x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Love that brought Christine to RAK

The former Falkirk student is now a mother of five, but she had never seen the Emirates before she married a local.

Christine, now named Umm Ahmed, moved to Ras Al Khaimah from Scotland in 1981 to marry Salah Al Shehhi. Jeff Topping / The National
Christine, now named Umm Ahmed, moved to Ras Al Khaimah from Scotland in 1981 to marry Salah Al Shehhi. Jeff Topping / The National

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Christine Pentecost did not know what would come of her first date with Salah Al Shehhi.

It was 1980 when the two met among the bookshelves at the Falkirk College library in central Scotland. He asked her out.

Six months later Christine, a red-haired cross-country runner who studied nursery education, was on a flight to Abu Dhabi. She was 19.

Salah was the seventh of nine children from the fishing town of Al Rams, a north-coast town of sardines and Brahman bulls in Ras Al Khaimah.

He was a business student, the son of a fisherman and a herbalist, and one of several Emirati students in Falkirk.

"A group of them were there and he just asked me out and I said, 'fine'," said Christine, from her home in Al Rams. "I mean, you didn't even think at that time that you could end up somewhere else."

Some Emirati students had already returned to the UAE with Scottish wives.

When Salah graduated, he asked Christine to join him.

"He didn't actually propose," she said. "Nope. There wasn't any proposal. It was: 'I'm finished [university] now. Are you coming to live with me?'

"I said, 'well you know my parents wouldn't like it', but that didn't deter us and love just blinds you."

Christine did not know much about the UAE, or its culture. "The books don't show you the traditional houses, they show you the high-rises, don't they? They show you what's modern," she said. "The UAE culture is [unknown] until you go inside somebody's house."

Life in Al Rams had changed very little in the 10 years since the country's Federation.

Christine arrived in a town with no regular electricity, no roads and women who did not show their faces in public unless it was Friday, when every man was inside the mosque for prayers.

"All the women would come out of their houses and go down to the sea, and be washing carpets and having a laugh," Christine said.

When men drove their Cadillacs and Camaros down the narrow streets, people squeezed against the walls to let them pass.

"Everywhere was dusty, like the OK Corral," she added.

There was no harbour. "If somebody went out [fishing] and missed the tide for coming in, they stayed out until the next morning."

Christine made her new home with her in-laws, a stone and mudbrick house plastered with cement in the city's old quarter. The outdoor kitchen was a sink and a gas- burner. The shower was a bucket.

It was a foreign landscape but she was welcomed into a community with family values like those of her traditional Scottish upbringing.

She was guided by her mother-in-law Amna, a herbalist who, like many women, ran a shop from her house and used her husband's fish to barter. Home-based shops were a meeting place for women before government social groups existed.

Christine followed Amna everywhere. She learnt how to cook machboos, how to cure tonsillitis through massage and how to speak perfect Arabic, in three months.

When she speaks her adoptive tongue, her strong Scottish accent is replaced by a heavy Gulf dialect.

"We already have the 'kh' and the 'gh' sounds in the Scots language anyways," she said.

Christine mastered a new set of basics, like how to cook at floor level and how to avoid food that could sour the breath.

"Putting onion in a salad, I almost got murdered for that because they go to the mosque," she said.

Some mistook her for a maid. On one occasion, the neighbour's children went home pleading with their parents: "We want a maid like that, with hair like that."

"They would think I painted it," said Christine of her strawberry locks.

The elderly residents, who had no preconceived ideas of westerners from television, were gracious, quick to accept her and teach her.

But acceptance from both fathers took longer.

When she arrived, Salah asked her to wait in the car so he could enter the house first and calm his father. Christine's father refused to accept that his only daughter had chosen a life far from the comforts of home. The men later became friends.

"This wee Scottish man and my father-in-law, two worlds apart but they had a lot in common," Christine said.

With the love of a community, she raised her five children in Al Rams.

"I was so willing at the beginning to accept it all," she added. "I think there were shocks all the time in daily life but you're doing your best to fit in so that you're not unhappy and so that they're not unhappy.

"If I looked at things in a bad way I might have taken flight. My mum's friends used to say, 'your daughter stayed out there because of where she came from'."

"I finished college, I graduated and I was ready."

azacharias@thenational.ae