a long while someone called for more of us to enter a door at the end of the wall. So my guide propelled me past the others to join a crowd jammed into a small waiting room. The room had bare, white walls with chairs lining every inch of wall space. It was so full I was half stuck standing in the door way. A policeman sat at a plain metal desk, with only a phone on top with which he occasionally made loud calls seemingly not affecting the fingerprinting business. As groups of names were called, people shoved into the door to my left then emerged one by one staring at their hands covered with black ink. I had been assured the fingerprinting was totally electronic.

Finally my group was called. The next room was actually the guard house we had first approached so through the window I could see my guide outside, pleased that I was finally at that stage and smiling at me as he had been waiting at least 45 minutes of his work day. On one wall there was an electronic machine about the size of a large fridge with a hand size slot but it wasn't being used. Instead I was directed to a table, my fingers inked up and fingerprinted, all ten digits, at first one at a time Then I was re-inked four fingers at a time and re printed along with the thumb. When done, the inker person handed me my white EMI (work) folder which immediately got black, smudgy prints on it and I left the room without the suggestion of a towel or a tissue. I'd noticed there was a rest room so I went into it to find a cold water sink and no paper towels. Outside my guide motioned me to a sink near the wall but that had more cold water and no towels. I had to give my folder to my guide, have him open the door of Rasha's car so I wouldn't smudge it up, then get myself in.

Back at the EMI reception area and security scan, with my mobile in one pocket and sunglasses in the other, I smiled and held up both hands, palms towards the guards (who know me by now) as to reach for anything would have badly smudged my dress chinos. He smiled and let me around the scanner. Rasha did all the door opening 'til we got to the third floor and I to the men's room which had soap and paper towels.

Despite the trouble I think it best to laugh and flow with it. To begin to get irritated at the process is to make it more difficult. Plus it isn't going to change. Tomorrow I go for the results and perhaps, I'm closer to the work visa.

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LFYIME #6     Haircut     30 March 02

Behind my hotel, which faces the Persian Gulf, is the city of Abu Dhabi. It's a small, clean, modern, safe city, an "American city in the desert" it was described to me. In minutes I can walk into the local neighborhood for clothes, money from the bank, groceries and the like and do so at least once a week. The buildings are apartments, some quite tall new and beautifully done in marble, polished stone and chrome, some older, four or five story, all with small shops on the street level. Among the shops are "salons" i.e. barbershops. I walk by at least three, maybe four on the way to the bank. They are small, each with a couple seats, all staffed by Indians or Pakistanis. (I can't tell the difference, there are thousands of them here earning a living to support their families back home) I checked with my colleagues about these salons to see if they were safe and was told of course, no problem, pick one. They told me to be ready for thread cutting, some technique where they take threads and weave them through hairs then yank the hairs out. Ummm...sure...ok...whatever.

So I headed out the other day in search of my first haircut in the Middle East. The nearest salon looked too busy with it's lone customer. I crossed the parking lot to another that beckoned with a large "Gents Haircuts" sign over the door. One young guy was bringing in a sandwich to the barber, also young, just as I arrived. I was waved to a waiting seat while he sat two seats away, ate his sandwich and chatted with his friend. Not knowing what to do I asked how much and was told "25" which is 25 dirhams, about $7. I sat for a minute, decided I didn't like either the waiting or the price as I had been told 10, and left saying I had some shopping and I'd return.

After shopping I started back on the other side of the street and found a salon that was cleaner, empty, waiting for a customer. It looked better, there were two guys, one guy in Indian dress the other was older in western dress. I made a motion pointing to my hair, he waved me in with a smile. The barber's chairs are the old fashioned, heavy, chrome and red leather type with the big handle on the side that pumps you to the right height. The same kind I sat in for my first haircuts in Maine quite a few years ago. The salon was very plain: beige/yellow painted counters and cabinets, very little on the counter. The wall in front of the chairs was fully mirrored. A bathroom-type sink in front of each chair, no sprays or nozzles. I asked him if he spoke English, he grinned and said "a little" I asked him for the cost and he said "ten", and I knew the others had tried to fleece me big time.

He started by tucking down my shirt collar then took a white, paper collar and fastened it around my neck, then put a white linen sheet over me. I got a small head massage followed by spritzing my hair with water from a small, green plastic plant sprayer. There was some discussion about length, none about style, he picked up scissors, comb and started snipping. This snipping was to me the old fashioned snipping, comb and scissors working around the head. I began to relax.

When he finished the snipping I was very relaxed as the amount of snip felt right. (always without my glasses I've learned to feel the cut) At one point his helper came in, came very close to me with a plastic pitcher and knife with an orange handle and filled the pitcher at my sink. I couldn't imagine what that was for and didn't want the know as his knife was suspended just over my right leg. I hoped it would not be part of my haircut. Thankfully the helper disappeared into a closet in the wall and I relaxed again. My barber put down the comb and took up, what looked like through my fuzzy, near sighted, no-glasses vision, an old fashioned strap razor. As he was fixing a new blade into the handle my relaxation turned to fear. I have not had that kind of a razor used on me for at least 35 years so the thought of a large, sharp, open razor blade that close to my face, in a foreign country, with a guy I didn't know worried me more than just a little. I longed to be back in Sudbury, MA with Tracy my wonderful barberess for the last 8-9 years.

Starting with the right sideburn, using a little water as a lubricant (remind me to tell him about shaving creme) he easily trimmed around the ears, the back of the neck, and the other side. I was thinking of making him a present of my Wahl electric for the next time. Evidently none of the scrapings produced bleeding. After the razor he found the electric tools; first clippers for the two hairs the razor missed, then a hair dryer. I was done.

