The Granddaddy of Sandboxes

Dubai is an ultra-modern city. Its energy, architecture, and international ambience need take a back seat to no metropolis.  It is a beautiful city with a sufficient mixture of new and old to satisfy any taste.  It is a shopper’s paradise.

 But it has a flaw.  It possesses one feature that will never allow it to become truly cosmopolitan.    It is a blight that neither the visitor nor the new resident can quite comprehend and it goes far beyond the statistical norm for such things.

We speak of Dubai’s penchant for digging holes.  Digging holes and trenches.  Dozens of them.  Hundreds of them.  Miles and miles of them.  Holes and trenches everywhere you turn.  Big holes.  Little holes. Deep holes.  Shallow holes.  Holes within holes.  Neat holes.  Sloppy holes. Holes dotted around bigger holes. We dig, therefore we are.  

The absolute first order of business upon completing the construction of anything is to dig another hole – preferably close enough to the finished product to render it once again incomplete.   Among the richest men in Dubai are the purveyors of shovels, picks, backhoes, front-end loaders, augers, and draglines.  Everyone wants to get in on the act.   It is not advertised anywhere but there must be a department devoted solely to the act of digging up the ground.  The Department of Holes and Trenches. Perhaps it is all an atavistic expression of the hunt for water in the desert.   In any event, the scope and incidence of digging beggars the imagination.  

In October, a new supermarket opened next to us.  It was a splashy affair with colored ribbons, officials smiling at cameras, cars offered up to lucky customers, the whole ‘Grand Opening’ enchilada. Within two weeks, a ten-foot trench appeared across the full width of the store.  After three weeks, another trench isolated it from one side street.  Soon, the street itself was subjected to a trench.  Now the store had a real problem.  Customers could not approach from anywhere but the rear.  Business volume visibly suffered.

That was in October.  It is now mid-February and the trenches appear no closer to being filled than they did in November.  On the contrary, more trenches have appeared, down the middle of the main road, through the adjoining block, back as far as the eye can see.   The poor supermarket may as well be on the moon.  Customers across the street cannot patronize the place.

All the while, dirt is being moved from place to place.  Great mounds of dirt were piled into an empty lot behind us in November and December only to be retrieved now to be placed somewhere else.  It’s not as if any holes or trenches are being filled.  The holes appear and the dirt moves.

Everywhere in the city, beautiful new courtyard areas, boulevard decorations and sidewalks are being constructed of red paving stones.  No sooner have the bricks been installed than they are dug up to a) allow trees to be planted or b) to change the configuration of the bricks or c) simply because . . . .

In short, anything pretty and standing still is vulnerable to attack from the Department of Holes and Trenches.  The majority of digs defy any logical explanation.  No signs explain their purpose.  No holes ever appear to get filled.  Work continues unabated, shovels flashing in the sun, huge front-end loaders mangling the pavement, the desert sands artificially shifting from location to location.

Perhaps it is all a game. None of us really wants to grow up and digging in the sand is timeless childish fun.  Moreover, in Dubai, there happens to be an abundance of sand. It is work/play that need never end – and, judging by appearances, has done just that.  [2001]

Robert Alan Davidson

May, 2019

A Typical Day

The alarm rings at 5:50 A.M. In the winter, the sun rises around 7:00 A.M. and sets around 6:00 P.M.  With two of us and two bathrooms, the morning preparations are smooth and quiet.  We leave for work around 7:15.  The sun has just risen and already the sounds of construction are everywhere. In a two-block radius from our apartment, there are at least four separate pipeline projects in progress, road construction along the main thoroughfare, four villas being erected, several small shop renovations underway, and a noisy throng of diesel school buses honking and growling their way through the district.  Hundreds of Indian laborers mill about these jobs sights, some carrying shovels, others driving immense front-end loaders, and some simply standing.  This being their winter, they look cold, some of them with their heads wrapped grotesquely in over-sized turbans, a few in World War II leather helmets. To a man, they look miserable.

We depart for work in our freshly-washed sport utility van (100 dirhams a month to have it washed down every morning except Friday).   The noise and activity at this early hour scatters any early morning lethargy. 

As the crow flies, it is probably no more than three kilometers from our flat in Al Qusais to Dubai Men’s College.  Through the miracle of Dubai road construction , the commute is extended to six-plus kilometers with no less than 12 separate 90 degree turns – and that’s the quick way – and doesn’t include the 4 turns required to exit the flat parking lot.

Getting to work around 7:30, we have a wide selection of parking spots.  By 7:50, the choices are few.  The students are quite casual about parking preferences and will leave their vehicles almost anywhere they believe it will not be run over. Westerners would quickly rule out parking in a location the average Arab student sees as a perfect place to abandon a vehicle.  Parking is free and unregulated and no one would ever argue this fact.

