The Musandam Peninsula

I drove up past Dubai and Sharjah, through Ras al Khaimah, to Oman. (That’s four emirates and a country in a little more than four hours!)

RAK, as people say, comes after a long stretch of desert,

Dunes along the road to RAK.

Dunes along the road to RAK.

Downtown RAK.

Downtown RAK.

Suddenly the mountains rise up…


The RAK Cement complex just before the border with Oman.

The RAK Cement complex just before the border with Oman.

NASA has this colorized shot of the jagged, jagged peninsula with Khasab in green.

NASA has this colorized shot of the jagged, jagged peninsula with Khasab (and the other towns on the coast) in green.

the color redder and richer than the prevailing creamy white of the open desert and the beaches here. You see rising dunes and trees–seemingly volunteers–as you get near. It has a small, swanky set of hotels along its shoreline but it is mostly poor and somewhat ragged, with shops in strips along the deteriorating roadway, much like India’s (or perhaps Pakistan’s) poorer, smaller cities. Its downtown seems to have no malls at all, and no highrises either. The name means ‘top of the tent’ and it is the very top of the emirates.

As the road got worse and worse north of town, in a sun-splashed haze of humid air and dust, up rises in front of you a jagged line of light brown mountains, extending from the sea to–well, as far as you can see.  Along the road you see humble little shops and houses, with what look to be Pakistani workers and few or no emiratis in white.  But right below the mountains, as the road swerves directly towards the sea, there are silos and warehouses, heavy trucks going every which way, and several signs: Ras Al Khaimah Cement and various brick companies.

Then the road narrows to a well-paved ridge along the shore, below rearing cliffs.  You pass RAK’s fenced off military installations and then you come to border itself: empty and quiet if trim and guarded on a Friday at lunchtime.  It takes some time and some money and preparation to cross.  The car requires special insurance and a letter ‘of allowance’ from the rental company.  Both governments require fees and reviews of papers.  A woman guard in Omani military garb goes over my car’s papers, in particular, with a look of puzzlement and uncertainty as she reads and rereads, checking in several times with her colleague, seeming to find inconsistencies or omissions.  I begin to think I will be turned back.  Then she looks up, smiles, and hands my papers back with only a request for the visa fee and my passport.  I get back in the car, drive to the guardpost, hand over a small card–and drive into Oman.

The bare dry mountains are exhilarating against the sea, and the drive has the feel of the Amalfi Coast or Big Sur–winding up and down and back and forth, on well paved roads under steep, almost vertical mountainsides, up over the foothills and then back down again. Everywhere the sea.   It’s like the Himalayas without snow, surrounded by an ocean.  It’s like the steepest cliffs of North America–but without any vegetation at all.  In the ravines, sparse and bare, are a few, a very few low trees, acacias I think.

The 40 kilometer road to Khasab passes two or three small towns, one with a little 19th century fort, presumably from the shipping truces–the ‘pirate’ truces–with England.  The houses are low and humble, ochre like the hills, some with broken down windows and doors. Oman has some oil–but not much.  Few people are about.  There is almost no traffic on the road.  The one thing I notice with fear is the evidence, more or less everywhere I look, of rock slides down to the roadway.IMG_1233

Kasab itself is a humble town, its small, lovely fort overshadowed by its new, big box store, a Lulu, a chain like all the others but from Abu Dhabi.


Fruits, Vegetables, Gasoline

On the weekend I drove across the bridge to downtown but turned off to Port Zayed, just over the estuary that separates Abu Dhabi proper from Saadiyat Island. I wanted to see how Abu Dhabi’s port would compare to Sharjah’s, knowing, of course, that what I would find here would be infinitely tidier and more ‘modernized’. So it was: The great unloading derricks were high steel contraptions looming over the stone and cement docks and jetties, not unlike what you might see in Baltimore or another medium sized port in the United States. Only one or two container ships were docked, high in the water and waiting to be loaded. Some sort of ultramodern military cruiser, painted a desert ochre, sat at the ready at one dock behind barbed wire.

The port itself is huge, with main streets, rotaries and side streets: everything much scruffier than the rest of Abu Dhabi.

The man with the pomegranates from Yemen.

The man with the pomegranates from Yemen.

