That’s how life is here. Completely, totally nuts.

A few brief examples: today, the day before Eid al Adha, there were probably 25 kids who showed up at school. The holiday starts tomorrow. Because there were so few of them, no classes were held. The two-day holiday is implicitly at least a three day one.

That said, the principal made no announcement to the faculty. In fact, I’m not sure he was even at work.

As a result, this was the most productive work day I’ve had in some time. I got some grading done, and planning, and I had time to get organized and get to know my fellow English teachers, too.

In other words, it was the best day at school of the year so far, other than the first couple of honeymoon weeks, before all the bad kids started coming to school.

In the course of talking with my fellow teachers, I found out that I’m not alone in having some difficulty explaining to others back home what life and work here is like. We agreed that this place is just bizarre. It almost has to be experienced in order to be understood. It’s simultaneously wonderful and horrible, beautiful and ugly, amazing and exasperating. I sometimes think of it as a third-world country in first-world clothes.

The example of how the school schedule works is just one of many that indicate how ridiculous some things are here. It is taken for granted that schools will ignore the actual schedule and allow everyone an extra day off (except us teachers, who they tried to get to stay until 2:50pm. When my coworkers and I left, it was not 2:00 yet, and there was not a single administrator or Arabic teacher on the grounds). It seems that the schools themselves are reflections of how society here works and doesn’t work.

Yesterday it was decided, without ever informing the faculty, that students would be allowed to leave early. Here are some stragglers heading for the exits.

We can look around at the unchanging weather and the desert, and we can say, “Oh, yeah, I see how it’s possible for a people to care very little about time schedules, because the land itself never changes. What’s it matter if you’re a day late, or a couple days late, or if you never get around to doing whatever it is anyway? Nothing really changes.” But that mindset doesn’t exactly foster a work ethic, a competitive spirit, or a forward-thinking culture.

On Thursday afternoons (remember, the weekend here is Friday and Saturday), ADEC’s local offices close early. That is, they unofficially do, because everyone clears out as soon as they can possibly manage. It’s pretty aggravating when you’ve driven across town and then discover the people you need to see aren’t around.

ADEC has a wonderful curriculum in place for the public schools in Abu Dhabi. I mean it. It’s really very solid. But implementing a challenging curriculum in a place which is much more about looking good than working hard is well nigh impossible.

What makes it that way? Let me tell a story to present you with what I’ve observed. An exceptionally gifted student hung around the English office today, chatting with us. He asked me what I think of the UAE. I hesitated. “It’s okay,” he said. “Really.” So, I told him what I told you, my dear reader, in my opening paragraph. He smiled and nodded.

“What do you think of the schools here?” He asked. “Are the ones in the USA better?”

I didn’t try to hide my chuckle. “They are much better,” I told him. And I worked at a school that was one of the worst in the state of Georgia.

This student wasn’t surprised by my response.  “What do you think is the problem?” he said. “Is it the school system?” He seemed to think that’s what I would blame for the educational situation.

“No,” I said, “I think the educational system is excellent. Now, you’ve been here a lot longer than I have,” I said, “So tell me if you agree. This is what I think the problem is: lack of discipline. There’s no discipline in the schools, and there’s no discipline anywhere else. Furthermore, nobody takes responsibility for anything. So that’s what I think: lack of discipline and responsibility. What do you think?”

He agreed wholeheartedly without a moment’s pause, and even offered examples of what he thought would happen if students from the UAE were to go to other countries.

Now, you’re saying to yourself, Shon, that’s all that’s nuts? You say the whole place is nuts because students don’t go to school sometimes, and because there’s a lack of discipline and responsibility?

Well. Mumpkin (that means “maybe” in Arabic). The thing is, the lack of discipline and responsibility is pervasive here.

Not at the top–obviously there has been quite a vision and stunning execution of that vision from those who are in power. In 1964 (I think that’s the right year, the early ’60s anyway), there were only 1,800 people in Al Ain. Now there are 300,000. And the place is well-laid out with great roads and such. There are wonderful homes and lovely parks. There are many shopping malls and other entirely first-class accommodations in various spheres.

But, at the same time as there are these great roads, there are crazy drivers who make driving anywhere a stressful experience. The worst ones seem to be Emirati. They’re aggressive, rude, and downright belligerent behind the wheel. Which, you must understand, is a contradiction in itself, because Emiratis are typically rather ordinary and nice people, courteous and helpful. I’m not saying that just because I live here–it’s because it’s true. The youth are, although irresponsible and immature (think 5th graders in 12th grader bodies), actually likable and amusing. They’re happy to share about their culture and such, and entirely tolerant of divergent beliefs and so forth.

Anyway, it seems like the vision and the motivation that comes from above breaks down along the line. Somewhere somebody shirks responsibility, and things don’t function precisely. What we’d probably designate “common sense” often gets thrown out the window. So you have a place where the technological infrastructure is so good that I can purchase automobile insurance and 30 seconds after I’ve paid for it, I receive a text message on my phone from the bank notifying me of the use of my debit card. In the space of a minute, I received another text, this one from the insurance company itself, thanking me for choosing them. And yet, this same place is where there is a crew of Pakistani men out sweeping the streets–with brooms–in the morning as I go to work. Perhaps the Pakistanis work cheaper than an actual street-sweeper vehicle. I don’t know.

