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Posts tagged ‘middle east’

Surreally freaky

Exiting Dubai Airport was like walking into warm, oxygenated pea soup. The place looked a bit like it too, with all the smog.

Now, I’m conflicted about Dubai. On the one hand, I met Husband there 12 years ago and we have incredibly happy memories. We met remarkable people, many of whom became remarkable friends. We would not be able to live the life we do now without the financial foundation laid over ten years working in the Middle East.

On the other hand, I abhor and detest the place and all it stands for.

Apart from a two day stopover on the way to Róisín’s wedding, this was my first real visit in Dubai since we emigrated at the end of 2007. Originally I was only scheduled for a two day stopover, but extended it to four days. 

Although being back was surreally freaky, I actually had a marvellous time. Much of this can be attributed to my joy at being reunited with Husband, and the naked hospitality of Solartap and his gorgeous partner, The Mollusc.

None of it can be attributed to the trip to ME Bank, to close down the bank account I was unable to access until I was physically present in the UAE. Or the afternoon at DEWA where I waited three quarters of an hour for my ticket to be called, before being rerouted to Abdullah, returning to the original counter, then being sent to Accounting for another ticket. They really don’t like returning deposits.

On my penultimate day, Andrew and I went to Al Maha – or ‘the deep tapestry of ancient and modern Arabia’ if you prefer – for a night. We love Al Maha – how can you not love a place which offers a pillow menu? With five options? And brings them to your Bedouin Suite for a feel?

Al Maha offers two activities as part of their package, so I talked Husband into going horse-riding the following morning. He was completely unimpressed at getting up at 05:00hrs.

In my mind, I ride thoroughbred Arabian stallions bareback: my thighs rippling, hair streaming behind me, galloping over stuff. Hillocks, probably.

It is nothing short of tragic how divorced from reality that vision is.

About five minutes out from the stables, our field officer asked if we’d like to try a trot. It was ghastly. There was about three feet between my arse and the saddle at any given point.

“Next time someone asks if you can ride,” said the field officer, “say NO!”

Husband wasn’t much better, but gave the illusion of competence by slapping his mount’s neck while asking the field officer whether the horse was ’15 or 16 hands’.

Arabian Sands

Wilfred Thesiger 1948

Wilfred Thesiger 1948

Here, to be alone was to feel at once the weight of fear, for the nakedness of this land was more terrifying than the darkest forest at dead of night. In the pitiless light of day we were as insignificant as the beetles I watched labouring across the sand. Only in the kindly darkness could we borrow a few square feet of desert and find homeliness within the radius of the firelight, while overhead the familiar pattern of the stars screened the awful mystery of space.

All the time I lived in the Middle East, I resisted explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s books. One reason for this was that generally, although I am an avid reader, I am not a big fan of autobiography. I prefer to have Experiences of my own, instead of reading about other peoples’.

Despite the photo below, I was never about to jump into a head-dress and wander across the Empty Quarter fighting off camel raiders with a second world war rifle; but the OTHER reason I didn’t read Thesiger’s account of his travels is because I feared it would be a bit ex-colonial pip pip jolly good tally ho old cock, what?

Eid 2003: Intrepid explorer. That thing you see in my hand? A mug of sea breeze. The insistent knocking sound you hear? Wilfred Thesiger turning in his grave.

Two weeks ago, I came across a copy of ‘Arabian Sands’ at the Blenheim Friday Market for $1 and felt it would be churlish bordering on ill-mannered to leave it on the stand.

This would normally be one of those books that would sit worthily on my bedside table for a while before being relegated to the top of my Stack Of Worthy Books, gradually making its way down as the pile collects additional Worthy Books, but never quite reaching the bottom which is reserved for ‘Heart of Darkness’ and anything by Paulo Coelho.

Instead, I started reading Arabian Sands, and was surprised to find it – ‘gripping’ is not entirely accurate, but I wouldn’t balk at – ‘unputdownable’.

