When I told friends about our family’s impending move to Abu Dhabi, the first question anyone asked me is whether or not I would have to “cover”. They’d say: “Will you have to …” and then wave their hands around their heads, as if to indicate a beekeeper’s helmet or a halo. It took a while to get used to my wardrobe being the subject of such large-scale concern.
The other day I was asked to talk to an American freelance reporter who was working on an article about travel tips for women visiting the Emirates. I agreed, in part because I remembered my first morning in Abu Dhabi, when I had to find a cab and get to an early-morning school tour. In my jet-lagged haze, I wandered out to the street, not sure where I was going or whether a taxi would stop for me.
The image of the veiled woman remains a potent symbol of the “mysterious” Middle East and the question of “do you have to cover…” is almost always the first question that anyone asks me when I tell them where I live. It’s easy, particularly in the West, to lose sight of the fact that behind the veil is a person, and to keep in mind that gender politics are complicated here — but then again, point me to a place where gender politics aren’t complicated.
Yesterday in the U.S. it was the 4th of July: fireworks, parades, flags waving around, all in celebration of those unlikely rebels who picked a fight about taxes and ended up with a country. The 4th in Abu Dhabi was ….Wednesday. But thinking about all those Americans celebrating Independence Day reminded me of a conversation I had a month ago with an actual freedom fighter.
I celebrated our ninth month of living in Abu Dhabi by visiting New York. Not intentionally but as it happened, the only time I could line up doctors’ appointments, business meetings, and a flyby visit with my mother and sister in the wilds of New Jersey coincided with the nine-month anniversary of our arrival in Arabia. (Arabia. It sounds so much more evocative than “Abu Dhabi,” doesn’t it? Like maybe I’m going to ride off with Omar Sharif or Peter O’Toole at just about any minute.)