The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).


Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).

Drug Use around the World

There are certain human phenomena that are often described as unhealthy or unnatural yet are so universal as to be undeniably a part of the human experience, within the set of behaviors that describes us as homo sapiens, at a naturalistic level. As much as some anthropologists may have tried in the last century to find counterexamples, to prove things an aspect of particular cultures rather than of us as a species, traveling far and wide identifies many things that are indeed universal, are patterns that arise over and over again, across cultures thousands of miles apart, of vastly different traditions. One example of such a human phenomenon is drug use.

We have encountered drugs of one kind or another in almost all the countries we have visited–even in the relatively abstemious Muslim world–and it is fascinating to see how cultures have incorporated or tamed the human impulse to chemically alter our consciousness. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the substances we have come across, along with some thoughts on each.


Pouring tea, Mauritania

Tea is what triggered the idea for this particular post. While East Asians may now drink tea largely as a water substitute, and many in the West as a sort of warm, calming drink, tea still features prominently in Chinese medicine and the pharmaceutical properties of tea were promoted heavily when tea was first imported into the West at great cost. The caffeine content of tea is, of course, relatively modest, especially compared to coffee (see below), but that tea is still used for its caffeine content–to keep us alert and social–is undeniable. The most street drug-like use of tea we have encountered was in Mauritania. The tea culture of Mauritania (similar to that of northern Mali and Morocco) is one of the most unusual we have seen. Mauritanians take huge amounts of Chinese green tea (“the vert de chine,” as it is called) and boil it down over a fire, to produce a highly concentrated form of tea sweetened with a great deal of sugar. Given that it is customary to drink at least three (albeit small) glasses at each sitting, the caffeine and sugar jolt is no less than jarring; a few days into Mauritania we realized that it was the bumps of tea that were preventing us from having solid nights of sleep. While waiting for our Iron Ore Train (see post of 12.31.08), one youth stayed up almost the whole night boiling tea, and trying to nudge his friends awake to join him for more hits. Tea drinking is so essential, so ubiquitous to Mauritanian culture that men will often travel with the essential equipment to make tea, including a fuel canister in the case of the Iron Ore Train. (Men also often travel with a whisk, for mixing milk with water, see post of 08.12.21.)


An addict on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia

Generally speaking, most of the “traditional” drugs we have seen around the world seem to cause few apparent significant social disruptions, of the kind that we associate with street drugs in the western world such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is qat. Chewed from Yemen to Kenya, and in some expatriate communities elsewhere, the stimulant and hallucinogen is famously harvested around the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The ladies selling the leaves in the market may seem jolly and friendly, not like the deadly drug pushers of Hollywood movies, but the ill effects of the drug can be readily seen in the numerous men who lay in the gutters in and around Harar, teeth rotten or missing and mouths foaming with green leaf, unable to control their addiction to the drug. We saw one man using a mortar and pestle to ground the drug, because his teeth had all rotted away, and another fighting with a goat for scraps of leaves on the ground of the local market. Seeing the addicts of Harar certainly made me think through the possibly horrible outcomes of greater drug legalization, at least in a society without proper education, addiction prevention and rehabilitation of addicts.


Nearly every traveler to the Andes chews a few coca leaves or sips some mate de coca, not only for the novelty and the experience of traditional culture, but also to combat altitude sickness. And, perhaps disappointingly, the tourist discovers that a small quantity of coca leaves seems to have little effect at all, on altitude sickness or anything else. To a liberal South American, coca is also a battle cry, an example of modern first world cultures misusing a traditional product (by chemically creating a deadly concentrate from a relatively harmless plant) and then imposing their own resulting social problems on third world economies (or so the coca growers, perhaps in part dependent on first world addicts for income, may argue). Of all the drugs on this list, coca is perhaps the most controversial, a drug whose social and political profiles vary extremely widely with geography and whose economic profile has the power to move nations. (Opium/Heroin has a similar geopolitical dimension.)

