Travel Broadens The Mind

view from front door

View from the front door of the villa where we’re staying

I’m on holiday right now in Al Ain, the second city of Abu Dhabi, on the border with Oman. I have travelled in the Middle East before but I’ve never been to the Emirates. It’s a fascinating place, only officially defined as a country in 1971; before that it was populated mainly by nomadic Bedouin tribespeople.

The landscape is desert, arid and very hot – currently around 45 degrees at midday, dropping to 28 or 30 at night. It’s beautiful and deadly: few people could survive for long unaided unless they had learned the necessary skills. But then few people would have to survive unaided, because the people of this country, like most people in the Middle East, have a tremendous ethos of hospitality and care for visitors and strangers.

The culture here is very different from my own. There are three differences which have impressed themselves on my mind as having something to teach me about my professional life. These are they.

First, coffee. Coffee here is enormously symbolic. If you enter someone’s house, they are obliged to offer you coffee; if they don’t, it’s a serious insult. Equally, if you don’t accept the coffee offered by your host, that is a serious insult. However, there is a form of wording you can use to refuse their offer of coffee, which means, ‘We have a problem and we need to talk about it.’ Once that discussion has taken place, you can say you will accept their offer of coffee, which signifies that you regard the problem as resolved.

This made me think about the way coffee has become symbolic in academia. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve “been for a coffee with”, as a euphemism for chatting about anything from our respective projects to a potential or actual collaboration. I love going for coffee with clever, interesting people. And I don’t even drink coffee! Coffee gives me migraines – the antithesis of intelligent thought – but it’s still something I suggest to actual or potential colleagues. ‘Shall we meet for coffee?’ is so much easier to say than ‘Shall we meet for a, er, well, probably peppermint tea in my case, but most people have coffee, and there might be cake, anyway, it would give us time to chat about, er, well, what do you think?’

Second, gender. Abu Dhabi is a thoroughly patriarchal society. I am travelling with my male partner, and staying with our old friend, also male. In restaurants or cafes, they are always served first. In malls, I get funny looks – from women and from men – for walking with two men. I’m not surprised as all adults who are out in public are alone or in same-sex pairs or groups – and they’re mostly male. However, the concept of equality is not completely absent. For example, if a man takes two or more wives, he must treat them all equally, which in practice means building each of them a house that is identical in every respect to his other wives’ houses. So the concept is of equality within, rather than between, the genders. (And yes, I know gender isn’t binary – but they really haven’t caught on to that here, at all.) Part of me minds about this and part of me doesn’t. The first part is the Western feminist, the second part is the part that thinks it’s important to honour and respect different cultures. These two parts argue with each other, the first questioning the merit of honouring and respecting discriminatory cultures, the second standing up for the importance of honouring and respecting other cultures even if their priorities are different from my own. I doubt I will ever reconcile these opposing views within myself. Yet this experience is, I think, useful for my research work because it reflects many of the ethical dilemmas we meet as researchers, where there is more than one way to be ‘right’ and there is no easy answer.

Third, ethnicity. While I am experiencing daily micro-aggressions related to gender, I have not experienced a single one related to my ethnicity. (Yes, I know it’s not always possible to separate the two, so I may be mis-reading this. But I’ve thought about it a lot since I’ve been here, and I’m fairly sure of my ground.) Beyond the gender-related discrimination described above, local people here, and migrant workers, all treat me as a human being who is worthy of respect. Even the men are unfailingly polite and welcoming. I grew up in a society that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity, and I know that affects my interactions with people. UAE society may also discriminate: the migrant workers here from countries such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, India and Pakistan, might tell those stories. But as a white Westerner, I feel safe here in this country of friendly hospitable people.

The UAE is full of Muslims, so many Brits would regard it as highly dangerous. But it is very peaceful. I have walked in streets, and mosques, and malls, and on beaches, populated mostly by Muslim people, and I have never once felt threatened or in danger. I feel safer here than I feel in London, my own capital city. And the UAE is friendly to migrant workers. Indeed, it needs to be: for example, in Dubai, only 15% of the population is indigenous, and most of the other 85% are migrant workers. There is acceptance, here, that non-indigenous people have a place in the social economy: to do the jobs that locals don’t have the skills for, or don’t wish to take on.

This experience makes me feel ashamed of my own country. The UK is depressingly hostile to people of different ethnicities and to economic migrants. Many of us can’t see how much our society could and does benefit from their input, or how much, in fact, we need their support. I have felt this for a long time, but my experience here in Abu Dhabi has reinforced my belief that it is possible for society to work with a much higher proportion of economic and other migrants than we have at present in the UK. This makes me think about how the research I do is culturally constructed. Growing up with the scientific tradition as a backdrop can lead us to conclude that our methods of investigation are neutral – but they’re not, they spring from our culture. We think findings produced by our favoured methods inform our decisions, while in fact these findings may be created, albeit unconsciously, to reinforce our ways of thinking. We need to bring this new understanding into our consciousness and use it to help us move from policy-based evidence (‘migrants and refugees will swamp us’ etc) towards evidence-based policy (‘migrants and refugees can help us economically, though there may be social costs’).

I have long believed that we need to make good decisions based on evidence rather than hearsay or fear, and my experience here in the Gulf has reinforced that belief.

Anyway, the three of us are off to Oman tomorrow, on a road trip for the next few days. So I won’t be around online much this week. I’ve never been to Oman, either. I look forward to having my mind broadened further.

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