Recently, I returned from a three-week trip to the United Arab Emirates and Oman. What a culture shock! Even though I had had the benefit of my husband’s six-year experience in these locales, setting my own foot in the Arab peninsula gave me sensations I hadn’t expected nor could have prepared for.
On my first day there, hubby had to work. So, a long time friend who also happens to be working in Abu Dhabi offered to take me out to lunch at the neighborhood mall. Feeling excited and curious, I was delighted to have a personal guide for this first mini excursion. Louis and I walked out of the company-furnished villa towards his car. Taking a few steps and sniffs, I noticed the absence of smell. It was dry too but not nostrils-stick-together dry like on those crisp winter days in Canada. Glancing at the horizon, I saw the air was not only dry and odorless, it was also smog-like. A thick layer of wind-swept sand particles saturated the atmosphere, robbing the sky of its colour. No blue. No gray. Just blah. Uhm, no smell, no colour. Interesting but nothing to write home about, or so I thought at the time…
I climbed into Louis’ car. Like old friends, we quickly engaged in cheerful banter as he steered towards the mall. Midway on the 5-minute drive, we passed a stunning new mosque. I was a bit startled by the sudden commencement of adhan, the call for prayer. The chant reverberated from the four minarets perfectly located on each of the four corners of the property to summon the faithfuls to the midday prayer, or Dhuhr. To my non-musical and infidel ear, I have to say this sound was far from pleasing. It actually sounded like a lament to me. I mean absolutely no disrespect to those who appreciate the notes sung by the muezzin – the interpreter of the chant (listen here), it’s just a question of personal preference and/or familiarity. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if many Muslims did not enjoy the sound of a Gregorian choir either. Acknowledging I had decided to travel to the Middle East to witness the culture firsthand and feel my way to the possibility of living there full-time, at least for a few years, I chose to remain open-minded.
A few moments later, my chauffeur friend turned left into the mall’s covered parkade after rolling over a number of speed bumps. Even this short trip showed me these humps were a necessary annoyance. In this multinational pool, drivers from all skill levels converge onto the roads in a rather fast and unpredictable flow. As Louis adeptly zig-zagged his way around the cement columns to avoid more speed bumps, I noticed the rows of luxury vehicles, many of them white. Of course, with the 40-degree Celsius days from June to September, white paint is one way of reflecting the sun’s scorching rays. Thinking about the potential of living here year-round, I realized that I would be spending more time outdoors during the other eight months of the year, the exact opposite of what I do in Canada. That thought felt quite nice actually. Leaving the January-cold and November-gloom behind was going to require little adaptation. A smile started to show up on my heart.
Louis parked the car and we headed towards the newly-built mall. A young East Indian man dressed in a green and yellow uniform approached us vying to catch Louis’ attention. Louis politely said,”No thank you.” I hadn’t understood why until he explained that most parkades here have in-house car-cleaning squads. What a creative idea! I can shop and come back to a clean vehicle for just a few dirhams. Nice! My inner smile widened.
We entered the mall through standard glass doors. To our right were mechanical ramps. I couldn’t imagine wheelchairs safely surfing on these conveyor-belt style contraptions but their utility became obvious when I saw a man holding onto a loaded grocery cart travelling in the opposite direction. Smart! Knowing that I would be the grocery shopper in the house once I settled in with hubby, I was already appreciating some of the novel amenities and services that would be available to me. I could almost feel happy bubbles oozing out of my heart at this point.
Louis directed us to the third story, to the food court. As we chatted, I casually took in the scenery. There were very few shoppers. Louis explained that people shop in the evening since the malls are opened until 11 pm every night. The nationals and expats alike avoid the midday heat by coming out after sundown. Although this made great sense to me, I didn’t like the feeling. It’s as though the emptiness of the space became my own emptiness. A totally bizarre and foreign sensation! The sparkling clean mall with its window displays filled with Rolex watches, gold-plated trays and tableware, fragrances, and designer purses felt like a chic ghost town.
Just as a thread of contradicting thoughts stumbled through my mind, I caught sight of three Muslim women each wearing a black abaya (full length robe), black burqa (facial veil with eye slits), black gloves, and black niqab (full face veil). Instantaneous gloom came over me just like my very own black cloud. Cognitively, I was fully aware I would be seeing women in abayas and hijabs but I was not aware that niqabs were so common here. Not wanting to show disrespect, I put on my best poker face. Inside, though, I felt like one of Harry Potter’s dementors was subjecting me to a soul-sucking kiss! Through the lucidity of hindsight, I believe all this atypical morosity was the result of the low energy in an unfamiliar environment: few humans, many behind cloth barriers, and unapproachable others (kandura-clad men) all added up to a feeling of disconnection.
