Sunday, 31 October 2010

Fierce Creatures

Cover of "Fierce Creatures"Cover of Fierce CreaturesStaying at Emirates' Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa has long been a treat for us. The lavish little 42-room hotel nestles on the side of a large bowl out in the sands between Dubai and Al Ain, every room a suite with its own little infinity pool looking out over a plain edged by rolling dunes. We usually cash in Emirates' Skywards air miles rather than dig deep for the Dhs 4,000-odd you'd have to dole out for a night of bliss in the desert, but this stay was compliments of Skywards after their customer service people unearthed the little disaster that was our attempt to make a booking in August (thank you, chaps).

Al Maha was the first of the UAE's desert resorts - Bab Al Shams, Al Sahra and Qasr Al Sarab have all followed in the wake of the resort's success but none have ever had the appeal of Maha for us. It wasn't, of course, the first 'desert hotel' in the UAE - that honour belongs to the now dowdy but yet still delightful Liwa Hotel. But it was the first place to transform the pleasures of camping in the deep dunes into a world-class luxury bliss-out experience - the suites are all tent-themed and the stiff room rate does include a variety of desert activities as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are few chilled weekend experiences to rival it. It's so good, TripAdvisor (the website that makes hotel GM's break into cold sweats) does nothing but gush about the place. and they're all right about it, too. My own raving about the place has been going on for a good long while now, so you can forget the accusation that I'm only being nice because of the Skywards comp.

One of the most delightful aspects of this delightful hotel is that it's set in the middle of a massive game reserve made up of something like a third of Dubai's total landmass and dedicated to the preservation of the Arabian Oryx - or Al Maha. Camels are banned (they're not actually indigenous to the region, dontcha know?) but a thriving herd of oryx, gazelles and an increasingly rich variety of desert life are not only welcomed,  but assiduously protected. Starting at something like 90 head when it opened, Al Maha's herd of endangered pointy-horned ruminants has grown to over 300 now.

But there's trouble in paradise. Someone, somewhere has decided to remake the John Cleese comedy Fierce Creatures and locate it in the desert outside Dubai.Only this time it's for real.

The globe-spanning Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which is responsible for brands such as Le Meridien, Sheraton and Westin, is to take over the management of Al Maha from tomorrow. I can find no trace of an official announcement,  but the news has led to a number of staff, including some of the hotels' complement of South African guides, chucking in the towel and moving elsewhere. Others are presumably waiting to see what happens when the new bosses turn up with their sleeves rolled up and briefcases bursting with formulas for increased efficiency and resource management.

(Fierce Creatures, BTW, revolved around 'big business' taking over an ailing zoo and the new director deciding to increase the place's popularity by making its large-eyed, furry inmates seem more dangerous and therefore more attractive to the general public.)

Starwood already manages one Emirates-owned property, the Le Meridien Al Aqha  Beach Resort. And there's a lot of sense to an airline focusing on doing what it does best (running the world's largest demonstration of the effectiveness of the 'long tail' principle) rather than running hotels. What's more, the Starwood network would have a huge benefit to Al Maha which, we understand, does tend to suffer from low mid-week occupancy and rammed weekends. But part of what made Al Maha so unique was how very focused everyone there was on customer service and creating a wholly memorable experience that went beyond reason. The million dollar question is whether that experience will survive once the 'under new management' sign has been taken down and the place settles into its new routines and the task of making that management contract thoroughly profitable.

In the meantime, when you read in Gulf News of people being disemboweled by Arabian Oryx or gored by vicious gazelles, remember Fierce Creatures. You saw it here first...
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Thursday, 28 October 2010

Sara's Ussa

The plan was to use cams to bring Sara from Nablus to GeekFest Dubai last week. We tested the thing earlier in the day and perfection (well, a slightly Charlie Chaplinesque perfection) was achieved. Setting up at The Shelter, it quickly became apparent that the wireless connection was deeply broken. With creaky infrastructure and the lack of a Saadia becoming painfully apparent, we managed nothing better than a freeze frame and a squawk before it all came tumbling down again. Even Gerald Donovan's brilliant cludge of a Samsung Galaxy tablet and my 3G SIM to make an Android-driven 384kpbs wireless hotspot failed because the 3G signal in the cinema at Shelter was rocky.

I have to record that the entire issue was with the Dubai-side infrastructure. Nablus was just dandy all along.

So we missed her talk. Now you can sit back and relax in the privacy of your own home (or office) and catch it, because I got her to record it for us.  She uploaded the files from Nablus and I stitched 'em together before adding the film to the GeekFest collection over at Vimeo. This file took EIGHT HOURS to upload thanks to Etisalat's appalling DSL. Using a 2mbps DSL line, I could at no point get better than 50kpbs upload speed. I tried at home, but watched in horror as a 36kbps upload degraded to 14kpbs before crawling back up to 36kbps. It's truly unbelievable that this quality of service is tolerated by the TRA.

Anyway. Here, at last, is Sara's Ussa. We apologise for the delay and assure you that normal service will be resumed when we have a properly competitive telecommunications market in the UAE.

Sara's Ussa from Geek Fest on Vimeo.

Please do feel free to pop over to Vimeo and embed this video in your own blog/site/corner of the web.
By the way, we're still waiting for an official update on Ola's fund, but it looks like we've raised the $18,000 needed for her life-saving operation in Italy.

UPDATE. Ola flies to Italy November 5th! We did it, folks. It looks like the fund will close over, in fact!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Sad Day

It's a sad day for the United Arab Emirates - the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, His Highness Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, died this morning.

The world's oldest reigning monarch and the last of the UAE's 'founding fathers', Sheikh Saqr was 92 and had been in ill health for some time. The newspapers lagged Twitter this morning and struggled to get stories together, but the immediate flood of interest brought down WAM, the UAE's news agency and the source of any 'official' news.
Which is why we have the headline, body copy and 'news summary' from The National above.

Ras Al Khaimah means, literally, 'headland of the tent'. The khaimah is the traditional barasti (palm frond) dwelling of the mountain people of the UAE. Typically khaimahs are dug into the ground, lined with stone and then the barasti walls and roof are built above. Sheikh Saqr would remember when these were the majority of buildings in RAK - he had ruled the country since 1948.

