Moving Black Objects
That’s how they call them in Iraq, the US military: women are “MBOs,” shapeless pillars of black, moving in public.
Here in Sharjah, one emirate among the United Arab Emirates, a Sultan is Ruler and his intellectual Sultana has trendy cultural and ecological concerns… Here I am also a woman dressed in black.
In the airport in the neighboring state of Qatar, there is free wifi service but a thoroughly blocked and censored Internet. In Sharjah the Flickr photo service is as rare as alcohol and feminism.
The Skype Internet phone service is similarly blocked in Sharjah, so I crossed the street alone from my hotel, taking a slot-in card to a local phone booth. All hell broke loose: a women alone in the street in a red Italian dress with short sleeves! Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs… almost everyone on the crowded street was a man — stared bluntly at my shocking presence. I boldly reached the payphone and as I waited my chance to use it, I got a host of offers from men passing by: to use their cellphones, to come into their shops, to buy myself a burqa, to get a job…
Are you an actress? asked an eager, tiny Pakistani guy.
Because of your dress and your hair!
I hastened back to my hotel, and got hold of my American friend. No more false steps: we went to a massive local bazaar and bought a long black shroud beautifully embroidered in gold. It came with the obligatory matching head-shawl. These head-wrappings come in varying levels of theological rigour: it’s Sharjah it’s common to see faceless women with glasses: narrow square transparent gadgets that fit a tiny split in black cloth.
Back in my hotel, a mother of three is tutoring her boys in the swimming pool. She wears the headcloth, the black MBO shroud, and fancy high-heeled shoes. Sweating and fretting in the sun, she does not swim in the nice hotel pool, for she never learned how. She cannot drive a car, either, so she told me. I met her husband, an older man. She is his third wife.
In the room I watch Arabic TV. The wailing, amplified music is so similar to Serbian turbo folk. Arab women in the local TV soap-operas are weepy, handwringing and frequently smacked around, beaten just as often as they are in folklore Serbian serials. This feudal Arab society which had no industrial revolution strangely reminds me of Tito’s communist regime. Tribal and caste-ridden, it has the benefits of peace and order, but never achieved democracy.
After a few days of this, I badly need a drink. Needless to say this is strictly forbidden, and not merely for women.
Sharjah lacks beggars and the poor, for the Arabs live on oil and anyone else who lacks a job in this place is swiftly deported. A society with zero unemployment is clean and rather beautiful. The soaring skyscrapers recall Arab palaces from centuries ago. Sometimes even the air conditioners have traditional facades. The solemn beach with its white fine sand might have greeted Lawrence of Arabia, of the Sphinx.
The Sharjah Biennale is in town, an ecological artistic festival sponsored by the Sultan and run by the Sultana. Sophisticated and world-class, the shoppers’ Disneylands of the Arabian Gulf no longer merely export oil but aim to export culture. LESS OIL MORE COURAGE say the billboards all over town, made by the Thai-German-Argentine-American global artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Next month here in Sharjah, an international congress of nanotechnology, with international big-shots of big-science. Art, science, culture, skyscrapers, real-estate and oil. A Bollywood star honors Sharjah with his first public appearance outside his home country…. A huge hotel dinner organized by the local chamber of commerce may go half-attended, with sculpted heaps of gorgeous food, innocent Pepsi in the crystal cocktail glasses… if no one shows up to eat it, then the efforts of the chefs are performance art.
In the blistering desert heat, we freeze in huge new ballrooms and echoing congress rooms. Out in the honking streets, the black moving objects scuttle across the chaotic streets like so many stray cats. Utopia or oblivion, those faceless shadows in the shimmering heat could carry a baby, or they could carry a bomb…