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Dazzled in Dubai

A Jewish media surprise in the world's glitziest city
Photos: Miki Spitzer

A photo of a Jew wrapped in tallis and tefillin, standing on the sand dunes of Abu Dhabi at sunrise, took the Arab world by surprise, especially after media giant Al Jazeera gave it prominence.

The photo was taken by Miki (Michael) Spitzer, a nature and scenery photographer who lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Beitar Illit, on his recent trip to the United Arab Emirates — the country of oil sheikhs and opulence and tax-free business deals. And once he posted his photos, Spitzer’s private trip became a sensation. Those pictures, from the tallest building in the world to the huge traffic interchanges, from the under-the-radar tefillos at the local shul to the shot of his traveling companion davening in the desert, became the story of the week in Arab media.

Spitzer spent eight days in Dubai and the UAE capital city of Abu Dhabi in order to see the region’s wonders — some of them natural, some manmade. Most of the trip was spent in Dubai, the largest and most internationally visited of seven Arab emirates that comprise the UAE.

Dubai, the business hub of western Asia and the shopping capital of the Middle East (it’s a free trade zone and has no income tax), draws up to 20 million tourists and tens of thousands of business people from Europe and the West each year. Despite Dubai’s reputation for its oil wealth, today only about six percent of the state’s economy is supported by oil revenues. Most of its revenues come from its very vibrant commercial sector, and from the endless stream of tourists from all over the world who come to see the fantastic attractions that the emirate has to offer. The expansive and opulent construction and development – artificial islands, the tallest building and most expensive hotel in the world, malls dripping with luxury – have turned Dubai into a symbol of crazy wealth.

Israel and the UAE currently do not have official diplomatic or economic relations, and the UAE doesn’t allow Israeli citizens or passport holders entry into the country, except for transit — although in recent years there’s been extensive unofficial cooperation. In fact, just last week the very first bris milah took place in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, arranged by Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal of Berlin (the parents of the baby used to live in Berlin). The mohel was Rabbi Shlomo Stein (an American citizen), who also flew in from his home in Beitar Illit.

Miki, who traveled to the UAE on a European passport, was aided by local photographers, who helped him catch a glimpse into the heart of this nation — one of the wealthiest and most highly developed in the world. And Miki completed his portfolio by hiring the services of a helicopter, which hovered over the islands and gave him an opportunity to collect even more unusual views.

Miki made sure he returned with an album full of surprises, and after sifting through hundreds of pictures, he put together a collection of his favorites for Mishpacha.

Sunrise Supplication

The photo that put Miki on the Arab media map was taken at sunrise on the sand dunes of Abu Dhabi. It wasn’t him, though, he admits — it was actually a shot of his friend and traveling companion. They’d taken a local driver with a jeep to the dunes.

“We arrived at sunrise, and I immediately began snapping photos,” says Miki. “Somehow, I thought it would be an interesting angle to take a picture of a Jew davening there, so I asked my friend to put on his tallis and tefillin. The driver was pretty surprised — he had never seen a Jew and certainly knew nothing about tallis and tefillin. When he asked us what we were doing, we explained that it was a type of religious ceremony. He didn’t seem hostile at all — in fact, he even seemed to enjoy the experience.”

The Arab media prominently featured the picture, wondering how a Jew was able to get to the sand dunes of Abu Dhabi to daven Shacharis. “This picture generated a big kiddush Hashem all over the world,” Spitzer says. “I think that ultimately, when they see a Jew standing and praying looking authentically Jewish,  it garners respect, even among Arabs.”

Expanded Skies

Here is Dubai in all its glory. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, stands out in the center. It was photographed from an angle recommended by a local photographer. “It’s hard not to be impressed by the skyscrapers and towers,” Miki says. “I wanted to find a location that tells the story of Dubai. So we got there, under the bridge that you see on the right. Opposite are skyscrapers, and in the center is the Burj Khalifa. Most of these buildings are filled with offices, and the high tech industry there is thriving. The pace of development in this city is remarkable – every year, this frame has new additions.”

Light Up the Night

Nighttime in Dubai. “This photograph was taken from the 25th floor of a luxury hotel called Gevora. We asked the manager if we could take photos from the highest lookout point, but they were not particularly courteous and didn’t want to help,” Miki says. “Ultimately, I took this picture from the window of my room on the 25th floor. The area is full of luxury hotels and most of the people walking around are tourists from all over the world.

“But Israelis, as you can expect, are nowhere to be found here. In order to get here, you need a foreign passport. But even those Israelis that do have one are hesitant to visit a place that they consider potentially dangerous. The truth is that it isn’t dangerous, mostly because the residents of the UAE don’t really know what an Israeli looks like. We spoke Hebrew there, and no one even turned around.”

Water Colors

The Burj Khalifa. It’s impossible to miss the tallest building in the world, located in the heart of Dubai. You can see it from everywhere. It was inaugurated in 2010 and cost a whopping $1.5 billion. It soars to a height of 828 meters, and was entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest building in the world.