RAK joined the UAE a year later than the other emirates, the Federation was founded in 1971 and RAK joined in 1972. I never did find out the precise reasons for the delay, which has always intrigued me.

This really is the passing of an era rather than one man. It's a sad day for Sheikh Saqr's family and the people of Ras Al Khaimah, but it's also sad to see the passing of the last of the men who brought this country from a scattered land of tribal peoples to become a modern nation.

Monday, 25 October 2010

When Words Fail

Radiohead - Twisted Words 3Image by thismanslife via FlickrToday's soaraway 7Days reports on the American swimmer, Francis Crippen, who died on Saturday during the Fina swimming competition held in Fujeirah. A world class swimmer and an experienced athlete, Crippen had reportedly told his doctor he wasn't feeling well but had decided to continue his swim. He didn't finish the race and his body was found in the water.

The response of the executive director of the UAE Swimming Association, as reported by 7Days, seems almost incredibly unfeeling. "We are sorry that the guy died but what can we do. This guy was tired and he pushed himself a lot." are the words the paper attributes to Aymen Saad.

I have to confess the callousness of the response to an event that the President of Fina called "A terrible tragedy" amazed me. Then I read Gulf News' report of the same official's response to the tragedy. GN quotes Saad as saying: ""The medical report from the doctor corroborates the fact that the swimmer was extremely tired and that is the reason why he lost control during the competition. He died due to the effort he made to finish the race."

The difference in tone is remarkable. From callous, offhand and unfeeling to appropriately factual and sober in the face of tragedy. We have two stark choices here - and I am deeply concerned that two papers can report one man's words so differently. So which one is wrong?

And what DID the official say?
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Sunday, 24 October 2010


100 AEDImage by Moha' Al-Bastaki via FlickrWhen taxi fares went up in Sharjah earlier this month, none of the newspaper stories covering the event made mention of the fact that drivers’ targets went up as well. Drivers now have to earn Dhs 10,000 in a month to gain a 35% commission.

We’re still paying the Dhs20 inter-Emirate surcharge between Sharjah and Dubai (and vice-versa), which was introduced, if we remember, because of the heavy traffic between the two. That traffic’s no longer a problem, but the taxi companies are never going to let an easy Dhs15 go. (Dhs 5 goes to the driver, at least that was the idea). It’s expensive stuff, this taking a taxi. And yet the drivers seem to be worse off than ever – although I don’t see the large numbers of middlemen at the taxi companies and regulators suffering.

The drivers are under enormous pressure, with a series of iniquitous fines that includes a Dhs100 fine if they lodge the day’s takings after 6pm. If a driver doesn’t make his daily target of Dhs 275 for three days running, that’s it. Out. The cap on daily petrol expenditure and a requirement that 50% of all travel should be passenger-carrying, means that drivers won’t pick up in certain areas, taxi ‘black holes’. Sharjah’s University City, for instance, is highly unpopular with drivers. Many drivers have private customer lists (like Mr G, who runs a massive network of customers and is more frequently on the phone than off it) but resist University jobs. Their least favourite is University to airport – a 10 minute ride that entails travelling 30 minutes out of the city and back again.

Drivers who become involved in accidents have to sit around while the car is in the workshop – not earning a penny. As if that isn’t bad enough, they have to pay the insurance excess, which is Dhs1,500. That’s about two week’s earnings. At least the high excess keeps the company’s premiums down, hey.

Taxis now actively avoid picking up groups of Indian men for fear that they’d be accused of freelancing – charging multiple passengers a fare lower than the meter that amounts to more than the meter amount. However, if they’re found refusing a fare, they can be fined. It’s all a bit Catch22... Appealing the fines, which can be remarkably arbitrary because the inspectors doling them out are on commission based on the fines they award, is of course futile.

Relaying all of this, Mr. G. laughs but there’s more than a trace of bitterness in his laughter. I ask if drivers will start going back to Pakistan now the screw has tightened so much and he laughs again, shaking his head and muttering ‘Pakistan’.

With families recovering from the floods, many drivers have no option but to do all they can to stay in work and scrape together some money, any money, to send home.

Many are working 16 hour days, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year and are dangerously tired. Mr G himself is perma-tired and age is taking its toll, he’s becoming forgetful to the point where we’re having to remind him of our destination several times on a journey. He has the road sense of a suicidal hedgehog and a predisposition to awful bouts of indecision that can reduce me (not a good passenger at the best of times) to feverish gibbering as we avoid the certain consequences by hare’s whiskers each time.

With my car 'in the shop', I took a taxi from the street. I tried to bear all of these iniquities in mind and be sympathetic to the stinking, surly Peshwari oaf who sullenly drove me into town, tutting and swearing all the time under his carious breath. As I sat on his filthy, stained seats and battled the urge to tell him to pull over and just get out of my life, I did find myself wondering quite how we ended up paying so much more for a new age of regulated, company-owned taxis that offer both the customers and the drivers so much less.
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Thursday, 21 October 2010


Sara's UssaNabulsiyeh blog does a much better job of describing this situation than I do, so here's a link to her post.

Little Ola will die unless she gets the operation she needs. You can donate funds by going over to the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund site linked here. They take PayPal (the PayPal donation page is simple and quick and linked here),  credit cards or even wire transfers. Do mention that your donation is 'for Ola' if you do manage to get over there and make a donation.

We'll be auctioning one of Gerald Donovan's highly popular GigaPan images tonight at GeekFest Dubai in aid of Ola's appeal - a 3' x 3' ultra-high resolution image of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Although GeekFest is a resolutely not for charity event, sometimes you just have to do something.

 That's it really, there's little more to say.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

More Geekery

As well as a diverse and somewhat eclectic array of gargantuan GeekTalks (a tasty treat to tantalise your tastebuds!) at GeekFest Dubai (The NOTGITEX Edition) this Thursday, there will in fact be a Beanbag Workshop given by none other than Abdulla AlSuwaidi (known to the police as @Aabo0), who'll be sharing tips on how to produce professional podcasts. Abdulla produces that UAE-centric You There, Speak! podcast and will be explaining the technical requirements of podcasting (hardware, software), looking how to get to grips with the popular Audacity podcasting software package and then how you sort out the business of uploading and promoting your podcastery.

