Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Arabian Fairytale Part Two. The Princess and the Sheikh go to the races

The Sheikh and the Princess returned from the land of Ataturk refreshed and replenished and happy. Instead of the Dubai Factory Outlets the Sheikh had delivered the Grand Bizarre in Istanbul. The Princess was humbled by this abundance and generosity and quite frankly couldn’t believe her luck with the shopping in the halls and alleyways, the souks and bazaars of the ancient land. Blessed with a leather coat, pashmina, antique kilim bag, beautiful ceramics, and a reunion with her friend from the land afar, the Princess was content to return to the desert and wait for her next adventure

Not two weeks on the Sheikh is again restless and wanting to show his Princess more of his magnanimous beneficence. He has arranged for a new Magic Flying Carpet (MFC) – after all, the last model had left much to be desired. So he called in a genie from the land of Al Futaim (Honda Dealer in Al Ain) and this genie, Hashem by name, produced a beautiful new MFC with sunroof, cruise control, climate conditioning, 6 stacker CD player and all the mod cons. A golden MFC – a reflection of the true love the Sheikh has for the Princess and an acknowledgement that the Princess must have nothing but the very best in MFC’s.

“Let’s go to the Camel races in Sweihan” said the Sheikh. “It is the 19th anniversary of the races and there is bound to be a celebration befitting a beautiful Princess. Gather together the hareem, bring along suitable chaperones and we will take the golden MFC into the desert”. So the princess called on Nerissa of Victoria and Moraig of Kiwiland and her companion Annette the young and thin, and the caravan left the oasis to venture into the desert.

In the town of Sweihan the camel owners, jockeys and their precious camels have assembled at the local racetrack. There are also colourful characters from “The History of Sweihan – Heritage and Culture”. There are carpet makers, metal workers, weavers, cooks and even a dhow captain with his dhow floating in its own lake (fed by water tankers to assuage the evaporation of the 35+C heat!). A group of young falconers, all arrogance and class, pose with their magnificent avian hunters. Dancers sway to the rhythmic drumbeats and tympanic of the tambourine. Youngsters play their games amidst the cacophony of sound and the dust of the desert. Men dance an age old chant and challenge their counterparts. A young man with a rifle in hand negotiates the territory between the two groups. The princess is overawed and the ladies of the hareem are aghast.

On entry to the race course the camel herders observed the caravan and immediately directed the Sheik, his attendants and the hareem to the VIP dining enclosure. All the important racing identities had gathered to share a meal; Emerati men in their sparkling dish dash, bedu dressed to kill (literally – they carried rifles and knives!), the armed forces, the police, camel owners and camel jockeys. A few expat guests were afforded good seats in the tent and we were shown to our table. Mountainous platters of food were spread around a large desert tent. Beautiful salads were laid out and on lifting the gleaming silver dome on our table a whole baby goat had been prepared and settled in a large bowl of rice and cashew nuts. The princess had some difficulty looking at the head of the goat and also consuming the meat of it’s thighs! In fact the princess couldn’t eat the thighs while the goats eyes were looking at her. The Sheikh however attacked the goat with aplomb and made short work of his appetite. All washed down with a glass of lemonade. On looking around the assembled crowd the hareem noted that the next table had been served a camel haunch, complete with hump of solid fat and the young men were going at it with their bare hands as if it may be their last meal. This meal was an Arabian Feast – a meal to remember.

The entourage moved on to the cultural activities. The Princess patted a camel while the ladies of the hareem stood agog. Annette, the young and thin, made the acquaintance of some bearded water well attendants, while Moraig of Kiwiland sized up the home made carpets for her suite at the Intercontinental. Nerissa of Victoria and the Sheikh recorded all the days activities on their magic digital image makers.

And then the finale – the camel races. Now what a spectacle and the camels and jockeys are really not the most spectacular part at all. The Princess did note it was very strange this sport of racing camels and she remarked on the young boys jumping down from the camels before they had come to a halt, the trainers racing after the camels to stop them and the obvious dangers of being trampled. However what was most entertaining was the traffic moving along next to the race. Twenty or more large 4WD’s and two coaches raced along the side of the track to ensure the camel racing enthusiasts they carried had a camel’s eye view of the race. Jostling for position and racing at top speed meant the camels were nearly obscured by the dust. At races end, to ensure they then had poll position for the next race, they would turn around and speed back to the starting line.

The ladies of the hareem decided enough was enough. Moraig of Kiwiland was ‘shattered’, Annette the young and thin had ‘had enough’ and Nerissa of Victoria had begun wilting in the heat. The princess also decided she had dutifully celebrated the camel racing anniversary well enough and urged the Sheikh to return to the desert camp where she could clean herself of the desert dust and quench her burning throat with the fermented juice of the grape. The Sheikh led the hareem out into the desert and the caravan returned to the home oasis. Another wonderful day in Arabia.

