Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jeff Buckley debate

Wasn't the whole "Make Jeff Buckley No 1" campaign back in Blighty getting a little over-exercised? In a decidedly maudlin fashion the pro-Jeff forces mobilized on behalf of a dead artist as opposed to a (thus far largely) undiscovered one. The Sun newspaper - with Absolute Radio’s backing – was, for its own obscure reasons, behind the effort to disinter this one-time photogenic dead singer for belated mass consumption. Absolute Radio’s DJ, Christian, stated on the station's website that Jeff Buckley's version was that of someone whose voice sounded like “he has lived”. Well, compared to the twat on X Factor, that’s true. However Buckley was only in his late 20s when he recorded it. Leonard Cohen, who wrote and performed the original, had lived a lot more in all senses when he released it in the second half of the 80s. John Cale’s cover was haunting, with a voice that was decidedly “lived in” too. Imagine either of these (still alive) singers as a Christmas number 1 in the UK. Now that would have been interesting.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Politics GCC-style

Have just returned from trip to Bahrain and Qatar. In the latter I glimpsed the new Islamic Museum standing magnificent alongside the Doha creek. Business district on one side and tasteful low level buldings on the other. Very impressive from a passing taxi, though couldn't decide if it looked like random breeze blocks, or a modernist thing of beauty as befits its concept. Never got the chance to check out the opening for the plebs, due to meetings, meetings meetings. However found my way to Education City, which somewhat puts Dubai's knowledge village and its companion free zone in the shade. For one thing the partner educational institutions in Qatar appear to be of a higher order, seeing this as a frontline commitment not just a business adjunct, and are regulated with quotas for nationals. How they secure them with a similar demographic in Qatar to Dubai, my lord and saviour alone knows.

Back in Bahrain one year on I feel relieved. Breathe the air of overt politics even if the parliament is akin to the theatre that causes apparent political crises in the mother of all Gulf parliaments, Kuwait. Haven't been back to that former people's republic for more than 2 years.......

Bahrain takes me to the seemier side of town, as befits Deira Diary...the Adhari is, despite its oifficial claims, a two star with a fine selection of music venues (see Hotel California, Deira) and a bar that begs to be explored. Dark space, friendly women, and blasting dinosaur rock. Breakfast even tastes like pork products. Served up in another dark and dingy bar, I take a black plastic table top at 730 am and check out the other clientele: A drunk Saudi who appeared not to have graced his bed last night and who was nursing a fresh beer. He talked to met in Arabic about my breakfast. I wished him a happy Eid before promptly indicating that my conversational skills in French are worse than those in Arabic so he should get back to his beer.

Bahrain is gearing up for its national day, having reached the giddy heights of independence a few days after the UAE. Flags were on display but it looked like being a calmer affair than back home. I even saw an Emirati flag atop a 4x4 in Manama. Old Najdi family alliances of course. Bahrain will not see the same frenzy that is these days taking over the UAE streets on December 2. For one thing, despite its sectarian problems, Bahrain's majority national population are all full nationals with an equal right to vote and stand for an assembly that, although toothless, can embarrass senior people and question alleged corruption and planning absurdities. How much better it is in the UAE where they restrict full nationality to only a proportion of the "nationals" and the government votes in the electors? Reminds me of Bertold Brecht's quip about the ruling East German Workers' Party (SED) despairing of the proletariat. Perhaps you could vote for a new one, he suggested.

Qatar for its part has an arguable 2/3 of its passport holders without full nationality, keeping out the so-called Persians and errant tribes. It though now has two national days, one, newly conceived, is imminent in memory of Jassim, the "enabling" ruler who aligned with Britain having fought off the Turks. What a sensible chap.

