Abu Dhabi

aBiography: An Exclusive Blog Feature

Sleep-deprivation is like being high. I know because I was high for a long time, then I started sleeping irregularly. It’s supposed to have something to do with lack of sugar in the brain, which is also the theory of what LSD does to consciousness. Things grow fluid and dreamlike, but at the same time there is a paranoid awareness of motion and a heaviness in the heart. Color and sound become a lot sharper, and time feels totally irrelevant. Normal speed is fast but fast can pass for normal. A moment lasts for days, days can fit in a moment. Talking and laughing are far more involving, especially laughing. The grotesque animal implicit in each person comes out, sometimes messing up the conversation. And then it’s as if you have no body. As in the best music, an uncanny lightness balances the overriding melancholy. There is joy in flying when you don’t need to move. All through this, what’s more, every passing emotion turns into an epic experience.

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حوار مينا ناجي: الصياغة الأخيرة

٦ نوفمبر ٢٠١٠

هل لابد أن ترتبط هوية الكاتب بمكان جغرافى وتاريخ محدد؟

أرى أنها على العكس لابد أن لا ترتبط، لا يصح أن تكون الكتابة مكبلة بفكرة انتماء لمكان معين أو حتى زمن معين. الانتماء لمكان وزمان يكون حاصلا رغماً عنك. سهل جداً أن تقع فى فخ سياسى أو غير أدبى، غير أدبى بأى معنى، ليس من الضرورى أن يكون سياسياً، لو أنك ربطت بين كونك تنتج أدباً وفكرة أن هذا الأدب له مكان أو له زمن أو له أى نوع من أنواع الانتماء.

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Her damask cheek: two visions of Syria

Today is the second anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian revolution on 15 March, 2011

Damask Rose by Vangelis (Blade Runner soundtrack)

***

Early one morning in the summer of 2011, a good few months after the ouster of Hosny Mubarak, I received an international phone call. It was an unknown number that began with 00963. I could tell this was the country code of some Arab state, though I didn’t know which. After some hesitation I picked up, and I was greeted by a thin voice speaking with inflections that sounded vaguely Iraqi. “Remember Abu Dhabi,” the voice said eventually, with a warm chuckle. “This is Thaer.”

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Remembering The Travels of Ibn Rakha: November, 2008

Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.

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The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:

My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.

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Arabian Ants

My own private Emirates

Youssef Rakha clicks his heels together three times and says, ’There’s no oasis like home.’

It had been nearly a week since I slept in my apartment – and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary on my return. Enervated by my tour of the Emirates, I resolved to retire for as long as possible. Dream images of my family home in Cairo saw me through; I fell into a deep, regenerative slumber filled with journeys – to Ras al Khaimah, to Alexandria – shorter trips by car which, enabling a brief departure from everyday living quarters, offer a variation on the usual urban domicile, a temporary escape from Abu Dhabi or from Cairo. But by morning, the itching was impossible to ignore.

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على هامش ليل الذئاب

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ثمة مطر في مارينا مول

لكنه لا يهطل من السماء

ولا يخرج عن مساحة

محددة مسبقاً

حتى البرق الذي يصحبه

لا يعدو أن يكون

لمبات نيون فاسدة

في قبة سحابها

كالقصص الملون

والرعد أشبه بصوت

دراجة نارية

*

يأتي المطر في مارينا مول

بمواعيد معلنة

حتى لا تفوت المتسوقين

فرصة التمتع برؤيته

فينظرون في ساعاتهم

ويرفعون أعينهم

إلى السقوف

متمتمين كالعشاق

الآن يجيء المطر

ويقتادون أطفالهم إليه كالهائمين

*

يتحلق المتسوقون في مارينا مول

حول سياج غير مرئي

تحده حواجز بلاستك

كتلك التي تدل على الحوادث

ومناطق الهدد والعمار

ممسكين بأيدي أطفالهم

في دائرة لا يتغير قطرها

وعيونهم المشدوهة معلقة إلى فوق

إلى حيث البرق لمبات فاسدة

والرعد دراجة نارية

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On wasta for The National

Knowing me, knowing you

While the population of young Egyptians rises, while inflation makes even the highest incomes inadequate wasta will inevitably operate on a smaller and quieter scale. The National, 2009

When I joined my last workplace, back in Cairo, it was on the recommendation of an influential acquaintance of my father’s. I had gone to meet him in one office to enquire about an opening in another, but he misunderstood my purpose and introduced me to some of his colleagues at the office where we met.

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Cast from the Garden

From the hotel apartment, you confront the frustrations of a society that is home enough, but will never feel like home – a society that is seemingly modelled on the hotel apartment.

