Themes of the Middle East

I´ve gotten used to a few things after traveling some months in the Middle East. Starting in Lebanon and moving south to the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula in Oman, I now find myself in Arabic Africa, and a lot of familiarities have remained the same.

  1. Islam and the calls to prayer: Without fail, there is always a mosque within sight, a towering minaret hovering over a little village, or a humble little minaret peering between highrises. If you don’t see a mosque, then you most certainly will hear one, during one of their 5 calls to prayer every day, starting before dawn and ending after sunset. The mosques never seem to be in sync either, so during each prayer time the calls echo from street to street or in each neighbourhood a few minutes apart.
  2. Lack of alcohol and pork: Depending on the conservatism of each country, alcohol is either completely illegal, only available with a personal purchasing license, or only sold through western hotels. Pork was just as rare, since its very haraam (forbidden) for Muslims. In Kuwait and Somaliland, you can get hefty fines or even jail time for having a drink. Only in Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain was alcohol and pork available to anyone (or sometimes only non-Muslims), but still not easy to find.
  3. Cheap gas: the price of gas was a fraction of what it is in Europe, and even more than half the price of North America’s cheap prices. You could fill a sports car with premium gas for $15, or pay only 32 euro cents for a liter of regular gas.
  4. Car friendly, pedestrian hating mobility: Side walks are nearly non-existent, and walking anywhere is weird, since the cities have been built for car traffic or those moving without cars are assumed to be of lower class or less money. Even buses were rare, since public transport would also mean the same, and everyone who’s anyone should be able to afford a car and the cheap gas. This causes a lot of traffic, round-abouts, impassable highways and crazy drivers. And it doesn’t help that they like to drive oversized American SUV’s and Japanese Land Cruisers as if they were in an Aston Martin (this comment applies mainly to Saudi drivers).
  5. Security, Security: The middle east is just as paranoid of terrorism as any European or North American place (if not more), and random searches, road blocks and checkpoints are a regularity. Passing through airport security as a woman was a little less hassling, since we don’t have to strip down to our socks and undershirts, but a handheld metal detector may still scans us before entering a mosque or supermarket. In Somaliland, you need to hire an armed military guard to accompany you on any trips outside of the city capital, Hargeisa.
  6. Endless Construction: Oil money has poured into the Gulf countries, very recently, quickly, and heavily, and its like they don’t know what to do with it other than build and develop. In Kuwait they regularly build something just to rebuild or redesign it, and some can’t build without destroying something first so these places are in a constant dusty state of being torn down and built up. And I mean up, up, up into the sky, sky scrapers that compete to be the tallest in the world. And the places they tear down sometimes have to be cleared to prepare the lot, so rubble is driven out of the city and in Qatar, they’re literally building a mountain out of it.
  7. Over-Perfuming: People literally cover themselves in perfume, and its not just eau de toilette, but ‘oud’, a kind of oil de toilette, so it lingers longer and stronger. It can be suffocating, for the entire time theyre near to you, and even if they’re walking past, a scent will linger, floating behind them for a few metres.
  8. Socializing alone or at home: If it wasn’t for the shisha bars and Starbucks, people would probably just stay at home sending whatsapp messages, both texts and voice recordings, all day long. For those who don’t smoke or have had enough coffee for the day, alot of socialising happens in the privacy of peoples homes. You can order in food, stay comfortably dressed, and hang out with the gays or women that dont seem to show face in the public sphere alone. Since alcohol is a no go, board games are a sort of social elixir, the in thing to do with a bunch of nerds who prefer it to watching any more television (we watch a lot of flat screens and big screens around here).
  9. Fashion: The men wear perfectly pressed, angelic white robes (dishdasha or thawb), with matching head scarves (gutra) crowned with a black rope thingy (ogal). The names change from place to place, as well as the colours (the robes can be shades of beige or grey and the scarves red or black checkered), but its always impressive to see how they flip and fold the ends of their traingular head scarf as if it were an extension of themself, like a head of hair to a woman. Then the women, wear a similar robe but more like a cloak, and usually black, called an abaya. Then they wrap their heads in a hijab, some cover their face below the eyes (a burka), some wear a sort of Zorro mask around their eyes (a nikab), and then there’s those who just drape their whole face with a sheer black sheet so they look like black ghosts floating around from far away. Things started to get a little bit more colourful for the women in the Emirates, and especially Oman, but nothing beats the African Muslim wear of a trillion bright colours adoring their dark, henna-tattooed skin.

