Hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye

20150404_080629

Ex-pat life is a bit like trying to walk on desert sands.

Your first tentative steps involve surveying the lay of the land, reassuring yourself that “it’s all just sand, what could possibly go wrong?”, only to find that there’s sand and then there’s sand – whether it’s the hard salty flats called sabkha, quicksand,  or the soft silky stuff that rolls in undulating splendour across the Rub’ al Khali (the Arabian desert mass known as the Empty Quarter) for hundreds of miles in ever deepening shades of red and gold. I could talk about the desert all day, but I digress. Back to my tortuous analogy. Stick with me and I’ll get to the point.

Just like being in the desert, an ex-pat newbie will learn that It’s easy to get lost in the strangeness and it takes time and effort to appreciate the detail, to know where to wander and where not to stray, to find your feet as the ground appears to shift and change beneath them, making the going at times hard, and sometimes soft.

And then there are occasions when you arrive breathless at the apogee of a massive incline and are gobsmacked by a ravishing vista that proves that you are somewhere different, new, that YOU ARE HAVING AN ADVENTURE. Of course, it’s also easy to cock up completely, as in the case of my beloved BW, who got our Range Rover stuck in the dunes TWO METRES off the road and had to be dug out by a very kind Bangladeshi camel herder with a shovel. Which just goes to show that it’s not always best for the going to be soft.

This sand motif has drifted on long enough, but as I’m surrounded by the stuff it seems churlish not to employ it as a means of exploring what I’m feeling just now: a little bit lost. Life was a stroll in the dunes but now I can see that all the time the sands were shifting and suddenly nothing is what it was anymore. Life is like that everywhere, I guess, but it seems particularly so in ex-pat land.

Summer in Abu Dhabi is the time of comings and goings, a sort of New Year, marking the end of the busy social season and the start of a winding down, a heat-induced hibernation. The newspaper is no longer full of things to do and places to go, but instead touts low-season hotel deals, food, food, food (a bit hard to swallow when everyone is fasting during Ramadan) and things that are going to happen three months ahead. No longer distracted by events and classes and invitations one has time to reflect and review. And if you’re me that means rabid introspection, leading to panic, yet again, about what to do with one’s life. Coming to Abu Dhabi was for me the latest of a series of crossroads that we all face, but I still can’t make up my mind which way to go even though I know, at 52, I am rapidly running out of road.

I am into my second year in Abu Dhabi and those experiences that were once new are already familiar landmarks in the calendar: Ramadan, soaring temperatures, summer humidity – and mass exodus.

Having rounded off a month back in the UK with a series of tear-streaked farewells I have returned to find that I am now saying goodbye to a host of new-found friends and acquaintances who are heading the other way and out of the UAE – some for a few months and some most likely for good. Ex-pat life is highly transitory (though I have met quite a few Brits and others who have lived in Abu Dhabi for decades) so one of the big rules of Ex-Pat Club is “be prepared to let go”: to people, to the lifestyle, your home. There are a host of reasons why people seemingly suddenly depart: Contracts come to an end; commitments back home become too pressing; retirement looms; the kids finish school and want to go to uni back home; or illness, death and hard economic realities strike. So you learn to surf the changing sands, go with the flow, wave goodbye and say hello all in one. Well, I try.

I was genuinely sorry to see some people go, having just got to know them. Their generosity in supporting me through ex-pat life’s little ups and downs, in introducing me to new people and interests and helping me be part of the gang meant a lot and I benefitted greatly during the balmy days and nights of winter and spring. And those who are leaving to escape summer heat and sort life out “back home”, well they’ll be back in the autumn and we’ll take up where we left off, won’t we?

Now I face the long hot days of summer in the sandpit relatively alone (OK, I’m painting a bleak picture here – I have a couple of hard-core compadres who will kick the dust around with me – and I’ve got my best mate, BW). But I’m not two days back in the gilded cage before my inner brat is kicking off: “I mean, I just spent a whole year ‘doing change’, didn’t I?”, she squeals. “I waved my goodbyes and got on the plane and played the new girl in a host of different social situations (which has never come easily to me) and now I’ve got to do it all over again because my selfish new-found brothers and sisters have got bloody lives and want to get on with them somewhere else? Without ME? Really?”

Seriously, I need to get a life but frustratingly the options seem limited. I review them.

1. Get a job.
Nah, that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.

2. Commit to get seriously fit – that gym will be empty over the summer and it’s too hot for chocolate! 

Well, I had been working on this – when there were fun classes, when you could swim and run and play and laugh outdoors. But now everybody’s gone and if I tried running outside now I’d turn purple and die. Add to that the fact that my cleaner saw me for the first time in a month today and said “Ma’am you are a little fatter, I think,” while making motions with her arms that suggested I’d taken on the proportions of a small whale. It was a bit demotivating. I contemplate a gym with no one in it but me and three or four perfectly honed and bored personal trainers, all watching me doing squats and lunges and doing them all wrong. I can see them rolling their eyes at each other, shaking their heads, folding their exquisite biceps across their ripped abdomens and wincing as the poor old fat lady collapses in a puddle of her own sweat trying to do press-ups. The horror! The horror!

3. Write that novel! Pick up the guitar again. Finish that Arabic language course! After all, you’ve got hours and hours and hours to kill before BW gets home.

Hahahahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaa! Are you joking? Do you know much time and mental energy it takes to empty the washing machine, or stare at my toenails?

4. OK, hang out with the cat then.

I can’t. He went and died on me. Selfish, selfish puddytat.

5. Get a job.

I hear you BW, I hear you. I’m on it. Just checked the vacancies column. Hmmmmm. Nope. Sorry, I’m gonna be lying in after you’ve gone to work for a whole lot longer. Don’t slam the door on your way out.

Time to play desert cliche bingo: The fact is, the sands of time are slipping through my manicured fingers (tick) – a year has passed and it’s been a lot of fun, but going back to the UK, where my old life was more free-range, shall we say, has made me realise that I need to find a new sense of purpose. Do I really want to discover that when I leave I’ll have nothing to show that I was ever here (a bit like footprints in the sand, eh? Tick!!!) Life is moving and shifting around me (like sand? tick!) while I sit in my oasis of inertia (tick) contemplating the Universe and hunting for new HBO box sets on the internet. My year of living lazily was simply a mirage and not the life I should aspire to (BINGO!).