Monday, 22 October 2007

A painting for Ivett

Since arriving in Al Ain I have been lucky to meet Ivett. She is Czech and I must say she has been a lot of laughs and a wealth of knowledge. I painted these flamingos for her because she reminds me of a flamingo. No I won't tell you why - but I will tell her when I give her the painting.

The Galata Tower, Waltzing Matilda and Belly Dancing

We had a fun night out at the Galata Tower, which used to be a fire tower overlooking the city. It is now a restaurant where the boys oggled the bellydancers, the girls were serenaded by a 'Frank Sinatra' lookalike and we all got to sing Waltzing Matilda - what a hoot! Food, beer and wine, bellydancing, cultural dances, a knife throwing show, songs from many countries of the world and a great view across the Golden Horn to the sights of Istanbul as the lights came on and the sun went down. And all this after spending a couple of really relaxing hours in a Turkish Bath - cleansing, exfoliating, massage and steam clean! We will be going back to Turkey one day....anyone interested in joining us?

The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia

One of the most amazing buildings in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque. It was built between 1609 and 1616.

This mosque was the traditional starting point for the pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims in Turkey.

The tiles and mosiacs within the mosque are the reason it is called 'blue' - the main tile themes having a blue emphasis. The stained glass windows are magnificent and also have a blue emphasis. The mosque stands on the hill in Sultanahmet, overlooking the Bosphorous, the body of water that forms Istanbul's harbour.

We visited the mosque with Robby and Paul and then went on to the Hagia Sophia which is only about 100 metres away. These two buildings make an imposing presence on the top of the hill and can be seen from all around. The Hagia Sophia is now a Museum but it started out life as a Byzantine Christian Cathedral. From 300AD through to 1453 it was built and rebuilt as a Christian Church and is reported to have been quite magnificent. In 1453 it was converted to a mosque on the Turkish conquest of Istanbul. Beautiful mosaics that had been plastered over in the 16th century have now been uncovered. I can not, in this blog, possibly recreate the history. Suffice to say it is an awe inspiring building.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Cheryl and Robby have a sticky experience

Just outside the Blue Mosque some lovely Turkish guys were making toffee sticks. Cheryl and Robby were intrigued by the method and also wanted to taste their wares. So for one and a half Turkish lire they were able to stretch sticky stuff and giggle like girly three year olds!

The Angels Home Hotel

We stayed at the Angel's Home Hotel in the area of Sultanahmet. This is where many of the historic buildings of Istanbul are located including the Blue Mosque, Haigha Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bizarre, lots of little souks and carpet and ceramic shops. The hotel is a small boutique hotel and we had a lovely room with a balcony on the first night but had to trade it for a smaller one on the second (no balcony of course)! Being the end of Ramadan was cause for celebration so we had to break open a bottle or two while we were there. I think we are looking happy and relaxed!

Istanbul for the weekend

At the end of Ramadan is the Eid Holiday. Ron had a long weekend and we decided to spend it in Istanbul catching up with Robby and Paul. They have been travelling since April and have visited South America, Greece, Crete and many other exotic places. So we looked forward to hearing about their adventures and sharing a discovery of Istanbul.
The weekend started with a bottle of wine on the rooftop of the hotel we were staying in. Robby and Paul looked well and we spent a while just catching up with where they had been and what they had been doing. Then off to dinner at a local restaurant where the waiter forgot our order, gave us more than we ordered, confused the order and then charged us more than we had bargained for! We laughed it off and continued on to do some carpet shopping. We didn't buy a carpet but were given a detailed display of all the different types of Turkish carpets. The carpet seller may have been disappointed but we had a lovely time.
This photo of Robby and Paul was taken on the roof of the hotel. It was a lovely evening.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Cheryl’s been throwing some paint around!

Now this is a really exposing blog entry. Since arriving in Al Ain Cheryl has found some paints and some paper and she has combined them with some photography and the assistance of a great framer and she is now exhibiting her art in the second bedroom.

The photos that inspired these paintings are from the mosque around the corner which has taken our fancy and proven to be nice inspiration. The artwork is an interpretation of some of the photos. It is colourful and picks up on the patterns of Arabia – the mosaics, the hanging lanterns, the keyhole windows, the domes, the star emblem and wrought iron work.

All offers for purchase will be considered, however I really doubt Cheryl will part with them – they will hang in Australia as original souvenirs of our time here, memories of Al Ain.

Shopping for an abaya

This was the tag on an abaya I purchased recently. I bought the abaya because I have been offered the opportunity to go inside a mosque and I need to be dressed appropriately.

