Yesterday I took Tim’s and my absentee ballots to the US Embassy here in Abu Dhabi to be mailed back to the US in the diplomatic pouch in time to be counted in the upcoming Presidential election.

We got an email from the embassy a couple of weeks ago saying that all Americans can bring their ballots to the embassy and our ballots would be sent to our home “states”. We both feel strongly that voting matters, and this absentee voting system works well.

I am aware of how patriotic I have become from living outside the United States.   Our freedom of choice is fundamental to our definition of being Americans.  We can say what we think.  Our discourse and disagreement are celebrated.

GE sent me a survey last year about our experiences here in Abu Dhabi.  Questions ranged from the helpfulness of the HR team to the quality of our living situation.  One final question struck me deeply.    The question asked what I had learned the most from being in the UAE.  My answer wasn’t about living in a Muslim country or learning about new cultures.  I wrote that I learned how much I love being an American….how privileged and lucky I felt to be from the USA.  I couldn’t image being from anywhere else.

So as I was filling out the mailing address for our ballots inside the embassy, I realized that tears were streaming down my face. I could hardly read what I was writing.  After making my way through the labyrinth of security and bypassing all the lines of people who want visas to enter the USA, I was on American soil.  I am casting my vote in the USA.    I feel how far away I am from my home and the home that I love.

So cherish our country – for all the good and bad – all the ugly discourse.  We are lucky to be Americans.

So vote.  It is a privilege that few people have.


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Close your eyes and imagine a date (the fruit, that is). Think of its color, its texture and its taste. I’ll bet you saw a small, brown, wrinkly, oval fruit that was kind of mushy and maybe stringy in texture and too sweet – Well, think again!


gorgeous large red dates for sale

Dates are an amazingly versatile fruit and the date palm tree is used in a wide variety of applications. Dates come in many, many colors, textures, sizes and ranges of sweetness. I have grown to enjoy dates and use them as a substitute for a sugary afternoon sweet.


Date palms have grown in the Middle East for millennia. And their importance is not only as a source of food. The scarcity of water for irrigating date palms and other crops caused the development of Falaj irrigation,  which in term required accurate time keeping.

A falaj is a man made irrigation system that brings water from the mountains or from springs into a village and then allocates that water to individual fields or orchards. Access to water was tightly controlled by a falaj master. To gain access to water, each individual date palm farmer purchased a specific share of the water, measured in minutes of water flowing into his personal irrigation system. It was vital for everyone to know accurately how many minutes of water they owned and how many they actually received.


date palm oasis in Oman near Nizwa

Before it reaches the crops, there is a hierarchy as to the order in which the water in the Falaj is used. Drinking water to the village is first and most upstream. Second is water to the mosque for the ritual cleaning of the mouth, hands and feet. Third is for livestock and finally the remaining, less pure, water is for irrigating the crops.


As a food, dates eaten after they have been dried in the sun give energy, can be carried safely on long journeys, and can help with hydration. When pressed, they produce a syrup that is sweet and can be fermented into a wine. The pressed pulp and very small dates are used for livestock feed.


dates nearly ready for harvesting


The tree has equally varied uses. The width of a building was determined by the usable height of the palm tree trunk. The stems of the palm fronds were used to provide the initial structure of the roof and the fronds were then woven to provide the final roof covering. Rope was also made from the date palm.


Dates come in all sizes and colors! Red, yellow, light brown, dark brown and black. And they can be very small to quite large. In Abu Dhabi, dates in the local market come from the UAE and Jordan with the very, very best from Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s dates are large, not too sweet and command up to $25-$30 a pound! (translated from dhirams per kilo)


The local date market is staffed by very friendly men from Kerala, India (everyone with any education is from Kerala!) If someone wants to buy dates, they drive up to their favorite stall and taste the dates for that day. At this time of year, it is early in the season so many dates are still hard and need to be dried.



father and daughter buying dates at the date market

The giving of dates as a gift is common. Stores sell gift dates that are quite upscale. And the serving of dates and Arabic coffee is the traditional welcome to one’s home, business or office. Dates are an important element of life now and in the past.



