Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 27, 2012

Dubai - and a Writing Lesson

by Fae Rowen

Okay, I never wrote about that Middle East trip to Dubai, Egypt, and Jordan.

There were reasons, okay?

Today, I'm prepared to tell you about my four days and three nights in Dubai.  On my own.  Well, with my friend who has long, naturally blonde, hair. The only Arabic phrase I learned was the translation for, "I'm her maid."  I figured if we got kidnapped, that might get me released.  So much for friendship and loyalty.

In a previous blog, I wrote about the preparations for the trip: shots, visas, plane and hotel reservations for the farthest away trip I'd taken up to that time.  I'd planned to blog and send pictures with my newly-purchased iPhone.  That obviously didn't happen, but I did end up with an over $600 phone bill for roaming charges from every cell phone company in the Middle East.

A friend told me that Economy Class on Emirates was like Business Class on any other airline.  Yana is a world traveler who speaks five languages fluently and racks up over a hundred thousand flight miles a year.  We flew non-stop to Dubai on Emirates. Seventeen hours.

She lied.  I'd thought we were in a two-seat side row.  Worse yet, we're in a three-seat row and my friend had the middle seat (she's short and has a skinnier rear) and I had the window.  The aisle seat was occupied by a non-English speaking elderly woman who, we discovered halfway into the flight, went through my friend's stowed bag while we slept or went to the restroom.

How did I discover this?  While my friend was in the restroom, the woman picked up my friend's backpack and started taking things out of it and stuffing them into her pockets.

"Stop!" I said.  She ignored me.  I got everything but the shoelaces back.  My friend and I watched videos on the seatback screen and took turns sleeping and restrooming after that.

I had panicked about taking supplements into Dubai.  Well, we arrived, paid the entrance fee, and were waved through the customs station. No one looked at our bags.  Not even sideways.  Nobody was in line by the time we navigated all the windows we had to go through and corridors we'd mistakenly wandered.

At least we were in Dubai and not in jail.

We arrived at our quaint hotel in the Bur Dubai section of old, traditional Dubai.  The facade looked like something from the Arabian Nights.  Our doorman wore an Aladdin outfit.  I wanted to steal his shoes.

In the mornings we would walk around before the shops were open, deciding what we wanted to go back and see later.  We discovered the clothing and material souk, old-fashioned outdoor stalls and shops, and the Aladdin shoes!  The beautiful embroidered materials with golden patterns were stunning.  I vowed to return with an empty suitcase just for material.  And to take a sewing class.

We paid a penny to ride the abra, a wooden plank with two benches and a lawnmower motor that ferries people across the river.  We took a fancy cruise on the river, too. (They call it a creek.  It's no creek.  I used to be a lifeguard and I wouldn't want to try to swim across Dubai Creek.  It's the main port for that area of the world!)

One day we walked under the river to the gold and spice souks. Dubai is not really a walking city.

I'd thought I'd bring back some nice gold jewelry, but everything was very expensive.  Later I learned Dubai Nationals don't shop in Dubai.  They go to London, Paris, New York or Los Angeles to shop.  Only tourists shop in the amazing indoor mall-cities of Dubai.

We spent a wonderful afternoon and evening with Sally, one of Jenny Hansen's British friends who lives and works in Dubai.  She showed us the expensive hotels and the "Gold Coast" of Dubai.  The man-made Palm Islands and Earth Islands are amazing when seen from the observation deck bar of a nearby hotel.

Which brings me to liquor.  Dubai is officially a "dry" country.  However, most restaurants and hotels do serve drinks to tourists.  If you stay at a hotel for foreigners, you can stay on a special floor that has a "lounge" that has an open bar with as much free liquor as you can drink for two hours every night.  Convenient, because then you can stumble to your room with no problem.  If you're drunk going home from another hotel, you'll need the names of the lawyers the State Department supplies.  End public service announcement.

For such a tiny country, Dubai has lots of salt water reclamation plants.  In fact, Dubai uses more water per capita than any country in the world.  The gardens throughout the city and on the sides of the road are amazing.  They have more grassy lawns than my SoCal street.

