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Letter From Arabia - Cultural Misunderstandings

April 11, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 103

The highly perfumed lady dressed in full burqa with black sequinned gloves (Michael Jackson fan?) invaded the showroom sales manager's personal zone, rubbing against him and questioning, "Do you remember me?" It was the customer's personal joke that she playfully used to address my colleague as he could not see her. Given the strict non-contact code between the sexes, it was not a joke he wished to entertain for fear of any misunderstanding and subsequent body-chopping penalty. She was a member of the ruling family and an importance influencer in that social sphere....and also in the purchase of fittings for their villas being refurbished. Can you flirt in that situation? Chancy. Do you go along with the game and get the sale? Difficult. Not all, but other traditionally dressed women would visit in the day-time, look around, buy product and spend most of the time flirting with him. Strange. A land of contradictions.

One night in the sports bar two Arabs in full gear were smoking and drinking like bandits but I am told it would be the bartender's fault for selling it to them. It's quite common for Saudis to visit and let their hair down in Dubai.

My first day at work, naturally I was introduced to people and shook hands. Second day and the auditors visited. First time in my life that I could claim, "I know nuffin'". I shook the manager's hand and offered the same to the lady auditor, who withdrew so as not to touch. I thought I had offended her, but apparently not, though I've had to learn these customs quickly. This was something my pre-trip research had not mentioned.

One night I ran on the Metro bridge straddling the major arterial motorway, the famous Sheikh Zayed Road. M25 and M4 rolled into one. Airport-style walking escalators transport passengers along marble corridors to platforms. Separate bridges connect residences and malls from one side of SZ Road to the other. Jogging on one of these air conditioned bridges one night, I was approached by a man and a woman in uniform. They greeted me with courtesy and pleasantries, asking about my stay, where I had run to, etc. Then they smilingly told me it was not permitted to run on the Metro. This has to be the politest bollocking I've had in my life. Needless to say, I walk from now on.

I'm addressed everywhere as 'Mister Stephen'. The reversal of first names and family names was initially confusing but sensible with popular names rather than using Jones the baker, Jones the butcher. This weekend hosts the Dubai World Cup, the most glamorous event on the local social calendar, and the richest horse race in the world. 100,000 spectators attend, so when last year the announcer broadcasted on the tannoy for Mr Muhammed to go to the gold circle, a stampede ensued.

I love coffee. Blending the beans; experimenting with different strengths and roasts. Inhaling the smells and comparing before and after preparation. But not at the office. There is an office boy (man) who brings your drinks to you. Offering to return a dirty mug or worse still, make the drink, thoroughly confused the situation. I didn't understand, it would be seen as a threat to his job....which was to make the drinks. I bought my own mug containing a picture of an elephant. Stupidly, I had left on the price tag whereupon he whistled his surprise: to us, it was not costly, but to his salary it was exorbitant. Initially shy, he is beginning to open up more, so I asked him where he lived, as he was always in early and tidying up after I left. I was a bit slow because it transpired he lived on site. There is an old store room at the side of our building which three of them converted and now live. In China and India I knew of worker dormitories, but our logistics centre is in the free zone and miles from anywhere. However, everything is relative and at home he struggled to find work for food. Workers' rights have been improved by the government over the years. In the beginning, our owner had insisted that employees had free-to-them bank accounts. Too often workers in other companies grafted for seven days, returned their 8-to-a-room, and then didn't get paid.

Both issues have now been addressed in Dubai. Every salary has to be reported to a government system that matches to visas. No pay no visa no worker. They see me go running and biking after work. I'm not sure they understand why I do it. One gets inquisitive looks. So that's no different to home then!

I was listening to the local radio channel. A judge was about to reject the prosecution's far-fetched story and throw the case out of court because he considered the matter trivial and a waste of the court's time. The prosecution complained about a neighbour's cat that repeatedly jumped the dividing wall and annoyed the defendants' pets. After several complaints elicited no improvement, they went to court. The prosecution needed to clarify: "No, No, you misunderstand', he exclaimed. The 'cat' had eaten both the hens and the dog, and was, in fact, a cheetah.

The Kaiser Chiefs are performing at the next Sandance, so I went to collect my tickets from the local Virgin megastore three blocks away. The temperature is moving from the twenties to the thirties, but a nice breeze made for a pleasant evening walk. Returning, I was waved down by an Italian in a white rental car. Asking me if I was European/Italian/staying in Dubai, he said that he wanted to give me a present. He was a Giorgio Armani salesman working their stores in Abu Dhabi the previous week and Dubai this week. His trip had been very successful and his bosses rewarded him by saying that he could keep his samples. Asking my size, he unwrapped a lightweight navy suit. Bearing in mind this was a badly lit car park between two towers, it seemed a little suspicious. No, no, it was his gift to me. He was too fat and this size was perfect for me. He would also give me a grey one too...which he unwrapped and asking if I was married, produced a garish leather biker jacket as a gift to my wife. This sounded too good. I commented that I needed to try on the trousers and pointed to my hotel nearby. Whereupon we drove to the lobby and while he sat outside I returned to my room for a fitting. Checking the waist band, labels and swingtags, everything appeared genuine. I did actually like it, apart from the fact it was one size bigger than he claimed. On return, the barter began....Eur1750 in the Armani shop...I could have it for 800, plus the other three garments as a gift. No can do, says I, only 200 euros cash available. He would kindly drive me to an ATM? Errrrr, no. So make me an offer? It will cost me 25% tax to take the samples home, and I need to buy my wife some perfume. Tough. Do I normally buy my suits from the back seat of a rental in a shady spot from an unknown Italian, even with an Armani man-bag on the dashboard? Were the police awaiting to pounce in a sting? Were his mates around the corner from the ATM? Maybe I just missed a creative opportunity? Maybe I am too straightforward? Maybe I just misunderstood.

If it smells bad, it usually is bad.

Source: EzineArticles
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