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I thought I would write a bit more about NYIT, Abu Dhabi and my experiences teaching young Muslim women and men. Yes, I do teach men. There are men in our interior architecture BA course. It is primarily women, but each year has 2-3 men.

NYIT, Abu Dhabi is a satellite branch of NYIT (New York Institute of Technology) on Long Island. They have campuses in Canada and China and are looking to expand into India and Bangladesh. We follow the New York curriculum, which is US-centric and sometimes can lead to odd situations. For instance, the first year design studio projects are based on interpretations and reinterpretations of the Sistine Ceiling. It feels slightly inappropriate to have a large segment of a semester’s work in a Muslim country based on a chapel and not a mosque. The Philosophy of Design course begins with Chicago, (most students don’t have any idea where Chicago is) the industrial revolution and the blank slate created by the great fire of 1871.   To make the course relevant to the students here, I decided to relate the history of Chicago in the nineteenth century to the recent history in Dubai. Each was a rapidly growing regional hub, driven by a natural resource boom.

Our university buildings are quite humble.

When I tell anyone that I teach at NYIT, they immediately think I mean NYU, which has a grand campus on Saadiayat Island. NYU was selected to come here and supported as part of an Abu Dhabi government development plan. Thus their campus is state of the art and the curriculum is reviewed and approved by the UAE education department.

NYIT is clustered with other educational organizations and our block of prefab industrial buildings includes the UAE Higher Colleges of Technology, the UAE Space Agency, the British Council, a Starbucks and a Subway. It is funny to see Subway written in Arabic script.





The NYIT students are almost all young people born in the UAE, but few are Emirati citizens.   The students identify with the countries where their parents were born. Egypt is the most represented country with kids also from the UAE, Pakistan, India, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.


my students after sketching at the Ritz Carelton

The diversity is amazing. They are like their American counterparts in that they work hard and like to hang out with their friends.  They are unlike American students in that they all live at home and are quite tied to family traditions and obligations.   The girls are in the UAE under their fathers’ visas. The boys cannot remain in the UAE after 21 (I think that is the age) under their fathers’ visas. They need to be sponsored by NYIT or an employer.   So, staying in school is important to them so that they can remain with their families in Abu Dhabi.

I have enjoyed talking with and learning from my students. We have chatted about their perceptions of the USA, the differences between Islam and Christianity, arranged marriages, women working, and wearing abayas along with the material at hand. It has also been nice for me to be part of a professional organization. My immediate colleagues are from the USA, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.


Last spring we had our graduation ceremony – complete with academic regalia — at the Intercontinental Hotel with the US Ambassador to the UAE, Barbara Leaf, as our keynote speaker. Families were excited for their graduates. Balloons and flowers were everywhere – just like an American graduation. It was fun to be part of the final celebrations.



Working at NYIT has made my experience of living in Abu Dhabi much richer. Knowing the students has helped me better understand the lives of young people in a Muslim world.  They speak a lot about their countries of origin and the many global troubles that affect them and their extended families. It reinforces my belief that the USA plays a global role and it is a role we need to respect, understand and embrace.




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Real or Fake? Does it Matter?

We recently returned from a wonderful trip to Athens and Crete for the Eid Al Adha holiday. I had never been to Greece before and was excited to see all the sculptures I had studied in college and roam around the buildings of the ancient Acropolis and Knossos. In Athens, our hotel was a stone’s throw from the Acropolis and in Crete, our 3-room inn was the old wine making building on a small winery.


view from our room


The question of what is “real” and what is “fake” art dawned on us while admiring the six graceful Caryatids carrying the roof of the south porch of the Erechtheion.

We realized from reading the signage that we were admiring fiberglass copies and not originals. The five replicas had been cast in 1979 because the originals were deteriorating from the acid rain and city pollution. To preserve the maiden columns, the originals were taken inside to the Acropolis Museum and replaced with the replicas.

