Sunday, 29 March 2009

Guantanamo officials were inspired by Aladdin

I recently got into a debate with my friend Hani about whether or not Aladdin (Disney, 1992) should be rated as one of the top controversial films. Hani thinks I'm being completely silly, since not only does it not come close to the controversy around films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Monty Python's the Life of Brian, but he doesn't believe there is any controversy in Aladdin in any way whatsoever. I disagree. The original Arabian Nights lyrics, edited in the 1993 video release following protests, cannot go by unnoticed:

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam,
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

The Barbaric Arabians, we were. Or Are.

And today, in 2009, a Spanish court of law is about to decide if it will pursue allegations against Bush administration officials for permitting the use of torture methods such as "waterboarding" to be used on the inmates at Guantanamo Bay.

Waterboarding is a form of torture that dates back to the 13th century, from the Spanish Inquisition. A method devised to instil maximum pain, discomfort and near-death experience to the person subjected to it. The use of waterboarding continued for centuries, last known to be used in the late seventies by the Cambodian communist regime.

And since then then, and until today, usage continues by the world's most 'developed' and 'civilized' nation. The U.S. of A.

Enough said.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

On Dubai...

First off, a thank you to everyone who has been reading and commenting. It’s been great reading all your different perspectives.

I dunno you know, I find myself with competing, contradictory feelings about this one. To start with, I think that people should be socially aware and cast a critical eye on what is going on around them. I also think everyone has a right to their own opinion.

I disagree with the manner in which complaints about Dubai have been aired. I remember feeling a similar way when living in Beirut and listening to Americans mock the Lebanese banking system in a Lebanese restaurant surrounded by Lebanese people. There is a time and a place for everything and there is a way in which things are done.

The woefully ignorant negative press that we have been seeing about Dubai is ludicrous – an absolute mockery of journalistic standards. Frankly, if Germaine Greer, Sathnam Sanghera and Simon Jenkins are so desperate for an axe to grind, they would be well advised to spend more time focusing on the erosion of civil liberties in their own country... And, as a tax paying citizen of the UK, I feel I have every right to say that.

I am extremely grateful for the standard of life that Dubai afforded me when I lived there and even more so for that wonderful, safe and healthy childhood that so few get to experience. Here's where our opinions diverge though. I do think the price of that fantastic growth was high, I do think it represents an unrealistic way of life and I do find such focused capitalism disconcerting and discomforting.

Nowhere is perfect though and ultimately it is for each person to decide what they want from life and what compromises they make. You are right about one thing though, they are not being forced to stay in Dubai. Of course, it is always easier to remain in one’s comfort zone and complain than to get out and do something.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Dubai Post

I debated heatedly with myself before finally deciding to go ahead and write a post about Dubai. People who've never been here are putting in their 2 fils' worth. So having been born and raised here (and no, I'm not 17), I probably have more insight.

I mean, Sara, you grew up here too. We've both complained about the city being 'plastic', 'fake' and 'souless'. It's not until you grow up a bit that you actually recognize that you are witnessing the growth, the development and the creation of this city. Dubai will probably become one of the historic phenomena of the 21st century in history books in the future. No, no, I'm not exaggerating. Think about it. What civilisations or ancient cities do schools teach about today? Rome? Athens? Egypt? Why wouldn't people learn about Dubai? What it achieved, how it achieved, the stumbles, the mistakes, the fall, the rise, the culture mix, the influx of expats, the exodus of expats.

And now we come to this accusation of being 'souless' and 'uncultured' .I wonder if the people using these words even know what they mean. What, no theatre? Er, yes there is. I've met people who've been in Dubai for over three years and didn't even know the Madinat Theatre existed. And the labour laws, the inefficiencies, consumerism, the driving habits, the press, freedom of speech... and the list of complaints goes on. Errr...pretty much like with any major city in the world. Except maybe Lichtenstein (which is a country but still comparable, I find).

It is regrettable that one doesn't feel entirely secure , even though this is the only home I know. But I also understand that the UAE Government can't just go around offering citizenship to everyone who's been here more than 25 years. It simply makes no sense.

The Dubai I was born in, grew up in and went to school in, is very different from the city I now work in. And I've enjoyed being part of the change. And I look forward to being part of the next inflection point, which I think we're experiencing right now.

So if you've been laid off, sorry. If you're still here, open your eyes.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

More of the bonuses debacle

Hey Maisaloon,

The bonuses debacle has certainly been a focus of media attention for a while and has attracted a lot of criticism. Now, I have full sympathy for anyone who’s lost their job but you do still feel a small twinge of resentment when you’ve had dozens of the following types of conversations with bankers and city workers:

You: oh no, I’m so sorry to hear you’ve lost your job – how are you doing?

