My contemporary romance, The Royal Sheikh, is based in a fictitious country in the Middle East and in the words of a recent review on Readers Favorite, it mixes 'fantasy and fiction'. But what is life really like in the Middle East? Rather than write about it myself, as I might slip back into the realms of fantasy, I asked Chris Combe, an experienced expat author, if he could give my readers a glimpse into life out here and he kindly provided me with this excerpt from his best-selling guide to living in Dubai, 'One Year in Wonderland':
“Saturday, September 23, 2006
“Saturday, September 23, 2006
We didn't even know it had started until we got to the Ibn Battuta Mall and found that is was pretty much deserted. All the food outlets were closed; chairs tipped against or stacked on tables and serving windows silent and empty. The moon-watching committee must have spotted that new moon last night. My son, with his usual forthright manner, was asking all kinds of questions including: "Who is the man that looks out for the moon?" and, "What happens if he falls asleep and misses it?"
So we shopped at the hypermarket, taking in this new, unusual atmosphere. No people smoking or eating or drinking; melodic, enchanting Arabian music lilting gently from the speakers; westerners dressed like they're on the beach...some things never change.
This is the holiest time in the Islamic calendar. It changes dates every year depending on the phases of the moon and lasts four weeks. It culminates in the Eid festival at the end. During this time, Muslims must not eat, drink or smoke during daylight hours. I think there are a few other things they aren’t allowed to do as well, but can’t remember what exactly. It’s all supposed to test their faith, purify their souls and remind them of others’ plight; something like that.
It also affects non-Muslims, who are obliged to respect the feelings of the locals and avoid eating and drinking in public or in view of Muslims. This is why most food outlets are closed during the period, although some of the big hotels apparently have restaurants that are open behind closed doors. Alcohol is completely banned until sunset, or about 7pm, however.
After the food shopping was completed we went back home, had some lunch and decided to go and explore the Madinat Jumeirah. This is a vast tourist complex centred on a shopping mall in the style of a traditional souk. There are two large luxury hotels - one at either end - and a lower level with dozens of restaurants and man-made waterways winding their way all around the complex. Abras (little wooden water taxis) transport people around these fake rivers, from the hotel to the souk and back. As was the case in the mall, there were no food outlets open, and very few people around. We felt a bit like intruders, but enjoyed snooping around in the eerie quiet and enjoyed the jaw-dropping views of the pristine, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab that greeted us around every other corner. It’s truly another world.
After leaving the Madinat we drove to the public beach on the other side of the Burj Al Arab. We parked alongside a low concrete wall that separated the road from the beach and I took the kids down onto the beach for a quick paddle in the freakily warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. While we paddled, we watched two helicopters land on the heli-pad at the top of the hotel, which was pretty cool. The kind of people who use a helicopter to get to such a place must be just unspeakably, obscenely rich.
The disappointing thing about the beach was that it was quite dirty. There were cigarette ends by the million near the wall, and I even spotted a discarded dirty nappy. It was relatively quiet, but there were a few hardy souls there, soaking up the still-scorching afternoon sun. I've heard stories of Indian or Pakistani men who go to these public beaches just to stand and stare at the acres of exposed female flesh, while engaging in a not-so-subtle game of pocket billiards. When you realise that these guys come from rural villages in India and have never seen a woman in a bikini, you kind of see why they behave like that, but things like this and the dirtiness of the beach take the sheen of the place. I think that's why a lot of people use the beach parks and clubs where you have to pay to get in. I think they look after them much better. Here's hoping, anyway!”
Private helicopters? Fact not ficiton in the Middle East. I wish I had included one when I wrote my romance. It's just the sort of thing that the hero, Sheikh Raqif, would have owned.