Postcards from a family holiday get-away to half-way around the world.
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As Arab — and thus Muslim — countries go, the UAE is not extremely conservative; it is perceived as relatively “open” and tolerant. But while we saw a fair number of Arab men (as distinct from those from the Indian subcontinent) in Western garb, Arab women who did not have at least a head scarf were utterly absent. At least a third of the Arab women we saw wore full burqas, something that our children strangely never seemed to notice.
From the “21st century meets 9th century” files: As I was watching my son go down the Sheraton’s kids pool waterslide several dozen times, I noticed two young women in burqas — the only visible bits of skin were hands, toes, and a one-inch high rectangle across the eyes — sitting on chaises next to the pool. I guessed them to be in their late teens or early 20s as they sat there playing with their smart phones.
Then, as an Indian pool attendant walked by, they called him over and each had him take her picture with their phones, two utterly unidentifiable shapes clad in all black, looking for all the world exactly like each other and like thousands of other women we had seen in the city. But apparently still worth a photograph to show, or at least claim, that they had been to the pool at the Sheraton.
It is perhaps a Western conceit to think that these women must be at least somewhat unhappy, stripped of public identity and individuality. Yet these two colorless and functionally identical creatures seemed mostly to be behaving like any other iPhone- and social media–addicted girls. Not only do I not know whether they will ever taste a more complete freedom or something akin to equality, I don’t know whether they hope to.
As we watched CNN and the BBC one evening, we heard the devastating news from Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children, mostly 6 or 7 years old, were executed by a madman who should have suffered a fate much worse than death. As parents of a daughter who is also in first grade and whose seventh birthday was the next day, the news hit us, and especially my wife, very hard; Kristen has been in tears several times in the days since, expressing the horror and anger that are being felt, particularly by parents, around the world.
We have not spoken to our children of what happened in Newtown, and we don’t plan to. While we want to inculcate safe behaviors in our son and daughter, childhood should not be unnecessarily laden with fears of madmen and murder. The burden of worry is mine as a parent, and a good parent does not share that burden with his young children.
Although our overwhelming jet lag caused us to miss most of the few highly recommended sites in Abu Dhabi, including the third-largest mosque in the world (the largest outside of Mecca and Medina), we did have one memorable Middle East adventure: a whirlwind three-hour “desert safari” including hair-raising and slightly nauseating high-speed driving on and over sand dunes in a Toyota Land Cruiser, with plunges down steep sides and precarious balancing along infirm shifting ridgelines.
The “safari” also included a camel ride, which turned out to be two people at a time getting into the saddle of a kneeling camel that then stood up and was led around for less than a minute by a bored-looking Arab. Disappointingly short but it made for a few good photographs. There were a couple of snowboards leaning on a fence, so I grabbed one and trudged about 30 feet up a sand dune — much further effort-wise than it sounds, with every step ending by sliding down half of the distance just covered — only to find that I couldn’t get going for more than a few feet, or a few miles per hour, on the snowboard before coming to a halt even on the steep sandy slope. Again, disappointing but an amusing photo op.
We celebrated our daughter’s seventh birthday that evening at a restaurant at the hotel — which is not to say a hotel restaurant, as it was independently owned by a Lebanese man who was renting the space from the hotel. He is a Catholic who left Lebanon about a year ago. When I asked him if he thought, as I do, that all Christians will leave Lebanon, he responded “That seems to be the plan for the whole Middle East, does it not?”
The food was passable, but not great, which was probably to be expected at a place named the al-Mayass restaurant. Two items of particular note: One, a main course called assafir, which sounds as if it should be an unpleasant smelling layer of air above the troposphere, consisted of a small clay pot in which, in a bittersweet pomegranate sauce, were sautéing six tiny, headless, disemboweled bird carcasses, each not much bigger than the first section of an adult’s thumb, to be eaten in one crunchy bite. I have to say it was not particularly delicious, with a slightly liver-like taste whereas I was hoping for something more like quail, but at least it was expensive.
Upon further research, the bird is probably a kind of bunting, called an ortolan, or another small song bird which mostly feeds on figs, and is thus called, in French, bec figue. You may learn from my mistake and not order this for yourself should the opportunity arise.
Much better was my daughter’s Lebanese/Armenian birthday cake which looked like a pile of white hair but was in fact extra yummy, with the “hair” being some very sweet stuff — precisely what I still cannot say — covering semi-sweet cream in between two crunchy sheets of pastry, on top of all of which we poured some clear sugar syrup. Needless to say, with two young kids, that plate was all but licked clean, after one of the most memorable birthday “cakes” of all time.
As the owner of al-Mayass pays quite a high rent (perhaps inspiring the restaurant’s name) the food was overpriced in a town where good food can be found, outside of hotels at least, for less than I’m used to paying at home. But although I am not Christian, I was happy to spend a few extra dirhams to help a displaced Christian who is working to be a success in the Muslim world. I wished him well in his business as I departed.
Sifting through news online that night, as my jet lagged son played a game on my iPad at 2 AM, I was disappointed to read that the President of Gun Owners of America, a group I was and may still be a member of, had talked about gun control supporters and advocates of “gun-free zones” as having the blood of children on their hands.
His underlying point may have a grain, or many grains, of truth, but I found his comments, or more precisely how soon they followed the massacre of children, to be reprehensibly insensitive. I say this as someone who believes strongly in the Second Amendment, who grew up shooting, who has a fair number of pistols, rifles, and shotguns, and who understands that various anti-gun politicians and groups wasted no time in blaming guns rather than mental disease for the killer’s infamous actions.
A few hours after sunrise, staring out over the Indian Ocean just south of the town of Hikkaduwa near the southwestern most point of Sri Lanka, I watch my children run joyfully through the shallow foamy water of just-broken waves. And I am reminded both of the unquenchable pain engulfing Newtown, Connecticut, as well as my tremendous good fortune in the challenging blessing that is parenthood.
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