With the laundry dangling behind his back, the podgy bell boy slid in. He was fast and noiseless, his arms so laden above his bald head you could barely make out the raven’s wing of hair bobbing in its wake. I had barely closed the door when he finished arranging the laundry in the cupboard. Then, turning dramatically, he placed the flat of his hand on his heart: “This last time, Sir?” Blinking at the badge on his chest – Ramee Garden Hotel Apartments, it said: RG for short – I had to stifle my tears as I realised that, yes, this was the last load of laundry my favourite RG employee would bring in. My term at the hotel apartment, that Emirati speciality, was coming to an end.

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Not just a river in Egypt

On the flight back from Cairo to Abu Dhabi, I watched a recent Egyptian comedy about a young man who lives in a tin pitcher.

Not literally – but that is the way he describes himself. Because rather than buying all the unaffordable beverages of which he and his little brother keep dreaming, he fills his vessel – the traditional poor man’s drinking cup – with tap water. Then, holding the wide end carefully to his mouth, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and, quaffing, invokes the coveted taste and pretends to relish it.

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Denys Johnson-Davies in Abu Dhabi

An Englishman’s life in translation

The Emirates as Denys Johnson-Davies might have seen them in the early 1950s. Courtesy Al Ittihad newspaper

Youssef Rakha enjoys a cup of coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies, one of Arab literature’s chief liaisons with the English language.

Having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies does not seem all that remarkable – until you remember that this silver-haired Englishman shared a table with Tawfik al Hakim three decades before you were born. Hakim may not be as familiar to western readers as Naguib Mahfouz, but he was a much bigger deal in his time. Then again, Johnson-Davies was a literary figure in Cairo long before Mahfouz made his name.

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Sound and vision

Time stopped at Cassells hotel in Abu Dhabi on Friday. It was a fleeting impression, but haunting. The photographer had positioned the three musicians in dramatic formation on the stairs to shoot them with their instruments: Tarek Banzi hugging an Iraqi-made oud; Julia Banzi flaunting a stately flamenco guitar; and Charlie Bisharat balancing the smallest instrument yet, a violin, on his shoulder.

Thus arrayed while the camera click-clicked, occasionally pitting its flash against the sunlit window to one side, the three musicians started, reflexively, indolently, to play. It happened without so much as a nod to each other, evidently without thinking: the auditory equivalent of doodling, but with three distinct hands on the same scrap of paper. And while it lasted, in a very real way, time stopped.

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Chasing rainbows: Poets of the Emirates

Hashem al Muallim, a cultural editor for a newspaper in Ajman, has not written poetry for three years. Randi Sokoloff / The National

I arrive in Ras al Khaimah the night before my appointment and, drained by travelling non-stop for 12 hours, barely register the atmosphere before going to bed. When you live in Abu Dhabi, it turns out, waking up in Ras al Khaimah can be surreal.

The city is like the UAE capital through the looking glass. It boasts fewer salwar kameezes, for example, but this is made up for by a strong south Indian contingent, seemingly better integrated than Abu Dhabi’s Pashtun community. Either there are more tourists or the tourists are more visible. Emiratis drive leisurely through the hilly terrain, which keeps tapering into promontories until it suddenly levels out in the desert as flat as the plains of Dhafra – and then, when you are least expecting it, the sand gives way to green.

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Running on empty

In his new memoir, Haruki Murakami reflects on life as a ‘running novelist’ and ponders the meaning of a marathon. Youssef Rakha logs his discontent with the great storyteller’s descent into pop wisdom.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Harvill Secker
Dh67

Aug 18, Dubai — Day 1

Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (translated into English by Philip Gabriel), is the only book I have with me on my tour of the Emirates, and so far I am not gripped by it. For the first time since I discovered Murakami, it looks like I will not be enjoying one of his books.

The stated focus of What I Talk About is Murakami’s life as a writer, a runner, a runner who writes and a writer who runs – not inherently boring topics. But however much Murakami labours to present himself in an everyday, informal register, to “just write honestly about what I think and feel about running”, the fact that he is a famous, best-selling novelist remains paramount; everything in the book tells me I am to be interested in his thoughts on life and productivity not for their own sake, but because they have been issued by Haruki Murakami, Famous Author. This will clearly undermine identification.

Even worse, I cannot help fearing that Murakami himself will end up exemplifying a disturbing notion often expressed by the writers in his novels: that, in an “advanced capitalist society” like Japan, producing copy for publication is as ingloriously Sisyphean as an “shovelling snow”.

