For a recent feature for Gulf Life, the in-flight magazine for Gulf Air, I chatted with some of Dubai’s advertising executives. Some were part of the migration 30 years ago from Beirut – then the region’s ad hub – and were the founding fathers of the industry here today. Back then there was only one TV station, in Kuwait, and they communicated with clients via telex. And I’ll let Mr. Raad tell you about the Saudi commercial and the porn star.
How I spent my summer vacation, part 2: The first time I went to St. Petersburg in 2003, it was with friends from Dallas on the occasion of the city’s 300th birthday. We timed it so we’d be there during the summer solstice so we could really experience the northern hemisphere’s “white nights.”
We lived like vampires. With no sundown to denote the start of the end of day, we simply carried on, fueled by sunlight and vodka, until 5 a.m. when we emerged from the disco near our rented apartment squinting at the milky, pinkish sky. The one day we allocated for official sight-seeing, it rained. And Russian summer is akin to winter in Texas. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
This time, we were luckier. It was still cold but we had sunshine. And I was traveling with my parents and uncle and aunt, so the conscious hours were during the day. We had a tour guide who could explain to us what we were looking at at the Hermitage. (Multi-lingual signs are still a rarity in Russia.)
Russia’s czars ruled their empire from St. Petersburg and the city reeks in royal opulence, which reminded my family of the maharaja palaces in India. Though the communists loathed the czars and all that the White Russians stood for, it is surprising that they didn’t raze these buildings, opting instead to keep them as museums. Our guide simply explained, “Well, Lenin was a learned man.”
My story on Roya Mahboob, a young woman entrepreneur in Afghanistan in Newsweek/Daily Beast. Not only is she trying to build a business in a fragile economic environment but she also has to battle cultural and religious norms that don’t support women who seek a place outside of the home.
A 25-year-old female entrepreneur working to help the next generation is also a model for it. Angela Shah reports.
The 25-year-old is at once exhilarated and shy. A woman is not supposed to attract so much attention. Just minutes earlier, a male colleague offered her a word to the wise as he gently pulled down her head scarf to cover her throat and shoulders, exposed from the scoop-necked top she wore, saying: “There are conservative men inside.”
On this day in late May, the girls at Baghnazargah High School were getting computers and Internet access for the first time. Mahboob’s IT company, Afghan Citadel Services, or ACS, installed the technology lab as part of a project to help wire schools in Herat, and Mahboob offered welcome remarks as a panel of bearded men dressed in traditional salwar kameez, elders in this community, along with school officials, sipped tea behind her.
Baghnazargah is located in a poor section of Herat and many of the female students come from conservative families. While boys can move freely, and so attend computer tutorials outside of school, girls are only allowed to leave home to attend school. And those girls are, in a sense, the lucky ones: most girls don’t even attend high school. Like most 16-year-olds, Augiza longs to surf the Web, but she doesn’t have an email address. “This is the only way for me to learn the computer,” she says. “It gives me [a] connection to everywhere in the world.”
For students like Augiza, Mahboob is a revelation. Here is a woman less than a decade older than they are who runs her own company and flies in from Kabul on her own for ribbon-cutting ceremonies like the one on this day. She, they can see, has a position of power. Once the men have left and the formal festivities are concluded, the girls congregate around Mahboob in packs of threes and fours asking to take pictures with her.
“You have to show everybody that men and women are equal,” Mahboob says. “Women can do something if you allow them. Give them opportunity and they can prove themselves.”
In a country where the Taliban had outlawed telephones, Afghanistan has quickly wired itself in the last decade. The number of Internet users in the country has grown from 300,000 in 2006 to 1 million two years ago, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“Only 20 percent of Afghanistan is electrified; it’s only 20 percent literate,” says Paul Brinkley, the former deputy undersecretary of defense. “But 60 percent have a cellphone. What does this tell you about the Afghan people? They’re starving for information. You need that more to stabilize this country than all the security things you could do.”
