You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
There is nothing more shameful than the expression on a dog’s face when he is taking a crap, except perhaps the expression on my face as I pick it up and place it in a small bag. The Indian and Pakistani laborers building a new road behind our villa pause to watch this grotesque spectacle of animal idolatry. Of course, it’s only my assumption they find us grotesque. Shrouded in dirty scarves, their stares are intense, but inscrutable.
By evening the workers will be gone, bussed back to their labor camps outside Abu Dhabi’s city limits. In the six years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a labor camp up close, but recently drove past one, something I would never have known had it not been identified by a large highway sign that actually said “Labor Camp” in large black letters. This struck me as funny, in a vaguely embarrassed way. I’m not unused to hilarious misappropriations of the English language in countries like Indonesia or Cambodia, but in the Arabian Gulf, it is rare. Most Emirati cities appear so westernized you could almost mistake one of their petrol stations, with their mini-marts and Burger Kings, for a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Here, in one of the most global countries in the world, it seemed odd that the connotations evoked by the coupling of the words “labor” and “camp” had been lost on the entire sign-making crew. How did they not know “labor camp” conjures up images of penal colonies and communist gulags? That the beauty of the English language is how easily it can be manipulated to cloak, rather than reveal a word’s actual meaning.
Calling a large camp of laborers a labor camp meant that someone clearly didn’t understand the nuance and value of a euphemism. Like today, when the workers appeared transfixed, repulsed, or maybe both by the woman walking her small dog, I’d describe that woman euphemistically as an artist, a writer with appealingly white teeth, caring for her beloved dog, rather than what these men actually see: an aging Western woman dressed in a Batik muumuu, stooping to pick up the turd of a small dog—an animal considered unclean in Islamic culture—kitted up like a pageant contestant.
I have been living in Abu Dhabi for six years now. I hadn’t planned on staying any longer than three years, for no other reason than my husband, Kevin, and I have never stayed anywhere longer than three years. Staying in the United Arab Emirates for half a decade has allowed me to amass a personal history that feels oddly less weighty than our previous two- or three-year stints in places like Louisiana or Thailand. On the other hand, even though the odds of catching Dengue fever or bird flu have diminished somewhat in the Gulf, making each day a bit duller by comparison, it is still easier to remember experiences centered in one place rather than many: Remember when my tooth fell out on a train in Chiang Mai? Or was it Kuala Lumpur? Was it even a tooth? Maybe I just had dysentery?
The decision—or more accurately, my decision—to move to the Arabian Gulf provoked one of the worst fights of my marriage. It was a loud, vicious kind of argument where f-words were tossed around like beads at a New Orleans Mardi Gras. This was uncharacteristic for both Kevin and me. Our marital discord is usually marked by a feline peevishness where one of us hisses their discontent until we both end up skulking outside doorways, waiting for an apology from the other. These are the kind of arguments that end in deep sighs and grudging, muttered apologies rather than flying cutlery. The fight was not about burnt pop tarts or my crappy libido or my inability to proffer the first apology after a tedious catfight over burnt pop tarts or crappy libidos. It was about what a therapist once confessed to me was the heart of all his patients’ true relationship difficulties: money.
There’s a common misperception that fighting over money implies the presence of actual money, which is grossly inaccurate. I’m convinced couples fight more over the absence of money than the presence of it. Or at least, that is what we were fighting over. After two years of living comfortably in Indonesia, Kevin and I had moved back to the States and were suddenly broke. Of course, I should point out that “living comfortably in Indonesia,” meant a single salary of 25k per year, which enabled us to fly to Bali, eat fried shrimp nightly, fix two root canals, and do some of our own writing on the side, albeit by candlelight due to frequent power outages. This amount did not, however, hold the same value in the United States. In fact, it didn’t hold any value in the U.S., hence our sudden painful shift from living like kings to living like paupers. And so began the punishing rounds of applying, interviewing, and more often than not, getting rejected by employers in just about every U.S. city. When Kevin’s only employment prospects came from a university in Texas for less than 24k a year (minus health insurance), we began to look for work beyond U.S. borders again.
Things looked more promising after a handful of job offers from places like Turkey, Korea, Micronesia, and the United Arab Emirates. We narrowed our choices down to a university in Abu Dhabi or a small college on the island of Pohnpei, Micronesia. And here was the source of a conflict that nearly broke our marriage: choose the more exotic, and perhaps more fulfilling, job with little money over the less exotic and potentially soul-sucking one for way more money. For me it was a no brainer; I bought a Quran and began shopping for long-sleeved tunics. After two years in Indonesia, I had grown weary of the exotic. I just wanted to be able to eat at a nice restaurant without worrying about tsunamis or amoebic dysentery. I wanted to buy the occasional designer bag and splash out on baubles for my dog. I wanted, for once, to get my teeth fixed at a dental clinic that didn’t have live chickens in the waiting room.
