A few days ago, I was walking outside at about 2pm with a friend whom I consider a true Abu Dhabian. That means you should never criticise any aspect of Abu Dhabi in front of her, or you will be in trouble. Boiling in the summer heat, she still looked on the bright side. "At least there is a little breeze, don't you feel it?" she asked. "Yes, just like the breeze that comes out of a hair dryer," I teased. Despite her ardent defence of all things Abu Dhabi, she agreed.
This has already been a hot summer, though many may be shocked to learn that summer only officially started about a week ago. It turns out that the furnace we had been living in before that is called "spring". Call it what you want. Many seem to agree that the high temperatures seem more blistering and relentless than usual. Some blame it on global warming, while others believe it has something to do with the disruption caused by the war in Iraq. Whatever the cause, the season is a reminder of who we are and how far we have come.
For one thing, it helps us appreciate that one invention that has made modern life in the UAE possible: air conditioning. Last winter, when I first saw the design of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, it occurred to me that there are few more interesting aspects of UAE culture and traditions than the barjeel, the old wind towers, that Emiratis built to capture cool breezes. Mr Gehry incorporates their tell-tale shape into his design.
Remembering past summers when the barjeel was the main device to relieve the midday 50°C heat, my grandmother told me: "You haven't really felt a hot day, because there's AC in houses and cars. If the electricity crashed, you wouldn't survive." There were other remedies, too, she recalled. "I used to put a small wet shayla on my face, and wait for the wind to come." This reminded me of a painting by a Dubai artist portraying an elderly woman with the first evening breeze touching her face in hot weather. That painting drew the attention of many visitors to the gallery, even though they rely on their air conditioners instead of a cool breath of air for relief.
Of course, air conditioning is still no option for many - a fact we are reminded of each summer when we see workers toiling in the sun. We have learnt the lessons from previous summers when, due to poor preparation, the heat caused both illness and death. One result is the "Safety in the Heat 2010" initiative by the Abu Dhabi Municipality. It aims to remind employers about the measures they are required to take in order to protect their workers during the hot season. It also sets out for employees the simple steps they can take to protect themselves from the heat.
"Safety in the Heat 2010" might stress the use of an accessory more synonymous with the rain than the sun: the umbrella. In Abu Dhabi, we are seeing a boom in its use. Instead of just packing them for a trip to Europe or some other wetter climate, a friend who holds a prestigious public-sector job told me that people have started to hoist them above their heads when they walk from their cars to their offices.
She also said that she had recently seen a young woman sporting a Louis Vuitton umbrella - a sure sign that they are becoming a UAE fashion trend. Umbrellas, midday breaks and air conditioning are not the only ways that UAE residents cope with the heat; there is also just rationalisation. Speaking to a friend, a Canadian, about the weather, she said it was OK: "I was outside the whole day in Dubai, and it wasn't that bad." Seeing my "that's weird" look, she continued: "I think I might have a layer of brown skin under my white one." I had to smile, and told her there was something "very Bedu-ish" about her.
Another relative of mine, a member of my grandmother's generation, has another solution altogether. "Stop nagging about how hot it is, or you really are going to have a headache," she says. "Just say, 'Alhamdulillah, the weather is not so bad', and it will not be so bad."