Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Desert Time

I grew up in a very punctual household. You had to be On Time. For example, if my dad said we were leaving at 7am, he actually meant that you needed to be sitting waiting in the car at least five minutes before that. And it has become pretty much an ingrained habit. I am always On Time, I get up early and go to bed at a reasonable hour. This, while admirable, is completely useless in the Arabian Gulf.

Time here flows differently. Or at least, it feels that way to me.

The first thing newly arrived expatriates have to get used to is that it is two hours ahead of South Africa. This is fairly easy to get used to, and by your second day in the country, you’re probably settled.

The fact that the week runs differently is a lot harder to get used to. The week starts on a Saturday and ends on a Friday. In other words, your weekend is on a Thursday and Friday. So by the time your family at home in South Africa are getting ready to have their weekend braai, you’re already back at work or taking the kids to school.

At first, I dealt with this by calling a Thursday a Saturday and a Friday a Sunday. But that doesn’t work for long as you end up getting totally muddled as to what day of the week it actually is. You have to just get used to it. But its quite hard to do, and an American expatriate friend, who has been here three years already, admits she still gets confused.

I dislike Wednesdays the most. Because despite the fact that I know the following two days are going to be weekend, it still feels like mid-week to me. And hearing the neighbours children play outside till late on a Wednesday night still bothers me. I half want to shout out the window that it’s a school night, and they should go to bed!

But at least our household all runs on the same week. Not all households do. Because some international companies, still run on a “Western” week, which means that the parents may not have the same weekends as their children! And some companies choose rather to have their weekends on Fridays and Saturdays. So in essence, one family’s weekend can stretch over four days!

Shopping hours are also extremely varied. The Post Office stays open from 7 am to midnight. Except on weekends and public holidays, when it stays open from 7am to 2pm, and then opens again from 5pm to 8pm. Banks are open from 7am to 1pm. And some are open in again in the evenings. Government departments are open from 7am to 2pm. Except for Tuesdays, which are “long days”. Which means that some (not all) government departments will stay open until 5pm.

The big shopping malls are generally open from 8am to 11pm. Some shops (and the smaller shopping centres) are open from 8am to 2pm and then again from 4pm to 11pm. But some shops in the malls only open at 10am. On Fridays, the smaller shopping centres only open at 4pm.The peak shopping times on any day of the week are from 5pm to about 10pm. Its simply too hot to go out during the day in the summer, so everything is tailored around doing things when its cooler at night. Even the public play parks only open at 3pm.

And apparently things change again during Ramadan, when most shops, and all food shops, are closed completely between sunrise and sunset.

Its damn confusing.

And then you have the way people “speak” time. Every country appears to have its own time language – South Africa, for example, has the concept of “now now” or “just now”, which means to South Africans “in a little while”. It confuses the hell out of non-South Africans. “Now” means “this minute” or “immediately” to others, and when Saffies here tell someone they’ll be there “now now” it causes instant perplexity.

The UAE is no different. It also has its own time language. For example, if someone says to you “I will meet you today itself” it means they will actually be there today. If the speaker is being even more specific, they will say “today morning” or “today afternoon.” However, if the speaker says “today inshallah” it could actually mean anytime between now and never.

“Inshallah” literally means “god-willing” and you will find it peppered throughout peoples conversations. But when used in conjunction with time, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be a case of “hurry up and wait.”

Our electrician and air conditioning repairman are prime users of the phrase, and when one of them says that they will be at your house at “9 or 10 inshallah” you can be sure to expect them at 5pm. Or the next day.

And as frustrating as it is to hear (and to have to wait), you have to get used to it. And expats who have been here for a long time have completely accepted it. For example, a friend was waiting to get their DSL line installed at home. They were given a date two weeks ahead on which the line was to be installed. It wasn’t. He was incensed. He said that if they had said to him “two weeks inshallah” he would have known not to get uptight, but because they didn’t use the phrase, he expected it to be done on the day.

For a punctual person, it takes some getting used to. But I’ll get there. Inshallah.

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