Tag Archives: UAE

Romancing the T.G.I. Fridays?

Is this Vegas?

One of the wonderful things about traveling the world, let alone the Middle East, was the chance to score a romantic dinner or two.

My wife and I splurged on a rooftop evening at a five-star place overlooking the lit vale of the Petra ruins in Jordan.  We enjoyed several fabulous traditional Moroccan meals at riads in Fes, Rabat, Marrakech and Cascades d’Ouzoud.  We dined on the waterfront in Ulu Deniz, Turkey, and in and around the Golden Horn in Istanbul.  We ate well in Oman too, with the highlight a traditional shuwwa barbeque served to us in the majlis hall of a friend’s family in Sur.

But, sad to say, every now and again eating good greasy American comfort food held a tremendous ‘traditional’ appeal for us.  We frequented a couple of good Mexican restaraunts in Muscat, along with a burger joint called the Roadside Diner which combined uncomfortably frigid air-conditioning with a new-fangled notion of 50’s decor and techno-thumping music.  The scarcity of good burgers made the Roadside’s other oddities tolerable.

But, of all these places, only one managed to combine a small amount of romance with American, ummm, cuisine.  So, here’s to the winner of my Not Quite Right award for favorite restaraunt in the Middle East:  T.G.I. Fridays in Dubai.

The secret, for this restaraunt, was its truly wonderful balcony seating . . .

My son, enthralled by the view.

. . . combined with the ‘larger-than-Las Vegas’ light, water and music show . . .

Syncronized fountains squirt water almost to the height of TGI Fridays' third storey balcony.

. . . and the phenomenal view of the Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest building) right above the balcony.  The lights on the Burj Khalifa were even timed so that they participated in and enhanced the riffing cascades of the fountain!

The tallest building in the world, as seen while waiting for my Loaded Potato Skins. The blurry snowflake-ish things are reflections from sand and grit in the air. Blech!

And, let us not forget, good soda, fries, non-alcoholic cocktails, and any of TGI Fridays’ many other schmutzy treats!

To get there, go to the Burj Khalifa Mall, near the indoor ice-skating rink.  Water/light shows begin every 20 minutes or so, insha’allah.

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More Odd Business Names

To continue the theme, begun before Thanksgiving, of oddly named business establishments in the Middle East . . . here are three (somewhat scatalogical) additions.  The funniness, the quirkiness here, the NQR, must be mostly attributed to our Western perspective in reading and understanding.  Certainly these names haven’t been invented just to be funny.  They pass, unnoticed, through the daily lives of many thousands of people.  So we must conclude that it is us, not them, with a skewed perspective.

Eye-catching Acronym

The first, Mohammad Ibrahim Law Firm, bills itself (on its website) as a ‘highly adequate service.’  As if this weren’t oxymoronic enough, it also announces its presence to greater Muscat, Oman, via a largish billboard overlooking the main Ministry District overchange.  This billboard attracts a fair amount of attention, at least from Westerners, because it uses the firm’s initials as a handy moniker:  M.I.L.F.

Just in case you're wondering, 'Coq' means 'chicken' in French.

The second, on a street corner in Rabat, Morocco, is part of a successful chain, like KFC for Francophiles.  Our hosts in Rabat assured us that the chicken is very good.  The billboard certainly doesn’t appear to be ashamed of itself.  We never ate at any of these locations, unable to overcome our own, more Anglicized, interpretation of the name.

Candy, anyone?

And, finally, what must certainly be the most bizarre and unattractive of all the odd names we encountered throughout our travels . . . this sweet shop in Abu Dhabi.  We snapped the photo while driving along the street, having seen the sign, then grabbing frantically for the camera, before (just barely) managing to get the photo as traffic whisked us away.  What, on earth, were these folks thinking, the owners (or their English translators/consultants) when they put together their brand and their billboard?


A Building for Posterity

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the man who founded and largely molded the United Arb Emirates, built what must be one of the most beautiful and vainglorious buildings of modern times.  No, this isn’t the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  It’s the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which sticks out against the modern cityscape like a scimitar of light, like a reborn Taj Mahal.

