The man at the corner shop waits for me outside his door each day as I walk back from work. Communication is stilted. We might both speak English, but there is little in common in our versions of English. It does not matter. It is the act of a shared word and a passing smile that matters. It is the moment of interaction that he wants, a moment that breaks the monotony. A mere three minutes.
The man behind the counter smiles and inveigles me into conversation. Who am I? No one. But in that moment I am stimulation, I am company. The conversation is limited and one sided. But does it matter? Sometimes it is just good to talk. And sometimes it is just good to have someone listen.
Loneliness traps people in different ways. The tedium of work or the emptiness of the hours that follow. The challenge of life something that we can all understand. So when someone stops me for a chat, I always pause and smile.
I woke early to catch the bus from my hotel in Colombo to the airport. It was raining, the water coming down much harder that it had appeared when I first stepped out of the hotel. A tuk-tuk took me to the bus stand. A bus marked ‘airport’ was already there, waiting. All very simple. In fact, I probably boarded the wrong bus: the slow number 187 rather than the express 187E. Instead of zooming along the motorway (Sri Lanka apparently has one), we chugged slowly along more medium sized roads. At one point our driver ran out of enthusiasm for the journey and kicked us all off onto another bus. At six thirty in the morning, though, the traffic was light. The journey took an hour, just as the rome2rio transport planning website had predicted, and far less than the horror stories on travel fora had foretold.
By the time I was back in Saudi Arabia it was close to six in the evening. The sun was low, but large and burning orange. The desert appeared quite beautiful as we came into land. Not a drab beige, but a set of yellows and browns, picked out with threads of gold and little pock marks of green. This isn’t a lush, tropical beauty, of greenness and bursting life. It is a different sort of beauty. An austere, minimalist beauty that speaks of extremes. Extremes of temperature from the burning heat of a summer noon to the bitter cold of a winter night. Even extremes of personality. The desert can be difficult and frustrating, but it is also a source of wonder.
And who would think it could be so welcoming? Leaving immigration at the airport I was offered sweets, dates and Arabic coffee. Eid Mubarak.
Go to Jumeirah Beach, for there is a world that, while objectively merely pleasantly agreeable, in terms relative to Riyadh is an astonishing cornucopia of extravagant style and elegance clutched to the bosom of easy delight.
In the dark of evening, the place blazes with enveloping light. Along the water front people sit on surprisingly well tended grassed areas. The turf is soft under foot, yielding to one’s shoes. Beach tennis is played under flood lights; an American-style corrugated-metal bus served as a little park-bar; a running track snaked along the pedestrianised water-front path. To one side was the water and, beyond that, signs of the port that has brought so much wealth to the city state. Cranes cast a silhouette against the dark sky. Even further back were the sky-scrapers of Dubai city: dark fingers stabbing up at a dark sky. To the other side were shops and restaurants. All chains, to be sure; all familiar to my American companions, of course; but all a welcome slice of generic familiarity nonetheless. Upmarket burger-bars, chain Italian eateries, pseudo-posh pseudo-French places, disturbing quasi-English establishments. It is nothing special, but it is everything special: it is fantastic.
Walk away from the water front, beyond the first line of restaurants, and pause. Here you are in the central courtyard of this little beach plaza. Restaurants and shops surround you and people are stepping out to take the evening air. There is the murmur of conversation, and the feeling that comes from being in the middle of a mix of happy and relaxed people. Ahead of you is a little water feature. The water is so smooth it could be glass, it flows so seamlessly that there is barely a ripple. In the middle stands an olive tree. Its age far exceeds it surroundings and, while obviously an implant, for a moment it looks as if things were built around it. Lights are dotted across the water so that the water not only shimmers with light reflected from above, but shoots forth its own little twinkling stars of colour. Further along there is another water feature, again with an olive tree at the not-quite centre. This time the water stretches out in offset squares, the design hinting at traditional Arabic geometric patterns. The concentric squares are separated by little channels, yet the water gives the impression of flowing over everything, of being just one uninterrupted glass expanse. These are simple designs, elegantly executed. They are beautiful.
Just ahead and to the left, a route takes one out to the main road. Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys: the road is lined with expensive cars. Dubai drips with cash, yet this gaudiness, this flashiness, somehow seems just part of the place. It is what Dubai is. Lights and sights; luxury cars and luxury life.
