(Chapter One of my travel memoir, Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, published by Pan Macmillan in 2012.)
That first night in Abu Dhabi, I dreamed of a woman wearing a dazzling black headscarf hurrying through a maze of clay-coloured alleyways. She disappeared among the shadows cast by the domes of a nearby mosque and then suddenly appeared behind me, the ends of her scarf fluttering in the wind. Before she could speak, a warbling voice rippled in the distance, bellowing from on high. The noise washed over us, filling the alleyways with its strange, impassioned plea. I watched the woman turn to face the shrouded sun and sink to her knees. As she prostrated in prayer, whispering words like an incantation, I felt myself being lifted far above her until I hovered under the waning moon. That voice, raw and beautiful, echoed through my whole body.
I woke, but that ethereal sound didn’t end. The sunrise call to prayer had slipped into my dream and awakened me to the reality of Abu Dhabi, my new life and the one I’d left behind. I opened my eyes to the drab hotel room, with its rattling air conditioner and dark curtains, and wished this new reality would dissolve before my eyes like drawings in the sand. I shouldn’t be here, I thought. This was a huge mistake.
I got up, pushed the curtains aside, and studied the city at sunrise, with its glass-panelled buildings and dusty yellow cranes. Months ago, I had read about this country in outdated guidebooks. I’d marked pictures of oases and craggy mountains, roadside stalls selling carpets and camel blankets, goats and donkeys crossing one-lane roads and the distant palaces of sheikhs. I had been so sure of my decision to move to this tiny country in the Middle East, so ready to leave home, yet ever since I’d stepped on the plane in Boston not even twenty-four hours before I had been desperately trying to remind myself why I once found those images so appealing. Would I spend a whole year longing for my return?
Before settling on Abu Dhabi, I would concoct a new plan to live abroad almost weekly: a Fulbright fellowship to Bosnia; reporting on women’s issues in Zimbabwe; working for a language school in Krakow; teaching at a university in Istanbul. This desire to travel took hold during my last year of graduate school, when I noticed that it was taking me longer and longer to get out of bed each morning and awaken from the haze of half-sleep. I longed to be pulled and pushed, to journey to places that seemed unknown and less travelled, whose names held some kind of mystery and magic to my ears.
When international teaching websites began listing job postings from universities in the United Arab Emirates, I sent my CV to every one, in cities like Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I had heard of Dubai before, while working as a research assistant in London in 2002. From that office in dark and foggy Hammersmith, I pulled up pictures of paradise on my computer screen: pristine beaches, lustrous palm trees, shimmering bodies lying on golden sand. Dubai. The rising metropolis bordering Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf was a luxury travel destination with all the trappings of Arabian life–Bedouins on camels, tents erected in the vast desert, palm fronds sagging with clusters of ripe dates–alongside gleaming residential towers, themed shopping malls and international conglomerates.
Yet no one else seemed to see the romance of the place. When I spoke of my plan to teach in the UAE, classmates and friends responded negatively. Aren’t you worried you might teach a future terrorist? I was asked more than once. I was treated to lectures on the oppression of women in Arab cultures and told I would be forced to veil. Classmates brought up the stereotype of the dominant, possessive Arab male and joked about rich sultans demanding I become the third or fourth woman in their collection of wives. But in our divergent views I found another reason to pursue teaching in the Middle East. My friends’ prejudice and media-inspired fear was the opposite of my exotic imaginings; I wanted to find out what lay within that middle ground.
A few weeks after sending my job applications, a private university in Abu Dhabi asked for an interview. While I was disappointed I hadn’t heard from any Dubai universities, I couldn’t deny that Abu Dhabi, the wealthier, oil-rich capital emirate, held similar appeal. Abu Dhabi. Here was another enigmatic name, a place where I could witness the great divides of Islam and the secular west, timeless desert and futuristic cities, local people and foreign expatriates. When the HR manager emailed me a contract the day after our interview, I signed immediately.
