Archived entries for Middle East

Around Abu Dhabi

I spent the week in Abu Dhabi, and unfortunately, even in October, the temperatures are so searing it’s hard to muster the motivation to go outside for very long. Since I last visited three summers ago, the pace of development has soared, with the cityscape along the seaside corniche almost unrecognizable. When a friend asked me what it’s like here, the only descriptor that came to mind was: “Abu Dhabi is living proof that money can, in fact, buy anything.”

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world’s largest:

View from my hotel room to the building frenzy along Abu Dhabi corniche – with the under-construction St. Regis Abu Dhabi at center.

Jumeirah at Etihad Towers lobby:

Emirates Palace Hotel:

Gold vending machine in Emirates Palace lobby:

Etihad Towers, the exciting new development housing my hotel and a new luxury mall (as if the Gulf needed another):

Flying British Airways New York – Abu Dhabi

My friends know no trip is complete without me documenting the meal service…

Pre-flight dinner in the British Airways Lounge at JFK:

Dinner JFK-London:

Lunch on London – Abu Dhabi (complete with bright beetroot hummus):

London – New York breakfast:

From one 747-400 to another on a rainy morning at Heathrow:

Abu Dhabi International Airport:

Flying Qatar Airways

I love Gulf airlines and this trip opted for Qatar Airways for my trip from New York to Thailand and Vietnam. Added bonus: Qatar has fifth freedom rights to fly passengers between Bangkok and Hanoi, and I jumped aboard that quick 90-minute hop. Quite simply, it was spectacular. The airline far exceeds the experience its “World’s 5 Star Airline” slogan promises.

Doha Airport:

Doha main terminal lounge:

Doha Premium Terminal:

Onboard:

Incredible staff:

Lovely food:

Beirut

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” -Aldous Huxley

After a great Christmas in the real Paris, I decided to head off on a whim to the Paris of Middle East. It turns out that the Beirut’s old nickname is not far off the mark.

My first impression of Beirut was a unique one: nearly 90 minutes to get out of the airport, standing in long queues as every stamp in my passport was scrutinized by one agent, then a second, and then a third. They don’t seem to mess around with those who have stamps from Israel, with whom Lebanon remains officially at war.

Finally in a taxi, I quickly got over my initial pockmarked views on the drive into town from the airport and ultimately found an incredibly welcoming and beautiful city that lived up to its reputation as the region’s sophisticated party capital.

Beirut was the first city I ever visited where I saw a tank in the street. Soldiers and security guards seemed to be found every few yards — even more than in Cairo, a place where they crawling around everywhere — making the city feel incredibly safe (some might feel the opposite is true). One Cairo similarity: both cities have such oppressive, smog-choked air, that it’s nearly impossible to breathe.

Here, contrasting architecture abounds:

It’s hard to believe that for most of my lifetime Lebanon has been immersed in civil war. There are few signs of strife left in the streets, with most of Beirut having been rebuilt, flush with money from Europe and the Gulf. The city feels incredibly safe, with only the occasional vacant lot or bombed-out building to remind us of how things were:

The still-standing shell of the Holiday Inn, site of the 1975 “war of the hotels“:

For a language fanatic, Beirut is a dream. Every interaction in shops, restaurants and on the bustling streets is a melange of Arabic, English, and French (with all three often used in a single sentence!). I made use of all ten words in my Arabic vocabulary this trip (a simple shukran goes a long way), but having passable French made life easier. An English-only speaker would probably encounter no problems.

The impressive Al-Omari Mosque:

In contrast to the rest of the Arab world, gay life does indeed exist here! One day I lingered at Bardo, one of the gay bars highlighted in the 2009 New York Times article that described Beirut as the “Provincetown of the Middle East.” At lunchtime, I was the only person in the place. By late night, even on a weekday, the place was packed. In that piece, The Times wrote that “Beirut represents a different Middle East for some gay and lesbian Arabs: the only place in the region where they can openly enjoy a social life denied them at home.”

For a tourist, Beirut feels incredibly carefree — which seems even more incredible, given the city’s war-torn past and still-heightened security concerns. With its glittering downtown, spectacular Mediterranean climate, and its relatively liberal French-influenced attitude, living here seems good (certainly as long as you don’t happen to be one of the refugees living in camps on the southern fringes of the city).

Still, there is no denying that Beirut is in a bad neighborhood.

It was hard not to think, as I sat in the beautiful Place de L’Etoile enjoying a cappuccino and watching kids dance in the pedestrian-only streets, that just 60 miles to the east, the regime of Bashar al-Assad was carrying out unbelievable atrocities in Damascus.

