In November 2012, my wife and I were enjoying a holiday in China, and no tour there would be complete without a boat ride on the Huangpu River in Shanghai. It was freezing and I had my woollen ghutra to keep my head and ears warm – I wrapped it around my head, as we so often do when we are in the UAE.
Another tourist had come up to the boat’s top deck and we nodded to each other, acknowledging our shared insanity to stand in the cold. He looked awfully familiar and I initially thought we must have worked together at some point. As we exchanged pleasantries, I was impressed that he recognised my ghutra as being from the lower Gulf. He had been in the UAE just two months earlier and, full of pride, I asked him what he thought of my country.
Like so many tourists, and more annoyingly, residents, he said that he was very impressed with the wonderful buildings and development, but was left somewhat empty because he couldn’t see anything of the indigenous culture or history.
I took a breath and tried to explain to him that by the very nature of the indigenous people of the lower Gulf, there would be very little, or nothing, of our culture or history that would be visible. The nature of the Bedouin is to travel with as few possessions as they could possibly carry. Anything that wasn’t useful for survival was an unnecessary burden and had no place in their belongings. Our culture isn’t to be seen in buildings or items of art. We didn’t have museums, opera houses, government buildings or palaces. Our culture is to be found in our oral traditions, values, language, poetry and the history that has been handed down from generation to generation.
Nothing smacks of arrogance or condescension more than measuring culture using one’s own culture as the gauge. Tourists will sometimes pass judgement on what they perceive to be the lack of culture in the Arabian Gulf because they can’t see buildings that are more than 100 years old.
They often won’t bother to do the most basic research to realise that most houses in the region were made of palm-tree fronds, and until my father’s generation, everybody lived in houses that would disappear as easily as they would be put together. They might bemoan a lack of music houses, without spending an evening watching Arabs listening to poetry with tears in their eyes whenever they hear a poet elevating language to an art form.
Like all echo chambers, the impression that it’s a lovely country, but sadly there isn’t much culture is repeated at cocktail parties, where expats try to convince themselves that their presence in the Gulf is a huge personal sacrifice, and that for all the wonderful advantages of living here, they carry their cross stoically.
I think back to Shanghai, and the top deck of the tour boat on the Huangpu River. The gentleman in question and I were joined by his daughter, and our conversation turned to politics. He sounded far too passionate about the subject for it to be a passing interest. It was at that point that I understood why he had looked familiar. I suddenly stopped mid-conversation, and realised that he was once a senior cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s government in the United Kingdom who lost his seat in 2010.
The fact that he had been a leading voice in the argument to invade, occupy and destroy Iraq was painful to accept. It was apt that we were in China, because I was tempted to share one of my favourite quotes by Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Ammar Shams has a degree in economics and postgraduate degree in law, with a focus in Islamic law. Follow him on Twitter at @hawkeyeuae.
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