Brinkley, a Silicon Valley veteran before joining the government, founded the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan in 2010, to link the department’s military operations with economic development. That program led to the Herat Information Technology Program, which started in May 2011 with an inaugural class of seven Afghan entrepreneurs, including Mahboob. The program’s goal is to show the potential of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw troops and treasure by the end of 2014: that, with a little bit of help from the international community, talented and determined Afghans are succeeding despite an enduring insurgency, a frequently inefficient and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy, and a weak domestic economy.
“Roya represents what the majority of Afghanistan wants,” he says. “To stand on their own two feet, to build their own lives.”
Mahboob founded ACS two years ago along with two Herat University classmates with an investment of $20,000, partly through savings from their jobs lecturing at the university and with funds from Mahboob’s family. She owns 45 percent of ACS, with the remaining shares divided among the two former Herat University classmates and her brother and sister.
In an industrial-park compound behind high walls topped with concertina wire, the entrepreneurs set up offices in free office spaces with Internet provided by the program and attended seminars on “Business 101″: how to create a business plan to attract investors, how to respond to RFPs, and how to price their services.
A year after the incubator’s launch, some entrepreneurs are still struggling to establish a commercial foothold. But others, like Mahboob, have thrived. Crucially, ACS is making the transition away from sourcing business solely through contracts offered by ISAF and international groups and toward Afghan governments, hospitals, and schools. Currently, the company has projects underway or completed worth $500,000. In the last year, Mahboob has hired three additional software programmers and aggressively sought contracts for projects worth millions.
“What matters is that those Afghan businesses are doing better than before,” says Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat who founded the nongovernmental organization Building Markets, which recently changed its name from the Peace Dividend Trust. “That is your sustainability.”
A NATO promotional video last year featuring Mahboob attracted the attention of Francesco Rulli, a New York businessman. The Italian-born Rulli is sort of a Renaissance man entrepreneur—one of his businesses is a men’s clothing line in partnership with actor John Malkovich—and he says he was attracted by Mahboob’s spunk.
So far, he and his brother have invested nearly $120,000 to build eight computer labs in Herat schools like the one at Baghnazargah High School. “I sent the first $15,000 and within a week, ACS had built up the first classroom,” he says.
“I have an opportunity to do the right thing,” he explains. “I appreciate the fact that this is a woman with the opportunity to do something meaningful.”
Rulli runs Film Annex, a Web-based video-content farm that allows individuals to create Web TV channels; Rulli profits by capturing and selling user data. He says the site has 30 million page views a day. He and Mahboob recently expanded their partnership to install computer labs in other Central Asian countries, and to develop e-learning and testing platforms for use in those schools. Mahboob’s university classmate and co-investor Fereshteh Forough plans to move to New York by the end of the year to open an office there.
“Let’s give the kids the Internet and let them choose what they want their future to be,” Rulli says. “I have three kids. I know ‘Angry Birds’ is a stronger weapon against the Taliban than anything else.”
Late one spring evening as Mahboob and I enjoyed the breeze at Takht-e-Safar, the mountain-side park that overlooks Herat, she told me: “You know, in Afghanistan, we women are not supposed to go out, run the business, but I don’t agree with this.” The park is a popular retreat for Heratis, but past sundown, it is mainly the refuge of men clumped together on car hoods or blankets. Hidden by the darkness and foliage, Mahboob and I could allow our head scarves to loosen.
“If we can’t prove to 100 people that women have ability and skills, we can prove it to at least 10 people,” she says. “That’s enough.”
Mahboob tells me that she first discovered the Web in high school in 2003, when she saw her cousin in Iran use Yahoo messenger. Her lack of knowledge shamed her. She immediately saw how isolated she had been among Iran’s Afghan refugees and how the Web could connect her not only to Afghanistan but to the rest of the world. So, when her family moved to Herat just across the Iranian border later that year, she enrolled in Information and communications technology courses offered for women by the United Nations Development Programme.
