Timeless Corridors of the Good, Evil, & Legendary

Ahh, Istanbul, I really connected with the city of Istanbul, but it’s my type of city.   It was surprisingly similar to New York, the hustle, the edge, the camaraderie and esprit de corps, but not without caution.   Let’s face it, in this big, buzzing city, we’ve all different dreams.  Here, in the ‘bul, dozens of cultures root deep deep through the ages.  Budding above the concrete surface is the remnants of centuries of people welded, spliced and entwined.   A city of historic mystique.   Harrowing mysteries in the halls of all of human time.

Different than Rome and different from Athens, because Istanbul, the Bosporus passage, Eurasia’s champion cross roads, connecting the Orient Express, the Silk Road, had a different purpose throughout history.     The Byzantines, The Romans, The Ottomans, the hinge of the world as we knew it!   Power, Religion, War.  The keeper of many secrets, not in a Godfatherly way, but like your Grandfather who’s lived through it all, only sharing with you the stories you’re ready to understand.

I was to scout the city.   Most especially, I was to plan a New Years celebration.   The perfect missions for me!

Reconnaissance 101, I mapped the terrain.  I walked across the Galata Bridge.  It reeked of fish.   Fare or foul weather the fishermen fished.  Today had cold horizontal rains and whipping winds.  Istanbul had no hesitations in washing itself clean of 2014.   I trudged, soaked, and happy to be bringing in the New Year here. Aimed at landmark: Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower, 1348.   Originally, Christea Turris (Tower of Christ) The Galata Tower has a Romanesque style, and stands 220 feet tall.  The first Galata Tower was destroyed by the Fourth Crusade.

First place man took flight, or as some would argue, glided.   He did flap the wings he was wearing, and made it across the Bosphorus, flying Europe to Asia, about 1.5 miles.    His name was Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi, an aviator in 17th century Ottoman Istanbul.  He might have gotten exiled to Algeria because of it.  Source needed.

The Pera Palace: Timeless glamour and elegance with genuine Turkish hospitality, retains its unique heritage combined with a modern touch.    Cosmopolitan Istanbul.   That is how the Pera Palace describes itself.  All I felt was the darkness of it humming, 1892 – Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, among more.   Ghosts singing, maybe screaming.  Here, I’m deff to the difference.  Mystique memorizing like an open flame, relentlessly roaring.  The ignited will of eternity.   Consider the Tower of Terror, but instead of a thrill ride through the twilight zone, it’s a palpable surrender to history.  I drank whisky in the lobby, enamored by it all.  Senses teamed, ghosts lurked and I pretended not to be spooked while in these timeless corridors of good, evil and legendary.

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The REAL Dubai

Don’t be fooled by the imposing skyscrapers, the lavish lifestyles or the endless nightlife.  It may seem like a sprawling modern metropolis but Dubai is just a really big village.  Dubai was erected in the middle of a vast and barren desert.  The sand on every corner and the relentless blaze of the sun is a constant reminder.  A short time ago, tribes ran the land, which becomes apparent after even a short stay.

The sun shines all the day as rain falls as often as an equinox.  The winters are warm and the summers are HOT, the humidity varies.  There are NO taxes and gas is subsidized to be $1.35/gallon.  Sheikh Muhammad (the ruler) is fair with his people.  Unless you have pre-marital sex, then you go to jail.  Dubai is a dynamic city with a fascinating culture and a superficial attitude.

Culture: The Opposite Side of the Globe

Emirati Native men are draped in white gowns (dish-dash-ah), sandals and a “ghutra” clothe wrapped around their heads.  The native women are in flowing black dress (abaya) veiling their face with a “shaila” headscarf. They have toilet paper, but it’s for the western foreigners.   Many native to the area use a hose and a hand.  Sheik Mohammed’s continued presence extends from billboards along the highway to framed wall décor in every office, store and restaurant.  It’s the law and everyone loves him.

We often hear “Middle East” and automatically think camels, suicide bombers, oil, and irrationally obsessive worship as terror may be lurking around every stucco corner.  Dubai has none of this chaos and carnage; it is extremely tolerant of other people and cultures.  I suppose 80% of the population being outsiders and 95% of the work force may factor into the open-mindedness.  Regardless, all creeds, colors (every shade imaginable) and shapes are welcomed, as long as they play by the rules.