Came back to Sharj to find that I had missed National Day and the rain, darn.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Redeployment to Sharjah

Am about to complete my exile from the seemier side of Dubai to an altogether different gig in Sharjah. Same country (apparently) but its those "little differences". One is the financial association and the historical political connection between Sharjah and the regional big bro. Sources suggest this association was recently terminated as an external debt at least. I had assumed that those big bro loans were softer than those thye made to Iraq. However any rejection by Sharjah of fresh support could only occur if another banker had been found closer to home. This would fit with what one understands happened back in the early '90s when Big Bro was told to butt out by one of Sharjah's neighbouring amirates. The residue of Big Bro is still felt however in terms of the volume of conservative book shops and the high profile focus on Islamic Civilization for which there is a dedicated museums department in Sharjah and a whole host of related museums. Of course this may just be a symbolic balancing with modern art bienales et al. One museum checked out by yours truly of late was an impressive collection from the local ruler, taking in ornate tapestries and artefacts. The building is also currently housing a temporary show from Kuwait consisting of the personal items of one of the sons of that country's ruler, including some exquisitely illustrated Korans.

For the most part my work beat is educational, whether by way of teaching or research. The focus is on the region. My students keep my stimulated most of the time, largely with what they say or with the cultural orientations they have. For example my (relatively numerous) local students are drawn from distinct parts and backgrounds, sometimes taking in the broad region. Others were born in additional parts of the Middle East, and even a few anglo-saxons are also represented. This makes for an interesting discussion on occasions, as much without as in class.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Canteen jazz

Dwight Dickerson, African American musical virtuoso and American University of Sharjah (AUS) lecturer, showcased his jazz band at the University Canteen mid-October. He blasted the young audience with an excellent opening number, Cantaloupe Island, with Dr Dickerson himself doing the Herbie Hancock electric piano leads and fills. Don't know who the other guys were, but the trumpet player, alto sax and double bass player were excellent. The drummer, a local favorite, was not in the same league, but performed sufficiently well to drive the beat on as the band tackled Round Midnight more as a Miles than a Thelonious Monk rendition before, to my mind unwisely, moving into extensive soloing of which the highlight was, in much of the audience's mind, the drummer (see OverLoad below). That said, when the trumpet and sax players soloed they were often highly impressive. Perhaps the trumpet playing was a little too reminiscent of Miles, but the sheer blast and alternate subtlety that he showed was sometimes akin to the best performers of this often sublime instrument. When music, at the AUS as anywhere, is normally fenced off in confined and defined spaces (theaters etc al), this gig was a rare treat indeed, even though this superior art form had to compete with the usual lunchtime blather and bullshit of fast food and fast talk. Sadly I was partly driven away by the ongoing solo exchanges, which at times had more of an air of a band practice that a performance. However this is undoubtedly an excellent ensemble and I thoroughly look forward to their next set live at the canteen.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Pakistani fusion band OverLoad came to the American University of Sharjah last week, and desperately tried to enliven a half empty hall consisting of kids who would clap jello sliding down a wall, and ageing teaching staff. Not that they weren't good, beginning with a four piece of female vox, synth player, electric guitarist and drummer, their own-brand rock and electronica was interesting, even accomplished in places. The singer sounded confident, despite this being her debut appearance apparently. She sung in English and Urdu, with the latter seeing an accompanying musical shift of gears from the guys behind her. Much of their obscurer stylisations were lost on the non-paying students hyped up for a 5pm gig (!) however. Most it seems were there for the hairy sufi drummers who we were told were playing complex Indian rhythyms on their two large drums which they periodically swirled around in tame dervish stylee. Frankly, 10 minutes after their entry I was tired of the overload of drumming pyrotechnics and wanted the cool female vocalist to return to the stage. So it seems did a few of the testosterone fuelled students whose wolf whistles had earlier encouraged her to cover up when she was reduced to being stage hand for the rest of the band. Dump the drummers, change the name, and turn up the volume guys.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sahwa Nikolai

Have been laying low , focusing on a new work situation outside of Dubai but have occasionally been surfacing in order to catch "ethnic" concerts in the more conservative emirate down the road, Sharjah. Ramadhan has not prevented the party mood taking off after iftar, even if attendance is sparse. A (relatively) classical Arab music ensemble, the Tigris Ensemble no less, performing last week at AUS featured, I think, an Iraqi oud player, and, I guess, a Lebanese violin and viola player respectively, and an Egyptian tamborine player. (This was no Liam Gallagher (barely) trying for effect; the man played it with his right hand as if it were a tabla.) Sadly the Arabic and English leaflet that was barely noticeable upon arrival, told us everything except the names and nationalities of the performers. This was said at great, mumbled, speed at the beginning of the gig by one of the musicians. My Arabic is not excellent, so I scrambled to take it in, but there should have been a bit more fanfare, in any language.

