When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here. Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community. It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic. I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English. It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country. I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open. Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats. Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.
For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area. We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group. I was invited to play with the church band. We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.
So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove? It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):
On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center. There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward. Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given). Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.
Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that. She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow. It’s great.
I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events. It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad. Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before. We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before. We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.
Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.” I smile. I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now. I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for. I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.