Friday, July 16, 2010

Gulf Fashion: From Black to Ack!

Three of my students at the museum, (I call this pic "Three Sheets to the Wind").

Back in Canada, when I told most people we were off to the gulf to teach again, we were really surprised at the reactions we'd get. Generally, only two people asked us to come see them when we returned and answer some questions they had about the area. 

A lot of other people decided to tell us "what it's like over there". And what they always focused on was the abaya, that black cover women wear over their clothes when they go out in public. 

"It's horrible! They're forced to wear it!" 
Well for the one millionth time, I'm here to say - it's NOT horrible and they are NOT forced to wear it. They love it. It's the national dress, and they want to wear it. (And trust me, the abaya is seriously the LEAST of their problems.) 

Gulf ladies are very fashion conscious. Our student mona unpacked her closet for us this week and it was jammed with clothes; bright traditional Omani dresses, western jeans and t-shirts splashed with Disneyland across the front and beautiful handmade indian Punjabis. She also has about a dozen black abayas, all different and very stylish.

An Abaya Store

Abayas are not all the same here. When buying a generic abaya, you go to just a shop in a mall, but many ladies prefer to go to a more traditional shop. There you first choose the body shape, fitted or loose and flowing. Then you add the sleeves, they will have hundreds of styles of sleeves to choose from and finally the trim or decoration. It's safe to say that in my classes, no two abayas were ever alike.

Many of the more conservative clerics complain about the way the abaya has gone in the Gulf, many of them don't cover your curves, in fact, the abaya can actually accentuate them. Those shaylas (headscarves) they wear can be very glamourous looking a la Audrey Hepburn, especially when paired with big Jackie-O sunglasses!

In class, I sometimes catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window, surrounded by my students and I'm struck by how stately they look compared to me. A 15 year old girl can look so womanly, it really as the opposite effect of what it's supposed to.

Gorgeous Gold Gowns for Weddings

It's safe to say, that because of the lack of colour in abayas, girls make up for it in their regular wardrobe. Pink and orange! Yellow and red! Orange and green! 

Sequins are pretty standard, followed by beads, tassels, trim, fringe, dingleballs and brick-a-brack. Sometimes it works and sometimes....ugh.

But the standards are here to, Mexx, Gap, Esprit. There is even a Le Chateau in Dubai. The malls are filled with luxury brand name products that get knocked off in China. One student has a Chanel bag, another a Gucci watch. 

Here are some of the more interesting examples from the mall.... enjoy! 

Pink and yellow!

Skin tight and over the top!

Purple, pink and green! 
The outfit on the far left is my favorite, check out those sleeves!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Teenage Tyranny

Every morning we blow through the doors of the University. Out of the heat, and into the cold colourless lobby. Marble floors support black leather couches arranged in a huge horseshoe around the edges of the room. On these couches sit more blobs of black, some fiddling with their cell phones, others chatting with friends, a few smile and call out, “Hello Miss! Good morning!”

Dealing with these young ladies is such a challenge. You can almost split them down the centre – obedient and shy vs rebellious and loud. The former always getting shafted by the demands and antics of the latter.

Across the board, they all show up at least twenty minutes late for class, but the rebellious ones are forty-five minutes late. The lesson is interrupted by constant demands to be let out to “drink water”, “go bathroom” and “go cafeteria”. You refuse to let them go because you know it’s just an excuse to roam the halls, and you unwillingly become involved in a “conversation” that goes something like this.

(For argument’s sake, lets call the student Sara.)

Sara: Miss! Miss! Me go bathroom, OK?
Rene: Sorry lady, you just got back 3 minutes ago. Not this time.
Sara: Miss! Please Miss!
Rene: Sara, please. Sit down.
Sara: Miss! MISS! Why miss? WHY? Bathroom Miss….
Rene: Sara, what did I just say?
Sara: OK, Five minutes Miss! Only five minutes! Please! OK miss?

(By this time you can see the girl she is desperate to go wander the halls with madly gesturing outside the door. Sara grows more insistent.)

