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.
Open a printable copy, in a new window.
Technorati Tags: Emirati culture, Omani culture, UAE society