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When we were in Dubai in February of 2012, we met a Syrian national at couch surfing party we attended with our host.
Nellu and I had tossed around the idea of visiting Damascus on our trip. That was not going to happen. The conflict in Syria was almost a year old at that point. Russia and China had recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution calling for an end to the violence. And the Syrian government was still claiming the extent of the conflict and crackdown had been greatly exaggerated.
We expressed concern over the conflict and asked our new friend about his family.
He still had a brother in Syria. His brother had been out in the streets during the protests only to go inside and hear from the state-owned media that it was all a farce.
The big question that night—would the U.S. intervene?
Of course the U.S. would intervene in Syria, our new friend said, just look at what they did in Libya. (The technicality that it was a NATO-led intervention is apparently as lost on the rest of the world as it is on the U.S.)
In so many words, I told him, I wouldn’t count on it. (I don’t know why I said that.)
By the end of the month, the U.N. would estimate 7,500 people had been killed since the clash began.
In the last year and a half, we’ve watched this conflict dissolve into an all out war.
Peace talks continue to stall. New evidence suggests that both sides used chemical weapons. And the death toll and destruction mounts.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report to the UN Human Rights Council concluding that “crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria.” And it’s coming from both sides:
“Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. Many of these crimes were perpetrated as part of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations and constitute crimes against humanity. War crimes and gross violations of international human rights law – including summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, unlawful attack, attacking protected objects, and pillaging and destruction of property – have also been committed. The tragedy of Syria’s 4.25 million internally displaced persons is compounded by recent incidents of IDPs being targeted and forcibly displaced.
Anti-Government armed groups have also committed war crimes, including murder, sentencing and execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and pillage. They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas. The violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”
I am haunted by the exchange that night in Dubai and others that we had with people from many different countries. Love us or hate us, the world still looks to us-the U.S. We’ve been telling them could and should since we got our name on the map. (Nellu says we’re the Coca-Cola of freedom.) So do we have a responsibility to show up when things get bad?
Why did we intervene in Libya but not in Syria. The official answers is because it’s complicated and it is.
“In Libya, I thought we had to help with respect to Libya, because the leader of the country stood up and said, ‘We are going to go into Benghazi, and we are going to go house to house, and we are going to kill you like dogs.’ And I thought the international community had an obligation, knowing what was happening and going to happen, to try to make a difference. And we were able to because you had a different situation in Libya. You didn’t have the kind of sectarian divide — though you had tribal — but not sectarian divide that you have in the more complicated situation in Iran — in Syria, because you had Hezbollah coming from Lebanon, you have Iran involved, you have Russia sending support. It’s a very much more complex and different situation from Libya.”
So this is my question today: What should we do when things are complicated?
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Dubai is certainly not budget travel. This Emirate made its name with its bigger-the-better-no-luxury-spared attitude (that ultimately led to a $10 billion bailout from its neighbor Abu Dhabi). But I had covered this rise and stumble at my old job and wanted to take in the place with my own eyes. And that’s exactly what we did. Nellu and I spent the four days we were there primarily gawking at buildings.
The biggest and best of these buildings is certainly the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building for the moment. Formerly known as the Burj Dubai, they changed the name to Burj Khalifa in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi. Apparently $10 billion dollars buys you a great deal of flattery. (Nellu would like to point out that the title president in this case refers to the man in charge of running the “constitutional federation of absolute monarchies.”)
It was truly a spectacular sight in person. The way the intense desert sun reflects on the glass and metallic structure makes it seem more fitting for Lex Luthor’s lair in a Superman movie than the homes, offices, and hotel it houses in real life.
We went to visit the Burj Khalifa twice. The first time was the morning we arrived in Dubai. The second time, we went at night to see fountain show in the moat that surrounds the building and take the elevator to the 124th floor observation deck. Over the last year, I’ve come to believe that water and light shows are all over-rated, but the one outside the Burj Khalifa did deliver. We also had fun taking pictures from so high above the flat night landscape.
But my favorite thing about the Burj Khalifa is the complete lack of irony its marketing team has when it touts the greatness and the achievement of building a really tall building. The phrase, “The word impossible is not in the leaders’ dictionaries,” greets visitors waiting to go up to the top deck.
You can get a better sense of the hype in this promotional video:
The other must see building for me in Dubai was the Burj Al Arab.
It’s Dubai’s hotel that looks like a sail. Interesting side note, a friend told me that advertisers aren’t allowed to photo the building from the sea because the long perpendicular restaurant near the top forms a cross against the building’s tall pillar. There is much debate on the web whether or not this was done intentionally – placing a Christian symbol on an iconic building in a Muslim nation. Also apparently an urban myth is the claim that the Burj Al Arab is the only seven-star hotel in the world. Wikipedia entries (and you know everything you read on Wikipedia is true) report none of the star rating systems actually go above five stars.
You can’t go visit the Burj Al Arab unless you’re staying there or you have a reservation at one of the hotel’s restaurants. You can make a reservation at the Skyview Bar for a minimum spend of about $60 a person but Nellu and I instead tried to get as close as we could without a meal commitment.
We made it as close at the hotel next door. They were less than thrilled when I tried to inch my way closer by going through the staff area outside.
One of the things I said we’d do on this trip was sneak into a hotel pool. It would have made a good story if that pool just happened to be at the Burj Al Arab (note to self).
In July of last year we mapped out how we’d spend our five-continent oneworld round-the-world airline ticket and we found we couldn’t get a simple flight out of Nairobi, Kenya. The oneworld partners just didn’t have the routes we needed. We tried many different scenarios but finally settled on flying from Nairobi to London to get to Dubai. This option wasn’t a favorite solution of mine at the time. oneworld counts the Middle East and Europe as one continent, so we’d need to use two of the four flight segments our pass provides for each continent.
It turned out to be one of the best options we had.
Sometime in December, Eric, one of my oldest and closest friends, told us that he was thinking about coming over to London in February. And it looked like he could be there during the week we were flying through. It took one quick call to the American Airlines oneworld desk (ok, it took two because we were in Livingstone, Zambia and my internet time ran out) and we extended our one hour layover through London into three days. (Sidebar: That’s been one of the nice things about the round-the-world ticket. While we get charged for changing our route, we can switch flight dates and times as often as we want at no extra cost. We’ve moved several flights over the course of this trip.)
This would work perfectly. Eric was definitely one of the last people we thought would meet us on our trip, primarily because as a freelance stylist he doesn’t get paid vacations. (I wrote that line mainly so I could segue into a suggestion that you check out Eric’s work here and here.) One added bonus, Eric is one of the few friends in the world that I could absolutely count on to support our decision to buy a side table in Zanzibar with the expectation that he would carry it the rest of the way home.
The only hitch in this plan was that it was snowing in London. In the 10 months worth of clothes we had packed for this leg of the journey, we hadn’t planned on cold. I had my winter coat in South America but I left it at home in the face of China in August and September in India.
So we did what anyone would do when given the opportunity to meet up with their best of friends after camping for a month through Africa and being away from home for more than 6 months. We layered up every warm piece of clothing we had and headed out into the cold.
And we had a fantastic time.
When we said goodbye, Eric checked one more time to see if I wanted to keep his coat for the rest of our journey. “Nah,” I said. “We should have warmer weather from here on out.”
Famous last words.