By 7:55, in our building, the halls are filled with young men dressed in white, a miasma of after shave lotions suspended in the air.  We console ourselves knowing it is preferable to the alternative.  Classes begin at eight but almost all suffer from chronic latecomers and the teaching task to bring them to prompt attendance is unrelenting and, ultimately, unsuccessful.  The west’s preoccupation with the clock does not, it seem, appeal to our Arab students.  Technically, a student can be dismissed for repeated lateness but the reality is that no one wants to take the issue that far.  We settle for endless threats. The problem is one of the more interesting clashes between western and arab cultures.

The students, with rare exceptions, are friendly and polite and attentive.  They are a pleasure to teach.  At our level, English proficiency is a major problem and we devise many ways to make ourselves understood in areas of math and computers.  The course material itself is quite basic – fractions, percentages, decimals, simple expressions, etc, learning to type and navigate through Windows and Word.  Most of the students have studied these math concepts in high school and most have some computer literacy.  So it’s the English version we are teaching and we walk a fine line between boring them with concepts they know well and getting them to learn it all over again in English.  It is an ongoing source of strain in the system, the problem of training in English.   Instructors must guard against assuming any word or sentence is clear.

Class schedules for instructors are scattered throughout the day, the last class ending at 7:30. Interim periods are occupied marking papers and doing class preparation.  Instructors are expected to attend the school for a minimum of 8 hours a day and few violate this expectation.

Dubai Men’s College consists of three buildings (soon to be four) and the only non-class, non administrative provision made is for a cafeteria.  There are no athletic facilities or fine arts facilities. DMC is here to teach core subjects – Business and Technical.  The cafeteria serves hot lunches and provides a Dubai specialty – creative pricing.  No one appears to know how or why an item is priced the way it is and the students, in particular, resent the pricing.  Which is odd, given that most of them have more money than their instructors, and are surrounded by the accoutrements of the wealthy – expensive watches and jewellry, luxury vehicles, and ongoing bafflement over the word ‘economy’. Yet something about the cafeteria rankles. 

The work day is long and the paperwork substantial.  Coming from a business background, I do not know whether or not this is a phenomena of the UAE or not but there is little trust in the computer. Everywhere one conducts business in this country there is a heavy dependence upon the piece of paper. The school insists upon endless reports and convoluted file maintenance of teaching and student records. Literally nothing is discarded. Of course, this may stem from the near-paranoia of working for a single master who may or may not at any given time be making his intentions clear – OR is making his intentions clear only to have them  mangled and muddled by a something less than stellar, senior administrative staff.  Finger pointing in either direction is not uncommon.  In any case, job security is non-existent and may go some way to explain the surfeit of paper.

When we arrive home in the evening, dinner is a functional affair, usually involving some sort of take-away food.  We catch up on our e-mail, read, or watch television and then off to bed.  [2004] 

The Police – I

When living in a country, the United Arab Emirates, which has no ‘habeas corpus’ – or due process of law – or constitutional rights – a visit to the local police station is not an occasion for the blithe spirit.  Nerves may justifiably start to jangle while the visitor is still some distance away.  The situation isn’t helped by the fact the police are everywhere – perhaps 50 percent or more of the entire Arab population of Dubai –where we live – is connected in one way or another with either the police or the army. In other words, the public is outnumbered and the ‘other side’ has guns and they do not have to recite any ‘Mirandas’ when making an arrest.  Whatever else our feelings may be toward the police, we, at the very least, develop a desire to avoid contact. 

In this regard, it helps to know some of the finer legal points.   A person can be arrested and jailed (for some considerable length of time, I might add) for swearing in public (swearing involves taking God’s name in vain) and if one thinks the God he curses in North America is not the one the Arabs worship, he must think again. They are one and the same. Only the names are different. 

As well, a person can go to jail for drinking a bottle of water in public during Ramadan.  ‘In public’ may include driving in the car and being seen by someone.    There is an edge to living in Dubai that most people would never experience in North America – unless, of course, they are a person of color living in a less-than-genteel urban area.  But, I digress.

The trip to the police station is to renew my temporary driver’s license.  I plan my visit for early in the morning so as to avoid the inevitable bureaucratic crunch.  People are, in the UAE, typically not processed as fast as they appear at the processing centres   Lineups are long and typically ill-tempered. 

The Police, I discover, live very well. The premises are first-rate, top-notch, swarming with gardeners and handymen working to keep the grounds beautiful. There are no sandy desert wastes in this compound.  Trees, and grass, and flowers abound.   It is a disarmingly benign environment – until one remembers where one is.  We live in a quasi police state and I am in the middle of their, uh, lair.   Heads up and keep your head down, I tell myself with no sense of contradiction.   

