Opinion | Speak Your Mind

Focus: Cultural ignorance

Why is the knowledge of the local heritage so low?

  • — Compiled By Huda Tabrez/Community Web Editor
  • Published: 17:33 March 1, 2012

  • Image Credit: Oliver Clarke/ Gulf News
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Apparently 7 out of 10 expatriates in the UAE have little or no knowledge about the heritage, culture and tradition of the country they live in. In a survey conducted by the Ministry of Interior recently, only 28 per cent of the 2,000 expatriates interviewed said they were confident about their knowledge of Emirati culture. In a country where many expatriate workers choose to live for years, if not decades, why is the knowledge of the local heritage so low? In this month’s live debate, we invited Gulf News readers including UAE nationals as well as expatriates who have lived here for several years to put the topic for discussion. Here are some excerpts from the debate. If you would like to share your views, log on to our Facebook page ‘Gulf News Al Nisr Publishing UAE’ or write to us at readers@gulfnews.com

Why do most expatriates have limited knowledge of emirati culture?

Martin Thomas
There are some things that have changed over the years. When I first came here, there were far fewer people altogether, so you were much more likely to interact both socially and professionally with Emiratis. Nowadays, because it is a big city, and because a vast number of the people in the big city are not Emiratis, a vast number of the people you interact with, naturally, are not Emiratis. So, that is a big change over 30 years. And I don’t think it is a cultural change, it is simply because we are now a big city.

Rashid Bin Hindi
We are a minority, given. But we are not the kind of people who won’t welcome you into our homes and tell you about our culture. The importance of hospitality is very high in our culture.

Sunil Chawla
I think there are two factors — the interaction of expatriates with Emiratis is quite low compared to the interactions they have with other expatriates. Secondly, I find that Emiratis are a very shy community. Also, there is a sense of fear among the expatriates, which is instilled by others. It is basically hearsay, and isn’t actually true. I know a lot of Emiratis who I interact with, but there is something about people talking, which you keep hearing.

Rashid Bin Hindi
I would just like to ask one thing — why is it that people have this fear of Emiratis? I’ve interacted with a lot of nationalities over the years. I agree, there are some UAE nationals who are very shy and hard to talk to. But there are a few UAE nationals like me who would love to tell you about our culture, who you can ask as many questions as you want and will not be offended.

Martin Thomas
I think one would also like to remember the circumstances in which most people meet Emiratis — mostly it can be at the immigration department or a senior official at an office. It is not a function of their nationality but a function of the position in which you meet people, they could be from any other nationality, but when you meet someone at a senior level of bureaucracy, you’d still be scared.

Sunil Chawla
Actually, I think it is a matter of understanding ... the moment a person on the street looks at a man in the traditional Emirati attire, he thinks the man must be important and powerful. There is this perception that goes around.

Rashid Bin Hindi
That’s true. I had some friends visiting from India and, I’m not kidding, they actually thought we had an oil field in the backyard! When I worked in the customer service at a bank here, I used to wear a kandora [traditional Emirati attire]. Whenever they had a problem with a customer, they used to ask me, “Rashid, can you come?” I ask, “Why?” They would say: “You are wearing a kandora, they’ll get scared.” And I think, what is there to get scared? I would go there and ask the person, “Sir, can I help you?” and he’d say, “No khalaas, I’m done.” Now, honestly, that’s not something I like to be honest with you. I like people to approach me and be able to talk to me and ask me questions without having this fear.

Aisha Naseem
I have seen a very different side of Emirati culture, as my father has been working with a government organisation for as long as I can remember. So, we had the Arabic sweets when someone had a baby and dad and mum were invited to Emirati weddings. But my friends back in India and those who come here, know very little about Emirati culture. But it is like any other situation, the more you know about something, the more you’ll get acquainted to it. There are people who are trying to bridge the gap, and trying to understand the culture, but those are very few.

Sunil Chawla
People who come in to the country often don’t even know how to say, “How are you?” in Arabic, whereas you go to any other country, you want to know how to say “How much is this for?” or “Thank you” in the native language. But people just don’t tend to get into the culture, because it is not available openly. There is no availability of learning the culture, as far as I am concerned.

Rashid Bin Hindi
There are people who are interested and do ask me about my culture. Often, there are tourists who come up to me and ask me if they can take a picture with me, and I say, “Sure”. Because they have been told not to take pictures of Emiratis, especially women, as they don’t like it, and it may be offensive. Yes, there are women who don’t like to be photographed but there are others who are extremely comfortable talking to you and very open to interact with. So, if you do find such Emiratis, talk to them and ask as many questions as you want, because they love to talk about our culture. And they also don’t want the perception that we are in any way scary.

Rowena Penilla
I don’t think it is about ‘scary’, it is about making an effort. There was an Emirati girl who was in a mall conducting a survey and I walked up to her myself and asked if she’d like me to answer any of the questions, because that’s part of my personality. She was so happy with that because not everyone responds to you in the mall.

