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: