Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Abu Dhabi, Festival of Thinkers

Fireworks display at the gala dinner for the second Biennial Festival of Thinkers at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi. Photo: JH.
We are here ostensibly for the government sponsored conference which includes 16 Nobel Laureates and scores of others including a large contingent from New York, many of whom are familiar names from a variety of professions including journalism, publishing, advertising, film producing, law, teaching, real estate management, a wide spectrum of scientific research, economists, hedge fund management, philanthropy, medicine, banking, diplomacy, education and media.

Much of the elements of this visit are at times awesome, overwhelming, curious, fatiguing, fascinating, amusing and just plain interesting. Yesterday afternoon there was a panel discussion themed “Moving beyond Conflict” which was moderated by Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News. This was one of the most interesting discussions because the moderator is well-informed, genial and directed the panelists with a clear plan of approach to the topic. It was also an interesting and diverse group with a variety of opinions of suggestions on how we, the human race, can possibly, find ways to live without killing each other at every turn.

Among the panelists was Theodore “Ted” Sorensen who first came into the public forum more than forty years ago as an adviser and chief speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Sorensen reminded us that yesterday was, coincidentally, the 45th anniversary of the day President Kennedy went before the American people to inform them that the Russians had supplied nuclear missiles to the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba, creating the first and greatest nuclear confrontation after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For those of us old enough to remember, it was a tense and terrifying time for the world. Another coincidence was that Fidel Castro’s son Fidel Castro Díaz-Belart, a nuclear physicist attending as one of the “Thinkers,” was also on yesterday’s panel. Mr. Castro, who looks very much like his father, and long known as “Fidelito” was only thirteen years old when this international incident occurred. Many of us in the audience yesterday couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking as Mr. Sorensen spoke of this near disaster.
Clockwise from top left: Ludwig Feinendegen, Ciaran O'Cathain, Dr. Fidel Castro Dîaz-Balart, and Kiyoshi Kurokawa; Kiyoshi Kurokawa and Dr. Fidel Castro; Nassrine Azimi and JH; Fidel with Abu Dhabi college students; Marion Wiesel, Dalia Salaam Rishani, and Dr. Martinus Veltman.
I have not got used to the environment that is Abu Dhabi. There is so much to absorb and there have been limitations created by the nature of the conference (appointments to keep, panels to visit, roundtable discussions to attend). Time has been put in an envelope and left on the desk in our rooms. This is partly because of the time change (8 hours ahead of New York), and partly because there is so much activity. So it seems as if each day is over almost before it’s begun.

Much of our time has been spent in and around the Emirates Palace, our hotel. I’ve told you about it already, and you’ve seen our pictures. 3 million square feet of marble, gold, stone, glass, and all fully air-conditioned. Its environment is such that if you never went outside, you’d never know we are in an Arabian desert which now looks more like a vast oasis because of all the greenery that has been planted en masse over the past few years.
Frescoes, tapestries, and citizens on cells throughout the Emirates Palace hotel.
Above & left: Breakfast-time on the terrace of the Emirates Palace hotel.
Above & right: A view from the luncheon terrace looking at the tables being set up for the gala evening; A lone visitor on the private beach.
The Emirates Palace is, to these eyes, the 21st century equivalent of Versailles, and like the Sun King’s chateau, this too was built by royal personages and at great expense (an estimated $3 billion). I’ve written this before and so I’m repeating myself, but only because the impression it makes continues to ply the imagination with wonder.

I have never been to Las Vegas (yes, one of the last holdouts) but JH who has been, says that this hotel has somewhat comparable sisters in the Nevada desert although not with the same authenticity of grandeur. The miles of marble is the real thing. As is the acres of gilded ceilings. Pranay Gupte, the journalist who instigated our visit, said that many buildings in the Middle East and elsewhere have the massive posts and pillars that support the floors of this edifice. Usually, he said, a building will have three or four such posts. This hotel has ONE THOUSAND.
Clockwise from top left: The auditorium at the Emirates Palace; A massive cake in celebration of The Festival of Thinkers; The remnants of the cake not long after; Crates of silverware for the cake-eaters.
Roundtable discussions at the Festival
Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Man and Swami Parthasarathy
Yesterday’s schedule started with the opening of the Nobel Exhibition which brought out most of the visiting Laureates. Afterwards we were all guests of the Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak al Nahayan at a luncheon prepared by the master chef of the Operakallaren in Stockholm, the Swedish royal chef Stefano Catenacci which brought out most of the hundreds of guests. The menu featured a Filet of Young Reindeer.

