I didn’t know what to do with my hands.
I thrust one out to shake his, but that didn’t feel quite right.
I hung my arms by my side and that felt worse.
Finally I compromised. I clasped my hands together in front of me, waiting for a sign from each of the white-clad Arabs entering the cavernous room. To shake or not to shake?
I’m not often at a cultural loss but then, I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by so many men who are dressed alike.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My intense discomfort had such a benign beginning.
A quick check to see if a friend would be available for a light dinner during my brief stopover in Dubai suddenly turned into an invitation to Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, at the palace of one of the most powerful royal families in Abu Dhabi.
“The Sheikh told me to bring you along,” my Dubai friend told me.
Bring me along?
And rather underdressed in my hiking sandals and crinkled linen trousers.
As soon as the plane doors opened I scurried off to Dubai Mall, apparently the largest in the world.
A pair of sandals with bling.
A colorful but conservative top that covered my shoulders.
And a quick hotel stop, barely long enough to make myself presentable (and stub my toe so badly I could barely slip on my new blingy shoes).
All of a sudden my chauffeur-driven friend was downstairs, rushing me along.
It wouldn’t do to keep the Sheikh waiting.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
I felt somehow disembodied. For the past month I’d watched swaying palms and the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean from my seaside room in Sri Lanka. And now Dubai’s skyscrapers whipped by like so many ramrod soldiers, threatening me with whiplash as I tried to focus on them from below.
We followed the signs to a highway so smooth not a single crack or bump jarred us, a road so straight, so linear I prayed for the distraction of a curve.
As we rode towards Abu Dhabi, the capital of the largest of the seven United Arab Emirates, greenery seemed to increase and buildings levelled out, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dubai and Abu Dhabi united someday, touching tentacles and intertwining themselves as is the custom with menfolk here.
As dusk settled, the searing heat of the summer day softened. I opened the window, breathing air that while not fresh, was no longer nearly liquid heat. A vague scent of exhaust fumes mixed with sea and green hedges and the desert, an odd melange I was at a loss to name.
Arriving on Abu Dhabi’s outskirts we passed Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the world’s third-largest and an architectural behemoth I would have loved to visit.
We turned down a leafy street, the young greenery wrested, wrenched even, from the desert at great effort.
Only a few men, all foreign, walked along the wide sidewalks. Everyone else drove, or was driven. Walls screened off the everyday life of houses and compounds, sealing it from the hustle beyond.
We reached an automatic gate whose guards barely glanced at us. I’m told we were undoubtedly photographed and filmed and that security was high.
We swept around a broad driveway bordered by hibiscus and date palms and I enjoyed sitting back, clinging to the coolness of the car interior until my door was opened, one of the “privileges” of being a woman in an all-male setting.
At the top of marble steps, glass partitions silently slid open, welcoming me. Or at least tolerating me.
Men milled about, dressed in identical white kandouras or thobes, their heads covered by a guthra held in place by a black circlet, which was once used as a rope to hobble a camel at night.
We were guided into a wide hall, a majlis, a monumental receiving or living room, its floor clothed in the finest of carpets, Persian perhaps, the burgundies and beiges and blues swirling into fountains of Islamic design, inspired by nature and geometry.
Tall windows were framed by heavily brocaded curtains and the room was lined by plush banquettes along which we took our place. In front of each banquette sat a small table with a bowl of dates – fresh dates, not the wrinkled little things I’ve become accustomed to – and bottles of water, waiting for the sun to set and the fast to be broken. Soon.
At the front, one of five seats of honor would welcome the Sheikh, his immediate (male) family and a few dignitaries, including, tonight, a European Ambassador. A brief appearance by a high-ranking Christian cleric in his red sash was the only other spot of color in the room (this video, taken after the fast, will give you an idea of the room and the company).
Each time someone entered the room, we all rose. The new arrivals would start counter-clockwise at the door, greeting their way around the room, with a nose kiss for intimates, an embrace or kiss for close friends, and a handshake for everyone else.
Until they came to me.
Somewhat nonplussed, they would sometimes thrust out their hand. And sometimes not. A few hesitated, probably as much from their own surprise at my presence as from possible unease at the clash of customs they were undoubtedly experiencing as much as I was.
Logic told me I had been invited by the Sheikh and that I was welcome. My gut disagreed, intimidated by the possibility I might be in the wrong place, or that I had made a mistake and was breaching a protocol as old as the desert.
If I was, no one was rude enough to say so.
The room filled and we continued our rise and sit routine. The Sheikh had yet to arrive when the muezzin sounded. Some men left to pray and when they returned, everyone ate a few dates and drank some water.
The fast was broken, and it was time for the Iftar celebration: a major meal.
The men – with me in tow – moved to another room, dozens of chairs surrounding a table heavy with mountains of food, the smell of meat and rice and yoghourt mingling with the jasmine in the air.
As I took it all in, one man deftly detached himself from the crowd and asked smilingly whether I’d like to see the family home.
I was being evicted. I might have been welcome in the majlis but an all-male dinner was perhaps a bit much. Or maybe he thought I’d be more comfortable “with the women”.
I had to decide quickly. Part of me wanted to stand my ground as an equal. Another, more curious part, the journalist in me, wanted to see something unseen, to know something I couldn’t possibly know.
A harem, as in extended family and women’s quarters. Something my Ottoman ancestors would have been familiar with but which to me was a new world, curtained and secret, and, I thought, discriminatory and belittling.
Looking around at the formal men’s table I had a split-second to decide.
I would go to the women.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The palace grounds were neater than a Swiss-German village, no leaf unswept or speck of sand overlooked. The chauffer hesitated, unfamiliar with these more intimate quarters.
