Three women, covered head-to-toe in jet-black burkhas, are standing on line for Krispy Kreme donuts.
I wonder if I am the only observer, here at a ritzy shopping mall in Abu Dhabi, who finds this sight to be noteworthy.
The UAE (aka, the United Arab Emirates) has adopted some of the western worldview—corporate capitalism, overarching consumerism, a fast-paced lifestyle—but not its other, arguably less-useful values, such as democratic government, separation of church and state, and equality for all people, especially women. Three framed portraits of royal family members (all male) greet me at the front desk of the hotel. Elsewhere, various signs proclaim that this is the year of Prince Zayed, and his likeness is plastered on billboards and on the control tower at the airport. I am told he is responsible for making the country what it is today.
Abu Dhabi feels like a distorted image of a western city, kind of an Arabic merger of Las Vegas and East Berlin if that makes any sense. Las Vegas is for being an instant, glitzy, and electric light-bathed city in the desert, albeit without the casinos or other, harsher sins/entertainments. Still, they do have a modern soccer stadium and next door to it, a Warner Brothers’ theme park. The theme park advertises itself with giant drawings of Tom and Jerry, as well as Fred Flintstone holding his daughter. I imagine Prince Zayed facing them, like contestants in a staring contest. That contest could last a long time.
East Berlin is for all the oppressive concrete, especially the blocks of apartments that look about as homey and inviting as your average mini-warehouse storage garage.
The oil-fueled money that gluts the place (and that no one talks about, at least to me) attracts people from all over the world, including a fellow Bostonian who works for the client I am visiting, and Africans who drive the taxis, and Indians who are the desk clerks and restaurant staff. In an Arabic way, this is the land of opportunity.
I speak with a dozen or so people at the company of the client and they are….like people at companies everywhere. Apart from the occasional name drop of “the royal family”, and apart from the accents, our business and conversations would not reveal nationality or religion. Their work-a-day lives don’t seem much different from my own. Which may not be a conclusion that most Americans would assume or appreciate.
Yet back in the hotel lobby or at the shopping mall, I cannot take my eyes off the women in the black burkhas. I am only slightly less captivated by their male counterparts, who wear white robes that are called thawbs, kandooras, or dishdashas, depending on which part of the Arab world you are in. The white robes for the men are almost as modest and unrevealing as the black burkhas, with the important and obvious exception that they do not cover the face. I do not know what the robes are called in the UAE. I never spoke to anyone wearing one, apart from the customs agents at the airport, and I wasn’t about to query them.
Wherever I go during my visit, the men and women wearing traditional Arab garb are a minority, or maybe 50-50 at best. They feel like aliens in a Doctor Who story, milling about as extras but clearly imbued with qualities and abilities the rest of us do not possess. I do not interact with them, and I do not see any of my westernized counterparts interacting either, unless in a formalized way, such as checking in at the front desk or being seated at a restaurant. Of course, from their perspective, I trust that I am the alien, as are the hotel and the restaurant and the donut stand. We are imported from elsewhere—and permanently so, it would seem. I will leave soon, but another western guest is likely to replace me.
I have one big question about the burkhas and thawbs, which is: How do they stay so clean? I saw a few hundred people in these things, all either as utterly black as the desert-night sky between the stars, or as white and pure as bone china. Not once did I spot a stain, a smudge, a streak of sand-—no imperfections of any kind. For the burkhas, I think that even spilt ketchup and mustard would be absorbed into the void of the fabric; it is that black. But the thawbs, I have no idea how they defy the laws of materials science. I imagine the recruiter saying to the men, “If you join us, we will give you these magical outfits that never soil, never rip or tear or fade; you’ll never need to wear anything else for the rest of your life. You also will be able to fly and to bend spoons with your mind.”
I am now back in the United States, back home with the wife and kiddos. I have a lot to say about life here as well, but I will need to do so at another time. For three days (or four and a half, if you count the time in transit aboard Etihad Airways, the national airline of the UAE and the default carrier,) I was immersed in a world I had not given much thought to previously. Although I pride myself, as a writer, on mashing-up various disparate topics (Please see any of my previous essays/blog posts for an example), I cannot bring myself to do so this time. Not quite. Almost, but not quite. Read on for the evidence.
The personal message of the trip is: We live in a big, wide world. It’s bigger than you might imagine, and definitely bigger than your own thoughts and prejudices. Also, never take for granted the important people and ideas in your life. When you step aboard one of those ridiculously big jets that cross the Atlantic Ocean and/or Eurasian landmass, there is no guarantee of your return, or the conditions you shall find upon that return, or the conditions of your own self. I still feel a little scrambled, to be honest, although I expect to be just fine in a few days.
That’s the report of the trip. I’ll spare you my experiences changing planes in Shannon and London en route east, and Geneva and Dublin heading west. Skol Switzerland, and Erin go Bragh!