There is something which happens in Dubai which, even though it is initially amusing and almost flattering, occurs so frequently that eventually you get used to it and even actually come to expect it. I am talking about the phenomenon of being called Ma’am and Sir.
Everywhere you go in this city waiters, retail staff, receptionists, taxi drivers, concierges, cleaning staff, gardeners, nurses… everyone in the service industry, calls you Ma’am and Sir. It’s such a frequently used salutation that they’ve actually inadvertently created a new word: Ma’amsir.
Because David and I go out together often, we hear this one all the time:
“Hello Ma’amsir, would you like to sample our new beef bacon?”
“Ma’amsir, are you enjoying your free-flowing champagne?”
“Good afternoon Ma’amsir, may I spray you with Britney Spears’ new fragrance?”
When I say you get used to it and come to expect it, I don’t mean to say that I actually like it. Only that I become so accustomed to hearing it that when we travel overseas and I don’t hear it, it seems odd. For about five seconds. Then I rapidly re-enter normality and forget about it until we get back to Dubai and are immediately subjected to it before we even leave the airport (duty free beckons you know).
It has become such an expected part of being greeted here that I have a funny little story to share. In the early days of our move here, David and I discovered a lovely little Japanese restaurant close to our home and had lunch there a couple of times, making friends with the staff. The third time we went, we were warmly greeted by our favourite waitress, Apple, who took us to our table. After a quick chat to catch up on what we’d all been up to she asked us our names. I told her my name was Chryss – she giggled and said, “Ah, Miss Chryss” (it rhymes you see). She then asked David’s name, to which he responded, “Sir David”. No-one else batted an eyelid but I nearly fell off my chair laughing at his audacity. Anyway, next time you see my wonderful husband, you know how to properly address him.
Another time, I went into a gourmet chocolate shop to buy a gift for David (I’m a good wife, aren’t I?). As I entered the store, a delightful Russian male shop assistant greeted me with, “Welcome Ma’amsir”. I was momentarily confused thinking that he might be addressing a couple that had perhaps stealthily entered the store behind me. But I looked around and no, I was alone. And apparently I was also to be known as Ma’amsir. I don’t know if he referred to me as that because he was so used to using that salutation that it just popped out without him thinking, or if he just didn’t really know what the hell Ma’amsir was but had been trained to say it whenever a customer entered the store. Either way I was amused. And no matter how silly it does get, it sure beats being greeted with, “Whaddaya want?”.
There is another cultural phenomenon that occurs here which takes a little getting used to. Two points to make before I go into it are that a) homosexuality is strictly forbidden in the UAE, and b) public displays of affection between a man and a woman (even if they are married) is frowned upon. Between an unmarried man and woman, it is absolutely prohibited. And here comes the twist. We’ve noticed that amongst the labour workers in Dubai (the majority of whom are from the sub-continent) it is not unusual, it’s even common, to see two (or more) men holding hands or walking down the street with their arms draped around each others’ shoulders or waists. If they’re sitting waiting for a bus, perhaps one can be seen caressing the other’s arm or leg. And when the construction workers have their on-site afternoon nap, it is not uncommon to see them laying close next to each other. Spooning even.
Now personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that EXCEPT that if David and I were to lay down that close (say in a park – yes, such things do indeed exist in this concrete jungle) we would risk being arrested, charged with indecency and possibly (if they wanted to push the point), even deported. We do occasionally hold hands in public, usually at the mall but we are always very sensitive about the Muslims around us – we are, after all, guests in their country.
Apparently, however, between two men it’s completely fine. Some people (David among them) believe that this affection is actually a sign of homosexual love – after all, these guys live in male-only labour camps, away from their wives and girlfriends for months, even years at a time. I don’t actually subscribe to that notion though. I just think that they were raised in a society in which it is accepted that men are affectionate together in a platonic way. Either way though, I must confess that it is initially quite strange to behold. To be honest, I think it’s kinda cute to see two grown men walking down the street with their pinkie fingers interlocked.
Speaking of all the Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers – predominantly employed in the construction industry – they are given an unusual label by society. Check this out. They are called “bachelors”. Whether they are married or not. Most of these guys come out here on a labour visa and earn a pittance. They can’t afford their own housing so they live in over-crowded labour camps. They can’t afford their own cars so they get carted to and from work in hot, over-crowded buses. And they can’t even dream of being able to afford to bring their wives and family to live here. Even a visit visa is beyond their means. So, even though most of them have wives and several children, they live and are known as bachelors.
Bachelors really are treated as bottom of the barrel citizens here. Even on their days off, if they go to the mall to hang out, they are frowned upon because they are seen to be lowering the tone of the place. And it’s not as if they go dressed in their construction overalls and dusty boots. In fact, they are usually better dressed in their long sleeved shirts, belted pants, dress shoes and pomaded hair than the Australian tourist wearing a ripped t-shirt, baggy shorts and flip flops. But still, they are eyeballed by security from the time they enter to the time they leave and I find that shameful.
There was a big story about a year ago of a ‘bachelor’ being refused entry to a shopping mall (albeit in Saudi Arabia) simply because he was a ‘bachelor’. What is going on there? Segregation? Apartheid? Thankfully it isn’t quite that bad in the UAE and I hope it never is.
It’s time to go now – David and I are off to Australia in a couple of days for a whirlwind three week visit and I’ve got lots to do. Next time I’ll get a bit more stuck into the whole bachelor situation in Dubai. It’s a complex and very confronting situation and I find that it’s something that I need to work really hard at not ignoring and actually dealing with. I promise that the next ejo won’t take as long to produce as this one did.
I have enjoyed reading your stories about UAE – are you still there? You write well. I have a few general questions…
Lynda in Brisbane who is also married to an ATC considering moving to UAE