Archives for category: The Gulf

Whenever I need groceries, it is always this little shop called “Hawki’s” that I turn to in my neighborhood of Zahle. Like many Zahlawi buildings, it’s situated in one of those classic Libano-Italian buildings from (I’m guessing) between the 17th-19th centuries. That is to say, golden-colored sandstone with a rough exterior, polished on the corners of the building; bright green shutters and black iron balconies, all topped by those lovely carrot-blush tiles.

Hawki’s is owned by a family, namely the father – I’m going to call him S. S is a nice guy (he has to be). He offers good advice and runs into the upstairs room to hunt for merchandise I might need. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. His son, who also works there, was kind enough to give me an arak glass (note: not a glass of arak) when I bought my first Arak from them, despite my protests. All in all, an alright place to do my shopping.

Because Zahle is relatively prosperous, it is not out of place to spy non-Arab faces on occasion, working as domestic help: Ethiopians, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Nepalese. Someone from the building opposite mine has a Filipino maid, whom they send on errands to Hawki’s to buy a few items, like cigarettes. I have seen her come in several times now while I am there, shy and small-seeming, but trying hard to be confident. Chuckling with the locals, S will ignore her until he has served everyone else (even if she were before them), then turn cold-facedly to her to ask what she needs. She responds in heavily accented English, which he cuts through by interrupting and talking pleasantly to someone else, leaving her waiting again.

Why S feels the need to do this is beyond me. Well, actually it isn’t, but I don’t really feel like going into it right now. Regardless, the plight of domestic workers is not unique to the Arab world. It is however a good example of some of the things that make globalization either a jungle or a goldmine, depending on who you are. Transnational communities, remittance work, complete lack of labor protection – these are all part of the picture.

But it was great to catch this New York Times article discussing domestic workers in Kuweit, because it could have been about any Arab country, or anywhere at all – it even makes reference to the US somewhat. But it all makes me want to tie this into Ethiopian Suicides, the Lebanese blog associated with the Anti Racism Movement, which advocates on behalf of domestic workers and all issues of race in Lebanon. The reality may be gray, but some people are trying to bring in some color.

Last time I was in Hawki’s, before I left for Istanbul, it was just S, the Filipino girl and I. She was buying cigarettes, while I waited for her to finish. I nodded my head to her in greeting, and she smiled widely. An honest smile.

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I saw this photo first in The Times and loved it - the contrast is palpable.

Expanding on my last post which talked peripherally about the Emirates, but slightly more focused, I wanted to clarify a few thoughts right here.

There are some misconceptions about the Gulf flying around in the Western world, driven largely by some clever branding and tactful diplomacy. But to be honest, the Gulf’s “renaissance” is precisely as sustainable as fossil fuel. Nowhere represents the explosive (read: oil-driven) economic growth of the Gulf better than the United Arab Emirates, with its flagship (though not capital!) city Dubai as the prime example. I’ve never been there, but I have heard wonder stories, eye-witness accounts, and have of course read things.

When you stop and think about the Gulf, it sounds more and more like a scenario for a bad reality television show: take these strict, nomadic Bedouin who have never known luxury, and shower them with mineral wealth worth a fortune on the international market – who will come out on top? Saudi Arabia certainly hasn’t (though that probably has more to do with the US and Britain getting in there early), but I’d say that Qatar and the UAE have definitely managed to get the best of their money – or have they?

Dubai has certainly eclipsed any other Arab metropolis (and many other world cities) as a “place to be,” a boomtown, a new Las Vegas. It’s not surprising that for those who even know that Beirut is more than a college drinking game, comparisons have ensued. Now, as a Lebanese-American, listening to ignorant Americans chattering about how Dubai was taking over Beirut’s role as the “Paris of the Middle East” can get a bit frustrating. There are a lot of reasons that this is untrue, and here are just a few:

  • Lebanon is quite a liberal society for the Arab World
  • Business laws here do not involve jailing or the death penalty
  • Despite being a liberal society, there are still things like morals that keep prostitution and labor abuse at somewhat more tolerable levels.
  • People here actually have souls.
  • They also have to work for a living, and therefore appreciate the value of things.
  • There is no oil flowing here to get you out of a jam. So whatever exists in Lebanon, for better or for worse, is here because of Lebanese labor or brainpower – not mineral deposits (though that might change in the future).

Of course, Lebanon is far from perfect. But this should give you an idea of what I mean. More on this can follow, given enough interest.

Anyway, the debate over the value of “The Dubai Experiment,” as I think of it, has been ongoing. I had the pleasure of reading a few articles on the subject posted by Hafsa (who may or may not be OK with me linking to her): one article attacking the steel and chrystal city, the other trying (and failing) to defend it. Both are written in a Pakistani regional newspaper, but nonetheless are valuable reads. I also spoke with a wonderful English gentleman while in Iraq, who’s family has been living there for some time, who claimed that he really needed to get his family out of there.

The reality is that Dubai is a city about contrasts: either the extraordinary wealth and height of the city’s upper classes, or the squalor of South Asian laborers. There is little in-between. So when Americans fall in love with Dubai, they should know that its a relationship that will break their heart. Unless, of course, they like that sort of thing…