abaya

Ejo #33 – A Few Things You Didn’t Realise You Wanted To Know About Living In Dubai (IFAQ – Part III)

Here are the answers to a few questions you guys have fielded at me.  I’m always open to trying to find the answer to any and all queries, so please, keep them coming.

 

WHAT’S THAT FUNKY HEAD THING THAT LADIES IN BURQA WEAR?

If we’re talking about the same thing here, I’ve heard it referred to as a ‘batoola’ (please don’t quote me on the spelling).  It’s a traditional Bedouin headpiece which appears to be purely decorative.  Even though it’s shiny and looks metallic, it is usually made from cloth or leather.  I’ve seen a few of these around and it tends to be worn by the more mature lady (which leads me to believe it’s the Arabic equivalent of your grandmother’s Sunday hat, i.e. something that used to be more common a few years ago but will probably die out with the newer generations).  I must confess that the first time I saw a lady wearing one of these masks in public I kind of freaked out a little bit.  I mean, look at it!  It looks like some kind of kinky S&M gear designed to humiliate the person donning it; not dissimilar to a muzzle.  Such comparisons, however, serve only to highlight that everything I look at in Dubai is seen through Western eyes.  It’s not for me to judge something which in Islamic culture is deemed an item that garners respect and reverence towards the wearer.

 

A mature Bedouin lady wearing a traditional Batoola face mask.

 

DO YOU HAVE TO LIVE IN A COMPOUND? 

Compounds are more common in places like Saudi Arabia or Iraq, where it is considered somewhat difficult to assimilate as a westerner.  Dubai is very westernised and offers accommodation in either apartments or villas (which is what they call houses over here, for some unknown reason).  There does appear to be a tendency for westerners to cluster together in certain areas but it’s completely out of choice.

 

ARE ALL EMIRATIS RICH?

A lot of Emiratis have to work for a living.  Of course there are some obscenely rich Arabs out there but they are the exception – unlike other areas in the region, Dubai has never been particularly oil-rich.  Emiratis do receive a lot of grants and concessions from the government (such as heavily subsidised water and electricity rates), but it’s not enough to live on.

 

Having said that, I’ve heard many (albeit unsubstantiated) rumours that Emiratis are eligible for sizable cash bonuses in certain circumstances.  Specifically, that if two Emiratis marry each other, they receive approximately AED200,000 (about AUD50,000) as a gift from the government.  I guess the idea is to keep the Emirati bloodline going.  But there are also whispers that Emirati families sometimes arrange a marriage in order to receive the money, with the couple divorcing after an appropriately “unsuspicious” period.  Even more controversial is the rumour that for every Emirati baby that is born, the parents receive an additional AED200,000.  And you thought the baby bonus in Australia incentivised procreation!!!

 

DOES EVERYONE HAVE A LIVE IN MAID?

No, but a surprising number of people do.  I, personally, couldn’t stand having a stranger living in my house picking up after me.  I cherish my privacy.  Not only that, I am more than happy to pick up after myself.  People that would never consider hiring a live-in maid in their home country do so here simply because the labour is so cheap.  We occasionally use the services of a cleaning agency (on average about once a month) and that is more than enough for us.  Perhaps if we had children I would be more inclined to have regular hired help around the house, but I still don’t think I’d ever go with the live-in option.  Does this have anything to do with my own experience of being a live-in nanny/maid for a year in my late twenties?  I’m not sure – that’s one for the therapist’s couch I think!

 

DO YOU, AS A WOMAN, HAVE TO COVER UP WITH AN ABAYA?

