x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

One generous gesture

Surprises come in all sizes and shapes of packages in the UAE.

:You know what it's like waiting for a taxi. Especially in the early hours of a hot, humid morning. And during Eid, too, when the capital's normally ubiquitous cabs all seem to vanish underground. I had left a friend's apartment near Khaleej Al Arabi and was aiming for Mushrif. A steady stream of traffic thundered by, after 20 minutes there was still no sign of a free taxi. I walked on, resigned to having to leg it most of the way home. As I crossed the drive to an apartment block, a car pulled out and stopped next to me, waiting for me to cross, I thought. But then there was a toot on the horn, the driver's window rolled down, and a head leaned out. "Hello. Can I help you?" said a softly spoken female voice in faltering English. "Excuse me?" I said, surprised, looking blank and rather stupid.

"Can I help you? Are you trying to get a taxi? Because if you are this is the wrong place. Few taxis this way. You can wait forever." "Yes, I see. I've been waiting a long time already." Now I could see the voice belonged to a young Emirati woman, who looked to be in her early twenties. We established that I needed to get to Airport Road to pick up a cab. "Well," she said, "get in and I will take you there." More of a command than a request. I looked around, half-expecting an angry father or boyfriend to leap into view, then got in. This can't be right, can it? A young woman, wearing an abaya, giving a lift to a complete stranger - a man - in the small hours. Is she allowed to? From what I had heard of our nations' cultural differences, this kind of thing doesn't happen. Emiratis, men or women, hardly ever talk to western strangers outside the working environment. And up till now that had held true. On our brief journey - made shorter by the speed at which she drove - we chatted about work, home, Abu Dhabi, exchanged names and agreed that English people are all very nice (of course). She had learnt the language and school and university but had not yet visited Britain, which she hoped to do soon. Why was I in the UAE and what did I think of it? Midway through my answer a car pulled out right in front of us. She shook a hennaed fist and shouted, then looked sidelong at me and asked me not to repeat what she said, because it was a "very, very bad word". (I'm practising: it might be useful in certain circumstances.)

She dropped me off, said goodbye with a big smile and apologised for her poor English - which is a thousand times better than my Arabic. She had no hidden agenda and wanted nothing in return. Now, it may be that it was because of Ramadan and she was being duly charitable, but I don't think so. I like to think it was an entirely spontaneous gesture of generosity, a rare thing in most cities and unheard of in many. And something that helps to see local people in a different light. Shukran jazilan, sadiqati.