How I Deal with Life.....

How I Deal with Life.....

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Post UAE Observations April 3, 2013 (a bit more objective as time passes..)

There was a CNN opinion article tonight written by a journalist explaining her view and opinion that the Middle East is changing and how it is all due to the world becoming smaller via technology and increased Western influence. She wrote about her observations in Amman, Jordan, using the nightclubs and nightlife as her prime example. Granted, Jordan is a bit more progressive than Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim nations, but I do wish she had given more personal viewed daily life examples and not just the nightlife scene as indicators of change.

            As you know I got back from the UAE in December, and while I cannot compare a UAE past with a UAE present, I did observe how the Western world is influencing the UAE at the moment. It helps to remember that the UAE is one of the most progressive Muslim nations that exists, thanks to their tourism trade and expat worker population. The UAE is unique in this amongst all the other Arab nations: the Nationals, or citizens, only comprise 9% of their own population. The remaining 91% are expats from all over the world: The Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, United States, Canada, Ireland, Germany.  Americans alone number around 40,000. The varying outside influences that are impacting this small country are almost too dizzying to contemplate.

            No country exists as a microcosm anymore, but as a part of the entire macrocosm of the world. And the UAE is no different. The UAE government, controlled by Muslim law and dictates, is attempting to hold on to their “heritage”. And I use the word loosely because there is no real heritage anymore. The UAE is constantly shifting, attempting to create a heritage that no one recalls. It is attempting to locate its identity.
           In the UAE state run public schools Western teachers are instructed to teach Emirati children about the Emirati culture and heritage. I had to do a great deal of cram reading and research to be able to accomplish this, but I am happy to report, that in the end, I did a damned fine job, if I do say so myself.  I focused on the Bedouin roots, the dances, the past dress, the traditional foods. But real heritage is a shared bond to a common past. The Bedouin tribes were too scattered and isolated to create a common memory, such as I am accustomed to in the United States: The Pilgrims, The Revolution, Yankee Doodle, slavery and our uncivil Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, 9/11- these are all carved into the psyche of almost every United States born American over the age of ten-years-old.  I could not locate this most basic shared historical memory in reference to their country amongst my fifteen and sixteen-year-old Emirati students. Their "shared" history did not rise to the consciousness before Sheik Zayed unified the Emirates in 1971. His death in 2004 caused the kind of grief that Kennedy’s assassination produced in our own nation, ten fold. And gave birth to the ultimate identity crises.

Ways in which I sought to give visual reference to the UAE culture in my classroom..

            Chalk all of this up to an agrarian society vs. a nomadic society, a religiously free society vs. a one religion society, a separation of religion and state society vs. a religion that IS the state society.  Understanding these basic differences between Western countries and Middle Eastern countries is necessary if any Westerner is going to even attempt to understand the workings of the UAE. It took my coming back to the United States and long hours of contemplation to fully digest and apply this information to my experiences.
            There is a real push by the UAE government to correct the historical memory deficient among its people and to create a nationalistic pride in the hearts of the still impressionable children, and the government is succeeding, as witnessed by the fervor and froth of this past National Day that I was fortunate to witness. However, a shared historical memory and nationalism are two different animals.

These are my female students dressed like Emirati military men at National Day celebrations at the school..

            There is an almost sad element to this small nation’s sudden almost mythical rise out of the  desert sands: they do not recall any leaders farther back than Sheik Zayed, who is held to a god-like status.  Theirs is a canvas as blank and unending as the red sand dunes. And this is the canvas that finds itself ready to be splashed with the outside influences that a dominating expat population brings. The UAE government may still halfheartedly believe that they can hold back these influences, but the reality is that they cannot, and deep in their hearts they must know it. The Emirati population is dwindling. As current UAE laws stand no one born outside the UAE may apply for National status, except for one marrying an Emirati, and even then the process is lengthy and not promised. Citizenry is handed down through blood lines of the parents. There are many, many people who live within the borders of the UAE who can trace their families back for two or three generations in the UAE, but can never hope for Emirati citizen status. However, due to these very people the UAE is destined to continue to progress as a boiling- over pot of cultures, beliefs, and religions. One only has to observe the surface of the country to surmise how these factors are affecting the country and what the future holds.

