Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Curator who Couldn't

It has been a long time since I last wrote on This European Life. Our Facebook Page has surpassed 1,400 fans, yet it has lost great part of the blog's more personal appeal and turned into an exquisitely curated page about classic cars. I am currently working on a project that might actually bring it —as well as this blog— back to life, a project called "Curator on the Go": one road trip, 60 car museums, 6 months, go figure!

Photograph of my town's central square in the 1920's. This is where our story begins.

Where were we? Oh, yes... at the Mercedes-Benz Museum, on an interview about the Cuban Gullwing. The night before I had gotten a text from an acquaintance in the UAE (we'll call him RMA), who invited me to work at his car museum in Al Ain, a small town in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. We agreed to meet that September, and so, my fate would soon lead me to the Emirates once again, this time as the curator for a classic car museum, no less.

August issue of Autobild Klassik, with a 4-page feature on the Cuban Gullwing and the island's racing history.

Shortly after getting a stack of Autobild Klassik issues in the mail (thank you, Thomas W!), I booked my flight for the UAE, with the ghost of negative experiences still fresh in the back of my mind. This time, however, the recruitment process would be done through a proper agency that would facilitate visas, so I was not worried that someone would keep my passport again.

Imagine the glee! Living in an automotive museum!

The first two months were sensational: re-adapting to Arabic culture and food, driving vintage Mercedes (one 500E, one 450SEL 6.9), meeting new people, and touring around the town of Al Ain —my favorite so far in the country, without the hassle and the excessive glitz of Dubai.

Taking this 90's beast to the top of Jebel Hafeet mountain... one of the most enjoyable drives I've had since the PanAm.

Al Ain is the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE, and is still a favorite place to go among the old-school sheikhs —those who had lived enough to see tribal quarrels and live in adobe forts, but had witnessed the rapid rise of the country as a land of loud supercars and towering skyscrapers. I have heard countless stories on Sheikh Zayed's generosity and sense of humor, ranging from 50% subsidies to all supermarkets ("the people living in my land", he said, referring to locals and foreigners, "are my children and my guests, and they shall not be hungry"), lavish dinners with random strangers, and endless tales of joking remarks. Zayed's was the generation who built the country, raised between the old ways of the desert and the overwhelming responsibility of newly-acquired wealth. To them, money felt more like a fortunate gift than a God-given right, springing from the ground in the form of petroleum. I have had the chance to meet with two of the old sheikhs, and was no less than honored to be in the company of such acculturate, smart men. I can only hope the next generation follows suit!

Towards the end of October, I started noticing a few small things —my boss suggesting, with a tint of jealousy, to change my position from "President" of the Mercedes Club of Arabia to something less important-sounding; broken things not getting their replacements, a general refusal to repair the heavy neglect in most of our museum cars, or how my suggestions to correct signage or vehicle pricing were readily ignored. While these things worried me, we were busy planning the heavy logistics of the Dubai Motor Show; it wasn't until the next year that I gave them some serious thought. After the Dubai show, we fought to secure a government contract, and won.

An early sign of neglect on our museum's cars. Two months later, this 450SEL 6.9 would run very rough.

Infamous Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed, whom I escorted through the classic car pavillion at the Dubai Show.

Motoring Middle East panel on future classics. I got grilled for defending the Volvo P1800 as a future classic.

After a series of meetings presenting budget options to the Ministry of Culture, we secured a 10-year contract and a bid for our highest offering. We were thrilled, and set to work in a remote part of Abu Dhabi called Madinat Zayed, three hours into the barren desert, where the Dhafra Heritage Festival was being set up. Our team did not disappoint, yet it took a toll on our health.
Two full tractor trailers and then some —all unloaded in a matter of hours.

Setting up the lighting in an old Nissan diesel truck. The precinct is brand new, less than a year old.
Old car problems; luckily, this Peugeot 405 was relatively easy to push.
The commute to work, with shepherds using Toyota RAV4's to escort their camels.
A group of 20 Saudis took over our show grounds and improvised some Bedouin dances. So much fun!
Everybody, from the show managers to the thousands of visitors, were impressed by our display quality.


