(I was channel surfing when I saw the nose-to-nose scene by Filipinos from a talent show over The Filipino Channel. As part of the culture, you might see Gulf men greeting each other by rubbing noses.)
I was, of course, beaming when I was sent to a (getting popular) structured cultural awareness workshop. I’m now a little over three years living (and working) in Abu Dhabi and you might ask isn’t it too late? When an expatriate or any non-national goes to another country, it’s a given that one must orient himself in many possible ways before landing in a foreign land. Especially when one crosses borders to augment and/or explore the workforce. It’s specially tricky in the UAE because it’s not simply dealing with the UAE Nationals; it actually means dealing with different Arabs and Muslims + the other nationalities. Configure the equation that not all Arabs are Muslims, not all Muslims are Arabs, and all the other nationalities could either be Muslims or not. Hence, when I was picked to attend the “proper” cultural awareness workshop, there was so much wooooow painted in my heart and face. I just really find it interesting to learn about new culture, everyday there’s always a new discovery.
Oftentimes the situation is catching me by surprise that I’d tell, “I didn’t expect that it could get any better”. Apparently, Ali AlSaloom, the top cultural consultant of the Gulf, facilitated the workshop. Another starstruck moment. The workshop started with a cultural quiz which got me one incorrect answer (it really helps when you are mingling with the locals (appropriately called UAE Nationals or Emiratis) and when you are keeping an open mind about the things around you) — I got it wrong when I responded yes to the question that to eat pork is always haram (legally forbidden by Islamic law) for the Muslims. As Ali explained, they may eat pork if that is the last resort. But as I gathered from most of my Muslim colleagues, they would rather die than eat it. The workshop was so stimulating that we didn’t want it to end. So far, the biggest (among the new) information to me is that the UAE government supports lesbians and gays, to a certain extent. That Emiratis who have strong inclination that they have gender issues, if they willingly approach the concerned government agency, will be subjected to medical tests. And if indeed warranted, the government will pay for the sex change surgery and the necessary changing of identifications like passport. Thought-provoking.
When he gave us the newly updated version of his book “Ask Ali: A Guide to Abu Dhabi” at the end of the workshop, I was already cooking a plan to ask him to sign my copy. And he did and even wrote (the salutation) my name in Arabic and English and gave me an extra (a bookmark). Only then the other participants queued to ask him to sign theirs. If the author was right infront of you, seize the day! But I chickened out to have a photo with him, nobody dared. Anyway, there might be a next time. I still recall how I fared when we were asked to introduced ourselves at the start, “…. that I was born and raised in Manila” though technically I was born in Quezon City. As to go with the flow, it was a given that I came from the Philippines and instead of being asked from which city, better yet to mention Manila although I technically grew in Laguna and spent much of life in Manila and Makati and our connotations about Manila may vary. On the other picture, Abu Dhabi is often confused as part of Dubai. No, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two of the seven emirates of the UAE . Hence, the “United” in United Arab Emirates.
You might be wondering, why the brand “Ask Ali”, he loves to explain anything which is Arab-related. And it shows that even beyond that arena. He is a credible source that he has been appointed as a cultural ambassador. What’s especially interesting is when you get information or clarification from an Emirati himself and not from a foreign author; he who has been exposed to different cultures and traveled a lot. I was not too surprised of his seemingly multi-accents to non-accent pattern. For long time or new residents and tourists in Abu Dhabi or the UAE as a whole, I am encouraging you to visit his site ask-ali.com and Embrace Arabia.
The other references, aside from the online information and Ask Ali: A Guide to Abu Dhabi, that I found to be giving healthy awareness about Abu Dhabi, the UAE and the Gulf, are From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi and Don’t They Know It’s Friday? (The men on the covers both walking to the same direction is a fascinating coincidence.) These were instrumental to my easy-going adjustment in the UAE. These made me ponder what are the top books, preferably authored by Filipinos, that I should recommend in case a non-Filipino (and even Filipinos) will ask about the best references for someone who would want an enriching read about cultural awareness in the Philippines.
Suddenly, I’m reminded of my random list of what makes Abu Dhabi Abu Dhabi. That is I’m writing about stuff that is so Abu Dhabi on a per encounter basis. As I recollect it, it would be informative, trivial and classic. I guess I should write about that.