by Amanda Gilbert-Yazdani
Amanda Gilbert-Yazdani shares this article
about a southern girl's adjustment to life in the
Middle East. Fascinating account!
I think I can say with some confidence that I am an entirely different person than I was several years ago. I arrived in Abu Dhabi, fresh from the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, on September 27, 1997, and the most distinct memory I have was the wall of hot air that I collided with as I left the air-conditioned confines of the airport. It was unbelievable in its intensity and it literally stagnated in my lungs.
If you think the South is hot and muggy in the summer, you really need to try the Arabian Peninsula. A good likeness would be to step into a sauna and just stay there. In the summer, it’s not unusual to have a temperature of 130 degrees during the day, dropping down to a lovely balmy 100 at night.
I’d like to comment that it’s hard to make a good impression on family when you’re sweating buckets. Nobody trusts a person who sweats profusely. I looked, I’m sure, as if I were being reluctantly questioned by the Spanish Inquisition. Truth be known, I was just hotter than Hell itself.
Clearly, my choice of panty hose and heels did not meet the standard dress code for end of summer in the desert. I ditched them in the bathroom. For a southern girl, that’s like walking around naked. If you wear a dress, you wear stockings. I do not forget to mention the fact that it was after midnight, a time which I have since learned practically marks the beginning of the evening in the Emirates.
I was longing for a bath and a good night’s rest, and in lieu got a passel of family and friends eager for a welcome party. We packed our substantial luggage in their caravan of 4 X 4’s (hey, now I could equate with a truck), and made our way on the 30-minute drive to the city. I was shocked by the driving--a reckless speed, punctuated by hair-raising dead stops for speed humps (in the middle of the highway!).
Palm trees lined their way on either side of the road for the entire journey. I was told a vast amount of money is spent on horticulture and the greening of Abu Dhabi by its ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan. The ruler, whose vision included making an oasis out of his fair city, is revered among the Emiratis as a patron leader for the region’s seven emirates (or states).
I had been briefed on the country’s history before arriving so as not to appear completely ignorant. The Emirates were formed in 1972 under the leadership and guidance of Sheikh Zayed. So this is a relatively new country.
We were brought to an apartment building and told to come inside, and I was thinking how unusual it was to visit someone so late at night. As we entered, the coral orange shag carpet struck a sarcastic chord in me, and I thought to myself, "Oh, this is wonderful . . . early 70’s period décor. Lead on to the green formica." Everyone awaited my comment, but I was a bit confused; it was then explained to me that this was the living quarters allotted by the company. I was going to live in this? Uh, uh, no way.
I managed a polite comment or two and everyone seated themselves in our living room while I put the new tea kettle to use. I was feeling overwhelmed, upset and a bit out of control. I remember it well. I mean, my husband’s family is Iranian by heritage (though they’ve lived in the Emirates going on 42 years), and if you don’t know it, I’ll tell you: TEA is the biggest test a wife can go through in this community. I was unprepared.
Ramin, my husband, most obligingly stepped into the kitchen to assist me in proper preparation and service. That was my introduction into Middle Eastern society. Oh, what a debutante.
We later negotiated with the company for an apartment that more suited our tastes and needs and have really enjoyed the material benefits of living and working overseas. We’ve also appreciated the cultural experience. After the original shock wore off, I did immerse myself in the culture of the land. That in itself is quite a rare opportunity for an American.
Typically, expatriates are not given the chance to explore in depth the true nature of the Gulf Arab. Because my husband’s family were longtime residents, they had an insight that is unique and a connection with the people that ran deep.
The Emirates was originally a fairly poor region which relied almost exclusively on pearl diving and fishing. Hence, the people were simple and derived much of their culture from Bedouin influence. Shortly after Ramin's family’s arrival here in 1958, though, the country literally struck oil, and the immense wealth that poured into the land has since changed this small, modest country into a hub of trade, commerce and tourism.
The first few months I lived in Abu Dhabi, I amused myself by going down ‘pastel row’. This is a street where almost every skyscraper is some form of pink, baby blue or lavender--remarkble to see. I could never comprehend how anyone would spend millions of dollars to build a pink building. It just boggled the mind. This wasn’t just streets. It was cars, too. Have you ever seen a pink BMW, with purple leather seats? Well, I have. I’ve seen a yellow Mercedes with the same interior. And I’ve been to a Sheikha’s palace, and viewed her son’s collection of seven brightly colored luxury cars, one for each day of the week.
The taste here runs to the tacky, and the brighter the better. Shiny gold, bronze, and silver windows on 50 floor skyscrapers mirror the sun's noonday brilliance. The architecture is whimsical and often not very practical on some of the larger buildings, but is usually more traditional in the smaller buildings of 10 floors or less. The ancient fort style, I like to call it.
Driving is probably the biggest dilemma an expat faces in this country. I had three accidents before my husband gave me the most helpful tip I’ve received thus far – "forget the rules." It’s not unusual to see cars straddling lines, going from the far right lane to the far left lane to make a u-turn as the light turns green, or making that grand attempt to reach light speed in their curtained V-8’s.
Parking is hilarious. Though I laughed with incredulity the first time I witnessed a LandCruiser parking on the sidewalk, I must admit that I myself have since learned that to secure that elusive and rare parking space, one has to go to extremes. I will admit to frantically 4-wheeling it over a sidewalk to enter a suddenly-available parking space the wrong way. It’s just done. At least a dozen times, I’ve had people park behind me and leave their vehicles. I sit there honking my horn and when I finally decide to call the police, I'm told to ‘calm down and wait’. When the culprit returns 30 minutes later, he makes the hand gesture that basically means ‘hakuna matata – no worries’.
This is a laid back ancient culture that has recently come into a great deal of money, power and means. The culture has not yet arrived to meet the wealth. It means almost nothing to the individual man, yet it has become everything here. Extravagance to the greatest excess you can imagine. But those stories are for another time. Weddings to rival Broadway shows, lavish parties, sumptuous buffets and belly dancers – alongside a setting of traditional Islamic heritage, in a delicate balance.
This is the country whose culture I have come to know and love. Really, there are some amusing similarities to my own southern culture. The polish might not be brilliant, but hidden underneath still lies gold. If my understanding is only marginal, my respect is immense for a people who’ve literally made something grand out of nothing but sand.
All it took was a little oil and a lot of luck. Here, they call it God’s Will, InshaAllah; that’s Southernese for ‘God willin’ and the creek don’t rise’.
Amanda was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Her husband is a geotechnical engineer, and the two relocated to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in September '97. Amanda spends her summers in the U.S. and Europe, and is a world traveler.
A former elementary teacher in a UAE private school, she now devotes herself to painting and writing.
She writes: "I've really enjoyed living here [in the Middle East] and being exposed to so many different cultures. There are large populations of Indians, Sri Lankans, Phillipinos, Africans, other Arabs (Lebanese, Syrian, Yemeni), Iranians, Americans and Europeans who reside in Abu Dhabi's large city -- 82% are expatriates.
“Hindi, Farsi, Tagalog, English and of course Arabic are all spoken by large numbers of people. My husband speaks four languages himself (Farsi, Hindi, English, all fluently, and Arabic, semi-fluently).”
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