Monthly Archives: May 2014

The shiny city of Dubai

The shiny city of Dubai

Every four or five years, certain educators who don’t have enough to do and want to feel important get together to “revise” either the curriculum, the standards or the basic methods of how to teach. Last week, I was sent to Dubai to attend an educational training centred around the newest iteration of the “Middle Years Program” which is being adopted by many international schools.  I had only been to Dubai on lay-overs when changing planes, so I was excited to be able to see a bit more of the city.

I had been booked into a hotel called “Mövenpick Ibn Battuta Gate” a 5-star hotel a bit outside the city.


Since I am usually a traveler on a budget who stays in hostels where you have to make your own bed, bring your own towels and share a bathroom down the hall, this was quite a treat.  As the cab drove up to the entrance, one person leaped to open the car door for me and another took my bag to bring it up to my room.  The hotel had a huge lobby and atrium  decorated with Arabic themes and lighting.  There were a number of restaurants, a couple of fountains, a roof-top pool, plenty of places to sit and a fairly extensive coffee bar.  Oh, and several life-size statues of camels.

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When I got up to my room, I found that the large flat-screen TV was on with a message, which welcomed me by name to the hotel and to Dubai and informed me that if I needed anything – anything at all – I had only to ask.  The room was spacious and cool and the bathroom had both a waterfall shower and a large tub, plenty of towels of all sizes, slippers and a bathrobe.  In addition,  there was a bidet and also a sprayer attached to the toilet so you could be sure that your bottom bits were sparkling clean.  (Every toilet in Dubai had these sprayer-attachments, including the ones in the malls and the airport.  Apparently, the people of the UAE  like be sure that they have very clean tushies.)

I had taken an overnight flight, so I availed myself of the shower and then a substantial nap.  When I arose, I was ready to try to see a little bit of the city.  I had a lovely latte in the coffee bar downstairs and then grabbed a taxi to the nearest stop on the “Big Bus” tour.  This cost about twice the amount of any other “Big Bus” tour I have taken – Dubai is a very expensive city!

The tour had a choice of 10 languages.


Dubai is both the name of the Emirate (there are seven Emirates in the UAE) and the name of the city.  It is not the capital of the United Arab Emirates (the capital is Abu Dhabi) but it is the largest in population and has become somewhat of a world hub of commerce and culture. Although the economy was originally built on the oil industry, the emirate’s main revenues now come from tourism, aviation and real estate.  It is likely the most “westernised” city in the UAE.

The skyline of Dubai is known for its skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, in particular the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. There are also man-made islands and some of the largest shopping malls in the region and the world.

It is a very shiny city, with lots of glass and steel.  I also noticed that the architecture includes curves and angles not common to western cities.

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The metro system is fairly new (and also quite shiny.)  It was easy to navigate, cheap (less than $2.00 from one end to the other) and spotlessly clean.  The tracks and stations were purpose-built and are fully automatic.  It was first opened in 2009 and has been extended since that time. The stations are pod-like and looked to me like some kind of fantastic beetle, although I have since discovered that the shiny exterior was meant to evoke the ancient trade of pearl-diving, which sustained Dubai before the discovery of oil.  There is a very interesting article on the design and construction of the metro system HERE. 


One of the stops on the Big Bus was an indoor “souk” or market.  Usually these are outside, or a group of individual stores, but this one was self-contained.  What struck me was how incredibly colourful it was.  I didn’t buy anything…but I sure enjoyed looking.

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We went out onto the island of Palm Jumeirah.  This is a fully man-made island in the shape of a date palm tree.  Here is what it looks like from the air:


There is a tunnel from the top of the “palm tree” to the arches that serve as a break from the sea.  There are highly-desirable villas and apartments on the “palm fronds” and a ridiculously expensive hotel  called “The Atlantis”  on the curved breaks.  The entire island was built using sand sprayed up from the ocean floor and with ecological sustainability in mind.  It was pretty fantastic, actually.

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There was construction of a planned extension to the metro going on.


Dubai is known for its malls.  A mall is a mall is a mall, but being Dubai, these malls were a bit…well…shinier.  The one near my hotel had a theme.  The Ibn Battuta Mall was across from my hotel.  Ibn Battuta was a 14th-century Moroccan explorer and scholar known for his extensive travels.  Over a period of thirty years, Ibn Battuta visited most of the known Islamic world as well as many non-Muslim lands.

