x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

From thyme tea to a dolphin kiss, I did my birthday my way

While birthdays are a relatively new concept in Arab culture, they are still treated with great importance and are sometimes celebrated in the most creative ways.

Write the bad things that are done to you in sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble - Arabic proverb I've just finished celebrating my birthday, and there were many moments that will be engraved on a piece of marble. While birthdays are a relatively new concept in Arab culture, they are still treated with great importance and are sometimes celebrated in the most creative ways. One of my Emirati friends had a towering birthday cake made for her, covered with colourful candles, and a baby camel as a gift from her grandfather. The camel joined us for the celebrations, and wasn't too impressed when it wasn't allowed to eat any of the cake.

For my birthday this year I decided to fulfil a dream, one that tops many people's wish list: to swim with dolphins. So off I went to the Atlantis in Dubai. It is all true what they say - something just happens to you when you are near a dolphin. They look at you with this constant smile, and when you touch them a gentle wave of electricity runs through you and puts you at ease. I was nervous as I watched "my" dolphin, called Savannah, swim towards me for that special birthday kiss. There are no words to describe the feeling that comes after that kiss, nor the inner comfort that follows a wet hug or a dance with a dolphin. They just seem to read us better than we read ourselves.

While people are justified in arguing that no dolphin should be captured and forced to do tricks, the trainers seemed to be completely in love with the dolphins and never pushed them to do anything they didn't want to do. After those 10 minutes of absolute bliss, a set of different kinds of celebration took place, extending a birthday into a birth-week. From hanging out with a group of friends and colleagues who made a special barbecue for me against a soundtrack of Michael Jackson music, to sailing out to sea on a yacht with a group of Russian friends (sorry, mother) and then the packages of gifts from family and friends across the world.

Needless to say, the most popular category of gift was some sort of age-defying product. I got some "liver mix" from a traditional Emirati family, who swear that if I put it on my face it will smooth out any wrinkles. They also made me the best date paste I have ever eaten, again promising that it would keep me healthy and fit for when I become a mother. The best part was sitting in the desert on their farm at sunset with a group of kind-hearted local families, watching over their camels as they were showered and fed, while we sipped traditional thyme tea and ate a lot of fattening desserts.

I also got a great tip on life from one of the elders: "If you live true to yourself, then you will remain youthful." Another elder told me: "Negative feelings age you," echoing similar statements made by my own grandmothers. My Lebanese friends celebrated my birthday in their own style, which of course had to be lavish and loud, with more than 100 guests, people I had never met but am somehow related to. Of course, there couldn't be just one kind of cake, there were three cakes, and I had to blow out the candles on all of them if I wanted my wish to come true.

"Just say husband," a friend suggested. I didn't give in to pressure. I made my own private wish, and I wasn't going to share it with anyone. As if that wasn't enough, I got packages of gifts from my family in France, Saudi Arabia and Canada. I was so touched, and at the same time amused at the wide range of things relatives thought I might need. Besides clothing, all of them sent me gifts for my cats. I guess they know me by now.

But perhaps the best gift of all was a tiny music box that played Frank Sinatra's My Way, one of my favourite songs and one I live by. It was sent by my sister and brother, who may be at the other end of the world and rarely see me, but still know me best and how to get to me. So what is it about birthdays? Why do they matter so much? My best friend says it best: "It means you made it through one more year, and are given a chance to try again for another year."

Or as another rather sentimental Arabic proverb puts it: every day of your life is a page of your history. @Email:rghazal@gthenational.ae