06 January, 2010

Defending Dubai

"Being human is itself difficult, and therefore all kinds of settlements (except dream cities) have problems." - Jane Jacobs

Dubai is not an easy place to live, nor is it an easy place to defend. But at this time, it warrants such. "The Soulless City", the "city without a soul," gets a big, bad rep because of a small number of people. The country, the United Arab Emirates, and those who are here—who live here—are marred verbally and in spirit due to the excesses of the exceptionally rich. The Burj Khalifa—the tallest building in the world. The Burj al Arab—one of only three seven-star hotels in the world. The Dubai Mall—the largest shopping mall in the world. A ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates. The second largest carbon footprint in the world.

Excess. Soulless. These are the words people think of when they think of Dubai, and since November a third word is conjured up about our pretty little city. Debt. That word has also induced many-a-smug smile from those abroad as they look down upon the golden child of the Middle East. It is the way adolescent girls feel when the prom queen gets a zit - right on the tip of her nose. Funny that the rest of the world—excluding the emerging economies—which has been mired in the sinking sand of the global recession for over one year, finds the similar misery of its global counterpart a laughing matter, when a downturn this deep is laughable to no one. Except, of course, those who predicted it. And those of us who predicted the end of the plastic party did so based not on the past but because of human behavior. So it should have been no surprise that Dubai too would experience what every other city and nation has that prospered due to high-risk investments, real estate speculation, and an increasingly intertwined financial system. Humans live here too.

And this is why Dubai cannot fail.

Since the fateful week in November when the American media announced and embellished our dirty little secret, outsiders have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I must admit, I was one of them. But I have been waiting for over a year. I first held my breath in September 2009 when the United States recession went global. But traffic continued and nobody left. Then January rolled around and traffic was noticeably lighter, but abandoned we were not. In February The New York Times published the ill-fated article highlighting our ghost towns and the number of dirty, dirty cars abandoned at the airport. We talked and whispered and waited. The worst that happened was a chilling effect, for the Dubai media faced a hideous fine if they told us anymore about what we already knew. But, the city kept moving and we kept our students—for awhile anyway. Once student withdrawals began for the end of the year, we held our breath—thinking this was finally it. The parents will leave for the summer with their kids and they won't return. The worst is now. But it wasn't. We got a message stating that the number of withdrawals was not actually more than usual. We expected it to be—but it wasn't. Yes, people left. But there was no mass exodus. There was no carnal transformation into salt and none of the buildings turned into sand. Summer happened and Ramadan happened and there was no massive influx of new residents as there was last year, but the drama ends there. This is a good thing because humans live here too.

And these humans are the reason Dubai cannot fail. It is not because of the Burj al Arab or the Burj Khalifa. It is not because of the ski slope or the shopping festival. It is not because of Atlantis, the Palm, or the World. It is because of the humans who live here and work here that our city must not only survive, but thrive, and it does and it will.

While it is infinitely more fun to wile away the hours fantasizing that everyone in Dubai has been to Tiger Woods' golf course, the tennis finals, and Atlantis for a few frivolous nights, that is simply not the case. Yes, this is the 21st century playground of the rich. But just as in any city anywhere, the classes are not singular and the city could not function with only one. There are numbers and numbers of bodies (and minds) here without whom the city may fail to function. The secrets about Dubai may be far more tantalizing, but the truth a little less so. The truth about Dubai is that people are here to work. There are more working people in Dubai than not, and aside from the locals (approximately 10-20 per cent of the population as of 2009) most people are here working. It is true that some wives do not work and some children do not work, but for the most part, the rest of us residents are here to work. From the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid to the top, the majority of the people in Dubai work and we would like to keep it that way - so would the governments in the Gulf.

The American Dream has gone global. The American Dream exists now in Dubai. The idea, as coined by James Truslow in his 1931 book, of "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" has been exported, just as America has been exporting its products and culture for years. It is time the rest of the world accept that instead of begrudging it. After all, it is an idea and it is an idea that becomes more feasible with the flattening of the world - changing the shape of the globe just as Columbus did over 500 years ago. As a woman whose ancestors dealt with the upheaval of the landing of the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and whose ancestors have been dealing with it ever since, the idea that I left the New World to achieve the dream of the same name when I could not claim it there, speaks volumes to the need for Dubai and every place like it. I am not alone.