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The mall is “themed” according to the countries he visited and there was an interesting exhibit in the very centre, describing many of the inventions and discoveries made in the Arab world during this time.  It struck me that although I consider myself well-educated and certainly well-read, I had never before heard of this great adventurer and explorer.


It was a bit incongruous to see so many western-based stores smack up against Arabic culture, dress and decor.  There was a huge 14-screen movie complex right in the middle of the mall…surrounded by an ancient sailing ship and a guy on a life-size elephant.  And behind the elephant, there was a Cinnabon.  The food court had American chain restaurants as well as more traditional fare, and there were people in all kinds of dress – from traditional Arabic robes and full burka to women in shorts and halter-tops (although these are supposedly discouraged.)  I watched one traditionally-dressed father sit exhausted at a table covered with McDonald’s wrappers while his two little girls shrieked and played with balloons until his burka-wearing wife returned with a huge shopping bag and berated him for allowing the girls to run wild.

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Although Dubai is less restrictive about dress than some other Arabic cities, you still see plenty of women dressed in full hijab, some with just a head-covering and some with the veil that hides the entire face except for the eyes.  Westerners who visit Dubai do not wear the head coverings, but my colleagues who worked at schools in some other places in the UAE like  Ajman and Sharjah told me that almost everyone wears an abaya there – you feel out of place without one.  “Abaya” means “cloak” and is a garment you wear over your regular clothes.  These can be quite fashionable. Here’s one designed by Louis Vuitton!
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To be honest, I can see the attraction of covering up.  You never have to worry about a bad hair day, or about someone leering at you, or feeling too “fat.”  You don’t have to worry about how you sit, how you walk or if you’ve got your make-up on.  And in the bright, hot sun, it make sense to cover your head – I had a light-weight scarf that I used when walking.

Black is the common colour for hijab amongst Arab women (although the Hindu women wear brighter colours) and I saw an advertisement posted in the ladies room for a product designed to “Keep your blacks really black!”  Some women also decorate their “blacks” with sparkly sequins and glittery stones. I also saw a young woman in the bathroom sitting on the counter, her head scarf pushed off, talking on her iPhone and smoking a cigarette!


The Dubai Mall was about three times as large as the Ibn Battuta.  This place had a merry-go-round and full-sized dinosaur skeleton in it.  Also an aquarium.  A full-sized aquarium.  In the mall.


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There were some fantastical glass statues and sculptures as well as decorative windows and passageways.

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The Big Bus took us down into the older part of the city, with smaller stores and residential areas.  There is a creek which flows through Dubai and is the life-blood of the city.  You could take a water-taxi (an “abra”) across to the other side.  Boats and barges were lined up with their wares stacked on the shore.  Traffic signs were in English and Arabic (as almost everything is in Dubai) and although Arabic is the “official” language, most people also have at least some English.  In listening to conversations and announcements on the trains, I realised how many English words come from the Arabic language.  Some common ones: algebra, cotton, zero, spinach, sofa, orange, mummy, lemon, giraffe, candy, artichoke and alcohol…and many, many others.

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Although the air is dry in Dubai, the mid-day temperatures can get very hot.  These are air-conditioned bus stops!



I spent the next two and a half days at the Greenfield  Community School, learning the intricacies of the “new and improved” MYP, hearing buzzwords like “up-skill,” “synergistic,” “dynamic” and “standardised assessment” and trying to bite my tongue.  I did not always succeed.  However, the host school was very welcoming and the catering company had pretty good food.  And, as always, it was good to hob-nob with my fellow wizards…

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I found the people of Dubai invariably friendly, helpful and welcoming.  I did not feel out of place as a “westerner” and enjoyed exploring the incredible architecture and browsing in the malls.  I would like to return when I am not tied to a conference and spend some time down by the creek, shopping in the souks and taking an little cruise along the water.  As it was, I enjoyed sitting in the outdoor lounge on my last evening, having the “special drink of the day” and an assortments of tapas and feeling the desert breeze on my face.

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The Harare International Festival of the Arts

The Harare International Festival of the Arts


The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is one of Africa’s largest international arts festivals. Established in 1999,  the festival takes place each year in late April or early May in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The week long festival encompasses five principal disciplines: theatre, music, dance, fine art, and poetry.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend for 4 full days.

Zimbabwe is a country in deep trouble.  It declared independence in 1980 and Robert Mugabe, seen at the time as a hero by many people, was elected Prime Minister.  For the first decade of his administration, it seemed as though Zimbabwe would emerge as a modern power, with decent health care and education for all citizens,  integration and cooperation between people of various races and a thriving economy.  However, after about a decade, Mugabe seemed to lose his grip on reality.  He blamed his countries woes on vague “conspiracies” and “sabotage” and made some extremely questionable decisions.  He has been “elected” seven times, although the last few elections were challenged.


