Saturday, May 19, 2007

Med quintet play Blue

Managed to get out of the empty shell that is my new abode in Bur Dubai and met a journalist friend at the Blue Bar at the Novotel in Za’abeel. I was pleasantly surprised, even if there wasn’t much Belgian beer on draft, there was Belgian beer. And then the Olivier Collete Quintette kicked in, a mix of a Lebanese rhythm section, Belgian keyboard player, Spanish guitarist and I think a French sax player. And they started with Footprints (from Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles album)….From there it was Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" and then a third number that grooved along nicely but which I still can’t recall even after we quizzed the band in the interval. Footprints, like even the shlocky numbers they covered later, would begin in the tradition and then go off into a funky jam that was essentially ‘70s, driven by the electric keyboardist who gave it a period movie soundtrack feel. As my friend observed, an approach not unlike Coltrane covering “pop” from his era, though I kind of prefer the original Inch Worm to one or two of the lamer disco tunes they jammed around. In many ways the performance established a standard that could only go downhill in the second and third sets, but the band remained tight and engaging, and gems were still to come in the form of Mercy, Mercy (Canonball Adderly) and a blues cover (name unknown to me). We left as they headed into Knockin' on Heaven’s Door in the third set, though by this point the beer had made me more or less capable of being impressed by anything, short of the fat women with bare backs and plastic bra straps that cut swathes into their ample flesh. In general the drawbacks of the Blue Bar are few, aside from the name (if you tell your wife) and the food. The latter does enable you to stay in place though, which when these guys are playing, most weekends I gather, is worthwhile.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Deira souq

Hotel California

You can never leave?

Back at the California Hotel, it was as if I had never been away, so pleased were the staff to welcome me back to what has become home. I am on the second floor this time, that much closer to the music action on the lower floors. However I am also labour camp side again, which means less early morning traffic hassle and marginally less mosque…..how have I come to feel like I am going to miss this place? Have I like some long stay in-mate, become institutionalised? In simple terms, two months is the longest I have spent living abroad since we lived in Jerusalem, and in this area you get a greater exposure to the life. Even if you are obviously a complete outsider, who isn’t? Most people just know their patch, and many little more than that. Spending time eating in many of the local food places, chatting to those who work around here, and shopping in the local shops, I have more familiarity with this area than I acquired in E17 after more than three years…….

Today I finally secured a flat. The property is in Bur Dubai, west of the river (creek) in the so-called OPC area (Al-Hamriya). I am feeling like I have somehow sold out. To me the creek is a real divider of life in this city, and part of me revels in the underbelly that is so alive -n the Deira side of the water. Still, the creek itself has its charms, either side of the divide, and our new place will be within walking distance, so there can still be plenty of nights down by the riverside. It’s funny, I’ve sat on the beach and looked at the Gulf, and caught glimpses of it from a speeding taxi going down Mina Road, but I don’t have any affinity with that rather more strategic waterway, compared to the old trade route that provides one of the more interesting features of the city. I will miss the madness of the Nasser choc (square), even though lunchtime walking around there can leave you almost feeling you are going to drop, especially as the year careens toward June. Still, Khaled ibn Al-Walid street in Bur Dubai is a pretty buzzy place whenever I have walked down it. Even if it is not the same buzz of this area, it is seemingly more of a mix of business and clientele. I don’t, however, recall it having the bizarre quality of a fur coat store catering mainly to overweight Russian women in unflatteringly tight and or cropped clothing alongside shops selling broiling chickens….Where the hell I wonder are the coats made, cant surely be Russia, or perhaps they’re Pakistani fakes….they sure as hell don’t look it…..I need to check them out before I, finally, check out of the California Hotel….Looks like this blog is going to have to have a name change….”Bur Dubai Diary” just won’t be the same…..

Emotional trip

On the plane back from Europe, after a week of meetings at head quarters, I spent much of the time fighting against exhaustion and attempting, pointlessly, to read material related to my work. It was a definite downer after a pleasurable time meeting the staff at base and finding meaning in the organization that for so long had been just a collection of names, a number of whom I had simply harbored resentments against and yet many of whom could have done little more to have eased the long haul that has been setting up shop in Dubai.

On the plane I could not resist listening to a BBC recording of a Van Morrison performance at Glastonbury in 1987 which was available as part of the BA in flight entertainment. For some strange reason I had not been there, though almost felt like I was listening to it now. Missing my wife very much, “In the Garden” almost made me breakdown and I struggled to hold it together over the airline meal on which I was feasting. The emotion that the counterpoint of vocal and melody express, even if some of its overt religiosity is uncomfortable for some, surely has a universal resonance in its celebration of love whose intensity, devotion, and spirituality can make you feel “born again”.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Southern Rock

