We filed through thick, 10 foot double wooden doors into a large room. In the center of the room was a heavy U-shaped wooden table with white leather chairs stationed around its outer edge. The U opened toward a built-in cabinet and large white screen. We collectively gasped - it seemed more like a boardroom in the world headquarters of a multinational corporation than a room for meetings in a small city. On closer inspection, we would find that the table was edged in gold, with golden claw feet. On the table, facing each chair was a darkened flatscreen.
We scurried around, deciding where the presenters would sit for each team, where the client would sit, who would control the Powerpoints. Sheela and I, presenters for the CSR team, sunk into the smooth leather chair in the middle of one arm of the U, farthest from the door. Karen positioned herself across from us. The team took most of the remaining chairs, leaving several at the curved end for our client and their executive who would hear the summary of our projects. At one point, we thought it would be the mayor himself who would review our work. Tahir plugged a cord into his laptop; we all gasped again when the first slide of our presentation flashed sixteen times onto the flatscreens waiting on the table.
Our project sponsors walked into the room, offering greetings. A man in a striped vest and cravat began to pour the traditional single sip of Arabic coffee into white demitasse cups with a gold rim and the red logo of the Municipality. Eventually, another Emirati would enter, dressed in the white dishtash and head scarf. He would shake hands with his colleagues, nod to us and sit in the central seat at the end of the table. Pigeons cooed and fluttered loudly outside the window.
Knowledge Management subteam & sponsors
We had been told that the Knowledge Management subteam would complete their presentation first. Each team had 15 minutes to summarize the month of their efforts, followed by a 10-minute Q&A. As Karen began the KM presentation, the pigeons seemed to get louder and louder, bobbing back and forth and fluttering to and from their perch right outside the window. They were in my line of sight as I looked at Karen, distracting. The Emiratis at the end of the table looked at her, their faces unreadable. The uniformed man returned with his small tray to collect the white china cups and replace them with hot sweet tea in small glass mugs. Cups clattered and the pigeons cooed. I noticed my tea was not the usual caramel color but a greenish-yellow; only the Emiratis had a similar tea. I pinched the glass handle between my thumb and finger and quickly tasted: it had the herbed flavor of a Ricola cough drop.
CSR subteam & sponsors
Faiz, our graphics expert on the team, had spent the last couple of days designing a one page flyer that summarized a month of work in an easy-to-read format. We had it copied and, as the meeting started, passed it to our primary project sponsor L at the end of the table. He shuffled it out of the heavy cardboard folder with the Municipality logo and passed it around to the other Emiratis. For a long moment, I wondered who would speak next: I had asked L if he would like to say a few words to kick off our presentation to his superior. He began to introduce our CSR project and I turned around to catch the eye of Tahir, Faiz and Felipe, glad he wanted to take ownership of the work we had done. And then, it was my turn. I quickly marched through the introduction to our project, method and the CSR strategy we had developed jointly with department representatives of the Municipality. As I talked, the senior Emirati nodded occasionally with a relaxed face as he listened, his dark eyes intense. And then he asked a question, and another. I talked a little about how the Gulf and Middle East region is turning traditional CSR on its head and initiating social and environmental programs from the public sector, instead of the private, and emphasizing that the strategy and initiatives we had developed over the past month could set Al Ain on a track toward its goal of global recognition in CSR. It was a compelling message and one that we had seen resonate in every meeting, as it did again. Then I transitioned to Sheela, who spoke about the priority areas we had identified for the next 3 years and the 36 initiatives we were proposing to begin executing on the new strategy. And then, just like that, our project was over. #ibmcsc uae
In the third week of my absence, after a few days of relative calm routine back in TN, my family was back to having a hard time. It took the form of Alex acting out at school again. A note was sent home about his behavior and the immediate handling of the issue came from Daddy. After that, I told him in my harshest Mommy voice, from half a world away via Skype, that his behavior was unacceptable and would not be repeated. Thankfully, he's still young enough not to know that there was nothing I could do from the UAE and the last couple days of the week ended peacefully, with the direction-following respect-for-the-teacher all little 1st graders should have.
That weekend, I started getting texts from Steve, asking when exactly I was coming home. It quickly became apparent he was pretty well done with single parenting. One week to go.
