a bastion of ‘liberalism’ here in the Middle East; the place is hated
by ultra conservatives (of which there are but a few) but flocked to by
increasing numbers of foreigners—including Americans. Perhaps what happened
on New Years Eve is one of the reasons.
While my Syrian,
Canadian and Iranian friends and I spent a quiet evening at Dunkin’ Donuts
isn’t it?), we could have paid upwards of $175 to attend any number
of celebrations. One of the biggest parties happened on Palm Island, a
massive construction project of the government. They are building entire
islands that will feature dozens of resorts and planned communities. The
Palm Island New Year’s Eve party saw revelers walking around the beaches,
in some cases topless, drinking champagne from bottles, and, more tellingly,
|Some may say,
big deal, it was New Years Eve’; others are probably shaking heads
rather moralistically. Goodness, naked women and drunkards. But what’s
interesting is that it happened here, in the most conservative part of
the Islamic world, the Gulf.
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Saudi Arabia, remember, lashes women (even Westerners) who show a thigh.
That Dubai can get away with cross-dressing parties and wild partying shows
that perhaps they are preparing for the future. How so?
was plenty of party-mania to go around on the 31st—with the exception of
our get together at Dunkin’ Donuts—some of the wilder stuff occurred on
Palm Island, technically offshore: the same place where the leaders are
considering allowing gambling (remind you of anyplace, Nebraskans?)
test,” predicts my Iranian friend Babak. “They see the future as business
and tourism. The leaders want to make Dubai the party town of the Middle
East.” And he’s right. It’s already the prostitution capital of the Middle
East. Brazen Russians in short skirts and halter-tops frequently solicit
right on the street. There are thousands of girls who have come from the
former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe to ‘work’.
are the fun-loving girls who fly out from Europe (and the States) to hook
up with affluent guys.
here have even published interviews with British women who say they come
out for sun, fun, and sex. You’d think this would be good news for all
the men here, and it is for those with lots of cash but single guys like
my Canadian friend Joe don’t fare as well. His is a teacher’s income. This
gets you a date with a Bangladeshi housemaid if you are lucky.
single friends of mine of both sexes make the same complaint: finding a
decent partner of the opposite sex is nearly impossible. My Dutch friend
Saskia says, “Men want only one thing: sex. My male friends all complain
that women only want one thing: a guy with lots of spare change. Yes, the
West has arrived.
happens? The guys with the bucks get a large share of the women. Of
course, guys like Ahmed, a local friend of mine, say that they give equal
time to both Western and Arab women. “Lebanese are the best, though” he
says. “They know how to treat a man.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate.
What I do understand from Babak is that Lebanese women are ‘high maintenance’.
You have to spend a lot. Filipinos, in contrast, are cheap dates.
a little irritating—is that a lot of local guys have no problem with being
married and having girlfriends on the side (not an attitude restricted
only to local guys). Local women, on the other hand, are not even allowed
to chat on the telephone with a man outside the family. Very double standard,
to my way of thinking.
people meet? Pretty much the same as in America. The only difference
is that here, it seems, everyone is on the prowl 24/7, both men and women.
Every Friday evening there is an outdoor jazz concert in one park. The
music is good and the scene is ‘happening’, but it’s one big ‘pick up’
joint. When my friend Khalil goes there, he gives away about a half dozen
Which is how
contacts are made for the most part. When I first came to Dubai, I heard
from my friend Matt how local Arab men ‘meet’ Arab women.
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in the shopping centers. When they see a girl they like, they’ll drop a
business card on the floor and walk away. The girl will pick it up.”
Some guys aren’t
content to take the chance. Stories abound of women out driving, only to
have a car pull up alongside, a window come down, and a cell phone thrown
into their car. Other men go the extra mile. Saskia was driving home late
one night when a dishdasha-clad driver actually cut her off, forcing her
to pull over. “He jumped out of the car, came over and introduced himself,
and asked me to go to a party!” she says. “He said he needed a western
girlfriend to accompany him to the party and said he’d even pay.”
When it comes
to dating, this city is a mini United Nations. Iranians dating Brits Filipinos
dating Brazilians Canadians dating Palestinians. Everyone is having fun
here trying to avoid the insanity of the region. Some of us, however, just
hang out at places like Dunkin’ Donuts. How sad.