Rags to Riches

Dubai is an emerging market for wealth, idyllic for any entrepreneur, or workaholic hungry for money.  In the same decade the USA landed Neil Armstrong on the moon, this desert-village in the UAE (not even a country yet) had no cars, no electricity, no running water, not even concrete or glass for building structures.  It was camels and palm trees, well water and trading posts. Today, it has a financial district looking to parallel New York, London, and Hong Kong, conveniently straddling the time zones of the latter.  It’s still just an infant of a city, but has the ambition to be king.

Now-a-days you can get a hotel room for $25,000 night. Helicopter not included.

 

The Big Leagues for Business

The economy here holsters a fierce dog-eat-dog mentality, money being the motivator. Outperform the competition at work, you’re expendable and can easily be replaced.  Only Native Emiratis can own a business here.  Therefore, companies contract “sponsors”.  An Emirati signs his name as the “owner” and takes a fixed rate, somewhere in the range of a-few-hundred-thousand dollars per annum.  He normally won’t involve himself in the affairs of the business.   Yes, it’s always a “he”.

Realizing the oil wells will soon run dry; Emirati conglomerates have been investing in businesses to support the future economy.  They’ve been head hunting from the most prestigious companies in the world, paying 35% better salaries to attract the most elite.  We’re talking $150,000 salary becomes $250,000 + NO TAXES.  The USA still taxes foreign income, so Americans will have to learn the loopholes of offshore banking.

Nightlife / Social Scene

“The Impossible City” has some of the swankiest and most posh clubs I’ve ever seen, but it far from matches the American college party scene.  The prom chaperones, I mean bouncers, stop anyone from dancing too close or provocatively.  Drink prices are absurd, but that was expected (~$12 / 12oz beer).  There are plenty of loose chicks and the bars/clubs have personality, but overall, it’s weak sauce.

The people are older and more modest while the spirit to let loose simply doesn’t thrive.  The city lacks an unabashed youth.  It’s an aged crowd, coupled with the stricter decency laws; it’s more of a polite cocktail crowd than a spring break mecca. Maybe the real fun is so beyond my budget I just missed out.  We often ran up thousand dollar tabs- but someone else always picks it up.

The offer all you can drink weekend buffets.  Starting at only $120.00

Dubai Desert Safari

In the middle of the desert, with our heads in helmets, strapped into 4-wheeled cages of steel which were weighed down by V6 engines, the need for speed would soon be satisfied.  At full-throttle the buggies blast over dune after dune, catching air and splashing beige waves of sand as we buzz by camels, leaving them in awe.  Topping the mountain of sand, nothing is in sight but a khaki colored abyss as you drop off the edge at seemingly an 80-degree angle, then eating an explosion of sand at the bottom.  I’m sure mathematics would strongly dispute the near-vertical-drop theory, but your racing heart wouldn’t believe a word of it.

After, was a camel trekk and a desert feast with the Bedouins (desert dwellers) in their tent/home.  We sat on the floor, in a circle, using our hands and “Arab bread” instead of utensils.  Belly dancers snapped and shook their glitter-caressed bodies in a spectacle of Middle Eastern tradition.  As the roasting sun fell behind the landscape as the desert moon rose.  The breeze cooled under the magnificent stars of the night’s jet-black sky.

Dubai has 15 tracks for the winter sport of camel racing.  They also have the largest horse track in the world.   The souk is a market in Old Dubai, along the legendary Dubai Creek, famous of pearl diving, which once greatly supported the economy.  At the souk you can purchase local treasures of silks, knives, pottery, jewelry, tapestries, etc. as souvenirs where half the fun is negotiating the price down 50% and more.

Rankings and Racism

The large majority of UAE Nationals don’t work and financially, don’t need to.  The sizable European population operates most businesses as Nationals comfortably sit on top.   People of the subcontinent (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India etc.) are the laboring class. People joke that EMIRATES stands for European Managed, Indian Run, Arabians Take Enormous Salaries.  Much truth can be said in jest.  Your race influences your salary.   I only know because I worked for a staffing company.   It also factors into police encounters and the overall respect you receive, or don’t.