In doing this, he'll actually be recording an episode of You There, Speak! at GeekFest, so this workshop's a chance to learn the ins and outs of podcasting and become world famous.

Don't forget, if the idea of world fame appeals to you, that Dubai TV are filming at GeekFest so do feel free to break out that really, really geeky T-shirt you've been waiting for a special occasion to wear.

We'll also be joined by the lovely folks from EWS WWF (Emirates Wildlife Society and the World Wildlife Fund) who will be talking turtles and the work they're doing to preserve turtle habitats and reverse the decline in turtle populations in the Gulf and Indian Oceans. They'll also be selling their 'adopt a turtle' packs for Dhs200 each for those that want to contribute to this work as well as looking for any minted corporates that want to do something worthwhile with all that CSR budget.

GeekFest Dubai (The NOTGITEX Edition) will take place on the 21st October 2010 at The Shelter in Al Quoz. You can do the Facebook thing or follow @GeekFestDubai on Twitter (or tap me up at @alexandermcnabb) for more information.

That's all for now folks!

We can confirm that no globally ranked technology exhibitions were harmed in the preparation of this GeekFest. 

Monday, 18 October 2010

When Things Go Right

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man ...Image by cambiodefractal via Flickr
I have been nice about Axa Insurance before. I did think then that I was tempting providence, but it looks like Axa has done a deal with providence and ironed the thing out, because nothing awful went wrong after I posted. Now, after two years, I feel the need to post again. It's wrong of me, I know, to be so delighted, because they have simply done what it says on the box. But in the kingdom of the blind, as we know, the one eyed man is a stitch in time.

Axa's call centre staff call back when they say they're going to. They don't end every call with that tired 'Is there anything else I can do to help you?'. They think. My query yesterday was not only met with a callback, it triggered a call from a member of another team who might be able to fix me up with a discount because he was working on a promotion they're doing on my car (Axa's doing cheapies for new Pajeros at Habtoor in Dubai, folks). The original call centre guy called me back 'just quickly' to check that the other team had, indeed, called me as he had promised.

They send you texts to let you know your policy's up. They renew over the 'phone. They send you the documents. Claims are handled by text and email. They think about stuff and give considered answers rather than blurting the first half-truth or supposition that comes into their heads. They are empowered.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is best practice. It's just a shame that it stands out in such stark relief from the rest of the customer service experiences on offer around here.
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Sunday, 17 October 2010

X Marks The Spot

Sheikh Zayed Road, Circa 1991

It used to be called GITE, you know. It was a one-hall show, dwarfed by the much more serious Saudi Computer. Carrington, of Spot On fame, used to run the thing and swore it would grow to  be bigger than Saudi Computer, which always had me hooting gleefully in disbelief. He got the last laugh, of course.

I can't remember when some bright spark added the X to make it GITEX, thereby saving the world from the awful SEO ramifications - everyone looking for French holiday homes being presented with a Dubai-based computer show rammed full of salesgeeks in suits.

GITEX is 30 years old this year, so it just begs for another 'I can remember when this was all sand' post. I didn't get to the show until 1988, although I had been travelling a lot to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region since 1986.

As I've said before, I met Mrs McNabb during that first GITEX trip. That weekend, we drove out together with friends into the depths of Wadi Hatta in our hire car, which was a reasonably crazy thing to do at the time (Honda Civics and steep, rutted gatch tracks aren't really matches made in heaven) although now, of course, the track is smooth black-top all the way. We got as far as Shuwaya and back, which is pretty mad.

I went on to Jordan from there, where my publisher was speaking at an IBM regional conference. The ad agency was presenting a new regional campaign which featured nighttime footage of the Dubai World Trade Centre with all its lights out except the IBM floor, and had the tag 'Because Machines Alone Are Not Enough'. This caused much distress among the assembled distributors as it had the word 'not' in it and everyone thought that was negative.

At the time, DWTC was a real icon - at 33 floors high it was the tallest building in the Middle East. Writer of 'fly-by' Middle East memoir Arabia through the looking glass Jonathan Raban once mistook it for the Hilton, which shows just how clueless tourists can be.

IBM's ad agency had spent tens of thousands of dollars using leading edge (ha!) digital technology to paint out the lights in the Trade Centre to leave just that one floor awake. I didn't make many friends by pointing out that next time they could pay me half what they'd blown on the digital stuff and I'd turn the lights off myself.
I had dealt with all of these disties for months as a journalist, listening to them bad-mouthing and generally doing each other down. In Jordan I watched, slack-jawed, as they all chummed up and socialised together, obviously the very best of pals. It taught me an important lesson about this strange part of the world that was already working itself under my skin so thoroughly that I'd end up making it my home.

For the gala dinner, we were bussed out to a remote castle (looking back on it, I think it must have been Ajloun) where old women were making koubiz in the light of blazing torches and we ate surrounded by ancient battlements.

I had taken lots of photos of this girl I had met, snapping away while we were in Hatta. I had them developed in Amman, only to find that I had loaded the film in the wrong way and the whole lot of them were blank. I was devastated.

A year later, again on a trip out from the UK for GITEX, I drove with her up to Sharjah gold souk where we bought the engagement ring.

I tell you, that show's got an awful lot to answer for...

Friday, 15 October 2010

GeekFest – The Not Gitex Edition

We’re rolling it back a little this GeekFest and not having so much stuff going on. You can try too hard, you know and I, for one, had stopped enjoying it because of the pressure to make all the new stuff happen. The whole idea is that stuff happens because it happens so we’re going back to that a little.

It nearly didn’t happen at all – Saadia Zahid has left The Shelter and I realised that the event was more about working with Saadia than it was working with The Shelter. Her successor, Oliver, has been great but it was with Saadia that the whole scheme was co-conceived and it just seems odd without her.

Strangely enough, it was the other GeekFests that provided the impetus to carry on: Beirut is being driven by Lilliane Assaf (@FunkyOzzi) and the Maniachi and they’re going for it again early November. Last week the first GeekFest Damascus took place and it looks like there might be another GeekFest Amman under new UNmanagement. One thing that is becoming clear is that there is no fixed schedule to GeekFests – they’re happening as they happen and most of the UNorganisers are simply too irresponsible to do things like fix dates in advance and stick to them. Which is fine, no?