A weekend in Dubai must, it seems, begin with brunch. Anything but a brunch, these buffet lunches have an entrance price that covers all you can eat and drink. Buffet food stretches ahead for hours, and though I am not generally a fan of buffets, the food is good, with the hotel’s selection weirdly bringing together Asian cuisine with German. The four hours the buffet is open for rapidly merge into five and we have over-stayed our welcome. A lengthy lunch with friends, of good food and roaming conversation, is a commonplace hardly meriting a letter home, but here it is a rarity, something other-worldly. Like a trip to the picture house, it is the other-side of an international flight.
Dubai has a very different feel from Abu Dhabi, which I visited on my first UAE weekend getaway. Abu Dhabi felt a little more solid; sandier and dustier perhaps, but less ephemeral. Dubai had a glitz the capital lacked. This didn’t come from the cars, but from the buildings. Dubai’s skyscrapers and shopping centre’s were just flashier: bigger and shinier. The Dubai Mall shopping centre had a three story fish tank and a Fortnum and Mason. (It also had a cinema, which once again proved irresistible.) The Burj Khalifa (currently the world’s tallest building at 829.8m with 163 floors) is really very tall. It stretches up and up, getting thinner and thinner near the top. Somehow the height is beguiling: as tall as you know it is, it doesn’t quite look it until you catch it at some weird angle which casts its surrounding tower-blocks in the roles of dwarves. Inside, on the ground floor, is the entrance to the Armani Hotel. Soft browns and soft soft pile carpets make the entrance exude luxury; the quiet cool accentuated not only by the contrasting heat outside but also by the church-esque hint of Frankincense inside. Yet for all this glitz, Dubai still felt a little unfinished. A dream in the desert, sky-scrapers plonked on the sand. It is a world away from Riyadh but I wonder if it is really real.
Tonight I eat hummus with Arabic bread (think flat and thin) for my dinner. You might think that this is the most local of local dishes, that such food is the sine qua non of eating in Riyadh. And, of course, you would be wrong.
The real food of choice in Riyadh is the hamburger.
Riyadh is littered with burger bars. My American colleagues cluck amongst themselves about the chains from back home that have either already opened up a Riyadh franchise or are about to. Naturally there are MacDonald’s and Burger King outlets. There is also the whole gamut of dire chains such as TGI Fridays, Chillis, Red Lobster and the like, that advertise on the television under the slightly alarming ‘Americana’ quality badge. These places offer a hamburger, of course: a burnt patty lost between two over-sized buns and smothered in cheesy gloops.
These are not the burger bars for connoisseurs. The proper burger-eater picks from the ever expanding range of bespoke, artisan and independent hamburger crafters. There is Hamberghini where the patties are misshapen and come with a slightly foetid taste. Elevation burger declares itself as eco-friendly and has a menu complicated enough to leave one believing anything. There is Smash burger, Fat burger, Burger box, Burgerizzr, Jan Burger, BurgerFuel, Baby Burger, My Burger, Burger Cheese Volcano, Burger Castle, Burger Garden…the list goes on and on. Burgy has a simple menu with just a couple of alternatives, but serves a patty that is satisfying in its heft. Highly favoured, of course, is Burgeronomy where the hamburgers are small, but oozily juicy. The little shop’s plastic chairs and tables present an underwhelming (yet sadly typical) environment, but there is no place better to go when, as my Texan friend would say, one wants to ‘crush some burgs’.
The Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Saudi Arabia and his military attaché invited me to a reception. Of course, it was just their name on the invitation; they had never even heard of me, but someone else had. So after work I toddled off to the Diplomatic Quarter.
These parties are not quite what one might imagine. Certainly they are not what I might have imagined before coming out here. There are no dinner jackets or tails at a modern embassy reception; no martinis, shaken or stirred. Think, rather, ill fitting lounge suits and glasses of pineapple juice. Nonetheless, they make for a break in the routine. Hosts line up in front a wall of flags and politely shake the hands of all their guests, important and less so. At this military-diplomatic occasion, it was clear who the audience was. One third was Saudi officialdom, perfectly dressed in spotless thobes (the white robe), immaculate shemaghs (the red and white headdress) and wonderful brown and gold bishts (a gauzy outer layer richly adorned with gold ribbon). One third was military: the various attachés from the various countries, all togged up in their various uniforms: some like the Pakistani sailor all in ceremonial white, others like the Iranian captain in drabber khaki rig. One third was the local Chinese community. And then there was me.