Joe highflyingbankerdude: Yeah I know it’s terrible. I don’t know what I’m going to do – everything seems to have just fallen apart..... I’m.... Just at a loss for words I guess... (trails off)

You (with genuine sympathy): Well please do let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. Do you have any plans for the immediate future?

Joe highflyingbankerdude (still in the same dazed tone): Well, I’ve been thinking I’ll travel around the world for six months on my redundancy package and then I guess just apply for a Master’s and take it from there.


So yeah, not much sympathy on the bonus front from me. As far as I’m concerned, the real victims of this recession aren’t the bankers or city workers. It’s not the educated young who are more than capable of handling a couple years of hard work, low wage temp jobs and uncertainty when our lives and careers still span ahead of us.

It is the people from the poorer backgrounds who will continue to get the short end of the stick. It is the people in the blue collar jobs for whom life is already a struggle going from paycheck to paycheck.

But most of all, it’s the over-sixties my heart bleeds for the most. The people who have worked diligently their whole lives, putting aside a little bit of money each month, believing in a system that told them if they did what was asked of them they would one day be rewarded. These same people who are tired, who have put children through school and have faced the hardships of life head on and are now ready for a rest.

These same people who suddenly woke up one morning to find their pensions were worth nothing. The value of their lives had fallen to zero overnight – the blood, sweat and tears they had shed over a lifetime meant nothing and they now have to start over from scratch because nobody has demanded that their rights be recognized. There are no calls in the media for these people to be compensated or supported.

In fact, the European Courts of Justice recently ruled that companies can force their employees to retire at 65 so those who had planned to keep working have now had another door slammed shut in their face. Older workers and women have been disproportionately affected by this recession and this move is a blow to anti discrimination laws and to all those who were hoping their fall would eventually be broken by state support. The same state they have been paying taxes to all this time.

I don’t think it’s about where in the world this is happening – I think it’s about the system. It’s no coincidence that the Scandinavian states that practice social democracy have been hit much less hard by this. I think we need to rethink the culture of business that we operate in and take a good, hard look at the characteristics it brings out in ourselves.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

AIG Bonuses Debacle

I can't say I fully comprehend the intricate details of the financial crisis, who started it and how. But what I do know is AIG is seriously taking the piss. Excuse my language, bas enno, seriously? US$165 million in bonus pay, after receiving US$170 million bailout money from the government? I fail to understand. This is absurd.

And now CBS tells me it's actually US$200 million in bonus pay. I wonder how these people sleep at night. But the answer is probably with a million bucks inside their pillows.

In an article in the Washington Post today, AIG CEO Edward Liddy asks American taxpayers to be patient, and that this money is going to be paid back. So why pay it out in the first place?

But here's an interesting question. If a similar situation were to arise in an Arab country, where the state of business transparency and regulation is what it is, how much of this would we see in our media?

Friday, 13 March 2009

Fashionable politics

I would imagine that many people were skeptical about the real motives behind the hastily arranged (and now cancelled) wedding of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston. You could almost see the scene being played out in some wooden lodge in the Alaskan outback.

McCain sits Johnston down "now listen here son, the dream of America lies at your feet. It is your responsibility – as an American – for the future of America – to marry young Bristol against your will and for our political gain.”

(I admit the words may have been different, but I believe the gist to be fairly accurate).

There may also have been a crew of half naked cheerleaders, inspiring Rocky themed music and those weird pieces of glitter paper Americans are so fond of to confuse and confound him. And there it began, the choreographed appearances at conventions, the hand holding and Levi looking entirely uncomfortable in a suit.

Levi, self professed redneck and lover of 'shooting sh*t’, myspace page was taken off the air in record time as it was revealed that his bio was a) on the colourful side and b) firmly stated he had no interest in children. Just not conducive to playing happy families I guess. No freedom of speech for you young man, don’t you know that’s exactly what the terrorists want?

Did this election not feel a little too much like a big budget movie? Did the tag lines, scandals and gaffes not start to feel a little contrived? And, while we’re on the subject, is anyone else wondering why more Hollywood actors than world leaders have visited the White House? Celebs in politics is another pet peeve of mine but one better left to another post.

Don’t get me wrong, a McCain/Palin White House would have been a vortex of crazy, but world leaders being chosen based on how well they come off on camera doesn't bode very well in these tense times.

Speech writers, pollsters, PR gurus, language testing – the whole thing is so orchestrated and deliberate that its grip on reality is tenuous at best. It’s just this big jumble of woolly, fluffy, patronizing and, frankly, lowest common denominator marketing speak.

In future elections, I’d like to a side order of substance please and can we please stop calling Michelle Obama the ‘first lady of fashion’ – it’s incredibly irrelevant and the fawning tone really bugs me.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Bali, baby!

