Friday, March 16, 2007

Dubai- where Disneyland meets the Desert

Amid the swirling sands sweeping across the Gulf, I arrived to the United Arab Emirates. I found a kingdom of black gold shining above the golden desert. Awash in petrodollars, the Emirates is an oasis of avarice and opulence. Like Israel, the Emirates have also "made the desert bloom." Palmyra lines the roads, and there are lush green areas to picnic and play, under the ever-expanding skylines. Meanwhile, it is a cultural mosaic with people from all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia, coming to shop, work and live out their champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

Dubai was unlike any city I have ever visited. It is a strange Middle Eastern combination of Miami glitz and Las Vegas surrealness; Disneyworld meets the desert. While I was in Dubai, I visited the Mall of the Emirates, a posh shopping mall where you can actually go skiing on a mountain of snow. Yes, you can ski in the middle of the desert. With its lavish stores, the Mall of the Emirates could make Rodeo Drive blush. Walking through the mall, I was as surprised by the shoppers as the stores they were patronizing.

Although many women were in veils and abbayas (cloaks), I started to pay attention to what is beneath them. When I stopped focusing on the black, I started noticing all the sequins that adorn the veils and abbayas. Veils with colorful patterns that sparkled, and even ones with fox-fur lining.

I noticed the mascara shading the eyes peeking out from behind the slits. I saw the fancy watches and jewels that adorned the wrists of these guardians of modesty. All the fancy high-heels and painted toes that treaded just below the black crape. Designer sunglasses sitting on top of veils, and designer hand bags that lay tucked under the arms. I even passed by a lingerie store, and saw these black veiled ladies shopping for lace and silk. Perhaps we have been focusing too long on the veils to notice the fashionistas hiding just beneath. There were teen girls with tons of makeup on their faces, wearing designer jeans and shoes, covered just slightly by veils that were more like cloaks than anything else. They were climbing the artificial rock-wall in the Mall's arcade area, and screaming from the heights of the indoor roller coasters.
Meanwhile, the super chic sheikhs treaded around in their impeccable white dishdashas (robe dress-shirts), with designer high-end sunglasses just below their keffiyahs and headdresses. Wires of the latest mobile phones wrapped out of their robes, or sat in wrapped around their fingers like prayer beads; a far different kind of call to prayer.

While I was in Sharjah, King Abdullah of Jordan was in Washington, DC, speaking to Congress and the White House about the Saudi Peace Plan. I decided to gauge people's feelings to this peace plan and the idea that if peace was agreed upon, Israelis could flock to the Emirates' multitude of shopping malls. I first spoke with a Bahraini man named Muhammad, who was staying at my hostel and visiting his daughter studying in Sharjah. His feelings were that with the resolution of the Palestinian question as outlined under the Saudi plan, he would have no issue or problem with Bahrain or any of the Arab states having ties with Israel. He stated, "Palestine is a symbol to the Arabs, and without coming to an agreement for a Palestinian state, it is not possible to move forward. But if the Palestinians have their own state, I have no issue with Israel."

A few days later, I was in Abu Dhabi, at the ritzy Marina Mall. I was sitting in Starbucks, sipping a cup of coffee next to a traditionally-dressed Arab man named Abdulrahman from Abu Dhabi. I spoke to him about the Saudi plan, and his views were diametrically opposed to my previous interview. He stated that it was not possible for peace between Israel and the Arabs. "The Saudi plan will fail like all the other plans before it because the Jews in Israel will never agree to a real peace. They will never allow a fully independent, viable Palestinian state with full sovereignty. There will never be a true peace," he commented. He said even if there was an agreement on the Saudi plan, which he didn't think possible, and even with normalization of relations between the Emirates and Israel, he didn't want Israelis coming to shop the mall we were now sitting in.

He went on to lecture me about the nature of the Jews, and "informed" me that the Jews of Europe were really descended from Gypsies. The look on his face was priceless when he then asked my religion, and I replied that I was Jewish. With that said, he went on to state that he wasn't an anti-Semite because he too was a Semite and that Jews but not Israelis were welcome in the Gulf, and shouldn't feel uneasy. Gee, thanks for the welcome.

When I was back in Dubai, I spoke with my fellow residents of the youth hostel. Speaking with a Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Palestinian, I discussed the Saudi plan with this veritable "Arab League." The general consensus of the group was that the Saudi plan is a way forward for all sides. While no one had any affinity for Israel whatsoever, no one had any qualms about their own respective countries having ties with Israel if the Palestinian question was resolved. No one was championing the destruction of Israel, or the Palestinian "right-of-return," but all felt strongly that peace and normalization with Israel centered on a Palestinian state.

As an American Jew in the Emirates, I really felt no problems. Granted it helps I speak some Arabic owing to studying in Morocco and learning the language in college. People were shocked first that an American spoke some Arabic, and doubly shocked when they asked my religion and I replied "ana Yehudi." Sadly, I can't say it would have been as easy if I was an Israeli. But with all my discussions with various people about the Saudi plan, and what the region would look like in its wake, over time things could possibly be different. I'm sure the naysayers, who "know the Arabs," will deride this piece as sheer naiveté, but how well can you really know the Arabs if you have never seen them skiing or shopping with reckless abandon.

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