As if I needed it right now, an undesirable memory insiduously slipped to my attention…
Before I left Canada, another friend had told me about the recent murder of an American woman in an upscale mall in Abu Dhabi. The Emirati niqab-clad woman hid a butcher’s knife under her abaya and randomly attacked her victim which she had lured into a restroom cubicle feigning to be in need of assistance. Not one for drama and craving reassurance, I had told my well-intended friend that there had to have been a motive. I remember forcing the sensational information into a dark corner of my unconscious mind with no intention of drawing upon it anytime soon. Just a few days later, I was hopping on the pleasant Emirates flight that had brought me here.
That day, at the mall with Louis, the context was too similar – Abu Dhabi, mall, broad daylight, blonde expat female shoppers, women wearing niqabs… – for the memory not to surface. There it sat at the fore of my consciousness while I quasi-nonchalantly asked Louis to point me to the ladies’ room as we stepped off the escalator. They were co-located with the prayer room. Jokingly, I told Louis to come and look for me if I didn’t come back.
Louis had no idea that all of this was going on in my head. To him, I probably looked like a resilient traveller who seemed unaffected by jet lag. Trying hard to repress the profiling propaganda of the press now streaming through my mind like a distasteful segment of Fox News, I headed to the washroom. It was impossible. My mind kept pulling up memory file after memory file of Muslim terrorist attacks, 9/11, the attempted assassination of Malala…. It felt like my brain was being hijacked! To anyone who met me on the way to the restroom, I probably looked unstirred. Inside, a war was being waged between my generally tolerant and rational conscious mind and my hypervigilant amygdala. Shrouded in faux calm, I entered the stall and locked it faster than a ninja. After finishing my business, I opened the door cautiously, my ears perked like a German Shepherd police dog. Nothing. I washed my hands not daring to look in the mirror and walked right out. Only once back in the main hallway did I notice I had been holding my breath. “Breathe MC, breathe, ” I told myself in a self-coaching manner. Calling on my NLP training, I smiled slightly, broadened my shoulders, and tipped my head backward to lift my chin to trigger those kinesthetically-wired positive emotions.
I was easing back to a calmer state when I found Louis snacking on his sandwich, oblivious to the feeling of safety his presence afforded me. Basking in the luxury of timelessness that only holidays can provide, I caught up with my friend on the latest news about our boys and his family. It was good to see him. The shared memories of Basic Officer Training – he and I had been in the same platoon – played in the back of my mind, replacing the extremist nonsense, while I entertained our casual conversation with the front of it. I was back to my chirpy self by the time we got up to return to the villa.
The chirpiness was ephemeral…
BAM! Again, walking towards the escalator, the sight of several black silhouettes interspersed among the few western-clothed expats brought back the unsettling sensation. That’s when I noticed the smell in the mall. Incense. Sitting outside the entrance of a black marble-walled shop, was a giant incense burner. It was lovely. The intricate artwork was beautiful and the ornate gold handles on each side gave it a perfect touch of luxury. From it, smoke rose. I assumed it was frankincense. As we passed the burner, I felt my state go from unsettled to somber for a fleeting moment, just the time for the sad memory of a recent funeral to flash by. Not wanting to dwell but not knowing how to shift my state either, I was grateful when Louis said something that brought my attention back to our conversation and off my unwarranted side wing drama.
Climbing back into the vehicle, this time, I noticed how comfortable the air was. Not too hot, not too cold. Just perfect weather. I liked that. By the time Louis dropped me off at the villa, I felt safe, sated from my copious lamb meal, and ready to tend to my emails.
Invitation to Awareness
If you’ve made it all the way down here, thank you! I really appreciate your interest. You know, it truly rocks my world when my stories and ideas and questions help others expand their own awareness. While I get ready to draft my next blog post – which will be a semi-technical analysis of this experience – I invite you to ponder situations when you’ve felt uneasy, fearful, sad, lonely, or any other unpleasant emotional cocktail. Where were you? Who were you with? What did you hear? Were there any smells? What caught your eye? Could any of the sensory input you were processing at the time contributed to your emotional stir up?
I’d love to hear your comments.