AUS’s Student Multicultural Learning Program sponsored a trip to the Mall of the Emirates to watch a presentation by the Korean Embassy. It started with a taekwondo demonstration from Arab athletes, complete with adorable little children performing stunts. Then, what can only be described as Korean opera music started playing, and South Korean taekwondo althetes began a professional taekwondo demonstration, which was almost a play. It was a touching story of good versus evil, with emotions displayed only through occasional shouts, facial expressions, and music. Then they just started showing off their skills, which included kicking flowers while blindfolded and kicking apples so hard they exploded. They also demonstrated their ability to kick through pieces of wood, the shreds of which were flying into the crowd.
After a couple of traditional dances, a techno-ish song started playing and the crowd went wild. This was the cue for Gamblerz Crew, a famous breakdancing group from South Korea, to begin their performance.
After the shows, the taekwondo athletes were signing the boards they didn’t destroy during the performance. The mostly-male athletes stood out as white dots among a flood of abaya-clad Emirati girls, all of whom fought to get their signatures and pictures. There was also an all-you-can-eat buffet of Korean food, with a gigantic platter of sushi.
This man was strutting his stuff across university campus. He said he was impersonating the King of India. No idea what that’s supposed to mean.
Although this guy is an extreme example, it’s common to find culturally diverse clothing on campus. Some Pakistani girls wear traditional Pakistani dresses, which are like tunics with a slit on both sides of the bottom. Many Indian girls wear a long thin scarf draped around their necks. But, Western clothing is the most popular.
Because the UAE is so small, great events are within an hour’s driving distance. We went to Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience (more information) at the Dubai Mall, and got to meet stylists in person. The two stylists we met were Farah (Dress Code by Farah), a personal shopper, and Ascia (Hybrid in a Headpiece), a fashion blogger. Ascia helped popularize wearing hijab in a turban-style, and apparently fashion blogging is popular here. They gave us all a tour around Bloomingdale’s, a tutorial on wearing Ascia’s turban style of hijab, and had a short question and answer session for styling different items.
We actually got to have a personal discussion with Farah, and she was very open about her life. She is an image consultant, and focuses on helping men and women improve their image by first learning to love themselves, and only then by finding clothes. It was amazing to talk to her, and she was truly inspiring. She used to clean rich peoples’ houses to make money before creating a name for herself in the fashion industry.
The best part of the event was meeting a woman who came from an Average Joe background, and is now living the American dream. Except that she’s doing it in the Emirates, perhaps making it the Emirati dream? Plus, the event was free!
The most delicious part of a new culture is eating it.
Egyptian style pigeon is the most interesting dish I’ve had so far. It’s a pigeon stuffed with rice, sitting on a bed of rice and meat. But, the meat underneath it is not just regular pigeon meat, it’s actually the pigeon’s organs. It’s delicious!
Other dishes include camel burgers, date milkshakes, and camel milk milkshakes. Lebnah is a sort of cheese often put on bread with other seasonings, and tastes great! Also, mango juice. Try it. I’m never going back to orange juice. Shawarma is another suggestion for Middle Eastern food, and lamb is much more popular here than back home. As for drinks, Shey Halib is tea with milk and other spices in it, usually served hot.
For those missing American favorites, it’s actually easier to find burgers and fries in the Emirates than Middle Eastern food, since Western restaurants have a larger presence than Arab ones. There’s a Burger King, Subway, and Starbucks on AUS campus, and the closest mall has McDonalds and KFC. But, if you avoid restaurants you know from back home, food can be much cheaper here. A full meal costs around $3.50 on-campus, with home delivery restaurants taking the cheap-food crown.
Ordering food over the telephone is popular, with many restaurants located near campus offering free home delivery, even if your order is only 10 dirhams (less than $3). iHungry.ae has menus from some restaurants offering free home delivery to AUS campus.
Before I came to the Emirates, I thought that since it was a Muslim country, I would need a male escort to go outside. After I arrived, I quickly found out that I was completely wrong. Even women wearing niqab, who I assumed most likely to do nothing without a male escort, were driving around and going through their daily activities all by themselves.
Yes, a women can go outside by herself in the Emirates. No, you don’t have to wear abaya or hijab to fit in. The standard dress code is pretty simple, just cover your shoulders, knees, and everything in between.
In my opinion, living in the Emirates doesn’t require much of a lifestyle change. Of course people who include partying in their lifestyle can’t drink alcohol, or show up drunk, in Sharjah; also, public displays of affection on campus can result in disciplinary action. If you think about it, public intoxication and public displays of affection are often looked down upon in the US, the only difference is that here they are potentially illegal.