As was (almost) said of Frank Zappa, I wished the other guys had shut up and let the guy play his oud. However when he was given free rein the subtleties were lost on much of the audience. Sadly the event was a social more than an artistic occasion, a cause for (loudly) affirming cultural identity bolstered by post-iftar caffeine overload, rather than allowing a sufi-like serenity to take over (G-d forbid). When an elegantly dressed Iraqi (?) singer rather modestly took the spotlight, it did raise the tempo several degrees, however. He had an impressive range and a definite presence.

National Identity extended?

Have noted the naturalisation application process in Wafi and other malls for the stateless bidoon ("without"), for foreign Arab applicants, and those in the half way stage between already being Emirati but not having a copy of the so-called family book. I understand from the UAE press that all kinds of applicants are invited to sign up in the next month, but privately I understand that the bidoon are getting first priority. A recent sympathetic article in Gulf News about the plight of one such man affirms this impression.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Euro wars and local dealings

Arrived back in Dubai Aug 8 after a month holidaying in England, Wales and Berlin. I had assumed that I would be suicidal upon my return. However despite the heat, or more appropriately, the ratouba (humidity) at a level that I don’t remember last August, I am still feeling good. Bonding with friends, enjoying some home comforts, and taking in stunning scenery and wallowing in history certainly helped. My last entry mused on national identity and cultural issues here in the UAE. It’s plain that culture exists here, whether of the international consumerist kind or the discrete cultures that do not so much as melt as co-exist in a sometimes harmonious fashion. However historical legacies seem to largely be confined to traditional ruling orders relatively untroubled by contemporary innovations, and the informal shoura that ties in the key, non-sheikhly, local and incorporated families. That, and the Dubai Museum’s paltry offering constitute traditional culture within the metropolis of urban Dubai. Such historical “myths” are also recycled in Abu Dhabi, drawing on their less coastal economy traditionally speaking. This may be good or bad, but it certainly helps one appreciate Europe, even if the historical legacies I was recently taking in in Berlin for the first time in 10 years were ideological and nationalist.

Within the latter bracket came the splendid neo-Roman splendor of Soviet authoritarianism available at the USSR’s war memorial in former East Berlin (see pic below). Upon my return to Dubai this became more apt on the contemporary stage as Russia’s Near Abroad was once again rigorously policed by Russian Federation forces as it was by Soviet and Czarist ones previously. The local angle to this is more fascinating than the business section of yesterday’s Gulf News would suggest. Poti port has been largely destroyed, with large Ras al Khaimah (RAK) investments going to …eh pot as a leading RAK company had exercised strategic reach in this part of the former Soviet Union.

The latest political controversy in this particular people's republic is that all visas (with exception of clearly defined tourist ones it would appear) will incur a health insurance charge payable up front on arrival or with evidence from sponsor of it being in hand. Alongside this, Sharjah has announced (according to the phone in progamme "Nightline" on Dubai Eye, that is) that it will require copies of residential contracts for families when individuals with families try to renew their visas. For those crowded into a room or two this could be tricky, commented the Nightline programme the other night. Security tightening, national ID enforcing, or just good government business? More irreverently, readers of today's Gulf News may care to check out the discreet court room report of the claims concerning a certain major British media story in early July. The defendent breached public indecency, the paper reported the prosection lawyer as saying.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

UAE national identity

Here in the UAE national identity is all the rage. A debate has been sanctioned from the top, a conference in April saw some strident, almost nationalist, posturing on the part of some, and a series of cultural and educational initiatives are underway to deepen national fealty. At present this national project is being conducted as an assertion of essentially conservative attributes - promoting Arabic, teaching Emirati history more aggressively in schools, pushing bedu symbolism – whilst railing against those outsiders who apparently threaten national cohesiveness. Relative liberals want to extend nationality, or at least a halfway house of long term residency, to those outside of the Sunni, Arab, tribal construct that especially prevails in Abu Dhabi, but who have nowhere other than the UAE, or at least a specific emirate, to call home. Nationalists, as some are being called locally, led by the de facto leader of HH’s loyal “opposition” here in Dubai, police chief Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan al-Tamim, are warning that the transition to the sons of the current crop of UAE crown princes could be challenged by someone with a Hindu name. Exaggerated? Yes. Impossible? Probably. An authentic voice of Emirati existential angst? Undoubtedly.