This sounded perfectly reasonable in my head, but when I tried articulating this to my husband, it did not go as well as I’d envisioned. I should have just told him the truth—that I was still me, just an older version that required more maintenance—but ended up throwing a bamboo cremation urn at him instead. In the end, I won, and three weeks later we stepped off the plane to accept my prize: an 8k-furniture allowance, a palatial flat with garishly high ceilings, and more emotional baggage than I’d ever imagined.
The university where I teach is just outside the city, near the airport. The campus is new and surrounded by desert, a stark and barren moon landscape. On a windy day I see tumbleweeds rolling past my office window, and once even spotted a stray Arabian saluki dog—a distinguished creature of sinew and spring—bounding after one. It was months before I saw the dog again. The only human activities I see outside my window on a regular basis are the university’s campus ground workers trundling past on 3-wheeled bicycles in blue jumpsuits. The university has provided the tricycles so that workers can quickly navigate a campus rivaling the nearby international airport in size.
The grounds and maintenance workers on campus are a constant, yet silent presence. The men, mostly Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi, work long hours for less than $300 a month, slightly more than what I spend on a dental cleaning for my Chihuahua. The day before last month’s convocation—when the important sheikhs and administrators make an appearance—there is a sand storm that buries most of the university access roads. Although the workers are dispatched to clear them, it is still windy when we drive to convocation the next morning so the lanes are again hidden beneath deep sand drifts. As soon as one section of road is cleared the wind picks up and the desert reclaims it. The workers, however, remain undaunted by the futility of their task. They work in tandem: sweep sand, shovel sand, and dump sand back into desert. And then the wind picks up and it begins all over again.
There is something strange about seeing a parable unfold before your eyes. Catching water through a sieve, sweeping sand in a desert—it is a Sisyphean tale of a person doomed to repeat the same mindless task over and over again, without pause or reflection. It would be comical if it weren’t so sad. The men appear less sad than automatic in their tasks, however. For them, their role here is clear.
Of course, my students are quick to point out, defensively, that these men’s paychecks are larger than anything they would receive in their home countries. While technically they may be right, I want to add that this doesn’t really address or excuse the bigger issue of class and inequity between the haves and have-nots. I remain silent, however. A discussion of class struggle amongst a class that has rarely struggled is one fraught with tension, particularly under my barely discernible judgment, which is misplaced and hypocritical; I came here for the same reason as every one else.
The United Arab Emirates was the first place I moved to for money. I say this without a trace of smugness. After all, if the pursuit of money—any amount of money—had factored into my decision-making years ago, my preoccupation with it would cease because the true boon of having money is not having to think about money. Yes, these are the revelations that a Creative Writer makes decades too late, but I’m clearly not the only since virtually every foreigner here is a resident worker. I’ve heard about tourists visiting Abu Dhabi, and occasionally I’ll read about some British tourist arrested for public intoxication in Dubai, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who came to Abu Dhabi on a holiday.
Abu Dhabi is not a normal looking place in any sense of the word. Everything in the Emirate’s capital city—and the flashier emirate of Dubai—is a jarring mix of the dissimilar. This morning, for example, I had coffee at a luxury hotel where a portly German tourist in a tiny speedo sunned himself on an equally tiny strip of artificial beach, oblivious to Friday’s call to prayer from the mosque across the street. On the way to work yesterday, my taxi driver narrowly avoided being run off the road by a Maserati, only to get stuck behind a slow-moving pickup truck with two camels tethered calmly in the back. And last week at the vet’s office, after my hybrid Arabian wildcat had inhaled her toy mouse in a moment of furious abandon—as is the wont of a cat that is wild—I sat next to a an Emirati man texting in one hand while balancing his prized falcon on the other.
Of course, the city’s weirdness can be partly attributed to its man-made context. The formerly barren desert landscape, which seemingly sprouts skyscrapers from the sand overnight, is overrun with aggressively angular towers made of pointy glass and metal. These buildings don’t so much scrape the sky as stab it. Then there is the marked lack of green, or any color besides beige, bar the odd date palm. The villas are beige, the malls are beige, and at dusk, if the wind picks up, the sky is the color of sand, which is, to say, beige. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are so manufactured and devoid of organic life you just can’t avoid the science fiction comparisons. Approaching Dubai from any angle is like walking onto a set from the movie Blade Runner; this, of course, begs the question, what—besides a robotic Rutger Hauer—would look natural in a synthetic place like this?