The book is an account of Thesiger’s expeditions from 1945-1950 in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, one of the largest sand deserts in the world covering around 650,000 square kilometres.

Slightly more recent satellite image of The Empty Quarter

At the time, obtaining permission to travel the area was problematic even for an upstanding member of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit. Thesiger and his Bedu guides faced constant threats: being massacred by warring tribes, plotting a course through the barren terrain, locating the sparse wells, leaking water skins, gnawing hunger, grinding thirst, starving camels, and testicle-hunters:-

The Danakil country, where the people were head-hunters who collected testicles instead of heads. Among them a man’s standing depended to a very large extent on his reputation as a warrior, which was judged by the number of men he had killed and mutilated. There was no need to kill another man in fair fight; all that was required to establish a reputation was to collect the necessary number of severed genitals. I found it disconcerting to be stared at by a Danakil, feeling that he was probably assessing my value as a trophy.

Thesiger spends little time on analysis or introspection, but his factual, astringent prose beautifully describes the desert environment. The book also features some gorgeous black and white plates.

Wilfred Thesiger

The Empty Quarter 1948, Wilfred Thesiger.

Wilfred Thesiger

Dubai Creek, undated.

The Empty Quarter, Wilfred Thesiger

Desert.

Arabian Sands is a little sparse on plot, and any suspense is tempered by the author’s evidently surviving to write several books. But there is no shortage of baddies, trial, tribulation; and it is a startling snapshot of the Arab people and a vanished way of life.

The Qarra, a tribe that lived near Salala, had a unique technique for milking cows:

Before a man milked a cow – women were forbidden even to touch the udders – he would sometimes put his lips to the cow’s vagina and blow into it to induce the cow to lower her milk.

And a remedy for your camel refusing to give milk: 

. . . an ugly grey, which we had bought in the Raidat because she was in milk. At first she refused to give us any, although her calf had already been weaned, but Amai sewed up her anus, saying he would not undo it until she let down her milk. After that she gave us about a quart a day.

Arab place name conventions are evidently more – let’s call it – imaginative than New Zealand:

Two days later we were camped near a well with the uninviting name of Faswat at Ajuz, or ‘the Hag’s C*ough!*’.

And let me tell you, the Tihama know how to really rock a circumcision.

A fish eye view

When we lived in Dubai, I used to swim 2000m along the shore of the Gulf in the early morning. It is one of the few things about the Middle East that I recall with warm nostalgia (as opposed to rising gorge).

The first time I ever went for a power swim, thick mist shrouded the beach. I accompanied a group of gnarly triathletes, undeterred by being unable to see anything beyond the length of their arms. It was an extraordinary experience. In contrast to the world above, the rippling sand below the surface was clearly visible. The water was colorless, clear as gin. On the return leg, I paused for a break, treading water. I lifted my head and saw the tip of the Burj Al Arab emerge from the dissipating mist.

I started going to the beach two or three times a week, often before work. It was the only real time I spent outdoors during summer. Next to three liters of coffee, it was the best way to kick-start the day.

One morning, I was tucking my hair into a cap at Jumeirah Beach, when two girls asked if I would look after their bags. Vivienne was covered in Vaseline, so I guessed they were swimmers. (I sincerely hoped they were, anyway.)

They were planning to swim around the Burj Al Arab, so I joined them. That’s how I met Helen and Viv and – later – Chantal, who had never swum before and whose style initially focused on vertical rather than lateral propulsion

Dendrophiliacs

The main reason Husband returned to Dubai so soon after his last trip was to prepare our property for re-renting. He asked if I would like to accompany him. Optimistically, he presented it as a mini-vacation. He went for the beaches and palm trees angle.

I was more focussed on the 22-hour flight with two stopovers, the skin melting temperatures of the UAE hitting summer, and sleeping on the floor of an empty villa without even an espresso machine. Fairly quickly – you might say spontaneously – I realised there was nothing I would like to do less, except maybe hack off my lower limbs with a blunt axe. Even then, it would depend on how blunt said axe was, and whether I had ready access to Tequila.

