2016 Year of Reading: Books on the beach

Exciting times for bookworms in the UAE as the government tackles the Arab reading crisis

Hot on the heels of those clever Smart Palms I blogged about last year (offering free wi-fi and charging points), there’s a new initiative coming to Dubai’s beaches which book lovers are going to love.

R&R: Try some reading & relaxation on the beach

R&R: Try some
reading & relaxation on the beach

The first set of library kiosks are being installed at Kite Beach in Umm Suqueim and Al Mamzar Beach, so sun-seekers can borrow books to read while relaxing. On leaving the beach, you return your book, or you can take a stroll along the sand and hand it back in at any of the other seaside library units.

What a great idea! It’s all part of the 2016 Year of Reading in the UAE – a subject close to my heart as I attempt (and often fail!) to instill a love of reading in my own boys. Each night, after tackling Son2’s Oxford Reading Tree books, I bring out the Kindle and present it to Son1 with a wry smile. I then set the stop watch on my phone: 15 minutes, “That’s ALL! … Right, Go…” I pick books I really think he’ll like, but still he’s reluctant, putting on a scowly face and stopping the moment the alarm rings.

The annual average reading rate for an Arab child is six minutes

Anyway… I will persevere. But it seems my problem is part of a wider, regional trend that’s referred to as “the reading crisis in the Arab world”. My sons are your typical expat kids, but among their Arab compatriots, reading levels are even lower.

The average reading time for an Arab child is six minutes a year, compared with 12,000 minutes for children in the West. To put this in perspective, for every six minutes spent reading by an Arab child, a child of similar age in the West will have been reading for 200 hours.

Coming soon in Arabic

Coming soon in Arabic

Last night, at a talk I attended about the future of publishing in the UAE, I heard why this crisis is so severe. Not only is there a lack of diversity in Arabic children’s books, but several studies of UAE readers have found that a national culture of reading for pleasure is still in its early stages. Reading is generally viewed as a duty, with many UAE youth finding it difficult or boring. “The bigger focus in this region has been on oral story telling and poetry,” said Isobel Abulhoul, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Several moves are afoot in the UAE to remedy the situation – such as the introduction of mobile libraries, Sharjah’s library-for-every-home scheme (delivering one million books to families in the emirate); and the Arab Reading Challenge, with AED11m ($3m) in cash prizes. (As someone who’s paid my own kids to read in the past, I can’t comment!).

Julie Till, head of business development at Oxford University Press, also pointed out that the much-loved Oxford Reading Tree books are set to be introduced in Arabic with original content. “We’re looking at things like paper quality, fonts – how to make children want to read the books,” said Julie. “It’s a great step, and I believe we’re at a tipping point in Arabic publishing.”

Changing the mindset of a whole society won’t happen overnight, warns Isobel, but she’s optimistic, and thankful that all the years she’s spent talking about the importance of literacy, reading and writing have been validated with such enthusiasm. “The government has taken a huge leap,” she says, “with the 2016 year of reading and initiatives at the highest levels to ensure the future generation is literate.”

So, watch out kiddos – your 15 minutes-a-night isn’t about to stop any time soon! And readers, look out for the solar-powered library kiosks the next time you’re on Kite or Al Mamzar beaches. There’s going to be titles in English and Arabic, as well as a selection of children’s books, offering bookworms “a cheerful read”. While you’ve got the sand between your toes and the waves crashing in your ears, just be careful not to get the pages covered in suntan lotion and ice cream!

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Travel post: The Maldives – HOW MUCH?

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If anything is going to make you feel like you’ve discovered paradise, it’s descending over some of the best beaches in the world, while peering out the airplane window at bone-white sand, lush greenery and the luminous cyan-blue water surrounding the Maldive islands.

Outdoor shower: Scrub up with the plants

Outdoor shower: Scrub up with the plants

Nearly a million people a year visit the Maldives and it’s not hard to see why. Located within easy flying distance of Dubai (about 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka), the Maldives are made up of 26 coral atolls in a chain reaching down to cross the equator. There are about 1,200 small coral islands in total, of which some 200 are inhabited and 100 are resorts.

Of course, we all want to go. We’ve all seen the photos of bungalows on stilts, the ocean lapping gently below; we all know there are world-class diving and snorkeling opportunities right outside your door. But at some point, the question always comes up: HOW MUCH?

Not only is the Maldives Asia’s smallest country, but it is also one of its most exclusive. The only reason we made it there at the end of last year was a great deal, at a resort close to Male, so there were no extra sea-plane costs. That’s not to say we didn’t have a few money shocks while there. A comment I’ll never forget came from DH, on returning with food for the kids from the airport Burger King. His face had paled. “That burger just cost ten bucks,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “I paid in dollars and they kept the change.”

Lush: A feast of green

Lush: A feast of green

I looked at him askance. “They didn’t have any small change to give me,” he explained.

