I’ve lived in the Middle East for five years now and like to think I know what is needed in terms of cultural appropriateness. Having regular visitors for work who are entirely unprepared for life in the Arabian Gulf helps further confirm that I am an ‘expert’ of a certain kind in dress, speech, behavior.
Every once in a while though, I get a prick, like that of the needle at the doctor’s office that withdraws blood, which seeps at my confidence and reminds me I’m not a Muslim nor an Arab and I still have some things to learn. This happened most recently yesterday when I discovered I had been responsible for the very religious people in my office consuming alcohol. Now this is slightly hilarious because when people who feel strongly about not being around alcohol come around to our house, I put away the bar and my husband’s generally plentiful stock.
This isn’t because we have anything to hide but in my mind a sign of respect. Because while people may watch any kind of movie, listen to all musicians, and tolerate any kind of speech, when it comes to alcohol there is a big, black line which should not be crossed.The opinions on this area as varied as that of Christians and the interpretation of the Apostle Paul ‘not to be drunk with wine’ but when I know where someone stands, I respect it – as a large non drinker myself, I love the fact that in the Middle East no one has to explain why he/she doesn’t drink. (I’ve written about this before elsewhere on the blog).
Imagine my surprise when my innocent act of generously sharing my abundance of chocolate – a tradition that many Arab offices have chocolates or nibbles on hand for visitors – with the office exposed my ignorance of the chocolate industry. Being pregnant, people keep bringing me truffles, boxes of sweets, cookies, etc. which my husband and I were trying not to eat ourselves.
“More!” I said waving a box of truffles from Switerzland in the doorway to one of the larger rooms where at least four people have their work stations.
“Did we tell you about the last box?”
One of my co-workers, who wears hijab – the woman’s head scarf – and doesn’t shake hands with non-relative men asked me.
“No,” I said, thinking back to the last layer in the box of treats given to me by a Swedish friend. I had brought the box in on a Saturday while we were working on a personal project, thinking to lighten the fact of having a mid-day meeting on the weekend.
The challenge with getting chocolates around in a country like Qatar is that the heat of the day instantly renders them into mush. It’s not just any day I can take them in but a day in which I go straight in to the office without prior meetings or errands which can be rare depending on the week. The foresight I put into taking in my special deliveries never once included thinking about the ingredients.
The Arab staff in my office are very holy people and they are a good influence on me and unborn baby in my increasing stages of discontent, irritation, and overall inability to shake things off that are otherwise than they should be. Their “don’t worry about it” or ready laughter really helps me rein in unbridled emotions. They pray regularly and two fast twice a week. Around this climate of spiritual discipline and reverence we manage to laugh and have a good time. It’s a great balance. And this is where I was taking boxes of Swedish and Swiss chocolates – that had tiny, inestimably small amounts of champagne and other alcoholic drinks.
“Well, maybe not this one,” I said, recovering from my shock and preparing to read the ingredients out loud.
“Sugar, flour, fructose, sucrose, Dom Perignon Champagne…”
Yup, even the truffles from the W hotel, had a trace.
Thankfully we laughed at my unholy influence on the rest of them and thought this would be a good idea for an episode on the sitcom we’d like to write: “The Office: Middle East edition.”