Thursday, April 14, 2011

Goodbye Abu Dhabi! Goodbye Middle!

Rockin' in Ras Al Khaimah
It's such a tiny island, in such an inhospitable place.  Its whereabouts mean nothing to almost everyone I ever knew and yet its footprint on the world - and me - is there.  It's a place of contradiction, ostentation, beauty, warmth, and more contradiction, most of all fundamentally rooted in the fact that nobody but a few desert nomads dared ever live here until oil money brought air-conditioning.  Its people are mysterious, to  give you the short of it, and bring me to complete awe - because in two generations they have gone from abject poverty, from pearl divers and hammour fishermen and desert wanderers who treated camels better than humans, to nothing short of full-blown desert oligarchs who love aviator sunglasses, Burberry, and, of course, dates.  Who knew I'd have the chance to live here?  Who knew that when I didn't even know where the UAE was, much less WHAT it was only a year ago, I'd be thrust into the very heart of it, into a strange surreal life of expat aloofness, of semi-Arab culture, of desert allure.

And yet, here we are again, in those bittersweet last weeks of inhabitance - actually, on the last night of them - in a place that was never quite home, but isn't really not home anymore either.  The goodbyes are endless and inevitably repeat themselves time and time again, in a vain hope that if you pretend not to finally really say goodbye you'll see some of these people - your friends, and somehow also your family - again.

No matter how excited you might have initially been about the new opportunity elsewhere, the newness of moving again, the adventure and the thrill of the unknown, you inevitably become nostalgic for things you never knew appealed to you about the place in which you reside, and reflective on the many cultural and quotidian impressions that will remain with you for years, even a lifetime, to come.

There are goodbye drinks (mostly mocktails), goodbye dinners (mostly involving sheesha), last playdates (at Al Wahda Mall, of course), last weekend trips (to Oman, incidentally), and even last trips to the favorite supermarket (Lulu) or corner of the city (the Corniche).  You discover new things you wish you'd known about before (Masdar City and Sumo Sushi), and start to inadvertently send a text to a close friend (that's you Rachael) suggesting you go there next week, when you realize you won't be here anymore next week.  And it's little things like this that make moving, no matter how much you complain about or even kind of dislike a place, difficult, and (dare I say it?) sad.

Abu Dhabi has been such a strange experience - disarming and enraging and amazing in equal parts.  When we arrived here, still suffering from bad customer service and inefficiency whiplash from our experience in London, we were so wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and eager to learn and enjoy and love the Emirates, that we largely ignored the bad things for a very long time, which actually worked in our favor.  Roman had just learned to walk two weeks before our plane landed in Abu Dhabi; he was saying only a handful of words and was mostly only tacitly (and, let's face it, vaguely) aware of anything going on around him.

Now that we're leaving, only 9 months later, Roman is running and jumping, speaking in sentences, and thanking contractors and grocery store cashiers for me when we leave a place or receive a service.  He doesn't actually own a jacket anymore, and he only has two or three pairs of pants (most of which no longer fit).  He hasn't worn close-toed shoes in months and I don't remember the last time I put a pair of socks on him (wait, yes, I do, Christmas in Connecticut).   Personally, I've made the permanent switch-over to wearing nothing but flip-flops, pretty much every single day, no matter what, and I even got Matt to agree to me buying him a pair of frat-boy-esque leather flip-flops from American Eagle, which he now dons proudly, while grilling or at the beach. 

There's so much that's comfortable about our lives here, so much that I will miss dearly in many ways.  And the only and really best way to tell you about it is through one of my lists.  Here it is.

* * *

Top 5 Things I'll Miss About Living in the Middle
East, that is
Abu Dhabi, to be exact

Iftar at Emirates Palace

5. The Flash (just a little :)).
Me and the flashy side of Abu Dhabi have a love-hate relationship.  A rather large part of me unequivocally feels it's over the top, selfish, ostentatious, fake, and even wrong in many ways to completely embrace and unquestioningly accept the luxuries that living in Abu Dhabi offers up to most Westerners.  The labor situation and the painful and appalling issues of class in this country are reproachful and ultimately one of the big reasons Matt and I couldn't stand living here much longer.  But, that said, sometimes I truly do love indulging in the pleasures of a five-star hotel, the immaculately clean and manicured lawns and gardens and pools, valet parking literally everywhere you go, and no need to pump your own gas, ever. :)  

It feels nice and exciting to be treated like you're special, and to live in a city where everything is pretty and clean and new.  On the other hand, it does start to get tiring and boring to never be expected to clean after yourself in a mall food-court (or any other public place).  And it seems very unnatural that everyone's children here are raised by foreign live-in maids.  Plus, I can't say I ever think it's necessary or justified for someone's entire job to be to stand in a public bathroom and clean the stall and toilet directly after every single person who uses it (they are sometimes even waiting outside the door, sadly).

But I loved the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, I loved the glitzy Souk Qaryat Al Beri near the Shangri-La, Abu Dhabi (and the spa at the Shangri-La is awesome too).  I completely reveled in the uber understated-luxury of the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, especially the Lebanese Restaurant and it's amazing outdoor sheesha-bar. I felt like a rock-star when I had a drink at the SkyLite Bar at the Yas Hotel the other night.  I love Marina Mall, and despite not liking the decor, did feel a thrill in going to dinner at the Emirates Palace.  We all like to be pampered sometimes. :)

4. My House
I loved my Abu Dhabi house.  It is the first house Matt and I have ever had, and it was such a pretty house, not to mention a welcome breath of fresh air after cramped NYC apartments and mildewy London flats.

