Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What's Your Good Name?

It's a sea of white dishdashas

Warming up to the campus community was effortlessly easy; as simple as greeting and being greeted with Salaam by virtually everybody you bumped into as you made your way around—be they in the ever popular dishdasha or in t-shirt and jeans, accordingly equipped with either tasbeeh beads, or a handsfree mobile device, or an MP3 player in hand. Even though it was just as commonplace back in IIUM, the indiscriminate exchange of greetings evoked a different feeling this time around, one of welcome, peace and unconditional solidarity.

But of course, the sudden appearance of four Malaysian students in their midst intrigued the campus denizens at the same time, and in various ways.

For Abu Bakr, Bashir and Khaled, fellow residents at the Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas block, it was a pleasant reminder of good times with their two Malaysian mates who were the IIU representatives last year. Over the weeks and the regular visits to their rooms for group dinners and snacks, we had grown to be good friends from just neighbors with the Yemeni, the Eritrean, and the Algerian. It was at these sessions that we shared stories, jokes and curious questions about one another—from the amazing Malaysian weather with its abundant rainfall to the marriage customs of Yemen.

Our little group eventually grew as we connected with more of their mates—like Palestinian Mahmood with his American accent and Abdul Aziz, a Saudi moallad with Pakistani blood—alongside others we came across in various circumstances. One thing that struck me amused in particular was the polite, flattering query for your name— “Esmok al kareem? What’s your good name?” That and also the multiple versions of “How do you do?” received at every greeting, which of course almost always prompted me to reply back in no less than a dozen versions of “I’m fine/good/superb/perfect thanks!” It was also common then to receive curious guesses of our origins, with China and/or the Philippines leading most of the attempts. Those who guessed correct on the other hand, would display great interest in the Malaysian politics, economy, infrastructure, and last but not least, the enviable forests, mountains and beaches enjoyed on our side of the globe.

The Emirati offer

I was presented with pleasant news one evening after maghrib prayers at the campus mosque. Two students—Muhammad and Omar, respectively Somali and Emirati—greeted me as I made my way back to the block, and they were, much to my surprise, Nursing majors with a situation similar to mine. Where I was apprehensive about crossing borders, they were already accustomed to the whole affair, as are the handful of other male Health Sciences students of various majors whom I never knew existed until that evening. The next surprise came shortly later when Omar invited me over to his room at the Salahuddin block where we stayed for the first night in Sharjah. Without warning, he suggested I move into his place which was pretty much impressive with its private kitchen, bathroom and a nice view—the offer was undeniably exciting. Not only would I be sharing a room with a fellow Health Science student, it also translated as an opportunity to live with a local for four months and enjoy a more wholesome and authentic experience. On a more personal level, the prospect of perfecting my Arabic in such an environment was truly a blessing—and the Emirati value of hospitality, legendary.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Little Bit of Sightseeing

Not quite a shower

The dry, dusty desert immediately outside the University City confines can really deceive the unsuspecting traveler. Few would suspect that beyond the several roundabouts and flyovers lay a lush, shady oasis of a city that was Sharjah.

It was Yaroob’s idea that we go for a bite at Hadramoot, a Yemeni restaurant about ten minutes away from the University—and what a bite it was. Once there, he ordered for a tray of mandi, a Yemeni dish consisting of yellow rice, fresh, succulent herbs, a rich sauce and skewered chicken so tender they simply fall apart at the slightest touch of your fingers. The dish may have been foreign to us, but hunger was a universal feeling—within minutes, new bowls of sauce and plates of herbs were brought to replenish the depleted items.

It is commonly joked that mandi is so sumptuous a meal, it renders you immobile for a few hours afterwards. Seeing how true it was, at least in our case, it was no wonder that the dish was thought best served and enjoyed on the floor with plenty of space to stretch your legs and laze about afterwards.

The cup of traditional tea served as well as the bottle of ataar at the cashier counter caught my eye on our way out. In a way, they added another sense of cultural finesse to the dining experience that was mandi.

Sharjah: heritage city of the east

Now that the sun had shifted to a more tolerable position, it was more comfortable then to enjoy the attractions of this coastal city.