I’m told it’s illegal for people to grow crops on non-commercial property, such as the yard of this villa, where you see a crop of alfalfa in the foreground. But it’s done anyway, and evidently there is no fear whatsoever of repercussions, as there are actually hired hands harvesting away while I was there.

To return to my school as an example, this is a place where I punch a code and have my fingerprint scanned every day when I arrive to work and leave. Yet classes are overloaded with 30+ students of all ability levels, and there are computers so old they’re barely able to run the Toshiba smart projectors that are in the classrooms.

It’s a place where the legal driving age is 18, but my 10th graders who are 15 years old are driving, unaccompanied, in Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols and nobody bats an eye. It’s a place where yesterday I saw a bright blue Lamborghini Murcielago–that’s one of the world’s most expensive and desirable supercars, in case you didn’t know–piloted by a man in a kandora, with a woman wearing her abaya in the passenger seat. And a child standing over the shifter in the middle of the console.  And yeah, there are seat belt laws.

Where is the common sense, discipline, or responsibility in any of this? Why create laws and not enforce them?

Because of the reflection in the windows, it’s hard to discern who is where in the 2-seat sports car next to mine. But there’s a little kid in there in the middle.

The Lambo and the kid riding so unsafely in it brings to mind another thing that I find irreconcilable. Family. Here it is incredibly important. Families are large. It helps that men can marry up to four women simultaneously, so he can really spread his seed around in a hurry. The family structure is important–the men do their macho things in the desert with camels (see my earlier post), the women do their things in the towns with the kids. And the maids. But that’s another story. Children are valued, and by looking at a person’s name, it’s easy to track a good part of their family history. I gather that family history is much more important to these people than it is to my countrymen back home. Here it’s taken for granted that you know a lot of genealogy. Anyway, to make my point: how does it make sense that you value your family so much, yet you simultaneously value your children so little that you’re zooming through town without even making your kid sit down (never mind putting him in a child seat or even a seat belt)?  And, if you’re saying, well, Shon, that’s an isolated incident, I can tell you more about the times that I’ve seen 7 and 8 year-olds riding around gleefully in their parents Mercedes, torsos protruding from the open sunroofs. It happens so frequently that I don’t even give it more than passing notice anymore.

I still can’t wrap my head around the way things are here. I’m starting to adjust to it being the way it is, though, and that’s making it easier to reside where I am.  Anyway, it’s nuts.


Addendum: don’t take me to be biting the hand that feeds me.  I don’t have anything against ADEC.  In fact, I admire what they’re trying to do, and I’m cerebrally quite pleased to be part of it.  I’m simply still struggling to understand how things work here.

45 thoughts on “Nuts.

  1. My Aunt is a professional musician that plays with a very famous musician named Darush. He is like the Beatles in Arab countries. He is also banned in many countries for being outspoken including the UAE. He said in concert there something along the lines of “Look at all this wealth here but the people are suffering.” He was then very quickly escorted out of the country by there equivalent of the FBI. My aunt was not upset because she always felt oppression there and was fine never going back.


  2. Shon, you are really opening my eyes to the cultural difference in attitudes toward education, family, children, foreigners, –you name it– of the people of the UAE. It is fascinating stuff to me! I think that everything you describe — the lack of enforcement of anything– is due to an indulgent attitude, rather like not wanting to upset anyone by telling them no. Am I off base there? Thanks again for sharing, Daddy-to-be…. ;.)


    • Indulgent? Perhaps. Some say there’s one set of rules for foreigners and one set for nationals (as you see in a comment below). I’m not sure the degree to which that’s the case. I’d like to think it’s mistaken.


  3. What an excellent piece. It touches on so many elements of my work as an Organizational Development Practitioner in the United States. I overhaul businesses by helping leaders and employees connect to the vision, shared values, and individual ownership. We talk about having One Big Hope for organizations. In change management programs, we discuss the importance of having a strong work ethic and forward thinking cultures. I enjoyed your piece.


    • Thanks for your comment. I’m sure there are a number of reasons that the work ethic isn’t passed along very well here, and I believe most of them are related to money and connections.


  4. While I read the post I found it interesting. I was however taken back by the photograph of the students leaving the school. In all honesty, it’s a cowardly photograph and I’m not sure if it were me, and my teacher posted it on the internet that I would be so pleased. That’s just my thought on it.


