x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The past is a foreign country, they dress differently there

After some time in the Middle East, an American woman find US fashions disturbingly scanty. Is this change due to cultural acclimatisation? Perhaps there's another factor.

When we moved to Abu Dhabi, I knew that living in a non-western culture would be a learning experience.

Now, almost three years in, changes are well underway: my children can read Arabic signs in shop windows and along the roads; they understand that "Arab" is a very broad term and make distinctions about where their friends are from - Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon. We eat shish tawook as often as we do pizza; I frequently have cucumbers and labneh with mint for lunch. Language, geography, world politics, food, these were changes I had expected.

But when I was visiting family in New York this summer, during a record heatwave (which to us felt like a lovely winter's day in Abu Dhabi), I discovered an unexpected change, which suggested that Abu Dhabi's norms had sunk in a little more deeply than I had realised.

Skin, that was the change. The amount of skin on display on Manhattan's streets shocked me.

I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could leave the house wearing so few clothes: shorts cut to resemble knickers; shirts unbuttoned down to the navel, skirts slit almost to the point of full disclosure.

It being New York, of course, the same scanty fashions (barely) adorned the bodies of both men and women: it was a unisex skin festival.

It didn't matter if the bodies on display were display-worthy or not - and truth be told, few of the bodies sauntering along the sweaty avenues warranted such revealing garb. All that skin began to feel like an imposition: Did I ask to see your bits-and-parts so up close and personal while we ride the subway together? No, I did not. And while I'm sitting in the park with my kids eating ice cream, must we be subjected to the homemade tattoos decorating your hairy back? Because I would really rather we weren't.

In the early conversations I had with friends and family about my move to Abu Dhabi, usually the first question out of anyone's mouth was "will you have to … you know" and then the person would sort of swirl her hand around her head, as if to indicate a helmet, or a beehive hairdo, or maybe just a sudden hot flash. Of course, the question embedded in that ambiguous hand-flapping was "will you have to wear a veil?" I assured people that no, I wouldn't have to cover my head, but it never occurred to me that, as a New Yorker, I would become so comfortable with public modesty. After all, New York has been associated with many things, but "modesty" has never been one of them.

But this summer, when we arrived back in New York, the skirts that I used to toss on without thinking three years ago now seemed a little short and my knees seemed suddenly very … exposed.

Who knew that knees could become a symbol of cultural dislocation?

After a week or so, I acclimated and stopped worrying about my naked knees. But I couldn't stop noticing all the naked skin around me. Is that freedom, I wondered? Being able to let it "all hang out", dress however you'd like without hesitation? New York is famous for being the place where you can march to the beat of your own drummer (or gawk at those differently drumming folks), so how could I want a little less in-your-face flaunting?

When I talked to a friend about my sense of "sartorial displacement", she offered a different interpretation.

"You know," she said, "maybe you're just getting old. You sound a bit like my granny, complaining about 'the kids these days'."

Was that it? It wasn't that I'd adapted to a more modest culture very different from my own? I wasn't a cosmopolitan but was instead a crotchety old lady cavilling about "the youth"?

Does that mean that in fact I am adapting to two new countries: the Emirates and Middle Age? Because while I am very happy to be getting comfortable in the former, I have no desire to adapt to the latter. I seem to be at an impasse: to be at home in the Emirates, I need my long skirts and long sleeves but to resist being at home in Middle-Age Land, I need a miniskirt and a plunging neckline.

Perhaps the answer rests in a two-pronged approach: a down-to-there blouse and a miniskirt ... under an abaya.


Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and blogs at mannahattamamma.com