Bali, Bali, Bali. This place and its people are at such peace with themselves and with life. There is something so incredibly relaxing about walking through rice terraces and coffee plantations, or sitting on the beach with the sun burning through your skin as you watch approaching dark clouds and start to hear the thunder rolling in the distance. In fact, for the first three days, I came to terms with and accepted that Balinese people don't know where Egypt is, because they're just in another world. Whenever someone asked me where I'm from, and I'd say "Egypt", the reactions were "sorry? Egyp? Egip? Egit? This is where, Europe?". So I'd give up and say "I live in Dubai." "Aaaah, Dubai, yes, very nice place Dubai."


BUT! The mystery was solved on day four, when my waiter Widi at Bumbu Bali restaurant in Tenjang Benoa enlightened me. "Egypt! Ah in Balinese we say Misir". DUH! Now why didn't I think of that? I'd tried everything to explain what Egypt was. Pharoahs, pyramids, the river Nile. Nothing rang any bells. But I never thought to try the Arabic. So from this point on it was "Misir" every time I was asked :)

The simplicity of Balinese life is beautiful. For a place that survives on tourism revenue, and is just filled with an inquisitive bunch of people that turns up with backpacks and maps, it's amazing how welcoming, pleasant and open they still are. The set up of the Balinese compound consists of five main 'buildings': 1) the north building, which is the parents' room, and also where any family 'valuables' are safely stored, 2) the south building: kitchen, 3) the east builidng: children's room, 4) the ceremonial building - used for weddings & religious celebrations and 5) the family temple. In addition to a family temple within each family compound (this one is dedicated to the ancestors), every village has at least three main temples. Religion plays a pivotal role in Balinese life. The beliefs, the values, the stories -- it drives everything they do. They make an offering to the gods at least twice a day. It felt like the entire island smells of incense all the time.

Maybe it's the peace of heart and mind that inspires the creativity of the Balinese, and gives them the talent to make some of the most stunning handicraft work in the world: wood carving, painting, lace. And not to mention the Balinese art of food. Their use of the natural resources around them from spices to banana leaves, lemongrass and incredible exotic fruit like salak. One of the funniest moments I had was on a visit to Gulung village, where we cooked and ate traditional foods. There was an old English couple from Manchester who, bless 'em, couldn't stand the taste - too much flavour for them, they said.

He's clearly not impressed.

But I was. Will be going back soon. Oh, and guess what? I don't need a visa!!!

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Jakarta wrap-up: Obama School

On Tuesday, I had a few hours left in Jakarta before heading to Bali. So, accompanied by the lovely Yunita, who took excellent care of us in Jakarta, and Mr. Akram Hariri of Al Hayat newspaper, we headed to Sonp. JL Besuki 4 Kec Menteng. This is the elementary school attended by none other than President Barack H. Obama from 1969 to 1971.

It was great having Yunita with us to translate. We only intended to take a peak from the outside, but the security let us into the courtyard, where a group of 8-year olds were rehearsing for a dance performance. In addition to the plaque outside the school gate, the walls all around are covered in photos of the US President. Students wrote letters addressed to him, saying how they look up to him, want to be like him. Everyone in the school is filled with immense pride that one of their former students is now President of the USA. And it's genuine pride. It's not a "let's capitalise on this & make money out of it" attitude. Or at least not yet.

And that was Jakarta.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Selamat tinggal Bali. Terima Kasih for everything!

"Michelle, my belle, these are words that go together well, my Michelle."

The instrumental tune of this song played on Phillipine Airlines flight PR504 from Jakarta to Singapore as we landed. This morning at 11:15am Bali local time I boarded a Garuda flight from Denpasar to Jakarta. Very sad to leave that beautiful and incredibly serene island, I arrived in Soekarno-Hatta International Airport only to be advised that Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi is delayed for two hours. A little bit upset, but not too fussed, I proceeded to the check in counter. After standing in a still queue for about 20 minutes, I approached the highly strung staff to enquire what was taking so long.

ME: Excuse me, can you please tell me why check-in is taking so long?
Etihad (abruptly, looking elsewhere) : We have delays.
ME: Yes, I understand that but why can't we check in?
Etihad: Because we have more delay. Maybe till tomorrow.
ME: And when were you planning to inform us???
Etihad: You don't know?
ME: No, I don't. So what now?
Etihad: Your ticket please.
ME: Don't have one. It's an e-ticket.

(A lot more fussing and Bahasa Indonesia chatter)

Etihad: Ok, come with me.

One other passenger and I follow the Etihad staff member across the aiport, with absolutely no clue where she's taking us. And she's too busy on her walkie-talkie to answer any questions. We arrive at an unmarked check-in counter. I check-in and get a Phillipine Airline boarding pass to Singapore, and from Singapore I am to take Etihad to Abu Dhabi. And I better hurry because the flight leaves in 20 minutes. OF course, the PR 504 gate is the last one in the airport.

