Pre-Impressions of the UAE
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I wasn't sure what to expect when I left for the UAE, but plenty of people seemed to expect the worst for me. The sheer number of people who pelted me with unsolicited opinions was astounding. "You’re going to the UA-what?" was fairly common and relatively inoffensive, as was, “Abu Dhabi? Is that a place?” More insulting were, “Ok, so it’s nowhere you’d want to go unless you knew someone who lived there,” and, “You know, that’s never been a part of the world I’ve been particularly interested in.” To this last one, I fought the urge to retort, “Great, then don’t YOU go there, but I’m sticking with my original plan, if that’s ok with you.” That one, I just kept in my head, but once, I actually said, “Oh, well I’ve just always been interested in getting to know people from other cultures.” That shut them up pretty quickly, because who can disagree with that without sounding like a jerk?
I understand that the UAE’s strict laws limiting freedom of speech and differing cultural norms regarding gender roles compared to the U.S. can put some people off. There’s no question that some people in Muslim countries judge and hate Americans. Furthermore, I can imagine that Iraqi war veterans, as one of the above-mentioned commenters is, have some strong feelings about people living in that part of the world. The trick, I’m guessing, will be to learn from the differences between me and the people I meet in the UAE, as well as to seek common ground. Most people have certain basic traits in common with each other, such as love for their families, a desire to connect with some form of spirituality or religion or fate, the ability enjoy a good meal and laugh with friends.
I’m excited to explore a completely new (to me) part of the world. At the end of this trip, I’ll be able to drop a casual, “Well, when I was in the Middle East…” How cool is that?! At the same time, I’m nervous about how locals will react to me, a foreign white woman. Will I stick out? Will they think I’m as greedy and trashy as the American celebrities they see on TV? Beyond this, it’s unsettling to realize that I’ll soon be standing in a country where the authorities imprison first and ask questions later. In February 2008, British citizen Keith Brown was sentenced to four years in a Dubai prison because .003 grams of marijuana was stuck to the bottom of his shoe, an amount smaller than a grain of sugar. It is illegal to consume alcohol without a liquor license issued by the Ministry of the Interior, although I hear the authorities look the other way for hotel guests who restrict their drinking to their own hotel bar. Stories like this are fairly commonplace, including a story from November 2009 regarding a British couple who was arrested under Sharia law for kissing in a restaurant in Dubai. What’s worse, media sources outside of the Dubai Media City free zone are influenced by the government, so there could be a greater number of incidents such as these that go unreported.