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Saturday’s Snapshot (surat al-sabat): لقطة السبت

True, it’s Sunday. But I took the photo on Saturday, which must count for something.

When people visit Abu Dhabi, mostly they see big shiny buildings, and big shiny malls, and big shiny hotels. It’s the land of big shiny things, except when you’re in the desert, and then it’s the land of vast and shining sand (and the sand really does shine, sometimes blindingly).

On Saadiyat Beach, when you walk away from the hotels, however, you leave the big shiny behind: rocks pile up, probably raked away from the tourist beaches; the cranes swing above the site of what will eventually be the Louvre; and debris from who knows where comes to rest.

No, that’s not my soccerball football, or my flipflop, and yes that’s a water-logged pineapple down there in the corner.

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Read full story · Comments { 1 } on January 19, 2014 in Abu Dhabi, environment, surat al-sabt saturday snapshot

In the suburbs no one can hear you scream

I live in the suburbs now.  From the maelstrom of Union Square in Manhattan to the slightly more sedate “urban” experience of highrise in downtown Abu Dhabi was one shift. But in a weird way the shift from one cityscape to another wasn’t as big a shift as the move from city to the ‘burbs.  It’s so quiet here . . . and when I walk around at night I’m always slightly on edge because my footsteps echo in the emptiness.  But the thing I miss most, weirdly, is hearing the call to prayer, which had become the regular punctuation for my day, when I lived “in town,” as we say now.

In The National today, I wrote about my sense of suburban displacement. You can read the article here and don’t be afraid to share it around: show The National a little social media love (and me, too, while you’re at it).  Thanks.  Would love to hear your thoughts in comments.

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I took this photo of the Grand Mosque last winter during an unusual rainy day

Read full story · Comments { 1 } on November 22, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, NYC, religion, The National, Travel, UAE

Gardens of Guilt

I have a garden, which I’ve wanted for years. In New York I had to be satisfied with window boxes and urban tomatoes (they look pretty but oh, those airborne carcinogens, especially if the tomatoes in question grew fourteen stories above a 14th street bus stop).  Now I’ve got jasmine and bougainvillea (a word I cannot spell correctly on the first try, ever), and desert rose, and even a few tiny pots of herbs: lemon mint, peppermint, basil.

Caught up in quasi-tropical fantasies, I also planted miniature lemon trees–one in the corner of the backyard, and two in big pots in the front.  I imagined myself in someone else’s life or a magazine as a lady of leisure, sitting on the patio sipping coffee while the sweet smell of lemon blossoms wafted around my head.  It’s a pretty picture, right?

Would you like to know what happened to my pretty picture?

GREEN WORMS OF LEMONTREE DEATH, that’s what happened.

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I had a dilemma. Because of course, the eco-gal I want to be thought, “gosh better get some kind of non-toxic spray, or some soapy water, or….”

But the person who wanted to sip coffee and smell lemon blossoms was chanting DIE DIE DIE.

Here’s the thing (rationalization coming up, be warned): it’s hard to find organic, non-toxic stuff in Abu Dhabi.  And I tried the simple “flick ‘em off” manuever,but those green bastards were attacked with millions of tiny caterpillar feet.

Yes, people, I know. But it’s one thing to read your adorable toddler Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and another thing to see those voracious mofos munching down your defenseless little tree.  I mean, where is the tree in all this, amirite?

I went toxic. I went full-bore spray on those green gobblers and the next day they were gone. Of course, so were most of the leaves on my poor plant.

But at least the plants in front were safe, I thought, and then I saw the tell-tale signs on those leaves, too: small, not-yet grown caterpillars. I resisted toxins and instead flicked, and flicked, and flicked. If one of those little grubs landed on a happy patch of dirt, great; if its caterpillar brains were dashed against the pavement, well, sorry dude, karma’s a bitch. Eat my tree, you’re gonna eat pavement.

Now every day when I walk out my front door, I get a whiff of delicate blossoms:

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It’s the sweet smell of my life-of-leisure fantasies, which will remain with me even as I am driving to school drop-off, to work, to the grocery store, to soccer practice.

I walk right past those dessicated caterpillar corpses. Don’t even see ‘em. I figure I’ve created a buffet for birds, right? It’s all the great circle of life.

But I think that when I’m in the States over the holidays, I’m going to buy a few cans of non-toxic, environmentally friendly caterpillar killer.

