United Arab Emirates: Thanks for the Memories!

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‘Assamalaikum, Welcome to Abu Dhabi!’

It was December 2005.  I can still clearly remember those  welcome remarks upon setting foot in this Arab city.   I was standing in front of an immigration officer, waiting quietly as he inspected my passport. My then 8 month old daughter was snuggled close to my chest,  and the weight of the baby bag hung heavily on my shoulder.  I’ve heard about ‘horror’ stories happening in airports in the Middle East, where people were detained or imprisoned for some vague, undisclosed reasons.  And there I was, suddenly afraid, wishing that my husband was with me.  (He and my eldest daughter went two weeks ahead.)  Perhaps it was because of the long, 8 hour direct flight that suddenly got me paranoid.  I was holding a diplomatic passport, for god’s sake, I reminded myself. And I was informed by my husband that a protocol officer from our embassy was going to be there, to make our arrival at the airport a bit easier.

But no sign of the protocol officer.   I was very exhausted at that point, and still the immigration officer was carefully scrutinizing my passport, and my daughter’s too. Maybe he was looking for something, anything that would make him say, ‘Aha,  fake passports!  Off with your heads!’  That would seem likely at that time, given that I didn’t look the least bit ‘diplomatic’ upon arrival.  There were dark circles under my eyes because my baby did not allow me to sleep on the plane.  I have barely combed my hair, forgot to powder my nose.  And my clothes were crumpled in all the right places. (Good thing I was able to chew some breath mints!)  Yes, you could say that I had a terrible flight.

“Enjoy your stay in Abu Dhabi, madame,” he said at last as he returned our passports.

Finally got through Immigration.   I saw my husband at the waiting area, wearing a crisp white linen shirt.  Yeah, I can recognize him from anywhere. Even from a distance, even in a crowd.  He saw us and smiled.   I think we were both relieved that at last our family were all together.

Oh, and the protocol officer?  He was finally there! My heart skipped with unexplainable joy.

He mumbled something like an apology and an explanation that  he was really looking for us inside the terminal. Maybe we have overlooked each other’s presence, yes? Like a proper lady who was too weary to care, I accepted it all with graciousness.

As we drove past the airport, amidst sand, date trees and expansive roads, I saw the city looming large and cosmopolitan in front of me, like an expensive jewel, glittering in the sun.  This will be home for the next six years. A mix  of emotions surged inside me.  Joy.  Fear.  Panic.  Anticipation.   Of the future.  Of the unknown.

“…living abroad is a trip that will profoundly change your life and who you are.  It will shake up your roots, your certainties and your fears.  Maybe you won’t realize it, or even believe it…but after some time, one day you’ll see it crystal clear.  You’ve evolved, you’ve got scars, you’ve lived.  You’ve changed.” – Angie Castells

Fast forward to November 2011.   A lot of things happened in those six years.  There were lots of flag raising and diplomatic receptions which required our attendance, as well as cultural shows and community events.  Learned how to dress like somebody important, though of course I wouldn’t have done any of that stuff if it was not really necessary.

I was working full time again. Made plenty  of good friends too. Awesome people I would have missed the chance of knowing if I have not stayed.

Pregnancy came for the third time as well – after we have decided long ago that two beautiful daughters were enough. And it was going to be a boy!

Despite recurring bouts of homesickness, a slow acceptance to the strange Emirati culture had began to grow. They were a peculiar lot – all of them, with their hijabs and kandurahs. And their driving was infuriating most of all.

We had a hard time admitting it but, well, the host country became home at last.

Then it was time to say goodbye.

What have I learned from all of these?  That living the foreign service life is exactly like living in a suitcase.  You go from one country to the next with no sense of permanency, only a sense of here and now, of living in the moment, whilst nurturing and building your hopes and dreams for the future.  You get to leave behind everything, yet at the same time carry them with you, in your heart, everywhere you go.  Like accompanied baggage, more or less.

“…Home is the person traveling with you, the people you leave behind, the streets where your life takes place. Home is also the random stuff in your new flat, those things you’ll get rid of in the blink of an eye when the time to leave comes. Home is all those memories, all those long-distance calls with your family and friends, a bunch of pictures. Home is where the heart is.”  – Angie Castells

And to you, Abu Dhabi, my heartfelt thanks for the lovely memories.  Like a good friend, a lover, a family member, you are sorely and immeasurably missed!

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