First Impressions

Eye of Sharjah

I’m finally here!

I arrived in the United Arab Emirates two weeks ago, and the most surprising differences are the little ones. There are no trash cans in food courts; instead you leave your mess on the table and a worker will dispose of it. Even though almost everyone speaks English, it’s sometimes with such a strong accent that a conversation is not possible. However, this is mainly the case with the lower classes, which brings us to the next point.

Yes, the Emirates is a class-based society. At the top are the Emiratis, often seen perusing open areas clad in abayas and thobes. Although abayas are meant to be simple long black dresses for women, and thobes simple long white pants for men, there’s actually a fashion scene for both. These outfits can sell for several hundred dollars, and although thobes are rather plain no matter how expensive, there are no limits to the accessories on abayas. Upon closer inspection, even the plain black ones are embroidered with flowers, or have beads or silk on the cuffs. The fancier ones are a myriad of colors, although my favorite are the ones with gold trim that make the wearer look like a princess.

In this environment, there’s pressure to dress to impress. Although Emirati women will not be seen in public without abaya, they are only 20% of the population. That means fashion takes almost every possible form here, with outfits ranging from high-fashion hijaab (a hair covering), to completely Western styles, with many manipulations of the in between.

That describes the middle class, who are usually Western and Arab ex-patriots. On the bottom are unskilled migrant workers. Interactions with this class are limited to ordering food from restaurants or showing ID to a guard. They are in low-paying jobs, and make the extravagant lifestyle in the Middle East possible. However, because of the strength of the local currency, these workers are sometimes able to afford a much better life for themselves and their families in their home countries when they go back.

This makes the UAE a diverse country, and most surprising was the level of tolerance I encountered. Although people are eager to identify with their religious and cultural backgrounds, it is not to the exclusion of others. Since everyone is from a different country, you have to be able to interact with people from different backgrounds, making intolerance nigh impossible.

I feel pretty at home here, and I hope it’s not just the honeymoon phase.