Sara: MISS!
Rene: (Says nothing, but gives Sara a look that says, “This conversation is over”. Unfortunately, it isn’t.)
Sara: MISS! WHY??? MISS BATHROOOOOOM! (Takes on a terrible whine that spreads over several octaves and just makes you crawl in your skin) MIIIISSSSSSSSSSSS!
Rene: (Trying my best to ignore her) Ok everyone, let’s carry on! Who can answer num…
Sara: MIIIIISSS!!!! WHY?? Bathroom. Please miss! I love you miss! Please! Why? Miss! Really, really, I love you! Please! MIIIIIIISSSSSSS! Pleeeese!
Rene: NO
Sara: Ok. Sorry Miss. Miss? Me go drink water, OK?
The truth of the matter is that Sara has no intention of going to the bathroom or drinking water, and she knows she‘s wasting the whole class’s time, but she doesn’t care. Because Sarah has learned from her other female relatives that persistence, whining and whinging are powerful tools. In the hospital, you see mothers absolutely haranging the poor nurses with “Why Missss?” When they are told they must wait in line to see a doctor.

The sad part is after two weeks of dealing with this several times a day, they wear you down and you just can’t take it, so you yell, “Fine! GO!” And they’ve won. Because you just can’t take their constant pestering and nagging any longer. And so they go out into the hall and meet up with their friends and sit in the mosque until the security guard kicks them back to class. Where they wait three minutes and start all over again, “Misssssss!”

And you could have the most brilliantly planned class with all the bells and whistles, but it won’t matter. So slowly you watch the teachers become “untrained”, they no longer bring their A-game. They bring B or even C game some days. And it’s sad and it’s wrong, because you have other girls there who do really want to learn.

Kick those girls out you say? Can’t. Their parents are rich and the University wants to keep them happy.

Read the riot act, you say? Can’t. Losing your cool in this culture is a huge no-no.

Perhaps the worst part is coming to school and listening to these fresh-faced little girls straight-out lie to you. Two girls asked me if they could go to the bathroom moments before we boarded the bus on a field trip. I said “Yes go quickly!” I watched them casually saunter down the hall and turn into an empty classroom, definitely NOT the bathroom. I chased them down only to find them on the classroom computer trying to log onto MSN while three busses full of girls waited patiently in 48 degree weather.

But I can’t say I don’t like them, some of them I really like a lot. I try to remember that this a just an excuse to get out of their gilded cages for a while. I try to remember that for some of these girls, the friends they’ve made here they will never see again except on MSN messenger, because it’s forbidden for girls their age to go visit another household - God forbid a brother or uncle catch a glimpse of their faces!

A few moments ago, during class time, I passed three students in the hall. They were carrying 2 large pizzas from Pizza Hut. They had them delivered to the school and were off to eat in the classroom while their teacher tied to teach them the differences between present simple and present continuous.

“You ordered pizza? During class time?” I asked, shocked.

“Hungry Miss!” They threw over their shoulders as they skipped down the hall with their abayas puffing out behind them, revealing their tight blue jeans and converse runners.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Welcome To Our Villa!

Hello! And welcome to our fabulous villa! This time around, we live on the exotically named 27th street in Al Towayya District. We have now lived in all 3 of ADU's villa locations. In our opinion, this one is the best. 

This villa differs from the others we've been in as it's a bit of a sprawling one story, (as opposed to two and even three story villas elsewhere). It also only houses 4 people at once instead of 7, which means 3 less people to annoy and be annoyed by. We also like this villa for it's nifty location, which is just a few round-a-bouts from our fave mall, Al Jimi and 8 minutes to school. Oh! And of course, ease of taxi procurement!

This sign is smack outside our villa.

As with tradition, our villas have always had one dead tree out front, this one is no exception.

Look at the gorgeous dates growing over the carport wall! They aren't ready yet, but to be honest, we've nearly had our fill of these, even though they are absolutely delish!

Thick curtains to block out the summer heat? - check!
Beige Marble floor? - check!
Beige furniture? - check !
Beige walls? - check!
Dusty Christmas tree leftover from last year? - check!
Yes! It's got all the markings of an ADU villa!

Large kitchen where we do all our socializing. 
Two villa-mates kicking back after school.

Inner sanctum. 
We could go out there if it weren't a scorching 48 degrees.

My room, devoid of decoration. 
The alcove leads to my bathroom and the Great Wall-of-Closets.

The best part of the villa! 
Our own private bathroom equipped with a bidet AND squirty hose!
How does one live without them?

And this guy. He wakes me up around sunrise with his screeching.
No matter how far you go, some things stay the same...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Al Ain Camel Souk

Years ago, when my sister first arrived in Al Ain, she went out to the Emirate's one and only camel and livestock souk. She came back with photos that made me so envious I have been on about going ever since. The problem was that the market had moved to a new location, and no one really knew where that was.

