Every expat who lives in the Middle East has a different experience especially depending on where you live. For those who don’t know and are too shy to admit it, the Middle East is a fluid and loose term used to refer to Arabic-speaking countries such as Syria, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and of course the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) countries which are: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. Egypt is sometimes referred to as part of the Middle East due to their predominantly Muslim, Arabic- speaking population but of course, geographically they are in Africa. However, I digress. When Bee and I were in Sri Lanka, we sat at a beachside bar, watching the waves, sipping mocktails and thinking about how life in the Middle East has changed us after a mere 5 months. I am sure some others out there can relate to a few of these:
That’s a lot of skin!
Being from a beach city, I almost never wore long pants and you could always find me in strappy tops. Even work attire was relatively relaxed and women would comfortably wear skirts or dresses that showed off their legs or arms. It was a norm considering the heat and humidity. Now, after living in Kuwait, the thought of wearing SHORT SLEEVES to work horrifies me. Wearing shorts to a mall? No way! And strappy tops… maybe only to the gym and even then, I would have something to slip over my shoulders once leaving. Although these restrictions are not imposed upon me, a respect for the culture and religion means I have become accustomed to dressing in a more modest manner.
When Bee and I were watching the Gilmore Girls Revivial episodes (don’t even ask me how I felt about those), Rory came on screen wearing skirt that was mid-thigh in length. There was nothing trashy about it AT ALL (after all, it’s Rory!) but we both exclaimed, “Wow that’s a lot of skin!”, then looked at each other and laughed. When we arrived in Sri Lanka, on our first day out, I put on shorts and stepped outside, it felt weird; and I stopped myself several times during the first day and wondered why I felt so exposed… then I remembered that I wasn’t in the GCC anymore. Suddenly things that seemed so normal back home have become so strange now!
Yalla is the new YOLO
Every culture has those certain words or phrases that saturate 90% of conversations and the Middle East is no different. When you first arrive, you can’t understand how people are throwing Arabic words in the middle of English sentences and expecting you to make sense of what they’re saying. For example:
“Inshallah your order will be delivered tomorrow.”
“I am doing well ahumdulillah.”
“Habeebi! Where is the food?”
“Drive in your lane! Yalla habeebti!”
First it is odd, then its annoying but after a while, you’re in a hotel room in Sri Lanka arguing with a Sri Lankan man and saying, “Khalas habeebi, I am done with this issue!”. The best is when I hear Bee shouting, “Yalla, yalla!” while she is driving and trying to change lanes on the chaotic Kuwaiti roads… the combination of her white skin and Arabic peppered with her European accent never fails to make me smile. If you’re new in the Middle East don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time… inshallah!
The azaan is a suitable way to tell the time
In the Middle East, there are mosques every few streets. Even in seemingly culture-less Dubai there are still mosques pretty much everywhere. You can hear the azaan (call to prayer) 5 times a day like clockwork; sometimes simultaneously from different mosques, if you live in between two suburbs. At first, you wake up with the first call to morning prayer and you feel annoyed that its woken you up. A few weeks pass and you realize that you’ve slept right through it. And then one day you wake up before your alarm, hear the call to prayer and feel content because it means you aren’t late for work.
You plan your afternoon naps by the afternoon call to prayer and schedule your get-togethers for after the evening prayer when the city comes alive. When you’ve been out of the Middle East for a few weeks, you may not even notice the lack of azaan; but I can assure you then when you return, you will hear it and breathe a sigh of contentment because that means you’re back where you belong!
4. As you evolve, so do your interests
Maybe back home you would go for a few drinks at your local watering hole every Friday after work. Now, you aren’t working on a Friday and anyway, getting your hands on liquor requires a bit more planning and expense than just popping down to your local bar. So you’ve swapped whiskey for shisha; hot dogs have become shawarmas; milkshakes have been swapped for Arabic tea/coffee (something you didn’t even like the taste of when you first arrived) and now a weekend trip doesn’t mean an hour drive north of your province to go dolphin watching; it means a quick flight to sunny Bahrain.
Try as you might, you cannot do things exactly the way you did back home purely because the culture is so different. I’ve seen people holding on so tightly; grasping fiercely with both hands to the lifestyle they had cultivated in their home country. Predictably, it ends in exasperation. I have found it far easier to adapt and embrace the local pursuits… they’re actually quite wonderful (and tasty)!
I am inundated with questions about what life is really like in the Gulf. I’m glad that people are still asking questions like this, trying to learn more. The amount of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment out there now is incredibly shocking. Yes, there is oppression in the Middle East. Oppression is also found in Africa, Europe, wherever you go – wherever you aren’t free to express yourself the way you want to. Obviously, this doesn’t include bombings and killings, but it does include dress, language, lifestyle or whatever floats your boat.
In the Middle East you get a huge range of cultures, mentalities, and conservativeness, but you have almost complete freedom to choose where you fall on that spectrum. You’ll see everything from groups of guys and girls at the movies to women in abayas going shopping together.
No one stops me from wearing or doing anything I want to do, especially as a woman. I have my own bank account. I hang out with both male and female friends. I can drive, work, stay at home, anything. As I said earlier, partly out of respect for the national religion and culture, I keep my clothing modest when out in public to avoid getting funny looks or offend anyone.
Its been 5 months since I arrived in Kuwait and this is just a small taste of what you can expect when you move to this side of the world. Come with an open mind and be willing to change if you want to enjoy your time here in the Gulf. Perhaps I can add to this list when I finish my contract here in Kuwait! Please feel free to share your Middle Eastern experiences with me… readers I ADORE your questions and comments. It is YOU who inspires my posts and motivates me to keep writing!