He eventually delivered me to a heavily carved wooden door, left slightly ajar. He pointed vaguely and sped off, almost afraid to be seen.
I pushed the door.
“May I help you?” The voice was British and blonde, probably a governess or staff member.
“I’m here for dinner,” I mumbled.
Was I expected? Was I crashing the family’s Iftar celebration? Was I even in the right place?
Two Malay servants came to fetch me and guided me into the women’s living quarters, the family majlis, two joined-up sitting rooms lined with sofas and banquettes similar to the one where the men gathered, but much cozier and more informal. A television screen blared against a large wall, while the women, perhaps as many as 20, stood up to shake my hand.
They didn’t seem surprised to see me, nor did they seem to know who I was or why I was there.
My mere presence guaranteed a courteous reception, a product of that deep vein of hospitality still coursing through the Arab world and Islam. I still remember my mother’s despair when my Turkish father would come home from his travels, dragging with him guests who would stay one or many nights, and the familiar rush to find bedding and to clear rooms in which to welcome them.
Oil wealth may have changed many things, but that innate hospitality remains.
The dining table filled an entire room, weighed down by enough food to feed a small kingdom: platters of rice, plain or with lamb or chicken; different kebabs and somosa-like pastries; salads; silver tureens of soup and harees, an unfamiliar mixture of wheat and ground lamb, unappetizing to the eye but delicious in the extreme, an Emirati staple; meats; vegetables; and mountains of strange foods at the end of the table, too far for me to see.
Dinner was a haphazard affair. I was served heaping platefuls I couldn’t begin to finish. My leftovers may well have struck everyone as rude.
The women came and went and no one stayed seated other than myself. They wandered in clusters, chatting amicably, nibbling and treating the table as one big buffet rather than using the heavy chairs that surrounded it.
Each time someone arrived or left, everyone would rise, touch noses or kiss, depending on the level of intimacy.
The older women dressed conservatively; one wore a traditional metal mask, part of a burqah, over her mouth. Many women wore black headscarves or shaylas but that may have been for Ramadan, I don’t know.
The younger women, including the Sheikh’s daughters, wore comfortable, long but relatively modern dresses, their hair down – elegant, stylish, and made up.
In my wrinkled linen trousers I felt terribly out of place.
I would have loved to photograph these women or at least their surroundings but the one time I did dare ask – in the dining room – the women quickly hid, making certain only food was in the shot. One of them even queried the mirror behind the table, concerned I might have captured a few women unwittingly. I had. I quickly cropped them out.
It’s unthinkable to take photos without asking. Yet asking for permission – given everyone’s extreme modesty – would have been equally rude, placing my hostesses in the awkward position of having to refuse. I would have to rely on faulty memory to recreate the evening.
Chatting was easy as nearly everyone spoke English, having learned at Yale or Oxford or at university here. But conversations remained relatively superficial: our acquaintance was too recent to go beyond what was lightly polite.
I would have loved to ask them about the past, about the changes, so swift in the few decades since they left the desert behind. I would have loved to ask about Islam, about terrorism, about the position of women. Did they feel oppressed? Did they want more freedom? How did they feel about arranged marriages? How old were they when they married? But nothing invited that kind of incursion.
I do know the UAE has some of the best women’s protection laws in the region and the women surrounding me were highly educated: a documentary filmmaker, a chemistry professor (labs are coed, classes are not), a dental surgeon, and a radiologist who insisted I get my toe X-rayed as soon as possible. These were women who had seen the world, who knew what was out there, but who chose – I assumed – to live to a large extent by tradition. I would have loved to ask.
As we sat, servants passed around burners filled with incense, blowing it in our faces, on our hair, our clothes. “To smell nice,” they told me, “to smell your hair.” I don’t know if it was sandalwood or frankincense but it was timeless and the next day it would still hover on my skin.
After dinner tiny porcelain cups of tea were served, thimbles full of hot liquid laced with milk and another discreet aroma, roses perhaps, or cardamom or lemon, something that cut the sticky sweetness of cream and sugar and made the tea and milk mixture fine and delicate rather than sickly sweet.
The Saudi Arabian border is only 350km away but it might as well be a world away. One of the women, a doctor, guided me to her car and drove me to the men’s building, where my friends waited. She was leaving the palace grounds to get some petrol, a freedom unheard of in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t allowed to drive.
Men and women lead different lives here and I don’t begin to understand what the women, educated beyond my own level, might be thinking of the contrast between their sophisticated modern lives and their centuries-old traditions. Yet they appear poised, not only in the confident way they move and speak but in their worldview, somehow claiming both the past and the future simultaneously.
Two generations ago they rode camels, not Mercedes. They moved their tents with the seasons, their wealth counted in pearls and fish from the sea, not oil from the ground.
Do they ever feel cut off from nature and removed from their heartland? Or have they adapted, as we must do, to the newness of it all?
I may have my doubts about how they live, about the separation between men and women and their apparent inequalities. I can’t judge because I simply don’t know enough. What I do know is that because of the privilege of travel, I was given a peek into a world few travelers see, an opportunity to take part in a traditional event not staged for visitors but born of the intimacy of culture. I will forever remember this dinner date with royalty.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
As I re-entered the men’s majlis the Sheikh made his appearance.
Most of his family, friends and acquaintances were by now gone and the room, now nearly empty, was far more welcoming.
He looked up and headed straight towards me.
“Welcome,” he said, and thrust out his hand.
“Thank you, Your Highness.” I shook it with relief.
I wasn’t an interloper after all.