Diaspora Feature Story

Only in the United Arab Emirates, perhaps.

kleo desert quipsI LOVE driving. I do a lot of it. Every day.

On these drives, I notice things and  wonder about a lot and contemplate on others. Some things make me laugh and in rare instances when I get upset and angry, sad. There is always something to wonder about when I go wandering in my trusty Ford.

I love the roads of the United Arab Emirates; they are, perhaps, some of the best maintained and some of the widest roads in the world. It has been reported last month that the 12 lanes of Emirates Road, a.k.a. the Dubai Bypass Road will be expanded to a total of 14 lanes soon. Fact is, even with the present 12 lanes, it is chock a block there during rush hour and evenings when lorries are allowed to transport goods from different parts of the emirates and from neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Oman.

To me, it is amusing to see that during these jams, vehicles mostly driven by locals going to the Eastern Region start moving out of the highway and like ants make their way onto paths carved by 4WD tyres on the desert sands. It is a beautiful sight how the lights gleam in the dark, moving as the sand disturbed by wheels rise, screening the cause of the ascent. It is not only the roads, though, but things I see on the road that inspire musings even to my tepid mind. Drivers on these roads? Uhhrm… “inspire” is not a word, I’m afraid I can bring into play right now to describe the same. Some other time, most probably.

Let me introduce to you the Arab world (or a tiny piece of it) as I see it, most of them while behind the wheel; The observations I am going to share could be endemic to UAE or most probably to this Asian section called the Middle East. Some had been noted before, others, well…

I KNOW I AM IN THE MIDDLE EAST, UAE SPECIFICALLY, WHEN…

… I look out of the window from an aircraft that is landing in a few minutes and I see dark lines on the desert below going on as if endlessly, like serpents looking for prey.

These are fence boundaries separating the desert from the roads. They are supposed to (at least) control the shift of sand during wind and/or sand storms from covering tar roads and other infrastructure. They also protect desert animals like camels from wandering on to the roads that could endanger both man and beast alike.

… I pass by air-conditioned bus stops.

In 2008, Dubai became the first city in the world to have these “shelters” or bus stops that had been installed with air-conditioning units. There are around 400 bus stops, at the time; only 150 were air-conditioned due to connectivity. The solar power system had been looked into to solve this issue to make sure that all bus stops will not turn out like furnaces during summer months. Other emirates are also enjoying similar facilities, why, I just saw one in Fujairah this week and got all excited about it!

… I never stop getting amazed at the sight of luxury cars parked on the road side (like they don’t cost much to have!)

The locals whether in the UAE, Bahrain, KSA and the rest in Middle East generally veer towards the most luxurious; why not? The standard of living is high. In other words, they could very well afford these extremely expensive cars. Do they love cars in this part of the world? Heck, yes! Even if they love their really handsome cars though, they don’t seem to mind parking them in front of their houses just on the road, not the garages. Here in Fujairah, I drool looking at that pink Lamborghini parked on the road all the time as if it does not deserve a special parking space! Some sort of exhibitionism one might say. Then what? I am the voyeur?

… I am behind 2 cars moving at snail pace because the car occupants are chatting (most probably about football results that they both watched anyway…together!)

If you happen to be on the road and realize that you have slowed down without really planning to, (Congratulations! More so if you’re on a 2 lane road and you can’t overtake), then you realize that the cars in front of you are moving at 20 kph because they have something rather ‘urgent’ to talk about (like “you should try the biryani in this so and so restaurant), or the drivers are friends who haven’t seen each other for some time; their shutters down and the drivers, passengers included too, could be heard happily greeting each other, telling each other jokes, even some news they couldn’t wait to tell each other.

Makes you wonder what they use their iPhones, Samsungs and other costly gadgets for. Sometimes though, it is just two youngsters talking from separate vehicles, at a speed enough for them to either exchange numbers or the male begging for the female to give him her number. When situations get too desperate because the prospect would not share her number, one would see a tiny piece of paper that Ahmed or Abdulla would painstakingly try to reach out and hand over to the lady in the other car. The giggling girls would open the small note bearing the boy’s number/s, who knows maybe one of the girls might actually call him! Good luck to that.

