Saturday, April 29, 2006


WooooooooooWOO! Feeling great here. Crawled off to the gym for a 5.15 Body Balance class, feeling wasted. It is now 6.36 and I feel fab! Still got no abs nor much in the way of back muscles, and everything that's supposed to flex only does so under protest, but hubba-hubba-hubba when it's all over I'm looser, and riding a wave of endorphins. And I've got to be at least two inches taller. Back tomorrow for the 6.15. Meanwhile, Habibi has made spaghetti bolognese (which he does supremely well, and if you're reading this, Habibibaba, I'm sorry you missed it....). He does look after me.

By the way, I did the Body Jam class yesterday (also went on the treadmill and the cross-trainer without falling off!). It was good in a one-day-I'm-gonna-be-able-to-do-this-if-I-don't-die-first sort of way. Also the other three players were all 16 and I'm....... not.

If you've seen Save the Last Dance where Sean Patrick Thomas teaches Julia Stiles hip-hop, you may remember how gawky and out of it she was to start with. I've got her beat! Biiiiiiig time. Watching Flashdance tonight for a laugh. There's something familiar about the flying sw - um - perspiration. (Wooowooo!)

Friday, April 28, 2006

Friday Hedonist

One of the chief pleasures of Fridays is waking at my normal Pavlovian hour, but on my terms.

During the week I often stir restively in the small hours, surfacing and resurfacing at 3.30, 4.10, 5.40: the side effect of too much mental activity and hardly any physical activity. At 6 o’clock I am asleep, body and psyche utterly defenceless against the deceptively understated bibibibibiiiip bibibibibiiip of the alarm clock. Aural acupuncture.

I extend a claw to switch the damn thing off, and having decided, against the evidence, that I am not in fact dead and beginning eternity in one of the less spectacular circles of hell, emerge from my pit with all the zest for life of a crone in a Russian fairy tale. My centre of gravity is somewhere around the soles of my feet, and I’ve got about as much vertical hold as a stack of paint cans in a Laurel & Hardy movie. Body buckling under the unbearable heaviness of being, I shuffle towards the kitchen.

On Fridays I wake to the silence where the alarm clock isn’t. Ah. Bliss. A/C hums. Habibi snores. Birds twitter. (Saw Failure to Launch yesterday, arf arf. Go see.) I don’t move, savouring the feeling of spine stretched on cotton sheets and firm wide mattress, appreciative of sunlight filtering through curtains and closed eyelids, waiting to see if I feel like getting up or going back to sleep.

Sometimes I stay put just for the pleasure of being horizontal, cocooned, motionless except for the slow rise and fall of my chest as I breathe (always reassuring) letting thoughts drift until sleep washes over and I sink in quiet rapture.

If I decide I want to be up, then I might slither sideways in a satisfyingly silly private game of escaping unnoticed by mattress or duvet. Or just get up and go see what the day looks like. Sometimes I whip the duvet to one side and feel the cool air replacing the warm over me, give it half a minute – there’s no rush after all – and pootle off in search of tea to the rhythm of whatever happens to be playing in my head.

I think it’s a major misconception that music is something we appreciate exclusively through our ears – music is how we harness energy and spirit; soar, pivot, tumble and sweep onward inside without necessarily moving, at least on the outside; how we express what is otherwise inexpressible in all of us, and share the feelings and experiences of others. It’s right up there with love, food, drink and shelter as a fundamental human necessity.

How marvellous it is that there are people with extraordinary gifts as singers, musicians, composers and dancers; and a recording industry that enables us to see and hear over and over again artists we might never see live. But at the same time, the truly gifted only have in abundance what the rest of us have in moderation. We need to make music too, all of us, and if we’re too inhibited to dance, wiggle, sing, hum, whistle, snap our fingers, tap our feet, at least nod our heads for heaven’s sake, then something vital has been suppressed.

Bring on the live bands of local kids, and the folk clubs, the singalongs, the choirs, the school orchestras, the amateur operatics, the karaoke, the ceilidhs, the barndances and the dance classes. Bring on the superstar in the shower! Bring on the boogie-woogie bed-maker and sweeper-upper!

(I generally do housework while jigging along to Shania Twain, adding harmonies when the mood takes me, because that's where the fun lies, and also because it means that only a quarter of my brain has to engage with the tedious inevitability of dust everywhere - especially after this week's shamals blew half the desert into our apartment. The Empty Quarter must be very empty indeed today. (OK I exaggerate.) Habibi is very brave about the harmonies, which of course drown out the melody and the rest of the arrangement. It was very good of Habibibaba to leave his good headphones behind when he left home.)

OK, so it’s Friday morning, I’m out of bed, with a tune in my head, and the kettle’s over there. I think that different rhythms pour energy into different parts of the body – and in many different ways! Some the shoulders and upper chest (Peter Gabriel’s Salisbury Hill, Chopin’s sorry, Debussy's Clair de Lune - Thanks Pater!, or a quickstep) others the hips (rumba, reggae, rock’n’roll) others the head - both senses and intellect – (Mozart voice, clarinet, strings – you name it). So while I’m not dancing down the hall (It’s still only just gone 6 a.m. remember.) I am lifted and propelled without any real effort on my part – a serious improvement on Wednesday at this hour.

And later, after I’ve had my tea, and an hour or so on the sofa with my book, or BBC World, or some film I’ve caught the latter half of, I may decide to go back to bed. Just for the hell of it.

Today of course, I’ve been writing this, and now I’m taking the temple of my soul to the gym. Once again, it’s been over a week because of work and weariness, so I’m stiff, but I love doing it, I love the steam room afterwards, and weekdays at 6 a.m. are much better when I’ve been to the gym the day before. Begone ancient crone!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Can you hear me, Mother?

I'm very excited!

A couple of nights ago I was on the phone with Mother, 4,000 or so miles away. Mother has been deaf to every suggestion that she should get a PC. She's done enough typing in her time, thank you very much. So I am the envy of the staffroom, because my pigeon hole has fat, hand-written letters, all year round.

(I of course, have guilt, because while I phone fairly frequently, do I write? Do I @#%%#&*!
I could blame the pain-in-the-ass distribution and efficiency of post offices, heat, dust - oh yeah and they lost the presents I posted last Christmas and they lost my special Mother's Day je-ne-sais-quoi - et jamais bloody well will now by the look of things - from far-far-away Habibibaba. Aargh! *^$#$%^&!@#$&^%%$!!!!!!!!!! But no, I'm just lazy.)

No. Mother's not interested in a PC. Now I know where my technophobe streak comes from...

Yes, but Mother, you could get Internet access, and a Hotmail account, and send emails, and it's immediate. And get emails from Mama Duck, Big Brother, Dutch Uncle, French Leave, Darling Sister, Little Brother, Habibibaba and Omani Traveller, whenever something interesting comes up, and it's immediate. (Just made all those up! Did you get everyone? :) )And Mama Duck's got a blog now. And Dutch Auntie's webpage is full of gorgeous photos of gorgeous small Diamond, and you don't have to wait for the post.


At last, proof that a Diamond is the way to a woman's heart. Didn't I tell you he was gorgeous? Takes after both parents!

Yes, Mother said that she's going to visit the Internet Suite at Central Library, and seek out a librarian to help her get online. I approve of this kind of service. How civilised.

And I said, come visit my blog, and check out grannyp and La Petite Anglaise for starters. (Yes I know I've tagged them before, but this is for a cause.)

OK Mother, click on their names and you can go straight to their blogs. Enjoy. If you get stuck or end up with a blank screen, don't worry: it's impossible to delete or change anything, and the library staff have helped plenty of nervous novices before you. And let me know you were here. Pleasepleaseplease click comments at the end and say hi. If I can do it, you definitely can! (Be brave!)

xxxxxxxxx tu patito amarillo

Pooped but happy

My brain is fried today. Having always run more on enthusiasm than sense I still haven't mastered the mature art of pacing myself. I'd like to ascribe this to my joyous, childlike gift for living every moment to the full, but I think it's more a matter of discipline - I haven't got any.

Ah well. So here I am, completely shattered. As a rule, the body keeps going for twenty four hours after the brain turns to mush, which, as my Wednesday afternoon students can attest, means that there are times when all that remains are the big motor skills, and the knowledge that if I stop moving and talking for more than a minute I'll subside in a heap on the floor. Not every Wednesday ok?! Just at the end of more than usually frenetic weeks. (In case you're wondering, our working week is Saturday to Wednesday.)

This week has featured the dress/technical rehearsals and performances of our first year GCSE students. They have been devising original plays for the last month, and while they've all done improvisation before, and may have given lunchtime performances of particularly interesting and accomplished classwork in the past, a formal evening performance of an original twenty minute play on a full stage is a big step.

Of course, being fourteen or just fifteen, some of them don't realise this until the week of performance (meanwhile others are typing the script, plotting lighting, sound, costume and props). However, realisation usually dawns on the most happy-go-lucky some 36 hours before the curtains open. Bless!