The luxury of indolence is seductive but like those monster-size bars of Galaxy, ultimately unfulfilling (even if you eat every last chunk and then feel a bit sick and ashamed). Sat at my desk I once dreamt of lazy days by the pool with nothing but a pile of books and a cold drink to occupy me. Now that pool is not enough.  I need to dive into something else. Maybe those biblical hermits who kipped out in the desert had the right idea. Could I be having some sort of ….  revelation? (At this point BW will be hitting his forehead with the palm of his hand and making strange noises, probably something like “just get an *****ing job”. Perhaps he’s right. After all, we have to have an exit plan. Our long journey here is simply building towards another one, a new life on a further horizon, beyond Abu Dhabi. The Outer Hebrides, perhaps.20150614_160845

So it’s goodbye old friends, goodbye old me, and hello better me, with new friends, new opportunities. I will shake the sand off my sandals, I will pupate this summer and emerge an autumn butterfly, stretch my wings – and get a job. Probably a desk job.

Oh all right then. Don’t hold your breath.

I think the tennis is on soon so if you don’t mind  I’ll leave it to the Fab Four to conclude. They’ll probably make more sense. Until we meet again?

Advertisements

Dust

20150402_111458

It seems churlish to moan, given that I reside in the desert, but I just loathe dust.

Living in Abu Dhabi, with its gorgeous date palms, lush greenery and trees with actual flowers on them, like the ones I used to draw as a child, complete with unfeasibly feathered birds the size of pterodactyls, it’s easy to forget sometimes that we’re sandwiched between sea and several hundred miles of sand.

Dust storms normally herald the transition from spring to scorching summer and are borne in by northerly winds known by the romantic-sounding Arabic name, shamal. At the beginning of April, however, we experienced the worst sandstorm seen in the UAE for many years. It blew in from Saudi Arabia, rather from Iran and unromantically turned the day yellow. I opened the curtains on the morning of April 2 and the usual skyline had disappeared into a thick, dirty mustard cloud.

We’d promised our visitors a trip to the desert, but the desert had decided to pay us a visit instead. We hoped rather foolishly that it would “just blow over” and set off to see the desert proper, only to turn back at the city’s outskirts as it was just too dangerous. While everyone else was staying indoors, we were driving in near to zero visibility and inhaling a noxious fug of sand, dust and particulates piggybacked by any number of exotic airborne bugs and allergens. Clever us. We should have followed the lead of the savvy Koreans, who merrily stroll around the golf courses annihilating all opposition with their precision drives, pitching and putting while wearing face masks.

We took refuge in one of the City’s malls. Inside, whirling clouds of dust had swept through the automatic entrance doors and hung about the marbled halls like smog in a horror film. Cleaners in face masks moved up and down the expansive floors in a silent waltz of pointlessness as they tried to clear the sticky grime that coated every surface. The stuff clings to your teeth and skin and can cause serious respiratory problems. I hold April 2’s yellow peril responsible for the hacking cough and cold I’ve been fighting ever since. My lovely gardenia, a ridiculous purchase as they are fussy plants, promptly gave up the ghost on our balcony as its glossy green leaves were choked by a film of gunk that stuck like superglue.

The aftermath of such a storm includes any number of new domestic chores of unimaginable drudgery. I was in the queue for the local car wash (including a full valet of the inside the car, as the dust gets EVERYWHERE) for so long I was able to learn the words of several r&b tunes on the radio (admittedly they all had the same words, such as “in da club” or “partay all night” or “give it to me the way I like it girl”).

Poor BW – for several days post dust storm he had to endure raving rants from me for simply walking into his own apartment, bringing with him several pounds of sand on his feet and walking it round the floors THAT I HAD JUST CLEANED FOR THE UMPTEENTH @!!£$%! time. His look of innocent bewilderment and hurt as I hurled offending footwear at him haunts my dreams still.

I took most of my frustration out, however, on our balcony. With new visitors imminent, I decided to smarten it up and clean the full-length windows. Armed with mop, squidgy, cloths and bucket, I began the big clean-up. An hour later, I surveyed my efforts: half a ton of dust crap smeared artfully across every surface and drying nicely into rock hard formations, while a cement-like film, moistened by sweat, crusted nicely on my hair, skin, under my nails and up my nose. The water in the bucket had turned black, but nothing was cleaner. The next 15 minutes are a blur, but I think they involved heaving buckets of water back and forth, flinging them in every direction till the whole balcony was drenched and dripping, tracing my mucky footsteps back into the newly cleaned apartment and standing in front of the opened fridge, crying into a cold beer.

When the cooler weather comes

IMG_1576

It is 6 January 2015, the Christmas trees are lingering in the shops in Abu Dhabi and they’re still playing Frosty the Snowman in the local supermarket.

It’s actually Orthodox Christmas today, when Egyptian, Ethiopian, Russian and other Christians east of Rome have their celebrations.

It’s also the day when most other Christians take down the decorations – known either as Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Three Wise Men, or in our house as “it’s your turn this year to drag the tree to the dump – I’m too busy finishing off the last of the giant Toblerone as I sob on the scales” (just joking…)

I’m not long back from a break in the UK and still adjusting following a severe and unexpected dose of homesickness, on top of a heavy cold. The plane trip did its usual thing to my sinuses and I spent most of New Year’s Eve holding one side of my head and wishing I was dead. I’ve been a semi hermit since, which feels bizarre because it’s not dark, gloomy, cold and wet outside – it’s lovely! Give it another week and I will be soaking up the unfettered pleasure of a first-ever sun kissed January to the max.

Oh how those seasoned ex-pats with a good few winters behind them must shake their heads indulgently at us Tiggerish newbies as we boing around in childish delight in our flimsy T-shirts and swimmers shouting: “I’m not cold! I’ve got sunburn and it’s January! Haaahaaahhhaaaaa weeeeeeee!” (or is that just me?).

How long ago those days and nights seem, when I spent my time doing a passable impression of the Wicked Witch of the West, traipsing behind Bee-Dub screeching “Help me! I’m melting!!!!!!” Did 115F actually happen? Was there really condensation on the outside of the windows? Did I simply imagine the cringeing agony of leaving an air-conditioned changing room fresh and dry, knowing I would arrive two minutes later at my new destination looking like a drowned rat, soaked in my own perspiration?

