The large and usually bustling terminal at Dubai International Airport was far quieter than I remembered from my visit in January of 2020, only a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world as we knew it. The usual throngs of passengers, airport staff, and security officials were noticeably absent. In their place, large stickers on the terminal floor reminded people to stand socially distanced from each other.
As I circled the terminal searching for my baggage carousel, two workers at an airport shop called out excitedly, “Are you here from Israel?”
“I just arrived from New York,” I replied.
They seemed genuinely disappointed. “You have the long hair,” one of them said, pointing to my peyos. “Doesn’t that mean you’re from Israel?”
I took a minute to explain that long peyos are a Jewish religious custom that have nothing to do with geographical location. The two men were also fascinated to learn that there are many Jewish communities outside of Israel. Sometimes I’m unsure whether I’ve come to learn or to teach. On this trip to the United Arab Emirates, I did lots of both. Enjoy the ride!
of a Lifetime
The text message came in at 6:18 p.m. on August 13, completely changing the course of my day and many days to come. It was from one of my contacts in the Middle East, someone in the know. It read, “Hey, Shloime, watch out for the news in the next 45 minutes, some good news, please G-d.” While I hadn’t received any details, I had a feeling I knew what was about to happen. Israel and the UAE were going to announce some kind of deal. Anybody looking at the signs knew it was bound to happen soon; the only question was when.
Exactly 42 minutes after the text arrived, the official announcement was made. I will admit it did catch me a bit off guard. I didn’t think the peace process would take place so soon. I was expecting it to happen sometime around the Dubai Expo, which was supposed to open in October 2020 but was postponed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As soon as the announcement was made, I knew it was only a matter of days before I would be on a plane to the UAE to see things for myself. The goal of my trip would not be to see the impressive desert city of Dubai or enjoy its glitz and glamour. Instead, my trip would serve two purposes—to gauge the reactions of the Emirati people to the Israel-UAE peace deal, and to meet with and get to know the UAE Jewish community.
I also wanted to see the infrastructure being set up to deal with the thousands of Israelis and Jews from around the world who no doubt would be pouring into the UAE in the coming months. This trip to the UAE would be much more complicated than the one I had made to the country more than seven months earlier, before the pandemic broke out.
The UAE was one of the first countries to reopen to eligible tourists and has been open since July 7. However, strict yet manageable guidelines need to be met in order to enter the country. One of these guidelines proved to be quite a headache for me. I had been based in Israel since January, and with no direct commercial flights from Israel to the UAE, I was going to have to travel via a third country. The best option would have been Turkey, which has frequent flights to and from Israel and the UAE, but when I was ready to book my flight, the route through Turkey wasn’t available. In fact, all Turkish Airlines flights to and from the UAE are no longer available, apparently for political reasons. Although there has been no official announcement of the cancellation of these flights, they have nevertheless disappeared.
To make matters more complicated, the UAE requires all passengers arriving from anywhere in the world to provide a negative PCR (polymerise chain reaction) test result for COVID-19. The test must have taken place less than 96 hours before check-in. Getting PCR test results in 96 hours isn’t always easy, and getting results in Israel is often a slow process. Not wanting to jeopardize my trip, I ruled out getting tested in Israel and booked a ticket to New York. My plan was to get tested there and then fly to Dubai, but this would prove to be quite complicated as well.
I was scheduled to land at Newark early on Wednesday morning, and my flight to Dubai was leaving from JFK at 11 p.m. that night. I began making calls to see how I could get expedited PCR test results, but again and again, my request for same-day results was turned down.
Most labs offered rapid testing with results available in a few hours, but I needed a PCR test and was told by every lab or clinic that PCR test results would be ready in three to five business days, and in some rare cases, up to ten days. One lab told me that for pre-surgery patients, they could produce results within 48 hours, but they would not be able to do so for me because travel was not a valid reason to expedite the results.
