Arabian Saga and ‘The Empty Quarter’

Well, that’s what the old explorers used to call the southern and inner stretch of much-romanticised Arabia. The Blunts, Sir Richard Burton, Charles Doughty, Gertrude Bell, Sir Ranulph Fiennes – all of them to a man and woman absolutely obsessed with journeying across the stretch that today includes Saudi Arabia, The Oman, Jordan, Syria, and of course the weird and wonderful Emirates. Five years ago it was Egypt and a Nile cruise, last year it was The Oman, Muscat and beyond, dreams of the Frankincense Trail, this year to Abu Dhabi to accompany my ever-restless and curious mother to a world that has long fascinated her. Dame Freya Stark here we come, eh?

As it happened, and for reasons of no particular interest to this blog, I ended up paying a night-time visit to the Al Noor Hospital in a suburb of Abu Dhabi. It’s not my first time in a Middle Eastern hospital. As before, it was a delight to be in an A and E in which nobody was a) drunk; b) abusive ) physically violent or 4) throwing up all over the place because of a). Apart from those missing elements, all was pretty much as at home in terms of triage, waiting with your little number gripped in paw, then the actual seeing of a doctor. But while waiting, I sat with men and women and children, the women mostly wearing the burka, the whole face-concealing thing, the men similarly clad although obviously with faces visible. Beneath the women’s burkas, as usual, hints of denims, of stiletto shoes, but also of sports trainers. And as with women everywhere, regardless of the quality of your burka (and there ARE so many telling qualities), there was the handbag. The ladies of Abu Dhabi are as attached to their handbags as ‘we in the West’ are, indeed appear to use them in the same slightly talismanic way. It was also interesting to observe a lady from – I was guessing – Ethiopia perhaps – certainly not of Arabian origin – flirting gently with a man. Despite the full black gear, her face was exposed, and there was a lot of good-humoured banter between the two, and an indefinable flirtatious fizz. Or so I thought.

During the days, downtown Abu Dhabi – temperate and pleasant at this time of year – is male-dominated. Most of the human presences on the streets are male ones, inevitably. It’s a busy, coming place, with marvellous contemporary architecture (mostly constructed by immigrants from India, Pakistan, Burma, and Nepal). I like to think these workers are well looked after, but I know that’s definitely not always the case at all. The problem with the Emirates for me is that it’s built on a system of modern slavery, and the worst work-category of all is to be a nanny or housemaid in that you can be lucky. Or very unlucky, as in a recent case in which a young woman was burned, stabbed, and eventually killed – all at the hands of her female mistress. They call them maids, I believe. The handbag-toting women/wives for whom these maids work, sail imperiously around supermarkets, with maid in tow pushing a heavy trolley, pointing to this and that object, which maid then loads up. As usual, the thinking is that ‘they’ are much better off and have a better standard of living than ‘they’ would have at home. Quaint, colonial thinking. It never goes away.

One can only imagine what sometimes goes on behind closed doors. What we hear in the media here is the tip of the iceberg, and there is little doubt that the abuse of these (Philipina or often Chinese) house slaves has not been fully documented. A culture of silence prevails everywhere about these darker aspects of life in the Middle East.

But there’s something brilliant about people who manage to carve viable existences for themselves in difficult parts of the world – difficult in terms of climate and resources. But Saudi Arabia, for example, produces 8 million gallons of oil a day, and the oil ain’t about to run out just yet. Still – it’s a limited resource, and throughout the Arabian ‘peninsula’ the wealthy are making hay while the sun shines. Westerners with any bit of dosh at their disposal love the climate during our winter, Westerners adore the luxury hotels, the style of service. I actually find it cringe-making when a male chamber-boy bows and kow-tows as he passes by my presence in the hotel bedroom one day. This was a young man called Lin (they’re always men in this part of the world: no girls to be seen making the beds and cleaning bathrooms!), from Burma. He is overjoyed about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Anyway, my mother adores the hotel and the location. She sits everyday on the balcony and murmurs to herself ‘Isn’t this just lovely!’ – which it is. Turquoise inlet from the Arabian Sea, the brilliant white mosque across the waterway, the fantastic bridges which link the different suburbs. But somehow, it’s not quite what I have in mind. The next time I return to the Middle East, there’ll be more walking. More engagement outside of the hotel to shops beat. Someone said recently to me, ‘What the hell have the Arabs ever created apart form selling oil?’. He meant, what literature, what music, what art. I can’t speak about the art because anything that is actually galleried in Abu Dhabi or Muscat is poor stuff, aimed for tourists who want to look at camel legs and Sheiks and desert scenes. But the Arab world (by which I mean the literate world in which writing is done in Arabic) is full of genius, at least as much as anyplace else. The music too, at its best is complex. At its least effective, it has the kind of repetitive ‘nyahhh’ wailey-wailey-woo sound I associate with ‘ethnic’ music anyplace, including Irish traditional music, which we’re not allowed to refer to as ‘ethnic’ here, of course, in case we sound patronising (tut-tut!) but which actually is ethnic.

It’s bloody difficult to speak about any other culture without sounding either slightly star-struck OR slightly condescending. I try to avoid both but may not always succeed. The thing is, racism and stereotyping are so deeply, deeply engrained in most of us who think ourselves beyond such things, that it literally leaks out of us, especially when we attempt to come to grips with the otherness of others. The one thing I do not question in my own response is the behaviour of some of the men in that part of the world, who undoubtedly deeply believe that women are inferior. I know there are plenty in our own who believe it (stereotype being so deeply engrained that they hardly notice it themselves). It’s overt there and covert here, especially with older men (here). Some Muslims dislike shaking hands with a woman, for example. I know that shaking hands is largely a Western custom, but layer it up with this resistance to the female and that’s something else altogether. Nor, I suspect, do they respect Western women in the slightest. That’s a given. Such a pity, given the efforts some of us make to conform to their local customs and dress when we’re on their patch. It’s difficult for me to respect the aspect of that culture which employs people virtually as slave labour and which does not offer them the kind of human accommodation they deserve, which takes labourers passports and retains them until completion of contracts; which – should anyone abscond – is free to advertise the details of that person’s passport, including number etc. and photograph – in the Gulf News, warning potential employees that they take this person on ‘at their own risk’. There are so many stories behind these stories, and it’s difficult to know where the truth lies.

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3 thoughts on “Arabian Saga and ‘The Empty Quarter’

  1. Your story is very informative for me who has never been to this part of the world and the weather and the wealth would be much different to what we are used to. I wonder about their politics and have they much transparency. Who holds the money, is it all the families who own the oil. A cousin of mine was visiting the home of a Dr she works with to meet his wife here in Dublin and found a different person to the man she worked with, the door was opened by a very poor looking woman and he rushed forward and pushed her back like a dog, shood her into the hall, he did not want this woman he worked with to see this poor woman who was looking after his family, she probably had no english and may not get any opportunity to leave his home much, this is the problem when there are no laws and proper constitution in those rich countries.

  2. I really enjoyed this piece. I too have travelled in the Middle East and love it, and the people. And for someone who is not in the least bit religious, I love the call to prayer just for itself, not its function.

    1. That call to prayer always moves me too. It’s a little like the Angelus in Ireland also. A steadying moment perhaps? I don’t know. I’m post-God and yet such moments soothe me, make me pause . . . are significant in the course of a day.

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