Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Lebanese Night in Dubai

On the last night of my two-week Middle Eastern trip I had decided to spoil myself sparing no cost. An essential part of the plan was that I would spend this last night in Dubai, an emirate known for its luxurious extravagances. I was staying at the Al Murooj Rotana, a huge hotel complex by the Emirates-based chain of luxury hotels. I would only have a couple of meetings in the afternoon and could subsequently take the evening easy. I thought I’d deserve this after the hectic time rushing around through the relentless air pollution in Cairo and the overpriced squalor of Abu Dhabi.

You can imagine my distress then when, after meetings that went on for much longer than I had hoped, my return to the hotel was further delayed for two hours by the appalling traffic in the city. On top of that, I had received a message from my boss in New York—just starting her workday when mine was supposed to wind down –that she wanted a draft paper from me within the same day. It was thus already 10 o’clock in the evening when I finally managed to walk out of my room with an empty stomach and regrets for the missed opportunities.

I shouldn’t have worried too much. Having studied the options nearby and within the sprawling Al Murooj complex already in advance, I headed straight to the superb Lebanese restaurant Mawal. The rather large, yet cosy place was only perhaps a third full as this was still considered rather early for a dinner, even on a weekday. I got a good table for myself and studied the surroundings. There were a few groups of Arabs getting ready for an evening of entertainment at various tables. All were well-dressed in casual western garb. Of the dozen or so women, only one wore a discreet headscarf; others were elegant in designer dresses.

Before I had even had the time to order, the table in front of me was starting to fill with plates. There was a basket of bread and a huge tray of big and juicy olives, hot peppers and three kinds of sour pickled vegetables, which I could only guess what they were. Another plate was piled up with fresh crudités. I added a tabouleh salad to my order in addition to a mixed grill consisting of tasty cubes of beef and spiced chicken kebab, grilled tomatoes and onion, and my favourite koobideh kebab made of minced meat. Everything was covered with ample chopped parsley that cleanses the breath after onion, garlic and spices. This turned out to be a superb meal! Then when I no longer expected anything, a real horn of plenty was placed in front of me bursting with seven kinds of fresh fruit. I initially focused on the ripe mangoes and rambutans, but the real treat turned out to be the large purple grapes that would fill one’s mouth with sweet juice.

At 11 p.m., three musicians walked to the stage. Two of them sat behind batteries of keyboards and percussion instruments, while the one in the middle picked up an electric violin. Starting with catchy Lebanese tunes, the band was immediately able to lift the atmosphere in the restaurant. These rhythmically complex songs with mysterious melodies were played with aplomb and showmanship that forced one to be drawn into the mood. In between, the violinist employed his considerable skills to interpreting some popular but trivial western tunes played against the mechanical Euro beats so much detested—and perhaps rightly so—by the Americans. Luckily, he soon returned to the more appropriate Arabic modes.

By this time more customers had entered. I observed as a third member joined two other chic ladies at a table right next to the stage. By their appearance, I suspected that this graceful but merry trio were Lebanese. The small Mediterranean nation is widely known for three things: excellent music, superb cuisine, and extraordinarily beautiful women. I was lucky to be witnessing all these attributes here tonight. (Incidentally, the other night watching Aljazeera on TV, I happened on an interview with the Irish rocker Chris De Burgh who is particularly popular in Lebanon; he appeared to attest to the same triumvirate.) The fourth attribute, unfortunately more often associated with Lebanon, is of course the persistent war and conflict that has persistently flared up over the past three decades. This conflict has involved the multicultural Mediterranean nation’s Muslim and Druze populations and is kept alive by the anti-Israeli militia, Hezbollah. It in turn is backed by the Iranian regime in Tehran. The Machiavellian neighbour Syria also likes to add to the mess and stoke the fires for its own political purposes. Sadly, this has turned Beirut—formerly known as the Paris of the east—into ruin.

Just as the three ladies were about to embark on dinner, the lights were dimmed and the keyboardist announced against a backdrop of dramatic sound effects that it was time to welcome the belly dancer! Now, I have seen several belly dancing performances in places like Cairo and Istanbul, but this one turned out to be a particular treat. The tall and attractive lady swooped to the stage to the accompaniment of the band that was creating a full and authentic music layered with the live and pre-programmed oriental instruments through the synthesizers. The dancer was dressed in an Islamic green bikini top glimmering with jewels and tiny mirrors, and a matching long skirt, with a slit upon one thigh that reached all the way up there. In addition, she had two large pieces of white silk tied to her waste that she used to the effect of angel wings or sails fluttering in the wind.

She was clearly able to shake each and any part of her voluptuous body independently from any other part. She would glide rapidly through the floor apparently barely moving her feet or her head, all the while every part in between would do the seductive dance. Every dance she performed was different, with a different tempo and theme. The angel wings were gone after the first dance and we could now focus on her movements without the distraction of the whirling silk. Sometimes she would use her long hair as a prop, at times spinning it around in coordination with the music; at other times using it as a veil to cover her face. In one dance she grabbed a silver coloured walking cane as a prop (obviously not used during the times of a thousand and one nights). She would twirl it skilfully like a cheerleader might in front of a marching band in America. She then placed the stick horizontally on her head leaving it there while continuing to gyrate her hips and other parts of her anatomy below the neck. Later she repeated this trick with an Arabian style sword which she put on her head as she slithered slowly as a snake to the lengthy cadenza played by the violin virtuoso. These dances drew huge applause from the audience, almost all of whom were Arabs.

Towards the end of the hour-long show her smooth bronzed body shone sensually with sweat in the air conditioned room. I could not help but to think about the performance by the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila singing the name role in Salome at the Metropolitan in New York. My friend Vesa and I had witnessed the culmination of the opera in the ‘Seven Veils Dance’ which has made the diva even more famous. Richard Strauss, when composing the music in 1924, had invested all of his imagined oriental entrapments into this song. And it is still today very impressive and beguiling. Yet it cannot compared with the real thing.

Walking back satisfied after the meal and performance, I was thinking how rich the Middle Eastern culture is. It is a pity that there are elements in this region who see all of this as sinful and unlawful and who therefore wish to impose their intolerant version of Islam on their fellow humans.

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