Home       Previous Story       Next Story

A Teacher's Observations

Dubai, March 2002

By John Peterson, photojournalist, then college professor, he returned to school thirty years after his bachelor's degree to earn his PhD. He's now among the group of English-speaking expatriates who are faculty and administrators at the recently-formed Zayed University for women.

What's it like to teach in Dubai these days? Very curious indeed. It starts with trying to communicate in the classroom. It isn't easy, but it is fun.

For instance, English here is an interesting language. For my students it's a second language and they are culturally trained to speak softly, especially among teachers and men. I have to listen very carefully. This is compounded by accent. Most students learned English originally from Kuwaiti and Egyptian teachers, then more from English, Australian, Canadian and several kinds of American teachers (and a smattering of Indians and Pakistanis–at last count we had 26 nationalities on faculty). An Emirati girl with a Georgia accent leavened by Indian speech patterns and word choices gives one pause.

This country and its people are also very interesting indeed, in ways both exhilarating and frustrating. It is also changing very rapidly, again, in both positive and negative ways (as seen by a westerner).

Dubai was just a seasonal fishing and pearling village and occasional trading port just thirty years ago, as was Abu Dhabi. Parts of the Northern Emirates, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah and Um al-Qaiwain, together with the Indian Ocean Emirate of Fujairah, remain fairly poor and backward, though oil money from Abu Dhabi has helped them substantially. There are no families who are still fully nomadic. All have a government-provided permanent home. Many, however, return seasonally to their farms and date groves and live in tents and palm-frond structures. A few of my students have been told that they were born in the desert.

Now Dubai is an incredibly modern, high-rise, European city. If you can imagine it, and have time to look for it, you can buy anything here. You won't be as fortunate if it needs service or attachments. Merchandising here, as unbelievably expansive as it is, still is based on the trader mentality. Merchants buy a lot of something and then set out to sell it. Rarely is there any long-term arrangement with the manufacturer or supplier.

Food from literally every corner of the world is purveyed, usually by Philippine nationals. A Filipina waitress in a dirndl serving sausages is an eyebrow raiser. There are two very good Tex-Mex establishments here, as well as a jazz bar serving excellent BBQ pork, if you can imagine.

Piracy of software, music and films has pretty well stopped (piracy on the water, for which this was once called the "Pirate Coast" stopped in the 19th century at the point of a Royal Navy gun), but this is still a world center for fake Rolexes and Omegas, Calvin Kleins and Yves St. Laurents. It's so prevalent that we speak of Calvin Karama jeans. Karama is a souk area where very little is as it seems to be. My Omega cost 40 dirhams (about ten dollars). You can imagine its relationship to the company of that name.

Housing is a delight. I live in a high-rise furnished "residence" attached to and operated by the Hyatt Regency hotel. The houseboy comes twice a week. I have two bedrooms and a lovely kitchen overlooking the Port Rashid harbor and the dry-docks (largest in the world–able to take any ship made). The sun goes down in a great fireball every evening right behind the cranes, just as the call to prayer is sounded from the substantial mosque just across the way, which in turn is next to the acre or so of fish market. At the fish market, a legion or so of boys from Bangladesh will clean your fresh, ten-pound Hammour and two kilos of shrimp for 5 dirhams (just over a dollar) in about ten minutes.

The attitude of the sheikhs here is to put Dubai in the world's awareness any way they can. They have the world's richest horserace, one of the world's richest tennis tournaments, one of the world's most important golf tournaments (they paid Tiger Woods more than the purse to come), one of the top racing boat teams, and next year a Formula One auto race, plus world-class cricket matches and soccer tournaments. (There is also hockey and curling on the ice rink off the lobby here in the hotel, but they are both a long way from world class). The idea is to have events that television cannot ignore and thus gain world attention, and, it is hoped, tourists and business.

It is probably, at the moment, the safest place in the world to be. The rulers are merchant princes, and trouble is bad for business. Therefore, it is decreed that there will not be any. And the sheiks have enough money and prestige in the Arab world (partly for their charity) that their orders are obeyed. Probably every unincarcerated spook in the world has an office here, but they are not about to dirty their waterhole. It's like Lisbon in WWII. On September 12, the chief of the Dubai police was summoned to the Al Diyafa palace and reminded that his job included the safety of all residents, specifically including the western expatriates, and then a press release described the contents of the discussion. It ran on the front page of all newspapers.

The Islamic charity of the rulers is legend. The UAE army has a major unit of peacekeepers in Kosovo. In the couple of years they've been there, they have built a dozen mosques, a couple of substantial hospitals and who knows how many schools, plus roads and water systems. More recently, they set up several refugee camps in Afghanistan complete with mosques, schools, hospitals, water systems and trade schools. They figure on running them for three years, and there's room for about 10,000 people.

My students range from the extraordinarily wealthy to the almost poor. No one is really all that poor here, but some come from families only recently in from the desert out in the back of Um al-Qaiwain. They come, mostly, from families of fifteen or so. Almost all wear the abaya (a black robe that goes all the way to the ground) and the shayla (a black scarf that the more conservative wrap tightly around–the less conservative hang it around their shoulders and take criticism from their classmates). Many also wear a black veil and black gloves, leaving only their eyes showing. Glasses typically overlap the shayla and the veil, an interesting look. When you can see hands, they are typically covered in Henna designs.

