Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Archive for the tag “Bedouin”

Five Star Stables

“Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me.
And thou shall fly without any wings
And conquer without any sword.”
from The Qur’an

This is a brief post, focusing on the pictures, which speak for themselves.  It will appeal to equestrians, people who love horses, and anyone interested in the spectacular skyline and extravagances of Dubai. (A note to the regular followers of my posts: If you want to see the photos on them  in their fullness- or the overall blog itself- go to the actual site, expateyes.com, rather than relying on the text that shows up in your email.)

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai is an accomplished and avid horseman, who owns many purebred Arabian horses and participates frequently in international competitions.  He owns stables, racetracks and stud farms in England, Ireland, and Kentucky. Evidently he rides almost every single day, often in the desert or along the shoreline of the Arabian Gulf.  Riding is deeply engrained in his Bedouin roots -remember he is a mere generation away from tribal, desert life- and the enthusiasm is shared by his family members.

In fall 2008, some tourists from Maryland arranged, through a connection of a member in their group, a private tour of the Sheikh’s Zabeel Stables. There is no public access to these, so I felt very fortunate to be included.  The main trainer told us that on the previous day, the Sheikh’s 11-month-old daughter had gone for her first ride! The horses are simply splendid. Each one has two fulltime caretakers or handlers.

The stable compound includes a lap pool, a treadmill, and a Jacuzzi. Let me clarify that these are for the HORSES.                                                                

Windtowers to Skyscrapers


“To arrange three stones in a fireplace on which to set a pot was the only architecture that many of them required.”

Wilfred Thesiger

The Past: For centuries, the dwellings of Gulf Arabs were virtually non-existent. Home for Bedouins was where they slept that night, either under the stars or in simple tents of woven goat hair blankets. Royal families lived in more elaborate tent structures consisting of several “rooms” divided by drapes, made comfortable with thick carpeting and cushions. Modern desert camps for tourists resemble those traditional compounds.

The first distinctive architecture in Dubai appeared relatively recently, in the late 19th century. It was imported by merchants from a town in southern Persia called Basta, who were re-settling in the tiny fishing, pearl diving, and trading village of Dubai on the creek opening into the Persian (now Arabian) Gulf.  That creek is still simply called The Creek by the locals. The Persian immigrants built handsome homes with windtowers and courtyards, designed to adapt to the harsh desert climate. Green, sustainable architecture, before those terms were even used. I have never seen anything like them. They are stunning.

The windtowers are designed to capture the breezes from The Creek and the sea, funneling the air down to the rooms below.  The houses and towers are made of petrified coral blocks dug from The Creek and bonded with sarooj- a mixture of clay, manure, and water.  Ceilings and roofs are constructed around hardwood beams finished with a mixture of straw and silt. Since it rarely rains, the roofs are flat, providing another gathering and sleeping area for residents, depending on the season. They serve as exterior rooms, designed to maximize exposure to winds for cooling, as they are surrounded by perforated parapets. When it does rain, the run-off spills through spouts and can be collected for other purposes, such as  washing clothes or watering plants.

The elegant functional form of the windtowers is beautiful in itself. The Arabs, however, with their love of elaborate mosaics and decorative patterns, have added geometric and floral designs wherever they can.  Thus, there are finely carved ventilation screens, arches and balcony balustrades made from limestone slabs covered with chalk and water paste. Intricately carved wooden doors, with fanlight panels over them to diffuse the light and increase airflow, enhance the artistic effect. An intriguing side note: the stone balconies on traditional homes in the Middle East, with Arabesque motifs cut into them, are meant to both let in air AND to conceal the women sitting on them.


The Present: My previous posts have alluded to the impressive energy and imagination fueling the emergence of Dubai and Qatar as cosmopolitan international centers. Nowhere is that spirit more evident than in the bold, innovative architecture in these cities.  The pictures below tell the story.  These gleaming steel and glass buildings, in such extraordinary shapes, make a striking contrast to the limestone, coral and mud structures of olden days. When known, the architect’s name is in the caption on the photograph, which you can read by moving your cursor over the image.

