"Take me to the Ace Hardware by Zayed Port."

"I am sorry, sir. I have only been here five days."

"That's all right, I'll show you."

The automobile is currently the primary means of getting around the United Arab Emirates. In the cities, and certainly in Abu Dhabi, the automobile of choice for many is the taxi.

It was my choice, my first couple of months, but I went on to get my UAE driver's license and drove my own vehicle the rest of my stay.

In New York they are an ocean of yellow. In London, often black. In Abu Dhabi, a sea of silver-grey. In New York and in Abu Dhabi, people are on every street corner, hands up, flagging a cab. In Abu Dhabi, people don't whistle and shout at passing taxis, they just bake in the heat.

It is not uncommon to encounter a taxi driver on his first day on the job. I don't know what training they get, but there is certainly no equivalent to London taxi drivers' The Knowledge, and they all drive the way they learned in their home countries. Also, all Abu Dhabi taxi drivers put their automatic transmissions in neutral at stop lights.

I classify drivers in the UAE into three main groups: Taxi, Native, and Western.

Though it seems to me that many Abu Dhabi taxi drivers are from Pakistan, several other countries are represented. However, they all seem to drive like people from Delhi as it is demonstrated on the syndicated television show Don't Drive Here.

Though Abu Dhabi taxi drivers do tend to acknowledge painted traffic lanes, by no means does that mean that they will stay in them. A safe gap between cars is an opportunity, and a cab will fill that gap. It is common for a taxi to fly across three lanes of traffic to make a turn if the taxi driver believes that it will get him to his destination faster, and on to the next fare.

Taxi drivers assume responsibility for what they can see ahead of them and in their peripheral vision. Anything behind that is the responsibility of drivers behind them. They'll signal a lane change, but if you are in that lane, behind them, out of their field of vision, it's on you, boss. I'm pretty sure mirrors are optional.

These grey devils are almost reckless, somewhat aggressive, always something to watch out for. But I've seen worse.

Natives, on the other hand, can be decidedly reckless, and certainly drive aggressively. You can often tell Emeratis by their expensive cars, or SUVs, and by darkly tinted windows. If the vehicle is particularly expensive and the license plate has a very low number, you may be being passed on the highway by a member of the royal family, or some other rich sheikh or sheikha, headlights flashing to get you to move out of the fast lane. There are no vanity plates, but plates with a low number series (1) or something interesting (123) are coveted.

Emerati society can still be thought of as following tribal lines. If you are a stranger, outside the "tribal circle" then courtesy comes only in specific circumstances, though the courtesy is considerable when those circumstances are met.

Emeratis will cut you off in traffic and do other things that most Westerners would consider incredibly rude. Blocking traffic by double-parking is rampant. But call them out on it and they may be astonished that you've taken offense. It's simply the way things are done. The tribal lines extenuate the behavior.

A gross, perhaps misleading, oversimplification might be to say, "I don't know you, so fuck off." It's more complicated than that. As is everything.

Here's where it gets interesting. Catch an Emerati's eye. Communicate non-verbally — a glance, a polite gesture — and, suddenly, courtesy applies. Whereas before they wouldn't let you into their lane, afterward they'll bend over backward to be nice.

Westerners generally drive about how someone here in the USA might expect. Law-abiding, for the most part. I've seen examples of American road rage triggered by Emerati driving habits, and the kind of recklessness that entails. Riding in my boss's car is a good way to get high blood pressure, neck strain from swerving lane changes, and deafness from the honking horn.

That last is something I was aware of before I moved to the UAE, but that, nevertheless, startled the crap out of me the first week I was back.

I had forgotten just how inexplicably angry Americans always seem to be in their everyday lives.

Where an Emerati might come flying up behind you at 180 kph on the highway, they'll flash their high beams to get you to move. An American will just start tail-gating you in an old beater and, if you don't move fast enough, will blow past you in the slow lane, flipping you the bird the whole way.

Though traffic in the UAE can seem dangerous, it has societal rules if you pay attention and learn them. In the USA there are no rules. The "I don't know you, so fuck off" applies, but there are no circumstances where courtesy takes over. There's only the "fuck you".
angry purple

Today's douche

Caught about five minutes of the new season of Steven Seagal, Law Man, the other night. Five minutes was all I could stand before turning it off.

