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Monday, June 20, 2011


June is not the optimal time to visit the United Arab Emirates, a desert nation between Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. It's hot. Very hot. Face-melting hot. And yet we had a really good time on what was probably the most "touristy" trip we took during our year in the Middle East. We stayed in the Emirate of Sharjah (comprised of small, tribal emirates led by Islamic leaders, UAE's only been a nation since the 1970s), at a place my student Majdoline recommended. Since the heat meant we could really only spend six-seven hours a day out exploring, we were able to swim in the gulf each day. So our hotel's location right on the beach was perfect. Swimming in the Persian Gulf in June is like being in an enormous hot tub. The water was that hot.

Most days we took the shuttle to the neighboring, more famous Emirate of Dubai, one of the wealthiest spots on the whole globe. Seriously, there are ATM machines that dispense gold bars. Emiratis have so much oil money that they import foreign workers to do most labor (hard or otherwise). Dubai is the center of that opulence and attracts visitors from all over the world to see the spectacle. I ate malls but I have to admit the world's largest one--complete with an aquarium, hockey rink, and many other over-the-top amenities--was sort of cool. Dubai is a place with stores selling burkas next to stores selling the most risque lingerie. Also, a place with the world's tallest building, the Burj al Khalifa, where we went to the observation desk on the 124th floor (nowhere near the top!), whose heights creeped me out quite a bit. We met up with my student Majdoline, whose family treated us to a night on the town, including dinner in the shadow of the Burj al Khalifa, watching the extravagant water fountain show, set to the music of Michael Jackson of course. It was a pleasure getting to know the family. We walked around the old souks for as long as the heat allowed and rode on the abras--the little commuter boats that zip up and down the Dubai "creek."

I actually enjoyed the other Emirates more than Dubai. We spent one day in Al Ain ("the spring"), which is inland and is technically part of the Abu Dhabi Emirate, though it's right on the border with Oman. Al Ain attempts to preserve some of the pre-oil history of the land so we hit several museums that commemorate patriarchs like Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, "founder" of UAE (first president when the nation was founded a generation or so ago). Al Ain also has an absolutely amazing oasis of thousands of date palms. Right there in the middle of the hottest imaginable desert. Highlight of Al Ain, though, was the camel market. Livestock traders bring camels, as well as goats and sheep and small birds, from all over the gulf to sell. It's out in the middle of a parking lot and hard to find, but I'm happy we were able to visit. The camels are pretty majestic, not to mention expensive. The ones sold for meat are cheap, but the racing camels go as high as $10 million. So you have these expensive animals next to cheap goats that people buy to eat. Strange juxtaposition.

Sharjah itself was nice as well. We took the shuttle from our hotel to the city center and visited the art gallery and the Islamic Heritage Museum, the latter is a little visited gem where you can find things like grand kiswahs, the silk and gold coverings of the Kab'a in Mecca. And the "blue souk" in Sharjah has remarkably cheap stuff. Hart to believe it's only a few kilometers from the over-the-top expenses of Dubai. At the Sharjah souks I bought shoes and a dishdasha and Nicole found several really nice scarves. A fun and unusual trip, one we certainly would never have done had we not been in the region.

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