But there was yet another, more personal reason this faraway place called to me. At twenty-six, I still clung to the fantasy of meeting the one. Like the place I longed to move to, the man in my imagination was exotic and vibrant, rare and beautiful. I had reasoned that such a man could only be found somewhere far away, yet as the plane pushed off from Logan airport and ascended high over the Atlantic, I could only think of Andres.
I had met him the night of my sister’s bachelorette party. As we raised our champagne glasses, I noticed an attractive man standing alone by the bar, watching me. By the time I took the first sip, he was beside me, asking in a clear, deep voice, “What are you celebrating?” I handed him an extra glass and we exchanged brief resumes: my undergraduate days at Boston College, six months working in London, then graduate school and teaching in West Virginia. He had gone to Harvard then Wharton Business School, and currently worked as the US CEO for Decathlon Sports, a French retail company. For the past ten years he had lived abroad, working in Latin America and Europe, mastering Portuguese, French and Italian. From my bar stool, I must have stared at him with a mix of admiration and caution. I had never met anyone so worldly and accomplished; what would such a man want with a girl like me? Yet he shifted closer; his green eyes, still bright and sharp behind glasses, gazed at me.
“So what do you do now? Still teaching?” he asked.
I took a sip of champagne. I had spoken so often about my upcoming move. At first, my departure date hung dreamily in the distance, two whole seasons away. Once I graduated and moved back to Boston, my refrain became, “My flight’s in a few months,” still distant enough to linger in the realm of Arabian fantasy. But the fantasy was now a reality. “I’m going to teach in the United Arab Emirates. I’m leaving in two weeks.”
His eyes widened. “When will you be back?”
I fiddled with the beads around my neck, fighting the urge to reach out and touch his curly brown hair. “I’m not sure that I will.” His eyes widened in surprise, then he fixed me with a look I would come to know well over the next two weeks: a gleam of recognition, admiration, providence. “You don’t hear an American say that often. As a child of Cuban exiles, I’ve never seen my home, so I’ve always felt sort of rootless. I never thought I’d meet anyone like me, willing to make your life abroad, not sure when you’ll return . . .”
He pulled out his wallet and handed me a business card. In crisp, bold letters it read: Andrew Pedroso.
“I go by Andrew in the States. But you can call me Andres.”
My first morning in Abu Dhabi started with haze, my glasses flushed with steamy humidity as I stepped out of my hotel. As the fog evaporated from my lenses, I watched the street sharpen into view, with its rows of boxy high-rises and billboards advertising gleaming new residential towers. Three or four lanky South Asian men in long, pale cloaks crossed the street alongside me while dingy gold and white taxis trolling the four-lane highway honked in my direction, presumably wondering why anyone, particularly a white woman, might wish to endure the more than one hundred- degree heat of noon. Yet I had no destination; I only wanted to glimpse this north-east corner of the city and shake off my lonely, muddled feeling somehow. Squinting up and down Al Salam Street, I peered at the sand-coloured towers and silhouettes of cranes heat-shimmering in the distance. The architecture was mostly bland–concrete and cinder–dotted with the occasional shiny glass building. I saw nothing to mark this place as intrinsically Arabian, raised from the windswept dunes; I detected no hint of the Middle East as it existed in my imagination. No coral stone houses or distant domes, only Citibank and scaffolding, a Porsche dealership on the corner. I could be in any modern city.
Dejected, I turned off the main street into a labyrinth of one lane alleyways. A more densely packed world, I weaved between dumpsters and cars parked up on the curb, low buildings stained from air conditioners dripping water. Crammed in at the base of these buildings were tailor shops and electronics stores, cleaners and flour mills. Indian men stood outside their shops, spitting in the street and glaring at me. What did they think of this lone western woman in a long white skirt and loose blouse, wandering with little purpose?