 

Stop-over in Seoul

Have you ever noticed how places have a smell? Like on a large scale – Iceland has a smell, West Africa smell, and Indonesia smells like south east Asia. Its a kind of smell that you could bottle and market, but impossible to describe. It would be called “Rainy Season”… or maybe “Fruits and Chilis,” but maybe its just me. Korea smelled like Japan. If you’ve been to Japan, then it smells just like that – the perfectly clean trains, the unpolluted streets, and the fresh smell of four changing seasons. A sensitive nose runs in my family – my older sister always smells food before she eats it.

I’m traveling with my mother, who has an OCD tendency to relate every new place to a place she’s been before. She also thinks if she talks louder and slower, everyone should understand some english, but they just really dont. But, another gene that runs in my family is good eating, and me and my mom basically spent our time in Korea eating and sleeping. We went on a 3 am hunt for food, after her flight was delayed 7 hours, and found the most delicious 24 hour place to order Udon and kimchi and all sorts of other unrecognizable goodness. The influence of  Japanese and south-east asian cuisine comes out perfectly in their rice and noodle dishes, and even the 7-eleven has been “koreanized” with the taquitos and hot dogs replaced by stuffed rice-cake balls and instant kimchi noodle dishes.

our 3 am gold digging

our 3 am gold digging

I’ve been to Japan a few times, but never Korea. I only had Tokyo as a basis to compare Seoul with, and build my expectations from there. It was similar in many ways – the incredible organization and functioning of everything public, and the unfamiliar flashing lights, alphabet and cartoony drawings covering everything external. The Koreans were taller, but just as petite, with a fetish for the little charms and jewels that cover their cellphones and man-purses. I felt big and clumsy there, with oversized feet and an unpolished sense of fashion. I amuse myself imagining what it would be like to be a tall, blonde Viking woman on the public train, or a big black mama in colourful dress trying to walk down the street. Hahaa…

The PDA is out of control. Cute and cuddly couples stay in constant physical contact, covering their mouths while they laugh and keeping their eyes looking shyly away. I’ve never seen so many pink suitcases as I saw in Seoul international airport, and all of the Seoul shopping area is sugarcoated in this pink-ish, animated cuteness thats hard to explain. All of Seoul is clean, like even the highway seems sterile enough to eat your lunch off the ground. And, wearing face-masks is a huge fashion trend, complete with brand competition and billboard advertising, since keeping your germs to yourself and blocking out everyone elses (im not sure which is more motivating) is the “cool” thing to do.

Fashion and transport in Dakar

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I had high expectations for Dakar, after hearing so many wonderful things about this cosmopolitan city people call the capital of West Africa. Sure enough, the rain-washed dirt roads turned into divided highways and tunnels and overpasses, traffic jams became even more polluted, and the welcoming sight of electricity lasted 24 hours. Reaching Dakar was somehow like breaching a border, a transition from humid wet lands to desert dry lands, and traveling from the post-card picture of West Africa to a more North Africa meets the Middle East. The dust roads and light-skinned faces made me feel like I’d reached a new land, and the invasion of metropolitan Frenchies made me much less exotic than I had been elsewhere.

Dakar is a harbour city, jutting out on a crowded peninsula with the international airport basically in the middle of everything. The abandoned railway station no longer works, but instead a few squatters have called the colonial refuge building their home. The central bus and taxi station is a big waste basin, splattered with urine and empty plastic bags outnumbering the decapitated sept-place cars drivers keep hassling to fill. A “seven seater” is the means of long haul travel in Senegal, which is usually a rusted old hatchback car, usually with most of its windows intact but not much else, and incredibly uncomfortable for hours of travel. The gear shift usually reaches all 5 gears, but you’d be lucky to have a car where the gas or speed gage works. It’s probably for the better, since you don’t want know how fast you’re going, since you’re almost always going too slow (and still the car shakes in the wind and bottoms out over every pothole).

The problem with the plastic bags is enormous… you can basically buy everything and anything in a plastic bag, and here they have little or no system of garbage disposal or recycling, so the streets and fields end up covered in plastic. You buy salt, sugar, water, oil and even soda in a bag, a convenient, single-use way for street sellers to sell them individually and through broken car-door windows.

The other main street selling merchandise is second-hand clothing. Containers full of Salvation Army donations that can’t get resold in the first world arrive here a few years later, and the outdated fashion and random t-shirt branding gets very confusing – yesterday I saw someone with a UC Berkeley sweater and I almost approached him saying “hey, I went there too!”.

People wearing sweaters and scarves is weird, since it’s always so bloody hot, but what I really can’t figure out is all the hats. The men cover their shiny black heads with toques and woolen hats, which I can’t believe is cooler for them than letting the sun shine on them, but they must believe that the hats somehow insulate the heat out, or they’re just like regular old white men who are having a hard time dealing with balding… either way, my favorite look is still the men and women in flowing dresses covered in colorful patterns, with their heads covered in large baskets and buckets carrying tons of who-knows-what.

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