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Rym Tina Ghazal Headshot

Single in the City: 'Excuse me'

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Scene: An immaculate hospital

'Excuse me? Excuse me," I said to the group of female and male nurses sipping tea and coffee at one of the desks in an Abu Dhabi hospital.

One of them looked up, glanced at me, and ignored me.

"Hey, excuse me, it is an emergency!" I said a bit more loudly. I repeated it in English and in Arabic. Nothing.

A man came up next to me and with one clearing of his throat, got a nurse to immediately come to his aid. I waited until he asked his questions and left, and then I tried to get the attention of the same nurse.

"One minute," she told me and disappeared into the back. One minute passed, two minutes and then five minutes.

"Please, I just need to know which room my friend is recovering in," I said. Nothing.

No one came to my aid. Such a simple request was turning into a great nuisance. That is when I wished I had a "husband" who could stand by my side and demand service and people would respond.

Despite what people like to think or say, it is still a man's world, particularly in this part of the world. It doesn't matter which city, it is usually the same story -- and in some cities, it is much worse.

The minute I raised my voice a bit and tried to sound firm, I got the "evil-eye" from everyone. I could have sworn that one of the male nurses mumbled something under his breath. I was acting "un-lady like." I should be weak and meek, it seems.

Finally, a doctor passed by and I apologized to him for disturbing him over such an easy yet apparently tedious matter, and asked him how to find out where people recovering from a simple operation were put up.

He looked at the same nurse who had been ignoring me and told her to assist me and to actually "take me" to the patient. The nurse didn't look pleased.

I finally got to see the patient, my friend Fatima. She went to the hospital for a simple medical procedure requiring general anesthesia. She told me that after the medical team had prepared everything and she was dozing off, "everyone just left."

Laying there on a portable bed alone in a room, "I just felt very alone and vulnerable," she said. She believes that if she had a partner, that experience would have been easier on her.

I have tested this theory out, and there is a sort of security blanket effect that comes out of having a male colleague, partner or friend tagging along with you in public.

This reminded me of a similar incident where being a single woman was a disadvantage. It actually happened twice to me, and also to several other single female friends of mine when trying to get a table at a restaurant.

Scene: A fancy restaurant

Just a few days ago I went to a restaurant in one of the fancy hotels here to try to get a table for me and my friends, who were coming from Dubai. "Reservations?" the hostess asked me.

"No, but could I make a reservation now, as my friends will be arriving soon from Dubai?" I asked sweetly.

"No free table," she said, adding, "We are fully booked."

The restaurant was completely empty, except for the staff and waiters, and just maybe, around one of its corners, I may have seen a couple sitting at one of the tables.

"We can go in now and then leave before the dinner rush?" I suggested. This was about 6 p.m..

She snapped at me and said: "No, sorry." I left and my friends and I ate at another restaurant in the same hotel.

In the other restaurant, the host was a man. I'm not sure if that is what made a difference, but I noticed that sometimes women are more aggressive to each other and less helpful.

Interestingly enough, the following week I ended up with a male friend of mine at the same restaurant with the same rude hostess. Same situation, and same day of the week. We had no reservation and the rest of the group was arriving a bit later.

"Reservations?" the hostess asked.

Déjà vu.

"No, we would like a table for four," said my friend. "OK, this way," she said with a big smile as she showed us a table near a window.

It wasn't enough that her mannerisms were different, but the fact that she was so attentive and helpful made me wonder if it was a gender thing after all or the simple fact that single women are not taken seriously.

I polled a few of my single male friends to find out if they had ever experienced the same problems, and they all told me that they never faced the same difficulties as single women in getting tables, services and their questions answered. Perhaps it is the way we single women ask for things. I know I have caught myself hesitating and probably sounding unsure of myself when the person I faced was unfriendly.

Scene: an apartment, a villa, a home.

When I was finishing high school and about to embark on life's bumpy road on my own, my father warned me to be extra careful when dealing with banks, people selling cars (particularly second-hand ones) and property agents.

"They are sharks, remember that. Those with the biggest smiles are probably hiding the sharpest teeth," he said.

I already knew about banks and car salesman, but property agents ended up surprising me the most with their sharp teeth.

Anyone who has ever looked for a place to rent or buy (here or anywhere else) has probably encountered the species. In my experience, they are better known as the "property mafia."

If you are searching for a home in a community, you get marked and they track your moves.

And if you are a woman, right away you are at a disadvantage when looking for a place in the UAE. I can't tell you how many times, when calling an agent, even before I mentioned what exactly I was looking for, I heard that annoying: "I will call you back."

Of course, they never do.

As a test, I had a male friend call the same agents almost immediately after I did. Nine out of 10 of them listened to him finish his entire paragraph-long wish list, and they even suggested a time of day for viewing places.

Only one or two told him: "I'll call you back."

They didn't seem to care if he was single or not, but they did care if the woman calling was single.

Second, the country of origin card is often flashed, which is offensive. Agents blatantly ask your nationality, especially if you're inquiring about a villa.

I play around with that one: I have been Egyptian, French, American, Russian and Indian. I just pick whatever comes to mind, just to see the reaction. One agent went so far as to tell me: "This landlord rents only to Europeans, sorry."

I recall a landlord in Lebanon who rented his apartments only to certain religious sects and "party members." I had to hide the fact that I have Syrian relatives, because I knew that he would have rejected me.

Sure, it is your right to do what you want with your property, but dismissing someone over the phone based on accent, gender or nationality without knowing anything about the person and her background is just plain ugly and unfair.

On the other hand, I have found it hilarious how one property can have as many as 10 agents from different companies circling it like vultures. In one case, at least 10 called me about the same place. When that happens, some will keep coming back if they think you are rich or say you'll pay in one check.

The market price of a particular location is easy to check using classified websites, so agents play around with the commission (which can be far more than the widely accepted five percent) and with the deposit (which you often don't end up getting back).

At a single property, the stories can vary about who, and what nationality, the landlord is. Promises -- to fix a fence or tilework, for example -- can range from the unlikely to the farcical. So can theories about maintenance fees and services.

It's all stressful, especially if you are in a hurry, and they can take forever to get back to you about any question you may have. And they tend to generally think single women can't afford much, so usually the agents don't bother to answer any of your questions, anyway.

From luxury places to small studios, it's all a headache, and needs lots of research. In a rare case, you can skip the agent and deal with the landlord directly, but even then, there are pitfalls. I know someone whose "landlord" turned out to be a scam artist and almost ran off with her money.

If something sounds too good to be true, it often is, especially if the promise is accompanied by the toothy grin of a property shark.

So what can be done?

In most Gulf countries, and some parts of the Arab or Muslim world, a "mahram"-- a male family member that accompanies a woman as her guardian -- is "expected" to be with a single woman during her visits to public, Islamic or official institutions.

Even though that has changed a lot, there are still some remnants of that tradition.

I know for sure that it has influenced me, as I find that I do walk more confidently if my brother or father is by my side in Saudi Arabia. I also get better service, my calls are returned and I get better deals if a male relative or partner is standing near by. I don't catch myself saying "excuse me" more than once when a 'mahram' is around.

Rym Tina Ghazal is a senior feature writer and columnist for The National Newspaper.
She is working on her second book, "single in the city" that will include some of the adventures shared here.