Strangest of all, though, is the fact that this otherworldly landscape is not the strangest thing about the United Arab Emirates. What makes the U.A.E. truly bizarre is the ratio of foreign resident workers to Emirati nationals: a staggering 80 percent. Alienated from the local population by sheer size, expats can go weeks, months here without speaking to an actual Emirati. On an average day I get a cab from a Nepali driver, a coffee from a Filipino barista, and then teach Emirati girls alongside colleagues from Britain, Australia, the U.S., Turkey, and Lebanon. If I get home early enough I’ll speak to an Indian customer service rep to fix my collapsible Ikea sofa, which has, unsurprisingly, collapsed.
Essentially, I live in a country that feels less like a country than an airport: a transient mix of foreigners occasionally bumping into each other as we generate enough money for life elsewhere, our next destination. Of course, it is a very nice airport. It’s air-conditioned, has good dentists and even better chocolate. Lebanese and Indian takeout are abundant, and I’m never at a loss for a McDonalds, its comforting smells of fried fat evoking the illusion of my American homeland. In the end, though, it’s still just an airport, a plush and sterile waiting room.
My favorite place on campus is a mirrored door in the library, separating the men’s side from the women’s. The university is split down the middle into two campuses—male and female—as cultural and social mores demand young Emirati men and women remain separate from each other outside of family-chaperoned outings. While both campuses are physically connected, they are severed by walls, doors, and security guards. Each side, which extends the length of what must be more than a football field, does literally mirror the other; for every stairwell, classroom, and even coffee shop on the women’s side, there is a perfect duplicate of it on the men’s.
A walk across both campuses is disorienting and exhausting, especially if you teach both male and female students and have less than fifteen minutes to get to the next classroom. The mirrored door route is not so much a shortcut, but it is definitely less populated than the more raucous sprint through the ground floor’s cafeterias, and because the entrance is card activated, you just buzz the door open.
And here is where it gets weird. The door does not open directly into an alternate male or female world. Instead, you first must enter a tiny, unlit closet. As you step in, the (surprisingly heavy) door closes, leaving you to scrabble in the darkness to activate another door, which does finally open into the men’s (or women’s) campus, depending on which direction you are going. The space between the doors is so small only one person can go through at one time, so for a moment, you feel as though you are trapped in a magician’s box. I’m not claustrophobic or scared of the dark, but for some reason the idea of being trapped in this gender-neutral-no-man’s land between two walls freaks me out.
I don’t think it was the architect’s decision to make an ironic statement about the reflective nature of Emirati culture. Expats are always describing the United Arab Emirates as a clever act of smoke and mirrors because it is a place so rife with contradiction; from afar, the U.A.E. creates a shimmery illusion of wealth, even if, up close, the strain of maintaining this illusion is apparent in its uneasy balance of spectacle and all things haram, forbidden by Islam. Dubai’s livelihood depends on tourists believing its myth of swank and sin, even though, when you turn on the lights, Dubai is nothing more than a second-rate Vegas showgirl posing as a Bolshoi dancer. Alcohol consumption is not even technically legal for tourists, and the Burj Khalifa may be the tallest building in the world (for now), but when all is said and done, it’s really just a tall-ish building with one very, very long antenna.
The United Arab Emirates is easy to criticize for this kind of ambiguity. As a country born practically overnight, it is kind of a like a rich kid who suddenly got popular, but isn’t entirely sure how to retain his status so he keeps tossing fistfuls of money around like confetti. Oh, but what money it is. There’s an undeniable joy in mocking wealth so jaw-dropping I still fumble for my camera after living here a few years, unable to resist the spectacle of a Rolls Royce triple-parked before a Burger King. In a world of personal drivers and nannies, of Dior show rooms and valet mall parking, of cake flecked with gold at gold-flecked hotels with ATM’s that dispense actual gold, the weirdness of its excess never ceases.
While not being the first person to accept a job in the Arabian Gulf solely for a paycheck makes me feel a little less sordid about my motivations, it has also revealed one of the most unsettling dichotomies of my life: I’m an outsider among an entire city of outsiders. In other words, I am an interloper and the majority. For someone who always saw herself as choosing a more nontraditional, Bohemian career path (read: poor and artsy) this has been wholly unexpected. Being surrounded by people just like me—foreigners beguiled by a tax-free salary—doesn’t feel very Bohemian at all. In fact, it feels startlingly ordinary. Had I been one of only a handful of foreigners in Abu Dhabi, I could have deluded myself into thinking I chose this place for artistic inspiration: oh how the date palms, red sand, and seven-star hotels nourish my art! I can’t fool myself, however. Not when everyone around me is doing the same thing: making money and waiting—waiting for when enough money has been made. Waiting for real life to begin.
