Circles Under Her Feet

I’m the American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, and I grew up in small-town outside of Houston. I’ve never quite fit the mold – American or Indian. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to journalism; the entire exercise is to talk to people, get a sense of their stories and who they are, and share them with other people.

I have traveled on my own since my mid-teens, first, in Europe and America, and eventually to many parts of the globe. I started this blog and called it “Parallel Universe” nearly 10 (!!) years ago when I moved from Dallas to Dubai, where I was a freelance foreign correspondent writing for international publications including TIME magazine, The New York Times and Institutional Investor magazine. I had worked for The Dallas Morning News until late 2008, but newspaper cutbacks meant my chances to be sent overseas as a foreign correspondent were slim. So, I decided to make my own way.

Back then, the idea was to write about a place striving for a place among the community of modern societies while also staying true to its traditions and culture. These objectives, as you can imagine, sometimes clashed. I was there for nearly five years. I took my office on the road as much as I wanted: those places included Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Spain, Paris, Hong Kong, Cairo, Tanzania, Kenya, and Thailand.

Parallel Universe has now been rechristened “Postcards from the Bayou” – though the old posts are still here below. I’ve moved back to Houston, my hometown, where I deal with the culture shock of being back in America and grapple with some of the forces shaping both my country and Texas. I see this blog as my little patch of the Web to muse about that, my travels, food and wine, books, and other interests that I have.

Circles Under Her Feet refers to a Gujarati saying that essentially means someone like me, constantly moving with a pretty healthy wanderlust and curiosity for all things in this amazing world of ours. I suppose the English equivalent is, She doesn’t sit still.

Thanks for reading and please stay in touch: angela.shah(at)gmail.com.

U.A.E. crackdown update

The RAND Corporation’s Abu Dhabi office has been shut down by U.A.E. authorities – the latest move by rulers to clamp down on what it believes is unacceptable speech. RAND has been in Abu Dhabi since 2010 and “facilitated evidence-based research and analysis by RAND experts in such areas as education, public safety and environmental health,” according to a Reuters story that quoted an email response from Jeffrey Hiday, director at RAND’s office for media relations.

The move follows the forced closure of Abu Dhabi outposts of Gallup, the National Democratic Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung last spring. Since the start of the Arab Spring movements two years ago, the U.A.E. has aggressively pursued and detained individuals who it has said violated speech codes. Last month authorities here announced a new, tighter law on online dissent, saying they would impose jail terms on anyone who derides or caricatures the country’s rulers or state institutions online.

Yesterday, four people, including a former Emirati diplomat, were arrested and about 60 people in total have been detained relating to their calls for greater speech rights. Many, but not all of them, are members of Al Islah, a group that authorities say is conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the U.A.E.

Last summer, the U.A.E. expelled Matt J. Duffy, an American professor of journalism who had been teaching at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

Unlike Bahrain, there have been no mass protests in the U.A.E. For the vast majority of people living in the country, life is peaceful. Still, the government has taken strict measures against the minority of its citizens who are advocating for change. The Federal National Council, a quasi-elected legislative body with advisory power, announced that it would set up a committee to support the country’s human-rights efforts at home and abroad. Essentially, the committee will serve a public relations function for the government, defending its actions against those people whose behaviors are deemed unacceptable.

“If people badly use freedom of expression, and participate in demonstrations that impose religious intolerance or pushing others to commit anti- government crimes, the government has the right to interfere and limit those freedoms, and the parliament has the right to approve laws that run this,” the FNC report said.

The ‘Newsroom’

The first parallel universe I encountered was in the Abu Dhabi newsroom. Yesterday, American Journalism Review ran a story written by Tom O’Hara, an American editor who had spent two years there most notably, it seems, on the foreign desk.

On journalism:

“When the newspaper launched in 2008, its goal was ‘to establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world,’ according to its Web site. Well, that hasn’t happened. The mission statement should say: Don’t offend the government or anyone who has a link to it.”

On ethics:

“The censorship isn’t the only burden mainstream journalists must endure at the paper. The paper is basically a British publication with British spelling and style. But British ethics also rule – and they’re, ah, loose, shall we say.

The most flagrant abuse is putting staff bylines on wire material. It is routine practice. … The practice caused The National some embarrassment when someone sent an e-mail to media blogger/aggregator Jim Romenesko with details about systemic plagiarism in the business department. Here is part of the September 2011 post.”

A memo went out from the editor-in-chief instructing staff to comply with correct sourcing policies, which were, immediately ignored. ‘I know this because I did it myself several times a week,’ O’Hara writes.

On accuracy:

• “I would rather the readers be confused than offended.” Deputy Editor Bob Cowan, August 2010.

