June 9-10, 2012: Dubai, UAE, Amman, Jordan, and Tel Aviv, Israel

Erev tov m’Tel Aviv! Good evening from Tel Aviv! I’ve been here in Israel for about five hours (but actually for closer to seven and half hours – more on that in a little bit). It’s just about midnight and I’m finally getting a chance to settle down after a long day of travel from Dubai to Tel Aviv. Since today was entirely a travel day, I don’t have a ton to report on, but I still owe you a report on my day yesterday, June 9, 2012, in Dubai!

It was an early morning for us on June 9, 2012 because we had a 9:30 AM meeting at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Old Dubai. Jake and I dragged ourselves out of bed at around 7:50 AM to make it downstairs for breakfast (Dillon chose to sleep in a bit – he definitely had the right idea), and after shoveling breakfast down our throats with Shareen, we still had about 15 minutes to spare before meeting up with everyone in the lobby at 8:50 AM. We left at around 9:00 AM for the Cultural Center and arrived about twenty minutes later to a small house in a cute little traditional neighborhood that looked pretty out of place next to the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline behind it. But still, it was pretty cool to see a small pocket of traditional Emirati culture in the midst of developing Dubai.

We headed into the house to meet our tour guide for the first part of the morning around Old Dubai, which is also called the Bastikia. While there are a little over 52 houses in Old Dubai remaining, only one of the original families from the area remains. Today, the government in Dubai protects the original homes and restored them after people left. The homes are now being used as museums, restaurants, hotels, and galleries in an effort to enliven the area and preserve it. The entire neighborhood is made of two types of homes: one kind made entirely of stone, and the other (called “Barasti houses”) are made entirely of palm fronds. The neighborhood presents an interesting contrast to the heavy modernization of nearby downtown Dubai and provides a look into simpler life in the area where alleyways served as wind tunnels to create cool air and shade, windows were small and high to let in wind and maintain privacy, and courtyards were build inside house to allow natural light to enter. It’s a really great experience and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re ever in Dubai. It’s nice to see another side of the city.

After our tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Mosque at the Centre for a discussion with Nasif Kayed, the General Manager of the program. I guess I should back up a little first and explain what the Centre does. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is an organization that “strive[s] to bring different cultures closer together promoting mutual understanding and acceptance.” Their motto is “Open doors. Open minds.” The Centre provides presentations on Islam and helps to facilitate cultural discovery and tolerance in Dubai. They also provide services to new foreign nationals in the country, such as Arabic classes and other assimilation seminars. Check them out online at www.cultures.ae.

Anyway, we had a really interesting discussion with Nasif at the Mosque, who stressed the importance of piety and maintaining a commitment to religion in Islam. A lot of what he told us about Islam and its central messages, practices, and traditions we had already heard at the many other mosques we have visited, but our talk with Nasif was about to come markedly different. Somehow, we ended up on the issue of LGBT rights and Islam’s view on the LGBT community. Let me begin this by saying that the views reflected by Nasif in no way shape or form reflect the views of the entire global Muslim community, and to imply that they do would be wrong and immoral. However, the conversation that all of us had on this subject was definitely interesting.

I read a book entitled Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker for Professor Sharkey’s class first semester. The book provides an analysis of the treatment of and views on the LGBT community throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In the process of reading the book, I got so angry at several points that I ended up chucking the book across the room and venting about my anger during our next class period. As a bit of a loud-mouthed liberal (who still can maintain social boundaries and respect others’ views), I was excited when this conversation came up in the mosque, as it was totally unexpected. However, I found myself getting progressively frustrated more than anything else throughout the talk. I kind of felt like in talking about the LGBT community, we were kind of avoiding the entire topic at hand. Let me explain.