Yellow pomegranates back in the apartment.

Yellow pomegranates back in the apartment.

As you drive in on the wide boulevard there’s a good sized fruit and vegetable market. I turned in there and found maybe 15 or 20 stands, staffed by Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians–all a little forlorn on a Saturday morning, their eyes and hands beseeching me to buy something. Plainly they deal in bulk and were looking for a big hotel chef or some such. I walked about until I caught site of cartons of pomegranates from Afghanistan. The young man in charge was eager to make a sale, any sale. He took me round in back to a refrigerated room, saying, in words I couldn’t quite make out, that the Afghan pomegranates were either too small or unripe: He showed me some that were a dirty red color but the size of a scoop of ice cream. But then he mentioned “Yemen,” with a big, conspiratorial smile. He razored open one of his cardboard boxes and pulled out big creamy yellow pomegranates. “Yes, yes, Yemen,” he said, “Yemen.” “Yellow!” was all I could respond. “Yellow,” he agreed, but then ripped one open to show me the bright magenta seeds inside. I asked myself how long it would take to eat a whole carton-full–the size of a case of beer! I figured I would be stuck with rotting pomegranates in a few days. But then he gave me the one he had split and just two more with a price that was no doubt close to what I would pay for a carton. I agreed, partly to save face and partly to taste these novel–and very pretty–fruits from Yemen. They were delicious. His name was Izamir, or something near that; and, yes, he had a wife and child back in Pakistan, though I couldn’t make out the city he named and he couldn’t understand when I asked how much he made.

As I walked back to the car, the other vendors gave me the pathetic looks and gestures I associate with needy vendors in lots of poor countries. “My fridge is full,” I had to remind myself. And their stands looked much to plentiful and attractive to go unvisited.IMG_1108

On the way out I realized I was nearly out of ‘petrol’. I had seen the stations on the highways–and stopped at one–but I had no idea how to find one in the city. At a red light, though, two middle-aged cops pulled up in the white-with-red trim SUV that I had seen before. They wore berets and military khaki and seemed eager to help, if unsure which station to direct me to. As they pondered and then gave me simple directions, I realized that they must come from a very different background from that of the typical white-robed Emiratis in Porsche’s on the highways: This was the second group of police I had met. The first, in the same sort of SUV, consisted of three twenty somethings cooped up in the shade of the bridge near my Saadiyat kayak launching spot. They had warned me not to swim but agreed that paddling was an acceptable activity. Neither the young ones or these two older ones look prosperous to me; they didn’t speak much English at all; they seemed to be working hard (if not doing much). My hunch is that they come from the poorer Emirates nearby, the ones without much land or oil, and so need the work that their Abu Dhabi compatriots might see as beneath them.

The gas stations seem to be national monopolies.

The Nepali attendant who filled up the tank for me: no self service!

The Nepali attendant who filled up the tank for me: no self service!

Here they are called ADNOC, for “Abu Dhabi National Oil Company,” I guess. Very modern, mostly spiffy, with Tim Horton’s and McDonald’s and some sort of convenience chain tucked into the big ones. The workers seem to be Nepali and Filipino, following what one professor here calls the ‘ethnic division of labor’ (and sees as oppressive). You realize in these sorts of settings how these most notoriously global and even imperial brands are in fact the places where ordinary local people go. The same holds true in the malls: There seem to be three classes of stores. Truly proletarian places, catering to the workers from South Asia; the McDonald’s sorts of chains, catering to them and some of the more modest Emiratis and professionals; and then the names from the worlds of fashion and glitz, some recognizably European or American, but some from the Arab or Muslim world and unfamiliar to me. And all of these shops in the malls–high and low–seem to be staffed by Filipino or, more rarely, Nepali women with male managers from a variety of backgrounds. Only the electronics stores and construction outlets seem to have men at the cash registers.

To Sharjah and Al Mafraq

An aqua painted dhow loaded for Iran.

An aqua painted dhow loaded for Iran.

