Wednesday, February 25, 2009

National Day

Today is Kuwait's National Day, which happens to tie in well with tomorrow -- Kuwait's Liberation Day. The Liberation Day celebrates the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq after the first Gulf War in the 90s. I remember being in Kuwait a couple of years ago and many of the buildings we visited had pictures of what they looked like after the Iraqis left. For the most part the Iraqis really laid waste to the city, many of Kuwait City's large buildings were ruined or burnt, and the iconic Kuwait Towers was apparently used as target practice. There is probably still a bit of resentment in Kuwait over what happened.

When I was there all of the ruins had been cleaned up and there was no sign of the war damage except for one building. In a suburban neighbourhood was a house that was used as a base by resistance forces but the Iraqis had discovered it, which led to a 24+ hour siege/battle between the resistance forces and the Iraqi military. I think by the end of it the Iraqis even used a tank to shell the house. The resistance fighters inside were eventually killed or captured, with any captured ones being executed within two days.

Four days after the battle the liberation forces entered Kuwait. Shame they were not just a bit earlier.

In memory of the resistance fighters who died in the battle the Kuwaiti government kept the house preserved, bullet holes and all, as a memorial/museum. It is a must-see if you are ever in Kuwait. There are massive gaping holes in the walls from who-knows-what, bullet holes everywhere, and half the roof blown off. They even kept a few wrecked cars from the battle and there is an old Iraqi tank across the street.

We also visited the museum in the suburbs of Kuwait City that had been left untouched by the Iraqi forces so still had all its exhibits. The museum consists of a number of large rooms that you reach through the basement of a non-descript house. The story I've heard is that when the Iraqis invaded the owners of the museum immediately took down any signs identifying the house as a museum, removed road signs pointing to it, then spread rubble around the front of the house to make it look derelict. The ruse worked and the Iraqis never discovered the museum. I could see why as it took my friends and I a long time to find it, to the point where we were knocking on doors in the neighbourhood to ask people where it was. But it was worth it as the collection of Arabic weapons and artefacts was huge and it took us a couple of hours to go through it all.

So why am I talking about Kuwait? Well I have a Kuwaiti friend who invited me and a couple of other guys from work to a function hosted by the Kuwaiti government for National/Liberation day. It was at the Ritz Carlton and since the invitation said it was two hours long I expected a room with maybe a hundred people, some speeches, and waiters wandering around with a few nibbles. What I wasn't expecting was a red carpet with Kuwaiti dignitaries wearing bishts or military uniforms greeting all the guests, followed by a full sit-down buffet dinner! Many of the guests were ambassadors, US military leaders, elite Qataris, and a few hundred others. The Kuwaitis had really splashed out for the function, and when dinner was over more Kuwaiti dignitaries lined up to thank the guests as they left.

After a function like that I felt that the least I could do is tell the wider internet world that today is Kuwait National Day.

Happy National Day to all you Kuwaitis out there!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I'm back taking Arabic lessons again, been about a year since I last took lessons. This will make the third time I have taken an Arabic course.

The first time was sponsored by work and was from the Qatar Centre for the Presentation of Islam. The teacher was a very nice Iraqi gentleman by the name of Mr Kamal. The courses were free and, not surprisingly, consisted of 50% learning Arabic and 50% learning about Islam. In the end most of us found that talks about Islam more interesting than the Arabic but there was the occasional heated debate since there were a few devout Christians in the class and at least one Hindu. Once the class ended I had a reasonable knowledge of the script, numbers, how do tell time and a few basic sentences but unfortunately there was no intermediate class so I couldn't really progress.

The next year I took classes at CHN Institute, taught by a Jordanian lady. Learned a bit more on the speaking side but we did not focus on reading/writing Arabic. After the classes ended there were plans to offer an intermediate class but for some reason I couldn't make it, and that was that.