In Islam, public display of affection of any kind is not allowed, be it between a man and a woman, two men, or two men. Personal preference, desire, and affection are personal, meaning they concern only you and your partner and thus should be kept private. Alright, I understand that. Normally my response would be: okay, so it’s not that the LGBT community is being put down while other heterosexual couples can flaunt their relationships in front of everyone else – this is, rather, an issue of privacy and all partners, regardless of their sexual orientation, keeping their thoughts and affections private. However, the entire conversation ended up turning on itself with small comments thrown in there that suggested that in some Muslim communities, the LGBT community, regardless of the fact that nobody can publicly display affection, is not necessarily supported even if they are keeping relations private. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered was discussed as if it were a “choice” that a person could make, and I almost got the impression that some in the Muslim world think that maybe an LGBT person could just choose to not be gay, as if it were only phase or a small moment in time, but that eventually they would find their way back to heterosexuality. Now, none of this was explicitly said in that manner. Rather, comments like “If someone chooses to be gay…” and “Nobody will bother you about your choice…” somehow crept into conversation. The talk ended with Nasif saying something along the lines of: “If God has a problem with the LGBT community, then why has nothing been done to them yet? Why has God not struck them with lightening if God has the power to take and give life?” I understood the sentiment (which kind of reminded me of the concept of b’tzelem elohim in Judaism, which says that everybody is made in God’s image, often used, including by me, as a Jewish textual support for the LGBT community), but still the whole conversation left me with this weird feeling.

Of course, this is an issue that does not only effect Islam. It’s in every religion, including Judaism and Christianity. It’s certainly a prevalent topic right now in the United States, with states fighting about LGBT rights and same-sex marriage constantly, and throughout the world. I just found it interesting that here I am, a Jewish guy from New York in the middle of Dubai, UAE, having a discussion with a man who runs a Centre for Cultural Understanding in a Mosque. Just take a moment to take that all in it. It’s kind of a powerful thought. But I couldn’t have been more glad that Nasif and all of us were able to have this discussion. Although I felt the issue was circumvented rather than address completely, it was still addressed, which is always a step in the right direction. We should be having discussion and not be afraid to speak up for what we believe in. For me, it ended up being speaking up for LGBT rights in a mosque in Dubai. But hey, how many people can say that something like that happened to them too? All good life experiences.

After the Mosque, we went back to the Cultural Centre’s main house for a lovely homemade Arabic lunch with lots of chicken, lamb, rice, chickpeas, and, of course, coffee and dates. Everything was delicious, and we got to continue our talk with Nasif for a little longer over lunch. This time we changed gears from Islam to the United Arab Emirates and got to ask some of our questions about the relationship between Islam and the developing UAE and the role that the Emirati vs. foreign national population dynamic plays in the country.

According to Nasif, everything in the UAE is currently changing with the expansion of wealth, trade, and industry. Everything happened so quickly (keep in mind, the country was founded only in 1971, and before that Dubai and Abu Dhabi were nothing like they are today – image desert and small villages where great modern cities now stand) and now people are trying to reconcile their lives with the new, modern country they live in. When I asked how the material wealth in the UAE has affected people’s practice of Islam in the country, Nasif shared that he felt that it is a struggle to reconcile the two, but that the youth are definitely starting to create a new culture that merges both, which I found to be rather refreshing. Nasif also spoke about “Emiratization,” a term that Gian used as well to talk about giving advantage to Emiratis in society and helping them to get more jobs (and more important and prevalent ones at that) and become a larger part of the community. Nasif felt that it was an obligation within the country to push Emirati employment so that Emiratis could grow with their country rather than shrink in size as a minority while the country continues to expand. I definitely understand the Emirati need to keep up with their developing country; after all, if they want to keep the city and the country distinctly Emirati, then they need to be an important part of its economics and development. It was just interesting to hear Nasif, an Emirati, talk about this so openly because one could draw parallels between Emiratization and “affirmative action” in the United States, which is pretty highly contested and controversial. But this almost seemed like a no-brainer to Nasif, and I get why. He’s a proud Emirati, and like Gian said, Emiratis are some of the proudest people around when it comes to their heritage and background.

