Camping in the Desert

There is nothing like the peace and beauty of the desert landscape.  Spending the night underneath the protection of a dune with stars above and moonlit views of a wind-smoothed landscape stretching to the horizon in all directions is magical.

A few weeks ago we joined some friends for a night of camping near the Liwa Oasis in the Empty Quarter of Arabian Peninsula.    DSC_2856

The dunes in that area are around 200 feet high and — once the oil and gas fields are left behind — extend untouched for miles.   The sand is multi-colored, with a dominant shade of apricot (from iron) as well as traces of green (from copper). 

After driving an hour or so outside of Abu Dhabi, we turned off the paved roads and headed into the sand.  We “dune bashed” up and down and over dunes, stopped at a camel farm to pet some camels, and then dune bashed some more until we arrived at our camp site. 

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A friend had organized the trip with a company that provided the tents, the sleeping bags and all the food.  Our “glamping” trip had begun.

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With a big dune beckoning, we of course had to climb to the top.  Views of dunes, rippling sand and rolling waves extended all the way into Saudi Arabia.   One never tires of the endless landscape.

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And then the sliding/running down!  We sat on a plastic sled and scooted to the bottom.  The sledding is not as fast as on snow, but certainly a lot warmer. 

DSC_2838Running down was even better.  Who knew that when you run down, the compressing of the sand produces tuba-like music from deep within the dunes.   The music is created when one person runs or scoots down and grows louder and deeper the more people are involved.   Someone should compose a concerto for dune and violin.

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Blown sand creates repeating patterns that look like waves, curving shapes and rippled ridges.  They are mesmerizing.  We have taken literally hundreds of pictures of sand and dunes and have included a few of our favorites here.

After a dinner of grilled meats, rice and hummus, we sat by the fire, chatted and some tried shisha.  (not Meg!:))   

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Shortly before sunrise the next morning, Tim walked slightly further afield than we had gone the previous evening and came across a wild gazelle eating a shrub at the bottom of another dune.   

The early morning sun was soft on the colors and shapes of the sand and at the same time brought everything around our camp site into sharp focus.     

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We all enjoyed coffee, eggs and juices before a final musical dune descent to say goodbye (for now) to the desert.   

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Al Ain Camel Market

Al Ain Camel Market

Abu Dhabi is a city that has jettisoned most of its dusty bedouin past and embraced its glittering present.  Still, there are vestiges of its past that we love exploring. 

The Al Ain Camel market is one of our favorites.  Pens surrounding a central corral area teem with camels (and men) of all colors and sizes. 

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The cream colored camels are Asayel camels from the UAE and the dark Majahim camels are from Saudi Arabia.  The camels are tended by Near Eastern men dressed in traditional Kurtas.  The men laze in the shade, chatting and drinking tea, while  waiting for prospective buyers.

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Camels are bought for a variety of uses.  Some will be used for meat or milk and cost approximately $1,000.  Others will be used for breeding or racing, which can cost up to $2.5 million.  And then, there are those that will be entered into the prestigious Al Dhafra camel beauty pageant.   Big heads and bones, long necks, and big humps are the height of beauty in a camel.  And the addition of long eye lashes and big lips are the crowning glory.

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The prospect of someone buying a camel brings us firmly back to the present at the camel market.   White SUV’s with blacked out windows and cold a/c are slowly driven around the perimeter of the corral.  The drivers are examining the camels from the privacy and comfort of their vehicles. 

The camel tenders spring into action when the SUV slows down in front of their herd of camels.  The men bang the metal pens with sticks in order to perk up the animals.  The camels trot anxiously around the enclosure and then press tightly together in a line, bottoms sticking out. DSC_2982 If a contender is spotted, initial negotiations take place through a slightly rolled down window. 

DSC_2950When a preliminary price is agreed upon, the chosen camel is split from his group and brought out for a full viewing in the corral.

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He is walked around on a lead while the prospective buyer determines whether the camel will fulfill his needs.  

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The loading of the purchased camel into a waiting truck is a horrible experience for those of us that love our pets.  The screaming and moaning of a camel as he is pushed and pulled into the waiting truck bed is not easily forgotten. 

DSC_2967But once inside the truck, the camels seem to calm back down and are ready for their ride.

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Then, to the culmination of experiences with camels and camel milk … a camelccino at the Emirates Palace!  It is a frothy coffee with whipped camel milk topped with thick camel milk chocolate.  A delicious, decedent and wonderful taste.  Definitely worth trying!

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Vote!

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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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Dates

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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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NYIT

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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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