Archives mensuelles : novembre 2013

Amour – an Ivorian take

Last night, it was my wife’s birthday, so I thought it would be a good time to watch a story of an old couple, getting older, and eventually dying. Such cheerful stuff could only be made by the French – and in this case it was ‘Amour’, the French film which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2012. It was interesting listening to my wife’s commentary throughout the film. The big thing that shocked her was that this old couple were trying to survive with zero support from their children – that it was the old man taking care of his old wife (with state support) while the daughter just showed up to visit and say hello. The apartment they lived in certainly felt very empty – hard to imagine a similar situation in Ivory Coast. Most Africans in my experience feel old people’s homes are deeply uncivilized.

The second thing my wife found shocking was the complete absence of any sense of belief in the afterlife.

I’m still very much a product of a Western and largely secular society. But my wife helps me see how what I take to be largely normal, is actually rather shocking. It is strange to see an old couple who’ve had children rattling around a flat at the end of their life in apparent abandonment, instead of being celebrated.

The film is a healthy reminder of our sad earthly fate. In a blink of an eye we will be old and frail, possibly in pain, and (if we’re lucky) thinking about the end. For me, the injustice (or rather perhaps the unnaturalness) I feel about death points me to a deeper meaning to humanity and strengthens my faith in God.

Life without a car in Dubai

Before coming to Dubai, I read that this was a city that worships the car – the city where the police have Ferraris, tuned-Mercedes and Bentleys. In a few days a gold Lamborghini will go on display at Dubai mall (purportedly the world’s biggest shopping centre). That you can’t live without a car was certainly the impression I got before arriving. From my bedroom I can see a 7-lane highway and traffic jams that decorate the floor below like Christmas lights as the sun sets.

But fortunately, things have been changing. In fact, Dubai changes so quickly that when you are reading websites and forums that are just five years old it’s like they are talking about a different city. The opening of the metro in 2009 has proved to be one of the city’s most successful infrastructure projects. And so when I first arrived I used buses to get to work, and now I live 5 minutes walk from the dirt-cheap metro line and access to much of Dubai. To compare fares with London, here an hour journey on the metro, which is pretty much one end to the other, costs 6 dirhams (about one UK pound). From memory, in London the cheapest fare is more expensive than that.

Living without a car has certainly made things cheaper. I transferred the funds to buy a small car about six months ago, but I wanted to see how long I could survive. I quickly worked out a car wouldn’t be necessary, at least if I took an apartment close to the metro. My best friend (and the beach) are a 25 minute walk away, and there’s a free bus that goes to my workplace from a metro station two stops away. Walking is actually very pleasant in this city from October-May.

So, what are the drawbacks? Dubai is long and thin, hugging the coastline, which makes it convenient for the metro line. But some places are difficult to reach – Academic city, where the French school is, is far out in the desert. Whole zones like Arabian ranches, Global village and Greens community are nowhere near the metro line. The Palm (until they finish the monorail) is similarly difficult to get to. This morning I jogged there and even on two feet it’s hard to reach!

Secondly, I do count on my friends for quite a few things, including going to church, circuit training and Saturday football (shout out to H, K and E). It wouldn’t be too much pain to take a combination of taxis and metros to reach these places, but good friends definitely make things easier and I benefit from their kindness.

I would say that in Dubai, more than many (any?) places, you are judged by your possessions. And though it’s sad to say it, I’d hold my head higher and feel more masculine with a car. What was true when we were fifteen and sixteen is true today – when you have a car, you feel grown up. Without you can feel like a bit of a student. Admittedly if I’d bought a car, it would probably have been a Yaris, so among the Landcruisers and Porsches my head wouldn’t have been too high, but it would have been a start. It certainly keeps you humble. I have seen my wife a bit embarrassed with friends here when she had to admit that the family don’t have a car.

But my life is comfortable, and the only real time I’ve ever thought about going back on my decision was the July-August mornings when the 5 minute walk to the metro station was just a little too long in the morning heat. On the positive side, you get to avoid some pet-hates of mine that really drive me up the wall (no pun intended) – being at a location but not being able to get out of your car because you can’t park, and traffic jams. On foot and with public transport, I can usually arrive on time to wherever I’m going to because I know exactly how long it will take to get there. And, while getting there, I can get the most out of every minute through listening to podcasts and going through blogs and emails.

PS, Someone told me this morning that in 1968 there were only 13 cars registered in Dubai. This morning I jogged past a tiny patch of sand on the palm with about 13 cars of them, 3 of them Lamborghinis.