All photos from Beirut

Emirates A380

The other night I had the supreme pleasure of getting onboard the A380 for the first time, with a tour courtesy of Emirates. The plane is not to be believed, and Emirates has it pimped out beautifully. Here are a few shots from onboard the impressive aircraft:

Tending the upper deck bar:

Upper deck business class – seemed as big as a football field:

The crazy first class suites:

The first class shower – there are two of these at the front of the cabin. Customers are entitled to five minutes of water and 30 minutes in the bathroom in total. A flight attendant told me that the plane is staffed with two crewmembers whose sole job is to maintain these bathrooms:

A few good books (and one less so)

I’ve been remiss in posting my usual book reviews, so I’m going to briefly recap a few of the books I’ve plowed through this summer:

Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (Elaine Sciolino): An excellent account of post-Revolution Iran by a New York Times writer who was actually on the famous Air France 747 that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini back from exile in 1979! This was a true page-turner: I couldn’t put it down and ended up reading it in only a few sittings. A fascinating look at Iran by someone who spent the better part of the last 30 years living there.

Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi-U.S. Connection (Gerald Posner): What an awful book! I’m obsessed with Saudi Arabia and am well aware how bizarre the kingdom may be, but this book was over-the-top one-sided. In fact, it seemed so overwhelmingly biased, I actually felt bad for the House of Saud — an amazing feat by the author!

A History of Jordan (Philip Robins): A simple title and a boring academic-looking volume, but an excellent overview of Jordan — from the Ottoman and British Mandate days, through the period when the country was known as Transjordan to the present Hashemite Kingdom. Jordan is a fascinating place carved out of the Middle Eastern desert (like so many nations) and this easy read explains its evolution, the complexity of its relations with neighboring states, the roots of its liberal streak, and the unusual cast of characters who’ve played a hand in its development.

Zamalek: The Changing Life Of A Cairo Elite, 1850-1945 (Chafika Hamamsy): With the complexity of the Arab names that run throughout this book, Zamalek can be a bit of a slog. After visiting Cairo this spring and staying in the Zamalek neighborhood, I became obsessed with the place. (In fact, I picked up this book at Diwan, an excellent local bookseller in Zamalek!) The title is fairly self-explanatory; the book traces the changing mores and culture of Cairo’s upper-crust in the years when British and French influence were at their zenith. Like I said, it’s a slog, but interesting.

The Egyptian Museum

Cairo’s most famous cultural institution, the Egyptian Museum, is a must-see. The place is filled chockablock with every imaginable Egyptian antiquity. With its crammed displays and somewhat dingy interior, it feels like you’re exploring a dusty old attic. No cameras inside, though!

Simonds

All the guidebooks on Cairo seemed to recommend Simonds, a European-style cafe on Sharia 26 July in Zamalek, so I went there each morning for croissants, cappuccinos, and French-language newspapers. The place didn’t disappoint: the ancient, olive-skinned baristas were incredibly friendly, effortlessly going back and forth between Arabic and French as so many in Cairo do.

The “no smoking” signs were clearly being disregarded, despite there being seven of them in the tiny cafe. Every patron was smoking like a chimney.

Cairo Tower

Every city of a certain size boasts a large phallic structure, and Cairo Tower is it in this town. Soaring more than 600 feet into the sky from the middle of the Nile, Cairo Tower, the tallest structure in Egypt, offers an incredible vantage point for all of the city’s vastness.

The view from the top, looking north:

And looking south:

Cairo Marriott Zamalek

In Cairo, I stayed at the Marriott in Zamalek, the upscale neighborhood on an island in the Nile. The hotel centers on the 1869-era Gezira Palace built for Empress Eugenie of France and other dignitaries when they came to Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. While I’m sure there is a range of rooms, I was lucky to land a “Diplomatic Suite” on the 16th floor with two (!) balconies looking north and south down the Nile. At $125 a night, the price couldn’t be beat. I was super excited when a waiter in the fabulous garden courtyard told me, “Your Arabic is very good.” I clearly fooled him: it pays to know four or five words in any local language…like na’am (yes), laa (no), shokran (thanks) and insha’allah (god willing!).

The hotel entrance:

My Diplomatic Suite:

The view from my room, looking across the Nile:

Cairo

I made it to my fifth continent this week (Australia and Antarctica remain) as I flew from Istanbul to Cairo for a few days of exploring the largest city in Africa and the Arab world (estimates peg it at nearly 20 million)!

