Tag Archives: Middle East

Adventures of a Pilgrim: Mecca

The two predominant travellers to Saudi Arabia are expats and pilgrims and I fall into the latter category. Although there has been a slight growth in leisure tourism, religious tourism is a thriving industry, bringing in Continue reading

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Bastakia: Art, Heritage and Crafts in Dubai

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series The Emirates

A stroll through Dubai’s Bastakia Quarter is like a stroll back in time, or a walk through a movie set. If you take the chance to step away from Dubai’s bustling, shiny shopping malls or its luxury beaches for a walk through this historical neighbourhood, you will find peace, beautiful architecture, and Middle Eastern art and heritage.

A beautiful mosque stands at the edge of the Bastakia Quarter. Photo © Kathryn Parsons

Bastakia in Bur Dubai is easily reached by heading to Al Fahidi metro station and walking up Al Satwa Road towards the creek. Once you reach Bastakia, immerse yourself in the area by walking around the tiny alleys and seeing what you discover! The neighbourhood is home to the Coin Museum, the Coffee Museum, various art galleries, craft shops and cafes set in sunny courtyards. Most of my purchases during my visit to Dubai are from Bastakia — there’s a wonderful incense shop where I brought some oud crystals for burning and an art shop where a lovely man wrote my name in Arabic and framed it. There are also shops filled with Iranian pottery, handicrafts and jewellery.

Often named ‘Old Dubai’, Bastakia is also home to the remnants of Dubai’s old wall, constructed in 1800 from gypsum and coral. The neighbourhood has recently undergone restoration and is now a completely pedestrianised heritage centre, so it’s a perfect, peaceful place to see traditional Middle Eastern buildings and visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Here you can also go upstairs for great views of the neighbourhood.

Shops, cafes, galleries and museums are hidden in the narrow winding allies. Photo © Kathryn Parsons

My favourite part of the Bastakia Quarter is the Arabian Tea House Restaurant and Café, and not just because the food is delicious — this courtyard café is dreamy! In my opinion, there’s no better word to sum up the atmosphere as you sit down under the white canopies amidst the trees and flowers, order a cool minty lemonade filled with ice, and enjoy your surroundings. They also boast a selection of over a hundred different kinds of tea from all over the world, and an impressive variety of dishes to keep you going throughout the day, from traditional breakfasts, to barbecue, to hearty salads and afternoon teas.

Mosaic graffiti spotted in Bastakia. Photo © Kathryn Parsons

One of the best things I found about visiting Bastakia was that it was an ideal place to visit with others or alone. I first went with a group of people, which was ideal for meandering around the lanes, checking out the art and enjoying a nice lunch — even if we did occasionally lose somebody to the next alluring alleyway or art gallery! But it was also great to visit the quarter alone. The second time I went, I was visiting my sister who worked in Dubai at the time, so I had a few days to entertain myself. Aside from being invited to lunch by two men on the metro who were on their way to their mother’s house, I spent the afternoon in uninterrupted peace walking round Bastakia. I got to spend as long as I wanted pondering the interesting graffiti, sampling the scents of each incense and, best of all, drinking coffee and writing alone in the serene courtyard café.

Featured image © Kathryn Parsons

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What Trump Will Do in Syria

Rarely has it occurred that the president of the United States has not had to deal with international issues. During and since its ascension to global superpower status, the United States has had the ability — and some would argue responsibility — to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States, often at the behest of NATO or the United Nations, has done just that. It has intervened for the sake of stability and humanitarian principles through military means in Somalia, Kosovo and Iraq (the first time, in 1991), and through diplomatic means in North Korea and Iran.

As the Syrian Civil War now rages on into a seventh, bloody year and with more people dying every day, is now up to Donald Trump to decide whether or not to intervene in Syria.

Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria. © Christiaan Triebert

So far it doesn’t look good. Trump neglected to send a delegation to the recently concluded Astana Peace Talks in Kazakhstan, which took place between Russia and the Syrian government and Turkey and the rebels. Though Trump has said notoriously little with regards to actual policy, he has made statements that would suggest his intentions.

“America First”

Trump made it abundantly clear during his inauguration address that he would put America first. By this he means that American interests would be his top priority. This seems to suggest that Continue reading

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Welcome to Jordan: Everyday Realities

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Welcome to Jordan

I had heard a lot of criticism about Amman as a city — that it is boring with nothing to do or see. In no way is this true — the city has plenty to offer! It may just take some effort to discover.

I moved here as part of my BA Arabic degree, which meant spending the entire academic year in a country I had never visited before. Having never travelled in the Middle East, this was rather an exciting prospect and, having come not as a tourist, but to stay (if only for a limited period), I wanted to know what the city was like to live in.