This is how the system works in UAE.  All power resides with the sheikh.  Power and rights across the land emanate from him and are enjoyed by others only through his sufferance and blessing.  The sheikh giveth and the sheikh taketh away.  Literally.  The police exist to help him maintain peace and order. Their power – if that be the term – is derived from whatever the Sheikh says they have.  It is a long and honored Arab tradition.  Suffice it to say, the UAE is a VERY peaceful and law-abiding nation, the only crime of widespread incidence being the irrational, impulsive, and incessant honking of horns. 

I park my car – out of sight of the licensing wing lest they find some reason to lift my license while I, on the other hand, remain determined to drive – and walk around to the ‘green’ wing.  The ‘green’ wing is a large, bright and open room with wickets set about the perimeter.  The wickets have signs overhead reading ‘Data Entry’, ‘Temporary Permits’, ‘Licensing’,  and ‘Cashier’ (this wicket is enclosed in (bulletproof?) glass to ensure, one assumes rather ludicrously,  no robbers have easy access to the day’s receipts),.  In the centre of the room, plastic chairs are placed around potted trees.  More plastic chairs are lined up near the various wickets.  An information booth guards the entrance. 

Like the dupe I am, I approach the information desk and ask where to go to get a temporary license.  If I have observed one thing in Dubai, it is that people manning information booths behave in like fashion.  The booths might more accurately be called ‘Pointer’ booths.  Part of this is due, of course, to the language problem but one senses it is not the only reason.  In any case, the answer to any question is never verbal.  The man, without looking at me, points into the room.

‘In there?’  I persist.

He double points.  Still no words.  I know when I am beaten.  I follow his hand signal and hope more information is forthcoming.  I locate a display case with various application forms.  One of them reads ‘Application for Temporary License’.  I am in luck. Of a sort.  Looking about, I seek some place to fill out the form. I look in vain.  But I DO notice a great many officers of the law milling about behind the wickets.  There are dozens of policemen in finely-tailored, precision-ironed uniforms.  On their heads perch natty berets while yards of colorful lanyards hang from their epaulets.  These policemen are a very impressive-looking group.  Unfortunately, for me, they also remind me of many foreign police forces portrayed in the movies – movies that equated such uniforms with a savagery and sadism unknown in North America.  In spite of myself, I tremble slightly.  I think:   There is nothing stopping these policemen from making the Hollywood stereotype come true!

I fill out the form by setting it on my lap.  When I finally complete the questions that make sense (leaving the ones that don’t (such as, When is your Anniversary Date – Birth Date already having been asked ) to others),  I approach a “Data Entry’ wicket, for no other reason than it seems, by default, the logical place to go.  The phrase, ‘data entry’ means absolutely nothing to me, but perhaps I will be enlightened. 

The policeman sitting at the wicket is talking to his associate at the next wicket.  They ignore me. I stand, shifting from foot to foot, re-reading my application form as if to convey the notion I appreciated being given the time to review such an important document.  Quickly, however, my ruse wears thin, and I simply stand, staring at the walls.

My policeman, still not looking at me, eventually extends a hand to receive the application.  Carefully, gently, I place it in his hand.  Now, he looks up, with his policeman’s eyes, as if scouring his brain to recall the most recent ‘Ten Most Wanted’ photographs.  I shift my weight again.  I cough quietly.

‘Driver’s license’ he mutters.  I extract my Canadian driver’s license.  He looks at it and at me.  Then he hands back the license and the application.

‘You need eye test and consulate proof.’

‘I need what?’ I momentarily forget my place. My voice is much too loud. Do I WANT to be incarcerated?

‘Eye test.  Eye test.  Proof driver’s license.  Proof real.  Get from consulate.’  He looks away, unprepared to take this already interminable conversation any further.  Now I really forget myself.  A deep-seated need to return surly with surly, boils over in me.

“You mean I hafta come BACK HERE?”

The policeman stares balefully at me.  It is my considered opinion that only policemen possess this stare.  It is a stare that says, ‘I’d love nothing more right now than to take you into the holding cell and beat you mercilessly about the ribs with a rubber hose.’  I step backward, spin on my heel and walk quickly toward the door, my step easing with every footfall, my mind slowing returning me to the reality of where I am.  I move faster, but more quietly.  In the parking lot, I look behind to see if anyone is following.  The image of a brusque arrest and rough ferrying to the hoosegow, won’t go away even as I start the car.  But nothing happens.

I return the next week with, what I hope are, the necessary documents.  I supplement them with addition photographs, knowing the local fondness for documenting everything with a snapshot while at the same time insisting the applicant bring his or her own photographs.  If nothing else, it is always a good reason for sending someone away without completing the intended task.

I approach the same wicket.  The chair is occupied by a different policeman.   HE, too, is talking to his associate at the next desk.  Again, I am made to wait and my behavior this time is no different.   I am completely shameless and without creative resources for such situations.

