Where Are You From?

(Individualism vs Collectivism, 31 Oct 2012)

Maggie Lenarz ·

Forty-five degrees celsius. Yet here I am, trudging through a sand-stained neighborhood in worn-out jeans and a long sleeve shirt. “Why must Ramadan fall on the hottest month of the year?”, I ask with resignation. Known unofficially as “Little India” (or what I refer to as “Big India”) Bur Dubai is one of the older neighborhoods nestled within the cosmopolitan metropolis of Dubai. It›s home to historic museums, ambitious souk sellers, a Hindu temple (lodged directly behind the Grand Mosque), and most importantly, me.

Here on my walk we’ll find little shops that repeat themselves: first it’s the fabric seamstress’ shop, then the bearded barber’s shop. In a close third is a dimly lit grocery store. Then there’s a weird smell and some malnourished-looking feral cats. What comes next? Oh it’s a Mongolian-Pakistani-Ethiopian restaurant. Then we start over with another fabric seamstress shop. We play this game for nearly half an hour before we arrive at our desired destination: Carrefour.

I’m here with a long checklist in tow. Only weightless basic necessities: paint, paper, pantyhose. It takes me nearly an hour to find these items (thanks global hypermarkets). Soon my shopping cart is full and I am satisfied. At the checkout, the cashier eyes me curiously. She looks at my hair, my clothing, my mannerisms, searching for something. While ringing me up she asks a shy, “Where are you from?” I’m from the USA. “Where are you from?” She’s from Myanmar.

In many places, this would be considered an odd question, even an insult. “What? I don’t look like I’m from here?! I come here all the time!”

Truth be told, none of us look local. This is how we all communicate with one another. We’re all away from home, and curious where others call home. I use to be annoyed when asked this, but I’ve noticed, through the months how contagious it is to ask this very question. I ask those while shopping for groceries, browsing for books or asking for assistance at Ace Hardware. It has become a game called “Name the Nationality”.

But can we relate to each other simply because we’re not locals? We’ve found out the shop-keeper is from Kazakhstan, now what? “Hmm, must be cold there. Glad you’re somewhere much warmer?” And that’s the best you’ve got. Then it makes you wonder. Since Dubai is known for being cosmopolitan, can a collective international community actually exist here? Where everyone, regardless of their nationality, can bond with one another simply because they are foreign to this city? Surely we can all identify a dash of alienation, a pinch of homesickness, and a sprinkle of culture shock. It’s a human condition many could bond over for hours.

And what about the locals, the Emirati? They are a minority. Yet they run the very country they are a minority in. Why do we rarely see Emirati mixing with expatriates and vise versa? What do they think of the expatriate population and how their city has literally changed over night?

Well, let’s find out.</p>

The big bang

When I say none of us look local, I am referring to the following facts. According to a 2009 survey from Statistics Center of Dubai, the local Emirati population makes up a mere 17% of the overall population. That means Dubai’s expatriate population is anywhere between 83-85%. Within this group, 85% of the expatriate population hail from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Europeans make up 0.9% and those from the USA are only a dismal 0.3%. Men outnumber women more than 3:1 and the average age is 27. In other words: Dubai is young, Asian, and ready to mingle.

In 1985 the population was listed at 370,800. The population jumped to 674,000 in 1995. Another decade later and the city was booming at 1,204,000. Now you may wonder: why the spike in population? Why such a large rate of migration? Why build a new life in a hot, dry climate? It doesn’t seem like the most ideal place to work. Yet here we all are.

Is it because, despite the global economic slump, the Gulf still manages to grow? Perhaps we have no other option than to come here and work. Many of us are supporting our families back home. We lift heavy machinery, hour after hour under the midday summer sun, with few or no breaks. We sit behind desks on 12 hour shifts, twiddling our thumbs just to keep ourselves awake. Many of us work irregular hours in less than ideal environments with high demands. This city would not grow at the rate it has, if we all had 9 to 5 jobs. Dubai is truly a city that does not sleep.