This morning–Friday, the 12th–I got up with a mind to find the labor camps. Someone had told me that Friday mornings are the best times to drive anywhere. The Emiratis and their construction workers take the day off. Stores and malls are open, staffed almost entirely by Filipinos and Nepalis, but nearly empty till the afternoon. Last week I drove to the Corniche and the Marina Mall. I ended up at the old fort and Muslim Theater at the end of the marina’s jetties. Filipino groups lay about under the trees, picnicking and sleeping. There’s a beach there, facing the downtown skyscrapers across a wide channel, a free beach–but an uncrowded one. I swam briefly and then launched out into the channel, circumnavigating past the Emirates’s Palace and then the Corniche itself with its wide stretches of almost empty beach.

Yesterday I had driven industriously to the north, past the intimidations of Dubai to the smaller emirate of Sharjah, where a Chinese student had told me “they have excellent museums…” The commuting traffic was fast and furious most of the way, and intensely, frighteningly so, for the miles and miles of Dubai’s lavish skyline.

Goats being trucked on the highway near Sharjah.

Goats being trucked on the highway near Sharjah.

But it thinned out as I neared Sharjah, a city with a smaller, less extravagant skyline, and, as it turned out, lots of back streets that resembled Old Delhi or perhaps Pakistan: car shops, bike shops, taxi and bus depots, little South Asian bodegas. (I learned this because–as ever here–I got completely lost trying to find the museum district.)

A back street in Sharjah near the taxi depot.

A back street in Sharjah near the taxi depot.

​At the taxi depot someone finally knew about the museums and sent me to the waterfront. I landed first at a scruffy beach near scruffy highrise hotels: I could tell at a glance that the clientele was Russ​​ian–bikinis on men and women, short haircuts, posing for photos, utterly heedless of the local sensibilities. A nice young woman there was certain there were no museums at all. I had parked next to an old adobe tower, itself under a huge electric tower. And, as it turned out (and I learned an hour later), the Aquarium and Maritime Museum were a few hundred yards away, hidden behind some sort of archeological effort.

I visited the Islamic Museum first, installed on the Corniche in an old Souk, a long low ochre building with painted decoration. Inside it was a typically shiny, glassed in and marble-floored set of galleries. The exhibits were lovely, filled mostly with pride and praise for Islam’s growth (‘fastest growing religion in the world’ whose expansion from the death of Mohammed is ‘unrivalled in the history of the world’). But many or most of the objects, religious and scientific, were reproductions. Timelines told, again, of Islam’s achievements. And upstairs the galleries held some beautiful–and genuine–old weapons and plates and vases, often from Iran or Turkey.

When I found the Maritime Museum it was similar: lovely explanations and videos on fishing, trading and pearl-diving in the Gulf and beyond, with reconstructed boats of all sizes and explanations of the varieties of dhow and the invention and spread of the lateen sail, with its two booms and low mast. I was the only visitor there, while the Islamic museum had a group of Chinese and another of Mexicans milling about.

But the best of Sharjah for me was the channel off the Corniche. In contrast to Abu Dhabi, where the Corniche fronts on wide, well watched beaches with grand hotels and skyscrapers, the Sharjah Corniche fronts–at least downtown–on a channel filled with fat, high, dhows–huge ones, mastless and sailless, piled high with goods, especially boxes of appliances, en route to Iran, perhaps 50 miles across the Straits of Hormuz. People say there is a busy trade in contraband of various kinds, mostly in the smaller, speedier boats. What I saw was the lumbering sort of ship visibly carrying mounds of consumer goods. Each of the ships was brightly painted and somewhat beaten up but nonetheless jaunty, with a hint of piracy and adventure. The crews looked to me exclusively Indian or Pakistani: dark men darkened further by the bright sun, their foreheads shiny with sweat.

A sailor on one of the speedier Sharjah craft.

A sailor on one of the speedier Sharjah craft.

Across the Sharjah channel to a fat wooden dhow loaded high.

Across the Sharjah channel to a fat wooden dhow loaded high.

Baniyas shops at the main crossroads.

Baniyas shops at the main crossroads.

I went for a swim with the Russians and then drove home, resisting the call of Dubai by lashing myself to the wheel with a grim sense that if I turned off into the maelstrom of skyscrapers and construction I’d never find my way out.

