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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

The power of Arabic as a cure for homesickness

If you are in the market for a new year's resolution, then 'study Arabic for an hour each week' is a great one, writes Justin Thomas

Bahrain, pictured in contemporary times, was the scene of a particularly fascinating essay on expat life in the 1980s. Getty Images
Bahrain, pictured in contemporary times, was the scene of a particularly fascinating essay on expat life in the 1980s. Getty Images

In Aristotle’s Poetics, a work discussing dramatic theory, we read that the essential ingredient in any great story, tragedy or comedy, is the element of reversal. It is this idea of reversal, regarding economic fortunes, that makes the UAE’s story so infinitely repeatable. From From Rags to Riches; From Pearls to Oil; Sand to Silicon: this idea of transformation and reversal is undoubtedly reflected in many of the book titles focusing on the UAE

Trumpeting progress, or lamenting loss, the principal theme of the UAE’s story is "change": transforming lifestyles, evolving landscapes and the shifting values of the Emirati population. But what of the expatriates who come to live and work in the UAE? How have their lifestyles, attitudes and values changed over the decades?

Concerning British expatriates, we can get a glimpse of how things might have changed by reading about life in the Arabian Gulf when the first significant wave of British expatriates started to arrive. An essay by the celebrated author, anthropologist and founder of the Institute for Cultural Research, Idries Shah, paints a vivid picture of British expatriate life from back in the day. The essay describes the British expatriate community of Bahrain in the early 1980s. I read this piece eager to discover how much this description would connect with my own experience as a British expatriate in the UAE almost 40 years later.

The essay describes Bahrain’s British expats as being overly cynical about their homeland. This particular group of expats describe Britain as lacking in opportunity, and as being in a state of terminal economic decline and social deterioration. This depiction brought recent conversations about Brexit to my mind.

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However, in spite of all the bellyaching about Britain, the 1980s expats were described as also displaying a fanatical desire to cling to and recreate every detail of their homeland. Shah recounts how the Britons of 1980s Bahrain imported British foodstuffs and immersed themselves in the local press, radio and TV, all written, produced and performed by Britons for English-speakers.

At the heart of the 1980s expat community of Bahrain was the British Club. This recreational venue was built on the foundations of an earlier British military establishment. The club is described as an attempt to faithfully recreate the great British pub, complete with authentic Sunday lunch, faithfully served each weekend. While attempting to recapture the British Sunday lunch, on a Bahraini Saturday, the conversation of the club’s regulars, is described as primarily centring on the job prospects back home.

Shah’s lasting anthropological impression of this community was one of listlessness and dissatisfaction. A situation, he proposes, that might be remedied by more significant attempts to understand and adapt to the local culture and lifestyle. Finding a Briton, he reports, with even a handful of Arabic words was a particularly difficult task. Arabic of course, is the key to a deeper understanding of Gulf Arab culture and perhaps opens doors to more meaningful connections with the local population.

Some of the descriptions of the 1980s expats still ring true to my ears. Finding Western expats who can go beyond shukran and marhaba is still fairly challenging. Some of us spend decades in Arabian Gulf nations and don’t even know how to say goodbye in Arabic when we leave. That said, I do think that today’s expats are making more considerable efforts to learn Arabic (a particularly difficult language for English-speakers). If you are in the market for a new year's resolution, then “study Arabic for one-hour each week” is a great one.

The British expat community has not witnessed massive changes in the past 40 years; there have been none of the rapid reversals that make for a particularly dramatic story. However, the impact of “the reversal” lies in its unexpectedness. Who knows what fate awaits the Gulf’s expat communities over the next 40 years?

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University