Monday, May 23, 2011

Halal X Haraam

If you ever visit a Muslim country you will notice a couple of words often pop up: halal and haraam. These two little words are actually of huge importance as they basically guide the actions and behaviors of Muslims and differentiate between what is and isn’t permitted by Islamic faith. 
HALAL = lawful, permitted, acceptable
HARAAM = unlawful, prohibited, forbidden

Some examples of what is considered to be haraam?
Well, regarding behaviors, one should not commit adultery, use profane language, mistreat children, make use of intoxicants, obtain wealth by stealing, cheating or corruption, and much more.
When it comes to foods and drinks, Muslims should not drink alcohol and eat pork, carnivorous animals, birds of prey or animals that have been improperly slaughtered. They can’t even eat products that have been contaminated with such foods or items.
Most restaurants here in the UAE are halal, which means the bacon, sausages, pepperoni and other items in the menu are made from halal meets and not pork. Even American fast food joints, like McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Hut, for example, were forced to adjust in order to serve their local customers.
I presume it is normal and expected of international organizations and expatriates, who decided to set base in the UAE, to become accustomed to the local traditions.
On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder how much the UAE also had to adapt in order to become one of the most flexible and tolerant countries in the Arab world and ensure its plans for development run smoothly.
I can only imagine how hard it must be for locals to preserve and promote religion, culture and tradition, especially among the younger crowds, when they are surrounded by so much influence from the Western world.
The way I see it, the UAE will soon have to go back to its roots and massively invest in projects that will help promote its culture and heritage, not only to the people abroad or the expatriates out here, but to its own people.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

We No Speak Americano = Arab traditional dance? I don't think so...

For what seems like the 100th time over the last few months, I’ve received via email the link to a YouTube video alongside the following question: is this really how Arabs dance?
Before I answer, just in case you still haven’t seen it, take a look at the video:

Yeah, there is no denying it is funny. Whoever pulled this off made a great job out of editing the entire thing and making sure the music and steps were synchronized.
But the truth is this is not the way Arabs dance. Well, actually, I stand corrected. They do dance like that, just not to that song.
Music and dance are an important part of the Arab culture. Since ancient times, they have been used to entertain, express joy, and celebrate victories and successes.
In the UAE, for example, voices (similar to a chanting), traditional musical instruments (like the doumbek and oud - percussion and stringed instruments) and sticks and swords all come together in dances like the ayallah and the harbiyah, which depict battle scenes and celebrate pride in power and courage.
These dances are still performed today during special occasions: at the end of important events, like conferences, during festivals and weddings and other ceremonies.

If you are interested in seeing the real thing, and not the funny version above, go to YouTube and type the words ayallah or harbiyah and you will most probably find some videos there.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dhows: the traditional wooden Arabian vessels

For a while now I’ve wanted to write a post about the beautiful dhows – the traditional wooden Arabian trading and working vessels – I often see cruising by.
Unfortunately, apart from the fact that dhows were mostly used in the past for fishing and pearl diving, I don’t really know much else about them.
So, to better understand the current role of dhows here in the country and the enchantment behind the dhow races that take place along the UAE coast, I decided to interview Erika Lessmann, a good friend of mine who is also a very experienced sailor and the Captain of a Swan Club 42 run by Abu Dhabi Charters (

Why are dhows so important here in the UAE?
Well, before the discovery of oil, dhows were used for fishing, transportation of merchandise and pearl diving and trade – the basis for UAE economy back then. Today dhows are a part of the UAE culture, its history and heritage and can be found in various shapes and sizes, built according to purpose. They can still be used for fishing and transportation, but can also be a stylish cruising yacht or, the most beautiful of all, the racing dhows, maintained by the families and indirectly sponsored by the government as an attempt to preserve tradition.
Are the present dhows any different from the ones used for fishing and pearl diving years ago?
Dhows keep the traditional lines and still have a very primitive side, especially if you look at them from the outside. However, many improvements can be perceived. Fishing dhows have engines and no longer use sails anymore. Racing dhows are now made of some sophisticated materials, such as carbon fiber mast and booms and additional equipment. When built for pleasure, for some wealthy people, they are restructured to accommodate all the luxury, modern technologies and amenities – although the hull maintains the characteristics of the traditional dhow, like the ‘saveiros’ in Brazil.
When and where do dhow races take place here in the UAE?
Usually the dhow race season goes from November through May, with the main sailing events happening along the coasts of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There are dhows of 20, 40 and 60 feet and for each one of them there are a series of races with cash prizes.
What is the range of the cash prizes involved?
It varies a lot. The race that happened in Dubai on May 11 paid AED 120,000 (approximately USD 33,000) to the dhow that came in first. But others, like the Sir Bu Nuair Dhow Race, the biggest in distance and number of participants, offer up to AED 10 million (around USD 3 million) in cash prizes.
Who can participate in dhow races?
Enrollment is open only for locals and GCC citizens - and it is certainly only for men. I was never able to get hold of the rules and regulations as they are only in Arabic, but I know they are very strict. Participants have to abide to several regulations regarding the design of the boat, the materials used and so on. In addition, the families of dhow sailors are historical and very well known. There is a lot of hierarchy and tradition maintained with great pride by all.
Have you ever had the chance to sail a dhow?
Yes and I must say it is amazing. The huge sails, the way the vessels are maneuvered at sea, the rituals involved… These boats only sail in a specific wind direction and have to be towed against the wind to the racing course. They do not have a keel therefore cannot sail upwind. It’s a sight for the eyes.
What do you offer with your Swan Club 42 – which is not a dhow, but also an amazing boat?
Sailing trips for a minimum of four and a maximum of eight guests. Usually the trips take three to four hours and can be booked for mornings, evenings or sunset – a great way to finish the day and enjoy the Abu Dhabi skyline. Racing, corporate trips, only women, special gifts… there are many options for you to choose from. It is an unforgettable experience. To book, you can email or call +971 50 612 9445.

