17th May 2021
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Of Life in Dubai

living in Dubai
By Anna Tompkins

I spent just over a year living in Dubai, UAE in 2017 for work. With that, I thought I could perhaps impart some non-theatrical experiences I had there as a solo female expat. So if you’re thinking about moving there someday, planning a long vacation (not anytime soon of course since the country is still mostly closed), or you would like to find some humor, here’s a few observations I made during life in Dubai.

1. Clothing

I think it goes without saying that when most westerners think of the Middle East they immediately picture burkas and head wraps. While that may be factual in some regions, expatriates and travelers in Dubai will find that it is the most liberal of nations in this regard. As it is a hot and dry climate it has made practical sense over generations for the locals to adorn themselves in long, loose and light fabrics. This serves to protect against the sun’s rays as well as against the occasional sandstorm (true story: being sandblasted hurts!) and to maintain local religious modesty. Does this mean that you need to wrap up in sheets before you go out? No. The general rule in most areas, for men and women, is to keep your shoulders to your knees covered. Unless you’re at the beach where normal swim attire is perfectly acceptable.

In general I had no issue following this and often wore tank tops and shorter shorts out in public like a true rebel, with maybe a few stares. There was this one time that I walked into a mall about a month into my stay, headed to the IKEA, and accidentally strolled right into a cultural ceremony in progress. Sensing almost immediately that I did not blend in among the throng of black and white native garb, I was confronted by two men in suits who curtly asked me to leave and cover up. Not really a surprise. So following along, I went back to the car, grabbed a jacket and went back inside to carry on shopping with no further problem.
As it happens, the air conditioning in most buildings is so intense that you would want to have a parka on hand to prevent hypothermia, so I was alright with the jacket. It’s also a good idea to keep a scarf on hand to maintain temperature, politeness and to prevent the occasional unintended exfoliation from the outdoor winds. I guess it’s also good now for a temporary face mask.

2. Pink Taxis

This is something that I had never thought would ever be a thing, but there are separate taxis available in the UAE for women and children that employ female drivers. I would imagine that this was for the solo female that would not generally find it acceptable to be alone in a car with a man. I had managed to avoid using these as they were a bit harder to come by on the road (though you could call ahead and order them) and because, you know, equality. I just felt like I should be able to get into whatever taxi I wanted to on principle. And of course, for the most part that wasn’t a problem, but on at least three separate occasions I got turned down by taxi drivers because I was a solo female (their words, not mine).

The one time I did use this feature was while leaving the airport after a vacation. It was around 1am and the queue for the standard taxi was at least a 45 minute wait. So being exhausted after a 24 hour journey and having not slept, I am not ashamed to say I played the woman card, smirked at the ginormous line of smelly men and promenaded my female lady self to the glowing pink minivan of freedom.

As a side note, the metro also reserves two cars on the trains for women and children. I absolutely used these! They were significantly less crowded and did not reek of diverse Dubai sweat and odor.

3. The Gender Confusion Conundrum

To be clear, I am very much a she/her/hers kind of gal, but before I moved to Dubai I opted on a very short hair cut, almost a Bieber look, very boy-ish. See, I had done some reading ahead of time and learned that the water there can be very harsh on the hair and that the sun and sand, mixed with the likelihood of chronic dehydration (because desert) would not constitute appropriate hair health. So, cherishing my beautiful hair, I cut it off. Which, like so many other things, was generally OK, certainly more aerodynamic.

That is until I got called “Sir” my first week there. Then again until in almost 75% of my interactions that whole year I was addressed as “Excuse me, Sir” “Hello Sir, can I help you” “Thank you Sir!”. While they were staring right at me! Even now I find it difficult to believe that my female woman self was so hard to miss. True, I was not wearing dresses often and I’m not a make-up person, but I am not formless either! I don’t suppose this should really have bothered me, but I was known to politely interrupt with a “That’s Ma’am” or a more irritated “Actually, I’m a lady and yes, I do want 4 scoops of ice cream!!” Eventually, I came to accept that I probably just looked weird to them and carried on. For those concerned, my hair has now grown out as lusciously as ever and even impresses me with its natural wonder, likely to never be cut so short again. For now.

4. Gas Stations

The United Arab Emirates as well as many of its neighboring countries have made a name for themselves on the discovery of oil in the last century. So in my mind, it wouldn’t be too far off to presume that gasoline was relatively inexpensive and easy to come by. Incorrect Anna, incorrect. In fact, I quickly learned that having a gas station at every other corner is not the norm (as it is back home) and that rates were easily twice that of the USA. This also meant that it wasn’t unusual at the time to wait in long lines out to the street to fill up, which was just something you learned to factor into your days.

Petrol stations there are also full service (someone else pumps your gas), which as an American in the South is just straight up weird to me. Even weirder was the prevalence of individuals that did not turn off their cars while gas was pumping. This was one of the biggest culture shocks for me and I, for the longest time, religiously powered off my vehicle before allowing it to be filled. But when summer came and the temperature started moving up to 46 C [read: stupid hot] you bet your sweet bippy I kept that AC humming on High. Gas explosions be damned! I almost did it the other day actually and had to berate myself for endangering the Florida populace for my near-blunder.

5. GPS

With the long awaited arrival of the World Expo, now moved to October 2021, Dubai had set off years prior preparing the city for the world to accept its opulence and splendor, meaning construction. A lot of construction. It was not unusual for an armada of cranes and lorries to effectively divert traffic and roads at the most inconvenient of places and times. Knowing that if you missed a turn, it would take and extra 10km to get back on track (that is a completely non-scientific observational anecdote that has some basis in fact). Neither was it odd to question whether the haze in the air was a natural formation of fine sand or just some floating carcinogen surely to stick to your lungs and obscure your vision. Or to find out that the slipways were flooded during the winter storms. So you learn to keep your GPS on at all times. Just going to work you say? Well, you’re gonna learn that there are about 12 ways there from your house. Add at least a half hour for a normal trip because you will for sure not arrive on time otherwise. I found that the Waze app was the most up to date and functional at the time.

While we’re on cars, I found that desert off-roading was a lovely way to spend weekends with the bros. Just be sure to bring extra gas and not to offend the locals by driving through a camel train, that’s rude.

Naturally there were many more experiences that were had, so, another time.

Also by Anna Tompkins:

Show Creation: A Rigger’s Guide – Part 1

Acrobatic Rigger: Explaining My Career

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