(published in Glassworks Literary Magazine)
We meet in Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Crème de la Crème; we meet in offices nested within gleaming towers, on the café-lined terraces of the Dubai International Financial Centre, in private clubs, empty food courts, inside palatial homes seated on regal, high-backed couches with crystal chandeliers above us and Filipina maids on hand. The young Emirati women and men I meet are always punctual, accommodating, well-groomed, often beautiful. Sometimes, a young Emirati woman greets me and her oudh perfume wafts around us as we kiss on both cheeks. A few order lattes, sparkling water, a piece of cake, most order nothing at all. Once, I bought a cappuccino for a young woman with liquid black eyes, but otherwise I am treated, thanked, appreciated, even though they are doing me a favor. I’m very honored that you considered me, a proud Emirati national, for your PhD research. I would love to help you.
What they tell me is a contradiction, a complicated mess full of fascinating half-truths. Their stories, their answers to my questions about national identity, about creative expression, about what it’s like to be an Emirati woman, are at times vague, misunderstood, uncritical, even sorrowful, but more often joyous and piercingly true. How will I give these meetings—these question-and-answer sessions—shape and meaning? How will this field research finally make any sense?
For now, I’ll start with the long black cloak.
The young Emirati women I meet wear black cloaks and headscarves, but that doesn’t begin to describe their variety. Their cloaks, called abayas, are patterned with black beaded flowers, with red sequin swirls, with lace cuffs, with ruffles and folds and luminescent shine. Some are cut sleek and slimming; others are loose and modest; some are open in the front, revealing jeans, a patterned dressed, sparkly top. The rest have their abayas fastened tight. Sometimes their sheylas, the black headscarves, rest on their shoulders, exposing pinned back brown hair, other times the sheyla hangs loose as they charmingly rearrange its folds, or it is fastened in place to show off a coiffed fringe. Other times, their faces are wrapped up securely, lovingly, features peeking out stark and unframed by hair. Their sheylas have subtle patterns of silver stars, purple blossoms, the country’s flag, on the corner that falls next to their cheeks. Few do not cover, not yet or never will. In their homes, they wear dresses, jalabiyas, designer flip-flops, golden-colored belts, sweatpants. Sometimes they hang their abayas on hooks by their front doors. It’s just a piece of cloth afterall! The women tell me, exasperated at all the fuss.
Most say the abaya and sheyla honors their ancestors, honors Islam, honors their country, honors their rulers and all that these men have done for the United Arab Emirates. Others talk about the abaya’s convenience, its practicality for their busy lives; they can wear their pajamas underneath and no one can tell. Some tell me they never worry about their hair or sunblock or if they look appropriate because the abaya always protects. A few say they wish it were worn only during holidays, for special occasions like weddings. They call it national dress, a symbol of national identity, the key feature of Emirati-ness, their dress code and their uniform. They call it a choice.
Most of the women I meet tell me they choose the abaya above all other forms of dress. A few say that they don’t have a choice, and dream of what it would mean if they did. Those women imagine that they would be “eaten alive” if their fathers ever found out they left the house without their abayas and sheylas. Others tell me about disrespect, expectation, following convention. Jamilah doesn’t cover, but predicts she will one day. When she is ready, when she has decided, when she has ceased to be influenced by anyone else. Some tell me the abaya is their comfort zone; other talk about its inconvenience in the heat and while playing sports. Many say it is embarrassing to wear it at conferences with only Westerners, at restaurants with only Westerners, where they feel alienated in their own country. They hate when tourists watch them, stare accusingly. The foreigners say to them: You look like an open-minded person…so why do you wear that? They talk about Harrods and runways and the abaya as a fashion icon. They dream of global acceptance.
Most of the women I meet tell me they feel sorry for the men, for they have been left behind. I have my own world and I have the power, Fatma tells me. Everything has been about men, and women finally deserve some attention. The young Emirati men are unmotivated, indifferent, lost, and the young Emirati women tell me they are dynamic, hard working, creative, ever-productive. The women are busy busy busy: full time job, private consulting firm, start up company, social media initiative, charity fundraising, event organizing, tweeting, tweeting tweeting. They say most expatriates and tourists think Emirati women are lazy, spoiled, vapid, consumed by fashion, brands and status. Those people are wrong.
