Sunday, April 25, 2010

Globalization, what's the big deal?

This semester I teach two all-female, all-Emirati English composition classes at a federal university here in Abu Dhabi. Last week, in a conference with one of my students in my cramped cubicle of an office, she revealed that she and her classmates had been doing something which I absolutely hate. No, they weren't cheating, skipping class or passing notes; rather, they were telling me only what they thought I wanted to hear.

In their last paper, I had assigned the class to write about the threats posed to Emirati national identity by the forces of globalization which have made themselves so powerfully and pervasively felt in the UAE over the past two decades. For instance, in the three federal universities all classes with the exception of Arabic and Islamic studies are taught in English. Consequently, it is not uncommon for our students to graduate with a greater mastery of English than Arabic. This is a reason for concern among many Emiratis and has become a bit of a controversial issue here with the Ministry of Education emphasizing the importance of learning English to prepare Emiratis to compete in the global marketplace and the Federal National Council (basically, the UAE parliament) countering that Arabic must receive greater attention in order to preserve national identity in the midst of so many foreign influences (as a reminder, the total Emirati population constitutes only 20 percent of all those living in the UAE).

Another example of the sway of globalization: the quintessential UAE experience, a place which is frequented more than any other by locals and foreigners of all socio-economic backgrounds, is the mall. That's right! Leave it to Gap, Versace, and IKEA to bring people together in a way they otherwise would never have experienced.

Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi

Before assigning the paper on the effects of globalization, we read and discussed several articles on the subject while in class together. As I led the discussion, I tried to empathize with my students who find their way of life increasingly marginalized by foreign ideas and products. I tried to place myself in their shoes so that perhaps I could, in some small way, understand the emotional and psychological toll taken by this constant barrage of all things Western.

But, as I found out after the fact from this one particularly honest student, our class discussion had been inauthentic. In reality, my students do not see things as I assumed they would see them. In fact, when tasked with writing about the potential threats to Emirati identity posed by globalization, most of them had no idea what to write because they simply did not view it in this way, or at least not nearly to the extent I had imagined. When probed they just parroted back to me what they heard me say in lecture and what had been implied in the readings.

Upon reflection, this should come as no surprise for at least two reasons. First, globalization has exposed many in the Middle East to a more egalitarian view of the sexes which has led to the greater empowerment of women. Now, this statement should not be viewed as supporting a sort of "clash of civilizations" mentality where the “West = female emancipation” while the “Middle East = female oppression”; it's more complicated than that. For one thing the UAE Constitution, created in 1971, stipulates that women and men enjoy the same legal status, claim to titles, and access to education. Moreover, women have the right to practice the profession of their choice. Until more recently, cultural strongholds have often prevented most women from laying claim to these rights; however, this is changing, and it is undeniable that globalization has played a significant role in this transformation by showing Emiratis that women around the world are doctors, engineers, CEOs, and government leaders. Keeping this in mind, it makes sense that a young Emirati woman would see globalization not as an enemy but an ally.

The second reason is simple: they're just kids. It takes maturity to realize and acknowledge the importance of one’s cultural heritage and to be critical of pressures to change. While they may continue to embrace globalization as adults, one day (hopefully) they'll have a greater sense of its dangers as well as its benefits and be able to make informed choices regarding the future of this country. For now I just have to figure out how to get them to speak their minds.

Friday, April 16, 2010

His and hers

His wasn’t much to speak about – civilized, classy; otherwise dull.

But hers… hers was a cross between senior prom and a midnight buffet on a cruise ship. It was Moulin Rouge meets Arabian Nights. In a glittery hotel ballroom, 50 tables with towering floral centerpieces surrounded what can only be described as a catwalk (though somewhat disguised with more flowers and white tulle). A live band played behind a screen to hide the male musicians from view, and colored spotlights followed the beat of the music, changing the room’s hue from green to blue to pink.

Countless servants, shrouded in white silk and lace, swarmed the tables in choreographed stages bearing a series of traditional Arabic courses, sweets, fruit drinks, and even fragrances (honest to God, a perfume course!). Meanwhile, Emirati girls dressed in a kaleidoscope of taffeta, sequins and beads, hair extravagantly piled on their heads and necks weighed down with the family jewels, paraded around the room and danced provocatively on the catwalk, amid the watchful gazes of would-be mothers-in-law sitting quietly cloaked head to toe in black. It was a place to see and be seen, a “meat market” to put it more crudely, where mothers of single men could spy out suitable brides for their sons. It was also a place for the young to cut loose a bit, out of sight of husbands, brothers and fathers. There was a buzz of chatter and laughter, singing and kissing cheeks. It was a feast for the senses.

What I am describing is a traditional Muslim wedding, Emirati style. Sam and I were honored to be invited recently to the wedding of a colleague, an Emirati national, but a little apprehensive as we learned we would not be able to attend the blessed event together, or on the same night, for that matter. In fact, Muslim wedding celebrations typically occur well after the actual civil union, often several months later, and involve two completely separate events, one for the men and one for the women. His and hers weddings.

Toward the end of the evening, the bride arrived, bouquet in hand, and walked slowly down the catwalk to recline on the decorated chaise lounge on the "bridal stage". She sat while her guests lined up to congratulate her - similar to a receiving line, but made me think of a queen in her court.