Compared to the above, my contribution to the whole process was meagre. I sourced potential tenants, arranged finances, retained a maintenance company and collated paperwork. I was so delighted NOT going to the UAE that staying here with my dog was like a vacation in itself (if you disregard the guilt).

I was particularly glad when Husband described the state in which Tenants had left the villa. Thankfully most of it was cosmetic damage: gashes and chips out of the plaster, nails all over the show, double sided sticky tape festooning three walls, bolts in the master bedroom wall from a badly mounted TV. Husband also said it looked like someone had hit the trunk of the tree with the edge of a spade (who? Who does that to a poor, innocent, defenceless tree? Sickening dendrophile).

Ah, the bitter ruins of a formerly loving relationship.

But then, how was I to know they were dendrophiles?

Tenants had left without cleaning the house. This particularly distressed me, since I spent three days scouring the place before they moved in. I recall Mrs Tenant calling unexpectedly to discover me straddling a kitchen cupboard. She said:-

“Oh, you’re- are you cleaning?” And before I could say, NO THE RUBBER GLOVES ARE MY OWN DISTINCTIVE FASHION STATEMENT AND I ALWAYS PUT JIFF IN MY <EXPLETIVE DELETED> HAIR, she continued, “It’s not on our account, is it?”

I unclenched my tongue from between my teeth to say, “Well, yes-”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said. “We’re only going to clean it again after our stuff arrives.”

“Well ok, but, you know, we’re talking about two and a half years worth of Husband’s and my dead skin cells,” I said with an involuntary wince. To be honest, I couldn’t imagine leaving an abode other than spotlessly glistening (in a totally non-mucous context); I mean, I would be pure MORTIFIED. I guarantee that, when the time comes, we will leave our current rental accommodation cleaner than it has been at any point during our occupancy.

“Oh,” she said. “Um, yes, well. Carry on then.”

I suppose I had been warned. Tenants had no compunction about leaving 18 months of their dead skin cells cluttering up the place.

Husband spent hours plastering, cleaning and fixing. Yet apparently, Mr Tenant got terribly upset when Husband pointed out the condition the house was in. There were Words.

Bad ones.

At least this atones for Husband stinging me for cleaning the villa the week before we left Dubai.

Nah only messing; nothing makes up for that. I will carry that grudge to my deathbed AND BEYOND.

However, he has earned himself several nag-free months featuring kinky sex on demand.

I am so overwhelmed by his input I might even provide the sex myself.

Essay: How did you become a writer? – Discuss

When I was a little girl, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up:-

A long-distance lorry driver.

That was until I decided to follow a glamorous career as a princess. Then, at the age of 9, I realised my skill set was more suited to professional figure-skating. Unfortunately I never found the right doubles partner, so I set my heart on international espionage specialising in the termination of shady, highly placed political figures. I would have liked to have been a rock star, but I always knew that was more a sideline than a full-time career.

At no point did I consider writing as a way of life – and even less so when reality caught up with me. At school, English was not my best subject – although in fairness, neither was anything else. My annual reports gloomily chronicled my ongoing failure to achieve my potential (NB or anyone else’s). Even though teachers pronounced themselves ‘satisfied’ with my work, they never made that sound like a positive thing.

In college, I studied Applied Maths and Computing, mainly because with mathematics the answer is either right or wrong and doesn’t involve a ten page essay discussing the importance of the motive of revenge in calculating an answer.

When my application to the Irish Secret Service was rejected, I became a project manager (or if you don’t mind, I prefer frustrated rock goddess).

I moved to London in 1996 and graduated from letter writing to email, my preferred method for notifying my parents I was still alive. Occasionally I included heavily censored accounts of my life. It seemed pretty action-packed at the time, mainly because I was spectacularly self-centered. (My father had just been ordained as a priest, so it was inevitable bordering on cliche that I would hit a kind of delayed puberty at full throttle, which I celebrated by drinking inhuman amounts of alcohol.)