Without oil, Dubai's rulers  have made it the shopping and vacation destination of the Middle East.  As such, there are things to remember.  Like, if it's Tuesday, women can't go to the beach.  And if it's Thursday night, the young people are at the mall to see and be seen.  It really was fun to watch the groups of young women and men circle each other without making verbal or physical contact.

We had been cautioned to dress very conservatively.  No uncovered shoulders, no shorts, and certainly no midriffs. (Like I show that these days!) Well, there weren't a lot of tourists from the U.S., but the European tourists apparently didn't get the dress code memo.  The shawl I carried in my bag everyday, "just in case" we ended up someplace that even our conservative Western attire was too casual, never got pulled out.  And I could have bought a much prettier one there.

Now, I've traveled all over the world for, uh, more than three decades.  And I've never felt like a second-class citizen anywhere.  I got to have that new experience in Dubai.

We'd been warned never to walk outside the hotel alone.  A Navy Captain told me that  a Western woman alone on the street translated into prostitute.  So my friend and I walked as if we were attached at the hip.

The first morning we were window shopping and walking.  A group of four suited businessmen approached us. As the Navy Captain instructed, we lowered our eyes and didn't smile and kept walking.  They took up the whole sidewalk.  We had to jump in the street because they got faster and were like four linebackers as they approached us.  We must have been invisible.  Dodging traffic outside of a crosswalk in a downtown setting is not my strong suit.

At an upscale market-restaurant in the world's biggest shopping mall we were the only ones in line to order and, you guessed it.  Two men came in and stepped between us and the counter (without touching us) and ordered.  They never looked at us or acknowledged our presence.  Neither did the girls behind the counter.  Invisible again.  We ate somewhere else.

So much for chivalry. That whole men-can't-touch-a-woman rule can be difficult sometimes.  Like when we were trying to get out of the abra.  The "boat" didn't pull all the way up to the dock and men just starting jumping off and others jumped on.  We weren't willing to jump three feet across the water from a moving boat to a crowded dock.  And no man would give us a hand, literally, to help.

Finally, the boat owner yelled, a lot, and bumped the boat against the dock.  Six men in the boat grabbed the cleats and motioned us out while the other men on the dock moved far away.  If someone had been filming, it would have gone viral on You Tube.

As a wanna-be princess, being in a country that has no chivalrous background gave me a lot of "fuel" for the fire in my current main character.  I'd never felt like a second-class citizen and now that I can personally relate to that down-trodden anger, my character can resonate from her core in her struggle to build the life she wants.

I guess I'm going to have to throw this one to the "Write What You Know" crowd, because I couldn't have touched her boiling hotpot of emotion without these experiences.  Laura, Jenny, and Sharla commented on the first chapter draft that "She's so angry" and "Why does she have such a temper?"  Until I "got" the why, I couldn't motivate her temper at the level necessary to ensure the reader didn't think of her as a spoiled brat.

Oh, the steri-pen worked great!  We had all the purified water we could drink.

Egypt--Alexandria, the Giza Plain, the Nile River Cruise, and the private jet (oh, yeh, rock star, baby!) next time.

Have you traveled to Dubai? Did you have different experiences? Share them with us!

0 comments on “Dubai - and a Writing Lesson”

  1. Oh my God, Fae. You mentioned a few things, but not the feeling of it -- the oppression of it.
    Dubai was never on my bucket list, and this confirms my choice.

    Your post makes me grateful. There but for the grace of God . . .

  2. I haven't been to Dubai, but I have been to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It's like Dubai without the glitz, and much, MUCH more conservative. I also got the second-class citizen treatment there, in spite of being an Arab myself, but I wasn't from one of the RICH Arab states, you see, so I'm trash. I've actually heard the word 'hadf bahr' thrown around - it basically means 'what the sea tossed up.' Yeah, it's not very nice.

