Bucking tradition, western-style

There is mounting concern that the effects on Emirati teenagers of western pop culture are diluting their respect for long-held traditions.

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FUJAIRAH // It is a typical evening for 16-year-old Khamis al Yamahi as he walks down to the basketball courts in Fujairah City for some break-dancing. Yet his uniform of jeans, T-shirt, baseball cap turned backwards and black Reebok trainers, underlines a deeper message about the radical changes in how a new generation of Emiratis see themselves. "I only wear my kandoora when I can't find my jeans," he says. Like many other teenage boys of this small northern emirate, Khamis and his friends are as comfortable musing in English over the message of the murdered American rap artist Tupac Shakur as they are speaking in Arabic with their parents. "Tupac, man, he has meaning," Khamis says in fluent English that carries an American twang. "Every single word he sings has meaning." Bombarded with MTV music videos and MP3 downloads of their favourite rap artists - Eminem, Lil Wayne, Akon, 50 Cent - they emulate with precision the hip hop slang spoken on American streets. They attend private schools in which English is the language of instruction and where there appears to be less emphasis on Arabic studies. They mingle with foreign friends who have never learned Arabic. By embracing American youth culture, many are defying their parents like no previous generation, dimming hopes that one day they will be the torch-bearers of their ancestors' customs. Khamis is the product of the English-language instruction at Fujairah Private Academy, a majority Arab national institution where he also studies French and Italian. Very little of his classroom pursuits, he says, goes toward learning classical Arabic, or Fushah. "I take Fushah, but we just talk in our local languages in class," he says. Much of his day is spent watching English-language music videos, or hanging out with Emirati and Pakistani and Australian friends at the Ozone internet cafe, playing video games or downloading music onto his MP3 player. But his fondness for American culture does not mean he has totally abandoned that of his parents, he says. You have to choose what feels right. "In America, they go for their dreams, and that's good," Khamis says. "But you have to pick what's good from one culture and another - it's not that one is better than the other." Even though Khamis says his father has an open mind about his western tastes, Khamis is feeling the pressure to conform. When an Emirati turns 18, things change. "Parents give you freedom until you're 18," he says. "Then you have to get a job, you get married, have a family." Yet asked why he wears western clothes, his response is telling: "It feels normal to me to dress like this." Among academics, says Rima Sabban, a UAE sociologist, there is heightened interest in the unique social transformation taking place with Khamis and his fellow teenage Emiratis. "Some people argue that this is a natural part of globalisation and that it's happening everywhere, but, I'm sorry, it's not," Dr Sabban says. The issue has recently begun figuring in national debate. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, organised a conference on national identity in April where prominent national leaders discussed ways of stopping the erosion of traditional culture. Last year was officially deemed the Year of National Identity by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE. And yet, Dr Sabban says, there has been insufficient research into why so many of the country's young people are turning to western culture, especially in relatively isolated and conservative places as Fujairah. There is widespread belief that educational instruction in English and the influence of expatriates play a role. But one certainty, she says, is that the more parents try to instil traditional notions of culture into their offspring, the more their children resist. "The youth are rebelling against this pressure, and families are not prepared to deal with this," she says. Prof Hashem Sarhan, a sociologist at the University of Sharjah, says despite their embrace of western culture, today's Emirati teenagers will probably grow out of it. By adulthood they will have overcome their youthful rebelliousness and prefer assuming a more traditional lifestyle such as wearing the kandura, he says. "For a lot of these guys, the only indication of their UAE identity is their UAE passport. "They don't know which direction to go in, whether they're Muslim, Arab, or something else. This is an issue of identity. But when they turn 20 and 21, they will probably return to their culture." Glimpses of this teenage rebellion can be seen on the Fujairah basketball courts. On a recent Saturday evening, a group of Emirati break-dancers who call themselves the Crip Killers crew - named after a violent street gang that originated in Los Angeles - prepare to face off against local rivals. As the bass of the Shop Boyz rap song Party Like a Rockstar thunders from the subwoofer speakers of a customised Honda Accord, a scrum of other hyped-up teenagers encircles the Crip Killers. Wearing headbands, white trainers and jean shorts, they stare down the rival crew until one slender teenager steps into the circle shimmying his shoulders and performing headstands and front and back flips, the opening salvo in a dance battle. "We want to be like Americans - but we can't," says Ali Abdullah, 18, an Emirati student at a military academy and member of the Crip Killers. "I only dance to hip hop - I love it." A dancer from the opposing crew, Mohammed Hamdan, 17, a former gymnast, steals the show with high-flying back flips. Although kids from all backgrounds take part, there is general agreement in the crowd that the Emirati dancers are best. "They're better than me, man, they're better," Abdullah, 15, an Iraqi, says ruefully after the other dancers race off in their expensive Hummers and sport utility vehicles. As Khamis looks on, a group of teenagers walks by wearing bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with silver dollar bill signs.

"Wearing those kinds of clothes is comfortable for them," Khamis says. "But trust me, when they're 18, they'll go back to wearing kanduras." According to the twentysomething generation of Emirati men, however, something odd is happening to their break-dancing younger brothers. Mohammed Hassan Salem, 26, an employee at Emirates Airline, speaks English at work and only wears blue jeans when riding his Yamaha motocycle. His generation is experiencing something of a cultural re-awakening, with bedouin poetry, known as Nabati, and the al Yulla, the traditional caned dance among Gulf men, becoming increasingly popular. The changes he and his friends say they see among today's teenagers are novel, even deep-seated. For one thing, as teenagers Mr Salem's generation would never have considered holding hip-hop dance competitions. "These guys get this from watching TV, English movies," he says. "We just watch them do all these crazy things, and we laugh." Mr Salem says this generational difference is having an impact on the community. "For some families, this is becoming a big concern," he says. hnaylor@thenational.ae