Recognizing technology’s power to connect her to the rest of the world, she pursued a computer sciences degree at Herat University. After graduation she stayed on as a junior faculty member in the university’s computer lab. There she first got a taste of her biggest obstacle in business: she’s a woman.
Slender, 5-feet tall and partial to fashionable tunics, skinny jeans, and heels, curly bangs escape from her headscarf onto her forehead. “When I started working at university, all people were thinking that I am a typist,” she says. “I created websites, databases for them, but they never even mention our names. They mentioned my deputy when he was a man.”
Even today, when responding to contract bids at ministries in Kabul, Mahboob says bureaucrats often openly disbelieve that she is the CEO of her own company. She has recently pitched the Ministry of Public Health for services on an IT contract. “She is a woman,” Mahboob says of the minister. “I hope she will listen.”
Such paternal condescension is fairly common, and Mahboob has learned to navigate around the soft discrimination. But the opposition is also, frequently, more sinister.
One afternoon in late May, Mahboob picks up her ringing cellphone. Without saying anything—she makes a slight face—she pushes the button to hang up the line.
Physical threats from anonymous male callers come almost daily. While her own father and brother support her efforts at ACS, many in the conservative community of Herat do not. “They call and call and call, saying ‘I will pay you, too,’ as if I am doing bad things to get business,” she says.
For many conservative men, Mahboob’s having business meetings with unrelated men on her own—a basic of doing business–is akin to prostituting herself: the business men can only be paying her for one thing, and that is sex.
Ahkhtar Mohammed Mahboob says he, too, receives phone calls asking why he doesn’t force his daughter to abandon her business. “It has been difficult for us, for our family,” he says after breakfast at the Herat home he shares with his wife; his daughters, Roya and Elha; and his son, Ali.
“Maybe they will hurt Roya but I can’t change myself or my daughter,” he says, quietly. “This is her time. We cannot stop progress.”
Mahboob used to switch among an assortment of SIM cards to deflect her harassers, but is now resigned to the taunting and threats. For the last eight months, she’s kept the same cellphone number.
“What can I do?” Mahboob asks. “I have to keep working for my company, for my country. We have to stay focused on helping girls.”
Angela Shah is a journalist based in Dubai whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TIME and The Dallas Morning News.
Not even a month ago, L.R.O. messaged me about a friend who was looking for someone to cat-sit for them … in Paris. Since I went out on my own two years ago, I’ve thought about working remotely, getting out of the heat of the sandbox summer. And, now, I had an opportunity to do so. M.L. said he “smelled a scam. But a glorious one.” I have to say, he’s right.
My charge is glorious, a Maine Coon cat named Mimi. A French kitty with American roots! Her home is a tiny place in the 8th arrondisement, near Etoiles. Back in college and shortly thereafter, when I was trying to figure out a way to get a job in Paris so I could live here, this was exactly the sort of place I’d imagined I would live in. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve spent any time longer than a layover here so I’m loving becoming reacquainted with my first urban love.
Each day, I write and edit beside a tall, Haussmannian-style window, open to let in the cool breeze. After years in the sandbox, it is so nice to be able to keep the windows open day and night. As the beautiful morning light fades into evening, J.B. and I ponder our dinner options. (You didn’t think the traveling stagiare would not take advantage of my stay in Paris, did you?)
Yes, many places are closed this month, the traditional time when Parisians go on holiday. Fermé hangs on the door of many big culinary names here. But there are plenty of places open and I’m looking forward to exploring ethnic Paris and her offerings. And away from the most touristic areas – though I will no doubt go there, too – Paris’ streets are fairly empty, giving you the impression that the city is only for you.
My latest story in The New York Times about an escalation this week in arrests of Emiratis who are calling for more political freedoms and free speech rights. U.A.E. state security authorities say the men are a threat to the country’s stability.
Detentions of activists are reported in U.A.E.