Women

Women of Islam:  As mentioned, the women native to Dubai dress in a flowing black cloth called an “abaya”, veiling their bodies head to toe.  There is something incredibly alluring about the way their elegance dances so swiftly in the drapery, almost tempting you to guess what’s underneath.  The women were gentle in their politeness.  ****** walked me through the daily life of a women growing up Islam in the impossible city of Dubai.  In her culture, a woman is considered a jewel, an invaluable prized-possession to be protected and cared for.  The abayas in part preserve what is not for everyone’s pleasure.  I was refused any details about the family, even when I tried to pry, but learned the extended families lives all in the same estate.  A woman has the freedom to wed as she wishes, hopefully aligning with the ideals of Islam and her father, but ultimately it’s the woman’s choice.  These strict traditions of Islam are chosen.

The Rest of the Woman: An international city means international women, and I’m sure we all agree: this is great.   The major difference is that these women aren’t starving artists or still on daddy’s bank card.  An expat woman in Dubai earns her own.  Bold independence is also guaranteed of a woman willing make life in the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai is European managed and in turn European employed, but theirs something wicked about your CFO getting obviously rejected for a hand shake and completely ignored throughout the meeting by the Arab business mogul.

Emirates Airlines is a beautiful ride with an easy take off.  This is similar to the reputation of their flight attendants.

Remarkably Built

Dubai wants to prove a point to the West and is doing more than whispering about it.  The architecture is of the most intricate and imaginative worldwide.  As you cruise down the 6-lane “Sheikh Zayed Highway” you’ll witness buildings that resemble a rocket ship, multi-layered Chinese temples, and other twisting and turning marvels standing hundreds of feet high.  These men had monopoly money to build a life-sized Sim-City, and they did.   Palm shaped islands, the largest mall in the world (1,200 shores!), the tallest building standing the planet, an uber-Atlantis Resort and more.   However, they may have been a bit overzealous, forgetting about ROI or profitability, as scores of buildings are unfinished and empty. No big deal, the UAE is pumping out that black gold at about 1 million barrels/ day selling at 100 USD/barrel (~1 $ billion /day).   The city to the south, Abu Dhabi, came to the rescue with a 60 billion dollar bailout, relieved to title the world’s tallest tower, The Burj Khalifa, after their Sheikh.  It was not easy for Dubai’s future king to surrender the masterpiece to his competing neighbor, but measured in oil, Abu Dhabi will be greased and running far longer than then the currently oil soaked Dubai.

Too Much, Too Quick

Though astonishing, it’s a city in a hurry.  With that haste, many structures have inappropriate architecture given the harsh conditions of the desert.  Towers have glass skins, a lack of insulation, minimal natural shading and so on.  It is no wonder Dubai has the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world.  Take that western world!

If the winds are blowing the skyline is lost as sand particles cloud the atmosphere.  The ocean is a beautiful sapphire blue, rich with marine life, very salty and as warm as a bathtub. However, on gusty days it’s sickened with trash that coats the gulf-coastline.  People seem to place garbage either in a trash can or on the floor, whichever is more convenient I suppose.  It’s picked up quick though which leads to the the dark side of Dubai.

The Life of a Bangladeshi Man is Worth $20,000

If you were under the impression slavery no longer exists in today’s world you are naively mistaken.   $20,000 is the worth of a Bangladeshi man.   Well, that is the amount of blood money paid to the family upon his death, likely rooted in the in-humanly hot conditions and dangerous laboring. The men receive an equivalence of 1-2 dollars per hour.  The choice is theirs as they claim the homeland is worse.  The quality of life is quite nice for everyone not enslaved, thanks to the slaves, but you can bet it’s the man delivering your tooth paste for no extra charge who is paying the price.

Whores Run Rampant

Hookers are everywhere.   Dubai is clearly confused because pre-marital sex and infidelity will get you imprisoned (Toby Carroll, June 23, 2011, to name one of many), yet Dubai allows these hoochies to hustle the clubs like freshmen scheming for a beer.  Unless there is some sort of hooker-exception of marital-standard-anomaly-loophole I’m unaware of, this is a massive contradiction.  Or, prostitutes are good for continuing to draw businessmen to do business in Dubai and more business means more money?  It’s probably one or the other.

