When I told people we were going to Abu Dhabi, the first question my women friends asked was “are you going to have to wear a veil all the time or anything?” The first thing my male friends said was “Wow, how long a flight is that?” Different ways of seeing the world, eh? What you wear versus how you get there. The answers, by the way, are no, and thirteen.
As we waited in line for customs (having been whisked to the “expedite” section—that business class, boy, it just gives and gives), Liam and Caleb had their first lesson in “we’re somewhere else now:” they were entranced by men in long white dishdashahs, their white keffiyeh floating behind, the corners lifting like wings as they walked.
With half an eye, I noticed that there were more men in the airport than women—Western or Arab—but the observation didn’t stick. I was so tired that it took my last shreds of energy just to stay vertical.
The next morning, however, my observation re-surfaced. I went outside to get a cab to an early morning meeting, something I do in New York all the time. In Abu Dhabi, however, the first challenge was simply to get to the other side of the street. In a city whose drivers make those in Boston and LA, even Rome look tame, crossing the six lanes of traffic felt like a huge accomplishment. I managed to avoid death in the crosswalk (signified by a green-lit outline of a man walking, which moves faster and faster to indicate that you’re close to losing the light. So far I haven’t noticed if the display breaks into a panicked run, but it should, judging from the speed with which drivers hurtle through intersections).
I crossed the street and stuck my arm up to troll for a cab in the morning rush, then looked around. I was the only woman on the street. There were a few women in the cars whizzing past me, and I saw a woman in Western clothes further down the block but then she ducked into a store. In lieu of a burqua, I was channeling my inner Connecticut matron: beige linen trousers, brown sandals, short-sleeved navy blue cotton sweater, pearl earrings. Can you say Talbots 101? But even so, men stared at me as I walked past them, or as they drove by me.
Their looks weren’t predatory and I didn’t feel unsafe; I didn’t have the sense that some raving fundamentalist was going to stone me for being a godless harlot. It was just that I could tell that my presence was noted: Woman. Western. Alone.
I shrugged to myself, chalked it up to coincidence: the time of day, the neighborhood, random timing. Two times later that day, however, in different parts of town, I had the same experience: I was the only, or almost the only, woman in a several-block radius. So maybe…not a coincidence.
Being solitary like that made me self-conscious—I stood with my arms loosely wrapped around myself and made only the barest gesture to hail a cab (which, of course, meant that it took me longer to find one). There were Western women at all the meetings I went to today, and at the beach there were even more (in bikinis, no less), and in the grocery store I saw Arabic women, Indian women, and several European women.
But not on the street. On the street I was an anomaly, and it was not an entirely comfortable experience. When was the last time you looked around and didn’t see any faces that looked, even remotely, like yours?
It’s funny. Sometimes in New York, I moan about feeling invisible–a middle-aged mom shlepping her kids around doesn’t attract much notice–but standing there on the street in Abu Dhabi, I realized that sometimes invisibility is a comfort.