I am sat at Frankfurt airport as I write this. Shawarma shops have been replaced with pretzel shops and I haven’t heard a call to prayer for the whole day. My body has reacted to this change by giving me a runny nose as if in preparation for going back to Tartu where the current temperature stands at -4C. If it’s not minus double digits it’s pretty much summer.
On my first weekend in the UAE we went to visit a town famous for its many oasises – Al Ain. It’s about an hours’ drive through the desert where all you can see is camels, sand and local boy racers feeling like they need to drive extremely fast and recklessly in order to be respected members of humanity.Al Ain is a far cry from Dubai and feels a lot more ‘normal’. We had a walk around the oasis, which was not a couple of palm trees, a well and Arabic ladies with buckets chatting by the well. It was rather a park with lots of palm trees and stone walk ways. The peace and quiet made for a nice change, but the place completely crushed my oasis stereotype. Obviously everyone has an oasis stereotype. After our walk we went into a local mall and had some mandi food, which is a local speciality resembling biryani. A pile of rice and stewed mutton is served with tomato relish and yogurt sauce. Meat is beautifully succulent and the locals especially enjoy the bone marrow, so slurping sounds all around.
After Al Ain we went on to Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the UAE and the second biggest city. We went to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is the 8th largest in the world and the largest in the UAE. The building of the mosque was commissioned by Sheikh Zayed (full name Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan) who is known as the ‘father of the nation’ and the most loved ruler of the UAE. His final resting place is located next to the mosque.
I covered my head and we proceeded to the entrance of the mosque. David was not allowed in due to his very indecent shorts, which did not reach below his knees. While my improperly dressed husband waited for me I walked around admiring the arches, minarets and marble floors with decorations in them. I didn’t stay for long to make sure David wasn’t being punished for his indecency.
Abu Dhabi also has the second tallest flagpole in the world. They seem to like to have the biggest, tallest, fastest and most expensive of everything in the UAE. While David went for a meeting I went to the beach for an hour or so. I ended up getting very burnt and looked ridiculous at the end of the day.There I was thinking people were staring at me because of my good looks. Nermal was not in Abu Dhabi.
During my last weekend in the UAE we visited the emirate of Fujairah, which quickly became my favourite. Firstly, the drive to Fujeirah went through mountains, which was a nice change of scenery to the desert. The camels were still there. Secondly, one can find original Emirati culture in the villages of Fujairah. The UAE has been trying to preserve and introduce the Emirati culture, but it is usually done through museums of purpose-built heritage villages, which never feel like the real thing.
So when we drove into a sleepy village town of Masafi we were invited by a road side vendor to try some Emirati food, which is like a porridge made of wheat and meat called harees. An Emirati family had stopped at the stall and the lady kindly explained what we were looking at (the first local lady that has taken up conversation with us). After tasting some local donuts with honey we went to buy desert honey ourselves. We were called to a back room and then the negotiation started. I believe we still got ripped off, though. People selling the fruits were from Bangladesh or Pakistan and all competed in offering us a taste of their mangoes trying to convince us to buy some. We went from stall to stall and completely satisfied our mango appetite. Handmade carpets, pots, pans and firewood could also be found in the streets of Masafi.
After Masafi we set our compass towards the beach. We were no longer by the Arabian Gulf here but by the Gulf of Oman. We headed for a town called Khor Fakkan, parked up and headed for a walk to the beach. It seems the local Saturday (our Sunday) tradition is to have a picnic in the park with the family. We saw tens and tens of families sitting on carpets gathered around a braai or a huge pot of food at the park by the beach. This was another piece of local culture, which I was so glad to find because it makes the people of the UAE seems so much more than rich shopaholics driving around in fancy cars which they are often perceived as. I suppose this is the image that easily forms of the locals you see in Dubai. So seeing people just spending time with their family chatting, playing badminton, eating was a really nice change.
We found a nice little local restaurant to have lunch in. Local stray cats fought for our falafel and grilled chicken, but they were chased away soon by our Cameroonian waiter who had a hard time believing David was from Zimbabwe. Usual stuff. After eating it was time to find a place to swim. As Fujairah is a lot more conservative than Dubai or Abu Dhabi, it was not an option for me to swim in my bikini at the public beach. And there is our first culture clash. Obviously we have no problem with respecting the local culture, so we went to a nearby hotel looking for a private beach. The Russian flag flying high at the resort did not bode well – price for swimming £30. I refused to pay that, so we went back to the public beach and David went for a swim while I enjoyed the view. I don’t think burkini would have helped here since I saw none of the local ladies swimming in any kind of attire. We need to do more research next time and find some hidden beaches, which there are many of.