So, if you've arrived here looking for the location of Al Ain's Camel Market - head way out to Bawadi Mall and take the first left after the end of the parking lot, (coming from Al Ain, this will involve driving down to the next round-about and doubling back). Behind the Mall is the camel market.

But now that I've given out that info, here is a little more. The market isn't what it used to be. The camel vendors seem to make a sweet side business intimidating foreigners and trying to get cash off them for taking pictures. You see all the camels are behind grid fencing these days, hardly picturesque. 

One man was even quite aggressive in trying to get my Sis and I to shake his hand, but in this part of the world no man would offer his hand to a woman - they simply don't touch. Each places their hand over their heart and nods a little.

I still took photos, but just of the place in general. 
Check out the red hennaed beard on the guy on the left!

The new Al Ain Camel and Livestock Market

Poor goats

I know things could have been much worse, there are reports here on trip advisor saying that the camel vendors actually locked people in the pens with the camels and demanded cash to be let out again. 

My advice to anyone looking to take some good pictures - head out to the dunes and pull up to a camel farm. Someone will let you in and show off their livestock without trying to cop a feel or fleece you, and you'll definitely get better photos!

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Wedding

Perhaps the biggest change we've seen comes in the form of Mona, our favorite student from last year. She was engaged the day after we left the Emirates last year, but we called her at her engagement party and her wedding day to wish her the best. Less than a year later, Mona is 5 months pregnant. 

She showed up at the school one afternoon and was shown into the teachers room where she hugged me and kissed my cheeks a dozen times with tears in her eyes. When Mel come into the room, she did it all over again. Our short visit concluded with her insisting we accompany her to a wedding on the weekend. We heartily accepted!

A few nights later, we were crawling through the back streets of Al Ain with an Afghani taxi driver, looking for Mona and her husband's new home. Following her directions by cell phone, her arm flapping out the front door into the alley was our driver's signal we'd driven far enough. 

Mona sat us in her living room on big cushions, and served us a bowl of dates and oregano tea. I was surprised to see her hair, the first time I'd ever seen her without her abaya and shayla. She disappeared into the rooms of the house and returned with a silver metal briefcase, secured with a combination lock. She fiddled with the lock and soon presented us with her wedding album. In every photo, she wore a fitted gold dress and no headscarf, hence the need for lock and key. 

Over an hour later we were finally ready to leave, but mona had one last job, and called us into the bedroom, where handed us four kinds of perfume to apply. We chose the one we liked best and spritzed a bit on – what a joke! Little did we know that throughout the night we’d be spritzed with perfume at every opportunity! Starting right now! Mona appeared with a smoking oud burner and shoved it under Mel’s dress, then under mine. I could feel the hot perfumed smoke curling around my legs and the wafting up my cleavage. Cough! Cough!

Time to go, but with pregnant Mona, mother and grandmother, one husband and Mel and I - well lets just say it was one tight squeeze into the SUV. Mel squeezed in last and sat on my lap. Mona's mother loved this and kept laughing and reaching around to squeeze Mel’s bum, which of course, made us laugh too.

We arrived at the hall and headed for the ladies section. Kids ran in circles in the lobby while the bride’s mother, dressed in purple, and looking like something out of "Dynasty", welcomed us to her daughter's wedding. 

Inside the hall, there was an explosion of blue and white. We found a table and sat down. Homus, babaganoush, fatoush and green salad and a vase of blue and white flowers were already on the table. Music blared over the sound system as more women piled into the room. Between them, Fillipina and Afghani girls dressed completely in white doled out the wedding must haves; cardomon and rosewater coffee, more perfume, chocolates, cookies and more, more, more! food!

Front and center was a large stage with a small catwalk. Besides a blue and white settee, it was empty.

Kebabs arrived; we ate, talked and watched. A group of girls spent a lot of time prancing up and down the centre aisle; their super tight and revealing outfits came in a rainbow of colours. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear they were drag queens, but this was the crop of girls the women would eye, to see if anyone stood out for their marriageable sons.

The girl in dark green quickly became my favorite for the garish sparkles glued to eyelids and stone mask-like expression. Purple girl also grabbed my attention because of the sheer size of her booty she had poured into her skin-tight dress. The dresses were flashy but not quality, in fact, a few of them looked downright cheap, like they might fall apart if you ever tried to wash them.

Soon the mini-drag queens made their way to the dance floor where they barely moved to the music, looking bored and shuffling from side to side. 

