In this week’s guest post, we travel to Abu Dhabi with Ann Marie McQueen of A Canadian in Abu Dhabi, an expat who has been living it up and blogging about her experiences in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates since 2008.
THE WORLD IN ABU DHABI
Whenever I get exasperated at life in Abu Dhabi – the capital of the United Arab Emirates – I tell myself that gridlock and crowds are a small price to pay for living in a place that feels like the centre of the world.
Sure, it can take a person 45 minutes to travel several kilometers during rush hour. Any grocery store after 7pm resembles roller derby, or bumper cars, all queues for fruit-weighing and throngs at the roast chicken counter. The construction, I am convinced, will never be done. And do not hope to get a taxi when the call to prayer has sounded – those drivers have already turned off a side street and removed their shoes, sinking to their knees, often on mats outside mosques that are already full inside. Makes your frustration at being a half-hour late for dinner at the latest five-star hotel seem trivial, if you think about it.
Sometimes, usually when I am walking through the crowded back streets in the downtown Hamdan area, or wandering in the late sunlight by the water on the Corniche, I just stop and look around. All these people, I think. The languages themselves mingle and overlap each other in the humid island air: French, Arabic, Urdu, Pashtun, English… I smile at the mashups and sayings that have emerged. Ordering a sandwich at Starbucks, the barista from Nepal will ask “Make it hot?”. Arabs will often say “tell me” as a way to go ahead in speech, and use “welcome” in a variety of ways. “Okay, okay” is the common method of communicating that a message has been received and understood, even if oftentimes it hasn’t. And if I had a dirham for every time a taxi driver has sighed and said “too much traffic”…
It is impossible to wear the wrong outfit here, as fashion is so diverse. There are the Pakistani men, wandering along in their powder blue shalwar qameez – a pyjama-like getup pairing a long shirt with same-material trousers. The Indian workers on their day off, despite their paltry salaries, most of which are remitted back home, manage to dress more smartly just for a wander outside than some middle-class theatre-goers back in Canada. The Emirati men amaze me, in their crisp white khandouras. How is it possible I’ve never seen so much as a spill, barely a wrinkle? The women also, in their clicky heels, handbags dangling from forearms, abayas gently embellished with flowers or rhinestones appearing to glide across the floor. Women who are of other Middle Eastern nationalities – Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian – are much more colourful. I am continually impressed at the inventive ways they cover their arms and legs, putting long-sleeved T-shirts under sundresses and tank tops, and wrapping colourful, coordinated scarves around their heads.
At night there are any number of bars – such as Blue Bay down by the marina and Safari in the Howard Johnson Hotel – where Filipino house bands with raspy-voiced male singers and throngs of comely female backups entertain with classics like Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Their countrymen, some of the most light-hearted people I have ever met, drink pitchers of beer, hug each other and belt out the lyrics night after night.
In Canada we never ordered takeout; here, lunch is an adventure. Do we go American, we’ll think, and get submarine sandwiches or giant burgers? A little curry, or perhaps Vietnamese? Sometimes I’ll tire of the debate, or the wait, and nip down to the falafel shop around the corner. There, just as my stomach rumbles and mouth begins to water at the sight of a big bowl of salty pickles, the cook will hand me one shwarma, wrapped in a tissue, to tide me over.
Everyone asks everyone their nationality here. Coming from Canada, where we are a mosaic and that sort of thing is just not done, I didn’t understand the distinction at first. Now I do.