Saturday, April 21, 2007

Culture Shock Cure: Flowers

When we arrived in Abu Dhabi last July we stayed in a beautiful hotel for 43 days. (Construction on the compound we'd be living in was behind schedule - not unusual here.)

At first I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, the hotel was so luxurious. It had a tranquil, Asian decor with high ceilings and tile floors. But then, of course, we have six children, and some of them are so active or talkative I think they ought to count twice.

Soon hotel living began to wear on me. Usually, the children and I weren't able to get outside until around 4 p.m., due to the strong sun, incredible heat and humidity. Also, Abu Dhabi isn't pedestrian-friendly. People don't walk down the streets here the way they do Madison Avenue, in New York, for example. If they want to stroll they go to the brand-spanking-new malls. They serve as sort of indoor parks.

I was surprised by how off-kilter I felt walking through the Abu Dhabi Mall; it seemed I was the only woman not covered from head to toe in black. At home in New Hampshire my style of dress would be considered conservative; in Abu Dhabi I felt my figure was completely on display. My enthusiasm for our new Middle East adventure was waning. I wasn't able to get a break from the kids on the long days when Michael was working, and we were initially without a car. My spirits dampened.

I did make friends with the hotel concierge, as I was always checking with him as to whether we were disturbing other guests.

"No complaints so far, Mrs. Gunnison," the unflappable Mr. Shibou would reply.

No complaints, that is, until we nearly set the hotel on fire. And broke the air conditioning system..(M and I are good friends with Shibou in spite of it.)

Finally, the day before school began, we moved into our villa. We were all thrilled. We could spread out, find our own corners to get away from each other, maybe make some new friends in the compound. My smile returned. M was relieved.

Then I announced we needed flowers.

M and I headed to the Iranian Souk for plants. The Emirati in the photo here was utterly charming. I declined his offer for coffee or tea and left M to chat with him in his air-conditioned office while I perused the great plant selection.

I picked out large pots of bougainvillea and whatnot quickly. But how to get them home? I didn't want to wait for a delivery...things move slowly in Abu Dhabi. What if they didn't come soon? I needed those flowers to sustain my fragile cheerfulness. I needed them that day.

"Let me see your car," the man said.

M fetched our Toyota minivan. The Emirati took one look at it and sighed, as if to say we had no problem here.

"In this car you can fit two camels," he said.

We bought lots of large plants that day.
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Monday, April 16, 2007

Wearing Hijab

You come to it in degrees.
It is between you and God.
It was hard for me to cover my hair.
But when I know the reasons why, it is okay.
It is what is right for me.

This is what two Muslim friends told me today, over lunch in Abu Dhabi. Neither woman wore hijab (the head-scarf) when she was growing up - one in Lebanon, the other in Egypt. Their parents were not very strict, as in some Muslim families where girls approaching puberty must begin to wear the headscarf.

It was well after the women were married that they decided to take this step. (I'll call my Lebanese friend Nura and my Egyptian friend Alia.)

"Wearing hijab, I'm not as pretty," Nura says, her big brown eyes earnest. Her striped pink headscarf matches her pink tunic, white pants and white shoes. It is wrapped carefully around her head two or three times and secured by a discreet pin. Not a strand of hair shows, due to an inner white cloth that snugly covers her hairline.

"It is hard for me - I like my hair, I like to wear earrings," she says in her gentle voice. "But the hair is very attractive to men." As a Muslim woman, Nura believes it would be wrong to make herself overly attractive to men other than her husband. It is in the Quran that women should cover their hair.

Nura and Alia said that even after they decided to wear the head scarf, it took time to actually go through with it.

"I used to practice wearing hijab at home. Then I'd go to the door and I couldn't open it," Alia says. She is a striking woman, tall and slim with black eyes and fine features. She, too, has taken great care to match her head scarf with her outfit. "One day I opened the door and told my husband and daughter to just push me out so I couldn't go back in."

