This was our first day of lectures. CIEE has a center at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) and they drew upon the expertise of the professors there to give us additional information about the UAE. Like many institutions in the UAE, the AUS is new, having been founded in 1997. It was built over the next 10 years or so using money from the Sheikh of Sharjah, Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi. He is now weaning the university off his money, forcing them to charge tuition. The campus is beautiful, but there are some “differences” having to do with restrictions on students, which I’ll get to shortly. Here’s the view of campus when you first drive up:
Our first lecture was an introduction to the UAE by Dr. Pia-Kristina Anderson, an anthropologist and archaeologist, who also works in administration. She gave us an overview of the UAE and the AUS, mentioning some of the information I provided in my earlier posts about the UAE.
I asked our guide, Miranda, if we were going to get a chance to chat with students during our visit and she said that it was not on the schedule. However, I really wanted to chat with students, and our first lecturer, Dr. Anderson, knew lots of students because of her responsibilities on campus. When she ran into the current student council president, Luis A. Garcia, who is very charismatic, she asked him if he would be willing to chat with us and he was. They ushered us into the student council room after lunch and let us pester them with questions. Some of the other council members came in and out of the room while we were there, but Luis and an Emirati women (they prefer “lady”) stayed and answered our questions (I believe it was Azza Sayed Sayed). I asked about elections, which is of interest considering the UAE is a dictatorship that holds only perfunctory elections to appease the West for positions with little to no importance. The student council does hold elections. However, Luis noted that the organizations on campus were odd in this regard. The leaders of the respective cultural clubs (e.g., Saudi culture club, Egyptian culture club, etc.) were chosen in ways that reflected the political structure in their respective countries. For instance, in the Saudi culture club the next leader was appointed by the current leader and everyone voted for the appointee. In the Palestinian culture club the campaigns were contentious and vocal, riled with debates, fights, and yelling (Luis suggested that is how things are done in Palestine). Luis also talked about his interactions with the administration. He is very vocal and has pushed to get things done and increase transparency. However, the President of the University is the Sheik of Sharjah and he has ultimate veto power. The day-to-day operations of the university are run by a chancellor who has to answer to the Sheikh, which means he’s pretty conservative as well. Luis’s efforts have alienated him from the Chancellor at times. The students have to ask permission to protest and, if not given, they cannot. I asked the students about dating. Unlike Dubai, where rules for Westerners have grown more lax (you’re not supposed to hold hands or hug in public, but some do and they won’t necessarily get in trouble for it), in Sharjah, they are very strict. It is a dry emirate – no alcohol is allowed. And no public affection is allowed. That holds on campus as well. Boys and girls can only spend time together if they are in public and not touching. The professors said that a “date” consists of a boy and a girl sitting on a bench together talking. Once they said that, I couldn’t help but try to find a couple on a date and take a picture:
Women are not required to wear the hijab or niqab, but many do. There are also rules about modest clothing. No tanktops or shorts above the knees. There are actually “fashion/passion” police who roam the campus looking for violators. Those caught violating the rules of dress and interaction can be fined and if students are fined too frequently they can be kicked out of the university. Emirati ladies often don’t feel comfortable being alone with a male whom they could marry (that’s typically the rule for whether or not the modest dress should be worn; if they are around only males they cannot marry – e.g., brother, father – they do not need to be veiled). Emirati women will often want or require chaperons, even when doing things as innocuous as meeting with a professor. Also, Dr. Anderson noted that Emirati women do dress very nicely, it’s just not observable in public. She attended a wedding where the nicer and less modest clothing was visible. At the wedding, the men and women were in separate rooms. When there were no men around, the women could remove their abayas and hijabs and the women were, according to Dr. Anderson, dressed to the nines in short, very fancy, glitzy designer dresses. Without men around, the women were open and even danced with other women. But occasionally a male would enter the room and the abayat would immediately be donned again and the mood would become more modest and demure. As soon as the men left, it was party time again.
I also asked about religion. The students said they respect and tolerate each others’ religions but they don’t discuss religion. They gave the impression that religion is too sensitive to discuss openly. I also asked about being nonreligious and if that was accepted on campus. Luis interpreted my question as being about Muslims not being observant of their faith. He recounted a story to illustrate. After completing the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, he was invited by some friends to a zone in Saudi Arabia where, apparently, the police aren’t allowed. As he approached one of the homes in that area he heard loud music. When they opened the door, there were “Muslims” drinking, partying, having sex with prostitutes, etc. His take on this was that there are Muslims who do not observe there religion. But he didn’t really address my question as to whether or not there are atheists on campus and how they would be treated.
The students were lots of fun to talk to and provided a lot of insights that I don’t think we would have gleaned otherwise. I’m glad we got a chance to chat with them.
After leaving the students we had another lecture. This one was by Linzi Kemp and was about women in business in the UAE. She had several of her students come in and present about female role models in business, but noted that there aren’t many female role models and women are very under-represented in the business world. Women who are working in business tend to be in “soft” businesses – charities or businesses to help women succeed in business. She couldn’t really point to many highly successful Emirati women. After her lecture I had a chance to speak with her about Emiratis and I mentioned that their behavior seemed odd. I wasn’t sure if Emiratis were elitist or what was going on, but they didn’t seem to even recognize my existence when I passed them on the street. She suggested that, while there is some elitism in that behavior, that it is also a reflection of their culture – Emiratis are very much a relationship based culture. It takes a long time to build a relationship with someone because relationships are the key for negotiating the society. So, when Emiratis avoided looking at me and seemed oblivious to me, she argued that they were been “aloof” but not necessarily snobbish are elitist. They were simply avoiding trying to develop a relationship and recognizing the non-existence of any relationship. That perspective helped me see the Emiratis in a different light. I brought it up to contrast it with the deference and openness I was observing in the menial laborer ex-patriots who, when I passed them on the street, would make I contact but then immediately drop their gaze to reflect inferiority and always called me “Sir.” It was very odd.
After our lecture we went back to the hotel then several of us went to the Mall of the Emirates for dinner at a Persian (Iranian) restaurant. The food was fine, but of more interest was the indoor ski slope, which is attached to the Mall of the Emirates. It’s obviously not huge, but it is a legitimate ski slope – in a building – in a mall! I snapped a few pictures, but will just post one (that required I walk into a restaurant and promptly be kicked out after I snapped the photo):
That pretty much wraps up Day 5.