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Monday, February 18, 2013

Appearance in Arabia

Since I have been travelling and studying in the Arab world, I've become even more aware of my appearance.  I do not just mean that people here are very beautiful and fashionable and that I'm falling a bit behind, which is still true, but everyday I am reminded by the reactions of the people around me of the benefits I so easily receive, simply by white privilege.

As I write this, there is a maid crawling around my dorm room floor cleaning.  I am very rarely this uncomfortable here in Dubai.  The cleaning women here seem a bit offended if you try and reject their cleaning services, and they don't have enough English knowledge to really understand what I'm saying.  I am very polite and speak to the women when I can and they like me, but I know that most girls find such contact unbecoming and prefer to be rude and harsh.  This bothers me immensely and has incited quite a few comments directed at my less conscious colleagues.  Beyond generally being nice, there are many little things that students can do for the maids and other service people that they rely on, from giving tips to passing along old clothes, but I often think that even if students here aren't completely selfless, they are maybe only generous to people of the same color.

Here's a nifty video of Cameron Russell discussing how she, as a super model, has cashed in on her looks after winning "The Genetic Lottery."   There are a few parallels to her criticisms of image-centric society to the experience of the white woman abroad: we obtain privileges for no 

reason.


Living in Dubai makes all inhabitants incredibly conscious of their own skin color.  If this is something you are not aware of, you are likely also privileged, but attributing your success to your own hard work and merit, unaware of how society and genetics have shaped you.  If you are brown, you watch whites an Arabs instantly receive better service from businesses, and you may work in a place where you are spoken to in an incredibly demeaning way.  I, as a white girl, am benefiting from the prejudice of others.  For example, people offer their seats to or places in line in full view of older [or prettier--if that's the motivation] women of other races, which I of course only accept when it seems a social necessity.  In places of business, I am generally treated with more respect, and in class I'm given the benefit of the doubt whereas other students are quickly reprimanded.  I take notes on my laptop, and the professors never question whether I'm on task or spending the period on Facebook, but they will actually take a phone from a student if he or she pulls it out in class (which I don't like on a number of levels).  At the airport in Dubai, but even more so in Saudi Arabia, Americans are treated more courteously and are even allowed in lines meant only for GCC nationals.

When riding in a taxi alone, I ignore what are, to me, silly warnings about talking to the driver for fears of sending him the wrong message.  (These guys are transporting puking party girls with their shoes falling off and underwear showing every night--I'm not too worried about being judged for making some light conversation.)  First, the driver is surprised that I'm even speaking to him.  Apparently, few of his customers care where he comes from or if he misses home or how many languages he speaks.  I believe you can learn a lot from a cab driver.  They work 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, and usually appreciate a conversation to break the monotony.  I've even had some great Arabic conversations with cab drivers from Bangladesh who are also learning FusHa (formal Arabic).  I often leave these discussions depressed, recognizing that if I, as a white American, could speak 5 languages and had such a work ethic, I could walk into any job that interested me.  It is important to get these reality checks every few days to snap me out of the vacation mentality I naturally revert to in Dubai, the Mecca of hedonism.

This blog doesn't even mention instances of truly hateful racism, which I have also seen lately displayed by Arabs toward Africans, as the most prolific example.  I also did not mention some of the hostility many people here instinctively feel now toward me as an American.  I believe that my readers are already aware of these things present in the Arab world, as well as a whole bunch of other places, so I need not rehash stereotypes or present yet another piece filled with inane apologies.  I will only write about prejudices once I feel I have felt them extensively first hand or observed long enough to really understand them.  But at the rate they are coming to light, that may be pretty soon.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Return to the Kingdom

