x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

2011: The people and events that made for a cultural year

We look back at the year in Saloons from a quirky piece of performance art in Dubai to The Wiggles in Abu Dhabi.

Mohammad Sulaiman is the top Scrabble player in the United Arab Emirates. Paulo Vecina / The National
Mohammad Sulaiman is the top Scrabble player in the United Arab Emirates. Paulo Vecina / The National


While the elite of the golfing world were chasing glory at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, we learnt about a more earthy version of the game.

Al Ghazal Golf Club, the city's only sand-based course, lies a few kilometres away from the venue where Tiger Woods will play early next year, and it too has hosted its fair share of tournaments. But with many members deserting the sand for grassier options, founder Mohamed Mounib conceded the club faced a struggle to keep going. "They might survive and they might not," he predicted. "At the moment, I think they are safe."


As Kid Creole and The Coconuts prepared for a Dubai gig we caught up with frontman August Darnell. The funk fusion band were massive in the 1980s, yet a decade later, Darnell's marriage to one of the Coconuts was over and the hits had dried up. Nevertheless, Darnell told us he never abandoned his trademark zoot suits, even in the fallow years. "The image was stronger than the music," he reflected. "It lived on even when we weren't selling many records."


There are those who like to think outside the box, and there is Abhishek Hazra, a man who chose to wear one on his head at Art Dubai.

The Indian performance artist's act involved him donning a cardboard box, then wandering around the world's art galleries and bellowing out descriptions of their artworks. While Hazra proved to be the Pied Piper of the fair, attracting a band of followers wherever he roamed, he was less popular with gallery owners.

"People tripping over the artwork is a constant worry," fretted Serra Pradhan of New York's Marianne Boesky gallery, "and that's even the ones without boxes on their heads."


As The Wiggles, the world's biggest preschool band, touched down in Abu Dhabi, we tracked down a former member whose role in their rise to greatness had been all but erased from history. That man is Phillip Wilcher, sometimes known as the "fifth Wiggle", who helped write and finance the Australian four-piece's first album in 1991, but left shortly afterwards to concentrate on classical music. At first Wilcher refused to comment, but eventually responded to our overtures, cryptically telling us he felt he was owed "a certain debt of gratitude" by Wiggles co-founder Anthony Field.


With Henry "Blowers" Blofeld's plummy tones booming out of radio sets across the Emirates as the voice of a series of adverts to promote Brighton College Abu Dhabi, we caught up with the veteran cricket commentator.

Blofeld spoke with pride about being honorary president of the Emirates Palace Gentleman's Cricket Club, although unbeknown to us at the time, the venue would be closed (at least temporarily) by the hotel before the year was out.

At the age of 71, Blofeld predicted a similar end of play for his broadcasting days. "I'd like to think I could do two or three more years, but don't know if I will. You have to stop while people still want to hear your voice," he said.


The Middle East Call Centre Conference in Dubai may sound dull, but its organisers were determined to convince us otherwise, trailing the event with the tagline, "You will have fun." We spoke to Kabul-based helpline manager Iole Ocampo, who told us: "You would be surprised - despite the fact we are living in Afghanistan, the customer complaints are the same as anywhere else in the world. The money is good, although ... I am scared from the moment I step outside my door." Which doesn't sound much like fun to us.


Dubai-based IT worker Chris Saul was enjoying a large slice of Schadenfreude this month. Back in 2009, the Brit had complained on his blog about a number of troubling inconsistencies, inaccuracies and distortions in a deeply unflattering portrait of the city written by Johann Hari, The Independent newspaper's star columnist.

The piece bagged Hari a succession of awards, before his employment was suspended amid allegations of widespread plagiarism. Saul told us: "Any valid points [Hari] made are rendered worthless by the fact they are nestled among a pile of ..." After some stronger words, Saul settled for "exaggerations".


After being named Gulf Scrabble Champion for the second consecutive year, Mohammad Sulaiman told us about the secret weapons he uses in his pursuit of excellence.

Sulaiman's recent victory had secured him a place in the prestigious World Scrabble Championships, but the 68-year-old felt his advancing years may hamper his chances of success: "It is a young person's game," he admitted. "The older you get the more time you take ... doubts start to creep in, short-term memory becomes less. It is a challenge to play against younger, more alert players."


On a typically chilly summer's day in London, we sat down with Lyn Jones, the recently departed director of rugby at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi. Jones had bid farewell to the Emirates after accepting the role of head coach at London Welsh RFC, one of the proudest names in northern hemisphere rugby. He didn't feel overawed by his new responsibilities, however, arguing that coaching is simply about making players the best they can be, at whatever standard they play at: "I don't think you need to go too far outside of that."


This month we caught up with Abu Dhabi Film Festival's unsung heroes - the event's traffic management team. Without their skills - the team is tasked with tracking film shipments from across the world and then making sure they're of sufficient quality to screen - the entire festival would grind to a halt.

They lead an itinerant existence though, travelling from festival to festival around the world. "It's kind of a nomadic lifestyle," admitted film reviser Warren Sharon. "But it's a cool thing to be in Abu Dhabi."


Manchester City were flying high this month, both figuratively, as they topped the English Premier League, and literally, as club sponsors Etihad Airways had recently launched a new A330-200 airplane painted in the club's colours.

Soon after it went into service, rumours began to circulate that fans of arch-rivals Manchester United had steadfastly refused to take to the blue skies in Etihad's sky blue plane. The airline declined to comment, but Mark Lynch, founder of the Dubai Manchester City Supporters Club, wondered what all the fuss was about: "At the end of the day, it's just a bit of a paint job, isn't it?"


"Vancouverism" was a word that entered our vocabulary this month, after we headed to NYU's Manhattan headquarters to hear a series of talks about the future development of Abu Dhabi.

One of the speakers was Larry Beasley, who helped create Plan Abu Dhabi 2030. He told listeners that the scheme was based on the urban revitalisation of Vancouver, where careful planning had made the Canadian metropolis one of the world's most liveable cities.

On the other hand, "in the vanguard of change" neighbouring Dubai had made mistakes, according to Beasley, ones which Abu Dhabi was anxious to avoid. "If you ask Abu Dhabians, they'll tell you they all go to Dubai to shop," he said, "but they couldn't live there."