After our lunch, we left the Centre and headed out for Dubai Souk. Again, being in the Souk was a completely different experience from being out in the city center of Dubai because rather than being surrounded by the huge skyscrapers and commerce that you see downtown, in the Souks, you see small shops trying to sell you every little trinket imaginable. It wasn’t, however, like the Muttrah Souk in Muscat, Oman that we visited, with small alleyways with little booths selling the wares. Rather, it felt more like busy main streets crowded with small storefronts that were run not by local Emiratis but rather by local foreign nationals. At one point, Shereen even commented, “Wow, I feel more like I’m in India right now than Dubai.” She was right; it was a little strange to see a Souk, which you normally connect with local craftsman and merchants, run and managed by people who were not local. The boys and girls split from each other so that the girls could go handbag shopping or something like that, and Jake, Dillon, and I went around looking for small souvenirs and “keffiyeh and egal” sets (the red and white patterned headscarves with the black rings around the head that many Arab men wear). Our shopping efforts, however, were unsuccessful, in part because we didn’t see anything we liked, and in part because we were so overwhelmed by the number of times men kept coming up to us on the street saying, “Do you want copy watches? I have Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer…” We heard that sentence so many times, at one point I almost turned to a guy who asked me “Do you want copy watches?” and responded “Do you have Rolex, Omega, and Tag Heuer like everyone else?!” But I refrained and just kept enjoying being in the Souk. We went back to the bus at around 2:30 PM to drive over to the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa for the rest of the afternoon, and by the time I got back to my bus, I literally had soaked through the button-down I was wearing with sweat from my backpack and the crazy heat. Luckily I had a huge bottle of water and I dried off quickly in the AC.

We drove over to the Dubai Mall and got caught in a little bit of the Dubai city center traffic on the way there. We had a 4:00 PM reservation to go to the “At the Top” Burj Khalifa observation deck, so by the time we had actually figured out where to park at the mall, we only had about 40 minutes to actually get into the mall and look around before heading to the Burj. It took us nearly the whole time to figure out how to get into the mall (which is colossal), and once we were inside, we were so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stores and different directions you could go and things you could buy that we decided to head straight for the entrance to the “At the Top” Burj Khalifa experience. We walked around the waiting area for a little, which featured a bunch of interactive screens with all the fun facts and information about the building, as well as a huge Lego recreation of it (so cool!). Then, at 4:00 PM, we started heading up to the observation deck.

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world as well as the tallest structure and the tallest free-standing structure. For more information on the Burj, check out www.burjkhalifa.ae. We jumped into the elevator and zoomed up the 124 floors to the observation deck (which was not even close to the top of the entire building) much closer than I imagined, and suddenly the doors opened up on huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking all of Dubai and revolving doors out to the exterior observation deck. It was much cooler way up in the clouds than it was on the ground once we were out on the deck, and it was a gorgeous day! Although it was a bit hazy, which made it difficulty to see things really far into the distance, we were able to see Dubai in all its glory as well as the desert stretching out in every direction from the building and the Dubai waterfront. It was absolutely stunning. And of course, I got some great pictures up there! There was even the famed Gold ATM at the top of the building, which was pretty cool, too. The Burj was really fantastic and I’m glad I got the chance to experience it (considering the fact that, despite that I am a born and bred New Yorker, I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building). I think its a wonderful symbol of the transformation of Dubai into a city of great wealth and commerce from nothing in the desert, and you can literally see the progression of desert to bustling city all from the top of the building.

