Wage Slavery

I’ve just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s turn-of-the-20th-Century book “The Jungle.”  It’s about the disgusting Chicago meatpacking industry and the poor souls in its employ.  The narrative follows a fictional family who immigrates to the US from Lithuania and the numerous trials they endure on their way to becoming cogs in the industrial machine.  Like all overused machinery, the family suffers greatly and are all driven to overwork before that finally takes its toll and things fall apart for them.  Sinclair’s book ends in an unfortunate way, for it becomes mere Socialist propaganda.  But up until about 3/4 or even 7/8 of the way through, it’s quite a good read.  Now, although I ignore the propaganda, I find one turn of phrase I stumbled across during the latter part of the book interesting and even poignant.  Sinclair calls those in the employ of the meatpacking trust “wage slaves.”  For, you see, the employees are technically free, but they’re too poor to live a life of any quality and they have no other viable options but to return to the torturous jobs they have and maintain them as long as they can.  In Sinclair’s book, this usually means until someone is injured on the job, whereupon they’re laid off and cast out.

sinclair's jungleMaybe we can make the argument, like Sinclair might if he were still kicking, that this kind of thing is alive and well in America.  But I’m not sure.  Since “The Jungle” was published, the meat industry was forced to clean up and working conditions have undoubtedly improved by leaps and bounds.  In fact, the Food and Drug Administration was formed partly as a result of the novel’s publication.  On the FDA’s website, Sinclair is credited thus: “the nauseating condition of the meat-packing industry that Upton Sinclair captured in The Jungle was the final precipitating force behind both a meat inspection law and a comprehensive food and drug law” known originally as the Wiley Act, which became law in 1906.  Ah, the power of the pen.  Although the Wiley Act and the FDA is a big deal, Sinclair was really more interested in the plight of the poor working man than food safety, as his Socialist ending makes abundantly clear.  It would take nearly four decades for a national minimum wage to be introduced in 1938, and at 25 cents it was equivalent to $4.13 hourly in 2013. It’s hard enough to live on minimum wage in the USA now, and it’s $7.25 in most states–imagine surviving on way less than 5 bucks an hour, especially when you’ve got to pay rent, buy groceries, fill up your gasoline tank, and spend money on all the necessities of life.  It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?  So does “wage slavery” still exist in the States?  I don’t know.  I’m open to comments on it.  I’ve worked for minimum wage and below, but I climbed upward since, and I couldn’t go back.

As I ponder the notion of folks who have no option but to work for whatever diddly amount they’re offered, it occurs to me that I see a certain amount of this every day here in the UAE.  It’s common to have house help here.  Most apartments or villas of any size have a miniscule maid’s quarters.  If you take a stroll through the mall, you’ll inevitably notice Emirati women shopping in Carrefour being followed around by Filipino ladies who are trying to keep the kids in line, pushing the shopping cart, and frequently being told what to take off the shelves and put in the cart.  I hate doing dishes, and I don’t really like giving up my weekend time to clean the house, so I thought, “Gee, we might be able to afford a maid.”  But Jenia is totally opposed to the idea.  “Those people are practically slaves,” she says.  Sometimes she goes even further and calls them slaves outright.  “Well,” I say, “They’re making more than they would at home.”  That doesn’t get my case any farther along, I’m afraid.  Just how much do these people make?  The pay range for maids/nannies tends to run about 1,000-2,000 AED monthly.  Divide that by 3.67 to find what they’re making in dollars.  These employees are usually expected to work 6 days a week, basically all day.  Lest you think I’m picking on Emiratis when I illustrate a point like I did above, I should say that there are quite a number of Westerners who hire help.  Also, mind you, I’m not criticizing those who take maids and the like into their employ–I’m pointing out that it’s a job with a surprisingly low wage.

The Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec's projects (completed along with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec’s projects (completed in conjunction with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

Besides house help, most other blue collar laborers are imported from eastern Asia.  The administration’s menial workers, the janitors and the like at my school, for example, are all from elsewhere.  Most of them are Bangladeshi, and they’re serving a 1-year contract.  I gave one of the guys a ride home one day, and he inquired as to what I make per month.  I didn’t tell him, but he told me what he made: 1,400 AED.  He told me that from that, he spends 500 a month on rent, 300 on food, and some on transportation.  The rest he sends home to his wife and baby.

A group of Pakistani men hang about hoping for work as movers.