By ANGELA SHAH
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Mohamed al-Roken drove toward his local police station here to report that his son and son-in-law were missing. Along the way, he found himself surrounded by plainclothes security officers and detained, according to his family.
Mr. Roken, along with his son, Rashid, and son-in-law, Abdulla al-Hajeri, are 3 of at least 14 Emiratis who have been arrested since Monday morning by the United Arab Emirates state security apparatus, human rights advocates and family members said. Nearly two dozen activists are now being held by the authorities.
The arrests are part of a widening crackdown on U.A.E. citizens, some of them Islamists but also academics and stateless people known as bidoon.
“This may be a way to frighten opposition on all sides,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf issues at Durham University in England.
This week’s crackdown comes days before the expected start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and highlights an increasingly public conflict in the Emirates.
Unlike many Arab countries, the Emirates have emerged largely unscathed from the unrest that has spread across the region from the Arab Spring that began 18 months ago.
But a debate on free speech and political freedom among Emiratis has emerged, as the leaders here try to maintain a balance between the more conservative character of their neighbors and a desire to preserve their status as a Western-style business hub.
While the trend among natives is still to keep quiet and enjoy the comfortable life provided by the rulers, a small group of activists is agitating for greater political participation — and drawing the attention of the authorities.
Bushra al-Roken, Mohamed al-Roken’s daughter, said the family received a phone call from her father at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
“We couldn’t understand that much,” she said, “but we could hear voices and my father saying, ‘They’re taking me.”’
On Sunday, the state media issued a statement saying the authorities were investigating “a group of people who established and ran an organization which aims to commit crimes against the security and constitution of the country.” Members of this group have “connections with foreign organizations and agendas,” the statement added.
Mr. Roken, a lawyer, was defending several Emiratis who had been arrested on charges of threatening state security. Many of those arrested are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization.
Many of these activists say they would like to see Islam play a more prominent role in everyday life in the Emirates, and they have also called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.
The authorities regard Al Islah as a homegrown proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that they see as gaining influence in the region — especially after the recent election of a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as Egypt’s president.
The families of those detained are scrambling to find them. Asma al-Siddiq said her husband, Omran al-Redhwan, was arrested Monday morning at the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Sharjah, where he works as a legal consultant. Ms. Siddiq said she had not heard from the authorities about the reason for her husband’s arrest or where he was being held.
“I am looking at social media sites, Twitter to try to find information,” she said.
The arrests followed the deportation to Thailand on Monday morning of Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a resident of Ajman, the smallest of the emirates, who was one of the original activists arrested and tried last year.
The men, who were convicted in November of threatening state security and insulting the country’s leaders, were sentenced to three years in prison before being pardoned days after the verdict.
Mr. Khaleq was born in the Emirates, but he is a bidoon, or stateless Arab.
Estimates of the number of bidoon range from 10,000 to 100,000, human-rights advocates say. They belong to families with ties to other parts of the Gulf or Iran, or that failed to obtain citizenship when the United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971. They say they are cut out of the Emirates’ generous social welfare system and complain of discrimination in jobs.
Last month, Mr. Khaleq was given a choice of where to be deported — Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan or Thailand. He chose Thailand, though he had no relations there, said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger who was among the group arrested with Mr. Abdul Khaleq last year.
Here is a travel story I wrote for Gulf Business magazine following my trip to the Nepali capital last April.
The Other Face of Nepal
Kathmandu’s growing hotel options offer tourists a luxury experience away from budget paths.
By Angela Shah
THE NEPALESE CAPITAL has long been known as a backpacker’s paradise. Scruffy tourists fresh from Himalayan treks are easy to spot in Kathmandu. But if you set off the patchouli-scented path, a more luxurious respite can be had in the city.