He's filming in Maricopa County, Arizona, now, home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is a douche. So, obviously like attracts like.

Anyway, as usual, Seagal was traveling in a caravan of two SUVs filled with several police officers doing patrol and serving warrants. Though the police were dressed rather conservatively, in white or tan shirts and brown pants, with black body armor, Seagal was wearing desert camo, including matching body armor, a doo rag on his head, and a kheffiyeh or shemagh around his neck. I guess he equates the Arizona desert to the Middle East.

In the episode guide, below, it is pointed out that Seagal takes his crew to the gun range where he teaches them "zen shooting". Because that is what American police require training in most of all. How to shoot straight.

Considering recent events it was the most insensitive, tone deaf thing I have seen recently. The syndicates playing the show should be ashamed.

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ee ah oo yow!..

...said the karaoke machine as I walked into the room.

I had arrived at the Byblos Hotel in Tecom, Dubai, and found my way to the Korean restaurant and karaoke bar. I told the bouncer that I was joining a party already in attendance but I didn't have the name for the reservation. The bouncer suggested that I try Room 8. He opened the door. A sea of virtually identical faces, possibly a large family unit, stared challengingly at me. Someone was either singing or being brutally murdered within. I backed out carefully and closed the door. The bouncer then suggested Room 1, but I was done with the bouncer's suggestions. I reverted to my phone and sent out a text. A combination of text exchanges and the bouncer insisting that Room 1 was probably what I was looking for finally moved me in that direction just as a member of my group was about to come out and get me.

Fourteen people had RSVP'd for the event. Initially, seven had shown up. Buncha jerks! One person arrived later. It was me, another fellow, and five nubile young women who were dressed for a night on the town. So young! Perky, vivacious, so much squee! Isn't that supposed to be a good thing?

Suddenly I was the slightly creepy grandfather whom mom and dad drag the kiddies along to visit on holiday. This begat mum or dad? Ye hoary gods! The only thing lacking was the smell of mothballs (Note to self: purchase mothballs). Like Colonel Kurtz, I tactically withdrew into the deepest jungle and, from the darkest depths of an ancient stone temple, shining bald head gleaming in the shadows, I muttered, "The horror! The horror!"

Ah! Oh! Hey! Ooo! The karaoke machine was being molested gleefully as it cried out the numbered selections of the song list. I've heard spoken Korean. Koreans don't talk like this. If Justin Bieber spoke Korean perhaps he would sound like this karaoke machine.

The singing had already begun. The two youngest had seized the microphones and were trying out various tunes. Several copies of the song list were scattered about and it appeared quite comprehensive. I was shocked, however, not to find the Largo Al Factotum from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. That would have given everyone a run for their money!

Someone soon pitched me a slow, underhand ball right across the plate. Fly Me to the Moon. I groaned it out. I couldn't hear whether my microphone was working or not so I have no idea how tortuous it was. Let's face it, nobody in that room was getting past round one of Arab Idol, and of course no one was trying to.

Glasses of wine were in evidence and more were required. I stuck to sparkling water because I wanted to make an honest attempt at having some kind of voice. The crowd was aghast. At first people were running out of the room to flag down the waiter, accompanied by bellows of "SHUT THE DOOR!!" The waiter bell was quickly identified and songs were then interspersed with quick jabs to it. One can only imagine the poor schmo assigned to our room, listening to the caterwauling within, knowing that silence would immediately be followed by a buzz for service.

Several more classics were chosen for group participation, naturally including Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen. I sang the tenor and bass bits. Most everyone was off key and some were off tempo. When the singing became seriously out of sync with the flow of the highlighted words on the karaoke screen the typical solution was to instantly molest the keyboard again -- ee ay meow! -- and start another in the hit parade.

Before anybody knew what was happening, 10 pm and closing time rolled around. The bouncer came in to throw us all out. I noticed that he had a basso profundo so deep and complex that I wished we had invited him in to sing with us.