Betel nut

For sale at a convenience store, Yap, Federal States of Micronesia

Traveling in Micronesia, or the coastal edges of Asia (particularly Taiwan and India), one encounters betel nut all the time; locals’ mouths seem to be constantly stuffed with one and the streets red with dried spit. Like many other “traditional” drugs, it all seems harmless enough, but the lime with which the active substance is released from the nut does substantial harm to the user’s teeth, which alone seems objectionable. Betel nut does serve to demonstrate the social nature of drug use. Just like the elaborate ritual of making Mauritanian tea, betel nut chewing requires a certain set of ingredients and tools (lime, a leaf, the nut itself, something to crack the nut with and often tobacco), of which at a given point in time a person may lack one or two elements. By getting together to prepare the drug, people bond–much like the occasionally flirty act of asking for or offering a light for a cigarette. One long-time expat in Yap told us that preparing a fix of betel nut together can act as the equivalent of breaking bread, a joint activity that tells its participants (and those witnessing) that all is well and square between them.

Kola nuts

When we first saw kola nuts in Mali, we couldn’t even recognize them. Only later did we learn that this was the kola of Coca-Cola fame, and similar to cacao, tea and coffee in its pharmacological properties. For the tourist in West Africa, especially the Dogon Country (see posts of 08.12.16), kola nuts serve as a sort of alternative currency, a way of currying favor with at-times grumpy locals without outright cash bribery. We were amazed at how responsive people were to the simple gift–which probably reveals not avarice on the part of the old men but the symbolic significance of the gift, perhaps not dissimilar from the act of sharing a betel nut.

And, finally, the big three, which I will touch on only briefly, since you, dear reader, are no doubt extremely familiar with them:


Lighting up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China

Smoking the sheesha, Buraimi, Oman

Cigarettes may be dying out in America, with the imposition of high taxes and laws eradicating them from nearly all public places, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world. But, perhaps more interesting than cigarettes are the various more exotic forms of tobacco consumption, including beautiful tiny pipes found in the deserts of Mauritania, the sheesha or hookah found all over the Muslim world, the Chinese pipes featured above and fragrant clove kretek in the Indonesian isles. The sheesha is not only “traditional,” but a very popular and trendy social activity among the young in the more fashionable parts of the Levant (such as hip cafes in Beirut, Damascus and Amman) as well as New York’s Lower East Side (where a hookah can cost upwards of USD 30). If it tastes like apple, how could it possibly be bad for you?


Coffee-husk tea, served to us by the Hamer tribe of the Omo, Ethiopia

Coffee Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Coffee has perhaps the largest number of addicts in the world, if alcohol is more often used to disastrous effect. And traveling with something of an addict myself (Derek always travels with packets of 3-in-1, dissolvable in room temperature water), I’m well aware of individuals’ need for a coffee fix. Morocco, where we are now, has perhaps the highest public coffee consumption we’ve seen outside of the American workplace (where, in a most sinister fashion, coffee is the only beverage offered to employees for free). Ethiopia, the home of coffee, fittingly has the most developed brewing ritual. One legend apparently has it that coffee was first brewed by an Ethiopian monk, who had met a goatherd that followed his goats in trying the berries, and came to discover their energy-giving power. The monk, believing the fruit to be evil, threw the fruit in the fire. Upon smelling the delicious roast, he was tempted to try it himself, and eventually grew to appreciate the drink’s ability to focus and prolong his prayers!


British woman enjoying a cocktail

An ever-common site–drunk Asian businessmen, Hong Kong

A very wise Touareg explained to us in Timbuktu that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol was something for man’s own good. “It doesn’t affect or harm God if you drink–it isn’t personally important to him–he just says you shouldn’t drink for your own benefit.” Indeed, many of the rules of Islam and other religions can be explained this way, that they are designed to create a harmonious and peaceful society, rather than to delineate what constitutes a sort of cosmic evil, or sin.