A sixth Caryatid had been taken by Lord Elgin in 1801-1804 and bought by the British Museum in 1816. By being stolen or protected, depending on one’s point of view, she didn’t face as much damage as her friends did.


It bothered me that the columns were “fake”. It bothered me that I was not gazing at the real sculptures. But, with the five caryatids preserved in the Acropolis Museum and the 6th taken away a century before, visitors could still see the beautifully carved faces and flowing draperies on the originals. And, we could appreciate this beauty more closely in a museum than out in the field.

The same questions arose at Knossos. Knossos is an ancient palace complex on Crete founded near two rivers about 8 kilometers inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The civilization thrived from around 3,000BC to 1,450 BC with its peak between 1,700BC – 1,450BC. Art and culture flourished during this time. Frescos depict women in luxurious clothing and jewelry being served by maids. Processions of men carry platters of food and drink in intricately decorated vessels. Carved stone seals depicting plants, animals and geometric shapes were used to indicate ownership.   Games were found. And the famous bull jumping frescos showed one way the population enjoyed their free time. All these we examined and enjoyed in the Herakklion Archeological Museum – not on the site. The site had copies and fragments of copies on the walls.




Knossos was abandoned in the 1,300BC’s for unknown reasons and it became the story of legend.

Then, in around 1,900AD, Sir Arthur Evans “discovered” the palace. Within a few years, much of the site had been excavated and rebuilt. Evans brought his European background to his assessment and re-creation of the site. When encountering a second floor, he assumed it was a piano nobile, like that found in Italian palazzos and made sure to added palazzo elements, such as coffered ceilings, to the structure. Find a carved stone chair, assume it is a throne and call the space the assembly room for the ruler.

Everywhere you turn in the Palace of Knossos, you see concrete infill. You see painted columns and portions of frescos designed and re-created by Evans based on the fragments he found. You wonder if the walls you walk between really existed. You wonder if ramps and stairs led to the intended spaces.


a re-creation of columns, fresco and pediment

Does it matter? By visiting this ancient site, you get a sense of what the spaces were like and what they felt like. You experience the size and scale of the complex. You get a feel of what the spaces felt like and see the original locations for frescos now housed and preserved in the Herakklion Archeological Museum. Does it matter that the stones on the floors and walls weren’t where they originally sat? Does it matter that the columns aren’t the originals?

I struggle with this question. It feels to me that it diminishes the place and the experience.   It feels less real and less valid. But isn’t it important to preserve these sculptures, frescos and spaces so future generations can appreciate the past?

As we have considered this further, there is a range of issues here. If the Greek cultural authorities choose to move ancient sculptures into a controlled museum environment and replace them with copies, the sense of wonder associated with the Erechtheion site may be diminished, but the trade off in protecting the sculptures makes sense. Taking a Caryatid without permission, even if the result is that it survives in high quality condition is a more dubious proposition. And the fanciful recreation of archeological spaces at Knossos and the placement of replicas in positions known not to be original definitely undermines the visitor experience – exactly the opposite of what Sir Arthur Evans intended.
In the end, the preservation of cultural sites is about choices and cultural norms at the time of each intervention.   Even during their periods of active use, these sites were constantly being modified, so there is no single “original” or “real” state in which to preserve them.

(We visited the Lassithi Plateau, which produces abundant fruits and vegetables and is known for its windmills.  The other photo is from the port in Chania)





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A Printing Adventure

Exploring new parts of Abu Dhabi is always an adventure.


Al Saif Printers

Al Saif Printers

I took on the renovation of a condominium near our house when I was in DC over the summer and loved getting back into the puzzle solving of a project. With some additional design work necessary, I brought the drawings back here to Abu Dhabi and finished them up in my drafting room that seconds as the third bedroom.


Back in the US, I know that ABC Printing can pick up my drawings, scan them to a pdf file and return them back to my office. Simple and easy. Here, I had to find a place that could scan large scale drawings and change them to pdf’s. My architect friends work at firms where drawings begin on the computer so no one needs that intermediate scanning process.


