Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Just went on a tour of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with some fabulous visiting friends (holla, J & J!). Above are my photos (which of course don't do the breathtaking architecture justice), and below are some blurbs about the mosque that I am lifting from Enjoy!

"The Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, popularly called Grand Mosque by local residents, is seen as a “globally unifying” landmark from its conception to completion, bringing together designers, features, materials and suppliers from nearly every corner of the globe: Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, Turkey, Iran, China, Greece and the UAE.

"The Mosque’s initial architectural design was Moroccan, but it evolved to include many global features, including exterior walls that are of traditional Turkish design. Natural materials were chosen for its design and construction, which include marble, stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics.

"The Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque features 80 domes all decorated with white marble. The main dome’s outer shell measures 32.7 metres in diameter and stands 70 metres high from the inside and 85 metres from the outside - the largest of its kind, according to the Turkey Research Centre for Islamic History and Culture.

"The Mosque has 1,096 columns in its exterior and 96 columns in the main prayer hall which are embedded with more than 20,000 handmade marble panels encrusted with semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell and mother of pearl. Furthermore, beautiful minarets standing 107 metres are built on the four corners of the Mosque.

"Artifical lakes, totaling 7,874 square metres and laden with dark tiles, surround the Mosque, whilst coloured floral marble and mosaics pave the 17,000 square metre courtyard. The pools reflect the Mosque’s spectacular image, which becomes even more resplendent at night.

"An equally impressive interior design complements the Mosque’s awesome exterior. Italian white marble and inlaid floral designs adorn the prayer halls and the Mosque’s interior walls have decorative 24 carat gold-glass mosaic features. The main prayer hall also features the world’s largest hand-woven Persian carpet (7,119 square metres).

"Furthermore the Mosque features seven 24-carat gold-plated chandeliers which were imported from Germany, all designed with thousands of Swarovski crystals. The largest of these chandeliers, which hangs from the main dome of the Mosque, is considered the biggest in the world; it measures 10 metres in diameter, 15 metres in height, and eight-to-nine tonnes in weight.

"The Qibla wall, on the other hand, is 23 metres high and 50 metres wide, and is subtly decorated so as not to distract worshippers from prayer. The 99 names (qualities) of Allah are featured on the Qibla wall using traditional Kufi calligraphy and are subtly back-illuminated using fibre-optic lighting. Twenty-four carat gold, gold leaf and gold glass mosaic were also used in the mehrab (the niche found in the middle of the Qibla wall) and the crescents topping the domes.

"The Mosque has 80 Iznikpanels - highly decorated ceramic tiles popular in the 16th century - which feature distinctly in Istanbul’s imperial and religious buildings. Traditionally hand-crafted, each tile was designed by Turkish calligrapher Othman Agha. Three calligraphy styles - Naskhi, Thuloth and Kufi – are used throughout the mosque and were drafted by Mohammed Mendi (UAE), Farouk Haddad (Syria) and Mohammed Allam (Jordan). The Mosque can accommodate up to 40,960 worshippers from its prayer halls and courtyard."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Movies, as The Good Lord Intended Them.

So after being a loyal patron of movies for about 35 years now, I finally figured out how films are *supposed* to be watched:
in GOLD CLASS, of course! (I now shudder to think of the cumulative years I have wasted sitting in fold-up, craptastic, traditional movie theater seats with my feet stuck to the soda on the floor, ick.)

Yes, folks, the local film establishments can kiss me and my semi-steady business goodbye: I have been indoctrinated into a higher level of moviegoing experience, and this popcorn-lovin' girl ain't ever going back.

Welcome to GOLD CLASS seating, courtesy of Dubai's Mall of the Emirates. Last night Daddy and I escaped (the near-constant din of some child or other's discontent) to catch a showing of Michael Jackson's "This Is It," and while the movie itself was excellent, I might have been able to sit through 2 hours of test pattern and still emerge just as exuberant.

Picture it:

Separate entrance (automatic glass doors, boldly announcing the crossover into GOLD CLASS to keep any riffraff at bay);

Pre-movie foyer (much like the first class lounge at an airport, where perhaps one can discuss one's expectations for the upcoming film) (or, in my case, go to my "happy place" and try to stave off the onset of a tantrum-induced headache) (yeah, it was MY tantrum, so what);

Smartly attired attendants at the private concession stand (though it can hardly be described as a "concession stand," due to the...)

