Friday, April 17, 2009

An Intro to Two of Seven Emirates

My brother posted this article on my Facebook wall, and it's definitely been some food for thought.

You can see Al Ain off in the middle of nowhere, right up on the Oman border.

We moved back from the UAE more than ten years ago now, and the Dubai described in the article is in many ways unfamiliar. Back in those days, there was no palm-shaped island. There was no Harvey Nichols. There was no Burj Al-Arab. The largest mall in Dubai was the newly opened (and not quite complete!) City Centre, with its Ikea and massive, amusement park-like food court.

Dubai was where everyone went to shop in those days. There was no mall in Al Ain, and it was difficult to come across the simple things that everyone in every small crap town in North America takes for granted in those pre-internet days... like the newest English CDs and books. Dubai had an English radio station that played Rick Dees' weekly top 40 show, and that was basically the only exposure you got to the occasional rock song. The more privileged among us had MTV Europe instead of MTV India, but that still involved less rock and more techno.

You could go to the beach there, and the water in those days wasn't filled with sewage, like the article claims. My youngest brother loved to stand near the water and let the tide wash over his feet, though, and after a day at the beach, his feet were always black with oil. The atlas that my father had brought back for me from a business trip to Canada showed me that the Gulf Sea was choked with oil pollution, so I assumed that it was the whole sea that was dirty.

I've been told that they've recently built a virtual wall of buildings along the beach in Dubai, effectively blocked off the rest of the city from the ocean breeze. In my mind, that makes Dubai much more like Abu Dhabi, which is an island of overgrown skyscrapers in a desert country. In Abu Dhabi, there was no breeze, and the light would reflect off the skyscrapers into the street, baking the asphalt. There were no trees because it was the desert, but it was painfully humid because it was an island. The heat clung to you like a living object, and the air was literally thick with the humidity - you could feel it. Stepping outside of a vehicle or building was like walking into a physical wall of heat. Your clothes and hair would stick to you, and the heat seemed unbearably inescapable.

Al Ain was better. It was out in the desert, away from the ocean, but it was also an oasis, so it was full of parks. The summer temperatures were actually higher than in the larger coastal cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but since the air was dry, it didn't stick to your body in the same fashion. I don't know if we really appreciated how lucky we were in that regard. We were tweens, busy being bitter that we were disconnected from the rest of the world because we had to go to Dubai to buy a fashion magazine. Because I was a nerd, I was also bitter that I couldn't go to Space Camp, and that I couldn't look things up whenever I wanted to, because there was no public library. It's kind of mundane, really. I didn't hate it there because it was fake, or because I felt like it was a con game. I hated it because it was intellectually limiting.

I did see some of the darker side of things, though. As a child, there wasn't really much that could be done about it, and I didn't personally know anyone who told me the kinds of stories of victimization that Hari writes about in his article. He also seems to leave out a whole class of people, drawing lines between the local Arabs, the migrant workers from the subcontinent, the Phillipines, and apparently Ethiopia now, and rich, white expats from Western countries.

There's no mention of the families from the subcontinent who have lived there for decades with no rights in terms of citizenship. There's no mention of Western expats of colour like my family, or like my classmate's family, a black American girl. There's only a passing mention of the residents from other Middle Eastern countries who have settled there... and nothing of the many Baha'i residents that fled Iran to settle there. There's just so many different facets to discuss.

I've tried to determine how many of the differences can be explained simply by my living in the emirate of Abu Dhabi as opposed to Dubai, but it's still the same country. So I thought I'd write it myself, and add some of my own analyses. I'm not the greatest writer, but in this case, I have plenty of source material.

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