Understanding Abu Dhabi and Space Travel, Sort of, in One Week


So, you want to learn how things work in Abu Dhabi? Then follow these instructions, to the letter:

Walk into your new job as a writer for Khalifa University on a Sunday (beginning of work week here) and meet your colleagues. You won’t remember their names because they are different from the American kind. You work some, get paperwork done. Someone takes you to get a leprosy test and a chest x-ray. Then you go home for the day. You think, “I can do this” even though you’ve been a bit apprehensive about the new gig in a new place. You’ve just had three months off from working, and you have grown lethargic. Your brain feels slack, and you’ve wondered if these are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease. You have questioned whether you can actually work again.


You walk into your new job on Monday, ready to start writing stuff. That is, until your savvy new boss calls you into his office and says, “There is a company called Ankabut, which means Spider, that is associated with Khalifa U. And they had a guy there who put on their annual convention. For some reason he’s gone, and someone needs to manage the convention which is next week.”

And that someone is YOU.

But YOU assume that if the conference is 7 days away, then it must be almost ready to go.


Once you visit Ankabut, you discover that the event has languished for a month. It’s no one’s fault. It just happened. But things need to be sorted out and fast.

Sponsors know nothing. Attendees know nothing. Speakers know nothing. There’s an astronaut flying in to be a keynote, and no one knows how to reach him. Everyone says the answers are in an electronic file.

THERE ARE NO ANSWERS in an electronic file. Okay, there are a few. But not enough, and you don’t know what any of it means because you don’t what Ankabut does, or what these sponsors do or who these speakers are, or where the registration list is or what the venue is like. Worse yet, you don’t know who knows what.

You can either quit your new job, or you can dive in and try to sort the mess out. You worry that the odds are against you and maybe they brought you in to blame the mess on a gal from the West. Yet a part of you wants to win, because you are still as competitive as you were in college. You do not give up.

You write emails to people in the files. You make phone calls. You create 15 excel spreadsheets, and 57 to-do lists. You find out that your colleagues ARE AMAZING. The talented designer, Sayed, gets the banners ordered the minute you tell him about the project. You create a brochure agenda, with sponsors’ logos and speakers bios in ONE day with the amazing Amna. The gracious Sumita helps you with details galore and she fixes Ankabut’s website, to which you add content:  http://events.ankabut.ae/agenda/

You answer emails and phone calls from angry sponsors and breakout session speakers. You calm them down, even though you can’t understand every word they are saying. You still don’t really know what Ankabut does because you don’t have time to think about it.

You panic at night. You cry before work. You worry about how you will find the astronaut who is now somewhere in Dubai according to the info you find. You also find out there is another keynote, the esteemed editor of the Times Higher Education World Rankings, coming from London. Neither speaker has hotel rooms or drivers.

Eric DeJesus

You connect with the venue, the Conference Center at Zayed University, and its coordinator, Eric DeJesus. You realize that Eric may be Jesus in this situation. He is from the Philippines. You two hit it off and are new BFFs. Eric does everything to help you. The catering. The this. The that. The things you don’t even know about. He has a colleague named Rashida, who is your guardian angel all the way from Casablanca, Morocco.

You are working beyond capacity and it may not be enough. You go all day without peeing because there is no time. Actually, you forget to pee. Which is too bad because the restrooms at Khalifa are very nice, as is the whole campus.

You also have to navigate the reality that a Sheikha (Royal Woman) will be giving the opening remarks and there is SUBSTANTIAL protocol for her presence. You work with her Protocol people to ready the venue, and yourself. You have to write a script for the MC of the event. You wonder who the MC will be. You find out that it will be a student from Zayed University and she will show up at 9 a.m. on the day of the event to rehearse for the grand opening ceremony at 10 a.m. You write the script and learn the protocol. You learn some Arabic too. You are now saying “Insha’Allah” like a pro. (It means “God Willing.”) And you say “Khalas” frequently, like the people here. (It means “enough.”)

And suddenly, “Bismillah,” it is Wednesday, November 12 at 9 a.m. Registration opens and attendees arrive. Sponsors have their booths. All the logos are where they are supposed to be.  YOU’VE DONE IT.  You had amazing support, and the steepest learning curve since Sir Edmond Hilary scaled Everest.

Dr. Harris on the left. Phil Baty on the right.

The astronaut is none other than Bernard Harris, M.D.. He flew as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1993 and Payload Commander on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1995. He served on the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program, becoming the “First African American to walk in Space.”

The Editor from the Times Higher Education World Rankings is Phil Baty, and he is an important guru in the global higher ed community. Every institution of higher learning wants to be on that list. The man is in high demand. His list in even higher demand. Yet he is as down to earth as Dr. Harris.

The Zayed student who shows up to be the MC is a super star in the making. The Sheika is glorious in her remarks and she radiates. She really does. I am in awe of her. The National Anthem plays perfectly. The two keynotes rock the house. The sponsors are happy.

Phil Baty with Ankabut CEO Fahem.

The food is plentiful and delicious. People are networking about the NETWORK that is Anakabut. (In fact, it is UAE’s Advance Network for Research and Education.)

You get to know a lot of people from all over the world. You become friends with Bernard and Phil. The CEO of Ankabut whispers “thank you” to you. Your conference — thanks to PR whizzes Momen and Afra — is covered by the media and makes the 8 p.m. news. The CEO of Ankabut is really happy. And so are you.

Moreover, in the course of two days with Dr. Harris, you learn about outer space. You learn that it is not easy to use the toilet in space. You have to be careful where you aim which is why you take off all your clothes and put them in plastic bags before you even begin to relieve yourself. It’s also not good to throw up in space. Showering is best done with a cloth and a special soap that doesn’t need water. Because water will congeal like jello and sit on your body like a blob.

At some point, Dr. Harris asks if he can get a tour of the new Cleveland Clinic here. It just so happens that your husband knows someone important there. And that important someone read your book about your dad, Dr. Bercaw. Your husband calls the important guy and, voila, Dr. Harris, who is an internal medicine physician, gets the tour. AND NO ONE GETS TO TOUR YET as the Cleveland Clinic is months from opening.

At another point, you are talking with Dr. Harris about his delayed flights from Houston. You actually get to ask him if he “had a problem with Houston.”  You laugh together.

Ultimately, in a week’s time, YOU have learned how to function in a brand new place and culture. You are very connected to your new colleagues because together you’ve just completed the craziest ropes course ever. And, I must say, YOU have learned again just how great your husband Allan is. He took care of EVERYTHING AND HE and believed in YOU when you thought the whole thing would go off course and crash-land in the Arabian Gulf.

Above all, though, YOU learned that you are your own astronaut of sorts — surviving a topsy-turvy trip into unknown territory.  But with better restrooms. And gravity.










One Comment Add yours

  1. nancybercaw says:

    Inshallah… there will be many more challenges that we can face together…inshallah!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s