Friday, December 28, 2007

Cultural Mix, Cultural Divide

This morning as I sat at my laptop and closed my eyes, I felt as though I were in Maine. The sliding door beside me was open, and a breeze made the curtains billow and fall. It was sunny, the air was cool and dry, the temperature about 60 degrees. (It would rise to the upper 70s later.) This is the weather we wait many months for in the UAE. It is perfect.

Last night we had some friends over - all ex-pats. The ladies and I got on the subject of making friends with Emiratis, and the opinons were flying back and forth pretty fast. I'm not sure I got my own position across - which may be why I've turned to my blog.

Anyone in Abu Dhabi would tell you it's not easy to make friends with a UAE native, or "local," as they call themselves. One could live here for years without ever getting to know a local.

(Some reasons for this: it's a gender-segregated society and inappropriate for women to talk to unrelated men and vice versa, thus cutting down on interacting with locals by 50% for starters. Also, Arabic is a difficult language. Finally, the UAE has a history of foreigners coming here to work and leave without putting anything into the country, and this must affect how locals view ex-pats. There are so many ex-pats and so few Emiratis -the ratio is approximately 82% to 18%.)

Back to last night. One friend seemed put off that locals were not friendly to her. (I must add that she is a lovely, kind, polite and relaxed person.) Another friend present has lived in the Middle East for many years and is married to someone from the region. (She is equally wonderful). This second friend expressed no particular desire to make friends - or not - with Emiratis.

I knew what my "first friend" was saying. I've been cut in line many times in Abu Dhabi, and I know some local ladies have no interest in talking to me because I'm western and because I'm not Muslim. However, I also feel fortunate that I have made friends with an Emirati woman and with two western ladies married to locals. In last night's conversation, I said it's surprising how open these women are, once they're comfortable and also once they are certain no men are around. If I have them over I make sure no repairmen are coming, that M is at the office, that the sheers are pulled across the windows.

My "first" friend implied that having to make these accomodations was perhaps unfair to me, that maybe I was even compromising my own culture to appease these ladies' requirements. If I can't share my ways, if I can't have a drink while they are over (not that any of us drink during the day or drink a lot, mind you), then maybe I can't even be myself with them.

I'm not sure I answered her views adequately. But I don't at all feel that I'm compromising my ways for the sake of these friendships. Rather, I see it more as reaching out to someone different, as a small effort that is richly rewarded with new friendship.

My Emirati friend is someone I connected with almost immediately. We both have lots of children, we both like to talk about things that are close to our hearts, we both struggle with the demands of large families. In addition, I really like and admire these women for their sense of style and their committment to their Muslim faith. They have each inspired me with my own committments to my own values and my own faith.


Dieter said...

Congratulation Frances! It happens that I share my workplace with Emiratis from time to time and I always address this issue. As you write in your article making friends with "locals" is extremely difficult and needs a lot of sensitivity. I agree with you that taking certain actions definitely does not mean that you're compromising your culture. I consider this more a "friendly and thoughtful" gesture. Overall it shows how well you're dealing with local customs and finally you've been rewarded by making friends with these local ladies. I think living in a foreign country is about breaking barriers and exploring new cultural elements. Otherwise it's simply a waste of time. Many of us are trying to achieve this to a maximum degree but not everybody seems to be as successful as you.


Frances Gunnison said...

One of the things I like so much about spending time in Ireland (this is related) is how easy it is to talk to the Irish people. I wish it were that easy in Abu Dhabi. Getting to know my Emirati friend and other Arabs, I've learned that Arabs are exceedingly hospitable. They also have beautiful manners and they treat their friends like gold. If I hadn't made these friends, I would have missed out on this knowledge. It's good for world peace if we cross cultures!

EmiratesMac said...

It can be hard as an expat to make friends that are Emirati, but if you put in the effort it's well worth it. You get a better insight into their lives and culture and I think it can only make your stay here more rewarding and pleasant. We've been fortunate to make a number of Emirati friends and those friendships we'll treasure forever. It's not all smooth sailing though as there is a lot to learn and adjust to.

Frances Gunnison said...

Well said. How did you make friends with locals? Were you participating in an activity that brought you into contact with them?
I, too, feel fortunate to have made friends and acquaintances among the local population. It has enriched me on many levels and I've learned so much more about their traditions and mindset than any book could offer.
From getting to know some Emiratis, I can also see why they are often not keen on making friends with ex-pats. Number one, we leave! Number two, sometimes ex-pats are not as careful with these friendships as they should be. Emiratis take friendship seriously - a good thing, I believe, and not something to enter into lightly.