How I Deal with Life.....

How I Deal with Life.....

Thursday, January 24, 2013

My UAE Journal: Oct 31. An Individual American's Perspective on the Arabic World

October 31

My daily perspective in the UAE is centered mostly around my students. My teen girl students don’t go in much for politics or even know what politics are, but they do have their opinions about Americans, however media controlled, shallow and tunnel-visioned those opinions may be. They watch movies. They see television. They process the advertisements. Coke, McDonald's, Kit Kat, Pizza Hut, Mac makeup, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coach bags, Maybelline. Thanks to media they think that every American constantly drinks alcohol, parties in nightclubs, and has sex with anyone within reach; every young, bald black American man is either a movie star or a basketball player; and every American carries a concealed firearm wherever they go. Remember, the only representations they have of Westerners is media driven.  Rap videos, Honey Boo Boo, American Idol, Swamp People, CSI Miami, MTV reality shows.. that’s all they know about us. They believe that all male American teens are members of gangs.  I see this in the way the Arab teen boys often emulate this "gangster" stereotype by posing for photos, throwing up what they think are "gang signs" (more often than not, it's the American Sign Language sign for "I love you"), and striking their best Lil Wayne pose. Somehow the white kanduras (long white robes) and sufras (headdresses) makes these bad ass poses less believable. 

However, I have also been observing the UAE Arabic adults and filing the information away.
One of the Syrian teachers the other day asked me and the other English teacher who we were voting for: Obama or Romney. She then asked which one was more likely to go to war. Of course, her English was much more halted and we had to guess and decipher at what she was trying to ask, but I found it enlightening that she is so interested in our election (or "contest", as some insist on calling it). I wanted to tell her, "After November 6th all bets are off, and if certain Middle Eastern countries don't get their heads out of their asses it doesn't matter much who wins the American presidential election". But I kept my mouth shut.  It seems, like some Americans, that they have some misconstrued belief that the American president actually has more power than he does. I tried to explain the balance of power concept, but as this particular Syrian teacher had no frame of reference. I was merely wasting precious oxygen trying to explain it.

Much the same as America contributes to world misconceptions about the United States, the Arab world also contributes to their own misconceptions about the world around them. Newspapers and other news media in the Middle East are largely government controlled and censored, and read more like The National Enquirer when it comes to any type of journalistic integrity.  So, a large majority of Arabs do not get an honest depiction of America or the world in their media or in our media.  And their internet is censored by their government, so varying viewpoints do not make their way into the country.

 In their media Westerners are all conquering, war mongering infidels, and we have earned that reputation based on some of our military endeavors in the 19th and 20th century. Middle Easterners are also led to believe that America is an enemy of their religion and their god. And in a way they have earned that distinction by the many attacks made on the Westerner world by Muslim extremist groups. The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979;  the 1983 bombing of a  Marine Corps barracks in Beirut; the U.S.S Stark attack in 1987, the Lockerbie, Scotland Pan Am Flight bombing in 1988; the 1993 Black Hawk Down  in Somalia; the 2000 U.S.S Cole bombing; and then there is the World Trade Center attack of 2001. About twenty-five attacks between 1979 and 2001. All of these occurrences have only served to deepen the Western suspicion that links virtually the entire Islamic world to terrorism. America has our extremist groups too, but we attempt squelch any violent attacks, and if we can't squelch it, as in the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma bombing in 1995, we most certainly prosecute and punish (McViegh was executed in 2001).  However, I also realize that America is united and we can act quickly on terrorist attacks within our borders. The Middle East is a conglomeration of separate countries, diverse offshoots of Islamic beliefs and practices, and separate histories. I mean, the UAE and Iran are still having a major tiff over who actually owns three islands located between the two countries, and this tiff has been going on since 1971.  How can these Muslim countries come together and present a united front against terrorism? Still, Americans believe the Middle East should be able to do just that, since we are operating from an entirely different set of  diplomatic, foreign policy,  and cultural perspectives. I don't think most Americans realize how truly separate the Middle East countries are.

Thanks to our media portrayals of ourselves, the Arab perspective tends to be that all Western women are “whores”;  we all slosh alcohol like an A.A  meeting gone renegade (I swear it’s those other Westerners who are throwing back all that ale and Guinness, not us piss beer swilling Americans); we all have numerous illicit affairs outside the bonds of marriage (one of the Arabic teachers actually told me that she thought married Western women were "allowed" to sleep with as many men as they wished); we have all shot at least one person with our concealed Glocks (this pertains to Americans); all Western women's wardrobes consist of nothing but thong panties, stiletto heels, and micro mini dresses (thanks a lot, Brittney and Paris- and they even pushed that one by losing the thongs a few times); and all Westerners, if unhappy with ANYONE for ANY reason will automatically throw the “fuck you” finger in a universal salute (well, that part might be true..).  Last summer in the UAE a Western doctor was accused of throwing the universal salute at an Emirati driver and the Western doc was promptly charged with the "crime", but he wisely left the country before his hearing and refused to return.  It was a no win situation. An Emirati's word will always be taken as the truth even if there is evidence to the contrary, which I am not saying was the case in this particular occurrence  (
If the West started arresting people for throwing the universal salute, three quarters of Westerners would be in jail. It's how we say, "hello".