A group of Pakistani men hang about in the Sanaiya area in Al Ain hoping for work as movers.

The ratio of Pakistanis and Indians living here is very high.  While they are certainly not all unskilled, there are many Pakistani men who come as unskilled laborers.  At night they fill up the parks in downtown Al Ain enjoying the relative coolness of the evening.  I’d venture to guess that most of the construction workers I’ve seen are Pakistani, but that is only a guess, and likely not representative of much.  Last month there was a big strike in Dubai as laborers refused to come to work for Arabtec, the largest construction company around.  I watched the newspaper coverage of that with great interest.  I was interested because I’ve seen workers being transported from construction sites when they take their midday break in the summer months.  It will be far above 100F and these glistening, sweaty men load up into big buses, windows wide open since there is no air conditioning in the buses.  Usually these workers live on the construction site or nearby it, in housing provided by their employers.  If you think that this means nice housing, you should probably join me in doing some research.  Is it squalor of the type these people might have to deal with in their home countries?  I don’t know.  I haven’t been to Pakistan or where have you, and I haven’t set foot in any of the housing provided by Arabtec or any other big company.  At any rate, these laborers typically work 6 days a week, and put in long hours.  The strike was news because striking is patently illegal here. In a country with no minimum wage, I was also curious to find out what these workers made.  Well, if you clicked on the link in my text, you’ve already found out: they make about $160 a month, depending.  If you’re still curious, here’s another link providing a lot of detail, including much more about working conditions, housing, wages, and the like.  Now, a month after these people boldly defied the authorities in order to try to get better treatment, they’re being dealt with. According to a 7 Days Dubai article, many of those who didn’t go to work are being deported.  7 Days is something close to a tabloid–they’re quick to report, but usually short on details and depth–but they do offer a look at what is happening in the area.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec's completed projects.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec’s completed projects.

I am not an investigative journalist, so I’m not knocking on doors and visiting all sorts of people all the time, but I do have eyes, and I do go to various areas in town, and I do interact with people.  And clearly I read, too.  So I end up wondering, in old Socialist style phrasing, what the plight of the worker is nowadays.  Do we continue to exploit and even victimize unskilled laborers?  Do we do it in the USA?  Does the UAE do it, right here around me, where I’m living?  I’m among the masses of foreigners who work in the UAE because I get more pay than I get at home.  In my case, the pay isn’t stunningly high, but I have lots of perks thrown in that end up being equivalent to a notably larger payday than I’d have in the States.  Many times I’ve debated with myself whether it’s worth being here or not, considering the difficulties at work.  But I’ve learned to cope with the challenges and I’ve adapted, more or less, to the culture here and figured out (to some extent) how to work within the environment I’ve chosen to move to.  I can’t complain about my situation, since I chose it, and since it’s always possible for me to bail out and leave if things get unbearable for some reason.  Do these unskilled laborers have the same options as I do? They certainly work much harder physically than I do.  Can they leave if they choose?  What kind of toll does this work environment take on them?  Do the pros of the jobs here outweigh the cons?

I’m not answering these questions today.  I’m just posing them because I think they’re worth exploring and seeking answers to.  If you feel you can contribute to the topic, you’re free to comment.  In keeping with the spirit of our blog, I’d ask that you keep your comments civil and respectful to all.

In parting, I’d like to leave you with the link to a post on the blog Sweden and the Middle East.  It’s worth a read as it’s thought-provoking and just might provide some insight into what life can be like for a domestic worker.  Have a gander at it.  Let the author (and me, if you get around to it) know what you think.

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Thursday List: Things I Never Thought I’d Say Before I Moved Here

1. It’s 95F. Do you think it’s warm enough to go to the beach?

2. I am freezing, if I knew it was going to be 55 degrees outside, I would have brought my jacket along.

3. Yes. (To a person asking if they can take your baby to the back room of the office to show to their colleagues.)

4. I’ve been to 3 malls today.

5. Let’s go to the park tonight. I miss grass.

6. What time are we meeting your students at the mall?

7. We have not been to Dubai in, like, two weeks!

And the worst one:

8. I miss Walmart and Target.

Missing Spring

June is here, but it feels like we’ve never had a spring. My facebook and livejournal feeds have been flooded with photos of spring flowers for several months, and it made me so jealous. I miss camellias and azaleas, irises and hyacinths, tulips and jonquils, cherries, and Bradford pears, and dogwood, and tulip magnolias…

When I told Shon I missed spring, he said we sort of had one – in November, when it was cool enough for several things here to bloom. It’s not the same, however, not even remotely close.

