Hired by WHO (the World Health Organization), to implement a breastfeeding program in the United Arab Emirates, I left Vancouver thinking I was prepared for culture shock. I wasn’t.
I knew the currency was Dirhams, 80% of the country was desert, summer temperatures reached 35 – 45 or 50 degrees Celsius, long loose skirts and tops covering the shoulders were appropriate and, I knew not to eat with my left hand or sit with out-stretched legs.
And I had researched local food, traditions, especially Ramadan and was aware that photographing women or security areas was prohibited. Asalaam alakum: hello or literally, “peace be with you," was the typical greeting.
Landing in Abu Dhabi, in the middle of the night, (local time twelve hours ahead of Vancouver), I was propelled forward by a pushing mob. Exiting the air-conditioned airport, hit by a wall of intense heat, I attempted to maneuver two over-sized suitcases through masses of sweating bodies, shouting, eating or sleeping on the sidewalk.
Sweltering and exhausted, I found a man holding a sign with my name. He spoke no English, wore a sleeveless t-shirt, baggy pants and was smoking. Grunting, as I identified myself, not offering to help with my luggage, he took off. I followed having no idea where we were going.
I recall a busy freeway. Surreal, it was lined with families eating at brightly-lit picnic tables. Was two am the only cool time to be outside?
Arriving at an unlit building, the driver parked; headed to unlock the door as I struggled with my luggage. He took me to a room with a bed but missing sheets, blankets or pillow. Afraid he might return, I waited until he drove off, and secured the front door with a chain.
Hungry, thirsty and hoping to find food and bedding, I went on a search with my flashlight. There were many rooms, like mine, all stripped bare. The fridge was empty. Was this some kind of boarding school? Was everyone on holiday?
Returning to my room, I ate the caramels a Vancouver friend had given me. Was the water safe to drink? I had no idea. Wearing the clothes I had worn for 36 hours, I made a pillow from a sweater and curled up on a plastic covered mattress wondering what would happen next.
Banging on the front door woke me. It was the same man. He had a sign reading: “Ministry of Health”. That made sense, I had been hired by the Ministry.
He gestured for me to get into his car. As he leaned on his horn, veered in and out of traffic, I got my first look at Abu Dhabi’s imposing government buildings, enticing cornice and sparkling azure water of the Persian Gulf.
At the office of the Ministry of Health Director, an Emirati woman, wearing a long, black, shapeless abaya and black shela, (headscarf ) greeted me. Thankfully, I could see her face and she spoke English. Against my objections, she insisted on keeping my passport and wanted the twenty extra passport photos I had been told to bring to the Emirates.
Finally, with my photos and signature in place on the many documents, I got back into the car and the driver headed two hours inland. A bell rang every time he exceeded the speed limit, (which was most of the time). He chain-smoked the whole way.
He took me to the house where I would reside during my stay, a spacious home built on the sand. It had three bathrooms, and three bedrooms. The living room had no table, chairs, or chesterfield. I remembered that Arabs sit on the floor.
Aircon, as the air conditioner was called, was in every room except the kitchen. Instead of aircon there was an open hole. Pigeons roosted above; their feathers and poo littering the kitchen floor.
Water was piped to a reservoir under the garage, then pumped to a roof tank. Scalding water came out the cold water faucet. I learned to fill the bathtub before leaving for work. By the time I returned home, the temperature was perfect for a bath. Showers were out of the question.
As it was too hot to walk to work and there were no buses, I took taxis. Unlike Vancouver, there were no road signs, no numbers on buildings; no mountains to know which direction was north. I sat in the front seat trying to figure out where we were going.
That was a mistake. The driver’s hand moved into my lap. Giving him a disgusted look, I removed it. He gave a toothless grin.
A friend gave me instructions for ‘next’ time, “Sit in the back, on the right side.” “If the driver reaches to touch you, get out at a stop sign; leave the door open. The driver has to get out, walk around his taxi, to close the door. Everyone will know what he has been up to.”
A large multi-disciplinary hospital and outpatient polyclinics sat on a sprawling property. The Director of Nursing, responsible for all areas, had a staff of 1500. Eight of us were western.
Doctors, (some had bought their degree off the internet), were told they must attend my classes or forfeit their holidays. Thirty signed in for the first class. Their “bleeps,” (pagers), immediately started ringing. Most of them left saying, “Sorry miss, I have to go”.