I worried that Cairo would be so big and chaotic that I would feel tense and unsafe and unable to relax, even with my trusty travel companion, Mr. Xanax! A friend in Istanbul said that if I thought that city was chaotic, I hadn’t seen anything yet. But Cairo ended up feeling surprisingly relaxed, completely safe and very friendly. Coming from Istanbul, where the streets are littered with beggars (many of them children from eastern Europe, my friend lamented) and many streets are so deserted at night that they can feel a little sinister, the constant bustle and relatively hassle-free nature of Cairo was actually refreshing.

Cairo seemed incredibly civilized: on numerous occasions, I saw police sipping tea and noshing on croissants while they stood guard on street corners (OK, so in America they eat donuts and eat coffee, but this just seemed so much classier…). Newsstands were everywhere, and everywhere people were reading the papers — whether Arabic- or French-language. Each morning I’d pick up Le Monde from an affable Arabic and French-speaking vendor on Sharia 26 July, his cigarette struggling to stay in his mouth as he mumbled up a storm. One time, when I walked past him later in the day without my paper, he remembered me and asked me where it went (I’d long since read it and tossed it)! And he made a strong sales pitch for other French publications he thought I might like. Caireans try to separate you from your money in many charming ways.

I stayed at the historic palace Cairo Marriott Hotel and spent a lot of time wandering Zamalek, the neighborhood surrounding it (on an island in the Nile) that has long been home to Cairo’s diplomatic corps and many of its wealthy residents. The winding streets were filled with surprises at every turn: big old homes, many dusty, decaying and falling down on themselves but all clearly with good bones, plus the Embassies of Brunei, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more (none of which I could photograph, thanks to Egypt’s rigid policy of no-photo-taking of any government buildings). There was even a Fauchon outlet next to the Embassy of France! Cafes and tiny bookstores dot the side streets of Zamalek, giving the place a sophisticated (while still very dusty and decaying) feel.

I also did the pyramids, which I’m glad I did so that on future trips to Cairo I can skip Giza entirely and concentrate on exploring the vast city itself. That said, they were impressive and HUGE — but overrun with tourists. If you think the pyramids are out in the middle of nowhere, think again. Photos of them are smartly taken to avoid including the encroaching city and suburbs, which butt up against the Giza Plateau on which the three Great Pyramids and the Sphinx stand. (Impressively, the pyramids can also be seen from downtown towers, in the distance on the city’s western outskirts.) We had a bit of excitement on our day at the pyramids: a man managed to climb all the way up to the top of the second largest pyramid (which has had its top lopped off), and could be seen pacing on top. My guide said a military helicopter would come and whisk the man away (presumably to some not nice jail).

Downtown Cairo was very neat and incredibly European in style. Many streets could pass for Paris, if they weren’t so dusty and grubby (most development and cash in recent years has flowed to newly built sections of Cairo, further from the city center). It makes sense: the Europeans had an enormous influence on the development of the city. Ismail the Magnificent also played a hand in its development, ordering the building of a European-style modern downtown. But interestingly, many streets, with their Art Deco architecture, look like South Beach instead of the Middle East.

As you can imagine, in such a huge city, the streets are lively and interesting with coffee shops and shisha houses doing a brisk business at all hours:

Cairo traffic is the worst I have seen anywhere on the planet. There are no traffic lights (or if they are, they are disregarded) and there certainly aren’t any traffic cops or crosswalks. Crossing any street in Cairo requires one to contemplate his life ending. I didn’t take cabs at all — I walked everywhere — because I was so scarred from the ride into town from the airport. The ride out was even worse: the driver sped through city streets at speeds in excess of 120 kilometers per hour, weaving across many lanes of traffic (but somehow never needing to use his brakes) all while pointing out various sights along the way (“There’s Hosni Mubarak’s house!” / “There’s the October War exhibition.”) I vowed that if I survived, I would never return to Cairo because I really pushed my luck on that ride.

Related: Photos on Flickr

Turkish Airlines IST-CAI

The bright and airy Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge in Istanbul is one of the best airline lounges around. Check out how spectacularly they light the art!