And then the final week: fall break. Alex was off school for the entire final week I was gone. I had asked Steve for months prior to the trip what he had planned for fall break. His answer changed each week until the time I left, suggesting there was really no plan at all. Eventually, I decided I had to let this one go and I truly didn't think about it until the final week, when I learned that the plan was to take Alex to work for half days and then our favorite babysitter would come to stay with him in the afternoons. Sophie would continue to go daily to her preschool. I was skeptical it would work for Alex but I bit my tongue, since a goal for this experience was to step back from taking central responsibility for my family's life. By midweek, there was a new plan and several more texts about how excited they would be to have me home.
I'm proud to say I didn't feel guilty. Working motherhood is incredibly, painfully, exhaustingly difficult. Being good at a career and being a good mother dip from the same well, and over the past 6+ years, I've drained it dry. I stayed committed to my idea that I came to my CSC experience to grow and have fun and take risks, all of which were happening in abundance. I allowed myself to live in the precious moment, right where I was. The fact that my family missed me and realized how important I am to them was a bonus. #ibmcsc uae
Once you're a speech-language pathologist, you always are, I guess. You can imagine that having so many English-as-a-second-(or fifth)-language speakers around, I'd be having a blast figuring out what was going on with everyone's speech as they applied the sound system (phonology) of their own language to English.
Mostly I was just jealous, since one of the great tragedies of my existence is that I absolutely cannot roll an [r]. Never have been able to. And not for a lack of trying over the course of my rather extensive number of years on this planet. Try as I might, it just sounds like a cat hacking up a furball. Or gargling. Or something that's not the smooth, exotic, flair-ridden speech that pretty much everyone who isn't American (or Canadian, sorry Tahir!) on the team enjoyed. And, since I had Felipe, Imane and Sheela on my project team, with their ridiculously delightful rolling [r]s flying all over the place continuously, I had to have my nose rubbed in my own distinct inadequacy pretty much every other syllable for a month of endless conversations.
Nonetheless, I was pretty good at identifying the substitutions that any non-native speaker will make when speaking a different language. Of course, they varied depending on who was doing the speaking. I was good at imitating some of them too. Trust me when I say I had a bunch of fun imitating my face off. (Since we were doing a strategy project, I pretty much never said the commonly-needed word VISION with a [v]) But I could not for the life of me create the trills or the huge number of non-English sounds produced at the palatal, velar, uvula, or pharyngeal places of articulation (back of the mouth and throat for you non-linguist readers out there). Those I couldn't even hear the differences among, let alone produce. It was straight to a hacking, gargling cat. I was mortified. I probably should be stripped of my linguistics tiara. (but I'll fight to the death to keep it!)
A couple of times I helped one of my colleagues produce an item using the standard English phonemes. But then that made me sad because it lost that awesome, exotic, trilling and flapping flair. It just sounded flat and boring, kinda like how I talk. Well, that's not fun at all. Stopped doing that pretty much as soon as I started and developed an attitude problem about speech therapy for accent reduction besides.
See? I'm totally not making it up - here's 8 phonetic inventories!
On our next-to-last day, I had a little break while my colleagues were finishing up some stuff before a team review. And then I really geeked out, linguistics style. I decided to write the phonetic inventories (a listing of all sounds) in all the languages represented by our team. What a super-radical fun thing to do! (if you're reading this and thinking, yeah, that's about as much fun as filling a salt shaker with a teeny pair of tweezers... well then, you seriously need to re-evaluate your notion of fun, my friend). So here's what I learned:
1. I mapped 8 languages: Japanese, Malayalam, Hindi-Urdu, Mandarin, Arabic, English, Spanish, and German. The Indians got 2 languages, just because they're special.
2. These 8 languages include a total of 59 consonant sounds.
3. These 8 languages only share 11 sounds (isn't that amazing??!?!?): [b], [p], [t], [d], [k], [g], [m], [n], [s], [l] and [j] (this is the "y" sound in "yellow"). Six of these are stops (produced by stopping airflow then releasing, they're the first 6 in the list just before this sentence).
4. Arabic has more sounds than English and many of them are produced at the back of the mouth and throat. Spanish and Malayalam also share the trilled [r]. (jealous!)
5. Malayalam also has a lot of sounds produced at the back of the mouth, especially those released through the nose (nasals). English only has 3 nasals - Malayalam has 6!