Arabs in the Middle East don’t have ready access, or if they did, would read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. The don't know how to  jump from numerous news sources like CNN , CSNBC, or Fox News sources and apply critical thinking skills (that's one reason they have us Western teachers here- to teach problem solving skills to the upcoming generation of Emiratis) . The everyday, average Emirati simply doesn't possess the critical thinking/problem solving skills (these skills run contrary to every other tenant in their culture- the tenet of collectivism) to see the big picture and separate the media chaff from the wheat, the bullshit from the murky truth. Yes, it's true that many Americans are losing this skill also, especially amongst the younger generation, but as a culture we still possess the ability to think critically, problem solve, create. My students, for example, just don't "get it" when it comes to working independently, making connections, or solving problems. Recently I was talking to my 11th graders about the basic concept of economy. I asked where the UAE got their money. They all chimed in and yelled, "The bank!". I then explained that countries produce items or services that other countries want, and gave them examples. I  asked them again where they thought the UAE received their money, what item did the rest of the world want from their country that was considered valuable? Blank looks. They never did arrive at the answer: oil. I had to tell them and then explain it to them. I am still not sure they understood the concept.

Arabs (and again I am speaking in generalizations) aren’t able to access or interpret the multitude of Western news opinion pages and editorials, and if they did, they still don't understand the entire "freedom of expression and opinion" thing. That luxury is not one they enjoy, thus the meaning of  "freedom of expression" is misinterpreted.  This was evident in the violent protests and killings that ensued after the existence of the damning (and poorly produced) Prophet Mohammed film was brought to light this past September.  The protesting Arabs seem to believe that just because the film was "insulting" that America's president could breach our constitution's  "freedom of speech" laws and beliefs and go after all those involved in the film like a modern day witch hunt.  But, you have to remember that most Arabs aren't allowed to disparage their leaders verbally or in writing, they aren't allowed to express displeasure with their government, they aren't allowed to question the political process. So when we say "freedom of speech" they clearly have no applicable conception of the term. That's the price for having had all of their needs met by their Sheiks for forty-one years.  They are taken care of, but the costs to individual and societal freedoms are quite high.

Arabs don't witness Americans wrestling over democratic freedoms, how we point fingers, picket, protest, yell and scream at each other, but then go eat BBQ together. They don’t know our history is long on independence and short on having that independence even minutely threatened, or even perceived to be threatened in any way (blame it on the damned British).  So, they glean what they know about us from what we ourselves are putting out in the media static continuum and they build on it.  And what do they know about us? Exactly what the media portrays. Nothing more, nothing less. Pop culture is coming back to bite America in the proverbial ass in a slew of misunderstandings and misconceptions.  And it’s all the fault of the likes of reality television, Rambo, WWE wrestling, Rhianna,, Kenye West, McDonald’s, and The Simpsons.

 And yes, Westerners have their own particular brand of stereotypes and misconceptions concerning the Middle East. I'll be the first to admit that. Most Westerners lump every Middle Eastern country into the same bubbling cauldron. They believe that all Middle Easterners are radical Muslims who go around burning American flags and chanting "Death to America".  What they don't realize is that each Middle Eastern country is as different from one another as a yellow rose is to a carrot. Most Westerners, especially Americans, don't step back and think about Western countries and how different we are from one another. London is not the same as San Francisco, Munich is not the same as Atlanta,  Houston is not the same as Belfast. We know this, but yet we still have no problem lumping all Middle Eastern countries together. Go figure...

But, and I find this interesting as hell, America still controls the fast food industry in the Middle East, and that speaks volumes. Some of the more radical Muslims may claim to hate America and other Western countries, but they love our capitalistic restaurants and name brand makeup, cars, candies, and clothing.  If I wanted to I could eat American fast food every single day and not visit the same eating establishment twice in Al Ain. I went to Dubai mall last week and browsed in the following stores: Levis, Columbia, Sephora, and Gap. I saw an American Eagle, Aeropostle, Texas Roadhouse, and Red Lobster. America goes down and we'll just take all our stores and restaurants with us.  The average Ahmed or Mohammed in the Middle East wouldn't like that.. at all.  They would go completely apeshit if their massive consumerism were threatened.  Religion may dominate, but consumerism rules and the almighty dirham, riyal, and dinar are the true gods.

Since I have been in the UAE, I have fallen victim to my American stereotype perspectives towards the Arabic world. I am working on it though, and trying to understand and pick my way towards some kind of unvarnished truth. It means that I have to put my prejudices aside. It means I have to acknowledge those prejudices. It  means that daily I have to take a good hard look at myself.  That's not always easy, and I don't always succeed.  I have to keep my humor and sarcasm intact in order to survive.
Stereotypes abound, from the Western perspective and from the Arab perspective. 

Neither of us understands the other's culture. More than an ocean separates us. Centuries of wars, rampant colonialism, societal philosophies, and individualism vs. collectivism separates us. The question is how to overcome all of this, and if we can, how do we sort out the stereotypes and arrive at a middle ground where the truth is waiting to be discovered, like an uncultured pearl?

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