Read full story · Comments { 17 } on November 16, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, environment, NaBloPoMo, UAE, Uncategorized, urban nature

Workers

It’s hot here in the desert.  Even now, in November, when people say “ah…the heat has broken,” we’re still talking 90F at midday.

The road I have to take to my house winds through a whole huge construction project designed to make room for even more cars and maybe a high-rise or two (Abu Dhabi loves itself some skyscrapers, the glassier the better).

The men who dig these roads (and build the skyscrapers) come from Kerala, Goa, Sri Lanka; Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi — places that, until I moved out here, existed only on maps or in newscasts about “more violence.”

Sometimes, when I see a man lost in thought or resting in the shade, I imagine that he’s remembering his family “back home” (we all think about that place, backhome), or daydreaming about his wife/lover/child.  And then I think maybe it’s much more prosaic than that: what’s for dinner, my feet hurt, I’m hot.

Mostly, I think these guys are invisible — invisible in the sense that Marx writes about, that all laborers are essentially invisible — and in terms of what they wear: heads swathed in scarves (absorbs sweat, keeps the sand out of eyes, ears nose), bodies wrapped in company-issued coveralls.  Without these almost faceless bodies, however, the city would collapse back into sand and dust.

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Read full story · Comments { 3 } on November 14, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, Politics, UAE

mary, mary quite contrary … how does your garden grow?

Fifty years ago, Abu Dhabi looked like this:

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The key feature of this landscape? Sand.

And now?

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Green, green, green. If you look closely, every tree and flower has a little hose coiled at its root; hoses run under every lawn and green space. Forget the oil industry: if you want in on a lucrative franchise, get in on the hose industry.

Irrigation systems use reclaimed wastewater; tap water uses desalinated water from the Gulf–and none of these processes are very ecologically friendly. It’s a desert: it’s not meant to be lush and green.  The greening of this desert island strikes me as a supreme exercise of human will: we want green space and so, voila, green!

Our new rental house, which we moved into in June, was built as part of a new development just outside downtown Abu Dhabi.  The development got plopped onto a parcel of land that looks like that first photo: flat and sandy as far as you can see. The desert here isn’t the undulating dune scape of the Empty Quarter or Liwa, where the dunes gleam orange. This is desert as lunar landscape: dun-colored, flat, scrubby.

Our house came with a little backyard, a “garden,” as the Brits call it. The garden looked like this when we moved in:

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It felt a lot like our house had been set down in the middle of a big ash tray.

We started having grass fantasies, people. Not the wacky grass but the other kind. The kind with dirt and ants and tickley bits on your toes; I wanted jasmine and frangipani.  Before I moved out here, I’d spent the last twenty-five years or so living in apartments–high-rises, low-rises, tenements–with no backyard, no green space at all, other than the flowerpots perched on my window sills.

So I chucked my environmental worries out the window and waded through the bureaucracy of the management company: Fill out the form on A4 paper. A3 paper. Fax it. Email it. Get a signature. No, a different signature. No, three more signatures. List the flowers you’re using. List how much water your irrigation system will use. More signatures. A3 paper, please.

A plan was made, a price agreed, and work began. First? “Sweet sand” got poured on top of our existing…what? Bitter sand?

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And then bricks were put down on one side to make a little patio. No cement, just pounding the bricks into a tightly locked pattern.  Then we got our own set of hoses to criss-cross the yard and wind along the sides, where we wanted flowers.

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After the hoses were in place, the guys unrolled big carpets of grass, dug pits for the plants and set the little drip-spigots next to each root bed, and then? Hey presto, it’s a little suburban backyard, like I live in LA or something. Or Scottsdale.

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In my ecological defense, the irrigation system runs for about 9 minutes in the morning and again at night: it just can’t be using that much water, right?

I know it’s contrary, to have a garden in a climate like this one; I should have done something with rocks and zen rakes and little bonsai trees, maybe a few bent twigs.

But frankly? In the morning, when I sit outside before the day’s heat kicks in, and I smell the frangipani and the jasmine and the now-exotic scent of wet grass? It’s pretty blissful. I’m fresh out of pretty maids, but I’m thinking the next time I go to the plant souk, I should look for some silver bells and cockle shells.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Read full story · Comments { 6 } on November 4, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, ranting, surat al-sabt saturday snapshot, UAE