When I found out I would be moving to the Middle East, naturally the first thing I did was get a guidebook and look up if there were any decent Chinese restaurants. Once I was assured that I could get Mapo tofu, or a reasonable facsimile, I started to browse through the book, ending up at a section called “Cultural Do’s and Don’ts,” and spent a pleasant evening with my husband telling him what would be expected of us as willing, respectful residents. “Hey,” I said, “it says here don’t show the soles of your feet when visiting an Emirati home.”
We both smiled. This is the sort of cultural exchange that makes travel and, indeed, living in a new place so damn interesting. I thought of that evening during our first year in Abu Dhabi when we finally did get invited into the home of an Emirati. Our hosts could not have been more gracious.
I, on the other hand, was a wreck. You tell me not to do something and my body goes into full-blown revolt. We all settled on the floor in front of a huge metal tray groaning with food. My hosts must have thought me possessed as I flopped this way and that trying to contain my feet, which threatened to spring out right into the hummus.
Adding to my angst, I noticed that my husband’s sock had a hole in it. I don’t know if there’s any cultural etiquette behind holey socks, but this being one of the world’s richest countries I doubt very much that many socks make it to the hole stage.
I also read in the guidebook that you shouldn’t touch anyone with your left hand. I’ve taken care of that by vowing while I am here never to touch another living human being. Easier that way.
I turned the page and read on, then I blanched.
“It says here that you can’t bounce a check.”
“What do you mean?”
Now my husband looked truly terrified. We have bounced so many checks I have no doubt there’s plenty still bouncing around in the bankosphere. And please, believe me, it was not done with any nefarious intent. My husband and I just happen to be money morons and are really bad at syncing up checks written with funds available. “So, like, if we bounce a check, they, like, what? Cut off your hands?” he asked.
“It doesn’t say. But, come on, it can’t be that drastic, can it?”
There are, as one would imagine, a great many hellish things that need to be procured when you move to a new city. Phone, cable, electricity, a car, a map so you know how to get to all the package stores to buy stuff, which you do with George Carlin’s riff on “stuff” booming through your head (“Their stuff is shit. Your shit is stuff”), as you wonder whether to buy the squat vase or the tall one, yellow towels or blue.
However, before you can start this spending frenzy you have to open a bank account.
So, first things first, and still battling jet lag, we hopped in a cab and headed to a big international bank, with me frantically fiddling with the AC fan the whole time, trying to get the pale stream of air cooling my kneecap up high enough to at least give my midsection a go.
The information desk directed us to the accounts department desk, who directed us to yet another desk where we were greeted by a South Asian man — Emirati men tend not to hold low or middle management jobs — who listened gravely to our request before getting up and leaving us to sit there for a good 20 minutes. The whole time he was gone my husband kept whispering, “Don’t let him push any checks on us. No checks. None. You’re better at saying no. Be strong. For me. For us. For god's sake, no checks.”
When the functionary finally returned he cordially asked us to follow him. We set off through the soaring lobby, with carpet so new that it seemed to spark when we walked on it, passed all the bank workers who nodded and smiled, out into the soaring heat (everything soars in this city), around to the side of the glass monolith, through a back door, up a tiny elevator to what looked like the staff lunchroom. By now, I was getting a little nervous. Did they know by merely looking at us what a bad bet we were? Was this when a cleric came in and, with all the authority of Allah, condemned us to . . . oh, perish the thought!
Again, we were left to sit. This time even my normally chatty husband sat silently. We practically cried out in fright when an eager young man came bounding in carrying a raft of papers.
He sat down with great fanfare and began to organize his papers into various piles. Then he turned to my husband. “What is your good name, sir?”
We were so struck by the loveliness of this question, our good name -- a gift from our fathers, a connection back to family and all that means -- we practically melted in gratitude. Good thing at that moment we were so fond of my husband’s name, because he was about to sign it to an ungodly amount of paperwork. ( I should add here that I had ceased to exist. Any questions about my getting a credit or debit card were deflected. Only after my husband had been vetted could there be any hope of my having my very own piece of plastic.)
First, though, our gentle banker placed carbon paper between all the forms. Carbon paper! We were sitting in a brand-new soaring building, all black glass and shiny chrome, and I felt like we were doing business with Bartleby, the Scrivener.
“Sign here, sir. Initial here. Sign, sign, sign. Please initial here, there and there.”
On and on it went until I burst out, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just put all this information directly into the computer?”
“No, this is important for our records.”
What a relief to know that our banking history couldn’t be wiped out by the errant flip of a switch; instead, it would live forever, in triplicate, in some -- no, not dusty -- some immaculately clean basement in this buffed citadel, this paean to modernity.
* * *
Along with not managing money very well, I also don’t seem to manage my bank cards either. At least three times a year I have that panicked moment when I know without a doubt that I have lost my card, or put it through the washing machine, or, by my hand, some other calamity has befallen it. Off to the bank I go, full of apologies, and in due haste I am given another card.
When the last of the papers was signed, we looked expectantly at the door, figuring yet another banker would bring in our new card, perhaps laid out on a pillow. It bloody well deserved to be. But no one appeared, and finally we asked, "Where’s the card?"
“That, my good sir, will arrive in two to three weeks.”
My husband, recovering somewhat from the shock, asked, his voice tinged with hope, “Can we at least get some checks in the meantime?”