Ibrahim Project, June 9: Dimensions of old & new Dubai

← Previous: Ibrahim Project, June 8: Sociopolitics during an excursion to Abu Dhabi

This is part of a series of posts on my participation in the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project during June 2012.

This is an especially long post on an especially packed day, so here are some internal links if you want to navigate quickly to a specific section: (1) Tour of al Bastakiya village (2) The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (3) “Little India” at the Dubai souq (4) The pride of Dubai (5) One more mall & final reflections

Tour of al Bastakiya village

Our exploration of Dubai started in a traditional community that seemed out of place among the surrounding fast cars and glittering skyscrapers. This was al Bastakiya, one of Dubai’s oldest villages that has managed to preserve itself in the face of industrial expansion and development.

The edge of Al Bastakiya, with modern Dubai visible in the background. Actually, Dubai’s skyscrapers are visible in most of my wide-angle images of the village.

There are 52-57 houses left in the vicinity, yet only one of the original families of the area still lives there. The rest have moved out, leaving their homes up for government preservation. In order to restore and protect these historic buildings, Dubai has converted them into hotels and restaurants, museums and galleries.

The entrance to al Bastakiya’s “Heritage House.”
The group looks over the remains of the Wall of Old Dubai.
An old house (“bayt”).

We were shown around the village by a young tour guide, who relayed to us the above facts and many others. I especially enjoyed his sense of humor, which basically involved telling us something false (and absurd) about what we were looking at and seeing if we’d notice.

The SMCCU is one example of the architecture Jake describes below, although its courtyard is covered to shield visitors from the blazing sun.

For example, before we saw the placard naming the Wall of Old Dubai (pictured above), he showed us the remains and told us they were a fossilized dinosaur’s tail. He also told us that some lamp posts were shower heads, and then poked fun at us for not realizing, reminding us that “it would be immodest for people to bathe outside.” We should have known better, because these are exactly the kind of jokes Mark employed throughout the trip (without the courtesy of debunking the falsities, however). It definitely made a simple informative tour much more enjoyable, though.

In his account, Jake M. relays some interesting details I neglected to record while photographing the beautiful area:

The entire neighborhood is made of two types of homes: one kind made entirely of stone, and the other (called “Barasti houses”) are made entirely of palm fronds. The neighborhood presents an interesting contrast to the heavy modernization of nearby downtown Dubai and provides a look into simpler life in the area where alleyways served as wind tunnels to create cool air and shade, windows were small and high to let in wind and maintain privacy, and courtyards were build inside houses to allow natural light to enter.

We both highly recommend that tourists visit al Bastakiya to learn more about this side of Dubai.

“This way to posterity”—an interesting piece of art in the village. Perhaps it’s pointing to new Dubai?

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

Our tour ended in a small mosque where we were greeted by Nasif Kayed, the General Manager of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). The Centre seeks to “increase awareness and understanding between the various cultures that live in Dubai,” and its general motto is “Open doors. Open minds.” We sat with Nasif for what turned out to be a very interesting conversation about Islam in Dubai and the rest of the world, Emirati society, social issues and politics.

Nasif provided a lot of basic knowledge of Islam, but much of what he had to say was markedly different from what we’d heard elsewhere. At the very start of our conversation, Nasif complained that capitalism was a new ideology interfering with religion; he claimed that very few people actually still practice religion, having replaced God with money and wealth. This was the first time we heard someone talk about Dubai’s economic climate as not only injurious to laborers but also to culture and religion, although the latter kind of complaint is actually common in academia.

Nasif also shared some random facts about Islam: Muslims used to pray facing Jerusalem, until God said to redirect toward the Kaaba in Mecca, which was much older and a place for idol worship in pre-Islamic times; the dome architecture found in mosques was used to amplify sound before speakers were invented, and isn’t some special “mosque thing;” and Jesus spoke Aramaic (I don’t remember why this came up). He spoke about the importance of the free will (which humans are believed to have in Islam), although we don’t choose our color, gender, wealth status, or how and when we die. He referred to this last point as explaining why suicide is forbidden in Islam—in bringing about your own death, you are using free will to decide something that only God is supposed to decide. He said that when people apologize for wronging others, this is actually like apologizing or repenting to God, to correct yourself. He also noted that the word “patience” is repeated 4,000 times in the Qur’an.