The Buhaira, a lagoon surrounded by high rise buildings and green parks was a captivating sight. Hundreds of seagulls ubiquitous to the city glided effortlessly above us, heading for the rich pickings the sea has to offer, while hundreds more were already floating on the water surface, along with the dhows and boats that occasionally passed by.

Everything about the place was a mixture of the old world and the new—on the side of the wharf was an ancient building made of mud bricks, defiant towards the shiny glass-and-steel commercial towers constituting the city’s fast growing skyline. Elsewhere, stone structures—historic remnants of the old kingdom—stood at the center of several roundabouts like dignified elders among the new generation.

The cool salty breeze was especially refreshing and evidently appreciated by the citizens. Families had picnics on the grass by the Buhaira while youths played games on the footpaths, and joggers and walkers made their way around as we went on with our relaxing tour. It was also hard to miss the two Ferris wheels located at strategic locations by the lagoon, adding a whimsical touch that was strangely romantic at the same time. Young families could be seen having a good time together aboard the wheel, while other families chatted over tea and coffee at the sidewalk cafés in the evening sun—romantic indeed.

Dubai: the city of money

Our first ‘real’ visit to Dubai took place about a week later, again courtesy of our Iraqi friend and his trusted VW. The infamous first trip which comprised only the Dubai City Center somehow gave us an unpleasant first impression of the city—this time however, Dubai had certainly redeemed itself by proving its reputation as a remarkable fusion point of heritage, progressiveness and globalization.

It was much later in the evening when we started out, around an hour before maghrib (sunset). After parking at Baniyas Square, named after the largest tribe to originally settle in the Emirates, we set off by foot towards the scenic heart of the city, Dubai Creek or Khor Dubai as it was locally known. Passenger-carrying boats called abras ferried back and forth across the wide Khor, and we wasted no time and boarded one for several fils per person. The humid, musty smell of damp wood and freshwater was reminiscent of the Nile cruise from my 1998 visit to Cairo.

While glassy towers bearing the names of commercial giants stood overlooking the Khor along the bank we departed from, traditional windtowers and minarets awaited us on the other. We were headed for Deira, the public market of old Dubai where we could catch a glimpse of souq life in this otherwise cosmopolitan city. A strong aroma of spices, herbs, and incense greeted us as we entered the narrow alleys between the old shops and stalls. Traders heartily beckoned passersby for a glimpse at their wares, and buyers haggled for good deals. The old souq with its rich selection was definitely the place for the tasteful shopper.

The setting sun immediately triggered a chain of maghrib prayer calls from the numerous mosques situated on both sides of the Khor. Interestingly, it was also the first time I ever heard a Shiite azan with a testimony to Ali yun waliyullah called out after the testimony to Muhammad as Rasulullah. The azan came from a mosque several minutes later than its Sunni counterparts. This encounter provided a useful insight on the Sunni-Shiite coexistence, which I learned was limited to only a few Gulf countries, with UAE and Bahrain considered excellent examples.

Regardless, having heard the calls to prayer, it would not do to ignore maghrib in favor of greedy sightseeing and photography. It was getting a little too dark anyway—and classes awaited us the next day—thus it was decided to call it an evening.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Education is a Luxury

It occurred to me only recently how it’s been more than a month since I last sent my story to the Opus. With the numerous events that took place over this course of one month, it’s a challenge putting down everything in writing without even compromising a tiny bit of my so-far enriching experience on Emirati soil—and a challenge I must take.

First experiences can be trying

As I refer to my notes on my earlier trips to Dubai, I just can’t help being reminded of the insane fare we had to pay for the taxi ride from Sharjah to Dubai City Center, amounting to over AED40—“and all that just for getting passport photos and money exchange?” the sneering question haunts my mind still, just like the offensive tune coming from an electronic toy walking mechanically round and round on the mall floor. Aiman and I have made it a habit to hum the melody whenever we feel like driving each other nuts, until now. The infamous first trip to Dubai City Center however, helped us identify the potential shops and stores for the essentials—with the Carrefour supermarket named as our top choice for everything from groceries to electronics, and at good value if I do say so myself. It was later learnt that the university provides buses semi-weekly for trips to Dubai City Center and Sharjah City Center—which we never knew existed prior to that—thus preventing us from further burning a hole in our pockets on future trips.