Finally, the policeman concludes his conversation and turns to face me.  Dumbly, I thrust the documents forward.  Wordlessly, he takes them.  He leafs through the documents without reading.  If this is the point at which the decision is made as to whether I get a license or no, I have to say it is not an exhaustive examination.  It is quite possible he merely counted the pieces of paper and found them to tally with the prescribed number. I wonder if I had simply cut five pieces of paper from the telephone book and handed them to him. Again, not wasting any words, he points toward the cashier and hands back my documents – now stapled together.


I smile and nod and walk to the cashier’s wicket.  One hurdle crossed, I think. But one can never be too optimistic.  The system is skilled at leading one on, making one think the task has been accomplished, only to have someone, at the proverbial eleventh hour, announce that you have forgotten something and must return at another time.  I smile at the cashier.  He smiles in return and holds out his hand for the sheaf of documents.  

“Twenty dirhams, please.”

Now, in spite of myself, I smile broadly.  Not only was this man polite, he was letting me off without the usual government gouge.  Believe me, the UAE could teach North America something about user fees. But then, the UAE has no income taxes.

It is now his turn to point.  He points to a wicket set beneath a sign reading ‘Temporary Licenses’. Gingerly, I shuffle over, quite sure I am about to be accosted and told I missed a wicket.  But my fears are unfounded and I line up behind two Indian gentlemen.  The police seat at this wicket is unoccupied.  

We wait.  Policemen enter and sit at the wicket next to ours.  No one is seeking theirservices, we’re the only three people waiting at this side of the room.  Nonetheless, they are not there to serve us.  Our wait continues.

Suddenly, a large man dressed a dish-dash swishes into the chair and glowers at everyone in sight.  An older policeman approaches him and says something in Arabic.  An argument ensues.  Soon, three or four policemen are into it.  It could be about football, but I have no way of telling.   Voices rise. There is anger. Listening to the argument, conducted in Arabic, I cannot help but be impressed.  Most North Americans, arguing or not, cannot put a coherent sentence together.  Our points are made with sound bites and expletives.  These policemen sound like master debaters, the words rolling off their tongues in a rapid-fire, almost lyrical cadence. I want to cheer but, not knowing the issue being argued, am unable to choose sides. This does not prevent my imagination from seeing the situation get out of hand and three hapless license applicants thrown into jail for no other reason than being fence-sitters in an important argument.  We three look away, the only prudent thing we can think to do.

The argument persists unabated for almost ten minutes.  How, we think, can this man be expected to see to our driving license needs when he is almost apoplectic over something we know nothing about?  What is to become of us if we are somehow dragged into this imbroglio?  I resist a real temptation to run for my life. Would they shoot me down for needlessly interrupting the license application process?   We continue to look away, pretending we have other matters to capture our attention, which we don’t.

Finally, the older policeman, perhaps tired of baiting the man at our wicket, walks away.   Our man, glowering now worse than ever, turns to face the three of us.  We look at the ceiling.  Suppose he simply shoots us?  Would that make him feel better?  I plan, should the need arise, to offer up one or both of the Indians.  Perhaps they are doing likewise.  Rolling his head from side to side, as in disbelief, our wicket policeman (I thinkhe is a policeman –  his uniform, I conclude, is at the cleaners this day) finally turns his attention to us.  He points.  At me.  He waggles his finger to have me come forward.  I’d forgotten this about Dubai officialdom.  If ten Indians are lined up ahead of one white, the white will always be called first.  I make no excuses for this.   It’s just the way things are.   I hand him my papers.   He, like the first man, glances but casually at them and then places them into a tray.  He points to a chair.  I sit down.  He begins to mutter to the policemen beside him, eager, we suppose, to resume the argument without the aggravation of the old policeman.  His colleagues nod but do not otherwise respond.

I believe I am near to getting a license.  But it is not at all clear.  The documents in the tray have disappeared into back rooms and I am without any sort of guide.  For all I know, the whole file has been submitted to Interpol.   I wait.  Not as long as the Indians, but I wait.

After perhaps fifteen minutes, he growls at me. I know it is me he is growling at because he is pointing at me.  I approach.  He points to the tray. There sits my license. Gingerly, I pick it up.  I look at him and raise my eyebrows. Is this it?

At this point, I come near to giggling, so great is my relief..  Flashing the biggest smile this side of a toothpaste ad, he announces.  ‘You can go now.’  Were there ever sweeter-sounding words?  Did Shakespeare ever write anything so ear-pleasing?  I smile stupidly and stare at the license. Surely, I am not to be let off this easily?  They can’t have finished with me?