I looked on Google last night and this morning to see if I could find any mention of the locales where the workers live. A balanced piece in the New Yorker suggested that most of the Saadiyat workers live here on this island–which stunned and still stuns me, since I have driven and paddled and even swum on most of it. (And the rest, aside from the mangroves and the desert behind them, consists of gravelly construction sites that I can see pretty well from my tenth floor guest apartment!) Rather than poke around Saadiyat further I decided to go to whatever towns were mentioned in the Times, the Guardian and The National–the decent English newspaper here. I set off knowing that this could prove a hard day of driving, since nothing around here is easy to reach–by any method.

The names that came up more than once were Baniyas and Al Mafraq. Studying the map I noticed a ‘wetlands reserve’ near these two inland outposts at the back of city itself. It took a long time to find them. Baniyas, like many places here, sits on two sides of a big highway, back a ways from both. When I first got to Baniyas East, I knew I had landed in a strange place: There were no malls, just run down shops and one or two women with distinctly non-Muslim clothes and strides. There were men from South Asia, but not many. Lots of run-down little houses from decades ago held their own against the occasional mini-mansion. There was a car pound and a couple of walled off factories. I kept driving around but found no concentration of ‘worker accommodations’. I crossed the highway and found Baniyas West a little more prosperous and dense, but, again, with no great concentration of worker housing.

I saw a sign, though, for Mafraq North and Mafraq South. I followed those leads for a while with similar results: run down suburbs with their roads laid out, half paved, and with mostly tired old housing but still with the occasional attempt–often interrupted or abandoned–at luxury. There were more factories and warehouses. After perhaps 45 minutes of this I was ready to give up. The wetland was called Al Wathba and I saw a sign for a town with that name–again, divided by the highway. I decided that I could at least see the wetland. (It turned out to be the driest wetland I had ever seen–a little mud and lots of dead trees, but it may be the winter will bring moisture and birds.)

The Arabco dorm.

The Arabco dorm.

Men shopping at Mafraq.

Men shopping at Mafraq.

One of the tidiest dorms at Wafraq.

One of the tidiest dorms at Wafraq.

Following the signs to Al Wathba, though, I came across a road heavily trafficked with workers’ buses, all of them creamy Tata buses from India. Their drivers were in a hurry and seemed to know what they were doing. Soon there signs for Mafraq Workers Accommodations 1 and 2. The land here rolled a bit, still desert with scrub (and now no buildings), but on an incline inland. Between two highways, then, in an otherwise empty landscape, I came to the two–well, I’m not sure what to call them. They looked like tidy but very, very modest college dorms: three floors high, clothing hanging from the stairwells, fenced and gated in, with men moving about outside with parcels and in all manner of Muslim dress and beards. But these dorms went on and on for a long way to become something like towns: all male, surrounded by hundreds of parked buses and taxis, with one ‘HyperMarché’ serving them all. They had nice names, names of flowers, on them. Each bore a sign of a company. And the best of them, the tidiest, were the Arabco ones, a company controlled by the Emiratis. I noticed air conditioners in the windows. Security guards and gates made me turn away without even trying to go in.

Were I to live in one of these ‘accommodations’, I felt, I too would work long days and long weeks. Bused back and forth to these settlements, there seemed to be nothing at all to do besides go to work. I saw no games being played or picnics on the sparse grass–but then it is the day of worship and the tone was distinctly Muslim. Next time, perhaps asking one of the Nepali or Filipino guards, I can go visit someone I know–and perhaps at a workers village with more cultures and religions in evidence.

For now, I said to myself, I have at least made a start. On the way home, around noon, I launched my kayak into the Eastern Mangroves–but it was hot and bright and exhausting in the middle of the day and I gave up after an hour. The Filipino guides were there sleeping in the shade of the mangroves while they waited for a late afternoon expedition. I mentioned that I should bring my class. Ramel–whose name I heard as Roman or Ramon last time–said that some NYU professor had brought a class already. I listened to Judge Masipa read the Pistorius verdicts on BBC on the car radio as I pumped up my little kayak. When I told Ramel that Pistorius had been convicted ‘of a kind of murder’ he and his colleagues had no idea about ‘the bladerunner’ or the killing of Reeva Steinkamp.