When I returned to my hotel, the doorman’s gaze registered surprise, and I wondered if his expression had to do with my venturing out alone or the state of my hair and blouse, makeup and glasses. Glancing at my red, rumpled reflection in the elevator’s mirror, I doubted if anyone ever adjusted to this climate. Then an older man in the national dress of a long pristine white cloak entered the elevator. He took one look at me and said, “Welcome to the UAE.” We laughed, and I found my answer. This man, with his crisp kandora and neatly trimmed beard, would never be so agitated by the heat.
In my room, I flipped through magazines on the nightstand: Time Out Abu Dhabi, Concierge, What’s On. They described all the goings-on in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, from new restaurants and spa deals to salsa lessons and ladies’ nights. I tossed the magazines back on the table. Shouldn’t I be in Boston, seeing if this brief romance with Andres might work? Still, I reminded myself, I barely knew him. All I had to go on was that hunch from the night we met, followed by two blissful weeks together. It was a flickering feeling that, however irrational, still struck me with its clarity.
As we separated from our final embrace near the security checkpoint, Andres reached out and touched my cheek. “You’ll have the best of both worlds. Have fun in Abu Dhabi and know that I’m here in Boston, waiting for you.”
“I’ll come back,” I said.
“I know. Just don’t fall in love with anybody else over there,” he teased.
I shook my head. Already the idea of any other man in my life had begun to seem ridiculous. My romantic vision of meeting a mysterious foreigner disappeared.
As I headed towards the security gate, Andres called out, “I’ll see you in three weeks.”
We had decided to meet in France at the end of September. Andres was invited to a friend’s wedding in Lille, and since my classes wouldn’t start until the week after that, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to see each other again. Yet the distance between that moment at the airport in Boston and all that lay ahead in those next three weeks seemed insurmountable to me. If I had known the word then, I would have replied inshallah, God willing. It would have summed up my hope and lack of hope for our next meeting.
Hours later, in my hotel room, I woke to a ringing phone. ‘Hi, Jillian. How are you?’ The man’s voice sounded familiar. ‘Who is this?’ ‘Hassan,’ he said.
Still, I drew a blank. ‘Who?’
Then I remembered. Hassan had interviewed me via video conference back in March. Even broadcast from thousands of miles away, his love of Abu Dhabi and pride in the university was visible. After we agreed that he would drop by the hotel to give me my food allowance, he asked, ‘Do you need anything?’ Later, I would learn this was a common question among Arabs, more perfunctory nowadays. At that moment, though, I thought of all the intangible reassurances I needed and knew there was no way to put those requests into words.
Fifteen minutes later, I found Hassan in the hotel lobby. He took a final puff of his cigarette and looked at me curiously. I worried that, like the woman who had met me at the airport the night before and ushered me through the visa checkpoint, he would say that I looked more like a student than a teacher. Instead, he handed me my food allowance money and said, ‘You look very different in person.’ Hassan had looked like a fuzzy blob on the video screen; I could only imagine what I had looked like to him.
He continued, ‘I thought you were much older. But in person I see you are very young, very pretty.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ I replied warily. ‘You look younger too.’ This was true. Hassan didn’t look much older than me. And he was certainly not unattractive with his slim frame, thick black hair and well- trimmed beard.
We exchanged awkward smiles.
‘You want a mobile phone? I take you to Marina Mall.’
Before I could agree or decline, Hassan was leading me to his car. As he drove us along the highway, Hassan gestured towards the cobalt-and-gold-patterned concrete promenade, lined with street- lamps and sturdy blue benches. ‘Have you seen the Corniche yet? It is beautiful, yes?’
It was, I agreed, admiring the surprisingly lush flowering trees and silvery railing, and, beyond that, the soft waves of the Arabian Gulf.
Hassan went on, ‘You know our provost? He come from Portland, Oregon. But he say Abu Dhabi is home. When people come here, they don’t want to leave.’
I wondered if I could ever feel that strongly about this place.
‘What are the students like?’ I asked.
‘Many like to teach the male classes better, because sometimes the females are too demanding, too talkative in class. ‘What do you mean “male classes”? Aren’t men and women in the same classes?’
