Wednesday, 22 September 2010

United Angry Eejits

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan
[Photograph: Antônio Milena/ABr]

    I told you we'd get some adventure stories from the country I have affectionately dubbed with the title moniker. Now, I have been to the Emirates a number of times previously so this post has been informed collectively over a few years, though it is the first time I've really sat down to think about this slightly mad country. For the past few years it has been to visit my dad and family who are out here working. Working on their tans. They live in a little backwater called Al Ain which, unlike its money crazed older brothers Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a small leafy oasis town, with a high Emirati population and is full of roundabouts and shopping malls. Ok, so maybe it's still a little like its larger brothers. Desertification seems to have set in on Milton Keynes, and everyone has started to eat dates and wear those funky white robes. And they ride camels to Ikea or something. No building is higher than 5 stories, by decree of THE SHEIKH, so everyone can have a good view of the 'mountain' Jebel Hafeet. The all powerful Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who founded the UAE, was born in this little town, and was a very interesting guy. This is a country which was founded and governed by this one man from 1971 through to his death in 2004, who had more than 20 children from his polygamous marriages, but is known for being a wise diplomat, politician and a moderate Muslim who had, for his religion and culture, enlightened views on women's equality.

  This is a country of contradictions, wealth, almost-invisible poverty and sand. Men walk around in traditional Arabian garb, yet have Blackberry's and iPhones constantly wired into their ears on the ubiquitous hands-free-kits whose only purpose seems to be showing you have the latest phone fashion accessory. Water, you would think, would be precious in a country that is almost entirely desert, but its sprayed liberally across the grassy verges planted along roads and in roundabouts. It's generally a very confusing place. Oil gave the Sheikh's the opportunity to turn a nation of nomadic Bedouins and pearl-divers into one of the most developed nations in Asia, with very high GDP and astronomical carbon footprints for its inhabitants. It also gave them the buying power to attract the big Western multinationals and inward investment, making it feel like peculiar clash of East and West (well, Mid-East). Food giants like McDonalds and Subway are here in abundance, and the country now has a serious obesity and diabetes problem, with over 60% of Emirati nationals overweight. Yet the country is trying desperately to get in touch with its history and culture, something one could argue was lost just 30 years ago to rapid economic growth, the aforementioned Western investment and the highway and skyscraper construction bonanza of the last two decades. Exhibitions, calls for UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Oasis and desert-fort here in Al Ain, daily articles detailing Emirati life, history and art are all admirable attempts to promote national unity, identity and pride, but one can't help but feel it's all a little desperate, and perhaps too late to be heard from beneath the roaring of Hummer engines and the thundering of construction jackhammers.

    But they have certainly got one unassailable cultural icon still shining; their food. Dining out at the local 'Heritage Village' was my first really Emirati experience, filled with silly late-night karaoke, clouds of fragrant shisha and stunning Arabic food. Hummus and pine nuts, deep-fried lamb meatballs, lamb chops, butterfly prawns, breads to die for and wonderful shish kebabs, all washed down with wonderful fresh lemon and mint juice and Moroccan tea. And did I mention the karaoke? I'm not 100% sure it is karaoke, rather than just an over-enthusiastic waiter, but it has the messy, slightly-drunken (without a sniff of alcohol) but hugely earnest feel of a good go at singing the hits while a happy keyboard player fills the huge open-air room with gloriously cheesy midi sounds. A great night out by anyone's standards. And it's a rare opportunity to see Emirati families letting their hair down; kids dancing on tables, women chugging happily on shisha pipes, families enjoying a meal together at 11.30pm. The place is open 24hrs, and when you sit down at the reasonable time of 8 o'clock for dinner, you almost have the place to yourself. The place really only gets going after 10 o'clock, and is definitely worth sticking around for.

    To finish off with, I'll go with another brief bit of music jiggery-pokery, and recommend some of the brand new stuff I've been letting past my ears, which had previously been almost exclusively trained to listen to fogey music. The new album from The Besnard Lakes is entitled The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, a decidedly twisted album title which does some justice to the evocative noisescapes which flow across its 10 tracks. Fans of Arcade Fire may have heard of the band, with the Lakes often compared unfairly to their other Canadian neighbours, but where AF specialise in big-sounding, rabble-rousing numbers to get the blood pumping, Besnard Lakes, with Jace Lasek's falsetto vocals and guitars which scream silently from the darkness, offer something more chilling and hard to grasp securely between your hands and your ears, but the album really rewards you if you try. The track Albatross has accompanied the long, hot afternoons here in the Al Ain just right, allowing me to close my eyes and find myself somewhere colder, wilder, and perhaps a little more reassuring, just for a few glorious minutes.

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