The Future:  In December 2010 Doha was awarded the World Cup for 2022.  Most people on the planet are skeptical that they will be able to pull this off, this miniscule dot of a country, with summer temperatures of over 125 degrees Fahrenheit! Well, here are just a few of their plans, already underway: lodging for tourists on floating hotels off the Pearl Island; free public transportation throughout the city on a “People Mover”; covered stadiums made comfortable by vast cooling systems and remote control clouds (stadiums which they will then fold up and donate to Third World countries).

Big dreams. Smart ideas.  I, for one, hope they succeed, especially if they are sensitive to the environment as they proceed. If they do, we are all winners. Look at the pride on this young girl’s face on Qatar National Day soon after the awarding of the  World Cup!       Next Post: Wandering through Bastakia

Mind Your Manners

“You might think Casablanca’s modern with its chichi stores and ritzy cars, but under that façade it’s raw…it’s tribal. Never forget that.”

Tahir Shah, Caliph’s House

Casablanca. Beirut. Cairo. Dubai. Doha. This comment made by Tahir Shah applies to all the modern cities in the Middle East. Travelers who do forget where they are can face some unpleasantness.  An English couple who engaged in PDA on the beach in Dubai in 2008 was put in jail. Likewise an American acquaintance of ours in Doha who argued with security authorities over some mundane matter. Never has my mother’s message to “mind my manners” been more relevant! At worst, you face incarceration or expulsion for ignoring the rules here- stated and unstated. At the least, you risk being regarded as an uncouth, ignorant American. But this is common knowledge about life in Muslim countries. What about the more subtle codes of conduct?

I attended a workshop with a Cultural Interpreter of sorts, a distinguished and witty Emirati man, who explained expectations for both professional and social situations. There are three key points to bear in mind at all times, the underpinnings of the Gulf Arab society. David Lamb, in The Arabs- Journey Beyond the Mirage, puts it succinctly:

“We are Bedouin. We are tribal. We are Islamic.” 

Desert. Family. Religion. These three strands are woven into the fabric of day-to-day life. First and most important, is an understanding of Islam. Jeremy Williams commented in Don’t They Know It Is Friday?:  

 “A Muslim believes that God’s hand is present in every occurrence on earth. Nothing happens without God ordaining it.”

So when they say “Insha’Allah” (if God wills it), from ordinary conversations to more inflamed, political circumstances, they really mean it. You hear this phrase constantly. From taxi divers: Me-“Please take me to Bastakia.”- Driver-“Insha’Allah.”  From store clerks:  Me- “Do you sell this type of lotion here?” Clerk- “Insha’ Allah.”   From my Iraqi pottery teacher, Zaineb:  Me-“Will this piece be glazed and fired in the kiln by next week?” Zaineb- “Insha’Allah.”  In an interview on Al Jazeerah News: Reporter: “Will the conflict in Bahrain subside soon?” Official- “Insha’Allah.” You get the picture. I do not mean to trivialize this. I have great respect for their open and frequent expressions of faith. They believe that we humans are not in charge, no matter how good our intentions, how careful our plans, and how diligent our efforts.  An unsettling thought. One we recognize as true but would like to forget. Here you can’t.

Professional Settings: So how does this play out in business deals? Well, for starters, do not expect a meeting to begin at the appointed moment- or hour. Do not try to control time (thus, people). Our speaker told us that Arab businessmen find it more challenging to work with “linear” (his words) thinkers as opposed to “circular or global” thinkers. They do not adhere to punctuality and strict agendas at meetings. They do not like to rush, and they do not understand the Western insistence on sticking to scripted “bullet points”. What is the hurry? And what if the dialogue meanders down a different, more meaningful path? Many westerners tend to consider this approach vague, inefficient, and frustrating. More cynical types consider it evasive, even lazy. In my view, it is simply a call to be more patient and more flexible. “Insha’Allah.”

           “Time ceased to be…But somewhere people in offices continued to hold to the illusion of hours…”

Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

The Gulf Arabs’ more elastic and fluid sense of time is more than a matter of deference to the almighty power of Allah. It has evolved from their roots in the desert and at sea, where they live by the sun and the moon.  And you see examples of this cultural mindset everyday, all day long. So, I tell myself, ease up, slow down, breathe….

The Bedouin mentality and the focus on family are also evident in business settings. Arabs pride themselves on being hospitable above all else, to both friends and enemies.  The code of honor in the desert is to feed and shelter even hostile visitors for a minimum of three days.  They are civilized, formal and cordial in their dealings.