The absence of alcohol is perhaps one of the greatest easily noticeable differences between the Muslim world and the West or Far East. By avoiding alcohol, the Muslim world certainly avoids some of the greatest social ills of other, alcohol-laden parts of the world. Almost all cities in the Muslim world feel incredibly safe, especially at night, relative to American or European cities, largely because they are free of drunks whose erratic behavior can result in conflict and violence. In the major East Asian cities after sundown, drunken office workers are a common sight; in the West, so much of adult social life revolves around bars and inebriation. I will never forget the first “festival” we attended in the Arab world, and how family-friendly it was, largely due to the absence of alcohol. On the other hand, I also understand the role of alcohol as social lubrication, in places such as East Asia where workplace relations can otherwise be very hierarchical and tense, or in the promotion of the mixing of genders (or single-sex pairings, in the case of homosexuals), that most natural human activity. Is trying to ban alcohol from adult social life perhaps as futile and senseless as banning other natural behaviors, such as sexuality? But, of course, many parts of the Muslim world also attempt this, to greater or lesser success.

The Gulf

We’ve been to most of the countries in the Gulf region now–Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, although not Qatar and Saudi Arabia–and seen them in relatively quick succession.

Some thoughts:

– Each country has in the second part of the twentieth century experienced an unprecedented windfall in the way of oil revenues and used them to build itself up into a modern (even ultra-modern) nation, from, relatively speaking, the desert backwater that presumably each was fifty years ago. (Oman’s an outlier–a bit more below.)

– To see the Gulf states properly, you need a car. Car rentals can be very affordable, and of course gas is cheap. Traffic around Dubai is some of the worst we’ve experienced. The Gulf states all have modern roads, and are building many more at a rapid pace. They seem to love roundabouts, like some countries in Europe, and hate overpasses. Roundabouts do offer some opportunity for U-turns, but the lack of overpasses means that you’re often stuck going in the wrong direction (especially if you’re a tourist who doesn’t know directions and makes a wrong turn), for what can be a seemingly endless desert block. Build some overpasses!

– The Gulf is more traditional than many other corners of the world. Men almost uniformly wear traditional dress (dishdasha and keffiyeh (or embroidered hat in the case of Oman)) and women are largley dressed in full black robes, and often burqas. Gender distinctions are great. In some countries, such as Oman, it’s actually somewhat uncommon (outside malls) to see women at all–they just don’t participate to a full extent in public life. Even restaurants are segregated–men-only seating and “family” seating for mixed gender groups. In Saudi Arabia, as in Iran, many rules are enshrined in law; I believe that in all the other countries, it is more a matter of custom.

– It’s not quite clear how religious the people in the Gulf are–given the high education levels it would not be surprisingly to find a fairly secular society underneath it all–but the locals are uniformly Muslim on paper. The Gulf is not Syria or Iraq, or even Iran, which have historically seen the movement of many peoples and faiths, with various minority groups as historical remnants. (Oman is a bit of an exception ethnically in that there are black Omanis–see below.)

– The most striking thing about the Gulf is the number of non-Arabs who live and work there (as much as 90% of the population, in Dubai). Of course, these people come from various backgrounds, from wealthy Westerners who are compensated very well for coming to work so far from home, to South Asians who in what must be desperation to find work take jobs that offer often horrible working conditions and do not pay very well to boot (most famously in the construction industry, but elsewhere as well). The phenomenon of millions of people traveling thousands of miles in search of work is one that deserves a separate post, which I hope to put together at a later date.

Perhaps a bit surprising is how the countries differ from one another. The Gulf was ruled by various tribal leaders, most of whom in the twentieth century developed quasi-colonial relationships with the United Kingdom and then formed separate nation-states. The UAE, even today, is a federation of seven sheikdoms. Despite what must have been fairly similar histories (with the exception of Oman), the Gulf states have become somewhat distinct in the recent past. Some country-specific thoughts:

– Most famously, Dubai has become a center of commerce. With relatively limited oil reserves, Dubai has successfully leveraged its commercial history and location to become, truly, the hub city of the Middle East. It is home to the region’s biggest and best airline (Emirates) and the world’s most ambitious building projects (such as the manmade islands of the Palms and the World and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai). I have been told by Arabs that, outside of Lebanon and Egypt, which are the centers of the Arab music and film industries, respectively, Dubai is the center of Arab media and popular culture, as well as technology.

