Posts Tagged ‘abaya’

Favorite Things about the United Arab Emirates

June 18th, 2011 7 comments

A few of my favorite things about the United Arab Emirates:

Favorite Book from the UAE

Whenever a fellow expat complains to me about the UAE, I say to them, “There’s a book you should read.”

I tell them about From Rags to Riches by Mohammed Al-Fahim. The subtitle is A Story of Abu Dhabi but because Abu Dhabi is the capital, the book reads like the story of the UAE.

First published in 1995, the book is part history and part memoir. Al-Fahim recounts his childhood, the hardships his family endured and his experiences in the UAE from the 1950s onward. This is all woven with the history of the UAE and its dramatic transformation from a tribal society to a modern nation.

The book is full of fascinating anecdotes about life in the UAE before the discovery of oil. Al-Fahim explains that as a child, the kandura had no pockets because they had nothing to put in them. He recounts traveling by camel from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi and describes the treacherous job of pearl diving. He gives insights into why Sheikh Zayed is so revered by his people. Interestingly, Al-Fahim discusses how the British exploited the UAE and why he has forgiven them.

The book was ghostwritten by Susan Macaulay. She visited my book club about six years ago and told us how she conducted a series of interviews with Mr. Al-Fahim, recorded his words and turned them into a cohesive story.

The book is sold all over the UAE in various languages, and I recommend it to all expats living here.

Favorite Food from the UAE

Dates! I didn’t appreciate them until I moved to Dubai. Now we eat them almost every day; we serve them to guests and give them as gifts when we travel. Dates are abundant in the UAE and are part of the traditional diet.

When an Emirati friend gives me a big box of dates—as they sometimes do, as many Emiratis have family date farms—I save them to make ma’amoul, date-filled pastries for Eid. Recently, on the day of the Royal Wedding, I made Date Scones.

The time of the year when dates are most important is Ramadan. For thirty days we break our fast by eating dates. Many people claim that dates have extraordinary nutritional value. I don’t know about that, but I like to think it’s true since I eat dates like candy.

Favorite Feature of Emirati Culture

To anyone who says “Emirati culture is dying,” I direct them to the UAE national dress, worn by virtually all Emirati nationals. To me, it’s evidence of strong national pride and no desire whatsoever to assimilate to the dress of the expats filling their country.

And why should they when they have a superb local dress of their own?

The women wear the abaya, a light and flowing cloak—always black, but often with a colorful or sparkly trim—loose-fitting, worn over their clothing, sometimes partially open, sometimes not. This is typically topped with the shayla, a long black scarf. The ways to wrap and pin it are endless and depend upon the personal style and modesty of the woman. Several ways to wear the shayla are here and here, and how to create those amazing head bumps.

The men wear the kandura (dishdash in other dialects)—usually white but sometimes beige, sand or even dark blue. The head cloth is called a gutra, and the black cord to secure it, an agal. The men also have choices on how to wear their gutra, depending on season and preference.

When I’m in the mall, and a group of Emirati women glides past me, their heels clicking, abayas fluttering, heads wrapped artistically in the shayla—honestly, it’s hard not to stare; they look so striking. The same can be said of the men in their luminous white kanduras and carefully folded gutra.

Tell me your favorite thing about the UAE.

Mecca & Medina without a Map

May 3rd, 2011 8 comments

When we got our visas for Saudi Arabia, the first thing I did was grab my Lonely Planet Guide to the Arabian Peninsula. I turned to the chapter on Saudi Arabia—seventy-five pages describing the cities and regions of Saudi. But wait!

There was no mention of Mecca or Medina. How had I missed it? I turned the pages one by one, flipping past maps of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, and Al-Khobar. Aside from one line about Hajj visas, there was no word about Mecca or Medina.

The Mystique

Of course, entry to Mecca and Medina is permitted to Muslims only. The holy cities are so inaccessible that even Lonely Planet didn’t dare write about them. (Don’t they have Muslim travel writers? Don’t they realize they have Muslim readers?)

