Friday, December 5, 2008

Thunderstorm in Abu Dhabi

It's 5:39 am and I'm in the villa watching a thunderstorm from my window... lightning, high winds and heavy, but short-lived downpours. I just heard a rooster crowing... :P reminds me of our Pathan neighbors back home.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Emirati Idiosyncrasies

As I go about my daily business, I notice some interesting and somewhat peculiar styles/habits among the locals in Abu Dhabi...

The Unibrow:
The unibrow appears to be something of a fashion statement among Emirati women... Basically, they don't pluck or wax the hair between their eyebrows and have a straight, thick line of hair on their foreheads.

In western culture it is often associated with grumpiness but I guess it's a beauty thing here...

Sporting Sunglasses Indoors and at Night:
A number of guys (and some girls too) like wearing their shades indoors. I've seen people at malls, banks, grocery stores and even the cinema. Apart from looking "cool" factor, I guess it makes it easier to squint at members of the opposite sex without appearing too obvious...   

Hijabi Fashionistas:
Lots of girls observing hijab have started leaving out some of their bangs... these are fashionably styled and sometimes streaked or sprinkled with glitter. Women here also wear a ton of make-up! I guess when you have nothing else to occupy your time and can't do a lot with your hair and daddy/husband is paying the bills, make-up is the way to go... 

Filipino Maids:
Almost every Emirati family with little kids employs a Filipino maid. These women serve as nannies, cooks, housekeepers, baby-sitters and care-givers. Some families have personal maids for each kid! The poor maid wipes the kids mouths when they dribble ice cream over their chins and get yelled at if the kids misbehave while Mommy dearest goes shopping at Paris Gallery.
Smoker's Corner:
There's a store called Smoker's Corner... nuff said!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

UAE National Day

On December 2, 2008 the United Arab Emirates celebrated its 37th national day with gusto... In an exuberant display of patriotism, all the trees lining the roads were illuminated, and Emiratis took to the streets in big manly cars (SUVs and land cruisers) adorned with black, green and red heart stickers, and plastered with photos of the Sheikhs (Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (late), Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan and Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum).

Young girls dressed in national attire, complete with the gold headdress and lots of make-up poked their heads through the sun-roofs and threw confetti into the street while the "men" touted water guns and honked horns :P Later in the evening, there was a magnificent display of fireworks near the Corniche which quite literally lit up the sky.

Here's a picture from Abu Dhabi Daily Photo:

It was heart-warming to see everyone enjoying the festivities but at the same time, I felt a little sad knowing that my own country (Pakistan) has had precious little to celebrate in the past few years. Few can afford to cast off their burdens and be truly happy in the prevailing atmosphere of despair and apathy.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I have a lot to give thanks for this year... My wonderful family, friends and colleagues, health, freedom, independence, small blessings and best of all, no worries :) Alhamdulillah.

My last four Thanksgiving holidays were spent in the United States. Just to give a little background, Thanksgiving in the US is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month of November and signals the beginning of the holiday season (the malls usually start playing Christmas carols, hallmark stocks up on Christmas cards and people put up their holiday decorations soon after). It is more of a family holiday, not restricted to any particular religious tradition and less commercial than other holidays (not counting Black Friday).

Freshman year, everyone who lived nearby went home for the holidays. Home being too far away for a three-day visit, I stayed on campus along with most of the international students. As Forbes emptied out, I got ready to spend the holiday catching up on sleep and homework but my awesome RA invited me and my hall-mate to her house to experience a "real" American Thanksgiving.

Thursday morning, we went over to Mir's house. The house was full (family, friends, a dog and two cats) but her mom and dad made me feel very welcome, and surprisingly, I didn't feel shy or awkward! Her mom had made turkey with cornbread stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, string bean casserole and vegetarian spaghetti specially for me because Mir had told them I was vegetarian. Mir and her sister were put finishing touches on the apple and pumpkin pies and her dad passed around the appetizers while the guests sat around and talked and babies bawled in the background...very homey :)

When it was time to eat, Mir's dad (a cultural Jew) said grace, then we all sat and ate until we could barely move... Later, the guys watched NFL football and the ladies chatted over second and third helpings of pie with whipped cream and coffee... delicious :-)

Contrary to my expectations (for a country famous for illicit sex, broken homes, and one of the highest divorce rates in the world), I learned that Americans do come together to enjoy family, food and football on Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dubai-Vegas of the Middle East?