– Bahrain is fairly multicultural. From what we understand, Bahraini law allows overseas workers to gain residence/citizenship more easily than other Gulf countries (in some it is simply not possible no matter how long one stays), and so Bahrain has longer-term non-Arab residents. We saw a Christian church (largely for the Filipino population) in downtown Bahrain, and there are good whole-in-the-wall type Thai restaurants as well. Even the Arab Bahrainis have a slightly more exotic look, perhaps from Bahrain’s long history as a port. Bahrain is known for banking, but is also trying to attract tourists, with free-flowing alcohol and a Formula One racetrack. A bit depressingly, Bahrain seems to be a center of prostitution, with Saudis driving over in new SUVs by the hundreds (Bahrain is an island, but a very long causeway connects it to Saudi Arabia) to drink and fornicate. Central Bahrain is filled with cheapish hotels featuring all kinds of evening entertainment.

– Kuwait, as described in a recent New York Times article, does not seem to be experiencing a great boom in investment as other parts of the Gulf, and parts of its downtown lie in ruins (still from the 1990-91 war??). It is of course just as rich or richer than its neighbors, but for whatever reason its general economy seems to be stagnating. Overseas workers we spoke to in Kuwait said that it is a horrible place to work, one woman saying that risk of sexual harassment/rape was ever present, including from the police. She explained further that her 12 year old son was in the Philippines and unwilling to return to Kuwait saying, “What I am going to do there? It is like a prison”. We also heard that other Gulf Arabs think ill of Kuwait. Although Kuwait started offering tourist visas recently, basic efforts to develop tourism seem lacking–the windows of the landmark Kuwait Towers are dirty, and ruins are visible nearby. One interesting, arguably more positive point: We are told that Kuwaiti society relaxed considerably after the war–one overseas worker mentioned that he thought it would be like Saudi Arabia when he first came, and was pleasantly surprised to find that standards of dress and behavior are surprisingly liberal.

– Oman still feels like a backwater compared to the other countries, although Oman most of all has a history of contact with the rest of the world, including especially in the nineteenth century, when it had a sort of small empire, including the island of Zanzibar. From its African history, Oman has a local black population, who seem to be totally integrated into Omani society. There are relatively fewer overseas workers in Oman, and one sees more locals holding regular jobs. Oman seems to be very well governed by its Sultan, and in our travels we have found Omanis uncommonly warm and gentle, with class and charm at times lacking in some of the other Gulf countries.

Dubai QuickTrip: Musandam Peninsula

Geographical extremities have always intrigued me, as I believe they do many people. When in Argentina I wanted to travel down to Tierra del Fuego (although I did not make it), I’ve always been curious about the tips of the Florida Keys, Long Island, Cape Cod, Baja California and the Aleutians (zero for five) and earlier on our trip we went to Cape Comorin in India. So when our flight plans gave us an opportunity for a UAE stopover, I knew instantly where I wanted to go–Oman’s Musandam peninsula, which lies on a tip of the Arabian peninsula. [See also my earlier post on “The Other Emirates”–but most of those are on the way from Dubai to Musandam.]

The Musandam peninsula is the portion of the Arabian peninsula that breaks the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Sea, jutting toward Iran and defining the strategically important Strait of Hormuz through which so much of the world’s oil travels. Part of the Sultanate of Oman (although it is separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE, just as Alaska is separated from the bulk of the U.S. by Canada), the Musandam peninsula entices not only through its extremity location but with its wild, mountainous fjords and isolated villages (one, Kumzar, is so remote that it has its own language and is even now reachable only by boat). I was first made curious about the Musandam peninsula when visiting Oman in 2005, but the Musandam peninsula is much more quickly and easily reached from the UAE than from the rest of Oman (although there are some flights from Muscat), and so perfect for a Dubai QuickTrip.

