Saturday, May 26, 2007

Por Mois?

Newspapers and faux news programs have been priming We the People for the annual day of worship of war and warriors. The heroic stories, the tragedies, the mundane. They collide into a convenient, well-scripted narrative finding equal only in religion. Heroes, uniforms, pageantry and all the accoutrements that rival the Pope's appearance in St. Mark's Square.

Among the faithful, this show of force renews their fervor, inspiring them to return to obedience and "faith" not only in its doctrine, but in those who claim to be the stewards of that doctrine. With this renewal, unfortunately, comes the virulent disdain for those who do not share the "faith".

We will hear about the troops who "died for our freedom" and be admonished to get on our knees and kiss their feet to express our eternal gratitude. They will be enshrined in the American cultural equivalent of sainthood.

"He died for your freedom". "He died for your sins".

An eternal debt, payable only in obedience and guilt, but that can never be paid in full.

The consequence of the epistomology of religion is the politics of tyranny. If you cannot reach the truth by your own mental powers, but must offer obedient faith to a cognitive authority, then you are not your own intellectual master; in such a case, you cannot guide your own behavior by your own judgment, either, but must be submissive in action as well. This is the reason and force are always corollaries; each requires the other.

Leonard Peikoff

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Faces of Arabia: The Power Of Photography

When I returned from Jordan and the UAE two weeks ago, I met up with my good friend, the insightful blogger Denmark Vesey, to share photos from my vacation.

As we went through the collection, I pointed to several that I told him I was so proud of and liked so much that I didn't even want to put them out for public consumption; feeling protective, the way artists do with their work, I felt a need to keep them for myself. Although scenic photos can be magical, there is something soulful and expressive in the image of a human being and it is that something that gives photography a supremacy over other art forms.

While I think he understood the sentiment I expressed, DV told me that I could not keep such photos under wraps. "You have a duty to show these images", or something close to that, is what he said to me. He explained that with the corporate media dedication to serving up a steady diet of negative images of Arabs, it is imperative that I counter those images with human images.

And, thus, begins my series of Faces Of Arabia. The photos will not necessarily appear consecutively, but you will, over time, see the faces of the people who our government would callously dehumanize if political circumstances required it.

This is Adnan. He is a Bedouin in Jordan from whom KB and I rented camels for a run through Petra. He is one of the most photogenic people I've ever come across.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Words of Wisdom

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Homogeneity in Advertising

Not to be outdone by "Have it your way" and "I'm lovin' it", the marketing agencies in Dubai dreamed up "Celebrate you!" as the next slogan offered to cheering masses with open wallets.

The target audience for this ad, plastered all over the Dubai airport, may be the local Emiratis or the waves of foreigners living in and visiting Dubai (or both), but the message is disturbingly consistent with messages sold to billions and billions around the world. It's all about You!

Forget your culture. Ignore your history. The only thing that matters is You!

Conspicuous consumption, undoubtedly, will be the means by which these modern and ambitious young professionals celebrate themselves into cultural and spiritual bankruptcy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Faces of Nubia

Friday, May 11, 2007

Abu Dhabi - The Capital of the U.A.E.

The green area in the foreground is man made, filled in marshes to create a promenade along the water.

In Abu Dhabi, Islamic and Arab architectural influence can be seen, including in this royal palace.
The golf course in the foreground and the horse-racing track in the background of this photo taken on the grounds of the Abu Dhabi Golf & Equestrian Club. The Arabs made the desert bloom.

Cars drive along the waterfront street made from reclaimed land.

One of the many public gardens in Abu Dhabi. The sheikh made sure that the city set aside plenty of green space for people to enjoy.
A new residential neighborhood.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Images of Dubai

This is one of the new neighborhoods under construction in the upscale Jumeirah Beach neighborhood. In the shadows of the towers, the short buildings on the right will be yet another mall, housing all the familiar and ubiquitous brands of the multinational corporations.

When this construction site is no more, this neighborhood will be known as The Marina.

Dubai is the second largest construction site in the world, second only to China.