Full dinner menu (!!!) (I ordered a chicken caesar salad, which was served to me in the movie theater);

Assigned seats (yet with only 40 chairs in the full-size cinema, it was impossible to have a less-than-perfect view of the screen);

Oversized, individual, leather reclining sofas (full range of movement from upright to bed-like) (yes, someone too-predictably fell asleep and was loudly snoring in the second row, the seats were *that* comfortable);

Blankets (I suspect that they intentionally made it chilly in there, just so they could show off the amenities);

And-- the pièce de résistance-- a private call button to summon the waitstaff for any and all unmet movie-related needs during the show.

Seriously, it was cinematic *heaven*.

And no matter that it cost more than triple a standard ticket (100 AED versus 30 AED, which is about $28 vs. $8). Can you even *put* a price on 2 hours of uninterrupted escapism in a giant La-Z-Boy chair?

So you can have your day spas, your facials, your yoga... Mommy has found a new way to pamper herself. And with Baby becoming more opinionated every minute, Sushi regressing into tears every time things don't go her way, and Screamer taking it upon herself to unapologetically swipe any item of interest from any unsuspecting sibling, it couldn't have happened to me at a better time. xo.

p.s. A gratuitous note about "This Is It": I never considered myself a *huge* Michael Jackson fan, and kinda wrote him off as just another tabloid casualty after the horrible molestation allegations eclipsed his existence for a while. But I have to say, I sobbed intermittently throughout this entire movie. The combination of Michael's still-spectacular musical gift (I can no longer squeak out the tunes I sang in college, whereas here's this 50-year-old guy doing pitch-perfect, brilliantly choreographed renditions of songs spanning his entire lifetime)... plus the jaw-dropping spectacle of his concert's planned theatrical and special effects... plus the audience's knowledge that this man only had 9 weeks, 8 weeks... 2 weeks left to live-- while he himself had no idea-- put a lump in my throat that just wouldn't quit. Michael Jackson still had so much life to deliver unto his audiences, and this world is a little less magical due to his untimely death. If you haven't seen this film already, please do.
I promise you won't need a Gold Class ticket to leave the theater feeling inspired. :)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Post Script to Obama Entry

A family friend sent me this in response to my recent Obama blog entry. It's a short video clip of a decorated colonel testifying last month before the United Nations on the subject of Israel's alleged warcrimes against Palestinian civilians during the Gaza conflict.

Worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Consider Me Culturally Understood.

Recently I visited the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. During our nearly two-hour session, about 20 of us sat on the floor sampling traditional Arabic foods while an Emirati woman (meaning, she is native to this region and enjoys certain privileges reserved for nationals) answered our questions. We were not given any guidelines and therefore no subjects were off-limits.

Here I will do my best to recreate some of the dialogue. I must say at the outset, however, that I was not taking notes during the actual session, and I'm assuming these answers represent the viewpoints of just one Emirati woman (albeit one who has been given authority to speak on behalf of Arab culture!), so please don't quote me or take any of this as definitive gospel. Just trying to give you a sense of my experience.

[See if you can guess which questions *I* asked. Hint: it will be obvious.]

Q: What do we need to know in terms of etiquette?

A: It is very important never to take anything using your left hand. Always use your right hand to give and receive things. Even if you are left-handed, you take with your right, and then transfer to your left.

Also, it is considered impolite not to eat what is put in front of you. We believe that any gift or food that is presented to you was predetermined as yours from the moment that it was created or grown. So, for example, if someone pours you a cup of coffee, you should drink it, because the coffee beans used to make it were intended for you from the time of their creation. Similarly, we do not send each other thank you notes for gifts, since it is God whom we should be thanking for creating that gift for us.

Q: Why offer this forum?

A: This type of question-and-answer forum is nothing new; in fact, by law the Sheikhs are required to have an open forum once a month in which all Emirati citizens are invited to come and ask questions and present their concerns. There is one Sheikh who uses a retina-scanning machine for his visitors and will reject anyone who has asked him a question within the past 6 months. Technically, this is improper.

Q: What percentage of marriages are arranged in the UAE?

A: Let me say the answer and then quickly clarify it. One hundred percent of marriages here are arranged. But wait! Proposed arrangements can be rejected. There is one woman here at the Centre who has many men wanting to marry her, but she has rejected them all, usually on the basis that they are not yet financially secure. Oftentimes, though, parents strongly encourage their children to heed their suggestions of whom to marry; parents know children better than children know themselves. Also we tend to marry at a young age. If you are a woman and not married by 27, men will just assume you are too high-maintenance.