I hope we’re going to have some amazing GeekFest news for you on the 21st October, which is when the cycle closes and we finish a year of GeekFests – the sixth bi-monthly Dubai event.
So what’s planned for this GeekFest Dubai?


We’re going to try and squeeze in five GeekTalks. I know, I think it’s mad too, but if the speakers (and they’ll be the first if they do) stick to their 15 minute slots, we’ll be fine...

To Nablus by Cam
Blogger Sara has won numerous hearts with her delightful accounts of life as a volunteer teaching in Nablus. Her blog, UssaNabulsiyeh, instantly gained a wide readership that has grown steadily day by day. We’re going to talk to Sara over videochat and listen to what she’s made of the Nablus experience so far. If this works we’ll try and do other cam link-ups in future.

The GigaPan Man
Gerald Donovan’s videos of the Dubai fountains have gained him over two million views on YouTube, while his speeded up Dubai Metro video was hosted by Gizmodo and CNN. His GigaPixel images of Dubai have been similar smash hits. How does a man who seems to have the knack of ‘going viral’ view the phenomenon and what’s he going to get up to next? One answer is a stunning Gigapixel image of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed mosque, unveiled especially for GeekFest!

New Music Nation
DJ RoneJaxx is one of a burgeoning band of Middle East based hip-hop artists who are finding a growing audience around the region as young people take to the musical form to find expression. With catchy tunes and smart videos, he’s a leading member of a regional scene that’s finding its feet – but does the Arab World need to ape US rap and hip-hop or does it need a musical identity of its own? And how is technology affecting artists with something to say and no deal with ‘the man’ to help them say it? (A name-check here to Hass, whose Re-Volt Radio hip hop blog led to us discovering Monsieur Jaxx!)

Where are we going to go now?
Needing no introduction, Yousef Tuqan Tuqan comes from a long line of computer nerds and is one of the most respected figures in the world of Web Development in the Middle East. Online agency Flip Media have carved a niche as the go-to guys for web stuff, from sites to apps – even if they command a premium in return for a ferocious reputation for quality work. So who better to ask where the Internet is actually going next? Yousef’s promised to tell us...

The New Entrepeneurialism
There’s more talk of innovation, funding and the like these days than ever before. There’s more concrete reality taking place as well, with funds like Jordan’s Oasis500 and angel investors popping up to support new online businesses. One of the team behind the amazingly successful, and arguably first, entrepreneurial event in the region, ArabNet, Samer Karam Founder and CEO of Seeqnce, the first startup catalyst in the Arab World, will be outlining some of the initiatives in the region that are driving a new wave of online entrepreneurship – taking from similarly risk averse cultures: their challenges, opportunities, threats, solutions.


Popular gamer site LochalArchade will once again be bringing the best in mind-numbing violence and awful heart-rending action to GeekFest. The gamers have long been a feature of the event and have generally been well behaved, haven’t bitten too many people (only two Geeks have required rabies jabs in all the months we’ve been doing GeekFest Dubai) and have generally just confined themselves to ‘fragging’ each other.
GeekFest Dubai remains the only GeekFest with a strong gamer element and I’m not quite sure why, but the LochalArchade guys are going to be ramping it up this time around and getting jiggy with the multiplayer mayhem. We deny everything.

Samsung are all over this one. They’re demoing some amazing new stuff, bringing some people, doing some other things. There’s a really, really cool preview thingy going on (only slightly ruined by the fact that they pre-previewed it but, hell, that’s the technology biz – today’s preview is tomorrow’s discounted item) and the Samsung guys, as all present at last GeekFest Dubai would likely agree, ‘get it’ and are showing some cool things to those wot is interested and leaving the rest of us pretty much alone. Which is nice!

Dubai TV are NOT filming tonight.

That’s all folks!
The Bean Bag Workshops idea was nice but takes too much organising. The ArtStuf is a lovely idea, but not enough artists are pushing themselves. Without the community jostling for a place, it’s not worth trying to ‘drive’ stuff. GeekFest is organic – if you want it, then you make it happen!

New Look
The tear-jerkingly talented Naeema Zarif has come up with yet another funky design for GeekFest as you'll see from the above. If you want to see more of her work, it's here.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Do More Evil

 The Man in the Mustardy Shirt

I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have a large number of talented friends dotted all over the world. Some are online pals, others are ‘real world’ friends – and some are people I met online and subsequently have hooked up with' in analogue'.

One such person is my old authonomy buddy, Simon Forward. We joined each other in the race for the authonomy ‘Editor’s Desk’ and both got there, gleefully and manically mucking about in the forums as we plugged our respective works, promoting them to creaking point but also having a great deal of fun in the process. We became something of a double act: Simon’s schoolboy humour and my suave, sophisticated charm worked together like a dream.

Not content with bobbing around at the top of the foetid pool of festering books that is authonomy, Simon then tossed a second book into the ring, a kids’ yarn focused around hero Kip Doodle. And, damn me, but he did it again and so became the only writer to get to the top at authonomy twice. Not, you understand, that it did him the blindest bit of good...

Simon has, in fact, written several highly successful published novels, although sadly on other people’s behalf – he’s one of the writers of the massively popular Dr. Who books, for instance. This resulted in The Niece From Hell (who is Dr Who bonkers) getting a signed Dr Who book to add to her signed Caroline Lawrence ‘Roman Mystery’. Caroline, a highly astute million-selling kids’ author who knows a niece with a minted uncle when she sees one, seeded TNFH’s massive and ever-growing collection of Caroline Lawrence books by whipping one out and signing it for me when we met at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. But getting a signed Dr Who book awed the child into a rare (and prolonged) silence. For this alone, I owe Simon a great debt.

It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I can now report that The Man In The Mustardy Shirt has only been and gone and gone ‘e’. He's taken the plunge and released his hilarious sci-fi comedy, Evil UnLtd, on Amazon’s Kindle, which means you can get your hands on the book for a mere $2.99 and, what’s more, you can have it in your eager paws in seconds flat.

What better way to celebrate than talking to him about the project? Here’s the View From Forward.

