Sunday, 18 October 2009

First week in Dubai

Hello dear reader,

In preparation for my pending adventures in the Middle East, a couple of friends recommended I start a blog. It took a little while to set this up as I couldn't locate the English interface! So, this does feel like a great feat, as I naviguessed my way through the Arabic version. That's right, I am now reading Arabic. Well, someday, perhaps...

Some of you who are reading this might not know why I am here. In sum, it's mainly for love. Secondly, it was time for me to push myself towards career goals I set years ago - I am focusing my energy and intellect on curating and researching photography. In June, I resigned from a wonderful job as exec director & curator at the Houston Center for Photography. I left HCP in September, though I'm still curating from afar. I gave the organization just about everything I had to help it grow, often at the expense of my personal life and goals. I say this wistfully as I realize now that I was running the risk of perceiving it to be my baby, which it isn't - it has succeeded of late thanks to the loving care and efforts of numerous people. I am trying not to be a backseat driver to my friend Bevin who is running it now, as she's very capable and can do it without my help!

So, back to how I got to Dubai. To bring you up to speed... last year this lovely British bloke named Craig entered my life wearing a kilt. Not sure what that says about me liking guys in skirts, but apparently kilts are not called "skirts" unless you wear underwear underneath them. Craig was working in London and we somehow commuted between London-Houston. The travel was all possible thanks to Johnny T who works for a nice US airline (thank you John!). Anyway, Craig was transferred to Dubai in June. We don't actually know how long we'll be here, but that's how it goes with his company; there are lots of sacrifices, but the rewards are great. (Yes, I've been drinking the company Koolaid.)

I visited the Middle East for the first time in June, 2009. During a week-long reconnaissance trip, we picked out a house on the Palm Jumeirah, that silly fake palm tree island! It is, somehow, quite beautiful. We're on the beach, have a pool overlooking the water, and the energy in the house is very good despite it being a pre-fab design.

It is hot here, but the air has a sweetness to it. Even in the October heat, a light breeze sweeps over your skin and seems to gently rejuvenate it. The sea has a high salt content. I almost went in it earlier in the week but am still a little sheepish as it looks like there's suspicious algae in it. The Palm has trouble with water circulation (among other issues) but my neighbors two doors down don't shy away from getting in it; each day they sun bathe and play bocce ball on the beach (maintaining that dark ruddy color takes work!) and swim with their dog. Across the street from us is a palatial home that externally lights up each night with LEDs that change color. It's like a James Turrell light installation gone domestically bad - very flash! I have yet to see anyone come out of the house, but we're guessing its a brothel or harem. Probably not, but it makes for a good story.

A little about Dubai... Almost entirely built in the last 10 years, Dubai is a city that has interesting architectural innovations (in addition to the palm). While the faltering global economy has made an impact here, anything that is under construction will be completed in the next couple of years. The population is approx 1.4 million and is comprised of about 85% expats, with a lot hailing from Saudi, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and tons from Europe and the US. All of these ethnicities have yet to settle, develop recognized enclaves, and integrate. The art scene in Dubai is nascent, and events like Art Dubai bring a much appreciated sophistication to the region. Beyond the city is the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which has more recognized cultural activities. There are reefs in the Arabian Gulf that are quite beautiful, the Oman mountains where you can camp, hike, and go caving are just an hour's drive.

I have several observations following my brief and admittedly superficial engagement with the local environment. For example, today is Sunday, which is a work day here (Sun-Thurs). Many shops are closed on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. The Muslim calendar is based upon a lunar cycle, as opposed to the Gregorian solar calendar Westerners use. EVERYTHING is expensive, except petrol, which mostly comes from Saudi or even from Abu Dhabi (there is no oil in Dubai). The supermarkets have most everything you'd want, though if you desire a bag of spinach you'd better be prepared to spend $10 for it. If you want to buy booze, you need a license, and there are very few shops that sell it, and those shops aren't really sign posted. Somehow, it's illegal to possess alcohol in your home without the license, but the Duty Free shops at the airport sell it to you without it. There is no postal service delivery, so I'm getting my mail through a post office box at Craig's office. If you want to do just about anything bureaucratic, i.e. registering a vehicle with the government, getting a visa, expect that it will take 3x as long than it does in the US. I surrendered my passport a week ago and am unsure when I will get it back! You might have to jump through some hoops or slip some extra cash to sweeten deals (not that we have done that). Everything is down to negotiation, with little at a fixed price. Relationship building is critical to doing any deal. In sum, and I've heard this from several people, life here can be rather circuitous.

Censorship is an issue, especially for me, as I had to omit a lot of literature from my shipment to Dubai due to content that would be considered offensive - i.e. anything pornographic or political. Not that I have a collection of Playgirl mags, but I do have a lot of art books that contain nudes and/or political content. This also means that contemporary art is censored, but I am seeing that the boundaries are in actuality looser than what the law seems to state. The censorship topic does make me wonder about what histories are taught here, and how those histories differ from those I learned. Does the lack of access to resources like YouTube impact the type of artwork created here? I have yet to come up with an educated perspective on that. The radio stations are pretty saccharine; the music played is top 40s and oldies and the news reports don't really have any news in them. I've taken to internet radio.

In general, I am happy here. I find all of the risks I took overwhelming sometimes, but that comes in waves. The sunshine helps and the generosity of other expats is truly authentic and heartfelt.

I think this is about enough for today... I'll write more soon!