40e31246cad78210VgnVCM200000e66411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q2I so want to be an integrated expat … what can I do?30e31246cad78210VgnVCM200000e66411ac____I so want to be an integrated expat … what can I do?Standing in a circle of onlookers, I watch with joy a group of dancers whom I secretly claim as my own. This group of boys, tossing their rifles into the air, bobbing their heads to the rhythm of the nasheed, claiming Sheikh Zayed as the father of our nation - yes, my nation, the Emirates.<p>Standing in a circle of onlookers, I watch with joy a group of dancers whom I secretly claim as my own. This group of boys, tossing their rifles into the air, bobbing their heads to the rhythm of the nasheed, claiming Sheikh Zayed as the father of our nation - yes, my nation, the Emirates.
I know it's just a wish, a fantasy, maybe even a secret hope. Not that I want to be Emirati, but to call the place I love home, for real and once and for all. Isn't that what is expected of us expatriates - to finally make the leap and get involved? I am not sure that's what those who claim expats are not integrated want at all.</p>
<p>There has been a lot of talk about expatriates immersing themselves in local culture. Well, if that means learning Malayalam, Hindi and Urdu, and eating dosas, idlis and biryani (which by the way is Arab food, according to Indians), then I have some way to go. And if it means going to the salon in high heels and a 10,000-dirham abaya, well, as my husband says: "In the next world."
When some see their culture change and feel the pangs of social death upon them, I really understand: I do my best to be part of the UAE, within my limits. Being a Muslim should count for at least 10 per cent integration. Having an Islamic name, that should be another 10 per cent. Struggling to go the masjid and learn the Quran for the past six years and finally finishing Juz Amma should add 50 per cent, because I am the only non-Arab who has been there consistently. So I should be 70 per cent integrated, right? Nope.</p>
<p>While I can distinguish between the various Arabic accents I find it hard to decipher the Emirati one. I guess this is because I learnt Misri, the Egyptian dialect, first. My children learned Shami, or Levant (the dialect of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine), then Khaleeji, then Misri, so they can speak to almost anyone. This is because I have pushed them into every opportunity to learn Arabic. And no, I am not married to an Arab. No, I do not descend from Arabs. I have just taken it upon myself to learn and speak crazy Arabic to anyone who would listen, and made them all teach me.</p>
<p>So I still can't truthfully say that I am integrated into Emirati culture. And I have to ask, where is it? Is it in the malls, walking around the shops, cafes, and restaurants? It might be on TV, but I don't have one. I am sure many Emiratis would say: "Shopping is not our culture." Then what is?
If you listen to the radio, as I do, you might conclude that a basic element of Emirati culture is Islam. As the country develops and integrates with the rest of the world, some fear that Islam is falling by the wayside. But in the UAE it's the one rope that can bind nationals and expats together and not to the exclusion of non-Muslims. In the name of multiculturalism and diversity, however, many have decided to hide their culture in the sock drawer.</p>
<p>Some blame the Emiratis for not being open, not helping to build relationships with expatriates and helping them to know the essence of goodness that is Muslim hospitality. And Emiratis are not the only Muslims in the UAE. The variety of Muslims here is as vast as the distance from Copenhagen to Capetown or Los Angeles to Laos, so there are lots of opportunities to find out what Islam is - although many Muslims are shy, feeling that it is somehow taboo to discuss Islam with non-Muslims even when they ask.</p>
<p>Al Arabiyya Lughati (My Language is Arabic) textbooks published in 2000-2001 show the Emirati culture that many longing for: families at the park with children playing, grandchildren bring gifts to their grandparents, a child kissing his mother's hand out of respect. This is Emirati culture, but just one part of it. Although the new 2008-2009 version is filled with characters who look like refugees from SpaceToon, these are still the best parts of Emirati culture. But are we teaching them in school? Not as much as we should. Many of the books do promote respect for parents, but they don't go far enough. Perhaps there should be permanent public service announcements for young people, like: "Did you call your mother and father today?" Or bring Emirati grannies and grandpas into schools to tell their stories.</p>
<p>If expatriates are to integrate into UAE culture, first there has to be a clear definition of what that means. Next, there have to be ample opportunities to do it, such as setting up neighbourhood centres where people could come and learn about Emirati culture, by watching films and live performances by cultural groups.
Events such as this were once available at Qanat al Qasba, the cultural centre in Sharjah, but not so much any more. I remember a few years ago there were Emirati films, art exhibitions, concerts and lectures. I went to one showing. It was fabulous. It showcased many films from the Muslim world, including two - Jawhara and An Ordinary Day from the Emirati filmmaker Yousef Ibrahim, who brought us the first full-length Emirati feature film, Al Hilm (The Dream) in 2005, showing that he was a master of the craft. I've been hoping they would have another local film festival like this, but nothing so far.</p>
<p>These films taught me a lot about Emirati life, thoughts, feelings and ways of doing things. I also lost some myths and fallacies, and felt closer to the mysterious strangers who float around me as I travel along the streets, roads, highways, shopping malls and sandy alleys of the UAE. It made me feel a little more part of the world around me. I know for sure that I am not fully integrated, but I guess I'll keep on trying.</p>
<p><i>Maryam Ismail is a sociologist who divides her time between the US and the UAE</i></p>