My Home Will One Day Be A Country

by bicyclemark 2 Comments
My Home Will One Day Be A Country

He’s young and soft spoken , and asks where I am from. When I mention Portugal, he smiles “We are neighbors. I am from Morocco.” We speak a bit about that country and its more famous cities and he soon corrects himself, “actually I am not Moroccan, I am Saharan. But it is a bad situation there, so I left many years ago.”

We’re heading south on Dubai’s busiest 14 lane artery known as Sheik Zayed Road. My driver is Jam, who has been driving taxi’s in Dubai for less than 6 months. He tells me this right from the start, so I tell him everything I know about getting to my destination. Together we agree on which is the best route to take.  As we drive we pass many of Dubai’s most famous sky scrapers and countless shops with big brand names on them.

12091042113_6d035fcfce“This is a very good place to live and the job is decent. I’ve worked all over North Africa and the Middle East, this is the best place for me.”  As he talks on, Jam stares forward at the road ahead, “I will bring my wife here as soon as possible. She is finishing her university studies in the field of tourism, there should be a job here for her.”

This is a rare plan from a Dubai taxi driver. Most are eager to tell my how soon they will stop the job or how they are waiting patiently for when its finally time to go home.  With visas that make it hard to stay once the job is over, and a citizenship policy that leaves little hope for ever becoming a local, hardly anyone in their situation talks about making a life in Dubai for the long term.  Even fewer talk about bringing their wives over from their home country. But then again, few other drivers come from a place that isn’t officially a country.

“I never went to University. The nearest one was 10 hours away by car. You would have to live there and my family didn’t have money for that.” — You’ve learned plenty from the school of life!- I say to him with a smile. He smiles back but doesn’t not seem to have understood or agreed with my words. When I suggest that it might be difficult to get permission to have his wife with him he shrugs off any doubts.  In his eyes it is the right place to be and with her qualifications his wife will easily get a visa.

Jam is only the second Western Saharan I have ever met in my life, so I jump at the chance to ask him more about his homeland. Specifically about the POLISARIO people, a movement that has been working to end the Moroccan occupation since the 1970’s. “They are our brothers,” he assures me, and repeats this statement several times. “I hope one day my home will be a country, perhaps like this one. With its own Universities and Institutions, a place where we can live and work and have our families. That is my hope.”  Again he repeats those last few words, but his tone changes to indicate some doubt, “that is my hope.”

We drive on for a few minutes in silence before the conversation comes back to how complicated the roads in new areas of Dubai can be. As we negotiate our route towards my destination near Jebel Ali, I’m still thinking about Jam’s situation compared to any other drivers. No country to go home to. A past marred by violence and struggle. To him Dubai is more than just a stop along the route of life, it is more than a source of money, to him this city could be the stable home and the fresh start he has long been searching for.

Things You See in an Abu Dhabi Courthouse

by bicyclemark 3 Comments
Things You See in an Abu Dhabi Courthouse

It is a Wednesday morning in the main courthouse of Abu Dhabi. Outside the Judiciary building there are hordes of people standing around smoking, talking on the phone, waiting around nervously. Their clothes are as diverse as their faces, with the familiar styles of Emerati Konduras (long flowing robe topped with either a head cover wrapped around the head or position over the head and held in place with that black rope) being the more dominate choice of clothing over the western business suit. I slip passed the metal detector after surrendering my phones, my bag is filled with recording equipment but this seems to be of no interest or concern to security. After all, beyond all those involved in legal proceedings, press people are also typical visitors here.

IMG_5577Once inside you arrive in a big square surrounded by several floors running in a circle. There are screens and signs in Arabic and English indicating things like “Bailiffs”, “Criminal Court”, “Prosecutors Office”, etc.  Again anywhere you turn there is an Emirate gentleman on a phone, often wearing a light black cloth jacket over his normal clothes, which I am told indicates this person is a lawyer.  Almost all the ladies present in the courthouse are wearing Abayas, some that cover there faces, others just covering the head. I am told even some non-Muslim ladies who come to court wear it in hopes of winning over the authorities. Every few steps there is also some kind of security officer. Many of them have unimpressive uniforms with the words “Security” on their backs, these people are often foreigners from India or Pakistan, and they speak with everyone in English. Then there are the men and women in military type uniforms, featuring golden ropes over their shoulders, camouflage type colors, and a few prestigious badges or bars on their chests.