After class today, I checked the on-line yellow pages. I chose to call Al Saif printers and explained what I needed to Ismael. I was pretty sure but not positive that he indeed could do the work.  (I actually just got the originals back and learned that his firm could not do the work. He took my drawings to another shop down the street) I asked for directions and was told it was behind the Etisalat (the phone company) building, off Street #10. I asked him if that was the old #10 or the new #10.   A few months ago Street #10 was Street #2. (Also, there are “major” numbered streets and, between them, “minor” numbered streets, but that’s another level of complexity.) You have to make sure everyone is talking about the same streets. Ismael re-assured me that it was easy to find because it was over the famous and delicious Hindu restaurant, Haveli.

Can you find the Haveli?

Can you find the Haveli?

Off I set with my vague directions. Near to where I thought Haveli was, I went into another print shop and asked if Haveli was nearby. The Indian owner and Emirati customer in the store looked at me blankly and said, “No, they never heard of this restaurant.”

A woman clad in her black burqua then came over to me as I was about to walk out and said, “Havile? I think I know that place. It’s the Indian restaurant.” I said yes and she instructed me to walk down that street (I wasn’t exactly sure what “that” street was) and it was the 6th or 7th building…right near where she lived.


So off I went and of course, couldn’t find Haveli. Back and forth I went, but along the way saw a brazier that was heating up the coals that bubble the water in the shisha pipes.



I noticed the intricate decorations on the bracketing over the sidewalkIMG_1500

And, I wondered about the name of the store “The Joker Sports Club”… not many locals are that athletic.


After asking four more people, I found the Haveli. Inside the restaurant I was told that the entrance to the upper floors and business areas was around back. When you go out back, you know you are in a different part of Abu Dhabi than the tourists see. It feels like you are in India, complete with stray cats. Walking inside and up dimly lit stairs, I wondered if I could truly be in the right place.




But off the landing, there was Al Saif’s office. Two nice women and Ismael greeted me, knew exactly who I was, and happily took my drawings. An hour later I had pdf’s to email back to the US!  Exploring is good.




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Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi

Modern architecture exists in Abu Dhabi. People tend to think of modern architecture as tall glimmering skyscrapers such as the Etihad Towers pictured here, which were featured in the movie Furious 7.

Etihad towers

In fact “modern architecture” refers to a building style begun in the early 1900’s with the advent of steel framing replacing load bearing walls.   Other important materials used in the modern style were reinforced concrete and large expanses of glass. The modern movement emphasized pure geometric forms such as circles and spheres; squares and cubes; and triangles and pyramids. Clean lines and an expression of volume were equally important. And finally, the idea that “…form follows function” (paraphrased from Louis Sullivan) was paramount. You should be able to “read” a building. By that, I mean that you should be able to tell the use of a building by the form or layout of that building. A bank should not look like a school. An apartment building should look different than on office building.


Modernism was brought to Abu Dhabi in the 1970’s and 80’s by Sheikh Zayed. The city at that time was small and undeveloped. People and oil money were pouring into Abu Dhabi and the need for housing and development boomed.


Tim and I went to a lecture at NYU about Modernism in Abu Dhabi and it opened our eyes to this new side of the city.   I will show you 5 buildings that I particularly like and write some of my thoughts about them. I’d love to read what you think about them too.

The first is a Fish and Vegetable market built in 1985.


With the single story building and repeating pattern of higher and lower roofs, you can  tell that it houses things similar to one another, but maybe with slight differences between each thing. That would make sense for a market with individual stalls selling similar kinds of produce.









The varying heights of roof lines allows for daylight to come inside the building making it feel very open and airy…almost like you are at an outside vegetable market. The building is broken into sections, 8 bays wide and 4 bays deep, which you can see from the front and side elevations.  The building is a hidden jewel amongst much taller and newer buildings.










The second building is an apartment building built in 1989 and located on Airport Road, one of the major streets in Abu Dhabi.


