2013

PANO_20130201_172821It was some year, different to others in its intensity and focus but still a worthy entrant. I feel I say this every year but it’s certainly true. Apart from living and experiencing the Middle East while in Qatar, a memorable experience in itself, I travelled to Dubai, Oman, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Lebanon, Poland twice, Romania three times, Nepal, Czech Republic, Armenia, Georgia, England three times, Scotland, Italy, Barcelona and Turkey seeing the capitals and plenty of other places in all. I’ve seen the mountains and the beaches, the sun and the snow. Friends have been made, re-met and re-made. I’m going to say with confidence it was a good year.

Newcomer of the Year Nancy in Doha. Great fun, funny sense of humour and wicked to boot.

Gary O’Connor deserves an honourable mention too. Great boss, Good drinker. Newcastle United supporter. Mildly crazy.

My Christ Its Been a Long Time

Meeting Jim in Dubai after 5 years Seeing Andy Carlin after a few years for a few hours opposite Reading Station

20130831_155848Meal of the Year

Eating Hungarian food in the middle of Romania Seafood in Cambodia

What the hell happened Last Night

Happy shakes in Cambodia

Vodka in Tbilisi

Sights of the Year

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Edinburgh in summer

Inside the Sagrada Familia

The Tyne Bridge in glorious sunshine

The mountains of Nepal

Random Moment Award

Being in an Indian dance bar in Muscat. Truly surreal.

Cultural Event of the Year

The political protest in Armenia over the bus price hike. A direct and effective protest that puts our consumerism to shame. Want to get something done, dont subsidise the enemy!

Red Bull Flugtag event in November????

Sports event of the Year

Spain vs Uruguay

Meeting Seb Coe and Sergei Bubka001

Films of the Year Cloud Atlas – grand, pretentious, over-ambiitous, stirring, thought-provoking and visual stunning.

Musical moment of the Year Queens of the Stone Age in Gdansk

Book of the Year – I really didn’t read last year which tells its own story. Maybe Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman or the History of the Middle East to garner some background. Ahh no, The Life and Times of the Penis! Interesting read. But sadly I might only have read 3 books that year 😦

Bar of the Year Beach bars in Cambodia

Scariest moment of the Year The landing through the storm just before Christmas. Scariest of my life.

Big Balls Moment Mosh pitting in Gdansk with Olivia at the Heineken Opener in Gdansk.

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Person of the Year Olivia. It was a fun time from the music to the mountains to the cities.

Would I do it all again? Hell yeah. I’d like to thank everyone for helping me along the way 🙂

Roll on 2014. This is gonna be good 🙂 Hope to see you soon

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Satire and Public Expression in the Middle East

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The Pan-Arabia Enquirer is The Onion or Private Eye of the Middle East. Run out of Dubai it constantly runs ridiculous stories with enough truth and parody in them to make you snigger, giggle and laugh out loud. Its coverage of Dubai’s not-so-subtle EXPO 2020 bid was brilliant hinting at the endless bribery taking place. The endless and terrible photoshopping of Mahmoud Ahmedinejah into photos of the British Royal Family claiming he and Pippa Middleton are in a relationship, an obvious nod to Princess Diana, make me chuckle daily. But most of their stories reflect the spoilt, pampered reality of the expats who constantly moan about any inconvenience to their lives, be it, the maid is sick, the new coffee shop is closed or the lack of some item in the shop.

White expats are the most noted feature of the UAE. The towers that gleam (and most sit empty) were designed and project-managed by the white folk who come and live in Dubai for a few years and yet spend most of their time either telling people how much they are ‘loving, loving, loving it’ or morosely complaining about it. They tend to come from the same backgrounds psychologically. Under-educated and over-paid, their knowledge of the world around them is limited by their intense interest in the new mall that’s opened. They live in a bubble, meeting for brunches and leisure and remain constantly surprised when someone like myself comes around and sees little value in what they do. They are not offended but confused, eyes darting to each other seeking some confirmation what they thought is valid. They fail to understand how overvalued they are.

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But what the Pan-Arabian Enquirer really exposes is the hierarchal nature of the political systems in the Middle East and hence the tight grip on media. The PAE is satire. Its stories are all made up. It states so in the title. And yet too many commenters on the stories fail to grasp this. A story stating glamour model Jordan was planning to suit the country of Jordan for breach of trademark elicited hundreds of response from Jordanian saying she needs to get educated as they were there first. An article on a potential roped off lane on the motorway in the UAE for those with VIP passes allowing them to drive 10km/h faster brought equally confused results. An article about a whining expat finally leaving after 15 years of hell/luxury was followed by comments saying he should go home if he doesn’t appreciate it. It’s that completely failure to understand that what is stated in the media from a seemingly genuine source is not true that baffles. There is simple little history of it.

Most expats have a healthy distrust of political authority especially within hereditary systems. How would regimes react here to Spitting Image where Thatcher was an alcoholic and Prince Phillip a racist. Or The Daily Show in the US. In these forums, the power is on the other foot. Politicians dare not touch them. Criticising them shows a lack of respect for the public’s judgement.

But the word regime is the key here. Regimes don’t like and can’t manage political openness. In Egypt, a well-known political satirist was jailed for mocking the President. In Turkey, a democracy under tight control, its greatest modern novelist was put on trial for asking historical questions. A poet in Qatar was first sentenced to hang and then given 15 years for reciting a poem on democracy. Could they imagine the reaction to David Cameron opening a Twitter account? The first 10 posts all contained the word wanker! The political stricture, control over the media, lack of critical thinking and in the Gulf, buying off of political dissent mutes self-expression.

