Mormon In Dubai
(Editor’s note: following is a sneak peek at issue 155, which will be landing in your mail boxes in about a week.)
By Amy Chamberlain
Living in Dubai means that after a while, you become immune to the incredibly mish-mashed wash of cultures around you. You no longer notice Indian women in silk saris queuing up at Coldstone Creamery; you ignore the fact that Madonna’s “Holiday” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” are blaring while you browse through twenty kinds of lentils in a spice souk; and you sometimes don’t notice that your son’s five school friends, trailing in the door behind him, are from five different countries.
But all expatriates (also known as expats) in Dubai, I think, have that moment when they realize not that they are far from home, but that they are in a place where random bits and pieces of their home country have, somehow, been transplanted along with them. During my first week here, I found myself sitting in the “India” courtyard of a lavish mall, located in the midst of the Arabian Desert. Set incongruously amongst Indian-inspired pillars and tiles sat a Starbucks. Around the corner came an Arabian man—big, tall, and dark, wearing a traditional dishdasha, and carrying a mammoth bucket of KFC with one arm and a bag from Toys R Us in the other.
Of all the impressions from my first few weeks in my new home, this is the one that stays with me the longest. I had expected Dubai to be foreign and “other.” I hadn’t expected to see these odd bits of American culture plunked down in a Middle-Eastern setting. Another iconic scene that says “this is Dubai” to me: a local man, again in traditional dress, at a stoplight in the swank Jumeirah neighborhood. He is driving a metallic orange Hummer H3, wearing Ray-Bans, talking on his Blackberry, and blasting Prince’s “Wanna Be UR Lover” out his window.
In a country where expats outnumber locals by more than eight to one, you can go for a long time without ever meeting a local. We live in an area that’s a multi-cultural dream come true (no one on my street comes from the same country as anyone else) and my son attends an international school, where he has friends from Spain, Kazakhstan, Great Britain, Australia, France, Holland, and Morocco—but he doesn’t know anyone from the UAE.
My own main exposure to locals has been in the role of university instructor. I teach English classes at the American University of Dubai, a job which kind of fell in my lap via a casual comment to a ward member. I had been missing the teaching that I had done at BYU and wanted to learn more about Local Culture. There just had to be some, I reasoned. Somewhere.
Go, Jack Bauer!
I‘ve just finished teaching a session of English 100 and am chatting with the eight or so local boys I teach. They all wear pristine white, neatly-pressed dishdashas that they surely don’t launder themselves—there must be a whole army of maids to thank for their appearance, I think—but the ultra-Arab effect is tempered somewhat by the fact that every day I see them, each one wears a resolutely American baseball cap. Red Sox, proclaims one. Yankees, bellows another.
I have just asked them some questions about Arabic pronunciation. Q vs k, for example, fascinates me: the sound at the end of Iraq is not a k sound, exactly, and I wanted to hear the difference. Same with Quran, which is a more correct spelling than Koran. Eight eager new teachers demonstrate that particular unpronounceable sound, as well as gh vs. kh vs. just plain old k.
“No, listen, Miss,” says Ghassan. “It’s like this.” He does something with his throat. “Can you hear the difference now?” I’d been pronouncing Ghassan more like Khassan, apparently. I try the throat-abrading sound, and my new tutors cheer. I can hear and passably imitate all of these sounds, but I am completely stymied when they demonstrate two different letters that BOTH sound like “sa.” For the life of me, I can’t tell them apart.
“Sa?” I say.
“No, no, sa,” they say.
“That’s what I just said,” I say.
“No you didn’t,” they insist. “Sa. Not sa.”
The tutorial winds down, amidst equal parts teasing and encouragement. I realize that two of them are talking about the TV show 24 and swapping episode details. I am semi-listening as I pack up my books when it dawns on me: all these kids of Arabic descent watch . . . did I hear that right . . . 24?
“Oh yes, Miss,” they say, nodding eagerly when I ask them. “Yes, we love it. We have seen all the seasons.”
