Thursday, December 29, 2011

Holidays in the UAE

Many people asked, and as it approached I wondered: are our holidays celebrated in the Middle East? Now I can tell you at least what it was like, at least from our view this year.

With some imagination, this looks like Christmas
The first weekend I was here, Mark and I went to Ace Hardware where I saw Christmas cards and decorations for sale right next to the Halloween merchandise, which didn’t surprise me much. I already knew that a large percentage of the population here are foreigners. So I began to wonder not whether non-Muslim holidays are celebrated, but rather if or how are American and European holidays blended into the culture? My impression, based at this point on very limited contact with Emiratis, is that Muslim and Christian holidays are celebrated and mutually respected but I don’t yet know if Muslims join in celebrations with Christian friends.
Yet there is no shortage of Christmas-like decorations because UAE National Day is December 2nd. It’s a good time of year for the holiday because it’s cool enough for people to be outside parading and celebrating. And the flags, with their predominant red, green, and white, could look to us like Christmas decorations. The colored lights, tinsel, and other decorations set the scene for the expats to enjoy as their holiday season advances.

Deb had the blues for friends and family,
so she asked Santa for lots of Skype calls

Professionals in the expat community, who are mostly from England and Europe, have money to spend on Christmas. The hotels, malls and branded stores market to holiday shoppers in exactly the same way we see in the US: holiday music, bargains and sales, special menus and events, lavish decorations, Christmas trees, tinsel garlands, gingerbread houses, and visits from Santa. Here, it’s just a more British feeling Christmas. Emiratis don’t make Christmas Day a holiday, but the Brits observe Christmas and then follow up with Boxing Day.

Christmas is for kids

This year for the first time all schools in Abu Dhabi are following the same calendar, so families with children attending different schools can spend holidays together. Schools are on a term break from December 15th to January 8th.
Is this what you would call a Christmas ham?

One place you might notice that you’re not at home is in the grocery stores or hypermarkets. While they have the usual decorations for sale, what’s missing at Thanksgiving are the piles of fresh and frozen monster turkeys and cases of stuffing mix, canned pumpkin, and cranberry sauce.

At Christmas, you will never see a holiday ham unless you go to Spinney’s, which is the original grocer to the British expat population here. There, you must venture to the back of the store and find your way into the Pork Room. Yes. I said “Pork Room.” That’s the only place where you can buy bacon, pork sausage, pork loin and chops. And the puniest holiday ham I have ever seen, although it tastes delicious.

Thanksgiving in the desert,
For our Thanksgiving dinner, we joined a group of our neighbors for a potluck. I decided to make two kinds of stuffing, a traditional sage one with mushrooms and celery, and a recipe I found on the Sunset website (still tied to the West!) that contained Italian sausage. Even though I knew Italian sausage is made with pork, I figured I could find something close. When I got to the store, it wasn’t that easy. There was English or Irish mustard sausage, which didn’t seem right. Lamb sausage, but I knew that Deb didn’t eat lamb so I avoided that. There was Brazilian beef mustard sausage. And camel sausage! I almost got it just to try, but decided to wait for another time. Finally I chose a package labeled “longarissa.” After I got home I googled it and found out that it’s a Portuguese sausage similar to Mexican chorizo. Close enough!
This tree might be real.
Where did they get it?

There are two other things you will never see here that for Americans no holiday season could be without: Halloween pumpkin patches and Christmas tree lots. There are no carved jack-o-lanterns on porches on Halloween, and I didn’t see anybody dressed in costume, although I have to admit that the abayas and shelyas . . . well, never mind.

And nobody has a real Christmas tree.

Anniversary in Oman
Pool area at the Sifawy Boutique Hotel
Mark and I celebrate our wedding anniversary on Christmas Eve; this year was our twelfth. We looked online for hotels and decided to go to the Sifawy Hotel on the Gulf of Oman outside of Muscat, the capital and largest city.

