Another short trip to see my husband is fast coming to its dreaded close. Despite being our fifth such trip, it is significant in that it is our first trip together to the Middle East. Being desperate to see one another after a rough few months, we did something very few people would recommend and spent 2 weeks in Dubai at the beginning of the scorching Arab summer. Granted, it took a long time to convince my husband to allow us to meet in the Gulf at all due to his total aversion to it (too hot and too little to do – his words, not mine) but although there was some truth in his complaints, it still proved to be a valuable experience. Half of Saudi Arabia and a sizeable portion of other Gulfies/Khaleeji’s even did us the honour of joining us in our mall-hopping and food court feeding frenzies, providing me with many satisfying and educational hours of people-watching. The natural result of this however was the re-emergence of my unfortunate tendency to put Khaleeji women on a pedestal which inevitably leaves me feeling like a massively incapable dork.
One of the ways this came to the fore was through the hijab. Having become a ‘full time’ hijabi the day prior to my departure for Dubai, I was still in the heart of the storm they call ‘hijab styling.’ This meant that in my first few days of the trip I spent at least one incredibly frustrating hour in front of the mirror wrapping and unwrapping, pinning and unpinning and pricking my fingers countless times until I was satisfied that all that needed to be covered was covered and I looked somewhat presentable. But at some point throughout the subsequent outing my careful emulation of the oh-so-chic chin-covering khaleeji style would rebel against me, often partly unravelling and hanging at all sorts of awkward angles, or as in one particularly unnerving incident, falling to reveal a zigzag of pins, their sharp ends pointing skyward from the top of my head making me look like some sort of bizarre Muslim hedgehog. To add insult to injury, all this takes place while I am surrounded by Khaleeji women who all seem to have mastered the art of effortlessly and seemingly pinlessly (yes, it warrants a new word) wrapping the black shayla scarf so that it perfectly frames their face and falls in glamorous drapes at their neck.
Temporarily giving up on my hijab styling abilities, I moved on to the rest of my outfit. As much as I loathe shopping I did not want to pass up the rare opportunity to buy a relatively cheap and classy Khaleeji style abaya while in Dubai so when we came across displays of abayas in Old Dubai I braved the inevitable pushy sales act and had a look. Consistent with my past experiences of shopping in the Middle East and Arab areas elsewhere, 99% of the abayas on display were covered in gaudy details such as huge colourful frills and lace and/or plastered in copious amounts of sequins and diamantes. Miraculously, I managed to find a black abaya with marginally acceptable levels of bling (read: black diamantes) and bought the size the Pakistani salesman’s alleged years of experience dictated would fit me. The first time I actually tried on the abaya was the next day when I wore it out, only to discover that, although it was technically the ‘right’ size, it was far from the fashionably long style favoured by the face-painted khaleeji fashionistas who slowly tottered on sky high heels through the malls, their coifs jutting out the front of their shaylas. Instead, it completely exposed the black socks and bulky black and purple Target joggers I wore underneath resulting in my bearing an alarming resemblance to a particularly sporty Turkish grandmother – not quite what I was going for.
If my outfit didn’t give me away as a total rookie to the urban Khaleeji scene, my complete lack of insider knowledge of prayer room etiquette did. My first encounter involved me walking in to the mall prayer room only to realise that without other people praying I had no idea how to figure out where the mihrab (direction for prayer i.e. Makkah) was. Not wanting to expose my ignorance, instead of asking one of the sisters for help I simply panicked and made a quick exit. I met my husband outside where I proceeded to have a nervous breakdown which swiftly morphed into a tantrum whereupon I refused ever to enter that accursed room again and insisted on a hasty return to our hotel room. This unsavoury incident resulted in husband letting me in on the valuable insider knowledge that the area with the narrowest triangle of carpet is the space from where the imam leads the prayer and is therefore an indication of the mihrab (prayer direction). With this newfound know-how I slowly became more comfortable with praying outside the home until an unfortunate deviation from the normal carpet pattern at the prayer rooms of the Emirates Palace threw me off and I had to face my fears and ask the 2 khaleeji girls lounging around on the carpet where the mihrab was. Naturally I assumed the giggles which followed as I prayed were aimed at me, the silly white girl who thought she was Muslim but didn’t even know how to find the mihrab. I wanted to tell them that where I’m from it is very difficult to find a proper place to pray so I usually have to pray in places like fitting rooms in clothing stores where there is definitely no indication for the mihrab so I am unaccustomed to using a proper musalla. But I kept that to myself because even I know I am just hopelessly neurotic…