This Wednesday, I am returning to Saudi Arabia.  I will be staying in Jeddah with a friend for three days.  I hope to meet with a few friends, learn from my hosts, make new acquaintances, and see some of Saudi Arabia that was not on my official NCUSAR visit.  The last of these goals make Jeddah the least ideal city to visit in Saudi because it lacks nearby desert activities (i.e. dune-bashing and Bedouin-spotting), many cultural or counter-cultural centers save for a few poorly funded museums, or a substantial and separate Shi'a minority (click here if you're interested in Shi'a life in Jeddah compared to the West).  Jeddah is, however, more liberal than the Eastern Province and certainly Riyadh.  On my previous trip, despite the increased freedoms available in liberal Jeddah, it was my least favorite city because I did not have friends there to give local insight and show me around.  This time, I won't be stuck at a hotel and will be able to travel anywhere in the city.  I scuba dive, and am trying to organize a dive trip in the Red Sea, an opportunity I know any fellow divers will appreciate and maybe envy.

One of the things I am most excited about is the opportunity to meet my friend's mother, a white woman from Alabama who abandoned her Christian roots to convert to Islam and subsequently marry a Saudi man and move to Arabia with him.

Even Saudi Arabia's first king, Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud) is happy to see me.

I have been asked many times why I want to return to Saudi Arabia, where ideals are counter to my Western upbringing and expectations.  Women's issues and a punitive system often described as draconian are likely to shock an American visitor, but I understand what I can and cannot do while in the Kingdom and, with my stay being so brief, I doubt that the social restrictions I'll face will cause me any grief.  But, I have not given you a clear reason to return.  In short, I really want to return simply because I can.  It is incredibly difficult for an American to receive a visa to Saudi Arabia, and I have one that expires in one month.  Despite movements toward increasing tourism to Saudi Arabia, the future of leniency in distributing visas is unclear, so this could potentially be my last opportunity to enter the Kingdom.  Please do not misunderstand me--many people, Americans or otherwise, have visited or lived in Saudi, but few of these people fit my demographic of female, white, young, and coming from a family not involved in politics or oil.  I believe that it is relevant for me, as a student of the social sciences, to take any opportunity I have to travel and see the places where the people I must study and relate to come from.  This is why I am taking every opportunity I can to travel in the Middle East while here, at least as much as my schedule and finances permit, so if I have the chance to learn more about Saudi Arabia, I will.  I might even see something that other Western women writing about the Kingdom have missed.*

*Check out the blog of an American woman in Jeddah at http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com/ and the blog of an American woman in Riyadh (I think) at http://americanbedu.com/.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Commenting

This is just an open invitation to all to utilize the comment areas at the end of every blog.  I would love to hear other people's thoughts on what I'm discussing and make that conversation public.  I'm not an expert on anything I write about and value everyone's opinions and input.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

How to Not Look Like a Fool in Pictures While Smoking Shisha

Having only tried my first shisha about a month ago in Saudi Arabia, I'm no expert on the matter, but I've picked up a few tips from experience and some really terrible photographs.


1) Accept that a shisha is a tool for introducing tobacco into your lungs, not for white people to look cooler. This is especially true for students studying abroad.  It's all about mindset here, and if you think you're going to be cute while smoking, you will try to act as such.  The result will be something like this:

2) Portray your own confidence in being exactly where you should be.


3) Adopt a posture that indicates prime relaxation.


4) Do not attempt to blow smoke rings with cameras present.


5) Try and be photographed when the mouthpiece isn't actually in your face.  That's classier.


6) If you will be photographed with shisha in your face, try to obscure your features with a huge cloud of smoke.  In this regard, my friend succeeded, but I did not, leaving me with a really bad shot of myself.


7) Wear some local garb.  This never offends anyone.


8) Or actually be Arab.


9) Smoke shisha with friends.  An ideal group is between 2 and 12 people.  More people get loud and take away from the relaxing mood you're trying to bask in.


10) Relax and enjoy the friendship personified by the germs living on the mouthpiece you're passing around the table and the damage you're doing to your lungs.