Thankfully due to demand at the office we now have lessons twice a week during lunch, this time from Qatar University. They offered both a beginners and intermediate class so after taking a placement test I was allowed to take the intermediate class. It is taught by a Lebanese gentleman and has so far been the hardest of the three courses that I have taken. It is immersion, the teacher speaks no English during class, and we are expected to write our homework in Arabic script, which I did not have to do in the previous courses. We also received DVDs so that we could practice lessons at home. So far so good, as long as I keep working at it I should get through the class without being completely lost. Luckily a few people in the class are excellent at understanding Arabic (just not good at reading and writing it), so if you're not understanding what the teacher is saying at least there is someone to ask. There are also people in the class who are near-fluent in writing Arabic but cannot really speak the language so there are people you can check your writing with.

I know what you are probably thinking, why are there some people who can read/write it but can't speak it and others who can speak it but weak at writing? Well it generally depends on where you are from. There are countries where the majority of the population is Muslim but the spoken language is not Arabic (Pakistan for example, Turkey is another). As most Islamic schools emphasise being able to read the Qur'an in Arabic Muslims in these countries are taught Arabic script in school so that they can read the Qur'an but since they do not speak the language in everyday life they do not really learn to converse in it. Plus the Qur'an is written in what is called Classical Arabic, which is not the verbal Arabic used in day-to-day life. I will assume an analogy is Middle (Shakespearean) English, English speakers can understand his works but nobody speaks in Shakespearean English anymore.

[Update: I was off the mark about Pakistanis learning Arabic from Qur'an study, Urdu uses Arabic script -- see the comments section]

On the flipside I have just learned from a Kenyan colleague that Swahili is very similar to Arabic and share about 70% of the words. A speaker of Swahili can generally understand spoken Arabic though Swahili is not written anymore using Arabic characters -- about a hundred years ago Swahili switched from being written in Arabic script to Latin script. So if a Swahili speaker has no training in Arabic script they would roughly understand the language but not know how to read/write it. Turkish went through a similar change, switching from Arabic to Latin script in the 1920s, although Turkish only shares about 25% of words with Arabic.

Time to finish my homework. Ma'assalam.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I had coffee with Karen C the other evening and it was nice to meet her and her daughter before she left to go back to Canada.
Next time Karen be sure to visit the Museum of Islamic Art, okay?

It is kind of odd how many people I have met through Internet connections, I guess it really is the 21st century way of socialising. Aside from three work colleagues who found my blog independently I have also run into two other people in Qatar who knew my blog. But speaking of internet connections it was especially strange when I went to my first Amazing Meeting (skeptics convention sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation) and I "knew" so many people from my interactions with them on the JREF forum despite having never met them in person until then. I used to do a lot of postings in various forums but with the repetitive strain injury I don't do it much anymore. And I absolutely do not want to get started on Facebook, Myspace, Classmates, Twitter and other assorted social websites, I just don't have the time and with the strain injury I don't wanna risk getting hooked on it like some people are. Nope, I'm content enough to just have my blog as my main connection to the Internet world so that family and friends know how I'm doing.

Nice meeting you Karen, have a safe journey home.

Friday, February 13, 2009


This week I had a mole removed that was just above my left eyebrow. A few months ago it had grown and slightly changed colour, which is a warning sign for a potential cancer. So I went to a dermatologist at a local clinic and once he looked at it through a magnifying glass decided it would be better to have it surgically removed and biopsied.

Now while I have had some grumblings about medical care here ("assembly line" mentality by clinics, language issues) I can certainly never complain about the speed at which things get done. Here is what happened:

Saturday -- see dermatologist (no need to book an appointment, no referral from a GP, just walk in and take a number)
-- go to the surgeon in the same clinic for consultation and filling out the insurance pre-approval forms
Monday -- received a call that the insurance company approved the procedure, consultation with surgeon scheduled for Thursday
Thursday -- consultation with surgeon about the procedure, says I will receive a call later about when the surgery will be held
-- consultation with anaesthesiologist, as the surgeon wants this to be under general anaesthetic. (!!)
Sunday -- receive call about the surgery, scheduled for Tuesday morning.
Tuesday -- go to clinic for the surgery

So that was what, 10 days? I wonder how long it would have taken to get through all of that in Canada. Could have been months.