The bouncer had us do a perp walk down the narrow corridor which, due to some errant way-finding, ended up being the long and winding way round. The path was lined with restaurant staff. They looked resentful and I searched their hands for weapons, wondering if we were facing some sort of Korean restaurant initiation rite. Were we about to be beaten into a Korean karaoke gang? What would be our gang sign?

We escaped unmolested, however, and went to dinner.

Used Books in Abu Dhabi!

After visiting Kinokuniya in Dubai, based on reading this article, and about which I wrote here, I decided to follow up further and find the other book stores listed in the same news story; particularly Thrift Books and Book & Bean, in Abu Dhabi.

I was aware of places like WH Smith and Magrudy's, but these are small and have a limited selection, in my opinion. Because I usually buy new books online and read them on my iPad, and because I really hadn't bothered to inquire in depth from people about book stores in the area, it was the article listed above, sent to me by a kind person, that got my juices flowing in the hope for some interesting used books. Prior to this I was feeling like I was living in not only a physical desert but an intellectual and cultural one as well. Actually, I still feel that way.

The article above only mentioned the name of Thrift Books without offering any kind of location information. My curiosity aroused, I did a Google search because... that's what you do these days. I found another article specifically about the shop.

Now, Abu Dhabi doesn't have street addresses. They are working on an addressing system, the Onwani project, but that's years away. To find a place in Abu Dhabi you do what your weird Uncle Clem from Mississippi does, you give out landmarks. To get to my office I would tell you it was on Najda Street, behind the Mitsubishi showroom. Don't know where the Mitsubishi showroom is? It's on Al Falah Street. Don't know where Al Falah Street is? It's also called Passport Road. And 9th Street. Well... you'll just have to learn. Actually, Google Maps on my smartphone does a pretty good job of getting me to a place in Abu Dhabi if I have a general location. So it's not all that bad. The great thing about the Thrift Books article was, the writer included GPS coordinates! I wish more people did that around here.

So, a recent Saturday was book hunting day. Thrift Books was closer, and the more intriguing due to its location and the charming, quirky nature of its description. I parked as close as I could to the stated location; no mean feat in the Tourist Club section of town. I walked through the searing heat and into the block, found the mosque that the book store was said to be in front of, walked around the mosque and, sure enough, there was Thrift Books, in it's pink tile building.

Thrift Books Abu Dhabi

I entered and immediately discovered that the shop was as small as had been described. No more than about 12 feet by 15. In addition to the cram packed bookshelves there was a small counter and many cardboard boxes, also filled with books. There were no other customers. Two staff appeared to be on duty: a man behind the counter, writing in a paper ledger, and a small woman, possibly the Victoria Pinto described in the article. They appeared to be sorting and shelving books. Occasionally the woman would tell the man that a book was fiction or non-fiction.

Fiction or non-fiction seemed to be the only sorting criteria. As I started to look through the stacks I could not immediately see another system in place. The books were certainly not sorted alphabetically. As I danced around cardboard boxes and leaned down or craned up, looking shelf by shelf, a bit of rhyme and reason began to take shape. The travel books were filed along the back wall. Where there were several books by one author, those had been placed together. Most of the books were in English. There were German language books shoved onto the top shelves. I didn't see any other languages. I was surprised not to see any Arabic books. But they could have been hidden. The cardboard boxes obscured many of the bottom shelves. I might have tried moving the boxes but there was nowhere to move them that wasn't already occupied by another box!

Many of the boxes were sealed, so I couldn't dig through them. That's part of the fun of a used book store is digging for buried treasure! The lack of a system other than fiction or non-fiction certainly required that I look at each shelf carefully. The store was so small that if one of us needed to be in one aisle, everybody else had to move to another corner of the shop.

I bought five books, spending about $20, more for the purpose of supporting the store than because I was dying to read any of what I purchased. Of course I'll go back. I hope that all of those boxes were just a new shipment or something, and that I'll be able to see the rest of the stacks that were hidden behind the boxes next time.

After a brief search to find my car again in the labyrinthine back streets I started blasting the air conditioning and headed across Saadiyat toward Yas Island and the Ace Hardware there. Yes, that's right, my next destination, Book & Bean, was inside a hardware store. I don't know why. Things don't always make sense here.

