Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Walk on the Cultural Side

How is it that one can learn about culture between swings of a table tennis racket and thrusts of a billiard cue? If you were to ask me what I have done since arriving in the UAE 12 days ago, a predominant answer would have to be: playing games. Football, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, foosball, billiards - I've played all these and whatever else you fancy. It's been a surefire way to meet people. I've gotten very skilled at asking, "Can I have next game?" Most everyone says yes.

Some people need a class or a scheduled Q&A session to learn a new culture. They take ravenous, structured notes and chatter quietly during bathroom breaks about whatever has struck them as interesting. I'm not rejecting this practice, but my approach is different. Why sterilize a necessarily organic and uncertain concept? I prefer to get my cultural fix by immersing myself in it -- by talking with real people and asking real questions -- and that's exactly what I've done. Let me tell you something; I've learned more over these past 12 days in the backs of taxicabs, avoiding certain death at each curvature in the expressway, than I have in two traditionally restored villages, four hours at Dubai's Centre for Cultural Understanding, and multiple organized lectures on the local culture. I'm very thankful to the exchange office here for kindly providing these opportunities to learn, but the content was, as could be expected, obviously somewhat airbrushed. The real stuff is happening in the dirty Sharjah kitchens where they make the most delicious shawarma you've ever tasted.  It's happening in the labor camps that any local is more than happy to talk to you about, where the workers make $163 a month in the shadow of the world's tallest skyscraper. It's happening in the architecture building where your brand new friends are (politely) peppering you with legitimate questions about faith, family, and politics. It's happening when you get lost in the Dubai darkness and can't find a cab for three kilometers, so instead you walk and talk modernist philosophy as interpreted by the Eastern world. It is in these situations where I feel fully free and at these times when I have fallen so deeply in love with this real, tactile environment.

The number of nationalities represented by my burgeoning friend group has continued to swell. Yesterday, I met a half Chinese, half Turkish set of brothers, and that wasn't even the most interesting ethnic mix. To the eclectic list, add Sudanese, Yemeni, Armenian, Lebanese-Palestinian (a common find, due to Palestine's conflicted status as a sovereignty), Scottish- Omani (yes, that's correct), Jordanian, and Libyan. Not unlike the selection of entertainment in nearby Dubai, you can bet on just about any culture being here.

Contrary to what us Westerners tend to do, it's totally unfair to bundle these very different cultures under a common umbrella of Middle Eastern, or even Muslim, culture. So let's talk commonalities instead of differences; for all the foreignness of this place, I am continuously surprised with how much all of us share. For starters, I am still floored each day by the hospitality I receive at every turn. I can't decipher why after ten minutes of talking to a new person for the first time I am routinely handed a homemade cup of coffee, offered full plates of food, and served all manners of invitations to go do things. No one will let me pay for anything in this country; I feel like my wallet is in a straitjacket. I'm not used to such easy friendships without guarded reservations, and I guarantee you that I'm not the sort to elicit immediate and uncompromised trust. It's amazing, this outpouring of human kindness, and the effect is not lost on me.

I'll be honest. My intention when beginning this post a few days ago was to capture the essence of local culture: id est, the Emirati people. But I've learned that culture here is a not a homogenous product, or even one with a clear spectral gradient from one culture to another. It's made up of many distinct ingredients that compliment one another yet remain independent - much different, in my opinion, than America's melting pot. And plus, you already read what I said up above. I cannot, in good faith, airbrush this living, breathing culture for you. I just can't.

So if you want to learn about the Emirati, try reading a book, because the history is really pretty fascinating. But here I can at least compromise by telling you something you may not capture from just reading about it: these people are truly and exceptionally proud of their country -- citizens or non-citizens. Along with the other exchange students, I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday last week exploring some traditionally reconstructed villages in both Sharjah and Dubai. It astounded me to realize that not eighty years ago, the major industry here was pearl diving and the population was only a few thousand. The subsequent decades have yielded a rapid expansion -- fueled by discovery of first gold, then oil -- the pace and freneticism of which is unparalleled in modern history. Despite some of the lingering human rights issues at play around here, it is the truest rags-to-riches story to which I've been privy, and it's impossible not to get caught up in the fervor. I mean, just look at these cities and the wonders they contain.

Fishing vessels in the city of Sharjah

At the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

Traditional Emirati building. The nails on the posts are meant to dissuade pigeons (obviously to no avail).
Masih loves the Atlantis resort; its only twin worldwide is in Nassau.

The stunning Dubai skyline, dominated by the world's tallest building - the Burj Khalifa

Some lovely fellow exchange students on the wharf of the Dubai Creek

The renowned gold souk. Not a bad place for an engagement, if you ask me.

A partial Sharjah cityscape, from adjacent the Gulf beach.


One of many floating restaurants that snake through the waters here

Dubai is brimming with excitement for the World Expo - 6 years from now!

Sharjah is pretty cool, even with its upstart sister Dubai right next door
Yes, this land is built for spectacle, and no, it's not just a fa├žade. This is the real deal. Patriotism, even among non-citizens, is quite simply amazing. National Day, in December, is absolute bedlam; the distinctive green, red, black, and white flags fly on every rooftop and from every car, and the streets are clogged with traffic going nowhere in particular but concerned instead with demonstrating their nationalism passionately. I love it.

It wouldn't have mattered what my background was before arriving in the UAE. I am by now convinced I would have been infected with this fever regardless -- to thirst paradoxically for both the cultural and the commercial, that unique combination of modernity and antiquity that I cannot explain but with which I am thoroughly smitten. I'm an introvert normally, but the people that surround me are too welcoming and engaging for me to stay indoors. They humble me unceasingly, because I just don't warrant the kindness I have received from them. You can understand, then, why I have to live in this free air, drinking in both the sunshine and splendor with which the land and people are awash. I am typically quite content to live in a rather dull academic shell, but I've never been happier to be coaxed out into such a bright, bright world as this.

Class, too, has begun -- perhaps unfortunately. My institutions ought to be happy enough with my extracurricular learning! But no matter; off I'll head to Business Ethics and Social Responsibility in the morning. The classes are pretty fun, and I adore my philosophy course, but this outdoor, exciting world puts the classroom to shame. No contest.

My final thought is this, because it's the one I can't evict from my mind. As an individual who loves travel and learning, I cherish the connection that can be forged between myself and another person, even upon first encounter. It's inexpressible, this feeling of committing to full-on eye contact with someone else, allowing real, messy communication and kinship to actually occur. I've seen life jump into more pairs of oculi in the past two weeks than it seems I've seen in a lifetime. This has taught me something important. We are engaging in a fundamental human transaction at each juncture during this lifetime. Within these exchanges, kindness is the universal human currency; considering this truth, it's no wonder that this land is so rich.

Hasta la buena vista - Jon
At the Sharjah fish souk, acting crabby.


  1. Forget politics or finance or whatever it is, just be a writer. I drank in every delicious word.

  2. I just sent off my application to do an exchange at AUS. Fingers crossed I will get to experience all that you are :) Best of luck!