Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Question of Culture

The United Arab Emirates is growing at an incredible pace. This tiny country spans just 83,600 square kilometers (an area slightly smaller than the state of Maine), but holds 5.6 million people - 85% of whom are expatriates. With the country's rapid industrial and economic development, as well as an influx of foreigners from all across the world, there is a fear that local UAE culture is becoming diluted and in danger of dying out.

Making up just 15% of the country's population, UAE nationals are trying to fight back against the erosion of their traditional culture. One way they're trying to salvage an Emirati identity is through Watani, a social development program aiming to engage Emirati youth in the preservation of local culture.

The program has done some interesting things in the three years since its inception. Among other things, it has hosted Ramadan iftars, set up summer camps promoting UAE culture among Emirati kids, launched a comic book series centering on an Emirati superhero, and created an Emirati version of YouTube to spread Emirati culture.

As the world moves towards becoming a global village, the question of identity is on many people's minds. Although any given culture is always changing, the speed at which that is happening today is causing alarm around the world. Usually it took generations for major changes in culture to become evident, so people within that culture did not feel that they were loosing a major part of themselves during their lifetime. This is no longer the case.

Experiments like Watani are interesting examples of where we will draw the line between keeping some semblance of our local identity and merging with the international community.

1 comment:

Nicholas Karavatos said...

It's not altogether certain that "it took generations for major changes in culture to become evident, so people within that culture did not feel that they were losing a major part of themselves during their lifetime." I think that human history is full of shocks and breaks.

How do we know that what we see in the attitudes and actions of today's Emiratis are not "the true essence of [their] social and cultural values and traditions"?

Implied in these save-our-traditions debates is that Emiratis are under siege from The Other, from The Corruptor, the Unsavory Foreigner come to twist the hearts of our youth and lead them astray. Coming from an immigrant nation myself, I have seen this kind of propaganda all too often. It still happens, as you are aware.

No one has invaded and colonized the UAE. (Honestly, the relationship with Britain wasn't colonial, though I am referring to today.) Foreigners were brought here for two reasons. 1) To setup the administration of a modern nation-state and its economic infrastructure; and 2) to create an aristocratic citizen class by importing all manner of laborer as an underclass.

Is this "the true essence of [their] social and cultural values and traditions"? Slavery existed here until very recently, so why not import slave-labor?

Then there are the boo-hoos of "dilution." Really, the Emiratis could simply do all their own work themselves and there would be no problems.

"Tradition" and "culture" are living dynamics. They are not etched in stone. These two concepts often fall upon the shoulders of the women. I often get the feeling when people are tossing these two words around all they're really referring to are hymens and headscarves. So I was pleased to read of the interest in the old ways of fishing and the architectural designs.

I have often heard the bedouin disparaged in private and exhulted in public. It is the old ways of surviving in the desert that is traditional knowledge.

This is the point: traditional knowledge - all that can be lost when a generation dies out.

I would like to see more ethnographic studies and collections of myth, legend, and folklore, both recited and sung.

History: No one here ever talks about the eras of tribal wars that brought today's ruling clans to power. Some of these were quite recent. This is history that is dying with the old.

Do they teach in Emirati schools that the Ruler of Sharjah is on the throne because his older brother (himself deposed in 1965) killed his cousin who was then on the thrown - a coup!

Do they teach in Emirati schools about the border war between Sharjah and Fujiarah in 1972?

All this bellyaching about tradition and culture and their own history is whitewashed.

The same with Oman. I often told my students in Muscat that they should take audio and video recorders and interview their grandparents about the lives that they lived day to day. The Omani Civil War was hush-hush and no one would talk about it publically. Imagine all the history that the government wants to disappear by keeping official silence.

The schools teach that after returning from Sandhurst, Qaboos studied Omani history for 5 years while living in Salalah. Yeah, right. His father the Sultan put him under house arrest!

Omani history only says that Qaboos ascended to the throne in 1971. Yeah, right! He overthrew his father in a palace coup, exiling him to Britain.

Also in Oman it is illegal to call anyone a slave but those social attitude still exist in the absence of any public discussion of Oman's history as a slave-trading center.

I would have more respect for the so-called preservation of cultural tradition when those same people were not officially silencing episodes in their own history.

The UAE supressed PLO activities in this country, and guess what happened? The Arab Revolutionary Brigades (Abu Nidal) blew-up an Omani airliner over the Emirates killing 111 people. Why is this forgotten?

When a peoples' history is so politicized as to be silenced, bellyaching over tradition and culture seems like a distraction.

Thus, I raise the "question of history."