6. German and Arabic are the only of our 8 languages that have sounds produced at the uvula (that dangly thing at the back of the throat).
7. German has some interesting things going on with affricates (example is "ch" sound in English) but I'd have to study the whole thing some more to figure out what. I do know I gave Stephan a hard time about his affricates, poor thing!
8. Mandarin has surprisingly few consonants and vowels in comparison to the others. This makes sense since it's a tonal language, but actually looking up the phonetic inventory really made this hit home.
9. I couldn't even guess what to do with my tongue to make some of these sounds, in spite of knowing the anatomy. Just trying to figure it out for a couple of German and Malayalam sounds knotted my brain so much I was rendered catatonic.
So, I'm sure there's way more to know here but, as I mentioned, it was a SHORT break before we reviewed our final client presentation. Do you see what a team player I am??? I shortcircuited my own pressing, encompassing inquiry in the name of team collaboration. Whew. How global I'm becoming.
The bottom line for me? English is boring. I need to learn another language. And somehow, some way, I gotta figure out how to roll an [r]. #ibmcsc uae
Well, if you've been following the vblog series Meet the Team, you'll know I had to do a whole lot of cat-wrangling to get videos of everyone. And yet, alas, I didn't get everyone.
Probably our most critical member was not an IBMer but our local facilitator, Imane. She worked for the NGO (non-governmental organization) that implemented our Corporate Service Corp program locally in Al Ain. As such, she negotiated our accomodations at the hotel, transportation to and from the airport and client, developed the Statements of Work for both projects and provided support to us throughout the month in Al Ain. But she was so much more than that.
As soon as I met her, I felt that spark of recognition you get when you meet a new lifelong friend. Imane is originally from Morocco (one of 6 children) and now lives in Dubai with her dashing American husband. She is warm, caring, honest, open, generous and absolutely hilarious. She's the one I consulted with my most pressing questions: the potty, abayas, being Muslim, being a Muslim woman. She made me taste stuff (even eggs! ack), tossing her favorite phrase, "life is short."
She kept all of us laughing the entire time we were there - and I can say that the combo of Imane, Sheela and me probably bordered on being intolerable since we laughed so much. She has much to say and firm opinions, the product of her intelligence and broad experiences traveling the world. And, like other teammates who I admired so much, she spoke multiple languages. One morning Imane and I went for coffee: she chatted with the team and took orders in English, met a friend in the hall for a quick chat in Arabic, took a phone call in French, ordered the coffee in English, another hallway chat in Arabic and made a crack at Felipe in Spanish when we got back to the room. Astonishing. I was also amazed to watch her quickly develop 11 plans for all of us on our last day in the UAE. Seemingly without effort and within about a millisecond, she came up with options for how each of us could spend our remaining time: where to stay, how to get there and then to the airport, what to do and where to stash our luggage. And then made the arrangements. Without even batting an eyelash. Eleven times! All of us were scattering like rabbits! As if this isn't enough, she cooks (treated us to a lovely Moroccan tea at her home) and she can trill an [r] like nobody's business.
I'm totally bummed not to have the video so you could see her expressive face and frenetic waving of hands as she rapid-fires conversation. I already miss her a ton. Thank you is inadequate, Imane. Until next time... #ibmcsc uae
Four white SUVs pulled up to the hotel, driven by 4 men in white dishtash. The red logo of Al Ain Municipality sparkled from their doors, signaling the official caravan that would take us to a Municipality retreat in the desert beyond the limits of Al Ain. The 12 of us piled in and the drivers sped away from the hotel, one behind the other, driving for about 20 minutes until buildings gave way to the red sand of the desert. The white SUVs entered a chain link fence, containing perhaps two acres of flat sand, with a 3-sided palm front hut and maybe two other small huts. As we stepped from the cars, our host D sauntered out to meet us in bare feet. The Municipality's reserved area looked barren, as did the rolling dunes beyond the fence. A hot breeze blew across the flat red sand.