Two years later, I started sending friends 4000 word accounts of my experiences settling in the Middle East. Many responded suggesting that, if I had never considered writing, I really should. They might have been biased and/or delusional, but I was touched.

It was another year or two before I started taking it seriously.

In 2000, I took some time off between jobs to write. I wasn’t sure WHAT, but I had romantic notions of sitting at an antique desk in a sun-dappled room crafting a great literary work containing inspiring words like ‘shinsplints’ and ‘ficus’.

There were a number of reasons my 9 month sabbatical was a dismal failure. Mainly, it was because my writing desk was modern. But also, I underestimated how much I defined myself by my career and earning potential. I struggled with peoples’ assumption that I was dependent on Pre-Husband for financial support, and that I lay around all day snorting grapes and flirting with my muse.

It took another 7 years to complete Smart/Casual

Trip down sandy lane

Being back in Dubai felt entirely surreal. It was unsettling arriving at the airport and not having a place of our own to go to. Raff and Carole donated their apartment on The Palm, which was tremendously comforting since we stayed there before leaving Dubai last year. The only thing missing was Raff and Carole.

Our flight landed at 05:30hrs. Carole had left the keys with Liz, but I felt it would be antisocial to collect them before 07:00. Liz seemed entirely dubious about our credentials. She gave me a personality test and I had to fill in a questionnaire, and even then she wasn’t convinced. Eventually, Husband distracted her while I robbed the house-keys.

Helen came around on Friday morning for a swim along the beach, and Em on Saturday. We also caught up with David, Wayne and Keren, and Mark and Sarah. There’s not much I miss about this place, but our friends top the list. Even though there are only two other things on that list (swimming in the Gulf and shower hoses on the toilets, in case you were wondering), friends represent about 99% on a weighted basis. It was fabulous seeing everyone again.

As bodily by-products go, I am a big fan of vomit and particularly like to bring it up over dinner. Not often literally, because that doesn’t go down well. However, my friends reminded me of a rare wee related experience.

Some years ago, Husband and I were on a desert drive with a group of friends. When the convoy paused for refreshment, I experienced a compelling urge to externally process some earlier refreshment. So I set off to find a private spot.

I tramped over dunes until I was out of earshot; then I hiked until I was beyond visual range; and then, because I am prudish, I trudged another few kilometers. I stumbled across the desert, under sand banks, over Wadis and through sandstorms. Eventually I found the perfect place in a dip between two sand dunes, shielded from gusty squalls and/or rogue camels.

Seconds later, I was busy composing a comprehensive response to the call of nature, when I heard a noise. I’m thinking:-

“What the-? That sounds like – no, it can’t be – but if I were pressed, I would have to say that sounded suspiciously like a car booting along at 180kph.”

I would have continued to assume it was the aural equivalent of a mirage, except that it seemed to be getting louder.

Then three 4x4s thundered past at 180kph, at which point I realised I was crouched next to a stonking great six lane highway waving my arse in the air

My Precious

I lost my wedding ring on Sunday.

Six years ago, when Husband presented me with my engagement ring, he said:-

“Will you marry me? Oh, good. You’re going to lose this, aren’t you?”

I was sure I wouldn’t, because it was so pretty my very life force depended on the ongoing presence of this thing in my life. I can be impressed for minutes at a time by sunrises or ladybirds or a storm at sea or Husband’s cheeks when he’s eating lamb chops, but I can stare at a 0.55 carat H colour VSII Princess cut conflict diamond for HOURS.

Shortly after we married, I nearly lost my wedding rings at Ex-Employer’s office in Dubai Internet City. I went to the bathroom and removed both rings to wash my hands. Back in the office, I resumed compiling a nail bitingly tedious document on change request procedure, then paused to reread a paragraph. As I clasped my hands together to better aid concentration, I became aware at a subliminal level there was something very wrong in the world in addition to evil dictators and global poverty. Then I realized:-

“AAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaagh!”