First, we had to sort out which car rental company would let us take cars into Oman (there is no public transportation to the Musandam, and not having your own transport in Oman somewhat defeats the point of traveling there). Each company seems to have a different policy. Some won’t let you take the car into Oman at all, and others let you but only through one border (which takes you into the main part of Oman and not the Musandam). Of the ones that allow travel to Oman, some charge a mandatory insurance fees, others insurance in addition to surcharge on the rental, while a couple local companies didn’t require insurance or suggested that we buy it from a third party (there are offices at the border selling temporary insurance much like Mexico insurance sold at U.S./Mexico borders, and Oman requires that you be covered one way or another). We settled on Dollar, which imposed a relatively small insurance charge of 150 dirhams (a bit over $40) and seemed otherwise reliable. [We actually spent a good part of a frustrating morning trying to rent from a local company in Sharjah, but we couldn’t get the deposit mechanics to work out given our short stay–they didn’t take credit cards–and the thoroughly incompetent local employee acted like he was stoned (“Where the car? Where I put the car?”).]

The three or so hour drive from Dubai through the emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Ras al-Khaimah is, for the large part, fairly uninteresting. The UAE is of course a modern and wealthy country, and each emirate has a fort or two, but the terrain is generally flat and not too beautiful, and marred by relatively unattractive development (the “other” emirates are visibly not as well off as Dubai and Abu Dhabi). The landscape changes almost instantly as you cross the border into Oman after paying a 60 dirham fee to exit the UAE and a 20 dirham fee to enter Oman (a little over $20 total). Driving the relatively new road from the Omani border town of Tibba to Khasab, the road’s end near the tip of the Musandam peninsula, you instantly know and feel that you are in rugged, beautiful and spacious Oman, a land of mountain forts and wadis facing the sea. For most its length the road hugs the base of cliffs, and occasionally rises up and over them, passing through quiet towns and within sight of the occasional fort.

Our previous visit to Oman made us great fans of the country, and the Musandam peninsula does not disappoint. Just as in the rest of Oman, you find a gracious people, warm with hospitality (and the men particularly elegant in their clean white dishdashas and embroidered hats). There is none of the traffic, aggressive driving and sometimes senseless seeming overdevelopment of the UAE, but there is still a feeling of progress, with a focus on social development. You feel that the country spends its relatively limited oil revenues wisely, investing in its citizens and promoting a level of self-sufficiency (although there are still many overseas workers).

But back to the peninsula. Separated from the rest of Oman, the Musandam faces seaward, toward the Strait of Hormuz. Much of the local economy is catered toward trade with Iran, taking the form of small-time Iranian traders taking speedboats 45 kilometers across the Strait, trading Iranian sheep and goats for all manners of goods, from electronics to American cigarettes. [We were told by one local that she’s seen the boats taking exercise machines.] Unfortunately, perhaps because it was Friday, we didn’t get to see much of the trading activity, or the Iranian traders, who according to Lonely Planet are identifiable by their “lusty mustaches,” although we did seem some speedboats rushing north.

The town of Khasab has some sightseeing (typically, the fort is the main attraction), but no trip to the Musandam would be complete without a tour by boat. The well-run Musandam Sea Adventure Company (tel: +968-2673-0424, with an office in the old souk) offers full-day dhow tours for 20 Omani rials per person (about $65). The boats leave around 9:30AM and return around 4:00PM, for a cruise around Khor (or Fjord) Ash Sham, which winds among remote villages where water is delivered by boat and children commute weekly to school. A couple stops are made for swimming and snorkeling (equipment provided, but not too much to see), and a generous lunch served onboard (drinks and water also provided). The weather was gorgeous and the boat ride scenic and very pleasant.

One highlight of the boat ride is dolphins, which we were told are seen almost every day. A few came up to swim along the side of our boat.

Our choice of lodging, the Lake Hotel, was definitely overpriced at 30 Omani rials (around $80) after bargaining. I believe the Khasab Hotel charges slightly higher rates but is likely nicer, or you can stay at the upmarket Golden Tulip on the road into town.

Perhaps not a great destination to travel far, but a wonderful escape for a QuickTrip.