In a country where there is summer and cooler summer (in the fall, I kept saying it was like a backwards Narnia – always summer and never Christmas), there is no death – or slumber – of winter months, but it means there is also no rebirth or awakening of spring. No sensation of a new life, a new beginning, a new hope. There is never the feeling of waking up one morning and seeing a tree in your yard with a full crown of fresh green leaves, while it was black and naked just yesterday.

It’s one of those things you never expect you’d miss, and then find out that you really do.

 

Being Pregnant in the UAE

Before I begin the actual post, I would love to express our gratitude for all the views, likes, comments, and follows.  We feel lucky to be able to get exposure to different perspectives – and to be able to share our findings with others.  Also, we are thrilled to be featured on Freshly Pressed again. Thank you, Michelle!

Now, to the subject infinitely small from the World’s perspective, and paramount from ours.

I am 38 weeks pregnant today. For those blissfully unaware of what it means: our baby boy  (lovingly called the Blob and/or Шонович (son of Shon) until the name is revealed) can make his appearance any day now.  In reality, it’s more like any day within the next 4 weeks, but we’re hoping he won’t make us wait that long.

The Blob is our first child, so I cannot really compare being pregnant in the UAE to being pregnant anywhere else in the world.  Not from personal experience, anyway.  Still, I would like to share some things that struck me as unusual – all in a good way.

We might have mentioned before that children are viewed completely differently in this part of the world.  On one hand, it means that we’ve never seen such a high concentration of spoiled brats anywhere else.  On the other hand, it means being moved to the front of the line at the hospital or airport security checks if you have a child in tow.  It means that a stone-faced Emirati man who would not acknowledge you were you on your own, is going to melt down and coo at your baby or toddler.  It means that once you are at a bank,  restaurant, government office – you name it – there’s a good chance your baby will be patted on the cheek/kissed/passed around by the employees.  It’s not for the germaphobes and the faint of heart, but there is nothing perverted about it: little kids are adored here (and it’s a bonus if they are blonde and blue-eyed.)

You don’t get quite as much attention being pregnant, but you still get plenty.  I was surprised to see Shon’s students (high-school boys) express great interest in my pregnancy. All of his boys I met so far wanted to know how far along I was, the due date, the gender, the name – everything!  I saw plenty of teenage boys back home having great fun playing with older babies and toddlers, but pregnancy just doesn’t seem to be something they are comfortable with.  These teens, however, are used to someone in the family constantly being pregnant and having babies.  They get quite confused on finding out we’ve been married for over 5 years and this is our first child.  “Why?” – they ask, “you should have at least 3 by now!”

One of the perks of being pregnant here is getting free stuff, and I don’t mean some kind of Publix coupons-for-babies program, I mean small businesses, mom and pop stores.  It’s always something small, but it’s a great pleasure, anyway, when you are handing over the money, and the man or woman points and your stomach and says, “No, no! Gift for baby!”  It’s mind-blowing, really.  You are a stranger in a strange land, thousands of miles away from family, and total strangers want to share your joy and bless you in some small way.

IMG_0026

I was buying a burqa from this Omani lady, but when she saw my bulging belly, the gave the money right back to me.

Another fantastic perk is the expat community.  I could not dream of such a support network back in the US.  There is nearly a dozen families within 15 minute drive who went through the same thing no more than a year and a half ago, and who have been so generous to us in so many different ways.  Our families may be far away, but we are surely not alone here.

And I cannot write this post without mentioning the healthcare part.  Our insurance covers labor completely (they do no cover the epidural, which is 1500AED=$410.)  My doctor’s appointments cost us $8 each (I get an ultrasound nearly every time, too), and I have not paid for any lab work.  The hospital is very new and not very big.  By now, most of the receptionists and nurses at the OBGYN clinic know me.  They ask about my cross-stitching progress, comment on the size of the belly, and click their tongues at the sight of my swollen feet.  I liked all the 3 doctors I saw.  Both the midwife who teaches pre-natal classes and the director of nursing gave me their cell phone numbers and urged to call or text if I had any questions.  All of this makes it personal and much more relaxing than your general hospital experience.

So here we are, waiting for our world to change forever.  The time is right, and, as strange as it may seem to some, the place is right as well.