I was – and they were.  I walk out into the fresh desert air with a new appreciation for freedom. I now have my driver’s license.   My euphoria ends only when I am reminded I must return within three months to get a permanent license.  Bummer.  [2000]

Robert Alan Davidson

May, 2019

The Police – II

You will recall, please, that visit number one was to the police station for a temporary driver’s license. A permanent license had to wait for my residency visa to be processed.  

A week after my temporary license expired, I returned to the Police station to upgrade to a permanent license.  After the first exercise in dealing with officialdom, I thought this one would be easy. After all, they had everything on file except my residency visa.

To avoid the rush, I attended the police station as early as I could – 8:15 to be precise.  This was my first mistake.  I had forgotten it was Ramadan and Ramadan hours were being kept.  The licensing office would not open until 9:00.   Ahh well, it was a bright, warm morning and I joined a score or so of Indians sitting on a concrete wall.

At nine, I was ushered immediately to the same man who had processed my temporary license.  He was very pleasant and accommodating – to a point. Looking through my papers he enquired as to whether or not I had filled out an application form.  Indeed, I had not.  So much for smooth upgrades.  Did I bring a picture? No, I thought you already had one.   Did you get your sponsor to sign your application?  No, I thought my situation with my sponsor was clear to you and, of course, I had not filled out the application in the first place so my sponsor’s stamp and signature could not possible be there.  

“Aaaahhh, you will have to get the picture and fill out the application and get your sponsor to stamp and sign it.  Then everything will be okay.”  He hands my documents back to me.  I stare dumbly as if surprised the system had beaten me back so quickly. Should I not have expected this?

Finally, I smiled and returned home to plan my next approach.  I have 3 photos taken at a cost of fifteen dirhams.   I ask my wife, who is my sponsor, to also accompany me.  I fill out the form. Two days later, we return.

I approach the same man. Today, he smiles and greets me. I would ask that you now remember this as STOP ONE.  Reviewing the application, he asks, ‘Did you bring a photocopy of your Canadian driver’s license?’  

‘No, I didn’t know I had to – you have a copy on file.’

‘You must go next door and get a photocopy.  We must have it.’

I walk out of the driver’s license section and into the Vehicle Licensing section.  I approach the information desk. STOP TWO.  ‘Can you tell me where I can get this photocopied?’

‘Over there.’  He points.  I look.  It could be one of a dozen possible destinations.

‘There?’  I gesture stupidly in the same direction, hoping he will perhaps be a bit more specific.  

‘Over there.’  I frantically try to follow his point, but it is too quick, too brief.  I head for where I think he meant.  It is through a door marked ‘Insurance’, surely no guarantee it is the one I want.  It is an austere concrete room with a curved desk at one end.  I espy a photocopier.  I approach.  STOP THREE.

‘Can I get this photocopied, please?’

A grizzled veteran of the bureaucratic wars grabs the license and places it in the photocopier. Brandishing the copy and my license, he barks, ‘One dirham.’   I dig into my pockets.  My smallest piece of currency is a ten dirham note.  I offer it to him.

‘One dirham.  ONE dirham.’  he exclaims.

‘It’s the smallest I have.’

‘No change.  Go to cashier.  Get change.’  He places the license and copy out of reach.

There are three cashier wickets outside the Insurance office.  I wait in line and am served.STOP FOUR. ‘Can you change this?’ He looks at me as if I had asked him to share his wife.  

‘No, no.  No change.  Look.’  He opens his cash drawer.  Sure enough.  No change.  So far, a man who charges small amounts for his services does not have any change, nor does the man whose job it is to make change.  I walk back to the driver’s licensing section and approach my wife.  STOP FIVE.

‘Do you have one dirham? Yes, that’s right.  One dirham.  Do not ask.’

I return to the Insurance office.  STOP SIX. He scoops up the money and gives me my photocopy.   I return to my new friend in the temporary licensing section.  I have everything.  He reviews the documents once again and inputs a batch of data into his computer.  RECORD ONE.  He bundles it all together and tells me to go back to the processing (data entry) booths and start over again.  

We wait in this line (there are five lines) for a few minutes.  These booths are manned by uniformed policeman and, as I watch, I notice how skilled they are at glancing at documents and then waving the applicant away with a curt sentence or two.  Soon it is our turn.  STOP SEVEN.  

A policeman with two stripes, a Corporal, I assume, looks over the documents too.  Carefully.    ‘Where is your letter from the consulate verifying your driver’s license?’

‘You have it.  We brought it in when we obtained our temporary license.’

‘It is not here.’

‘Well, it has to be. You have the documents.  You have my file.’

‘You go back to that man and ask where it is.  I wait.’

We return to my old friend. STOP EIGHT. ‘We need the letter from the consulate.’

‘I gave it to you.’

‘No, you did not. Please, would you check.’