After the Burj, we had about an hour and half two wander around the mall, and so again we broke into two groups – the girls and the guys. Jake, Dillon, and I barely had enough time to cover about half of the ground in the mall, and that’s without going into very many stores at all. We started in the Arabian Court first, because we still wanted to get the “keffiyeh and egal” sets that I talked about earlier, and luckily we found a nice souvenir shop that sold the Emirati version for pretty cheap (only about 54 dirhams, which is a little more than $10). Dillon got a really nice one, though, from a store next door that was the Arabic equivalent to Men’s Warehouse. It was actually pretty cool. After we did some souvenir and gift shopping, we tried to see as much of the mall as we could. We wandered around for the next hour or so, taking in all the high-end shops (seriously, every brand name and label you could ever image in your wildest dreams is in the Dubai Mall), drooling at the Sega Arcade, food courts, and gelato stands throughout, and seeing the many landmarks within the mall, including the world-record winning fish tank at the Dubai Aquarium, the Grand and Star Atriums, the Waterfall, and the famed Dubai Fountain. Everything was amazing. The sheer amount of wealth that went into this project can’t even be described fully – you just need to see it for yourself (so I captured it in a bunch of pictures). It’s truly unreal. In order to really shop the mall, you need at least a full 10-hour day, possibly a golf cart, and an unlimited supply of cash. You could go crazy in that mall. Their ad campaign is literally “Dubai Mall: Everything you could ever desire.” And it’s true! The Dubai Mall has everything. It could be one of the Wonders of the World. It’s that impressive. And also another great symbol of the influence of foreign nationals and wealth in Dubai; almost all of the stores represented were foreign brands, and the wealth is evident in every hallway and crevice of that mall.

After I grabbed some original tart and black currant frozen yogurt with strawberries, raspberries, and chocolate crunches (not a surprise at all) for 30 dirhams (okay, maybe I overpaid a little, but it was quite possible the best frozen yogurt I’ve ever had), we met up with the rest of the group and started heading back out to the bus (which took 15 more minutes) and then back to the hotel. Once we got there, we were all exhausted from a long day of walking around Old Dubai, the Souks, the Burj, and the Mall. We had the night on our own anyway because Aaron and Mark had to catch up on some work, so Jake, Dillon, and I decided to stay in and order some delicious room service and just relax and do nothing for our last night in Dubai. It was the best decision ever. We sat and watched CSI and Criminal Minds while pigging out on two pasta dishes that Jake and I shared that were delicious (Penne Arrabbiata and Farfalle with Grilled Vegetables and Pesto), a bunch of appetizers, and some chocolate cake and tiramisu. A perfectly indulgent end to our visit to the Emirates. It was so nice to have nothing to do but just sit around and lounge a little, just talking about our lives and laughing and watching ridiculous crime-scene television dramas. We had a really fun evening just doing nothing, and we even got to bed a little earlier than we usually do!

All in time to wake up for our rather uneventful (at least at first) day of travel this morning. I packed all of my bags last night so that in the morning we could wake up at around 9:00 AM, be down at breakfast by 9:30, and be ready to leave the hotel at 10:00 AM. After we ate and checked out (oh, by the way, did I mention how fantastic the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Dubai Creek is? They had everything I love from fresh eggs to toast and Nutella to turkey bacon and pancakes. Yum.), we jumped on our huge coach bus that we’d be traveling around for the past couple of days (for only the eight of us – how’s that for over-consumption) and headed for the Dubai International Airport. We flew threw check-in and security and even had some time to kill in the terminal before our gate opened for 1:00 PM flight from Dubai to Amman. Jake and I looked around some of the duty-free gift shops and the food court a little before going to board the plane at noon and make sure that Royal Jordanian had our frequent flyer information (don’t want to miss out on any miles! And RJ is a oneworld airline, so that means American Airlines miles!). The flight from Dubai to Amman was a little over three hours long and pretty uneventful. I listened to music, slept a little, and then ended up watching “The Vow” with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum because the woman in front of me was watching it and it was bugging me that I was basically watching the whole thing without any sound.

