Crossing the UAE-Oman Border

“How are you doing?” I asked my sister on the phone last Thursday.

“Yeah, I’m good,” came the reply, “How about we drive all the way to Oman this weekend?”

And just like that, the very next day, we—my two younger sisters, a friend and her mom, Masood, and I—left Sharjah for Muscat on a cloudy and wet January morning. We were driving down E11 or the Emirates Road (following the Hatta-Oman sign) by 8:30 am.  We made a couple of stops, first for breakfast and another to fill up the tank, then came across the first check post a couple of hours later. They were randomly checking for passports; they let us go, but checked the passports of our friend and her mom.

These are the beautiful Hajjar mountains, and Hatta is the main town (although still a part of Dubai). It has a cooler climate, so people usually drive up here during weekends or holidays, the younger Emiratis racing each other in their flashy sports cars.

Anyway, so there were a couple of check points before we finally saw the passport office. It’s a pathetic-looking, makeshift office on the right side of the highway. You don’t want to miss this, however; if you continue driving into the Omani border, the officers there will send you back here to have that exit stamp on your passport!

We parked the car and welcomed the cold breeze hitting our faces. It was really cold. I couldn’t keep the camera steady. Yes, I started clicking away the moment my feet touched the border soil. We showed our passports to the young Emirati officer behind the window and had exit dates stamped on them.  Our friend, however, wasn’t cleared to exit the country—her passport was expiring soon. To exit the border into Oman, passport and U.A.E. resident visa should be valid for the next 6 months. So she and her mom decided to drive back to Dubai.

We took turns taking pictures  right in front of the passport officer’s window, smiling brightly. Six hundred and twenty-two photographs later, we spotted the “No Photography” sign, and quietly walked away. We’re law-abiding people like that.

Moments later the officer climbed down from the cabin and followed us. I thought he was coming to confiscate our cameras, but it turned out that he was worried that all of us were driving back to Dubai with the exit stamps and all. He left after being assured that we were indeed going to exit the country.

So we headed back to the parking lot and spent the next thirty minutes taking group pictures with the mountains as a backdrop. And we were enjoying the cold breeze; we’re deprived of such glorious weather for most part of the year.

Here’s a picture (back side, taken discreetly) of the passport/immigration office at the U.A.E. side of the border:

And then, here’s the passport/immigration office of the Oman side of the border—about an hour or so of drive later:

See the difference? Their office is grand! There weren’t many people around, probably due to the rain, so getting the visa was a breeze. We filled up a small form available at the counter, paid 50 dirhams ($14), and got a single entry visa that would allow us to stay in Oman for the next 28 days. Dirhams are accepted here, but beyond this point you would need to pay in riyals.

Our car’s insurance covers both the U.A.E. and Oman so we didn’t have a problem, but for those who don’t have insurance you can get one here. The officer will ask you to show the papers. He’ll give you a small piece of paper that you need to show at a few check posts into Oman.

On our way back into Dubai the following evening, we were asked to pay 2 riyals (19 dirhams) for this:

The officers at the Omani border were really nice and friendly. When my sister inquired if they had a city map in English, one of the guys behind the counter handed over six leaflets and two books, one of them in German.

“Um, this is in German,” my sister said, returning the book. “I don’t understand this language.”

“How about this one?” the guy asked, handing her a book in Chinese.

“Well, I think I’ll take the one in German,” my sister replied. “It has better pictures.”

We drove towards Oman, and asked the officer at the last check post for directions to Muscat.

“Go straight,” he explained, “then you see roundabout. After you see roundabout, you take right. Then go straight to Muscat.”

“Oh, that’s easy!” we said out loud and thanked him profusely.

“Drive safely!” he smiled back.

He gave us the correct directions alright. Except that he didn’t mention that Muscat was 300 kilometers away.