“Cowan, once a respected editor at the Telegraph in London, issued that guidance after telling an editor on the foreign desk to remove all references to religion from a fascinating story about an Iranian Shiite imam. The story made little sense without the religious details.”

• “This is no time to be intellectually honest.” (Editor-in-Chief Hassan) Fattah, January 2011.

“The editor shared this gem with the foreign desk after reading a story from one of our best correspondents about speculation that the revolt in Tunisia might spark other uprisings. As we all know, the speculation was accurate as the Arab Spring spread across the region in the months that followed.”

Irrational exuberance, Dubai-style

This morning, this headline popped into my regular Dubai Google Alert:

“Dubai plans $2.7 bln theme park complex”

Excellent, I thought to myself. This is the remainder of the resurrection of Dubailand, the part that features a medley of theme parks across the size of New York City, now with a six-times-as-big replica of the Taj Mahal. But the story actually referred to an entirely new complex of theme parks, this one being beside Jebel Ali port.

The $2.7 billion development will “include an adventure park featuring Hollywood brands, a marine park, a children’s park and a night safari,” according to Reuters. “Meraas has formed partnerships with several major film studios in Mumbai to obtain content for the Bollywood Parks section, which will include a theatre showing Broadway-style musicals.”

Broadway musicals with Bollywood beats! This is something even Disney hasn’t thought of. The announcement of BollywoodLand comes a few days after Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, said Dubai would be building a new city within Dubai, named after himself. No price tag was put on Mohammed bin Rashid City but it is planned to be home to the ‘Mall of the World,’ which would usurp Dubai Mall as the world’s largest shopping mall, which is currently next to the world’s tallest tower Burj Khalifa, which itself features the world’s tallest dancing fountain. The development will also include a park 30 percent bigger than Hyde Park in London and more than 100 hotels.

Each of these stories, especially those run by local media, contain quotes from analysts espousing the same sort of wisdom: The worst of the economic downturn is behind Dubai. Laissez les bons temps roulez!

But some party-pooper journalists in the international business press have provided some caveats in the Dubai-is-back frenzy. Reuters points out that Dubai entities have nearly $50 billion of liabilities between 2014 and 2016 and “given the lack of major asset sales or haircuts, there has been little progress on the de-leveraging front.”

In its restructuring proposal in July 2010, Dubai World said it needed time for assets to recover in value in order for it to sell them and use the cash to pay off its debt. Under this plan, which was finalized in March 2011, between $1.3 and $2.3 billion would be raised between 2010 and 2012 by selling assets such as through P&O Ferries and Gazeley, a warehouse developer.

But the story says that a lingering weak global economy has meant that these sales have not gone ahead as planned, and if they did, the values weren’t what they were hoping for.

“The main issue is the depressed value of the international portfolio. Local assets are flourishing and doing great business but we haven’t seen any credible asset sales so far which can help reduce the debt burden,” Reuters quoted a senior Dubai banker as saying. “The most likely situation we see is Dubai going to the banks and again saying they have no money to repay the debt.”

So, money is still scarce to pay off debt but billions are available to construct new and ever-larger developments? Does Dubai need 100 more hotels? I’m no Alan Greenspan but, even with all the superlatives, it sounds like irrational exuberance to me.

Fire!

Dubai woke up Sunday morning with a fire raging through a skyscraper in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers community. As I scrolled along Facebook, I realize the building looked familiar. Hey, that’s where I used to live!

The fire began at 2 a.m. and wasn’t put out until well in the day. It took firefighters 20 minutes to get there. I’m not sure if that meets acceptable levels of response times for high-rise fires. New reports over the past two days have quoted residents saying sprinklers and fire alarm systems failed to activate – outrageous considering there was a massive fireball above their heads. Amazingly, there are no injuries or deaths.

The spark is still unknown but what contributed to the fire spreading so quickly was the building’s cladding, something that is a common feature on buildings here. The Gulf News ran a story last May after there were three high-rise fires in Sharjah, saying that about 500 buildings were constructed with this cladding. It’s not fire-resistant which I imagine would break fire code in the U.S. Builders here preferred to use it because it’s cheaper. These claddings are made of low-density polyethylene, a petrochemical product that burns within minutes compared to certified fire-retardant panels that repel fire. There are no civil regulations that prevent this.

If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot.

Earlier this year, a building in Tecom and another in Dubai Marina went up in flames as well. The culprit? Cladding that is, in effect, kindling. And then this week we have the fire in JLT. It turned out that it wasn’t my building but the building right to the front and side of us. If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot. I used to wonder about these buildings, what would happen if there was a fire. I knew from experience that they were poorly constructed. It was brand new when we moved in but nearly immediately things began falling apart: sewage smells coming from inadequately laid water and wastewater pipes, the kitchen light fixture that suddenly had water pouring through it.