P.S. Won’t it make a good photo one day – the three of us holding our respective birth certificates from 3 different countries?

 

Thursday List: You Know You’ve Been to the UAE Long Enough when…

1)   A daytrip to Dubai is just a part of the routine.

2)   So is a trip to Abu Dhabi.

3)   You no longer notice that everyone around you is wearing kandoras or abayas.

4)   You shorten your sentences and speak each word very distinctly so that the non-native English speaker you’re communicating with will (maybe) understand you.  Optionally, you leave out linking verbs and articles.

5)   You say “petrol” instead of “gasoline”, “mark” instead of “grade” and tell people your flat is on the ground floor. Oh, and “inshallah” becomes a household word.

6)   Somebody else pumps your gas, er, petrol, and you think that’s normal.

7)   You haven’t washed your car in six months because you can get someone else to do it for five bucks.

8)   You stop noticing that there’s no sales tax.

9)   When the temperature drops below 70 you think it’s really cold out.

10) Every time you go outside you meet somebody who’s neither American nor Emirati, and you’re not the least surprised.

11) You’re no longer terrified by the crazy drivers or the confusing roundabouts.

12) You see so many Porsches and fancy Mercedes that you don’t even notice them any more.

13) However, when you see a girl in shorts/skirt/dress that do not cover her knees or in a sleeveless top, you wonder what in the world she is thinking.

14) You no longer try to snap a photo of every camel truck passing by.

15) When you hear the word “date,” you think of a fruit, not an event.  You even have a favorite kind of date.

16) Truly clear, blue skies are exciting.

17) Seeing a dog is equally exciting.

18) You remember to not take or give anything with your left hand.

19) Last time you had so many friends living in the same town as you, you were in high school.

20) You are ready to pay $10 for a box of White Cheddar Cheez-Its.

Scenes from a Russian Winter

A Memoir

Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same.  It’s a truthful retelling of past events.  However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that.  Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right.  Memoirs are about impressions and memories.  That’s what I’m doing with this post.  I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes.  It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative.  I do hope you like it.

Scene One: Prelude.

It is cold.  Extremely cold.  I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat.  Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago.  When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face.  The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright.  We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway.  Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.

A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop.  We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey.  The bus has already gone.  It will be some time before the next one.  Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away.  The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time.  We pose for some pictures in front of the church.  At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold.  Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped.  The cold is invasive.  It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing.  My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos.  Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip.  By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.

Chapel

If you look carefully, you’ll see Jenia’s furry collar has iced over where her breath strikes it.

Scene Two: Country House.

The village is tiny.  How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks?  Maybe 50.  It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate.  And I can’t wait to get indoors.  I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet.  We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences.  A German shepherd barks.  A man scolds it in Russian.  The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.

Indoors, the little house seems warm.  My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace.  It’s been on, but running very low.  Still, it feels wonderfully warm.  Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.

Walking

Entering the village, packed snow just a-crunchin’.

Yard

The backyard of the country house is where the gardening goes on during warmer times.

Smoking

Ryazan’s factories belch smoke on the horizon.

Field

The road back to Ryazan–traveled by foot (obviously with some exceptions) to the railway.

Frost Flower

Furry

Jenia keeps her hands warm with some sort of furry mittens.

Scene Three: Catching the Train.

There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees.  “Oh, no, what time is it?”  Says my tyosha.  She finds the time, and says to hurry.  We hurry.  “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me.  I’m in the lead.  So I begin to jog.  I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores.  Jenia jogs behind me.  “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.”  So I run.  I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife.  “Go ahead,” she says.  “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!”  I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me.  A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me.  It’s clear he’s going to wait for us.  The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board.  We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath.  An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay?  What’s the matter with her?  Asthma?  The car is mostly empty.   Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows.  All are old enough to appear grave and dignified.  After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows.  Birches rush past.  There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there.  A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.

Train Lada

Engine

Having arrived back in Ryazan, I pause to snap a photograph of the train. The conductor is, again, watching for any passengers rushing to make it in time.

Boarding

This guy, rushing aboard, is blessed, like us, by the willingness of the conductor to keep an eye out.

Crossing

The small railway station where we disembark. To get to the other side, you cross the tracks.

Street

A Ryazan street. This place would be beautiful if the buildings had a coat of paint every now and again.

A White Christmas and Tales of Leningrad

The chances of a white Christmas have gone up exponentially.  We are in Russia right now.  It’s been six years since I, Shon, have been here.  Jenia’s been gone a long time, too; nearly three years have elapsed since she’s been home.  But here we are.

