From Sea to Shining Sea


20141126_152913I’m reclining on the couch watching BBC news after a delightful and insightful Abu Dhabi day. But it appears that while I was enjoying a peaceful celebration of national unity in the United Arab Emirates, the racial divides in the United States of America were deepening.

I don’t know what to say about this Freaky Friday-like flip-flop between the oft-lauded Land of the Free and the much-maligned Middle of East. Nor can I add any insight into the situation in Ferguson that has 20141126_135050sparked American outrage.

And I certainly won’t pretend that everything is hunky-dory in the Gulf region. Heck, we’re located a mere 863 miles away from Iraq. There are tensions in these parts. Not to mention obvious discrepancies in gender rights.

But what I can tell you, at length, is about National Day at Khalifa University. I was warmly welcomed into Arab culture — despite my American-ness and female-ness — on this remarkable occasion honoring the UAE’s 43rd year of independence.

20141126_140652The expats at Khalifa were encouraged to don traditional dress for this event. Heck, I even wrote the campus-wide email announcement last week that said so! Before coming to Abu Dhabi, I never imagined wearing the black Abaya dress or a Hijab head cover. Yet today, I decided to participate fully in the event and culture. And, wow, my gesture was very well received.

Although I was afraid that I looked like Little Red Riding Hood gone horribly awry,  my colleagues (men and women) couldn’t stop raving about my appearance.(Conversely, in Western culture, wearing fewer clothes tends to result in rave reviews.) Eventually, I started to feel quite attractive and comfortable in my chic ensemble, and had my picture taken with Khalifa’s American President, Tod Laursen, dressed in a Kandora.

Imagine my delight, during the opening remarks, when the Master of Ceremonies began speaking the words I had written for her — featuring a quote by the late founder of the nation, Sheikh Zayed:

The real asset of any advanced nation is its people, especially the educated ones, and the prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education.20141126_135217

The script was also translated into Arabic for the huge, and hugely appreciative, audience.  Could they ever imagine that an American had written those words? Would I have ever imagined that I’d been the one who had?

During the first break in the action, I allowed a few of the female Khalifa students to affix the most traditional of all coverings to my face. Please note that these proud Abaya-wearing Arab women were also sporting Christian Louboutin 3-inch heels and carrying Chanel purses.

They put Bercaw in a burqa.

But not the kind that comes to mind when thinking of Afghanistan. The Emirati burqa came into “vogue” in the pre-Islamic period, when nomadic tribes lived in the desert. It’s a female face mask– designed to imitate the falcon’s features, as the falcon has always been a symbol of elegance, pride and power.

Later on, I also thoroughly enjoyed the all-male Yola dance — historically performed after a victory in a war or after coming home from a successful pearl diving trip. It features a very unique rhythmical movements involving guns, swords and balancing. Here’s my video of the proceedings:

Full disclosure: I wore my mermaid t-shirt under my Abaya today.  I’m not gonna stop being me while I’m being culturally sensitive and appreciative. But National Day also led me to realize that I’m part falcon, too — powerful and fast flying.

In fact, “falco peregrines” means wandering foreigner or traveler. And versions of the breed can be found nearly everywhere on Earth — from Abu Dhabi, UAE to Ferguson, Missouri.








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