2005/07/04

Differences

A friend of mine asked me to tell him what the biggest cultural differences between the US and the UAE are. I read so much about the UAE before I came, I'm sure that some of the difference aren't standing out to me anymore, but these are some of the biggest differences I've noticed so far. Please note that I am just making observations of what I have seen and do not mean any criticism. I do not believe that it is polite for a guest, which is what I am, to come into a home and criticize his host.

1. Separation of the Sexes.
Actually, this isn't as pronounced as I thought it would be, but it is still a lot more than in the US. For example, the library has hours for the the male students and hours for the female students, and likewise a male campus and a female campus. The university student population is overwhelmingly female (about 75%, if I remember correctly).

Outside of the university, the separation also occurs. The male population of Al Ain is much larger than the female, because so many of the laborers (who make up most of the population) do not make enough to bring their families with them. So if you go out and walk around downtown in the evenings, there are very few women. It is only in the more upscale places like the malls that the ratio evens out. But even there, the groups of young people are segregated by gender, and you don't see young couples out together as you would at any mall in America.

2. Disparities of wealth.
Many complain about the wealth gap between the rich and poor in America. That is nothing compared to here. The university has very graciously provided me with this huge house and a very generous salary and benefits. In this same neighborhood there are people making very little money and living in very cramped quarters.

3. Different manners
This is definately one of those "it's not wrong, it is just different" areas. People here have much more formal manners, especially for greeting, than Americans. I hope that my co-workers do not think me rude because I do not always stop to greet them as I pass. People I do not know (shopkeepers, for example), will offer me a seat and tea or coffee, ask how I am, how my family is, how I like Al Ain, and on and on.

But, on the other hand, there is the absence of the idea of line forming and respecting the idea of "first come, first served". People will walk up to a counter and demand service. I have also been waited on before Asians who have been waiting longer, I'm guessing because I'm a Westerner. Which brings me to...

4. Class and Servants
There are big divides in class here. Like I said, I have been bumped up to the head of lines because I'm a Westerner. There are also a lot of people here doing jobs that can really only fairly be described as servant level jobs.

As an American, I am not used to people refusing (and I mean refusing) to let me push my own shopping cart out of the store, or bathroom attendants at the mall insisting on holding my bags while I use the facilities or getting paper towels for me while I wash my hands. I know that these people are here willingly, that they make more money here than they can at home, that they support their families. But it is different.

5. Pictures of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Khalifa
It is a small thing, but in America there are not huge pictures of President Bush hanging everywhere. Here you see pictures of the current president, Sheikh Khalifa, and his father and former president, Sheikh Zayed everywhere: the mall, university, stores, you name it. I have wondered where these pictures come from since I have never seen any for sale, though. If anyone deserved this treatment though, it would have to be Sheikh Zayed. He led the UAE from its founding until his death last November. You can read more about this incredible man here, if you are interested. (Note, I'm not saying Sheikh Khalifa doesn't deserve this treatment too, I just don't know that much about him yet.)

6. Openness of Faith
This is the biggest difference of all, which is why I saved it for last. When someone asks how you are, the response is (please forgive all my horrible transliterations) illhamdulallah, or "thanks be to God". Now, in America, if someone asks how you are outside of church (and probably even there in a lot of churches) and you answer, "well, praise be to God", you are going to get a reputation as a person to be avoided. When I tell people in America that I have four kids, I most often get a reaction that suggests that there is something wrong with me. Here, it is "mashallah" (roughly "a blessing from God"). The call to prayer, which sounds throughout the day, from 4:00 AM until after 8:00 PM, sounds everywhere throughout the city. It never sounds the same, but it is always beautiful and moving, even though I only know what just a few of the words mean. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable as a Christian here; people have been more than willing to answer questions and exchange views about differences.

[Added on Tuesday ]
Several interesting responses in the comments, so check there for more.

16 comments:

Bu3askoor said...

Your notes on the differences are right on the spot. As an Emarati, i always wonder how foreigners feel when they experience our culture.. the Emarati culture. It is sad that others cannot experience our culture because of the number of different nationalities that live in the country.

What are your first impressions about Emiratis? (as you know, there is no right or wrong answer for this one :) )

Brn said...

Hi bu3askoor,

Before I came, I read as much as I could about the UAE, and through that reading I came to admire so much of the Emirati culture. I really wish that I could have come here thirty years ago to see what it would have been like then, like the author of Mother Without a Mask.

But I have to say that all the Emiratis that I have met, mostly at work, are very friendly and helpful, and most tolerant of my ignorance of how things work and the horribly pronounced (and very little) Arabic that I know. In fact, it has only been my more experienced American co-workers who have corrected me. They also seem very interested in my happiness and want me to like their country.

I really like the emphasis and importance of family here. I really enjoy going to the mall and seeing the children enjoying themselves with their families. My American co-workers have told me that they have never once been made to feel uncomfortable for noise or disruptions that their children have caused, which is not something that you can say in America.

So my first impressions of Emiratis have been very positive. Of course, I haven't driven here, yet, so check back with me in a few weeks.

Preternatural_aL said...

:) Glad u like it here.
The reason we have the Sheiks' pics everywhere is to show respect and love. They are our rulers and it is thanx to them that we enjoy this lifestyle.Sheikh Kahlifa came in to power last year after Shk Zayed(May Allah bless his soul)passed away.

Brn said...

About the Sheik's photos, I understand completely wanting to show respect and love for them. As I was reading about the UAE before I came, I was immensely impressed the Sheik Zayed, his wisdom, and his foresight. He seemed to me to be the very model of what you would want in a leader. When I learned of his death I was deeply saddened. The very little I have talked with the Emiratis here, you can feel how his passing is still felt.

I think that one of the ways that you can tell that these photos are posted out of love and respect is that they are so very different from the "great leader"-type photos that you see in a dictatorship. They are nothing like the state-mandated heroic posed pictures of Saddam Hussein, for example.

I have two favorite photos of Sheik Zayed: One is here at the library, and it shows him studying/reading a book intently. The other is one of him holding two children (they may be his grandchildren or great-grandchildren, or maybe not related at all). The look of love in his eyes is just like favorite photo of my father, before his death, holding my oldest son in his arms.

secretdubai said...

Great entry. You are getting far more insight in Al Ain than most people get in Dubai into the culture here.

I still feel sad every time I see pictures of Sheikh Zayed, I never met him or even saw him in the flesh, but I actively miss him. And I'm not a local, nor have I lived here for decades (just four years). He just left a huge impression on me, and I feel so fortunate to have experienced life here during his rule.

Bu3askoor said...

Hello Brn,

Well about those pictures. Like you stated, we have them as a sign of respect rather than fear. They did their best to make our life easier.

Arabs (Not only Emirati) are famous for being hospitable, but from a personal experience .. nobody can match the Omanis.

Let me ask you this, the first time you met a muslim woman, was there any particular question you wanted to ask about their lives? (Just curious)

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

Brn said...

I really can't think of any one question that I wanted to ask. I was a little apprehensive about what exactly my working relationship would be like with the women here. I was a little afraid that the separation of the genders would make my job more difficult.

But it has gone very smoothly. It is still a different relationship than I had with female co-workers in America, but not at all unfriendly. I think that the best word to describe it would be very respectful, on both sides.

Come to think of it, I have wondered/noticed one thing about the women: There are all these stores selling beautiful dresses, yet most of the women who can afford them would then cover them up with the abaya (is abaya right? I can never keep the right name for the clothes straight, except for dish dashes). It is just my way of thinking, but if I was going to be covered completely, or pretty darn close to it, I would just wear sweat pants and a t-shirt. But then, a) I'm not a woman, and b) it is probably a less is more thing, if you are showing less, you would make what does show as beautiful as possible.

e3ashig said...

Hi Brn,
I came here via The Emirates Economis blog. Welcome to UAE. I hope you really have the best of time. I quite like the way you start your post about guests should not insult hosts on their land. I wish more guests like yourself blog about our culture and why they like or dislike it in a courteous way.

I added your blog to my news aggregator which will keep my updated with your entries.

The thing about women - The Abaya is to there to cover the parts of the body of a woman Islam instructed us to cover. Those body parts are not for the eyes of strangers [“not for preying on” as many will put forward to the argument] There are different levels of female covering code in front of men, depending on how related those men are to her. Women still do wear t-shirts and what have you in places where there aren’t men or strange men around, or at home, or in family outings or under the Abaya.

Brn said...

Hi e3ashig,

Thank you for the information and the welcome. I just glanced over your blog; I'm going to have to take the time to read over the archives and add it to the must read list. And congratulations on finishing school, doctor.