So they were up there last night, with an appreciative audience, and it was a very good evening. Today they watched themselves on video, which of course was the first time that they could see their work as a whole, and knew that they'd done well - even allowing for bloopers.

I think that this performance project is one of the most valuable things we can offer these kids in their first year of GCSE. We teach them theory and technique, and they do all sorts of things in class, but after nine or ten years of necessary classroom protocol, some will have become very dependent on teacher instruction and approval. In order to be independent and creative, and really work their knowledge, they have to get out there and do it. The stuff they discover about responsibility, teamwork, risk-taking, coping with time constraints, creative block, getting on with the job and each other, etc. etc., is invaluable. And at the end they get applause, feedback in the canteen and at breaktime, and usually a pretty good grade too. Not bad a for a month's schoolwork!

And what we get out of it (apart from a pile of hyper kids fresh from Broadway success) is the bonding of groups made up of diverse personalities, strengths and shortcomings; and individuals who are more secure in knowledge and understanding of the specification (latest jargon for syllabus) and, as importantly, with a sharper definition of themselves, their abilities, and their worth to their peers. I love teaching GCSE Drama. I love it.

By the way, the bonus for me last night, was the wit of these kids. Everyone went for comedy this year. Confident - even audacious - plots, cultural references, physical comedy, clever dialogue, entertaining solutions to practical challenges. I was so pleased with them. And yes, there were one or two errors and pauses; structural weaknesses here and there, as you'd expect from first time playwrights; and a range of acting ability from very strong to not very much at all really - but every one of them did the best they were capable of, and it worked!

The other thing this week was the departure of the final year GCSE and IB students for study leave. I had a bad case of empty nest yesterday morning, as events conspired to prevent me saying a proper goodbye to my GCSE students. As you may gather from the above, we don't just teach these kids, we watch them grow - some over a span of five years, observe them very closely in assessment, work on the periphery of upheavals in their social and home life, see them through the disciplines of external exams and having to be mature now because this is GCSE, and so forth. And then they go. It's natural, it's right, and I don't want to hold on to them. But it's a shock to the system when the classroom door closes on their racket, and you know that in typical teenage fashion, they're outta here!


Monday, April 24, 2006

A Blog for St. George

I clean forgot til I popped over to Grumpy Goat's blog (magnificent profile!) that yesterday was St. George's Day.

We used to live in a village in the northwest of England. Once a year, on the nearest Saturday to April 23rd, we used to celebrate A Day for St George, when teams of morris men would come from miles around to dance through the streets (and the 11 pubs) waving hankies and handing out fertility cake. It was always a lovely, relaxed, giggly sort of day, and the sun usually put in an appearance at some point, and only an occasional token wetting.

Our morris men practised weekly at the community centre, on Tuesday evenings at 9 p.m. I remember this because when Habibibaba was about five, he was completely enchanted by them one St George's Day, and declared that he wanted to be a morris boy So I took him to a practice.

The men were very sweet about this (Ha! I just thought! Morris Minor! Yay! OK sorry, forgot my medication.) and let him stay, and taught him some steps. He had a lovely time, and never mind that I didn't have a camera. I have to confess though, to blighting my son's initiation into male ritual, because I, I mean he, couldn't stay up so late and get up for school the next day. Shame.

Our village was in the process of becoming part of a conurbation, with ribbon development the length of both top and bottom roads from Bolton, but it still had its pubs, and folk club, and local events in the schools, the community centre and the leisure centre. We had good friends there, and were happy.

By the way, it's always been said that 'morris' derives from 'moorish' referring to gypsy entertainers who travelled across Europe in the Middle Ages. When I got here, and saw men in white linking arms and waving a handkerchief as they performed the dybbka, I realised it was probably true.


A hundred years since the San Francisco earthquake.
Twenty years since the fire in the Chernobyl reactor.
Peruvian fireworks mark the occasion.

Even if Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, for all his aggressive rhetoric, honestly has no plans to use plutonium for weapons, shouldn't everyone, especially the people of Iran, be uneasy about siting nuclear plants in an earthquake zone?

Saturday, April 22, 2006


We don't get the dawn chorus around our building. It's a dawn stake-out by elite solo operators. There's the plump, black-chested sparrow (CHIRP!) that sits at the top of the maintenance (CHIRP!) well between our kitchen window and (CHIRP!) our neighbour's.
And (chyUGGachuggachg) the bulbul (chyUGGachuggachg) on the rooftop opposite.
And the pigeon on the balcony rail with its mournful one-note recorder ...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc foreign ...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc cousin, I'm sure, ...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc (yes, alright!) to the one in the tree outside my mother's kitchen window in England.
And every (CHIRP!) morning at 6 o'clock as I drift vaguely in the direction (chyUGGachuggachg) of the kettle, they're just there:
CHIRP! chyUGGachuggachg ...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc...cucucoocucucuc
with the occasional flyby air cover from a trio of green parrots CHEEkada CHEEkada CHEEkada...

Don't tell me it's the dawn chorus. It's the SAS, Avian Division.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Ever-decreasing circles

My 'I like' blog of a few weeks ago started out as a parenthesis illustrating something else entirely, namely reasons for a two-decade aversion to PCs and the Internet. But I was having such a good time with my raindrops-on-roses party (subject: all the things the PC/Internet is not, does not and can not.) that I dumped the other stuff and kept going (something I'm pretty good at, as we know.)

Here's the aversion bit.

For years I have described myself as either technomoron or technophobe, depending on whether I was going for laughs or accuracy, but essentially, I DON'T LIKE COMPUTERS VERY MUCH, though I liked the concept of Elle's cute pink Legally Blonde Mac. (In practice, don't like Macs even more than I don't like PCs - horrible keyboard.)

Basically Habibi got his first computer in 1990, and installed it in the spare bedroom. From then on, he would retire upstairs most evenings, only emerging hours later, weary, dazed, and smiling sheepishly, to collapse into bed. I tried not to kick up about something that made Habibi happy, but ooh I resented that machine!


The next bit would have been wry reflection (Whaddya mean apoplectic rant? We're doing emotion reflected in tranquility' today, for which I would like to thank my English teacher Mr Richards, who first put university into my fluffy head, my parents, who paid for it, and William Wordsworth, nice man, pretty good poet.) - yes, wry reflection - on how time passed, Habibi got his modem working, and was finally liberated from the daily commute to the office, embarking on the USS Microsoft, with Mama Duck, Habibibaba and millions of other families, for New Lifestyle, eventually settling in Global Village, I.T., where he revelled in the freedom of flexible hours, and the convenience of 24/7 Information Access. Meanwhile Mama Duck, while admiring his dedication, and absolute brilliance, chafed at the slow realisation that working from home meant never leaving the office. Didn't Habibi deserve a better quality of life than this? And where did Mama Duck and Habibibaba fit into the equation?

Of course, these issues have been part of traditional family life for as long as the traditional family, with breadwinners and dependants, has functioned. Yet even with two breadwinners, since the 80s and the cosy Thatcher/Reagan double act, the psychological pressures to work harder, faster, longer have been exacerbated by the presence of at least one computer in every home. Just as Japan's famously company-orientated society began to loosen up, the West started heading in the other direction! Taking individual character and choices into account, it all seems a bit much. (Still doing reflection here!)

And I don't think computer games are so healthy either - if we're not working on our computers, we're playing on them. Surely our ability to deal with other people only comes with practice, so if you chicken out in favour of rescuing Lemmings for hours on end (I love them!), how are you going to get the hang of real people with no re-set, no hot-air balloon, no AK47 or ICBM, no - omigod - no cheats? So says she who spent most of her childhood with her nose in a book.................. but of course that's different!

So what of my new blog lifestyle? Here's the irony: I WAS RIGHT! Ever since April 6th, when Mama Duck went online, it seems I'm either writing or revising my blog, or checking for comments, or reading someone else's, or thinking about something I want to write. I even dreamt I was in a blog the other night, on the page like something out of an admonitory children's film - nice page, though... In short, total obsession. Not doing much else. It's a BAD THING!

On the other hand, instead of being stuck with my own company because it's too hot & humid outside, or Habibi's working, or I'm spent-up/too tired or lazy to do something or go out/can't drive and can't face the bus, I've been to see grannyp in the Canaries, another Englishwoman abroad who's given me plenty to think about; and la petite anglaise in Paris - a pleasure to spend time with, even at this remove; and whoever-that-is turning his cave in Andalucia into a home - no, go see, this is great!; and Karma in Mumbai, with her glorious colours and Sunday competition , which she suspended, just as I found it -Aargh! - and some Spanish language blogs that I can't read without my dictionary, but give me something to look forward to; and of course, Ayalguita in Madrid - now there's another fabulous woman getting on with things. And it's already working both ways, though how nzm ever finds time to write her blog, never mind read anyone else's, is remarkable: go see, as I do, what Dubai has to offer those who'll get off their asses and join in!

