Thursday, April 22, 2010

Modern, to a point

I have decided that I would make a really bad prisoner. Today I am in Paris, gazing out at the smoggy ash that hovers over the city and listening to the local news. The hot story on the news is about a young French national named Florence Cassez. The 35-year-old has been held in a Mexican prison for the past five years on questionable kidnapping charges; today the effort was renewed to fight for her release. I was in Dubai for 5 days longer than planned, with access to all the creature comforts I could possibly need: a bed, a hot shower, a treadmill, lip balm, peanut butter… All this, and I couldn’t handle it. After only 5 days, I snapped.

Yes, I would make a very bad prisoner indeed. Which is yet another reason I need to always maintain a low profile while traveling, and do my best to stay out of trouble.

Dubai was an interesting, confusing place: modernization permitted, to a point. Open-mindedness encouraged, with limits. All walks of life welcomed, with exceptions. The internet was relatively open, but many sites were blocked, for reasons that seemed contradictory and inconsistent at best. I could stream episodes of the (borderline pornographic) TV show Gossip Girl, but I couldn’t access Skype. I could read Wikipedia’s page on Israel, but couldn’t reach Israeli’s official tourism website It didn't make sense.

On the second night of my “imprisonment”, I was at dinner with a work colleague. He is Irish, and has lived in Dubai for 15 years with his wife and two small children. He is Western in every sense of the word: lifestyle, dress, religion and tradition. He seemed to be a typically cool and easy-going guy, and so I began to pick his brain for suggestions on how to spend these days, how to make the most of my time here. More than anything, I wanted to go to Israel for a few days, at least until the ash blew over and I could return to Paris. I asked him about this, if traveling to Israel from here was an option at all, or if there would be any repercussions. I had just learned that the Israeli delegation were denied visas to attend our conference; I wasn’t sure what a fresh Israeli stamp in my passport might mean if I needed to return to Dubai to catch a flight home.

And so I asked him this simple question; any and all expression on his face disappeared. He looked back at me without a hint of recognition or comprehension, as though I was speaking Hebrew. His response was brief: “I don’t know what you are talking about”.

I asked again: Can I fly to Israel from here? Again, his response: “I really don’t know to what you are referring. We don’t use this word here [“Israel”]. It means nothing to us. It doesn’t exist”.

The mood quickly turned from lighthearted to creepy. I didn’t have much to say to him after that; instead I tried to fathom how such an open-minded dude from Ireland could be so ignorant. The next day, I visited a travel agency at the mall, and asked the travel agent - a young woman from Delhi, India - about the option of popping over to Tel Aviv for a few days. She literally looked away and ignored the question, and instead tried to sell me on a package deal to Sri Lanka.

I tried to give them both the benefit of the doubt; perhaps a requirement of gaining UAE citizenship is to never recognize Israel’s existence? Regardless, I was spooked. I returned to the hotel, gave up on any thoughts of visiting Israel, and settled in to stream another episode of Gossip Girl. Luckily this didn't get me arrested.

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