There is some degree of gender segregation in the Emirates due to Islam encouraging a respectable distance between the two genders, and not because of any segregation imposed by the government. This does not mean men and women do not mix; in fact, the contrary is true, and it is completely normal for both genders to interact. However people here have a different comfort level and often avoid becoming best friends with people of the opposite gender in order to avoid any religiously unlawful situations that may arise. This fosters a sense of sisterhood – or brotherhood – that is very pleasant.
Since women wear more modest clothing, which means more is covered and clothes are not as tight, it’s harder to tell what someone’s body looks like. I personally think this emphasizes what you’re wearing instead of what your body looks like; and, it’s easier to change your wardrobe than your genetics. Hijab also plays a role in this, since hair can be the difference between normal and knockout, and not everyone is blessed with gorgeous locks.
Sexuality is not on public display in the Emirates, and media such as pictures of underwear models do get censored. The woman in the picture is perfectly censored to the point that her skin is a blob of white; the only untouched parts are her hair and outfit. Pornographic material is not available for purchase in this country, but people do find a way around the internet censors.
Perhaps the deepest effect of Islam on this country is its collective nature. However, there will be more about the importance of the family and community in a later post!
I saw this cute little booger cruising around in the back of a truck in Sharjah, and began swooning over how adorable he is. Then I found out he was about to be eaten.
October 15th was Eid Al Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice. There are two eid celebrations a year, and this one commemorates Prophet Abraham (pbuh), who was willing to sacrifice his son for God. What this means in practice is that everyone buys a new outfit and has gigantic family celebrations. Of course, many adorable animals are sacrificed in the process. In Islam, sacrifice is an act of charity, since the meat of the sacrificed animal is given away to friends, family, and the poor. So although the many animals I saw being driven around that day were about to land on a dinner plate, it was for a good cause.
Another interesting note: In some traditions, sacrifice is interpreted as somehow ‘feeding’ God. This is absolutely not the case in Islam, since God is viewed as an entity free of human desires such as eating and sleeping. Sacrifice is also not an act performed to appease an angry God, but rather a simple act of charity. More information can be found from this Huffington Post article (Article by Mike Ghouse), where the Muslim author gives more information relating to what sacrifice means in Islam.
I didn’t expect the most stressful part of study abroad to be the classes.
To put it in perspective, most students are freshmen during the adjustment period to their new university, so they’re taking introductory-level classes. Study abroad students take upper-level classes, sometimes building on material not yet covered. For example, I took calculus and intro to microeconomics three years ago, and now I’m taking an intermediate microeconomics class that combines both of those subjects, plus material on subsidies and taxes that I never learned. So not only is my knowledge rusty, there’s extra material I have to teach myself.
But the best part of this challenge is knowing I’m getting a solid education. AUS (American University in Sharjah) demands slightly more of its students than my home university (NAU doesn’t require business majors to know calculus); plus, the curriculum was created with help from the American University in Washington, D.C. So with ISEP, I’m paying NAU prices but getting a fancy schmancy education for a year.
As a high school student with pretty high SAT scores, I decided to stay in-state for financial reasons. But, I always wondered what was so different about those prestigious universities that inspired students to hand over $40,000 a year for an undergraduate education. The difference seems to be a mix of small class sizes, plus international professors and higher expectations. It’s easy to stop class to ask a question, none of my professors are from the same country – with all being obviously intelligent! – , and they expect a bit more sweat and tears to get an A.
Back at my home university, constant homework assignments and busy work provided extra padding for grades and immediate feedback to figure out if I understood the material correctly. Here, it’s pretty much study for the quizzes and midterms while hoping you understood the material correctly. However, a huge bonus is that the professors make it much more clear what you’re expected to understand, and there’s less time spent on busy work. Busy work here basically means that the teacher assigns very simple problems as a forced form of studying.
All in all the differences aren’t that large. I am used to getting straight A’s back home, and am worried about not being able to continue that trend during study abroad.
Some tips for classes, based on what you probably didn’t know about AUS:
Teachers will almost always announce assignments in class, making syllabi unnecessary. But, reading it anyways is a good chance to score points: teachers here are sometimes used to students not reading the syllabus. One teacher gave me a high-five in class when I mentioned reading the syllabus, and then congratulated American academic efficacy for a good portion of class.
Invest in school supplies as soon as possible. I took notes in a little pink diary for the first two weeks. Please, don’t do that.
Dude, show up on time. Missing 15% of classes in a single course results in automatically being dropped from that course, and being late counts towards that limit as well.
Impressions impact your grade. One teacher announced to the entire class that we should not worry about our grades, since he can tell who is trying and who isn’t, and he will ‘help’ those who are trying.