Uh . . . well . . . hm. “You do realize,” I say, somewhat tentatively, “that the bad guys on that show are almost all from the Middle East? It always comes down to terrorists?”
They look at each other blankly. Then comprehension dawns. Ghassan makes a dismissive gesture and tsks impatiently, a supremely Arab way of showing you don’t care about something. “Miss,” he says, “that’s just Hollywood, you know. It’s good . . . how you say . . . good drama.” They all nod in agreement.
“We all root for Jack Bauer,” says Sultan, grinning. “Go, Jack! Kill the evil terrorists!” He adjusts his leather baseball cap emblazoned with “NYPD” to a jauntier angle and holds the door for me on the way out.
Tricking for Treatings
My son and I are at a Halloween party at my son’s friend’s house. This friend is half-Khazak and half-British. The kids are prepping for a round of neighborhood trick-or-treating as part of the party, which strikes me as amazing. I certainly didn’t expect “trick-or-treating” as a Middle-Eastern activity. My son and I are the only Americans in the group.
The kids have to work for their candy here. Some of the neighbors are prepped with bowls of treats, but many have no idea what’s going on and therefore have nothing to give the kids. Any house where incense hits you in the nose when the door opens falls into this category. So, on average, the kids have to knock on three or four doors for each piece of candy they get. I’m definitely in favor of harder work for less candy. For my child, that is.
Some people look confused for a moment as the costumed little monsters stare expectantly at them, bags upheld, but then come back with handfuls of coins for them. Giving small gifts of money is the custom during Eid al Fitr, the holiday at the end of Ramadan. And some very generously give whatever they have in their cupboards: apples, bananas, and even boiled eggs.
One woman wrapped in an Indian sari asks, hesitantly, “For Diwali?”—the festival of lights that isn’t until December. But about a third of the occupants we pester know exactly what we’re doing and what night it is. To make up for the boiled eggs, we are treated to big handfuls of expensive premium European chocolates at five different houses.
We pass five or six groups of kids who are also trolling for candy, and none look or sound American. It is decidedly odd to see Filipino, Indian, Pakistani, and even children of obvious Middle-Eastern descent dressed as witches, skeletons, and goblins, going door-to-door for candy. I guess Halloween is catching on in Dubai. One little girl, in a red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam hat and an American flag dress, knocks on the next door. When the lady of the house answers, she shrieks, in an Iranian accent, “Tricking for treatings!”
Going There in Style
In a stake roughly the size of the Western U.S., certain concessions have to be made. The kids in the Dubai ward meet at the airport to fly to Bahrain for their youth conference, for example. Eight months later, I make the same trek for a different reason: stake leadership training. On two Fridays a year, the Church pays for a plane ticket to and from Bahrain for those of us in leadership positions who live more than a few hours’ drive away. It also pays for a driver, if one is available, to bring us to and from the Bahrain church building. Volunteers from the Bahrain Ward make us lunch and, after a full day of training, we attend sacrament meeting.
The stake used to hold its training meetings on Thursdays. That was back in the day when the entire Middle East had their weekends on Thursday and Friday. But a few years ago, the U.A.E. changed to a Friday-Saturday weekend in order to more closely match the rest of the western (i.e., business) world, which means that our stake members don’t all have the same weekends anymore. So now, stake training is held on a Friday. We slot it in around the Bahrain Ward’s Friday meeting.
Bahrain being what it is, the rental car agencies in the Doha airport aren’t exactly full of rusty old Pintos. They mostly rent Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Land Rovers. In our testimony meeting, one member from somewhere in Saudi tells about how he and his group got lost coming to the Bahrain church from the airport. Not to worry, though, their rental Rolls Royce came with a top-of-the-line GPS system. “We didn’t know where we were going,” he comments, “but we were going there in style.” Later, I think I know how he felt as I’m sitting in the Doha airport. It is late November, and people in Middle Eastern attire are coming and going, threading their way through massive Christmas displays of neon snowflakes, blinking red-and-green lights, snowmen, and a twenty-foot-tall Santa Claus. “Merry Christmas!” proclaims a sign in English and Arabic.