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Posted in Al-Wajajah, Family, Hatta, Oman, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

I Wouldn’t Shoot if I Knew How to Draw

… perhaps not as much as I do now, anyway. Had I been gifted with the talent to sketch with finesse, I would spend my free time re-creating the still life that surrounded me. Like this one, for example…

However, the genetic material responsible for making a person sketch so effortlessly has been passed over only to my younger sister, Sophia. And the genes that make one look good and younger than one’s actual age. And the genes that make one’s brain function like a calculator. I think that’s unfair, considering how I was the first born and all.

We didn’t have many toys when we were growing up and our mother has always encouraged us to be creative. During summer holidays, Sophia would—besides spending the afternoons in the garden digging up creepy bugs and insects—stay in a room and draw. She made it look so easy that I would peer over her work and wonder in awe.  Then I’d thought to myself, “You can do this, self! If she can draw, well so can you!” Encouraged by my own self, filled with so much determination, I’d pick up a pencil and pour my entire creative being onto the canvas.  Thirty minutes and a thousand frustrated sighs later, I’d look at the funny-looking, child-like sketch in front of me, and give up. It took me sometime to accept that the only thing I can draw with acute precision is an amoeba.

And I had to acknowledge that my baby sister had a special talent.

So I’m compensating for my lack of drawing skills with writing and photography; I find myself immensely enjoying both.

Take a look at this pencil sketch by Sophia, drawn about three years ago. What now appears like a broken, unkempt place was once a neat and well-maintained garage that belongs to an uncle.  The place has remained unattended ever since his wife passed away.

Sophia was sitting in a small balcony right across that gate and sketched the scene in front of her. If you look closely you’ll notice several things:  broken gate, half of the roof is gone, bicycle wheels hanging on the right, a water drum with “Annie” written on it (that’s the name of the aunt), a man standing on the other side of the gate, and a cat playing on the floor.  Sophia did a brilliant job in re-creating this scene.  MashaAllah.

Oh, and I’d also asked her to paint a desert scene for me to hang in my home. I’ll have it framed in a lovely wooden frame. She hasn’t started on the painting yet. So I’m signing off now to call her.

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Dubai Creek – Where Past Meets Present

In the early 20th century, Dubai was a small coastal village inhabited by a tribe—who came from the neighboring emirate, Abu Dhabi—led by the Al Maktoum family.  Unlike its neighboring emirate, Dubai lacked the fertile oasis, so its inhabitants settled along the banks of the creek and involved themselves with fishing, herding sheep and goats, pearling, and trade.

Soon, Dubai became a sufficiently prosperous port attracting settlers from Iran, India and Baluchistan. The facilities for trade and free enterprise were enough to make Dubai a natural haven for merchants who left Lingah, on the Persian coast, after the introduction of high customs dues there in 1902. These people were mostly of distant Arab origin and looked across to the Arab shore of the Gulf finally making their homes in Dubai.

The creek divides Dubai into Bur Dubai and Deira …

Image courtesy of Google Maps

Crossing the creek during those times meant a long and arduous journey around the end of the creek or a ride in an abra, a small wooden boat that ferries passengers to this day.   Today, the city is connected via modern bridges and a tunnel that runs underwater.

A stroll down the wharf on Dubai’s Creek amidst the hustle and bustle of business evokes memories of the city’s trading past.  One can see trucks laden with goods and laborers hurriedly loading the dhows with cargo ranging from car tires and batteries, to soft drinks, fabrics, bags of rice to electronics and other consumer goods destined for the markets in the neighboring countries of Africa and the middle east and beyond.

And besides the traditional abra that I absolutely love to ride (it only costs 1 dirham to cross the creek!), there are also the modern Water Taxis …

But nothing beats the traditional abra ride …

Oh, and I was deeply fascinated by the way they load a jeep onto the old, wooden ships.  One moment the Land Cruiser was driving past me, the next moment it was being pulled up in onto the ship.

If you ever visit Dubai and not see this place, I’d feel sorry for you.  You have to see this part of the creek where you can experience the old Dubai as you face the setting sun, watch the abras float by, and bite into a piece of warm shawarma and a sip of hot chai.