My flight to Dubai was taking off only 19 hours after my flight from Israel landed, and somewhere in that window, I needed to be tested and get the results. It seemed impossible. I asked friends in the medical business for help, but it was a lost cause. When I was about to give up, someone on the Ami team told me to talk to Bentzy of Sherman Abrams Labs. It couldn’t hurt to try. Bentzy took my call and listened to my dilemma. As an Ami fan (and a very kind person), Bentzy wanted to help and promised that he’d have me tested at his lab and provide me with my results…in less than one hour! My trip to the UAE was saved at the last minute, thanks to Bentzy and the team at Sherman Abrams. With my test results in hand and a truckload of excitement about traveling after being locked down for seven months, I headed to JFK Airport for my flight to Dubai.
Schlepping my personal suitcase and another one filled with kosher food intended for the Dubai JCC, I made my way to the Emirates check-in counter. There were no long lines, and it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a full flight.
Even before handing my passport to the agent, I was asked to provide my negative PCR test result, the master key to entering Dubai during this time. After carefully examining my paperwork, the agent asked me to sign a health declaration and then handed me my boarding pass. Shortly thereafter, I found myself on the plane, which I’d say was about a third full.
Depending on which country you are coming from, there are different procedures for entering Dubai. For example, travelers from India and Pakistan, where laws can be flexible at best and ignored at worst, must take their PCR test at specific government-approved labs to prove that they received a valid test. In contrast, passengers from most other countries, including the United States, can choose any lab as long as they have a PCR test.
Then there is the issue of quarantine. When the UAE announced its plan to open the country, one condition was that passengers must be tested upon arrival at Dubai International Airport and then quarantine until they get the results, a process that can take up to 24 hours but usually takes less. This is quite a manageable restriction for travelers compared to the 14-day quarantine imposed by the governments of many countries, including Canada and Israel.
My flight would be arriving in Dubai on a Thursday evening, and I figured that even with a 24-hour quarantine, I’d be out in time to attend shul in Dubai on Friday night.
Much to my surprise, our temperatures were not checked before the flight, a procedure I had been expecting. The flight was uneventful, aside from the new look of the flight crew members, who wore gloves, masks, face shields, and PPE suits over their uniforms.
Obviously, passengers were required to wear masks for the duration of the flight, and those traveling in first class would have to forgo the in-flight shower at 30,000 feet, a perk on which Emirates prides itself. Meal service was pretty much the same; the only difference was that the flight crew didn’t pour drinks for passengers, instead handing out full cans and bottles.
Fourteen hours and a few naps later, we touched down in Dubai.
There were dozens of airplanes on the tarmac, signifying that the country was open for travel, in comparison to the empty airports I’d seen in Israel and New York in the previous two days. Dubai’s airport wasn’t anywhere as busy as it usually is, but it was still quite busy for the middle of a pandemic. Inside the terminal, social distancing was strictly enforced, with stickers pasted on the airport floor showing people where to stand.
At passport control, I was once again asked to present my passport and the negative COVID-19 test certificate. The agents examined my passport and then took my PCR test from me, telling me I was free to enter Dubai with no quarantine needed.
Now it was time for me to get my luggage. I wandered the large terminal searching for the correct baggage carousel. After gathering my bags, I walked through the customs area, where I was approached by a plainclothes officer wearing jeans and a T-shirt. His surgical gloves gave away the fact that he was a customs official. He asked to see my passport but let me go without looking at my bags.
Approximately one hour after leaving the airport, I pulled up at the Dubai JCC after a short stop at my hotel. The JCC is located in a large villa in a residential neighborhood of Dubai. Rabbi Levi Duchman, who heads the JCC, led me inside and showed me around. On one wall of the lobby hangs a large framed photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; on the wall directly across from it hang photos of the rulers of the UAE and Dubai in their royal Arabic garb. A beautiful shul is located in a large side room of the villa, and on the other side is a room with chairs and couches where visitors could relax and have a cup of coffee or read a book. A kitchen at the back of the building teemed with activity, and the kitchen staff brought out many platters of food.
