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.