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Flamingos in the Desert

Dubai is known for several things—both good and bad—and one of them is the tallest structure in the world, the Burj Khalifa …

… and not so far away from this engineering marvel lies a 620-hectare area comprising of  sabkha saline flats, intertidal mudflats and mangroves, small lagoons and pools, and a few tiny islands.  This is UAE’s first Ramsar site, known as the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary.

We walked through this path that lead us to an observatory area that resembles a tiny wooden hut …

…and observed the pink birds discreetly from a safe distance without disrupting the bird’s daily routine, which includes standing and appearing busy, and scratching their delicate pink feathers.

Credit to the picture above goes to my lovely sister, Sanaf, who has greatly improved her photography in such a short period of time.

Behold the greater flamingo …

The Greater Flamingo is the most widespread species of the flamingo family.

We took a closer look at the flamingos by peeking into a monocular that stood proudly atop a magnificent Manfrotto tripod, which I wanted to bring home with me.  I think it will look gorgeous with my Nikon …

The flamingos have an interesting feeding technique, which involves stirring up the mud and water with their long legs and webbed feet. They then bury their bills, or even their entire heads, upside down in the water and suck up both mud and water. They shake their head from side to side to expel the excess mud and water, hold back and eat their meal (which is high in carotene, responsible for the pink color of their feathers).

Otherwise, they just stand on one foot and appear to look pretty …

Some of these beauties with Dubai’s skyscrapers in the background …

And just before you leave the sanctuary, the security guy will ask you to sign your name and contact number …

Visiting hours:  9 am – 4 pm, daily (except Fridays)

Individuals and family group visits do not require permit, you can simply drive down there and visit the birds.  However, company and/or media group need to call them first and get a permit.

To visit the official website of the Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, click here.

And yes, the flamingos sleep while standing on one foot.  And they croak like a frog.

 

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The 99 Attributes of Allah in Traditional Kufi Calligraphy

One of the several things that prominently stood out in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque  in Abu Dhabi was this wall that one comes face-to-face with directly the moment one steps into the main prayer hall …

 

We visited the mosque at night, so I’m not sure how this looks during the day, but the sight took my breath away!  The display occupies the entire length of the wall and illuminates so grandly.  We stood there for a few minutes—completely in awe.  It’s something that photographs do not justice with.

 

 

The 99 names (qualities) of Allah featured on the Qibla wall exemplify traditional Kufi calligraphy, designed by the prominent UAE calligrapher – Mohammed Mandi.  The Kufic script is the oldest form of Arabic scripts, it’s name derived from the city of Kufa in Iraq.  It’s said that the first copies of the Qur’an were written in this script.

The Qibla wall also features subtle fiber-optic lighting, which is integrated as part of the organic design.

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Visiting Abu Dhabi? Don’t Miss the World’s 8th Largest Mosque.

I do not have the words to describe how beautiful and grand the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is.  It is, in my opinion, the most imposing religious and national landmark in Abu Dhabi since it was built in 2007.

According to one of Abu Dhabi’s websites that features the mosque, the initial architectural design for the Sheikh Zayed Mosque was Moroccan, but it evolved to include many global features, including exterior walls that are of traditional Turkish design. Natural materials were chosen for its design and construction due to their long-lasting qualities, including marble, stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics.

Tours are conducted for visitors—both Muslims and non-Muslims—twice a day, except during Friday prayers;  there’s a morning tour that begins around 10 am, followed by a second tour at 5 pm.  Modest, conservative clothing is required.  For women, abayas are provided at the entrance of the mosque;  almost everyone wore the black abaya.  The traditional white dishdashas are also available for men.

Queen Elizabeth II toured this mosque sometime in November when she visited the United Arab Emirates.

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was also featured in a collection of commemorative stamps issued by Emirates Post in September 2010. Stamp denominations of AED 1 and AED 5 are available at all post offices.

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On our drive back home, we found ourselves near Burj Khalifa at midnight.  We pulled up besides Sheikh Zayed Road to watch the fireworks, and later got stuck in the huge traffic  jam for three hours.