I’m being shown around by a friend rom 7 Days Dubai, who is a regular in this place. The Philippino ladies behind the counter of the cafe greet him like a preferred customer and as we walk around different lawyers and court reporters stop us for a quick word.  As we walk by one hallway my friend gestures for me to observe carefully as there are men sitting on benches along the wall. “These men are often here because they fell into debt, which is a punishable offense in this country.” As we walk I notice these guys have a very hopeless and desperate demeanor about them, a few are even wearing leg chains, the kind you’d see a serial killer on trial in the US wearing to court.

On the way to criminal court we pass a door with two guards, and surrounding them are a mix of men and women staring nervously at the door something like when you’re at the arrivals gate of an airport waiting for someone to emerge. “These are family members hoping to see their detained loved one.” I take a second look at their concerned faces, I find myself imagining the kinds of charges their people face.  Before I can think any further about it, we’re passing through another metal detector that seems to be more of a decoration. We pass through two double doors and directly into a moderately crowded courtroom with a case already in progress. There is a panel of judges sitting behind the long, raised desk, with the middle judge, an older gentleman with dark skin and a stern look, doing all the talking.  Facing him and looking very concerned are two small podiums with middle aged men in western business suits who seem to be translating or arguing their case.

IMG_5581Despite having studied arabic, I’m struggling to understand what is going on. Thankfully there is a court reporter seated in our row and at the beginning of each case he gives us a quick rundown of what is going on. “This man is accused of drinking alcohol and partying,” inside the bullet proof booth I can see a short Emirati man wearing a uniform black shirt and a yellow stripe on his arm. The yellow stripe indicates a detainee facing a punishment of a year or less. Before I even understand if he is guilty or not the next case begins. The next case seems to be another man accused of drinking and partying, which makes me wonder if these aren’t the most typical charges this judge sees. This time an older woman wearing a colorful headscarf stands up in the audience and asks permission to submit some documents. Something about her somber and desperate demeanor tells me that it is her son’s freedom which hangs in the balance.  The judge shows no sympathy, but hears her out, and eventually she is returned to her seat.  15 minutes later, two short Indonesian ladies in green abayas are standing at the podium in front of the judge. Alongside them is a translator relaying messages to and from the judge. In the glass box there is a middle aged man who’s body language tells me he is very nervous. Apparently somewhere between them there is an accusation of sex outside of marriage. The discussion is long but in the end, the judge says his piece and all parties are escorted out of the room by security guards. As the two timid ladies stand outside the courtroom we follow them. A female officer slaps ankle bracelets on each of them, and they shuffle awkwardly onto the elevator. We get in just behind them and considering what we just observed, it is a struggle to keep a conversation going as the elevator heads towards the ground floor.

In the remaining time I had at the courthouse I watched everyone going about their business. To some it might seem chaotic, but in reality, my very experienced friend assures me, this is one of the most organized court systems in the Middle East.  Still it seems quite outdated, especially accusations of sex out of marriage or drinking alcohol.  Granted these things are forbidden for religious reasons, but it seems a great strain to keep them as courtroom worthy topics. Prison sentences for those who are in debt is also a troubling phenomenon.  I’m told this happens even for small sums of money and none of the men in that hall way looked like high rollers burning money on purpose. I also wondered how you pay off a debt if you are in prison.

That same day I return to Dubai after spending 24 hours in AbuDhabi and see the very down to earth, straight talking Prime Minister of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum being interviewed on CNN. After driving the reporter out of Dubai (himself) and into the desert, he talks about the court system. He acknowledges that the system is flawed and in some ways has not yet caught up to the reality of the UAE as an open place where people from all over the world live.  Obviously he is the representative of the country and speaks with a certain degree of concern for public perception, but even still, interesting words from someone who has great influence over what happens to this country in the next 25 years.

Many of the successes of this city and this country are talked about and celebrated throughout the world. It is indeed something to behold and to some extent be inspired by. On the other hand it is important to remember there are still injustices in this country, many of which could be remedied.  One visit to a courthouse can illustrate both sides of this complicated coin.