View from inside the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (gold-tipped minaret gratis)

Technically this building is a mosque, although it is open to tours and serves (in my opinion) more as a vast decoration to the adjacent tomb of the Sheikh himself.  Loaded with the best of old and new worlds — including escalators to bring worshippers and visitors up from the underground parking lots as well as inlays of precious and semi-precious stones on all of its forest of marble columns — the mosque is truly a ‘must see’ for a tourist but also an awe inspiring reminder to Emiratis and other Arabs of the incredible wealth of this oil principality.

The contrast, and perhaps stretching it a bit the NQR moment, comes when thinking of my own country, the US.  What have we built (other than the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium) with anything like the panache and truly lasting beauty of this edifice?


Arabian Oryx Conservation

The Arabian Oryx, called maha locally, is a truly beautiful and amazing animal.  It, along with a certain type of desert lynx and the Arabian leopard here in Oman, is the focus of some fairly robust conservation efforts for which applause and attention should be given.  Maha is also a favorite first name for girls in Oman, and one can see the reason why, given the animal’s combination of lithe body and toughness.

An Arabian Oryx on the road from Abu Dhabi to Liwa Oasis.

Maha are a type of gazelle, but with an exceptional ability.  Like a camel, they can go days (and some say even a lifetime) without drinking water.  This is an adaptation specifically designed to help it survive against predators.  If chased by, say, an Arabian leopard, it heads out into the vastnesses of the Neged, or the Rub al-Khali, leading its stalker so deep into the wastes that the other animal has no choice but to turn back or die of dehydration.  They are fast little creatures with curving horns and are even rumored to have been the source of the myth of the unicorn, for — when turned in profile — the two horns exactly mirror eachother in shape, giving the impression of but a single central horn.

Our one encounter with maha here in the Middle East occured in the UAE, rather than Oman (although Oman has set aside a huge tract in its Wahiba Sands area of the Rub al-Khali for Oryx conservation).  There, in the UAE, Sheikh Zayed al-Awal had a fascination for greening the desert.  All the way from the Oman border to Abu Dhabi and to Dubai, and then from Abu Dhabi all the way south to Mizaira’a and the other isolated villages of the Liwa Oasis, the edges of the freeway are ‘forested’ with date palm and scrubby thorn bushes, miles and miles of plastic pipe in the ground providing drips of desalinated water daily to each plant.  Some of these forested areas are fenced.  We wondered why.  Watching, as we passed, we eventually discovered the reason:  they’re used as a conservatory for the Oryx, with groups of 5 or 10 of the little creatures lounging in the shade.  At first, driving past them, I thought I was seeing goats or dogs.  Then I realized what they were and, though they usually scampered away when we tried to photograph them, we did snap this one fine photo, fence and all.

A creature like the maha seems wronged when shown with a fence around it.  But, its really us, our human incursions into the desert, and our hunting of it to near-extinction, that have perpetrated the true wrong.  We are what makes it necessary to institute a Not Quite Right like these fenced-in conservatories.


National Geographic

It doesn’t seem that National Geographic would be a likely candidate for a Not Quite Right moment, though the more closely a person looks at another culture the more that even the most familiar things turn out to be slightly twisted.

This twist, in particular, demonstrates a little something about the power of language and the power of having power itself, providing a good example of the old adage about the ‘winner gets to write history.’  And the winner, at least right now in the Arabian Gulf region, is Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Emirates in the UAE and the place where the new, Arabic-language version of National Geographic Magazine started being published last October.

The 'tampered' title, which reads "The Trucial Emirati Coast"

First, let me say that I love National Geographic.  My family dreads the moment it arrives in my mailbox.  I hide away with it for hours, more hours than normal now that the magazine is available in Arabic.  It gives me a chance to learn vocabulary I’ll probably never encounter elsewhere, stuff like:  super-nova, Inca lip-piercing, Mormon tabernacle, plate tectonics, Gorilla repopulation studies.  It is wide-ranging reading, good for the brain.

