Thursday, January 31, 2013
A Psychological Study in Why I Hate the UAE
Since I have returned from the United Arab Emirates I have been experiencing a rather deep simmering anger towards that country and its people that makes absolutely no logical sense. Granted, the whole UAE thing wasn't the greatest experience of my life, due in part to my mind and heart being occupied by thoughts of my father who cycled into the last stages of Alzheimer's one month after I accepted the job, but it wasn't the worst experience either. Being seven thousand miles away from home and not able to help my family as things went from bad to worse was frustrating and made it extremely difficult to settle into my new teaching role and life in the UAE, but, if I am going to be totally honest, I initially went to the UAE partly in an effort to run away from my problems: my father's decline, my inability to do anything about it, having to watch as my mother spun out of control over the slow loss of her husband, grown child issues, my increasing Arthur cycles of pain. It was all too much. Going to the UAE to teach looked like a way to leave it all behind. To escape. However, I discovered the hard way that life follows you wherever you go. You can't outrun it. And if you make a change in your life as immense as moving half way around the world alone, you'd better go with a clean slate.
When I arrived in the UAE on August 24 I had already gone through two years of extreme stress. I hoped for a fresh start, adventure, time to think, relax, teach, write. I received far more than I bargained for.
First, I didn't expect the United Arab Emirates bureaucracy to be a such maddening game of cat and mouse, hit and miss. I stepped into a world of constant inconsistencies and "inshallah's". A world that left my Western mindset in a perpetual state of turmoil and confusion. Usually relatively simple everyday tasks such as banking, setting up phone and internet service, finding peanut butter, driving to the mall, or procuring a dentist or doctor's appointment turned my new life into a quagmire. Lack of consistent daily living issues such as work schedules, organized lines where people wait their turn, and normal driving courtesies and sensibilities all became things from my old life when I crossed over into the Middle East. It was like I had landed on Mars. Or Pluto. Or Alpha Centurion. Or Baltimore.
The first week I felt like a bug trapped in amber. Sleeping in a five star hotel on a one star budget and having to heat up Ramen noodles in a tea kettle in a luxurious hotel room made my first impressions in the UAE akin to a weird waking dream. I watched my money carefully. I didn't want to go through precious funds paying for taxis to drive me to restaurants to eat every day, but I couldn't afford to eat at the hotel either. Free breakfasts at the hotel became my sustaining food source. I stole bread, dates, bananas, and grapes, wrapped them in napkins, hid my contraband in my small purse, and casually sauntered out of the restaurant each morning. I wasn't the only teacher who had this idea- seems we were all walking out of the hotel restaurant every morning with enough contraband to fill a small supermarket. After a week of this, the hotel started watching the teachers carefully at breakfast, going as far as to confiscate our stolen food hordes. This, along with a largely uncommunicative Abu Dhabi Education Council, intertwined to plant a negativity seed of fear and distrust that started to germinate.
Two weeks at the hotel in Abu Dhabi and I had no idea when I would get paid or receive the promised ADEC housing allowance, when I'd leave the hotel, when my apartment would be ready, how I would get to work, or even where work was (all I was given was a school name). There was little information provided by ADEC to the newly arrived teachers, and if it hadn't been for Facebook we literally would have been left stumbling in the dark. It was from Facebook that I learned when school assignments had been posted, where ADEC new teacher meetings were taking place, when I was being moved to Al Ain, when the furniture allowance was finally deposited, how to set up internet and mobile phone service, where to rent a car, how to get a driver's license, how to get to my school. It was all on Facebook. None of this information was provided to the new teachers by The Abu Dhabi Education Council. Not a good way to create trust. Hint to anyone from ADEC reading this: You guys really need to work on improving your shit-for-brains new teacher procedures.I mean, come on, not even a little booklet that might provide just a wee bit of information? It doesn't even have to be grammatically correct.
After I received my school assignment and was moved to another hotel in Al Ain by bus, with less than twenty-four hours notice, I was expected to report to my school the following day (still no paycheck or furniture allowance). I had no idea how to even get to my assigned school and I didn't have a rental car yet. The new teachers, including me, were in slight freak mode. At the last minute (which I learned is modus operandi for ADEC and the entire UAE), we were called into the Al Ain ADEC office for a clarification meeting that turned out to be not much of a clarification for a lot of teachers. But it helped us network with one another. Somehow I was introduced, via Facebook and a friend of a friend, to the HOF at the school where I had been placed. She very graciously picked me up from the hotel each morning and drove me to and from school for a few days. After that I rented a car and became the driver for another teacher at my school for a week. And I needed her. Badly. She pointed me towards our school each morning. My sense of direction sucks, plus everything in Al Ain is beige, and the round abouts kicked my ass. After a week of riding with me the other teacher rented her own car. I suspect it was largely in response to my horrible, death gripping UAE driving. I mean, I wouldn't have ridden with me if I had had a choice.
My school was another ballgame. I was greeted by another American teacher and discovered that the two of us comprised the only Westerners in the high school section. We were instructed to share a staff room with the Arabic teachers, who were nice to us for the most part, but largely ignored us. The other high school teacher was often the only person I heard speak English all day. The other times I was thrown into a barrage of confusing, perplexing jabber of unintelligible language. We were given no instructions, no leadership, no curriculum, no textbooks, no resources. I winged it for an entire month. My saving grace was the fact that I fell in love with a few of my students and they were eager to learn, if not exactly eager to cooperate.
After work and a fifty minute death race from the gates of hell on the round abouts each day, I ran from furniture store to furniture store trying to purchase all of my housing items (towels, rugs, dishes, appliances, a bed, bedding- everything one needs to establish a household) and attempted to procure internet services before I was kicked out of the hotel. Then there was ADEC paperwork to attend to, lessons to plan, and clothes to hand wash in the bathroom sink. I would fall into bed exhausted at the hotel each night around eleven p.m only to start the entire process again the next morning at the grand hour of five a.m .