This trip took us through the UAE-Oman border crossing, so maybe it’s a good time for a brief update on the “Rigmarole” story. Bear with me; it’s almost over. You may remember that at the last writing Deb and I were medicating ourselves after being told that our certificated marriage licenses had to receive a stamp that could only be obtained from the UAE Embassy in Washington, D.C. We prepared to send them via UPS, and I called the embassy and was told that we could send them together, along with a prepaid return envelope and check for 60AED. But the check must be a bank draft, no personal checks.

The problem is you can’t get a bank draft without a UAE bank account, which we didn’t have yet. Money exchange places wouldn’t give us a money order for US dollars. In order to open a UAE bank account, you need to verify that you are a resident and earn a certain level of income. Dana was the closest to having all these ducks in a row, so he went to the bank to begin the process. It took several days because by the time he had the paperwork for the account completed it was after 2 p.m. so it was too late to make a deposit. Sorry, but you can’t get a bank draft because you have no money in your account. Even if I give you cash? Sorry, no. Come back another time. Of course, since he was working it was hard to get there by 2 p.m.
Finally something went better
than we expected
When we finally got the certificates sent off it was mid-December, and Mark and I were making our Oman plans. We were surprised when the return package arrived within a week! Then, the question: submit my papers for the resident visa before Christmas, and hope I get my passport back in time to go to Oman? Or wait?
We decided to risk it, but we postponed our trip for one day, leaving on Friday morning instead of Thursday night which worked out better anyway because we didn’t want to drive after dark. We got it back in time. Yet for some inexplicable reason, Deb’s passport came back with the resident stamp while mine came with a pink paper and instructions from Mubarak, the public relations officer, to be sure to get a stamp when crossing back into the UAE from Oman.
Bloody stamps!
When we entered Oman, the entry fee for Mark, as a UAE resident, was 5 Omani Rial (OMR) or $12.50 US and for me, still a tourist because I didn’t have the stamp in my passport, the fee was 20 OMR or $50 US. The Omani – US exchange rate is similar to the UAE – USA ratio, except in reverse.
The happy news is that it looks as though, finally, Deb and I will have our resident status. So we can start working on our driver’s licenses and Emirates ID cards. Goody.

Al Hajar peaks
Into Oman

By this time Mark and I were ready for a change of pace and scene, and in Oman we got just that. After our expensive but successful border crossing we drove through the rugged, rocky Al Hajar mountains, which reminded us of the barren volcanic rocks that we see in Nevada and California.
We arrived on the coast at Sohar, an ancient port that supported a population of 360,000 in the tenth century when majan, which is Arabic for seafaring people, transported copper, fruit, ivory, and other products from the region to India and the Far East. It is believed that Sindbad the sailor in Arabian Nights was inspired by majan from Sohar, although I have seen that claim made for Muscat, too. Today, Sohar's population is 90,000.
Modern blends with traditional in fishing villages
Oman is clean, but trash washes from the sea onto the beaches.
No matter where you are, don't litter!
From Sohar we drove southwest along the coastal Batinah region, with a little guidebook that we had picked up on our previous trek over the border. For most of the drive the road was a four-lane divided highway occasionally interrupted by a large roundabout with a huge monument in it, yet we still got the flavor of the region’s many fishing villages, forts and castles, and wadis, or valleys. I think of the wadis more as ravines, washes, or arroyos, since they are rocky drainages from the mountains above. The runoff from the mountains contains minerals that enrich the soil, and we saw many date palm and banana plantations as we drove. I usually look for produce from Oman when I’m shopping.

This roundabout in Muscat with the Turkish coffee pot 
symbolizes the legendary hospitalty of Arab peoples
Arriving in Muscat, we knew we were in a large city, but absent were the glittering glass towers that we’ve gotten used to in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Instead we drove through the modern Mutrah Business District to the Mutra Suq area where the rocks form a natural harbor. Mark and I commented to each other on the absence of dirt and litter, and we later found out that Muscat is known as one of the world's cleanest cities.

It doesn't get much prettier than this
We walked along the charming corniche, but found the souks closed. It is taking us far too long to remember that shops are usually closed from 1 to 4 p.m. daily. By the way, you may (or may not) notice that sometimes my spelling is inconsistent. I’m a good speller – I don’t even spellcheck – but here in the Middle East we see variations on spelling constantly and so I will give in before I go crazy. Shayla or sheyla? Then yesterday I saw a store sign that said “”Abayas and Sheilas.” Yikes. So it’s souk, souq, or suq. Jebel or jabal. Al or As? Whatever.

