12/17/2012 09:33 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Wrapping up the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival

As I write this, it's Sunday morning and I'm sitting on a train rolling along the Hudson River under gloomy skies in chilly weather, heading into Manhattan for an assignment.

It's a little mind-boggling to realize that, a little more than 36 hours ago, I was half a world removed from here, watching movies within spitting distance of the Persian Gulf.

My trip to the Ninth Dubai International Film Festival was a fascinating one, filled with sensory and intellectual surprises, from the lavishness of the surroundings to the startling cultural contrasts you ran into.

Just one: the image of men in thobes and women in burkas wandering the Mall of the Emirates, as other people in western garb paused to take pictures of each other in front of a glittering silvery Christmas tree that was part of the decorations. Even at the various Jumeirah resorts strung along the beach where the festival was headquartered, it was that mix of architecture that looked like something out of the Sheherazade (yes, I know - Persia, not Arabia) accessorized with trappings of Christmas for the western visitor.

That constant tug-of-war between tradition and the future played out in the final two films I saw at the festival, both of which addressed that struggle on the Saudi peninsula and elsewhere.

The first was When Monaliza Smiled, from Jordan, a charming and self-assured first film from a young filmmaker named Fadi Haddad.

This commentary continues on my website.