Making certain my internet was hooked up in my apartment was more than a luxury; it was as important to me as an in utero baby's umbilical cord. It was my life sustenance. It was the only way I had of communicating with my family back in Georgia. The only way of hearing my husband's voice. The only way of following my dad's condition. My link to home. And I was having zero luck with the only internet provider in the entire country, Etisalat. They just refused to cooperate when it came to setting up my service. Everyone else in the apartment building had internet access before we even moved in, everyone but me, and no one could tell me when it might be connected, or even how long it might take (it ended up taking fourteen phone calls, four visits to the main office, and seven weeks of losing my mind). Then my laptop died and I came thisclose to having a complete and irreversible breakdown. It was my first last straw. I drove to the mall, sobbing the entire way, and bought an overpriced notebook computer. Later, one of the other teachers tried to comfort me by telling me that she had heard of one of the new teachers breaking down because her stapler broke. I guess it was supposed to make me feel better, and in a way it did. I mean I hadn't lost it over a stapler for God's sake. As for my deceased laptop: six days later I breathed life back into it when I removed the battery and reinserted it.
So, where in all this does my anger towards the UAE come into play? In all of it. In every unreasonable, fucked up, unorganized, chaotic, perplexing moment. In every rude Emirati male who rode the ass of my car, flashed their lights at me, and almost smeared my little rental all over the road; in every rude person who pushed and cut in front of me in line and then sneered at me; in every incomprehensible staff meeting I attended where all the Arabic teachers sat around and yelled at one another, the principal yelled back, and I sat in mortified stupefaction; in the way ADEC simply forgot their teachers after they placed us in our schools; in the way an Arabic teacher would come onto my class, say something to the girls, and they would get up and leave class en masse with no explanation; in the complete and total absence of any educational resources of any type; in the ADEC provided health insurance that I had to literally fight, yell and scream at to get my medication; in the knowledge that if I were ever sexually attacked in the country I would be terrified to report it to the UAE police for fear of them finding me, a mere Western woman, at fault somehow (I had read the local newspapers and heard stories); in the empty dead eyes of the numerous Filipino and Ethiopian nannies following their "Madams" around silently in the malls and grocery stores; in the way an Emirati teacher more or less called the Western teachers "alcoholics and whores" in a district wide staff meeting (she vehemently warned us not to come to work drunk or have sex at school while her posse sat beside her nodding their black shayla draped heads in agreement); in the way I was suddenly aware of my skin color and reminded I wasn't one of them, but on a rung beneath them.
It all just chipped away at my defenses and created a huge unforgiving chasm, and then it made me angry because I saw myself and my country reflected back in a Dali-ist sort of way. But I didn't know that was what was causing a large portion of my anger. Until now.
It has finally coalesced in my tiny brain in the past week that the UAE is a dulled mirror of America at certain points in our own history. Bingo. I win the prize. The prize of self revelation.
The UAE is a culture trying to walk a three pronged fork between sudden wealth and consumerism, tradition and a deeply ingrained unquestionable religion, and new temptations and vices. My insides clinched at the meaningless reckless materialism that grips the infant UAE; a spoiled toddler with ready access to more and more new toys, much like America before the Great Depression or during 1980s Reaganomic Yuppie days. I witnessed pre-Civil Rights America in the various methods the Emiratis use to reduce the human element amongst the poor non-National labor force that does all the manual work for them- some of the workers little better than slave labor with no rights at all; a harsh reflection of America's own unforgivable slavery and Jim Crow days. The double edged American "welcome" to the poor Irish, Italians, and other ethnic peoples in the 1800 and early 1900s who came for a better life, is now shadowed in my mind with the faces of Ethiopian, Bangladeshi, Filipino, and Indian UAE workers (they can never hope for UAE citizenship- at least America offered that caveat).
The UAE is building buildings and malls faster than they can fill them, and these buildings stand on symbolic as well as literal shifting sands. The cities sparkle with a kind of facade-like sheen, carnival bright and surreal. Everything is bigger and bigger and even bigger, as if bigger can somehow ease a sense of arrogant insecurity over their place in the world. As if bigger can erase the fact that they are only two generations removed from the Bedouin desert life, accompanying hardships, and third world status. They brag too much over their own self conceived prowess, accomplishments, and wealth. They use oil and water like they are in an endless eternal supply- far worse than any American I have ever seen do in my generation. I mean, Emiratis have the rampant waste of natural resources down to a science. I guess they learned one lesson too well from the Western world.
In short, they are us a mere fifty years ago in many respects. And I can't stand to admit that fact. When I look in the mirror, all I want to do is smash it, but instead I fault the UAE and hate them because they are fucking it all up so very well and so very predictability. And with their dominating religion so deeply entrenched with their laws and form of state monarch governance, they can never hope to claw their way towards any type of redemption. They will fall. The self declared mighty always do. They are just on a sort of fast tracked highway to hell.
I wish I were still going to be around in about fifty to seventy years when the whole shitbag implodes in their faces. And I'm not even suggesting that America won't implode as well, but I think we have a bit more time before that happens, due in part to our founders' extreme foresight in separating religion and state. That'll buy us some time. When the UAE finally does topple, if I were around, which as I stated before I won't be, I might be able to feel a bit sorry for them and stop hating them so much. I might be able to gloss it over like I do my own country's shameful history. I just want someone to get it right the first time, damn it. And all the UAE is doing is following a worn out timeless, historical blueprint of racism, waste, arrogance, and stupidity bumped up to the ninth degree. Babylon, Mesopotamia, pharaonic Egypt, ancient Greece.
Ce le vie.
Posted by Liti