According to Nasif, there are 5 concepts which “make you Muslim, Jewish, and Christian all at once.” First is that there are angels on your shoulders, recording your good and bad deeds. Second are the books of revelation, although the Qur’an is the “final operating system” as the others have been corrupted—he compared this to how you can only open a 2007 file in 2011 by upgrading it. Third are the shared prophets, fourth is free will, and fifth is the day of judgment. As for the fifth, he claimed that in Islam there is no predestination—no one is born evil, and everyone has agency in determining their post-Earth fate. Although belief alone is extremely important in Islam, Nasif claimed that “just because you believe doesn’t mean you will be saved if you have been bad.”

As we walked from the mosque to the SMCCU building, he also asserted that “it’s my right to be who I want to be—gay, lesbian, Hindu, Buddhist,” as people have no right to interfere with in someone’s personal life. This comment segued the conversation toward a brief bit on homosexuality. Nasif claimed that all religions don’t accept exposing one’s personal desires or choices in life, but human beings are “made to be heterosexual biologically” in order to reproduce—he asked where we draw the line on who you can marry, and said there are many gays in the region, that homosexuality “started” here. The way he spoke about homosexuality was representative of the many people—in the Middle East, but also in the U.S.—who still believe that being gay is a choice. This considerably bothered Jake M., whose writings on our discussion with Nasif actually focused mostly on these comments. Here’s what he had to say:

I read a book entitled Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East by Brian Whitaker for Professor Sharkey’s class first semester. The book provides an analysis of the treatment of and views on the LGBT community throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In the process of reading the book, I got so angry at several points that I ended up chucking the book across the room and venting about my anger during our next class period. As a bit of a loud-mouthed liberal (who still can maintain social boundaries and respect others’ views), I was excited when this conversation came up in the mosque, as it was totally unexpected. However, I found myself getting progressively frustrated more than anything else throughout the talk. I kind of felt like in talking about the LGBT community, we were kind of avoiding the entire topic at hand. Let me explain.

In Islam, public display of affection of any kind is not allowed, be it between a man and a woman, two men, or two men. Personal preference, desire, and affection are personal, meaning they concern only you and your partner and thus should be kept private. Alright, I understand that. Normally my response would be: okay, so it’s not that the LGBT community is being put down while other heterosexual couples can flaunt their relationships in front of everyone else – this is, rather, an issue of privacy and all partners, regardless of their sexual orientation, keeping their thoughts and affections private. However, the entire conversation ended up turning on itself with small comments thrown in there that suggested that in some Muslim communities, the LGBT community, regardless of the fact that nobody can publicly display affection, is not necessarily supported even if they are keeping relations private. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered was discussed as if it were a “choice” that a person could make, and I almost got the impression that some in the Muslim world think that maybe an LGBT person could just choose to not be gay, as if it were only phase or a small moment in time, but that eventually they would find their way back to heterosexuality. Now, none of this was explicitly said in that manner. Rather, comments like “If someone chooses to be gay…” and “Nobody will bother you about your choice…” somehow crept into conversation. The talk ended with Nasif saying something along the lines of: “If God has a problem with the LGBT community, then why has nothing been done to them yet? Why has God not struck them with lightening if God has the power to take and give life?” I understood the sentiment (which kind of reminded me of the concept of b’tzelem elohim in Judaism, which says that everybody is made in God’s image, often used, including by me, as a Jewish textual support for the LGBT community), but still the whole conversation left me with this weird feeling.