Book & Bean Abu Dhabi

At first glance, Book & Bean looked like it sold new books, but I didn't see any while I was there. There was a very nice looking cafe, serving the bean of Book & Bean, but it was closed for Ramadan. The books here were organized in a more usual way. I bought two and received a stamp card. Nine books or coffee purchases and I get a free coffee.

So, all in all it was a profitable Saturday afternoon. My new acquisitions are scattered on the coffee table, mostly to hide the accumulated dust. I have one or two other books I have to finish before I can grab one of these. Also, three of the books are parts of series, which means I'll have to hunt down the rest of those!

Ah well.
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Al Ain

I took a road trip to Al Ain, the weekend before last, with coworkers.

Al Ain is Arabic for The Spring. It is the fourth largest city in the UAE and the birthplace of its first president. It has been inhabited for at least 4000 years and has served as an oasis for all of that time.

Originally it was just my coworkers going, but they hounded me to go, I decided that I needed a little change of pace, and, of course, I'm the one with a car.

This is really not the time of year to visit anything outdoors in the UAE, but I had read that there was a mountain to drive up -- the Jebel Hafeet -- and I hoped it would be cooler up there. If all else failed, there was a hotel at the top where we could cool off. After talking it over we decided to make that our first destination so as to have lunch.

We left at about 10:30 in the morning, and it took about an hour and a half to get to Al Ain. We headed up the mountain. My poor little Peugeot struggled with the hair pin turns and steep hills.

Jebel Hafeet

Jebel Hafeet

At the top of the mountain we discovered a rest area with a snack bar. The day was hazy and it was still blazing hot. Over 100 degrees. There were a number of toy vending machines that were playing electronic music that did not in any way fit into the surroundings, making it a little eerie. We quickly got back in the car and headed to the hotel.

As might be expected in the off season, the hotel, the Mercure Grand, was quiet. Nevertheless, they were serving a nice buffet, though it wasn't a bargain. We were able to get a window seat and look out over the pool. There were a few guests out. Even in the middle of summer I could see that the hotel might be a nice, quiet weekend getaway.

After lunch we took a quick walk around the grounds. The hotel seemed to be renovating. There was what appeared to be an old wing of the hotel being taken down, and what looked like a water flume under construction, right on the edge of a cliff.


We jumped back in the car, drove back down the mountain, and to Jahili Fort, where there was an exhibition of photographs by Wilfred Thesiger.

Wilfred Thesiger spent a number of years in the region, in the 1940s. He wrote a book that was loaned to me by a colleague when I first got here, called Arabian Sands, and he took lots of really great photos. It's worth looking up.

Jahili Fort


While at the fort an Indian security guard followed us around and tried to flirt with one of my coworkers. He asked for us to take photos of him with his cell phone camera. At one point he even kissed my coworker on the cheek while taking a picture. He asked for her phone number and, because she felt sorry for him, she gave it to him. Of course he started calling her daily. I've seen this behavior from Indian and Pakistani men before and it is remarked upon elsewhere. I don't know why they do this. Perhaps they believe that Western women are easy.

After the fort we tried to visit the Oasis. It was in a walled enclosure. I could see the tops of many palm trees. However, I couldn't find a way in and it was already past 5 pm. We were a bunch of dried up little raisins and majority rule decided that it was time to drive back home and hose off.


I paid a visit to Kinokuniya Book World in Dubai Mall, yesterday.

Housed in, arguably, the largest shopping mall in the world, I presume that it is the biggest book store in the United Arab Emirates, if not the entire Middle East.

Orbiting through a 68,000 square foot half circle, Kinokuniya houses a very large collection of English, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic language books, graphic novels, comics, writing materials, figurines and toys.

Comprised primarily of English language books, the choice in each section is incredibly diverse and expansive.

After wandering through my guilty pleasure of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I meandered all the way to the back of the store and into the huge Design section. Graphic design, interior design, package design, the range was incredibly comprehensive.