The Taxi Driving Best-Selling Author of Dubai

by bicyclemark 0 Comments
The Taxi Driving Best-Selling Author of Dubai

11915133423_5c6bcf76da_z“What do you do sir?” – I’m a journalist. “I’m a journalist!” -Yes, I am a journalist. “No, I’m telling you I am also a journalist sir and I have written three books in Urdu.”

My driver is Mohammed, originally from Peshawar, Pakistan, making his home in Dubai for the past 5 years. When he hears that I am a journalist, his eyes light up and he hands me a book as we drive out of Media City on a quiet Saturday night.

“Currently I am reading this one sir, it is by a very popular writer in my country.” – He hands me a book with some English text on the cover “The Secrets of Persuasive Speech.” I’m surprised to have been handed a self-help book, but he gives me no time to think about it, as he goes back to explaining how he has travelled extensively in Afghanistan for research. When I tell him I have worked in Afghanistan he gets even more excited. “You won’t believe it sir, my research has been the Talibanization of Afghanistan. I have been to almost all provinces and my book sold 20,000 copies.”

Mohammed sits low in in the drivers seat, he has very few hairs left on his head, and I get the impression as he speaks with such enthusiasm that he hasn’t had the opportunity to explain these things in a very long time.  “My other two books were on Islamophobia, as perhaps you know, after 9/11 there was much hatred towards muslims coming from the west. Even in Europe with the mosque referendums (Switzerland reference) and head cover bans (France and others), there has been a lot of prejudice.I have written on this topic but these books have also been contreversial in my country. My region is very dangerous unfortunately, I came here and now I drive a taxi.” This transition from best selling (Urdu language) author to taxi driver is what doesn’t add up in my ignorant brain.  As he goes on about how many copies each book sold, I find myself confused and unable to get him to explain how his books offended people to the point that he left the country.  I try to ask again but to no avail, Mohammed is speaking with  authority now on topics like corruption and religion. Both of which he believes the Emirates have gotten right and his home country has gotten wrong.

“In Pakistan our leaders, even the ones people love so much like Sharif and Bhutto, they are corrupt. They use fear and religion to get votes, scaring people into supporting them. And you know what happens when you have such corruption…” We drive passed a cavalcade of sky scrapers, each with its own futuristic design and blinking light array.  In the eyes of this veteran of the media and transportation world, the rulers of the UAE have done things right. “They have vision! Not corruption. Vision and planning,” he points at a whole series of overpasses that seem to twirl around in beautiful patterns in between luxurious office buildings and 5 star hotels with names like Shangri-la and Ritz Carleton.  – And oil? – I throw in just to see what reactions this causes. But he is not phased, “Yes, they have the oil, but they invest in their country. Not like other oil nations.”

As we approach our destination Mohammed’s volume lowers a bit, from school teacher tone to friendly neighbor, “But many people when you talk religion or money, they forget we are all just humans. We should be equal. When I sit here talking to you, I talk to you like an equal. We could be best friends the way we are talking. Doesn’t matter your religion or your job.  But there is a force in this world trying to keep us from realizing this. Unfortunately.”

Like a cliffhanger at the end of an episode of your favorite television drama, we arrive at our destination, and the conversation stops abruptly. I pay the bill and he we exchange names. Despite all the other things we could have talked on about, it was the end of the ride. He extends his hand, “Pleasure to meet another journalist. I wish you good luck in life!” – I wished him the same as I shook his hand and said goodbye.

Arriving in Dubai, Taxi Ride #1: Nagi from Egypt

by bicyclemark 2 Comments
Arriving in Dubai, Taxi Ride #1: Nagi from Egypt

It is 2am in the morning and I have finally made my way out of the city in an airport known as Dubai Airport. It is late, but you would never know it in an airport where there is no night or day, only departures and arrivals. As I exit towards the taxis I am immediately directed to the familiar beige and red vehicles lined up in three rows, several cars deep. They’re moving quickly, loading luggage, a quick greeting to passengers, and off they go, probably towards one of the thousands of hotels in this town.