Zimbabwe has gradually deteriorated into a country with an 80% unemployment rate, no health care, no education and no industry.  They experienced “hyper-inflation” and in 2008, the government started printing bills in denominations up to 100 billion dollars.  Shortly afterwards the economy completely crashed and now Zimbabwe has no currency at all – they use American dollars and also accept Botswanian Pula, South African Rand or Euros.


The city is crumbling – sidewalks falling apart, trash strewn everywhere, shops boarded up and people trying to sell trinkets or cheap food on the street, or begging outright.

In the middle of all this is HIFA…an incredibly organised, internationally diverse, wildly successful festival.  And so…maybe there is hope for Zimbabwe after all…because the HIFA was amazing.  Six days of music, dance, drama, poetry and artists literally from all over the world.  Everyone working at the Festival was friendly, welcoming and helpful.  There were shuttles organised to take you to different venues and they ran on time and on a schedule.  The acts were all great – hugely diverse in scope and style.  Performers of all ages, colours, nationalities and everything else.

So, let me tell you about what I saw!  (And this is only a small sample of what was going on!)

Zimboita was a quartet of musicians blending Zimbabwean and Italian music.  They were terrific and got everyone on their feet and dancing.

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There was an Indian Dance Troupe…they advertised themselves with a picture of someone breathing fire and holding a snake.  However, apparently the theatre nixed the fire and customs nixed the snake.  So they did many dances which involved balancing many bowls and other objects on the head.  It was kind of cool…especially when in the middle of one dance, one of the musicians ran out into the centre, blew this huge horn and then ran off again!

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There was a magic show called “My Father’s Hat,” which was wrapped in a one-man play about the magician, his son and his father.  The performer gave me a ride back to the Main Gate afterwards and told me that the story was 99% true…that his father had been an expert magician and had actually died while doing his act!

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There were some fantastic classical performances held in a wonderful old church with exceptional acoustics.  I heard world-famous opera stars in recital, three of the Bach unaccompanied cello suites, a choral/orchestral work called “Stabat Mater” and an incredible solo pianist who juxtaposed some of Bach’s preludes and fugues with more modern pieces…and somehow made it all fit together.

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On the main stage, there was a bona-fide Celtic band that got everyone singing and dancing.  The only thing missing was a keg of Guinness.

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I saw a couple of very interesting dramatic productions…one was about a suicide attempt gone wrong and was set in a decrepit public toilet.   It was called “The Gods You Built” and revolved around the loss (and invention) of belief systems. Another one combined acting with dance – which I wasn’t sure would work, but it did.  It was called “Brothers in Blood ” and was about the strained and often paranoid relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians after apartheid.   Both plays reminded me of some of the stuff I saw at the Edinborough Fringe Festival – a little edgy, a little risky and a little thought-provoking…just like theatre is meant to be. (Pictures from HIFA website)

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And then there was the craft market. I wanted a truck to take home some of the gorgeous stone statues.

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They were also selling marimbas of all sizes and other instruments.



The whole craft market was alive with colour and bustling with activity.

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Many items were made from “recycled” materials.  You could get necklaces and keychains made from the now-useless money.  And this hat is made from….video tape!


And I loved these toys…hand-carved.  Notice how the lion is going to bite the man in the butt…but never quite catches up!

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I saw a Chinese dance troupe from Nanjing made of up children aged 8 – 12…they were called The Little Red Flower Art Troupe.  They were very good but a little creepy in their perfection.


Also several singers…one jazzy, one more folky.


I have to say that the most impressive act I saw was a solo guitarist.  Originally from Persia, by way of Russia, Germany, the USA and finally Canada he made the guitar sound like everything from a freight train to an orchestra.  A very talented young man.


A colleague of mine had also come to HIFA and she introduced me to Paul and Rex, a fantastic couple who currently live in Lusaka, but have a home in Scotland, where they were married a few years ago.  They talked about their home country, Nigeria, and spoke with some sadness about how neither of them would (or could) ever return.  We had a wonderful dinner with them the first night and then kept bumping into them at various events!

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On the last day, I spent a few hours just sitting in the main courtyard, listening to the music and watching the people around me.  It was an incredible 4 days and I am looking forward to next year.


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