All of this secrecy only increased mystique surrounding Saudi Arabia, reinforcing in my mind the notion of the “last forbidden kingdom.” My imagination grew. I pictured myself in the abaya and shayla I would be required to wear. I wondered if I would have a run-in with the infamous mutawwa, the Saudi religious police. Always the curious traveler, I secretly hoped I would.

Déjà vu
Despite the mystery, my overall impression of Saudi was one of familiarity. The streets of Mecca reminded me places in the UAE: Al-Ain and Ras al-Khaimah. The landscape around Medina reminded me of Fujairah and the way to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. But above all, Medina made me think of Jordan. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was in Saudi, not Jordan. This was partly because our hotel was filled with busloads of Jordanian pilgrims.
There were surprises, too. We had a series of friendly, chatty Saudi taxi drivers who asked if we were enjoying our trip. They performed the role of tour guide and shattered any stereotype I may have had about Saudi men. One driver told me, “I like the American people. I like your President Obama.”

Another driver felt the need to tell me, “I hate Osama bin Laden. All Saudis hate Osama bin Laden.”  Good to know.

We spent most of our time in the holy city of Medina, a sleepy getaway town. According to the hotel brochure—as I had no guide or map of the city—the list of “significant sights” was a list of mosques—the Prophet’s Mosque, the first mosque in Islam, and seven mosques for the seven companions of the Prophet. (Peace be upon them all.)

In the days that I spent there, I did not encounter the “rich oil country” that Saudi Arabia is known as. The Saudi that I saw was more underprivileged and run-down that I had expected. (Granted, coming from Dubai, even Seattle and Paris look run down to me.) I did, however, get a few glimpses of upscale neighborhoods.

The Saudi women were more modest and less flashy than their Emirati counterparts. Along with the black abaya and shayla, many wore niqab. At first glance, they all looked the same. But if you steal a second look, the variations appear. One wears sandals, one spiky heels, another wears Converse All-Stars.

In a Medina Starbucks, the Arab woman at the next table declared that I was a “beautiful woman.” This was particularly uplifting as I was feeling old and invisible in my black shayla. I wanted to tell her, “And you, too!” but it felt insincere, as I could not see her face, only her eyes peeking out from behind her niqab.

Saudi was not as strictly segregated as I had imagined. There was plenty of interaction between men and women. Saudi women needed to talk to men to order their cappuccino, buy clothing or do any kind of shopping. Everywhere I looked was a Saudi woman speaking to a man that was not her relative. Shocking!

Of course, Saudi Arabia does have its own wacky weird unusual qualities.

Unique Aspects to Saudi

  • I bought a TIME magazine, and later, I discovered the pages I wanted to read had been ripped out! (I much prefered the Emirati censors who merely black out offending images, but don’t rip out the whole page.)
  • Restaurants and cafés typically have two sections: Single men and Families. My husband and I spent a lot of time in the “Families Section” of Starbucks, where screens provided privacy to us caffeine-addicts. I also noted Starbucks’ trademark naked-mermaid logo was conspicuously absent from the signage.

  • Dressing rooms were non-existent. In the mall, I took a stack of clothing from the shop (based on the honor system apparently) and walked to the nearest restroom to try them on. Perhaps the idea of a woman undressing in a shop was too provocative.
  • However, sexy lingerie stores were not a problem. Just like in Dubai, they were all over. But in Saudi, women’s teddies and thongs are famously sold by men. According to one of our talkative drivers, the country had recently tried to employ women in these shops, but that attempt had failed—I’m not sure why.
  • Regarding Saudi hours of business, shops didn’t simply close for various prayers. They closed all afternoon as well. Restaurants closed a full hour before prayer time to make sure everyone was out on time. This meant that businesses were closed more often than not—a frustrating fact for a visitor.
  • Supposedly, the abaya and shayla were required by law when in fact I saw women from various countries wearing their own cultural form of Islamic dress—jilbab, dishdash, sharlwar kameez. The point was to be modest by Islamic standards. It was an interesting experiment to wear hijab for five days. I become temporarily fixated on pins, drape, and hijab styles. I discovered I preferred the long shayla over a square scarf, but in the end, I was content to return to Dubai, where there is no such requirement.

