Five Years In the Middle East

The great recession didn’t hit Arizona, really, until spring 2009.  That was when everyone hit the panic button. Jobs were relatively scarce that year, let alone in education, and some 500,000 people would leave the state in the coming years.  (That’s more than the entire native population of Qatar, for scale purposes).

So I hunted.  Eventually, I wound up in Abu Dhabi, working for the Abu Dhabi Education Council, in a move that, to use an essential but tiring cliche, changed my life.

Tomorrow I fly out from Qatar with my fiancee.  It will be the end of nearly five years out here (shy of two months, since we teachers get a lovely summer holiday that makes a lot of the other bullshit that comes with the job a great deal easier).  It’d be remiss of me not to make a remark about what’s happened out here; what I’ve learned; what I’ll take from it besides a few piles of cash.

So without further ado, here comes my grand list of Shit I Learned While In The Middle East.

  1. Money ruins things; the more money, the more it’s ruined
  2. Lottery winners, including winners of the natural resource lottery, are insufferable
  3. Living in air conditioning strips you of part of your humanity
  4. Deserts always have lower quality food; the bigger the desert, the lower the quality, since it has to travel further and be frozen longer
  5. Rain is magical; snow more so
  6. Everyone is a product of their environment, and everyone conforms, eventually, to a new one (no matter how unethical they may think it to be)
  7. The poor peoples of the world would happily annihilate their own culture for a chance to own an SUV and have an Applebee’s in their town

    A fantastic man whose identity was secret.  We called him Sheikh Mumbler.
    A fantastic man whose identity was secret. We called him Sheikh Mumbler.
  8. Shisha is great, but really, really awful for you
  9. The best Persian Gulf country is Bahrain, because it’s so fucked up and drunk it’s in a league of its own
  10. The worst is Kuwait, owing to its booze ban (Saudi Arabia is excluded because no rational person should consider it)
  11. All-you-can-drink brunches should be experienced multiple times in multiple places, but like all things, they wear thin after a while
  12. Dubai is full of stuff that wows you about a dozen times, but truly does lack much of a city life besides going to malls and remarking on how shiny and big stuff is
  13. Of all the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi is the best, because it has a seedy side of scum that actually feels like it has a story
  14. The scummiest bar in Abu Dhabi is the Trap in the Dana Hotel; visit at your peril
  15. At the same time, a great night out can be found at 49ers in the same hotel on the top floor; their cover band is tops
  16. Clubs full of people who have money are unbelievably dull, and quite likely to contain pricks
  17. Beirut is amazing because it’s so damaged; great nightclub scene, as well
  18. Most places are way, way safer than they appear in the newspapers
  19. Oman is a hidden gem of a country, but you wouldn’t want to live there
  20. Flying over Iraq is super cool during the day (pointless at night)
  21. The two biggest countries – Iran and Saudi Arabia – are virtually inaccessible right now, and that sucks
  22. Every government out here is run by assholes,shitheads, or a combination of both

    West Beirut's Hamra Street is probably one of the best places on Earth.
    West Beirut’s Hamra Street is probably one of the best places on Earth.
  23. Gulf state propaganda is so bluntly simple that it mostly works (“We are all the president” – Jesus, who falls for that?  Well, I guess I did for a bit there)
  24. Revolution is fascinating, but staring at it too much can make you feel like a bad person when you’re not affected by the outcome
  25. Societies based on appearance are wretched to live in after a while
  26. Having a great sense of humor can make the entire region a lot more bearable
  27. The entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pointless
  28. The entire U.S.-Iranian conflict is equally so
  29. Saudi Arabia is doomed
  30. Qatar has zero cool nightclubs
  31. Lebanon is full of hidden awesome stuff and is way safer than its reputation implies
  32. Palestine and Israel are both pretty stunning countries from a natural perspective, but to be honest I thought Lebanon had more to offer
  33. Nothing takes the shine off Jerusalem like seeing the same Jesus plate over and over again in the Old City
  34. The Israeli Separation Barrier is an abomination, but I hope they don’t tear it totally down because it has amazing graffiti
  35. Gulf Arabs in general don’t like the British but do like the Americans; go figure

