Monday, November 24, 2008

Sheikh Zayed University

It always seems like the end comes too quickly. I've been in the Arabian Gulf for 10 days already and there is so much more I want to see and do. This morning we visited the Sheikh Zayed University in Dubai, a university created in 1998 by the government of the U.A.E. to educate Emerati national women. The campus is an impressive building that was recently built to accomodate the growing student population. Five students spoke to us about their experience at the university and about living in the U.A.E. in general. All were members of the Student Government and were very well spoken in English. In addition to answering our questions they had questions of their own about education in the US and the process of getting into college. After we spoke with the students we toured the library. It was of course a wonderful library, but while we were there, we saw girls chatting with each other or on the phone, sitting in front of laptops, or working on school projects. An interesting glimpse into university life.

Artwork hung on the walls of the library at Zayed University. All of the work was done by students at the university. This is one of my favorites.
The UAE is truly an intriguing country. The seven Emirates are unique in their own way but all come together under the flag as United Arab Emirates. My last night is in Sharjah, another Emirate close to Dubai for easy access to the airport. The stories about Dubai and the UAE are all true but it's hard to convey with just words just how unique a place this. Tradition is still a driving force in everyday life and to see it interact with modernity and a desire to forge ahead has been intriguing and educational.

I'd be happy to talk about my experiences (I loved it). Just shoot me an email if you want to know more!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Abu Dhabi and Dubai

We pulled into the port at Abu Dhabi as the sun was beginning to rise. The skyline was astounding compared to anything else I’ve seen on this trip. While Bahrain and Qatar have impressive structures, Abu Dhabi, the first emirate we visited was marvelous. Skyscraper after skyscraper lined the view which made our approach from the water, and from a distance, a unique image. I’ve been quite enthralled by the architecture of the areas I’ve visited on this trip for many different reasons and today was extraordinary in yet another way. There are 19 princes of Abu Dhabi, all of which have a palace. Not just the princes, but other members of the royal family as well. Abu Dhabi is also at work bringing in the Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry and the Louvre. The Gulf is really shaping up to offer cultural centers and opportunities in the Middle East.

Next was Dubai. It truly is a spectacular city. Dubai has really focused on tourism with the ski slopes (attached to and extends high above a huge shopping mall and is visible from the freeway), the major shopping malls, the tallest building in the world (no one really knows how tall it will be when finished), and the luxurious hotels and resorts (the
Burj al Arab, the hotel in the shape of a sail complete with its own heliopad, is truly a fantastic structure). There was construction everywhere in Dubai, but so much has already been completed. The buildings really do appear to go up overnight and new projects are constantly sprouting up.

I have one more day in Dubai but from my quick visit, this really has been an interesting glimpse into an Arab society working at earth-shattering speed to develop modern structures and constantly work to out perform the previous project.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Desert Drive and Architecture in Doha, Qatar

Doha, Qatar is a huge city that continues to grow but is also immediately surrounded by the desert. We boarded 4 wheel drives and headed out of the city to drive through the dunes for a desert experience. It was exhilarating! Khalid, our driver, really wanted to let loose. He was in and out of the line of jeeps heading out together. We stopped right at the edge of the desert to let out a little air in our tires and then headed off up and over the dunes. At one point we went down the dune backward only to rev up and sprint back up. This area by the sea is a great weekend spot where families come and rent tents, bring their jeeps and jet skis, and camp out for a few days.

The Islamic Art Museum, a new, extraordinary museum is about to open in Doha. The building was designed by I.M. Pei and will be/is the largest museum of Islamic Art in the world. I wish it would have been open because just the structure alone demands attention. It’s built right on the water, across from Doha’s business district skyline (which is hugely impressive). One of the main contrasts with Manama, Bahrain is that while you can see ongoing construction in Doha, it’s largely already established. It seemed that many more dynamic buildings in Doha than in Manama have already been completed.

Tomorrow is our second day at sea on the way to Abu Dhabi, the emirate that is the U.A.E’s major producer of oil. All of the countries we’ve visited have experienced huge growth due to oil wealth but the U.A.E. will be quite extraordinary.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Call to Prayer in the Kingdom of Bahrain

After being at sea for a day I was looking forward to disembarking the ship to explore the Kingdom of Bahrain. Bahrain, two seas in Arabic, is a small island famous throughout history as a passage between ancient civilizations and seafaring nations. Glimpses of expansion were everywhere; we could see the skyline littered with construction cranes as we pulled into the port. I’m sure this is just the beginning. All of the Gulf States are building fast and furious with the oil money but many Bahrainis are diversifying as they know their oil supply won’t last forever.