There was an exciting event taking place at the JCC tonight; for the first time in history, Selichos would be broadcast across the world from Dubai. Before Selichos, Rav Shlomo Amar, the former chief rabbi of Israel, would be addressing those gathered on Zoom, another historic moment.
As the crowd began to pile into the JCC, Rabbi Duchman asked everyone to sit down and have something to eat. Gathered around the table were a colorful group of people. There were Sefardim from Israel who were here on business, a couple from Flatbush on vacation, a Russian Jew looking for opportunities in Dubai, and some local Jews. While everyone ate, Rabbi Duchman rose and welcomed them.
He then spoke, explaining the Baal HaTanya’s idea that during Elul Hashem is easy to find, like a king in the field. He compared it to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, who is usually not seen in public; scheduling a meeting with His Highness requires connections with the right people and a great deal of protocol. But sometimes Sheikh Mohammed goes to the Dubai Mall and walks around without his entourage, meeting with surprised shoppers. Elul is a time when everyone can meet the King, and it is a rare opportunity that should be seized.
After the meal, the crowd moved to the shul, where Rabbi Amar addressed them over Zoom. It was clearly a very emotional experience for him to be talking live from Israel to Jews in the heart of the Arab world. Rabbi Amar ended his address by saying that he hoped to visit Dubai and its Jewish community soon.
The next morning after Shacharis at the JCC, a lavish breakfast was served by Khalid, the recently hired Moroccan chef. I had been under the impression that I’d be in quarantine for the first 24 hours after my arrival in Dubai, so I hadn’t planned any meetings or interviews. After breakfast, with some free time on my hands, I drove my car deep into the desert to visit a ghost town called Al-Madam.
Located approximately an hour away from Dubai, Al-Madam is a village made up of about a dozen one-story homes and a mosque. The town was abandoned about 15 years ago, and the desert has been reclaiming it ever since. Sand dunes now run through or over parts of the houses, making for a very picturesque scene.
In order to get there, one must take the highway from Dubai and eventually turn onto a desert road that leads to the main town of Al-Madam. The town has many large homes that likely belong to rich Emiratis. There are some very disruptive speed bumps along the road that runs through the town, probably to discourage visitors from blowing through at breakneck speed, something I learned the hard way.
At the end of the town, there was supposed to be a road that leads to the small ghost town of Al-Madam a few kilometers away. Much to my surprise, the road was not paved; it was made of desert dunes and showed the tracks of vehicles that had made the trip previously.
After taking one look at that road, I knew my car would not be able to make it through without getting stuck in the sand. It was a real shame. “I should have rented a 4×4,” I thought to myself. The weather was 111 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was no way I could walk for 50 minutes in that heat. I would have no choice but to return another time, on a future trip to Dubai.
I made a U-turn and pulled over to reset my GPS for the return trip to the city. As I was typing in the address of my hotel, a large white SUV pulled up next to me. Not knowing who this person was or what he wanted, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. Mind you, I was dressed as an openly chasidic Jew, and I was over an hour’s drive away from the city.
The SUV’s window rolled down, revealing a youngish, clean-shaven Emirati man wearing local garb. I rolled down my window and greeted him, hoping I hadn’t gotten myself into any trouble.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me in English.
I explained that I had wanted to visit the ghost town but had been stopped by the sand road. The man smiled, introduced himself as Ali, and offered to help me. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.
He smiled widely and said, “Welcome.” He then explained that there was another road paved with asphalt that would get me to the ghost town. He asked me to hand him my phone and entered the coordinates for me. Once my GPS had found the location, I thanked Ali for his help.
“Forget the GPS,” he said. “Just follow me. I’ll take you there.”