But the music picked up and a few older ladies joined them, possible their mothers, followed by a group of African Swahili ladies dressed in bright colours. This wedding would be a little different, we knew, as Mona's family is from Oman, Grandma is from deep Africa and there is a Fillipina Auntie. 

Despite her swollen ankles, Mona wanted to dance and pushed us to join her, soon we were in the centre of an all girl dance party! The Arabic women busted out their belly dance moves, the Swahilis popped their butts up and down, I yelled at Mel, “It’s starting to resemble a Snoop Dog video in here!” Then all the women started gyrating together and sinking to the ground, lower and lower – till they were on the ground. The bored girls, shuffled an watched their mamas show them how it’s done.

Over the next hour there would be a roasted goat, huge jars of scented sap with long dipsticks we’d apply to our clothes and skin, and more popping and gyrating on the dance floor. Mona’s mother grabbed Mel and I this time and we soon found ourselves in a dance formation called the “round-about”, which was a never ending circular conga line. The woman had choreographed moves for this one – to the left, to the right, gyrate back, gyrate forward, down, down, down….

My delicate knit dress kept getting caught up in everyone’s jazzy jewels.

I should mention all this time there was no bride or groom to be seen. Only a power point presentation in the corner of a few baby pictures of the couple and then a lot of pictures of a not-very-attractive groom sporting a huge uni-brow. There he was holding some sort of trophy, now in the dunes with his friends, there he is sitting in the teacup ride at the fair.

The music stopped. The lights dimmed and the bride appeared at the back of the hall. She had made her entrance by stepping out of an elevator. 

Her diamond-studded white dress sparkled in the intense spotlight trained on her, her heavy make up had crossed the line of garish a while back, and her heavy fake lashes and extra hairpieces made her look artificial. Her arms were completely hennaed up to the shoulder in intricate flower designs.

She moved at a snail's pace down the centre aisle of the room. It became clear as I watched her, this is it for her. THIS is what her whole life has been leading up to, this exact moment. Tomorrow she will no longer be a virgin and therefore less valuable than right now. 

It could have been the layers of fake eyelashes, but she looked stoned.

Two Fillipina girls filmed her 10-minute solitary walk down the aisle. Mona sat back in her chair and cradled her growing belly with a happy smile on her face, perhaps remembering her own trip down the aisle a five and a half months ago. Yes, Mona got pregnant within 2 weeks of her wedding.

The bride reached the stage and posed for ore pictures as the dancing got started again. We wanted to stay, but simply couldn’t as we had early morning classes and it was already creeping up on midnight.

As we said our goodbyes to Mona’s mom, grandma and the brides mother, we heard an announcement in Arabic over the PA. Apparently, the groom and the bride’s brothers would be arriving soon. There was a flurry of fluttering black as abayas and shaylas were dug out of massive handbags and thrown on over the spangle and sparkle, like dousing a roaring fire. 

Back in Al Ain

These are Fatima's hands. 
Fatima is a high school student who's landed a spot in my morning class. Although she let me photograph her hands, capturing her face would be out of the question.

Being back here in the emirates is strange, the babble of Arabic and the colourless landscape become so familiar so fast, we feel we've never left. Is that good or bad? We'll let you know.

Very little has changed here over the last year. We were picked up by the same driver we had a year ago, (although our villa has changed.) We were greeted at ADU by the same smiles and hugs we exchanged a year ago when we said goodbye. We moved back into the same classrooms and greeted the girls, with their hennaed hands clutching their precious cell phones, the familiar scent of Oud, and of course - their yards and yards of shifting black fabric.

And just like last year, the majority of girls could not care less about us, we just get in the way of their socializing with our pesky "lesson plans" and silly blabber about "verbs" and "adjectives".

But there are a few who do care; mostly the girls in the morning classes. Rana takes home every handout she receives and recopies them into a huge book in multi-coloured pens. Amna makes little vocab flash cards for herself. These girls are such a lovely change from... say Reem, who flipped me a dismissive, "Whatever!", when I asked her to come to class on time, or Samoya, who snapped a sharp, "So do you!", when I told her group they talk to much. Unfortunately there are far more Reem's than Rana's. Nothing has changed there either.

I hope to be able to catch up on all the things I want to write about. There's a wedding, and a restaurant, a special student and some very cool people here this year. And then there are the girls. Know-it-all teenagers who want for nothing more than to talk to the boys they are forbidden to be in the same room with.

Stay tuned!