Friday, July 28, 2006


I have to admit that after six years of living in the UAE, I as a Western, non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking expatriate do not have an understanding of the Emirati character, lifestyle or culture. I see it, or rather catch glimpses of it from afar, like when zipping past communities along the super-highway that connects Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I know some of the communities' names, like Baniyas, Mafraq, or Al Rabha. But they mean little more to me than a collection of concrete, square-shaped houses, uniformly designed and lined up in rows.

I've had the occasion to visit the home or two, but I must say I really didn't get what I would call the majlis culture. One enters the home, sits on the floor in the majlis or living room (for guests) and well--just sits on the floor. It is for me an awkward feeling that although present in a home, one is not really present in that home, but rather being discreetly kept at the edge of it.

It is a feeling similar to passing by a mosque. There it is, sometimes small, sometimes big but right there at every turn. Not allowed to enter one just peers or glances while passing by--another part of the local culture that is strictly off-limits.

The youth of the culture are perhaps more accessible, but I don't fancy racing dangerously in sports cars or watching those who do, nor bashing the desert sands or whiling the hours away with hubbly-bubbly. Nor do I like cutting through curtains of smoke, glass in hand, pretending that I like the ear-splitting beats of rap or techno in a club. So, the youth of the culture, I'm afraid, do not offer me much of a window.

I've had different experiences on visits to neighboring Oman. Of course, the Emiratis and Omanis share things in common. But in Oman, it seemed hard not to get invited or pulled into a local's home. On such occasions I was still relegated to the majlis, but my appearance at least prompted the rest of the family to come out and visit me. I even had the occasion to wander around the grounds of a mosque or two, right up to the entrance--my camera in hand, taking photos and never feeling that I was intruding on sacred ground.

To me, Emirati culture is represented by walls--the huge walls around the many royal compounds in Abu Dhabi or the stately mansions of the wealthy. One can drive for block after block in the uptown districts of Abu Dhabi, along roads beautifully landscaped in the middle and on either side. But beyond the landscaping all one sees are the walls of compounds. It is the Abu Dhabi I have lived in for six years, yet know nothing of.

As I referenced in an earlier post, White, there is a uniformity and exclusivity within Emirati culture which seems to say, "We are like this and you cannot be part of it. You see, we have our own dress and we live apart from you."

Certainly language and religion are a part of the barrier, and admittedly some of my own proclivities. But my visits to Oman offer such a contrast. Spending just two or three days in Oman I have felt the urge to know the people, their language and their culture. Spending six years in the Emirates, I have yet to feel that urge.

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Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more, they want you to feel like a stranger. Hence the society is so closed, their attitude is you are a GUEST here, do you work and GET OUT.I lived there for few years myself and absolutely hated it. Couldn't pick the local language, apart from a few words which were also taught to me by other arab expats. I lived in Chile for a 2 yrs before moving to Dubai and when I left I was fluent in spanish.
On the dishdasha I was told the reason it was a white gown was because of the CLIMATE there. The dress helps in keeping them cool, well the questions then is why are poor women punished and made to wear BLACK


BD said...

I probably should add to my commentary that the foreigner here tends to develop a closed mind with regard to local culture. That is, sensing early on that the locals are not that interesed in opening up to him, the foreigner quickly looses any interest or curiosity that he might orignally have had. Then, over the years when opportunities open up to interact with locals or their culture, the foriegner will likely decline.

It then becomes a case of a they don't need me and I don't need them attitude. Whatever cross-cultural interaction that does take place at that point, it tends to be superficial.

Anonymous said...

I don't know with you guys but I on the other hand is on the opposite side, the Emirati culture is very interesting and I've learned a lot in my less than two years stay here. It just depends on the people around you.

By the way, great blog BD. Your A Word A Day is a good read a day. :)

BD said...

It's good to hear that there are other perspectives. It's always hard to know how much to generalize. For example, I have a Canadian friend who has learned some Arabic and mixes with locals much better than I do. But at the same time I have lots of other people around me of various nationalities who would echo my sentiments.

It would be interesting to hear an Emirati's point of view.

Anonymous said...

Hello bd

The difference between the Omanis and us is that they are secure in their culture and way of life, while we drowned our own in a sea of foreigners. I apologise for the bluntness of this post, I have spent 30 minutes trying to articulate a response and feel that being direct is the best. When oil was discovered in what became the UAE, our leadership had a choice to make: Grow the economy slowly and allow nationals to develop educationally, socially, and numerically at the same pace with the economy. Or, develop the country quickly and plug the skill-set holes and labor needs with foreign labor and expertise, until UAE nationals are prepared to replace them. You already know which choice was made. In defense of Shaikh Zayed and Rashid, one must see pictures of pre-oil UAE to realize what a desolate and impovrished area it used to be (My father has told me many tales), and can understand their desire to lift their subjects out of squalor as quickly as possible. That they have succeeded is beyond doubt. Yet, I don't think they could have foreseen the problems that would develop 30 years down the line. Being a minority in ones own country is not a pleasant situation, it breeds resentment on both sides. For nationals, their elite status is countered by the fact that they have become strangers in their own land, facing job discrimination for being a national, and not having the ability to speak with the majority of the population in ones native tongue. For the expatriate majority, they are at the mercy of their employers, overworked and underpaid, a visa system designed to remind them of their guest status. I should write more but it is getting late. More later perhaps.

BD said...

What you've written, Emirati, could not have been put in better words. Whenever I write or discuss the matter of the lack of closeness between the expats and the locals, I'm always conscious of the fact that there are some valid and explanable reasons for this. You have touched upon just that.

I sometimes contrast the attitude of the Japanese and the foreigners in their country with that of the Emiratis. In Japan, where perhaps as little as 1 or 2% of the population are not Japanese, the Japanese are always apprehensive about the thought that these few foreigners bring in so many foreign influences. Yet, they remain polite, cordial and welcoming to those who are there.

By contrast the Emiratis have allowed their country to be inundated with foreigners and foreign influence. In response they put up walls. But who are really the more open and welcoming--the Japanese or the Emiratis? Of course, it is the Emiratis.

I am conscious of this, but I do hope that as in Oman, there could be more positive interaction between the two communities.

localexpat said...

the more i read your blog....the more i love it

BD said...

You're blog is great, too, for stimulating debate. I've added it in the links column. Good luck keeping it up; it does get hard to be consistent.

Anonymous said...

Dear BD,

As an Emarati woman, I am proud of my culture and my country. That being said, I would like to clear to u and the other fellow readers alittle more about our culture.
First of all, im not being biased, but Emiratis are some of the kindest and most generous people you could ever encounter. I am sorry to hear that you have not had that opportunity to meet or interact with us.
One should not be ignorant and simply say that "Emiratis" are sheilded behind high walls; rather, Emiratis are everywhere around u here, and our "kandoras" or dishdash simply reflects our tradition.
And for those who are reeeally ignorant, women use the color black for our ABAYAS because it has to do with our Islamic religion. Because black is the only color that is not see-through and could cover a woman's body properly.
And finally, if you couldn't learn the Arabic language, well then i have nothing to say to that except that I know MANY AND MANY foreigners who have lived here for a few years and speak Arabic pretty well. You can not compare the Arabic language to the Spanish for the simple reason that Arabic is a much complex language.