Of course, this is an issue that does not only effect Islam. It’s in every religion, including Judaism and Christianity. It’s certainly a prevalent topic right now in the United States, with states fighting about LGBT rights and same-sex marriage constantly, and throughout the world. I just found it interesting that here I am, a Jewish guy from New York in the middle of Dubai, UAE, having a discussion with a man who runs a Centre for Cultural Understanding in a Mosque. Just take a moment to take that all in it. It’s kind of a powerful thought. But I couldn’t have been more glad that Nasif and all of us were able to have this discussion. Although I felt the issue was circumvented rather than address completely, it was still addressed, which is always a step in the right direction. We should be having discussion and not be afraid to speak up for what we believe in. For me, it ended up being speaking up for LGBT rights in a mosque in Dubai. But hey, how many people can say that something like that happened to them too? All good life experiences.

I think what Jake points out at the end of the excerpt is especially important—although the expressed attitudes toward homosexuality are somewhat disconcerting, it’s great that we were able to have this conversation. Another slightly uncomfortable moment came when Nasif looked at us and said, “You know the Sultan [of Oman] is gay, right?” We’d all heard this before but felt strange about it being asserted as fact. Nasif did, however, cite it as an example of tolerance of homosexuality, and he told us that ultimately the important thing in Islam is how good a person you are.

Jake M. and Talene in the SMCCU courtyard, where we sat for a lunch with Arabic food, tea, and dates.

Some more remarks: Nasif brought up how harsh laws (such as Saudi Arabia’s) are called “uncivilized” but countered that “stealing and raping are truly uncivilized” and these laws are set because we want to discourage those behaviors. He also claimed that Jerry Springer is a harbinger of the demise/fall of civilization—he said this isn’t about the freedom of press, but the loss of privacy and being too open. Closing the part of our discussion that focused on religious issues, he claimed that “if God created us a certain way”—that is, if we were born that way—”then he must be fair to it.” On this I think most of us would agree.

“The UAE has oil reserves & tall buildings, and oh yeah it has some people too” probably isn’t the best way to introduce your country.

Over lunch, we finally began to discuss the U.A.E. more specifically. Nasif believes the current era of the Emirates is “great,” as everyone can “fit in” somewhere, whether they are moderate, conservative, or liberal. However, his biggest concern is the segregation or division of nationalities—”like New York’s Chinatown, Italytown, Polishtown,” etc.—and the gap could either narrow or widen (the latter of which he doesn’t want to happen). He said that anyone can apply for citizenship after living in the Emirates for 7 years, but based on what I’ve read elsewhere, that is not the case: apparently foreign nationals can only gain citizenship if born to an Emirati father, or if they have been married to an Emirati citizen for at least 10 years. Nasif did say that Emiratis are encouraged to marry each other, however. This was followed by him claiming that they “try to make things as fair as possible,” but there is still “no citizenship for all.” It was interesting to hear him express that contradiction.

Nasif wants to remove the concept of nationality, “like [his] Bedouin ancestors,” questioning “arbitrary lines” that are not to be crossed. Meanwhile, however, he doesn’t see Emirati-preferencing (which Gian also described to us) as a bad thing—he likened protecting Emiratis in the U.A.E. to affirmative action and minority protection in the U.S. and claimed that the natives don’t have it as good as people may think. He said companies often don’t hire Emiratis because they’ve heard that they are lazy and want high salaries, but in reality, “Emiratis are not spoiled brats.” Nasif said many Emiratis still live in villages and are quite poor, as there has been “no middle class” since 2005. He believes the stereotype that Emiratis are rich folks who sleep and shop all day likely results from the high number of Saudi tourists to the country, who are probably being mistaken for locals. Nasif lamented that there is too much “judgmentalism”—which somehow brought him to tell us how he “feels bad for John Edwards.”

Good question.

