(I found this story the other day and thought someone might find it funny. Enjoy! Only when travelling and living overseas can a simple act of buying a bottle of wine become a complex thought out move.)
It was the day that I required my glass of nightly wine. It seemed like an easy fix but the problem was that I was in the Middle East living in an apartment hotel and teaching primary school with the Abu Dhabi Education Reform. A liquor license was needed before you could buy alcohol. It was interesting that in this land of make believe where the mannequins of women in abayas’ seemed almost unreal and like a soap opera set that I found myself in this dilemma. I had spoken with other foreign teachers and they assured me that my liquor license would not be asked for and I could leave unobtrusively, as easily as I entered the store. It seemed to me that everyone looked at me when I entered the store and stared at my blonde hair and blue eyes. I immediately scanned the rows of liquor calculating the exchange rate to note the sale price. I pretended to be busy and alternately kept my eye on the Russian man paying for his liquor. It did not seem that he had to have a liquor license so I surmised that I would be ok to continue. Since the store and most of the alternate liquor stores which I visited seemed to be located in circuitous and not easy to find doors and areas, I decided that it was proving to be more difficult than I thought.
It almost seemed easier to go out to a hotel bar with the other teachers for a drink but I noticed that they very rarely stayed for one which led into several drinks before leaving thus making me feel more vulnerable if I wanted to leave ahead of time. That meant leaving on my own and I didn’t want to be placed into a vulnerable position. Again, I thought of those mannequins with their eyes staring straight ahead and their arms positioned gracefully into some dance move. It is not easy to be a woman in this country. Sometimes in an eerie way those mannequins seemed as comfortable as a character in a Stephen King novel. I suspected they might come alive in the evenings after the store closed.
A taxi driver brushed past me leering and I froze. I also wondered if there would be some difficulty with hailing the cab. I noticed all the workers staring as the liquor buyers left the store. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized that there were packs of men roaming the streets. I was told that crime did not exist in the UAE. Reading the newspaper informed me differently of crimes which occurred including robbery of customers at an ATM, rapes, grand theft. Just this morning I had read of two women in abayas covering their faces entered an elevator and proceeded to attack a wealthy Emirati and robbed him of his briefcase which contained a very large amount of money. The elevator footage showed the two women attacking, kicking him, and then grabbing the suitcase and leaving.
What if the police stopped me? If caught, I would be fined about $75 American dollars. Again, I thought of the smiling faces of the mannequins in the store windows. I remember when I read about the teaching jobs in the UAE. They mentioned key words like tax free, well paying and everything sounded like music to my ears. The truth is when I got there that I was on my own as my husband stayed with our house and his job. He was taking care of the animals and if all went well, he would join me in the summer for a vacation in Malta and perhaps return with me the second year to complete my contract. The reality was that I was more alone in the hotel apartment as I hadn’t chosen the more central one but instead chose the one which was quieter. However; the teachers who were located at my school which was an hour away from me, all seemed to live in the Central city area, and not my quieter area, so commuting became a challenge.
It seemed as if on this island of Abu Dhabi, it was every man or woman for him/herself. So, I choose my two bottles of Merlot for about $10 each and approached the counter. The man looked up long enough to size me up as I held my breath and timidly grimaced. There was a line behind me. Then as I finished paying, I stopped in the aisle before leaving the store to unzip my leather backpack and place my two bottles of wine gingerly in the pack. I felt several pairs of eyes watching me. So, I took another breath and opened the door to see a taxi waiting nearby. As I walked toward the cab, I was aware of the workers’ eyes watching me. The heat impelled me to increase my pace as did the situation. A cab stopped and the driver let me in. “American. Obama.” I didn’t want to have a discussion about politics so, I kept quiet and pretended that I spoke French and was from Paris. Eventually, he gave up only continuing staring at me. I was reminded of the taxi driver who would drive me the 40 minutes to the school but he arranged to pick me up very early usually about 6:00 am, so he would avoid the rush hour and then he would argue over the cost of the ride. The cost of the ride was arranged by someone else who spoke Arabic. Since I didn’t speak Arabic, I was at a disadvantage in the classroom and in the economy.
Finally, we arrived at the hotel apartment, located across from the Mosque, which had several men praying in front of it on a narrow street. As he stopped, I paid and the door of the hotel apartment was held opened by the kind and very curious front desk man. I rushed in out of breath with my face red certain that everyone in the lobby was aware of my offense: buying without a liquor license. As I headed toward the elevator and the door began to close, an Emirati man rushed in. Upon seeing me, he serendipitously avoided eye contact with me but continued to my surprise to enter the elevator. Then when the door closed, he paraded me with questions asking my name, country, etc. I had been assured that Emirati men would rarely approach or speak with a foreign woman. I stammered and when the elevator doors opened on my floor, I rushed out the door and scurried down the hall passing the young Filipino sitting eating his lunch by himself in the closet with the towels and all the accouterments for cleaning. I smiled my greetings, hastily inserted the key in the door, opening it. Upon opening the door, I leaned against it for a moment breathing deeply greedily drinking in the feeling with my privacy intact. Another Saturday afternoon in Abu Dhabi passed.