In the Eye of the Storm

Shamma picks out the nuts from the "Lamb Humping Rice" dish.

Though I may consider this year in the UAE more of a social experiment than a pleasurable experience, the coming of the Arab Spring has put things into a whole new perspective over the last month.  And just at its peak, incidentally, we celebrated Heritage Day at my tiny little school called Al Areej, just 15 minutes from the Saudi border.

In a way, we’re blessed to be here at such a transitional moment in the country’s long and relatively stable history.  Forty years after the discovery of oil in what was formerly no more than a fishing and pearling spot, the leaders of the UAE have built the tallest building, the fastest rollercoaster, and lay claim to a few rather ambitious visions for both education and sustainability.  This sudden influx of expendable income, coupled with the overwhelming number of non-native residents – roughly 80% of the population – makes for quite an interesting challenge to cultural preservation.

Interactive fishing display at Al Areej Heritage Day.

Foreigners run most of the everyday comings and goings of this country – from taxis to kindergarten classrooms – so events like National Day and Heritage Day take on quite a weighty importance.  The UAE’s leaders are well aware of the potential threat of cultural invasion, especially from the West, and have gone to great lengths to ensure children here are raised on an Emirati diet, culturally speaking.  Every week, in every class, for every subject, teachers are required to include UAE-specific references; displays in auditoriums and classrooms should also make reference to some aspect of Emirati culture, like the family structure, camels, or dates (How many DATES are there?  Let’s count!)

Some of my students pose with henna hands near the cartoon display (yes, that is a metal hijab on its face).

On March 22ND and 23rd, Al Areej Kindergarten hosted two separate Heritage Days for administrators and mothers, respectively.  Most of the children, Egyptian, Jordanian, Sudanese, and Emirati alike arrived at school decked out in kondouras, gold jewelry, and beautiful headscarves.

It was a week of cultural exploration for me, having had an invitation from my Egyptian co-teacher to stay at her house for dinner and a sleepover.  She made traditional food, including a baked rice dish with butter and milk, my personal fave of lunch!  We went to the local park, chatted with her mother in law and relatives in Egypt (you gotta love Skype!), and played for a bit with her three beautiful sons.  I felt truly honored to have been invited so close to her living space, a rare experience in this part of the world.

I live in a tiny country nestled snugly in the eye of the Arab Spring storm.  This place seems to be the exception to so many regional rules.  Our sheikhs are loved to the bone, and at the request of 160 petitioners for national elections, have presently (and rather peacefully) organized the country’s first elections in its history.

Traditional Bedouin tent at Al Areej Heritage Day.

In the local 5-star hotel bar, a group of us teachers found ourselves in conversation with two American military representatives, here to train the UAE servicemen in air battle techniques.  We touched on this whirlwind of a topic with such passion I found it hard to get a word in edgewise.  Social networking, Arab youth, the promise of a new system, modernized rather than Westernized.  It’s all happening, and we’re smack dab in the middle of it.

As I write this today, the Syrian president has handed in his resignation after 11 years of rule.  Syria has always seemed to me one of the most stable and socially liberal of the Middle East nations, scoring highest in surveys done about support for women’s rights (from both men and women).  Lebanon scores just below Syria in these same surveys, followed by Jordan – and though the former is one of just a few countries not engaged in some violent revolution, the latter is no exception.

In my local paper the headlines are beginning to blur:

Bahrain opposition leader warns Iran over interference.

Demonstrations by loyalists banned in Amman.

Al Assad blames conspirators for Syria unrest.

Student reading the Koran at Heritage Day auditorium.

And it can’t be too sensationalist here – if anything, the papers would want to play down any violence or possibility of unrest leaking into the border.

To date, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have seen revolutions of historical consequence, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Oman and Yemen have all seen major protests, and minor incidents have occurred in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Western Sahara – every single country in my region has somethin’ goin’ on!  I can’t help but post this map from Wikipedia below to demonstrate just how far reaching this movement has been …

And as I sit on the beach, in the middle of the western deserts of the UAE, just miles from all the political madness and violence of the Arab Spring, my thoughts are actually with the thousands who are struggling for their lives in Japan, where I still have family members unaccounted for.  My grandparents come from Fukushima – home to what is potentially the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl – and we’ve still been unable to get in touch with them.  It’s been nearly three weeks.

I almost feel as though being LESS aware of the reality surrounding me would be a service to my mental health!

But we’re all in it together, this global community, so we dedicated our yoga classes to our brothers and sisters in Japan, and find the shining light in the middle of the sandstorm, this glimmer of hope for Arab youth, who’ve utilized the technology available to them to rock a boat that’s been sitting in stagnant waters for far too long.  More power to ’em – here’s to hoping the next step in this dance sees a smooth transition.

Colleagues chowing down for lunch.
Princesses looking rather blase.
More Heritage Day displays.
Traditional dance.
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3 thoughts on “In the Eye of the Storm”

  1. Well put, beautifully described. This part of the world will always have a special place in your heart and memories, it seems.

    1. Intense indeed! And yes, this will always hold a special place in my heart – everyone here keeps talking about us being like family. And it’s true, b/c you don’t choose your family, and sometimes the closeness means you push away those who you may otherwise be making an effort with. Or not. On a personal level, it’s been so unlike anything I’ve chosen to be a part of . . . I really miss having deeply intimate relationships . . . but I suppose, like family, you’d do anything for these people, and form a love for them that embraces all aspects of self, totally eliminating tendencies toward ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. we just keep on keepin’ on . . . !

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