I turned off on the way back to Saadiyat to Al Rehm Island, where a colleague had told me I’d find the best grocery store in Abu Dhabi, a Waitrose’s from England. This half-developed island, nearer to downtown than Saadiyat, looks like a bit of Dubai: huge high rise glass towers with mall called ‘The Boutik’. Empty lots and empty but perfect streets surround the new buildings; still it’s hard to find the way to the parking lots under the buildings and no one–almost literally no one–is in evidence on the sidewalks. The Waitrose grocery store was spectacular, with no fig newtons or tofu dogs but lots and lots of other stuff, including good produce from South Africa and the U.S.

Finding the Boutik Mall and the Waitrose I came across the Sorbonne outpost: smaller than NYU’s campus but lovely, circular, with gardens and buildings in a dark, almost brown adobe-like cement. It has a big, broad Cupola building at its center, an echo of the one that sits on the Place de la Sorbonne off the Boul Mich. I can’t quite conjure up who would want to be educated in French these days in the Emirates–but then that’s getting to be true even in Paris itself. This may not be a British or American empire we live in here but it is certainly an English language empire! I wanted to go in but no one was in evidence except the guard–from the same security company we use–who required a pass.

(It’s odd, come to think of it, that these campuses have this guarded, fortress-like quality; they should learn from the malls.)

Jeffery from the Philippines, a guard at the gym... He and his family know the little island of Lamud, where Pierce and Derma have a house.

Jeffery from the Philippines, a guard at the gym… He and his family know the little island of Lamud, where Pierce and Derma have a house.

My apartment is on the top floor, to the left, more or less facing the camera; the gravelly construction site in the foreground goes on and on till it meets the water.

My apartment is on the top floor of the far building, to the left, at the crease, more or less facing the camera; the gravelly construction site in the foreground goes on and on till it meets the water.

Joel from Cameroon, in an NYU attendant uniform.

Joel from Cameroon, in an NYU attendant uniform.

The NYU Saadiyat Campus seen from near the Sorbonne on Al Rehm, across the estuary (and the visible desert stretch) to the north.

The NYU Saadiyat Campus seen from near the Sorbonne on Al Reem, across the estuary (and the visible desert stretch) to the north.

White heron takes flight as I approach...

Which takes flight as I approach…

The white heron...

The white heron…

The Bubble Within A Bubble Within A…

Last night the internet went out before bedtime and stayed out till midmorning today. Our British IT director told me in the lunch line that a trunk line from town had been cut, “probably by construction…” Students said it was the longest episode in their experience–experience, by the way, in the downtown tower now surrendered to other uses. My reaction was to be a bit fretful, first, about not being able to write to Adelia and, second, about getting late papers from my class. No big deal at all; indeed, it seemed predictable and expectable in a place so recently finished and situated in this great plain of gravel and sand with nothing but roads and fences nearby.

I can well believe that all this will fill in over the next decade. Growth has been so fast in this kingdom that it would be a small thing to build up a kind of suburb here. And with the Guggenheim and the Louvre abuilding perhaps a kilometer or two towards the shore, the imagination fills all this in more or less easily.

Still, right now it feels like a bubble, a bubble within a bubble within a bubble.


This Bangladeshi gardener and I exchanged gestures and smiles as I tried to learn his name–no luck. Perhaps he just arrived.


This is the view through the gym’s picture window in the morning as the men from the buses trudge up the hill to work around the campus.

I know of course that the metaphor works too well. We are all of us bubbles of sorts, if bubbles bumping into and interchanging one thing or another with each other. But here the bubble metaphor, for an outsider like me, seems inescapable. First, there is the air conditioning and the sealed windows and doors. Let in the air, in this season, and all hell–all mold!–breaks out. The condensation is almost instantaneous as the hot, hot air, full of moisture, meets the cooler rooms and furnishings of the apartments. They say that 25 of them will be gutted to take care of mold that has developed in the last month or so since the air conditioning was turned on. As you walk in and out of buildings you feel this strange collision of climates in your own clothes and on your own skin: Hot, baking sun, then shade at the doorways, then a cold breeze like the ones the come out of the big clothes stores on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in August. It’s not unpleasant, exactly, but it is strange. And it must be costly. Many of the doors are double and have to be closed more or less precisely to seal. But of course they are often ajar–again, with a strong cold breeze pushing through and out into the heat.

This first bubble is more or less everywhere in Abu Dhabi: In the shops, the malls, the cars and buses, the offices, the airport–in and out you go, hot, bright heat giving way to a cool, almost cold, breeze.

