Welcome to the Year of Tolerance – but what exactly does it mean?

One thing I know for sure is that it should be more than a passive act

  The Ministry of Health participates in the National Festival of Tolerance. WAM
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The Year of Zayed is behind us, and we are in the first few days of the Year of Tolerance, so what should we do to live up to the year? The challenge is that, while the objective is really noble and important, tolerance is a rather tricky concept to pin down. 

The word itself doesn’t denote a meaning that inspires direct action (as the Year of Giving did, for ­instance). Instead, it sums up an umbrella of views and philosophies that are both complex and easy to get lost in.

I got a wide range of responses from friends when I asked them what tolerance means to them. My subjects were the group of people gathered in my favourite coffee shop in ­Khalidiyah – a comfortable yet shabby place where you need your fair share of tolerance due to the frequent angry outbursts over lost card games.

"You want to know tolerance, you need to get married," said Ahmed, an Egyptian who works in IT. "It is a tolerance gym where you get your workout every day. For me, it means to just let things slide and take it easy."

Abdullah, a Sudanese office clerk and the most poetic of our lot, describes tolerance in his usual style. "It is sitting in the office and listening to someone you dislike while putting your hands under your chair," he says. "Sometimes it is the only thing that stops me from giving him a big fat kaf! [smack]."

It's time to expand what tolerance means

While the responses were enlightening, they also underscored why we do need a year-long initiative on the topic. It will ultimately allow those of us in this country to explore and understand the many other underappreciated facets of tolerance.

Most people I speak to only view it through the prism of dealing with negative behaviours, and they see tolerance as a passive activity that is all about withstanding something unfavourable.

That was how I was first introduced to the concept, when it was hammered into me during my short stint as a security guard in Australia ­nearly two decades ago. During our month-long training course we learnt skills on how to manage the psychology of the most abusive and belligerent members of the public.

But, the more I grew up, travelled and accumulated experiences, I began to learn that there is more to tolerance than taking a deep breath and counting to 10.

The UAE is a breeding ground for tolerance

I actually have the UAE, and my home city of Abu Dhabi, to thank for that. Over the eight years that I have called the capital home, I have ­unknowingly strengthened and expanded my concept of tolerance. Residing in the UAE, with its eclectic cultural mix and the subsequent varied approaches to work and life, the country is indeed the ultimate tolerance gym, to use my mate Ahmed's term.

Each day we interact with other members of the workforce here, we face a minefield of different viewpoints –  from the cultural to the generational – on how to approach both professional and personal aspects of our lives. Navigating that landscape successfully – through clear communication, maintaining a sanguine personality and holding a healthy dose of patience – is what tolerance is about.

Experiencing art strengthens our tolerance

Another aspect of living in Abu Dhabi which has strengthened my tolerance ­levels is my exposure to international art. Whether it is at the magnificent Louvre Abu Dhabi, the international concerts at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre or the upcoming month-long cultural extravaganza, Abu Dhabi Festival (in March), we are offered some of the best performances and exhibitions from the world, right here on our doorstep.

Each of these illustrate the rich heritage of other nations and, whether having our emotions stirred by the voice of Iraqi maqam singer Farida Mohammad Ali last year at Umm Al Emarat Park, or dancing along joyfully to Ethiopian dance troupe Fendika at NYU Abu Dhabi, it illustrates the humanity and emotions we all share. These are indeed seeds that foster tolerance.

And, of course, we can't forget Ramadan, which will begin in early May this year – a time when tolerance takes on both a physical and spiritual dimension. We tolerate the daily pangs of hunger and ­actively seek out ways to give to ­charity and foster empathy for those who are less fortunate than ­ourselves. This is a tolerance that is more concerned with uniting people than merely accepting who they are.

I hope this year's activities celebrate all the shades of tolerance. As a concept, it may not sound cool or catchy, but it is the bedrock that all dynamic and cosmopolitan nations are built on. I look forward to more daily reminders of that as 2019 unfolds. 

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