I'd follow her example, but I've got places to go in cyber-space.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Home again

And away we went. Two out became three, and we took a wrong turn somewhere, so we were on the road for three hours, but we also talked for three hours, so apart from being 30 minutes late and hoarse, that was just fine. No pics of the desert because we weren't stopping, but it showed the impact of three days of rain in February: every little scrap of scrub was green, and a few whiskers of new grass had poked up. Camels everywhere, but also bulldozers and trucks dotted across the dunes, and many many signs of new development. I rather assumed it was just Dubai and Sharjah, but it seems that they are building everywhere, beginning with infrastructure. If you've seen Syriana, think of George Clooney at a brand new crossroads in the middle of the desert, and add roundabouts, flyovers and curly intersections, all smart in yellow and white paint, and sand dunes in all directions, and that was our experience today. A few more signs would have been nice though!
I think that the mountains are volcanic - hard grey shale, no soil, no plant life - except for the odd tree that had rooted against all odds on a summit. This photo looks inland from the Oceanic Hotel in Khor Fakkan, over lushly maintained gardens. The greenery is a ribbon, and beyond it, desert, mountain and more desert.
I was impressed with the hotel bikeshed. Irrigation or rain?!

I had a beginner's anxieties about my part in the conference, but it was straightforward, as such things usually are, and a very satisfying experience. Lunch was good too!

Five back became two back, and another stimulating conversation as we bowled home by a different route, this time through the mountains, rather than round the southern tip. Coming back to Jebel Ali along Emirates Road, there were hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of trucks and water tankers toiling along in single file on the roads leading on and off the massive Dubailand roundabout, like cartoon ants marching off with the picnic. It's hard to contemplate so much construction. You've seen computer simulations of construction projects, and that terrific hp logistics ad with people somersaulting into seats on platforms that flew in a nanosecond before: a timelapse photographic project of this place would match it. Back to town, but only after a very good day.

Heading out for the day

It's a beautiful morning and I'm going to Khor Fakkan for an academic get-together today, which means out of the city on good roads through desert and mountains. Beautiful. This isn't the type of desert you see in Lawrence of Arabia: the sand is a different colour, and this is coastal, not the deep desert of high dunes; but it rolls to the horizon, and the trees look African. You don't get palm trees in the desert, but you do see a lot of trees with thin drooping branches like a willow, but all with neat horizontal fringes like a Beatles haircut, at the limit that the camels can reach to nibble. Camels - beige, golden brown, dark like burnt toast. Goats near the villages - in all colours. And the road goes through the coastal mountains, parallel to the wadi routes, past the carefully irrigated farms, orange orchards and palm nurseries. Oh it's good to get out of the city!

I'm also happy because of who I'm riding with, two of us out and five of us back. We're always so busy at school that we simply do not have time or energy for conversation, so the prospect of an hour or so in a car is very appealing. Lovely!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Back to School

Whoosh! Is it the weekend yet? I gave a pretty good impression of the walking dead this morning. And there's a mirror in our lift - no fair!

How can this be? We only went back yesterday, and I'd been in three days through the break with kids rehearsing their assessed performances, so it's not as if I've been in Hawaii for three weeks and rolled in jetlagged. It must be this unnatural business of getting up at 6 in the a.m. Eurgh...

Howsoever, it's been a good couple of days: two new groups of younger students all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Grade 11 GCSE drama students relaxed having finished all GCSE coursework - they're on revision leave for the rest of their subjects from the end of next week - IB Theatre Arts students' admin done and coursework despatched today - they've got an exam on Thursday and they start their study leave next week. Meanwhile the Grade 10 GCSE students are hyper because they're on stage with original devised work next week, and thinking about costumes, lighting, set - maybe a bit more rehearsal....?...

I let the Grade 11s chill last period yesterday - they worked so hard for their performance exams just before the break - Sophocles & Wilde! - and dragged them up to wardrobe for a major sort-out this morning. Major progress. Good.

Really interesting project with the IB1s (1st year of an A-Level equivalent course). We're doing Kabuki as a World Theatre tradition, and they're going to perform an abridged kabuki comedy, Shibaraku (English translation), late next month, so they've been researching their own costumes, getting fabric samples and talking to tailors. Today was about wigs: we don't have a budget for gorgeous black-haired wigs, but kabuki is highly stylised and you just can't do it without the wigs to balance the costumes - so they will be making their own. Miiiiss?! Uhuh.

Of course, this means I've got to make a couple too, as models for those who are not at all craft-minded and will therefore need back-up if they're struggling. Habibi will be thrilled - papier mâché and foam rubber all over the apartment again. Still, it won't be as bad as when we did Pinocchia (female lead), which required eight nightmarish donkey heads, or Arabian Nights (wallpaper paste dripping all over the balcony as the Roc head and various other things dried on their balloons - much more slowly than expected because of unseasonal humidity. At least it was Ramadan so Habibi couldn't smoke out there anyway?). Then there was whatever it was that required six badgers: I think I'm over the anthropomorphic phase now, but I do like these excuses for mucking about with glue, cardboard boxes and felt!

I enjoy teaching World Theatre, because I learn such a lot in preparation. I did kathakali with a couple of year groups (Keralite dance drama - if you're not from India, you've perhaps seen pics of figures with bright green faces and tall golden crowns). And commedia dell'arte, which is great fun - precursor of European circus clowns, Charlie Chaplin and Mr Bean! Kabuki is a new departure, and very beautiful - breathtaking use of colour in costume and set - but from an unfamiliar musical tradition, and with an acting-style that to western eyes is physically slow, and by turns very understated and almost melodramatic; and the samurai honour code is the basis for some very cruel stories. And yes, I'm hooked, by way of excellent books and DVDs (Habibi winces and wears headphones) and the students, bemused at first, appear to really enjoy working their way into the physical style and vocal techniques. You can only do so much, and then only approximately, but they're bright kids, and are generally intrigued by these excursions into other traditions, aesthetics and cultural perspectives - and practical work can be very entertaining! I'll post some pics (not of the kids) if I remember, but there are excellent sites with video and audioclips, and dipping into The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is helping to set it in context. Spot the teacher. I only meant to do a round-up of my day - you know - blogging!

Anyway, briefing after school for a sort of academic bonding session with the IB1s on the East Coast this weekend. I'm just going for the Thursday session - extended essay workshop and a good lunch. The 10s want to rehearse this weekend (Nooooooooo!!!!!), and we don't like to discourage them, but I was really relieved that they didn't want to do Friday - I've got a mess to make on the balcony! (The UAE weekend is Thursday and Friday, by the way.)

We were supposed to go out tonight. Dubai has this wonderful Concert Committee which organises regular free concerts by classical musicians and singers down at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Tonight was to be bass-baritone Willard White with a wonderful programme that included Mozart, Verdi, Rodgers, Gershwin and Copland. I really really wanted to go (love M, G & C), but Habibi was too busy and tired, and I was just too tired. An 8 o'clock concert mid-week, with grim traffic both ways....... the flesh is weak.

So tonight, after crashing on the sofa for at least an hour (til Habibi woke me for sherry (fish!) fillets perfectly grilled with dill, with roast potato slices and delicate petits pois & green beans...... he's so good.....) I watched Hanabusa Shûjaku Jishi and Sumidagawa (well I did! It's term-time, right?!) followed by the Richard Gere/Stanley Tucci/Susan Sarandon/Jennifer Lopez/very-strong-ensemble-cast-but-I'm-running-out-of-space-here 'Shall We Dance?' because it was time to watch that film again. Really good. And now I'm off to bed. Except I'd better wash up first.

Goodnight all.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Trying to work through the bad stuff

When a fine former colleague and mentor was killed by a suicide bomber in Qatar last year, the muslims on our faculty didn't know where to put themselves - they grieved, felt responsible, defensive, confused - didn't want to admit even to themselves that a muslim had done this because it is so contrary to what they believe in. And non-muslim staff didn't know what to say or how to say it. No-one in that staffroom had anything to do with that attack, no-one agreed with it, or blamed or suspected anyone else but such is the insidious power of terrorism to sow these terrible subversive small gaps and silences that threaten communities.

And yet this bomber failed. Terrorism failed – as it always does in the end, though at what cost. We didn’t turn on each other. We shared our grief with students who mourned their former teacher. We celebrated his life as we mourned its ending. We comforted one another. We’re still all together, still international and multi-cultural. In Doha, so many Qataris turned out in the streets to reject the actions and justification of that bomber. A year later, Doha has just hosted a conference for international schools like ours, which bring people of all races together for a good academic education, and a broader experience of life and friendship. A good man is senselessly dead, his wife a widow dealing daily with unbearable loss, but terrorism failed.

I feared for my son and my sister-in-law who routinely used the London Tube and bus routes that were attacked last July. I was so sad for the dead, the injured and the bereaved, and for the family, friends and neighbours of the bombers, who were also victims – like us. We saw the power of terrorism to undermine communities by destroying trust – except that here too that power was illusory- at worst, short-lived, except that people are dead – gone too soon. Others remember and mourn. Neighbours tried to be compassionate. Community groups held together. Londoners were brave and stoic, got back on the buses and Tubes. Terrorism blights and haunts, but it always fails in the end.

