Three Weeks of Fatherhood

Life always takes twists and turns.  Some of those twist and turns aren’t welcome, some are surprising, some have no effect at all on us, and some change us profoundly.  Who can argue that parenthood is one of life’s most dramatic curves?  Jenia and I are changing.  We’re having to become kinder, more self-sacrificing people than we were before.  We have to serve our son, for the time being, as his very life depends on our ability to look after him well.  It’s tiring.  It’s time-consuming.  And it’s wonderful.

I’ll let Jenia write a post about our experience in the birthing suite of the hospital here in Al Ain.  Suffice it to say, for now, that everything went well and we welcomed a healthy baby into the world.  What a feeling that was!  No father has ever tried to describe to me what it’s like seeing his child emerge into the world after hours of his wife struggling in labor.  I’m glad that no one did, either, because there are simply no words that can describe the experience or the emotions that go with it.  I’m tempted to write about what I felt–the rollercoaster of agony and ecstasy that ends in pure joy and love–in depth.  I could fill lengthy paragraphs with my heartfelt gushing.  And yet, if I did that, then I’d fail, I’m sure, to capture what is most important about it.  There are some things that a person must live to fully understand, and this is one of them.  To sum up, one word returns to my mind over and over–amazing.

The last three weeks have seen us changing, as I said.  We are being stretched and forced to grow in new ways.  Here are some impressions and anecdotes:

1) Sleep is precious.  On my way to class last week, I stopped to chat with a fellow teacher.  He paused, mid-sentence, and exclaimed, “Dude, you look f***in’ exhausted!”  Evidently having a newborn does that to people.  Who knew?

2) Food is special.  I don’t mean any old food.  I mean the sort of food that people have brought to us so that we haven’t had to worry about cooking dinners.  What a blessing it has been to have that kind of love shown to us.  We’ve been able to spend more time enjoying (or coping, depending on the day and our level of sleep deprived-ness) having a child and less time in the kitchen.  That’s really something.

3) Expat friends are like family.  Andrea (whose blog is mentioned in the “blogs we read” section) brought us toothbrushes when we forgot to take them with us to the hospital.  Other dear friends brought us numerous gifts and, most important of all, their presence, congratulations, and encouragement.  We’re totally blessed.

4) Emiratis love, no, that’s not strong enough; they loooove, no, that still doesn’t capture it; they L-O-V-E infants.  When we got the kiddo’s birth certificate (interestingly, the hospital doesn’t provide that to you here; you have to take the certificate of live birth you’re provided and head over to the Health Authority to get an official certificate with the baby’s name and so forth printed–that’ll set you back 100AED if you get one in Arabic and one in English) the ladies there were just gushing over the little one.  When I offered to let one lady hold him, she was thrilled, and she posed for pictures holding him–her coworkers swished around the desk to aim their Blackberries and snap away–and they kept saying, “Mashallah, mashallah!”

5) Being peed on really isn’t so bad.  That’s enough about that, right?

6) Baby passport photos.  Yup.  Not super easy, but necessary.

7) Baby passport.  Not that hard, but it does require the aforementioned photo, and it’s required for doing any traveling outside of the country, which we definitely plan on.  When we applied for el nino’s passport, we left a couple of fields on the form blank: hair color and height.  I guess we could have penciled in, “Not sure yet and 20 inches, last time we checked,” but we didn’t.  I asked the woman at the Embassy about this.  She chuckled and said, “It’s okay.  Don’t worry.  It will be ready in four weeks.”

8) Baby voice.  It can’t be helped.  Sometimes I notice that I’m using baby voice.  I’m cooing and being silly and sounding like the most ridiculous man since, well, maybe ever.  And I don’t care.  It’s fun!

1 week old

1 week old

4 weeks

4 weeks

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Should I Learn Arabic? Thursday List.

ADEC has a sales pitch for prospective teachers.  It’s effective: housing is provided, insurance is good, pay is pretty high.  They’ll tell you need that you should have some experience teaching, you should perhaps (or actually definitely, emphatically) be prepared to deal with some classroom discipline issues, and you have no need to speak Arabic.  You are, of course, also tempted by the exotic location and interesting sights.  This sales pitch is all true–you’ll have a nifty life here if you sign up.  They might mention in the interview that you should be flexible, too.  That’s the truth.  Living in a different culture is exciting, but it’s taxing, too, as you try to learn what is considered normal, abnormal, and basically try to adapt to a dramatically different way of doing things.