But then I smile as I sip my Americano at my new fave cafe on the Corniche and, as the gentlest of breezes ruffles my hair, I remember how, back then, I had a mantra that kept me going through the dark days of summer: “When the cooler weather comes”. I would repeat it ad nauseum, fantasising about all the things I would be able to do in lower temperatures. Crazy things like walking, sleeping, breathing. I still marvel at how the local people, before oil, managed to survive sans running water, AC and cars.

The cooler weather arrived, after a few false dawns, in late October. We had visitors and it was lovely to spend time showing them the sights without anyone passing out.

A kind of madness descended on me. I had to be outdoors. At any cost. For as long as possible. Household chores, writing, job-hunting were forgotten.

Every meal had to be outside. I took my cue from the locals here, who fill up the car parks every night in the winter months as they unload what sometimes seems like the entire contents of a house for night-time family picnics. They look like fun. The older generations sit swaddled in chairs, dishing out instructions to younger adults who blow and fuss over the portable barbecues or lay out seemingly endless platters of food, while children run and play under the trees and on the grass of the local parks. Every bit of green space is utilised, including roadside grass verges and copses of palm trees where it’s so pitch dark it’s a wonder anyone can tell their baba ganoush from their tabouleh. Huge extended families come together and chat for hours in the great outdoors because at last, finally, they can.

The cooler weather brings “the season” in Abu Dhabi, which includes a plethora of free events sponsored by the Rulers such as beach gigs, camel racing, horse racing, show-jumping and the Zayed Heritage Festival, and big junkets such as the Formula One Grand Prix, the yachting world’s Volvo Ocean Race Abu Dhabi stopover, and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, fireworks, the City of Birmingham Orchestra playing classics on a floating stage, outdoor movies, endless aeronautics along the Corniche, more fireworks, brunches… did I mention fireworks?

Another big event is National Day (December 2), when locals take to the streets for an atypically public celebration. They are proud to be Emirati and proud of the state’s achievements in the 43 years since the coalition of seven emirates into the United Arab Emirates was formalised under Shiekh Zayed of Abu Dhabi. It seemed rude not to join in.

So on National Day 2014 we took to the choked streets to goggle at the pimped up cars pumping out Arabic R&B and dodged “the young folk” pelting each other with spray string and confetti and glitter. High spirits and good will prevailed. Two Emirati guys driving a toy car down the middle of the road presented their driving licences to a bemused road traffic policeman and locals pressed money into the hands of luckless street cleaners battling the tide of celebratory junk that began to pile up on the roads. The climax was a huge firework display just off the Corniche beach (in case I didn’t say it before, we have quite a lot of fireworks in Abu Dhabi – the logic seems to be, if in doubt, resort to pyrotechnics) that had us ooh-ing and aah-ing for a good 15 minutes.

The noise of souped-up cars continued well into the night. The roads of Abu Dhabi serve as a race track for the Lamborghini-owning speed-freaks who tear around into the early hours, living the Formula One dream, and who pass at regular intervals below our balcony. I swear I could pick out the roars of individual cars as they circumnavigated the island time and again.

One of the nicer long-lasting outcomes of National Day is that all the glittering street lights and decorations are left up for Christmas.

There have been some simple personal pleasures to be had in the cooler weather as well, such as sipping tea on the balcony, watching the sun rise up between the skyscrapers and a squawking green streak of parakeets commute to and from the park below first thing in the morning and again just before sundown. We can walk the Corniche and take in the waterside views and stroll in the parks that are full of flowers, or enjoy winter visitors such as the flamingos that can be found at Al Wathba Wetland reserve.  Even the stray cats are in winter holiday mode and sun themselves on the warm roofs of cars without getting scalded. The desert sand is pleasantly cool between bare toes just now and while it will never be like the English Channel, the blue waters of the Gulf are surprisingly refreshing.

And I enjoy snuggling down under the duvet, rather than thrashing about in suffocating heat like St Joan at the stake. I can eat an ice cream without it disintegrating down my wrist at the moment of purchase and the beer stays cold in your glass for actual minutes.

I thought I would miss the frosty mornings and fog but my ageing bones are enjoying the novel feeling of sun-kissed January days.

I have just one gripe, though, and it involves my pet hate – looking for new clothes.

On Planet Fashion, there are RULES about what must be worn in  Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, no matter where you are in the world. Spring is girlie and pastel. Summer means everything is sleeveless, backless or beach-centric. Autumn usually comes dressed in hues of plum and green, while Winter means wearing mountains of woollies even if you boil alive, or everything comes with sequins, which look positively sleazy come the New Year sales.

I went on the hunt for swimwear in October. I was looking forward to long days on the beach as the risk of frying alive was rapidly receding. Could I find satisfaction? Not unless I was prepared to buy a black tasseled thong with a top six sizes smaller or similar monstrosities found hanging sadly on remnant racks at the back of every shop I scoured. “Where’s the swimwear,” I asked a Filipino shop assistant in the city branch of Marks and Spencer (yes – we have M&S here). “But madam,” he says, “It’s autumn and winter season now – no swimwear till spring.”

Looking around at the mannequins in their daft bobble hats, fur-trimmed boots and cosy woolly layers, I went into meltdown. “But it’s 85 degrees out there!” The shop assistant shrugged. The fashion-conscious shopper of Abu Dhabi aspires to chilly chic in the winter months, ignoring meteorological fact in favour of Ugg Boots, quilted body warmers and fur trim on everything.

Guess I’ll have to settle for a mink bikini then.

Feel like a woman

Yes, it’s been ages. Don’t look at me like that, I’ve been busy, OK?

Well, not what you might call busy. Yesterday I spent an hour trying to get the cat to chase after a bit of green string. And I surfed how to do a chin-up, tried it, found it was too hard, had a cup of tea. Welcome to my world, that of the indulged ex-pat woman.