“Even before we landed there, while still on the plane, we could see it protruding above everything,” Spitzer relates. “There isn’t a frame in Dubai that the Burj doesn’t manage to get into. But I was looking for a more unusual angle, and I discovered that beneath it there is a bridge, where thousands of people stand every evening waiting for the show of the Dubai Fountain, a spectacular, synchronized fountain system. When it’s activated, its various fountains shoot water up to 500 ft. in the air, to a background of 6,600 lights, 50 colored projectors, and a selection of local and international music.” The fountain system alone was built at a cost of $218 million.

From the Bottom Up

No city skyline can compete with the towering structures of Dubai. “This photo was taken from the Dubai marina below, which gives a bit of a different angle,” Spitzer says. “But you know, even though everything here is the epitome of opulence, the hotels are similarly priced to those in Western Europe. For example, a night in a five-star hotel can cost $150, which is pretty standard all over.”

Seven Stars

“These photos tell the story of Dubai from a wide angle and a tip given to me by a local photographer who directed me to the best place to capture the horizon of Dubai,” says Miki. “One of the photos was taken in the evening and one in the hazy early morning. The weather was very mild — it was the beginning of the winter — although in the summer, the heat can be unbearable — it can hit 120 degrees.”

No picture of Dubai would be complete without capturing one of Dubai’s prominent icons, the Burj Al Arab Hotel, the only hotel in the world rated with seven stars. Located on an artificial island about 900 feet from the beach and connected to the mainland by a private bridge, it’s an example of cutting-edge engineering and over-the-top opulence (and it contains the world’s tallest atrium). There’s a special entrance designated exclusively for the local princes of Dubai — no one else may use it.

As Night and Day

“I sat for hours to get these two frames,” Spitzer relates. “One photograph was done in the evening, and another in the morning. Here construction never stops, and new skyscrapers go up every few months. I compared these photos with pictures I’d taken on a previous trip to the region, and it just accentuated how accelerated the development is here. I just couldn’t resist taking a picture of my friend davening Shacharis against the same scenery.”

In the Palm of Your Hand

Palm Tree Island, perhaps more than anything, expresses the success of the United Arab Emirates. The palm tree spread, which looks better from year to year, is actually an artificial island built at sea.

“In order to photograph the island in its entirety, I hired a tourist helicopter,” Spitzer says. ‘Naturally, I didn’t want to tell the reservations office that I’m from Israel. I pulled out my European passport — Hungarian — and the receptionist told me excitedly that by coincidence, the pilot was also Hungarian.

“When we boarded the helicopter, the pilot tried to communicate with me in Hungarian. Since I don’t speak a word of Hungarian, it was a bit awkward. Only after we took off did I confide to the pilot that I’m from Israel. He didn’t seem to mind — just took it in stride, and I breathed a sigh of relief.”

Spitzer almost missed the opportunity to photograph the island from above. “While I was taking the pictures, I realized that the shutter of the camera had been damaged,” he relates. “It happened while we were midflight. I had made sure beforehand that it was an open helicopter and that I’d be able to take pictures without glass panes blocking me. Apparently the powerful gusts of wind that blew through the helicopter damaged the shutter. Fortunately, I had been able to take a few photos before the camera completely stopped working and  was able to save them using a special editing program. When we got off the helicopter, I hurried to a photo shop in Dubai, where I rented a camera to use for the rest of the trip.”

Paved with Gold

The view from the Shangri La Hotel. “This hotel has lookout points on the 42nd floor,” Spitzer says, “where the view of the city is amazing. Here you have a bird’s-eye view of the huge interchanges that crisscross the entire emirate and facilitate the smooth flow of traffic. Despite the constant movement of millions of people, there are hardly any traffic jams because of these interchanges.”

Framed on Air

In Dubai, as you surely understand by now, everything has to be bigger, grander and more beautiful. That’s how they created the biggest picture in the world. It’s a frame of sorts, installed in the middle of nowhere.

“This spot is known as ‘the largest frame in the world,’” Spitzer relates. “It rises to a height of 450 feet and it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. There’s nothing service-oriented or even logical about this project, but it quickly became a sought-after tourist sight. You can also take an elevator up to the top and look out on the entire city. It definitely is part of what makes this place such an attraction among the tourists.”

Help Us Make a Minyan

Although officially the UAE  is exclusively Muslim, there is a small shul in Dubai, primarily servicing the Jewish businesspeople from around the world. They want to daven at least once a week — on Shabbos — with a minyan.

The shul is located in a regular building whose façade does nothing to indicate that there is a religious worship going inside. “The gabbai doesn’t like it when people take pictures of the davening, and in general, they prefer to maintain their privacy, although they did allow me to photograph a bit.

“When we were there, most of the mispallelim were businessmen from Belgium and France, and they spoke Hebrew. On one of our days there, I received a call from the shul asking if we could come the next day for Shacharis to complete a minyan. Normally, there isn’t a minyan there during the week, but that morning one of the mispallelim had yahrtzeit, and the community was able to get a minyan together for him.

“The tefillah was very moving, and afterwards, refreshments were served, so we enjoyed a royal meal, all mehadrin. They told us they’re treated very well by the authorities, that there is respect for Jews who live in Dubai, and that they don’t feel fear or anxiety. That visit was definitely one of the bright spots of our trip, reaffirming the knowledge that we’re all united, no matter where we find ourselves.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 797)

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