         “There is always something royal in the manners of the desert.” Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

“As long as people call on you, you will prosper, the Bedouin firmly believe, so every person who comes to you deserves a welcome and respect.”          Marguerite van Geldermalsen, Married to a Bedouin

Gulf Arabs consider it rude to begin meetings without first exchanging social greetings, asking about one’s family and general well being. This exchange of pleasantries may last quite a while. And once the meeting finally begins, they have one habit that is surprising- and annoying- to most of us. Since the importance of family over-shadows every other concern among Arabs, they keep their mobile phones on during meetings, answer them, and sometimes have extended personal conversations while the meeting is in session. It would never occur to them to turn off their phones, in case a family member needs them. 

Our teacher made a final point about professional collaboration. It is vital among the Gulf Arabs to honor a person’s dignity. Never embarrass a colleague. “Public praise. Private criticism.” I suspect it can get tricky to discern the line between questioning another’s viewpoint and criticizing him or her. A delicate dance.

Social Settings:  All of the above “rules” apply. Additionally, it is impolite to decline any coffee, food, or gifts offered. Accept their gracious hospitality.

Men should not shake a Muslim woman’s hand unless she initiates the gesture. Also, it is highly inappropriate for a man to compliment the wife of an Arab – “Your wife is so charming, so attractive…”- or for a woman to compliment an Arab friend or colleague’s husband. There are many layers to marital relations and to relations between the sexes in general.  Always true, but especially here.

Speaking of compliments, the most intriguing tip we were given has to do, again, with the Muslim faith. The term “masha’Allah” means, “praise God” or “thanks be to God.” Gulf Arabs do not like to take credit for any good fortune that comes their way, be it financial success, a promotion, a new car, or a handsome watch. They find it offensive to feel proud. In turn, the person giving the compliment might appear envious- quite gauche. So, if you are inclined to comment on a piece of jewelry or an accomplishment, be sure to add “masha’Allah.” For example, “Those are beautiful pearls, “masha’Allah.” The response will be, “Thank you, masha’Allah.” —-You can’t envy God, after all.

So, to sum up:
Be patient.
Count to ten. Or to one thousand.
Be flexible.
Be humble.
Be gracious.
Be discreet.
When in doubt, be quiet.

Thank you, Mother. You were right!  And good manners are, in essence, universal.

I will end this post with one of my favorite sayings, speaking of tuning into nuances and ambiguities, from an amusing little book of Arab proverbs: Apricots Tomorrow compiled by Primrose Arnander and Ashkhain Skipwith

“No answer is an answer.”

Next Post: Cocktails Anyone?

Sand Sifter

“This is my first journey across the desert; I have no useful knowledge.”

Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches, 1932

On first glance, the sands of the Arabian Desert are a flat expanse of bleached beige. But as the sunrays and shadows shift, and you venture deeper and deeper, countless colors and contours reveal themselves.  A palette of muted hues evoking the spices of the East: curry, saffron, and cardamom.  The dazzle of gems and minerals embedded within the earth’s core: quartz, amber, and copper. And what begins as an even surface, a simple spread, twists and folds into an elegant fabric of pleated satin and suede, sliding up and down dunes of dizzying heights.

The desert, with its fusion of tints and shapes, bold yet subtle and surprising, mirrors the complexity of the Arab world. Both are multi-layered and multi-textured, defying boundaries, constantly shifting, simmering with a sturdy life force- a coarse brutality softened by wind song, moon shine, and star light.

It is not my purpose in this blog to discuss the conflicts that seethe in the Middle East. Here is where I landed for a little while, at a historical moment in time. I am an outsider, which is humbling, for it challenges me to see with new eyes and a sense of wonder, without judgment or agenda. There is something to learn every single day, no matter the setting. It is liberating and energizing to be an anonymous observer. I am curious about the unique customs of different countries. Even more, I am interested in the lives of ordinary people, the similarities among us…for, ultimately, we are all like the desert dwellers, the Bedouins, charting our course from day to day.

“Every Bedouin, every traveler, must become a philosopher.”

Toni Briegel, Soul of Sand, 2002

Next Post: Back to the Future!

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