No, I don’t (though sometimes I kind of wish I could).  Women who live in Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia aren’t permitted in public without covering up their bodies, hair and face.  Dubai is really relaxed about that and there is no problem being in public in regular clothes.  But, whilst it is relatively moderate, the UAE is still an Islamic country and this should be respected by visitors.  It is deemed immodest, and thus very rude, to show your bare shoulders or knees.  For some reason though, there is never any shortage of these body parts (and sometimes even more) on display, with women frequently wearing super skimpy outfits in public.  I’ve been here so long now that it actually makes me cringe whenever I see it.  David and I flash imaginary “red cards” whenever we see bare shoulders or too much thigh being exposed in the mall.  I can’t get over how people could be so insensitive to the culture of the country in which they are guests.  Sure, I do occasionally miss being able to wear shorts and singlet tops but you know what, I just save that kind of attire for when we go on holiday.

 

Things are getting so bad here with people disregarding local sensitivities that there is talk of making conservative dress code a law.  One for which you could actually go to jail for flouting.  Now, I think that might be an over-reaction, but it gives you an idea of how offensive it is to Muslims to see people walking around in public in varying degrees of undress.

 

DOES ALL THAT SAND HAVE (NEGATIVE) EFFECTS ON LIFESTYLE?  FOR INSTANCE REDUCED LIFESPAN FOR CARS?

There really is a lot of sand here.  And with even the slightest breeze, that sand becomes airborne.  So everything gets covered with it.  There are some labourers whose only job it is to sweep sand off the road.  Talk about a Sisyphean task.

 

A common scene on the roads in Dubai. Sand, sand everywhere.

 

Sandstorms are not an uncommon occurrence and I imagine that all that blowing sand is not very good for vehicles but there aren’t any official figures on the actual impact.  And anyway, for a very small fee you can have your car regularly cleaned at home, at work or even while you shop.  Mobile car cleaning is big business over here.  There are several guys in our apartment building car park who will clean your car overnight, three times a week for about AUD25 a month.  It works out to a little over two bucks a wash and since it’s being cleaned every couple of days, the sand doesn’t really hang around long enough to cause damage.  That’s the theory anyway.  Personally,  I’ve always been a little hesitant to have my car cleaned this way as their equipment usually isn’t the best and if they do scratch my car (i.e. by rubbing the sand into the paint with a dry, dirty rag for instance), I have no recourse.  But I think I’m in the fuddy-duddy minority about that, as it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else.  To be honest though, I’m pretty close to caving on this point.  And to be completely honest, it hurts me more to see my beautiful baby always covered in sand and dust.  She deserves to be shiny and sparkly clean.  So I relent.  So far, so good.

 

DO YOU GO TO THE MOVIES OFTEN?

We did go to the movies a few times when we first got here.  Being a shift worker is great because you get time off to do things, like go to the movies, when most other people are at work.  Unfortunately, in a city like Dubai, where a lot of people don’t actually work, that advantage is negated.  And, apart from the fact that we weren’t getting the movie theatre to ourselves anymore (as we were accustomed to back home), a strange thing occurred the few times we did decide to go.  The strange thing I speak of is censorship.  Yep!  It’s alive and well in the UAE.  Too many times we’d be getting right into a story, watching as our protagonist and his lovely lady leaned in for a kiss, when BAM – we’d be snapped back into reality by a vicious cut in the celluloid, rejoining our heroes just as they were buttoning up their shirts (a fetching glow to their cheeks).  It is considered indecent to show even the most modest re-enactments of a sex scene in this culture.  And it’s just too bad if anything crucial to comprehending the rest of the movie happens during the deleted scenes.  David and I have watched entire films, at a complete loss as to what was happening.  The explanation lay on the cutting room floor!  And the censors here aren’t winning any Oscar awards for editing either.  Five or ten minutes either side of an offending scene is considered “close enough”.  We have actually paid money to watch a two hour movie that finished in a little over an hour.  And as you can imagine, no, it didn’t make any sense whatsoever!

 

In addition to that, movie etiquette here is somewhat different than we are used to.  For instance, in Australia people tend to go to the movies to, well, to watch a movie.  In the UAE they go to catch up with friends.  And I don’t mean catch up by watching the movie together.  I mean catch up by talking loudly for the duration of the entire film.  Or sometimes they go to conduct business meetings via conference on their smartphone.  Yes, they do that.  And my personal favourite: to convey scene-by-scene what is happening in the movie to some disembodied person, who for some inexplicable reason couldn’t make it to the movie themselves, but is still there in spirit and would like to know exactly what is happening on screen.  So no, we don’t go to the movies anymore.  I’d rather stick hot needles in my eye.  Hope that answers your question.

 

DO YOU ACTUALLY LIKE LIVING IN DUBAI?

You know, this is actually a tricky question for me to answer.  It’s certainly more complex than a yes/no response.  In fact, I think it deserves an entire ejo to itself.  Let me get back to you, OK?

Ejo #12 – Emirati National Dress: The Dishdash and The Abaya explained

I’m lucky enough to work with an Emirati who is extremely open and more than happy to answer pretty well any question about his country, culture and religion.  His name is Omran and over the last six months I’ve discussed many, many interesting things with him.  I’d really like to share some of what I’ve learnt with you.  Let me tell you about the national dress of Emirati men and women.  I’ll start with the men as there’s a lot less controversy about what they wear.

 

Arab men wear an ankle length, dress-like tunic (usually with long sleeves) which is called a khandoura.  It is also known as a dishdash which is a much cuter name, I think.  Contrary to popular belief the dishdash is not required to be worn by men for any religious reason.  It is more a traditional outfit of the region, which has been adopted because of its versatility in the desert climate.  It protects the wearer’s skin from direct sunlight while providing very good ventilation under the ‘skirt’.  And of course the white fabric reflects sunlight, keeping the wearer cooler.

 

But white wasn’t always the traditional colour of the khandoura.  Apparently in the olden days the dishdash used to be a more sandy coloured fabric – for rather obvious reasons.  Now that every household has easy access to dry cleaners and can buy bleach at the local supermarket, it has evolved into a very brilliant white outfit.  I am constantly amazed by how bright and clean their whites are.  I know for sure that if I wore a dishdash, it would have coffee stains on it before I even left the house in the morning.

 

It’s not actually decreed anywhere what colour a dishdash is supposed to be so you often see younger guys being a bit more adventurous.  I’ve seen navy and I’ve seen a kind of pale green.  And I’ve seen several shades of brown, from light cream to dark chocolate and even black (which looks rather smart in my opinion).  So while there is variety, I am yet to see anything too crazy or out there.  No pinks or purples, but they do apparently exist.  I’m also pretty sure that Burberry do a dishdash in their signature check.  I sure would love to see that.

 

Another way the Emirati dudes express themselves sartorially is with the headscarf, which is part of their traditional outfit.  You do occasionally see an Arab guy in a dishdash without the headscarf (known as a ghoutra – no it’s not a tea towel, though, yes, they do sometimes resemble kitchen linens), but more often than not they are worn together.  The black coil holding the ghoutra onto their heads is called an igal, and it’s sole purpose is to hold the scarf in place.

 

The ghoutra, you may have noticed, comes in a range of different colours and styles.  All Arabs can wear the white ghoutra (it’s kind of like wearing blue jeans, it’s a staple but it doesn’t really say anything about you).  But each country in the area also has their very own special check pattern in addition to that.  This can be compared to the Scottish clans each having their own tartan check.  It identifies the wearer as belonging to a certain tribe or place.  The Palestinian national check is a large black and white pattern (as worn by the late Yasser Arafat).  The UAE national ghoutra is a small-sized, red and white check.  Actually you’ve probably seen it.  It seemed to gain prominence last year worn as a scarf around the necks of pretty young things around the world.  I’m pretty sure I saw a picture of Elle Macpherson wearing one once.

 

In addition to the pattern on the ghoutra it may also be worn in several different styles depending on how the wearer feels that day or what image he wants to project.  He can just wear it flat across the head or he may pull one side of it over the top of his head, or even twist it at the back kind of like a loose, long braid.  And when he’s feeling sporty he can wrap it around his head, bedouin style, with all the loose ends tucked in.

