"Is this your first time in the United Arab Emirates?" The deep resonance in his voice startles me.
I am not prepared. My passport is quickly lost in his ebony hand. The best I can do is to squeak out a weak, "yes."
Sitting tall in his white robe and head scarf, he looks through me.
"Where are you coming from?"
"Beijing." I figure he thinks I'm nervous because somehow our cultural roles are reversed and in this part of the globe, it is I who could be the terrorist.
He smiles. I try to smile and be as worldly as my passport claims I am. But...please don't look at...
"Where do you live?"
I am relieved by the repetition.
"Beijing." Why? Because I am proud to come from China? Or now we are both sure that I am an American who can't possibly see the world from a strictly Western slash Judeo-Christian vantage?
The light gleams off his dark eyes. He knows more about me than I would like to share. He is regal
and I pretend he is all knowing. If his white teeth break out again under the goatee, I think I might faint.
It's a long overnight from Beijing. Maybe I've been in Beijing too long.
"Welcome to Abu Dhabi". It is a kingdom and all the men are princes, I think as I walk away
trying to avoid the eyes of all the other members of the royal family.
It's clean. Suddenly instead of spitting and snotting, men, tall men, glide in their stride in their white shimmering robes. The streets are immaculate. No garbage or dog poo, no donkey carts. There seems to be order at crosswalks and at street signs. And it's hot. The blue of the sky is interrupted only by the white minarets which reach toward Allah. Driving home with my friend on the five lane road amongst palm trees, I feel like I am in LA, an LA without traffic. Except, there are the robes, white and black, which seem at ease floating beside the blondes in shorts and others in suits. In the Paris airport the contrast in dress seems awkward. Here you want to wear a robe like the Emiratis. I want to be an Emirati. My friend tells me there are no poor Emiratis. When you turn 18 you get a car and a house. There is a lot of oil in this small land and the population is not as vast as Saudi Arabia. So the wealth is distributed. You can feel the oil money, of course like anywhere, some have more than others. Yet this is one reason they do not fear any kind of revolt. The poor people here are immigrants, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Philipinos. Immigrants can't stage a revolution. But everybody here knows that the country would come to a halt if the Indians stopped working. It is the Indians who are the middle managers, administrators and bank workers. The Emirates depend on them. But then I have to remember that if I were an Emirati, (and I like saying it-Emirati) I would not be wearing white but black. The thin material of the abaya falls loosely when you slip it on and the black head scarf too easily falls off one's head. When my friend took us to the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque commonly referred to as The Grande Mosque, I got my chance to wear one. It is instantly slimming.
I know, right about now I am supposed to get into the whole male-female Arab Moslem power divide. It's pretty obvious where that goes. There is more testosterone here and I can see that as a good thing and a bad thing. I know the whole polygamy, more than one wife situation is a bit weird and then I think about the benefits of having a part time husband. Either way you go with your position, the arguments seem evident. In the end, of course, I would have to speak up about having to wear black instead of white in that heat.
Although Abu Dhabi is a new city located where forty years ago there was mostly only sand, its history dates back to the 3rd millennium. Its origins come from a culture called Umm an-Nar. It was a village inhabited by nomadic camel herders, fishermen and pearl divers. Like much of the Middle East, it was a tribal culture headed by powerful Sheiks with the unavoidable interference of colonial powers, Portugal early on and later the British. The houses back then were made of palm fronds and the wealthy lived in mud huts-until 1952 when oil was discovered. At this time the seven sheikdoms unified into the present federation of states. The making of Abu Dhabi as a world-class metropolis started in 1966 when the mud huts were replaced by luxury hotels and high-rise buildings making up the now memorable skyscape.
My favorite thing to do here, besides catching up with my friends, is to go to the private beach, Corniche gate three. There is a 10 dhiram ($2.50) entrance fee and for five dollars more a Philippino follows you to a padded lounge chair of your choice and opens up an umbrella. And there you are right in front of the famous skyline on a fine white sand beach staring out on turquoise blue (did I say clean?) waters. It's unbelievable. I love Abu Dhabi. But I have to admit, since this is only March and I spend most of my time under the umbrella, that it must get insanely hot in the summer. I take many dips in the sea to cool off. No, it must get a crazy hot that I have never experienced. My friends say walking outside in summer is like opening the oven door- the heat just overwhelms you. You can't breathe. You have to move quickly from one air conditioned setting to another the way we in Beijing scurry to warmth in the winter. The sun could scorch you to ash; Make-up melts down your face.
The well-known Abu Dhabi malls provide acclimatized environments in which to move around and of course to spend all that oil money. They are destinations even for people who don't much like to shop. The architecture of these little cities is fascinating. They have indoor gardens, children's playgrounds and even massive aquariums. They are manmade habitats for the heat, really, a place to pass the day. The sport of shopping is contagious here and I take lessons from my friend's sixteen year old daughter who somehow convinces me to buy high heels and Ray Bans. I wonder how I my ankles will fare on the uneven streets of Beijing.
What I will miss most (besides my friends-the kind of people you meet in the world who give you a sense of home wherever they are-the kind of people who teach you that home is about people, not place) is the call to prayer five times a day echoing from every mosque in the city simultaneously. Starting at 5:53 AM (the time changes in relation to the sun) --- a man's voice sings-beautiful -tones which reach deep into a self so easily forgotten. It doesn't matter if you are Moslem or of another faith or of no faith at all-those notes in varying pitches reach for your soul, calling for your return. How does sound effect in that way? Every day the calls are different. The calls to pray structure the day. It is easy to keep track of time. I can count on an open reminder for my ancient self to be called back. It feels like safety. The kind of safety you have and understand when you say Allah in'shallah- God willing. I will see you again, Allah in'shallah-if it is meant to be. You can count on that. Really, it is all you can count on. I hope to return to Abu Dhabi-Allah in'shallah. Or at least I now have it in my dreams.