Before I came out to the sandy shores of Abu Dhabi, I would always pronounce the phrase “ex-pat woman” with my lips curled in a sneer. Gin-soaked, over-tanned women bitching about the tennis coach and failing to properly park their 4×4 convertibles or whatever because they were too busy screaming at the Filipina maid/nanny. Like most prejudices, this is a little wide of the mark. While a part of me likes to think that there are women of that sort, most I’ve met here are like me, really: women who have given up careers and lifestyles and social lives at home to follow hubbies overseas for the sake of a more secure financial future with a bit of sunshine thrown in. Only these women get off their bottoms regularly to do useful stuff – supporting local causes, helping other women get in the swing of life here, creating a social fabric for each other and challenging themselves in new ways. They are nothing short of amazing. How I wish I could be more like them. If only I could get out of the habit of watching The Great British Bake-off on iPlayer while still in my jimjams at 9am in the morning. I am maxing out on the lifestyle of lady of leisure, and I think I am going a little bit crazy.

Just before heading off to Abu Dhabi, I paid a visit to my dentist – a smart Iranian lady – for a final check-up. She fired the usual questions dentists always ask when you have a mouthful of ironware. I told her I was ooing gu Agu Dhagi. “You will love it,” she purred in between scrapes, “There you will know what it is to feel like a woman. Not here. It’s all work and no time to be feminine There, it will be different.” Six months in and I’m still not sure I understand what she meant by that statement, but it did encourage me to ponder life as a woman in a culture that is very different.

Want a manicure/facial/pedicure/eyelash extensions? No problem. The city is full of them and the demand for all the buffing and polishing is keeping armies of Filipina ladies in serious work. One girl told me that in the Philippines there are many schools devoted to the art of beautification, with the promise attached of a new and more lucrative life abroad. Hairdressing is a bit trickier, as most of the women are of Arabic/Asian origin and have long, dark locks. If you’re a bottle blonde and caucasian, you’ll have to look a little harder to find a good colourist as the hairdressers aren’t too familiar with fine fair hair. But one could spend entire days being pampered, if guilt and your bank balance don’t get in the way.

Jewellery and accessories for the laydeez are also big business – there are stores here that make Tiffany look like Ratners with their displays of egg-sized stones and ropes of gold and diamonds to adorn just about every body part. And as a lady you WILL be approached, in certain malls in Dubai, by a furtive male asking if you want Fendi/Burberry/Chanel etc like he was offering crack-cocaine. Assenting to such an offer will usually involve popping up to an apartment where you can browse any number of designer knock-offs. Certainly adds to the thrill of shopping. Not that I’ve ever done it – my bag of choice is a spotty cotton thing that came free in a magazine that cuts grooves into my shoulder flesh.

If perfume and make-up is your thing, there’s a whole new world of smoky eyes and heady scents to explore. Oud, the fragrant wood of ancient agar wood trees, is the basis of most classic Arabic perfumes and all the top European cosmetic brands have their own versions. I adore the scent but I would say that it takes a certain amount of élan to wear it – the heady, rich perfume leaves an aromatic trail in its wake and will get you noticed. On smelling some of these rich scents I did wonder if the whiff encapsulated what my dentist was trying to articulate – being a woman demands full-on, up-front glamour combined with a sense of being off-limits.

Glamour here is essentially a private matter but while Abu Dhabi is an Islamic country and a conservative society, you do see all sorts here. I often wonder what Emirati women make of some of the sights they see as even I, a denizen of dippy, hippy, whacky Brighton, UK, can be surprised on occasion by what passes for ex-pat style.

A tiger in full-on attack pose once reared up at me from the frozen fish counter of my local supermarket. Luckily, the beast was a giant, full-colour tattoo, on the bare back of a woman who’d been leaning into a freezer in a short sundress and high heels. And there was I fussing over which scarf to wear over my bare shoulders in sweltering 40 degree heat.

Some ex-pats choose to adopt the abaya – the black all-encompassing full-length over-dress or cloak that covers a lady’s attire – as it’s a handy and respectable throw-on. I’m not sure about this yet, as wearing a garment associated with cultural pride and religious belief is something that should be approached with respect. I confess though that I am tempted. The women who float through the malls here look rather chic in their diaphanous black robes and veils, which come in a variety of styles and with luxe additions such as crystal beading. The look, while certainly Islamic and in keeping with local traditions, is also rather stylish, especially when accompanied by vertiginous heels, immaculate make-up and a sillage of heady perfume, combining to create an effect of mystery and feminine allure. Mystique, I suspect, is very much part of being a woman here. There are Western men I know who go weak at the knees when a veiled woman with expressive and heavily made-up eyes wafts past in a rustle of fabric and intoxicating scent.

I, on the other hand, have all the mystique of Tesco’s carrier bag, in my cut-off trousers, T-shirt, scraped-back hair and bare face. The artistic eyebrows, glossy mane, perfect lips and smooth maquillage of your well-groomed Arab lady would not last five minutes on me. Exposure to the outdoors would see the kohl migrating south down my chops faster than you can say Estee Lauder.

You see, I stomp about on the buses and in the street during the heat of the day, like any self-respecting mad Englishwoman. I do not float sensibly from mall to air-conditioned car and I still find it weird to have everything done for me: go to the supermarket and someone will unpack your trolley, pack your bags then carry them for you to the car or home, if you’re just round the corner. Then the concierge in the apartment will call the lift for you and if he deems the bags to be too heavy, will lug them to the front door.

There is an emphasis on a kind of romantic femininity here of a sort long since eschewed by most Western women. Men, in the main, are chivalrous and respectful. The supermarkets and flower shops do a big trade in elaborate arrangements of plump-headed roses of all colours; waiters always assume I want a dessert because I am a lady and will have a sweet tooth (OK, yes, all right, they are correct in that assumption, at least with me); the buses are great because they have women-only sections which means I nearly always get a seat! Even the text on shampoo bottles and moisturisers has a kind of lyrical bent that I haven’t seen since the heady days of Sunsilk shampoo ads of the 1960s.

But the one thing that has made my eyes boggle is the underwear. I HAVE NEVER SEEN SO MANY LINGERIE SHOPS IN ONE PLACE IN MY LIFE! Romantic displays of affection in public are frowned upon here, and cohabiting is a crime, but in the realm of the marital boudoir, it would seem, anything goes. The lingerie stores are packed to the rafters with every kind of marabou-trimmed bit of frou-frou lace that you can imagine, along with sumptuous silk-satin nightgowns, negligees, teddys, corsetrie and basques. There are nurse’s outfits too, and a minimalist look that appears to involve nipple tassels and G-strings held together with ropes of spangly stuff. I ventured into one of these stores once (for research purposes), but felt immediately as Father Ted did that time he visited the department store, and  stumbled out again.  I think it was the rack of fake bottoms that did it. Apparently these rounded knicker inserts add to slender derrieres the sort of curves that are much admired in a lady.