The hotels span the whole archipelago, and while the top-end brands attempt to out-do each other when it comes to luxury (think personal butlers and private lap pools), there are also options for families on a budget, divers and those looking for a peaceful at-one-with-nature experience. Despite the increased chance of stormy weather, tourists still visit the Maldives during the monsoon season and the resorts offer better deals during these months.

Underwater world

Sealife: An amazingly varied cast of colourful, aquatic characters live under the sea

Sealife: An amazingly varied cast of colourful, aquatic characters live under the sea

It’s the abundance of marine life that really sets the Maldives apart. There are huge coral walls, and magnificent caverns and overhangs festooned with colourful sponges. Rock pinnacles reach up from the seabed to scratch the surface like giant fingers. The clear waters are inhabited by an amazing cast of aquatic characters: brightly coloured tropical fish, Manta rays, turtles, tuna, reef sharks and even the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark.

With only one resort on each tourist island, it’s wise to be as picky selecting your accommodation as when choosing a cruise ship or renting a villa. Which leads to the question: With no sightseeing to do, no plans to be kept, could swimming, snorkeling and lying in the sun actually get boring?

My research found the answer to be no. Time in the Maldives takes on a different meaning: the minutes melt into hours, the hours into days. The toughest decision is deciding what to eat. There are no hawkers selling tacky souvenirs, and no taxi tours. Mosquitoes aren’t even a nuisance because there are few areas of open fresh water suitable for breeding.

When the novelty of doing so little does start to wear off, most resorts lay on beach volleyball in the late afternoon, sunset fishing and a local island hop. Dolphin spotting at sunset and a dance night are also common. Some resorts offer shows every night, a range of sports and even a golf course. But, however good your intentions are to be active, don’t be surprised if the gym falls by the wayside – exercise facilities are mostly used by the seaplane pilots.

Fact File

When to go: The best weather is between November and April, with the high season falling between December and March. The wet or rainy season begins in May and lasts through October.

Endangered: As the lowest country on earth (the highest point is less than 8 feet above sea level), the islands could disappear if sea levels keep rising. So real is this threat from climate change that the government has even looked into purchasing land in India, Sri Lanka and Australia to potentially relocate its roughly 300,000 residents one day.

Transport: Speedboats ply the nearer islands, while seaplanes transport guests staying further away. There are also fixed-wheel planes that service the five regional airports, from where it’s a speedboat ride.

Hot spot: The idyllic islands, with their impossibly turquoise lagoons and sun-soaked beaches, have only been a holiday destination for the past 40 years or so. Lying in such close proximity to the equator, the Maldives receive plenty of sunshine all year round, even in the low season.

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The Kid Magnet: Why trampolines have their ups and downs

The rumour quickly went round that ours was the biggest on our street. I’m talking about Son2’s Christmas present: the hulking-great trampoline that appeared in our garden over the holidays, and takes up half the lawn. “It was on a special deal,” DH told me, as my eyebrows shot up into my hairline on seeing its enormous size for the first time.

No longer do I sit outside in the glorious weather admiring the bougainvillea hanging frothily over the back wall in a bloom of pink, white and orange. Now, I look at a piece of equipment, all metal, bounce mat and black netting, that could easily double as a zoo enclosure.

The kids LOVE IT, of course. And by kids, I mean all the children on our street. The knocks at the door start precisely three minutes after mine get home from school. I’m still turning smelly, inside-out socks the right way when the first rat-a-tat-tat comes. After that it’s a procession of small children, all eager to bounce.

Bigger than this, ours at least has a net

Bigger than this, ours at least has a net

Now, I don’t want to be a party pooper (and I do see the exercise value), but I’ll admit this came as a bit of a shock on my first day at home with the kids. Especially after a spell in a quiet, ordered office. I hadn’t realised our house had become as popular as Dubai’s Bounce, a trampoline playground loaded with springs and circus-grade sponge.

“But boys!” I said. “We’re just a backyard trampoline … There are some big differences between us and Bounce.” I held up one finger. “First, we don’t charge.” Another finger. “Second, I don’t hand out rainbow gripper socks.” I leaned forwards and raised a third finger. “And, most importantly, Bounce is properly supervised.”

“We need some rules here.”

My words dropped like rocks, leaving my boys with expressions carved from stone.

And so ‘The Rules’ came into force: a maximum of three children on the trampoline at any one time; keep the zipper closed; no crawling underneath it; only two friends inside the house and all mess tidied up by the perpetrators; no cats to be trapped inside the trampoline for entertainment purposes (“Yes really … cats don’t like bouncing.”)

As you can imagine, it’s not always easy policing all this, especially when all the yelling and squealing fills every molecule in your brain and the kids bounce so hard it even rattles the pans on the shelf in the kitchen. I swear it must be easier in a zoo.