When we got off the plane at Sheremetyevo and headed for our train Tuesday morning, we were greeted by frigid -21C weather.  If I remember right, that’s -6F.  You know what?  That makes for quite a shock when you’ve just come from Abu Dhabi.  Before long, we were whisked southeast to Ryazan, where the temperatures have remained a little less severe (but have still hovered just a few degrees above zero most every day).  The cold isn’t all that’s news here, of course.  In fact, that’s really not news at all.  It’s winter in Russia; what else would it be, if not mighty chilly?

This trip is about family.  To that end, we’ve been coddled and fed delicious home-cooked meals.  Borsch (we’ll leave off the puzzling letter “t” that often gets included in the English translation of that word), vareniki, mushroom soup, apple pie, and much more.  And it wouldn’t be Russia without a whole lot of tea drinking.  “Cheorniy ile zeloniy?”  I’m asked: black or green?  “Zeloniy, spacibo.”

Speaking of tea, this afternoon we visited Jenia’s 90 (almost 91) year-old grandmother.  She is an animated 5’1″ or so, a little stooped, quite slender, with a ready smile and a characterful face.  Naturally, we settled down to tea and sweets before long.  While the ladies were visiting, I probed the apartment with the camera.

Apartment

Conversation

The apartment and its decor speak about Babushka Anya’s life.  Sitting atop an old inkwell on the desk there is an icon which she had with her at all times, even through the Soviet years.  Hanging on the wall there is a gilt-framed painting which once, prior to WWII, belonged to a German household.  It came back from Germany with her when she returned from WWII.  The painter bears a name that must not be famous; one of her grandsons tried googling it recently for her and got no hits.  Above one of the doors is a pair of antlers from a saigak, a souvenir from her son’s time in Kazakhstan.

Desk

Painting

Somehow, the topic of her wartime experience was raised.  At only 19, she was pressed into service in Leningrad.  Just a girl, she was placed in charge of a pharmacy in a mobile medical detachment which sat just behind the front lines.  As a pharmacist, she mixed and prepared medications.  Her equipment included a vat that had been taken from the Germans.  “It was non-stop work,” she said.  “When there was fighting, the wounded didn’t stop coming.  We went without sleep for days.”  In fact, she and the other paramedics were so exhausted that they took naps while traveling–by foot.  “We would walk like this, one on each side, arm-in-arm,” she said.  “And we’d say, ‘I’m sleeping now,’ and the others would carry us along as we slumped.  Then we’d wake up, and the next one would go.”

Paramedics

Babushka Anya shakes her head, and says, “I can’t even imagine how we did it now.”

Among her army decorations is the equivalent of the Purple Heart–for she was wounded more than once.  One of those times was when a German airplane spotted the three medical tents, even the one that she was in, which had been set up with one side against a high river bank, making it much harder to spot (and probably saving her life).  The plane was audible long before anyone could see it.  Finally, alarms were sounded and the tents were emptied, doctors helping patients out and to other locations.  Anya had a wounded man she was helping, but they couldn’t make it out of the tent in time.  She huddled by the exit behind a stack of crated supplies, but couldn’t feel at ease about it.  There were stretchers leaned against that side of the tent which was next to the bank.  She and her injured patient lay length-wise there, seeking cover.  And it was a good thing, too, for the German plane accurately strafed all of the tents.  The one that she lay in was destroyed.  The stack of boxes she’d sheltered behind at first was annihilated.  The supporting tent poles were shot to pieces and the canvas collapsed around them.  The patient siezed her in his grip as he was struck.  When all was quiet, she was grimy, wounded by shrapnel, but alive–and her fellows on the ground were thrilled when she rose alive.

“There were so many times when I couldn’t understand why I lived,” she said.  “It had to be the grace of God.”

Anya met her future husband on the frontlines–he worked in a neighboring medical squadron.  Their story is a great romance that lasted the entire war, even as he was shipped East to fight the Japanese in Mongolia, and she went to Germany.  One of the photos she showed us, of her wearing an immaculate uniform, stretched out on the grass before a lake in Austria, bore the legend, “To George, to remember.”