Then there is the second bubble: The astonishing bubble of wealth and construction that makes at least the citified parts of this nation so modern, so developed, so accessible. Even the English is a bubble here. You don’t hesitate a bit to ask for directions in English. Very, very few people won’t answer you fluently–if with the odd accents or turns of phrase (like the Filipino clerks who say “Sir” with almost every phrase). But this is an Arabic speaking country, you think to yourself. Some here–the distinct minority–speak Arabic, even if they are the ones in charge. This English bubble is everywhere, it seems, and yet not: Nearly all the workers from the world over speak some English, the Africans and Nepalis and Filipinos speaking quite a lot. But once your learn that someone comes, say, from Bangladesh and has a wife and children there, the conversation falters and peters out. After the exchange of greetings and smiles, the conversation has no place to go. They have work to do; you have places to see. Long taxi rides sometimes give a chance for more questions and more answers. And the taxi drivers have, perforce, bigger vocabularies than the others. Still, you open the door, hand over the money and move on.


Lifeguards from Nepal–but the pool will not open for a while.

Then there is the campus, brand new, all by itself, a kind of fortress in this tame desert. For now it is surrounded by high fences and construction encampments. Even its water and energy seem to be supplied by makeshift machinery outside the walls–like an army base in Afhanistan. In this video of the campus architecture, for the English newspaper The National, Hilary Ballon and Al Bloom speak of the place as well integrated into Abu Dhabi, which must be true in many ways: Yet, to me, teaching here, with good students from everywhere it seems that we are in fact in a bubble within a bubble… Will the great wealth of the Emiratis sustain it into the future? Feeling the heat and noting the low-lying land, I can’t bring myself to believe that any of this will survive the next century of higher temperatures and ever higher sea levels. But then I know next to nothing of oil and its almost miraculous powers.



Impressions of AD

Today is Saturday, which functions like our Sunday–or perhaps like Saturday after all!  Friday is the sabbath and so a quiet traffic-free day.  But Saturday is a free day, with traffic, outings, shopping and so on.  On campus it’s a quiet day.  I got up early and went to the western end of Saadiyat Island where I can launch at a jetty or under the highway bridge.  The Island itself faces the relatively calm–for now anyway–Persian Gulf, across which, to the west, is Iran.  On that shore the various hotel beaches and beach clubs line up.  Soon the Guggenheim and the Louvre will go up behind the hotels.  NYU is further inland still.  Only one beach along that shore is ‘public’, meaning much cheaper than the others (at 25 Dirhams or $6).  I went swimming there the other day with Andrew Bush, a Kurdistan expert (whose wife is still back in Kurdistan, in Iraq). 

On the inland side of the island, facing east, there is a broad estuary or passage, stretching perhaps five miles. Across it lies the island they call Al Jubail–an almost wholly undeveloped stretch of sand and brush with a few isolated outposts of the construction companies or the government.  I parked under a bridge today, with the express permission of three young cops in a red and white SUV who were themselves parked in the shade when I got there.  When I got back,though, I found that another cop (signing as Dinesh) had left the most polite ticket and warning I have ever received on my windshield: no fine this time but still ‘parking in a no parking area’ with a ‘please do not do this again’. 


Paddling southwards, towards the Eastern Mangrove Reserve miles away, I found, again, lots of patches of mangrove, with tributaries, as the tide rose, leading deep into Al Jubail.  All along there were herons, mostly great blues, squawking at me and flying away.  Sometimes, though, I’d surprise one.  It would leap up with a squawk and flap right over my head. At one point I saw men in a jeep drop what looked like a body under a rough shelter in the distance.  I wondered what it was but soon they left and I thought of other things.  Later I could see that a herd of the Emirati deer–ten or twelve–gathered at the shelter to eat whatever had been deposited there. 

As I paddled along I kept noticing that the needlefish in the shallows–8 or 10 inches long, white and shimmering– that kept darting away as I approached.  They usually turned a sharp, almost right angled corner as they fled, moving so quickly that all I saw of them was the angular wake on the surface.  Then I began to notice them leaping.  Today one came at me, one leaped at me, jetting towards my cockpit, its tail dragging just a bit in the water.  Its eyes as it approached seemed frightened.  I lifted up my paddle involuntarily to turn it away and it banged into the rubbery side of the kayak with a forceful thwack.  I looked back, expecting it to be lying stunned in the water; it was gone.