The trouble with nationalism of course is that it posits a subjective and usually non-inclusive notion of the nation to the detriment of many long time residents of a given country. While Emirati nationalism lacks European-style national chauvinism – no one honestly thinks that the UAE is the greatest nation in the Middle East much less the world – it shares many of the same myths, the “imagined community”, the subjective notion of belonging that often excludes many of those who are in fact inextricably part of that same nation. Educated Emiratis will tell you that national cracks are being covered by this focus on the “other”. They will stress the difficulty of belonging when you are an Emirati ajami (a so-called non-Arabic speaking “Persian”), especially if you are a Shia; or if you are a Baluch. They will tell you that the rebirth of localism, of individual emirate identification, threatens to rent asunder the federal project that was awkwardly settled in the constitutional compromises of 30 years ago. No one doubts that the UAE will necessarily have to recycle at least some of the national mythology that all countries feel the need to trumpet, but there is a dilemma in the obviously different versions of the national project that is playing out in Dubai contrasted with Sharjah, for example. Superficially they are all one Emirati family, but there are strong criticisms being aired between and within emirates of some of the visions at work on the ground. And for unity to therefore be forged at the altar of national exclusivity, even in an emirate like Dubai whose history is so bound up in economic and cultural inclusion, at least at the merchant level, seems sad and, more importantly, short sighted. It is perhaps an understandable national project for a national minority, but how can nations existing in a sea of international communication and mobility talk only of a demographic challenge?

Dhahi Khalfan argued that the UAE has to slash back population inflows to tackle the imbalance – a measure that would destroy the economic diversification that Dubai in particular has championed and other emirates and neighbouring countries are emulating. He also argued that a different federalist project – to create a Gulf Arab nation with common citizenship would tackle the demographic disaster sapping at the UAE’s national spirit. Here perhaps he had a point. Sixteen million Saudi subjects (whoever heard of monarchial citizenship?) would be one hell of a useful asset, at least in the numbers game (the GCC’s total population is about 37m). This should make the UAE and Qatar in particular hard-line federalists in the way 1980s UK Conservatives used to think of the French and the Germans. Trouble is very few Gulf Arab subjects think the GCC’s “federalist” projects mean much. The common currency was postponed in May, though few noticed, as 2010 became the target date for a powerless monetary committee instead of the launch data for the GCC “dinar”. National sovereignty is a construct still very much in vogue among jealously competitive ruling houses, not least after the events of 1990-91. It may be a “myth”, especially when arguably the common currency is and will remain the greenback, but it is one many buy into. In the UAE, however, establishing consensus on the attributes of the national myth is a very awkward exercise. Easier therefore to fear the foreigner.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Life and life only

That is a line from a song, right? God knows I should know. Things have been vertically eratic since that last solidly negative entry way back in April 10. Mother has not emerged from a hospital ward dedicated to the care of clinically depressed elderly folk; we remain keen to exit and find creative financial solutions to mitigate the relatively short distance til the final exit of this temporal existence; and our work situations are variable. However I have recently been offered a full time teaching post, so that was a boost. Providing I can square it with other work commitments, and the visa sitch can be worked out, I will have fixed full time work from the fall. However it means we will be living apart for the majority of the week, in separate emirates. This blog will therefore become tales from the staid academic side of life in the UAE rather than getting low down and dirty among the south asian working class. Still, there is hope in teaching - the students can be stimulating, and many are appreciative, and usually very polite. It makes a change from the diplomatic finesse of my previous employer. That international charity committed to relieving crises, staffed and advised by ex diplomats, that treated me with less respect than the timber yard that employed me as a cherubic looking grunt at the age of 16. I digress. In short, life is mercurial. This weekend has been a prick of a one, not helped by wife's understandably negative reaction to being dissed herself, in her case by local employers. Not sure where any of this will end, but we increasingly feel the departure back to the sceptic isle will be sooner rather than later.