Forget about using Amazon for cheap textbooks. High shipping costs means it’s probably cheaper to buy at the bookstore, at the standard, high prices found in America (around $90 per book). However, there’s a second-hand book market, usually selling the edition not actually being used in class. There’s a Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ausbooks/), a super awesome website (http://bookswap.ae/), and a sale for charity in the Student Center. Books from these three sources cost around 10-30 dirhams, or less than $10. If you’re super lucky, students sometimes leave old textbooks in the hallway for free.
Girls, get a pretty purse as your school bag. Girls here all bring purses to class, not messenger bags or backpacks. Some girls even bring Prada to class.
Lastly, figure out why you’re abroad. If it’s for the experience, then realize that you might be getting less than perfect grades, but you’re sacrificing them for the experience of a lifetime! (Yes, I am talking to myself.)
Many students choose well-traveled study abroad destinations in Europe – or none at all! – because of worries about the change in lifestyle. Will I have to dress differently? Can I drink the water? Will I get food sickness? What if I get lost, how will I find my way home if I don’t speak the language?
Natale is a blind exchange student from Argentina. He fought against reluctant advisors for a year in order to come to the UAE for the last semester of his undergraduate education. As an International Affairs major, he loved Arab culture and wanted to experience it first-hand. His mother tongue is Spanish, meaning that all of the classes at his English-language foreign university are in his second language. Plus, he’s in my advanced-beginners’ Arabic class and speaks it better than everyone else – a fact he likes to disagree with. He also likes to say he is not very knowledgeable, but every time there’s a question about global affairs he’s the first to answer. He finds his way around campus with his walking stick, and takes notes in class using a voice recorder.
When his study abroad advisor was reluctant to let him leave, he called up the ISEP headquarters near Washington, D.C., contacted the study abroad office at the American University of Sharjah, and got a professor at his home university to personally support his decision.
Natale is living proof that when there’s a will, there’s a way.
After growing up with horses, I was confused by the idea of cowboy boots and jeans as a fashion statement, since they were meant for a specific way of life. Jeans are low-maintenance and rip-resistant, perfect for getting down and dirty; cowboy boots are designed for safety on a horse’s saddle. These clothes aren’t just something to be put on, they’re a way of life. They weren’t designed to look good; they were designed to get the job done.
Even though I’m not with my horses anymore, I continue to wear jeans out of tradition. Abaya, thobe, and hijab are the Middle Eastern versions of jeans and cowboy boots. Just as some Americans wear jeans and cowboy boots to identify with a certain past – even if they’ve never ridden a horse! – these clothes are also worn out of tradition. However there are still people who wear jeans or abayas for the purposes they were intended for – and of course, there’s people somewhere in-between.
One abaya-clad classmate revealed to me that outside of the university she wears completely Western clothing with no head covering. In the UAE, wearing abaya can be both a status symbol and form of protection, and the girls who wear it for these reasons alone are usually Emiratis. In fact, women who wear abayas with black headscarves are almost always Emiratis, and they’re almost never seen without these clothes. To describe it in one phrase, there’s a culture of “pimp my abaya”. Women spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on abayas full of lace, beads, and trimmings. Other women wearing abaya for non-religious reasons wear it to protect them from gossip. Since Emiratis are only about 20% of the population, everyone knows each other somehow, and rumors can spread like wildfire. Abaya makes it less likely that people will find something to gossip about.
Of course, there is no cut and dry; some women wear abaya purely for reasons of modesty. It has the same effect as a school uniform. When everyone is wearing a black dress, people will judge otherd based on the content of their character instead of their clothes. This encourages equality and focuses attention on what’s in a person’s heart, all of which are goals of Islam.
Continuing on to hijabi girls, the decision to wear a hijab is highly celebrated – comparable to an American deciding he or she wants to go to college. Of course, some women wear hijab for non-religious reasons, but there is less societal pressure on non-Emirati girls to wear hijab. Most hijabis that I have met are extremely passionate about their hijab – just like many girls in abaya! – , and this word also refers to the concept of leading a modest lifestyle.
In general, wearing these clothes for religious purposes entails a different way of life. It marks a greater commitment to Islamic beliefs, and many girls put off wearing these clothes because they’re not yet ready for the transformation that these clothes involve. Hijab and abaya mean living a modest lifestyle, such as avoiding physical relations with guys, not going to parties with alcohol, and treating others kindly. Just as cowboy boots and jeans serve many different purposes, so do hijab and abaya.
Although I currently have no idea why some men wear thobes and others don’t, I hope to find out in the near future!
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.