But it is the ethnic dress shops that I am in love with. There are fashion stores here that cater specifically for those requiring more modest dress, i.e. coverage, but which also aim to satisfy the inner Princess in us all. And those more traditional stores make a change from the scores of clothing chains that think fashion is what a 12-year-old wears. I am 51 and I want sleeves! I want a dress that fits on my waist, covers my knees and has a back to it! I do not want to wear something that advertises your brand/label or that carries idiotic logos and phrases. And I do not want to wear tops that are see-through, or covered in bloody butterflies, puppies or pictures other women, most of whom are better-looking than me. All of the aforementioned can be found in any high street in the West and they’re all here too. But a quick bit of browsing in the more Arabic stores will often throw up an item that I can actually wear. There are, however, places I just won’t step into, as I would feel so woefully underdressed. Dressing up is a big deal here, which would seem contradictory to Western ideas of dressing to very publicly impress.

The theatrical child in me, though, just loves the dressy shops. Somewhere down the years I ditched my taste for secondhand vintage style, big hair, lashings of eye make-up and funky jewellery and aspired, mistakenly, to be beige in all things, as that was what was deigned to be tasteful. No such restraint here. I stare wide-eyed in wonder at the shop windows: floor-length crimson sequins; milk-white satin blouses  with voluminous sleeves, buttoned up to the throat and tucked into black crepe wide-legged trousers, with matching turbans; swathes of emerald-green and midnight blue devore; gold chiffon and cherry lace frothing out of bodices and waistcoats. BW, who hates shopping unless it’s for something electrical or to do with food, breaks out in a cold sweat when he catches sight of such displays and it’s about the only time he’ll hold my hand in public, as he endeavours to drag me in the opposite direction.

The overriding feeling I have when staring at such displays is one of nostalgia. Is this world I am in now like the one we lost a while ago back home, when I was very young?  When I was a child I would creep into my mother’s wardrobe to admire her evening dresses (in the days when mums and dads went to “dinner-dances”) and try on her satin shoes. I remember a dress with a peacock-hued tartan silk skirt and a white frilled top cinched with a velvet green belt and diamond buckle; another had a dramatic black circle skirt and tight sleeves that flared at the elbow, flamenco-style, with a red satin sash and a red rose pinned on the neckline. My father would sometimes buy my mother, on formal dress occasions, an orchid corsage, presented in a box with a ribbon tied around it. I remembered coveting that gift, as I stroked my mother’s (fake) fur coat and dusted myself liberally with her lily of the valley talcum powder. My first view, in the Marina Mall, of one of these dress shops stopped me in my tracks. Staring in at the window display I remembered those blue mink-trimmed childhood moments and my eyes welled with tears. Feel like a woman? For a moment, I was seven years old again.

CORRECTION:

In a previous blog post, I claimed that my better half, BW, divided the world into two types of people: b******s and non-b******s, when in fact, the world is divided into a***holes and non-a***holes. According to BW, one can be a bit of a b*****d but being an a***hole is far worse and these are the people to pity and avoid. I stand corrected.

 

All the stuff I don’t know

We are now into the second week of Ramadan and still I haven’t fasted.

I am not a Muslim, but I am curious to know what it must feel like to go without food and water in 45+ degrees Centigrade for up to 17 hours a day (Muslims must abstain from food, drink, cigarettes, even chewing gum during daylight hours and at this time of year, there’s a lot of daylight hours). But I haven’t summoned up the nerve yet, and I doubt that I shall. It’s an attitude many Muslims will be familiar with. Those that practise will just shrug their shoulders and say”It’s what we do”. It’s a big deal, and at the same time it isn’t.

A recent social media (isn’t it always these days?) phenomenon gave some insight into the mindset of ordinary Muslims across the world and the witticisms of the ravenous faithful posted to #RamadamProblems made me smile. Some examples, as shared by the BBC in a report of a few days ago:

“These fasts are not very fast are they #RamadanProblems”

“I think I just watched my clock go from 2:54 to 2:53. I’m not joking #RamadanProblems”

“Staring at the fridge like it’s your ex #Ramadanproblems”

“RamadanProblems when you walk around and see food instead of people”

“Had one of those ‘really, not even water?!’ conversations today #Ramadanproblems”

“RamadanProblems: the only time I have a date every night #Ramadanproblems”

Ramadan is a core tenet of Islam and part of the fabric of everyday life in the Muslim world: children are gradually introduced to the discipline of fasting, while Iftar, the meal that breaks the daylong fast at sunset, is often a shared family celebration and an opportunity for communities to show largesse by offering and sharing food. Essentially, fasting affords an opportunity for the faithful to get closer to their God, to focus on the spiritual and to concentrate on being a better Muslim. See, I’m learning stuff.

I was raised as a Catholic and my father for many years held the tradition that we ate no meat on Fridays, particularly during Lent. We also didn’t eat before having Holy Communion on Sunday mornings, in respect for the sacrament. I gave up trying to explain to non-Catholics what that all meant long before I gave up practising myself, but for many years it was just a normal, familiar and unquestioned part of my life, so I have an inkling of the intent of Ramadan, and also of how alien it feels when one is not part of that culture.

“Multicultural” Britain offered few opportunities for me to learn about other beliefs and ways of living. The few Muslims I knew didn’t practise and other exposure usually came via the skewed post-Afghanistan and 9/11 media portrayals of Muslims as anti-liberal fundamentalists, ignorant oppressors of women and gay people or as victims with grievances, the banner-waving heralds of the PC brigade. There’s more than a billion Muslims in the world – i expect some variety! Coming to Abu Dhabi is helping me to get a bit of perspective.

Like most well-meaning westerners I came here as a guest, wishing to understand more and to avoid giving offence. I’ve practised my “Ramadan Kareems” and “As-Salaam-Alaikums”, I take care to dress respectfully and BW and I avoid PDAs (public displays of affection) where we feel it might be frowned on. Heck, I’ve even had a go at mastering the headscarf wrapping favoured by Emiratis and women from countries such as Syria and Lebanon as they look, well, so stylish. But I’ve not gone out like that because as a non-Muslim and in a country where I am not obliged to do so, I think I’d look silly. And I looked like an Irish granny.