Evil UnLtd is clearly something of a pangalactic caper - was this an escape from writing Dr Who books for you?
Pangalactic is the telltale word there, I think. As in gargleblaster.  The Hitch-Hikers influence is strong in this one, Obi-Wan, but it's fair to say that, rather than an escape from, this is an extension of my Doctor Who writing. Basically name a TV sci-fi series and it was an inspiration of one sort or another. Even the sci-fi series' I loathed played their part - if, for example, they were bland or boring, I thought how much more interesting even the same storylines would be if you replaced the wet goody-two-shoes hero types with a band of villains.

On a very basic level, saving the universe/world/space-whale then becomes a different ball game. Even if it's just saving the universe/world/space-whale for themselves. Then when it comes to the details, well, everything just spirals in all sorts of directions, which is just great from a creative point of view.

How would you describe the plot, briefly?
It's a very organic affair, kicking off with a sort of Reservoir Dogs bank-robbery goes wrong scenario, with a gradually unfolding mystery that culminates in what I hope is one of the bizarrest action-packed sf climaxes  you'll have ever read - until I can come up with a better one for Evil 2.

Do you not think we already see enough commercialisation of Evil without contemplating a future of evil commerce?
We see way too much commercialisation of Evil, yes. Which is why the world needs a brand of Evil we can actually laugh at.

Who's your favourite character in the book and why?
That would have to be Dexter Snide. I have a soft spot for all of them - and no it's not just the marsh world of Delta Magna - but there's something wonderfully odious about Dexter. He's essentially like the Master, I suppose, a sort of Moriarty figure - which means I should give him a thinly veiled Time Lord opponent at some point I guess - but he's also the pure unadulterated evil in me. That is, I'd never do or say the things he does, you understand, but I do love writing him.

I also love the Hatchling, as he's the most enigmatic of the bunch - spending so much time in his egg as he does - and the rare point-of-view scenes I do for him are a treat.

What's your proudest 'funny moment'?
That would have to be the climax. At the time, I didn't quite know how the whole thing was going to wrap up, and it just came to me in a flash. One of those things that just grows organically out of the plot and as I was writing it, everything just clicked. Although that may have been the RSI.

Did you ever sit back and think, 'Crumbs, this is just too silly!'?
Not really. I mean, there were times I had my doubts whether it would appeal to anyone else, but the curious thing about SF comedy, I find, is that the characters and the universe you're creating have to take themselves seriously. So it's as immersive in its own way as crafting a straight-faced sci-fi epic - for which, by the way, I have the greatest respect, and I think you have to love your 'proper' sci-fi in any case in order to write a full novel of the slightly dafter variety. There were probably a few bits and pieces I chucked out as too silly or not working, but if something is daft and makes you laugh, you just construct a rationale for it within the context of your universe and voila! suddenly it's part of that universe and as a bonus you've (hopefully) written an entertaining discourse on the ins and outs of a society of leaf-like aliens who eat music. (I haven't, you understand, it's just an off the top of my head example.)

Why did you decide to go down the Kindle road? Did you evaluate various 'e-publishing' options, or just go straight for the 'Big K'?
I'm afraid to say, I didn't really investigate alternatives and plumped straight for the Special K. Possibly out of a desire to fit into that slimline red dress, who knows. But more probably because, while I was resistant to the e-publishing route for a long while, one particular friend and my mum-in-law kept urging me to publish something of mine on Kindle. They happened to specify Kindle and so when I finally buckled under the persuasion, I opted for that route. When I think about it now, there's part of me that associates the Amazon brand with a degree of trust that perhaps wouldn't be felt with other options, so I'm hoping that people will see the book on the Amazon site and that might help persuade them to give it a whirl.

What's your hope for the project? 100 copies sold? International fame? Just get it out of your system?
Here I have to separate hopes and realistic aims. Hopes are to attract the attentions of a publisher or Joss Whedon. (Evil is already - for plot reasons - kind of a TV series in book form and Joss, for my money, is the man to head the screen version.)  But this is an experiment and there's a sales figure I'd consider a success, although I'm not sure what that is at this stage. I don't know enough about the general volumes of sales of Kindle e-books, although I gather recently they outstripped Amazon hardback sales for the first time.
If every one of my Facebook and Twitter and authonomy contacts bought a copy, that'd be a few hundred sales right there, and more if they spread the word and so on, but you know how it is, you invite twenty people to the party and only eight can make it.

How would you define success? If you reach that, would you take other projects online?
Real success would be, like I say, attracting the attention of a publisher. When (a sample of) Evil was on authonomy, it proved its appeal to a wide range of readers - not just sf-heads - but there was a forum in which people could be enticed to give a book a chance, even if it was outside their normal comfort zone, because you'd been helpful or entertaining or just plain daft in the online discussions.

Without that - and without the kind of budget a mainstream publisher can command - it's going to be a huge challenge to attract the readers and convince them to give Evil a chance. So I'll be tweeting, facebooking, blogging and quite possibly even putting together a book trailer and seeing how it goes. That said, if I do feel this one meets with a measure of success, I will be putting other projects online. At the very least, I'll be uploading Evil 2 and future Evil volumes, maybe make that an annual event. Because a) establishing a series might prompt more interest and b) I enjoy writing these characters and, damn it, some of my work needs to be out there, being read, by some of the people at the very least.

Why Evil as your first Kindle book? Wouldn't KipDoodle find a more ready 'e-reader friendly' audience?
I considered making Kip Doodle available - that one was even more popular on authonomy - but as much as adults do enjoy it, I didn't think it would reach many of its target audience - ie. kids - on Kindle. I may be wrong, but I didn't imagine a lot of kids reading e-books. Although a friend of mine pointed out there were something like 15,000 kids' books available on Kindle already. Whereas I figured there might be some crossover between, say, sci-fi geeks and the sort of technophiles who'd either have a Kindle or be into downloading the software to their PC/Mac/iPhone/whatever.

What has been YOUR favourite Kindle buy so far? Is there anything you wouldn't read on a Kindle?
It's early days for me as a consumer. I have my eye on a few titles, and if nothing else the novelty value has re-awakened my previously flagging enthusiasm for reading. But so far I've focused on some of the classics that I've overlooked - not least because they're free, or close to it. Most significant has been Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, which I enjoyed, not necessarily because it's his best, but because I've found it surprisingly ripe for comedy.

More inspiration like that can only lead to more Evil and is therefore very welcome.