The mountain road was dangerous but beautiful
This no doubt saved a life
The villages were full of goats, kids, and children
Leaving Muscat we drove over a challenging mountain road, through some fascinating little fishing villages, to our hotel. The area is known as Jebel Sifa and the Sifawy Boutique Hotel is part of the first phase of a brand new luxury development with Oman’s first inland marina and, in the future, several five-star hotels . We knew that the hotel had only been open since September, and were prepared for a quiet stay, which is exactly what we got. I must admit to having mixed feelings about the amount of development going on in remote places like this, but the fact is that it provides employment and it gives us the opportunity to go there. Plus, I think that the tourism industry in the developing world has the benefit of learning from what has been done in the past, and is protective of the environment. I hope.

I posted a review of the hotel on Travel Advisor but as of this writing it isn't up yet, so I can provide the link.
The docks at Sifa Marina are built to accommodate large yachts
My pashmina was a cozy wrap while relaxing with an i-book 
The fish were jumping like crazy in the mornings

A Muscat Christmas
Since we missed the shopping window on the way into town, and we hadn’t seen many sights, we decided to take another trip into Muscat on Christmas Eve. Instead of driving back over the mountain road to get there, we took the 45-minute water taxi ride. It felt great to be on a boat, even if it was a powerboat. The hotel booked the water taxi and the concierge also arranged to have a taxi driver friend of his meet us at the marina.
The one and only short Mohammed
wearing the typical Omani hat

“What’s his name?” Mark asked, “so we know which one he is?” Mohammed. “Well. That narrows it down . . .” When we got to the marina there was only one taxi, but Mark still said, “So . . . you must be the short Mohammed!” Nice one, Mark.

The crossed swords are on the flag of Oman
Mohammed was a local, so he knew where to take us. First we went into Old Muscat, which is studded with forts dating back to the days when the Omanis fought off Portuguese invaders. We were impressed with the Al Alam Palace, which stands at the end of a long pedestrian walkway. Old Muscat is chock full of museums, which I would like to visit if we come back and have more time.
Mohammed took us up the old road for this superb view of Old Muscat

Me: "You're going to drink
that whole garlic shake?"
Him: "It was goood."
We got into the Mutrah Suq area about noon, and Mark wanted to stop for lunch, so we went to a place called Cornish CafĂ©. They don’t serve British food though – it’s named after the corniche. Mark ordered a garlic yogurt shake. Keep in mind, this was our anniversary.

Mustra Suq was closed. Again.
Maybe we finally learned?
By the time we finished lunch and headed to the souk, it was 1:00 p.m. Guess what? Closed until 4:00 p.m. which was the time we needed to catch the water taxi back to Al Sifa. Never mind, we walked around and went to the Ghalyas Modern Museum, and pretty soon it was time to find Mohammed so he could drive us back to the marina.

Soccer fields are built on the sandy beaches
Mark and I spend a lot of our time on the water, and I need to see a place from that point of view to get the full picture of it. While we were zooming home I marveled at the stratified rocks – you can really see that this former seafloor has been uplifted and bent. The children in the fishing villages were playing in soccer fields that were built right on the beaches. This rugged coastline reminded me of the northern California coast, except that the water is much warmer and calmer!
We thought we could go through this arch until we saw the rock in the middle

We finally made it to the suq on Christmas morning. A cruise ship had arrived in town, the first one I have seen since I arrived in the UAE. What a difference, being around so many tourists. Mark was in the buying mood, but this gold jewelry wasn’t for me. We did see a lot of Arab women bargaining in the shops; the gold jewelry is traditionally worn during their Eid holidays.

On Christmas Day the cruise ship was in, the souk was open
We made the six hour trip home to Abu Dhabi in time to have a delicious “holiday ham” dinner with Deb and Dana. Their computers were “skyping” off the hook, so I guess Deb got her wish from Santa.
We spent Christmas in the land of gold, frankincense, and myhrr

No comments: