–June, 2010. UAE (Fulbright-Hayes trip)
Sunday was the first time I experienced any real cultural befuddlement since I’ve been here. Most of our days have been spent visiting with local officials from various institutions: government, education, cultural institutions, and so forth. We usually sit around a conference table in a western-style office. They usually give short presentation and then we ask questions. (We are known for asking A LOT of questions.) It is all very culturally familiar.
So I was expecting a similar situation on Sunday when the schedule said we were to meet with Sheikh Mahyan Mubarak al Nahyan, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. A few minutes before we arrived at our destination, our local group leader (Lana) casually mentioned that this Sheikh is the cousin of the ruler of the country and that we would be meeting at his home, a palace. She also said it wouldn’t be appropriate to take pictures.
Sheikh Mahyan Mubarak al Nahyan
We arrived at a home which was indeed palatial. On the front steps were arrayed about a half dozen men in kandouras who neither smiled at us nor greeted us. (This is unusual). I have no idea who they were. Then we entered a huge, ornate hall which had no furniture in the middle, but which had seats lining both walls. At the end of the room were arrayed a few larger chairs. I assumed these were for the sheikh and his honored guests, but there was nobody there. Unsure of what to do, the ten of us sat down on the benches, farthest away from the sheikh’s chairs. Lana, our local guide, never explained what was to happen, so I remained quite confused. I had thought we would be alone with the sheikh, but apparently this was not the case. A delegation of white people in western business clothing (heretofore referred to as “the suits”) arrived, making a fair amount of commotion, and sat near the sheikh. We learned later that this delegation was accompanying the Australian Minister of Higher Education, a woman. They came with large cameras and video equipment and took pictures of us as well as of everyone else.
Then more and more men in the local white robed kandoura (heretofore referred to as “the robes”) entered and sat directly across from us Americans (heretofore referred to as “the frumps.” ) After the initial seating arrangements (which occurred in 5 or so minutes), whenever any new robes came in, all of us stood up and greeted him as a group in Arabic (asalamalaykim). Then the robes went through and shook the hands and greeted everybody in the hall. (There were maybe 60 or so people attending.) I had no idea who anybody was (still don’t.) We popped up and down over and over like jacks in the box. Eventually a Very Important Robe came in and greeted us. This was the sheikh. He, too, came around and shook all of our hands and then sat at the front of the room. I thought this would now be the beginning of the meeting, but I was wrong. Robes continued to enter, we continued to jump up and shake everyone’s hands. I still had no idea who anybody was. A servant came around and served us all coffee. Later, a servant came around and served us all coffee. Still later, a servant came around and served us all coffee.
The sheikh invited Mary, the head of Amideast (the local organization who arranged our visit) to sit at the front with him. He also invited the Australian Minister of Higher Education to sit with him. He then proceeded to chat with those two women while the rest of us remained in our seats and bobbed up and down whenever anyone entered.
Before we arrived here, we were given firm instruction in how to behave ourselves. We were told that women should never wear anything that exposes the legs above the knee. We were also told that it is considered extremely offensive to expose the sole of one’s shoes or feet to other people. So we all sat demurely in our long shirts and pants, being sure to keep our soles on the floor. We tried not to stare at the 20 or so robes sitting across the hall from us, but it was hard not to.
Imagine our surprise, then, when we observed the female Australian Minister for Higher Education (henceforth referred to as “ASH” for Australian Shameless Hussy) sitting at the front of a room with a short skirt on, and her legs crossed so that we could see her thighs. Not only that, but ASH was exposing the soles of her shoes for all the world to see. She also talked and laughed in a really loud voice, as if she were in a bar. We were all genuinely appalled and embarrassed for her, but ASH seemed totally oblivious to what she was doing. (It is fascinating how quickly we have internalized the local mores and have turned into the morality police.)
At one point, the Sheikh acknowledged our existence, by asking us as a group if it was the first time we had visited the UAE. We all responded in unison: “yes.” Then he asked if we were enjoying our stay. We responded “yes.” He welcomed us, and we responded.
“Thank you.” That was the extent of our discussion with him.
We spent about an hour sitting against the wall, bobbing up and down as visitors came and went, keeping our soles firmly on the floor. We became rather bored and started whispering to each other. First we gossiped about ASH, then we started speculating in inappropriate ways who are these people were. We noticed that the robes across from us looked bored also. Some twiddled their thumbs, while others took out their cell phones and started texting. Our conversations and giggles devolved even further. (I will not divulge the nature of said inappropriate discussions.)
Finally, after about an hour, the sheikh decided to end the session and walked out. He offered to have his picture taken with us, so we did. He made some jovial comments and that was the end of our meeting with the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.