It was now time to head to Fujairah town for another local tradition – bull fighting. The Arabian bull fighting is a lot less gruesome than the Spanish version. It is not a man vs bull fight, but is about finding out who has the strongest bull. Every Friday (except for during Ramadan) the locals gather around a designated arena for bull fighting. They park up their cars around the circle, put their kids on the roof and enjoy the spectacle. The bulls are brought over and tied up outside the arena. They are very agitated and constantly scraping up sand with their front hoof.First, a number of local guys take their seats on the plastic chairs or on the floor of the ring. I believe they are a mixture of bull owners, handlers and judges.
The bulls are brought into the ring in twos. A starting siren sounds and they go head to head doing a kind of bull sumo fight – who pushes the other out first is the winner. The end siren rings and then my favourite part begins. The bulls don’t care about the siren, they are still locking horns in an angry fight, so it takes at least 20 men to separate the two bulls. At times the bulls charge at them and they run away holding up their dish dash. The bulls are then taken out of the arena and new ones are brought in. This will last for a couple of hours. Tough bull-growing guys buy pink strawberry ice-cream to keep their energy levels up.
We stayed for about 3 fights and then left. We found it a bit dull and the bulls waiting for their fight were getting so agitated it was not a very nice place to be in.
Driving back from Fujairah we stopped in the desert near Dubai and tried to do a metsapeatus (forest stop, i.e toilet break), but it is really hard in the desert where there are no trees to cover you. Luckily we found some dunes. I stepped onto some desert plant and now have a slight limp as I have 4 splinters in my heel, which are not coming out. Sunset in the desert is very special nonetheless.
A bit of biryani and a lot of culture clash
A colleague of David invited us to his house for lunch. He and his wife and two little children are from Pakistan, but have spent a lot of time living in Saudi Arabia before they moved to Dubai.
We were so happy to have been invited to someone’s house as it is a really welcoming gesture and it is always nice to have some homecooked food and conversation with people from different places.
We arrived at their flat, rang the doorbell and went in. They live in a nondescript apartment building like the majority of people in Dubai in a nice 2 bedroom flat with views to other apartment buildings and the desert. We were welcomed first by David’s colleague and naturally I stepped forward to shake his hand as I had not met him before. He stepped away and shook his head without looking at me. Awkward moment number two. I started to realise this was a more religious household than either of us knew. I was then invited by one of the kids to go to another room, where I was met by the mother of the family. She invited me to take a seat at a coffee table in her bedroom and offered me some juice to drink. We sat down and exchanged some formalities, had a chat with the kids, who were absolutely lovely. I then realised that I shall be having lunch here with the ladies and the men in the living room. The mother of the house won’t be seen in front of David as he is not a relation of hers so there is no need for her to meet him.
She cooked a magnificent shawarma and biryani and while we ate it she started to tell me a lot about Islam and their way if life. She gave a different explanation as to why women need to cover up. She said it was because of safety. It would be less dangerous for a woman to walk along the streets if she was hidden from the lustrous looks of men. She also said that when she needs to deal with a man on the street or a shop she does not speak warmly to him, but is straightforward in order not to cause any confusion in what she’s after.
This lady is highly educated with an MA in microbiology and an accounting qualification, but she will not work, because she wants to take care of her children and she wouldn’t manage to take care of her children and husband while working. This is OK as a lot of the kids in the UAE are brought up by nannies, but something in her tone told me that she misses grown-up conversation and a bit of brain stimulation.
We spoke also of the differences between Christianity and Islam and about all the prophets from Adam to Jesus we have in common. She believes Jesus was later seen in Saudi Arabia, had a wife and a child and died of old age. While she stated that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the same God, everyone who is not a Muslim will burn in hellfire when the judgement day comes. I smiled and moved on.
The children have Qu’ran classes every day and learn to read it in Arabic even though they don’t speak Arabic. Since the Qu’ran was first written in Arabic, it has to be read in its original form and can only then be translated into a language one understands. The children’s Qu’ran teacher encouraged them not to use the word ‘hello’, because it is actually Hell – o. This had never ever crossed my mind before and I am sure if one starts looking a lot of meanings can be attached to a lot of words like this.
We spent about 2 hours eating and talking about religion, kids, shopping and cooking. I can’t remember all we spoke about now, but the whole time I felt so alien. It was like entering a completely different world. I completely respect the people and their culture, but at times it felt like a set up conversion lunch. Made me appreciate the freedom I have as a woman to do whatever I want, wear whatever I want and to choose whatever I want in life and have a husband who supports my decisions, however ridiculous. When it was time to leave David’s colleague sent word with one of the kids that I should now emerge from the women’s quarters. Awkward goodbyes, a few books about Islam in hand we left full of great food. What a bizarre experience.
It seems that every Muslim I meet has a different opinion of what a good Muslim should be like, so I have no yet formed a clear picture about Islam or Muslims. Time to go find some history books.
When in need for some gold bars, you can stop here:
You can use the gold you acquired to buy a golden PS4.