As the conversation turned more towards culture, Nasif tried to debunk some common misconceptions about certain conservative traditions. For example, some might claim that women cover and dress modestly to protect themselves from sexual pursuit, but Nasif argued that covering is much more contextual than that; he said “a sexually driven man would pursue whether she was covered or not.” I don’t know whether his tone matched that of feminists, however, who argue the same thing against the idea that women somehow invite rape by dressing a certain way. He also called it “nonsense” that a man would jump a woman because her hair is beautiful, which is indeed often used to justify women hiding their hair. He said that choosing to cover doesn’t make a Muslim woman a better person or more qualified to go to Heaven. He actually seemed to argue against the specific practice of covering the face, because you can’t see the woman but she can see you, and you can’t tell who she is if she needs to be protected. Nasif seemed more focused on practical concerns, which to him provide support for other kinds of covering—covering the head means a woman doesn’t have to worry about her hair style, putting on an abaya frees her from worrying about the way she is dressed. My counterargument is that a woman shouldn’t have to be so concerned with her appearance to begin with—it’s better to absolve women from ridiculous standards altogether, than to hide them when they can’t meet those standards. Nasif also said covering was helpful back when people didn’t shower as often, but it also just helps maintain modesty, especially for those who pray regularly. However, he generally seems to be annoyed by the extent of female covering and the importance placed upon it. He told us that “hundreds of thousands of Saudi women” got driver’s licenses in Dubai but most don’t cover their face for their ID photos, and women also don’t cover at the hospitals either—so the whole concept of covering has been “taken to nonsense.” Although his stance on the matter was somewhat confusing and incoherent, I can definitely agree with him on that last point.

A photo of the Sheikh; the black rope on his head is called an “igal.”

Nasif described the clothing itself in terms of practical and historical developments. He said the kandura that men wear is thin and light, allowing to adapt to any place, and the white color actually resulted from encounters with the Japanese. The abayas that women wear are black so that people cannot see through them, but Nasif claimed that recent research shows how black fabric actually repels UV rays more than white fabric, which to him means that the black color has been a good choice. He said the red and white in keffiyahs were introduced to Jordan by the British, and the black rope around the head which holds keffiyahs in place is called an “igal.” According to Nasif, the igal was originally used for restraining camels, but one day a man put it on his head and it became a style. I think that in most cultures, you’ll find that popular fashions result from from practical needs and serendipity.

One final note: The village of Bastakiya is actually named after the Bastak region of Iran, from which many of al Bastakiya’s people descend. Nasif had a few things to say about the country, whose ayatollah he likened to the Pope. He noted that when Iran seized Gulf islands in 1971, it was under the Shah, who was the “West’s man.” He claimed that the West doesn’t help or intervene in the region unless there is oil at stake. However, Nasif said Wikileaks and other reports show that the Saudis are actually pressuring the U.S. and Israel to attack Iran. As for the possibility of war and Iranian hegemony, he said that “if the people are not willing, the army won’t win,” and thus Iran wouldn’t be able to control the Gulf. It was interesting to hear more about this issue from the perspective of someone living on the Arabian side of the Gulf. The whole Sunni-Shi’a standoff, however, seems less relevant in this specific village; apparently al Bastakiya contains both a Sunni mosque and a Shi’a mosque, and you can hear the distinct adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) of each playing together. That’s a beautiful image to consider.

“Little India” at the Dubai souq

Before heading to the big city, we made some time to visit the Dubai souq. This souq was considerably different from the one we visited in Oman; instead of offering various kinds of local items, it was full of Western commodities and imported goods. More specifically, we were surrounded by items purportedly from India, Pakistan, and Kashmir. This made our search for souvenirs quite difficult, as there was nothing that really reflected the local culture, save for various snowglobes and magnets glorifying the Burj Khalifa. There were no native Emiratis in sight, either—in fact, it appeared that almost every shop, regardless of what was being sold, was run by foreign nationals. If you were to fall asleep somewhere else in Dubai (or anywhere else in the world) and woke up in this souq, you would think you’d been transported to India. I’m not even exaggerating; Aaron, who has previously lived in India, felt the same way. It was a strange experience—although, given that South Asians make up half of the U.A.E.’s population and are concentrated in the lower classes, it’s not actually that surprising. Nasif had lamented national segregation and the “Chinatowns” of the U.S., but I would say that the souq we visited was definitely the “Little India” of Dubai.

