Archive | expat

In the suburbs no one can hear you scream

I live in the suburbs now.  From the maelstrom of Union Square in Manhattan to the slightly more sedate “urban” experience of highrise in downtown Abu Dhabi was one shift. But in a weird way the shift from one cityscape to another wasn’t as big a shift as the move from city to the ‘burbs.  It’s so quiet here . . . and when I walk around at night I’m always slightly on edge because my footsteps echo in the emptiness.  But the thing I miss most, weirdly, is hearing the call to prayer, which had become the regular punctuation for my day, when I lived “in town,” as we say now.

In The National today, I wrote about my sense of suburban displacement. You can read the article here and don’t be afraid to share it around: show The National a little social media love (and me, too, while you’re at it).  Thanks.  Would love to hear your thoughts in comments.

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I took this photo of the Grand Mosque last winter during an unusual rainy day

Continue Reading · on November 22, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, NYC, religion, The National, Travel, UAE

Workers

It’s hot here in the desert.  Even now, in November, when people say “ah…the heat has broken,” we’re still talking 90F at midday.

The road I have to take to my house winds through a whole huge construction project designed to make room for even more cars and maybe a high-rise or two (Abu Dhabi loves itself some skyscrapers, the glassier the better).

The men who dig these roads (and build the skyscrapers) come from Kerala, Goa, Sri Lanka; Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi — places that, until I moved out here, existed only on maps or in newscasts about “more violence.”

Sometimes, when I see a man lost in thought or resting in the shade, I imagine that he’s remembering his family “back home” (we all think about that place, backhome), or daydreaming about his wife/lover/child.  And then I think maybe it’s much more prosaic than that: what’s for dinner, my feet hurt, I’m hot.

Mostly, I think these guys are invisible — invisible in the sense that Marx writes about, that all laborers are essentially invisible — and in terms of what they wear: heads swathed in scarves (absorbs sweat, keeps the sand out of eyes, ears nose), bodies wrapped in company-issued coveralls.  Without these almost faceless bodies, however, the city would collapse back into sand and dust.

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Continue Reading · on November 14, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, Politics, UAE

mosques

Just at the afternoon adhan today, I was out walking in the neighborhood near my office, searching for candy a nutritious snack to carry me through four hours of back-to-back meetings.

I am struck always, in Abu Dhabi, by the juxtaposition of glassy office towers against the ancient worlds summoned up in the call to prayer, the way the modern quite literally bumps up against the old.

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I am struck too by the dailiness of religious practice, which I suppose to someone with a strong faith (in any tradition) would not be at all striking.  I don’t mean “daily” in the sense of praying every day (although of course people do, and five times a day, to boot), but in the sense of being ordinary, comforting, homely: the trusting pile of scuffed shoes waiting outside the plain door of the mosque.

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Continue Reading · on November 12, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, expat, NaBloPoMo, religion, street notes, UAE

mary, mary quite contrary … how does your garden grow?

Fifty years ago, Abu Dhabi looked like this:

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The key feature of this landscape? Sand.

And now?

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Green, green, green. If you look closely, every tree and flower has a little hose coiled at its root; hoses run under every lawn and green space. Forget the oil industry: if you want in on a lucrative franchise, get in on the hose industry.

Irrigation systems use reclaimed wastewater; tap water uses desalinated water from the Gulf–and none of these processes are very ecologically friendly. It’s a desert: it’s not meant to be lush and green.  The greening of this desert island strikes me as a supreme exercise of human will: we want green space and so, voila, green!

Our new rental house, which we moved into in June, was built as part of a new development just outside downtown Abu Dhabi.  The development got plopped onto a parcel of land that looks like that first photo: flat and sandy as far as you can see. The desert here isn’t the undulating dune scape of the Empty Quarter or Liwa, where the dunes gleam orange. This is desert as lunar landscape: dun-colored, flat, scrubby.

Our house came with a little backyard, a “garden,” as the Brits call it. The garden looked like this when we moved in:

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It felt a lot like our house had been set down in the middle of a big ash tray.

We started having grass fantasies, people. Not the wacky grass but the other kind. The kind with dirt and ants and tickley bits on your toes; I wanted jasmine and frangipani.  Before I moved out here, I’d spent the last twenty-five years or so living in apartments–high-rises, low-rises, tenements–with no backyard, no green space at all, other than the flowerpots perched on my window sills.

So I chucked my environmental worries out the window and waded through the bureaucracy of the management company: Fill out the form on A4 paper. A3 paper. Fax it. Email it. Get a signature. No, a different signature. No, three more signatures. List the flowers you’re using. List how much water your irrigation system will use. More signatures. A3 paper, please.