Both Nura and Alia seem genuinely happy. They exude peacefulness, that they made an informed choice that is in accordance with God's wishes. We laugh easily about family life, cooking, and the hazardous driving in Abu Dhabi. We discuss the commonalities of Catholicism, my religion, and Islam, theirs.

(At home they only cover their hair if a male visitor - a man they could marry - is present.) Nura and Alia both say they wear a little makeup, though their faith says they shouldn't.

Alia says she would not force her teenage daughter to wear the headscarf.

"It must come from your heart. If a girl or a woman covers her hair and she doesn't want to, it is very obvious."

Friday, April 13, 2007

Seeing People, Not Nations

"Now this is where you should've had the camera," my husband said when he picked me up at the Abu Dhabi Ladies Club the other night. It was 10 p.m., the end of an international bazaar/fundraiser for special-needs children in the area. I'd been volunteering at the United States table.

I looked around the large room with its multi-level, white marble floors, high ceiling and glass-lined, curving stairs. It was a colorful a scene: there were numerous flags draped over the upstairs railing and ladies on the ground floor in bright cottons from South Africa, black abayas from the U.A.E., and brilliant silk saris from India, to name a few.

At the countries' individual tables, the diversity continued. Azerbaijanis displayed rugs of rich reds and browns, Italians offered expensive, hand-made lace shawls and modern art, and Jordanians presented skin-care products from the Dead Sea, among others.

At the U.S. table, myself and two other Americans were selling t-shirts, pens, mugs and the like with the U.S. Embassy logo on them. (Local Emirati children who stopped by were most interested in our few Mickey Mouse trinkets.) Beside us were ladies from Eritrea. We were in business attire; they wore floor-length, gauze-cotton dresses and head coverings and some wore elaborate jewelry.

With my husband's comment about the camera, I realized I've gotten so used to the variety of cultures in Abu Dhabi that I've begun to not notice it. I've made friends with many of the women present. I've stopped seeing the countries and started only seeing the people.

Near closing time, an Emirati (in national dress) stopped by our table, introduced himself, and asked how long each of us had been in the U.A.E. He welcomed us to his country. He'd gone to college in Washington state and loved his time in the U. S. He wished us well. I hope I'm as friendly to visitors when I return to live in New Hampshire.

It was a nice evening.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Sandstorms, Like Snowstorms

Tomorrow is Easter. Our first in Abu Dhabi.

This afternoon I wiped sand off the exterior of our villa's living room windows - the last evidence of a recent sandstorm. Just before it started, the temperature rose sharply and the sky grew dark. Then the wind blew and blew and blew. The pavement seemed covered in clouds, like the smoke machines used in the theater.

The sandstorm lasted about two days. The city of Abu Dhabi did not grind to a halt - my children still went to school and my husband to work - but the visibility was very poor, there were many road accidents, and people were advised to stay home if possible.

When it was over and I went outside, sand had covered the windows with a thin, dirty film, it had blanketed my carnations in similar fashion, and the wind even knocked over my large heavy pots of bougainvillea. Sand also piled in drifts in the corners of the doorways and on the windowsills. It reminded me of how snow builds up around doorways and windowsills in New Hampshire.

But it was close to 100 degrees.

Workers appeared on the streets, sweeping and scooping up sand. (Between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, a desert oasis town, rows of low-growing trees were planted to help keep the desert sands from engulfing the highway.)

Soon we had a rare lightning and thunderstorm, followed by rain, and a beautiful, clear day followed. Now it is back to the mid 80s, with humidity rising and warmer temperatures in the near future. (This summer the temperature will hover around 110-115 degrees with much humidity.)

This morning, Holy Saturday, I said no to a man who stopped by my villa, wanting a job washing our windows. In New Hampshire I did those kinds of jobs myself. But since we moved to Abu Dhabi last summer I've noticed that I seem to be doling out the domestic tasks left and right. It is very affordable here, and so I've gotten to like having things done for me. I have my villa cleaned weekly, and recently I hired someone to wash our car each morning. Probably because I'm far from overworked these days - and also because it was a perfect sunny, warm day today - I felt some satisfaction washing the windows myself. That isn't to say I won't say yes the next time.