Sometime later I noticed a lone dolphin.  It surfaced in the deepest part of the channel two or three times in a row then dove down for what seemed like minutes at a time. I kept fumbling with my Iphone to take a picture and at last got a little splotch of grey against the blue

Out there on the water, in the bright sun and almost brutal heat, I wonder at myself, kayaking so obsessively these free mornings.  But then I reason with myself, “here’s a place where you can’t take a walk, where you can’t swim for long, where the only ways out of campus are in cooped up cars and buses…”  It’s my way of being a flâneur, almost the only way.  I see bikers in spandex out in the morning, on the wide shoulders of the highway; but they soon retreat.  Only the workers are out in the sun, often bandannaed so that you can’t see much more of them than their eyes.  In the city no one walks more than a block or two.  In fact, most of the walking here in Abu Dhabi is mall walking–here’s an inside shot of the Marina Mall–but I can only stand a little of that.  And besides the wildlife, there is the tremendous revelation of the geography: the sand and brush, mangroves and seagrass, all holding on against what must the greatest rush of building and sprawling since..well, since perhaps Shanghai.  On the water you can see what the place was and what it is–wondering all the while if it will soon extinguish nearly all of its natural landscape.  Somewhere I read that the government has planted 250,000 tiny mangrove trees in the last few years.  Let’s hope they protect them.  IMG_0976 IMG_0977




