Friday, December 28, 2007

Cultural Mix, Cultural Divide

This morning as I sat at my laptop and closed my eyes, I felt as though I were in Maine. The sliding door beside me was open, and a breeze made the curtains billow and fall. It was sunny, the air was cool and dry, the temperature about 60 degrees. (It would rise to the upper 70s later.) This is the weather we wait many months for in the UAE. It is perfect.

Last night we had some friends over - all ex-pats. The ladies and I got on the subject of making friends with Emiratis, and the opinons were flying back and forth pretty fast. I'm not sure I got my own position across - which may be why I've turned to my blog.

Anyone in Abu Dhabi would tell you it's not easy to make friends with a UAE native, or "local," as they call themselves. One could live here for years without ever getting to know a local.

(Some reasons for this: it's a gender-segregated society and inappropriate for women to talk to unrelated men and vice versa, thus cutting down on interacting with locals by 50% for starters. Also, Arabic is a difficult language. Finally, the UAE has a history of foreigners coming here to work and leave without putting anything into the country, and this must affect how locals view ex-pats. There are so many ex-pats and so few Emiratis -the ratio is approximately 82% to 18%.)

Back to last night. One friend seemed put off that locals were not friendly to her. (I must add that she is a lovely, kind, polite and relaxed person.) Another friend present has lived in the Middle East for many years and is married to someone from the region. (She is equally wonderful). This second friend expressed no particular desire to make friends - or not - with Emiratis.

I knew what my "first friend" was saying. I've been cut in line many times in Abu Dhabi, and I know some local ladies have no interest in talking to me because I'm western and because I'm not Muslim. However, I also feel fortunate that I have made friends with an Emirati woman and with two western ladies married to locals. In last night's conversation, I said it's surprising how open these women are, once they're comfortable and also once they are certain no men are around. If I have them over I make sure no repairmen are coming, that M is at the office, that the sheers are pulled across the windows.

My "first" friend implied that having to make these accomodations was perhaps unfair to me, that maybe I was even compromising my own culture to appease these ladies' requirements. If I can't share my ways, if I can't have a drink while they are over (not that any of us drink during the day or drink a lot, mind you), then maybe I can't even be myself with them.

I'm not sure I answered her views adequately. But I don't at all feel that I'm compromising my ways for the sake of these friendships. Rather, I see it more as reaching out to someone different, as a small effort that is richly rewarded with new friendship.

My Emirati friend is someone I connected with almost immediately. We both have lots of children, we both like to talk about things that are close to our hearts, we both struggle with the demands of large families. In addition, I really like and admire these women for their sense of style and their committment to their Muslim faith. They have each inspired me with my own committments to my own values and my own faith.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve Mass - Abu Dhabi

Christmas Eve Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Abu Dhabi, was held outdoors due to the huge crowd attending. There were about 10,00 people at the 8 p.m. mass. An even larger crowd was expected for the Midnight Mass.
Father Francis Jamieson gave a rare "general absolution" because many people, through no fault of their own, could not go to confession before Christmas. The main celebrant, whose name I don't know, said we should reach out to not only the poor but the lonely. Loneliness is something that everyone goes through some time, he said, and it's one of the hardest things to bare.
St. Joseph's is the only catholic church in metropolitan Abu Dhabi. It serves 100,000 parishioners. At a recent confirmation-candidates' gathering, a priest looked at the jam-packed community hall and sighed. He said the enormous number of teens at St. Joseph's is "both the church's greatest blessing and its greatest handicap." The priests here work hard to serve the catholic community well.
(In the picture above, there is a football-field-sized awning overhead; this covers the area between the rear of the church and a St. Joseph's classroom building and provides much needed shade on the many hot days in Abu Dhabi.)

It was a beautiful evening. When the Christmas Eve mass ended, thousands of people dispersed peacefully.

This picture above shows the area between the main church (on the left) and the church hall (on the right). Straight ahead is one of the St. Joseph's School classroom buildings.

Weekends in Abu Dhabi are Friday-Saturday, so our children attend catechism class on Friday mornings and then we all attend a youth mass afterwards.

It took a few minutes for the crowds to exit through the few openings in the walled-in grounds of St. Joseph's. All churches are in one area in Abu Dhabi - the catholic, protestant, and Koptic churches. In the background, on the right of this picture, is Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Mosque. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cracking Down on Reckless Driving

Two articles caught my eye in the Dec. 17th issue of the Khaleej Times.

One said a new radar was being installed on Mussafah Bridge to catch speeders. I hope this will help prevent another tragic accident there. The other article said, "Around 71 reckless drivers of various nationalities were detained for a week and had to carry out community service on the capital's roads and in schools for 48 hours. Their vehicles have been impounded for a month."

If you meet someone new to Abu Dhabi and chat for a few minutes, invariably the conversation will get around to how dangerous it is to drive here. One often sees either a serious accident or the wreckage from one that has just happened. It used to send chills up my spine but now I am used to it. (I've been told it's even worse in Doha, Qatar.)

There's a website in Abu Dhabi that lists all tickets for driving violations by the license-plate number. A friend's husband typed in her license number and they were surprised to see that she'd gotten a ticket. It was for talking on her cell phone while driving. Noone stopped her at the time, but since my friend hardly ever answers her phone while driving she remembers the one time she did. She answered the call because it was her husband(!). Unbeknownst to my friend, the police were watching.

Maybe these are signs that Abu Dhabi is taking steps to make things safer on the roads here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eid Tomorrow, Christmas in a Week

Christmas is one week away. Back home in New Hampshire, U.S., there is so much snow that our mail box has been "taken out" by one too many snow plows. In Abu Dhabi, the only moisture on the ground is that from my garden hose, which is somewhat leaky.