As he moved my glasses towards my face, I reached for them but he wouldn't allow me to put them on; that was his job. The guy facing me in the mirror was not me. This guy's hair was wet, all combed straight back.. I grabbed a brush off the counter am re-made the part in my hair. I started to look normal. My barber took a large mirror off the wall behind him them held it at dramatic angles behind my head. I nodded and murmured OK deciding that to try and ask for anything more was too risky, paid him 10 with a 5 tip and left. Total cost was about 4 bucks.

Back at the hotel I could see that the hair cut wasn't too bad. I now think my Abu Chums made up that thing about thread cutting just to worry me a bit. Harmless fun with the Clueless American.

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LFYIME #7     Exit     9 May 02

Sitting in the Ghasel Lounge, First Class lounge at Abu Dhabi International Airport, it's hard to believe the routine of the past 10 weeks in the UAE is over. Having made the decision to resign from the "Dunia" project last night after an unpleasant encounter with the other executive producer, slept on it and woken up with it firmly in place, all there was to do was find a flight, do some banking, make a call or two, and leave. Or so I thought. I supposed I could just quietly slip back to my home in America . I was wrong.

The outpouring of calls, visits, messages from my colleagues, the troops, the front lines of the project has left me slightly stunned, definitely saddened. I was at the mall thinking about last minute gifts. Lubna called wanting to know where a tape was. She didn't know I had resigned. I had to tell her. Others started calling. Back at the hotel, deeply buried in packing up my lousy, lonely hotel life, more calls started. Then a knock on the door and I was faced with Ihab and Mo. Mo had brought my Guggenheim/Nam June Paik color bars mouse pad which I forgot in my anger. Clearing off couches covered with packing piles, we talked. They wanted to know what happened. I could easily tell everything. Finally my need to pack and their need to smoke drove them out not without some emotion. I'm finding myself hugging these guys and meaning it. I realized what I had been denying, I care a lot for these people. Mo for his huge heart, unbounded enthusiasm, and keen IT smarts, Ihab for his wonderful humor, sharp wit, producer skills. Both for their friendship. The rest for their friendship. They needn't have given anything to the aging American.

Many more calls came in on my mobile. Expressions of astonishment, frustration anger. Maybe I had made a difference? Ghida called to ask if I had time for dinner with her and Nizar before my flight and I agreed. The afternoon that I wanted to pass very quickly, passed too much too quickly. I called Producer Hussam Ali to say goodbye. He said he was coming to the hotel. I rushed out to exchange Dhirhams for Dollars. Abdel Kadar called to say he was coming to the hotel. I started to call my mother and saw Mohamed Hamed's name in the M list. I had to call him. As the head of Décor (scenics) he had patiently and pleasantly put up with my list of changes to the complicated set, the studio, the hallway, the control room. He said he was coming by. I called mother. Ghassan, Nadine and Manel called. Graham called. Mohamed showed up as I was talking with Abdel Kadar outside the hotel. At the same time Ghida, Nizar, and Hussam pulled up grinning. I was happy and sad all at once. Dinner at the Italian restaurant at the Sheraton sped by. My car was at 11:30. At 11:20 we were still waiting for desert and coffee. I pleaded we had to leave. Ghida kept delaying. Finally I insisted and we left to find Lubna and Waleed coming at us from the parking lot. They had just finished show #5. More good-byes. Damn, it was getting painful. They had both been wonderful to me. Waleed especially when early on he appointed himself my trusted translator for the 15 or 20 documents in Arabic I was required to sign (having been told to sign only documents in English).

Finally at the hotel, I sat on and locked my second suitcase, rushed to the lobby, waited for 15 pages to print out on the dot matrix printer as I was required to sign it. Rushed to the airport, through security and into the lounge. It was high speed rewind of 10 weeks before.

Flying home I have no regrets. I worked hard, earned every Dhirham twice over but ultimately it wasn't right. The project was horribly unorganized, no one could even begin to keep to a schedule, the working environment was unbearable, no space, no privacy, no systems, no structure, just 40 or so people desperately trying to do a "live" show, believing that somehow it would all come together at the last minute, then frustrated, perplexed, angry and a few looking to blame when it did not. When I left the two hour "live" show was still taking 4 1/2 hours to record with little sign that would improve in the near future. There are no hard feelings. I wish them the best.

Ultimately my decision, while triggered by an incident, had been coming for weeks. I was told the office and the control room did business in English. That was not true and I was usually in the dark. (Although important meetings were mostly in English). I was told I would live better than in the US. My housing was neglected. I didn't have a life in the hotel so I did not live better. I was told I would have complete, excellent medical coverage. My colleagues told me to expect what I saw at the clinic when I got my blood test. That didn't look like modern medicine to me. I never received a health card and was worried about unexpected illness. I was told there would be an interpreter at my side always. I did need an interpreter to take me through the very lengthy, confusing and complex administrative procedures. My colleagues willingly interpreted but to take them from their work for two or three hours was a problem. So the degree of difficulty for me to get anything done was many times greater than for the rest of the Arabic speaking office.

In the end I got to experience a little bit of the Middle East and it's culture at what might prove to be a critical time in history. I came to admire, respect, and often greatly enjoy most of my colleagues on the team and at Emirates Media. I learned that there is a very civilized world outside of the "West". My eyes got opened.

Anyone want a Nokia 6310 GSM phone with WAP, GPRS and Bluetooth?

End of LFYIME.

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© David Atwood, Pine Tree Productions, 2002

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