The young men wear plain white cloaks, called kandouras. They wear beige kandouras, navy blue kandouras, brown kandouras the color of desert sand. They wear baseball caps, casual headdresses wrapped and fastened at the back of their heads, formal headdresses falling loose around their shoulders, or they wear nothing on their heads at all and show their short, cropped hair. Some say the kandoura feels like a uniform and they don’t like it; instead they love suits, collars, designer ties. Some of the young men I meet wear sweatpants and polo shirts, jeans and button downs, a black T-shirt with a thin scarf tied around the neck. A few say those who do not wear the kandoura are not real Emirati men, do not care about this country, do not care about their ancestors. Many more tell me they switch back and forth between the kandoura and Western clothes, because their clothes do not matter. Some say, We can wear whatever we want. But the poor women have no choice…
Some of the young men tell me they want their future daughters to wear the abaya and sheyla. Others have seen their sisters forced to wear it; they would never do the same. Some say women have it rough: either they have to quit their jobs once they are married and have kids, or they are married to their career and never have a family of their own. Others say, The women are taking over, soon we’ll need some support, some affirmative action, and they chuckle at the idea. They say women are more determined, talented, putting themselves out there, while the men play cards, hang out, watch movies, smoke sheesha, drive their sports cars aimlessly. Others say the women are sheltered, vain, superficial. A few young men admit that the women are getting all the attention and no one notices their achievements, their changes, their struggles.
After an hour of talking, the young Emirati men and women I meet say they’ve been happy to help, and is there anything else I’d like to know?
I want to ask: Have I gotten it right? Will I write a groundbreaking, valuable, passable thesis? Instead I ask: Is there anyone else you think I should meet?
In the malls, I wait for hours in between meeting, roaming, wondering why there are so many clothes and jewelry and luggage and lingerie and shoes for sale but so little of the things we need, I need. I need to make sense of these interviews, these contradictions, these beautiful, well-meaning, frustrating, absolutely hospitable group of young people.
The young men and women drive to meet me; some of the women have drivers who bring them to our meeting place, who ask how long it will take and when they should be picked up. I ride the Metro, or take a taxi, or both, because many want to meet on the outskirts of the city, where more locals live and shop, and I cannot complain. Some travel many kilometers to meet me, from Abu Dhabi, from Al Ain, from Rashidiya and Mirdiff. They meet me in malls they usually avoid because those malls are too crowded with expatriates, with tourists, with women wearing revealing clothes, with noise, immodesty, and people who just want to be seen. But they are, as ever, hospitable, obliging. Or their drivers pick me up, take me to their large, gated properties with stained glass windows depicting falcons, flowers, the desert, and then I am dropped off again at the nearest mall. I thank these young men and women for meeting me, trusting me, having faith that I will represent them positively, accurately, compassionately. I’m a proud Emirati national, and if I have something to say, I think people should know it.
Some speak as if they have been born answering questions about their lives and thoughts. Others apologize for their English, their stumbling answers, their repetition, their confusion, their need for explanations, their misunderstanding. Several speak with perfect English and they are so proud. They love it when foreigners are surprised at their fluency, their American inflected accents. Some say they fall between two languages—never having learned proper Arabic, never fitting in as a native English speaker either. They went to local government schools, Indian schools, British schools, American schools, International schools, schools in Australia, America, universities for only women, for only men, for co-education alongside eighty other nationalities. If they had to do it all again, some would have studied abroad, fought to study abroad, moved an hour away to Sharjah, or stayed closer to their friends. Some want to go back to school, get a masters in Psychology, in Film Studies, in Art History, but they don’t offer those degrees here, not yet, not in this new country built upon Engineering, IT, Business. They must go abroad, or they must wait.