At the California Hotel just off Nakheel street, there were, on the last count, four so called night clubs, at least three bars and at least two restaurants. None of these start up til at least 830, save for the Indian bar which is open all day. I headed to the latter round about 7 on the basis that it was Thursday night and the weekend somehow should start here. Killed more than 90 very slow minutes drinking Heineken draft waiting for the basement nightclub to kick in, watching three screens, eating tasteless popcorn and trying to read Gulf News in the dim, seedy light of a bar that, were it not just inside the entrance of a three star and policed by the manager every ten minutes, would very nearly be cool. I have lived in this place two months and tonite is the first time I have very checked out any of the music venues that actually the hotel very popular over the weekend. Trouble is, visiting these places at 8 or 9 o clock in the evening means that you’re catching the performers in rehearsal mode. I stumbled into the Omar Khyam night club, the Pakistani venue in the basement, and found myself in an audience of six , of whom four were staff. Around a discrete corner an African woman nursed a beer while the tubby male singer seemed to be singing at me while heavilly made up young girls in brightly coloured saris and head scarves for the most part did desultory moves while occasionally one would step up and make a reasonably serious effort at dancing, throwing off the head covering and concentrating on shaking her very long locks around like an extra from a hippie dance troupe. At one point the oldest, plainest, female grabbed the mic and matched the male singer for commitment, and more or less for volume. This was essentially for these singers, dancers and musicians a tepid warm up. Overly amplified, were two tabla players, very average in competence, but the sound of their instruments was exciting to hear in additon to the commonplace south Asian keyboard heavy music.

Heading for a food break on several pints is always a disappointment and hotel food, especially in this place, is never good as I, surely, should know. What I consumed was at least a means to fill a gap, before checking out the other venues in this hotel. Heading back down to the bowels of the building I had a choice of the Indian nightclub or the Bollywood dancers revue. Opted for the latter and soon wished I had had the detachment that allowed several other punters to check out the scene and promptly leave. The male musicians in this place did nothing except play tapes and the girls danced, or rather moved occasionally in a stiff unenthused fashion to whatever was played. At this point, I was reminded of Bowie’s "Queen Bitch", knew for sure that “I could do better than that”, and texted my totally sober wife to inform her of this revelation. I then reminded myself that I do not have pert breasts and that is what the young men in this audience are paying AED20 a can of Heineken for, and seemingly giving the maitre d one dirham coins to lavish on the solo dancer for. I soon made my excuses and headed back to my room for a tap water, and a blast of southern rock on my MP3 player c/o Neil Young, before writing these observations in a less than able state. These places needs checking out after midnight, then it fills out, and then I suspect the musicians have to play, regardless of whether the girls can dance….

Thursday, May 3, 2007

When worlds rarely collide

This place continues to fascinate me. It can seem like hell on earth when you’re walking back to your hotel via Sabkha street where the pavement narrows into a stand off between chickens being kebabed and south Asian workers digging the Nasser Square metro stop. As you walk the narrow, furnace-like, gauntlet of where these two competing attractions meet, you could not be further removed from the Dubai conjured up by the ubiquitous image of the Burj al-Arab. You will often be accompanied by tourists, although these tourists are of a very different kind to those you would encounter in the five star hotels. Here the visitors are Russian shoppers, poorer Arab and Iranian tourists, and women working one of the newer routes of the oldest profession.

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Yesterday I paid a visit to the Saudi-owned MBC satellite broadcasting network’s headquarters. Like a significant portion of the region’s media, MBC has set up shop in Dubai Media City, and it is from there its programming, including the Al-Arabya news service, is broadcast. This was a chance to bear witness to a phenomenon. There is a huge range of regional and international media corralled into a free zone which is regulation-lite. MBC is effectively in exile, operating in a cosmopolitan environment more in tune with the realities of much of the Arab middle class, where women are playing an active role and are not wearing hijab. This is a fascinating scene to witness. Tellingly, however , Saudis in general are not thick on the ground at MBC, and female nationals seemingly non existent. Domestically based media outlets in the kingdom will feature Saudi women broadcasters in conservative regalia but they rarely perform key roles behind the scenes. MBC is being run on a day to day basis by ex-pat Arabs, including a significant number of women. These ex-pat Arabs are of course working in the ultimate ex-pat enclave, Dubai.

I and a colleague chatted with a Lebanese manager of day to day business at Al-Arabiyya, and a Palestinian news editor, as well as a Sudanese interviewee booker who is threatening to draw on me, though possibly more for comment customs and currency union than Saudi foreign policy, which would be my preference. On our way to join another Sudanese reporter for “lunch” at around 4pm, we ran into the man whose job title suggests he is the hands on figure who directs the operation. Yet this Saudi national, with a background at the heart of the system back home, is more the PR voice of the Al-Arabiya news service, penning thoughtful pieces on the Kingdom’s direction and, it would seem, ensuring that the political slant of the news service doesn’t stray too far away from the al-Saud’s essential interests. He is a suave operator, in keeping with the impression I had previously garnered talking to him over the phone; he is also an efficient but considered analyst of regional affairs. I left impressed by the personnel I had met at the company, but reflecting on MBC’s operation as another contribution to the virtual reality of this emirate. In Dubai presentation is key. The realities of the physical environment in which the mass of foreign labour toil rarely intrude on the professional or social lives of those for whom Dubai is largely orientated. For many Emiratis or Europeans it is only when walking to a waiting vehicle or watching from tinted windows that this other Dubai can be felt or witnessed. The image of infinite progress continues to be nurtured by the buzz of media activity at DMC, and the seemingly infinite selection of shopping malls and residential blocs that continue to be built. The reality among the members of the service sector who are not seated at a computer is rather harsher.