Our first taste of Nepali luxury came at the grande dame of the capital’s hotels, Dwarika’s. Hidden by brick walls from the city’s streets, the hotel is a cluster of brick buildings of various sizes scattered across a tree-filled compound. Originally built in 1952 as the family home of its founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha, the hotel has expanded over the decades. Today, Dwarika’s is a living experiment in preserving Nepali heritage, especially its architecture.
In 1952, Shrestha saw carpenters sawing off the intricately carved window and door coverings for firewood. Alarmed, he created a workshop on his property that would not only house these carvings and others he bought throughout the valley, but also the master craftsmen of this dying art so that they could teach others.
The end result is a secluded mini-village in the middle of bustling Kathmandu that provides guests a serene spot to relax and rejuvenate. We especially enjoyed meals outside in the sun-dappled courtyard where the resident dogs and cats would come around and beg playfully. On Friday nights, Dwarika’s holds its weekly barbecue, now a Kathmandu tradition, which features grilled meats from beef to boar and a wide selection of both western style and Nepali vegetable preparations.
But for us, Dwarika’s signature culinary experience is that at Krishnarpan, its Newari cuisine restaurant, which offers diners the chance to sample traditional Nepali hospitality in sumptuous surroundings. (See Datebook below.)
So if Dwarika’s is the yin of Newari hospitality, the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu represents the yang. The American hotel chain built its property here as a “city resort” stretched over 37 acres and looks like it might have been an old Nepali plantation home.
What appeals about the Hyatt is its familiar luxury. After a day immersing all five of our senses along the streets of Kathmandu, the hotel was a tranquil home to which to return. While Hyatt has infused the property with indigenous touches with the herbal bath products and a Nepali-style front lounge, the hotel has kept faithful to the look and feel of premier Hyatt rooms worldwide. “The room looks like a Hyatt room,” my travel companion said. “There’s something nice about knowing exactly how everything will be.”
The Hyatt is conveniently located just a few kilometres from the Kathmandu international airport, making it an ideal stop for the start of a Nepal trip, or an end to one, as it was for us. The day before our evening departure, we took another quick trip to the Boudhanath stupa – the most holy of Tibetan Buddhist shrines outside Tibet and also a UNESCO World heritage site — only a 10-minute walk away.
Families will find the hotel especially appealing as a place to relax and unwind amidst the Himalayas. The “backyard” contains two pools, one reserved for children, three tennis courts and a 1,600-metre jogging track around the hotel grounds.
During our stay there, a monsoon pounded its way through the city, so we stayed in and enjoyed a cozy dinner at Rox Restaurant and Bar. And we got the chance to savour a rare but welcome luxury for Dubai-dwellers: rain.
World heritage: Spend an afternoon at one of Nepal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Bhaktapur, an hour’s drive outside of Kathmandu. No cars are allowed in the city, which is full of architectural gems from the 15th century, including the gates of Durbar Square and the Temple of Nyatapola, one of the tallest pagoda-style temples in the Kathmandu Valley.
Holy shrines: The Boudhanath Stupa is one of the holiest shrines in Buddhism and one of the world’s largest. The eyes of the Buddha are painted on each of the four sides of the tower and keep a watchful eye over the penitents spinning prayer wheels or merchants hawking prayer beads, handmade pouches and hats and idols.
Holiday peaks: No trip to Nepal is complete with a sighting of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak. For those of us without the stamina to trek to base camp, several airlines offer hour-long flights around Everest and its sibling peaks. (buddhaair.com)
Eating out: Feeling hungry? Then the 22-course tasting menu at Dwarika’s Nepali restaurant, Krishnarpan, is for you. Following local custom, diners are asked to take off their shoes at reception and proceed to low tables in a traditional style. Our favorites included chicken and yam curries in addition to dishes made with vegetables sourced from Dwarika’s own farm.
Two months ago, I started taking Arabic classes. I meant to start when I first moved here but, for a variety of reasons, didn’t pull the trigger. But when I realized that a Berlitz school was right across the street from where I worked, well, I figured I had no more excuses.
