Abu Dhabi #4 - Cultural Differences
Sooo many! It’s hard to know where to start! Ramadan of course is a biggie (see separate blog). The effect of this country turning from Bedouin state to Oil rich opulence is truly remarkable. No more than 40 years ago this was a dessert with basic quality of life. A British colony as it goes, back then. Then the founding father of the modern day country (Sheikh Zayed Mohammed) decided all that would change and following the end of colonisation, the city began to grow.
40 years on, it’s a spacious place – still growing, but there’s big gaps in between the towers, and the roads are very uncluttered, albeit with rather large mpv’s.
What effect can this have had on the people? I hear there is so much wealth here that the Government gives anyone who marries locally $200,000 and a 5 bed house to get them started (my apologies for the repeat information if you read the First Impressions blog). If you leave the country, they pay for the highest level of education possible, and then do their best to ship you back to their country to reap the benefits of their investment. But one thing seems clear – these people don’t have to work.
On one hand, it’s great that they share so much of the oil money with their people – there’s no poverty here. Unemployment, yes, but poverty, no. At least, not if you’re Emirati.
Anyway, back to cultural differences. All the above might correctly lead you to assume there is a strong sense of hierarchy here, and loyalty to their own people. In England, I think we have a different approach – we do our best (though fail) to treat everyone equally, regardless of class, nationality, age even. I think we adopt an attitude of “Do as unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
This doesn’t seem to exist here. It makes me wonder why the Expats stay, but I guess the money’s good. Personally, with a big family back in the UK, it wouldn’t be enough for me, no matter how much money.
Eating – they eat communally here, from one big bowl, and they eat with their hands. You won’t often see this however, because although it’s very cosmopolitan here, unlike UK, Abu Dhabi is kinda segregated. The locals barely mix with foreigners, or so it seems. The culture gap is too big, the bridge toooo long. I think it often leads to misunderstandings and controversy.
I did see/experience this however with a group of very nice Emirati’s in the lobby of my hotel (see “Abu Dhabi blog #5 – The People” for more on this!) and I’m not sure about it.. is it hygienic? I didn’t see anyone washing their hands first…
On the other hand, this is one of those many countries which has what is affectionally known as ‘bum-squirters’ in all the toilets. Now these things should be globally introduced! Not only is it unquestionably cleaner, but it’s fun too!
Sure beats the crap out of toilet paper…
The best show of cultural differences is explained to me by another Mohammed, who part runs the cultural and heritage area at my event.
He tells me of the social do’s and don’ts, such as not to finish eating before your guest, and only pour a small amount of coffee into a guests cup. Why not? He explains… the coffee is too hot and you are free to help yourself to more. This way you don’t burn your tongue. The exception to this is if you want to talk to your guest about something specific. Then you can pour more and he will know that his host has something to discuss, so the coffee will still be hot when the conversation is done.
Furthermore, it’s rude to blow on your drink to cool it down. And to sniff your food can be crossing a line – what do you think? That I will serve you something unpleasant?
He also shows me around their stand, which includes a man writing your name in Arabic calligraphy (which I later have embroidered onto a t-shirt, much to their joy!), and the three moustachioed women I mentioned earlier in my “First Impressions” post. I ask him quietly why the women have fake moustaches, and he looks at me confused… “They’re not wearing moustaches” he tells me. – it’s part of their Berkah – they hide their top lip with them to avoid the attention of male desires…
Hahahahahaha! I love stuff like this! It’s exactly this kind of thing that points out that the term “cultural gaps” is not helpful. It’s a bridge, not a gap. And finding out this, makes me wonder about all the other stories I am told.. .do they really fine westerners for drinking water in public during Ramadan? What is the truth behind the picture of the kids in the Heritage and Artistic brochure that shows pictures of kids playing with guns? How come stories are abound of Emirati superiority complexes, but they are so welcoming to me whenever I meet them in the flesh?
I doubt I will get to the bottom of all these questions during this one short trip. I only have 4 days to go, and there’s so many conflicting thoughts running through my head, any conclusions I can draw can only be half baked.
*** LATER – Since writing this, I have discovered the truth between the kids dancing with guns. It’s a dance. They spin the guns to music.
Doesn’t make it any better as far as I’m concerned – they’re still putting rifles in the hands of kids, but at least I understand now.
Apparently there’s another dance they do which is a strange bobbing forward and backward dance whilst holding a stick. I’m told that it’s really dull, but someone has had the most inventive idea of putting footage of it up on youtube but changing the music to a Michael Jackson track!
Check it out! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPie9sONDoM