    The abyss near Petra.  Worth the hike.
    The abyss near Petra. Worth the hike.
  36. There are way, way more gay people out here than you’d think (and many of them have a great time)
  37. Schools don’t run well in places too flush with cash since nobody thinks anything bad can ever happen to them
  38. Don’t raise your kids in the Gulf, or you risk raising spoiled shits, regardless of where you’re from
  39. Parts of Dubai are way, way too much like Phoenix, Arizona
  40. Deira is the best place in Dubai, mostly because it’s old and falling down
  41. Earthquakes can happen out here, but they don’t seem to kill anyone
  42. Never jump on a camel; they don’t forgive
  43. Having an alcohol license is a cool novelty until you forget it at home (or you can’t get one because immigration is slow processing you)
  44. Most dumb stuff out here is funny until it happens for a fifth time
  45. Customer service is uniformly awful, and when you get a good experience, you cherish it like a newborn child
  46. Propaganda newspapers are hilarious at first until you actually get curious as to what the hell’s going on
  47. There are too many rumors to sort, so it’s best to tune everything out
  48. Arab hospitality is amazing, and Emiratis will almost always help you get your stupid Jeep out of the sand
  49. Jordanian Bedouin are what the Gulf should have remained
  50. Watching a state build itself is priceless because of all the basic mistakes they make
  51. Petra is precisely as great as you’d expect
  52. Jerusalem is not

    Bahrain is one of the few places you can get up close and personal with these things.
    Bahrain is one of the few places you can get up close and personal with these things.
  53. Syria is the greatest tragedy you’ll ever come close to
  54. The Pyramids are underwhelming
  55. The Western Desert of Egypt is not (absolutely stunning)
  56. Tribalism is unbelievably stupid and annoying to work with and for
  57. Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are just on the cusp of ruining themselves (time to go!)
  58. Abu Dhabi has a hot fog season, which is awkward and confusing
  59. Bribery works; being bribed is off-putting at first, but you get used to it after a while
  60. A lot of Muslim men seem to love Red Label whiskey
  61. The Shi’a-Sunni conflict is stupid
  62. Schools here make two mistakes: they assume they can change the region to their way of thinking (which they can’t) or they assume they can’t change it all and so they don’t even try (which is equally untrue)
  63. Best lessons for my Emirati students involved polite language (who knew nobody had taught them to say “please”?)
  64. Best project: making Emiratis visit the labor camps
  65. The labor camps are as bad as the Israeli occupation (and worse, in some ways)

    Egypt's White Desert is absolutely stunning.
    Egypt’s White Desert is absolutely stunning.
  66. “The Taliban Store” sounds scary until you realize it’s just a student resources shop from the 80s
  67. After two years, you get cold easy
  68. After four years, you get angry easily
  69. After five years, it’s probably time to consider leaving
  70. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayhan of Abu Dhabi is a scumbag for arresting rather than talking to the Muslim Brotherhood of his country
  71. Academic freedom is priceless
  72. So is freedom of speech
  73. And religion
  74. And association
  75. At the same time, not having guns allowed gives a huge peace of mind
  76. Americans could learn a lot from how friendly people out here are
  77. Turns out, a lot of problems in the region are as equally caused by the locals themselves as by the machinations of imperialists and neoconservatives
  78. No government here even tries to tell the truth, and makes the American president seem like Honest Abe
  79. Nothing out here is worth dying for, especially religion
  80. The UAEis going to be dominated by lesbian overlords by 2030 (since girls are better educated than boys, and homosexuality is rampant in girls’ government schools)

    Revolution in progress in Cairo's Khan.
    Revolution in progress in Cairo’s Khan.
  81. This whole region needs a cultural atomic bomb to go off to get people talking about stuff they currently sweep under the rug
  82. Abu Dhabi’s film festival is shockingly awesome
  83. Qatar’s is cancelled, and Sheikh Tamim and whoever else made that call is an idiot for doing so
  84. If you want to be a tourist destination, you can’t regulate clothing, or drinking, without coming off as an ass
  85. Arabic is hard
  86. But it’s got its beauty once you start to knock down a few of the bricks in the language barrier
  87. Bedouin can be incredibly generous
  88. They can also be frustratingly arrogant
  89. The Gulf states are way ahead of the U.S. on immigration
  90. They’re way behind on self-reflection and honesty
  91. Censored movies are funny for a while, but Jesus it’d be nice to see a romantic movie where the couple actually gets to kiss
  92. Someday, many of the Brits in Dubai are going to wake up with skin cancer and they’ll finally know why I spent much of my life avoiding the sun
  93. Suburbs are uniformly awful in every country
  94. The Dead Sea is miserable in summer
  95. It’s more tolerable in winter
  96. Beirut’s airport is scary as hell, since it looks like you’ll crash into the ocean until the moment you hit the tarmac
  97. Additionally, West Beirut is stunning and has the city’s best food
  98. It’s a place worth going to
  99. And it’s a place worth leaving
  100. And I’ll miss much of it loads