I'm sad to say that Amazon does NOT support the Middle East on Kindle and won't allow downloads unless you have a valid address in the UK, US or elsewhere in the world you can give 'em. This sucks royally, BTW.

However, if you have a Kindle (or the Kindle PC reader, which is surprisingly usable, BTW) and you can download books, you can buy your very own copy of Evil UnLtd for $2.99 from Amazon UK by clicking here or by clicking here. 

Ha. I want to see the silly bugger sign this one.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Media Events

Photo taken by me, July 2006.Image via WikipediaLook, 'doing' social media does not consist of sending invitations to bloggers to attend media events.  Many bloggers I know have day jobs and any with media experience would rather force a prickly pear up their right  nostril than go to a press event.

There's a department in hell that consists of press events. It's for really, really bad people for whom an eternity in blistering flames being tormented by devils is just too good.

In particular, if you send me invitations to attend media events, I will feel perfectly free in future to hold you up to public ridicule. I am not interested in your product launch. I am not interested in your initiative. I might give the coverage, however it is derived or appears, a passing glance if it engages me - but I am not about to invest a couple of hours in some drab hotel being fed tired food while suited executives cluster around and whisper, glancing at me before approaching me with wolfy smiles and 'So, you're a blogger!'

If this blog was that of a dedicated follower of fashion, I'd likely go to a preview or launch event if it was big. Likewise, if I had a geeky weather blog and the airport met office contacted me to arrange a tour of their facilities, I'd likely be interested.

But a deranged marmoset with a frontal lobotomy could surely work out that this blog is merely commentary, of personal experience, news and a few tatty half-thoughts. Which brings us back to the single greatest complaint that journalists have about PRs and in-house communicators that attempt to engage with them - that these people simply haven't taken the time out to understand their publication/medium and its target audience.

Anyone that wants me to go to a launch announcement 'as a blogger' has similarly not invested the time to work out that not only do I not care, I actively do not care. I vocally and negatively do not care. I will respond well (but negatively) to appropriate invitations from known social contacts. I really don't like getting press invitations. I'm not press and I won't act in lieu of a compliant media and slavishly convey your product information for you.

That my name is now presumably on someone's list of 'social media' contacts is a worry. This, then, is a cease and desist order. Next time, I'll take it public.
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Sunday, 10 October 2010

More Jordan

Taken by Nick Fraser in 2005. The fruit of an ...Image via WikipediaDaoud stood. ‘Have you ever seen an olive tree, Paul? Come with me, I’ll show you our little grove of olives we keep here in Abdoun.’

Nour pushed back her chair, taking Mariam’s plate and beckoning for Aisha’s. ‘Yes, go on. We’ll clear up the table. Aisha, give me a hand in the kitchen.’

He led the way and I reluctantly followed. We stood together on the veranda looking out over the dark garden - a couple of acres of prime Abdoun real estate. He flicked a switch by the kitchen door and I saw that part of the garden was laid to lawn, but the hilly part to the side accommodated a small stand of olive trees.

‘Ibrahim and my father brought these trees from our farm in Qaffin and planted them here over thirty years ago. At that time it looked like we were going to lose everything from over there, so they thought they’d keep at least this much.’ He led the way down the steps to the trees. ‘Smoke?’

‘No thanks, I don’t.’

He grunted, then lit up a Marlboro Light. ‘These trees are everything to the farmers. They are tended like fine grape vines, the olives are pressed like wine. The first cut is virgin, the finest. The olives weep the purest oil when they are first squeezed. We still press it over at the farm on the old stone press. It is not much, it is not enough to keep the place running, but we help out, as Ibrahim said. It is the finest oil you will ever taste. It is a symbol for us too, you understand. Of peace and hope.’

I held a bunch of the smooth, silvery-green leaves in my hand. I didn’t know what to say to him. He stood in among the trees, the faint pall of smoke from his cigarette making my nostrils widen.

‘Ibrahim said the security wall cut the farm in two.’

‘We demonstrated, like the other farmers. But there was nothing anyone could do. Some of the hot headed ones got themselves beaten up, arrested. The world looked the other way.’

I didn’t know what to say, surrounded by these trees and the family’s loss. ‘At least you still have the farm.’

Daoud shook his head. ‘Now, after all these years, they are starting to cut the water to the farmers, both there and here in Jordan. The olive groves are starting to die. These trees are the heritage we must take with us into the future. My company is investing in the water because we believe it will be critical for the future. Not just for the trees but for our people to live. We are bidding for the privatisation of Jordan’s water resources. You have heard of this?’

‘Yes, the Minister told me about it. Is it really such a problem, the water shortage?’

‘We are already suffering from the lack of water. We will suffer more, our crops will fail and our farmers starve. It is critical to our future to find a better way to share the water. The Israelis steal the water from us every day. I want to steal it back.’

I dropped the bunch of leaves I had been holding and glanced across at Daoud, who was looking down to the glowing tip of his cigarette.


He looked up and I could feel the intense physicality of the man, feel his eyes burning in the darkness. I shifted uncomfortably and so did the conversation.

‘You like Aisha?’

I tried not to react to the abrupt question, taking my time and listening to the faint traffic noise carried on the cold night air. I replied cautiously. ‘She’s been great to me, Daoud. The Ministry’s lucky to have her. I couldn’t have settled in the way I have without her. She’s a smart girl.’

A crowd cheered in my mind. Just right. My breath was coming out in misty puffs.

‘She was my father’s favourite.’

The cheering died down. ‘She’s a very fine artist. You must be proud of her.’

‘Yes. Yes I am. I would not like anything to happen to her. She took his death badly, as I suppose we all did. She is still perhaps,’ he searched for the word, ‘vulnerable.’

Fucking hell. Enough already. I kept the smile going, but it was getting hard to maintain. My cheeks hurt from the effort. ‘Jordan is a beautiful country, Daoud. I’m glad I came here. I’m sure my girlfriend will like it here, too. She’s a lawyer. She practises international contract law, actually.’

Not strictly true, the line about Anne liking it in Jordan. I hardly expected her to turn up. Workaholic Anne never took leave and we didn’t anticipate seeing each other until I went home for Christmas.

Daoud seemed lost in thought, leaning against the trunk of an olive tree and drawing on his cigarette. Finally he spoke.

