MY WORD: From Shelby to Dubai: Not as scary as expected

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By Teresa Swigert

When I got the news we would be moving our family to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, admittedly, I first turned to a map. I knew Dubai was in the Middle East, however, when I discovered that the United Arab Emirates lies between Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Persian Gulf I was flooded with images of throngs of young men yelling “Allah Akhbar” in the streets right before some horrific explosion.

So when it came time to board our plane in Atlanta, I saw Muslims, lots of them.

I saw one young man with glasses and a very, very long full beard. He had his head wrapped in a red and white scarf just like I’d seen terrorists sporting on TV.

Time to take one of those pills from Dr. Goodlett, or there’s no way I’m putting my daughter or myself on this airplane.

I woke up as we were flying over the Persian Gulf at nighttime, and I could see the lights from Iran. Thankful we didn’t get blown up and excited to almost be there, I was proud of myself for making the plane ride.

For the first time I was filled with more excitement than apprehension.

While waiting at the gate for our stroller, we were joined by the menacing “terrorist” with the big beard and head wrap.

Allowing my imagination to get away from me, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable as I watched this man lingering beside us. Suddenly, a young woman in a head scarf with three little kids trailing behind her surprised the bearded man and playfully tickled his side!

Whew! I certainly felt silly, astounded, but still perplexed. I wondered how that woman could have been so playful and joyful.

I thought Middle Eastern women with headscarves were supposed to be repressed, depressed and abused women who loathed their abusive, repressive husbands.

This was to be the first of many experiences I’ve had with cognitive dissonance since moving to the Middle East.

As we entered through a metal detector, I was filled with fear when it was time to have my first encounter with the local security. The security men were huge and in dark green police uniforms with berets reminiscent of military uniforms I had seen pictures of Sadam Hussein in.

In fact this huge Middle Eastern man in one of these uniforms actually did look like Saddam Hussein and I prayed that I wouldn’t offend him with my Western ways in jeans, a sweaty t-shirt that I’d been wearing for 24 hours and exposed hair.

I was folding the stroller when the Saddam-twin looked at me. I could feel the sweat beading on my face, my heart pounding in my chest.

I was bracing myself and swore I would stay calm no matter how I was treated.

Much to my surprise I looked up to see a friendly, brightly smiling face looking me in the eye as I was informed it wasn’t necessary to close the stroller.

Wow! What a difference a smile can make! I’ll always remember that man at the airport.

His was the first of many smiles I’ve since received from many Arab people. It’s truly amazing what one smile can do.

I will always remember the relief I felt from that man’s one simple gesture.

The ride home from the airport was surreal as it was the first time in a long time that I’ve been so completely out of my own element. That was until, much to my amusement, I spotted Round Table Pizza and KFC, both with bright neon signs written in Arabic and English.

Certain this must be the very lastRound Table Pizza on Earth, I chuckled to myself in disbelief. There was a very large movie theater or “cinema” as they call them here and even an Ace Hardware!

Of course the Burj Khalifa, renown for being the world’s tallest tower, is impossible to miss. It was aglow with little white lights alternating all the way up and down the tower, as if the tower were shimmering in sequins.

Some of the most impressive attractions in Dubai are the number of family activities.

The malls are the No. 1 source of family entertainment, with full-size indoor playgrounds and indoor amusement parks that put to shame any county fair.

Water parks, theme parks, Dolphin shows, parks, and zoos are everywhere and among some of the best in the world.

Still wary of all of the terrorists I might encounter, I kept my eyes open and my senses sharp on my first trip to the world’s largest mall, the Dubai Mall, which boasts an indoor skating rink, an aquarium, Sega World, every store from H&M to Cartier, a full-size grocery store and a medical center.

While I wasn’t seeing any terrorists, I was seeing families everywhere of all ethnicities, religions, and ages.

With many people in traditional Arab dress, there were almost just as many people in Western dress. I was shocked to see women in short skirts, high heels, tank tops, and baseball caps.

I was really moved when I saw an Emirati family of five eating dinner at a French café. The mother was in her abaya, feeding her toddlers. The father was a big man in his full white thobe, red and white headscarf and very long beard, but it was the gentleness in the way he held that newborn baby girl that got my attention.

He was just talking and cooing to that tiny little baby as if he were the proudest father in the entire world!

Because we arrived just before Christmas, I was eager to see how the holiday would be handled.

Every mall erected a huge Christmas tree inside and American holiday music could be heard in nearly every store. Both Christians and Muslims alike were eager to get their pictures in front of the massive Christmas tree display.

In fact, the world’s most expensive Christmas tree was erected at a hotel in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates. Nothing warmed my heart more than when an Arab lady in a full abaya in the mall said to me, in perfect English, “Hello pretty lady and Merry Christmas.”

Additionally, my Muslim Iranian neighbor sent her young son over with a plate of cookies and a “Happy Christmas.” It was so refreshing to feel the spirit of Christmas in a Muslim country from Muslims.

I am thankful and will treasure those memories forever.

I’ve yet to be harassed by gangs of “America haters.” In fact, I’ve yet to even feel the slightest bit uncomfortable anywhere.

Thus far, what I’ve seen is a beautiful country with great food, good leadership, safe streets and lot’s of very happy, and healthy families with women who are so pampered that even one child justifies a full-time maid anda nanny.

Now my biggest fear is not the terrorists, but that someday I’ll have to go back to living without a maid!


Teresa Swigert is a former resident of Shelbyville.