A plan was made, a price agreed, and work began. First? “Sweet sand” got poured on top of our existing…what? Bitter sand?

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And then bricks were put down on one side to make a little patio. No cement, just pounding the bricks into a tightly locked pattern.  Then we got our own set of hoses to criss-cross the yard and wind along the sides, where we wanted flowers.

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After the hoses were in place, the guys unrolled big carpets of grass, dug pits for the plants and set the little drip-spigots next to each root bed, and then? Hey presto, it’s a little suburban backyard, like I live in LA or something. Or Scottsdale.

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In my ecological defense, the irrigation system runs for about 9 minutes in the morning and again at night: it just can’t be using that much water, right?

I know it’s contrary, to have a garden in a climate like this one; I should have done something with rocks and zen rakes and little bonsai trees, maybe a few bent twigs.

But frankly? In the morning, when I sit outside before the day’s heat kicks in, and I smell the frangipani and the jasmine and the now-exotic scent of wet grass? It’s pretty blissful. I’m fresh out of pretty maids, but I’m thinking the next time I go to the plant souk, I should look for some silver bells and cockle shells.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Continue Reading · on November 4, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, ranting, surat al-sabt saturday snapshot, UAE

Halloween, or, sometimes nostalgia looks like Boba Fett

It starts in September, when I get the late August issues of The New Yorker.  I’m always a few weeks behind because I like to read the actual magazine, not the digital one. Usually I don’t mind reading about current events from a month or so ago…until September.

In early fall, the magazine becomes a sort of arcade of impossibility: the new theater productions I won’t see; the restaurants I won’t eat at; the movies that (maybe) I’ll get to when they come out on DVD…the list seems endless.  Husband reminds me that when we actually lived in Manhattan we didn’t get out much, unless you want to count standing by the sidelines of a soccer game in the cold as “getting out.” He’s right, but somehow, when we lived in New York, all those things listed in the magazine seemed at least theoretically possible. Now, given that I live in a city where there is one theater (reserved mostly for state celebrations or the occasional children’s musical), only one museum, and where all the restaurants have too many forks for comfort–now, none of it is possible.

Following hard on the heels of the culture-vulture issues of The New Yorker come the facebook posts of friends’ kids off to school in sweaters and new shoes, and then there are the photos of leaves turning, until I can almost smell the seasonal crisp in the air and I long for the crunch of just-picked apples on sale at the Union Square Greenmarket. True, I could just turn off facebook but then there’s that whole I-might-wither-up-and-die thing.  Turn off Facebook? I shudder to think.

It’s not really that I miss seasons–because lord knows I do not miss February–it’s just that I miss fall. I miss that gathering up of breath and energy after the sprawl of summer; I miss the beauty of those last warm days in October, when the warmth feels like a gift because you know what’s coming.

And aside from that maudlin stuff, you know what else I miss? Boots. I loves me some boots and although some women wear boots in the winter months here, I just cannot bring myself to put on a pair of motorcycle boots when it’s 90F outside.

There’s a double nostalgia whammy in October and November–Halloween and Thanksgiving, neither of which, as you might imagine, are very big in the UAE.  I’ve never been one of those people who does the full Halloween costume and decorations thing, but I like the occasional witches hat and pumpkin carving and I have a serious candy corn addiction, which is really hard to feed here (I guess that’s not entirely a bad thing, at least according to my dentist. And my hips).  There are isolated tricksy-treatsy spots around town, mostly in the expat neighborhoods where lots of Americans live; and some of the shops have Halloween decorations, but mostly Halloween comes and goes with just a blip.

We bought Caleb’s costume this summer when we were in New York, where the Halloween shops are always open; Liam didn’t want to get a costume because at almost thirteen, he’s decided (sort of) that he’s just too cool for such things.

I guess because I’m missing “home” so much these days, I took a great deal of pleasure in how excited Caleb was about his costume, even though I hate store-bought costumes and am not a big “Star Wars” fan (practically heresy in my household).  He is not Boba Fett, although I kept calling him that. He is dressed as Pre Vizsla, an entirely different Mandalorian fighter. I mean duh, right? Keep it straight.

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There is one way in which Abu Dhabi keeps pace with New York.  The shops here also have seasonal marketing schizophrenia (SMS). SMS renders stores incapable of marketing only one holiday at a time.

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Continue Reading · on November 2, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, expat, family, Kids, UAE

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