But it seems that Abu Dhabi couldn’t resist a little historical rewrite.  One of my Omani friends pointed out that the December 2010 cover story is a reprint of a 1956 National Geographic article on the UAE.  However, the UAE hadn’t even formed yet.  It was still known as the Trucial States (due to a century-old treaty with Great Britain that was aimed at controlling piracy in the Gulf).  Or, even more pointedly, as the “Trucial States of Oman.”

In fact, the full title of that 1956 article was, in the typically verbose style of those days:

Desert Sheikdoms of Arabia’s Pirate Coast: In Trucial Oman’s Principalities, Cradled by Seas of Sand and Salt, Camels, Dates, and Pearls Support a Fiercely Independent People

Abu Dhabi seems not to have liked publishing a magazine cover that hinted at its one-time fealty to the Sultanate of Oman.  So they took some liberties and changed the title.

The arabic of the cover story now procliams ساحل الإمارات المتصالح:  The Trucial Emirati Coast.  The editors in Abu Dhabi went with “Emirati” even though the name “Emirates” didn’t have any association with their chunk of the earth until 1971, a decade and a half after the article appeared.

Slightly political, yes, but mostly just Not Quite Right.


Wild Wadi (Women Only)

One of the more contentious points of Islamic culture, from a Western point of view, is the wearing of the hijab.  While it is an issue receiving international attention, with France having outlawed it completely, we’ve had our own, more personal experiences with it here during our travels and daily life in the Middle East.

First, some definition of terms usually used rather loosely in the West:

Advertisement for Wild Wadi Waterpark in the UAE.

– Burka: the long, draping outer body covering, also sometimes called a jelaba or ghalabia especially when worn by men

– Hijab:  covering for the head

– Niqab:  covering or veil over the face

The wearing of these traditional garments varies from place to place in the Middle East and even from sect to sect within a country, or region, according to that sect’s interpretation and adherence to tradition.  Where this tradition springs from is briefly but nicely reviewed, with excerpts from relevant Islamic sources, in this article from Emory University.

As for our personal experience:  here in Oman some women wear it, some do not.  Foreign women are not compelled.  Muslim women seem to chose for themselves or adhere to the values inculcated in them as a part of their family upbringing.  In other countries, like Morocco, the hijab is rarely seen.  Or, on the opposite end, in Saudi Arabia it is mandated for all women, non-Muslims included (although, somewhat surprisingly, most western women we met generally did not wear a head covering, and were not often reprimanded for it by the Mutawwa, the Saudi religious police . . . )  My wife, Angie, actually enjoyed wearing the full body covering, feeling (for once) like she wasn’t being stared at and, moreover, feeling releaved at not having to wear make-up, nice clothes, etc.  I think she spent all our time in Riyadh clothed in a yoga outfit, her very favorite choice of apparel, tucked away under the burka!

Best of all, and perhaps most in-line with other Not Quite Right observations here, is the photo above, a quick shot Angie took of an advertisement she saw for a waterpark in the UAE.  It seems, at first, to be tongue-in-cheek with the woman wearing a fluffy pink towel in place of the usual black facial covering.  But, really, it is serious.  No men allowed.  Women only.  The fine print makes an allowance for boys under 8 years old entering the park on these particular Thursday nights in the company of their moms, but only if they can provide proof of their age!


Cold War

Flags on the jerseys of four Solar Bears: England, US, Sweden, India/Canada

This little facet of our lives in the Middle East isn’t, from the outside, a matter of politics or religion or deep cultural division.  It’s sport.  But ice hockey in a country where temperatures in the winter rarely dip below 80F (and in the summer soar above 130F) automatically exhibits some of the best qualities of a Not Quite Right experience.