  • Women often have their own lines. I saw this as the positive side of segregation. For example, the women’s line in the airport was always shorter!
  • On our last day, we were at the Jeddah airport riding a bus to the tarmac on our way out. A man indicated to me that I had a strand of hair showing. I shoved the hair under my scarf, feeling utterly annoyed. Then I realized. Maybe I had encountered the mutawwa after all! Only then was my trip to Saudi complete.

Please share your impressions of Saudi Arabia.

Trip to the Blue Souk … and a Surprise

April 17th, 2011 13 comments


About once a month I like to go to Sharjah to remind myself that I actually live in an Arab country. Sharjah is the emirate north of Dubai and more conservative. Alcohol, sheesha and skimpy clothing are all forbidden.

My favorite place in Sharjah is the Blue Souk. Arabs call it Souk Islamia (Islamic Souk). To confuse you further, the sign outside reads “Central Souk.”

Last Friday, we headed for it, but stopped on the way to eat falafel sandwiches at Kalha—to fuel up for the serious shopping ahead. This trip wasn’t for random purchases. We had an important mission at hand!

The Blue Souk

Located on the Corniche of the Buheirah (the big lake), the Blue Souk is two long buildings that look a bit like a train station. There’s a picture of it on the UAE five-dirham note.

The souk has two stories. The ground floor is mostly filled with Arabic clothing. The upper floor holds the goodies—carpets from Iran, Kashmiri textiles, silver Bedouin jewelry, and all types of bric-a-brac from the region and beyond. The place calls for serious bargaining. Whatever they ask for, start the bargaining at half the asking-price—but always with a smile. 

Upstairs, we entered only one shop. The sign said, “antiques” which translates as, “old and tarnished.” Our family traipsed in and began to poke around.

We bought several pieces of “antique” Afghani jewelry. I also chose a silver Mongolian box with Kufic Arabic calligraphy. I had never seen anything like it, so naturally I had to have it.

While my nine-year-old son tried out the swords for sale, I saw some spoons—antique silver spoons from Russia. I earnestly asked their prices—about $80 each. Hmmm. At this point, my husband began sighing and rolling his eyes. It was time to leave the shop.

A Surprise

Anyway, silver trinkets were not what we came for. Our mission was on the ground floor; we came to buy clothing to wear to Saudi Arabia. The day before my family got Umrah visas to visit Mecca and Medina. In case you don’t know, Umrah is the “small pilgrimage”—versus Hajj, the big pilgrimage.

This upcoming trip was a surprise to me, as I hadn’t expected the visas to come through (not with the two huge Israeli stamps in Husband’s passport.) Thankfully, the Saudis hadn’t noticed—or they chose to overlook them.

So—like any trip—we needed the right clothes. According to Saudi law, I must wear the abaya. For good measure, I decided to get two. We also wanted an abaya for our daughter. Even though she’s still a child, at 12, she’s tall and it couldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, my husband and boys wanted kanduras, the standard garment of the Gulf Arab Male.

Honestly, I’m not sure why they needed this. Men have a special wrap for performing Umrah and Hajj. The kandura is not required, nor is it the traditional dress of my husband. Perhaps they didn’t want to be left out. Or maybe—the clothing will help our family “blend.”

And so, we went from stop to shop, trying on and selecting our attire. I bought two abaya with black-on-black embroidery and matching shayla (scarf). Meanwhile, my daughter, who had been rather hesitant about the whole thing, perked up when she found an abaya with blue Swarovski crystal trim (of course, twice as expensive as mine).

Meanwhile, our sixteen-year-old son wasn’t with us. He didn’t want a common off-the-rack kandura. He had insisted on a custom-tailored kandura made of special fabric. (Kids these days!)

Back to Umrah: I’m feeling excited and a little bit nervous. What to bring?! How to prepare?! What to expect?! We are booked to travel to Mecca, Medina and Jeddah. (God-willing, we’ll be earning hassanat blessings, as well as Marriott points.)

If you’ve made Umrah, please share with me your “Top Tip.” I would gladly welcome it. Also, share any comments you may have about the Blue Souk or anything mentioned here. Shukran.

Bye for now & Salaam.