BW thinks I think too much. According to him, the world is divided into two types – b*****ds and non-b*****ds and that the non-b*****ds outweigh the b*****ds about million to one. It doesn’t matter what creed, culture, colour or political persuasion, BW will sniff out the wronguns and make friends with the gooduns just the same. He’s a seasoned, openhearted traveller but I feel like a newbie in the world, terrified of making a gaffe.

And there is so much stuff I just don’t know.

I didn’t know until I was 22 that Muslims, Jews and Christians share a faith heritage that includes Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham, Moses and Christ (with obvious divergences thereon in). An Algerian architecture student sharing digs at the University of York put me straight on that one when I got into a conversation with him in the kitchen one day. Talking. To other people. That’s how I should find stuff out. Reading stuff up is second best

In the three months I have been in Abu Dhabi I have never had so  many conversations with people from so many different parts of the world before (I met my first Armenian the other night. She was talkative, entertaining, engaging; I was thinking how little I knew about Armenia) and I didn’t find it easy to distinguish at first between the different groups. It takes a while to get used to the wide racial/cultural/religious mix that is Abu Dhabi.

I always like to chat to the cabbies (as do many ex-pats) on my trips around town and the conversation usually turns to Ramadan just now and the challenges it poses for these guys, who work up to 16 hours a day. Ignorance is rarely bliss for me – more like an itch I need to scratch, so I often blunder in with what might be personal questions, in the hope of being better informed.”Are you fasting?” I asked one. “Of course, I am Muslim,” he replied, incredulous at my question. So with another, I changed tack and said “How’s the fasting going?” “Ma’am”, he replied, “I am not Muslim”, equally incredulous that I did not realise. Oh no, my ignorance is showing! Because not all Arabs are Muslims. Because the majority of Muslims come not from the Middle East but from Indonesia, Pakistan, India . . .  I’ve really got my work cut out here.

Being dropped in very different country is a continuing eduction – it has to be, otherwise you might as well just build a sealed conveyor belt between the mall, the beach, the bar and the apartment. Or be at home. One of the smaller shopping malls near to me set up a display in its forecourt dedicated to the history of discovery. It was aimed at children coming to the mall for the evening’s entertainment (the city comes to life during Ramadan after sunset – shop hours and the working day change to accommodate the customs of the Holy Month), but it might as well have been aimed at me.

A series of tented majlis (sitting places lined with colourful mattresses and cushions) decked with billboards told the stories, among others, of the invention of coffee (Yemeni/Arabic origins, involving very happy goats, I think); the fountain pen (ladies and gents, I give you the ink-stain hating Ma’ād al-Mu’izz, a 10th-century Caliph of Egypt); and the pinhole camera, pre-cursor to everything from daguerreotypes to the iPhone camera (let’s hear it for Alhazen, Arabian scientist and author of the 11th-century Book of Optics. No? Me neither, till now).

There I was, thinking the Greeks/Romans/Europeans had it all sewn up, with maybe a bit of Chinese knowhow thrown in – and now I find that there’s this whole other world of knowledge, literature, science, culture, that most of us just don’t know about. Maybe it’s a case of there being just too much history, too much stuff, so we’re better off sticking with our own stuff and building the story of ourselves from that. Civilisation? We did it! And in the process we demonise, or just ignore, other narratives.

On the other hand, it’s just as easy to exoticise other cultures and thereby miss our common humanity – which is why the hashtag story was such a wake-up call.

So back to Ramadan. As the posters to #RamadanProblems freely admit, the 28-day fasting is literally no picnic (well, not during daylight hours) and this marathon of self-discipline can be problematic. Aligning the practice of centuries with a world that has embraced commerce and modernity in just 50 years throws up new challenges: is “breathable” nail polish allowed?, ask women who want to maintain a manicure and carry out the necessary ritual washing before prayer; Does diabetes excuse you from fasting? How is it that a month of fasting can lead to weight gain? What is Arab knee? How are you going to make up all those days of fasting if you’ve been pregnant during successive fasting? Are nightshift muslims off the hook? If drivers are being asked to avoid driving during fasting, what are the taxi drivers doing on the roads for hours at a time?

In the Emirates, teams of fatwa call centre experts (yup, another Arabic word, like jihad and halal, that doesn’t mean what many of us think it means) are on hand to deal with anxieties that arise during Ramadan. They offer fatwas, or directives, to callers to help them make the right decisions. The local press, meantime, exhorts people to take care on the roads during the daily dash of the famished to get home to break the fast at sunset. Other articles advise sensible eating and regular exercise to offset the effects of end-of-fast bingeing, late-night meals and roller coaster blood sugar levels. It’s a long month, especially in the heat of a desert summer, but talk to those who observe Ramadan and they will tell you it is a very special time. And maybe that’s not so alien, when one thinks of the excesses and contradictions that Christmas brings but once a year.

Sitting on my balcony on the first evening of Ramadan I watched rows of men – security guards, street sweepers, park workers, builders and maintenance men are those I recognise by their uniforms and work clothes – sit down on the grass in neat lines in front of one of the city’s mosques. They sat cross-legged with packages of food and water laid out in front of them waiting in stifling heat for the boom of the port gun and the call to sunset prayers (maghrib). Finally the boom comes followed by the lilting call of the muezzin but there is no rush to tuck in. They drank first, then ate slowly before moving into the mosque for prayers. I found it quite moving, watching from my hidey hole above, perhaps because of the communal nature of what I had witnessed. I am a sucker for shared experiences that bring people closer (I recently made new friends during a dehydrating quest to rescue a kitten in an underground car park) even for a short while. And a part of me still craves that simple stillness and quiet reflection that old religion can offer when so little else in this world of instant gratification and high-speed living does.

The world of instant gratification is never far away in Abu Dhabi. If you’re a non-Muslim you can skip the fasting and cut straight to the feasting. Many of the hotels offer Iftar buffets – grand affairs and feasts that allow hotels and restaurants to make up for lost daytime trade and share in the sociability of Ramadan. There is no alcohol at these dos but I hear they are foodie heaven. Other places offer suhoor – not the humble pre-dawn snack eaten before the day-long fast begins, but late-night feasts with traditional music and shisha. Abu Dhabi is quiet in the fasting hours, but after dark it’s party time Iftar-style. We haven’t tried one yet, as I think if we’re going to break a fast we should have fasted first … still gearing up to that one.