The pride of Dubai

Our explicit learning experience in the Emirates had pretty much ended once we left the SMCCU—but, like the souq, the glamorous Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa were still educational opportunities in the implicit statements they make, especially as emblems of the country.

I won’t narrate our experience at the mall because glorifying a shopping day is probably the least interesting thing I could possibly do. I also won’t describe the mall itself because glorifying wealth is the last thing anyone needs me to do. It’s enough to say that the words describing the place in its ad campaign—”Dubai Mall: Everything You Desire”—are pretty much accurate if you also have the money to pay for the things you desire. I realize this applies to all kinds of shopping, but not every mall makes such an overt claim about itself. Yes, the Dubai Mall has everything, except for the economic opportunity to afford what it has exclusively over other malls.

That’s a gorgeous storefront, but what’s it mean to me?

Before and after visiting the Burj we spent a sum of a couple of hours “shopping,” which really didn’t amount to anything because there’s almost nothing at the Dubai Mall that someone like me can afford, save for the things that I can also buy at my own local mall. Going to the Dubai Mall is more of an experience that only amounts to being able to say that you had the experience—being able to gawk at that which the wonders of capitalism have brought to the desert, even if you can’t actually touch them with your own hands. Now, I have always loved shopping and fashion, and I did indeed enjoy being able to check out this mall and certain stores, so I’m not going to pretend that what might be described as “frivolity” is below me or anyone else. But given all I’ve learned, I can’t really separate these things from the politics. After all, the questions I ask here, the problems I pose, are also particularly relevant to the Emirates at large.

The same goes for the Burj Khalifa. To sum up the experience: you enter through the mall, wait a bit, and are directed through an exhibit that tells you all about the building and its history, before you finally ascend into the sky, get to look over the surrounding area, take pictures, and then buy souvenirs if you please. If you’ve ever gone to the “Top of the Rock” at the Rockefeller Center in New York, it’s fair to say that the Burj’s “At the Top” experience is essentially the same thing—but somewhat more exciting. After all, it’s the world’s tallest building, and I’ll admit that it’s pretty cool to take a 124-story elevator ride (though the observation deck is not actually near the top of the Burj). I also enjoy getting a bird’s-eye view of the world (and taking photos of it), which the “At the Top” experience provides of Dubai.

That's great and all, but how much were they paid?
That’s great and all, but how much were they paid?

But I still can’t escape the implications of that metaphor: looking down from above. Do the workers who built the Burj get to enjoy the fruits of their labor? Why do I? Again, these aren’t the questions the Emirates wants you to ask, but they are the questions most worth considering.

Recognizing these people is great, but again—there’s literally thousands of others who are invisible here.

Also, the whole set-up of the exhibit left me with one particular impression: it seems like the Burj is a huge point of pride for the Emirates. For example:

But whose pride is it? I’m really curious how Emiratis—young and old, rich and poor—feel about the landmark and the general development of their country. I know that Gian told us that they’re amazed and grateful, while Nasif had some worries about the superficiality. But the Burj is so glorified here—the pictured passage literally has the building take the place of a person—that I’d like to know more about the extent to which the representation fits the reality. Do Emiratis relate to these motifs? Even more, do the people who built the thing—not just the planners and executives, but the manual laborers—feel this pride? And what does the Burj really represent if that’s not the case?

Regardless, the Burj actually happened to be the only place in the Emirates where I bought a souvenir—a Burj Khalifa lego set for my younger brother. It was hard enough to find items that represented the country, and I figured the Burj at least claims that role (and it was also to find nationally representative souvenirs anywhere that my brother would appreciate, so I figured this was my best bet).

The obligatory picture “from the top.”
There’s always a group photo. From left to right: Jake G., Sundus, talene, Dillon, me, and Jake M.
Oh yeah, did I mention there was a Gold ATM? Yes, “At the Top,” you can use an ATM to buy gold. I think that says it all.