Though only the second or third official reception I have been to in the Diplomatic Quarter, it is apparent that they all follow a set pattern. First you arrive and shake hands with the hosts. I didn’t really get a chance to shake hands with the attaché. The man just in front of me had commented loudly that this was his first meeting with a ‘Chinese soldier’; the Colonel was left looking at a departing back muttering only ‘Officer…officer…I’m an officer’, and didn’t seem to notice my outstretched hand. Then you turn, climb a few stairs and head over to the corner to collect your glass of fruit juice. Next comes the talking small. Everybody always knows everybody, except of course, no one knows you. So a good twenty minutes are spent in a series of introductions during which cards and contact details are swapped, never to be referred to again. Then comes the speech. The Colonel stepped into a little dais and delivered a speech in what appeared to be perfect Arabic. There were appreciative whispers from the Saudi contingent, but no one in my section of the room had the faintest idea what was being said. It was at this moment, though, that I noticed how ill-fitting the poor Colonel’s uniform was. He looked lost in it: a child in a giant’s jacket. Last, there is the food: as one herd we stampeded to the back room, swarmed over the buffet, queued up in front of the satay stall, the shawarma man and the deep fried prawns, and gobbled to our heart’s content.
And that is how receptions go. With stomachs full the place empties quickly. A few conversations straggle on but nothing lasts for ever. The Ambassador, his wife and the Colonel were once again lined up to wish us all good night. At the door was a table of little leaflets for us to take away. Most were in Mandarin or Arabic, but one caught my eye. Essential bedtime reading, straight from the information department of the People’s Liberation Army, it explained how well loved the army was in certain provinces. It made the revisionist history videos about that PLA that had been on loop all evening appear positively conventional.
Fun was overdue, so it was time to party, Riyadh style. It was time for a trip to the sun of any social circle, that around which everything in Riyadh revolves: a shopping centre. Twinned with a curry, what could be better?
As ever, our timing was not quite right. Choosing to break the fast late, we skipped Iftar (roughly 6:45pm) and sat down in the restaurant at closer to 8:40pm, just in time, it seemed, for the Isha prayer. Down came the blinds, covering the windows to the restaurant. The door was locked, though we were allowed to stay inside. The three poppadoms popped in front of us were not taken away, but our order, made in haste before the call to prayer, was put on hold. We could but sit and chat for thirty minutes.
But then the blinds were raised, the food was served, and the evening came back to life. Children began zorbing in a little inflated paddling pool set up in the corridor in front of our first floor, shopping centre curry house.
And after dinner, what could be more Riyadh than a spot of shopping? Having eaten both fridge and cupboards bare, I was reasonably pleased to find a supermarket in the basement of the shopping centre.
Within moments of entering the place I began to feel that empty cupboards and possible starvation were not so awful a fate. The place was a mad house. The baskets all seemed to be coated in the detritus of squished vegetables. Mothers rammed me with their trolleys to get to the crisps and powdered fruit juice. Children ran into me, shrieking as they slipped from the fingers of their distracted parents and play-fought with their siblings. My feet themselves had to dance to some convoluted choreography as I tried to pirouette my way through the crush.
I could but grit my teeth and fight against the desire to run from the place. I knew I had to buy something. But still, the scene in front of me did its best to rob me of any wish to eat ever again if it depended on buying anything from that supermarket.
Doha’s Hamad International Airport ‘offers a truly world-class experience’. I am left slightly non-plussed at how any collection of halls, corridors and waiting areas could be thought of as world-class. Some airports are better than others; some are truly horrible places to get stuck in. Beyond that….what does it really mean?
Yet Hamad does win my praises in one area at least. It is indulgently English. The announcements over the Tannoy come in the same accent as in Heathrow’s fifth terminus. But special praise must be reserved for the Marmalade Market, a grocer’s shop so stuffed with tempting produce that even I feel compelled to splash the cash. Teas from the East India Company; chocolate from Prestat; date balsamic vinegar Bateel; vintage-style mints and sweets from the Very Good shop. There is fancy stuff from Asia and the Middle East, as well as England, but all of it somehow presented in an appealingly English manner.
The airport isn’t exactly convenient for a daily shop, but this is probably a good thing. The allure of the Marmalade Market is just too great.