So, let’s recap: Hundreds of buildings in the U.A.E. are wrapped in highly flammable material. There are no regulations preventing this. And even though at least six recent fires were made worse – resulting in people’s deaths and untold damages in people’s health and property – there are no regulations preventing the use of this material or forcing building owners to replace the cladding with fire-retardant material.

And now, according to an article in The National this morning, Dubai Municipality is saying that since the building is in a free zone – an area where foreigners are allowed to purchase properties – Dubai is essentially not responsible for what happens there.

Given all this, why would anyone live in a high-rise here?

The U.A.E. media laws and free speech

The media law in the U.A.E. just got broader, and stricter.

Matt J. Duffy, a former journalism professor at Zayed University who has personal experience with the difficult balancing act regarding free speech in this part of the world, gave a good summary of the change here: “The revision, published in full in Gulf News, criminalizes anyone who uses a electronic means to ‘deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols.

The decree also offers penalties ‘of imprisonment on any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order.”

In short, Duffy writes, these restrictions, of course, are incredibly broad and will surely lead to even more self-censorship in the United Arab Emirates. Any legitimate criticism of the government could conceivably violate ‘public order.’ Better to just stay quiet while on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube lest one step across this nebulous line set up by the new law.

A friend posted on Facebook asking if comments against Du or Etisalat, the country’s two telecom providers which have inspired many a social media rant over poor service, would also count as forbidden speech. I think it might be – both are government entities.

The new provisions came out just as state media issued an edict updating media laws just as the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeals Court upheld a decision by the U.A.E. Ministry of Interior to strip seven Emiratis of their citizenship earlier this year.

The men had been agitating on Twitter and other online sites calling for greater political participation. Nearly 70 Emiratis have been detained by authorities since the start of the year and many of them are members of Al Islah, an Emirati Islamist group that seeks to have Islam play a more dominant role in everyday life in the U.A.E., which has long aimed to be a crossroads of East and West.

You can read my coverage for The New York Times on the detentions here, here, here and here.

 

More ‘Al Basleh’

I should’ve waited for the week to end before posting

While reading the Letters to the Editor today, I read one on this gem of a story: “Abu Dhabi man accused of rape ‘innocent because he was wearing jeans’ ” The alleged Bangladeshi rapist attacked the Filippina woman at night and put a hand on her mouth to prevent her from screaming, according to the article. This the response of the defense:

‘She said the defendant was wearing jeans, how could he undo his jeans and take them off without using both his hands? asked the lawyer.

The letter-writing reader was astonished that any self-respecting lawyer would actually utter such a defense in court. Sadly, in googling to find this story, I think I’ve found where the lawyer got his inspiration. (#facepalm)

‘Al Basleh’

“Al Basleh” means “The Onion” in Arabic. I thought it was appropriate since reading local media in this here Arabian peninsula is always good for a jolt. What reads as satire is actually honest-to-goodness news stories. They run from the science-defying story on the doctor who pronounced a pregnant woman as still a virgin or the idiotic escapades of drunken Brits getting arrested after having sex on the beach, in a taxi, or elsewhere.

As we wait for the returns in the U.S. election, I offer you some light reading from this week, starting with this gem: “Man walking pet monkey kills neighbor in barmaid feud.”

DUBAI // A drugged-up man walking his monkey kicked his neighbour to the ground, bit his nose and poured sand into his mouth before leaving him to die in a dispute over a barmaid, a court heard today.

This guy didn’t kill anyone.

‘Yes, I did it,’ the 31-year-old SE told the Criminal Court.

Earlier this week I learned that some facial hair-challenged Gulfies have been able to find follicle transplants in Turkey. According to the article in The National, many are there to replenish the “main hair” but others are there to fill up patchy beards and mustaches – the ultimate manly symbol in these parts. The Turkish transplant specialist in the story said the hit to the self-confidence of these men is brutal. “It’s not a macho-problem, it’s a real need,” he said. “I have had grown men in here crying.”

These men are spending more than 4,000 euros for the procedure.

“I always wanted to have a beard. It is attractive,” said one businessman, 42, who was quoted by the paper. “I also wanted to have a beard when carrying out the Haj for Islamic reasons. Going to Haj with a beard is a dream come true.”

Aww, you go girl. Whatever makes you feel pretty.

Dubai’s ‘Mad Men’

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.

The crackdown expands

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.

DUBAI

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.