Beware: “This Place Changes You”

The expatriates love it and loathe Dubai all in the same breathe.  Though frustrated with government and law, they can’t resist the cultural diversity and business opportunities (They probably also like the NO-Tax-thing too).  There is something very superficial about Dubai.   It’s a bunch of bling-bling, a big shiny show, heartless on the inside.   Some sell her body, some sell the soul, but the common cause for working in Dubai is being hungry for money.  Friendships are hardly genuine; it’s a rather selfish city.

It’s sort of like a busty blonde in her pumps mini skirt, grinding on the beat, ordering shots of tequila as she flirts with every stranger that dare approach her with nothing but “me” in her simple-little mind.  It’s a show, fun for a minute, a quick 1, 2-step with the devil, but not a woman you’d wife up, or even hold the hand of in public.   At the same time, there are some brilliant and talented people here who do care.  People that are the reason business booms and the impossible becomes real.  My managing director told me:  “Joe, I can’t change the world, but I can make a difference in the lives of the people I cross paths with”.  I don’t think I’ve heard truer words ever uttered.

Lost in Paradise

It feels more like a resort than a city.  Like an amusement park’s best ride, you love it, but can’t stay on it forever.  You’ll eventually go insane here.  It’s seemingly too perfect; it’s not real.  Young, adults crowd the business scene.  They are willing to take a chance on the environment and vice versa as the city continues to build from the ground up.

Religion

The ‘call to prayer’ happens 5 times a day.  Speakers sound in every public forum as a deep voice sings some sort of allah-bah-bah-hah-lah number about God being great, signaling for all of the Muslims to go pray.   Their dedication to their religion puts most the world to shame.   Malls, supermarkets and the alike have opulent ‘prayer rooms’ to pray in.   They bath before they pray, and they hail towards the Holy City of Mecca in Saudi Arabia while on their knees, worshipping.

Muslims are very clean people and was their hands 3 times, face 3 times, ears three times, head, right side of their body 3 times, left side 3 times and feet.  They then repeat that cycle 3 times before reading the Holy Quran.  They know that Allah’s (God) will is for the best and maintain a strong faith as Islam is about love, charity and respect.

Law and “Justice”

Once a notorious hub for smuggling goods into India and out westward, Dubai today is structured around the strict Muslim law to govern its people.  Some regulations make sense to me, many don’t and only experience teaches which are enforced and which can be ignored.  The rumor of no drinking is FALSE.   There is plenty of boozing.  The difference is the UAE enforces “not in public” for consumption, intoxication and indecency.   A .00001 BAC can send you to jail for 3 months. Pregnancy without marriage will get you deported.  Bouncing a check is fraud and will also get you locked up.

In recent years, 08 economic crisis, hundreds of Porsches / Ferraris etc. were abandoned by ex-pats at the airport knowing they had bad checks.  Poppy seeds are illegal and failing a drug test counts as possession.  A friend was stopped at a bar when twisting her little body around to the music because this bar “did NOT have the dance permit” as required by law to allow dancing.  To sum it up, laws are about as clear as the broken English that is spoken here.   Hundreds of thick accents, all trying to speak that overly proper British jabber; it takes a dedication to decipher and make sense of.

Crime and Drugs

The crime rate is extremely low and drugs are not easy to find. I believe the harsh punishments for first time offenders keep the people more honest and less likely to flout the law.  Obviously, if you’re really fiending you can get your fix.   Someone is earning lots of dirham.  No snitch.

The Sum of a Summer in the Eyes of a American College Student

Dubai is absolutely awesome if you’re rich, and less than a thrill if you’re not so rich.  It’s a selfish city, but it’s plush, thriving and exciting.  Maybe it has peaked, but it claims to still be climbing.  For the time being it’s a place worth seeing.   Some say Dubai is the Vegas of the Gulf, but it’s really not that wild.   Others say it’s The Muslim New York City, but your brain is dehydrated if you think Dubai is in the same realm as Manhattan.  It’s an aggressive city of luxuries.  Dubai desperately tries to maintain virtue, but that forces a blind eye to be turned sometimes.  Money makes the world whirl.