Anyway, we got to Amman, Jordan early, meaning we should have had more time than we originally expect for our 4:15 PM connecting flight to Tel Aviv (in case you’re keeping track of time, Amman is an hour behind Dubai). However, the RJ Transfers desk in the terminal was ridiculously inefficient, and we stood in line from around 3:00 PM until around 3:30 without moving anywhere basically when Mark heralded us to the front of the line. The entire RJ staff, it seemed, was now frantically trying to get us all ticketed in time and to the gate, because the flight was leaving in 45 minutes, meaning the gate would close in 30, and we still needed to get through security. We were pumping through everybody’s passports and tickets pretty quickly at this point until we realized that Jake was booked on a different flight much later that day from Amman into Tel Aviv. After a brief moment of panic (read: Jake was totally fine but Mark looked like he was about to punch someone in the face), they got Jake re-ticketed and quickly hustled over through security and down to our gate to get on the shuttle to our plane. We hopped on the shuttle with time to spare and hopped on the small airplane that would take us on the 25-minute flight from Amman to Tel Aviv.

I pretty much slept through the entire flight to Tel Aviv, because I fell asleep right as we were taking off and woke up about five minutes before our final descent. We waited on the runway at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for about five minutes because another plane was at our gate, and finally we disembarked and started heading toward passport control and baggage claim.

The second we landed in Israel, I was immediately happy to be there and see all the Hebrew around me and be back in a country to which I feel a very deep connection. As a Reform Jew from New York, I truly do feel that Israel is a second homeland of sorts for me. Albeit, a very contested and imperfect homeland with frustrating realities, but still, a homeland. My Hebrew kicked in immediately and I felt an immense need to read everything that I saw and say hello to every Israeli I encountered. As we started walking toward passport control, I started to get a little anxious about the group: two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and our two guides. What if some of us got separated and questioned? Will they let us all through without problem because we were a group? Mark asked me if I would get in line right before Sundus, who is an Egyptian Muslim (but an American citizen, too), and see if I could emphasize that we were all together. Mark got at the head of the line so that he could explain to the passport agent that we were all together on a study tour, hoping that the introduction and explanation might help alleviate any challenges that passport control in Israel might normally present.

Mark got through almost immediately. Jake was next up in line, and it was only a matter of seconds after he said “Shalom” to the woman behind the counter that he had is stamped passport in his hand ready to go. Then I went up, said a friendly “Shalom” to the passport agent as well, and within maybe ten seconds she had looked through my passport, found the page with the existing stamp from my NFTY in Israel trip, and stamped a new Ben Gurion International Airport entry visa in right next to it. So all three of the Jewish guys made it through in a total of about three minutes, I believed. That’s also about where it stopped being so easy, though. Sundus was next and got flagged for further passport control questioning despite Mark’s attempt to explain that she was a student and that it was unnecessary. Talene and Dillon, the two Christians, didn’t have much trouble at all and joined me and Jake as we waited for the rest of the group for baggage claim. Shereen, the other Muslim of Pakistani descent, was also flagged for further questioning, and next thing we knew, Mark was taking the two of them, with a passport and immigration officer, over to the mysterious questioning area while the other four of us and Aaron were charged with the task of finding and gathering everyone’s luggage and waiting for them to be cleared.

Well we waited. And waited. And waited. And I got hungry and bought myself some Bisli from the vending machine (I really do think that Bisli tastes better in Israel, although the machine was out of pizza flavor – my favorite!). And Talene bought some Bamba. And we just kept waiting. One hour. Two hours. We had landed at 4:45 PM and it was now around 7:15 PM. Where were they?!

Finally, Mark, Shereen, and Sundus cleared through immigration to baggage and joined us. Mark seemed annoyed and frustrated, and Shereen and Sundus just seemed tired. We gave them their luggage and asked what had happened, what kinds of things they were asked, etc. None of us really wanted to push it because at this point they were so tired and it’s pretty much a huge downer way to start a trip to Israel (nothing says “Welcome!” like interrogation at border control), but they told us that basically after waiting for a pretty long time, there were just asked a whole series of questions about their families and their lives and what they were doing in Israel. As appreciative as I am that Israeli security is so thorough and strict, this entire situation made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. As a Jew and supporter of Israel, to see two very harmless friends of mine so tired and subjected to profiling was disheartening and not my idea of showing them my homeland. They are students with a study tour with no reason to be flagged except their names, both of which are of Arabic descent. I understand Israeli security policy, I really do. And I get that this is for all of our safety and the safety of Israel and her people. But the two plus hours that Sundus and Shereen went through to prove that they were students with a study tour was completely unnecessary. Their cases deserved fifteen minutes at most, not two hours. It definitely presented a rough start to our time here.

We left the airport and drove to Tel Aviv to check into our hotel, Hotel Gilgal. It’s only a few blocks from the beach and the Mediterranean Sea, which you can see from right outside my window! We drove into Tel Aviv from a rather weird angle, I think, because we came through a pretty gross neighborhood before pulling into the beautiful waterfront neighborhood that we’re in now. But as we were driving, the sun was setting over Tel Aviv and it was absolutely beautiful. Everything from the past two hours seemed to kind of drift away in the Israel sunset (poetic, I know). It was beautiful.

Once we were all checked in at the hotel, we started walking over to the beach for dinner at one of the restaurants along the boardwalk of sorts on the beach. I suddenly realized that I knew where I was and recognized a restaurant that I had been to in 2007 with my cousins who live in Israel and my family, a cute place called Cafe Metzada with delicious food that’s right on the boardwalk. I mentioned to the group that I actually had been here before and it was delicious (from what I could remember of it, anyway), and after ruling out another restaurant that Mark had been to recently, we decided to stay at Metzada for dinner! We all shared some salads to start and I had an absolutely delicious shakshuka, a kind of castiron pan filled with cooked tomatoes, poached eggs, basil, and feta cheese. Look it up on line, it’s absolutely one of the most fantastic dishes ever.

Over dinner, we chatted a little bit about our itinerary over the next couple of days and who we’d be meeting with tomorrow in particular. We reviewed a little bit of our Israeli geopolitical history and talked about Israel, Palestine, Hamas, Fatah, the PLO, etc. and how they all interact. Mark shared some stories about his mother, who lives in Israel, and her experience with all of the many parties involved, and of course provided us with he wisdom and guidance on the entire issue (and that’s no joke – Mark is always available for us to give any information we ever could want). Mark also apologized to Sundus and Shereen profusely for what had happened at immigration and explained that while they were being questioned, he threw a bit of a fit with the agents, explaining that the girls were student-scholars with the program that he was leading and going through the entire itinerary with them. Eventually, Mark threw enough of a fit and was able to prove that the girls were not a danger to anybody at all, and so they let them out of two more rounds of questioning, which probably would have taken another two hours. Mark could not have been more apologetic and expressed the very sentiments that I was feeling this afternoon. But he also explained the need for security here and how important these checks have been for maintaining security and safety within the country, proving us with a little context to the whole situation. But still, Mark was horrified that this happened to two American students and expressed how upset he was with everything and how embarassed, angry, and frustrated the experience made him. I was, and in many ways still am, feeling very similar.

But the conversation at dinner was light-hearted, we were all laughing and smiling again per usual, and I even got to practice some Hebrew with the wait staff at the restaurant! We came back from the hotel and all went to our rooms to get ready for our first day of meetings tomorrow in Israel! We’re meeting with some really amazing people in Herzliya, a town just north of Tel Aviv, but exactly who you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out! I am so excited to be back in Israel, albeit just for a little white, but I can’t wait to speak Hebrew, eat great food, and show everyone a country that I really do love. But for now, it’s bed time. Laila tov!

Safe Travels! – Jake

P.S. And, of course, a very, very HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my best friend, Sam. I wish I could have been with you today to celebrate! Even halfway around the world, I’m thinking of you today! Love you to the Middle East and back again.

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