You can tell from the design that one function occurs on the bottom three levels and then with the 45 degree shift, that something else happens above. The first three floors front the street and house stores and commercial establishments. Above that, the floors shift and contain apartments. The entrance to the building is clearly marked by the vertical band that runs directly over the front door.






The beauty of the shifted floors is that the tenants in the apartments don’t look directly into the neighboring apartments. They look beyond and to the park across the street. Though the building is in disrepair, which a number of these buildings are, good quality materials such as wood and metal were used.

The third building is a shopping center/apartment building along Zayed the First Street.


Again, you can tell where the break between shopping and apartments occurs due to the placement of the pre-cast concrete screen with the circle/triangular motif.


DSC_8998The solid walls from that point down contain the stores inside the mall and the shading panels above screen  the ribbon windows of the apartments. The two blocks appear cube like and have diamond screening on the  sides. The entry is clearly marked by the black void between the two blocks. The use of reinforced concrete and glass is quite striking.







The fourth is another apartment building built in the 1980’s further along Zayed the First Street. What a play of circles!


DSC_9066It is almost comical. What was once a fun building with corrugated metal panels creating the circular patterns and wooden handrails sliding behind, it is now falling apart. Tenants of the building say it is decrepit inside as well. The UAE has to decide if these buildings are important and worth saving or not.DSC_9067


The final building is the best – a round apartment building sitting on a square base, which houses a restaurant. It is thing of beauty and geometric fun. The white concrete “lattice” connects each floor with the one above.  The lattice is applied in a three-dimensional half drop pattern. The weaving of the vertical structure with the metal railing is playful and beautiful. This is Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi at it’s finest. Come visit and we’ll give you a tour.





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Al Maqta Fort

We are on a tear!  3 posts in a week!!

As promised, this next entry is about two of my favorite old buildings in Abu Dhabi – the Al Maqta Fort and watchtower.







They sit prominently at the water’s edge overlooking the Khor al Maqta (Maqta channel). With it’s crenulated (called tarbushes in Arabic) fort and tower, mangrove wood beams, and plaster structure, it is one of the few important buildings left from when Abu Dhabi was a small fishing village.  This next shot was taken by Wilfred Thesiger, a British explorer who crossed the Empty Quarter two times.  This was taken when he came to Abu Dhabi in the early 1950’s.

taken by Wilfred Thesiger

taken by Wilfred Thesiger

The 200 plus year old fort and watchtower guarded the shallow ford across the water and protected the village from bandits and raiders. It is a beautiful reminder of the indigenous architecture from the gulf region that is largely neglected.

The design elements of the buildings are typical for an important fort at that time. Overall, the fort consists of a low rectangular block with windows and square niches in the wall above the windows. A highly ornamented gateway door leads into this block of rooms. At the corner overlooking the water, an attached tower finishes the composition and is topped with a small dome.


An open balcony is on the north side of the tower, providing shade and cooler temperatures to the inhabitants of the fort.DSC_9140

The walls are most likely made from clay bricks and hand covered with a layer of plaster. Little or no wall ornamentation is common for a fort from this era.   The tower and entry doorway are the most elaborate elements within the fort complex. The tarbushes around the top of the fort’s tower are decorative yet also hide a lowered floor for a man to stand on. The rows of rectangular openings were most likely used by the guards to shoot approaching raiders from protected positions. (from Qasr al Husn by Reem Tariq el Muwalli)

To me, the exterior gateway door is the most beautiful piece of work at the fort.


It has 4 intricately carved panels per door with 4 rows of nail heads. The nail heads are called “…finjan, which resembles the shape of an inverted Arabic coffee cup.” (from Qasr al Husn by Reem Tariq el Muwalli) It calls to mind the beautiful Omani doors so popular among expats.


Sadly, the fort is now engulfed by roads, bridges and construction sites. It is never open to the public and seems to be viewed as an after thought along the highway. Maybe one day it will be open and we can all get out on the balcony and appreciate the view.DSC_9138DSC_9118


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