Straight talking

Feature Tala al Ramahi meets the women whose living-room chats have grown into a diverse organisation for intercultural interaction.

The founding members of POAG (clockwise from left) Esther Tang, Aysha al Hashimi, Aida al Busaidi and Adela Acevedo.
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Tala al Ramahi meets the women whose living-room chats have grown into a diverse organisation for intercultural interaction. When Esther Tang and Adela Acevedo arrived in Dubai, they wanted to develop a more nuanced understanding of the culture, customs and laws in their newly adopted country. So they decided to talk about it. What started out as a small discussion group in their living rooms and the local Starbucks has turned into a diverse public forum on the pressing issues of the day: human trafficking, expat integration and the economic crisis.

"These discussions were meant for us to talk about a lot of things that we normally would have, but it seemed that it was harder to talk about them here," says Tang, 27, an American of Chinese heritage who works at an investment company in Dubai. She arrived here in 2007, after completing her MBA in England. The group started out a year ago with about 12 members, mostly American newcomers, but the members felt there was something missing from their conversations. "We couldn't talk about Dubai or the UAE without having its people present and contributing," explains Acevedo, 29, a Puerto Rican who graduated from Harvard University. She arrived in the UAE from The Hague almost 18 months ago and works for the Executive Council.

To broaden their perspectives, they invited two Emirati women into their circle: Aida al Busaidi and Aysha al Hashimi, two childhood friends. Al Busaidi, 26, studied journalism at Arkansas State University while al Hashimi, 24, completed her master's degree in international business in the UK. Al Busaidi, a work colleague of Tang's, is as outspoken as her founding friends. On top of co-hosting Her Say, an English talk show on Dubai One, she is the vice president of internal communications at a Dubai-based company and is setting up her own media consulting business.

Al Hashimi, while more softly spoken than the three other women, is as ambitious in her future pursuits: she is launching a fashion and culture magazine and website in September. Originally, Tang and Acevedo called their group Crossroads of Consequence. "Everyone is at a crossroads here, and either you let it pass you by or you consciously decide to make your stay meaningful and consequential," says Tang.

With the addition of al Busaidi and al Hashimi, they changed the name to reflect their diversity: it's now called Promise Of A Generation, or POAG. "This is when the job of Crossroads and POAG really blends," says Aceveda. She speaks eight languages and is currently adding Arabic to her repertoire. "Half of us are here for life, and the other half of us are here on a temporary basis. It is up to us to make this an opportunity."

They hope that those who do eventually leave for their next destination take with them the spirit of engagement. While the name changed, the group kept its premise the same: fostering intercultural interaction to improve the members' understanding of their world. "We're not here to criticise the outside world, but to better understand ourselves and the way we think about this world," says Tang. She is interested in pursuing foreign policy in Washington after her stint in the region and wanted to ensure that her judgements of the Middle East came from a genuine understanding of the place.

Promise Of A Generation was launched with a cultural breakfast at the Bastakiya in April, where almost 20 people attended. They aim to organise an event every two to three weeks. They often invite experts to better explain the country's official standing on each topic, such as bringing in an Abu Dhabi-based colonel to explain what is being done to combat human trafficking. By their fifth session, a talk on marriage on June 13 that was preceded by a screening of Mr And Mrs Right: Dubai Style, a short documentary directed by two Emirati students from Dubai Women's College, the number of attendees had quadrupled, to about 85 people. The session, which was held at the Dubai Community Theatre And Arts Centre at Mall of the Emirates, began with a disclaimer from the group: "The issues we discuss here should not necessarily be blasted out in public or be gossiped about."

At the marriage dialogue session, al Busaidi stressed to those who arrived that POAG is not affiliated with any government or corporate entity, a message they make sure they convey before every POAG forum. "Initially, some people were hesitant to say what they really wanted to say, but then they realise we are not affiliated with any government or private institutions, and this has worked for our benefit," she says. "When they realise that, they start opening up."

And that they did. A panel of married, single and divorced Dubai residents - three Emiratis and a Palestinian American - opened up about marriage: the gratification of being in love before tying the knot, the travails of divorce in the region and the difficulty of meeting a partner in a "segregated" society. Hassan al Hashemi, a panellist, explained how he met his wife while he was working in London and she was studying. "I was a lucky man to have that chance to be in love with the person before getting married, so I don't know the other option. In my case it definitely helped."

The non-panel members were just as frank in their disclosures. Moadh, a 23-year-old Emirati man with divorced parents, said he felt that arranged marriage was "ridiculous". "If you're going to spend the rest of your life with someone, there is a lot of risk involved with compatibility and so, if I am going to let someone else decide my life partner, then that is a huge gamble," he added. The group has had to experiment with new set-ups for their discussions so that they can keep the intimacy of the living-room style conversations alive. At an earlier event on May 9, they discussed Dubai's international reputation, after a flurry of anti-Dubai articles was published in the American and British press. The members were seated in a circle, and some of those who participated felt they were " too exposed".

At the Dubai Community Theatre And Arts Centre, however, a theatre-style venue, others said they preferred a more "intimate atmosphere where people are facing each other". Nevertheless, it seems that the recipe is working, and people are genuinely interested in engaging with different cultures. At the group's fifth session, there were Emiratis, Arabs, Indians, Filipinos, Mexicans and Americans. They all made contributions, asked questions and respectfully listened to the different views expressed. Everyone there had taken two hours out of their weekend for no other reason than to interact with and understand the diverse world around them.

Because the group is not affiliated with an official organisation, the women rely on goodwill gestures from members of the community for the day-to-day running of their activities; people who have attended their sessions or who have heard about POAG offer to help with everything, including providing venue locations, designing the group's logo, and soon, its website. Despite their non-affiliation with any official body, al Busaidi says they are careful "not to step on any toes".

"We want to be a complement to whatever is out there in government institution programmes. We don't want to counter the positive work that is going on," adds Aceveda. "As long as it is conducted in a respectful and productive way, it can only help the already existing organisations in this country," Tang says. "Maybe they have areas to improve, and that's true of us too." The women have toyed with the idea of drafting open letters after some of their sessions that will include public policy recommendations, but despite their professional achievements and personal aspirations, they still maintain a genuine aura of modesty. "We don't want to seem that we are the experts because we are not," says Tang. "All we know is that we really care."

While they have not issued an open letter yet, their thoughts disperse in other ways. Members continue the conversations on their blogs and Twitter pages, and in one case, through a column written by Sultan Al Qassimi, a columnist for The National who mediated their discussion session on Dubai's reputation. "An idea is just an idea if you keep it in your head," al Busaidi points out. They hope people are inspired to translate some of the ideas discussed into something more concrete. "We like to think we are a marketplace for ideas," Tang says.

"We are also a platform for this wonderful mixing and integration to happen," adds al Busaidi. The women say their name was inspired by the US President Barack Obama's win and his ability to bring renewed hope to an increasingly disconnected world. And so it seems: these four women are the promise of this country's new generation, proving that we can not only learn from our diversity, but also be more enriched by it.

To keep up to date with POAG events, join its Facebook page: Promise Of A Generation.