Martin Thomas
My wife has a neat technique when she is at a coffee shop. Whenever she sees a group of Emirati girls sitting, she goes up to them and asks about their abayas. And it takes seconds for her to be taken into the group and be offered coffee and cakes! It never fails, I’ve never seen her being rebuffed.

Rashid Bin Hindi
That’s just how we are! They find it entertaining, they like to talk about their culture to someone who is interested to listen.

Aisha Naseem
I would just like to add that all my time in school, people just studied Arabic to get the minimum marks. If the situation was that we were made to understand what we were reading, why we were crossing out an answer and ticking a box, probably we would have understood it better. I have never studied Arabic from an Emirati teacher, they could be from other parts of the Arab world. May be studying from an Emirati teacher would have helped.

Sunil Chawla
My daughter’s been through the same. The way and purpose of teaching Arabic is just to make you get through the exam. Even the teachers are not focused that tomorrow this child be able to converse in basic Arabic.

Rashid Bin Hindi
You are absolutely right. That’s why we would like people to interact more with those who speak Arabic. Because often the Arabic that is taught in schools is different from the Arabic we speak.

Martin Thomas
When I signed my contract before coming to the UAE, I made it part of the deal that the company pay for Arabic lessons. They did agree but also asked me why I wanted to do that as no one would speak with me in Arabic. And they were right! Even when I go to my friend’s house, his children speak with me in English.

Rashid Bin Hindi
That may be because they don’t know you speak Arabic. If they knew, they would speak with you in the language. This is because, we also find it very impolite to speak in Arabic when there is a person in the group who does not understand the language.

Do you think A busy lifestyle stops people from making the effort to understand Emirati culture?

Martin Thomas
No, I think it’s different. The problem is, it is easy not to take the initiative. My wife and I really wanted to understand the culture, so we went to live in Sharjah and Ajman, because we felt it would be easier to be part of Emirati society. We had to make an effort, but we do get invited to Emirati houses, we do get invited to dinner. But it is just so much easier for a British expatriate to mix only with other British people and never see anybody. And they often don’t. There is just no incentive.

Rowena Penilla
Actually, if you really want to expand your network, you have to build it for yourself, you have to take the initiative.

Laila Bin Hindi
There is no place as such where you can go to, to find out about Emirati culture. It is all around you and it is your choice how you choose to learn about it. Yes, there are places like Dubai Heritage Village or museums — these are places that keep organising things constantly, and now people are also going to the malls to showcase our culture. Now, it is up to you to make the effort based on how much you want to know.

Conclusion
  • Hearsay and rumours often contribute to a distorted image of the Emirati way of life, often discouraging expatriates to find out more.
  • A lack of knowledge of Emirati culture and traditions is not an impediment to living in the UAE, which is why many expatriates are still unaware of the local culture.
  • More opportunities need to be provided for interaction between the Emirati and expatriate community.

Comments (1)

  1. Added 13:41 March 2, 2012

    From the video footage, I came to notion how positive some of our readers were putting forth their views to the media. From my experience what I feel is that we are a bit too reserved and have an anxiety of not interacting not only with the Emiratis but with any other nationality. There is nothing to fumble or be shy about as there was a time when Emirati culture was quite reserved but now everyone has become open and we need to feel comfortable conversing with them. Having a sort of fear creates a lot of hindrances and we end up having a cultural clash. We have an intention that whatever we do is right and others might not notice it. We have too many movers and shakers from various walks of life so we are in a confused state of whom to talk to. Dubai is one of the best cities in the world where you can learn and embrace different cultures. So all it requires is the time, patience and the initative to learn. Teachers should motivate their students to read, write and speak Arabic not for the sake of puking it out on the exam sheet and then forgetting it but that would help them in their carrier at both personal and professional level. Try talking to them instead of having that sort of a complex in you. We all need them and they need us. You have the internet revolving around that would help you learn and enhance your knowledge on various cultures. Once you start learning and exploring the culture, you will have the interest to talk to them slowly and gradually you will have the eagerness to learn more and more. A pleasant greeting early morning in Arabic-As "Salamallaikum" Or Marhaba wishing them would really make a good start of your day besides the usual slangs we use in our daily lives - Hi, Wassup!!!!! Do watch what you are wearing as well as summer is just around the corner. They are given more privileges and opportunities but this should not be a hindrance for us not to talk to them thinking that they are powerful. If you have noticed, the nationals, would greet you while you are in an elevator even if they don't know you. It's a form of respect that you need to greet them back and at times although I am not an Emirati I ensure I greet them in Arabic with a smile. Log on to the internet and check out the dos and donts of the UAE culture. My request to all parents would be to motivate them to learn the Arabic culture as long as they are here in Dubai. When you need help you end up getting in contact only with the nationals. They should not be so choosy and reserved that they will only mingle with certain nationalities. We have lots to learn out here and I thank the authorities for the freedom given to us to stay in such a peaceful country. Over the past few years, the developments that took place in Dubai is really impressive and the city never sleeps. Shukran!!

    Mathew Litty, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

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