One of the most interesting stops was at the Bahraini – Saudi Arabian border: the King Fahad Causeway. It was completed in 1986 with Saudi money to connect the two countries. There’s not much to see at the stop, although we did see the Saudi skyline, but the connection allows Saudis easy access to Bahrain for weekend trips or to just get away. Today was a busy traffic day in part because it was Thursday – in addition to regular Bahraini traffic; the streets were ingested with Saudis visiting at the beginning of their weekend.

One of my favorite things about traveling throughout the Muslim world is hearing the call to prayer. We arrived at the Grand Mosque in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, right at sunset in time for the 5 pm call to prayer. The mosque has 2 minarets and is a beautiful and truly grand architectural structure. The Grand Mosque can hold 7,000 people – 5,000 in the main hall and another 2,000 in the courtyard. Hearing the call to prayer and seeing the mosque at sunset has always been a calming, relaxing, and peaceful experience. Tonight was no different. The mosque was framed by the beautiful, sunset light enhanced by the melodic words that bring worshippers to the mosque. It was one of those experiences where time stops and you just take a step back and a deep breath and bask in the moment.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Navigating the Straits of Hormuz

At its narrowest point, the Straits of Hormuz stretch 26 miles between the Musandam Peninsula and Iran. By speedboat it only takes an hour. The Musandam Peninsula is part of Oman even though it is separated from the rest of the country by the UAE. We cruised through the Straits today around the coast of the Musandam Peninsula to Khasab, the capitol. On the way we saw the striking barren mountains of Oman and in the opposite direction, the far away coast of Iran. It was unbelievable to think how close we were to Iran. After docking, we boarded dhows (traditional Omani ships) and rode for about an hour through landscape which is compared with the fjords of Norway. Although these fjords were not bursting with vegetation, they dramatically dropped into the sea and the image was breathtaking.

We stopped at Telegraph Island, famous only for a transmitter that used to be there, for a swimming and snorkeling opportunity. The water felt wonderful, very comfortable although salty. There were a few fish to watch, but it was relaxing to just float in the water. On our way to and from Telegraph Island, we passed small villages built into the sides of the mountains. The buildings used to be built with the same color stone as the mountains to blend into the landscape. Now they use white stone and it was fascinating to see 4 or 5 buildings in the middle of a mountain scattered throughout the route. The villages are only accessible by sea and electricity, water, and medical attention are all free and covered by Oman.

Tonight we left Oman and are continuing on our journey with a full day at sea tomorrow on the way to the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Exploring Muscat

The modern city of Muscat and much of Oman has grown a tremendous amount in just 30 years. Since 1970, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id al Sa'id has worked hard to modernize his country through multiple projects with univseral suffrage and high literacy rates to name a few. Just driving through Muscat, road construction is the first thing that grabbed my attention. We ran into messy traffic and much of it was due to multiple projects going on around the city. The Grand Mosque is an exquisite and awe-inspiring work of art and architecture. The mosque has 5 minarets, a men's hall (also known as the Main Hall) which can accommodate thousands of worshippers and a women's hall, and is the only mosque in the area open to foreigners. Although many Omanis wear traditional dress, cell phones are glued to their ears and aviator sunglasses are worn to hide from the sun. As I walked into the Muttrah Souk, a market over 70 years old, a group of young boys were watching us as we walked by, saying hello and waving to us. One was even videotaping and when I asked to take a picture of them they said sure sure! and kept videotaping while I took a photograph.

Oman is a beautiful place and Muscat is just the surface. The city is nestled in a valley between mountains that stretch all along the coast. Beyond the city, the Empty Quarter stretches across most of the country. Historically, Oman has also been a seafaring nation on route from Asia to Europe. As we drove to the port and the Island Sky, our home for the next week or so, a ship registered in Kuwait carried thousands of sheep on multiple levels for Hajj. We set said right at sunset and the view of Muscat and the Sultan's private yacht was beautiful.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Welcome to Oman

