I’m not going to lie. I came here with some misconceptions of Islam. Like a lot of Europeans, I think, the face of Islam that I usually saw [and was presented with] in my country wasn’t always lovely. Walking to work I was sometimes confronted with Islamic men and women that made remarks for the way I was dressed. I took the train 10 minutes before the Brussels terror attacks on March 22th 2016 claimed by ISIS. So, like a lot of others, I was shocked and confused. Imagine my face when I arrive here and at 5:30 I got woken up by an “Allahu Akbar!”. Of course, I had no idea what a call for prayer was and that explained why we chose a hotel next to two mosques without worrying a bit. My kids loved it. They thought it was a nice music to wake up for the day. Me too, but I have to admit 5am was a bit early for me. And this is how my long learning process started. It’s still on by the way.
The UAE is a very open country. Visually speaking it’s a lot like the USA, except for the mosques and the Abayas and Dishdashas. Arriving here and being exposed to their traditional costumes was very impressive for me with my European background. In Europe, Muslim women are covered but not men. I quickly had some nice encounters that opened my mind. Let me share them with you. Wherever you are in the world, it might change your idea too.
The first weeks, as other expats know, we have to do all administrative formalities. New driving license, new ID (the one of the host country), etc. Until this point, I did all formalities with my husband. He’s a diplomat (work wise and quality wise), he knows a lot of stuff, so it was very convenient for me to let him do the work. But here in the UAE, administrations are often separated for men and women (kids can accompany both mom or dad). In order to request my ID (and those of our kids), I had to go alone, in a “women only” office.
I was stressed. For diplomats it’s a special process, they might get annoyed by me. I can tell you that in my country, most of our admin stuff was accompanied by sighs, remarks, or even worst, fake news and laws. Like this administrative lady in Belgium with whom I had to run through some administrative changes the city needed to do. I patiently explained that we were going to leave the country because my husband is a diplomat and he was posted in the UAE, and provided her with the necessary explanations we received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With basically half the work already done for her, she just told me “No, you can’t go with him, he has to go there alone for 4 years and you have to stay in Belgium. Sorry, that’s the law madam”. I was so stunned that I laughed. She didn’t take that well… That’s pretty much the idea I was left with about administrations for diplomats. So here I was in the women only office, asking for diplomatic ID for me and the kids. First, I immediately noticed that Emiratis working for government are paid slightly differently than the Belgians. Each civil servant had a – very nice ! – designer bag. They were all in black abayas. Some ladies were totally covered, including their faces, all I could see was their hands, full of jewels and henna tattoos, and their feet, garnished with designer high heels. Go to the administration in Belgium, it’s NOT like that. I felt super naked in my little white dress. And cold. Although it was 40 degrees outside, they clearly put the AC at an Abaya wise level. I was kind of embarrassed, but the second they talked to me, I felt at home. It was like a coffee at a friend’s house. Eight women left their office and came to help me. They offered me tea, cookies and dates. They started to rhapsodize on the picture of my kids and asked about them and then started talking about theirs. Being a mom definitely helped. It’s like they know it’s the hardest job in the world and they value it (where in Europe, being “just” a mother isn’t a job). In general, the family is hugely important in this country, for men and women, but that’s for another story. Then one fully covered lady came to me and told me “you are very beautiful”. I was truly moved but, in the meantime, I had no idea what to answer. She was fully covered, I couldn’t say “you too”. So, I touched her arm and just said “Thank you”. This was the first real encounter I had with Emirati women, and I was more than pleasantly surprised.
Whilst I adapted with small steps to life in a Muslim country, our kids just barged into this new culture. You know kids, they have no filter, they say exactly what comes to their mind. So very quickly, Agnès, 3 years old, started to ask about the abaya. At first, she had no problem with it. But when Halloween came, she got super scared of a ghost guy in a candy store (very useful to keep my daughter out of the candy store). For a while she was confusing women in abayas with the Halloween ghosts, coming at her to scare her. She was super impressed, pointed at them screaming “FANTÔME” (GHOST in French and hide every time she saw one close to her. Embarrassed is an understatement for how we felt. Until one day, we went in an elevator my husband, my kids and I, with an Emirati couple. The wife was all covered up in black, even her face was covered, very impressive for Agnès standing next to her. Agnès freaked out and started crying very very hard, pointing at her. We didn’t know what to do. But very quickly, this nice lady removed her vail, kneeled down next to Agnès, took her hand and smiled to her. With her husband gently smiling to my daughter, she went against her believes to help my little girl. When we left the elevator, she put her veil on again. From that day on, Agnès has never been scared of any covered women. I was so thankful for what she did (though Agnès also lost her fear from the candy store…). She showed me a face of Islam so kind and loving. She could have been upset by my daughter’s reaction. We are in their country as guests and us should adapt to their customs and traditions. Instead of that, she made one step towards us, trying her best to make Agnès understand her culture.
As for my son… I remember a day, like two or three weeks after our arrival. I was extremely tired. My son, Jack, woke up 3 or 4 times every night, refused to nap at the hotel where we were. We were waiting for our container that was lost somewhere in the port of Jebel Ali. We had found a house, but some administrative papers blocked us from getting it. I didn’t have a car at this point, so I was blocked in this crappy hotel while Fred had to work. I wasn’t acclimated to the heat yet and I was suffering from staying all day in this tiny hotel room. I went for a walk at the mall close to our hotel with my kids. Jack, super sensitive, chose this moment to throw a huge tantrum in the middle of this very Emirati mall. I couldn’t calm him down, I was so stressed out and almost in tears, when an old Emirati man came to me. He gave Jack a toy, smiled to him, played with him. He was so calm and peaceful; he was actually able to calm him down. His inner peace fascinated me. He had a traditional white Emirati Dishdasha and a white Guthra on his head. I was very impressed. Then he looked at me and said:“You have one boy and one girl; you’re blessed by God. You are the luckiest. This one – showing Jack –will be harder, but he will be your great reward.” He smiled at me so deeply, it made me feel happy. I don’t know how to explain his face, but once again, this face of Islam was amazing.
I have lots of stories like that. In general, our feeling is that most Emirati people keep their customs and traditions but are so tolerant and pragmatic about them. “The Family” seems to be the higher power. Not very European if you think about it. Muslims here are welcoming and very kind. Women are proud and have such a big place in the society. They are valued. Even covered, they don’t hide, it’s quite the opposite in fact, they stand out. So that’s why I bought an Abaya. When I get to wear it, I feel stronger, it’s like my superwoman cloak. I know for many Europeans it’s completely crazy. In fact, when I first posted a picture of me in an Abaya, almost none of my friends liked it! But I guess you have to experiment it by yourself… The only regret I have is that the designer bag and shoes didn’t come with the abaya!