Impressions of Abu Dhabi 9/4/2014

IMG_0960 (1) IMG_0938 Wednesday, 8/27, 9:30 pm.  Nice fancy, friendly dinner; a faculty photo in a ballroom, mostly men, arrayed in ascending rows like a Big Ten football team. Lots of animated conversation with the 20-somethings in business and student life.  And even the most prestigious older gang seemed to me less cool and intimidating here, shorn, as they are out here, of the accoutrements of departmental prestige and politics.  I walked to the beach at the dinner at the Park Hyatt and took off my sandals so as to wet my feet, at least and at last.  Windy with low but strong waves and–surprise!–a nice temperature on the cool side of tepid (but this was with the sun down and the light almost gone from the sky).   They served beer and wine, which already seems out of place; I had half a glass.
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By the end of the week I  rented a car and used it to shop or go adventuring in my little kayak.  Twice I went to the Eastern Mangrove Reserve, a stretch of wilderness off the highway near where the Ministries are located with their nearly constant IMG_0955traffic of helicopters and their telecommunications towers.  Inland from the city itself, there may be 1000 acres or so of mangrove forest, with strong tides slowly pushing into the estuaries and passageways, creating islands in effect.  Two or three main channels have deeper water in them for paddling (or the very occasional and friendly Emirati passages, perhaps patrols of some sort).
On the shore, launching the first time left off by a taxi, I met up with two very friendly Filipino kayak guides from one of the two local companies that take people into the mangroves.  They lay in hammocks down from the jetty, shaded amid big blue plastic water bottles and a bunch of sit-on-top kayaks with paddles and life jackets.  They were brothers in law, Jess and Roman.  Intrigued by my boat–“inflatable, right?”–and envious of the four-piece paddle– “carbon fiber?” –both spoke very good English and seemed happy to have me intruding.  A small expedition of theirs was out in the mangroves, out of sight.  Going in and returning they helped me get going and then Roman–I wonder if it’s Ramon–called and called on his cellphone to guide my taxi to the launch spot.  The trouble doing all this convinced me that I should rent a car to get around, surrendering the wonderful conversations with Nepali drivers for the ability to go places at will (and places the cabbies don’t go!).
I insert photos here without any expertise about how to situate them in the text…
Mangroves at Low TIde Encrusted with Barnacles
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After a week I have met my little 14 member seminar twice.  I expected freshmen but in fact have juniors, seniors, sophomores and only four or five who have just begun.  They seem bright, curious, respectful.  They come from all over: A Muslim Indian in a headscarf speaking utterly fluent American English; a big, muscular Malaysian, one of the best students, half Malay, half Indian, a curious, eager questioner, also speaking perfectly fluent English; two or three Americans; a Pakistani girl; a Mexican; a Lithuanian and a Latvian; a Jordanian.  These kids may be unrepresentative in their interest in my theme of the concept of the soul; I can’t tell.  But they seem, all of them, like the best sort of students: intent, conscientious, ready to work.  On elevators and in stairwells I have lots of short conversations with lots of students, many majoring in economics or engineering (which, here, has a 40 member faculty!).  When I ask my seminar members if any read Homer in high school, the answer is no one.  One American girl studied Latin and so read the Aeneid.  Later when I ask about favorite novels, a very, very bright American boy, a physics major and a junior, tells me “I never, ever read anything but trash novels… I watch netflix but novels, never!” Later he admi​ts to Dan Brown’s novels as something he has read that I recognize.  I mention David Foster Wallace to no response from any of them and so I use Updike’s knowledge of the Toyota trade to suggest how the Homeric bards might have learned all sorts of things–killing in war, linens being washed, hauling up sails–by careful inquiry and observation.
They will submit two page papers on the Odyssey this weekend and I expect they will be quite good.
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This is a small community and a friendly one.  You can stop just about anyone to say hello and to ask about one thing or another.  Yesterday I greeted a tall middle-aged man who looked –to me– Somali or Kenyan.  When he spoke he was impressed that recognized his accent as East African.  “How did you know?”  I used Abdillahi as my excuse but in fact I had guessed it more or less by looks and then been struck by what to me is a distinctive way of speaking English.  He turned out to be an epidemiologist working on a project here, not a professor.  There seem to be lots of fellows and post-docs, much beyond what one would expect in a place with less than a thousand students. But then the institution is expanding very, very quickly–and the Sheikh’s largesse and interests seem to allow for all sorts of things that wouldn’t be possible in the US or Europe.
All over Abu Dhabi, sitting in traffic jams or making one’s way along the Corniche and the downtown beach, you realize how much is going on at the behest of the small population of Emiratis, or even of their monarch and his lieutenants.  They say a million-and-a-half people live and work here but it seems a much bigger place to me with its seeming endless skyscrapers and architectural extravaganzas–as many abuilding as built.  If the Emiratis make up 10%, then all the rest of us, in one way or another, work and live to the tune the Emirati elite has called out.  That adds up to a lot of Porsches!
The whole city seems friendly, I should say. The workers and shop-girls are uniformly responsive to smiles and hellos.  I ask where they live and the answer is always “far, far away…”  Wherever it is, I have yet to see the apartments or warehouses or shops that serve them.  Night and day buses go by full of the workers going hither and yon.  It’s the better dressed expats–including the Filipinos and all the rest–who take the municipal buses and sometimes drive the humbler cars. The highways are full of big, fast cars (as well, of course, as trucks of every description) but often with dark tinted windows.  As in France and Germany, the men in Porsches and such will often come up behind me, right up to a couple of feet from the bumper, saying, in the strongest way possible, “out of the way slowpoke!”
Another omnipresence, besides the heat, is powerful air conditioning: Here at NYU AD it’s as strong as in the malls and such. Doors will often be ajar.  But even double closed you feel a rush of either heat or cold as you make your way to class or lunch or the library or gym.  My conservation instincts give way bit by bit as I see how meaningless they are in this little world driven by oil wealth.
And, speaking of oil, I have no idea where the wells are: So far, in the little circuit from Saadiyat Island to downtown to the airport and such, I see only the wealth and construction.  The oil wells themselves are either way out to sea in the Persian Gulf or deep in the desert where I will have to travel to get a sense of them.  (I just found a map online that confirms this.)



Finally I did make my way in traffic and bewilderment worthy of Los Angeles, at rush hour, to the Great Mosque, a beautiful giant structure, a little marred by gaudy if impressive decoration.  Again, a warm, friendly place, with guards not the least bit wary of outsiders to the faith–with free parking, free tours, spic-and-spam clean​.  Afterwards I went around the corner to the French Walmart, Carrefour!


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​I will finish with a rare glance at clouds in the sky.  Most days open and close with a vague haze on the horizon and a dull blue everywhere else in the bright glare of the sun.IMG_1005