A few months ago I left behind a country that opens its heart and arms to many different peoples and cultures from around the world. Canada is indeed a land that welcomes, and most importantly, celebrates diversity. After a short while in the UAE, I have discovered that this is also a country that can boast of cradling peoples of varied origins, but in a much different way.
Canada's effort to preserve cultural differences is sincere but at the end of the day assimilation is encouraged and there is an expectation that western civilisation will ultimately be embraced. An immigrant to Canada is asked to make a commitment to secularism, gender equality, and respect for the majority.
It is far different for the non-native residents of the UAE. They do not abide by any uniform code of living whether in terms of their dress or their values. There is very little effort or expectation that residents will attempt to assimilate or adopt local customs.
Yet, despite the immense diversity in cultures and ideologies, there exists an exceptional level of tolerance, leading to a harmonious and quiet coexistence. But this approach raises some intriguing questions: do people from different cultures have a means to communicate their differences or do they have a desire to share them? Is an Emirati interested in learning about a South African's culture? Is a Norwegian interested in an Emirati's? Would two people from such different communities have dinner just for the sake of learning about each others' homelands or musical traditions? In Canada, the answers to these kinds of questions are probably "yes" more often than not.
Teaching English to a group of students at local women's College, I have discovered how many students desire to learn a new language, but have less interest in learning about the larger culture of which it is a part.
One of my classes is comprised of Emiratis employed by a company where English plays an important role. During our last class, I chose a song in English and asked my students to listen to it and examine its words. "But I don't listen to English songs. We just can't understand them," one of my students explained. I still continued to play "I will remember you" by Sarah McLachlan. Incidently, the Canadian singer is performing in Abu Dhabi next month but I was surprised that no one in my class had heard of her.
After the song was finished, I was touched when the same student who initially resisted listening to it told me: "I love the song and its meaning." Yet I ask, will the song teach her anything about Canada or its customs? Will it pique her interest?
My maid, who is of Ethiopian origin, has taught me another lesson about the nature of assimilation in this country. Despite the fact that she has lived in the Emirates for three years, her English and Arabic vocabularies consist of no more than 50 words.
Watching her while she took a break from her daily chores helped me to understand why. As she sat down to watch a DVD of one of her church meetings in Abu Dhabi, I found myself mesmerised by a world that I did not know existed, yet one that happened to be less than 30 kilometres from my home.
The DVD showed a room full of Ethiopians singing hymns with passionate conviction. Only Ethiopians were present. As I watched, I understood why she would not need to learn more than her 50 words of English and Arabic while living in Abu Dhabi.
Would I have ever known about her cultural meetings except by mere coincidence? Here, I truly believe that the answer to my question is "no".
Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet once wrote: I live in the hearts of all people so you can take away my passport.
The UAE is a country that is home to so many different peoples that if we desire it, this is a place where we can set our hearts free from the boundaries of cultural identities.
Ghada Alatrash Janbey is a teacher at a women's college in Abu Dhabi who recently emigrated to the UAE from Canada