Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Day with the Saeed Rashid Al Shehhi Family - Part 1

Ras Al Khaimah corniche view from our room
The day following Yaqoob’s daughter’s wedding, Saeed invited us to visit his home and take a tour of the area. Because the military base where he works is far from home, Saeed lives in an apartment in Dubai during the week, but on weekends travels home to Ras Al Khaimah, in the extreme northeast part of the country near the entrance to the Straits of Hormuz, where his family lives and where he grew up.

Although we weren’t sure what we were getting into, and we faced a long drive home to Abu Dhabi, we happily accepted Saeed’s offer. Tom, Lucy, Mark and I arranged to meet Saeed in town when he finished his Saturday shopping with his family while Dana and Deb opted to head back toward Abu Dhabi at a leisurely pace.

Chocolate gift packages are eye-catching ...
We had some time before our 11:00 a.m. rendezvous, so we did a little window shopping across the street from the Corniche Wedding Hall. The first shop had platters of wrapped chocolates, just like the ones at the Yaqoob wedding. Soon after I arrived in Abu Dhabi I’d noticed the elaborately packaged platters for sale in specialty shops and souqs. They come in combinations of gold, silver, pink, blue, and white for wedding and baby celebrations and perhaps birthdays, anniversaries, and other parties. They remind me of cakes, and in my mind they are a symbol of Arab hospitality and their lavish celebrations.

... but we couldn't resist the beautiful abayas.

The chocolatier was closed but the shop next door selling abayas (the black cloak that women wear over their regular clothing in public) and sheylas (head scarves) was open. We wandered in, and asked if we could take pictures. No problem, the Indian proprietor said. The next thing we knew, Lucy and I were posing in our favorite sheylas and abayas and snapping photos.

Lucy looked stunning.
Lucy chose a sheyla to buy and just as she was fishing out her dirhams, Saeed pulled up with his wife and three daughters. Mark and Tom went out to greet them, and as they shook hands the wife and daughters swept into the shop. The daughters came first, shaking our hands and greeting us in English. The mother and two older girls wore abayas and sheylas, and the youngest was in regular clothes. When I greeted the mom, she saw the henna tattoo on my right hand and pointed at it approvingly as she said hello. The daughters, although a bit shy at first, spoke to us in English; Lucy and I were both eager to talk with them.

The shop keeper said this
is a wedding abaya.
First, they got down to the business of shopping for the two older daughters. What a great opportunity to witness the everyday life of women here! They examined cloaks with trim in several fabrics and colors, preferring the simpler designs – no sparkles. The oldest daughter liked a style trimmed with a black jacquard; I told her that I love jacquard too. As each style came out, the shop keeper opened a drawer and drew out the matching sheyla. These cloak and scarf combinations are so elegant that I began to realize that I want one for myself. Later I told Mark that he needs to help me pick one out some time. I think he likes that idea.

Next the two girls were measured for height; their new cloaks will be custom made. The style is to have the hem dragging; Lucy, Deb and I all agree this would be a serious tripping hazard for us, not to mention getting caught in escalators. Lucy and I sat down to chat with the older daughter, and asked when the young girls begin to wear the abaya; the answer was whenever they want to but usually around the age of 14. That makes sense, because at that age they transition from being a girl into a woman.
It's more modest to
cover the hair
As an independent-minded Western woman, I find the idea of wearing a scarf or mask covering my face incomprehensible, yet I am developing an instinct for why wearing the abaya is the mode for the modest woman here. The most traditional women wear the sheyla so that it covers the hair, but we often see young women whose hair is not completely covered, and sometimes with their abayas open, showing jeans or other stylish clothing beneath. She can wear whatever she likes at home, and yet go out and be appropriately dressed – better yet, elegantly dressed! – and not subject herself to the unwanted attention of prying eyes.  What woman doesn’t want to be both comfortably and stylishly dressed? My perception may shift, however, as the humidity and temperature here rise, which is already starting to happen. Perhaps they could make them in a lighter color? Like the white khanduras the men wear?

We were surprised to learn that the oldest daughter is 17 years old – all of Saeed’s children look younger than their age. She mentioned that she was starting back to school for the new semester, and wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like school.” Her mother, gleaning the topic of our conversation, turned and said something over her shoulder that made her daughter smile and shake her head no, which caused me to ask what was said. “You don’t like school? Would you prefer marriage?” So . . .  family dynamics in the Middle East are not so different. Education is a top priority in the UAE today; Saeed has five Bachelor of Science and three Master of Science engineering and management degrees in mechanical, electrical, electronic and materials fields. His children will no doubt follow in his footsteps.

Finally we women – Emirati women in abayas and Lucy and me in our Western t-shirts and jeans – emerged from the shop together and joined the men – Mark and Tom in their Western t-shirts and pants and Saeed in his kandura and ghutra, the Emirati national dress for men – and loaded up into our vehicles to follow Saeed’s SUV. We figured that we would get the full treatment: lunch and a tour of the landscape. Although we were still recovering from wedding food overload, I was really looking forward to this treat. I love the food here, and I’d eaten lightly at the hotel breakfast buffet in anticipation of an authentic Arab lunch.