This is suburban Jumeirah Beach. That it is indistinguishable from the tracked communities of America makes one wonder if the same developers are at work here. Making the world uniform and homogenous, from food to clothing to housing.

Burj al Arab Hotel. The world's tallest and only 7-star resort.

The non-stop construction is creating pollution in what had been a pristine desert environment. Look closely at the photo and you will see the Dubai city skyline in the background, obscured by the haze. On the left, behind the veil of CO2, is the soon-to-be tallest building in the world.

The Mall of the Emirates

Ski Dubai
This indoor ski resort is inside the Mall of Emirates.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Abu Dhabi

One week feels like it has been months with the daily change of destination. Each day has been something entirely different from the last and today is no exception.

KB and I returned from Jordan yesterday and she stayed in Dubai to catch an early flight home this morning. I now wake up in Abu Dhabi, in the flat of my father's childhood friend. To meet up with the legendary man about whom my dad has told stories since I was child, about their childhood mischiefs and adulthood philosophies, is quite a treat for me. In typical Arab fashion, we stayed up late last night drinking tea and talking about politics and religion.

Abu Dhabi is around 160 km from Dubai, which took about 2 hours with the traffic. The island city is the largest and the capital of the seven Emirates. It is modern, but in a more sensible and aesthetically pleasing way than Dubai. There is the obligatory skyline of tall buildings lining the waterfront, but there are well thought out promenades along the beach with unobstructed views of the Gulf of Arabia. The former emir of Abu Dhabi loved palm trees, I am told, so the streets and waterfronts are lined with endless date palms that bear fruit in summertime. Like its sister, Abu Dhabi has its share of manmade islands and grand developments but, in a strange bout of irony, one of the soon-to-be-islands will be a nature reserve for the Arabian elk. Perhaps it is that Abu Dhabi feels less plastic and artificial than Dubai that I find it more appealing.

One of my many cousins, who I haven't seen in 10 years, is teaching at a university here in Abu Dhabi, so tonight will be my chance to meet his wife and kids for the first time.

This is a great way to wrap up an otherwise really educational and enjoyable trip.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Jordan: The Land of Endless Beauty

No words can describe how beautiful and varied the terrain of Jordan is, so I am sharing some of the photos from our journey -

These are some of the sandstone hills of Wadi Rum,
a valley in the southeast near the border with Saudi Arabia.

The view of the countryside from this castle in Ajlun explains why Salah El-Din chose this as the site of his fortress.

This is only one part of the splendor that is Jerash, the ancient Roman city in the north.

Imagine walking through several miles of these winding sandstone valleys.
This is the route to the great archeological finds at Petra.

The facade of the treasury at Petra. A must see for everyone.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Greetings from Amman

After going through the giant mall they call an airport in Dubai, we caught our flight to Amman and started what was an incredibly long, but interesting, day. The pace is mellow, the weather is pleasant and the people are nice. Thank goodness.

The tour guide picked us up and took us directly from the airport to Jerash, the ancient Roman city, for a 3-hour tour. I forgot to bring my camera with me to the internet cafe or I would share some of the really cool shots we took there. It was a really cool place and definitely a must see for anyone who enjoys history.

We went from Jerash to Ajlun, the castle at the top of one of the many hills that make up the Jordanian landscape. The castle was built by the great Islamic warrior, Salah El-Din, in preparing to battle the Crusaders and retake Jerusalem. I have been to another castle built by him in Cairo and it is interesting to connect the dots.

By the time we got back to Amman at 7:00 in the evening, KB and I passed out cold. It was, fortunately, the best night's sleep I've had in at least a week.

Today is going to be jam-packed with more activities and we'll be in Petra by nightfall. The countryside is beautiful, rolling hills everywhere and it is nice just to be on the road here. Jerash is close to the Syrian border and, if Syria is as beautiful as Jordan, it is definitely on the list of places to see.

Off to breakfast....

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dubai: The Most Overrated Place On Earth

Not since I went to New Orleans a few years ago have I had such a strong dislike for a destination to which I was so excited to go.