Similar to tossing the bouquet and cutting the cake at an American wedding there were various traditions throughout the evening that appeared strange to me as an outsider but that everyone else knew well - at one point all of the unmarried girls did a dance for the bride.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


If there's one thing we took away from our time in Jordan, it's that the most pleasurable and enduring moments experienced while traveling are seldomly the ones you planned or anticipated. As we pored over travel guides and websites the day before our departure, meticulously ensuring that every stage of our trip would be time well spent, there was no way to know that our trip would come to resemble our itinerary in only the faintest way. Our logistical masterpiece of a plan included visits to the Citadel and Roman ampitheater in Amman, the famed ancient city of Petra, and the luxurious coastal oasis of Aqaba. We had less than three days to complete our tour so of course all transportation to and from these places had to be precisely executed in military fashion. Well, in the end, it didn't quite work out this way. Here's what happened –

Upon arrival at the airport in Amman, the driver we reserved to take us to our hotel was no where to be found, so, la moshkalla ("no problem," in Arabic), we just hailed the first cab we saw. But as it turns out, we hired not only a cabbie but an 8-year old boy (relation to cabbie unknown) who just so happened to be fighting off one heck of a cold. Sam rode in the front seat with the driver trying to communicate to him the destination of our hotel (he had never heard of it, but that didn't seem to concern him in the least) while Shannon sat in the company of the sniffling, sneezing, but otherwise completely silent, boy in the back seat.

We finally found the hotel, dropped our luggage in the room and immediately left for the Citadel, which sits on the highest of Amman's seven hills and is covered with architectural residue and historical artifacts ranging from an ancient Roman temple (ca. 161-181 AD) to the ruins of an Umayyad palace (ca. 8th century AD). Pretty cool huh? It would have been a lot cooler if Sam hadn't forgotten to bring the camera! Yes, that's right; Sam left it in the hotel room even after Shannon asked him if he had it and he responded that he did (she'll have fun with that one for a LONG time).

The next day came as our biggest surprise. Because of our time limitations, we asked the hotel to arrange a driver to take us straight to Petra in the morning (about a 3-hour drive) so we could have the afternoon and the following morning to soak in all of its world-renowned beauty and mystique before heading off to Aqaba. Enter Imad, our driver. Initially, we felt some anxiety about him because he had quoted an unusually high price for the trip when we first spoke on the phone. When we met him in the morning we brought up the price again, indicating that it seemed a bit steep (we were also beginning to get a feel for the value of Jordanian currency). He interrupted and said he was certain we would be willing to pay the quoted price once we experienced the drive to Petra, but that he would accept whatever amount we thought was fair at the end of the journey. His philosophy was simple: how can I take money if my customer isn't satisfied? His confidence put us at ease, and we agreed not to talk about money until we arrived in Petra.

Once in the car, Imad suggested an entirely different agenda for the day, which was considerably more ambitious and left us even less time in Petra than we had originally planned, but would allow us to see more of the country. We could sense that it was primarily national pride, a real desire to share his country's treasures with us, that drove Imad to suggest this course of action. So we put ourselves in his hands, and he proceeded to unveil a veritable feast of Jordan, showing us sights as beautiful as they were varied. We went to Madaban to see the oldest extant map of the Middle East which is a mosaic in the floor of a Byzantine church, Mt. Nebo where Moses viewed the Promised Land on to which he was never to set foot, the east bank of the Jordan river in Bethany (reputed site of Christ's baptism), the Dead Sea where we enjoyed a nice float (you don't swim just bob up and down like human buoys), and the famous Crusader castle in Al-Karak. We arrived in Wadi Mousa (the Jordanian city where Petra is located) exhausted and later than expected, but conceding that Imad had earned his quoted price and then some. (If you are planning on visiting Jordan in the near future, let us know and we'll be happy to pass his contact info along).

At a mosaic warehouse near Madaba -- Shannon holding our newly purchased mosaic egg (an intense bargaining experience - ask Sam to tell you about it some time) after being accosted by the salesman who insisted he wrap her head with a male headdress. We are still not sure why...

Jordan River in Bethany
View from Mount Nebo

The Dead Sea

Shannon having a mud bath and Sam having a float

Al Karak Castle

With Imad at the end of our very full day

Although we were left with only one morning to see Petra, it proved to be sufficient. We arrived at the gates by 6:30am and proceeded to explore this amazingly well preserved and myth-like ancient city...words cannot describe what you feel as stumble upon the Treasury after having hiked the 1.2 kms through the narrow canyon gorge or the triumph of hiking to the top and discovering the Monastery hewn into the rocks. Moreover, we nearly had the place to ourselves because of our early start (large tour groups begin to mob the place by 9:30am). I hope our pictures are able to relay half the beauty of what we saw.

The Treasury (made famous by Indiana Jones)

Roman ampitheatre

Royal tombs

Climbing to the top - Shannon having a moment with a donkey

At the top - The Monastery & "View of the End of the World"

On our way out - what we missed out on by getting an early start - an anthill of tourists!

After powering through Petra, we returned to the hotel for lunch and hired a taxi for the 90 minute drive to Aqaba. Tired and sore from our hike we desperately wanted some beach time so we were in a bit of a hurry to get there while the sun was still high. Remember Driving Miss Daisy? Well, imagine Miss Daisy doing the driving and you'd be close to understanding the painstaking care with which our driver delivered us to Aqaba. And this was all the more surprising because cabbies in this region (from any region for that matter) are renowned for applying one of Euclid's geometric postulates to driving: the shortest path between two points is a straight line. They will do every thing in their power, short of taking another human life, to take the most direct route to the destination, and they will do it with great speed. But not our driver - he anticipated speed bumps a mile off and began to slow down, maintained a steady pace at 10 mph below the speed limit, and even made an unsolicited and rather unwelcomed stop for a soda. But we did finally arrive at the hotel, practically jumping from the cab while it was still moving, and rushed to check in, change into swimsuits, and make it down to the beach to enjoy a couple relaxing hours reading in the sun and swimming in the cool waters of the Red Sea. A little over 12 hours later, we were back on a plane to Dubai. It was a sprint of a vacation, but richer in experiences than we imagined was possible in 3 days.