Monday, January 3, 2011


So let me tell you a story. And let me preface it with a quick explanation of my attitude toward this country.

The UAE gets a lot of bad press. You read screaming headlines about sensational cases in which someone is arrested and jailed for a couple of months for a microgram of marijuana "found" on his shoe (true), or a couple arrested for kissing in a mall at 2 a.m. after a local woman complained it was corrupting her kid (true), or the water taps at the Atlantis gushing nothing but cockroaches (false).

Sometimes the outrage is justified; sometimes it is manufactured. They are not especially common. But the events that trigger that outrage do happen--they are not imaginary or created by paranoid Westerners.

And now I know that first-hand.

Last night, Mrs. Blog and I went to the grocery store to refill our fridge after being away for a couple of weeks. It was crowded. Lots of families stocking up for 2011, I guess.

Oh, what a magical journey it was, wandering through the aisles of imported high-fructose corn syrup. Eventually, we paused by the bread section to consider our carbohydrate options. Mrs. Blog suggested that we should make fondue at some point this week. And because that idea, of eating gooey cheese and bread together in our cozy (if not well-situated) Tanker Mai apartment, made me happy, I leaned in and gave her a peck on the lips.

Do you see where this is going?

Maybe 10 or 15 seconds later, after we had moved on to discussing whether to buy sandwich rolls or a loaf, an Emirati woman in an abaya and burqa arrived at the scene, wagging her finger at us. Surrounded by several other younger women (also in traditional dress), she bestowed upon us some good, old-fashioned self-righteous chastising.

How dare we kiss, she said. You are not in the West anymore, she said. I will call security, she said.

The last sentence, of course, is the one that gets your heart racing. Both of us dived in to placate her. I pointed to my ring finger--look, it's OK, we're married. Mrs. Blog apologized for offending her. I said, there's no need for security to get involved. And so on.

I'm not sure what, exactly, we said that eventually worked. I think it was another apology from Mrs. Blog. But the woman clucked some more, made another threat about security, then stalked off with her friends--none of whom had said a word.

What a depressing experience. At just a basic level, it is really disheartening and angering to be chewed out by someone whose face you can't even see. It just doesn't seem like a level playing field. Kind of like the legal principle of the accused being able to confront their accuser.

The deeper you dig down--and this process lasted, for us, the rest of our shopping trip--the angrier you get. Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that although the kiss was loving, it was pretty tame by any standard. A step above holding hands. There's no accounting for what will offend people, and cultural mores, and blah blah blah.

Focus instead on the woman's reaction. It upsets me because instead of simply asking us to stop (which we already had--see above) or telling us we were behaving inappropriately, she threatened to throw us in jail. Or at least Carrefour's version of it. Is there not a way of expressing displeasure or distaste without being accusatory? This seems in the same vein as someone smoking where they shouldn't be--if it's bothering you, you politely ask them to stop. Not difficult.

Focus also on how we reacted. There are, without a doubt, places in the U.S. where someone might threaten to call store security on you for the T-shirt you're wearing, or for the things you're saying in a private conversation, or even for kissing in public. The difference is, in those cases, I know my rights. I'm not going to jail. I'm probably not even to get harassed by security, because THEY know what my rights are, too. No, the correct reaction in that case is to ask your accuser to be a little more polite and, if that fails, to suggest that they can go... well, you know.

But that surety of one's rights just doesn't exist here. Hell, the surety of the law doesn't even exist here. You can be accused of things that aren't illegal while things that clearly are (c.f. the bizarre alcohol laws), are routinely ignored. And in any case where it is one person's word against another's, the expatriate is at a disadvantage from jump street. Get caught up in the legal system, right or wrong, and you're in for a lengthy and unpleasant experience.

So instead of standing our ground, we just said whatever we could to keep her from escalating it--no matter how out of line she may have been. And that's humiliating.

In the end, no security was called, we finished our shopping in uncomfortable silence and vented on the way home. The night got better. We even found a good parking space in Tanker Mai, which in terms of miracles is right up there with the parting of the Red Sea and the Seahawks making the playoffs.

But here's the thing: Incidents like this bury the idea that we're all living as equals here. Until that changes, the UAE is never going to have the type of integrated, productive society that will move it forward into the big leagues.

Congratulations, Carrefour lady, for making that point--whether you realized it or not.

1 comment:

Bill Pickett said...

You're not in Kansas anymore!