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when the shia invaded lebanon

A war-damaged building in Beirut, still unrepa...
Image via Wikipedia

When a Palestinian school child in Abu Dhabi is asked what the difference is between Israelis and Jews, and he replies that, while the Jew is somewhat of a Muslim, the Israeli remains a fully fledged idolater, you automatically conclude that this child must be a Muslim. But it makes you wonder about the presence of Palestinian Christians in local consciousness, and whether the identification of the resistance with militant Islam over the last few decades has wholly precluded them from global debate (the late Edward Said, Allah have mercy on him, may have been a spokesman for Muslims as well as Arabs, but he was not Muslim).

palestine-map-big
The more you pay attention to the answers given by grade-four students of the Azhar Palestine Private School, one of Abu Dhabi’s less glamorous co-ed institutions, to questions posed by the Zayed University student-cum-film maker Salma al Darmaki in her 35-minute documentary My Palestine, the more you wonder.
You wonder where these little girls and boys got the idea that it was the Shia who invaded Lebanon, kicking the Palestinians out (could this be a warped reference to that episode of the Lebanese Civil War during which Shia militias of the Amal movement fought the refugee camp-based guerillas of the PLO?) You wonder how Israeli military atrocities against Palestinian civilians came to be symbolised by the mythical act of soldiers cutting open a pregnant woman’s stomach, removing the foetus, killing it, and placing a live cat in its place before sewing the stomach back up – leaving the woman, who is still alive, heavy with cat. You wonder whose mistake it was to forget that the post of Lebanese prime minister is open only to Sunnis, leading to the belief, among many of the students, that the late Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri was assassinated because he was a Palestine-hating Shiite.
You wonder if there could ever be any excuse for a parent to teach their child the second half of the broken rhyme Falastin bladnah welyahud klabnah: “Palestine is our country and the Jews are our dogs”.
With less outrage, you wonder what the Danish cartoon crisis, re which the students chant an anthem calling on Arabs, Muslims and the rightful to boycott Danish products, could really have to do with the Palestinian cause, when all is said and done. And you wonder whether religion class, extensively and beautifully featured so that you hear the bigoted, sexist and dogmatic woman teacher without seeing her, might have a role to play in the washing of palpably innocent brains with such hideously subverted narratives about who they might be. You wonder about this and other questions relating to “the construction of identity and how it is being debated”, as the deceptively quiet Darmaki, a petite, modest, focussed, extremely self-possessed 21-year-old in a abaya, phrases the issue at stake.
An international relations student, by the time she embarked on My Palestine Darmaki had, with her colleague and assistant on My Palestine, Hermeen Adam, co-directed two films – Katkout, about real-life dwarves in Abu Dhabi, and Chained, Stripped and Branded, about women’s prison – as part of a course named Peoples of the World, taught by the humanities professor Nizar Andary, who required, in place of the written word for by way of assessment, visual ethnographies. “But the quality was so bad. We didn’t have experience,” she says.
The outcome of an independent-study class devised by Andary specifically because they loved making films, Darmaki’s better planned project for a documentary on plastic surgery was falling through when, curious about the curriculum taught to stateless expatriates (as opposed to schools servicing communities like the Pakistani, for example, which taught their state curricula), she started spending time at the Azhar School. The subject gradually shifted from school curricula to Palestinian identity, however, and when she eventually found the required rapport with fourth graders, she was all too happy to record their unadorned views in impressively seamless cinema verite. Even on the horribly noisy ground floor of the Marina Mall, where she refuses to drink anything and categorically forbids me from smoking, Darmaki will not comment about what the students have to say. Subtly, she explains, the question of UAE solidarity with the Palestinian people is raised. And subtly, when the students chant a salute from the Emirates to Palestine, it is answered, she says, in part: “I too will support the cause but in a less violent way.”
What she supports is the undifferenciated dynamism of underprivileged members of the Palestinian diaspora in an oil rich Gulf state – something about which she is understandably reticent. Darmaki’s homage to Palestine has less to do with either Palestinians in the UAE or the insane reactions of these children’s evidently uneducated parents to the political situation than with the intensely moving humanity of the children, their energy and sheer good will sharply contrasting with what they have to say. Under better circumstances, you wonder, would they be saying the same things? And then you remember the little boy who, conceding his teacher’s view that, “yes, of course, Shia in itself is bad”, points out that individual Shiites are not all bad, actually. “My father has a friend who is Shia and he comes over sometimes so I sat with him,” he says, with heart-rending earnestness. “He really is totally normal.”

The travels of ibn Rakha

ibnbattuta

Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.

The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:

My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.

The monument I sought, named Ibn Battuta Mall, lies off the Dubai end of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in a spot where nothing towers above it save a cheerful yellow balloon in the basket of which, at certain times, visitors may soar into the skies and look down upon Dubai of the lofty mansions. It is formed of five palatial halls dedicated to stopping places on Abu Abdalla’s travels and devoted, may all good work be rewarded, to the practice of commerce. Buyers and sellers have flocked there daily since the opening of the halls three years ago; and indeed of the two thousand or so people estimated to have visited that day, I was the only one without mercantile intent (although I exchanged banknote for bodily sustenance at a Persian eatery in the China Court, that scarlet enclosure, let us guard against ostentation, with the plaque of the dragon repeated in a circle around a fountain-spangled wood ship evocative of the Opium Wars).

