x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A fond farewell

Memories of the UAE, the joy of the new American Idol series, and the hazards of wedding planning, flavoured water and mobile phones

All smiles before the dreaded guest list.
All smiles before the dreaded guest list.

Farewell, friends

It's my final column for The National and a good time to reflect on everything I will miss about the UAE when I leave on Tuesday after an exciting and fascinating three years. It has been a real privilege to have been able to watch and chronicle the development of the nation's cultural life as well as interviewing the many A-list stars who have been here from the world of film, stage and classical music, not to mention literature, poetry, architecture and art.

The most amazing names have passed through Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and my pile of press cuttings include face-to-face interviews with Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Maxim Shostakovitch, Roberto Alagna, Cecilia Bartoli, Martin Amis, Michael Palin, Jeff Koons, Sir Richard Branson, Zaha Hadid, Bobby McFerrin, Amitabh Bachan and many others.

I've talked to those two old rockers Tom Jones and Rod Stewart about their various digestive problems, to Imran Khan about his political ambitions, to Francine Cousteau about her fight to save her late husband Jacques Cousteau's iconic research ship Calypso, to Hema Malini about the old days of Bollywood and to Akshay Kumar about the new.

I've sat in the magnificent Teatro Massimo in Palermo in an empty theatre as Andrea Bocelli rehearsed on stage, and I've watched Omar Sharif explode with fury when his movie was scheduled at the same time as Avatar at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Who could ask for more?

I'll miss so much about the place, such as waking up warm every morning and glancing up from my garden in Dubai in the evenings to see the beautiful Burj Khalifa glittering in the night sky. On chilly spring days in London, I'll miss the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf, picnics on the islands, golf at Dubai Creek, Saadiyat and Yas Islands.

I'll miss trailing through Dragonmart looking for a bargain and wandering around the Bastakiya area thinking about what life was like here 100 years ago.

The malls of Surrey will seem pitifully small compared with the magnificent Mall of the Emirates with its marble floors and chandeliers.

I don't know how I'll cope without the packing service at supermarkets and someone filling my petrol tank and cleaning my windscreens at service stations. I'll certainly miss filling up my car for 100 dirhams.

From now on, I must remember to lock my back door and not leave anything in the boot of my car. I'll also have to keep a firm grip of my handbag as I walk down the street. I'll miss feeling safe.

I won't miss the mad drivers on Sheikh Zayed Road who tailgate you at 80mph and flash you even in the slow lane, if they think you're driving too slowly. Nor will I miss the plague of iPhones and BlackBerrys or the people who insist on answering calls on the golf course or in theatres. I fear it's a global epidemic, though, and will be just as bad wherever I go.

Watching tennis, golf, rugby and cricket won't be as easy and getting tickets for the best concerts won't be as cheap. It's such an effort to get up to London's theatre land from my home in Surrey, with an unreliable train service or nowhere to park your car if you drive. I wonder if people here realise how lucky we have been to have had so much first-class culture brought to our doorstep?

My memory banks are full of images as diverse as Mozart on a moonlit night at Al Jahili Fort and sitting on a bean bag on Abu Dhabi's Corniche listening to the Drummers of Burundi at Womad.

Then there was Shakespeare in Arabic, something that sounded unlikely but turned out to be quite brilliant, plus the various offbeat performances at Ductac and the Arabic poetry festival at the Madinat Theatre where I read the poems of my friend Nujoom al Ghanem in English after she read them in Arabic.

How I'll miss the Emirates Airline Literary Festival and all the wonderful authors who will be here next month; the film festivals; the jazz festival; the art shows and the concerts.

I'll miss my friends and colleagues on The National. It's been a blast helping to set up a new broadsheet and one that few journalists are likely to experience again.

I'll especially miss the women of Dubai Harmony with whom I've sung barbershop for three years. Tonight I hope we'll do one last chorus of our signature tune That's What Friends Are For as I bid farewell to them. There won't be a dry eye in the house.

My phone is full of exotic names from about 20 different nations - names I might have had difficulty with three years ago and now roll off the tongue with ease. I guess that's what I'll miss the most: the warm, vibrant and exciting mix of people who have enriched my life here and with whom I do not intend to lose touch.

Bye bye, everyone, and thanks for reading.

Mobile phone etiquette strictly required

Dancer and choreographer Akram Khan's brilliant show Vertical Road on Friday at Abu Dhabi's National Theatre was almost ruined by stupid people not turning off their phones.

The piece is based on the mystical texts of the Sufi poet Rumi, brilliantly lit and staged and filled with dramatic, eerie and often silent moments. Can you imagine the irritation of everyone concerned when into that silence, on more than one occasion, came the idiotic ringtone from some thoughtless person's mobile?

One culprit must have had the skin of a rhinoceros because he actually took the call, stood up and wandered out past people sitting in the front row despite shocked gasps and 'tuts. He even left the exit door open so that we could hear him talking in the corridor.

Khan was not best pleased. "It's really annoying when we have worked so hard to put on the show," he said afterwards.

Sooner or later concert organisers are going to have to deal with this, and if they have to insist on people surrendering their phones before entering the auditoriums, then that's what should happen.

Flavoured water: don't believe the hype

Every time I go on a diet, one of the first things I do is stock up on flavoured water. I must have been keeping the manufacturers afloat for the past few years and now to my absolute horror I learn that I might as well have been stuffing my face with doughnuts. New research reveals that a small bottle of flavoured water contains as much sugar as three Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

I'm not going to mention any particular brands because according to the new research, most of them are full of sugar, with a standard 500ml bottle of the most popular brand containing the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar. I've always assumed they used sweetener.

Frankly, I think it's scandalous and it more than explains why it's so hard to shake off those extra pounds. The marketing campaigns for these so-called healthy drinks are full of the benefit of the fruit content and hardly mention the "s" word.

It's just a big fat con.

How to keep your wedding your own

Oh the agonies of whittling down our own list of guests for our daughter's wedding, but how much more problematic it is for the young royal couple Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Much has been made over the fact that they haven't invited the Obamas or Nicolas and Carla Sarkozy, but why would they? Inviting heads of state would turn the wedding into an international circus, which is everything they don't want.

In the old days when weddings were organised and paid for solely by the bride's parents, everyone they ever knew were invited in the hope that the newlyweds' home would be equipped and furnished from wedding presents. Today, when both sets of parents plus the couple themselves contribute, they tend to keep the numbers down. People they haven't seen for years really don't expect to be invited any more.

Still, in a cast of 2,000, I couldn't help feeling it was a bit mean to invite Princess Beatrice and Eugenie, and of course Uncle Andrew, but exclude the Duchess of York. She's a silly woman who has done some truly embarrassing things, but if that was the criterion they'd have quite a few empty seats.

Post-Cowell, American Idol continues to shine

Television audiences are notoriously fickle, something that the seriously smug Simon Cowell ought to pay heed to. The latest series of American Idol is fantastic with the two new judges, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, joining Randy Jackson. Cowell isn't even slightly missed.

Tyler is crazy and exciting, and both he and JLo, who is utterly gorgeous, know the business backwards. I just love watching them. Aerosmith fans were sceptical about their frontman joining the show but their record sales have rocketed ever since.

A performance of God Bless the Child by 23-year-old Jacob Lusk this week simply blew me away and had the three judges on their feet. And the 15-year-old country singer Lauren Alaina is quite clearly going all the way.

It just shows that nobody on television is indispensable.