It was during this show that some of the country's darkest aspects of wasta (power leveraged from influence/connections in the Arab world) came to light. For one, our show often got flooded by rebellious Arab children wanting to get inside the cars; after some successful reprimands by escorting them to the entrance (sometimes by grabbing them by the arm, and even their ears), we were told by RMA not to interact with these rude youngsters. Their arrogant attitude, so early in their life, was something I was disappointed to imagine they would take into their adult years. It was becoming apparent that the dynamics of their leverage relied heavily on their nationality, not in qualifications, character or talent —these children knew it, and knew it well. I had heard stories about teachers being fired for failing poor-performing students with wasta. Right now, this first realization felt awfully real, and set a somber tone in my thoughts for the rest of the show.

A second, more painful realization, came to me after two days of judging each of the 44 vehicles on display. According to our numbers, the winner had been a 1966 Imperial Crown Coupe from Qatar. However, in the meeting where we presented the final results, our boss RMA changed the judging grades to favor Emirati submissions. My protests were blatantly ignored. The show had been rigged before my very eyes in the name of politics and there was nothing I could do.


Disappointed as I was, I tried to look for a hobby outside of my usual museum duties. I took on archery and got myself a project W123 wagon to wrench during my free time. The poor thing has all sorts of issues, but was a worthy past-time to keep my own sanity.

Rebuilding the old seat with salvaged material from a W116 in the junkyard.

The car museum dream came crashing as those little issues of the past were becoming more and more evident. Our lack of equipment stretched 20-minute jobs for several days. Our workers were getting cuts disassembling rusty vehicles beyond saving. Our receptionist was publicly humiliated for using common sense protecting our food in plastic boxes. The gift store, as well as the workshop, had become a hoard of useless junk that RMA refused to discard. The entire museum reeked of fear of a reprimand, and money was becoming scarce. Then, the floods happened.

Soaked at the door of our museum, during a break after the rain.

For two days straight, our little town of Al Ain got an entire year's worth of rain. Thanks to an accurate weather report read well in advance, I could drive to the nearest convenience store and got some supplies, including a couple of large squeegees to push any water out the door. A couple hours later, the museum's roof leaked hundreds of gallons into our showroom. Three of the workers and I heroically toiled for two full days, with no power or running water, until the storm had gone away. On the third day, we worked hard to clean up the mess and get back to normal.

Nobody thanked us. Not a warm meal to celebrate the museum was safe, or an attempt at any sort of gratitude. Not even after my suggestion to gather the team and say "thanks". If anything, we were asked for monthly productivity reports, reprimanded for moving the electronics to the nearest dry room (common sense?), and told that from now on we should pay for our own food.

I exploded on a swearing rampage. And then, a more detailed reprimand followed.

It was now clear that leaving this place was a matter of time. The frustration about this kind of irrationality and condescension, plus the immense pressure to sell vehicles priced anywhere between 30% and 100% over market value and draw visitors with no signage or budget, got my last straw. The meager salary of $800 a month —$490 for our receptionist— did not help, either.

The days before my resignation were tough ones. I stayed in my room thinking whether I had gone insane or it was this entire reality working against me; whether they could be right, or I was. And then, I remembered the car show incident and the conditions our workers and I were living in: little more than storage room with no windows, and frequent cuts in water and electricity. All these little problems had worked themselves into a new sense of normalcy, one that I was not willing to accept any longer. I was a human being, one with dignity; and a highly qualified at that, one that had reached for the Holy Grail of the classic car world and gotten it. I deserved better.

My resignation was accepted in an uncomfortable silence. But we soon lightened up and had an abundant dinner with little to say to each other.

Despite an small threat not to release my passport unless I wrote a release report for a vehicle, all my dues were paid on time. With utter professionalism, the recruiting firm handed me my documents and the cancelled visa in little under two weeks after my resignation. That was it: no tricks, no gimmicks, everything on paper. However, our highly resentful secretary had arranged for some "decorations" to give me one last goodbye:


My nightmarish experience in Dubai, along with this particular episode, might lead many to make negative, generalizing comments on the UAE, but please refrain to do so; no country deserves to be judged on the actions by a handful of questionable characters. As someone who has met good and bad individuals from all four corners of the world, this country and its people are no different than any other. While some aspects of life might be more frustrating than others —especially the dinamics of wasta versus qualifications—, I still see potential in this land. Great characters live and work here, locals and foreigners, and the car scene here is unique in its own right. In fact, I am hoping to write about more positive experiences very soon, on my trip to Jordan, Turkey and Kuwait; some auction finds, and my future on this part of the world and the auto industry.

Hopefully, it won't take a whole year to do so. 

And hopefully, I can move closer to a larger goal: to run my own car museum.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see you're still in the game ! . keep at it . -Nate