It’s more a challenge in the daytime if you work here. I can feed my Nutella habit to my heart’s content in the privacy of ivory Towers (if i wanted to…) but non-Muslim co-workers are expected to respect fasting colleagues by not eating or drinking in public places including the office, which is fair enough – the last thing you want to look at during 16 hours of fasting is someone going hammer and tongs at a Dunkin’ Donut and large coffee frappe. All the usual coffee shops, cafes and restaurants are shut during daylight hours and as BW “can’t be bothered” to pack a lunch and eat it in a little room specially provided, he is de facto fasting. Others I know with working spouses bemoan the caffeine withdrawal symptoms of partners whose early morning starts are fuelled by stop-offs at Starbucks and the like. Similarly, all outlets in the malls are shut and many hotels scale down their offerings. A quick bite out usually involves ducking round a screen into a discrete area where you can imbibe, Prohibition-style, your latte and snack.

 

But to my non-Muslim mind, the biggest challenge is for those workers who are Muslim and who work their way to the end of the day, some of whom are working outdoors in temperatures that could fry your eyeballs. Watching the men below, I wondered why these men were being fed at the mosque. Were they migrant workers without families to share a meal with, benefitting from a charitable act, or could anyone turn up? Do women do something similar somewhere private? Why weren’t the servers sitting down to eat too?

I don’t know the Arab word yet for “why” – the Arab language course I purchased is still sat in its wrapper, taunting me in my idleness. Maybe I should look it up and start asking the grown-ups round here some questions.  Perhaps over some Iftar, after I’ve fasted. Maybe tomorrow.

 

Breaking bread

The other night, BW and I enjoyed a takeaway curry and on this occasion I had to concur with BW’s usual mantra when it comes to food he’s enjoyed: “That’s the best I’ve ever eaten.”

It was simple: one mutton dish, one of curried vegetables and some parotta, a soft flatbread consisting of layered spirals, shared between the two of us. It was fresh-cooked, home-made, packed with flavour and very, very good. It was delivered to our door and it cost three of your English pounds.

Food, like nothing else, is the great comforter when it comes to settling into a new life – and it’s also a way of exploring other lives sharing space on this island. Newcomers are often warned that they will gain a stone in the first year as food is so plentiful, varied and available. Ask in Abu Dhabi and you will find it, whether it’s lobster from Oman, foie gras (they sell it in the supermarket downstairs), Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Marmite.

Food here is definitely haut – fine dining usually 40 or 50 floors up in a swanky hotel. Abu Dhabi is grand scale and will turn heads with its architecture, oud-scented malls and the patina of gold found on everything, including a plate of hotel chips (22 carat, I think), but the real culinary treasures are to be found in the back streets where a large number of the migrant workers eat and shop.

Wandering around these streets, away from the glitzy hotels with their executive chefs and signature dishes and extensive wine lists, offers a different sort of gastronomic education: sit down to a plate of koshari (a carb-fest of rice, lentils, macaroni, crispy onions and tomato sauce) and you’ll soon be talking to a guy from Cairo about what you’re eating and how to eat it. The conversation might not always go beyond a discussion of what’s on the plate in front of you, but what I have noticed is the genuine delight people take in seeing others enjoy their country’s dishes. We ordered a medium portion each but it was just too much, so the proprietor happily boxed it up for us, adding to what was left so that we ended up taking away the same amount of food as we had ordered.

Abu Dhabi is home to a host of Arab and Asian cultures. Around 90 per cent or so of the people who live here aren’t local and a large proportion of that number come from countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines. And they bring their cuisines with them, which is very good news indeed for the curious stomachs among us. And when we take our stomachs out to sample the food of our fellow migrants, we get curious looks – because quite often we’re the only white faces.

Most of us western ex-pats and tourists who, let’s face it, are the wealthy lot, will be found in the fancy hotel eateries about town – corporate hospitality is king, indulgence its consort and every night in Abu Dhabi glitters with blinged-up food offerings, gold toppings or no. But we don’t have the pay packet or the stomach for it on a daily basis. Who does? Even the gods must get a bit tired of ambrosia and crave beans on toast? Now I will happily enjoy the occasional, wonderful meal out with BW – cocktails (on ladies’  night they’re free for the girls), swish decor, the whole silver-cloched, flower-strewn, fusiontastic shebang. But in reality I’m a peasant and I like peasant food because it’s good, it’s comforting and it’s sociable. Which is why Abu Dhabi suits me just fine, because along with the showbiz cuisine, there’s the food of the people.

The deal-breaker in “going local” for most ex-pats appears to be alcohol, as this will not be available in most of the  Arab and Asian street restaurants. But if you’re prepared to forgo your chardonnay or chilled lager for a night, there are other pleasures to be had. To be honest, it’s a blessed relief to enjoy food sans alcohol. Really, if I had a quid for the many, many times someone has said to me “How will you get by without booze out there” I could get p***ed every night in the city’s seemingly endless array of bars without imbibing the same poison twice. (There’ll be more about booze at a later date). A cooling salt or mango lassi yoghurt drink is worth acquiring a taste for and the possible fruit and veg juice combos available would be a health freak’s dream, so long as you go for freshly squeezed and not the sweet syrupy varieties that are favoured.

Back to the food. So far, BW and I have enjoyed roasted fish Iraqi style, masala dosas (curried potato in a light, crispy pancake roll with assorted condiments including my fave, coconut chutney) and thalis (a platter assortment of curried vegetables, pulses, dips, breads and chutneys, with rice, eaten with the hands) exquisite Filipino pastries, Arabic breakfasts of soft sweet bread and eggs, salt cheese and olives, fig jam, yoghurt and ful medames (cooked and mashed fava beans), huge, lush salads, avocado juice, camel’s milk chocolate, roasted lamb and chicken and some of the many varieties of date (there’s an annual date festival here, in Liwa, which includes huge cash prizes for the best varieties. Deals are struck that mean some dates really are worth more than gold). And on each occasion, we’ve met and made contact with someone from somewhere else – shared a joke or a recipe, tried out some Arabic, or picked up a top tip for somewhere else to eat. I’m sure there’s lots yet to try and BW, the cook in our house, is slowly adding to his repertoire. Oh joy!