A young peasant from the Nile Delta town of Mansoura (where my late father, may his sins be forgiven, attended school) conveyed me to the mall in a silver-tinted taxi, complaining of his inability to conserve enough money to return triumphant to the homeland without spending inordinately long hours at the wheel. While we tarried to share cigarettes and memories, I recalled with salt tears the old Arabic verse about longing for your country while separated from your loved ones. And, reciting the opening of the Quran in supplication for the soul of my sheikh, I entered the Mall by the Egypt Court gate just before sunset. There, subtly illuminated like the Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes, stood large stone blocks and sturdy columns with hieroglyphs engraved in bands upon the fake stone, which in their texture and arrangement and the whole nature of their construction imitated, in the manner of Disneyland, the ancient pagan architecture of my land. Inside, the light was whiter and louder, with coloured figurations of Pharaoh and his idols (let us guard against pantheism) flanking the upper half of the walls. Past Gloria’s coffee house, a toy shop and the booksellers of Magrudy’s faced each other on either side of the spacious walkway, taking up much room.

Entering the bookseller, I was appalled to find no sign of literature in the language of the Quran save for a few ill-picked paperbacks. After I made my way through a curvature leading into the Egypt Court (a space made to look like the courtyard of a Mameluke house inhabited by a family of giants, with the tiles, the latticework windows, the fabrics and the wall cupboards all 10 times their ordinary size), I came upon some advertisement-style displays with ample, multimedia information, in our language as well as that of the Franks, on the life and work of my sheikh. My spirits much improved, I proceeded to the Asian sector.

There, at the very apex of the Mughal-red India Court, stood an elaborate elephant bearing a maharaja in full regalia, one mahout cross-legged on the head of the beast, another up in the air, standing at the high end of the incredibly tall carriage. Laser lights flashing upon the torso of the plastic proboscidean lessened the effect of verisimilitude, but visitors still joyfully converged, their digital cameras emitting flash lights. Distracted, I crossed another hallway into the glittering, Iznik-like turquoise tiling of the Persia Court, wherein visitors may take Starbucks beneath the magnificent hand-painted dome (for that brand of coffee is the mall goers’ equivalent of the elixir, may we remain on the path of the righteous).

By the by as I proceeded, I reflected that the shops housed in this unique monument to Abu Abdalla were of the kind that remains exactly the same wherever you happen to find them on God’s earth. They have the same Frankish names, the same pricey commodities and the same cheap decor (a circumstance even the Persia Court – truly, as the Mall administrators call it, the jewel in the crown of the whole monument – could not endeavour to hide). As I trod under the pagodas, stepping out for a smoke in the Chinese Gardens, it seemed to me futile to mark out distinct cultures in the midst of such uniformity. And it was in this humour of dissent that, inspecting much excellent merchandise as I went along from Debenhams to H&M, from Mother Care to the gilded Paris Gallery, I contemplated the fate of my fellow travellers.

Both my esteemed sheikh and myself, stranded here (as I sometimes felt) among Franks and Hindustanis in the easternmost corner of the Arabic-speaking expanse, are perpetual strangers, a feather upon the face of the worldly plane blown by the wind whichsoever way it comes, weak in the face of power. Abu Abdalla went around the world in 30 years and, travelling mostly within a universe of thought familiar and meaningful to him, he was as alienated as he was engaged by the differences of others, their various languages and morals, their diverse foodstuffs, their inexplicable rites. In this newfangled monument of his I could go around the world in 30 minutes. But, travelling in a universe of thought neither particularly familiar nor meaningful to an Arab Muslim, I felt only alienated – not by difference but by sameness: the sameness of others and of the mall as a model of the world, the sameness of the consumers who inhabit that world and the sameness of their only possible pursuit: buying. At length I ambled leisurely along the scarlet enclosure and back to Africa, through brick red and turquoise, past the green, cartoon sky-ceilinged Tunis Court and into the smaller, cream and burgundy Andalus Court. I walked alongside a supermarket named Geant and another advertisement-style exhibit, this one dedicated to the shining lights of Arab-Muslim history, with the pioneering Andalusi aviator Abbas ibn Firnas, who died in the 274th year of the Hijrah, hanging up in the air like a giant plastic dragonfly, looking over an arcade and a playground. I took shelter by the small-scale replica of the Fountain of the Lions of Alhambra, calling upon Abu Abdalla to comfort me.

A mall can indeed be the whole world, I thought, much as a book by a traveller. But the world of malls is more narrow and uniform than the world of the Rihla, and I no longer want to travel in it.