As mentioned, the PAE regularly highlights the complaining behaviour of the expats in the Middle East but never does it mention the Sheik. The Gulf Times and Dubai News are embarrassing mouthpieces of Gulf governments here, purporting to real journalistic enterprises but with every opening story a self-congratulatory update on what the Sheik has done today it is best ignored. The expats themselves seem to live in a non-political bubble. Everyone is a blogger, marketing executive, in construction or landscape gardening, all essentially to gentrify and glorify the place in some kind of Truman Show pastiche.

After a while you have to understand true value, what has true worth and why you should know that taking the money and deflecting your eyes to the 7-star brunch is not good enough.

Serene in Chaos

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(Baktupur in Kathmandu)

I’d love to write quickly and succinctly about Nepal but I’m too tired right now. I’m sat at Dubai airport waiting for my connection. Tonight I have to attend the graduation ceremony in Doha for some of my teachers, a group I’ve become fond of for their earnest work, humour and the snacks they bring in to fatten me up for my mother!

My inertia is not simply linked to it being 6am but the confusion of colours, smells and sights clouding my mind, all jostling for position. Nepal is a helluva place. Chaotic and serene. Dirty and wondrously clear. Kathmandu is a shambles and ugly and yet it’s also charming in its own way. Life bursts from the cracks, potholes, alongside the narrow streets and on the non-existent pavements.

The city smells. Pollution loiters with intent. There is no good road in Kathmandu but as this video show, it really doesn’t make you want to leave. Unlike in Doha or Dubai (to a lesser degree), life is lived on the streets. People walk, talk, argue and laugh on the pavements, in the parks and at cafe tables. My teachers have expressed similar reservations of Doha. They mostly hail from Egypt and their endeavour and focus on this project made me proud to know them. In often poor educational systems and with Qatari students not renown for their dedication to hard work, their enthusiasm for their profession is admirable.

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(flying out of Dubai)

 

So as I am clearly wavering between one blog and another but both intrinsically linked to learning, and as the sun rises, I’ll spend my last lucid words on the people surrounding me right now. Dubai airport is an accurate picture of this part of the Middle East. We have Pashtuns and Hazaras sitting waiting for a connection but never together. Immaculately dressed Gulf Arabs pulling suitcases. Professional women in suits drinking coffees and staring at their phones. Men from east and west staring at their laptops. Foreigners tourists in their best casuals waiting for their connection, western engineers in all-weather pants and tens of sub-continent men sitting as closely together as they’ll work and live in the next year in the construction sites of the Middle East. The exact make-up depends on which flights are still awaited but the salad bowl never ends.

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(bookshop in Kathmandu)

I have two weeks of planning two projects which will take up the next 3 months before the summer arrives and I’ll return to Europe for some festivals. In the meantime its exercise, some study and some books to be read. Let’s see how far I can get.

City on the Make

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Doha is really on the make. The sound of construction 6 days a week rings over the city. Towers and apartment blocks are changing the face of the city on a monthly basis. The ding of metal on metal, the whirl of cranes and the drills can be heard as a constant over the other constant, traffic.

These towers are completely unlike what Qatar experienced before. Across the city the highest ‘old’ landmarks are a mere 4 storeys high. Below the towers are the wide roads, the odd shopping centre and yet more construction. Cafes exist next to the water (about 200m from my place) but the little have generally made room for the big boys.

Unlike Dubai, construction here is primarily financed by foreign investors and Qatar itself. It doesn’t have the same cowboy casino attitude to property and investment. It has more money than it can deal with but with some common sense, the money is being invested in infra-structure, education and health. The World Cup infrastructure programme is a sign of Qatari forward-thinking. The train network linking the stadiums is being built by a German company. Smartly Qatar bought a 25% stake in the company before awarding the contract. They are essentially paying themselves to do the construction.

Infrastructure is a major success story. The condition of the roads and the basic lack of them tells you much about how Qatar looked 30 years ago. The prevalence of Toyota Land Cruisers is not just as signal of wealth or the wish to escape to the desert but would have been a practical necessity. Qatari guys like their wheels too. In lieu of actually playing sport (more about that later) and drinking (cough, cough), Qatari men spend their time racing around, cruising out to the desert and having barbecues or going fishing. Qatari women can drive but generally get ‘the Indian’ to do it (more about them later too).

All of these impressive facilities provides great opportunities for Qataris but it is a case of putting the cart before the horse. They appear slightly unready to really push themselves. The idea is for Qataris to take up 50% of position within the economy but that’s fantasy land. They are not ready or willing. The drag from previous times creates  great inertia but equally most jobs are labour-intensive or skill-intensive so why bother? Basic computing and arithmetic skills are lacking. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve created email addresses for locals.

Qataris are almost bribed to get into education or take work. Salaries for them are far above the more experienced foreign workers who are mostly from the Asian sub-continent (but not the white engineers) and soon they will lose their position if not their role. It will take another generation before the Qataris are truly ready educationally and psychologically to take over the responsibilities, if ever.

Predictably it is often women who are keener to get educated and broaden their role in society. Qatar is fairly progressive when it comes to women. They do appear occasionally without a headscarf, they do drive and play a major role in education and health policy. The second wife of the Emir, Shieka Moza is a prominent figure in the country, pushing women’s opportunities and roles in society mostly in education as well as making speeches at various international conferences. She is older Grace Kelly of the region! (More about society later)

Anyway, it’s a sunny day as near always. I’m going out for a bit of sun.