Mohammad said...

Hi,
I'm an Iranian who lived here for the past twelve years. I'm currently studying in the American University of Sharjah.

After spending twelve years here, I can tell you that the culture here is very unique. People here respect their guests a lot. For example, I remember last Eid(an Islamic holiday); I went with my cousins(they are locals) to visit some of their friends. I was surprised that everyone have their doors open for guests. We didnt even ring the bell and went into all of the houses and found people waiting to greet us!
This is just one example of the hospitality I recieved in this country.
However,like any place on Earth, there are some negative points about living here. There are many situations where foreigners(I mean Persians, Indians, Asians and not Westerners)dont get "enough" respect. There are many examples of those cases that i can mention. But one of the good ones is waiting in queues. I remember when I was doing my Driving License test. I waited in the line for 1 hour and out of no where a local comes and takes the test before me. I went to the manager of the Emirates Driving Institute and told him and his reply was very simple "He is local". I think people should learn that we are all the same. It's true that this land belongs to them but we are their guests here and we have many good expectations from them because we heard a lot about the "arabic hospitality" but are still waiting to see it everywhere not only on occosians (Eid).
The driving license test reminds me of another thing here: Driving. There is a lot of disrepect shown by locals to others while driving. I dont think I should mention anything because we all experienced it!

Brn said...

Hi Mohammad,

Thanks for your comments. After what I've read, I'm looking forward to being here during the Eids.

I'm going to respond to your comments about expats and respect as a post, since it is something that I've thought about some.

uaeyah said...

An interesting read.. I've always wondered on how foreigns preceived us Emiratis..
I believe my peers bu3askoor and e3ashig have explained some points very well..

I've been talking to some of my expat friends about being Emirati.. we are very fortunate to be born in this beautiful country.. to be brought up in a time where we witnessed all the changes that took place.. turning this country from a desert to a green heaven..

I personally feel very lucky to have met the late president Sheikh Zayed so many times.. and saw for my own eye how great he was.. he shared all the goodness that the land offered with his people.. and now Sheikh Khalifa is following the same footsteps..

I'll be checking your blog for updates...

meanwhile, i recommend reading this

Mohammad said...

Hi brn and thank you for your response
Another thing that concerns me as a resident of the UAE is the very fast growth rate. We know that very little of something is bad and the same is true for too much of something. Every thing in life should move steadily so we can avoid over-stretching our resources(specially that we dont have many of them here in the UAE)

Anonymous said...

secret Dubai

you miss shk. zayed huh ? you regret not meeting him personally !
you double faced hypocrite , maybe you should have given him the poem you composed on your blog trashing emiratis,wonder what he would have done ,it`s no wonder you keep yourself a SECRET , i shall send a copy on your behalf.

Brn said...

First, anonymous, please don't insult people in the comments.

Second, if you have a problem with the poem that SecretDubai published on her site, then the place to critcize her in on it.

Third, I think that you are missing the point of her poem. While the poem does say that "Emirati" I don't think that it meant that in the sense of Emirati citizen. I took the poem as criticizing the tourists who show up, get drunk and have no respect for the culture here. But I could be wrong.

Anonymous said...

iam not new to alain or AUH...as i was born and bought up in alain...and eventhough iam not an emarati ...i will love to live in alain...but since i moved to usa with my better half...i started to feel the difference between the culture and life...sometimes the difference seems like 2 extremes....but the most imp thing i felt different was the freedom to do and be whomever u wanted to be in the usa.....In Alain...after coming back from uae...i felt sad as i always thought i had lived in such a great place...but somethings need to change in al-ain as i still believe it is the most beautiful oasis any arab country wud have...THE MOST IMP Difference ...i want everyone to read is the behaviour of higher management with their employees....the human resource in most companies are hopeless....the employees are not treated with respect....Esp in govt hospitals in alain....after the new authority took over....the employees who shed their sweat and blood for 2 or more decades are dismissed without prior knowledge or without any group retirement party .....basically its telling them as if ..".OK we had enough of u...pls live us alone now".......consider any country as developed as UAE in the world ....i dont think they do this with their employees....it is sad ..it is sad...that there are no laws protecting the working middle and lower middle class people..Pls remember these people do jobs that an Emarati would never even think of doing...and yet they get no respect or consideration for the time and life they spent working hard for their managers........its sad.......its really sad....