‘The Israelis have taken everything from us, Paul. Our land, our dignity. They took my father, too. Now they’re taking the water. We’ve lost too much.’

He pushed the cigarette butt into the sandy soil with his heel, then put his hand on my shoulder, a quick squeeze and a pat, a very Arab gesture of finality and yet, somehow, accepting. ‘I won’t let the olives die. Come on, let’s get back inside. I’ll get you a bottle of our oil. At least when the olives weep, we are enriched.’

And so Paul Stokes embarks on his betrayals, betraying Aisha's brother Daoud even as he suspects Daoud of betraying human decency. Olives is prefaced with a quote from Mahmoud Darwish: "If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears."

In unrelated news, the reason I'm here - The MENA ICT Forum - is a triumph of an event, it's been marvellous meeting so many old friends and catching up with new faces. The quality of debate and feedback has been excellent. The King spoke brilliantly and his support for this industry clearly continues to be extraordinary. It's good to see Jordan once again striding strongly on its road to building a truly great ICT industry.
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Saturday, 9 October 2010


Jordanian flag near citadelImage by APAAME via FlickrAisha took us downhill into a leafy avenue of fine old houses before she gestured, her wooden bangles clacking. ‘This is the First Circle, the centre of old Amman and it’s becoming fashionable for cafés and bars. There’s a place here that may be within your budget, but it’s unfurnished. It’s just up the street from the Wild Café, quite a popular place that the Americans built as a gift to Jordan. They like to give us little gifts.’

I stayed quiet as Aisha pulled the car to a stop in front of a flight of stone steps leading up to a house that stood apart on the hillside, ornate wrought-iron railings protecting its windows and a vine trailing on the pergola in the garden to the front of it. I found myself following the swing of Aisha’s hips as she led the way up the steps from the road. She stopped abruptly at the top, turned to catch me looking at her bum and raised an eyebrow. I felt my face reddening. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her burgundy handbag and offered them to me.

‘I don’t, thanks.’

‘Suit yourself,’ she said, lighting up and inhaling hungrily, her lipstick leaving a dark red mark on the white filter and her head raised to let the smoke go. I noticed she had ink on her fingers, like a naughty schoolgirl, an incongruity in someone so sophisticated. ‘It’s owned by a lawyer and his wife. It’s on two floors, there’s a Swedish guy who rents the upper floor. You would get the ground floor and the use of the garden area.’ She opened the door and waited for me to go in. It wasn’t huge, a traditional house built maybe in the thirties or forties and clad in pale Jordan stone. A green painted door led straight into the cool, terracotta-floored kitchen. I wandered around the echoing rooms before going back outside and standing in the lush little garden.

I looked out across to the Jordanian flag flapping merrily atop the Citadel, the central hill of the seven that Amman was founded upon. The buildings carpeting the city around us glowed deep orange in the sunset. I listened to the sound of a cricket in the bushes, taking in the fresh breeze and wishing time would stop and leave me with these feelings for ever. All thoughts of police charges and cells were gone, chased away by my joy at the little house. I heard Aisha’s step behind me and caught a whiff of her cigarette smoke, looking round and seeing the glow of the setting sun on her skin.

‘I want to live here.' I said, 'This is beautiful.’



‘It means thanks to God. Why do you look so worried if you like it?’

‘How am I going to furnish it?’

‘I can get the landlord to defer the first three month’s rent if you agree to leave the furniture behind you when you go.’

I glanced at Aisha, her brown eyes alive, gauging my reaction. I looked around the garden again, at the trellises and the wooden table and chairs under the vines. She ground the cigarette out under her foot. ‘Who’s the landlord?’ I asked.

Aisha walked back to the car. ‘Come on, I’ll take you to your hotel.’

I laughed and persisted. ‘Who’s the landlord?’

She stopped and turned, grinning. ‘My cousin.’ Then she flicked her hair at me and carried on down the steps.



And so, in the first serious book wot I wrote, Olives, Paul Stokes settles down into life in Jordan, where he is betrayed and in turn betrays because betrayal is all he eventually has left. I'm back in Amman, the country where the book is set, for the first time since I finished re-writing it and I'm grinning like an idiot to be back. The drivers always ask, 'Is this your first time in Jordan, seer?' and I enjoy the reaction to my, 'No, the sixty fourth' almost as much as I enjoy talking about petrol prices with London cabbies. I have spent a lot of time in this country and have many friends here. It's a sort of third home.

I called my pal Ra'ed and told him how very much I loved his country. His reaction, instinctively Jordanian, was 'Why? What's the problem?'

It's great to be back!
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Thursday, 7 October 2010

When was the last time you dialled a telephone number?

Telephone Switchboard Operators - a vintage ci...Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via FlickrTelcos are facing something of a challenge moving forward. They are staring looming disintermediation in the face and many don’t have the faintest clue what the hell to do about it.

It's an interesting idea, but there's every chance that social media will end up transforming them beyond recognition and even killing a number of them off. 

I got to thinking about this speaking at a telecom event recently. I came across more than one Great Question in the process. For instance, when was the last time you actually dialled a telephone number? We’ll be unlikely to ever dial numbers again. With today’s IP enabled networks, telephone numbers are actually something of a virtualisation – we don’t need numbers, because we don’t have to use circuit switches any more. We don’t even need URLs to communicate with each other, we’ve finally arrived at the point where we can all mimic the prisoner – we’re people, not numbers.

In this virtual world of Facebook phones and IP to IP connections (whether that's between handsets or PCs), the good old fashioned telco is reduced to being the provider of ‘the pipe’. It’s sort of analogous to a road network – the company that used to provide us with our car (finance and all), maintenance, petrol and car washing services – as well as the road network we used, together with service stations and hotels, is now just providing the blacktop. From the huge logistical enterprise that gave us everything we needed for road travel (and that also ran the big lorry networks for commercial customers) – except choice, they face being reduced to toll road operators. All they’ll be is the occasional toll booth with a sleepy chap taking our payment and a crew to fill in the occasional hole. There are other companies now providing the cars, the maps, the petrol and the logistics.

Even more scary for the telcos is their coming irrelevance.