Breathless, I arrive and settle down. I don't know how I would've survived that 1hr 20 min journey and calmed my fury without the help of John Le Carre and my iPod.

In Singapore Airport, check-in at the transfer desk, where the Etihad staff member is polite, helpful and surprisingly, informative. "Are you aware of the reason the flight from Abu Dhabi was delayed?" Er, no. "There was a medical emergency on board and so they had to divert to Madras." Ah. I see.

Well, I hope you're ok Mr/Ms passenger in a Madras hospital somewhere.

Behind me in the airport lounge CNN reports about Cuba. Probably my next holiday destination. But until then, I shall report on Bali (and a wrap up on Jakarta).

Thursday, 5 March 2009


It’s been a weird kind of a week. The kind full of hellos and goodbyes which leaves you feeling like the colours of your life have seeped a little beyond the lines and strangely out of sorts.

We’re so sophisticated now aren’t we? Jetting from here to there; living out of suitcases and on laptops. Scampering along, racing around on a man made mouse wheel that has us out of breath and going nowhere.

I have a friend who one day decided he was done with the path oft travelled. He packed up his stuff and moved to New Caledonia where he now lives on a little boat and does odd jobs around the island. I love that. I like being reminded that there are many ways to live and be happy. I admire his courage.

So Maisaloon, this may not be the most interesting of posts but I didn't want you to think I had forgotten about you.

How is Jakarta? I'm interested to hear more about the conference. I attended a lecture today on the history of the British mandate in Palestine. There was, as there always seems to be nowadays, someone arguing that anti-Islamism is and has been the motivating factor behind all foreign policy decisions since the dawn of time. And I really do mean the dawn of time. Ultimately the moderator had to step in and put an end to the session and several people stormed out. When did we become so consumed by this war of ideologies that we can't see beyond it?

* Update: Interesting piece of trivia that came up in the lecture - while it is widely known that Frank Sinatra had close ties with the mafia, it is less known that he played a pivotal role in facilitating arms smuggling to Israel in the 1940's. Just remembered it!

Monday, 2 March 2009

In Jakarta!

Oh wow. It's been just over 24 hours in Jakarta, and already there is so much I want to say about this place. Firstly, I'm here with a delegation of Middle East journalists on behalf of client, for the 5th World Islamic Economic Forum. The interesting thing about the opening ceremony of this event, is that every speaker, from the President of Indonesia to the Prime Minister of Morocco, would start his speech with "Assalamu Alaikum Wa R7mato Allah". Normal, right? But EVERY TIME, the entire audience responded in unison with "Wa 3alaikum El Salam wa ra7mato Allah wa barakto". Never seen / heard this before, but I felt there was something really genuine about it.

Here's 3 Jakarta Discoveries in 24 hours:

1. Three-in-One
The Three-in-One rule states that during rush hour (7-9am and 4-7pm) no vehicle is allowed on the roads downtown with less than 3 people in it. And if you, the driver, haven't got a 2nd passenger and you're desperate to get into town during those hours, you hire a 'jockey'. YOU pay HIM about 12,000RPs (US$1) to get in your car and help you fill your quota.

2. Smiling
Smiling works wonders with Indonesian people. It's amazing how everyone is so incredibly polite and helpful, and all because you smile at them, and say 'please'.

3. They love Amr Diab

And the proof: this guy, who performs with a band every night at the Kama Sutra night club in the Crowne Plaza Jakarta. There was also a brilliant performance of Shakira's 'Whenever, Wherever', but my uncontrollable laughter prevented me from holding the camera steady.

Where in the world is Maisaloon?

Two things are immediately obvious:

1) You're not in London

2) You're
not holed up in Kuwait's lowest star rating hotel (not the best plug for Royal Residence but what can you do).

For non-twitterers, a picture of Maisaloon's secret business trip location is over here:

We have established that you are somewhere in Asia, but I think we may need some more clues. Can we have some demographics? What's the culture like? Traditional cuisine? It seems like a fairly exotic island location?

Are there any prizes going for guessing the right answer by the way? In that case, I'd like suggestions for answers sent straight to my email - I'm going for the flat screen TV.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Live Blog 1: Abu Dhabi Airport

The last time I flew from Abu Dhabi airport was around 3 years ago. There's a new terminal! Checking in was super smooth (but it didn't look that way for economy class passengers, to be honest). So here I am in the dark wood, modern Etihad Airways lounge. I like it because it's extremely quiet, doesn't even feel like you're in an airport. Food isn't great. The sushi looks like it could take one straight to ER. I wanted to try and discretely take some photos but the place is so quiet that any sudden, strange movements could cause serious alarm. Might try in a little while. Still have about 45 minutes till boarding time.

That photo up there is all I managed to get & post before having to rush to board my flight to.... nah I won't tell you just yet...