Although Dubai seems to be developing at an exponential rate, upon close examination you will find a slight fracture in the city’s backbone. The prognosis? Dubai lacks a community. There’s too much of an emphasis on productivity. To even consider the possibility of a community (let alone a multi-cultural community), or to be alive and happening, is absurd. Yes, we’re here from all over the world, but when given the chance to form a community, we’re too tired. And when we’re not tired, we develop cliques and clans with those of similar cultures and customs.

Larger representations of countries, mean larger communities. Brazilians, Indians, Filipinos, Egyptians, Indonesians, Lebanese, Australians, Pakistanis. These are just a handful of some of the larger ethnic groups. But if you’re not from a country that is not popular here, you’ll wonder how to form your own community. Luckily, some communities are formed around the type of work you do, your work schedule, and the language you speak.

So, can a collective universal community exist in Dubai? Not any time soon. My only common bond with the construction workers outside my window? We work. And work we surely do.

When locals are the minority

I’m at lunch with my new Emirati friend, Ahmed. It’s late afternoon and I’m staring at my plate full of tabbouleh, humus, mixed meats and chicken liver. We’re right in the heart of “newer”-ish Dubai and I’m dishing out questions about Middle Eastern cuisine. He’s explaining the difference between Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish cooking. “Its all about the spices”, he says. But I’m only half listening. What I really want to ask him is something I know will be challenging for him to describe in English. I want to get inside his mind, pick at his memory. I’m curious about Dubai before she became glitzy. Who was she before the boom in the 1990’s?

I stare out the window and ask him what our view would have been had we sat here twenty years ago. “None of this would have existed. It would be just one road that stretched on and into the desert towards Abu Dhabi. There was only one skyscraper on this road” – that road was Sheikh Zayed and that skyscraper was The World Trade Center. This lone skyscraper was once home to major companies, international consulates, and law firms.

“I remember when I was little, my family would drive up to this building. We would stare in amazement. To amuse ourselves, we’d count the number of floors. One, two, three … thirty-eight, thirty-nine. We were so impressed by the size of this building. It looked so big back them. Now I can’t tell if I’ve grown or Dubai has”. He looks away, almost sheepishly for thinking that, as a child, this building was impressive. “They’re probably just going to tear it down and build something over it”, he says looking back at me. “This is Dubai’s mentality: out with the old, in with the new”.

Since the boom of the 1990’s, the ground around Sheikh Zayed Road has shaken, sprouted, and erupted with unimaginable architectural feats: The Palm, Burj Al Arab, Burj Khalifa, etc. Dubai demanded the next, newest, most unimaginable thing to be constructed. These architectural wonders brought a considerable amount of labor in construction, retail, real estate, and customer service, representing hundreds countries north, south, east, and west.

“How do you feel about all the people who’ve come here to work and live?”

“Our culture is very open to newness. We embrace foreigners and welcome them warmly into our cities and Emirates. This is our belief of hospitality.”

“The only reason Emirati say they embrace us is because they need our labor,” says my coworker, Sandra, on one of our operational flights to Dar es Salaam. We’re sitting in the jumpseat, cruising over Ethiopia, engulfed in a conversation on several unrelated topics. “They would be nothing without us. No Burj Khalifa. No Ski Dubai. No Dubai Mall. No nothing.”

Surely not all expats working in Dubai feel this way about Emirati. I, of course, am happy they need my labor. If it weren’t for this country and its people’s ambitious plans for the future, I would be sitting at home unemployed. So if the country welcomes me, gives me a place to live, and demands my labour, so be it. But Sandra highlights a very important point: very few expats living in the UAE interact with the local Emirati population. There is a lot of misunderstanding; a mind packed with imagined bias and prejudices. She may be right. But she may also be wrong. She assumes their motives and feels objectified; objectified for being an employee number and an image to a company.

Expats misunderstand Emirati simply because they don’t know them personally. The Emirati community is close-knit – more so than other communities within the UAE. It makes me wonder if Emirati are afraid they’ll lose their culture if they start reaching out and immersing themselves in other communities; that they must stick together to remember where they came from. Perhaps this is true, but is that not the case for the rest of us who left our communities to come to the UAE? We live in a rapidly changing world where we must confront a new definition of community and nationhood together, as both Emirati and expats. Whether the result is good or bad, all we know is that it will be different and that it will be ours.