One more mall & final reflections

After returning from the mall, we were officially done for the day. Most of the students used the free evening to relax and rest, but I arranged to meet up once more with my relatives from Abu Dhabi, since our time together at the Grand Mosque had been too short. After catching up a bit at the hotel, we visited the Mall of the Emirates. Yes, another mall—indeed, it was starting to feel repetitive. This mall is also in Dubai and wasn’t too different from the Dubai Mall (though it is home to Ski Dubai, “the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East”). I can’t really offer any unique observations here, but I spent more paying attention to my family anyway.

I sometimes wonder what it’s like for my relatives to live in the U.A.E.—they are Pakistani, after all, and I’ve said a lot about the conditions of Asian migrants to the Emirates. But my aunt and uncle are working professionals, middle-class folks living quite comfortably, so their economic situation isn’t anything like that of the foreign nationals one usually hears about. I would have asked them about these kind of social and political issues, but it seemed too out of place in our conversations; we hadn’t seen each other in many years so this was our time to catch up, and for me get to know my younger cousins (and for their parents to inquire into what I’m studying and ask about my plans for the future).

Between old and new.

My aunt did pose one question, however, which brings me to my concluding remarks: “Do you think this is all a waste of money?”  This made me pause for a moment; I wasn’t sure how to respond. She offered her own answer: yes. She didn’t explain it, but I don’t think it needs much explaining. As for my answer…

You would think that, for someone who has expressed all that I’ve expressed (in this post alone, even), the obvious answer would’ve been yes—of course it’s a waste. But I hesitated partially because I was asked this by a person who is able to make a life here, and it would seem strange to call her space of opportunity a waste. At the same time, the country doesn’t need the Burj Khalifa, multiple theme park-reminiscent malls, and every other over-the-top thing the U.A.E. has to offer, in order to provide economic opportunity. But where do you draw the line? It’s not a waste to develop the place, but how much is too much? Should these critiques be extended to the Empire State Building, or to all of the world’s pricey avenues? Perhaps, but it’s not just about the level of extravagance—it’s about the abysmal state of everything that surrounds it. Yes, putting millions of dollars into another high-rise is a waste when you have people—often the very laborers working on the given project—living in slums on the outskirts of town.

This is why, when we saw multiple donation buckets in the city, Mark commented on the irony of their placement. It just seems silly to promote the donation of spare change to certain causes when they have large sums of money that they’re putting into excessive financial ventures at the expense of obvious and demanding problems within their reach. No, I don’t believe that we have to solve all the world’s problems before certain impressive feats and aspirations are meaningful. But when you have such grave inequality, it doesn’t make sense to keep aiming higher and higher while leaving behind so many at the bottom.

If these words were said during a conversation on an American street, you would have no idea I was talking about a country thousands of miles away—the same points apply to the U.S., which is plagued by inequality as well. But the Emirates have specific problems that are in many ways far more grave. Readers of varying political leanings might disagree on how to approach these kinds of issues, but I challenge you to watch this video and disagree that some basic things can (and should) be done:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMh-vlQwrmU]

Meanwhile, the U.A.E. has its share of political problems as well (not to imply that the economic or class problems aren’t political, but what I mean here is governance). The lack of democracy is obvious and unsurprisingly brings a variety of associated maladies. This article at openDemocracy details the issue of political repression in the Emirates, which the author claims “calls into question the judgement of international institutions that bought into the benevolent ‘images’ so carefully promoted by ruling elites.” A more recent article describes the crackdown on Internet dissent (speaking of Internet crackdowns: in Dubai I was Googling how to set up an RSS feed for this blog and somehow ran into censors). These are just a few reminders of what ignominy exists behind those sparkly skylines.

Finally, I was somewhat disturbed by something I saw in the Dubai airport the next morning as we awaited our outgoing flight. See below:

Given the relative invisibility of the country’s native population and culture amidst all of the development and globalization, it’s pretty jarring to see Arab people commodified into bobble-heads and figurines for tourists to buy and behold as mementos of their visit. What a strange but telling last sight in the United Arab Emirates.

Next: Ibrahim Project, June 10: A cold welcome at Ben Gurion Airport  → 

4 thoughts on “Ibrahim Project, June 9: Dimensions of old & new Dubai

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