Boat ride at Festival City, Dubai

En route from Abu Dhabi to Dubai- The new waterfront city will be
"twice the size of Hong Kong (talk about an inferiority complex)"

In a word, Dubai is fantastic! After touring the city and visiting the malls, I am tempted to ask, "Is this for real?" Golf courses, fountains, artificial lakes, Olympic-size ice rinks, aquariums and water-parks ... all in the middle of desert country where the average daily temperature often exceeds 40 degrees Celsius in the summer (approx. 104 degree Fahrenheit).

Dubai city is growing at a phenomenal rate and serves as a prime example of Muslim capitalism. The city thrives on tourism, targeting not your average backpacking college student but the more affluent class of society including celebrities, sports icons, business and media moguls and members of royalty willing to splurge on luxury hotels, upscale shopping malls and glorious beaches. And so far, the metropolis appears to be safe from terror incidents plaguing other cosmopolitan cities.

The stars love it here! Queen, Kylie Minogue, George Michael, Alicia Keys, Maroon 5 and Shakira are just some of the musicians/bands that have performed in the UAE since October.

The nation is seemingly obsessed with setting global records- the world's tallest tower (Burj Tower), the largest mall (Dubai Mall), the world's most luxurious hotel (Burj-al-Arab) and now, the world's largest fireworks display in the capital, Abu Dhabi, adds to Emiratis' sense of patriotism and national accomplishment. Here are some pictures from my recent visit to Dubai Mall:

UAE flag

A view of the aquarium

Sting-ray up close

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Princeton Memories

I'm feeling more than a little homesick for Princeton today... my home for the four best years of my life :) November was usually a little dreary; the sun was nowhere to be seen for weeks at a time, it rained constantly and winter was fast approaching but I loved watching the leaves turn color. Newly laundered, the leaves glowed like polished jewels; crimson, gold and every shade in between.

I'd be running to class attempting to avoid the puddles and the rivulets while trying unsuccessfully to hold open my umbrella in the wind. Finally I'd abandon the attempt, pull the hood of my trench coat over my head and continue speed-walking with the rain streaming down my face...

Usually, I'd make it to class with a couple of minutes to spare. I loved the seminars (and the precepts if I'd done the reading) and the one-on-one chats with my professors. My freshman seminar, "A Biography of Energy" was taught by Prof. Richard Golden. The first day, we went around and introduced ourselves.. When it was my turn, he commented on my accent and correctly guessed that I was from Karachi.

Professors at Princeton were genuinely interested in what we had to say. They treated us as equals, not as precocious undergrads and pretty soon we were on first-name basis. At first, it seemed strange to call my 80-year old professor, "Dick" since I'd grown up in an environment where the teacher was to be accorded the utmost respect but I gradually got used to it, just as I got used to saying "trash can" instead of "dustbin" and asking for pizza "to-go" instead of "parcel" or "take-away" :)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Abu Dhabi

Yalla Ya-Shabab!

So I've been in Abu Dhabi for almost a month now, and I'm finally starting to know places! Some interesting shopping malls I've been to are Abu Dhabi Mall, Marina Mall, Al Wahda Mall, Khalidiyah Mall and Al-Raha Mall but nothing beats the malls in Dubai (more on those later). Abu Dhabi Mall has an indoor "walkers club" The adverts crack me up each time :)

"Keen on taking up walking as an exercise? Tired of the heat outside? Here's a great way out. Join the Walkers Club and enjoy walking inside the climate-controlled Mall from 7:00 a.m. till 10:00 a.m. So, put your best foot forward and get on the move."

The Abu Dhabi Corniche is definitely my favorite place so far... Yesterday, I went to the ladies beach (AED 5) and walked around for a bit. It was very romantic... The sand is white with lots of sharp shells and pebbles... the sea, glorious! delphinium blue and so clear you can see the ocean floor...

People were playing volleyball and enjoying ice cream cones... just like any regular beach but then I saw a woman, covered from head to toe in her abaya swimming in the sea. Her black abaya billowed under her like a stingray, but she was swift, and surprisingly graceful.

And underground, I discovered a whole network of tunnels with beautiful mosaic artwork... (a little like the subway tunnels in NYC, but much cleaner and definitely better ventilated. That's my roomie posing :).

The city itself is cosmopolitan but there's a distinct divide between the locals (native Emiratis with UAE nationality), the Arabs (native Arabic speakers from all over the Middle East and Gulf regions) and the expat community (Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and others). In the US, I grew used to seeing a more integrated community... for example, it was common to see multiracial couples or a group of high school kids (whites, african-americans, south-asians, hispanics) all hanging out together. In Abu Dhabi, everyone has their own separate community (including separate schools for the children of immigrants) and I haven't seen much inter-cultural mixing. Maybe it's because they don't have English as a universal language but mostly I think it's because the natives aren't as open or as liberal as westerners.