Reversing my course, I navigated back to the middle of the store. I passed through the comic books, the graphic novels and the manga. Back near the Fantasy section, a young woman passed me. Turning to her companions she alerted them to her destination, hissing, "Fantasy!" and eagerly pointing at the stacks. It warmed my heart because I felt the momentary human connection; that shared passion for being transported to another place and time for a little while.

Beyond the manga was the Kino Cafe. Closed because of Ramadan, it looked very comfortable. Quite large, and apparently with an excellent view.

Arriving at the other end of the store, I entered the also huge History section. Another personal favorite. Winding from aisle to aisle, I traveled further and further forward in time until I reached the back wall and Current Events.

I noticed that a number of the more expensive books, the coffee table books, and all of the manga, comics and graphic novels were shrink wrapped. No way to thumb through them.

At first I thought that this was strictly a capitalist measure. An attempt to prevent people from just grabbing a book and plopping down into a corner to read it all in the store. In fact, I've since learned that this shrink wrapping is common throughout the Middle and Far East, and is known in Europe. But I believe that this also helps to serve as an act of censorship, to protect the delicate sensibilities of the religious.

Either way, it tarnished my experience a bit. I left without buying anything. But I will go back at the earliest opportunity.

More random thoughts, poorly structured, and having little basis in verified fact.

I think the truth about the United Arab Emirates is found in the back stairwells.

The stairs in the building in which I live are uneven. In several cases the top stair in a flight is significantly larger than the others, requiring an extra effort to reach the top. I often wonder what else is out of whack in my building, which is very new and, in fact, still under construction in some areas. Where else have mistakes been made? What will be the end result? Will it eventually come tumbling down like other buildings on this side of the world?

The Pareto Principle is in full effect. In general, they get things right about 80% of the time around here. Like the stairwells in my building. A colleague likes to tell the story of a fancy sundial that was installed down on the Corniche. My colleague brought his daughter to see it and he discovered that it was telling the wrong time, having been installed pointing the wrong way. Other examples abound. In many of the bathrooms, in my building, the grout between the tiles was never cleaned up properly after it was laid down and so swaths of dried grout are everywhere. Water pools on the floor next to my coworker's bathtub from an unidentified source. My toilet seat was installed crookedly. I don't even know how you can do that! Are the holes in the porcelain crooked? I haven't looked. That 20% they get wrong is a real killer.

One reason is poorly paid, poorly educated expats, from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, working in jobs for which they are poorly trained, who are being taken advantage of by a greedy, lazy, corrupt power base. It's the power base that is the true cause.

You can't blame the workers. They're doing the best they can in a bad situation. There's a long line of people from their home countries who would happily take their jobs, being dupes of the vile recruiting agencies, and I don't suppose it takes much to get fired and get your visa canceled; if your passport hasn't vanished in the clutches of an unscrupulous employer in the meantime. These immigrants are plentiful and disposable. A Google search on the plight of migrant workers in many countries in the Middle East yields much. Abuse is widespread. Construction workers die with alarming frequency and regularity. You can find crowds of Afghans and others sitting on the grass across the street from the main bus station, in Abu Dhabi, flagging down passing cars to get hired for day labor, much like Mexicans and Hispanics outside any Home Depot in any town in California. Domestic workers - house cleaners and child care workers - are even worse off because they're not protected by the weak and unenforced labor laws.

For privileged Westerners like me it's easy to sneer and complain when mistakes are made. To make fun of the sideways bob of an Indian worker's head. To imitate the sing-song quality of a Filipina shop girl's voice when she greets you. It's easy to forget how hard they're working, and under what conditions, because they vanish when they're not working. The construction workers are bussed out to decrepit dormitories in the desert. The domestic workers are trapped in the flats and villas in which they work. If you and a worker are waiting for the same elevator, the worker will defer to you and take another elevator. The immigrants can become invisible, despite making up almost 90% of the population of the country, if you stop looking for them!

But sometimes, in a back stairwell or storage room of a glittering modern building, you see the truth. A group of skinny little guys, squatting on their haunches, lucky enough to have managed to slip away to eat a handful of rice and bread, who leap up with guilty faces when you come down the stairs, as if they're doing something wrong.
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