Peeling Layers of Dubai

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Almost one year since my first ever visit to Dubai last summer, I find myself here again for a few days in preparation of a new project in Afghanistan.  The details of the project I will leave to an upcoming post. The details of my days in Dubai is what I wish to talk about today.


South Asian Gentlemen and I on the Dubai Creek

It has been done to death and you can include my name among them, writing about Dubai with disdain calling it a capitalist experiment gone bad or gone too far or without a soul.  Its easy to poke fun at a city that is so modern and busy yet so empty and transient.  See there I go, doing what the reporters who are here for 5 minutes tend to do.  Hard to resist.

To properly peel away the layers Dubai has it would take months if not years.  The people who could do a proper job explaining it all are too busy trying to earn a living and send it back to their loved ones in Pakistan. In India. In Afghanistan. In the Philippines. In Bangladesh.  Insert a nationality. The world is in Dubai. The emirates may claim it as their own and control things from a government level, but Dubai, no matter what they say, is firmly property of the world.

Somewhere along the way these polite gentleman in their eye-catching bright and clean white uniforms with that sweeping part that covers their head with the ever so well positioned black headband.. those gentleman did whatever they could to attract the world to their port city in the desert.  They knew they had oil but they also knew that in this world, oil is not enough, so they sought to make something more. Tourism. Banking. Business.  In the process they needed a massive amount of help. So they invited workers from all over the world, especially their nearby neighbors in South Asia. And so they came, mostly on their own leaving families at home. To drive the taxi’s, cook the food, collect the garbage, pick a job… there are so many that they do.  In the course of 20 or so years… a port city with some oil reserves and a population of just over half a million, became an international economic engine of almost a million and a half.  The city few knew about, became a name everyone knows about, even if they’ve never set foot on UAE’s sun scorched soil.

“21 years I have been here sir,” my driver from Peshawar tells me as we sit in mid-day traffic, “back then there was nothing like this. Maybe one shopping mall, now we have too many. And these huge buildings and the hotels. Nothing like this.”  He sits in silence for a few minutes, cab drivers in Dubai will tell you of their lives, but they don’t like to carry on. Straight to the point: “I can never bring my family here. The money I make driving taxi could never pay rent for a family house. No no. I send some to my family and there we have a house. I even have enough to be a landlord of a second property. Here is just work. Its the only way.”  He goes on to talk about the violence and risks in Pakistan. He is upset and disillusioned with the politics and innocent people who lose their lives.  But bringing them to Dubai is not an option. 21 years and it is not an option. In effort to bring some positive energy back I ask him about Pakistan’s nature and beauty and his eyes light up as he describes all the lush countryside.

The next evening I’m in a trendy Thai restaurant in a residential neighborhood. The place is packed with locals, Indian and other South Asian accents all around. Surprisingly an Emirate man, in the signature white robe, sits with his family who seem themselves to be South Asian.  They’re posing for photos and passing around a cute little baby. Back at the hotel there’s a sign, Prom 2011, and all around me are Indian teenagers and all their drama.   Listening to their petty arguments and clever jokes, I could have been anywhere in Europe or North America hearing the exact same thing. High School in Dubai, here are the children of the people who are raising their families in this land where they are forever guests. What will become of them in the future?

Critics will point to the lack of rights. Even the abuse of guest workers. Even the term guest workers reminds us that these people from all over the world living and working here are never allowed to become citizens.  A sad fact for those who have toiled for so long and help make this city what it is everyday.  But putting that sadness aside, even potential power counts for something, so although the law may not be on their side, there is power in this massive population that call Dubai home and without their everyday contributions, this place would shut down.

The Importance of Being EU

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Georgian Parliament

As I walk by Georgian Parliament on my way to the nearby café in the morning, I notice two flags always flying out front: The Georgian ride and white flag, and the European Union navy blue with yellow stars flag (Georgia is a part of the Council of Europe among other institutions).  When I discuss the position of Georgia in the world, although bordered by nations like Russia and Armenia (to name 2) it is widely proclaimed that Georgia is part of Europe.  Like numerous nations located even closer to the heart of the European Union, the goal here is very much to one day be part of the European Union. Why? Although I don’t usually get a specific answer, the implied answer is a sense of belonging. Perhaps also the goal of achieving the quality of life similar to that which it is thought members of the EU enjoy. Or to make it even more basic, one major reason is to further distance this place from Russia, a nation that is – to put it mildly- disliked.  As part of not liking Russia, there is the goal to make sure the world knows (as well as Russia itself) that Georgia is very much with those guys over there on the other side of the Black sea. No longer a victim of their occupation but standing on its own two feet with its European friends.


