Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

A new generation of Emiratis speak out about mixed parentage

Three filmmakers, all of them the children of mixed Emirati marriages, have documented their experiences and the discrimination they have had to deal with. But all can see things are changing for the better. Anna Zacharias reports
ABU DHABI // Khor Fakkan filmmaker Aisha Al Hammadi is part of a new generation speaking out about one of the country's last taboos: being the child of an Emirati father and foreign mother.

Al Hammadi, whose film Enough is Enough is scheduled to be shown at the Gulf Film Festival next week, and other social activists are publicly challenging this stigma.

They hope Emiratis who grew up bullied or ashamed of their mothers' foreign roots will see that they are not alone.

Their family stories are as Emirati as any other, she and other filmmakers say. Al Hammadi was one of three filmmakers this year to address the issue.

An Emirati with an American mother, Al Hammadi picked up a camera in frustration last year at the age of 22 and started to record the experiences of the women at her college with foreign mothers.

"People are breaking out, they're breaking their silence," she says. "Will they accept us eventually? I can never please anyone.

"I take off my shayla, I'm Russian. I wear my shayla, I'm Egyptian. What do you want from me? I get a tan, I got burnt. I give up."

Al Hammadi produced the film with Sara Al Naqbi, who was often teased as a child for being a foreigner as she has a fair complexion and light eyes, even though both of her parents are Emirati.

"Every time we go in the mall, they say: 'Look at the them, they try so hard to be Emirati'," says Al Naqbi. "And we say: 'Well, we are Emirati'."

Al Hammadi laughs. "They make me feel like I'm a pathological liar."

A shy and quiet girl in high school, the filmmaker embraces the identities of both of her parents.

"I think in some ways it has become more acceptable," says Al Hammadi.

"The reason I decided to come out is because I noticed a lot of people who made a big difference in the UAE, a lot of them had non-Emirati mothers. They're more creative and they do stand out."

Around the time that Al Hammadi was filming in Fujairah, the filmmaker Amal Al Agroobi was working on her own documentary, Half Emirati.

Al Agroobi joined the "Half Emirati" Facebook group, which has connected many people who have faced discrimination through childhood and into their adult lives.

Social-media sites have created a conversation where mixed parentage can become shared and celebrated, she says.

"I think that the power of social media and media as a whole is enormous," Al Agroobi says. "The number one thing that it offers is the ability for people to relate."

Even so, many people she hoped would take part in her project pulled out at the last minute.

"Suddenly they decided that it was no longer cool to be half Emirati and they didn't want to expose that part of themselves or that part of their lives," she says.

Al Agroobi, whose mother is Syrian, was raised abroad. When she returned to the UAE three years ago, officials directed her to the foreigner queue at the airport.

Colleagues referred to her as a "daughter of Europe".

"From women I get the whole: 'Oh I'm sure you're half Emirati, so I'm sure you're allowed to do things we're not'," she says. "I always get: 'oh, you can go to the movies,' or 'you can go to the malls'.

"Suddenly, because I'm half that falls on me. Suddenly, every kind of mistake that you make in society is because of your mother's nationality."

Al Agroobi uses the term "half" or "halfie" to celebrate her identity. Yet she believes that acceptance is increasing.

When her film was shown at the Dubai Film Festival, the reaction was tears, shock and anger. It was short-listed for the festival's Muhr Award last year.

One year earlier, Marwan Al Hammadi wrote and directed the short film Saeed.

It shows a man who visits the hospital with his Asian mother, only to dismiss her as the housemaid when he meets a friend.

Al Agroobi, a neurologist turned filmmaker who speaks six languages, now sees her primary role as an ambassador.

"I don't think being Emirati means you have the passport," she says. "I don't think Emirati means I can speak Arabic in a Khaleeji accent.

"I think those are all maybe parts of it but I think what Emirati means [is] you would live and fight for this land, you would contribute to society, this society, in a positive way and ultimately, you know, sacrifice your life for the land in which you inhabit."