If you were looking for a real how-to on smoking shisha, I recommend this site from another Dubai blog. http://onebigconstructionsite.blogspot.com/2006/10/how-to-smoke-shisha.html

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Weekend of Adventuring

This weekend was amazing.  I got to explore and frolick (yes, frolick) in the desert, which I've been dying to do since first seeing horizons of nothing but sand while travelling around Khobar and Damman.  On Friday, my best buddies and I drove to the Oman border for the primary purpose of renewing my visa, a fairly painless process that costs 50 dirhams and also to sight see a bit at Al Ayn, the highest mountain in the region.  
Heading out on our trip to Oman.  I wanted to take pictures of all the camels, penned and wild, we saw, but we were definitely going too fast for that.

Some people find more adventurous ways to travel on the highway.


Yes, that's a camel vet.

Castle thingy in the middle of a round-a-bout, of which there were a plethora.

Goats in a truck

Idk, I thought it looked like a knock-off kabba


The fine looking establishment at which we dined
The man even gave me smiley potatoes instead of fries when asked.   The bill for 3 people came to 35 dirhams.

Climbing to the top of Al Ayn

You can only get a good, unobstructed view if you climb a locked fence, which we did with little hesitation but to the bewilderment of onlooking Indian tourists.


Going for a little climb

And descending without dirtying my shoes

Aforementioned 'best buddies'

Anyone know what this bird is called?


The next day, we had our AUD Safari.  For 50 dirhams, we got a full day at an adventure company in the desert.  We were picked up from campus in off-roading SUVs for a drive through the desert, culminating in an evening at their campsite that included a dinner, shisha, and performances.  This whole day resulted in SO many pictures, I can't even begin to go through and edit them.






A fantastic Sufi dancer, us white people call them Whirling Dervishes 

He holds umbrella type things for effect

And lights up

The most popular performance of the night was most certainly the belly dancer
Please note that I did not post too many pictures from these trips because I don't want to spatter other people's faces on the Internet without their permission.  


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Studying at AUD


AUD is the Troy University of the UAE in a couple of ways.  The academics here are simply not that challenging and a lot of students give the impression that they are just paying for their degrees.  You really stand out here if you are caught carrying books, studying, or coming to class early.  There are major exceptions.  There are some very brilliant and hardworking students here, and  I'm personally challenged in both my Arabic and Religions of the Middle East courses—I’m just speaking of the overall atmosphere.

AUD is the most expensive university in Dubai.  The student parking lot is full of BMWs and no small number of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, mostly owned by the Emirati students and those from wealthy expatriate families.  If you are 18 and driving a Lambo to class, it’s going to be hard to motivate you to study or offer much respect to your professors and colleagues. 

The student body is also somewhat immature.  There are cliques, people are loud, and the encounters between males and females are often downright hilarious.  Many of the students at AUD have led very spoiled and sheltered lives, so the freedom on campus, which seems minimal to us Americans because of all the guards and curfews, is definitely going to a few of their heads.  Our campus has a large smoking area outside where students will hang out all day.  The boys will play cards and the girls will come by to sit or stand by the boys, laughing loudly and squealing in mock skirmishes with the boys or with their girlfriends.  Others, male and female, seem to most enjoy staring down the American students as we walk by.  I get this a lot and do not really know how to respond.  Usually I glance back, interested in seeing one of my own acquaintances to have an excuse to enter the Cool Kids Club myself, but sometimes I am a bit more hostile and stare back with the same dissecting gaze I’d been receiving.  One thing is clear from these encounters: everyone knows who I am.  Any time I introduce myself on campus or to an AUD student in a club, I am cut off when I start to say I am American.  They know.  The other day, I was wearing a Deadmau5 shirt that, granted, was kind of out of place on a campus of Hermes scarves, and I met a friend outside Starbucks to study.  One of his Arab friends approached and I introduced myself.  He responded that he knew I was American and remembered my shirt from earlier, when I had crossed the grass from the dorms to the campus buildings in front of the smoking section.  This just struck me as an odd way to make conversation with someone you just met, and it only solidified my feeling of constantly being watched.  To all my attention-loving white girlfriends from home, this place is for you.