Foreign teachers from the local international school were killed in the first Bali bombings - ordinary people doing socially responsible work and sharing cultures. Another bombing. More grief and fear. We saw the cynical application of death and fear to make people stay home and give up their efforts to understand and accept other people’s ways – except that the school remains open for education, the Balinese continue to welcome foreigners, and foreigners continue to visit and work in Bali. Terrorism fails.

The Amman bombings happened just before our trip to Jordan. Bombing your own people? Slaughtering generations at a wedding? Jordanians turned out in their thousands to condemn and mourn. The families publicly repudiated those involved. The pain was immense - just as in Madrid and New York.
And Baghdad, and Basra, and Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Britain in the 70s.
Germany in the 80s.
Terrorism fails.

So no, while I wish people could see the ordinary humanity of people here, and appreciate that their culture has so much in it that is good, I'm not dewy-eyed about the way things are, or the people responsible for these and other rightly named atrocities - whatever their culture, beliefs or grand purpose

But terrorism, it seems to me, is a double-edged weapon. The terrorist eats his own children, poisons the well, destroys his and his fellow man’s path to the future, because what future can there be without peace, what peace without trust, what trust without dialogue and compromise – between everyone concerned? To promote and use terror to achieve one's ends is unnatural and ungodly, regardless of creed or flag. All those foolish, misguided young people so dedicated to their cause, so physically and mentally strong, so selfless that they would give up everything for their faith, country and culture – what is gained by sending such people to their death? Should they not be encouraged to serve, build, teach, nurture, invent, forgive, restore, marry, make babies, look to the future?

But of course, that only works if they believe that they have a future as things stand; that there will be a home to raise a family in, work to pay for it, education and healthcare, a life worth living. For all the rhetoric of the militants, this is as much about economics and quality of life as about religion. Fulfilled people with contented families and a satisfactory way of life among good neighbours rarely feel compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice.

On the other hand, people who have been denied – or are persuaded that they have been denied - education, dignity or hope in this life, along with the rest of their generation, and their parents’ generation, why would these people believe in a future? Add surging testosterone, a charismatic and ruthless manipulator, and at last, a sense of purpose, the imagined admiration of their friends and little brothers, the promise of eternal rewards, and the ultimate adrenaline rush. Away we go.

In March 2004, The Religious Policeman linked to this speech by George Carey, former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, who was part of an ecumenical group attempting to find common ground between the world’s major religions, and identify the root causes of our current difficulties, in the earnest and urgent desire to do something about them. He said at the outset,

"I am not... an expert on Islam............. [but] I have spent a great deal of time with some of the most important names in Islam – Dr Tantawi, Hassan al-Turabi, King Hussein, Prince Hassan, King Abdullah, Professor Akbar Ahmed and many other Muslim leaders and scholars – seeking to build bridges of understanding between two great faiths. In retirement I continue to engage in dialogue through the Alexander Declaration Process which attempts to bring Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders together in Israel and Palestine..........
(There are huge gaps between all of these quotes, so please go to the original speech and form your own opinion.)
............wherever we look, Islam seems to be embroiled in conflict with other faiths and other cultures.

..............Whether religious or nominal, it is important to recognise that the vast majority of Muslims, like Christians, are honourable and good people who hate violence and are distressed to note that they are lumped together with evil and misguided people. We should never seek to demonise them or their faith. But a fight for the soul of Islam is going on.

...................... The politicisation of young Saudi Muslims was completed in our own day when the impotence of Muslim countries was compared with what they regard the decadence of the West with its materialistic power."

As a westerner living in the middle east at that time, and utterly bewildered by the swirl of global events and rhetoric, I found Lord Carey's speech honest, thought-provoking and concise (a quality I admire….) I would recommend it to everyone, at least as a basis for discussion.

I’m a gardener, in my small way, though currently defeated by mealy bugs (sob!) and the garden can be a powerful metaphor. If I’ve got strangling weeds, mould, parasites or whatever, uprooting or spraying is a brutal and effective short-term solution, but in another month, the problem’s likely to resurface, and with greater resistance. To get my garden to flourish over decades (a proper garden!) I must look to the health of the soil and a proper balance of sun, shade and moisture; take care not to overcrowd, but companion-plant complementary plants to attract pollinating insects, deter parasites, etc. etc. (OK, you see where I’m going with this! Just read the speech, willya?)

I’ve no agenda here. I’m just trying to work things through and either find a way to live with all this, or be part of something positive. History teaches that there are no permanent solutions to human conflict. Time passes, power shifts, and as one civilisation gets lazy and decadent, there’s another on the ascendant. We’re not much good at peace, at sharing, and given how difficult we sometimes find it just to live with ourselves, international relations certainly ain’t gonna be no walk in the park, baby.

(Don't believe me? OK: serious pit-stop. Have you ever done something you’re really ashamed of? How irresistible is the path of least resistance? Have you ever – in the words of my childhood catechism - sinned by thought, word, deed or omission? No-one does guilt like a Roman Catholic, except perhaps an ex-Roman Catholic…….. Check out that pit! OK back to international relations and the rise and fall of civilisations.)

History teaches, but are we willing to learn? Also –and this is always interesting - who writes the history, and what are they trying to prove? All I know is that the human race is going through one of its periodic convulsions of rage and violence, and each one brings us a little closer to bringing on the four horsemen.

(Quick exit for Terry Pratchett, the king of the outrageous sideways reference….. tumtitum… just talk amongst yourselves….. ah yes! TP, in association with Neil Gaiman, brings you ‘Good Omens’ being the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch’ with an interesting cast of characters (p.13) including the Apocalyptic Horsepersons DEATH, War, Famine and Pollution. Thank you gentlemen.)

So, Death, War, Famine and – in the original – Pestilence, a wonderfully sonorous word for Plague. But we can do Pollution too, can’t we darlings? Ah the wonders of human ingenuity! Four biblical forces of annihilation are not enough: we have to come up with another one. Hurray for us! Well, come on then P2, after all, if we are indeed heading for the big A just as fast as our nuclear horsepower can get us there, the more the merrier!

We don't seem to learn, do we?

What to do? Where to start? What do you think?

I think I should probably lie down. This is what happens when I have a week off and two- oh dear no, it was three, no wonder! - three cups of filter coffee.

But I shall tack on something I was thinking about earlier, upload this, and then I’d better start thinking about tomorrow, and the return to the day job.

So, in my personal tribute to Blue Peter (obscure BBC TV reference from childhood), here is one I prepared earlier!

(Actually Habibi thinks that might have been Grahame Thingy, the Galloping Gourmet. Blue Peter was interesting craft projects involving cornflake packets, wire coathangers and sticky-back plastic, and my laptop is not quite at that stage, not yet, anyway.)

Right – Let’s change continent for the amateur historio-socio-econo-anthroposologist’s analysis of the Third World and the legacy of colonialism. I thank you!

(Good grief! You’re still here?! Excellent! I look forward to your feedback. )

There are economic reasons for the current mess, policies of ruthless self-interest. First World countries have long-established power bases, practices and relationships. However 'cut-throat' the competition, no throats are actually cut anymore because there is a shared understanding, however imperfect, of national psyches, values and priorities, the acceptance that we can do business - after all, we tried war twice in the 20th Century, and dammit - nobody won!

Third World countries aren't in the club. It could be argued that it is the legacy of colonialism as practised by the club members that there is a gap so huge that the terms First World and Third World exist. Africa. The Middle East. Areas of vast mineral and fuel resources. And political unrest. Corruption. Social unrest. War. Disease. Drought and desertification. Poverty. Starvation.

Am I being alarmist here, or is it all getting worse? (Does anyone hear hoofbeats?) If it’s all getting worse, despite the efforts of people much more educated, knowledgeable and responsible than me, what can I do? Or you? I only wonder because we seem to be in a life or death situation, largely of our own making, and I was brought up to clear up my own mess (not that I want anyone to look at the kitchen or bedroom right now.)

Here's a question: if Big Guy kidnaps Little Guy (a prosperous farmer and family man with lots of people working for him) takes him down a dark alley and removes his kidney (because Big Guy's cousin wants it) what is your response to Big Guy telling Little Guy to stop lying around and get on with his life - while introducing rules that reserve key resources for Big guys - oh - and sneering at the physical limitations and innate inferiority of Little guys stupid enough to allow the removal of their essential organs. ?

Hey! That was fun!

OK. Here's another one.

If Big Guy and his Big Buddies carry on like this for, say fifty years, while Little Guy gets weaker, and thinner, and picks up infections, and suffers organ failure and has a quality of existence so poor that one has to wonder why the poor so-and-so doesn't just lie down and die, and meanwhile Little Guy's wife, children and grandchildren starve and lose their home because of Little Guy's incapacity, and the non-availability of resources to people of their stature; and his employees also starve and lose their homes, and start fighting amongst themselves, or taking whatever gets them through the day (Jim Beam, say, or Prozac) is there a possibility - here's the question - that their kids and grandkids might start to feel a little resentful of Big Guy and the Big Buddies, and, lacking the resources to help themselves, decide to go after Big Guy, and his Big Buddies, and make them sorry?

