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.”
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.
When, several years ago, the magazine Hijab Fashion launched in Cairo, few registered the anomaly in its name: Hijab – a veil to reduce visibility; and Fashion – the compulsion to stand out. Only the most cynical amalgam of capitalism and Islam seemed capable of delivering that speedball.
But what amazed me was the un-ironic enthusiasm with which the target market took the shot. Piety and consumerism evidently mixed so freely you could place their glaring buzzwords side by side and no one would even notice.
Less as a title than a frame of mind, “Desert Destination” – the catch-all term now being coined for a host of tourist developments across the Emirates – strikes me similarly (see From Desert to Destination, The National, April 28).
Another incompatible pair of words: barely inhabitable land wedded, improbably, to expensively canned luxury; the quest for the wilderness tightly fenced in by tourism. As is the case with the first pair, one half all but negates the other.
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.