         Some of my experiences
Almost every Western store, except Wal-Mart, Target and Barnes & Noble exists in the UAE. American Eagle? Check. Levi’s? Check , Columbia? Check. GAP? Check. Chanel? Check. Gucci? Double check.
           And almost every Western restaurant, except full on BBQ pork, is available. KFC? Check. McDonald’s? Check. Burger King? Check. Subway? Check. Red Lobster? Check. Pizza Hut? Check. 
            These Western eateries and brand names are extremely coveted and, in fact, garner higher customer mall traffic than all other chain stores/restaurants. They are the money makers. It is this highly concentrated consumeristic culture that has the most visible daily influence upon the UAE.
            The culture of the UAE is tied directly to its Muslim religion. Islam is the state sanctioned religion and the country is 76% Muslim. This means, of course, that alcohol is prohibited, except to non-Muslim expats who possess a government issued alcohol license.
           There were two liquor stores in the town where I lived in Al Ain. These were frequented by non- Muslim as well as Muslim customers (surprise, surprise..).  One night, while making a wine run at one of the two liquor stores, I counted four kandora (national dress) dressed men prowling between the aisles of the glittering bottles of wines, beers, and liquors. Oftentimes though, alcohol buying Arab/Muslim men weren’t brazen enough to actually step inside of the store.  It was quite funny to see dark tinted-windowed cars pull up at the curb, Indian workers scurry out to the cars holding black plastic bagged bottles which they would then hand off into the barely rolled down car windows.  The drivers would then speed away after procuring their booty. 

Man in khandora (bird is optional) And no, I don't know if he drinks or not. His photo is being used ONLY to show an example of National Dress for men...

             In the nightclubs, Emirarti men in full kandoras eyed the all non-Muslim women patrons and openly sipped their drinks, often exiting at the end of the night with a lovely lady (Western, more often than not) draped on their arm. Of course, signs were posted throughout warning Arab men not to sit at the bar in full national dress.  I found this so strange and comical that I had to have a photograph..

             My Emirati high school girls continually peppered me with questions about American schools, and more than once expressed their wish to attend a coed school (schools are strictly segregated by gender in the UAE) . They asked about American high school sports and expressed an almost disbelief when I told them about after-school activities in the West such as academic clubs, track, and cheerleading. They were intensely interested in Justin Beiber and insisted that all Americans party all the time because that is what they had seen in Western movies. They could not differentiate between my American accent and a British teacher’s accent. They lumped us all together as Americans, I think.  

a few of my tenth grade students..

           Then I had to convince them that we Westerners do indeed "clean” ourselves after we use the toilet facilities. I finally figured it out: they assumed since the water hoses hanging next to the toilets seemed foreign to us (they were) that it meant we did our business then just pulled up our underwear and went on our merry way.  They giggled and hid their faces behind their hands when I slowly corrected their assumptions. 

A few of my giggling girls...

              One day I became frustrated because they wouldn’t stop talking, so I plopped myself down in the middle of the floor until they decided to be quiet. After they had quieted down I rose to my feet, but in the standing up process my long skirt got caught in the heel of my shoe and the other side of my skirt hiked up. I inadvertently exposed my knee. The girls broke out into gales of giggles, shocked laughter, and exclamations. I never did get them back on task that day. And this reaction still puzzles me because they go shopping in the malls; it is their favorite pastime, They see the mannequins in the store windows dressed in purely, sometimes quite revealing Western clothing. They see the actresses in the movies wearing short evening dresses or halter tops and shorts. But, I suppose it is quite different when your teacher exposes herself at school. 

Lovely Meera.... I think she laughed the most at me!

            Some things in the UAE seemed too surreal at times because the culture/country is clearly straddling its past and its future.. In Carrefour one day (kind of like Walmart) I was shocked to hear AC/DCs "Highway to Hell"  blasting over the store speakers followed by the chanting call to prayer.  And the lingerie store windows in the malls made my American cheeks blush, while full abaya draped and shaylaed Emirati women paused at the windows and cocked their heads in interest at the black leather corseted mannequins, black feathered masks arrayed around one of the mannequin’s feet. 
           Music played constantly in the malls: show tunes, rock songs, Arabic music, rap music.. Piped in American rap music was unedited due to the language barrier, so it was nothing to hear Lil Wayne singing over the mall P.A system: Sister, brother,son, daughter, Father, motha/ fuck a copper/ got the maserati dancin on the bridge pussy/ poppin’

            And you haven't lived until you’ve listened to Arabic rap music.

            The UAE is a puzzling, changing country of contradictions, as well as traditions. If I knew I would be allowed to live two hundred more years in order to study the evolution of one country, and one country only, it would hands down be the United Arab Emirates.  Maybe not one of the most sane, easily understood countries in the world, but definitely one of the most interesting due to the convergence of so many varying peoples. The Emiratis, by sheer population trends and statistics, are in a lose/lose battle for their own country. It would be interesting to observe firsthand what The United Arab Emirates finally, fitfully becomes.

No comments:

Post a Comment