Find her familiar? Melissa Yoong was a GoBeyond writer and is one of the people who made this website possible. While she had to leave the team physically to pursue an internship in Dubai, her adventurous spirit did not leave us. Here's Mel's first diary post, featuring her first driving lesson in the Middle East. We couldn't stop chuckling to her driving instructor's rigid, almost military way of teaching Mel while imparting nuggets of wisdom and occasional cries of help from Allah!
The first lesson does not begin well.
I have not brought my letter of no objection to a male instructor, a reminder that the shiny, sleek skyscrapers of Dubai belie a deep-seated conservatism. My instructor Faraz, burly and intimidating, is not impressed. He marches me to the registration counter inside the driving school building, where a supervisor verifies and signs off on my 100 dirham receipt. (Yes, the letter cost 100 AED. That’s 34 SGD. Women also need to get letters of no objection to their driving lessons from their employers, husbands, or fathers, but these at least are free. Small mercies…)
We then head to the car, where I open the door and get into the driver’s seat for the first time in my life. My driving experience so far has consisted solely of feeble attempts to play GTA, as well as a one-hour simulator session in the driving institute in which donkeys (not camels, SURPRISE) would abruptly trot onto the road and I had to brake within less than 1.5 seconds or the words ‘ANIMAL ACCIDENT’ would flash across the screen reprovingly in large neon letters.
I sit, uncertain and unprepared, while Faraz goes over the necessary vehicle checks. He refers to DSSSM (Doors-Seat-Steering Wheel-Seatbelt-Mirrors), one of the many acronyms I learned during the 8 hours of driving theory lectures I’ve had to attend. When it comes to adjusting the steering wheel, I have difficulty extracting the lever.
“Did you eat breakfast?” demands Faraz. “Do you go to the gym?” He yanks the lever down with ease. When everything is in its rightful position, he says, imperiously, “Now make right.”
“But… won’t I hit the car on the right?” I venture, glancing nervously at the vehicle parked diagonally ahead of me. Faraz squints at me through his sunglasses in impatience. “When you are in this car, you do what I tell you.” Cowed, I ease the car out of the parking lot. To my surprise, it goes BACKWARDS. I had been completely oblivious to the fact that the gear stick was set in reverse.
The car turns out to be a lot heavier and than I expected and moving it requires visible effort on my part. Faraz brusquely repeats his advice to eat a more substantial breakfast and consider a gym membership. “Now make straight,” he commands. I turn the steering wheel to the left with as much strength as I can muster on a Friday morning. The car banks left sharply, and Faraz stomps on the emergency brake. “Allah,” he says, kneading the space between his brows.
He puts the car in reverse again and tells me to proceed slowly and carefully. The brake turns out to be a lot more sensitive than the one on the simulator. The car snaps back and forth on its chassis, jolting Faraz backwards in his seat. “Allah,” he says, cradling his head in his right hand. “Allah help me.”
Eventually, my car is aligned with the circuit. I set off at the breakneck speed of 10 km/h, my foot resting lightly on the accelerator. Faraz directs me with a terse “right” or “left” at the turns, frowning heavily.
The silence amplifies my nervousness, and I attempt to make awkward small talk, feeding Faraz a few fun facts about Singapore. (“DO YOU KNOW THAT YOU CANNOT BRING CHEWING GUM INTO SINGAPORE???” Gets them every time!)
Ultimately, it is the talk of politics that brings Faraz to life. When he learns that my undergrad degree was in politics, we talk about US military intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia. From him I learn conspiracy theories about the real reasons why conflict in Waziristan persists, and why Gwadar Port was offered to a Chinese firm.
He complains that the only news of Pakistan in the Western media is that of bombings and the Taliban. “If you go to Karachi, there is peace, it is safe!” I nod furiously in agreement, reminded of my friends’ and family’s concerns about thieves, terrorists, and a lack of toilet paper when told of my plan to live in the Middle East for two years.
As I carefully navigate a U-turn, my instructor sneezes. “Bless you,” I say instinctively. “Do you have religion?” asks Faraz.
I brace myself. “…no,” I answer, cautiously. As a free thinker I am often seen as conversion fodder, and the last thing I want is to be preached to by a man who can stop and start the small, confined space we are in at will.
My fears turn out to be unfounded. Faraz’s brand of evangelism is interesting and anecdotal rather than didactic. “Do you know,” he says, seriously, “that when we sneeze our brains stop for a nanosecond?”
“Really?” I ask. “Yes!” he replies. “So every time Muslims sneeze, we thank Allah that we are still alive after.”
He tells me the story of an astronomer who scoffed and shut the Qur’an upon reading that Allah had split the moon in half, but later looked through a telescope and discovered that THERE IS INDEED A SCAR ACROSS THE MOON. (When I later recount this story to my best friend, she says “…did he tell you this story because you split something in half?”)
“You remember that I don’t shake your hand?” he asks. I’d assumed that it was because I had not arrived armed with a letter of no objection. “It’s because you are woman.” I start to fear that I am driving into sexist territory.
“Islam is about men respecting women,” Faraz declares. I think of the designation of specific areas in the metro carriages and public buses for women. In Dubai, the segregation of the genders in public transport can seem unnecessary and oppressive to an outsider, as I was and arguably still am. But on the other side of the coin (or the MOON), many locals see it as an expression of respect, the creation of space for women who might otherwise prefer or have to stay at home.
“Islam says boyfriends and girlfriends are haram,” Faraz continues. “I think this is good because these days boys and girls date for one day, two days, then they change… like Chinese mobile phones!” It’s a thoroughly modern take on a traditional concept, and I can’t help but chuckle.
The lesson comes to an end, and I park headfirst, as driving newbies do. “We are siblings now,” Faraz proclaims, the skepticism and displeasure that he wore two hours ago now melted away. “I am your brother Faraz, and you are my Singaporean sister.” He drops me off at the petrol station instead of leaving me to trek to a taxi stand under the watchful glare of Dubai’s summer sun, as brothers do.