In fact, what ADEC tells you is entirely correct.  All of the things are true.  There’s much to commend the UAE to visitors and an ADEC job to expatriate workers.  English teachers will have good pay and benefits, and if they’re adaptable, they’ll learn how to work in the classroom here. The job doesn’t require them to speak Arabic either.  But, there is a difference between being required to speak the language and whether or not you ought to.

Today I substituted for a fellow English teacher.  I decided to practice conversational English skills with his students by talking to them.  I asked one boy about his rowdy classmates, and asked them why they behaved so badly.  He told me, more or less, “With Arabic teacher, it is Arabic and Arabic.”  He gestured with his hands, putting them side by side.  “But with English, it is English and Arabic.”  He moved one hand away from the other one at an angle.  He was saying, basically, that the kids don’t understand English well enough to get much out of having a teacher who only speaks English.  And after nearly a year here, I’ve got to agree with him.  After all, many of these young men speak only the most basic English.  The idea is that this will change as the New School Model comes of age, but that day is not going to happen for years yet.

What little Arabic I know I’ve picked up from my students and a few other people.  You ought to see the expressions these kids get on their faces when I use a new Arabic word or phrase.  They’re thrilled.  Their level of interest in what I’m doing increases dramatically, and they like interacting with me.  As a result, If I could recommend any one thing to a person considering teaching in the UAE, it would be to learn as much Arabic as possible.  The more you know, the more effective you’ll be in the classroom.  When it comes to learning Arabic, you might very well be put off to learn that there are many different dialects based on location.  When I found out that Emiratis use a rather different version of the language than most other countries, I allowed it to discourage me from learning much beyond “Asalaam aleykum” before I came.  Now it’s definitely true that the kids here speak a language that incorporates a lot of slang and words from Hindi and Urdu, but they know and understand standard Arabic.

So the question is, “Should I learn Arabic?”  The answer is, “Definitely.  Yes.”  With only a month or so left of the school year, I’m now setting out to actively try to learn more words and phrases.  Next year I may just find myself a tutor and start really trying to learn how to speak conversationally.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also considered other reasons why it’s worth pursuing the acquisition of Arabic. Here’s a list:

1. It engages students.

2. It’s nice to know when students are calling you bad names or saying bad words, just so that you can respond somewhat appropriately (“What did you say?  Let’s go talk to the social worker about that, shall we?  Or do you want me to call your father?”) and scare your kids into better behavior.

3. It is a challenge–a fun one, if you feel inclined to learn a non-romance language.

3. It can only help you in situations outside of school when you interact with others, such as parents or people in important positions.

4. Learning a foreign language while you are teaching English as a second language gives you a much better measure of sympathy and understanding as to what your students are going through.

Al Ain’s Old Souk

Al Ain is a city of texture. Some areas are quite polished and upscale. Other areas are anything but. There are buildings that are literally palatial, and others which make a bomb shelter look comfortable and inviting. On the outskirts of town you will find shanties housing those willing to subsist on the meagerest of wages.  Al Jimi Mall is the place to go if you feel like watching the locals cruise about in their Rolls Royces, tarted up Bentleys and Ranger Rovers, AMG Mercedes’, or the rather less common Ferraris or Lamborghinis.  By contrast, in the town center, not so far away, there are Pakistani workers, entirely carless, squatting on their haunches.

And in the very center, in a series of garage-like structures nigh to the bus station, there lies an amazing market known as the “Old Souk.” For years, the souk has functioned as a place that vendors can come to sell their wares free of any charge. Those who are selling come from a variety of locations, and sell all sorts of things. They have certain areas they usually set up in, and most of the shops, with some exceptions, look more or less permanent. There is a new souk established outside of town, behind the nicest of Al Ain’s malls, but an attempt to move things out there failed, and the sellers were soon back in their traditional place in the middle of the town center. Fridays are the best day to visit, for that is when things are busiest.  Much of the souk is indoors, or semi-indoors, but there is also quite a bit outdoors.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter courtesy of that funky smartphone app known as instagram.

One building houses the vegetable and meat market.  Seeking some good flat cabbage?  Or maybe a nice, succulent camel hump?  This is the place to get it.  Maybe you’d rather skip the camel and get some nice, fresh goat.  That’s readily available, as it’s a very common meat here, usually served with biryani (an Indian style rice dish).