    I do hope you have a better experience in Egypt. Unlike the Gulf region, we have a 'foreigner-complex' here in Egypt: foreigners are treated better than Egyptians in most cases, although sometimes shops charge extra if they think you're a tourist. Alexandria is my home-town, so to speak, so I'd be glad to provide assistance where I can. ^-^

  3. I loved traveling to Dubai vicariously through your post. I don't think it makes my bucket list either, though. My brother went there often on business before he retired. A son in law in the Air Force (now also retired) was stationed temporarily there. My brother often talked about the many older luxury American cars he saw there. He's a car nut with older Corvettes in his garage. Kim, my son in law, had to keep his remarks to himself because of the nature of his time there. But I can talk to them about their experiences there with a new understanding now. Thanks.

  4. Completely different - Emirates airlines is either hit (my flight from the UK to Dubai was awesome, economy was indeed just like business class) or miss (my flight to Perth from Dubai was the worse experience I've ever had in the air).

    But I loved living in Dubai and wish that I could go back - it was a wonderful place to live and my wife was never harassed there either. Sorry to hear you had a bad time, but it's an exception rather than rule in my experience.

    1. I wonder why Emirates flights are so "uneven." Jenny's friend, Sally, really loves living there, too, and I know several people who have stayed there for a few months who all loved it. Perhaps I can get back sometime.

    1. I'm sure if I had stayed in the more tourist area I would have had an entirely different trip, but my friend and I wanted the non-glitzy, earlier Dubai view. And we got that.

    1. Maybe if I hadn't been so stressed getting there and being totally on our own (except for our afternoon with Sally) I could have relaxed and enjoyed it more. It was the first time I'd ever been to the Middle East and by the time we got to Egypt I was much more relaxed.

  5. Wow, that was interesting. Do you know, I never really thought about what it feels like to be really truly a second-class citizen in the way you've described it here. New Zealand being a British colony, I've been raised with men standing for me on the bus, and opening doors for me (mostly) and generally being caring. I'm feeling sort of freaked out right now. But what brilliant fodder for your book!!
    Yvette Carol

  6. Hi Fae,

    I lived in Dubai for 5 years and your experience was very far from my own. I walked the streets by myself without concern. I wore shorts/short sleeves all the time as did my hubby and children (even have the pictures to prove it). The local men were generally always polite and respectful to me and my daughter (and most western women period). If you were a house maid...that was different. You were a servant and didn't register on their radar. However, the upper class Indian/Pakistani population there can be pushy and arrogant. The locals don't normally wear business suits while in country. They wear traditional dress. Our landlord was with the administration of education and he always wore traditional dress. I lived in an area where the locals lived and I rarely if ever saw any of them in suits.

    Funny, having someone step in line in front of you happens all the time in the US and it's not thought of as treating someone as a second class citizen as much as being outright rude.

    If you want to see how they treat those they really disdain, then you should see how construction crews and house maids are treated. I had an Indian neighbor who locked her house maid in the house while she was away for vacation. She didn't want the poor woman to steal from her. She had her sister-in-law come over every day to check up on her to make sure she was still there and hadn't taken anything. I've seen them be hit, not paid for weeks on end and deported for small infractions...funny enough even within housemaids there is a class system. If you're Sri Lankan you're pretty much bottom of the barrel where as if you are a Philipina, you're top drawer and are treated better.

    What the tourist companies tell you to expect when you go to Dubai is a standard for the Middle East. If you go to Saudi, then yes, by all means cover yourself up and don't even think of driving a vehicle. In Dubai, I had my own car and carted the kids around all the time. The Sheik is married to a western woman and Dubai is a pretty liberal place...all things considered.

    1. Yours is the typical story I read before my trip. And, yes, the locals did wear their distinctive clothing--both men and women. I think it must have been the area I stayed in--and that would play a big part with visitors to the U.S., too. If I get a chance to make another stop in Dubai, I'd like to give it another try. Thanks for tipping the scale that way, JoAnn, and for sharing your experience of Dubai.

  7. Read all the posts with fascination. Definitely not on my travel list. Give me the Canadian Rockies any day!

  8. Nope, despite the fact that my pal Sally is there, NOT on my bucket list. I'm delighted that she'll be heading back to London in the next few years. Now THAT's a place I love.

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