He switched lanes and glanced at me. I must have looked stunned.
‘No one told you the university have different classes for males and females?’ He nodded apologetically, then explained, ‘One side of the building for the males and the other for the females. The sides are identical. Of course, they take the same classes, but not together. The females take class in the morning and the males in the afternoon and evening. Is better this way. The men sometimes work during the day, and the women don’t work, so morning is good for them.’
‘Oh.’ I tried to sound casual. ‘I see.’ Why didn’t I know this? He chuckled. ‘The men want to see the women . . . but they don’t want their friends to look at their sisters! It’s just the culture in the Gulf. You will teach the females. Is better for you. But if you want overtime, you can teach the males too. The new building isn’t ready yet, taking longer than we thought, so you will start your work at the old university building next week, meet the other teachers and prepare your classes. Easy time. Better for you than just sitting in hotel.’
‘Sure,’ I said, secretly glad the new campus was still under construction. The university was relocating to the middle of a barren desert town called Khalifa City half an hour outside Abu Dhabi city, and I wasn’t looking forward to the commute.
‘And your apartment will be ready for you soon. Few weeks. It is good location, centre of town, very modern inside.’
We passed the opulent Emirates Palace, then turned into Marina Mall.
‘Tomorrow, Abdul Rahman take your passport for the work visa. He will call you.’
‘When will I get it back?’ I asked, suddenly nervous. I had to attend a wedding in France in three weeks, I explained.
‘I can’t miss it.’
‘It usually take more than three weeks, but I will ask Abdul to speed up the process for you. Here we say mafi mushkala. No problem.’
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I feel so relieved’.
Hassan gave a slight bow and led me into Marina Mall, a shopping centre too big and too bright to take in all at once. At the centre of the ground floor, a fountain shot bursts of water from its kaleidoscope-patterned base, drawing the eye up towards the three floors of shops. Even at nine-thirty on a Wednesday night, it was packed. There were men in long white cloaks and headdresses, and women in black robes and satiny headscarves. There were salwar kameez and tight jeans, adorned jalabiyas and plain T-shirts. Even the shops themselves represented this great variety of clothes and costumes, with brands that seemed plucked from all over the globe.
I was fascinated by the dress of the local women – some revealing their faces, others only their dark eyes, a few completely cloaked in a sheen of black fabric. Their head coverings, sheylas, brushed seductively against their olive cheeks, the corners embellished with sequinned flowers or similarly colourful designs. Sweeping along in elegant black robes, abayas, I had the impression that the women were gliding. I felt clumsy by comparison, plodding along in wedge sandals and Capri pants. Before I left the US, several friends had asked worriedly if I would be forced to wear a burqa. They pictured Afghan women’s dress from news coverage of the war, a far cry from the abaya and sheyla. They were relieved when I told them I would only have to dress modestly, covering shoulders and knees. In fact, I had thought I might try wearing the national dress if that seemed appropriate, but I now knew I wouldn’t be able to pull that off.
I chose my phone and Hassan drove me back to the hotel. I stared out at the darkening highway, feeling far from home and far from Andres.
At the hotel Hassan insisted on walking me inside. ‘You seem distracted,’ he observed. ‘What are you thinking of?’
‘My boyfriend back in the States,’ I blurted out, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Yet I needed to tell someone here about Andres. Speaking of him might make this improbable romance seem less like a dream.
Hassan nodded sagely. ‘Love is a tricky thing,’ he said, then asked with uncharacteristic formality, ‘Shall I walk you to your room?’
‘No, that won’t be necessary,’ I said, stepping into the elevator. As the doors closed I heard him say, ‘Remember, you must think UAE, not USA.’
My departure date loomed over our first date, making the evening far more intense than a simple get-to-know-you dinner. Andres asked me a slew of questions, anxious to know everything about me. I told him about all the books I wanted to write and places I wanted to live until he eventually put his hand over his ears and cried ‘Stop it! You’re just going to make me like you even more!’ After just a few hours together, he knew more about me than most men I had dated for months.