Retuning the next day, I told them, “I have a ten question quiz; if you get 70% you don’t need to attend further classes”. They all failed. They said they wanted to come to class. I’m not sure of their reasons for staying but word, ‘was out’, they had heard I had slides of women’s breasts.
Male doctors weren’t allowed to see women’s bodies. The head obstetrician, (male), stood outside the curtain while a female doctor examined his patient. Male doctors saw women’s bodies if under anaesthetic during surgery. I expect that husbands, locked out of the delivery area, would be horrified to know that males viewed their wives in the OR.
Formula company reps were not allowed on the maternity ward. One ducked into a cleaning closet when he saw me. As the Staff watched, I escorted him off the hospital premises. Neither he, nor any other rep came on the ward again.
To get groceries, I needed to cross a very dangerous road called, “Suicide Alley." I had a cloth bag but the clerk never understood why. He put my groceries in my bag, then put my bag into a blue plastic one. Blue plastic bags were impaled on acacia trees around Emirati shops; hence the trees were called, “The Blue Trees.”
The post office was huge; likely 15 wickets and long line-ups from wicket to door. The only woman, I took my place at the end of a line but was hurriedly hustled to the front. I thought, “How polite.” My friend laughed when I told my story. She said, “The men weren’t being polite, they just didn’t want to get excited by a woman.” “Moi?”
Many of my hospital experiences were eye-opening, antiquated.
Men in protective clothing, sprayed the occupied hospital rooms with pesticide to kill cockroaches. Market vegetables were sprayed with DDT.
Circumcision was routine at birth for boys and for girls at puberty. I witnessed the horrors of female mutilation during birthing.
Boys of four or five, who were sold as jockeys to race camels, wore no helmets, and frequently experienced serious head injuries or worse.
Public executions by stoning were legal under Sharia law.
Honour killings occurred. Young girls were brought to emergency, DOA. I requested the Minister of Health statistics of “unexplained” deaths. No statistics were kept.
Women from other countries were, not infrequently, raped by their Emirati employers. If pregnant, they were jailed and flogged. When in labour, ankles shackled, they were taken to hospital. After delivery, the baby, considered an Emirati orphan, was taken away, (unless the father wanted the child, which was extremely rare).
New mothers, chained to hospital beds could go to the bathroom only when a jailer occasionally came with a key. After a few days the women, without their babies, were returned to jail; further flogged and months later sent back to their own country.
Using the Koran’s edict: “all babies must be breastfed for two years," I got permission for mothers, (if they wanted), to keep their baby in jail. Custodians, excited babies would be in their facility, collected clothes, cribs, toys and decorated the walls like a nursery. Mothers with babies were treated well and quickly sent back to their own countries.
After three years, I notified the Ministry of Health that the hospital was ready for WHO (World Health Organization) accreditation and I prepared to go home to Canada.
Despite sitting for hours in the housing department, I never did get a kitchen aircon; pigeon poop and feathers still blew in. The promise was always the same: “Tomorrow, Enshalla.” (God willing). It seems God was never willing.
Harder to understand was the onerous leaving process. I was told I had to move out of my house a month prior to providing my leaving date. The reason? I might leave without paying my final telephone bill.
When I first arrived in the UAE I had met and had tea with the Minister of Health, an Emirati Sheik. He had asked what I needed. I said, “My passport”. It was unusual, but thankfully he returned it to me. Without my passport I could not leave the Emirates.
Due my final cheque and a bonus, I learned, from others who had tried to navigate the system, cheques took weeks to be processed. If you left without your cheque, it would never be mailed. If you waited for it, there was a 100 Dirham, (about $50 Canadian), for each day, over-stayed in the country.
Grateful for the opportunity to learn about the Emirates, I had amazing adventures exploring and camping, loved her people, sand dunes, wadis, date trees, flowers, food and especially the camels. But I never adjusted to the culture.
Secretly, I booked my flight and fled back to Canada.
If You Go:
Photographs by: Renee Hefti–Graham
Renee, a Canadian Registered Nurse, was the first Lactation Consultant, (1996 – 2000), hired by WHO (World Health Organization), to work in the United Arab Emirates. When someone important died in the Middle East, consultants were given time off, sometimes up to one week. Travel was very inexpensive. She travelled extensively in the Middle East, visiting Oman, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, India, Turkey, Kenya and the Maldives/