I will be the first to admit that Dubai is far from perfect. If one has any sense of social justice, here, she must pretend she does not. We know that this place we call home, if only for awhile, is not for us to come to forever. The smell of injustice hangs in the air with the sewage. We know there is a pecking order entrenched in the labor system. We know that "guest worker" sounds a lot like indentured servitude if you say it too slowly. We know that if you are reading this, you probably have no idea what crowded means, unless you remember from your past life. We also know that the Gulf is deep and wide and has plenty of secrets.

We also know that the Gulf workers have bigger houses back home, than their cohort who stayed. We also know that there are young ladies being educated in the Philippines for the price their mothers pay for missing them. We also know that freedom is relative and so is the meaning of rich. We are here to work, not to judge.

Dubai is the major trade center of the Middle East. That is not going to change any time soon. For that reason, it will not fail. But there is something more important here than goods and services and investments. Human beings live here too. It is for this reason that Dubai cannot fail.

22 December, 2009

Marching in Gaza - Partying in Beirut

"The mere possession of a vision is not the same as living it, nor can we encourage others with it if we do not, ourselves, understand and follow its truths. The pattern of the Great Spirit is over us all, but if we follow our own spirits from within, our pattern becomes clearer. For centuries, others have sought their visions. They prepare themselves, so that if the Creator desires them to know their life's purpose, then a vision would be revealed. To be blessed with visions is not enough...we must live them!" - High Eagle

I received three important emails today. The first was from a former colleague—a teacher, an organizer—asking for support on an upcoming trip; the second was from a close family friend introducing me to someone who will occasionally be in the area; and the third was from a close friend asking me to review his latest creative endeavor. All three emails managed to elicit in me some measure of guilt.

None precipitated as much guilt as the first. My former colleague is making a trip from the United States to Egypt, and from Egypt he will proceed, insh'Allah, to Gaza. His purpose, as you can read in his blog, is to engage in the Gaza Freedom March with 1,300 other international supporters from 42 countries and tens of thousands of Palestinians. I am simultaneously proud of him and slightly disappointed in myself.

I met B during the Southeast Social Forum, an event whose attendees convened to network and address issues of racism, economic justice, globalization, and inequality. He was a teacher, a role model, and an organizer. I had a mission, a purpose, and a cause. I taught at an urban public school, and I thought he should join myself and my colleagues. After nearly a year, we got him. A year after that, I left.

For seven years, my first seven years of adulthood, I worked in some way, shape, or form for a better world. I used to be a good person. This is how I feel now—I used to be a good person, before I moved to Dubai. I was going to change lives—maybe not the world, but lives, some lives. At the time I met B, I was teaching in Durham, North Carolina and I was attending the social forum and I was doing things that mattered. Then I left. I did not know how to recover from all those years of getting paid too little and spending too much, and I did not know how to save the children from within a broken education system, and I didn't know how to save myself from working too much and loving too little, so I left to save myself so that I could save others and I still do not know how that is going to work out.

So this New Years, B will be participating in the Gaza March for Freedom and I will be partying in Beirut. It's a shameful juxtaposition.

Since I have moved here to Dubai, I must admit that my quality of living has increased exponentially, but my satisfaction with my purpose in life has decreased. I did not come here to travel or for an adventure. I came here to save money and pay off college loans. That's really not the protocol in Dubai. And I have been sucked in—in some ways, some of the time. Namely, in the form of traveling on holidays. Because we're a multicultural community in a multicultural society, we have a lot of holidays. And because I am here in an area where I may not live again, thus will not so easily travel again, I feel it is an opportunity I should not forgo.

So my cousin is coming to visit this week. She's 29 and I'm 31 and we're both single. Thus, I figured we should live it up. She's coming all the way from Washington, D.C. over the holidays, and I should make it worth her while.

It has been one year since the most recent conflict in Gaza was reignited. The result for Gaza has been a year-long blockade, which the International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza hopes to end with the march. The result for Dubai, when the blockade occurred last year, was that all New Year's celebrations were canceled to illustrate solidarity with the Palestinians. I had several opinions at the time: 1) It is noble to demonstrate support for the Palestinians (and for the Israelis for that matter), 2) I don't think restraining partying on New Year's Eve is the only way we could illustrate support for the Palestinians (or for the Israelis for that matter) 3) I think this is an excuse to rein in over-zealous, excessive expatriate behavior, that—especially during this time of strife—could be construed as over-zealous and excessive, and therefore inappropriate. To be clear, I do not think the conflict in Palestine/Israel is a black and white situation, therefore, "taking sides" is not an act I care to commit or would deign myself able to confidently do. The situation is much larger than that. The damper on the New Year's parade last year did not dampen my spirits. I learned long ago that like the Fourth of July, New Year's Eve means copious amounts of preparation and just as much anxiety, as well as quite a big letdown as opposed to a big, magical evening.