I listened to his stories of learning to salsa dance in Puerto Rico, reinventing the Puma brand while working in Germany and taking Italian lessons to communicate with a woman he had fallen in love with years ago. Romantic and funny, he seemed like someone who would spend his life travelling and discovering, a life I could easily imagine sharing. After that first date, we decided to make the most of the little time I had left in Boston. We spent every night that week together.
On the night before my flight to Abu Dhabi, I waited for Andres at a bar in Harvard Square. Every few seconds I glanced towards the entrance, anxious for him to walk through the door. When he finally arrived, looking casual in a black sweater and jeans, I knew, with frightening certainty, that this was it, my great romance. Feeling unbelievably special and undeserving, I leaned into his strong and solid chest and he whispered in my ear, ‘When I look into your eyes, all my stress and worries from the day just disappear. You mesmerise me.’ Pulling me close, he continued, ‘I haven’t felt like this about anyone since I was a teenager in love for the first time. But I’m thirty-five now. I can wait a year, but not much longer.’
I nodded, understanding perfectly;; I didn’t want to wait any longer either. We decided to try a long-distance relationship for the year, and then I’d return to him in Boston.
I hailed a taxi outside of my hotel and told the driver my destination: Abu Dhabi Mall. After nearly a week in Abu Dhabi, I had visited one of the two large malls at least once a day – I couldn’t think of any other activities besides buying supplies for my new apartment and trying to piece together some fashionable outfits for my trip to France in a few weeks. Lost in thought, it took me several minutes to notice that the driver wasn’t going anywhere, but was instead staring at a young blonde woman waiting at the hotel entrance. He uncharacteristically motioned for her to get in the front seat, and she hopped in.
‘Hope this is all right,’ she turned and said to me with an Irish accent. ‘It’s too hot to wait for another one.’
‘He wasn’t going anywhere until you got in anyway.’ She laughed and stuck out her hand. ‘Hi, I’m Clare.’
Clare was on her way to the bus station to catch a ride to Dubai, about an hour and a half away, to visit some friends. I envied the ease with which she was able to travel to Dubai and the friends she had already made there. About my age, Clare had started teaching primary school a month ago. We exchanged room numbers and I felt pleased to have found a friend. I gave her three dirhams, just under one US dollar, to cover my share of the fare, and crossed the street to the mall.
It was a Friday, the first day of the weekend in this part of the w o r l d , a n d t h e M u s l i m h o l y d a y . I h a d n ’ t r e a l i s e d t h a t a l m o s t a l l t h e shops would be closed until after three pm. Downstairs, the Abu Dhabi Co-Op supermarket was open. I lingered among the aisles as an angry voice speaking in Arabic blasted through the store. The imam, or mosque leader, had begun his Friday sermon. While I was becoming familiar with the muezzin’s calls to prayer five times a day, this was something else: the imam spoke for nearly an hour, expressing what sounded like harsh warnings rather than the melodious call. The Indians and few westerners beside me seemed to have tuned him out.
My new mobile rang. Andres and my sister would be fast asleep by now. Who could this be?
‘Hi. You must be hungry,’ Hassan said. ‘Have lunch with me.’
We met at the Shamyat, a large Lebanese restaurant. After declaring that I looked ‘charming’, Hassan ordered enough food for a large family. ‘I’m sure you don’t eat much because you look perfect. But you will eat a lot today!’
I cut his banter short. ‘Are you sure I’ll get my passport back in time?’ When I had given my passport to Abdul, the visa liaison officer, a few days ago, he said he hadn’t heard anything from Hassan about getting it back to me faster than usual. He had scratched his head, saying it would be difficult, and that he would have to talk to Hassan.
‘It won’t be easy,’ Hassan said, folding and unfolding the corners of his napkin. ‘But I’ll talk to Abdul. You will also need how many days off for this trip?’