 

 

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Everyday Stuff from Ancient Arabia

Four years in the United Arab Emirates and I haven’t been in a museum.  I always assume that museums prohibit photography, and when a certain place puts that restriction I lose interest.  But that’s my assumption;  maybe photography is allowed in museums here after all.

Surprisingly, my first encounter with the local ancient stuff happened at the most unexpected place—at this resort.

Okay, so there’s nothing ancient about that resort;  in fact, this was build early last year.  But within the walls of this resort lay an amazing collection of authentic, traditional antiquity.

Here, you can find this …

Oops.  Wrong picture.

That belongs to the Abu Dhabi Police, on standby 24-hours a day, in case of an emergency—since the nearest hospital would be a good 5-hour drive away, on roads like these. So Masood wanted me to take a photograph of him standing next to that thing.

“No way!”  I told him.  “That’s the property of the police, therefore, we’re not allowed to photograph it.”

“Who said we can’t take pictures?”  he asked.

“I know so,”  I replied confidently, “because it’s the universal law.  In fact, see that security guy over there?  It looks like he’s already suspicious of our activities.”

“We’re on top of this dune,”  he said. “He can’t even see us from down there.”

A minute of complete silence ensued.

“I’m going down there to have my picture taken,”  he announced.

“But you can’t!”  I gasped.  “We’ll get arrested!”

“Are you coming?”  he asked.

“Of course not!”  I replied in horror.  “I won’t have anything to do with such illegal activities.”

So we climbed down from the top of a dune—where we had been photographing the surroundings at sunrise—and Masood walked straight towards the security guy while I stayed behind, pretending to be busy making video of a palm tree and carefully watching him from the corner of my eye at the same time.

I saw him casually walk over to the security guy, shake his hand, have some sort of a conversation, and then hand over the camera!  I was several feet away and couldn’t eavesdrop.  But few minutes later, I saw Masood posing in front of the helicopter and the security guy taking his pictures from several angles!

Upon witnessing this rather peaceful turn of events—but mainly because a decade had passed and my husband still hasn’t finished his photo shoot—I decided to walk up to them.  They were chatting and laughing like old friends from high school!  They asked whether I’d like to have my picture taken as well.  I refused, of course.

I think Masood makes a better photographer, since he isn’t shy in situation where one needs to ask permission.  I’ve lost several good photo opportunities due to my lack of confidence to go and ask.

Fortunately, I was free to photograph these old pots and pans …

The first pottery found in the Emirates was imported. It came from southern Iraq and belongs to a style known as ‘Ubaid. ‘Ubaid pottery was made of a greenish-buff fabric (the native alluvial clay of southern Iraq) painted with a thick black pigment.

Stone vessels, as well, particularly good for holding fatty or oily substances, began to be made in the area by about 2500 B.C. Most of these were manufactured from steatite or chlorite, a soft mineral found in certain parts of the Hajar mountains.

By about 2200 B.C. the first tools made of bronze. Rich in copper ore, the Hajar mountains of the interior of the U.A.E. and Oman provided the raw material for an extensive metallurgical industry which flourished until the late Islamic era when foreign imports finally made it no longer economically viable.

The picture below—something that grinds or chops areca nuts—is dedicated to all you paan lovers out there …

 

The vessel shown in the picture below reminds me of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, and this part of the story in particular:

The chief of the thieves pretends to be an oil merchant in need of Ali Baba’s hospitality, bringing with him mules loaded with thirty-eight oil jars, one filled with oil, the other thirty-seven hiding the other remaining thieves. Once Ali Baba is asleep, the thieves plan to kill him.

 

One room of the resort is a library that contains paintings, books, journals, and weapons—both old and new.

The lanterns in this last picture aren’t antique, but I think their display on the steps is a good idea.   I took this picture while sitting on one of the steps waiting for Masood to finish his maghrib prayers.

And yeah, I think I need to start visiting museums and learn more about the history of this country.

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