But this year, since my cousin is coming and since I feel the need to walk away from this experience with something to show for it, a story to tell, and since I am slated to meet my future husband on an airplane, I figured we will go somewhere spectacular—do something noteworthy. Like deciding to pay off my college loans, I also figured if I am single, I might as well be single and fabulous; since I do not have the fairytale, this is the compromise I have made with myself.

I looked at a map, I thought of all I'd read this year, I proposed the idea, and we are going to Beirut to ring in the New Year. B is going to cross the border into Israel/Palestine in support of a people. This is a shameful juxtaposition.

On a daily basis, these ideas dance in my head. Travel. College loans. Teaching. The Mission. Social Justice. Quality of life. Broken Education System. Writing. Public Health. For the Greater Good. Marriage. Teaching. Learning. College Loans. Standard of Living. Educational Law. Dating. American Dream? Teacher pay. Health insurance. Sociology. For the Greater Good. Writing. Law. Editing. Freelance. Marriage. Health insurance. Traveling. I have no idea what I am doing here and where I am going to go and what I am going to do once I leave. While living here has afforded me a quality of life and a standard of living I could not have in North Carolina as a public school teacher, I continue to question whether this life is worth it. I am not so sure that what I am doing here is for the greater good and if so, in what way. I have not yet figured out how to proceed from here and find a balance between contributing to the greater good and enjoying a reasonable quality of life. So for now, I am here feeling guilty. There is a disconnect between what I want to accomplish in this life and what I am doing. Yes, I love teaching. Yes, I love traveling. I also love writing. I also want to contribute to the greater good—I want to make this world a better place. It all seems so abstract right now; it all seems so wrong.

We made a reservations for New Year's Eve in Beirut today. There were six more men killed in Palestine/Israel today. Six in the West Bank—six in Gaza. B landed in Egypt today, in preparation for the Gaza Freedom March. This a shameful juxtaposition.

My cousin asks me today if I will stay here three or fours years. I laugh out loud—"oh my goodness, three—only one and half more years to go!" I am counting. "I don't know what I will do next." I repeat to whomever is listening, "but it will not be this."

I looked at a map—Istanbul, Beirut—the closest, "safe" cities where we could be guaranteed a party for New Year's Eve. Both a three to five hour plane-ride away. Dancing with the glitterati. Eating the richest cuisine. Marching into Israel/Palestine. Helping people across the globe. B looked at the world—Egypt, the Holy Land—a situation far more complicated than religion and politics. Halfway around the globe. This is a shameful juxtaposition.

I have yet to find the balance between expending my energy contributing to the greater good and living the life I have have imagined. I have lived the extremes, but I have to live in equilibrium. Over the past year or so, I have been reflecting, contemplating, and ruminating on how to move forward in my life—rather which direction to move forward in. I have been moving across—horizontally—but I am more of a vertical soul. The situation is precarious.

B will be marching into Gaza. I will be partying in Beirut. One long party and 18 more months of guilt. This is a shameful juxtaposition.

20 July, 2009

That's the Way it Was

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. — The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

I remember almost every room in Carroll Hall, the home of the  School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I remember nearly every professor who taught us about "good", ethical journalism. Chuck Stone, with his slow and steady speech, his warm and jovial manner, transferred his wisdom while simultaneously questioning censorship; Rich Beckman, with the simplest of instructions, gifted us with the minimalist approach to photojournalism and photo editing, ensuring all we did with our cameras and our computers as journalists was honest; Jay Anthony transmitted to us the rules of design and the tools with which to illustrate; Ferrel Guillory, whose door was always open, bequeathed to us the gift of good, solid reporting; Deb Aikat consistently had jokes, but was insistent that not only did we create our web content with purpose and readability, we learned our Internet history as well; Bill Cloud, after whom I modeled the requirement of my students to comprehend current events, coached us on the intricacies of copy writing and editing - it was a strict education and a valuable one; Harry Amana, a force to be reckoned with, opened our eyes to the true history of the media with information we will never forget and acts we hopefully will never repeat; Cathy Packer constantly reminded us that journalism is the fourth branch of government - the "watchdog". Each of them more than well-respected in his or her field, passed on knowledge, wisdom and experience in the most professional of ways. Each of them transferred feelings of both respect and honor, at least, for the profession of journalism and for the First Amendment.