Within hours of arrival, KB and I were ready to turn around and go home. The traffic is just as bad as -- if not worse than -- back home in Los Angeles. It is probably worse in that there is only one route to any given place and the giant construction site that is this city does not yield for traffic concerns. Scratchy throat, which I always get within days of arrival in Cairo from the disgusting pollution, set in on Day 1 here and refuses to go away. The city is hollow, shallow and utterly soulless.

We got to our hotel at 8:00 a.m. Monday morning after an exhausting 24 hours of travel. The clerk at the hotel told us that our room was ready, but that we would have to pay an extra 300 Dirham (appx $75) to check in early. Even though we were ready for bed, neither KB nor I appreciates being nickled and dimed, so we said no thanks. As a consolation prize, the spa let us in to shower and change our clothes. By the time we got to the room, we spent the rest of the day asleep.

In the evening, we crossed the Dubai creek to check out the acclaimed gold market, which purports to be one of the biggest gold markets in the world. There were beautiful products on display, but it is hard to get excited about seeing the same bracelet and necklace in store after store after store.

After an hour, we went to the Mall of the Emirates, which is supposed to be the biggest mall in the world. The indoor ski resort makes it worth a visit for the sheer curiosity value but, otherwise, it is a mall. Same stores as at home. Same bleary-eyed shoppers. We didn't spent $1,200 on a plane ticket to go to a mall.

The Big Bus, like the double decker from London, took us around the city Tuesday. We hoped that the city would redeem itself, but is was not meant to be. The majority of the stops on the tour were malls and hotels. More malls. More shopping. Consume and consume more. With the air-conditioners on full blast, malls are literally the center of life, where people spend their days and nights.

In the Jumeirah district, dozens and dozens of high rises-in-the-making pierce the layers of pollution. Each project is more impressive and mind-boggling than the next, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it all. There is no sense that these buildings are meant to address a housing shortage (it is all high end and certainly out of reach to the foreigners who build them) or otherwise meet a need. Rather, the pathological scale of the construction is the crack baby of a megalomaniac emir who wants to prove to the world that there is nothing oil money cannot buy (makes you wonder if he's got some inadequacy issues). We learned that the world's biggest hotel is currently under construction and will have over 1,000 rooms. Because the Mall of the Emirates for whatever reason is not good enough anymore, the next world's biggest mall is also under construction to ensure that anyone with a $1 in his pocket will not remain so rich for long. The world's tallest building, the world's largest airport, the world's largest theme park, another man-made island, blah, blah, blah.

Over crepes and Haagen Dazs ice cream, KB and I articulated our dislike for the city. The bizaaro world where pious-looking Muslim women roam the mall looking for the next Prada purse to buy. As I perused the racks of H&M, a woman covered head to toe except for her eyes was checking out tanktops next to me. I wish my Arabic was good enough to ask "and where do you plan to wear that?" Men wearing white turbans and dishdasha -- the national dress because it is the most effective in keeping you cool in the oppressive desert heat -- carry their snowboards to the slopes of Ski Dubai.

Nothing here is natural.

Dubai is 80% foreigner, largely composed of Indians who are imported as cheap labor to build the next "biggest ____ in the world." The contrast between them and the other imported, but skilled, labor is stark. There is a family of Indians living on the roof of the building adjacent to our hotel. There are Brits partying it up at the pubs, after which they'll probably return to their executive corporate-paid apartment with a hooker of choice. This place is crass. If it is not already, it will be the next breeding ground of discontent in this troubled region.

We were supposed to have afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab, the world's tallest and only 7-star hotel (have you gotten the picture yet?), but we've had enough. So we opted for a well-needed nap and a quiet dinner of Indian food in the hotel. Now at an internet cafe filled with Indians using the internet to call home, we are checking with the airline to see if we can cut short the trip.

Welcome to the land of unabashed consumerism. There is no culture. There is no value. There is no religion. There is only a consumer and a store and the amount of money that stands between them.