Life returns and papers fly

The campus filled up rather slowly after the weekend, despite the fact that the first week of the Spring Semester has already begun. Nonetheless, the flurry of activities and rushing footsteps at the Registration building were definitely signs of returning life. The contrast between our situation and that of the rest of the students was slightly unnerving—they knew exactly where to go and who to meet for business while we needed serious aid. Thankfully we had help along the way to the different levels, offices and personnel, personified by a charming fellow student by the name Yaroob, who in fact, had been in IIUM just last year as an exchange student. For a guy entrusted with assisting four foreign students in securing class schedules and sections, he amazingly never seemed to run out of energy. It was practically smooth sailing from then on, with courses approved, registered and scheduled to start soon for all of us—well nearly all of us.

The forbidden zone

As efficient as Yaroob was in mediating the necessary arrangements—everyone else in the team was already a UOS student in every sense of the word by then—the effortless cruise was prematurely cut short at the College of Health Sciences, and I was effectively stranded since then. The situation I was in wasn’t one which could easily be solved with a brief exchange of words in eloquent local tongue or friendly open-palmed nuances. It was one that called for sheets upon sheets of signed papers. The issue was that unbeknownst to me, every single one of the courses I proposed to take was to be conducted on the female campus, for female students. I wasn’t sure how to react to this revelation—there was no way I could have foreseen such a twist! This, I was told, happened due to the extremely low number of males in the College, specifically in my current department, Environmental Health. From the amused look on the face of Dr. Mariam, the resident microbiologist and coordinator, I instantly realized that I had essentially walked right into the allegorical “female bathroom”—not that I intended to associate education with lavatories, of course. Nevertheless, she assured me that she would assist me as best as she could in getting the official permission for me to cross the boundary between the male and the female sides. After leaving my mobile number, which my good friend Ayesha has kindly lent me before my departure from Malaysia, I left the office while Dr. Mariam started making phone calls to the pertinent departments. It was only after a week of interdepartmental phone calls and faxing for Dr. Mariam, and persistent visits to her office for me, that we finally received the much awaited clearance. It was happy day for us—I was finally able to be a fully-functional undergrad in Sharjah, while Dr. Mariam was glad to end this headache. Having waited that long, I guess you can say that I was more than ready for Toxicology, Management of Domestic & Hazardous Wastes, Environmental Health Education & Promotion, Occupational Health & Safety, and Environmental Microbiology, which is handled by Dr. Mariam herself.

I recall thanking her earnestly and leaving her office—this time a happy man and with a bagful of useful ‘welcome gifts’ from the College. It was going to be a much more meaningful stay from then on.



It was 3.30 a.m. upon landing at the Dubai International Airport, approximately seven hours since our departure from Kuala Lumpur. With me were four other representatives from the International Islamic University Malaysia, three of them male—Ahmad Aiman, Mohammad Fazli and Yusuf Johari from the Kulliyyah of Engineering—and one female student, Fatimah Yusof, who’s also a Biotechnology major in my Kulliyyah.

We wasted no time in disembarking and moving to get our passports stamped and claim our baggage.

“How long will your visit be, sir?” The female officer at the counter asked me. I told her that I would be staying in the country for four months to study as an exchange student. She gave a confused look at the mention of the duration of my stay as well as the phrase ‘exchange student’, but nonetheless stamped my passport and let me through—“Welcome to UAE”, she said.

Not really sure about the kind of reception waiting, our group headed straight for the main entrance all the while keeping an eye out on signs that might just refer to the five of us in any way. True enough, a green sign bearing the words University of Sharjah greeted us just before we stepped out of the terminal. Our receiver was a man named Bashir, who would be driving us to the University in a van. He didn’t say much, only smiles and a pair of helpful hands for loading our things into the vehicle. The air outside was noticeably chilly though, around 15 to 17 degrees, something I had been told to expect from the winters in UAE. I was just glad to have the olive green jacket on my back even though it was uncomfortably warm in the Emirates Airlines cabin.

Settling in

Nothing much could be seen along the journey on the highway between Dubai and Sharjah, as it was still dark and not to mention the screens were severely misting up from the low temperature. After about an hour’s drive, we finally reached University City, a wide expanse of land secured around the perimeter with a sturdy palatial fence and lavish gates. The whole setting was impressive, almost regal with its monumental structures and endless lines of palm trees guarding both sides of the road like dutiful sentries. It took us a few more minutes to navigate the long boulevards within the estate to arrive at the Male Colleges where I and the other three males were to alight. Fatimah was then taken to the other side of the city specified for the women.