I’m in a small class of four people, including me. Funnily enough, what our group has in common is Spanish. On guy, from Ireland, spent 12 years living and working in Spain. The other two girls are from Colombia. When we can’t remember our Arabic vocabulary during class, we prompt each other in Spanish. (Our teacher is from Morocco and speaks French, not Spanish.)
I wish I could say that I was going to be fluent in Arabic. I’m really in awe of people who can seamlessly switch from one fluent language to another. But I am learning a lot, and enjoying learning it with my classmates and teachers, and a little bit of knowledge is better than none, right?
Today, I took my final exam for the first segment. I have to admit that I was nervous! (I had to remind the over-achieving Asian in me that I was taking these classes for fun.) I had prepared flashcards, pictured above, to help me remember, but I was having some trouble.
For whatever reason, the 20 or so verbs (only present tense so far) that we learned all begin with the sound of ‘b,’ which I found makes memorizing more difficult. If they all start with the same sound – and some are so close phonetically that the difference is nearly imperceptible – memory aids are harder to find. Another thing that throws you off is that Arabic doesn’t have a “to be” verb; you just launch right in to the action.
I really hope to move on to the second level, but I’m not sure if my travel schedule will permit me to miss so many classes, so we’ll see. Maybe I’ll try to go the private tutor route which would be more flexible. A new world is being opened up to me and I’d like to go a bit further in.
My latest story in The New York Times looks at the continuing struggle between U.A.E. authorities and some of their citizens who are pushing for reforms.
Emirates Step Up Efforts to Counter Dissent
By ANGELA SHAH
ABU DHABI — The United Arab Emirates have intensified their effort to quell political dissent, with 15 men now being detained by the security forces, according to human rights groups and family members.
All but two are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization. The men have called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.
Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Durham University in Britain who is an expert on Gulf issues, said the Emirates were following the example of Bahrain, which has cracked down harshly on dissidents. Leaders of the Emirates are “emboldened” by the Bahrain government’s actions against protesters “and the lack of any significant condemnation of the Bahrain regime by the international community,” he said.
“The U.A.E. authorities want to govern over a nonpolitical country and a depoliticized population,” he said. “They want to be guardians of an economy that makes money for everyone.”
One stick that the U.A.E. government is using against dissidents is the threat of taking away their citizenship. In December, a group of seven Emiratis, all of whom are members of Al Islah, were stripped of their citizenship. They were arrested in March when they refused to seek out alternative nationalities, their families say. A court ruling on the authorities’ actions is imminent.
“This is aggressive in nature and so vicious in a way that has never been done before,” said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger. He was among the first group of Emiratis arrested and put on trial last year for calling for democratic reforms.
I’ve always felt a kinship to West Bengal and its capital Kolkata. Whereas my family’s home state of Gujarat is more known for its business, industrial and agricultural prowess, Bengalis count among their number some of India’s greatest writers, filmmakers and designers. In Kolkata, a bookstore is listed among must-see tourist destinations.
Once the colonial capital for British India, Kolkata has fallen into disrepair since its heyday as you can see in these photos from my trip last December. Still, you can imagine its former beauty as you sometimes can in the face of a now-aged debutante.
One of the aspects of being a journalist that I love is the opportunity to meet so many different people, in all kinds of circumstances, in all kinds of lives. On my recent trip to Herat, I was able to visit a couple of girls’ schools. I attended the inauguration of the school’s first computer lab and as things were wrapping up, I peeked behind the curtain to see at least half a dozen tents filled with rows and rows of girls in matching white headscarves doing their lessons.
The school, which teaches girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon, simply doesn’t have enough classrooms. It was humbling to see these girls sitting cross-legged on the ground as their teacher went through the lessons armed only with a chalkboard smaller than the big screen TVs most of us have in our homes.
The school is located in a poorer area of the city and many of the girls come from conservative homes. Just being able to attend school is a very big deal. Having computers and Internet access, one student told me, is her connection to the rest of the world.