Last questions: And if they do,

1) Whose fault is that?
2) Short of annihilating all the Little Guys (hmm.... now there's an option) what does Big Guy need to do to make things right? Gosh, it's a good job he's got all his Big Buddies to help him think that one through. Perhaps the Big Grandkids should help clear up after Big Grandad…. before everyone is sorry.

You have thirty seconds to complete this paper, as time is running............ Oops

AcCENtuate the POsitive! (We'll get the rest on CNN.)

When did you last see anything about the middle east that wasn't about violence, fear and mistrust? Of course that's a big part of the picture these days, but I will keep saying that I have neighbours, colleagues and students from all over this region, and well beyond, and they're just ordinary people with ordinary families, and ordinary vices and virtues. Sometimes it's worth reminding ourselves of the obvious.

Muslim colleagues from the UAE, Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere invited all us non-muslims to Iftar (the breaking of the fast at sunset during Ramadan); our Iranian neighbours invited us to celebrate Norouz (New Year) with them; arab colleagues bring in wonderful food and baskets of chocolates to celebrate family weddings, first grandchildren and so on; and the middle-eastern habit of embracing and speaking to everyone individually as you arrive or depart is extremely contagious (even if it does make everything happen ten minutes late) and it makes the beginning and end of term in our staffroom very heartwarming.

Open-minded people try to believe that extremism is a minority feature of every society, but with the middle east and Islam, non-muslim westerners have to take it on faith, because there is very little in the western media to support the fact that there is so much to celebrate about arab culture. Culture isn't news.

For a while there I was comforted that CNN broadcast News Asia, Inside the Middle East, and other programmes on this part of the world in the USA, because I thought that the rest of the planet, and particularly those traumatised, bunker-minded, post-911 citizens of the US who believe that Poppa Dubbya is their only defence against the howling hordes (and that's just the picture on Europe) were being given an opportunity to see the normality of ordinary people, good people, creative people, just living their lives; to hear ordinary, reasoned discussion of business, the arts, sport, politics from this regional and cultural perspective; to see features on Islam, national profiles, documentaries on the good and the bad over here; to see all these small pieces that make the unknown and foreign less threatening, that go some way to balance the hideous headline stories, and to experience some small measure of hope and goodwill to help fix the terrible situation we all find ouselves in. Silly me. They don't show that stuff in the states. What a waste of media power and resources. No wonder you're scared to death. It breaks my heart.

Even so, there is a whole dimension, a whole way of life, that is no more 'evil' or strange or incomprehensible than yours or mine, and millions of people that it would gladden your heart to know if you just had time, opportunity - and a smattering of arabic to give them a first giggle at your dreadful pronunciation!

We just have to survive this bit.


Even without the baffling smoke and mirrors of politics and fanaticism, I think it's always difficult for people of one culture to understand and appreciate the culture of their foreign neighbours (whether in the next-door apartment or across the planet). We're lazy. We like our comfort zone and aren't curious about the unfamiliar unless we're booking a holiday. If they don't bother us, the chances are that we won't pay much attention to them, or as they say - No news is good news!

So we go along in comfortable ignorance of other cultures until bad things happen, and then we only know about the event. If bad things continue to happen we get news and analysis, social and economic background, roots and causes, but we don't get slices of normal life to remind us that it exists, and if we did we'd be trying to read it for clues! Damn!

But just because we don't know about or understand something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And what is so wrong about a family culture, allowing for the usual exceptions to the rule of ordinary people doing their best at getting on with their lives? Why must everything be in the public domain?

Transparency is for government and business in my opinion. Family life is the comfort blanket of the individual - and I believe that we adults need our comfort blankets - it's where you can be stupid and crass at times, and someone will surely tell you that you've been stupid and crass, and deserve a good kicking - but will still love and forgive as you try to do better; it's where you get confirmation of who you are as you see yourself and your actions reflected in other people's eyes; it's where the company of people you love brings out your finest qualities - kindness, generosity, perseverence, humour, tolerance - and requires that you exercise them over and over for years on end. Of course, even in the closest and most contented family you sometimes wish everyone would just bugger off, mind their own business, and leave you in peace for two minutes! Still, if we're lucky, home and family are the dancing ground for our successes, our retreat in vulnerability and failure, our base to reassess, recharge, and then resume.

Privacy and confidentiality go hand in hand with loyalty and trust. Put a camera in there, and you make everything false.

I admire Oprah Winfrey, whose track-record as a great humanitarian, media-icon, businesswoman and philanthropist speaks for itself. BUT what do you make of the vicious gladiatorial bloodletting of partners and ex-partners trading betrayal in many other prime-time 'chat-shows', and the tedious, depressing, rootless exhibitionism of 'reality' TV, all staple ingredients of globally syndicated TV. How many people are made voyeurs of this soul-destroying cruelty? Is this educational or remedial TV whose high purpose is to help us to be more honest and kind in our relationships, to value family and friendship? Is this the media functioning as a force for social good? Does anyone still subscribe to the idea that you don't air your dirty laundry in public?

The Mix

The good thing about a multicultural city like this (and I mean multicultural, there's contact and cross-fertilisation but no melting pot) is that sooner or later your phonebook and email contact page looks like something out of the UN directory. When you have regular contact with people from Lebanon, France, India, Ukraine, South Africa, the Philippines, Egypt, Scotland and Mexico, stereotypes begin to lose their power, and foreign ways become part of your landscape. I'll pass on Fatma's cardamom coffee, Rafael's gazpacho, and Hamad's mutton mansaf (arghgh!) and let you off peasepudding, haggis (Don't ask..) and Merlot. Eid, Diwali and Bonfire Night all within a week of each other? OK. Let's do our own thing, but enjoy everyone else's lights and fireworks too. Ramadan Kareem to you. Happy Christmas to me. It works here. We grumble about the bits we don't like, may be wary of the unfamiliar for a time, may find someone's cooking, religious observances or family traditions incomprehensible, but if it works for them, and ours works for us, then that's ok.

But it would be good if we could have a national standard on time management, some kind of protocol, like a published table of relative time to assist in cross-cultural appointment making, so that if you tell me 2pm I know you mean GMT, GMT+/-3/4/7, bukhara, insha'llah, toute de suite, mañana baby or in your dreams buddy!

Arab culture is very much about family, often an extended family. Even here in Dubai, where Emaratis live further apart than they used to and are outnumbered nationally by something like 85% foreigners, 75% from the sub-continent, and the rest of from all over the world (not sure, especially after recent expansion, but I've heard these sorts of numbers) family ties remain important, and people can place second cousins, aunts and nephews. I can do that up to a point, but there's no comparison. (I was reading a Spanish blogger who explained that, because women keep both their mother's and their father's surname on marriage, she can trace her relatives through four generations on both sides.)

Even in a social and cultural oddity like Dubai which is part New Town, part family business with global expansion plan, local culture remains family orientated, private. This, in a world with a global-information culture governed by the assumption that everything is or should be open to public view and tourism.

Here we routinely grumble about one another from time to time, and get on with it - isn't that the point of grumbling - a little grease to ease the axle? But when people elsewhere look at middle eastern culture (as in contemporaray life rather than heritage), there's not a lot to see, apart from exposés of hideous abuse and honour killings. Yes these happen, far, far too frequently, and it is important that they are reported because that's how ideas shift, consciences stir, and change begins - just as in Britain after poor Damilola Taylor was murdered by racist fellow students, and in Spain, where the tragic suicide of 14 year-old 'Jokin' has at last forced public awareness and official recognition of bullying in schools.

In KSA and here in the UAE private efforts are being made to curtail domestic abuse, through education, legal action and the provision of shelters, and while there is also opposition to all this, and the effort is piecemeal at this stage, attitudes and provision are changing. KSA presenter Rania al-Baz made international headlines last September when she showed her battererd face on TV after another severe beating from her husband - and said that 1) she was not the only wife this was happening to, and b) it was WRONG and what was to be done about it?

Here in Dubai, a newspaper article around about the same time (perhaps as a result?) on a shelter for battered wives, caused outrage among men and women, some of whom sympathised with the wives and condemned the husbands for brutality and betrayal of religious principles, and others who condemned the wives for their betrayal of family values and religious principles. The other immediate outcome was that disgruntled husbands were able to identify the shelter and go after their wives. The shelter relocated amidst continued public debate, which is increasingly supportive of the principle that a women should not live in fear of her husband, and that the 'rule of thumb' (A husband may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb.) is outmoded. Newspaper coverage and debate continue.

In fact, despite the constant criticism of the local press, some of which is dire, it has come a long way in the last five years. In the past, as a public watchdog its best trick was bark, wag and roll over. Actually, forget the bark, because the occasional snap got journalists on the next plane out of here.