In Austria

The immaculate uniform was something that she was always careful to keep on hand.  She kept her white collar and cuffs clean, and always wore them.  “I was an example that the officers used for others,” she said.  “There was no reason not to be neat.”  This is one of the reasons she doesn’t like WWII movies.  “They’re unrealistic,” she says.  “Everyone’s always dirty, and that’s not how it was.”

My perceptions of the war having been partly shaped by viewing films like “Enemy at the Gates,” which depicts Russian troops being ordered into battle despite having ranks mostly unarmed, I asked her about weaponry.

“The first two years there was no shortage of weapons,” she said.  “Then they started to get old and fall apart.”  But salvation was arriving.  “The Americans had sat back and watched to see who was going to win–the Germans or the Russians–and when they saw that we were, they decided to help us.  So they gave us Studebakers, which helped a lot.”  Before the arrival of the American trucks, everything was moved about by horses.  The pharmacy that Anya ran included a two-wheeled cart that she was responsible for pulling or pushing when the squadron moved.  Besides the influx of American equipment which made life much easier, heavy artillery began arriving, and that made a big difference in the war effort.

These days, most of Babushka Anya’s fellow soldiers have passed away.  “It used to be there were people I could talk to about it, that understood, and knew what it was like.  But now there’s noone to talk to.”  Her face darkened as she thought about this.  “When Georgiy [her husband, who was a military pediatrician before and after the war, and a GP by necessity during it] was alive, he never drank vodka.  But on Victory Day, he would ask me, ‘Anichka, can I have fifty grams?’ Then he would raise it and address her, saying, ‘Dear Senior Lieutenant, to our victory.'” Remembering this, her face warmed and happiness tugged gently at the corners of her mouth.  Georgiy, tragically, lost his life in an ice-fishing accident when he was 70.

Our tea long-since finished, Jenia’s grandmother apologized suddenly.  “I hope I haven’t bored you,” she said.

Hands

“Not at all,” we both assured her.

“I’ve never been through it, and,” I added with a grin, “I hope to never go through it, so hearing your stories is very interesting.”

“Thank God you haven’t,” she said with an earnest chuckle, “And hope you never will.”

Table set

We made to help her clean the table–the cups and saucers, the utensils, and so forth–but she stopped us.  “I have nothing to do,” she said.  “Leave them.  Then I will have something to keep me busy.”

Fam

Besides the stories that the decor tells, the apartment itself, in size (which is one room, other than the kitchen and bath), color, and appointments, tells what Russian living is often like.  The kitchen is large by local standards, but the stove is tiny, and the counterspace extremely limited.

Fridge

Kitchen

Stove

After a bit more small talk, we took our leave, out of the cozy apartment, and into the cold.  Outside, we made our way along the road, slick with packed, icy snow.  The danger of slipping and falling is ever-present in this country, where only a few sidewalks are ever cleared of snowfall, and driveways seem to never be.

Pathways

And so, with Christmas right around the corner, we expect a white one, and we will be happily celebrating it with the company of family.

Camels and Water

There’s this nifty group called Al Ain Weekends which organizes trips in the area.  The wife and I and our friends Frank and Melissa joined one of these trips yesterday.  The trip found us joining a convoy of fairly fast-moving 4x4s driving over a miserable, washboarded dirt road into the desert just outside of Al Ain.  I’ve not been a particular fan of Kia quality, at least not Kia ca. 2005, but the Sorento managed to make it without losing any parts, despite the creaking and rattling that filled the interior of the vehicle with a constant din as we pounded along.  Young Bennet, our friends’ 6-month old baby, seemed quite oblivious to the whole thing, strapped in what must be a very cushy car seat.  The Kia, to its credit, did manage a bit of pretty soft sand without any issues when I put it into 4-wheel drive, and I’m more inclined to forgive its fairly significant quality shortcomings as a result.

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After what seemed like a long ways of vehicular punishment, we arrived at the farm, nestled around a number of dunes.  This was interesting for several reasons, not the least of which was the chance to see two baby camels, a week and two weeks old, in the company of their mothers.  Besides the babies, with their thick, sheep-like fur, there were also dark-brown camels and nearly white ones of varying ages and sizes.  Some were bred for racing.

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There was a large male being kept in a separate pen from the others, in preparation to meet and mate with a female in the near future.  I guess isolation guarantees he’s plenty ready for the opportunity when it arises.  He seemed quite irritable, at any rate.  Go figure.

Many of the beasts wore rope shackles around their front feet.  I don’t know the reason for this, although I can guess.

