As soon as signing my contract to work in the UAE, I went into research mode. I started reading everything I could to learn about the area and more importantly, about the culture. http://ask-ali.com/ was my first stop. And the most pressing question/concern I had was about Islam, or Muslim. According to Ali, Islam is the name of the religion and is derived from two words meaning “Peace and Submission”. The teaching is that Peace is only found by submitting to God (or Allah) in heart, soul, and deed.
And Muslims are the people who practice Islam. Muslims live according to Five Islamic Pillars: declaring Allah as their only God, performing five daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, donating 2.5% of their earnings, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). If you think about it, it’s probably pretty much the same as your own religion.
Still, there was a sense of fear that shadowed me as I entered the Middle East. How could there not be with the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media? But I soon realized the ignorance that had veiled my thoughts.
The Muslims that I worked with and met on a daily basis were kind-hearted and welcomed Westerners with open arms. They are as curious about us with our exposed hair as we are about them with their covered face.
Are there Muslims that you can encounter that you think are sweet, but underneath lies an evil and demented terrorist? Of course. But growing up, Father Chris was the most liked and charismatic priest at our school, and turns out he had been molesting innocent boys for years. So believing that every Muslims is a terrorist is believing that every priest is a pedophile or every Mormon is a polygamist. It’s stereotyping and racist…and like I was; ignorant. There are people in every race and religion that are bad seeds; but it does not define the whole and it should not shape your beliefs.
The first time I encountered a Muslim woman in the bathroom, I was standoffish and closed. I will admit the full black abaya and hijab revealing only her eyes was daunting for me. But after numerous encounters, I learned that smiling and greeting with a “Salaam Alaykum” always warranted an “Alaykum Salaam” and a huge smile (with her eyes, of course).
Holidays, or as Americans call them, vacations, were something I never quite figured out. Although, I don’t think there is anything to figure out since they change daily in the UAE. A “school calendar” is a “suggestion” of work days and holidays. More than once, the calendar would change just days before a scheduled holiday.
For example, if an Eid holiday was scheduled for a Wednesday, about a week before, the Muslims would start chattering that it might change depending on the moon cycle. How they could not figure out the full moon cycle, I do not know. I thought there was a calendar for that. But, alas, it was never quite clear.
Then about five days before scheduled holiday, there would be rumors of the Sheikh possibly declaring a holiday for the Tuesday before. And then that didn’t make sense to work Sunday, Monday, have Tuesday, Wednesday off, and return to work for Thursday, so then the rumor would start that we might have Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off (our work weeks ran Sunday-Thursday). One time this happened, a 1-day scheduled holiday turned into a week-long holiday. The only problem with it was, we learned about it only two days before, so many flights and plans had to be changed at the last minute. We would learn of the changes via text from Sheikh Khalifa along with a Happy Eid message.
Many other unscheduled “holidays” would pop up at the last minute. One, not so much a holiday, was on the death of Sheikh Zayad when the whole country was given time off for mourning (this was before I got there). But another was when Dubai was awarded the 2020 World Fair bid. A text/email came out from the Sheikh telling of the WIN at about 10:30 pm one evening and declaring the whole country off the next day to celebrate! I was lucky to have checked my emails late that night or I would have shown up to a closed campus (as many teachers did).