Nowadays there is proper national and international news coverage; there are features on contentious social and economic issues (and we certainly have plenty of those); there is public debate. And if you're not satisfied, you can get major international broadsheets at the supermarket, switch on a satellite news channel in virtually any major language, or go online.

So yes, the bad things you hear about are generally true, but they are not the whole truth by any means. Arab girls pursue degree courses, work for a living and run their own businesses in the UAE and Oman - and no doubt in Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. KSA, Afghanistan and Iran are topical, not typical! Of course it isn't perfect over here. But where is it perfect?

By the way

Does anyone else find it ironic that the exercise of Democracy foisted us with Dubbya and Ahmedinejad at the same time? It's all very well to talk about making the world safe for Democracy (not a phrase I've ever entirely understood) but it seems to me that someone needs to examine how Democracy can be made safe for the world! :)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

International and Personal

OK, this started out as a postscript to an earlier blog, but got too long, so I moved it here, but now – let’s face it, the woman wants to talk! So I’ll split it up and you just stop when you’ve had enough! I go back to work tomorrow so that will shut me up for a while.

We are shaped by experience as well as our own culture and family. As an educated but rather unsophisticated woman of limited political understanding (Just call me a bleeding heart liberal.) who hails from an idiosyncratic island and former colonial power off the coast of mainland Europe (The Continent - I love the absolute certainty of that phrase. Hello World, here we are!) living in the middle east, and particularly in Dubai, through a dozen years of globalisation, political, economic and military brinkmanship, alarming climatic change, increasing muslim and christian fundamentalism, and an increasingly deadly intercontinental, inter-religious, inter-cultural struggle for power, prestige, moral high ground - and survival - I have to say that my perspective has been shaped by all this - even if I don't understand it, and have no clue how we are to get out of this mess.

But I have also been shaped by exposure to the day-to-day life of people of umpteen different cultures. With what may be stereotypical English reserve, or a bad case of Roman Catholic female I'm-not-bothering-you-am-I? syndrome, I was at first overwhelmed and dogged by a sense of unworthiness at the warmth and hospitality of Arab and Iranian friends and neighbours who have almost dragged me over the threshold when I've popped round to say hi, who have brought out every sweet (My teeth! I have to develop some won't power or else stay home!), offered every kind of juice, tea and coffee, enquired after the health and well-being of every member of my family, and treated me as the most welcome and honoured friend. Wow. God bless them every one.

On the other hand, early tail-wagging eagerness to mix with neighbours and see my small son make friends first, and leave cultural analysis til he was older, was somewhat discouraged by the recognition that for many asians here I am a Brit - a non-acronym for spoilt-and-supercilious -(i.e. female)-educated-western-economic-interloper-from-former-colonial-power. It is not overt or particularly intentional, but given the racial inequities of the job market here, and the fact that for many people here the legacy of colonialism remains real, it's understandable. Plus there's the Jumeirah Jane syndrome which turns Mrs Ordinary from a small house in England into 'Madame', the bored lady of leisure, living in Jumeirah on her husband's employment package.

(Before Dubai embarked on its bigger-shinier-wackier-most exclusive development programme - who is it that they want to exclude, do you suppose? - Jumeirah was Dubai's elegant upmarket suburb - actually, its only suburb!)

Of course the JJ is a cliché and, as such, often masks culture shock, homesickness, and a feeling of purposelessness because school hours and holidays, combined with Jumeirah Jim's long hours and frequent business trips, mean that educated, sociable Mrs Ordinary can't work outside the home if she wants to look after her children, so what does she do when they're at school and JJ's at work, and how does she make friends? But she's white, has the 4x4 and the big villa, drinks latté and complains about the maid to her friends who are all manicured, pedicured and coiffed to the beautifully bronzed hilt, and I'm so jealous I could spit!!!!!!!!!!!!! Naturally, to all the under-paid, frequently over-qualified, Filipinas, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Indians providing the pedicures and serving the lattés on ten-hour shifts, being a Brit looks pretty good.

Anyway, the times they are a-changing, the buildings are going up almost as fast as the rents, and the salary+accommodation+school fees+annual flights home package will soon be history, so I guess that equality is coming because Mr and Mrs JJ can't afford to stay here much longer, so unless there's someone else out there looking for maids, pedicures and caffeine, there are going to be several agencies, salons and Starbucks franchises on the market, and several million m.sq. of valuable commercial and residential real estate available from Golden Goose Enterprises.

Enough already. As I say, JJ is a cliché, a stereotype; and stereotypes are so seductive in the short term, so dangerous in the long term.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Gross National Happiness

Late last year I saw a BBC documentary on Bhutan, and was greatly taken with the government minister who was completely serious about pursuing Gross National Happiness. Yes! (I found this site that gives a bit of background.) Bhutan is at a critical point in its existence as it moves towards signing on the dotted line with the WTO, (has perhaps already done so - haven't checked) and national culture engages with free market economics. Bhutan is no Utopia (In your dreams, foolish mortal!), but its cultural identity and way of life have evolved over centuries. How will these fare as Bhutan joins the global village?

From what I see, market economies are generally unkind to rural communities and rapidly developing cities are hard on the human spirit.

(My 18/19th Century frame of reference is largely European, but in the 20th Century I think that it applies all over the place.)

In addition, contemporary 'urban culture' is more a manifestation of capitalism than an expression of human creativity and community identity; certainly a major element seems to be the economic exploitation of the spending power, restlessness and thirst for identity of teens and young adults. Then there's 'cultural colonialism', beginning with the identification and development of potential new markets for the 'urban culture' product - a key characteristic being malleability: 'Have a MacArabia ®. Would you like fries with that?' So much for cultural identity. (I know everyone takes potshots at McDonalds these days - which I suppose is the drawback of having an internationally successful brand - but it just happens to be the first name to pop into my head, probably because there are two new McDonalds drive-thrus in the 20-minute drive between home and work.)

I remember travelling from city to city in England 25 years ago, and realising that every high street and city centre had begun to resemble every other, both architecturally and in terms of 'high street names'. Now one can enjoy the international deja vu tour.

Hey, rising GNP good! Employment, education, healthcare, social and political stability - good, good, good, good, good! (And, by the way, communism bad except on paper.) But with a world of haves and havenots in which, ironically, a lot of the haves don't seem very happy, perhaps we should be examining our social and economic model? Anyway, I find it admirable that the government of a small nation like Bhutan has the nerve to step up to the plate for necessary economic development, and do so waving the banner of Gross National Happiness.

Good luck to them.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ramallah 2

Last one! The close-ups are clear enough to copy or adapt, and if you feel inspired but are no good without graph paper, you will really enjoy the Palestinian embroidery site I mentioned earlier. There are borders of checks, teeth, feathers, flowers and vines, and the large-scale border designs of birds and flowers similar to the one on in the other Ramallah entry.

The trellis centre left is 'eastern one'. Then come two symmetrical rows of 'saw', and then 'stick' (There are also wider stick borders.)

I like the combination of chequered triangles and variations on cypress tree.

The multicolour star is 'millwheel' with a toothed border.

This last photo is a close-up of the ghudfeh you can see hanging (upside down, I think) on the far right of the first pic.
A ghudfeh is a rectangular head-shawl made of three narrow woven strips sewn together.
Here is saru again, and this enchanting silver grey flower border with each flower head similar to riish. I don't know what they call the other motif, but as long as it's upside down, I'm calling it 'lampshade'.

The reason I took so many photos in Amman's fascinating National Folklore Museum is that I haven't seen any books on Palestinian costume here, although there are plenty of thobs and shawls to choose from, as well as lusciously embroidered Kashmiri jackets, coats and pashminas. Ooh! I bought Jehan Rajab's book at the Museum, and Shelagh Weir's has been republished - look out for them for the cultural background and stories as well as the pics.

I'm putting these pics up partly because they are too beautiful to be hidden away, and partly as a record of a part of Palestinian culture, something precious that is overlooked nowadays. It is under extreme pressure, and no doubt much has been irrevocably lost, except among the diaspora.


Another favourite - OK, so we know I love colour, skill, and the assumption that beauty is as essential to human life as food, shelter, clothes and friendship.

Beer Sheba 2

Back with the Jordanian bedu. Isn't this fab? (Sorry about the flash, but it was behind glass and I couldn't get the right angle.)

Unlike villagers from anywhere else in Palestine, the bedu favoured long bat-wing sleeves whose points almost reached the ground. The tips could be tied behind your back to get your sleeves out of the way for practical work, or flipped up over your head for shade. JR says that the colour yellow was often used as protection against the evil eye, as well as for its cheerfulness.

No Idea 3 (Dubedubedu)

I think these are both Bedu, but does anyone know for sure?

I thought at first that the garment on the left was a tunic, worn over a thob with two rich blue borders, but but it's a thob'ob - and so is the one on the right! Colour!

The coloured florets look to me like either couched or machine stitched embroidery yarn.