It is nearly silent around our villa today. Many families have departed for vacation, and my younger boys are wondering what they'll do without their friends. Even the sun seems quieter, it is so much gentler recently. The temperatures brush 80 degrees during the day and the low 60s at night.

As we look forward to Christmas in a week, our Muslim friends anticipate their own important holiday, Eid Al Adha. It begins Dec. 19th (this year) and runs four days. During Eid Al Adha, Muslims pray at home or in a mosque, don their best clothes, visit the eldest family member's home for a nice meal, and give children money as gifts. This Eid comes at the end of Haj, the pilgrimmage to the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, that Muslims are supposed to try to make once during their lifetime. There are many rituals of religious significance during this pilgrimmage. The intention is to draw Muslims' to their faith and also to unify them as members of their community of worshippers.

Eid Al Adha, the "Festival of Sacrifice," commemorates Abraham's faithfulness and love for God, a love so great he was willing to sacrific his only and beloved son. (As Abraham was about to kill his son, he was told his sacrifice was accepted and his son lived. A ram was sacrificed instead.)

During the Eid, many Muslims today sacrifice an animal - usually a goat or a lamb - and share it with family and the needy. The Khaleej Times reports that approximately one million kilograms (2.2 million pounds) of meat is distributed to the poor at Haj.

My Emirati neighbors left Abu Dhabi yesterday. Their destination was London, if they could get tickets. It seems everyone wants to go to London this Eid, my neighbor said. Other friends flew to Egypt, Oman, and Australia. We know three families spending Christmas in India. Other friends travel to Florida, U.S., this evening.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Abu Dhabi Days Are Passing

This picture - of a setting sun near my home in Abu Dhabi - seems to capture my mood of late.

Perhaps it's the shortened days as we approach the winter equinox. Maybe it's that Christmas is two weeks away, and soon it will be the end of another year.

It could also be due to a discussion about family life I enjoyed yesterday in my home, an experience I know I cannot duplicate in the U.S. It was during my book club. I was one of two Americans in a group of nine women.

"We are both from Africa," my friend from Sudan said to my friend from South Africa when they were introduced. There was also a friend from Switzerland, one from England, two friends from Wales and one from Jordan. It was terrific.

Whatever the reason, I'm increasingly aware that our time in Abu Dhabi is going fast. Before I know it, next summer will be here. I'll be standing in a room full of brown boxes, sighing as I think how bare the walls are without our prints hanging. We'll be moving home. This is something I long for and dread at the same time.

Last weekend my eight-year-old was accidentally hit in the head with a hockey stick. When I first saw his handsome blond face, his nose and mouth bloody, my heart did a leap. I thought the skin under his nose was cut straight through to his mouth.

I get strangely calm when my children are hurt, but as I wiped his cuts and discovered they were not serious, alarms still rang in my head. I wished we were home. I've made two visits to emergency rooms with my children thus far in Abu Dhabi, and the care was excellent both times. But I still wished I were in my own country.

Of course the main pull towards home is missing friends and family. Recently, too, one of my best friends back home experienced a tremendous loss. The distance between Abu Dhabi and New Hampshire was heart-wrenching. These are the times I long to blink my eyes and open them to see pine trees and snow.

Most days, though, I like Abu Dhabi so much I know it will break my heart to leave. When my ten-year-old tells me about the nice boy from Yemen he's made friends with, or my 16-year-old arrives home, as he did yesterday, energized by a school competition in Cairo, I think I could stay forever. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Dangerous Driving

People drive at excessively-high speeds in Abu Dhabi. Car accidents here are often fatal. Twice this week, five members of a single family were killed in car accidents in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

On Sunday, a speeding car slammed into the car in front of it, causing the second car to hit a third car. The driver of the third car, a 26-year-old Emirati, his 18-year-old sister, and his three young nieces were all killed instantly as their vehicle was thrown into oncoming traffic on Musaffah Bridge, Gulf News reported.

Tragedy struck again on Thursday, when five members of an Asian family died in a highway accident in Al Ain. Their Land Cruiser was struck by a speeding BMW and "flipped over several times before crashing into the iron fencing by the roadside," according to the Khaleej Times. Three of the victims were in their 20s or 30s. The other two were 50 and 65 years old. In addition, a two-year-old and a 3-month-old were brought to the hospital in serious condition.

I grew up in suburban New York. Once I got my driver's license, my father made me drive every weekday of the summers into New York City. I worked at Tiffany & Co. while off from college. I never minded driving in New York City.

Shortly after getting married, I moved to New Hampshire, where people are exceedingly polite on the roads. Initially I had to hold myself back from honking the horn if the driver in front of me didn't immediately go when the light turned green. After all, I might end up sitting next to that person in church.

Abu Dhabi is home to a lot of aggressive, hazardous driving. No one seems in a rush in this country until they get behind the steering wheel. While many drivers are skilled at slicing across lanes, there are a fair number of absolute lunatics on the roads here.

A few of my personal driving habits: if possible, I stay out of the left lane. It's known as "suicide lane" because of the speeding cars that zoom up behind you from out of nowhere. They flash their high beams into your rear window, as if to say, "get out of the way or I'll drive right over you," which I think they would gladly do.

I also take my foot off the gas when approaching a traffic light, just in case it's about to turn yellow. Once it turns yellow it will turn red about three seconds later. And I know what could easily happen if I sped through a red light in Abu Dhabi.

(M took the photo above on a rare rainy day in Abu Dhabi. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in this accident.)

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