The Students
There are a few interesting groups of people on campus; I will list a few:

I.) The Overly-Glamorous Girls
These girls have money and really flaunt it.  They come to class dressed in designer clothes and carry an arsenal of beauty supplies in their designer bags and set up major touch-up operations in the bathrooms in between their classes.  These are usually not the loud and fawning girls of the smoking section.  Most wear a hijab and very many wear the abaya.  These garments are also gorgeous and only accentuating the beauty of the wearer.  A significant amount of these girls are clearly not wearing their Islamic garments out of religious obervance.  The pieces are so ornate, they are obviously not worn out of modesty.  Some girls wear an abaya every day but do not even close it, showing off their skinny jeans and trendy silk blouses.  The effect created is some brand of Hogwarts/Oxford chic, though I'm not sure which institution would be better suited for them.  These girls, I assume, are either told to wear the abayas to school against their will and so they rebel in any way possible, or they are trying to convey to the rich young men at our university that although they are modern and sexy, they can conform with a Muslim family as a wife--at least that's how I see it. 

II.) The Good Ole Local Boys
First, these guys are rich, and they know it.  Second, now is a good time to say that I have not had a conversation with a single Emirati on campus.  These people are not rude, but definitely not approachable.  I would also say that the most immature people I've witnessed were Emirati boys.  

III.) The Expatriates
These people are Westerners or Russians, but they have completely molded with Dubai culture.  They embrace the party lifestyle, study little, and talk about being anywhere other than Dubai.  I don't know if they'll ever be content where they are.  

IV.) The SE Asians
These people are much like us, just louder.

V.) Us
I don't think I could give a very objective opinion on how the study abroads act, but it's clear we aren't yet ingrained in Dubai culture.  We make friends easily and are very open, just observing and making the most of our time.  

The Professors

As a whole, courses at AUD are easier than anything else I've ever taken.  Even so, students and professors are constantly conflicting over grades and workload.  Our professors have therefore gotten worn down and have lowered their standards.  Many professors have taught nowhere else other than AUD, but luckily my professors have studied and taught outside at other institutions.  As a sampling of what an incoming study abroad should expect and to give a general picture of AUD academic life, I'll give a little rundown on each of my current professors.  I'll add their names AFTER I've gotten back my grades.  

I.) Egyptian Literature and Intermediate Arabic II
This professor has much experience outside of the UAE.  He's Egyptian and I believe he studied at Princeton and taught at Brown.  He very clearly misses the more focused and talented student base at Ivy League schools as opposed to the slack and unmotivated group he has here.  He remains active writing and collaborating on research projects.  His most known work is America in an Arab Mirror, which is a compilation of Arabic writings about the United States, translated into English.  This book, specifically his translations on Sayed Qutb, were cited in the US Commission Report on 9-11.  A combination of his sense of worth and general student apathy has made him a little unresponsive to his students outside of class.  He will occasionally cancel class arbitrarily (not complaining here!), will not respond to emails, and will not remember to write you a recommendation letter.  As long as you recognize this you can learn a lot from the man.  He is rather educated and teaching makes him happy.  He also really likes us Americans.  My Egyptian Lit class is decent, promoting discussion in class without requiring much outside reading.  It is in this class that he complains the most about our work ethic.  In my Arabic class, every single student comes from a completely different background in Arabic.  He is doing a great job in bringing in outside lessons so that both the advanced and inexperienced students stay engaged.  The class isn't very demanding, but that gives us ample time for independent study.  My only critique in that class is that he doesn't teach in Arabic even though we are all intermediate learners and really need that kind of challenge.

II.) Middle Eastern Politics
This professor is probably the most unlike anyone I would study under at Troy.  He is French; I don't know his education or previous work background.  He dresses like a caricature, on the first day wearing a black and white striped long sleeve shirt with his jacket tossed over his shoulders, only lacking a beret set jauntily atop his curly hair.  He frequently gives his opinion on politics and the Middle East--something that you can often detect in American professors but is never stated outright.  He is very anti-Israel and anti-West (with a few exceptions given for French endeavors in the Arab world).  Our first class consisted of a speech on our responsibilities as students and how he is not our 'father.'  I know that this was for the benefit of the Arab students with less developed work ethics, but his continued and constant referencing of due dates and things is getting a little out of hand.