The reason that Microsoft went for Netscape is that Netscape’s gameplan was to expose APIs to applications – this meant that Windows would become irrelevant to users and be replaceable by any old operating system, because applications only care about the next set of APIs down the pancake stack that sits between you and the hardware. Telecommunications has its own pancake stack, known as the OSI model - and telcos are facing being shoved down to the transport layer. Or perhaps even lower.

Today’s social media platforms are scaring the bejabers out of operators. If I spend all my time on Google, Facebook et al – and if these platforms are providing me with my telephony connections, I don’t actually care very much about my telco – I don’t actually see the transport layer, just the applications I use. And so the telco becomes irrelevant, whether you’re Etisalat, Du, Zain, BT or Vodaphone doesn’t matter to me. I’m just buying bandwidth and I don’t really care who I buy it from apart from price and stability – and they would all be pretty much comparable in a perfectly competitive market (which regulators are there to give us).

This means operators today have a very stark choice – transform or die. I’ve been saying this at conferences and stuff for a while now. Operators need to define new business models based around selling content and services that consumers want. They need to compete in the social space, they need to build complex revenue models that use the thinking that drives services like Google, YouSendIt and AVG. They need to look at those ‘Freemium’ models, indirect revenue streams and new competencies. They need to sell the stuff that smart IP networks enable - including content. Anyone planning to continue depending on the ongoing flow of easy money across the counter, cash for credits and money for minutes, is on a one-way ticket to oblivion, baby.
If they don’t change, and I'd suggest pretty quickly at that, they’re just going to be joining the queue behind the newspapers. Like newspapers, they’re not going to die overnight – just slowly and awfully collapse in on themselves, threshing around and squawking painfully on the way down. There'll be something left at the end, but it won't be the telcos as we know them.  More like a number of bandwidth wholesalers. Pipe pushers...
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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

How did you get here?

From Mam Tor to Lose Hill via Back TorImage by tricky ™ via Flickr
I'm not asking any deep philosophical question or setting out to give you a Paulo Coelho answer to the riddles and mysteries of life. I was just wondering how you actually, you know, got here.

SiteMeter, which is a handy little doodad that does all sorts of analysis on visitors to one's blog, shows a remarkable diversity of paths that lead to this silly little blog. Quite a few people come via the UAE Community Blog, appearing to use that Venerable UberBlog as a 'jumpsite'. Another good dash of visitors wander in from Twitter for one reason or another - some impelled, no doubt, by the odd pimping tweet broadcast by yours truly.

A good number come via search and all sorts of strange searches lead people, presumably often bitterly disappointed to find that what you see is most certainly not what you get, here. I am particularly proud that all sorts of permutations of Subway, Aquafina, Pringles and Kelloggs are leading people to the posts on this blog that explore the egregious side of all four. That people searching Google for "subway fake wheat bread" get this post on their first page of search results is a delight to me. I see quite a few people, one way and another, who are looking for various sorts of fakery. A rod for my own back, that one!

Some appear to repeat searches they've made before - at least I can only hope this is the case with the recurring incidence of 'Russian Girl Face Slash' I get landing here. I'm also very glad I regularly disappoint the people searching for various permutations centred around Russian girls and nocturnal activities. I occasionally post some of the stranger searches I get, such as this here post.

Some people seem to stumble by. Some use their RSS readers, although by no means as many as I'd have thought. A few people wander in from other blogs who have either linked to one of my intemperate rants or kindly put me on a blogroll.  Quite a lot come up as 'unknown', so I don't know where they came from.

So here's my question today. Where did you come from? Drop a quickie comment if you wouldn't mind.

Oh - and thanks. It's nice to see you!
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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Rotten Bankers

This is a photo showing a HSBC Bank building a...Image via Wikipedia
I'm being predictable, I know, but there's no way on earth I'd let the news that customers are unhappy with their banks pass me by without comment.

A poll by YouGov, full details on Zawya here, has found that 20% of people are highly upset with their bank, while fully 50% of consumers would not recommend their bank to a friend. 42% cite the main reason for their dissatisfaction is the lack of priority banks give to customer service. Some 40% of people have cancelled a credit card.

I am shocked, people, deeply shocked.

Why aren't the figures higher? Nobody I know who lives in the UAE is happy with their bank. Nobody has ever been able to recommend their bank to me. The one time I bit the bullet and tried to flee ever having to deal with the hapless goons at my bank, Lloyds Jumeirah failed to open our account without a litany of stupid mistakes that finally had us giving up and sticking with the devil we, sadly, know all too well.

Actually, one reason why the figures may not be as high as I thought is that between them, the 'most used banks' are Dubai Islamic Bank and HSBC - and between them, they account for only 21% of respondents to the survey.

I'm saying nothing about DIB, you understand...
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Saturday, 2 October 2010

Watching A New Life Unfold

View of NablusImage via WikipediaI have known Sara for years. A former colleague and current friend, she is far too talented for her own good and manages to combine a keen intellect with an absolute lack of ambition for herself. She believes in people and in the good to be found in people; something I admire particularly as I do not at all share her capacity in this regard.

She left Dubai for London some years back with a vague idea of using the communications skills she had honed in a sort of NGO sort of way. That never really happened as I fancy she thought it would until a few weeks ago all sorts of things came together and she decided to throw in London life and travel to Nablus to become a teacher.

I would contend this is not normal behaviour, but then chacun à son goût...

One of Sara's many talents is language. She's always had better than native English language skills (although this is not, generally, setting the bar very high. Few foreigners manage to mangle English like the English manage mangling English); I recall her once stopping a client dead in his tracks by pointing out that their encounter had been more than usually serendipitous. After all, it's not a word you expect from an Arab girl, is it? Her encounters with ignorant English colleagues in London were relayed back to me with delighted indignation ("Dahling, I just can't belhieve an Arab is editing my copy!"), but the fact remains that Sara has a way with words that is unusual, a keen eye for humanity and a strong sense of fairness and compassion.

When you combine these things with the whole 'Year in Provence' adventure of starting a new life as a volunteer in the West Bank, you could be forgiven for thinking the mixture would provide a powerful, evocative and compellingly detailed account of the experience.

And it does. Her blog is linked here and I commend it to you with all my heart. Go there now while it is still new and she is at the very opening of her adventure. Because I bet you a pound to a penny that this unfolding story will delight you as the days fly by.
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From The Dungeons

Book Marketing And McNabb's Theory Of Multitouch

(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...