Eight point star and cypress tree

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

No Idea 2 (Dubedu)

AK has a photo of a Bedu thob'ob from the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait, in similar colours to the thob on the left - but about 3m long! I don't have anything on the blue thob, but I love those tassels (Urgh - flies - urgh. Tassels are functional as well as fun.)

AK identifies something very similar to this (black with white panels and this style of embroidery) as perhaps coming from the Harb of the Hijaz, one of the mountain ranges on the KSA side of the Red Sea coast

No Idea! (Bedu)

When I uploaded all these sets of pics (by region so that I can find them again!), I called this entry No Idea!, and followed it with No Idea 2 & 3, because I can't read the cards in the photos from the Folklore Museum in Amman, they don't look like anything else I've seen, and for once Rehan Rajab can't help. But I pulled out Alan Keohane's excellent Bedouin, Nomads of the Desert (Kyle Cathie publ.) to double check that the rugs in the Beer Sheba entry were bedu - and found all these frocks!

These two are thob'obs, effectively double-length dresses, which no-one really wears anymore. (JR has a lovely 1931 photo (pl. 18) of a bedu woman in a thob'ob.) Perhaps they trapped air and helped keep you cool - Summer temperatures here can reach 50°C, with humidity so high that for months the walk from building to car is enough to soak your shirt to your back: even if the Negev and Sinai deserts have dry heat, like Saudi, it's still like in an oven!

In actual fact, nomadic life is governed by the seasons and the needs of livestock - primarily the availability of water. Modern national boundaries do not sit well with ancient travelling routes and pastures which spread from Syria in the north, via Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, across the length and breadth of KSA and the Arabian Peninsula to Kuwait, Oman and Yemen. Alan Keohane lived and travelled with bedu tribes in Oman and Saudi Arabia. We saw black goat hair tents on the southern plains of the Dead Sea, in Wadi Rum, halfway down mountainsides, and up towards Madaba in the land between the ancient Kings Road and the new Desert Highway.
I don't think I've even seen one in the UAE, but I'll save the issue of stateless people and/or 'bedouin' for another day.

Because, dear reader (too many 19th Century novels....) this is supposed to be about the frocks!

Beer Sheba

This is a bedu style thob. The ghudfeh (head shawl) frames the face in amulets.

I know that this is seriously out of focus, but this bedu colour palette is quite different from the clear primaries of the other thobs here. Ssee how it blends with the woven rugs hanging in the background. Beer Sheba is in what was southern Palestine, where Jehan Rajab explains the Negeb and Sinai deserts were home to many bedu (bedouin).

The bedu weave wool, goat hair, camel hair and cotton. In the past they dyed their fibres with natural dyes derived from the likes of madder root (orangey reddish) and pomegranate bark (black) .


I love the simple elegance of this plain silk qabbeh with its solitary cypress tree framed in feather (saru & riish).


OK, if you’ve been reading the other bits, you can impress yourself by recognising a Syrian silk thob with Bethlehem embroidery on qabbeh and sleeves, and a very prettily embroidered table cloth – er – shawl. Yay!


As you see, Bethlehem's traditions were quite different from everyone else's. For a start, embroidery was a profession, not a domestic skill, and the Bethlehem embroiderers were known for their unique decorative style, which involved couched outlines, often with silver and gold threads, filled in with satin stitch. (In case you don't know, couching is a surface embroidery technique: instead of using backstitch or chain stitch to outline patterns, one thread is laid on the fabric, and then stitched down with another, finer, thread to create long, unbroken lines.) The women of Bethlehem also favoured brightly striped Syrian silk, as well as locally woven cotton.

This qabbeh (chest panel) reminds me of Persian flower garden rugs, and Elizabethan knot gardens, with groups of herbs and flowers framed by low hedges and gravel paths.
Worked on velvet, it is typical of the Bethlehem style.

Notice also the scarlet velvet taqsireh (wedding jacket). I believe that wearing a jacket was also unique to Bethlehem. Men and women had fairly plain ones for everyday wear, but wedding jackets were sumptuous, as you can see. The jacket sleeves are mid-length, to accommodate the long wide sleeves of the thob, which probably has embroidered silk panels along the shoulders.

Note the rich and delicate embroidery on the striped silk skirt - see the tiny bird? - all worked without a pattern.

Try and imagine these much-faded taqsirehs in their original purple and scarlet. I dry clothes indoors most of the year, because the sun here absolutely destroys fabric - favourite shirts fade and turn crispy in an afternoon unless you have a canopy overhead.

Notice too the tall hats decorated with rows and rows of coins: these were for everyday too, not just special occasions. Jehan Rajab comments that Bethlehem women did not carry groceries on their heads as women from other areas did!

Nowadays I don't think twice when I see older local ladies carrying packages this way (The younger ones prefer branded designer carrier bags and someone to carry them out to the shiny wheels..... It's true!) - or paper grocery sacks in American films - but both seemed strange at first, because in England we had carrier bags! But, it makes perfect sense to carry the day's fresh vegetables in a wide woven basket (sunshade?!) on your head; and there's no need for handles for a car-culture weekly/monthly shopping expedition, but carrier bags with handles are a must for shopping two or three times a week at the local shops. What's your local style?

Hebron jillayeh

This is called a jillayeh because of the applique on the skirt. Thobs are embellished with embroidery, and jillayehs with applique.

I love these colours! The border of concentric right-angles is called riish (feathers), a very popular border which I've seen with up to seven tiers. The red and cream shield shape is a variation on saru or cypress tree, and here you can see half of a triangle, the amulet motif. ( Isn't this exciting?!)

Detail of the qabbeh, or chest piece. Notice the delicate sequins. Again, the colours are wonderful, and as you see, this is blue, indigo-dyed cotton, not black. Imagine doing counted thread work on indigo or black (I've tried, and it isn't funny.) Mind you, living in the middle east, natural daylight brings out the weave and makes the coloured threads sing. There is no comparison with electric light, though shade and a.c. (air conditioning) make up for a lot!

Hebron thob and shambar

I'm starting with a collection of photos I took of thobs at the National Folklore Museum in Amman. A thob is simply a woman's outer dress, and although all those you see here are museum pieces, they are not necessarily out-of-date. I saw quite a few Jordanian and Palestinian ladies out shopping for groceries in their thobs, and many Palestinian women still sew to maintain their heritage, and from economic necessity. In Madaba we met a shopkeeper who sells the hand- and machine-work of several Palestinian women based in Madaba itself, and Amman, who support their families this way.

The heavily embroidered and fringed shawl you see here is a wedding veil specific to Hebron, called a shambar. I hope the lustre comes through on your screen.

When our school celebrates International Day, everyone comes in national dress, and since we have over 80 nationalities among our staff and students, the atmosphere is always happy, with everyone admiring everyone else's beautiful clothes, or patriotic colour scheme, or inventive draping of their nation's flag! The Palestinian and Jordanian ladies wear beautiful thobs: one of my favourites this year was of natural linen waist-deep in fine burgundy stitching; another was natural cotton with candy-coloured stitching; and then lots of girls came in the familiar black with red embroidery highlighted with traces of green or white. Gorgeous! One thing that I notice about our girl students, who can choose to wear long skirts, is that they all know how to move gracefully in a full-length skirt, (and sprint!) even in clumpy fashion shoes, on stairs, and weighed down with backpacks full of books!

This photo is a bit over-exposed (and the next one is a bit blurry - sorry) but you can appreciate the richness of this thob, and the skill and exuberant colour sense of the embroiderers. Girls used to learn early, in order to be able to sew their trousseaux. It was part of the betrothal tradition in many villages for the groom's family to make a special trip to buy cloth for wedding clothes, which the bride would then embroider. It would be an advantage to be a skilled needlewoman if you didn't want a long engagement!

Women celebrated daily life and the world around them in their embroidery motifs - as artists do in every medium and culture. There are lots of variations on the moon (qamr) - most of which look like stars (nejm) or flowers to me! The motif repeated down the central column here is nejm el riish, star of feathers, or quatrefoil, The reversed S on the side panels is 'Aleq, the leech in the rose - romance with bite....

The qabbeh, or chest piece is practical as well as beautiful. The solid embroidery provides extra insulation against cold air, while certain motifs, such as amulet, were believed to offer protection (to the heart?) from the evil eye. If you've seen big middle-eastern necklaces (silver bride-wealth - and insurance against hard times) you may have noticed small cylinders or triangular boxes among the Maria-Teresa dollars and coral and turquoise beads : these would contain verses from the Quran, or hadith, sayings of the Prophet (pbuh). The amulets were worn for protection from the evil eye, and symbolically incorporated into embroidery for the same reason. No, there aren't any amulet motifs here, I'm just letting you know!

For charts of Palestinian embroidery motifs and borders, links to other traditions, and more about Palestinian culture, take a look at . I'll put it in the sidebar later.

As you have probably gathered, I don't think that clothes have to be designed in Europe, the US or Australia, produced in a Chinese factory, and driven into our consciousness through the efforts of a pan-galactic media house with an advertising budget to rival the combined GNP of Central America to be beautiful, valuable and fun!

