On some days more than others we are subjected to incidents, reactions or even words that rub us the wrong way. The reasons are many but the ultimate feeling is one. A feeling of shock and utter disturbance that tends to whack you upside the head and knock you off balance. No matter who you are I am sure that you have been whacked once or twice in your lifetime. People reacting to you differently, hesitantly, judgmentally. Reacting because you are on foreign turf, because you are a minority, because you do not belong to the familiar.
The United Arab Emirates is a country that is proud of its multicultural residents, and UAE nationals are known for their ever-welcoming and embracing attitude towards this continuous stream of newcomers. Ironically, the same cannot be said about the attitudes of some of the UAE expatriates.
As a UAE national I speak from personal experience when I say that I have been subjected to endless stares and been the topic of many hushed conversations after stepping into a number of different outlets in the country. And while in other parts of the world expatriates go to great lengths to fit in among the locals, it works quite the other way round in the Emirates. Granted, we Emiratis are a minority in our own land, for numbers rarely tell a lie, but that is by no means a reason for us to be treated as such.
This outnumbering has left many areas and outlets untrodden by the native Emirati and to many of their dwellers such a sighting is a rarity, hence the rubbernecking. When this native discovers a shiny new place and curiously wonders in he is treated as a rare species, at times an unwelcomed one. Once he is noticed, the patrons will size him up and immediately feel restless, his national dress offending them and disturbing their peace. The native immediately feels the prying eyes follow him and senses the gapers’ shoulders tense up in defence. Once he is settled and it becomes obvious that his presence is not the end of their world as they know it, things start to go back to normal, the incident is over, or is it?
For the Emirati it doesn’t quite die out. The agitation lingers through the day. It raises a barrage of questions and brings about an onslaught of reasoning in an effort to make sense of this meaningless subjugation.
Unfortunately, this issue is not constrained to looks and whispers, it has reached as far as affecting establishment rules. Some restaurants in certain Emirates can actually ban Emiratis, wearing their national dress, from entering the vicinity. Now allow me to say that such a matter is just unspeakable. Can you imagine if in Scotland a Scottish man is not allowed into a place for wearing a kilt, a Japanese woman sent packing for wearing a kimono in Japan, or Indians not allowed entrance into a restaurant in India proudly wearing their saris or kurtas? It is just unthinkable, not to mention humiliating.
Laws must be issued prohibiting establishments from enforcing rules like these on the grounds that they are purely discriminatory to both the nationals and the country’s rich tradition. For how can you fight for your rights not to be discriminated against in other parts of the world when you allow for it at home?
Nobody wants to feel like a stranger in his own home, an alien in his world. Shamefully, it is an ever-increasing phenomenon in the UAE experienced by many nationals in every aspect of their lives, be it the workplace, a random eatery or even public parks.
It is truly a sad feeling that I’m left with whenever I am faced with these head-turning, neck-breaking incidents. Once the anger of being discriminated against has subsided it is sadness that I feel. Sadness because we welcome and embrace, we speak in every mother tongue except ours and make every dweller feel at home, yet with every piercing look the price becomes painfully obvious.
We the natives are the aliens dressed in black and white.
This article was published in The Gulf Today on 28 March, 2010