He rifles through a batch of papers on his desk.  ‘No I do not have it.  I gave it to you.’

‘No, I do not have it. You must have it.’

‘Oh, just a minute.’  He disappears into the back room.  We wait.  He reappears in a few minutes with my file.  The papers on his desk were evidently not me. He walks directly over to the Corporal and hands it to him.  Back we go to the Corporal.  STOP NINE.

He rearranges all the papers and puts a batch of information into the computer.  RECORD TWO.   He asks a few questions.  ‘Have I owned a car before in Dubai?  Have I lived before in Dubai?  Am I sure?  ‘No, there is no one else with a name the same as yours.  I only want to know.  Okay, take this to the cashier.  Aaahh, we think.  We’re making progress.

STOP TEN.  One hundred dirhams later and more information keyed into a computer – RECORD THREE– and I am sent, with my papers and my receipt to yet another desk.

STOP ELEVEN.  A new police officer takes the file and inputs a batch of data into the computer. RECORD FOUR.  He is finished quickly and sends me to the photographing section.  STOP TWELVE.  Why did I need the photograph that I brought with me? I do not know.  I wait in another line until a loudspeaker calls my name and bids me enter a room to have my picture taken.  Without ever seeing my photographer, I am instructed to sit in a chair.  My picture is taken and I am told to go outside and wait.

The receiving wicket is next door to the photographer so we sit there and wait for the license to be processed.  STOP THIRTEEN. After a short time, the gentleman behind this counter comes out to meet us directly. 

‘Do you have your passport?’ He asks my wife.  She replies in the affirmative.

‘We need a photocopy of it to attach to the file.  You are his sponsor.’  This is a new request and one we hadn’t planned on.  Hmm.  Another trip back to the Insurance office to get photocopies.  We make sure I am armed with 2 dirhams so he can photocopy both the passport and the work visa.  

Back to the insurance office.   STOP FOURTEEN.  This time there is a lineup.  The desk also sells license plates and whatever.  It takes ten minutes to get him to photocopy.  ‘Two Dirhams!’   Back to the Driver’s licensing section.  I give it to the man.  He looks over the papers carefully and then staples them to the rest.  He hands me my license.  We made it.

Fourteen stops in one building.  Four different data inputs.  For one driver’s license.  Just how badly did I want to be able to drive legally?  . [2001]

Robert Alan Davidson

May, 2019

Education and Culture

The clash of two cultures is no where more evident than in the post-secondary educational institutions.  In the UAE, the umbrella educational body, HCT, goes to considerable expense to attract and hire well-qualified instructors from industrialized, english-speaking parts of the world. 

The premise, one assumes, is to hire qualified people to a) improve the students’ ability to speak English  and, b)  bring a western economic and technological expertise to the classroom. This premise is reinforced in the course outlines and the instructions to teachers.  The recently-arrived teacher, armed with this information, enters the classroom fully expecting to deliver to his students a better understanding of and ability to practice those two objectives.

But the theory does not translate readily into practice.  On the contrary, the premise or theory crashes hard on the rocks of Arab culture.   In fact, it could be argued, the theory doesn’t work at all.

What the teacher encounters in the classroom is a student whose educational background has equipped him with one predominant talent – the ability to memorize.   For too many, it is their onlyskill.  It is not that they are stupid.  Quite the contrary.  Nor is it that they are lazy.  Some of them may but certainly in a percentage not unlike that found in any country.  But they find it difficult to think for themselves, to reason.  They have been given no skills with which to do this.  They prefer to memorize and to feed back exactly what they have been told.  If you explain something and are confident it is understood and then come back with a question that deals with the subject from a slightly different perspective, most students will flounder.  Making a thinking adjustment to find the correct answer is not in their repertoire.    Some teachers claim this is not entirely true, that the student can exercise discretionary judgement when called upon.   But most teachers claim it is an ongoing struggle to uncover this ability. 

The majority of students do not like to be left on their own to solve a problem.  They want to be guided through it.   If a teacher persists in his methods to the point of eventually creating an unhappy student, matters can become tragic.  

In a worst case scenario (and one that has been repeated in fact many times in recent years), the students rebel and complain to department heads that they are being unfairly treated, that the class is too hard.  If the situation is allowed to fester and the students take their complaints to well-connected families, the complaints will eventually find their way back to the school’s governing body.  In the UAE, power arises from wealth and proximity to the ruling sheikhs without whose approval nothing happens in the country.  This is no meritocracy.  The arabs have a term for ‘influence’ or ‘pull’ and it is wusta.  If a student’s family has wusta with the sheikh, his complaints had better be heeded.  School officials are now faced with an awkward situation in which the educational premises butts heads with the cultural reality.  And cultural reality will win.

