A Sight For Sore Eyes

The Lighter Side to Facing Vision Loss

East meets west in symbolic handshakes between faculty and an Emirati sheikh.




It was a very important meeting with the sheikh and I didn’t want to mess it up.

That day started with a flight to Abu Dhabi. Strapped into the seats of an old cargo plane, the teachers from  Ras Al Khaimah Women’s  College chatted and laughed. We had an unusually large number of new hires, all looking forward to the big day in the city–away from the goats and camels.

Hundreds of beaming faculty members from around the country congregated in a fancy hotel there every year. During the  meet-and-greet occasion, between speeches the teachers networked with each other. I recall looking across the length of  polished tiles and seeing a collage of international and local faculty members  reaching for heavy water  goblets, sipping from tea cups and nibbling date cookies on silver platters.

Everyone looked scrubbed and clean and all had smiles on their faces. The local women stood in clusters with their black sheylas covering their hair and floor-length abiyahs, revealing an occasional colorful peek at a fold of their dresses underneath. The local men wore their white or checked ghutras hanging from their heads and ambled comfortably in their white dishdashas and sandals. The heavy sweet perfume, which I later learned was Oud, clung to the folds of fabric around me. Eastern and western men and women alike wore suits, the women high heels. With conference bags slung over shoulders or briefcases in their hands, my colleagues awed me.

Next we ate a sumptuous meal.

Soon it would be time.

Like all the new hires, I could hardly wait to meet the sheikh and his entourage. Each director  led his or her new flock to a special receiving room to wait in line for  the honor of shaking the Chancellor’s hand.  We were briefed on the protocol. The director  would formally introduce each faculty member to the Sheikh. You’d take his hand, shake once and move on. I could do that, couldn’t I?

The procession started.  I was carrying a bulky present to give a friend who worked in Abu Dhabi but I hadn’t found her yet. I tried to pawn it off on a teacher with a bigger purse. She leaned toward me, distracted, “Dear, what is it that you want?” She didn’t take it. What would I do with it when I shook the sheikh’s hand?

We crossed over a plush carpeted area in the hotel with the quietest of feet. The room took on a hushed tone of formality.  My heart beat faster. In the next room, I’d come face-to-face (rather, hand-to-hand) with the sheikh.

In a matter of minutes, I’d be facing a line of Very Important Men in silk robes.

I inched forward.

Stayed in line.

The line moved faster and faster.

I kept my eyes on the entourage.

I didn’t want to miss a second of this experience.

My heart pounded. Soon it would be my turn.

I could see the sheikh  in a gold thob, looking regal and benevolent,  as he leaned over to shake each hand.

Suddenly Ed, my director, disappeared from my view. Oh no, not my dumb vision acting up again!   No, eyes, not now! Stop playing tricks on me! I surged forward, frantically seeking even a glimpse of  Ed’s lanky form.

I turned from side to side.  Nothing.  Meanwhile, I continued to move forward.

“Whoa!” Ed’s astonished voice was so close that it startled me.”You passed right by the sheikh!”

I gasped.

My director deftly looped me around for the introduction. “Amy Bovaird, English faculty member from America,” Ed announced.

At Ed’s nudge, I reached out with clammy, trembling fingers and took the sheikh’s hand with my free one–the LEFT hand! Afterward, it hit me. Did I just shake the  sheikh’s hand with what the Arab world considered to be the TOILET hand? Calm down, Amy! My cheeks flamed as I moved away and let the next honoree greet the sheikh.

It took time to get over this faux paus but now the memory makes me laugh. It might have been awkward but I don’t believe the sheikh, with all his education about western practices, thought my hand was dirty. Maybe he even chuckled.

I’d like to think he was the kind of sheikh who wouldn’t get all shook up over the wrong hand shake.

You’ve just read, “A Handshake to Remember.” © Amy Bovaird, 2013.

Have you ever suffered through a serious cultural (or any) faux paus? How did you handle the situation? Please share in the Comments section below.

A Handshake to Remember
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