There seems to be a spate of new writing set in or around the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It may be that the success of novels like Linda Davies’ Djinn Quintet books, Garry Craig Powells’ Stoning the Devil, and Ameera Al Hakawati’s Desperate in Dubai, are indicative of a growing desire for not only understanding about the UAE, but for a sense of what it’s really like to live there. Jillian Schedneck’s Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights is a travelogue/memoir that explores Abu Dhabi and Dubai separately and in conjunction with one another both subjectively as a visitor, and objectively, as academic, exploring the meaning, the dualities, and the people of these places.
Though Schedneck takes a fairly sophisticated approach to her memoir, attempting to work a thesis that ties together her experiences and her observations, at heart, Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights is about the character arc of Schedneck: her development and growth through the two years she worked as an English teacher in the UAE. During that time, we watch her struggle with a series of relationships, including three very different love interests, a number of friendships, relationships with her students at the universities in which she teaches, with the women she tries to help at the City of Hope shelter where she volunteers, and above all, with her role as a young woman academic in the two UAE cities that she lives. The story is consistently compelling, and the way in which Schedneck openly weaves her personal experiences and her insightful observations, works perfectly.
Schedneck’s first teaching job in the UAE is teaching English to students at a small private university in Abu Dhabi. The culture shock is immediate as she encounters separate male and female classes, and is thrust into the fasting month of Ramadan with its specific privations, observations, and rituals. She is also both confused and intrigued by the full length Abaya cloaks and Sheyla Hijab head scarfs worn by her students:
“More than any Ramadan restriction, watching this woman filled me with fear as I prepared for my first class. How could I teach someone who appeared so closed off from engagement and contact? What would such a woman think of me?” (34)
Through her Socratic method of teaching, Schedneck soon replaces fear with understanding. By asking the classes to talk about their culture, their roles, their perception of their lives, and their own fears, Schedneck not only learns (along with the reader) a tremendous amount about the culture in Abu Dhabi, but also about herself. When she later transfers to the American University of Dubai, she faces a completely different culture as she begins to teach literature classes, challenging her students’ conceptions of themselves and forcing them to confront some of mores of their diverse cultures. In Dubai the culture is far less homogeneous than in Abu Dhabi, and Schedneck does a good job of teasing out the sense of displacement and confusion in the variety of cultures she encounters. Teaching Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity she explores notions of identity that are as relevant to her, a displaced American, as to her students:
“Yet only when we are welcome to claim all pieces of our identity–national, regional, sexual orientation, language, religion—can we begin to act as bridges between cultures rather than instigators of prejudice and exclusion. I wanted my students to see themselves as bridges, possessing unique, worthy positions rather than feeling cast out, uncertain and displaced.” (272)
The final part of the book takes Schedneck to the City of Hope women’s shelter where Schedneck begins to see firsthand, the difficulties many women have when trying to escape abusive husbands, employers, or attempting to break free from prostitution. Schedneck begins teaching afternoon classes at the shelter, where, in her usual fashion, she begins to draw out the stories of the women there. At the shelter, Schedneck meets founder Sharla Musabih, and slowly learns of her ongoing vilification by the government, the media, and a range of activist groups who find her work dangerous and counter-cultural. It’s Sharla’s work that inspires Schedneck to leave Dubai in order to complete her own story, do more study, and become a conduit for the stories of the women at the shelter.
Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights is an engaging story that begins with the personal experiences of a young academic abroad, and moves well beyond that to explore some very deep notions of what it means to be a modern woman in a multi-cultural, rapidly changing world.