The Belly Dancer
numbers of Dubai’s resident expatriate population hit the zillions of multi-ethnic
restaurants and ‘cool’ Western-style bars in the evening, not too many
of them go to the Arabic cafes. For one thing, these restaurants don’t
kick into high gear until after 10pm. Also, traditional Arabic music plays
a large part of the experience and if you don’t understand Arabic, the
songs all sound the same: somewhat dissonant, the pitch of the singer’s
voice rising and falling like a roller coaster.
I went with my friend George, a Syrian Christian, to one such restaurant,
located in the depths of a palatial Holiday Inn. We had been planning to
avail ourselves of the fine cuisine at Hardees, but one of his friends
invited him and me to join a little party in progress and witness some
Like most Arabic
late-night restaurants, the place was quite dimly lit, soft lighting barely
illuminating the stucco walls from which rounded protrusions extended,
making me feel like I was walking into the interior of a cave. But the
tables were elegantly set, the waiters in suits, and high-tech theatrical
lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling in front of a tiny stage. Five
musicians sat resting as we entered, holding an array of strange-looking
musician held an ‘ud, which is a half-pear-shaped string instrument held
rather like a guitar. Beside him was a man cradling a tablah, a small hand
drum. Just so that there would be enough percussion, another musician had
his taar, a frame drum that looks like a huge tambourine. There was also
a keyboard. I didn’t see what else there was because an older local man
dressed in his crisp white dishdasha—the only guy in the restaurant so
garbed—was waving George and me over to his table. Beside him was a lovely
though slightly chunky blond woman, whom I took to be Russian. Another
less attractive woman sat opposite her. Also at the table were two Syrian
businessmen, cheerful fellows in their late thirties who were our hosts
for the evening.
I was a bit
overwhelmed as we sat down. In true Arabic fashion, all manner of dishes
were spread across the table: finger bowls of hummous, olives, salads,
sliced meats, and caviar. At my end of the table stood a bottle of whiskey,
and wine was chilling in a bucket. I felt the financial alarms ringing.
this was just going to be some belly dancing,” I whispered to George.
As the musicians started playing, George said, “Salim’s paying. Remember,
he owns a gold shop.”
The belly dancer
came out, a gorgeous Lebanese woman with flowing black hair, exotic eyes,
and, well, not a lot of clothes. She danced across the floor, shimmying
and swaying, smiling all the while. Her crimson-colored bikini bottoms
were veiled by tassels that were flung wildly by the girl’s wiggling. At
one point, the man with the taar descended a step onto the dance floor,
beating his drum with heavy strokes. The girl produced a short cane and
proceeded to dazzle the audience by laying it across her breasts—where
it magically stayed.
Now for a quick
interruption while I give some background on belly dancing, which is shrouded
in myth. For one thing, the term ‘belly dancing’ was coined by Sol Bloom,
an exhibitor at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. His exhibit was entitled
The Streets of Cairo, and he needed to attract customers.
women have always danced, but primarily for their own entertainment, for
the most part, at festivals, wedding celebrations, and the like. It was
also a way of helping women prepare abdominal muscles for labor. Incidentally,
the word ‘harem’ comes from the Arabic word ‘haram’, which means ‘forbidden’.
Men were not allowed into the parts of the houses in which the womenfolk
So why was
this young woman flitting about the dance floor and moving her hips at
warp speed? Because European colonial powers, and later Hollywood and Sol
Bloom, created the image, and tourists to the Middle East want to see ‘belly
dancers’. The west solidified the image of the scantily clad harem girl
with a gem in her navel (another Hollywood invention).
The woman danced
for twenty minutes or so and took a well-earned break. The band continued
to play, and as the wine flowed, a few couples wandered onto the dance
floor, one young woman in Levis doing imitations of the belly dancer. The
crowd was happy; arms were undulating in the air like crazed cobras (I’ve
noticed enthusiastic Arabs do this). The old guy in the dishdasha kissed
his Russian ‘girlfriend’, and I saw the tiny golden cross hanging around
her neck. I drank another glass of wine while thinking of tassels.
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