I wasn’t sure whether I should follow him into the desert or not, but before I made up my mind, he came up with an even more intriguing offer. “Come to my majlis,” he said. A majlis is a place where community members socialize, exchange news, and resolve problems. “I want you to meet my friends. Just follow my vehicle. It’s only two minutes away. After the majlis, I’ll take you to the ghost town.”
A voice inside me told me that Ali had good intentions and that it was okay to follow him, so I did. Ali and his SUV left me in a cloud of sand and dust as he sped off down the road ahead of me. He never even slowed down or looked back to see whether I was following him or not. I pushed the pedal to the floor and followed him for a minute or two, until he pulled over to the side of the road. Approximately 200 feet away, I saw an interesting-looking structure. The top looked like a tent, but the walls were made of permanent materials. Ali and I got out of our cars, and he showed me to the door of his majlis.
It looked simple on the outside but was very beautiful inside. As soon as he opened the door, we were met with a refreshing gust of crisp air from one of the numerous air conditioners mounted on the walls. The floors were covered by a light-colored Arabian carpet, and low couches lined the walls. A huge TV screen was mounted on one wall, and in the center of the room were several low tables that matched the height of the couches. There was another Emirati man sitting there, and when he saw me, the look on his face was something I wish I could describe. Imagine sitting in your friend’s majlis drinking tea, and suddenly your friend walks in with a chasidic Jew, the kind you’d only seen on TV. It was a sight to see!
Ali introduced me to his friend Salman, and we were soon joined by a few more of their friends. I don’t remember all their names, but there was one named Sultan and another named Suheil. In total, there were seven of them, but thank G-d, they could not have been kinder to me. There was a small refrigerator in the corner of the room, and they kept pouring me drinks and offering me food. I couldn’t eat the food, but I did have a Coke. They then took photos of me, as if I were some exotic animal, and uploaded short videos of me to their social media channels. Their English wasn’t the best, but eventually I sort of got the hang of it.
They asked me to play a board game with them, and when I said I didn’t know how to play, they offered to teach me. The game was called Jackaroo, just in case you are wondering, and I won my first game. It was a bit awkward in the sense that they didn’t really talk much; rather, they expected me to feel completely comfortable sitting on the floor in a circle playing a game with a bunch of strangers. Soon someone boiled up some sweet tea and offered me a glass, which I attempted to accept with my left hand because I was holding some cards in the right. “Take it with your right hand,” Sultan instructed me. “It’s a sign of respect. In our culture, if you take something with your left hand, you’ll have it thrown in your face.”
I smiled and put the cards down, accepting the tea with my right hand. I explained that in Judaism, we also prefer using the right hand over the left, perhaps with less drama, though. Ali asked me to stay for dinner, but I told him that I had to be in Dubai before sundown as I was a religious Jew. He’d never heard of Shabbos, and I wasn’t about to start explaining the intricacies of kashrus, especially since many Muslims believe that kosher and halal are interchangeable, but he and his friends were eager to learn. This led to a deeper conversation about Judaism and Islam, and all the men agreed that Jews are and always have been completely welcome in the UAE, although none of them had actually met a Jew before. They asked me if I’d heard about the peace deal with Israel and also expressed interest in visiting there.
I told them about Ami Magazine and said I’d been traveling in the region for a couple of years now. They asked me to stay in touch with them. After about two hours, I bade them farewell—but not before they soaked me in Arabic perfume; one of them threw burning incense on a lump of coal near me, and the other one used a spray.
Ali asked me to follow his SUV into a nearby town and toward another desert backroad. This led directly to a spot from which I could see the ghost town of Al-Madam in the distance. I then got out of my car and into Ali’s, and he took me on a wild ride over the sand dunes that separated us from the town. When we were within a few feet of the outermost home in the town, Ali stopped the car and I got out, thanking him endlessly for his kindness to a stranger so different from himself. Ali brushed it off and made me promise to keep in touch with him.
