Building Connections

After taking a trip down memory lane while looking through my old photos from Dubai, I realized that the most important aspect of my study abroad experience was my personal growth. Because my experience is unique in that it lasted 6 years and happened during high school (a critical time of self-exploration for most people) I truly believe that I would be a different person if I had not gone through the experience of living and studying in Dubai for so long. Moving from the US to Dubai I had to learn to make new friends as I went to four different schools while living there, and once I felt home at my high school I spent four and a half years at, I felt like I had found family instead of just friends. Most of my pictures I found from Dubai were of me, my sister, my best friend Hannah (who also had grown up in the US and was half Arab half American) and her younger sister Nadia.

Me, my friend Hannah and her younger sister, Nadia at Dubai Mall (2009).

Me, my friend Hannah and her younger sister, Nadia at Dubai Mall (2009).

We spent a lot of time together since we had the same “story” and could relate to each other easily, but we did also have friends from Dubai as well as other places all over the world: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, England, and many other places. Since Dubai is such a multicultural city I learned a lot about different cultures, and it was a great experience to see how people coming from such different backgrounds could all live together in one city. Studying in gender separated classrooms gave me the freedom to develop my own identity without worrying about what boys would think of me, although it did become a nuance once I came back to the US and had to fit into schools where girls and guys sat together in every class and knew each other since middle school. I had the chance of learning Arabic which I would not have had if I studied in the US, and I also had the chance to learn more about my religion since I was living in a country where Islam is the predominant religion.

A meme about stereotypes & reality in Dubai. (source)

A meme about stereotypes & reality in Dubai. (source)

I also transitioned from being a “girl” to a “woman”, and with that I shed my glasses and my braces, my title of being the class nerd, and learned to embrace my love for academics as well as fashion without having to worry about what people labeled me as. The girls in my classes (we were 16 in total) became so close with one another, and even our teachers. While my American friends seemed baffled as to why we had picnics with our teachers and even went out to dinner as a class with them outside of school, interpersonal relationships are so important in Arab culture that it is seen as normal to have close relationships with teachers and other authority figures. This is stated in the article we read of Intercultural Competence in the Arab World, which says, “It is hard to overestimate the importance of  personal relations in the Arab world” (Zaharna 183). We had literally been there for each other through the good times and the bad, and we had even figured out a system of hiding our cellphones which had been banned from our school along with makeup, iPods, DVDs/CDs, and other forms of entertainment.

Me (left), my friend & classmate Katy (right) and our english teacher, Miss Rania out at a "class" dinner (2007).

Me (left), my friend & classmate Katy (right) and our english teacher, Miss Rania out at a “class” dinner (2007).

While I didn’t develop a close bond with all the girls, we respected each other and didn’t seem to have catty fights or gossip that some of the other classrooms struggled with. Despite our cultural differences, religious differences, and even personality differences we came to love and care about each other, even though it did involve screaming and tears at times. When I announced to my class that I was leaving Dubai, they secretly met up and bought me a watch and perfume, and got everyone at school to sign a giant card that said “we will miss you”. My friends and most of my class threw me a surprise party at my house, and a few days before I left my supervisor allowed my class to throw me a “party”, where desks and chairs were pushed aside and music, laughter, and tears ensued. Although I sometimes complained to my mom how spoiled the Emirati girls in my class were with their designer purses and multiple iPods to color-coordinate with their outfits, I knew leaving that all the people I met had generous and kind hearts and that they had taught me life lessons without me even knowing.

A class photo while on a field trip, in our uniform (2009).

A class photo while on a field trip, in our uniform (2009).

Going to high school in Dubai kept some of my childhood innocence in me as I was never exposed to all the issues and problems most American high school kids face, yet I grew as I learned to come to terms with my own identity as a Moroccan-3rd generation Italian-American Muslim living in Dubai, where practically the first question someone in Dubai asks when they meet you is, “where are you from?” (من أين أنت؟) meaning, “what is your ethnic background?” This surprised me as not many people ask about your ethnic background in America, and if they ask where are you from, they are usually asking where you live or where you were born. When I first came to Dubai, I would answer America, when asked this question. However this answer didn’t seem to satisfy most people as I did not fit the blonde hair, blue-eyed stereotype they had in their minds of what an American girl would look like. When they would ask “where are you really from?” I would proceed to give them my family’s background story of my father being Moroccan, my mother being Italian-American, and me being born in the US. After hearing my long story, they would usually reply with, “Oh, so you’re Moroccan!” since in Arab culture most people regard their father’s ethnic background to be their prominent identity, yet this frustrated me as I did not define myself as solely a Moroccan, and I did not think, act, or speak like a “native” Moroccan would.

My mother shared my frustrations as she would constantly be asked where she was from since the fact that she was a native English speaker yet looked “Arab” (tan, brown eyes and hair) baffled people. When she would respond American, she would get the same second question as me, yet everyone insisted that she must somehow be Arab instead of Italian-American because she was Muslim. My mother would then have to go on to tell her life story of growing up Catholic and converting to Islam, which got to be frustrating after telling the story one to many times. After a while I learned to get used to the questions, the surprise that came with knowing my background, and their insistence on defining me by my Arab culture. I learned to create my own identity and be content with who I thought I was.

Me & my mom (2008)

Me & my mom (2008)

While in Dubai, I was able to practice my religion without being questioned why I prayed five times a day or why I didn’t eat all afternoon in Ramadan or why I decided to wear a scarf when I was thirteen. Islam is such a big part of Dubai’s structure that malls have prayer rooms and the call to prayer is televised, including the morning prayer at around 5AM. While some people find it strange to have such a strong link between a country’s system and its religion, the article on Intercultural Competence in the Arab World asserts this connectedness as “In Arabic, the word deen [religion] is more holistic and encompassing than faith and refers to “a way of life.”” (Zaharna186).  While I took this for granted at the time, it wasn’t until I came back to America that I realized what a privilege it was not to have to explain myself, but also the importance of realizing why I believe what I believe in, so that I could explain myself to others.  I also learned a lot about other cultures, their traditions, their beliefs, their practices. I experienced generosity, kindness, and a taste of the “Dubai lifestyle” that is raved about in magazines. Overall however I have come to accept both positive and negative experiences I have had in Dubai and through this class I have learned to reflect on what I have learned and taken from my opportunity.

Religious & ethic diversity in Dubai, 2002. (source)

Religious & ethic diversity in Dubai, 2002. (source)

A local church in Dubai. (source)
A local church in Dubai. (source)

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