Now compare this sentiment with that in Southern Europe these days, where people are enraged and disillusioned; not exactly with the European Union, but with their own governments who of course are members of the EU and have presided over, if not played a role in, a massive economic collapse and policy failure.  While some nations in the EU curse their governments for not representing them in what is financially a very troubled union, here we find those outside wishing to get in. With what seems like very different goals, at least when it comes to the symbolic desire to be EU… maybe Georgians would find more happiness in being a member state, even if the economy looks pretty bad.

In the coming days here in Tbilisi, I’ll of course hear more about this bid to be part of the EU and the primary reasons for it. I’ll report back with what I learn.

bmtv124 La Tabacalera, Madrid

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La Tabacalera


La Tabacalera de Lavapies has long been important site for both workers and the community around it in Madrid. So when it stopped being a factory, members of the community occupied the building and started developing social services, education, arts, gardens, eating establishments and an ever expanding list of features all housed within this large complex. The following is a brief video tour of what I saw during my few hours at La Tabacalera, an intoxicating and exciting place for anyone interested in informal, not for profit, community spaces.

Simple Beauty in Kabul

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After a month of frequent hello’s and short conversations, my Afghan friend AJ offerred to accompany me to any place I wanted to see in Kabul before it was time for me to leave the country.  The offer alone was flattering, knowing how often foreigners pass through this country doing short-term jobs and then moving on, I was honored AJ would spend time with me to see things he had probably seen a million times.   I told him I had read about the Bagh-e-Babur Gardens and that I would really like to see them.  Without giving me the least bit of a “that’s boring” reaction, AJ started planning the when and how.

A few days later we were in a taxi and speeding off to the Babur Gardens, built in 1528AD by the Moghul emporer Babur.  The whole cab ride AJ flipped through some wrinkled pages with Dari writing on them, I soon realized he had printed out background information for our journey. As any journey across Kabul requires, we were met with plentiful traffic which gave us more time to discuss education in Afghanistan and the United States, as well as asking the cab driver about his age and his upcoming marriage.  Crossing over the almost dry Kabul River, the gardens came into view, perched on the mountainside behind large walls that very successfully hide the splendor within.

Friends Washing Grapes

After a brief discussion about how terrible it is that foreigners must pay money for accessing public gardens, we made our way passed the guards, passed the walls, and into the green.  Suddenly the world turns peaceful, the air turns clean, and the stone faces on the street give way to smiles.  As we walk up the tree lined path, I notice beautiful roses and an array of flowers to our right. Beneath the trees to our left there are people, men, women, friends, couples, sprawled out and relaxing just a few hours before lunch.  Some are speaking quietly to each other, others in large groups seem to be telling stories and having a good laugh, still others aren’t talking at all, just enjoying the tranquility.

A ten to fifteen minute walk up the path and we’ve reached a group of buildings. “This one is a ceremonial hall, that back there is a mosque, and up there is the tomb of Babur,” AJ explained to me enthusiastically, as we walked from one to the other. Upon arrival at the tomb we’re greeted by an old man with an ID badge on his arm, he welcomes us after waving goodbye to the previous visitors. What follows is a 4 minute, well memorized account of who is buried here, when they were buried, and what is written on the tombstone.  I would love to share with you what he said, but it all happened so quickly, all I know is that it sounded fantastic.  “Please sign the book”, he motions towards a series of books where tourists leave little messages.  I decide out of all the languages and identities that might already be in the book, it could use a Portuguese text, so I go to work on a nice message from Mark from Lisbon.

For several more hours AJ guided me past a palace, by the greenhouse, and towards a few works of art hidden between the trees and walkways.  Throughout this time we discuss the complexities of life in Afghanistan, from work to school, love to family, religion to tribes, it is one big final lesson in things I have been learning about all month.  These discussions are interrupted frequently as I stop to snap a picture or record a video, each time AJ would wait patiently for me, before carrying on where we left off.

Kids Playing The Game

Towards the end of our visit we spotted an open childrens’ game involving sliding plastic circles over a wooden board, a quick explanation and we found ourselves wrapped up in several games for some time.  The snack stand guy near us walked over from his responsibilities to watch us play.  He tried his best in Dari to coach me to victory, but in the end the foreigner could not master this unfamiliar game and AJ took the match.  As we said goodbye to the man, I shook his hand and snapped one more picture of the board.  Again AJ waited for me to take all the pictures I felt I needed to take, then he turned to me and said, “Thank you for coming here and taking these pictures. Thank you for sharing such moments with your friends so that they know that in Afghanistan it is not just war and bad things.” His words echoed in my head as we enjoyed one last fresh apple juice and walked back through the front gate and into a taxi.  I scanned the sad looking Kabul River for traces of water, and thought about all the beautiful things and people I have encountered, and how they have forever changed what I think of this magical country.