I was now left alone to explore the ghost town. It didn’t seem haunted, but there was a very eerie feeling there; when you see a desolate place that was once full of life, there is something disturbing about it. The dunes had reclaimed their territory and now covered large parts of the homes. It looked like something out of a film.
The silence was shattered by a blue 4×4 driven by a few young Arabs who were doing 360s in the sand for fun. The people who come here are not the regular tourist crowd; they are the ones who seek sites off the beaten path. I’ve been to Dubai several times and have never made it to the observation point at the top of the Burj Khalifa, which is considered a must for tourists, but this ghost town was at the top of my list.
After satisfying myself with some epic photos at Al-Madam, I trekked back to my car, thinking positively about Ali and his friends. After all, if everyone in the Middle East acted as they did, the world would be a much less complicated place.
When I reached my car, I had to empty my shoes of the tiny red sand particles that had filled them. Even now, as I write these words, this fine desert sand is still showing up in my house even though two weeks have passed since my return from Dubai.
on The Road
On my way back to Dubai, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. People driving near me on the highway kept honking their horns at me, and I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t driving recklessly, and there was absolutely no reason anyone should have been signaling to me. Eventually, an SUV sped up alongside my car, and the driver, an Emirati man, honked his horn and rolled down his passenger-side window. Confused, I rolled down my window, and the man gave me a thumbs-up.
“Welcome!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
Suddenly, it hit me that all these people had been happy to see a Jew and were honking to let me know that I was welcome in their country. This was something that kept happening all during my trip.
When I arrived back at my hotel in Dubai, I didn’t have much time to prepare for Shabbos. When I was ready to head to the JCC for Minchah, I took a few other people with me in my car. There were at least half a dozen shomer Shabbos Jews in the hotel, and one regular visitor to Dubai told me that the staff at the hotel had been trained and were accustomed to opening hotel-room doors for frum Jews.
When I entered the JCC right before Shabbos, the tables were beautifully set— including a brand-new leather challah cover modeled after the UAE flag that I had picked up at Prestige Embroidery in Crown Heights and delivered to the JCC. An aura of calm hung over the villa. A local Jewish woman lit candles in the lobby, and the spirit of Shabbos swept in.
After a lively Sefardic-style davening, someone made Kiddush and we sat down to eat. There were many, many l’chaims during the meal. The crowd was made up of people from all walks of Jewish life, and the harmony among them was special. There were several speeches at the meal, and they all made an impression on me.
The first speaker was Bruce Gurfein, who’s been living in Dubai since 1997. Bruce said that this was the second Shabbos since the JCC reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown and that it was very special for the community to be gathering again. He became emotional as he described his surprise at the fact that there were dozens of people gathering publicly in a legal synagogue in the heart of the Arab world, something that would have been completely unimaginable only a few years earlier.
Next to speak was David Zabinsky, a young diamond dealer in his twenties who recounted an anti-Semitic incident he experienced in a Dubai taxi driven by an immigrant only a few years before. David explained that the past few years in the UAE have been transformative in many ways, especially in the area of tolerance. “What happened to me then wouldn’t happen now,” he said.
Many of the guests expressed how excited they were to be able to talk about and share their Jewish identity with Emirati citizens without fear. The Shabbos meal lasted well into the night.
The next morning during Shacharis at the JCC, an Emirati man in full garb walked into the shul. It didn’t seem like anyone knew who he was, but he was shown to a seat at the front of the shul, near the aron kodesh. The man opened a siddur and followed along with the davening, and he even stood while the rest of us were davening Shemoneh Esrei. Toward the end of the Torah reading, the congregation stood as a prayer for the rulers, the government, and the armed forces of the UAE was recited in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. The Emirati man shed a tear as he watched the Jewish community pray for his beloved country and its leaders. It was really something to see.
At the kiddush after davening, JCC president Solly Wolf introduced the man as Mr. Ahmed Al Mansoori, who owns the Crossroads of Civilization Museum located in the Shindagha cultural village in Old Dubai. Mr. Al Mansoori stayed for the Shabbos-afternoon meal and socialized with the crowd. Before leaving, he invited everyone to visit his museum, an offer which I took him up on later in the week.