From 2 June 2008: a reposting and re-editing of "Impotent"

Impotent, empty rage against the self
Structureless, devoid of form
Drowning in the delusions that memory creates
Wanting meaning in a barren desert of existence
Wanting to come alive in a lifeless zone
Lusting, longing, lurking
From one stale old poster
To another cover shot of yesteryear
Wondering where the youthful zeal went
When the energies were mostly onanistically dissipated
Then as they are today

Work as means to paying rent is a common experience
Leisure that micturates away the surplus ain’t uncommon either
Middle aged middle class heineken drinker
Passionless except about the weakness of the self
And the fading desire for salvation through earthly love and musical liberation
Everything dead except as snap shot of something visceral
Penge boy cycling from record shop to record shop
Days upon days poring over records he would never hear
In search of the only truth that he still holds dear

The physical sublimation of the passion of the soul
Long since reserved for the sixth form poems he didn’t write
Because he left school at sixteen
Wanting to weep, though the tears won’t come
Empty impotent rage
Against God knows what

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thursday nite shite

It's two cans of Heineken and the washing up as a grey film of indifference forms a grim veneer over Thursday night in Al-Hamriya, Bur Dubai. This is where the weekend ends as work beckons, the prospect of which is made infinitely worse having lingered between modest alcohol intake and the vodka bottle. Better to have not touched a drop or to have drunk the flat dry. This was no time for avoiding the fork in the road. The damned students and their petty complaints about grades hang over me while my apparent analytical edge gets daily blunted by library book cramming to keep a few steps ahead of these kids in the Mid East knowledge stakes. Good Lord Eissa I am only doing this so I can continue to jerk off on the prospect of one day running away to an educational establishment down the Californian coast and leaving the horror of my dead and dying family and the awesome enervation of this local nonsense behind. What the hell am I bothering for..."44 and there's so much more...." Where the fug is that pick up...sure wish I'd swung a left on Sunset Boulevard back in 2005

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Conflict resolution

Does life begin at 44, or does the greying, sagging quality of each naked morning deepen as the months drift by? Caught at the existential fork in the road, I am still intent to plough straight down the middle. An uncompromising, devil may care, commitment to fence sitting as I face key career choices immediately ahead of me. As a wise satyr said to me yesterday “at least it’s good to have choices”. The consolation one takes from this aphorism is proportionate to the enthusiasm one feels for anything at all. Sorry, that was a tad overdone…..

Since I last committed text to blog, nearly 3 months have wended their way down the creek and a few key events in the middle aged lexicon of life have predictably come and (almost) gone. The job I came out here for with an internationally renowned conflict resolution charity ended after exactly one year; my ageing and increasingly frail father’s long overdue season ticket finally got cancelled by the mortality police; and I have sought to find a new professional direction whilst still based in the UAE. The latter part nearly lost me (and therefore my wife’s) right to remain here, but that particular chill to the testicular area has thankfully passed (I believe).

The end of my contract to advance conflict resolution in the Gulf had been agreed back in November. The phone call had actually come on the eve of the three day national holiday out here at around 6pm, a bit like getting the sack on the eve of Thanksgiving. “Sorry”, he said, on hearing that the time and emotion involved in getting and trying to make something of the job he proposed had taken something of a personal and family toll. Finances were involved in this parting, and editorial disagreements too. He didn’t like the way I wrote and I thought what he and his deputy were seeking was unrealistic in this particular part of the sand bucket. So good riddance. Since that conversation the work has kept on coming. I am busier than ever, balanced precariously between mostly old research contacts recently reinvigorated, and a new (and possibly permanent) position at a local educational establishment. The fork in the road requires me to depress the accelerator in the freelance consultant type direction, or finally succumb to the academia that I have long had a love-hate relationship with. If only for the third option: that second hand record store in San Louis Obispo, off Route 1, California. But that ain’t gonna happen. I am not 21 and it would of course be such a waste of one’s talents, wouldn’t it?