The entire menu was thus: Marinated Herring with Blek roe from Lalix and cream of Jerusalem Artichokes, followed by the Young Reindeer Filet, with Crispy Potato Gateau, Ceps and Blackurrant Sauce and then for dessert, Apple Variation with a Souffle, Terrine, Apple liqueur Shot and Ice Cream Flavoured with Sweetened Brown Bread.
Marinated Herring with Blek roe from Lalix and cream of Jerusalem Artichokes.
Young Reindeer Filet, with Crispy Potato Gateau, Ceps and Blackurrant Sauce.
Clockwise from left: Mr. and Mrs. Tom Farrell.; Chef Stefano Catenacci, chef to the King of Sweden; Nobel Laureate Dr. Ivar Giaever; New York gals Holly Russell, Shirley Lord Rosenthal, Kathleen Lacey, Jackie Leo, and Judy Miller.
I am a reluctant gourmand. For example, I’ve never been served reindeer meat, and the idea struck me as foreign and therefore ... naaahhh. However, the good guest, which I try to be, goes for it. I am not an aficionado of herring but ... again, the good guest ... found it delicious in the way it was prepared. The reindeer wasn’t much different from a beef filet. The potato gateau was much like a fat potato pancake and the Ceps and Blackurrant sauce was okay although I might not have selected it from a restaurant menu. The dessert was excellent although the Apple liqueur Shot was very lemony in flavor to this palette. Master chefs prepare meals in a fashion that adds lustre and even mystery to the many dishes that might otherwise be deemed ordinary. No doubt these were ordinary to some people, although not me. My colleague JH, however, found all of it intriguing and licked all platters clean, so to speak.

The conversation at our table was much about the Skill of Thinking. A man named Tom Farrell who heads the Edward Di Bono Foundation told us how the Festival came about. It had been suggested to Shaikh Nayahan over dinner one night at a “lovely Italian restaurant” in Abu Dhabi, and the sheik, being Minister of Education of the emirate decided to run with it.
Above: Projections on the outdoor screen and on the back of the hotel during the gala dinner.

Right: Celebratory fireworks over the Persian Gulf.
The theme of “thinkers” was inspired by this man Edward De Bono, a physician and psychologist, born in Malta (in 1933) who has developed and written extensively about the “skill” of thinking. Of his 80 (!) books, one of his most widely-read is the best-selling “Six Thinking Hats” (1985) which today is used all over the world in schools and corporations for helping others develop their thinking skills. Mr. De Bono was also present at the Festival and on some of the panels. He is a genius -- having entered medical school at 11 and qualifying for medical practice when he was 19 (and too young to be admitted to practice), and a Rhodes scholar at 21. (

The philosopher Swami Parthasarathy in his introductory speech on the first day of the Festival discussed how we are not inclined to think about so much of what we do in life, but rather just follow the course of tradition -- education, marriage, child-bearing/rearing, career choices, suggesting that we could enhance our lives and the lives of others quite simply by developing our thinking skills.

The business of thinking is something most of us take for granted or rarely “give a thought” to. That simple fact, this Festival brought into focus, is more to our detriment and those around us (and the world) than almost anything else in life. Simply stated.
Above, left, & below: More projected scenes during the gala dinner.
Right: Dr. Sentil Nathan and family.

Below: Another family of sorts. Top row: Professor Monte Cassim, Judy Miller, Michael Goodwin, Jennifer Raab, DPC, Dottie Herman, Pranay Gupte, Jack Rosenthal. Bottom row: Holly Russell, Lynn Nesbit, Kathleen Lacey, Shirley Lord Rosenthal, Bernd Debussman, and Concepcion Badillo.
The last night before the last day of the Festival of Thinkers was without anything scheduled for us. So JH, Martin Kozlowski, the political cartoonist and illustrator, decided to go out for something to eat. Where do you dine in a town where you’ve never been before, and which is not, as far as I know, in Zagats or any other dining directories? I remember Tom Farrell’s remarks about the “lovely Italian restaurant” where he and his wife dined with Shaikh Nayahan and his wife, and asked the concierge if he knew of such a place. And indeed he did, and so we went. It’s called Riviera, a small waterside restaurant with tables on a terrace. Kozlowski had the lasagna, JH, the cannelloni, and I the penne, along with a tomato and mozzarella pizza that we shared for a starter. All in Abu Dhabi on a Tuesday night in October. Who wudda thought?
Dinner at Riviera, a small waterside Italian restaurant.

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