The First Amendment greeted us each day as we entered the hallowed lobby of Carroll Hall for class. At some point I had to memorize the First Amendment, word for word, although I do not remember specifically for what class. Later, after my brief career as a journalist, I engendered my high school journalism students to memorize the First Amendment as well, during my mission to teach them "good" journalism. Although many of them did not comprehend at the time why I was so hard on them, nor did some of them wholly invest in the idea that there was a difference between "good" journalism and journalism, they understood later. And although many of them thought I was "crazy" at the time for making them write relentlessly and edit interminably and thought I was "too serious" about their Newspaper class - I often reminded them it was "Newspaper Journalism" - I later received words and letter of thanks, often followed by the news that said student was majoring in journalism or communications and was grateful for the madness of writing so much and so seriously.
Therefore the news of Walter Cronkite's passing is undeniably moving for someone who came from the school of "good" journalism. Although Dan Rather remarked that Walter Cronkite made television journalism what it is today, he was wrong. Television journalism today is far from what "the most trusted man in America" did in the two decades he covered the stories of America. "That's the way it is" was exactly the most appropriate way for Cronkite to end his newscasts because that is exactly what he was reporting on. The editorializing that pervades American journalism as we know it today is not why Cronkite was invited into the homes of millions of Americans every evening.

Friday night I was on the computer and saw that Cronkite, at 92 years of age, had passed. I told my Aunt, ten years my senior.

"Oh my goodness, I have to call Judi," she said, referring to her sister. "Many trying times in our lives revolved around Walter Cronkite."

She picked up the phone and dialed my other Aunt. She gave her the news and Aunt Judi responded.

Aunt Jill laughed, said "say that again" and put the phone up to my ear.

"Walter Cronkite was at our dinner table every night," Aunt Judi said. "Yup, we weren't allowed to talk either. We had to stay up on current events."

So I pictured my aunts, my mother, my grandmother and grandfather sitting around the television, with the sixth spot at the table filled by Walter Cronkite, whose presence was so much larger than the television screen he occupied. And with that I pictured every American family who was fortunate enough to eat dinner together and own a television between the years of 1961 and 1981.

As many have stated, there is no one who can replace Walter Cronkite, not now and not ever. On the CBS special "That's the Way it Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite", one guest noted that it is a good thing there is no one else whom the American people have put their faith in the way they did Cronkite. "He was the right man at the time to be "the most trusted man in America". True. Times have changed and we, in the United States and abroad, consume news differently and it is produced differently. We no longer accept that "that's the way it is." Our news is editorialized and analyzed during its delivery so that what we receive is far more than the way it is.

While I love Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, David Gregory, Bob Schieffer, and(gasp) Stephen Colbert, they deliver our news in a very different format and formula than did ever Cronkite. Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, Bob Herbert and George Will I love too. But they are pundits - they analyze the news for us. They present it, discuss it, analyze it and synthesize it for we the consumers of the United States of America and we don't have to do it on our own. It's a brand new school. Even those from the old school of broadcast journalism - Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Katie Couric, Sam Donaldson, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Brian Williams, Charles Gibson, Tom Brokaw- have not the same no-nonsense, face-forward savvy as Walter Cronkite. The man gave his last newscast 28 years ago and until this day he has remained a name in our common vernacular.

Much of the eulogizing regarding Walter Cronkite relates to the man. Cronkite was the journalist he was because of the human being that he was. All of the professors in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication whom I was lucky enough to encounter, believed in the value of "good" journalism - there are many people who do. I am grateful that while practicing their own "good" journalism - most of it print - they educated so many of us to do the same. But learning to do something well and actually doing it well are two different things. There are those of us who are purists - who do not taint the well nor do we want to. But times have changed and both the consumers and the producers of news have changed with them. It is rare to consider it simply "news" or "journalism" anymore. A whole generation is coming of age in an era when the difference between "news" and the rest of the media is inscrutable. We have the Internet, multimedia content, video, video on the web, animation, television, cable, newspapers, magazines, commercial radio, public radio, newscasters, bloggers, pundits, talk show hosts, political ads, commercials, YouTube, cell phones, social networking, Facebook, and Twitter - all of which deliver current content in some form or fashion. I am in no way implying that the press or the media as we know it today is bad or wrong or inadequate. I am simply stating that it is different. We are continually challenged to sift through the media, to figure out and decipher the difference between truth and fiction. The media is not the news, and the news has changed in the last three decades since Cronkite retired. It is a rare occasion that any one can safely say "that's the way it is." CBS presented a beautiful tribute about Walter Cronkite and it was aptly titled "That's the Way It Was" because it is that way no longer.