Tips and advice for living and working in the UAE.
Ask Ali: Men holding hands is a sign of deep friendship
Dear Ali: I just moved from France to work in the UAE. Why do men hold hands in the streets of the UAE? AT, Dubai
Dear AT: In our culture holding hands, especially between men, is a sign of close friendship and brotherhood. But allow me to clarify that it's really not the Emiratis who do it a lot but more of our friends from East Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who live and work in the UAE, and so seeing such a scene in the streets is feasible. A friendship does not get as intimate as a relationship between a married couple. I know that men holding hands together would be a rare occasion in western societies but affection between the opposite sexes, such as kissing and hugging, is quite a common phenomenon. Expressing feelings between the different sexes is a complete different matter for us coming from this part of the world. We perceive the affectionate interactions between men and women as something private and not to be demonstrated in public. This is also one of the reasons why it isn't accepted here the same way it is in Europe. There isn't anything bad about it. Also it's important to highlight that two men holding hands doesn't necessarily mean they're homosexuals. I hope this draws a clear line between what's not OK and what's OK. We just express our feelings differently depending on the given context.
Dear Ali: I'm a Christian teacher at a local Emirati school in the capital. Our school arranges trips for students to visit different places in the country, and they have chosen the Grand Mosque. On a personal level, I simply don't want to enter the mosque nor wear an abaya or a headscarf, but unfortunately it seems as if we are being forced to accompany the students. Don't I have a choice? MS, Abu Dhabi
Dear MS: I totally understand your point of view but if I may explain a few points I hope will help you to accept and embrace this matter in a positive way. Mosques are just like churches, and just like any beautiful and good spiritual venue that welcomes worshippers to conduct their rituals and prayers to their almighty God, we all have to be at our best when it comes to modesty. No one forces you here, but these are respectful guidelines that have been passed to us from centuries ago. Please note this is not unique to Islam but applies to many religions. No one is allowed to enter a church naked, nor wear very tight and provocative clothes, or at least this is what we hope is still the case. You have taken a job in a Muslim country, governed by Muslim leaders, populated by many Muslims, where our laws are based on Sharia and where we accept all faiths and people from around the world. So the least we as Emirati residents, parents and students believe we should get in return is to be taught by teachers who show respect and accept and appreciate our faith. By wearing the abaya in the mosque, it doesn't mean you believe in Islam, but it proves that you as a teacher have a big heart that welcomes and embraces all sorts of differences that you can observe and learn from so you'll be even more ready to share knowledge and enlighten the students you teach every day. I won't try to convince you that your thinking is wrong or offensive, but at the same time I hope you will not refuse to go to the mosque because of the reasons you have shared because it will only reflect negatively on you. Take it easy and smile. I'm sure you will love the experience of visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50