My arrival and beginning to teach in Abu Dhabi

This is actually from August in 2007, when I first arrived in Abu Dhabi. I sent it out as a group email to some friends and family, but decided to copy all my old group emails into here to set the scene and background. This is the first one:

It has been a week and a half now that I’ve been living here in a “villa” located in what feels like the middle of nowhere, and teaching ESL to a group of very opinionated, outgoing, irritating and charming women.

I arrived 10 days ago. Mom met me at the airport with a bouquet of flowers, because it was my birthday. I had quite forgotten that it was my birthday by that time, and so was awfully pleased to see her and them. She then took me home in the taxi. This took some time, and far longer than should have been required given the actual distance between the airport and our house. Due to very strange addressing practices here, telling a taxi driver where you live is less than straightforward. Anyway, I am now VERY familiar with a part of town I’ll probably never have cause to see again – Zone 135. Mom kept telling him we were in the wrong section, because all the street signs round where we live say Zone 133, but he just kept saying the Zones don’t mean anything to anyone. At one point he stopped and asked some other guy for directions to the firehall (Mom had said we were close to the firehall – a note from my future self: this turns out to be untrue). This second man spoke and gestured very confidently in a direction-giving kind of way. So our driver decided to bring him with us. At this point, with the two men in the front, Mom and I became invisible and inaudible despite many attempts at communication on our part, and so the four of us circled various parts of Zone 135 for another 30 mins at very high speed. Eventually the second man was dropped off again where we had found him, and the taxi driver called back to the dispatcher to request directions from them. That turned out to be successful, and we arrived at home at 12:30 am local time about an hour after my arrival at the airport, in Zone 133, as indeed all the signs do say around here.

It turns out that this was a useful experience, as I was able to direct another lost taxi driver to our home from Zone 135 five days later. So there you’ve got your silver lining.

I brought along a thermometer and a humidity meter.  When I arrived, the humidity was hovering around 80%, and it has now gone down to between 30% and 50%. The temperature has been HOT. Between 23 and 42 degrees over the course of a 24 hr period, according to my thermometer.

I have, or rather, had, until today, a class of women that I was teaching Level 2 English to. There is to be big upheaval at the school tomorrow and we will see how that turns out.

I came in to the school the morning after I arrived, just to get a sense of the place, settle into my desk, etc. and ended up being put to work teaching my class that afternoon. It was not a good beginning. They didn’t like me, felt I was unclear, and they didn’t understand me. I’m quite sure that I was unclear. I was unclear in my own head; remember, I had at this point been in the country for about 8 hours after approximately 24 hours in airplanes and airports. They are very straightforward, so they headed off to Eddie (the liaison for our program) and also the Tawteen office (Tawteen (means essentially Emiritization) is the program I am part of) to complain. They complain at the drop of a hat I have been told, and have now witnessed on numerous occasions. They told them that they wanted to have morning classes, not afternoon, and they didn’t like me. So, terribly wounded, but deciding against quitting right away as a solution, I pulled the knife from my chest, and focused on trying to get a handle on my job, and developing a thick skin.

We have gotten used to each other now (we’ve done the bonding, as my friend Penny would say) and I think I know most of their names (5 Fatimas, so I have to use middle names there). Then today, some of them received text messages saying that they were to go to a new room tomorrow morning, as they had been transferred to morning classes. Well, it turns out they have grown fond of me, and perhaps I have improved in the clarity department, so they trooped off to Eddie and the Tawteen office to request that I be changed to their morning class with them. But the students staying in the afternoon want to keep me as their teacher too. So both groups now want me to go and tell the office that I am to be with them. I just said, “it’s not my decision! I just show up when and where they tell me too!” which is true. All of the afternoon classes are going to be rejigged and many students moved to morning. It’s better for the women, because many of them have small children, and evenings here are family time, so they don’t want to be at school then.

The women in my class do wear the abaya (long black cloaking dress) and shayla (headscarf), but they do it with such queenly elegance, and even pride, that it doesn’t strike one as a hardship or an imposition at all. They pace about, never hurrying, constantly rearranging and tossing their shaylas over their heads gracefully in such a way as to give the impression of royalty.

One of my students, Fatima Salem, taught me how to count to ten in Arabic a couple of days ago after class. Then, while the class was busy doing a pairwork discussion exercise, she wanted to show another student what she’d taught me, so I demonstrated my new counting ability, and as I was reciting, the whole class hushed up and started listening to me. I finished and they all erupted into clapping! Yes folks, I got a round of applause for counting to ten! It was quite gratifying actually.

Three of us from my villa attended a wedding last weekend, and that was a different sort of affair altogether. We were, of course, at the women’s side of the party, and it is a party indeed. All the women are done up to the nines, with shiny, tight, low cut gowns, and more makeup than Miss Universe and there is music, and u-u-lating, and circles of women and children dancing belly dancing moves with each other. Food is on the tables, serving women walk around with little tiny mugs of tea and coffee, and perfume that you put on yourself, including a smoking perfume that you waft towards yourself. Then more food appears. Then dessert. And then! The bride… She wears a white dress so heavy and unwieldy that she can barely walk, but she does her best, walking down the red carpet from the door to a raised catwalk at the other end of the room. There she has to be helped up onto the cat walk—the stairs are too much to be managed in that dress—and she walks the rest of the way to the chaise lounge set up at the end. Once arrived there, photos are taken of her with family, friends and babies, and an hour later, the groom and some other men(family?) come into the room. There is lots of warning before this happens, so that the women can all put on their abayas and shaylas, and be well covered by then. Once the groom has made the walk down the red carpet and he and his group are with the bride, everyone suddenly starts leaving! Party’s over! All the women started leaving, so we did too (besides, it was 1am), and I looked back and saw that the bride and groom were cutting the cake. But it just seemed like an afterthought.

They are also very interested in the status of my love life. In particular, when I intend to marry. I made the mistake of telling two who asked early on that I had no intention of ever marrying, that I didn’t see the point. I have no religion that compels me to marry, so why bother? This was met with shock and confusion. Especially when I said “maybe” about children. This pair told me I needed to marry if I was thinking of children. Right, I said , well, perhaps I will then… I’m going to be less honest about that in future. It’s too difficult to explain to people who don’t have advanced English, and have a very different cultural background, and it just makes it more difficult for us to relate to each other. My new line has become: maybe, on both counts. They encourage me to marry by next year.

What else…the villa. I live in Villa 3 and have 5 villa-mates, one of whom is my mom. There are 6 villas in our ‘compound’, that is the Arak Compound, and we really feel we are in the middle of nowhere. It’s half an hour by taxi to town, and taxis are most easily picked up half a kilometre walk from here. Therefore, we are strapped for entertainment. It’s like a little village in the middle of the desert. There is a group that meets at Villa 6 on the front steps for drinks (which are actually quite easy to get here) and sitting about in the evenings. It’s referred to as the stoop, as in “Are you coming over to join us on the stoop later?” So, anyway, sometimes I go and sit on the stoop with the others. It’s actually quite pleasant. It’s hot out, even at night, but they leave the door open and so get a cool breeze from inside the house. We just sit about and chat, or are quiet, and sometimes a taxi will appear and so we get a bit of speculation/entertainment. Who will this be? What have they been up to? One of the natives of Villa 6 used to be a cook for a living, so he sometimes disappears inside for a bit, and then reappears with snacks he’s cooked up.

Went into town, a 20 minute drive from here, on both days of the weekend, but it’s too hot right now to do anything outside, so I have really only been inside malls and a little wander through the Emirates Palace Hotel (a 7 star hotel, I’m told) just to gawk at it with the other tourists.