x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The true meaning of culture

"Culture ... is not monolithic or definable. It is organic, so it is not measured in numbers and sizes and so on."

Ever had some precocious soul tell you there's no "culture" here? It's happened to me countless times since that fateful day I stepped off the plane four years ago. And despite "culture in the UAE" having been my writerly bread-and-butter over those four years, I still hear this ill-placed platitude being bandied around today.

Forget the 30-odd new art galleries that have been set up since then, or the poetry circles, film clubs and three privately owned museums that have risen out of the ground in that time. Ignore the fact that Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi are no longer peripherals on a global art and culture conversation, but active players and go-tos in a wider, regional exchange.

Also forget facts and figures. Because, as I think I've learnt in my time here, culture is not accountancy.

It isn't to be quantified in figures - numbers of museum halls, numbers of art-house cinemas (both of which remain few but steadily appear in other defacto forms). "Culture", in keeping with the original meaning of the word, is something that's cultured over a period of time. It is not monolithic or definable. It is organic, so it is not measured in numbers and sizes and so on.

Yet because accepted, boxed-up definitions of culture don't necessarily trumpet themselves across the streets here, a lazy line of thinking says that it doesn't exist. Galleries are tucked away in financial districts, industrial quarters and in the ramparts of mega malls. Poets meet in sports bars. Anonymous warehouse façades belie the cinephiles and experimental harpists inside.

Culture, like the urge to find culture, is built on hunger - people hungry for something to mitigate the drudgery of their day-to-day, to express themselves, or simply to do what they like to do. Culture is not just entombed in museums.

In four years of writing about culture here, I've found that the country is awash with these hungry people; from the Emirati photographer I interviewed recently who has developed a passion for antiquated cameras, to the South African falcon-master who learnt his trade by keeping birds off corn fields outside of Cape Town.

Art fairs double as forums, warehouses host film nights and lectures by visiting anthropologists. Fish market porters meet weekly for traditional wrestling on the waterfront of Dubai Creek, and I'm still amazed by the number of hardworking folk who give up weekends and evenings to invite the general public into their workplace to watch a bunch of old films, or talk ideas and drink tea - usually without charge.

Simply put, the against-all-odds desire of people to keep themselves entertained abides. And that urge, for me, is culture.

So as the winter blows back in, the next time that it feels as if "there's nothing to do here", have a dig around and see what's going on. Granted, it might not be in some cavernous temple of "culture". But something will be happening, whether you're there or not.

And the next time someone in a smoky club dares naysay the lack of this and that in the UAE, I will think: "Well, they don't know the meaning of the word 'culture'."

Christopher Lord covers visual arts for The National's Arts&Life section.