I’ve been back in the US for a month now. And, just as it is for Fatima’s children in “The Night Counter,” weather seems the first thing people want to talk about, people who aren’t even estranged relatives who can’t think of anything else to say to me. Everyone–friend, foe and stranger–wants to talk about how hot it is. Everyone but me. Not that I don’t remember the days of having really good weather conversations. But then I moved to Abu Dhabi. Perhaps just as we often can’t think of anything else to talk about with estranged relatives, weather itself is relative.
I spent most of the first month of my trip back in Virginia, where temperatures were hovering at 100 degrees. While thinking I love this balmy weather, and everyone else around me is flustered, mumbling about humidity indexes and looking for lemonade all the time.
There was a time I would have been right in there with the conversation. But honestly, you don’t know hot weather until you know Abu Dhabi hot. A place so hot that air conditioners have to be kept on 24 hours a dayfor about six months with windows firmly shut or within less than hour you’ll see green mold spreading on your window. So humid that the minute you step out the door, your glasses are blinded by humidity. So sunny that most people can’t see without their shades, so you have to scammer from building to car to building with those fogged up shades. So polluted that asthma attacks go way up and no one goes out if they don’t have to. The dominant smell in the air is unbearable multi-cultural body odor. And looking good, forget it–dripping, red-faced, hair so frizzed out it looks like it was plugged into an electrical socket, and perhaps another reason the abaya and shayla is favored by women here. While it doesn’t spare you from the heat, at least it spares you some of its wrath, like sunburns, which I suspect was the origination of the local dress code.
But most people don’t know Abu Dhabi hot, not even an Iraqi professor I met up with in New York who told me New York is an amazing city if just wasn’t so hot. “You, too?” I said. “But Iraq has temperatures way higher than this.” “But it’s a dry heat,” he reminded me, reaching out for the hot air as if he could catch it while I looked upon it as a cool breeze.
I don’t question how native people in Abu Dhabi survive today, just like I don’t deny the scary aspects of weather not related to temprature, like tornadoes, but when my Abu Dhabi students claim to be weak or unable to do something, I remind that they come a formidable gene pool because it somehow survived this desert without any form of relief for centuries. Today of course, there is almost no reason for them to ever be away from air conditioning. If they do need something that requires them to be outside, like constructing a building or watering a garden, they can hire a foreigner who comes from a town so poor that he’d rather suffer the weather than no house for himself and his family. Thus, the hot weather becomes relative to poverty.
But even the poorest person in Abu Dhabi gets to sleep in air conditioning and that’s not always the case the US, where air conditioning doesn’t seem like a financially wise or possible solution to dealing with relatively extreme heat, especially when an investment has to also be made in relatively extreme cold later in the year. Just like for those construction workers in Abu Dhabi, weather is not small talk–it is life and death at the worst and extreme discomfort at the best. So while I’m loving being back in relatively glorious weather, my thrill at being able to be outdoors is actual a relative privilege, just like it is to have family, whether or not you can think of anything to say to each other besides, “Hot enough for you today?”