I guess the tag is to show me what I must cover and for male shoppers it shows what is under the abaya!

Monday, 8 October 2007

An Arabian Fairytale

Yesterday we had an adventure that was quite amazing. It was akin to an Arabian fairytale with our car being our magic flying carpet, the bureaucrats playing the parts of the camels, some genies who helped us perform magic, women in veils shyly and slowly going about their business and the occasional temperamental outburst that left us in stitches!

Our day started out with a purpose – “Now I have my residency” says the Sheik of my dreams, “I will sponsor you to be part of the hareem”. (Actually I am the only member of the hareem, but I allow him to dream also). “We are off to Dubai my dear, where I will whisk you to the Department of Immigration, supply them with my labour contract, our passports and some local treasure and you will magically become a resident of this wonderful land in a couple of days. My beneficence will be magnified with a visit to the Dubai Factory Outlet where I will adorn you with wonderful new clothing befitting your status as newly admitted Princess of Arabia”

So onto the flying carpet (gutless Mazda 3 with beeping alarm when in excess of 120 kmh) and off we fly to Dubai, some 122 kilometres away, our trusty water bottles and a couple of apples for sustenance on the way. We whiz by the said factory outlets at about 135 kmh and the Sheik makes promises of spending hours there once the business is completed.

Entering Dubai is like entering a strange futuristic city. The roads lead nowhere, the signposts are placed to mislead and deceive. Strange machinery fills the skyline resembling something from a sci-fi novel. Gantries, cranes, mixers, belchers, shovelers and an army of poor enslaved menials from the subcontinent abound. The dust forms a haze that makes it barely possible to see the buildings that herald the determined and unquestionable drive to develop the magnificence of the city. Zipping along the freeway we observe the effort to bring snow to the desert and know that this is the point where we leave the freeway and enter the mysterious back alleys and side lanes of the souks of industry!

The Sheik takes command of the carpet and we seek out our first genie, Matthew, who is to oil the wheels of bureaucracy and start the process for us. “Do you have your Marriage certificate?” asks the Genie. “Allah be praised!” says the Sheik, “I have left it at the desert camp. What can we do genie for the fair princess and I are going to Turkey on the weekend and without her residence she can not re-enter the country?” The genie admits this magic is beyond his capacity and though he phones the head genie in Abu Dhabi and discusses all the options for powerful genie magic he is unable to provide the right spell to undo the dunderheaded Sheik’s forgetful memory and consequences. His advice is to go see the head genie, Samir of Abu Dhabi, and see if he can solve the problem with his extra strong magic and extremely powerful influence.

So we swig a mouthful or two of water (in private as it is Ramadan and we do not want to offend our local hosts), hop back on the magic carpet, renegotiate the industrial souk and find our selves flying along the coast to Abu Dhabi to seek out the advice of the head genie. Between bites of apples (taken only at moments when other magic flying carpets are not in sight) we listen to the less than Arabian Michael Buble at top volume to drown out the alarming speed warning which seems to be stuck on the magic carpet. Another 124 kilometres added to the odometer of the MFC (magic flying carpet) and we find ourselves at the Head Office of the Supreme Genie named Samir.

Hurried consultations take place as the sun is passing it’s zenith and the camels at the Department of Immigration retire for the afternoon and refuse to do any more work today. A decision is made to renew the visit visa of the princess as the quickest and most efficient and less risky (to the Turkey trip) strategy. Although an expensive option it is considered the quickest way to solve the dilemma. The other option was to return to Al Ain, cross the border into Oman, have a new visit visa endorsed and return home. However this option was apparently fraught with lots of unknown repercussions related to health insurance and timeliness of approvals and the fact that it is Ramadan and the wheels move very slowly right now! The gracious head genie decides he will accompany us to the Department as he is confident our grasp of the local language will have us at the Department for days if left to our own devices.

On approaching the hallowed halls of the Ministry of the Interior the genie asks directions. One of the camel keepers proves to be helpful, but the camels are unpredictable characters and despite the best efforts of the camel keeper to describe the process, the camels have different ideas about how the job should be done. So we wander from the Health Insurance camels to the lovely ladies in veils who type the applications for the camels to approve and stamp. The princess is left with the ladies while the Sheik and the genie go off to negotiate the true price and the true process and have the documents photocopied and attested and stamped and approved, before entering the next camel enclosure for further negotiations.

Now this wandering between enclosures takes about 2 hours and each camel has a different version of the best way to undertake a visa renewal. However we finally make it to the enclosure of the chief camel (who actually resembles Jabba the Hut of another fairytale!) This camel is besieged by many other petitioners for visa renewal and he has handed out numbers to assist in keeping the petitioners in line. However the petitioners do not wish to use the numbers and Jabba spends long moments with his fingers in his ears and shaking his head as petitioners jump the queues and asks questions while he is trying to put order into the process. Poor Jabba looked like he was near explosion, he got up, went out the back, beseeched Allah for patience and enlisted the assistance of a camel keeper to herd the petitioners. At this stage the genie threw his hands in the air and said no magic could ever make this better and he returned to the genie office to await our advice on completion of the task.