It’s funny how time passes when your life is quiet and comfortable. It doesn’t just move quickly; it goes into an easy free-fall. Every once in a while, a sudden moment of clarity will alight gently on my arm like a moth and I think: life is good. And then, like most of these tiny revelations, it disappears into the ceiling light.
Though it has been almost twenty years since I lived in Connecticut, my internal body clock seems permanently fixed to mark the passage of time according to how radiant or dead the trees look, how deep my car is buried in snow, or how euphoric I feel on the first warm day in March. In Abu Dhabi, where there are few trees and a year can pass without any rain, the only two seasons are furnace smelting hot and benignly pleasant. Instead, I gauge time by major Islamic holidays, which slide back a few days each year according to the Islamic lunar calendar. Naturally, this only serves to create a sense that time isn’t just standing still, it’s now moving backwards Those inevitable time markers of middle age—turning forty, quitting smoking—tick past with alarming swiftness and little pomp.
Yet life is good. Working as a teacher in the U.A.E. has not made me rich, but after five Ramadans in Abu Dhabi, I have paid off my student loan, had three dental implants, and spent last Christmas in Bali. Water may be scarce and expensive in the desert, but gas is cheap and gloriously abundant. Vacation days are a remarkable eight weeks (or more) off a year, give or take a Muslim holiday, so I’ve spent holidays in Borneo, Scotland, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Oman.
Best of all is having healthcare for the first time in ten years. Not always the greatest healthcare, mind you; a doctor once assessed my back pain based on the pallor of my skin. After wading through the mess of Abu Dhabi’s overwhelmed healthcare system, though, I’ve managed to get my thyroid checked and be treated for asthma, something I’d never be able to achieve in the U.S. without decent insurance. Of course, the asthma may in fact be a direct result of breathing in the sand and construction dust polluting Abu Dhabi’s air, but I’m not about to split hairs. When I walked out of the pharmacy the other day with a bag of Symbicort asthma inhalers—inhalers that would have cost me $250 apiece in the U.S. without insurance—I felt like I’d won the lottery.
The cost of maintaining my human form and travel whims, on the other hand, is high. Work hours are long and teaching at the university is akin to walking an invisible tightrope—of navigating the rippling waters of what is and what appears to be. The university is based on the U.S. model of higher education, which lovingly espouses the ideals of critical thought and democracy, but this is often comically incongruous in a Gulf Arab Sheikhdom, particularly one prone to knee jerk reactions following the Arab Spring unrest all around us. A student body hopped up on western notions of free speech is the last thing the Emirati government wants to see.
I rarely do my own writing anymore. There is no time or head space, not when there are over a hundred argumentative essays about globalization or technology to mark. I miss rain and trees so acutely at times the absence of them feels physical, as if being unable to smell mud and wet leaves has dulled my senses. Then there is my Vitamin D deficiency, what Kevin calls vampire disease, due to a lack of sunlight. A deficiency in Vitamin D is rampant in the sunny Gulf countries because clear, sun-bleached skies eight months of the year are not as idyllic as you might imagine. Especially when your hair ignites and your skin sloughs off like blackened petals in direct sunlight. I’ve spent three summers in Louisiana, a year near the Sumatran equator, and at least four hot seasons in Thailand, but nothing—and I mean nothing—comes close to Arabian Gulf heat. The sun is a beast and the air near the coast so humid, a one-block walk to the mall in August feels as though you are swimming through hot porridge in a suit of damp mohair.
For all these reasons, I consider returning—repatriating—to the States every once in a while, though I haven’t actually lived there in nine years. I love the word “repatriation” because it imbues the act of returning to my motherland with a sense of nobility, however ignoble my actual reasons may be. The last time I repatriated back to the U.S. was from Thailand, where I’d worked for two years. Kevin had been accepted at graduate school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a place I found foreign and bewildering. Strangers would smile and speak to me in supermarkets, and roads would shut down entirely for football games. My new dentist strongly urged me to join a local church to make friends, and on LSU’s gorgeous, oak-lined campus, young preachers would stand outside the quad and bleat passionately about homosexuals burning in hell. No one seemed to find this weird, though.
There’s a sense of having to relearn an American’s social and cultural cues after being away for any longer than a year. In Thailand, I’d cast off my slouchy American insouciance to become a softer version of myself, one with downcast eyes and a sheepish grin, a woman who knew how to feign humility (no matter how cranky she may have felt). A meek demeanor doesn’t go over as well in the U.S., so I had to switch gears from soft to hard, which was more difficult than I’d anticipated. Casual exchanges felt forced as I struggled to appear like everyone else—an anonymous American. Inane tasks like buying a quart of milk were absurdly stressful during my first few days back in the States because all I could think was: Look the salesperson in the eyes when you speak to her! Stop looking at the floor—it makes you look weak! They’ll know you’re an imposter!