Note: Erika Lessmann was recently interviewed by The National, a local newspaper. Click here and check out this great video: about the joys of sailing in Abu Dhabi. The pictures below are also a courtesy of Erika.

Monday, May 9, 2011

License to drink

At 34, I never thought I would have to show anyone ever again a license in order to have access to alcohol. And yet, here I am, carrying this liquor license with me everywhere I go…
Not complaining. Better to have a liquor license and be able to enjoy a cold beer, a glass of wine and a champagne flute once in a while, than to endure water with all my meals - which is exactly what would happen if I lived in other Muslim countries,  like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait for example, where production, import and consumption of alcohol are entirely banned.

So, I guess I am lucky to be in the United Arab Emirates. In Abu Dhabi, non-Muslim residents may apply for a Liquor License. With this document at hand, we are entitled to buy, transport and have alcohol in our homes (for own consumption). The amount of alcohol one is allowed to buy will be set by the Directorate Gen. of Police Abu Dhabi, based on the salary certificate that should be presented by the candidate during the application process.
Alcohol can only be found in specific venues. If you go to a restaurant located in a mall or out on the streets, it will most probably not sell alcohol. In hotels, however, you will find plenty of it to wet your lips.
If you want to buy a few bottles, don’t waste your time looking for them in the supermarket shelves (unless you want a non-alcoholic beer). Stores such as African & Eastern, Spinneys, GMP and more are your best bet. From a distance, since they are often unmarked and should not attract attention, they might be hard to spot and you might not expect much. But I am sure you won’t be disappointed once you are in. Lots to choose from, including the famous Brazilian cachaça, as you will see below…

In any case, whatever your status is – resident, spouse, visitor – make sure you double check the rules and regulations on alcohol consumption before you schedule drinks with your mates (especially because they may vary depending on the Emirate you are in). And, never, ever, drink and drive. Zero tolerance for this around here.

You are probably wondering why Muslims avoid alcohol. Well, apparently the Quran states that Muslims should stay away from substances that are harmful to mind and body, including liquor and other drugs.
I once asked a local friend why such caution. Here is what she had to say: "The reasoning behind it is that these so called intoxicants have the ability to take away your focus, to reduce your competence to think, to cloud your mind – and this is negative because you should be in touch with all your senses all the time, especially if you want to remember God and prayer and avoid sins."

Friday, May 6, 2011

From right to left...

Take a look at the image below. Anything wrong with it?

Well, after a few glasses of wine with some friends yesterday night, this surely provided me with a few good laughs!

I don't understand Arabic, so I really have no clue as to what is written, but since it's a spa ad, I am pretty sure the entire thing is about the amount of weight you lose over a period of time. Right?

The thing is, if you look at this as most people regularly do - from the left to the right - and not as the Arabic language goes - right to left - it seems the ad is actually promising you something entirely different... Can you imagine the subtitles?

Before: slim and trim
After: fat and flacid


Have a great Friday!!!!!!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Now what?

Does his death bring back the many people who were killed or suddenly fix the ones who were injured or hurt in any way by the attack on 9/11 – and so many others?
Will all of his followers now disperse and lead an exemplary life filled with good deeds?
Can we all now sleep tight and rest assured that no other attacks will take place anywhere in the world anymore?
Most importantly, should we all really be this happy, in a state of euphoria, celebrating the death of another human being?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending him. No way! I think the fact that Osama Bin Laden is now out of the picture is a very important success in the fight against terrorism. After all, he was the master, the leader, the mind behind Al Qaeda and spread nothing but hatred to all. Surely the world is a better place without him.
But, this entire thing just gets me thinking… I mean, sure, Osama was pure evil, but he is not the only extremist out there and he surely did not act alone. His followers are still out there...

And what about the thousands of good and honest people out there who were injured and killed during this wild chase that lasted ten whole years?
Above all, I can’t help but wonder… Why is it that we can’t all take this energy and focus on finding solutions to problems that are so much closer to us and part of our daily lives?
In so many places in Brazil, for example, people are changing their ways of life, adding locks to their doors, buying bullet proof cars (well, the people who can afford them, that is), afraid they will get robbed or killed. Isn’t this terror?
What about other people, in other countries, who have to fight so many kinds of wars, who have to face hunger, who have to live with so many diseases, who have to endure rape and mutilation and violence? Isn’t this terror?
I am sorry for the outburst. I know this post has nothing to do with my blog’s main theme and my promise to stay out of religious or political issues. But, once again, I had to break my own rules and post this.
Just some food for thought…
Peace out.