The class is neither suitable for a student well-versed in political science and the politics of the Middle East, nor good for the student completely new to political science.  Lessons are too unfocused for either.  To give you a taste of the work required for this course, the first assignment is a position paper on a topic selected from a list.  It is due at the end of February, no citation style is required, and it is to be 1000 words.  Some students are already stressing about this.

III.) Islam: Historical and Societal Aspects
This course is taught by a very nice and well-meaning individual, but it is more of a philosophy course than its above title suggests.  I'm the only Westerner in the class, but I'm still pretty well-versed in Islam.  The first few classes were all about "Western misconceptions of Islam," when she railed against the West, epitomized by America, for fomenting Fox News-y (my term, not hers) opinions about the Arabs.  She proselytized  to the nodding heads of her students, about how Westerners viewed and still view Arabs as backward, how they hate Islam out of ignorance, and how they have in turn, through this orientalist perspective, ravaged the East through imperialism.  Now, I agree with Edward Said on his key points as much as the next person, but this woman's generalizations about the West were just as inaccurate as the Western generalizations about her people.  She also spoke of the trends in Orientalist thought of the Romantics as still the norm today--the only counter-balance being the Arab Americans writing today.  This view is supported by the required textbook for the course.  I recognize that I am a bit unique in the US, especially Alabama, in my desire to learn about and live among the people of the Middle East, but I am not alone, and many people, though they may not love this place as I do, still respect the Arabs and recognize our faulty policies and misguided aggression in the region. 

Regarding the study of Islam itself, she does not focus on anything that is interesting or unknown, saying instead that it is too complicated and above our heads.  This is incredibly frustrating and fueling some of the speed behind my fingers as I type tonight.

IV.) Religions of the Middle East
This is my best professor.  He's half French, half English, and is married to an Egyptian and converted to Islam, but I only know this from other students.  He is challenging and holds his students to a high standard.  I'm learning a lot about the three Abrahamic faiths.  He's not afraid to tell students they are wrong but is still very encouraging.  He's the closest thing I've found to a Dr. Welch at AUD (though by that comparison, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired)--maybe from their shared connections to English education.  I think I need to get me one of those.

Censorship in the Classroom

The UAE is a rather censored society, and even on a college campus, perceived threats to either Islam or the government have harsh repercussions.  My politics professor will not put his notes online for fear of being questioned about the content of his lectures or opinion.  My religions professor actually ran into some trouble after hosting a guest speaker--I believe he was a Jewish rabbi--onto campus to talk about some aspect of Judaism.  Other students not in his class heard this and caused trouble through the leadership of the school, assuming that the guest was propagating unIslamic values.  This overarching feeling of censorship makes students nervous if they near the topics of politics and religion, and they tailor their assignments to not raise any suspicions.  I recently attended a TEDx talk on campus.  The 'x' indicates that the event was not organized by TED itself, but the hosting campus.  The speakers were certainly not as illustrious as the TED speakers I've viewed on Youtube, but this was not the biggest issue.  The speakers were apparently instructed not to talk about anything religious or political in nature.  As a political science student in a region where these things are absolutely fascinating, I was very disappointed and only sat in on one complete talk.  I've even been hushed while talking in cafes, when my conversation was as far from revolutionary as it could have been--though this might be more for dramatic purposes only.  I have definitely taken some freedoms in the US for granted until now.
My next few posts will definitely include some pretty pictures and cultural outings






Monday, February 4, 2013

Running on Dubai Time

Hey everyone,

I recognize that my blog implies that my posts are Due By Sunday, but I'm on Dubai time now, meaning that such an imposition of a deadline is completely arbitrary.  This is me filing an extension with Blogger and you.  I have another post about AUD all written up, just not typed although it is Monday in the parts of the world relevant to this discussion.  It will be up by the end of the day here-time.

About Your Author

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.