x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Unexpected encounters lead to unlikely friendships

Who would have thought that a chance meeting between an Uzbek and and American in Abu Dhabi could have led to such a deep connection?

The night I first met people from Uzbekistan in the UAE was the beginning a great friendship. Daniya, an Uzbek working for Etihad, spoke Russian, and so did Mikhail, who had a home in Houston, Texas. Their common language was the seed from which their connection grew.

Over the next three and a half years, I learnt how valuable being able to speak Russian is in the UAE, a land where English and Arabic are king.

Mikhail introduced me to a Ukrainian piano player pursing a doctorate and her dancer sister. Through him I also met musicians from Belarus and Uzbekistan, his fellow oil company workers who travelled to Kazakhstan and an assortment of office workers and embassy folks. All spoke the Russian of their home countries. All had been charmed by Mikhail, a man I came to refer to as a Russian-speaking Gatsby.

Many a night, I would listen but not understand as the conversation among Mikhail, a bevy of Eastern Europeans and me drifted into their first language. I knew da, nyet and lyubof (love). That was it. It was stark reminder of how I and too many other English speakers are foreign-language deficient.

The hardest I have laughed in years came one night when Mikhail and I listened to a British actress whose parents lived here, detailing the dozens of times she failed her driver's licence test. She, too, had a Russian connection, a job as a nanny for a family outside of Moscow and another teaching acting lessons.

In Houston, Mikhail, who emigrated to the US from Moscow when he was 17, had fallen in love with a Chinese-American model. Her presence added to the enlightening ethnic mix that is Abu Dhabi.

Their wedding, during our second year here, was right out of an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. The vows were taken on a pier in Cancun, Mexico, with the couple's friends making up the wedding party. Mikhail's parents came from the Czech Republic; hers from the US states of Delaware and New Jersey. The groom, of course, wore white.

When it was my turn to toast the newlyweds, I looked around the table and stated the obvious: I had never met a man who surrounded himself with so many beautiful people, in looks and spirit.

A few months ago, Russians and Uzbeks, Ukrainians and Americans, Irish and Germans, Britons and Italians all showed up for Mikhail's farewell gathering. He was being promoted to a new job in Houston. His Abu Dhabi time was up. His adopted home country was calling.

Mikhail would often say that if we had met in US, we probably never would have become such great friends. We travel in different professional circles and most of the Russian-speaking people I knew before I moved here were academics or journalists - certainly not models or classical musicians.

It's strange that in coming here, the land of inshallah and fisehatak, that nazdarovye ("to your health") became a part of my regular vocabulary.

That, too, probably would not have happened in America.

rpretorius@thenational.ae