My flight on the Turkish A321 was great. I’m always impressed by how European airlines still offer a full meal service (in all classes) even on short hops like our 90-minute flight across the Mediterranean. I was in their short-haul business class, which like most European airlines does not offer a larger seat or more legroom but simply offers a blocked middle seat. At least the food service is still unique to business class! The food was quite tasty on this sector:

Crossing the mountainous southern shore of Turkey:

Cutting the flat northern coast of Africa:

Approaching Cairo:

Canada vs. Gulf carriers

Over the past few months there have been more than a few bizarre comments made by Canadian officials over the business tactics of Emirates (the airline of Dubai) and Etihad (the airline of nearby Abu Dhabi), with the airlines calling the allegations simply “slanderous.” The two biggest carriers from the United Arab Emirates have quite the business connecting virtually all inhabited continents to each other. Speculation swirls that they receive significant government subsidies — like cheap jet fuel and airport subsidies — that give them a leg up on the competition. Canada only allows six flights per week to the UAE (three on Etihad and three on Emirates. By contrast, there are about 10 flights per day between the US and UAE!). The airlines want more access to the Canadian market, but Ottawa appears to be protectionist towards Air Canada (which it no longer owns, and which doesn’t fly to the UAE) and doesn’t seem interested in budging.

Based on my experience flying Etihad, other airlines should be shaking in their shoes. Their quality knocks the socks off just about everyone.

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Abu Dhabi International Airport

The interior of Abu Dhabi’s International Airport, built in the late 60s, is dated but super cool. Most flights depart under this impressive colorful “mushroom” of a roof:

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New Dubai

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are sometimes lumped into the same basket, being the two largest and influential emirates in the U.A.E. (Abu Dhabi is the seat of government, but Dubai is the commercial capital), but the truth is they feel quite different. I had no idea until I made the 75-mile trek across the desert-super-highway from Abu Dhabi to Dubai….in a PUBLIC BUS! (That is a story that must be retold in person!)

I’m not going to write a lot about Dubai because I was so overwhelmed by the place I was simply rendered speechless! Let’s just say you could grill a slab of meat on any outdoor surface – or simply by exposing it to the incredibly hot air. One thing I never realized about Dubai, and that hampered my ability to find Dubai a compelling tourist stop was its scale: the place is unbelievable huge. It reminded me of Los Angeles, with its multiple centers of gravity, and no one clear draw. Like Abu Dhabi, Dubai was not built for the pedestrian but rather for the car.

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The hot and smoggy outline of the Burj Dubai Tower, expected to open in September as the world’s tallest building:

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Old Dubai

While Dubai may be best known for its ultra-futuristic skyline (think Vegas on crack), I thought the old Bur Dubai section of the city was most interesting. Here, Dubai Creek is filled with traditional abras that ferry tourists and locals from one side of the creek to the other, and deep into the heart of Dubai (the waterway divides Dubai in half).

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Etihad AUH-JFK

I thought Etihad couldn’t top my flight the other day from New York to Abu Dhabi, but they have. This 14-hour hop across three continents was a breeze thanks to an unbelievable selection of food and the best business class seat I’ve ever slipped into. I managed to read an entire book from cover to cover (Abu Dhabi: From Rags to Riches — fascinating), eat a huge meal, and still sleep a ton.

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Passing over hostile territory!

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The full route:

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The view from the bathroom (yes, they have windows in the bathroom!) taken somewhere over the Atlantic wasn’t too shabby:

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Brands of the world

There’s a line from the English comedy show “Absolutely Fabulous” that goes something like, “We’re living in a global shopping mall and you’re the only one who thinks there’s an exit.” Head to the UAE and you’ll feel like you’re in one massive shopping mall — with all the familiar brands, in Arabic, of course:

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Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort

Abu Dhabi’s tourist infrastructure is less developed than Dubai’s, so hotel options are a little more limited here. Visit in the heat of summer, and prices for the best properties are rock bottom. I managed to get the 5-star Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort for just $85 (USD) a night — and like most American chains, this foreign outpost far outpaces its U.S. cousins in quality and class.

Like the other emirates where alcohol is not banned outright, Abu Dhabi requires booze be restricted to hotels and a few private clubs. Fortunately the Sheraton has not only a few great restaurants (I had superb Italian — really!), but a great outdoor bar replete with hookas, German beer, and massive fans and misters to keep one cool throughout the day and night (even at midnight, the temperatures are still well into the 90s). As if that were not enough, the hotel also plays host to Zenith Night Club, billed as “Abu Dhabi’s hottest nightclub.” I stopped in on two nights and the place was jammed — a cool (if generic) club not unlike one you’d find anywhere else on earth.

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Hijab on a coffee cup!

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My first hookah!

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German beer is a fine find in the relatively dry Abu Dhabi:

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A little barbed wire…

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Unusual sights for the Arabian Peninsula

The United Arab Emirates may be an oasis of relative liberalism in the Middle East, but Abu Dhabi is still pretty conservative compared to its sister emirate, Dubai, some 75 miles away. A few notable signs of immodesty (the first one on a Friday in a Muslim nation, no less!).

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