Only when I started to unload my things from the back of the van did I notice that Sharjah was in fact As-Shariqah in Arabic—the difference, I later learned, is due to the variation in the way the letter qaf is pronounced colloquially. That was probably the first of what would later be a series of enlightening pieces of information and knowledge regarding the Arabic language and Emirati culture as the days progressed.

We were received by warm hands at the office of the male dormitories. After a brief exchange of greetings and confirming our names to be as printed on the facsimile they received, the officer assigned two temporary rooms for us—I shared mine with Aiman while Fazli went with Yusuf. Our room was the size of an average bedroom, complete with a kitchen counter, a private bath as well as the locally indispensable air-conditioner for the hot and dry afternoons of the Middle East—perfectly comfortable.

The next morning, we were directed to another office for the male dorms, possibly the main one from the looks of it. This time, two supervisors were receiving us—with wide, enthusiastic smiles and a generous bowl of toffees and chocolates meant to ensure us that we were in fact, at home in this academic kingdom. They assigned us our permanent rooms—this time I was paired with Fazli—at another building, Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas. Though I was hoping for a more diverse room environment with perhaps locals for roommates, it was understandably a practical arrangement for the four of us to be sufficiently close for easy access to one another, especially in our first days in Sharjah. They also gave us instructions on the rest of the items on our itinerary, namely meeting the Dean of Student Affairs and the Chancellor, student ID registration, declaring majors, visa application, and course scheduling, among other things. It was essential for us to make our presence official as soon as possible, so we didn’t waste much time and got down to unpacking and preparing for the official meeting.

The official reception

For the first time since our arrival, we set foot at the heart of the campus where the Colleges, classrooms and academic offices were located. A huge square with a tranquil fountain lay at the middle while the connected buildings flank the three sides of the square, forming an angular U-shaped complex. Seagulls as white as the campus structures flew and frolicked all over the place, apparently having a special niche of their own here.

We were first taken to meet Dr. Abdalla Falah El Mneizel, the Dean of Student Affairs (Men) who had a jovial air about him, as well as an easy laugh. He assured us that our stay here would be well-facilitated, especially in terms of registration and that all of us were welcome to seek his assistance anytime.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the pleasure of an audience with the Chancellor, Dr. Ismail Mohammed Al Bishri due to a previous engagement he had to attend to. Nevertheless, the Assistant to the Chancellor, Dr. Esam El-Din Ibrahim Agamy received us well on his behalf. Our presence at the University of Sharjah campus was thus official, now that we have been received by the University’s figures of authority. It was then time to get down to business as students—registering was next on our list.

The ‘missing’ report

Things took a different turn just as we proceeded to the Student Registration unit. The officer, who oversaw the issuance of course schedules, requested for our medical checkup results, which none of us had—our results were all with the International Students’ Office back in IIUM—save for Yusuf who apparently got to keep his. This was certainly unexpected; we’d brought everything else we thought was pertinent to confirm the validity of our presence—the offer letter, passport, student ID card; definitely pertinent materials. Either the fax from IIU has yet to reach this unit, or checking hard copies of medical examination reports was a routine practice.

Tension was beginning to build up in the office as we attempted to explain how we haven’t got the required documents with us, and show him the rest of the documents we brought. Confusion was unmistakable from the man’s face, and finally he asked for only our passport photos, four pieces to be exact. This too, wasn’t possible at that moment—I for one, had only two pieces left—and in the end we agreed to return to his office after the weekend, since it was already Wednesday and the weekend falls on Thursdays and Fridays in this country.

As grand as the campus was, this University lacked the town-like convenience enjoyed by the IIUM community in Gombak, with the banks and photo studios sorely missing. For that, we had no choice but to venture beyond the campus to get our photos as well as exchange some ringgits for the local dirhams. A trip to Dubai was agreed upon, and a cab was booked for us by the hostel officers who suggested that we head for Dubai City Center, which sounded nice enough. With four months ahead of us, we might as well get acquainted with the renowned Middle Eastern tourism hub—virtually the second capital of the Emirates. Why wait until later?