I found crazy cheap flights from Cairo to Bangkok, only $250. This was a main factor in our decision to visit Egypt. The flight was with Etihad Airways, which had a long layover in أبو ظبي (Abu Dhabi). We opted for the longer of the two layovers, which was 12 hours, so that we could spend the day checking out the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The flight was one of the nicest I’ve been on, especially for the price. We got blankets and pillows, free meal, free headphones and a full suite of movies, music and games. The options ranged from American to European, from Arab to Bollywood. I opted for Arab, which seemed appropriate. Just reading some of the movie descriptions was wildly entertaining. I’ll share a few with you here:
A spoiled young man sets off on a quest to find and marry a young woman who looks like his ancestor.
Alaa finds that he is the last man of the Week family, and must take care of the family’s women alone.
Sham decides to post an advert looking for a fake husband to father her child in exchange for a hefty sum.
A lonely girl on the lookout for a husband gets a surprise when two attractive men fall for her at once.
I ended up watching 30 minutes of a movie, where the protagonist steals his friends honeymoon trip after the marriage falls through, before falling asleep.
Kristina and I arrived in the airport and right off the bat we noticed how clean it was. I didn’t even feel like I needed to make a birds nest to sit on the toilet. The airport itself was on the nicer end. And of course there was a Ferrari on display.
We went through customs which, especially after being in Egypt, was by far the easiest process I’ve experienced. The immigration guys were wearing clean white thawbs (the white Arab garment with the black band over the head). I hadn’t seen anyone wearing these in Egypt by the way, at least not with the head dress. In Egypt the head dress was typically the red and white pattern. Anyway, they took a quick look at my passport, had me stand in front of a camera that automatically detected how open my eyes were and complained until I had them open just right, and then snapped the photo, stamped the passport, you’re on your way! No questions asked.
When we got out on the street, it was hot, (to be redefined in the next post). I don’t think the temperature was that crazy, 80’s, but the sun just beat down on you. I couldn’t believe this was the weather in late November. I mean…what do they do in August??? The answer is apparently air conditioning. When waiting for the bus there are these little air conditioned pods that you can sit in. And I get the impression that people spend most of their time in malls…
Time for some quick facts and observations about UAE!
85% of the population is expatriate. I was so surprised. Arabs are almost a minority here. There is an asian population for sure, but the largest group was probably Indian, Pakistani and anyone else who looks like that. I learned later that it’s very difficult if not impossible to become a citizen of UAE, so people typically get work contracts and then leave after a couple years. This seems like a good model honestly, because people from poorer countries can come and earn some money that will go a lot further for them in their home country, and the UAE maintains a stable population and immigrants rotate in and out of the country.
This stable population brings on the second observation, which is how clean the city is. I don’t think I saw a single piece of trash the entire time I was there.
Another sort of interesting thing I noticed was that people are helpful, but almost in a bad way. They answer questions they don’t know the answer to. At one point we were trying to find the bus stop for a particular bus line and got three totally different answers before we basically figured it out on our own.
The most interesting thing was probably the way women are treated in the UAE. Women wore a lot of different attire depending on if they were Arab or not. The Arab women mostly wore Hijab (cover the head but not the face, and any color) or Niqab (black and covers everything except the eyes), but fancier than the dress in Egypt. By the way, I haven’t seen a single woman and my travels wearing a Burka, which covers everything. With the burka, there is a dark mesh in front of the eyes. I think Burkas are more of a thing in Saudi Arabia where people are more orthodox. (Saudi Arabia, by the way, is one of the countries that will not allow a tourist entry if they have Israel stamped on the passport, i.e. very muslim). Egypt is a more lax culture when it comes to religion and UAE is so multicultural that it would be impossible to be orthodox.
Dress aside, there were more interesting aspects. We saw a few signs, in the transit bus and at the bus stop that read, “Female Priority for Seating”. Riding the city bus, the front is reserved for women. A man can only sit there if he is accompanied by a woman. We sat in this area, having no clue about the customs, and chatted with a Finish couple until the bus started to fill up. At that point we left and the front of the bus became occupied solely by women. There is even a rule that if a woman gets harassed by a man, she can call 999 to report it. As punishment the man will have his head shaved and he will show up in the newspaper the following day as a public shaming!!! Kristina and I may or may not have entertained having her call the number reporting that I sexually harassed her. 😛
This rule reminded me a bit of what I had heard about Jordan and observed in Sinai. I’m not sure what the punishment is, but sexual harassment in Jordan is illegal. This law was set in place because of the reputation you will know if you read my post on Israel, specifically, visiting the Arab market. If you didn’t, I’ll save you the time and simply say that Kristina was not having it. So in Jordan, they are interested in attracting tourists, which is why they allow entry for tourists from Israel and they made a law making it illegal to be creepy. It sounds really funny when you think about it this way. Similarly, in Sinai, there is no law to my knowledge, but the culture is far more western-friendly and sexual harassment was kept to a western norm, from out experience.