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The weight test on Dubai’s vertical Northern Line

I’m trying to have a lean month – cutting out the sweet treats that got out of hand over Christmas, bike rides outside in the glorious weather, even jumping on the kids’ trampoline.

But it’s not that easy, is it? My downfall, as always, is when goodies get brought into work. Today, it was someone’s birthday, and the most delicious cup cakes started doing the rounds – moist, melt-in-your-mouth little pieces of heaven, topped with frosting so delicious it actually glistened. Well, it would have been rude not to.

I then needed to go downstairs. I was waiting in the lobby for the elevator (we’re on the 25th floor), when I heard the noise.


The New Year downfall: well who can resist?

The New Year downfall: well who can resist?

The elevator’s alarm, going off on the floor above.

We hear the sound a lot because there are only two elevators that go to the top of our tower, and they’re always overcrowded. Think a vertical Northern Line; office workers crammed in like sardines, all armpits and perfume. The very top floor of our building belongs to a Chinese company, and I swear they’re running a technology sweat shop up there, with hundreds of staff bussed in from Satwa every day.

The elevator stops at my floor, and the doors slide open. Now, I know someone missed the ride upstairs because I heard the alarm, signalling it was overloaded, but the 10 or so people jammed inside the lift start shuffling backwards to make room, for me.

Ten faces stare at me, their gazes boring into mine. Eyes torn from the Elevision TV screen in the top corner of the lift, attention ripped away from their smart phones, which they hold in their hands like compasses. Their faces look expectant, their mouths twitching. They’re all watching to see if I set the alarm off.

No, I think. I’ll wait for the next lift.

But they’re a friendly (lightly built, Asian) lot and beckon me in. They shoot me a come hither look, and I step in, gingerly. Breathing out. Treading so carefully it’s like the floor’s made of eggshells. I withhold my breath a little longer than is comfortable, bracing myself for the over-load buzzer and my undignified exit, in front of all 10 of them. Should I jettison my handbag? Standing on the scales at home is nothing in comparison to this.

Then the moment’s over. The doors swish shut, and the elevator descends.

I’ve got away with it – until the next round of cupcakes!

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Wordless Wednesday: Spot the mistake

You might want to think twice about sending your kids to the tutors at megabrain.ae!  

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Dubai Shopping Festival: Are you feeling lucky?

Yes, that is a Lamborghini pictured. Only in Dubai!

Yes, that is a Lamborghini pictured. Only in Dubai!

Everywhere I turn in Dubai at the moment, there’s someone offering me the chance to win a prize – be it an iPhone, Mercedes Benz, Jeep Wrangler, or 200,000dhs cash (yes, please!). It seems there are raffles and there are mega raffles, like the Dubai Shopping Festival’s daily ‘life-changing’ prize – an Infiniti Qx70. And Jumbo Electronics’ gold give-away (either 10 grams of gold every day, or 500 grams weekly).

It’s all part of the month-long shopping festival, and it does cause plenty of excitement. At work today, my friend turned round and, with light shining behind her eyes, said, “Ooh, in half an hour it’s the next Visa Impossible Deal.” (For cardholders, up to 80 per cent off electronics, travel, entertainment, luxury goods and cars, until 1 Feb.) It was an iPhone today, and no we didn’t win. “Never mind, we’ll try again tomorrow!” we agreed, while peering at the thumbnail photo online of the winner to see if he looked worthy.

Filling up with gas on the way home, I idled away the 15 minutes it took queuing (yes, the UAE might be sitting on 98 billion barrels of oil, but refuelling your car can take a while) by watching the staff going from vehicle-to-vehicle selling mega-raffle tickets. I’ve no doubt the prize was … another car.

Do any readers actually know anyone who’s won a big-ticket prize, though?

I don’t know anyone personally, but I did take a quick look online, and read about Shahir Ebrahim, from India. He won two cars, and at first, hung up the phone twice. “Please don’t play games with me,” he told the caller; it was only when his phone rang for a third time that he realised he really was a winner. He sold the cars, then got married and travelled to Asia for a holiday.

There’s also Faisal Khurshid, from Pakistan, who spent the 350,000dhs he won on his wife and kids, and bought a one-bedroom flat in Silicon Oasis. “I never imagined that I would ever own a property in Dubai,” he said of his purchase.

Ah, those stories are rather lovely. Definitely worthy!

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Silent Sunday: May the force be with you

We hit the desert at the weekend, on a safari filled with falcons, camels, food, fun and dune bashing. The sun really was the star of the show though, with an unforgettable sunset.

We hit the desert at the weekend, on a safari filled with falcons, camels, food, fun and dune bashing. The sun really was the star of the show though, with an unforgettable sunset. Simply beautiful!

This isn’t sponsored, but I really recommend Arabian Adventures if you’re looking for a desert safari tour operator.

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