    • Your thought is more than welcome. I do not agree, though. It’s really a random snap on my way back to the office. It just happened to fit what I was writing about, so I included it with my post. I’m not sure what you’d consider a courageous photo, but I guess I could’ve gone downstairs, stepped outside the exits, and then snapped a picture of whoever was still left at that point. Then I’d have students’ faces in the picture, though, and perhaps even identifying markings of the school building itself. In that case, I’d say my administrator would have every right to be upset, and so would students and parents, if for no other reason than using their images without permission. You’ll notice if you read the rest of my posts that when I mention work I never name my school or anyone I work with. That’s deliberate, because although when I write I’m not doing it to belittle anyone or complain (well, I think I might have written one post that was only venting frustration), I might nonetheless write something which somebody somewhere takes offense to (or I might post a picture that somebody doesn’t like, even though it’s safely anonymous–these could be any kids in any school in the emirate). I write to share with others, especially family back home, how life is here. It’s not perfect (like anywhere else), it’s always interesting, and it takes adjusting to, and that’s the point.


  5. This was really great!
    And, off topic, but I love your blog background.
    Great post, really engaging and made me think about life / school life in another country.


  6. I’d been living there for 2 years and generally have the same opinions with you. Well, I am Indonesian and experienced living in a western country, so I know a thing or two about cultural differences. For this case, maybe because the wealth and the privileges that Emiratis have now, some of them tend to become puerile and take what they have for granted. I am against stereotypes and I think their founding father, Sheikh Zayed is a great man. But I think they just need to realize that the rest of the people in the world is struggling for basic education and being hard on themselves to make their living. In other words, with the natural resources they have now, they should invest more in human resources. And as you say, put discipline and responsibility to it. Just saying.


  7. I grew up in Dubai. I totally understand what you are going through. You will notice that all the indiscipline and flouting of rules is common amongst the locals in the Middle East. Their laws supports them in every way, which leads to negligence. They know it is their country and they have a lot of privilages. Foreigners do not have a choice but to follow all rules and regulations. We need our visa afterall!!
    I must warn you though. If you are ever to travel to India, do not get surprised to see an entire family of six (including a baby) on a rusty old motorbike weaving through traffic and farm animals.


  8. Pingback: Nuts. « alexandritefashions

  9. I think UAE inspite of all the contradictions is a beautiful country. If you do not mess you can keep out of trouble, here students do not go on a shooting rampage and generally the locals stick to themselves. It seems there are different set of rules for emirati and the expats. But emirati are few. Every place has its pros and cons and being an expat living in Dubai for past five years, I must say it has been a wonderful journey here in an otherwise chaotic world!


  10. I think UAE inspite of all the contradictions is a beautiful country. If you do not mess you can keep out of trouble. Here students do not go on a shooting rampage and generally the locals stick to themselves. It seems there are different sets of rules for emiratis and the expats. But
    emiratis are few. Every place has its pros and cons and being an expat living in Dubai for the past five years, I must say it has been a wonderful journey here in an otherwise chaotic world!


    • I definitely agree, even with my limited experience here compared to yours. It’s contradictory but wonderful and it seems a safer place to be in terms of crime than most anywhere else.


    • As long as your husband is ready to accept teaching here for what it is, which is to say something altogether different than it is anywhere else, I’d say it’s a really cool experience. It’s unique.


  11. I lived in Abu Dhabi for a few years as a kid. The American school I went to was a lot more stringent about schedules, but we still got half an hour off every morning during Ramadan and short days during the holidays.

    And yes, it’s definitely hard to get things done in the Middle East. Nobody keeps a schedule. “Five minutes” means thirty, “thirty minutes” means three hours, and “next week” means never.


  12. “Where you stand depends on where you sit”

    cultures are different because values are different or values are different because cultures are different, depending on where you stand at the time.


  13. I have never been to the UAE, but I am an American teaching English in South Korea. I really identified with your post because I feel there are similar issues going on here as well. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning about other cultures and I find it truly fascinating. I have also studied other cultures in college and briefly lived in other countries, but sometimes I just cannot wrap my head around the way Koreans think. Reading some examples you gave about your school really brought to mind some of the oddities here. For example, during typhoon season, many schools cancel classes (like when there are over 100 mile an hour winds and such). In these instances it is pretty dangerous to go outside because of the wind, waves that overflow onto the road (I live on an island), and debris flying through the air. Well, in some cases (not mine in particular) the teachers still had to go to school! Many teachers don’t have cars here so we have to walk to school or take the bus. It’s just one of the things that blows my mind that it is too dangerous for the kids to go to school, but somehow we’re immuned to the danger! Also, at one of my schools I have a “schedule”, but the kids never come when they are supposed to. Sometimes I have to stay later. Sometimes I get out early. There is no pattern to this madness. Classes overlap sometimes. It never makes any sense. And it does make me a little crazy. I especially liked your comment about it being a third world country in first world clothes too. I feel that way at times. I just wanted to let you know, you are not alone! It can be pretty nuts here too.


  14. I read your post with intest and believe to understand how you are feeling. I have lived and worked in Japan for about 10 years now and the first couple of them were a very frustrating experience. I did not understand the local culture and local people’s ways. The common sense back home and the one here are quite different but then again it only takes so long to accept the fact that certain things cannot be helped and begin appreciating the ones which make life easier and more enjoyable than anywhere else 🙂


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