>>> transition >>>
The main thing that we wanted to see in Abu Dhabi was the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It’s a beautiful mosque that actually looks a lot like the Taj Mahal, and of course, free entry was a major selling point.
We got to the entrance, which had separate doors for men and women. Inside they check that your attire is appropriate. Men must have knees and shoulders covered but that’s about it. Women must have just about everything other than the face covered in loose fit clothing. Leggings are a hard no. Despite the strict rules the staff was friendly and they provide clothing if needed. Most women end up wearing one of the dresses, which you can see Kristina wearing in the photos below. I think she looks like a Jedi.
When we got to the mosque, there was a large area in the entrance for shoes. It feels really nice to walk on the polished clean marble in socks.
The inside was similarly beautiful. The first thing you notice is for sure the grandiose chandeliers. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is home to the largest carpet in the world. It was handmade and took two years to complete! It measures 67,570 square feet and weighs around 35 tons. I have to admit that although everything was beautiful, Kristina and I agreed that the color palette was a bit scattered. Perhaps if the chandeliers and carpet were restricted to gold and white and maybe one other color it would have felt more cohesive.
There was one wall that had, in Arabic, 99 different words for god written on it. In the center was one empty space where the 100th word should be. However, nobody save Mohammed knows this word.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is very new. It was constructed between 1996-2007. After having just been in Athens and Giza, seeing some of the great historical sites of our civilization, it made me wonder and imagine what it would be like visiting this mosque 1000…2000…5000 years from now.
I do have to criticize one thing about the mosque now. Despite the amazing beauty and effort that went into constructing it, some things were done a bit half-ass. The one example that really stood out is the gold tops to the columns, which were made of plastic. In the image below you can see the creases where the plastic pieces click together.
After the mosque, which is about half-way between the airport and downtown, we headed into Abu Dhabi. Feeling rather crappy from the food poisoning in Egypt, (we still were far from recovered), we headed into the nearest mall that we saw to sit down and get some food. I try to do whatever the locals do when I go to a new place and sadly, going to a mall seemed the most fitting here.
The mall, in itself, was very interesting in a weird way. I felt like I was back in the US with a few exceptions:
- it was extravagant: very large and futuristic. The mall map is a massive interactive digital map with search, holographic layering of the levels and a virtual 3D walk to your destination.
- the stores definitely had a bit more diversity, given the international culture of the area
- I felt like every white person in a US mall was replaced by someone else. There were many Arabs, Indians and Asians, but very few caucasians and no latino/a’s.
The organization was so messy that it felt like a maze. My theory is that this is intentional, such that one get’s lost and just continues shopping.
There were all the classics: Victorias Secret, Bed Bath and Beyond, H&M, Starbucks, Coldstone, Pizza Hut, KFC, Popeyes, Charlie’s, Burger King, McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts…
There was even Tim Hortons. I was about to piss my pants. I couldn’t get over it. For those of you who don’t know, Tim Hortons is a Canadian breakfast fast food chain similar to Dunkin’ Donuts. Friends from Buffalo know this very well, because Canadian influence leaks on down there, but not much of anyone else does. They even have “Tim Hortons” written in Arabic on the store front. Too funny.
We got back to the airport. On the way out of UAE, we got to immigration and after Kristina gave me a look that assured me she was equally confused, we climbed under the… under the… the, ummm…. the thingies with the post and the rope…the…
Holy shit. I felt like such an idiot until I looked into this. They’re called retractable belt stanchions. Did you know that? I sure as hell didn’t. If you can think of a more normal description for these things please contact me. I’m drawing a blank. Photo added for clarity:
Okay. Focus. So we were at immigration, and we were all confused because it looked like we were on the wrong side of the…retractable belt stanchion, so we start climbing under the retractable belt stanchion, to which the guard calls out, “Hey! You! Don’t climb under that retractable belt stanchion!” So we followed the path that felt like skipping immigration. The spot where we ended up had a single guard and these gates with a camera and a passport scanner. So we got through immigration automatically. Future!!!
We had a bit of fun with some fake camels before heading on our way out of the Middle East and on to Bangkok! I wanted to get a photo of the thawb, so we made a friend and snapped a photo with him. He was a lot friendlier in person than his facial expression in this photo says.