Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Mix

The good thing about a multicultural city like this (and I mean multicultural, there's contact and cross-fertilisation but no melting pot) is that sooner or later your phonebook and email contact page looks like something out of the UN directory. When you have regular contact with people from Lebanon, France, India, Ukraine, South Africa, the Philippines, Egypt, Scotland and Mexico, stereotypes begin to lose their power, and foreign ways become part of your landscape. I'll pass on Fatma's cardamom coffee, Rafael's gazpacho, and Hamad's mutton mansaf (arghgh!) and let you off peasepudding, haggis (Don't ask..) and Merlot. Eid, Diwali and Bonfire Night all within a week of each other? OK. Let's do our own thing, but enjoy everyone else's lights and fireworks too. Ramadan Kareem to you. Happy Christmas to me. It works here. We grumble about the bits we don't like, may be wary of the unfamiliar for a time, may find someone's cooking, religious observances or family traditions incomprehensible, but if it works for them, and ours works for us, then that's ok.

But it would be good if we could have a national standard on time management, some kind of protocol, like a published table of relative time to assist in cross-cultural appointment making, so that if you tell me 2pm I know you mean GMT, GMT+/-3/4/7, bukhara, insha'llah, toute de suite, mañana baby or in your dreams buddy!

Arab culture is very much about family, often an extended family. Even here in Dubai, where Emaratis live further apart than they used to and are outnumbered nationally by something like 85% foreigners, 75% from the sub-continent, and the rest of from all over the world (not sure, especially after recent expansion, but I've heard these sorts of numbers) family ties remain important, and people can place second cousins, aunts and nephews. I can do that up to a point, but there's no comparison. (I was reading a Spanish blogger who explained that, because women keep both their mother's and their father's surname on marriage, she can trace her relatives through four generations on both sides.)

Even in a social and cultural oddity like Dubai which is part New Town, part family business with global expansion plan, local culture remains family orientated, private. This, in a world with a global-information culture governed by the assumption that everything is or should be open to public view and tourism.

Here we routinely grumble about one another from time to time, and get on with it - isn't that the point of grumbling - a little grease to ease the axle? But when people elsewhere look at middle eastern culture (as in contemporaray life rather than heritage), there's not a lot to see, apart from exposés of hideous abuse and honour killings. Yes these happen, far, far too frequently, and it is important that they are reported because that's how ideas shift, consciences stir, and change begins - just as in Britain after poor Damilola Taylor was murdered by racist fellow students, and in Spain, where the tragic suicide of 14 year-old 'Jokin' has at last forced public awareness and official recognition of bullying in schools.

In KSA and here in the UAE private efforts are being made to curtail domestic abuse, through education, legal action and the provision of shelters, and while there is also opposition to all this, and the effort is piecemeal at this stage, attitudes and provision are changing. KSA presenter Rania al-Baz made international headlines last September when she showed her battererd face on TV after another severe beating from her husband - and said that 1) she was not the only wife this was happening to, and b) it was WRONG and what was to be done about it?

Here in Dubai, a newspaper article around about the same time (perhaps as a result?) on a shelter for battered wives, caused outrage among men and women, some of whom sympathised with the wives and condemned the husbands for brutality and betrayal of religious principles, and others who condemned the wives for their betrayal of family values and religious principles. The other immediate outcome was that disgruntled husbands were able to identify the shelter and go after their wives. The shelter relocated amidst continued public debate, which is increasingly supportive of the principle that a women should not live in fear of her husband, and that the 'rule of thumb' (A husband may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb.) is outmoded. Newspaper coverage and debate continue.

In fact, despite the constant criticism of the local press, some of which is dire, it has come a long way in the last five years. In the past, as a public watchdog its best trick was bark, wag and roll over. Actually, forget the bark, because the occasional snap got journalists on the next plane out of here.

Nowadays there is proper national and international news coverage; there are features on contentious social and economic issues (and we certainly have plenty of those); there is public debate. And if you're not satisfied, you can get major international broadsheets at the supermarket, switch on a satellite news channel in virtually any major language, or go online.

So yes, the bad things you hear about are generally true, but they are not the whole truth by any means. Arab girls pursue degree courses, work for a living and run their own businesses in the UAE and Oman - and no doubt in Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. KSA, Afghanistan and Iran are topical, not typical! Of course it isn't perfect over here. But where is it perfect?

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