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These dromedaries appeared well-fed and well-watered.  There were at least three men around who worked on the farm, which also had a sizable enclosure for goats.

20121214-IMG_006020121214-IMG_0040The calves were, much like their bovine counterparts, pretty dang big, considering they’ve only been shuffling this mortal coil for a week, and very mobile.

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20121214-IMG_0050A camel farm such as this contains all the treats for the senses that a farm elsewhere does.  Put yourself there for a second.  Your feet sometimes sink a smidgeon, but usually the sand is firm enough.  Occasionally the wind whips some grit into your eyes.  The air is redolent with the scent of fur and dung.  There are grunts, whiffles, and growls as the large herbivores respond to an onslaught of touristy types.  The mothers weren’t too pleased to have such a number people crowd around them, and eventually headed for safer territory, a good distance from us.  For such large animals, they’re easily spooked and quite skittish.  Our travel guide, the guy who organized the trip, had to ask repeatedly for folks to quiet down for the sake of the animals, who were often uneasy.  Of course, I’d probably be uneasy if, out of the blue, two-dozen SUVs unloaded a ton of westerners and their screaming children and they mobbed me, too.

We took the chance to climb some of the orange-red dunes that surrounded us as our time at the farm drew to a close.  The drive home was much more relaxing, albeit considerably more boring, as we left before the convoy did, and accordingly moved at a much more relaxed pace.  It did have its moments of interest, however, as the sky, which had been threatening rain, finally delivered, and my meagre windshield wipers, victims of the summertime and, well, most all the time, UV light, soon were mostly tattered.

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Rookie Dune Bashing

Man, I”ll tell you what–I want to buy a 4×4 (I mean, a real 4×4, something brawny, not the puny Kia Sorento we happen to own) and head to the desert as often as possible.

Friday afternoon I had a great time in the dunes with a bunch of off-roading newbies and a crew of very patient and helpful experienced pros.

I’ve never once done this kind of thing before.  It was great.  There is nothing quite like the experience of cresting a dune (and getting stuck while driving your buddy’s Jeep) in the middle of the Arabian desert.  Ditto that descending a steep slope.  The ascent is a curious mixture of gentle approach (depending on the angle of the wall) and then nail-it-to-the-floorboards-and-watch-the-sand-fly power.  Learning the balance is a bit of a challenge.  The descent is generally pretty easy: approach slowly, keep it in low gear, and let the engine to the braking as you float down the slope.  However, go too fast off a steep hill, and you can find yourself in trouble, as you might damage your vehicle, or at the very least, bottom out the suspension.  Yeah, the suspension bottoming thing happened to us a couple times.  Vroom–swish–crash!  But not when I was behind the wheel.  I promise.

In all, I had a ball.  I probably should have taken the Canon Rebel along for some better quality photos, but I was a bit afraid it might end up covered in sand and totally ruined.  So rather than risk it, I just had ye olde iPhone in its trusty Otterbox case.  I just may purloin some pictures from fellow photographers for this post, however, and in that case, I’ll give those picture-takers credit.

My buddy Jon and his son as we are preparing to head out.  Here, the 4WD has just been engaged on his old Jeep for the first time since he’s owned it.

On the rough road, getting ready to head into the serious sand.

Jon’s son ended up in the nice, cool, air conditioned cabin of this Jeep Liberty (sold here as a Cherokee) which is shown here about to come down a dune.

 

The day’s only casualty that I’m aware of was this Cherokee and its exploded radiator.

Check this view out. I’d been longing to be out in the dunes ever since I arrived. It was as cool as I hoped.  Don’t turn down the opportunity to get out there with some experienced folks.

And this would be a photo I'm borrowing from Heidi Cothron.  Maybe she'll let me borrow a high-res version later.

And this would be a photo I’m borrowing from Heidi Cothron. Maybe she’ll let me borrow a high-res version later.

So, I’m discovering the joys of living in the Arabian desert.  This off-roading stuff is seriously fun.  It ranks up there, in an altogether different way, of course, with riding a motorcycle.  LIke hopping on a bike and heading into the hills, being in the desert amidst a sea of dunes and away from the city is relaxing, and again, like riding a bike, there is definitely an element of risk involved in heading into the sand.  Your machinery must be in good shape, and it must be tough.  You’ve got to exercise good technique, or you’ll have serious problems on your hands.  Again, this is much like motorcycling.  In other words, it’s great fun and I highly recommend it.

Nuts.

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.

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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.