Saeed's back yard has a view of the mountain
and date plantation.
As we approached the northwestern portion of the rocky Al Hajar mountain range – the same mountain range Mark and I drove through further south and west on our way to Oman at Christmas – we drove past a huge mining and concrete facility, which Saeed later told us is actually four separate concrete plants, each making different products. It’s no wonder, with all of the construction going on in the UAE. Now we know where at least some of the material comes from.

Saeed's home is a few blocks from this active Gulf fishing port
We turned toward the beach and onto a sandy road. Saeed’s neighborhood is part of an old established fishing village with a very historic feel. Buildings and fences are made of combinations of materials, with piles of rocks and scraps of concrete and metal scattered here and there; goats and chickens mill around, and we even saw some cattle, which are a rarer sight. Behind us we could see Jabal Yibir, at 5,010 ft. the highest named peak in the UAE, and before us we could see and smell the sea, so we knew we were in a special place.
Seaside swing set
We discovered that the perception that all Emiratis are multi-millionaires is not true. I don’t have statistics, but the majority of the population of the UAE are ordinary, hardworking people with large families just like Saeed. As the oldest son, Saeed is responsible for the welfare of his parents, siblings, and their families, as well as his own – a huge responsibility but one that he accepts with pride.

We pulled into a car port next to a wall with a large iron gate and I could see an impressive multi-story house inside, similar to the houses in our Abu Dhabi neighborhood. As soon as the gate was opened, the women swept into the house and disappeared. Saeed showed us into a room at the front of the house with plush upholstered seating lining the walls. This meeting room, called a majlis, is a common feature in Arab homes.
Saeed and younger sons in the majlis

One by one, Saeed’s sons appeared. The two eldest we had gotten to know the night before; they attended the wedding and met us at the hotel. We met Saeed’s father and brothers as well, and they enjoyed looking at iPad photos our houses, families, pets and boats.
The eldest son Ghaith has great social skills, just like his father.
As lunch time drew near, a plastic cloth was spread in the middle of the floor, and the youngest daughter appeared with bowls of salad and containers of yogurt mixed with herbs. This was going to be good. Plates appeared and – yes! – we were happy to see silverware. Especially me, being left handed. I have learned that it’s OK to eat with your left hand if you have a fork, but if you are eating with your hand, it’s better to use the right. Then a huge platter of roast chicken on a bed of rice pilaf appeared, and we gathered around on the floor to eat. No sooner did we fill our plates than another similar platter, this one with ground lamb kebab, appeared. Two gigantic plates of delicious food! We were overwhelmed.
Our Arab feast.

This meal was set just for the five of us; Saeed’s father, brothers, wife and children didn’t join us. And this was the only room we saw. Yet rather than seem strange, it made sense. In our culture, the kitchen is the gathering place, but here this front room serves that purpose and the rest of the house is private family space. We were honored guests of Saeed, the leader of his family, and we had him all to ourselves. He told us that the food had come from his favorite restaurant, where the chicken and rice have a special flavor that comes from a secret combination of saffron and other spices. The rice had bits of fruit, which we thought were golden currants. We all had seconds.

As we ate and talked, Saeed mentioned that many non-Muslim people who live in other countries have the wrong impression, which is based upon limited information or the most sensational reports. Saeed told us that the vast majority of people of the Muslim faith who live in the Middle East, or wherever, are like him. They practice their own faith and respect others. We have found this to be true. Saeed and all the Emiratis we have met are tolerant, gracious, peaceful and generous, both with their hospitality and their time.
Here is a link to news story I recently read reporting that the teaching of tolerance and unity in a diverse society will become a part of Islamic education in the UAE

It's not hard to find something comfortable
and appropriate to wear.
Before Mark and I came to live in the UAE, I wondered what would be expected of me here. The simple answer is that I am expected to be myself: a Western woman. Even on warm days, out of respect, in public places I usually wear capri pants or a skirt that covers my knees, or at least shorts that aren’t too short, and I don’t wear a skimpy top unless it’s under a shirt – just as I do in the US. It’s no different than anywhere else – you figure out what’s appropriate, and you dress accordingly. Here it’s a little more modest but for us Westerners, only a little.
As we left the house for our tour and were saying goodbye to Saeed’s boys, who had popped up again, the front door to the house opened. I was the last one in the group, and so I was the only one to get to say a very brief but sweet goodbye to Saeed’s daughters and wife. She had removed her abaya and scarf, and I felt honored that I was allowed this glimpse of her smiling face and colorful dress. I hope I’ll get to meet her and her daughters again.

Kids everywhere are the same. We can learn a lot from them.

We are so lucky to have the opportunity to learn about the UAE firsthand from Saeed. I have heard several discussions between Tom, Dana and Mark about their appreciation for the amount of contact they have with Emiratis at work, which they consider a privilege. It’s easy to join a group like the American Women’s Network, and meet interesting women who have lived all over the world, but where do we go to meet Emirati women? I treasured every moment of the weekend.
But wait, this story isn’t over; I still need to write about Saeed's tour of  the mountains, where we experienced a peace and quiet that rivals our home in Nevada, and the visit to his father’s camel farm, where we were treated to the funniest sight and sound that ever came out of a camel’s mouth. And introduced to a seven-day old camel and mom.
Part 2 will be up very soon, inshallah.

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