11807551586_bae6c54bbdMy driver greets me in English, unsurprisingly, as that is the lingua franca of this part of the Emirates. On our way out of the taxi area, he hangs out the window and has a quick joke in Arabic with a parking attendant and a security guard. I can tell he comes here often. As I sit up in the front seat I wish him good evening in both English and Arabic, which surprises him in a pleasant way. He responds almost like it is a reflex and then takes a second look at me, “You are Pakistani? Pakistan or at least- you are muslim?” He asks gleefully. I seem to intrigue him. I’m sporting a high quality dark blue dress shirt that I overpaid for in Portugal just before my grandfather’s funeral this past autumn. I have a fairly good beard, short hair that isn’t very short anymore, and my dark Portuguese brown eyes of course. And as for the Pakistan angle, well, it is dark and late.

His name is Nagi, which makes me think of the great writer Naguib Mahfouz. Like Mahfouz, my taxi driver, it turns out, is from Egypt. Ishamiliya specifically, and he is very excited when he learns that I’ve worked in Egypt recently. We talk of the friendliness of the people there, “In Egypt, even people you don’t know, they are friendly and helpful. Even a poor person, a poor person with no money, someone will still say to them how are you here have this food or something.” Of course, Nagi points out, this changed when Morsi came. “The fucking Morsi comes and suddenly everyone is angry all the time, so much anger in my country now.”  I knew of this sentiment and felt quite a bit of it in Egpyt just one year ago, but I also remembered the joy of being in Tahrir where people were welcoming and cheerful.  “Yes, in Tahrir now, people are friendly and they have a good spirit.”

As he attempts to speed towards Jumeirah, we pass the world famous Burj Khalifah, Nagi points to the speedometer,  “The company doesn’t let these cars go over 120. I want to go faster, but they fixed it so it will not go.” -Big difference from Egypt, I suggested to him. -He burst out laughing. “Taxi’s in Cairo? Forget it. You never know what you will get or if it will be clean or the driver honest. No. It is in not good. Cairo is crazy and dirty.”

15 years ago Nagi came to Dubai to work, which seems to have quickly become taxi driving after a few stints as a grocer, “Many Egyptians in the UAE, many thousands, I know many Egyptians here who drive cabs.”  He goes on to talk about the lack of work in Egypt, both for Egyptians and foreigners. Not like here, “here everyone is a foreigner” he points out several times.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 02.36.50The conversation comes back to my interest in Arabic and my muslim look. I explain that I have North African ancestors, because they controlled Portugal for 700 years. I tell him of my dad who could easily be taken as Moroccan, and my mom who could be “English” he correctly suggests as I try to think of a good contrast.  “Yes, in Egypt, in Alexandria, we have many people of Greek decent. Actually it was part of Greece, so many people look and maybe act Greek sometimes. But the rest of the country is just Egyptian.” I decide to throw in another source of the Egyptian look (there are actually many), I tell him of my Egyptian friends with Armenian names. “Ah yes.. Yes many people with Armenian ancestry in Egypt also.” The more we drive, the more ideas and facts seem to pop into our heads and roll out to the conversation.

For the remainder of this 20 minute taxi ride we talk about the media. Somehow in speaking of Egypt he mentions a recent vacation he took with him family to Sharm-el-Sheik.  “The media says, there are no tourists, they are scared… but I go to Sharm for vacation, all I see is tourists. No one even speaks arabic when I try to speak to them. But the media lies, they say this isn’t happening.” For several minutes we swap examples of how journalists only tell one version of Egypt, the negative scary one.  Nagi is pretty commited to the explanation that they are simply liars. I let that stand for a few minutes and then suggest they want to create drama and negative conflict stories are more attractive in their eyes than the “things are good” stories. Nagi agrees. The media creates their own drama. Again we find our common ground.

We arrive at my destination and out of the joy of hearing me speak some arabic, we count off the towers in the Jumeirah Lake area. He laughs about the uniqueness and universal appeal of the Egyptian accent. We shake hands, exchange information for future airport trips, and he wishes me well.  Off he drives back towards Dubai international airport. Surely at 3am there must be some flight arriving from somewhere.

And so it begins…