One, a really good student, started unwilling to speak in class. I thought she was very shy or that her English was bad, until I noticed her eyes never left me in the classroom and that other students were looking at her notes. Then I gave a quiz and she scored the only 100. It was next semester before she started coming into the office daily, showing off her handiwork and her excellent English. Seems that after three semesters on the dean's list, she had gone to her father and asked if he would allow her to talk with the male teachers.

And then there is Aisha Ahmed. Her mother is a teacher out in the back of Ajman, an occupation held in low regard here (because of experience with Egyptian and Kuwaiti teachers who worked here because they couldn't make it at home). Her father died before a son was born, and she has no close male relative. She is very conservative, but helped me learn the culture with great knowledge, energy, tact and delight. Her ambition is to teach at ZU, but that means graduate school, and that means leaving the country, something she cannot do because there is no male relative to accompany her. We may find a way around that, but we haven't yet.

Then there is the student who asked about the inside of air terminals. Knowing that she had been to most of the world's major capital cities, we were momentarily surprised. Seems the limo always brings them to the ladder of the family airplane. That airplane, it turns out, can make it to Louisville, Kentucky, for the Derby without refueling. It ain't no Cherokee!

The big problem on the first day of classes four years ago was convincing the Dubai students that their maids could not come on campus and that they would have to carry their own laptops. Even today, each has two maids and a driver waiting at the gate to grab their books and bags (and cellphones). The contrasts are breathtaking.

It is also a society in the midst of breathtaking change. Two years ago when I came here, the word Christmas could not be said out loud on the campus. We still tear out of textbooks pages that include anything concerning dating or romance (all marriages here are arranged–though sometimes sub rosa by the couple themselves), pork or alcohol (though not as often–a picture page on a pig farmer in the US, contained in my design textbook, cleared the censorship committee recently). At one point, an encyclopedia was banned because a student noticed that an article on the Prophet Mohammed failed to include the requisite notation "PBUH" (Peace Be Upon Him) after his name. The fine arts program has an awful time.

Yet the bells at St. Mary's Roman Catholic church where I go were donated, says a large plaque, by Shaikh Rashid (ruler at the time of building). For the record, there are a number of other churches here, a couple Orthodox of different stripes, and several evangelical house churches. There is also an Anglican church (right next door to St. Mary's) but it is a mission church, not a diocesan one, and they have (of their dozen or so services a week) only one in English, and that on Sunday night (a work day here, where the weekend is Thursday and Friday). There is one Lutheran church, at the Scandinavian Seamen's Center, but no services in English. This morning there were about 3,000 people worshipping in the slightly 60s accented way of modern Roman Catholicism. I once used my journalistic estimating skills to discover that there were well over 4,000 in the building for an evening "revival" service featuring a remarkable preacher, a monk from Scotland.

Last year on Good Friday, in addition to the four thousand or so inside the church, the chapel (several hundred) was overflowing. The gymnasium of the school was overflowing (several thousand more) and they had filled the courtyard in front to overflowing as well and stopped at least another thousand from entering. Mass is said at least weekly in about 14 languages by the Capuchin priests. They have just built another church of the same size near the port of Jebel Ali, just outside the Dubai city limits. Services are a blaze of color, since parishioners are predominantly from Philippines, Goa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and various African countries. Four thousand people singing "The Old Rugged Cross" in a myriad of dialects is an amazing thing to experience.

Where we couldn't say Christmas two years ago, this year we all received Christmas greetings and gifts of sweets, plus e-mails and cards, from students and from Arabic staff. When one student complained in a broadside e-mail, she was severely lectured, also publicly, by one of the Islamic studies faculty who reminded her that Christians (and Jews) are "peoples of the Book" and thus included in the Islamic family, that Jesus (and Moses) are considered major prophets, and further, that religious tolerance is a duty of Muslims.

Further, we recently celebrated the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, and there was a note in the paper about observances of Hanukkah here in town, both during Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr, the festival that ends Ramadan, remains of course, the biggest moment of the year (it's quite a celebration). When another student objected to celebrating western New Year there was another dressing down, with a note that two sets of good resolutions did not seem like a bad idea (the Islamic new year is next month this year).

There are also downsides to all this. Over at the men's college, the students are all so spoiled it is almost impossible to teach. Several of the students already have three or four children. It's sometimes hard to find out how many because if you ask, they say they have two boys. You have to ask specifically to find out if they have any daughters. Also, except for the students, we have virtually no contact whatever with the families. Eighty percent of the population here are expatriates, the largest percent of them from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and so on. There is almost no mixing. Except for professionals, they are all men, here without their families, living in crude labor camps. Until recently, they were moved from there to their jobs in cattle trucks.

The really troublesome thing is that a cab driver here, working seven days a week and ten or twelve hours, making maybe 500 dirhams a week (a bit over a hundred dollars) and living in a wretched dormitory for ten or twelve (or more) years, can send home to his family in a village a couple hours north of Peshawar enough money to make them the envy of their town (my regular driver). A construction worker making half that can support a large, extended family in Bangladesh.

Funny part of that is building (anything). They can put up a skyscraper in months, and without most modern tools, except for concrete pumps. All it takes is about three battalions of workers (doing the jobs of maybe a hundred western construction workers with modern tools). It's something to behold.

© Copyright 2002 John Peterson - All Rights Reserved

    Home       Previous Story       Next Story