When Shabbos was over, I made my way to the home of one of my Emirati friends, a wealthy individual who hosts me whenever I’m in town. When I entered his large majlis, my host, who in the past has been a very strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, greeted me with a hug and an unexpected greeting in fluent Hebrew. I was shocked by how comfortable he was talking to me in a language he would never have considered studying a few years earlier.
“We’re all learning Hebrew,” another Emirati told me. “We want to get to know our neighbors in the best way possible.”
On Sunday morning after Shacharis, one of the young rabbinic interns at the JCC took me to an Afghan bakery in the Al-Satwa neighborhood of Dubai, where a special soft pas Yisrael flatbread was prepared under kosher supervision. Next, I headed to the magnificent Al-Habtoor Palace Hotel, owned by Dubai billionaire Khalaf Al-Habtoor, whom I had met on a previous trip to Dubai.
My friend Amjad Taha, who is a celebrated British-Bahraini author and political commentator, met me in the lobby. Amjad was going to be appearing in an interview on Israeli TV that day and wanted to surprise his interviewers. He took me up to his room, where the camera had been set up, and I waited quietly while he talked his way through a lengthy interview about the economic investment potential made possible by the Israel-UAE peace deal.
Toward the end of the interview, while Amjad was talking about investment opportunities, he stated, “The most important thing to invest in right now is friendship. I’ve got one of my investments right here.” And he pulled me into the frame. Needless to say, the news anchor in Israel was shocked to see a chasid sitting with an Arab, both in full garb, in Dubai. Our segment was later aired on Israeli TV, but most of it was left on the cutting-room floor; only a short portion of the interview was broadcast.
I took the opportunity to ask Amjad his opinion about the recent push for peace in the Middle East. “Is it based on mutual goals and interests, or is the purpose of it to gang up on Iran?” I asked.
Amjad said he believed both of these factors were contributors. “Our people always wanted to have peace and prosperity; however, at one point, they were deceived into believing that they couldn’t make peace without the Palestinians. That could be why it didn’t happen in the past. However, now everyone is heading to peace. There are many other countries that will join this new initiative.
“As for the Palestinians, support for the PLO in the Arab world is waning. Many Palestinians who live in the Gulf are calling for the downfall of the PLO because of its corruption and inability to achieve anything at all for the Palestinians themselves. We hope to see a revolution against the Palestinian Authority, and I believe that the whole Arab world will support something like that at this moment.
“The Palestinian Authority has joined with Hamas, and they put on a friendly mask, but everyone knows they are evil. We don’t want to see Israel negotiating with them anymore, and we hope that Israel will stop the flow of money from Qatar to the Iranian militias in Gaza. We need to return to the system of no negotiation with terrorists.
“On January 30, 2009, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who is the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and lives in Qatar under the protection of the Qatari royal family, called for a Muslim Holocaust against the Jews. These are the people who are sending money to Hamas. Qaradawi has authored over 120 books that have been sponsored by Qatar and the Qatar Foundation. These books call Jews pigs and cows and are sold all around the world, even in the USA. These books actually influenced the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing.
“Israel needs to stop negotiating with these people. They are not peaceful; they are deadly traitors. Hamas kills and executes Palestinians. Hamas uses women and children, as well as schools and hospitals, as human shields. When the Palestinians decried the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and called him a ‘martyr of Jerusalem,’ in my opinion, that was the last straw for many governments here in the Gulf and in the Arab world.
“Israel is an essential ally, and all the Arab countries are beginning to see that they cannot be held hostage by the Palestinians. [It is in their] own interests to exchange technology with Israel and to work together on developing a coronavirus vaccine. We will thrive together, in peace and prosperity, and all the Arab countries will stand with Israel against the Iranian regime and all of the radical Islamists in the Middle East.”