Yes, it was located in an entirely artificial compound off-island from Abu Dhabi, but it was so tastefully done!  All the houses are desert colors, and our particular one had a small but infinitely charming courtyard right in the middle of it, lending light to every room, and instilling a little bit of freshness with its trickling water feature and our lemon tree.  I also loved the big airy rooms with giant windows, most of which opened entirely, floor-to-ceiling, to the open air.  I loved my white linen curtains, that flowed in the breeze.  And I loved my tiny but extremely practical kitchen, in which I cooked comparatively few exciting meals but still, it was a place where I discovered Syrian cooking, Lebanese spices, and baked with Ghee for the first time.  I loved my front patio with my giant Frangipani tree, the white flowers blooming and wafting the smell of colonial decadence into my tiny, private oasis.  I loved the sprinklers going off every morning, and watering my potted plants with Roman every night in the summer.  What a beautiful place we've been lucky enough to live in.

3. Desert-y, Abu Dhabian-y Things.
I love sandstorms.  I love seeing the colorful sand swirling on the road in patterns when the wind blows.  I love the dunes, the endless dunes of the the Empty Quarter.  I love the camels that wander 
along highways just miles outside of Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and the small ramshackle camps made for them with palm-leaf tents and a few date palms for shade.  I love dates too.  Especially the ones with almonds stuck in the middle.  I loved seeing families breaking the fast at Ramadan, in the moonlight, under the shade of date palms, at the park or even on the grassy side-croppings of roads.  I love the Grand Mosque in its pristine whiteness and the aquamrine-azure of the shallow Persian gulf waters.  I love seeing white-clad men and black-clad women glide, seemingly unshaken, in unbearable heat.  I love Maqta bridge and its rickety glory, and the wading waters below where the Bedu used to cross by foot with their camels to Abu Dhabi island.  I love the way every time I smell frankincense, or drink coffee with cardamom, or hear the Adhan - the call to prayer - , I'm taken back to some intangible but very Abu Dhabian, desert-y place and time, a time now of the past.

2. Our Father Zayed.
There is a giant billboard poster just at the end of the Corniche in Abu Dhabi, right before Emirates Palace Hotel, with a picture of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding leader of the UAE as a modern entity.  It is placed at a busy intersection, just after an idyllic beach and just before the UAE's flagship uberluxury hotel, juxtaposing sand and city, past and present, today and tomorrow.

It is gigantic.  And glaringly white.  And the black and white picture is beyond the normal.  It is epic.  With a colored-UAE Flag flapping in the background and a pristine white khandoura, and igal.  He looks like a strange mix between Jesus Christ, Jafar from Alladin, and...well, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. And below the larger than life leader it reads, in giant black letters:

Join us in honoring him

I'm gonna miss that. :)

** Note: For a selection of amazing pictures of the Sheikh, go to **

1. The Middle Eastern Warmth.
On the obvious end of this one, yes, I'll miss the painfully wonderful weather the UAE gets from about November to April.  It's just so pleasant to walk out to your car, out of a non-airconditioned house, into a car that you could theoretically avoid the A/C in as well (if it weren't for the permanent presence of powder-like sand in the air).  It's wonderful to go to the beach in the middle of January with your two-year-old and not worry that he'll be cold.  It's wonderful to walk to the playground every night with Roman to swing and slide and not worry about huffing and puffing about snow boots or layers before going out.  Will I miss the summer? Nope.  Will I miss the no-eating-no-drinking in public of Ramadan?  Well, technically yes, because I will no longer be here by then.  Ha. :D 

On the less obvious end, I'll miss the warm welcomes of friends who were as eager to meet and know me as I was them.  It's hard to find people as in need for friends and support as a group of newly arrived expats in the Middle East, and I'm glad I had to the chance to both be a part of and contribute to the small, tightly-knit circle of culturally-diverse vagabonds residing in the capital of a tiny oil-rich country located on the Persian Gulf, in any small way.

* * *

Some dear memories and impressions from our time in Abu Dhabi

watering plants
Atlantis Hotel, Dubai

Aquaventure, Dubai

Iftar feast, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi

The Empty Quarter

Riding Camels, Qasr Al Sarab


Casting a spell at the liquor license office.

Eating ice cream with his best friends.

Buying a carpet at the Blue Souq, Sharjah

His Liwa.

The Mosque from the Fairmont

El Sombrero Mexican Restaurant  & Obama

Meet & Greet the Camels, Ras Al Khaimah

A Date Palm, Abu Dhabi

Cornice Beach

The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
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  1. I just settled down to catch up on your blog and come to find that you, Matt and Roman are on the move again! Best wishes for your transition and new home, but it's clear that you will miss many of the wonderful qualities of Abu Dhabi. I hope that Roman remember his days there, too, though that's won't be difficult given all the sweet photos of him frolicking! 8-)

    I can absolutely relate to so much of what you've written about the excitement and the stresses of moving to and adjusting in a new cultural and society. Although I was born in the Philippines, I've found the enormous wealth and class gap here to be incredibly disconcerting. It has been so easy for me to sequester myself in the happy expat bubble where we live, where I don't have to speak Tagalog, everyone calls me Ma'am, and I can find all the trappings of the West within reach. How ironic: I'm a Filipina who considers herself an 'expat' in the Philippines - land of my own birth!!

    Still, I am thankful that we have this opportunity to live here, as I am sure you are, too, for your time in Abu Dhabi, good parts and bad. Again, wishing you, Matt and Roman all the best with your move and I look forward to reading about your new home!

  2. Wow, miss a few posts, miss a lot. Best of luck where ever life takes you and I look forward to following your new adventures.

  3. Its whereabouts mean nothing to almost everyone I ever knew and yet its footprint on the world - and me - is there.

    Al Raha Gardens Abu Dhabi