I arrived in the Sultanate of Oman and could smell the sea air right as I stepped off the plane. After 7 hours to London and another 9 to Muscat, the balmy but breezy night air was refreshing. I knew this was going to be a fascinating trip but it's also a significant time to travel throughout the world especially in the Middle East. Barely a couple of weeks old, the US election is still fresh in the minds of not only Americans, but of supreme interest to the international world as well. One of the first comments my guide made on the way to our hotel was about the US election. After most of the group acknowledged they were from the States, he proceeded to say what a great outcome for Obama to win the election. He enthusiastically spoke about his anticipation for the 44th American president to take office. Although I know people throughout the world share in the Obama excitement, I was surprised it was one of the first topics of discussion. I imagine this may happen throughout our journey and I look forward to hearing local Gulf perspectives on US politics especially as the world deals with the economic crisis.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


November 14–17 — U.S., Muscat and Embark the Island Sky
Arrive in Muscat, Oman. On tour, view the 16th-century Jelali Fortress and the palace of Sultan Qaboos. Admire a comprehensive collection of Omani art and artifacts at the Bait al-Zubair Museum, and see the majestic Grand Mosque, which can accommodate more than 6,000 worshippers. Examine Muscat’s past at the Bait al Baranda Museum and explore the famous Muttrah Souk—an exotic, fragrant market filled with gold and silver, antiques, frankincense, and spices. Embark the Island Sky and set sail on the Arabian Gulf.

November 18 — Musandam Peninsula
After a morning at sea, arrive in Khasab, the capital of Musandam Province. Separated from the rest of Oman by steep mountains, this region of fjords and small villages comprises one of the Gulf States’ last wilderness areas. Visit a 16th-century fort and marvel at prehistoric rock paintings created by early settlers, then explore the scenic inlets aboard a traditional wooden dhow. Snorkel near a coral reef where butterfly fish, groupers, and even dolphins may be seen.

November 19–20 — At Sea and Manama
Relax and enjoy a full day at sea as the Island Sky glides to Bahrain. In Manama, discover the impressive Al Fateh Grand Mosque and the National Museum, which houses artifacts of the ancient Dilmun civilization. Venture to the town of A’ali, an interesting juxtaposition of modern homes and massive centuries-old tombs. Examine rare Qu’ranic manuscripts at the exceptional Beit al Qu’ran, a cultural institution promoting the understanding of Islam.

November 21–23 — Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai
Visit Doha’s intriguing falcon market and picturesque seafront Corniche. After lunch , board four-wheel drive vehicles for a thrilling desert safari to an inland sea. Bask in traditional Arab hospitality in a tented setting: have an intricate henna design applied to your hands or feet, swim in the turquoise waters, or simply relax with a cup of cardamom-flavored coffee brewed over an open fire. Enjoy a full day of cruising as the Island Sky sails toward the emirate of Abu Dhabi. There, meet some of the visionaries behind the ambitious project to construct the largest cultural center in the Middle East. Continue to Dubai in the afternoon.

November 24–25 — Dubai, Sharjah, Dubai, Disembark and U.S.
Travel to the emirate of Sharjah, where more than a hundred native species, including Rueppell’s sand foxes, Egyptian fruit bats, and Arabian oryxes, may be observed in natural habitats at the Wildlife Center. Tour Al Naboodah House, a cultural heritage museum, and then return to glittering Dubai, the commercial hub of the Middle East. Explore the city’s old quarter and cross Dubai Creek by abra (water taxi) to stroll through the gold and spice souks. Enjoy a farewell reception and dinner on the ship and disembark the next morning for flights to the U.S.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I'm not going to lie. I'm really excited

Half the fun of traveling is planning a trip and the time leading up to actually boarding the plane. I’ve had some pretty great trips to look forward to: a summer Arabic program in Egypt, a train trip through the National Parks of the American West, a journey through Japan’s cities and countryside. All special to me in their own way and for different reasons. The next trip, however, is indescribable.

The Middle East has been an interest of mine since high school. But it began to fully develop in college when I decided to formally study Arabic. Working for Smithsonian Journeys has given me many fantastic opportunities to travel and the anticipation has been mounting ever since I was assigned an “Arabian Gulf Voyage.” The voyage will take me through Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, an area of the world I’ve read about, studied, and hoped to visit one day. From visiting the Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman to crossing the Dubai Creek by water taxi, history and modernism come together to create a unique dynamic only found in the Arabian Gulf states.

I’ve definitely thought about what I need to pack, but it hasn’t been transferred over into my suitcase yet. I still have a day and a half though and tomorrow night it will magically work out!