For the most part, my English 100 students are cheerily unconcerned about their mediocre scores thus far, two-thirds of the way through the semester. They can’t write a basic, five-paragraph essay, nor do they really seem to want to learn how; nevertheless, I am dutifully forging onward in my Duties as a Teacher.
Usually students can’t get me off track. But one day, my guard is down and my local boys decide that a discussion of cultures would be more interesting than the group work I am trying to make them do.
When I ask how they are doing with their assignment, Ghassan says, “Finished! Finished!” He points to the three groups around him and shakes his head virtuously; they are not finished but he is. “We finished quickly because we are three multi-cultural students working in harmony,” he proclaims. “And we work in harmony because of me. I brought us all together.”
Ghassan’s group-mates all laugh, and I say, “You’re quite an ambassador.”
“Yes,” he says grandly, sweeping his arms out to embrace his peers in a gesture of beneficence. “I am ambassador of peace. And English grammar.”
Another student in the group, Yusuf, says, “It’s amazing we finished at all because Ghassan is so . . . ” and then finishes his sentence in Arabic. Many students laugh. “I don’t know how to say in English,” he explains.
“Easily distracted,” translates someone else.
I laugh and start to move on to see how the other groups are doing, but one of my two students named Sultan asks, “Miss, what part of America are you from?” I tell him Utah, and he says, “Mountains.”
“Yes,” I say.
Ghassan asks, “Can you speak with British accent?”
“No,” I say. “I can’t. The American accent is totally different from the British.”
“Australian, then!” they beg. “Speak like Australians do!”
“That one I REALLY can’t do,” I say.
“Why not?” they ask. “Try!”
“No,” I say. “I promise I can’t do either. It would be like you, Sahar,” I continue, pointing to a local, “trying to speak Arabic with another accent. Can you?”
“No, but Karim can do a very good Lebanese accent! Do it, Karim!” Karim, grinning, says something in Arabic with what I presume is a Lebanese accent, and everyone dissolves into laughter. By this point, of course, they know that I won’t be able to force anymore work on them in the immediate future.
I try to get everyone back on track by making some noises about the worksheet, but Ghassan says, “Miss! Wait! Miss! Hassan is from the Utah of the U.A.E.”
I am puzzled, and Hassan explains: “Mountains. There are mountains in the part of the U.A.E. where I’m from.”
I laugh and say, “No there aren’t! There aren’t any mountains at all in the U.A.E.!”
Without missing a beat, he says, “OK, really tall sand dunes, then. Close enough.”
Everyone laughs again, and then they all decide that the other Sultan is from the Texas part of the U.A.E. because his hometown is further south and, according to Karim, “it’s a really sandy part.” When I point out that all the U.A.E. is a “really sandy part,” he says, “No, down there, the sand is really deep.”
Sultan grins. “I keep losing camels,” he says. That brings down the house. Work is officially over for the day.
After class ends a few minutes later, my eight local boys hang around. One of the Sultans asks me if I’ve ever read R.L. Stein books. I think I didn’t hear him right. “You mean—you can’t mean those Goosebumps books? That series?” I ask him.
“Yeah!” he says. “Oh, Miss, those are spooky! I read those as little boy, and I still have nightmares to this day!”
I stare at him for a moment. “You grew up in the U.A.E. and you know what Goosebumps books are?” I ask, temporarily stunned.
“Oh yes,” the others nod. “It’s because the U.A.E. has no culture of its own.”
I start to disagree, but the boys are already naming off the TV shows they like the best: Prison Break, Lost, 24, NFL football games, Supernanny, Oprah, Desperate Housewives, Dr. Phil—Karim does a hilarious Dr. Phil impression—and then Ghassan adds, “and Jackass . . . ”
I get all mock-outraged. “You watch Jackass?!” I ask, hands on hips. “Really? What would your Imam say? Does he know you watch those kinds of programs?” They all burst out laughing at my reaction.