As we approach, we encounter an Omani woman who is happy to show us her wares, which include a number of interesting items uniquely Middle Eastern.  She has come from Buraimi, just a short way off, almost every day for years. She is also pleased to allow us to take her picture, something that isn’t always to be counted on here. Jenia purchases a souvenir for herself, and one for her friend–the golden face covering that seems to be known as a “burqa” here.  The burqa is meant to accent the woman’s eyes, we are told.  Jenia decides to buy a second one to give to a friend of ours, and the woman, noticing that Jenia is with child (yes, we did this before the baby came), refuses payment (a mere 10 dirhams) for it, and insists on giving it as a gift.

Vendor

If you’re looking for fresh Emirati fish, this is the place to find it. The types that are most renowned are available here: hammour, Sultan Ibrahim. They’re all freshly caught from around the Emirates. The vendors are happy to show you their catches.  If you’re trying to find a good price, you can probably get it here–but you should know what the going rate is, and it helps if you read Arabic, because most of the signs and numbers aren’t in English.  The best way to get a deal is to bargain, which is expected.  I, of course, have no idea what a reasonable price is for any seafood, but I enjoy looking at the huge number of fish, big and small, and the sellers enjoy telling us what is what.  Jenia strolls about with her camera, snapping the images you see here.

In the image above, Amro, one of the main folks involved with Al Ain Weekends, a lovely group which organizes excursions for anyone interested in learning more about the area, shows off a fish.

Despite the stern expressions these two men wear in the photographs, they are happy to explain all about the fish they are selling and let us take their pictures.

Leaving the fish souk, we pass smiling faces, families, and virtually no other westerners other than the ones we came with.  There is Yemeni honey for sale, and one of the guys selling it gets me to try some.  It’s good, but I’m not about to pay the kind of money they’re asking for it, and I don’t feel like bargaining in the first place.  The wife and I are interested in seeing the people, smelling the odors that flavor the air, and simply being a part of the bustle of the souk, a place that seems mostly left out of the rush toward hyper-modernity that Al Ain has generally embraced.  Incidentally, you’ll notice the reduction in quality of most of the pictures after this–they’re the ones I snapped with my phone.  Jenia gets all the credit for being the better photographer of the two of us.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Soon, we are standing outside a shop that makes a traditional Omani sweet called halawa (spelling?).  This is basically made from sugar or corn syrup with added sugars.  It’s boiled for a long time in huge basins, being stirred the whole time.  If memory serves, the boiling/stirring must go on for at least two hours.  The sweet is rather delicious.  There are all kinds for sale, and there are buyers in and out while we are there who purchase big boxes full for parties or weddings.  We are lucky enough to be invited to the back room to watch it being made.

Boiling the halawa.

Boiling and stirring the sloppy goop that will become halawa.

Next, we stroll through the camel souk.  Here we see anything you might need for your camel.  If you’ve ever seen a camel wearing anything, it’s probably for sale right here.  There are blankets, muzzles, ropes, and much more.  I enjoy seeing some of the simple things for sale, like camel shampoo.  When I took the dog to the vet back in the States, I used to see horse shampoo for sale, but I’ve never seen this before.  Naturally, I whip out my trusty old iPhone and snap a photo.  Good instagram, right?

Gotta have that camel shampoo if you have a camel.

Gotta have that camel (and horse) shampoo if you have a camel (or horse).

Finally, we get to the tobacco area.  Here folks can purchase the very strong type of tobacco that is so popular and which a bunch of my students smoke in the bathrooms.  I forget the name of it, but it’s actually no longer legal to grow it in the Emirates, so this stuff we’re seeing is imported from Oman.  The guys here are also selling the slender little pipes that are used to smoke this stuff, and a number of accessories handy for this kind of addiction.  The men have the sort of faces that make great photos.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

In this post, I’m afraid I omit a lot of interesting details about the wide range of merchandise for sale in this bustling market.  There’s so much more than I can write sufficiently about.  I don’t remember what many things are called, and I forget the reasons some of the unusual items are for sale.  There’s pollen for date palms, palm fronds, harnesses of rope for climbing and trimming palm trees, saws for that purpose, dried goods, liquids of all sorts, and on and on and on.  If you’ve been to the souk, you can no doubt think of something striking that I neglect to mention here.