(Today’s Daily Prompt suggested we write about our first day at something.)
This is what happened when I rocked up for my first day in a new job in a new country – and a new culture.
My instructions were to sign in at the office at 8 a.m. and call someone to arrange a car to take me for the medical tests that are a sine qua non to be allowed to stay in the UAE. I’d have thought they could have arranged the car on my behalf, but perhaps it was meant to be some kind of incentive test.
After eventually making myself understood to the doorman (not yet having picked up the peculiar lingo that is the normal medium of exchange between English speakers and Asians), I was ushered into a VIP waiting area, where I sat and leafed through an Ikea catalogue – in Arabic.
Before very long a driver, in full Emirati fig, appeared and indicated I should follow him. Somewhat disappointingly, we marched straight past a line of several gleaming white BMW 750s to a Toyota Corolla.
Thus my humble place in the overall scheme of things was immediately made clear.
We drove first to a nondescript typing/photocopying booth where, in exchange for 17 dirhams, two passport photos, a copy of my passport and my visa, I was handed an official-looking piece of paper typed up in Arabic.
We set off again. Our next stop was a ramshackle prefabricated building behind a modern-looking hospital. It consisted of one room with a long counter and a large waiting area, which was fortunately deserted. The driver took my documents and marched up to the one person loitering behind the counter. There followed an incomprehensible (to me) conversation, the net result of which was that we were directed elsewhere.
This was my first experience of what I later realised is the first rule of dealing with official procedures in Abu Dhabi: that wherever you go to in the first instance, you will always be sent somewhere else.
The driver marched out, with me following him like a faithful dog (it’s amazing how quickly Stockholm Syndrome kicks in) to a similar room, somewhat larger but equally deserted. We went up to the counter, where I was invited to hand over 300 dirhams. To this day, I have no idea what for.
This was something of a problem, as I only had 285 dirhams on my person (nobody had told me that money was needed to complete these various procedures). I explained this to the driver, who rolled his eyes and with a great show of reluctance handed over the requisite amount himself.
We set off in the car again. After a few minutes he pulled into a car park, got out and told me to wait while he went into yet another rundown edifice. He came back a few minutes later and without explanation we drove off again. During this journey he had a very animated conversation on his mobile phone.
We ended up back where we started, at the same nondescript typing booth.
This was my first experience of the second rule of Abu Dhabi bureaucracy: that eventually you will have to go back to square one.
Another Corolla (the next one to mine in terms of numerical sequence of licence plates, I noticed) pulled up, its driver got out and engaged in another intense-sounding duologue with my man. Apparently, I needed another copy of my employment visa and three more passport photos.
These having been obtained, I was finally taken to a health clinic for the serious stuff. We started in a corner office, where my myriad photos were attached to variously coloured copies of yet another form. This was followed by a burst of high-octane rubber-stamping of everything in sight.
A brusque Arab woman then took my blood pressure (140/80, which I felt wasn’t too bad in the circumstances), perfunctorily tested my eyes – becoming much agitated at my inability to see anything out of my right eye – and measured my height and weight.
A kindly looking English-speaking (at last!) doctor then listened to my chest, took a quick count of my bits (all present and correct) and asked a few general questions (only twenty units a week, honest) before sending me off for an x-ray.
After that, I was despatched to the laboratory, where I was invited to offer up some blood and then given a plastic cup in which to provide a urine sample. Not a minute too soon, either.
I performed this duty in a very shabby-looking gents toilet which, rather unhygienically, lacked anything to wipe anything on. I went back to the brusque Arab lady and proudly proffered her the bottle. She indicated that I should open it, whereupon she dipped a stick in and, with some distaste, told me to throw the rest away.
This concluded the morning’s entertainment, because I was then driven back to the office, where I was closely shadowed by my driver to the ninth floor, where someone thankfully gave him 300 dirhams to go away.
Finally, I was introduced to my new workmates – who, it quickly transpired, had no idea that I was coming, who I was, or that I was about to take over half their duties. #awkward.
But that’s another story…