Having spent three months here so far, I have built up a list of observations that I found surprising, coming from a European background, which any visitor will notice sooner or later.

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman's busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman’s busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Weather

While the assumption is that it is always hot in the Middle East, this is not entirely true. Admittedly, the heat in late August can be overwhelming — over 30 degrees and sunny all day long. But you get used to it very fast: soon 30 degrees feels like nothing. It gets to the point where you almost forget what a cloudy day looks like.

Come mid-September, everyone keenly awaits for the first signs of rain. “Look, clouds!” someone may shout, and everyone goes over to the window in eager anticipation. Jordan is 90% desert, and the climate is respectively a desert climate — scorching hot in the day, cold at night. Houses have little to no heating, and in November a common complaint is how cold it is — colder inside than out.

Amman is hilly, and there is a constant breeze — refreshing in summer, but in late Autumn, 18 degrees makes you think “winter is coming” (summer in Northern European terms!) There is a promise of ice and maybe even snow by January: sounds slippery considering the steepness of these hills.

City layout

The layout of the city (due to its fast growth) makes it very difficult to walk anywhere. Granted, there are a few areas where the pavements are decent enough to walk on, but for the most part, excursions on foot often mean dealing with cracked pavements that can be up to two feet high, and honking horns. Venturing from one area to another, the roads resemble motorways because of the amount of cars and lanes, and pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent. Be prepared to walk a mile to encounter a bridge, or dare to run across the road fearing for your life.

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater picture © Annabella Ahola

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Transportation

The above point means that taking a taxi anywhere is a common means of transport. Buses exist, but they are rare, and no one really seems to know their timetables and routes. The joke is that the bus is so fast you cannot even see it. There are also white servees taxis: a kind of shared minibus. With no designated route, they leave as they fill up with customers. Outside, men shout destinations at passersby, and you get on a bus heading in your direction, telling the driver where to drop you off. Sounds daunting, but it is very cheap — 35 qirsh* for a ride. A taxi across the city will cost you about 2 dinars. That said, taxis might not be easy to get, depending on how busy it is. A driver may even refuse to take you, and foreigners run the risk of getting ripped off. Hence one must always check to make sure the meter is running, or to agree on a price before boarding.

Money

Despite the preconceptions one might have about the Middle East, Jordan is not a cheap country to live in. The dinar is stronger than the pound, and the prices in supermarkets and Western-style malls are similar to those found in Europe. (This is why it is better to leave the malls for a special treat, and stick to local shops and produce.) Prices can vary significantly depending on where you are. A Turkish coffee from a corner shop could cost 35 qirsh, an American-style filter coffee, 2 dinars. In a nicer mall café, this could be 4 dinars including tax and service charge. That said, not all prices are fixed. A good rule of thumb is that if there is no price tag, the price is negotiable. This is particularly true for the souks, such as those in the older part of town. Traditionally, for Arabs, haggling is an art form, and agreeing to the price right away is somewhat disrespectful and makes you look like a fool.

Shopping

When it comes to the kind of produce on offer, Amman has a lot of variety. In the bigger malls and supermarkets, one finds a lot of the same brands and products as in Europe. No big culture shock there. However, when it comes to more specialised things, such as organic produce, or foods aimed at vegans or people with allergies (tofu, gluten free…) the struggle is real. If these are available, they are rare and difficult to find.

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. © Annabella Ahola

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. Picture © Annabella Ahola

“If you have specialist needs — like a particular brand of shampoo you like — bring a supply of it with you,” we were advised by our school. But with limited suitcase space, I think I am OK with my hair adjusting to something new, for now.

[*a qirsh is one hundredth of a dinar. 1 dinar is equivalent to £1.11 at time of publication].

Featured image © Anton Mukhametchin

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The Emirates: An Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series The Emirates

On the south east border of Saudi Arabia, bordering Oman and sharing the Persian Gulf with Iran, Qatar and Bahrain, seven emirates occupy an area of 83,600 sq. km formed mainly of dune and oasis-filled desert, rocky mountains and fertile plains. This small union of states, well-known for being home to one of the most luxurious destinations in the world — Dubai — has an interesting, perhaps less well known, story.

When I first visited Dubai in 2011, I remember being astonished at how young the city seemed. When I saw the remains of the old city wall, built in 1800, I thought to myself, that isn’t old at all. I wondered how this city, certain vistas of which made it look as if it had been plucked from a sci-fi film, had sprouted up in the middle of the desert. So I’ve decided to find out more about the tax free United Arab Emirates (UAE), where an estimated 7.8 million of the 9.2 million residents are expatriates, where alcohol is only permitted in certain buildings, and where you can allegedly leave your designer handbag unattended in public and nobody will touch it. Continue reading

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