‘Just two,’ I told him, ‘before classes even start.’
He shook his head. ‘Might be too difficult to arrange . . . but I will do the best to help you.’ I glared at him. What happened to mafi mushkala?
After lunch, a tedious two hours of Hassan talking about his youthful looks and interminable search for love, he dropped me back at the hotel. ‘You know,’ he said, grabbing my elbow, ‘I wouldn’t go to this trouble for anyone else.’ A picture of him dangling my passport in front of me leapt into my mind.
The following night I knocked on Clare’s door and asked if she had her passport.
‘Nope,’ she said, gesturing for me to come inside. ‘My school took that a while ago. They said I’d get it back in two weeks, but it’s already been a month. I don’t plan on seeing it any time soon.’
Crestfallen, but glad of company, I went into her room. She described the rest of the taxi ride to the bus station. ‘He was trying to touch my leg, saying, “You my friend, you my friend.” No! I’m not your friend! What a creep! I’ll never sit in the front of a taxi again.’ With her curly blonde hair, blue eyes and fair complexion, I imagined the Pakistani taxi driver didn’t often sit next to women like Clare.
She told me about her boyfriend at home, teaching kindergarten, and her Filipino teaching assistants. ‘Jillian, if there’s one thing I’ll take away from living in this country, it’s the awful prejudice. These women are trained teachers back in the Philippines, and here they work ten-hour days for a quarter of my wages. And I took a pay cut to come out here.’
‘What made you decide on Abu Dhabi?’
‘A recruiter came to Dublin to hire a bunch of teachers for Abu Dhabi schools. I realised that if I didn’t take the opportunity to live abroad now, I never would. Besides, I’m learning to appreciate the teaching system back home.’ With her broad smile, Clare seemed like someone who could make the best of any situation.
It turned out she was on her way to meet some Irish friends at Heroes bar in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and she invited me along. After a short taxi ride, we headed to the basement bar. It was as though I had stepped into a pub in Ireland. Rowdy men cheered on their Gaelic football team and downed pints of beer;; I hadn’t seen so many white faces since arriving in Abu Dhabi. Clare led me to the end of the bar, where she found her fellow teachers. I ordered a beer, surprised by the ease with which the Filipino bartender handed over an Amstel Light. I had read about liquor licences and secretive locations that sold alcohol, but Heroes, and every other hotel bar (there was no other kind in Abu Dhabi), clearly operated under a different policy.
I met Gina and Marguerite, both twenty-five year old teachers for Cheuifat, a chain of primary schools throughout the UAE. They told horror stories of unruly children, spoiled rotten by parents who often forgot to pick them up after school. ‘We didn’t even come here to teach little ones,’ Marguerite said. Sighing, Gina told me they had been promised economics classes in a secondary school.
I turned to Clare and noticed her staring at a couple in the corner. ‘Is your boyfriend going to visit?’ I asked.
‘Hopefully, yes, but I’m worried about the restrictions here.’ Clare explained that public affection wasn’t allowed, even for westerners. ‘It’s okay to hold hands with someone, but you can’t make out on a street corner or anything. I’ve heard too many rumours of western couples going to jail for kissing in public.’
‘Jail?!’ I couldn’t believe it. ‘I’ll have to break that one to my boyfriend,’ I joked.
Gina asked about him, and I told her about our rendezvous in France.
‘You got your passport back already?’ she said, clearly surprised. ‘I was told I would soon,’ I replied, feeling a catch of anxiety in my chest.
‘Most companies are afraid that their new employees will run off in the middle of the night, so they hold onto our passports for as long as they can.’
As if one cue, my phone vibrated in my pocket. Andres. I stepped outside to take the call and heard him say, ‘Hey, baby, get your passport ready – I just bought our tickets to Paris!’
I feigned enthusiasm for our reunion, but felt hopeless. Here was another moment to use the word inshallah. The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to see him again.