Nothing to worry about though, they usually move to the side of the road when they notice you’re behind them. Look back and you’ll see them alighting from their vehicles to continue with their conversation (except in the case of the boy wanting that phone number). Again, makes you wonder why they didn’t do that in the first place. I’m sure if you stalk behind some of these cars, you might just find out they are actually neighbors who live on the same side of a street! At first, some might find it annoying; I call it cultural, got so used to it that I don’t even mind waiting behind anymore. Usually, I end up smiling when I see their excited faces as they exchange their “salaam” (greeting of peace) and “masaalama” (good bye) if I’m patient enough to wait behind them, definitely not expecting any speed fines.

… my kids excitedly call my attention because there is a lion ( a tiger or a cheetah) in the other car!

I’m not going to tackle regulations here, nor the morality in keeping wild animals as pets. Just saying that “wild pets” has become some sort of a status symbol in these parts and it is not surprising anymore to come across a 4 legged wild animal at the passenger seat of a Ferrari!

…I chuckle at the black doughnut artwork on the road made by squealing tyres.

You’re not in Daytona or Indianapolis; you’re not in a Formula 1 race track, you still might smell the burning rubber if you chance upon one, you get to see the markings on the roads! The previous night’s reveller’s masterpiece! Young Arabs have the penchant to demonstrate their driving skills with peers on roads not frequented by the local police. They screech and turn; they drift and burn, making doughnuts on the road. Someone has been enjoying and some tyre shop will be earning more!

… I repeatedly ask myself, “What’s with the roundabouts?”

I have not seen so much love for the R/A like that of the gulf countries. There are roundabouts everywhere; in sizes big or small. Most of them with giant Arabic motifs from kitchen implements to war time trappings meant to remind everyone of one with such significance; in every respect symbolical. Some are huge enough for people to mistake them for parks (or that is really of dual purpose?) Ever wonder why you’re on the road driving when there’s more room on the roundabouts?

… I check several gulf country maps and they bear at least one Corniche (Road) on ALL of them?

Check it if you must, most if not all countries in this region bear the word, “Corniche” (meaning “A road that winds along the side of a steep coast or cliff”) on their maps. It seems irrelevant that most are not on a steep coast or cliff. Beach road – Corniche. The road along the coast – Corniche. If there is sea water and a road beside it – Corniche. Most establishments found in the area would be called something with “Corniche” attached to it to denote the location. Case in point, Al Corniche Hodeida, Yemen; Al Corniche Club, Kuwait; Jeddah Corniche Towers, KSA; Corniche Maternity Hospital, UAE; Muttrah Corniche, Oman; the list goes on.

… I pass by neighborhoods and count the number of houses with wooden benches by the gate outside the perimeter walls.

Arab men love to spend time with their fellows either in the majlis (Sitting rooms where male members of the family usually receive their male visitors. Typically built separate from the areas of the house or compound inhabited by the women to preserve their privacy) or their tall wooden benches outside. Sunset and cooler afternoons will find men and boys converging in these spots where the benches are to engage in serious talks or simply to banter about their daily lives.

… I marvel at the amount of houses with metal water taps outside their concrete walls.

Muslims perform sadaqah (acts of charity) in many ways. It is said that the best form though is giving someone water to drink. As such, Muslim families in the UAE and other Islamic states, offer sabeel (roughly translates as ‘continuous flow of water’) to strangers, travelers, street workers and others by installing metal water dispensers outside the fence of their villas. Construction workers from nearby sites could be seen carrying jugs to fetch and partake of this cooled water that otherwise they would have to pay for from shops. It is remarkable to point that I haven’t seen any of these water taps tampered or abused in any way; perhaps a manner of gratefulness defined.

Kleo Hernandez-Kannangara
Kleo has a Communication Arts degree from the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines which she earned in 1986. She lives in the United Arab Emirates and is married to a Sri Lankan. She has four children, all of whom were born at the UAE. She describes her self as a “stay-at-home mom” who’s always on the road doing errands for everyone, and an “inspirational’ writer which according to her means "I write when inspired by a person, place or event."

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