They have day jobs in marketing, government research, journalism, event management, business consulting, IT. Most are artists, often creating at night, in their spare time. Those who are students learn the techniques of visual art, printmaking, animation, photography, filmmaking, interior design. They create oil on canvas, mixed media, pastel, digital art, photographs of the desert, Dubai skyscrapers, goats crossing a dirt road. They make films about the “old days” in poor villages before the oil, films about loss, about materialism, about the punishment for immodesty. They produce documentaries on their dialect, their abayas, their kandouras, their rare blood disease called thalassemia. They are inspired by the history of their country, the stories of their grandmothers, the unfolding Arab Uprisings, their British professors, the poems of Sheikh Mohamed, the paintings of van Gogh, Latrec, Warhol. They exhibit their work in local galleries in Al Quoz, Emaar Boulevard, on Jumeriah Beach Road, Saadiyat Island; they show their films at festivals under the category “Emirati Voices;” they exhibit their photography under the title of “Emirati Expressions.” Their work is relegated to “local” art, “local” competitions, “local” categories. Mostly, they do not mind. They go abroad to Switzerland, the Ukraine, Spain, to show their work, to exchange with other artists, to create more. They, we, are all uplifted by their art, their expressions, buoyed with the knowledge that they have something to say, that they are not inert or backward. They are patted on the head, admired. I can’t believe we have come so far in only a few decades. Some are embarrassed: Emirati art is derivative, unchallenging, literal. In their different ways, they tell the world about Emirati-ness, its changing definitions.
Some say the expatriates, the tourists, the foreigners, the visitors, the guest workers, the outsiders, do not understand them, hold misconceptions that are unfair, untrue, unrelenting. Just come up and talk to us and you’ll see! We don’t bite! They say these outsiders don’t respect Islam, Emirati culture; they don’t follow the dress code posted in the malls: cover your shoulders and knees. And are we really asking so much? Others say the world is coming to them; everyday they meet, they learn from, they appreciate, Lebanese, Filipinas, Americans, Australians, Egyptians, Indians, British. Some tell me Emiratis are just like everyone else, they should not be treated with privilege, with fear, with prejudice, with critical judgment, as a powerful novelty; others say they must be respected, understood, appreciated, admired. They must work extra hard to prove their worth. Some say they are given too much privilege, opportunities, and it is undeserved. These expats, these foreigners, make young Emiratis think about their own identity in relation to others; they think about the losses and gains from sharing their land, their city, their gratitude and regret.
They say their identity, their nation, is everything. Some say their national identity IS their dress. Others say their national identity IS NOT their dress, even though everyone thinks it is. A few tell me that everyone is trying to be so patriotic it’s sickening. They say they owe everything to their nation, to their leaders, to their ancestors. Some say Emiratis are so behind, so backward, and the rest say they have moved so fast, progressed so rapidly, they are just catching their breaths. Some say they are stifled; others tell me they can do whatever they want: it is all their choice. They tell me their traditions are dying out, being lost, forgotten; their traditions are being invigorated, updated, revived by their youthful, modern selves. I see them moving backward and forward in time, chasing after and devising new ways to be an Emirati.
Some are virgins. Some, surely, are not. Some have felt the bearded skin of a lover’s face, unwrapped a silky headscarf to reveal unimagined curls. Some must have drank, smoked, committed small crimes. Some hold regrets, shame, suffered misfortunes at the hands of others and themselves. But they don’t tell me these things. They don’t tell me their secrets, their desires, their limitations. I know they don’t tell me everything, and what they do say is translated, fragmented, side-stepped. I want more but do not know how to ask. I miss opportunities. I want them to say something else, at times, to be consistent, to be provocative, to be consistently provocative.
They are called Nasreen, Hiba, Muneera, Rasha, Jamilah, Malak, Salem, Rashid, Tariq, Samir. Their names mean flower, adore, brilliant, gazelle, beautiful, angel, peaceful, victorious, integrity, morning star, friend. And many more. I could have spoken to more. Should I have spoken to more? Their lives are rooted in Dubai, committed to family, the government, serving the nation, contributing. They continue creating, producing, storytelling, and I return home to write about what they said, my experience, my interpretation of our experience. Why did I bother those lovely young people? What did they think of me? How will I contribute? How can I write about these contradictions, these confusions, this great jumbled wonderful mess? Most of all: How do I hold onto this world, their world, and the world?
All I know is this: after every meeting, I felt better about the world. Reading over transcripts of our meetings, the disarray of my notes, I imagine a future where people acknowledge and celebrate difference, but are also kind and accepting. I see a place where people speak and listen to others’ stories in equal measure, where women and men share the same dream of recognizing their unique heritage and being part of the modern, global world. Long after this field research, after the reality and strangeness of dissertation writing has resulted in a final product, I still feel connected to a global future that is ours, not theirs or mine.