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Postcard from Dubai

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Nov. 14th, 2013 | 05:39 am

Dating in Dubai is like dating in high school.

Not just, "being young and giggly and fun," although yeah, that's happening. But like being physically in a high school, under watchful eyes and underage.

Can we hold hands here? Oh, let go, it's prayer time. That's a mosque over there. Too many full burkas around. There's a couple of guys who are clearly righter than right wing (long beards, Taliban-style hats, angry glares). No, there's a camera in the elevator. Someone's on that balcony. Can the waitress see your hand?

It adds the spice of young crush and the furtiveness of adultery to a second date.

Dubai is a mecca for malls. Pleasant sandy beaches (as long as you leave before 10AM, when it gets hot). Lots of immigrants, lots of expats, a fair number of sundresses and shorts mixed with the traditional Indian, traditional Pakistani, and shades of Middle East from full-burka-veiled-face-no-eyeslit to jeans-long-sleeves-turtleneck-headscarf. It's the crossroads of commerce in this part of the world. Friendly nations load cargo to ships bound for unfriendly nations. If you've got money, they'd like to do business with you.

But it's also a Muslim country. My job stops at prayer time--no sound check, no practicing. The music in the mall stores, thumpy dance pop, stops at prayer time, replaced by singing Arabic. Everywhere, indoors and out, five times a day, the sound of prayers goes through every loudspeaker.

Not that everyone's praying. Sure, a fair number of Muslims duck into the masjids, the separate praying areas for men and women that are in every public building (in the malls, they're next to the restrooms, where every toilet stall has a spray hose for ceremonial foot washing before prayer). But there are still black-robed and white-robed Arabs moving through the theme park, the mall, the streets, perhaps pausing briefly for a moment of silence before continuing on to buy and sell.

As a Muslim country, lots of things are illegal. As a resident non-Muslim foreigner, you can apply for a license to own and consume alcohol in your home, which means filling out a form that swears you're an alcoholic and can't function without booze. It's basically a doctor's note to drink. The big hotels are licensed to serve non-resident expats, but they don't ask for your license or proof of address. Drinking is in the category, "We probably won't bust you for this--unless we want to." In which case, one can be jailed or deported with no return, at the King's pleasure. Which is not a metaphor.

Public affection between men and women also falls into this category. No making out on the beach, no kissing hello, no hugging goodbye, no holding hands.

A couple gets into the elevator with my date and me. They are teenage. She wears a burka-with-eyeslits. He wears jeans and an Abercrombie t-shirt. His hand brushes her back. She adjusts her headscarf. They look nervous, and get out on the second floor.

I say, "I wonder what their deal is?"

My date looks puzzled.

"Well, she's clearly from an observant Muslim family, and women are not allowed to be out with a guy who isn't a relative. He didn't look like her brother. Or maybe I'm reading the body language wrong because it's a different culture."

My date doesn't know, either. So we go to my car, the one place it is possible to be alone without being in a bedroom, and scan carefully for cameras before we get in.


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Comments {12}

drwex

Fascinating

from: drwex
date: Nov. 14th, 2013 04:16 pm (UTC)
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Last night I was at an MSF presentation and someone asked about their recruitment process. High on their list of criteria was "Travel well, outside your comfort zone."

(So was "speak French" which I mostly don't, but I can hear French well enough to catch some of the differences between what people are saying on screen and the English subtitles.)

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whipchick

Re: Fascinating

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 14th, 2013 09:52 pm (UTC)
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I love that saying! And I think I do it a lot :) What is MSF?

We've learned enough Arabic and enough Hindi/Urdu to thank the audience for coming, and they love it :)

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drwex

Re: Fascinating

from: drwex
date: Nov. 14th, 2013 09:57 pm (UTC)
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Oh sorry, MSF is Medicins sans Frontieres - most Americans know it as Doctors Without Borders. I went to a screening of their documentary film that talks about how they operate in conflict zones.

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whipchick

Re: Fascinating

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 15th, 2013 09:08 am (UTC)
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Ah, yes! Interestingly, there is also a Clowns Without Borders, and i have a fair number of friends doing social circus projects through them.

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C.S. Inkheart

(no subject)

from: frecklestars
date: Nov. 14th, 2013 07:18 pm (UTC)
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I missed seeing your excellent descriptions on my friends page! Glad you're back, for the moment at least. Very much enjoyed this little snippet of your life.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 14th, 2013 09:53 pm (UTC)
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Thanks :) I spent the past couple of months focused on publication, which has been fruitful, but I'm ready to write again - nice to know it's welcomed!

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The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors

(no subject)

from: halfshellvenus
date: Nov. 14th, 2013 09:53 pm (UTC)
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Dating has probably rarely felt so dangerous before. Wonderful description of such a different world.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 15th, 2013 09:09 am (UTC)
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Thanks :) It's been interesting, for sure!

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dragon

(no subject)

from: dragonwrites
date: Nov. 15th, 2013 02:30 am (UTC)
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I have a friend who is Jewish and grew up in Casablanca. He would tell stories about fooling around with girls in cars, which was mildly frowned upon for religious Jews but illegal for Muslims. They would almost get busted, but the police would realize they weren't Muslim, and were not subject to the same rules. "Look the other way" versus "public condemnation and shaming." Maybe you couldn't bring any more shame to your family if they were already Jewish. Funny guy. As an adult, he moved to Paris, where the prejudice against North Africans is palpable (and anti-semitism isn't exactly unknown either) and did his best to assimilate completely. Seems like life was friendlier for him in Morocco. He came to the US for a while and I kept telling him, "Don't tell Americans you're French; being Moroccan is more interesting to us." He didn't believe me at first; he thought Casablanca was a backward, embarrassing place of origin, but after a couple months he came in and said, "Americans really don't like French people do they?" "Not really," I said, "but they think Casablanca must be romantic as hell." Since all they know about it is the Humphrey Bogart movie.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 15th, 2013 09:09 am (UTC)
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This is fascinating, and I can definitely picture all of it very clearly.

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One Phil to Rule Them All

(no subject)

from: dslartoo
date: Nov. 15th, 2013 05:07 pm (UTC)
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I would like to visit Dubai someday. The BBC show "Top Gear" has done numerous specials shot there, and it makes it seem like a place that is just FULL of awesome, with technology and gleaming buildings and supercars and Rolls-Royces everywhere. Reading this, though, has reminded me that there's a lot more to the place than the public image. I am profoundly grateful for the reminder.

cheers,
Phil

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Andrea Blythe

(no subject)

from: blythe025
date: Nov. 16th, 2013 08:43 pm (UTC)
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Wow. It's a very interesting world to be dating in!

I hear about Dubai a lot through my job (they have one of the worlds largest aluminum smelting plants) and may get to go there for a conference someday. I'd be fascinated to go.</p>

You said you're there for work? For how long?

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