As to the surgery I was a bit concerned that the surgeon wanted to use general anaesthetic -- the mole wasn't that big I thought. So the anaesthesiologist agreed to ask the surgeon to see if it could be done under local. And I agreed that if the surgeon felt that general anaesthetic was necessary then general anaesthetic it is. I wasn't going to argue the point.

So on Tuesday morning at 8am I arrived at the clinic, and was shown to a private patient room where I could change. It was a pretty nice room with a cabinet to lock your stuff up in, a TV, private bathroom, a bed of course, and a couch for visitors. So I changed into the hospital gown and then a nurse gave me a sedative. 20 minutes later I was wheeled into surgery.

The decision was for general anaesthetic. Now I have never been under a general anaesthetic so I was more intrigued than nervous (or maybe that was the sedative). A mask was put over my mouth so that I could start inhaling some kind of gas and I was told to breathe deeply. I remember thinking, " I wonder how long the anaesthetic will . . ."

And then I woke up back in my room at the clinic!!

Man, that stuff works fast! Apparently I was out for about two hours and I do not remember any of it.

Was served a nice lunch of roasted herb chicken on rice with vegetables and salad. Watched TV for a bit, was given my prescription for antibiotics, and discharged at 3pm. All in all I can't complain.

The wound was sore for the first day but not really painful and I have not taken any painkillers for it. It is now day four and in a few more days and I should be able to take the bandage off and see how it looks. The surgeon already warned me that there will be a scar but that's a small price to pay for removing a potentially cancerous mole, a price I will pay any day. As for the mole I'll call in a couple weeks to see what the results were.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Financial issues in Canada, Dubai and Qatar

Well it would appear that the financial crisis has finally hit Canada. Reports are out that unemployment rose 129,000 in January. That is a heck of a lot of jobs! While the jobless figures in the US got more headlines because 598,000 jobs were lost people forget that Canada only has one-ninth the population of the US, so Canada's job losses would be the equivalent of the US losing more than a million jobs in one month.

Now a recession in Canada was expected. Despite the Canadian banking system weathering the sub-prime crisis better than almost any other Western country Canada exports more than 80 per cent of its goods to the United States. With that kind of trade dependency there is no way Canada can buffer itself against the US recession and it is highly unlikely that Canada will recover until the US does. And not surprisingly the Canadian job losses were mostly in the Manufacturing and Commodities sectors. Here's hoping Canada's stimulus package helps all the newly unemployed.

Qatar appears to be weathering the financial storm much better than most. With its huge capital reserves, small population, and a limited retail property sector, the local banks as well as the government have been cautiously optimistic. There has been a bit of belt-tightening here and there, and anecdotal reports of some job losses, but most of the construction projects are still going and the government remains committed to its current spending budget. I have noticed a slight improvement in the traffic on the morning commute but it is so small I can't really say that it is due to there being less people commuting to work. Sometimes the opening/closing of a road somewhere else in the city can affect traffic patterns, and a co-worker told me two new schools have opened in another part of town so that probably means less parents driving to my neighbourhood to drop off their kids at the nearby schools.

I have heard estimates that the Qatari government could meet its expenditures for the year if oil was $35-$40 a barrel so even if oil stays steady in the mid $40 range the country should be okay. With the current oil prices that does not leave a lot of wriggle room though. I feel more sorry for other oil exporting nations -- countries like Iran and Oman need oil at around $80+ to break even.

As for Dubai things seem are really heading downward. Local reports say that hotel occupancy is down 30 to 40%, and there were rumours that up to 1500 work and residence visas were being cancelled every day. Considering the population of Dubai is maybe 2 million that would be the equivalent of losing around 2% of your population every month! A government minister countered the rumours by making a statement that the net number of visas being issued and cancelled was a 1000 increase a day. Um, that would mean a population of Dubai is increasing by 30,000 a month? Any internet commentary that I have read says that can't be true and that maybe the minister was including tourist visas. But the proof is in the pudding, everyone I spoke to who has either been to Dubai recently or knows people who are in Dubai has said the same thing over and over -- the traffic there has gotten remarkably better. In some cases commute times in the morning have been reduced by 50%. Bars that were once standing-room-only-packed you can now get a table at. Taxi drivers are complaining that there is not enough business. Many hotels have dropped rates by half to try to get guests. And the real estate market continues to drop with no end in sight. Numbers like a 60% drop in real estate prices in 2009 have been bantered around but in reality I don't think anyone really knows where it will settle. A friend of mine is going there this weekend, let's see what he has to say.