Sadly, teachers finding themselves in this situation are likely to be summarily fired and given a one-way ticket back to their homeland.  There is no fuss or any ripple in the teaching ranks.  It’s just the way it is. 

No one is right or wrong in this assessment. It simply is.   It is a world of teaching while walking a tight-rope.  The teacher pretends to be imparting western values and the students pretend to be hearing them.

This clash of cultures in the classroom is an ongoing struggle composed of a great many elements.  The sheer lure of western economic values is a siren’s song heard loud and clear in the emirates.  The zeal to acquire and display material wealth is powerful. So, too, is the influence of a religion that forms an integral part of daily life.  As well, the western teacher is reminded that the shift from a nomadic, fishing culture to a industrialized nation has taken place in something less than thirty years.  The clash between the new and the traditional is vivid and inescapable. The responsibility for guiding the nation through these uncharted waters falls to a ruling Sheikhdom and their ambivalence is perhaps understandable.  How does a country move into the same economic stratosphere as Europe and North America without losing its identity?   It is a situation that calls for a healthy dose of  wisdom and, as has been seen in other countries, is a situation that too often defaults into avarice.  One sympathizes with the Emirates ruling elite.  And, in the classroom, we keep our heads down. [2002]

Is It Really That Bad?

America, if, in fact, it was ever any different, is officially now a land of vultures.   Virtually everything a human being can do to live his life today is subject to cons, snow jobs, theft, dishonesty, misrepresentation, fraud, and deceit.   And our new executive branch just made it worse.   

The race to steal your money has become so rampant, we’ve almost conceded its victory –  a fact of life in the second decade of the 21stcentury. Consider this:

  1.  Your cable/phone/internet provider is gouging you royally.
  2.  Your utility companies are doing likewise.
  3.  Your insurance company will, if you need them, forget they ever knew you.
  4.  Your bank, you know, the one that treasures you as a personal friend, lies in the     small print, and will sic the dogs on you if you’re in trouble.
  5.  The last politician you could trust was  . . . um, . . . . well . . . . moving on now  . . 
  6.  Your car dealer hides behind a mountain of gobbledy-gook, jargon, and option overload and is superbly skilled at convincing you to pay more than you should.
  7.  Your doctor and dentist will happily introduce you to the concept of astronomical fees.
  8.  Taking a sick car to a mechanic is akin to walking the plank – you’re doomed.
  9.  If you have a pet, a visit to the vet is more costly than a new BMW.
  10.  Your grocer sells you stuff he knows should not be on the shelves and is crassly dishonest (and dangerous) when it comes to anything from the meat department.
  11.  Your accountant MAY be the only one you can trust and, for the lucky, your lawyer, although the law profession lives in a world of deliberate obfuscation designed to make the average person think only a lawyer can solve a problem that, in all likelihood, only required common sense and a modicum of good will.
  12.  Any call for help to a plumber, electrician, or handy man, is an invitation to severe financial setback, all without being sure a) what they did and b) what was really needed. If you’re a senior living in a retirement community, there’s a neon light over your house identifying you as someone who can REALLY be taken to the cleaners.
  13.   Airlines say (and surely do) they want your business and then conduct their affairs with you as if you were a wad of pond scum.
  14.  Your post-secondary school fleeced you but good for something that will never pay off unless you undertook a liberal arts degree and then the pay off is personal (Which, come to think of it, should be its purpose anyway, unless it’s a trade school). 
  15.   Your computer supplier will afford you a brief window of free service; then it’s back to the money treadmill to deal with problems that weren’t problems during the inaugural freebie.
  16.  Your government (at all levels) is convinced you are a moron and wants you to shut up and keep paying your taxes. They may be the only thing keeping the Barbarians from our gates, but sometimes the distinction is confusing.
  17.   Advertisers, emboldened by decades of endlessly gullible consumers, now practice their dark art as if no lie is too monstrous to peddle.   Their bullshit is so pervasive, the ratio of content to advertising has gone from 80%-20% to 60-40 and getting worse every year.

And now we have the most duplicitous and ignorant person walking the face of the earth as President.    His first job?  Appoint a whole bunch of cronies whose claim to infamy has been a zealous pursuit of ill-gotten gains. His second task?  Officially proclaim lying as an “Alternate Truth”.  The circle is complete.  As if there weren’t enough crooks to worry about.