A: Is dating allowed?

Q: No, we do not date romantically before marriage. If you like someone, you marry that person. If it does not work out, you get divorced. It is no big deal to get divorced; there is no stigma here in the UAE. Many divorces occur right after the honeymoon, even if the marriage was consummated, which is fine. We would much rather that young people get married and then divorce instead of having relations before marriage. If a man and a woman are caught in a car together doing something inappropriate, then they will be married.

But by the way, this is not to suggest that we are opposed to sex. Once you are married, anything goes!--with the exception of necrophilia and anal sex. You are married, after all, you should enjoy this person! There is a store here that sells sex toys and lingerie, go ahead and buy them!

A: What happens if you get pregnant outside of marriage?

Q: This would be a very big problem. If you get pregnant, you had better get married right away. If you are pregnant and unmarried, you could go to jail for 10 years. Sure, this sounds harsh, but it is not difficult to avoid getting pregnant when you are not married.

Q: Is birth control permitted?

A: Within marriage, yes, although only insofar as you are attempting to space out your children. Large families are encouraged, and most Emirati women have 5 to 8 kids. We believe that it is best for the health of the mother to allow for 2 years between births, however, so we encourage birth control for this purpose.

A: Are men allowed to have more than one wife?

Q: Yes, technically a man is allowed to have up to 4 wives, but the vast majority of them have only one wife. Imagine how you'd feel if your husband came home and said he wanted another wife; we feel the same way. Really, the idea of multiple wives is most useful for motivating women to treat their husbands in the way they should be treated, it keeps us on our toes. Sometimes we are amazed by the way Western women treat their husbands: they don't even bother to stand up to greet them when they enter the room. How could you not stand up to greet him? He is your husband!

[Editorial Note: (laughing).]

Q: Does the culture promote the subordination of women, both in attitude and in dress?

A: No. First of all, we choose to wear the abaya (black robe) and headscarf. We feel that we have been instructed by God to cover ourselves, and it is between us and God to honor that instruction. Now, there is disagreement among Muslims as to how much of our faces are required to be covered, if any; this is why you will see some women with only their head and neck wrapped in a scarf, whereas other women cover everything but their eyes, and other women put their entire face behind a veil. Sure, covering our heads and bodies is a bit uncomfortable at first, especially in the summer heat, but you get used to it, just in the same way that you get used to the discomfort of wearing a bra. And no, it doesn't always have to be a black robe; you will sometimes see other colors worn in other regions. It's just a matter of tradition.

Second, we believe that men were put on this earth, whereas women are being borrowed from God. So in that sense, we are more valuable than men. It is why sometimes you see a woman following behind her husband; he is protecting her.

[Editorial Note: Not entirely sold on that last part, based on some couples I've observed.]

Q: Do Muslim men really believe that when they die, they will be presented with 72 virgins in heaven?

A: The 72 "virgin" thing is a bit misleading; it suggests a sexual nature when none is intended. The idea is that a man who goes to heaven is rewarded with 72 *perfect beings*. Women, on the other hand, are simply reunited with God when we go to heaven.

Q: I'm Jewish. How scared should I be living here?

A: [chuckles] Not scared at all! We believe that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God, and that our religious texts are just 3 volumes of the same book. That said, you will certainly find people here who are willing to argue with you on the topic of Israel; for many people this is an emotional subject. When we hear someone declare that they are Jewish, we usually brace ourselves for an argument about Israel. Otherwise, we assume, why would they be telling us of their religion? We consider religion a subject that is most appropriate for the home. But no, you shouldn't be scared. In fact, sometimes Islam hardly feels like the predominant religion in the UAE; have you seen the way Christmas decorations take over the shopping malls? And if you encounter an occasional person here who expresses prejudice about your religion, there are prejudiced people everywhere, even in your own country.

Q: So then why are there no synagogues in the UAE?

A: If there are enough Jewish people here, then it can be assumed that the Sheikh would grant them land for a synagogue, just as he has done for the Christian people and the Hindu people.

[Editorial Note: Very encouraging, but too good to be true? Hmmm....]

[Editorial Note to the Editorial Note: According to Wikipedia, 96% of the UAE population practices Islam; there are 31 Christian churches and 1 Hindu temple here.]

* * * *

All in all, the Centre was a totally interesting experience. I plan to go again soon; have any questions you'd like me to ask? xo.

p.s. If you're in the mood for even more cultural understanding, you can check out a little blurb about each of the Five Pillars of Islam at