D welcomed us and led us to the palm hut, where the floor was covered by patterns carpets topped with rectangular cushions and, on top of them, large square pillows. A flat screen TV stood in the corner. He invited us to look around and make ourselves at home. We had been told the dress code was smart casual, so most of us were wearing work clothes. With a shrug, we removed our shoes and placed our belongings on the pillows, then walked from the hut across the sand to the far end of the fenced area. One knotted tree stood just outside the chain link, tangled and thirsty. Beyond it, the sun sank toward the horizon, deepening from white to orange. We glanced at each other, unsure what to do here in the corner of a large expanse of fenced sand. Two other of our project sponsors sauntered over to D and conversed in Arabic. Then, our hosts sat down onto the sand, some sitting crosslegged or other on their legs folded under them, looking expectant. Some of us would glance down at our work clothes, then sink onto the warm sand ourselves. The conversation was tentative as several of the team dug holes in the sand and the shadows of the fence grew.
A bit later, our host trudged across the sand back to the huts and returned, holding a volleyball and soccer ball below his triumphant smile. The men got up en masse and began kicking the futbol to each other in a large circle; eventually they would start an impromptu game with the Emirati men on the open plain of sand. The rest of us, all women, sat down on a large carpet they dragged out from the huts and talked and chatted until the sun sank below the horizon.
Guy stuff temporarily discarded for futbol!
As darkness descended, we wandered back to the 3-sided palm hut. Here we were mesmerized by a large buffet table filled with traditional Arabic foods. We numbered about 18 people in total but the feast was enough for 40, perhaps more. We were told it is traditional to return for more food three times and beckoned to start. Large stainless steel pans of curry were flanked by china bowls of salad - cabbage with zata'ar, fatoosh, tabbouli - hummus, pita bread. On the far table were two enormous platters, each filled with a mountain of rice and, perched on top, a whole roasted lamb, crowned by its head. Two young women of Philippino descent poured thick juice from pitchers into tall glasses as we sat on low pillows and ate to nearly bursting.
After the meal, our hosts huddled in the corner, speaking to Imane. D turned and asked us all to take our seats. Then, one by one, he called each of us to the front and presented us with a certificate and an engraved glass statue, gifts of thanks for our work with the Municipality. He shook our hand and the bright light from a camera lit up the room. Then all of us would settle back onto our cushions and our hosts would ask us to each tell our favorite thing in Al Ain or the UAE. The evening complete, we trudged back through the warm night breeze to the waiting SUVs, which would drive us back to the hotel. #ibmcsc uae
And, last but definitely not least, I come to our Canadian, Tahir. This is a funny video because of the giant falcon mural behind Tahir in the hallway of the Municipality. A great locale, because it nicely displays Tahir's sense of humor. When we first arrived, Tahir was very serious, Mr. Get Down to Business. He's a consultant by day and a Strategy Consultant at that, so he was well-acquainted with the methodology, topic and relevant frameworks for our CSR project. There is no question that his background, along with Felipe's, were essential to getting our project off to a running start and kept us focused and efficient. He's smart, worldly, extremely well-traveled and clearly great at what he does.
As time went on, Tahir started loosening up and (I think) having more fun. In addition to being knowledgeable he's also intellectually curious, a powerful combination. It turned out that he and I shared the same political perspectives, although I can say he was much more knowledgeable about current events worldwide than I ever could hope to be. Tahir and I reacted in much the same way to the human rights and political issues we encountered in the UAE, which I think made us both grateful for our countries. In our project, there could have been lots of opportunities for the 2 of us to clash but I think we had enough mutual respect that we were able to balance each other at the right points. Tahir showed a new side the last weekend when we went dancing... he can rock! Tahir's wife was also deployed on a CSC team in Tanzania while we were in the UAE, so his stories of her trials with tainted water, malaria, awful conditions and 10 hour trips to the client by bus kept us all thankful for the luxury our team enjoyed.
Paul was the third American on the team and, as you'll see, very happy to be from New Jersey. He introduced the team to American football and got everyone involved in playing tennis and table tennis in the hotel after work, very popular activities. He also saved me from being the second-oldest on the team, although I seemed to get identified as "old" nonetheless. (I think the term everyone was searching for was actually "experienced.")
Paul was on the other project, so I didn't get to interact with him as much as folks on my project but he did come out with some hilarious one-liners every now and then, just when you least expected it. He was excellent at logistics - he was instrumental in collecting and disseminating money when we had to pay for things like restaurant checks and taxis en masse and in making sure our taxis were at the hotel sort of around the right time each morning. Obviously a very important skill when you're trying to wrangle 11 people from around the world.