My Sheik patiently waited and asserted his influence from time to time on the unruly petitioners, pouring oil (because Sheiks have lots of oil) on troubled waters and greasing squeaky cogs to calm the atmosphere and ensure fair play.

By about 3.30 pm (and long after the camel enclosure should have been closed) my dashing Sheik emerged triumphant with a newly stamped visa in his hand and 700 dirham in the camel enclosure to keep the camels happy. The only thing to do now was to celebrate with a nice cool ale – well so we thought!

Ales are not served in Ramadan except in secret desert caves. However we found a curtained enclosure operated by heathen monks on the Corniche. Still no ales but at least some water, coffee and a salad with chips. We then strolled the Al Wahda Mall in deference to the princess missing out on the Dubai Factory Outlets and hopped back on the MFC to return to Al Ain – some 143 klms away. The sheik and the princess were very tired, but very happy that they had successfully negotiated with the camels, assisted by the wonderful chief genie and the princess is now able to go to Turkey!

Saturday, 6 October 2007

My work in Al Ain

Well, probably about time I (Ron) put pen to paper (finger to the keyboard) and said a little about the work I’m doing.

About 3 years ago, The Sheik of Abu Dhabi decided it would be a good idea to upgrade the education system in this state (Emirate). – I suspect other Emirates are doing similar things. In Abu Dhabi it’s called the Public-Private Partnership for Public School Management' . The idea is to enable local and regional private education providers to manage selected public schools in the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) was established in 2005 to oversee the program. Here’s a bit from their website:

Shaikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister for Presidential Affairs and Adec Vice-President, said: "Our goal is to provide world-class public education. "The partnership is intended to increase the professional standard of national staff and ensure their professional development," Shaikh Mansour said, adding: "The partnership provides a measure of independence to each school administration, besides promising better quality of educational outcomes and ensuring better and more frequent participation of parents in the education process."

Participating schools and their students will enjoy better school facilities, efficient and less bureaucratic school administration systems, modern teaching and assessment methods, up-to-date curricula, more intensive use of information technology and applications and rich extra-curricular activities. Principals and teachers, including national staff, will get improved job incentives and professional development opportunities.

The company I work for is called School Improvement Partnership (S.I.P.), which is a subsidiary of GEMS (Global Education Management Systems). My school is the Sultan Bin Zayed school for Basic Education. It is a year 6-9 school. Age range 12 – 16. But there are a few older students as well. They failed at some stage and the system doesn’t allow you to progress to the next year unless you pass. It’s housed in a newly built school and so there’s a very pleasant environment to work in with spacious rooms, good Air Con (when it works and doesn’t leak), lots of classrooms, an auditorium etc. ADEC is in the process of upgrading all the ICT. Plan is for every classroom and staffroom to have a computer, projector and smart-board; 2 ICT labs, 10Mb internet line, and all fully networked.

I really like the team I’m working with. There’s my ESL expert Michael - from NZ via South Africa – my English expert Amir, from Iran via Oman – my maths expert Ismail from Somalia via England, my translator Mohamed from Sudan via US & India, and soon to arrive my science/ICT expert Fasil, from England -----------------------. These guys are just fabulous. They’re really cluey about their subject area and have great interpersonal skills. So we’ve already established excellent working relationships amongst the staff of the school. Our role is to upgrade the teaching and management in the school and to help them implement a new curriculum (in all subjects, but focussing on english, maths, science and ICT).

With the team working with the classroom teachers, my job is to manage them and then to work with the school administration (Principal, Vice Principal, ..) to improve school planning and budgeting processes, get some parent involvement, and generally support them in putting the systems and processes in place to ensure good management and smooth running.

The staff in the school have really welcomed us and are very positive about working with us. Most are not Emirati (apart from the boss, VP and about 6 others), but come from neighbouring states like Oman, Syria, Jordan & Egypt. Most don’t have an educational qualification, but they do have undergraduate degrees in their specialty subject. Up to now most have been working directly from a textbook provided by the Ministry of Education. Day 1 is page 1 and they work through to the last page! So our work is cut out for us all – but being willingly taken on by the staff. So much so that we’re already seeing good signs of progress.

I like the boss (Mohamed) and VP (Rashed). They are both very capable, have good ideas and are willing to listen to suggestions.

All in all, I recon I’ve pretty well won the lottery and am looking forward to the rest of my time here.