Am I surprised? Yes and no. I had been predicting a crash in Dubai on this blog for a while now but I thought it would happen a bit sooner and I certainly didn't think it would be due to a global financial crisis, I just figured the local property bubble in Dubai would burst on its own.

I will keep monitoring what happens there over the next few months, hopefully cash-rich Abu Dhabi or other Gulf state will help bail it out (but that will definitely come at a price) otherwise Dubai is looking at a long, long financial crisis.

Friday, February 06, 2009


As part of my Christmas holidays I also picked up a lot of books, one of my favourite gifts. Because I'm mostly a non-fiction reader my family just gives me a gift card to a nearby bookstore so that I can buy the books I want. So now I have a huge backlog of books to read, even a couple that I had picked up from the book exhibition in Doha a month or so ago. So what is on the reading list for the next couple of months?

The Cloudspotter's Guide -- Gavin Pretor-Pinney, because I have always wondered what the different cloud types were

The Crusades through Arab Eyes -- Amin Maalouf, history class always showed this from the western point of view

The Story of Islamic Spain -- Syed Azizur Rahman, maybe I will go there one day
The Ancestor's Tale -- Richard Dawkins, I owned this book once but left it behind in Bermuda because it is a big book but I missed it and look forward to reading it again

The Book of Contemplation, Islam and the Crusades -- Usama ibn Munqidh, an actual historical account of the Crusades which should tie in to the other Crusades book mentioned above

This Is Your Brain on Music - The Science of a Human Obsession -- Daniel J. Levitin, because I like music

The Brain That Changes Itself - Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science -- Norman Doidge, M.D., because I find tales of psychology and neurology interesting

Good Germs, Bad Germs -- Jessica Snyder Sachs, another area I do not know much about, maybe after reading this I'll know what to do next time I get a stomach bug when travelling

Secrets of Mental Math -- Arthur Benjamin and Michael Shermer, math & science, what else needs to be said?

And finally a re-read, A History of Ancient Egypt -- Nicholas Grimal. Read this book about a year ago but my mother is coming to visit in late March and we are going to Luxor for 4 days so I need to brush up on my ancient Egypt.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Spring cleaning

For Christmas I received a number of shirts, socks, underwear etc so I figured it was about time to do a spring cleaning of my closet and dresser to throw out old clothes. I knew there would be stuff to throw away because I am one of those guys who never throws old clothes away. If I opened my sock drawer and see an old pair of socks I'll just grab a newer pair to wear, I'll never actually throw out the old socks. The last time I did a "spring cleaning" was when I moved to Qatar almost 3 years ago so it was high time for one.

Man, did I have a lot of old clothes. The old socks and underwear alone filled a small shopping bag. The shirts, work shirts, old trousers, and even an old robe filled up an entire black garbage bag! The socks and undies I threw out, the garbage bag of shirts I'm holding onto until I find a charity or a group of needy labourers to give it to. A lady in the office thinks she knows of a group who could use the clothes so I will wait and see if she has found someone.

Cleaning out the closet also allowed me to take an inventory of the remaining clothing. Even after getting rid of the old stuff I still have 40 T-shirts and 13 casual collared-shirts, yet I only have one pair of shorts. 40 T-shirts!! Geez, where did all these T-shirts come from? Looking at them I can tell that at least a dozen of them are souvenir shirts from my various travels, the rest are just T-shirts I picked up while shopping or gifts from family and friends.

Y'know, I have always considered myself a bit of a anti-materialist, someone who doesn't go off the deep-end shopping for stuff or spending hundreds of dollars for high-end brands. Given the amount of clothes I had I guess I should reconsider my views about myself, and be a little more careful about shopping for unnecessary things. I have now made a promise to myself not to buy any more shirts. Who needs 40 t-shirts? I'm now set for t-shirts for the next 3-5 years.

I do need to go shopping for a pair of shorts though.