Abu Dhabi is a place also where old and new are often juxtaposed and yet in seeming acceptance of each other. Arabic bread is addictive and our favourite shop is an Afghan bakery. It’s easy to miss as it sits next door to a neon-lit Domino’s pizza takeaway. The open shop window serves as the proscenium for a bit of baking theatre. One fella kneads the smooth dough into balls which he throws to his colleague in the manner of a bored outfielder at a Sunday afternoon cricket match. The other chap, crouched barefoot on his haunches above a well-like oven or tandoor, shapes and stretches the dough on a cushioned board that he dampens first with water. The baker then leans forward to slap the resulting disc onto the wall of the oven below, leaning in at such an angle that you half expect him to topple in after it. A few minutes later, you have your flatbread. There are two types – plain or with sesame seeds. There’s usually a queue at the door. You order the required type and number, money changes hands at the doorway and for a couple of dirham you have the mainstay of your meal fresh from the oven, in a blue plastic bag pulled off a hook. It rarely gets home in one piece. Both Domino’s and our Afghan bakers enjoy brisk trade. Just down the street there’s a halal butchers, all sawdust, carcases and machetes, a bone’s throw from a store that sells luxurious chocolates (the Arabs have as sweet a tooth as I do!) including specially wrapped concoctions sporting the national flags of every football team in the World Cup.

Even in the malls, amid the global brands and scary designer outlets, you find little food surprises. In Abu Dhabi mall I followed the sound of drumming to discover a tall man in a white robe bashing a big pole into a deep steel tub. Peering into the tub I saw a huge wadge of mashed pistachios. “Pistachio ice cream, from Syria,” he said. And we talked about the Al-Hamidiyah souq in Damascus where I had eaten it once and I wondered if anyone was eating it there now. And it made me think that for some migrants, forced away from home by war and need, the food they eat and the memory of how to cook it is all that they have left of home.

To the outside world, if Abu Dhabi were a meal it would be a royal feast with roast peacock and lark’s tongues and chefs who conjure vaporous genies that dance in the mouths of delighted diners. But it is the date and the coffee pot that symbolise the Arabic emphasis on hospitality and welcome. Festivals like the one held in Liwa remind us of the city’s desert origins and the vital role that the date played in desert survival. But Abu Dhabi now is also a guy perched barefoot over an oven, or simple dish, perfectly cooked and served on a formica table top, that has the power to transport the eater back home, just for a moment.

Now Ramadan is approaching, when Muslims across the world will fast during the long, daylight hours of summer for a month. The experience of Ramadan takes food – and day-to-day life – into an entirely new realm for me. Will it be the fasting or the feasting that will enlighten more, I wonder?

Bring me sunshine (but not this hot – it’s 104 degrees out there for god’s sake)!

I spotted the following in The National, the main English language newspaper here in Abu Dhabi, and it got me thinking. Well, musing is my chief occupation just now so don’t say I didn’t warn you before you read on.

What is happiness? Why does it matter? What’s wrong with being miserable? When I’m miserable, I feel safe and secure: sunshiney moments of happiness bring with them the lurking dread, cringing in the shadows, that very soon the happiness will be over, and there’ll be hell to pay because happiness always comes at a price. So imminently there’ll be seven kinds of excrement hitting several fans. Well that’s how it seems to me.

IMG_1581

Sunrise over Liwa oasis, Abu Dhabi

Happiness isn’t happy things happening – it’s a state of mind. You know, that warm feeling you just can’t contain even when it’s wet, cold and you haven’t got money for the last bus home. No, I’ve not experienced that particular state of bliss either, but I get the picture. I have, however, stood broken-hearted at midnight on New Year’s Eve, surrounded by people apparently deliriously happy that they’ve crossed the line to a date with a new digit in it. So full of hope and joy. Idiots.

But I do buy into the idea that happiness is something you didn’t know you were experiencing until the moment has passed. So now, with time on my hands, I am watching myself like a hawk, interrogating myself several times a day: “You’re happy now, aren’t you? Come on, you didn’t get up till 11am. Then you read all the spoilers for Game of Thrones while eating Arabic bread covered in Nutella and BW can’t stop you because he’s at work, working, haha! It’s all blue skies and sunshine out there today! Again. Look at that view! There are dhows sailing past the kitchen window, and you’re four floors up. And you laughed when the cat made a new noise that sounded like “Whiskas” and when you gave him Whiskas, he ate it with what looked like total gratitude. YOU’RE HAPPY NOW AREN’T YOU????

This watchfulness is an exercise in futility. Happiness comes unbidden and unexpectedly and is recalled in later days when you realise that what you thought had been a really shitty time full of challenges was actually rather great.

Chasing happiness is another futile quest. There is no get-together, holiday or major life event that can impart the state of perfect bliss on demand: there’ll always be a fly in the ointment, usually involving a relative, the weather or an undercooked turkey.

So I am here, on what to all intents and purposes is an extended holiday until I “get on with it” (see my first blog for the origins of this sterling advice). The manic “I must enjoy everything RIGHT NOW” phase that usually accompanies the standard two-week joy-fest that is a summer holiday is long past and the daily panic that accompanies my currently unscheduled life must be dealt with again.

By contrast, the gainfully employed BW is fundamentally a happy man. He is the only person I know who says: “That was the best meal I ever had” almost every time he eats, and he means it. So I’m not surprised that he is puzzled by my bleak introspection.

But I’m working on it, BW. I’m sitting on cushions, in the shade, looking down on a green park lined with palm trees. Men in blue boiler suits, their heads swathed in cloth to protect them from the fierce sun are flaked out on the grass. They work long hours doing heavy manual work in sweaty heat because they have to, to survive. They’re laughing. Sharing a joke. Why? Why are they laughing? One guy is flat on his back, cradling his head in his hands, elbows crooked out either side. Another is feeding some of his lunch to one of the stray cats.

At the far end of my balcony, a pair of laughing doves has landed and they are canoodling, I think, just to annoy the cat.

It is a lovely day. And in England, right now, my mother is sitting in a windowless office with a consultant, waiting to find out if the four months of chemo she’s just had has done the trick. And I’m worried. Every pearl of a day has at its heart a little bit of grit, but without the grit there’d be no pearl. Ho hum.