Cool running

I’ve been doing a lot of running recently as I train for a marathon in the New Year. There are quite a few joggers in this area (Dubai is full of people in their 20s and 30s keen to be beautiful and glamorous). What’s interesting is that jogging is one sport that so many do ungracefully. I’d say the majority of people have the strangest, most ungainly running styles – so different from what we see on television. Heads flop forward, arms hang limp or shake, feet plod or swing… It’s funny to watch. Of course almost no-one ever gets taught how to run, or sees themselves running – people just assume it’s something we can all do.

Of course, then you think ‘Well, what do I look like?’ Dubai offers plenty of full length tinted windows so you occasionally get a glimpse of yourself, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’m among the minority that don’t look ridiculous when I jog.

That leads me on to a wider point. How many of us really appreciate the way we look? Not the face profile we see in the mirror every morning in the flattering light, but our manner, our style, our gait, our demeanor. My wife is very good at pointing out how I am often a ‘gaou’ (Ivorian French for someone who looks/is dumb – see Magic System’s chart-topping song ‘Premier Gaou’). How sometimes my back is not straight,, my mouth is open. Sometimes she says I’m looking like Yaya Boni the president of Benin whose head is permanently stretched forward. Certain gestures I make, certain positions I take naturally in photos…the way I can sometimes rock back and forth or tilt on the sides of my feet when I’m giving a presentation. In many ways my wife has opened up a whole new world for me but pointing out how unstylish so many people are (I am certainly still in that category). Maybe for my part, it comes from growing up without sisters.

I noticed in (particularly French-speaking) Africa how Westerners are almost always extremely frumpy in their clothes and style. It’s funny but UN/NGO/diplomats tend to think of themselves as rather superior beings (though they won’t admit it), but if you watch the news with Ivorians they’ll frequently be joking at how ridiculous some of the world’s great and good look when they come to visit. I guess this sort of mockery could come under the ‘Weapons of the Weak’ label. When I think back to some of the clothes I used to wear to visit government ministers in Brazzaville, Congo, I positively shudder.

It’s nice to know perhaps that beyond the genetics of bone-structure and body dimensions, we can become more stylish/beautiful by just knowing how to hold ourselves. But there’s also a scary recognition for many of us that we aren’t really sure of the impression we’re giving off. I remember once going to an all night youth club party back home in my early teens and I spent the night dancing in what I thought was a very cool way. I thought I’d really shown my skills, but one joke from brother and I realised what a clown I’d been. It took me ten years after the event to realise that teenage acne had scarred my face and neck – it was something I actually didn’t even know was there. Then I realised that it was what everyone saw when they met me. I hadn’t been aware that that was part of the message I was giving off.

We’ve come a long way from jogging in this post. To move back in that direction, and picking up on a point above, the annoying thing about the fitness side of physical beauty is that we can’t blame it on our genes (at least most of us) – if we don’t have a six pack it’s actually our own choice. That’s actually more difficult than saying we weren’t born beautiful because the fact of us being overweight is because we’re not disciplined enough (or it’s simply something we don’t consider important). it’s a choice we’ve made. For my part – I’m a long way from a six pack.


I was reading the local paper a few weeks back and stumbled on the best sellers list for fiction and non-fiction. I find it useful to check up on what people are buying, as it’s not the sort of thing it’s easy to keep in touch with if you’re not wandering into book stores. Listening to the podcasts I tend to get, you’d think Clive James’ new translation of The Divine Comedy would be the talk of the town. But when you come to best sellers lists it tends to be the Dan Brown’s Infernos of this world that tend to dominate.

Anyway, it’s good to come across new things and I was interested to see a book called ‘Quiet’ at number 2 in the non-fiction list, sub-titled ‘The Power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. Such being the ease of capitalism nowadays, it was on my Kindle within a couple of minutes.

The book has been a very insightful read, as much as you’d enjoy reading about the positive qualities of any particular group that you happen to belong to. Here’s a sample paragraph:

« Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions. »

I wouldn’t want to read my whole life through the lens of the book, but I’ve definitely found some of the content useful to understanding myself, especially how introverts draw so much inspiration and strength from the internal life, while extroverts need social interaction. it made me feel less like a social failure when I feel that I sometimes need reflective times alone and that it’s not always wrong to avoid the crowd. It made me appreciate why I need a few close friends rather than a wide number of contacts (FB friends don’t count). In the fight for equality, we get constantly told that we’re all the same, when in fact we actually have subtly different ways of functioning and need different stimuli.