The Letter Home: Ash In The UAE
Since I last wrote I have moved continent once again. That’s technically three continents (Europe, Australia & Asia) now that I managed to live in within one year. Go me… or not. Depends on which way you look at it I guess.
So my time in Melbourne was unforgettable and pretty epic overall. I don’t have any regrets. I never did get to see Ayres Rock. Quite frankly after the amount of tragedy I have witnessed on Home and Away over the years when people venture into ‘the bush’, I was willing to pass. Alf Stewart would not be there to save me. Had a decent employment opportunity arisen I would still be there, and possibly planning a good chunk of my future there, possibly babies there. I am so envious of friends who are perfectly settled and now completely local. I was only ever a blow in really. One of the many who have tried their hand at being an amazing success story only to find that it’s not as easy as they make out. We didn’t even make the full year technically. I feel slightly defeated at the thought of this. It was my lack of enthusiasm/princess complex for the whole regional work thing that got us in the end. And be quite clear about this, I do not care how much craic you had in your smelly caravan picking weeds for three months, it’s just wasn’t going to be for me. I am far too lovely and prone to complaining for that kind of intense manual labour.
So having not secured sponsorship and having turned up my nose at the possibility of a second year in Australia by becoming a farmer, we needed a plan and we needed one quick. There were many factors which influenced my decision to move to the Middle East. Firstly I was offered a job. That’s always good. The whole thing happened quite quickly really; a friend who had been teaching out here had passed on a name, a fairly decorative teaching resume was forwarded, one quick telephone interview later and I was offered the position as music instructor at an international school just outside Dubai. Secondly my better half craved the green, green grass of home but he was clever enough and considerate enough to realise that I on the other hand didn’t. In fact the only thing I craved from home at that stage was a batter sausage and chips from the Roma, and between you and me (and a few untagged photos still floating around FB), after a year in Melbourne eating, it was the last thing I needed. Finally, curiosity was getting the better of me. Why not go and teach (I’m not a teacher) music (I do have a degree which helps) to primary school kids (it is a known fact amongst my nearest that I categorically hate children).
So after a lot of red tape/paperwork/frustrating emails I found myself landing in Dubai. I was pre-warned about them asking for my passport at the airport, but it was still the most nervous I’ve ever been in any country in my life. The drive was about an hour over all and the entire time I sat bolted to the passenger seat assuming I was going to be sold into the sex trade. Alas, unlucky for the punters of the UAE (and there are many), I was actually brought to a school. Ras Al Khaimah or RAK is affectionately known as the ‘armpit of the emirates’ to those living in the bright lights of Dubai. I would compare it to us cosmopolitan, hip and trendy Dubliners taking the piss out of that ‘poor lad who’s quite clearly from Ballygobackwards with the jeans up around his waist and shirt tucked in’. It’s quite a bit more rustic than Dubai, yes rustic is the word. The boom hasn’t quite hit here yet, they have no oil, and are reliant on the wealthier emirates for love and support. Overall it’s worlds apart from the expanse and over-the-top extravagance of Dubai. But I like it. We are getting a serious education in the life of the real locals here. The last figure I read was something like 90% of the population of the UAE are expats. That figure cannot be applied to RAK. But we’ve everything we need.
In regards to teaching I am finding it exhausting. Enjoyable, most of the time, but I am now quietly confident that if I was asked to go and teach in the roughest school in the Bronx, NY tomorrow morning I would be well equipped. I teach 18 different classes, approx. 600 different students a week. Music is an under resourced and unappreciated subject in the schools of the Middle East. Some of my more reluctant ten year olds have informed me that it is in fact harem (against their religious beliefs) to learn this western music. Each to their own and all that but I happen to think that Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ has a special message. I have yet to speak to a parent who would love their child to become a famous soprano and so the uphill battle continues.
Despite myself and my better judgement I have actually began to care. At first I brushed it all off, I’m here for the experience, for the few bob in bank account. Next thing I know I’m buying the little snots stickers. It’s hard not to fall in love. For every juvenile delinquent child with too many iPods and Pads than he knows what to do with, there’s ten beautiful, funny angels. The system is rote learning and constant exam assessment. Kids from age three are in school at 7.30am and collected at 3.15pm. Most will go home and study or be tutored for another three or four hours. It’s hard to agree with the system most of the time but then I didn’t come here to change the world, just to experience it. And that’s what I’m doing.
So here are some of my experiences. I have experienced a solid 100 days with only 4 minutes of rainfall. I have experienced the longest immigration line in the history of travel; two solid hours in one queue watching the lads coming and going from their tea breaks (this set the tone for the majority of customer service type encounters in the UAE). I got to experience the most amazing local Arab wedding. This was a night to remember. The women and men celebrate separately; ladies inside and gents outside. I actually witnessed the bride and groom meeting for the first time. It humbled me in some strange and indescribable way. As if I was actually a player in some spectacular Arabic fairy-tale. Funnily enough before this wedding I never quite ‘got’ arranged marriages. My ignorant presumption was that the bride would be probably dragged kicking and screaming against her wishes, (someone did joke that she was probably heavily sedated), but this was a most happy and joyous affair. Plus the groom was hot, she did really well. Imagine the awkward moment if he wasn’t.
I have experienced DisneyLand for adults: Dubai. They have literally built the most outrageous and spectacularly gaudy city in the world. Money is no object. The bigger, the better; the biggest building in the world, the biggest aquarium, the biggest gold ring. I have experienced Sandance. Think Electric Picnic except on a beach. I have experienced SkiDubai; yes, skiing in 38 degrees. What do you do if you live in a desert and have lots of money, build a ski slope. Duh! I have experienced ‘brunch’ (all you can eat and drink for an entire afternoon, starts 11.30am) and alongside this I have experienced a few of the most intense hangovers of my life but it was all worth it. I have experienced the best biryani in all the land. I’ve experienced fountains that dance. I’ve experienced a completely different way of life and culture and I am looking forward to everything that is to come.
So, signing off for now. In two short weeks, which will most definitely drag, I will be touching down in Dublin for Christmas. The festive spirit is hard to get into here where Santa does NOT exist, but we’re trying. For now we will continue to watch the Coca-Cola ad on YouTube and cry. It will be my first time home since we left for Australia. I literally cannot wait for that battered sausage and chips!
Ash McGrath is a UCD Urban and Regional Planning grad from Clondalkin, Dublin.