Eventually, I fit in the best I could. I learned what a turducken was, and though I never joined a church, I did join a local prayer walk once out of curiosity. I even managed to get a part-time job at the university and accepted that iceberg lettuce is the only lettuce in Louisiana. Despite all this, I never felt as though I’d fully assimilated, and couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d just gotten off on the wrong exit and it had taken us three years to find our back onto the freeway. It was less a feeling of returning to a place I was meant to be, and more a sense of I’d fooled everyone into thinking I was one of them, a natural part of the landscape.
The older I get, the more my life’s patterns begin to resemble the dips and spikes of an EKG. The accumulation of time—my time, forty-four years, to be exact—hasn’t yielded much in the way of wisdom, but has made it easier to spot repetition. Eventually I will leave Abu Dhabi. This I know to be true because it follows a lifetime pattern of arrival, layover, and departure. Some layovers are longer than others—six hours? two years? five?—but I will leave one day for no other reason than I always leave.
Besides, the Emirates provides a million reasons for leaving, the obvious being everyone leaves the U.A.E. at some point because you can’t live in an airport—however shiny it may be—for the rest of your life. What reason will I eventually use for leaving this place? Perhaps I’ll embrace the smoke and mirrors narrative, the one where the Emirates are no more than a gaggle of oil-slick sirens that tempted me to a life of slothful bliss, until I had a moment of clarity and remembered where my true home was. I like this one. Not only does it invoke a hero’s journey, it allows me to sidestep my culpability in coming here in the first place. How could I possibly resist a land that promises me a life not consumed with anxiety over electric bills, student loan debt, and that badly needed root canal I kept putting off? How could anyone possibly resist a place that wantonly lures you to its shores with an abundance of Toyota Land Cruisers and Five-star hotel High Teas? (Which are, incidentally, as awesome as they sound).
Yet this is as much a distortion as my imagined Magician’s box. The United Arab Emirates isn’t being anything other than seven Emirates united by blood ties and oil, just as the mirrored door isn’t being anything other than a poorly designed door made of mirrors. I chose to come here and I choose to stay.
The only problem is I’ve been here so long these “illusionist” mirrors no longer obfuscate the truth. Instead, they offer me up in all my glory: an aging woman with bad teeth, yet enough vanity to covet small luxuries like the occasional business class ticket, good quality knock-off designer bags (the real ones are still far out of reach), and new dental crowns whiter than virgin snow; a middle-aged woman that has long since come to terms with how easy it is to leave everything behind for the greener side of the fence. Even if it’s in the middle of a desert.
I don’t hate Abu Dhabi—I never have. What I do hate is how Abu Dhabi reflects what I hate most in myself: my fear and shame. My fear of mortality and having to acknowledge that I am getting too old to neglect dental cleanings—an easy thing to do when you can’t afford to pay for them. My fear of leaving behind Abu Dhabi’s clearly defined hierarchy, one based on family, education, and race, and the shame at how quickly I turn a blind eye to it, particularly when a Western teacher with a graduate degree will always make more than the South Asian laborer working on the road behind my flat. My fear of returning to America and not finding a job—or worse, finding a job where I will do anything to keep my head above water, however pointless and repetitive it may be, like sweeping sand in a desert. And most of all, that nagging feeling all expats feel when returning home: I don’t belong here, and never did.
What am I willing to give up for creature comforts and basic preservation? After living in Abu Dhabi for five years, I know the answer to this question. And it’s not the shame that bothers me; it’s my lack of it.
Will I ever return to the U.S.? Perhaps, though not before one final magic trick. It’s an elementary sleight of hand involving nothing more than mirrored doors, a magic box, and a lie. Watch now, as I approach the first door, which reflects back a woman, soft and pale from a lack of sun, but content with her dental veneers, new MacBook, and knock-off Gucci bag spilling with asthma inhalers. She hasn’t written anything on her MacBook, besides half-baked lesson plans, which is to be expected for someone who’d be described by others as an English teacher—no more no less. Watch as she disappears through door one and into the box, only to emerge on the other side. She is leaner and poorer now, but clearly a writer and an American patriot. You could tell this by her nails bitten to the quick, by that manic, hungry look of a woman who lives paycheck to paycheck. How beautifully she suffers for her art, for the love of her country.
There is nothing she would not do for either.