After our chat, Amjad suggested that we go to the gigantic Dubai Mall and walk around. This was especially meaningful to me because on my first trip to Dubai, a member of the local Jewish community had asked me to cover my yarmulke and peyos at the mall. Now that things have changed, I was excited to see how people would react.
People were definitely shocked to see the two of us walking around together—one in Arab attire and the other in chasidish levush. Emiratis are very respectful people, so most of them didn’t say anything to us as they did not want to intrude, but there were a number of people who did come up to greet us. A Lebanese man told us how much we inspired him, and a Syrian man working at a perfume shop even gave me a free gift. Of course, there were many people who wanted to take selfies with us, and we were even approached by an Israeli entrepreneur and a journalist from Asia who wanted to interview us.
Our next stop was the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, where we would have dinner. Through the efforts of some Jewish businessmen, and under the supervision of Rabbi Levi Duchman, a five-star kosher restaurant has been quietly operating at the Armani Hotel in the Burj for the past few months. When our driver dropped us off in the underground parking lot, we made our way into one of the lobbies.
As we were entering, there was a non-Emirati walking a few feet behind us. I held the lobby door open for Amjad, expecting him to hold it open for her as she was only a few feet behind him, but he didn’t wait for her. Instead, he let the door slam in her face. I was a bit surprised. The woman made her way into the lobby and got into an elevator, muttering under her breath. That was the last time we saw her.
When our elevator arrived, two Emirati women in local garb joined us in the elevator. There was complete silence, but as we were about to get out on the floor of the Armani Hotel, one of the women said to me with a smile, “You are so welcome here.” I thanked her for her kindness.
As we made our way to the kosher restaurant, Amjad told me that it is completely unheard of for a woman in the Arab world to initiate a conversation with a strange man. I had known that, but Amjad’s comment helped me appreciate the lengths to which the people of the UAE will go to make someone feel welcome.
“Did you see that other woman who was walking behind us as we entered the Burj from the parking lot?” he asked.
“I let the door close in her face,” he said.
“I noticed that, but I didn’t want to mention anything,” I replied. “Why didn’t you hold the door for her?”
“You are not an Arabic speaker, so you probably didn’t notice it, but when she saw us, she was cursing us both. I could tell from her accent that she was Lebanese. I didn’t exactly feel like holding the door for her after hearing what she said. A Gulf citizen would never, ever act that way,” he explained.
Now everything made sense to me. The woman in question was lucky that all she got was a door closed in her face; if a police officer had heard what she said or if someone had reported her to the authorities, her hateful words could have landed her in prison for a few years under the UAE’s stringent laws about hate speech.
We were welcomed into the restaurant by some of the most attentive staff I’ve ever seen. The kosher restaurant was very dimly lit and decorated with taste and elegance. The menu had many options, including some very large steaks, but I opted for a classic burger. Amjad ordered chicken schnitzel because he had heard all about it from his Israeli friends and was really excited about trying it.
After ordering, I realized that I had not yet davened Minchah, and night was quickly approaching. Before asking my server if there was a quiet place where I could pray, I told him that I was going to ask him a question he’d probably never heard before. Nevertheless, after I made my request, he ushered me out of the restaurant, into an elevator, and down a few hallways to a quiet room designated for prayer. The server told me he’d wait outside the room so that he could take me back to the restaurant when I was done praying. And when I finished about ten minutes later, he was indeed waiting.
We made our way back to the table and got there right before our food arrived. The food was delicious and very plentiful. I could barely finish everything on my plate.
After dinner, Amjad took me to a lounge where we met a friend of his who works at the UAE aviation authority. Just like every other Emirati I’d met on this trip, he was very excited about the new peace deal and was hoping to visit Israel soon. I told him I’d be happy to show him around the Holy Land when he came.