I help coach the youth team in Muscat, Oman — a team with the excellent name “Solar Bears.”  Being involved with this team has several interesting features to it, things that reflect the expat experience in general:

1.  The children (and their parents) hail from a wide variety of countries and cultures: various places in America, Canada, Finland, Sweden, India, and even England.  Many of them have played ice hockey in their home countries, or their parents have played, and they bring a greater level of skating and hockey ability to the ice than I anticipated.  They are also the best behaved group of hockey children I’ve ever met, having personally witnessed about 20 of them eating a quiet brunch, using their silverware appropriately–knifes and forks in the British way.  It almost felt wrong, the lack of noise, the lack of wild energy at a hockey get-away weekend!

2.  The rink:  in Muscat we play on a tiny, 1/4-sized rink that was made in the early 80’s.  It has a boarded-up 80’s-era mall attached to it, a dehumidifying system (necessary in the muggy air here!) that functions only intermittently, often leaving a dense fog in the building and causing drips to fall from the ceiling to the ice.  Actual stalagmites of ice form where the drips hit the chilled surface.  Even worse, a rat ran out of the Zamboni room our first day in the rink, crossing my wife’s feet!  We occasionally skate on 1/2 inch of slushy water on top of the ice.  It’s not the best place to play, but is an ice rink.  Other rinks, in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are full-sized, modern, great sheets of ice.  Oman will soon open its own Olympic-sized sheet too, adjacent to a horse-training pavilion and right on the edge of the balmy, palm tree-lined ocean.

3.  The equipment.  Parents pool together resources, lending elbow pads, sticks, jerseys.  Anyone visiting Canada or the US or Scandinavia ends up taking orders for various missing pieces of gear.  Amazon.com gets a lot of business.  Even something as simple as cloth-tape, for the shin pads and the blades of the sticks, is hard to find here.

4.  Sand.  Drying damp hockey gear in 100+ degree bright sunlight is a great thing.  Getting sand, omnipresent, out from under skate blades, from between the joints of pads, from the fibers of socks, is another thing.  Sand and sharp skate blades are arch-enemies and no one here knows how to properly operate a sharpener.

5.  Energy/water.  In a region where energy is in surplus (gas costs less than $1 a gallon) but water is in shortage, it is interesting to see that the countries have the motivation and the wherewithal to freeze water.

Overall, the experience is one that has broadened my children’s perspective.  To keep them somewhat on pace with their peers back in the United States, to give them the opportunity to play this sport despite the climate, is a great, but strange and sometimes oddly priviledged experience.


Megalomania

This might be a peculiarity of the Middle Eastern monarch. Or it might relate to any monarch in any country the world over.   But, coming from a democracy one of the oddities we noticed, one of the things that certainly strikes us as Not Quite Right, is the ubiquitous presence of photography featuring the face of each country’s ruler — on signposts, in barbershops, in supermarkets, malls, promotional materials for national festivals, airport warning signs, greeting signs, instructional signs, etc, etc, etc.

These photographs might be smiling.  They might be stern.  They might feature the ruler in military gear or in traditional clothing or in a western suit.  The photos sometimes include the monarch’s family, especially if he is actively grooming his son, or sons, to succeed him.

One thing interesting about our perception of this blatant self-promotion:  our children notice it more than we do.

My son Jack standing under Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan's nose

Is this because they’re more in-tune to media, more saturated by it, more a part of a new generation that really thrives on media messages?  In Oman, when we first arrived, they actively sought out and compared various pictures of the Sultan:  he’s smiling here, he looks grumpy here, his beard hasn’t turned white yet in this one.  In Jordan they laughed and laughed at the multitude of different photos of the King, asking us if the King did anything other than take pictures of himself.  In Morocco they commented that the king was a good looking guy and they wanted to see a photo of him on a jet-ski, which is apparently one of the Moroccan king’s favorite pasttimes.  And, in the United Arab Emirates we caught this photo of my youngest son obviously very interested in former ruler Sheik Zayed’s huge portrait.

The question this brings to mind is whether — like the similarly ever-present advertising images of scantily clad women in America (largely absent here!) — does the image of a country’s ruler eventually fade into the subconciousness of his people?  Is the ruler’s presence in advertising eventually taken for granted?  Does the forced consumption, the endless repetition, reinforce the ruler’s prominence or reduce it to a gimmick?