 

A few people from back home have expressed interest in what is worn underneath the dishdash.  To be honest, I haven’t actually discussed this with Omran, though I’m pretty sure he’d be more than happy to chat to me about it.  Anyway, from my own observations it would appear that, at the very least, they wear a t-shirt or singlet (‘wifebeater’ for my American friends).  I’m pretty sure the dishdash has some kind of  extra fabric around the nether regions (kind of like a skirt) but as for whether or not they wear underpants, this has not been so easy to determine from my casual and furtive glances.  If I had to say I would probably guess that they go commando.  Which is an interesting though when you consider what would happen should a young man wearing a dishdash become unexpectedly aroused (as young men are wont to do).  I’ve never seen it happen so perhaps there is some form of undergarment being worn.  Who knows??  It’s fun to think about anyway.

 

OK, so onto the women.  As opposed to the men, who are wearing the dishdash because of where they’re from, the women wear their national dress because of the religion they believe in.  They are required by the Qur’an to cover up with a loose cloth (in the Middle East, this covering is known as an abaya, and the headscarf is known as a shela).  According to the good book, women are required to hide their ‘ornaments’ in public.  ‘Ornaments’ has been interpreted to mean a woman’s body and hair which is why they cover them up.  Unfortunately, the more extreme Muslims of the world have a tendency to take what the Qur’an says and then try to amplify it in the belief that Allah will think they are better Muslims.  In this case they have decreed that a woman’s ‘ornaments’ means the entire woman, thus forcing her to also cover her face and hands.  From what little I know, this is not actually correct in the eyes of Islam but it is what is sensationally distributed around the world, leading to misinformation.

 

Another misconception is that women are forced to wear the abaya in order to prevent Muslim men from being overcome with passion.  This is bollocks.  First of all (in Dubai at least), Muslim men are exposed to women’s body bits every day as most of the women here are expats.  Secondly, no-one forces the women to wear the abaya (again, I speak only for Dubai).  They are actually proud to wear it.  This is worth repeating (and I’m not exaggerating it or making it up).  They are proud to wear the abaya.  I’m telling you, if you saw a group of young Emirati women in the mall walk past you, their black robes swishing around them, you could only describe them as regal.  It actually gives them a power – because only they know what is underneath the robe.  And it’s not a power that only the observer imagines.  You can see that they are more than aware of it themselves.  It was wonderful to realise this when I first came here, because just like everyone else, I assumed that they were being oppressed by having to wear it.  Not so.

 

Plus, in recent years, particularly with younger women, it has become quite the fashion to decorate the abaya with all manner of shiny things – like sequins, glittery thread and even Swarovski crystals.  Funny how the garment that they are wearing to hide their ornaments is now covered in them.  But they are pretty, and it is big business.  Even the major designers are jumping on the bandwagon and designing the black robes.  Christian Dior, Chanel, Gucci.  They all make abayas and charge up to 30,000dhs for them (that’s about AUD$10,000).  So tell me, if you’re wearing a Dolce & Gabbana abaya, are you really being oppressed???

 

The original purpose of the abaya is to protect a woman’s modesty – I suppose this could be interpreted as meaning it is required in order to prevent a man’s uncontrollable lust???  I don’t know.  What I do know is that, according to Islam, only her husband has the right to see a woman’s body.  Perhaps I’m romanticising it but I think that’s kind of cool.  I certainly know that some days I would love to have the option of wrapping an abaya around myself and stepping out in the world with no-one being able to see what I’m wearing underneath.  Admittedly those are either ‘fat’ days when my jeans are a bit tight and I just want to go out in tracksuit pants, or when everything else I own is in the wash.

 

OK, that’s it for now.  I had a funny story to tell you (unrelated to dishdashes and abayas) but this has turned into quite a long ejo so I’ll save it for the next one.  I’m sure by then I’ll have more than just one funny story to tell.  I promise, promise, promise not to take three months before I write to you again.