“My Imam doesn’t know, Miss!” says Ghassan, gleeful. “Don’t tell him!”
Mohammed gets very earnest, making sure I understand. “I think there is a Christian religion where you have to go and talk to your priest about what you’ve done?” he says. “It’s called . . . confession? But our religion doesn’t have that. Our Imam can only suggest what we should do, not tell us.”
“And besides, Jackass is—how do you say—censored here,” Sultan says cheerily, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “All the bad stuff is taken out. Inshallah [God willing] they will show it for many years to come!”
Being Part of the Problem
Going to church in Dubai means that you have to navigate through streets that are sometimes signposted and sometimes not. When they do have names, they sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t (Road 13 is one street over from Road 37, for instance). Our ward currently meets in a large rented villa. We have far too many people to fit comfortably in this villa, but it’s the best that the Church, and the U.A.E. government, can do for the time being.
We do have it easier than Saints in Saudi Arabia (which, if you are super hip and cool, you just call “Saudi” or even “The Kingdom”); in some areas, Saudi Saints have to resort to sly tactics to meet at all. They change their meeting times and places regularly to stay under the government’s radar and have to rely on word-of-mouth or phone calls to disseminate the information. Dubai’s government openly recognizes other religions; in fact, in an unprecedented move for a Middle-Eastern country, Dubai has actually donated land to a church “compound” on the southwest edge of the city. Most Western churches have a purpose-built meeting place in this compound.
Not, alas, the Mormons, due to the vagaries of the Church legal system. Overall, the LDS leadership is skittish about establishing too large of a presence in the Middle East. Rumor has it that we don’t have a satellite dish on our building because Church leaders in Salt Lake don’t want us to “stand out.” Needless to say, in Dubai, one stands out more by not having a satellite dish; however, we Dubai Saints are nothing if not patient and long-suffering.
Although the government officially recognizes the LDS church, I never can shake the feeling that I’m doing something slightly naughty every Friday when we arrive for services. Maybe it’s because the building itself is not signposted (the government isn’t quite that permissive) or because we have neighbors who get annoyed if we park too close to their villas. Or maybe it’s because we can often hear a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. Sometimes I’ve heard it during our own sacrament prayers.
And although we are all strangers in a strange land, and fairly savvy about meeting other people and other cultures, no one here has failed to notice the cultural divide between Westerners and Filipinos. Without exception, the Westerners are doing white-collar work. Ford executives, lawyers, computer network administrators, accountants, and engineers in our ward: they all are Western. The Filipinos, on the other hand, are all in Dubai to do blue-collar jobs. They are maids, mechanics, and cleaners. Our ward’s Westerners earn as much as ten or twelve times the salary that the Filipinos earn.
So our cultural divide is further exacerbated by an economic one. Naturally, LDS Filipinos have some resentment toward Westerners who enjoy a vastly different lifestyle than they do. And naturally, Westerners become somewhat exasperated at Filipinos who seem clannish, insular, and unwilling to take on the more difficult callings in the ward.
I am sitting at home on a Friday afternoon, fretting about my calling as Primary president. Church has just finished, and I’ve been talking with the bishop about the Filipinos who are unwilling to take a calling in Primary. It’s true that I do have one great Filipino teacher, but I’m cranky and resentful, because we still need some teachers and it seems that only Westerners are willing to fill these slots.
The doorbell rings. It’s a Filipino brother, his daughter in tow, asking to borrow a book from my husband who is not home yet. I invite him in to wait for Peter to arrive. The brother sits down with his daughter who is in my Primary, and we chat about the ward. I know this girl is named Rebecca, and I know what class she’s in, but to my utter mortification, I can’t remember her father’s name. After he leaves, I have to go look him up on the ward list. We’ve been in the same ward for more than two years. He and his family live less than a mile from me. I’ve heard his name many times but never realized who owns it.
Is it any wonder that some Filipinos are reluctant to serve in callings with Westerners? The nameless streets aren’t all that I have to learn to navigate better.
(Originally published in issue 155 of Sunstone)