I had come to Abu Dhabi to see the Grand Mosque and to have a day away from Riyadh, and in neither did my day disappoint.
Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque has 82 domes, more than a thousand columns, can hold 41,000 at prayer, and has the world’s largest hand knotted carpet. Conceived in 1986, construction began in 1996 and it was opened in 2007; pretty ancient by Emirati standards given the astonishing pace of development and change out here. On the outside, the white marble pillars are inlaid with semi-precious stones, on the inside the inlay is all mother of pearl; plants trace their tendrils, leaves, stems and flowers around all. The flowers crawl across the marble surface of the courtyard; they stand proud, growing up around the gateways; they are there in the chandeliers and emblazoned across the walls. Tracking the fauna of the world, the marble flowers change as one moves from north to south through the mosque. The carpet, woven by 1200 Iranian ladies and installed in the mosque as nine pieces then carefully stitched together, is a sea of green bedecked again with flowers. It is an amazing place, richly worked and fabulously decorated. Gaudy perhaps, but still captivating. If it doesn’t quite capture the silence of some mosques and churches, it still reduces the hubbub from its endless flow of visitors to a background murmur.
Qasr Al Hosn (the Palace in the Fort) is Abu Dhabi’s oldest structure: it dates back to the mid-eighteenth century. It has been closed for many many years for a conservation project that seems to be taking far longer than it has any right to do so. But if tourists cannot enter the fort, they can visit a little exhibition that charts the development of Abu Dhabi. There isn’t much charting to do, but once water was found, the Bani Yas tribe made the place their own, built a watchtower (Qasr Al Hosn) and established a settlement that one Royal Navy office described as made from ‘date mats’. The water made the place inhabitable, but it was something else that made it rich: pearls. Before the oil was found, the riches of Arabia were pearls, at least for this part of the world.
Grass may grow in the central reservation, but that is likely because of the constant irrigation, not the climate. Abu Dhabi is hot, come a June lunch time. Leaving the museum fully fortified with knowledge of the city’s history, I walked up to the Corniche and then marched along as fine a strip of deserted white sand that I have ever seen. Of course two caveats must follow such a sentence: I haven’t been to the Caribbean and I possess not an ounce of interest in beaches. What I was interested in was lunch, and, true to form, I spent the next forty minutes searching for a restaurant I had read about, without ever actually finding it. When heat, thirst and hunger finally defeated me, the Japanese restaurant I saw across the road fitted the bill perfectly. Unlike the Japanese restaurants I have mistakenly tried in Riyadh, this place was excellent. It also dallied not at all in putting a bottle of cold water in front of me. The tourist brochure I had picked up from the hotel was spot on when it said that it was easy to find good food in Abu Dhabi.
Next came the Marina Mall. When I had asked the concierge at the hotel for a map, she had immediately circled all the shopping centres. Clearly shopping is what is expected of a visitor to the United Arab Emirates. As it happened, I needed a new pair of shoelaces. I had tugged too hard when tying the laces on my trainers a week or so ago and they had parted in my hands. I hadn’t made much progress in finding replacements in Riyadh, so I thought I would put Abu Dhabi to the test. The Marina Mall, the guide book said, had over 400 shops. I naively thought I might find a shoelace seller among them. It wasn’t easy. Most shops seemed perplexed at the idea. Why buy shoelaces? Why not just buy a new pair of trainers? Given the superabundance of high-end cars on the roads (I have never seen so many Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Porches Maseratis and those horrid Italian Ferraris and Lamborghinis, as I did today) it is possible that the usual UAE shopper has the same attitude.
But as I searched for shoelaces (and in truth, at the eleventh hour, the search was not in vain), I stumbled across something even more exciting. A cinema. Instantly I succumbed. I couldn’t really help myself. I had come to Abu Dhabi to forget myself for a day. I didn’t need to get comatose through booze, nor inject my eyeballs with dodgy chemicals; but a cinema, a couple of hours in the dark watching a film? This was something I couldn’t pass up.
By most yardsticks, today was hardly an exciting day, but rather painful in its mundaneness. But I don’t live by most yardsticks. A visit to a beautiful, world-famous mosque; a walk in forty degree heat along a beach of scorching white sand; a relaxed but delicious lunch; an afternoon ensconced in Dolby surround sound, all in a city as efficient, well-ordered and pleasant as one could hope for: these are the makings of a magical day.
Thank you, Abu Dhabi.