I then got a sneak peek at the backstory of how Israel got approval for its airplanes to fly over Saudi Arabian airspace. I was told that the UAE asked the Saudis for permission for flights from Israel to pass through, but the Saudis denied the request, citing the absence of official diplomatic ties with Israel. The UAE then tried a different tactic. They asked the Saudis to pass a law allowing all flights to and from the UAE to pass through its airspace, to which the Saudis readily agreed.
It’s all about the way you ask the question. When it was posed in a way that implied it would help Israel, the answer was no, but when the same question was posed in a way that made it seem beneficial to the UAE, the answer was yes. Consider it a crash course in Middle Eastern diplomacy.
The Reach of Rockets
As the night progressed, Amjad’s friend asked me about Israel and what he could expect when he visited. I told him that as long as he went with an open mind, he’d have a great time. He then asked me a question that took me completely by surprise: “Is Israel safe?”
“Israel is one of the safest countries in the world,” I assured him, adding that Israel focuses heavily on security.
“But I’m worried about the rockets and the balloons from Gaza,” he said. “If I want to visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, will I be putting myself in danger?”
I explained that as a general rule, except in rare cases, rockets don’t usually fly as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and that he shouldn’t worry about that. Suddenly, the irony of the situation hit me. I was a chasidic Jew sitting with two Arabs in the heart of the Arab world. Ironically, they both couldn’t wait to visit Israel, and the only thing that worried them about visiting the Holy Land was…Palestinian terrorism.
This anecdote says a lot about Gulf Arabs’ current state of mind and their true feelings about the Palestinians.
The Floating Shul
On the last day of my trip, I was invited to visit the RMS Queen Elizabeth II, otherwise known as the QE2, a 10-deck, 963-foot ocean liner that has been retired and is now owned by the ruler of Dubai. It is docked at Mina Rashid in Dubai and holds numerous offices. Mr. Naum Koen, a Ukrainian Jewish business mogul and philanthropist based in Dubai, invited me into his lavish office located on the QE2 and gave me a tour. Much to my surprise, one of the areas there had been turned into a beautiful shul, which he plans to use as a Chabad House.
While visiting Mr. Koen’s offices, I was introduced to a delegation from Israel that had landed in Dubai that day on business. One of the delegates was an Israeli actor. The rabbinic interns from the JCC were there too, and they helped the actor and many of the Israeli business executives in the shul put on tefillin.
Next, the interns and I drove to the Shindagha cultural village in Old Dubai, where we were invited to tour the Crossroads of Civilization Museum by its owner, His Excellency Mr. Ahmed Al Mansoori, who had visited the JCC on Shabbos. Mr. Al Mansoori treated us like royalty and gave us a VIP tour of his museum, which contains hundreds of rare books, documents, maps, weapons, and artifacts relating to the UAE and the region. There were also many Jewish artifacts on display, including an official copy of the prayer that the Jews of the UAE say for the government.
Toward the end of our tour, as evening fell, we approached Mr. Al Mansoori and respectfully asked if we could pause the tour for a few moments to say our afternoon prayers. Mr. Al Mansoori smiled and said that it was time for him to pray as well. Along with his Muslim employees, he set up a few prayer mats in one corner of the courtyard and they said their prayers, while in another corner of the courtyard, we davened Minchah.
The fact that Jews can now live in harmony with their Muslim neighbors in the heart of the Arab world, with acceptance, tolerance, and even friendship, is something that should be celebrated.
As I boarded the plane leaving Dubai after an amazing six-day stay, the flight crew all welcomed me, but as I made my way down the aisle toward my seat, I passed one flight attendant who said, “Shalom.”
“Thank you, that was very nice of you,” I replied. The flight attendant smiled.
Once settled in my seat, I began to reflect on the historic events of the past few days and weeks. We are entering a new era of peace—warm peace, friendly peace, peace based on peace. All of the parties involved are beyond excited, and just as is the case in the city of Dubai, everything is possible with this new peace. The sky’s the limit. What an amazing time to be alive! l