This morning we met our "handler" from the Embassy down in the lobby of the hotel and he took us over to meet the Ambassador and be briefed generally about what to expect in our tour in terms of venues, customs, and audiences. Overall it sounds like U.S. diplomatic relations with the U.A.E. are very strong and it was nice to hear that most people here are just as appalled with the behavior in the area as we are. On the flip side, it sounds like there's a lot of misinformation about free speech and what laws are European (specifically French) versus what laws are U.S. Just as we group the Middle East together, it sounds like they lump the West into one big scary culture. It reinforces the danger of massing people, even by country, into groups rather than seeing them as individuals.
The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi looks like a battleship - an observation I made before hearing it called the Titanic. I guess it is supposed to look like a sand dune. Regardless, it is certainly imposing and impressive if lacking in a little friendliness. The Ambassador himself believes very strongly in the use of cultural events to help educate people here without making pro-democracy statements that can be offensive to the local government. There are about one million Emeratis, but eight million people live in this country, so actually locating and targeting the native population is very challenging. For this reason we are mostly playing in universities that are only (or mostly only) open to citizens. In at least one place there is a high likelihood that we will be the first Western Classical music performance ever, or at least in a very long time. Pretty cool.
The exception was tonight's performance for NYU Abu Dhabi - a brand new branch of the famous NYU in New York. Out of fewer than 150 students, over 90 countries are represented. Very impressive. The music program is small, but the kids are keen and there are non-music majors who are active in the music program which is great. Several of them played quite beautifully for us prior to our concert which was also a treat. They were a warm and enthusiastic audience and made a great start to the tour!
One of the students, a composer from Mexico City, allowed me to sightread one of his compositions for flute and piano after the performance. The piece switches between 10/8 and 9/8 (counted 3+2+2+2) and put me on the spot to do it, but it was totally worth it and a charming piece. We also ate dinner with the students, which gave us more time to talk.
Tomorrow we play for a university in the morning, and then prepare for the big concert through the Embassy in the evening. Rumor has it that there will be press and possibly a T.V. station so no pressure ;) Supposedly the U.S. Embassy to U.A.E. has twitter and facebook accounts that they will be posting to, so check it out!