Wednesday, January 28, 2009

(Cow)Boys in Beemers

The young men of the Emirates love their cars like I imagine the cowboys of the old west loved their horses. In fact now that I think about it, that comparison seems particularly apt for this country, where the rule of law often plays second fiddle to the demands of honor and pride, males hold uncontested authority in all matters within the public sphere, and the prevailing ethos on the streets is may the stronger man win. The reckless confidence of the twenty-something Emirati barreling through Abu Dhabi at 80 mph in his shiny Land Rover, starched white dishdasha clearly in evidence through the tinted windows, seems to have much in common with the devil-may-care attitude of the young gunslinger in the wild west, boots gleaming, stirrups jangling, hat rakishly askew, who gallops into town with a bravado born of the certainty that no one dares challenge him on his own turf.

Both of these notions are obviously stereotypes, the second popularized by the Hollywood film industry and the first no doubt arising from the animosity I feel toward the speeding Land Rovers that endanger my life every time I venture onto the roadways of Abu Dhabi. But the fact remains that cars have become for many young Emirati men an essential part of their public persona, as important to crafting the image they present to the world as their traditional clothing.

On a rainy day last weekend, perhaps two dozen young men and boys convened in the intersection in front of my apartment building for what can only be described as a modern-day rodeo. For more than an hour, those among the group who were old enough to drive (and probably some who weren't) used a circle of wet pavement to show off their motoring chops before a crowd of eager onlookers:

Skidding, as it's commonly known, is a favorite pastime on Abu Dhabi streets. After banning skidding contests and threatening skidders with fines, jail time, and loss of license did little to diminish the activity's popularity, concerned authorities proposed building a track where skidding enthusiasts could practice their hobby without risk of hitting other cars or pedestrians (both have happened recently not far from where I live) and without disturbing residents with sounds of squealing tires and roaring engines.

One Abu Dhabi police officer suggested that skidding could be a way to combat the boredom of being young, male, and Emirati in a society where wealth and prestige are handed to you from birth on a silver platter. Is that the real explanation, or should we simply say that in any society, at any point in history, boys will be boys?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Mailing Address

Anna Ziajka
P.O. Box 93752
Khalidiya Post Office
Abu Dhabi
United Arab Emirates

Monday, January 19, 2009


New! Check out my photo site under the Links header to the right, or click here.

The Fairer Sex

During the first half-year I lived here, the acquaintances I made were overwhelmingly male. My roommates are male, most of the National newspaper reporters with whom I socialize on a semi-regular basis are male, and my boyfriend, my companion for most of my leisure-time activities, is--of course--male. Although I had frequent opportunities to observe the female citizens of Abu Dhabi at malls, grocery stores, and through the tinted windows of their Land Rovers, my contact with other human beings who share my anatomy was nearly nil.

At a gender ratio of almost three males for every one female in the 15-64 age group, members of my sex are a distinct minority in this country; on a busy Thursday night in the capital, you would be hard pressed to find a single female amid the crowds of South Asian men talking, eating, and smoking cigarettes in front of the lighted storefronts on Hamdan Street. Women are scarce in the Emirates, and those that do live here are hard to access. Local women shut themselves away in gated villas and only appear in public swaddled in the visually and culturally impenetrable armor of an abaya, while the majority of foreign women are employed in the service sector, so although I exchange words with them every time I eat out or shop in a clothing store, the power differential of our relative positions in society makes it difficult to transcend these determinedly formulaic and impersonal interactions. Both the statistics and the anecodotal evidence were on my side, excusing my lack of female friends.

But though I could justify the pitiful number of other females in my life, I wasn't happy about it. So two weeks ago, I set out to change that. My first step has been to join a women's a cappella group, which goes by the rather pedestrian name "Voices of Harmony" but which nonetheless maintains a large and surprisingly quirky repetoire of American pop songs that it performs several times a year at concerts around the city. The women in the group are a diverse bunch, hailing from places as far removed as South Africa and Spain as well as Britain and the U.S., and seem to be generally genial people who enjoy getting together for a few hours each week to sing, socialize, and partake of the seemingly requisite tea and cakes that are served halfway through each rehearsal by the group leader's Filipina maid. So perhaps among these harmonious ladies is a friend or two for me.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Passing of a Sheikh

The UAE is presently in the midst of a prolonged period of mourning for Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Mu'alla, the ruler of the Emirate of Umm al Quwain, who passed away last Friday in a London hospital at age 78. All government offices and schools were closed for three days immediately following his death, and flags across the country are flying at half-mast until the end of the week--although the Saudi Arabian flag, which is inscribed with the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammed is his messenger") and thus can never hang lower than the flags around it, is exempt. Radio stations have discarded their usual generic pop rubbish in favor of somber keyboard renditions of Aaron Copeland and Elton John, and post-New Year's festivities were toned down or canceled.

If this were another country, we might worry about the succession of power in Umm al Quwain, the least populous emirate, which has had only two rulers since joining the UAE in 1971. But instead of political infighting or the threat of a coup by opportunistic Umm al Quwain residents, the crown passed peacefully to Sheikh Rashid's son Saud, while the leaders of the other six emirates looked on with benevolence and sympathy--and no doubt a bit of relief that things had gone so smoothly.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

In Abu Dhabi, Shakira's Hips Don't Offend

In a move that must have provoked some scratching of heads among those familiar with this city, Abu Dhabi chose to kick off the new year last week by rocking out to Shakira, the tousle-haired, booty-wagging South American popstar best known for putting out a steamy chart-topping duet with ex-Fugees member Wyclef Jean in 2006 and for slithering half naked through mud in the music video for the first single off her debut English-language album.

And yet, performing in front of an enthusiastic if lyrically challenged crowd at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace arena on Wednesday night, Shakira proved surprisingly well suited to the UAE. From her superb belly dancing to the trio of Arabic musicians who joined her onstage to provide backup during several songs, the half-Colombian, half-Lebanese diva ("I am the fruit of my father's Lebanese cedar") offered much that was familiar to the people of this region. And while there was plenty of the singer's toned golden body on display, her costumes--which ranged from a beaded pink halter top and matching skirt to a studded black leather bra-and-trousers ensemble--were modest enough where it mattered to appease all but the most conservative critics. The Shakira that appeared in Abu Dhabi was not the redhot Latin siren of reputation but a talented performer whose physical allure came from her expert use of her body, not from her sex appeal.

Shakira - Abu Dhabi, New Year's Eve 2008

As midnight arrived and clouds of sparkling confetti descended on the audience, Shakira thanked Abu Dhabi first in English, then in Arabic, and finally in her native Spanish for allowing her to help the UAE usher in the new year. If it was personally significant for her to greet 2009 in an Arab country, it was just as significant for an Arab country to round off their celebrations with someone like her. But as it turned out, neither side needed to have gotten so worked up: Shakira and Abu Dhabi were a perfect fit.

Video to come once Etisalat fixes the internet in the UAE....