I'm on the Ride to Nowhere

Yesterday I did two things I knew I’d regret. Now I’m regretting them. In the morning I went to my first exercise bike class, and last night I stayed up til 4 a.m. reading Ayalguita’s Cloud from start to finish and uploading photos. So here I am, with calf muscles that whimper if I try to get my heels within two inches of the floor, and the dry eyes and fuzzy head of a post-binge addict. I had fun yesterday!

Actually, I didn’t get on with the bike class at all. When Fitness First opened, I checked out all the gear and facilities, did a private Snoopy Spring Dance of delight, and made a mental list of things to do now, in due course, and absolutely uh-uh, never, no way. The weights and the bike room were the only things on the no way list: the weights because I’m only 5’ 2” (1.57m) and broad shouldered, and I want to emerge from my homage to M. Michelin as a trim little eggtimer (Hourglasses are taller.) not a caricature of an 1970s East German shot-putter; and the bike room because it’s dark, definitely not equipped with British Personal Space in mind, and the bikes are bolted to the floor. Now to me, a bike ride is a practical method for getting from A to B and/or a full-on one-woman sensory buzz - energetic yes, sweaty, probably, and sometimes, when you’re cold, wet, tired, and grimly grinding up a gradient that only a sissy would get off and push up, about as much fun as tooth-ache. But otherwise: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! (No, I haven’t had a bike in years, and no, I don’t think I have the nerve or immune system to join the eco-warriors snorting diesel fumes in rush-hour traffic the world over.) What a bike ride isn’t, is a frenzied, disco-driven, tight-pack simulation of a Tour de France night stage. Nooooooooo!

So that was that, no problem, til I met someone who loved the bike room, found the darkness comforting in her pre-Olympian form, loved the drive and variety of a typical session and knew a fantastic – gasp - cardio-vascular – pant - work-out when she – gasp-pant-gasp – got one.
Well ok – game if not exactly enthusiastic, I gave it a shot.

Short answer: nope. Not for me.

I should have known that as the woman who fell off the cross-trainer when little brother took her to his gym in England, and who fell off the treadmill in her first week at FF (Well of course it’s possible – you never heard of gravity?) that anything involving maintaining a rhythm on a machine, in the dark, with my toes strapped to the pedal, was going to end in tears. Well, almost. The instructor was good (cute, too…) and the woman next to me very kind to a nervous newbie baffled by adjustable handlebars, seat and shaft. For a while there, I was doing it. But then I had to 1) use my brain (in the sweaty, pounding, disco dark) and 2) go with the flow. Er… what?

After half an hour, every instinct was flashing red. Think? Adjust resistance? Stand up? Sit down? At this speed? With my toes in a doodad? Remember, disbelieving reader, to a woman who can fall off a cross-trainer and a treadmill, being thrown by an exercise bike is merely the logical next step. Logic + disco-darkness + doodads = escalating anxiety = EXIT PLAN.

And so, 30 minutes into the class, and with the speakers blasting “It’s time to stop.” (Maybe I’m not the first….) I dismounted, nodded sheepishly at the instructor, and tottered out of there.

The rest of the class kept pounding away for another half-hour, and emerged glowing, just as I do from Body Balance (Pilates-meets-Tai Chi-meets-Yoga) Body Jam (Hip-hop-meets-Jazz-meets-Latin-meets-Oooooh allsorts!) and using the machines. It has to be said that I’m not much good at them either, yet, but I really enjoy them, and I feel so much better on a day-to-day basis - looser, more upright, more co-ordinated - that stronger and trimmer and better balanced has to be out there somewhere. Each to her own!
Anyway, Habibi has got off the Internet and gone for a Brisk Walk, so I’m going to post this, and hobble off for a long bath full of Muscle Soak Radox. Nnnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhhh………

And I’m going to take down the Palestinian dress pics I was struggling with last night, and have another go later, because I think I might have got the hang of it now. Confidence – the triumph of optimism over experience. There are some advantages to a flat learning curve.

Nine Day Wander in Jordan - December 2005-January 2006

Last December, Habibi and I flew from Dubai to Amman, and met Habibibaba off a flight from England for a family reunion. Then the three of us piled into a hire car for 9 wonderful days and 1550 km that took us from ancient Jerash in the north to Aqaba in the south, and almost to the border with Saudi Arabia. At the end, we were exhausted but very happy, and already listing all the places we hadn't got to, and all the places and people we wanted to visit again as soon as possible. My family have all had rhapsodic postcards about the people we met, the landscape, the art, the geology, and the reality of places familiar from bible and history books. Our message remains quite simple: go to Jordan. Just as soon as you can!

I took dozens and dozens of photos on our travels, which just goes to prove that those affordable digital cameras really are idiot-proof. So for your delight, (and mine!) I'm going to post some of them in batches, and add some commentary as and when I get round to it. (This looks dangerously like a plan.... :)

I do hope you enjoy them.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


What do you you call your nearest and dearest when you blog about them? Shouldn't there be a witness protection scheme for the relatives of us sorry individuals who feel compelled to share our all with every Tom, Dipti and Hagrid?

The arabic word for beloved or dearest is habibi. Say it out loud: it's simply a perfect word: light, warm, sensual, breathless, reassuring, resigned, humorous, all the things that love is. Try it on your mum, your two year-old, your Significant Other - see? When I'm right, I'm right.

In my blog, Habibi stands for my beloved husband, and decades (plural since last Wednesday!) of the whole range of the marriage vows: richer, poorer, better, worse, sickness, health, love, cherish, drive, cook, work all hours, fall asleep in cinemas, snore through concerts, sense of humour, tolerance, creativity, discipline, ethics, quiet determination, piercing intelligence, loyalty, aversion to green vegetables, great legs, impressive liquid grain storage facility, wit, Terry Pratchett obsession, friend in need, in touch with his emotions.... - eh?! Oops - sorry - too many fridge magnets.

And Habibibaba - you can work it out. And if you're reading this, O Habibibaba, here's one for you, courtesy of sensitive lyrical Ogden Nash:

First Child..
Be it a girl, or one of the boys,
It is scarlet all over its avoirdupois,
It is red, it is boiled; could the obstetrician
Have possibly been a lobstertrician?
His degrees and credentials were hunk-dory,
But how's for an infantile inventory?
Here's the prodigy, here's the miracle!
Whether its head is oval or spherical,
You rejoice to find it has only one,
Having dreaded a two-headed daughter or son;
Here's the phenomenon all complete,
It's got two hands, it's got two feet,
Only natural, but pleasing, because
For months you have dreamed of flippers or claws.
Furthermore, it is fully equipped:
Fingers and toes with nails are tipped;
It's even got eyes, and a mouth clear cut;
When the mouth comes open, the eyes go shut,
When the eyes go shut the breath is loosed,
And the presence of lungs can be deduced.
Let the rocket flash and the canon thunder,
This child is a marvel, a matchless wonder.
A staggering child, a child astounding,
Dazzling, diaperless, dumbfounding,
Stupendous, miraculous, unsurpassed,
A child to stagger and flabbergast,
Bright as a button, sharp as a thorn,
And the only perfect one ever born.

I rest my valise.

I like

I like books;
I like 3D objects that have a smell, weight, a taste, a character;
I like texture and colour;
I like boxes and cupboards; and stories about people who live in houses with stairwalls covered in pictures, attics full of family junk, and sheds full of - well - potential!
I like builders' merchants, hardware stores, garden centres and haberdashers, delicatessans, greengrocers, secondhand book shops, junk shops, pet shops, florists, carpet shops.
I like brick and stone and clay and bark and cotton and wool and leather and terracotta and glazed porcelain.
I like the smells of creosote and apples and ink and basil and geraniums and garlic and juniper and wine and bread and soil and eucalyptus and jasmine and roses and chrysanthemums.
I like to walk by the sea;
and rivers, streams and ponds edged with bullrushes, irises and yellow flag lilies;
in woods with leafmould, acorns and beechnuts under foot;
down scruffy paths between lovingly tended allotments planted with fruit bushes, trellises of peas and beans, orderly rows of onions, potatoes and lettuces, and quirky scarecrows improvised from broomhandles, old clothes, car showroom bunting and CDs.
I like to lie in long grass watching beetles beetling and larks rising;
and to sit against a tree trunk and watch the play of light and shadow on the leaves;
or play hide & seek among ferns that curl green overhead.
I like eating blackberries off the bramble and crab apples off the tree.
I like to climb, and just stand, watching and listening to the space of scrubland and moorland as I get my breath back.
I like air that's cool and damp and still, or dry and still, with that silence that a shout or a bleat only amplifies, or cold and crisp, catching your breath in clouds;
and rain that spits, drizzles, spatters, pours, drenches;
and frost on grass stems,
snow on branches,
wind that ruffles and flicks and catches and shoves and tosses and drives and whispers and whimpers and sighs and spooks and roars like a pagan god.

I like haiku, but I'm no good at them.