Much to the bemusement of my three colleagues, I catapulted out of my chair, hurdled the desk, and ripped out the door screaming all the way to the bathroom where my rings glittered reprovingly in the soap dish. I’m not sure whether anyone had been there in the twenty minute interim – in Dubai, many people are too lazy to go to the toilet – but still.

After that, I resolved never to remove my wedding rings; I even wore them swimming in the sea.

My engagement ring is currently out of action, having split after a period of intense digit expansion, but I always wear my wedding band. On Sunday morning, I was pottering around the kitchen cleaning up before the guys woke. The Bro had stayed over the evening before, so there were beer bottle tops all over the place. I have ranted about bottle tops before, so I will spare you- ok, no, I won’t. THERE’S A RUBBISH BIN! RIGHT THERE! WHAT IS SO COMPLEX ABOUT FLIPPING BOTTLE TOPS INTO IT, HMM?

Sorry. So, my wedding ring was irritating me for some reason – although not as much as the mess DO YOU NEED TO BE A WORLD CLASS ARCHER OR TIDDLYWINKS CHAMPION TO GET A BOTTLE TOP INTO A BIN?! IT’S LIKE HITTING A HIPPO WITH A SHOE! – so I transferred it to the little finger of my right hand. Even as I did, I thought, ‘Hmm. That’s not going to stay there,’ and then ignored myself.

It was after The Bro left that I noticed my wedding ring – gone. My ring finger looked plainly wrong without it. There is a pale groove worn around the base of the finger where the skin is puckered and defenceless looking.

I alerted Husband as to the situation.

“Will you look for it?”

Husband nearly choked on a gigantic sigh, but he performed a sweep of the living and kitchen sectors while I repeatedly checked that I hadn’t misplaced the ring on my finger. There was no sign of it – on my finger or anywhere else.

“I’m sure it will turn up,” said Husband and shuffled off to not obsess about where the ring might be.

Throughout the day, I looked in all the obvious places: the kitchen bench, the key hanger, under the sofa, in the microwave. I kept visualising the ring in different places, with the result that I checked the cutlery drawer and kitchen windowsill several times (maybe THIS TIME it will be there). In the evening, I turned the rubbish out onto the garage floor and picked through it with a fork.

On Monday morning, I put Husband at Defcon 3, increasing to Defcon 2 as the day wore on. We tore the house apart. I moved everything out of the pantry; we checked the drains; Husband squeezed the fingers on my rubber gloves; we crawled around the floor with torches.

I had a vague recollection of leaving the wedding ring on the hallway banister. Late last night, Husband revealed that he had vacuumed the stairs on Sunday morning. There had been debris on the treads after he had knocked a couple of holes in the wall. No idea why. Because he could? Maybe? But really, you’d have to ask him.

He offered to go through the vacuum bag this morning in daylight. I knew that’s what had happened to my ring; in fact, I was so sure I actually slept last night.

It wasn’t in the vacuum bag.

Then Husband went through the week-old rubbish. We’ve been together over 10 years now and Husband drives me up the wall on a frequent to full time basis. However, there are rare, brilliant moments when I understand exactly why I am with Husband. Watching him sift coffee grounds, turn over greasy chop bones and wipe rotten spinach off mouldy lemons without complaint, I had one of those epiphanies.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I was his favourite wife at that point.

It wasn’t in the rubbish either.

Back upstairs, I got a bit teary:-

“Tell me you love me and the wedding ring is just a symbol in no way indicative of the future of our marriage and it’s not as if you even wear yours and the fact that I’ve lost something that’s blessed won’t curse us for the rest of time forever and ever amen.”

“Er, yes. All that,” said Husband. “Look, we’ll get another ring and get your father to bless it.”

“Yeah, but he’ll give me a lecture on how he can’t go around blessing every time I lose my wedding ring,” I muttered darkly, “and how I should be more careful-”

“Well-”

“Are you sure you want to go there?”

“Absolutely not. No.”

Then I found the ring in the plastic bag drawer

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