Let’s sum up what has likely happened to so many Americans in the past few years.   They’ve gone from having a decently-paid job with a tolerable pension and medical coverage to a contract position with no pension and no medical coverage. They’re now paid by the hour and the hours are dictated weekly and fluctuate wildly.   They still have title to a house but probably won’t qualify for a mortgage when renewal time arrives.  And heaven help them if interest rates climb. Their car is 6 years old and looks it. They hope that should one of their kids break a leg they can still get enough from the sale of the car to pay the doctor/hospital bill and prevent another caveat being put on the house. Half the neighborhood is unemployed or underemployed. Maintenance on the houses and yards dwindles.   Property crimes escalate and the city seems more reluctant every week to do anything to justify the property tax bill.  They can no longer afford to send their kids to even community college much less university and the lure to dump them into the armed forces just to give them some kind of chance is growing.  If they’re black or latino, the civics lesson they give their kids bears no resemblance whatsoever to the one given by white parents.  They still like to meet friends for a beer on Friday but the PC police frown on it and the neighborhood barkeep is considering converting to a money mart.

But, hey, it’s 2019 and Trump DID say he was going to look out for the little guy. Yeah, I know it – when pigs fly. Besides, you never thought of yourself as a “little guy”.  You were as gung-ho as the next American and the dream was within your reach.  So shit happens, as they say.  No sense crying about it. Maybe tomorrow a lottery win will change things.  Sure.   In the meantime, you’ve have to stay alert, on the watch for all those people and institutions committed to separating you from what wealth you do still have.   Feel free to buy a helmet, some ear plugs, and a thesaurus to brush up on all the synonyms for “Thief”,  “Liar”, and “Bully”.  We’re all in this together so if we’re gonna be angry, let’s make sure we direct it at the proper target.

Trump wants an “alternate truth”?   Everything described in this essay IS an alternate truth to him, to his family, to his cabinet, to Congress, and to the bully boys who buy them off.

Maybe the 2020 elections will ease the pain.

Robert Alan Davidson

A Walk Into History

[Sharjah is the Emirate next door to Dubai. The year was 2002)

The Gulf lay off to the northwest, a scattering of high cloud above.  The sun would set in about an hour.  Unimpeded by the clouds, the sun drained the color from all I could see as I looked toward the Gulf.  Like photographic negatives, indistinct outlines were all that separated the land from the sea.  Everything appeared white-hot, seconds from being removed from a smith’s forge.  A flock of pigeons whirled nearby, lending some perspective to the blanched characterless scene.   As the sun moved lower, a minaret slowly took shape and the two-story villas began to recover their color and depth and shade.

On my walk from our flat in Sharjah, I passed through a run-down commercial strip and into a residential area of older villas, some of which had chicken and goat pens outside their six or seven-foot walls. The villas were laid out in a rectangular grid and were separated from each other by ill-defined sandy alleyways and streets.  Each villa identified itself with an elaborate gate of carved or inlaid design. 

Leaving the villas behind, I walked next to a small bay, separated from the Gulf by a narrow inlet with rock sea walls on both sides.  The bay and inlet also separated Sharjah from Dubai.   It was an excellent harbor but at present only provided anchorage for a few small fishing boats and two aging motor launches.  On the beach lay the carcasses of two fishing dhows.                                        

I turned right and headed toward the Gulf.  Separating me from the Gulf were the tumbled-down remains of an abandoned fishing village.  Now, under the glaring sun and removed from the traffic, the only noise came from my shoes sifting through the sand.  Suddenly, I was taken back to a long-ago time when the rhythm of life was dictated by the catching and processing of fish.  Sifting through the rubble of the old houses, I felt like an intruder.  Inside the walls of one house were the blackened branches of a long-dead tree. I imagined it being part of a green and pleasing courtyard, providing a fisherman and his family with welcome shade.

The deserted village also boasted a citadel of sorts.  What was its purpose?  Circular in shape, it stood perhaps twenty-five tall with lookout windows at the very top.  Inside, it was empty with not even a flight of stairs or a ladder leading to the lookout.   Perhaps, this was an early warning system against invaders.  Hard to imagine it helped with fishing. 

What it did suggest was the vitality at one time of this gathering of dilapidated homes, a place worth defending.    Why was it abandoned?  It was certainly a more scenic spot compared to much of Sharjah.  Had some sheikh ordered everyone away?  The sadness I felt was similar to that felt back in Alberta when passing through an abandoned farm site, the smell of failure always lingering in the air.  Was trying to eke out of living from 160 acres of semi-fertile land any different from trying to wrest a living from the sea after centuries of fishermen had been drawing on its bounty?

I continued my walk on the beach, which stretched for roughly a kilometer.  Since leaving the commercial street, I had not encountered any signs of life beyond the pigeons..   Sadly, the beach was littered with garbage.     

Suddenly, the sound of a motor drowned out the gently lapping waves.  I turned just in time to see a young Arab man roar past me on a motor bike, his dishdash flying in the wind.   Interrupting my reverie of long-ago times, his presence was slightly incongruous with the ancient clothing and modern travel device. I was jolted back into the 21st century.  A small taste of cultural shock. The sun was sinking, turning an angry vivid orange-red as if resenting being sent over the horizon. It was time to return home.

Robert Alan Davidson, 2002