x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

It pays to make the effort to bridge the cultural divide

Emiratis and expatriates live side by side but all too infrequently get to know each other well. Asmaa Al Hameli meets some who have bridged the gap and hears their suggestions

Football fans wave in Al Ain. Pawan Singh / The National
Football fans wave in Al Ain. Pawan Singh / The National

Crossing the cultural barrier is hard, no matter what side you find yourself on.

More expatriates spend their time here without ever getting to know the local population, while many Emiratis have little knowledge of the lives of the many foreigners who live among them.

The most recent survey on expat life by HSBC bank underlines the issue of integration.

The UAE came 32nd out of 37 countries surveyed for integration within the community, 30th for making local friends and 27th for learning the local language.

But there are success stories, and in those friendships lessons on how to improve communication in the future.

Hessa Al Jarwan, an Emirati, and Rida Faisal, from Pakistan, went to the same private school in Sharjah and have been friends for six years. Emirati classmates were rare at the school, which made it easier for Hessa to mix with non-Arabs.

“When I was in Grade 4, it was difficult to blend and play with other groups,” says Hessa, now 19. “Some of my teachers often gave us talks about non-Arab companions of the Prophet, who were from Persia, Africa and other countries.”

As time passed, Hessa mingled more with non-Arabs and learnt to accept the differences. For her, education was also a platform to bridge communities, allowing people to appreciate their differences but also discover their similarities.

Hessa was invited to attend Rida’s pre-wedding party held here. It was her first non-Emirati wedding.

“I had the chance to see a Pakistani occasion,” she says. “The clothes and amazing jewellery struck me as they looked similar to old Emirati ornaments.”

Hessa and Rida now study at the American University of Sharjah. They found common ground first, then worked their way up. They share similar reading interests, discuss contemporary issues and recommend TV series and films to each other.

Rida, 20, says it was not difficult for her to make Arab friends, as she believes communication is a two-way street.

“How will you live your entire life believing that such-and-such group is not approachable when you haven’t given it a try yourself?” she asks.

For expatriates, an important step in gaining better understanding of the local culture can be to learn the language. But finding someone who is qualified to teach the local Arabic dialect is not easy.

Hanan Al Fardan has been teaching Emirati Arabic for three years. A local woman, she is behind the new Al Ramsa Institute, the only organisation dedicated to the Emirati dialect.

The institute is in the final stages of setting up and plans to open in April, with courses to be taught by Emirati teachers using materials developed by nationals.

Ms Al Fardan hopes non-Arabic speaking expatriates will be among her students.

“The smallest efforts by foreigners to learn the language will give them a great appreciation,” she says.

With Emirati colleagues Abdullah Al Kaabi and Abdullah Abdulrahman, she has developed the first comprehensive phrase book that offers more than 1,500 Emirati words.

It introduces learners to useful words and phrases for day-to-day interactions in various settings, and has a curriculum based on local culture and context.

“Many Arabic-language programs focus on reading and writing skills, with less attention given to the speaking skill,” says Ms Al Fardan, 27. “Most modern standard Arabic programmes are irrelevant because no one speaks it.”

She estimates she has taught more than 120 different nationalities over the years.

“Many students have told me that I was the first Emirati they ever met, though some of them have been here for years,” Ms Al Fardan says.

Her classes are a way of breaking down barriers as well as picking up language skills. Students frequently bombard her with questions.

“They ask about how we live, what we eat, how we get married, are we allowed to fall in love, or are we forced to wear the abaya,” she says.

This curiosity about other cultures works both ways. Only when Mrs Al Fardan started teaching, at the Eton Institute in Knowledge Village in Dubai, did she get the opportunity to mingle with non-Emiratis and make new friends.

Now, whenever she has a family wedding she makes sure to invite some of her students.

“My students kept asking me many questions about the wedding,” she says. “They were fascinated about all the details.”

Several of her students are doctors, bankers and businessmen. Doctors want to communicate betters with Arab patients, while bankers want to learn it to attract more Emirati clients, Ms Al Fardan says. Others hope to broaden their minds and open up new possibilities to network with more people.

“I believe the language is one of the major barriers. My main goal is to further the understanding of the Arabic language and culture.”

The team at the Al Ramsa Institute aims to give people a thorough and accurate understanding of the local culture, as seen through the eyes and ears of Emiratis.

The lack of language skills underlines the often poor integration between local people and expatriates.

A survey of expatriate life conducted by HSBC in 2012 found that the country ranked 26th out of 31 countries when it came to learning the local language and 29th in terms of socialising with the Emirati community.

Many, despite spending a long time here, still knew very little about the country or its people.

Joanne Seymour is better placed than most to understand this. She arrived from the UK in 2007 fluent in Arabic and with many Arab and Muslim friends.

She worked for the British Council in Dubai, mostly helping Emirati students who were going to the UK to study.

The cultural exchange began for Ms Seymour, 34, when she explained British life to the students, but found that it worked in both directions.

“I am lucky to be surrounded by colleagues and friends who teach me everything I want to know, from Emirati slang to how to make the best karak tea,” she says.

As a non-Muslim, Ms Seymour also had many questions about Islam and how it was practised. Her friends and colleagues have been her best teachers, she says, but she also praises institutions such as the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai for its work in bridging the gap between the East and West.

“You can go in and ask any questions in a welcoming environment,” she says.

Ms Seymour likes to quote the late South African anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

“A way of having a healthy conversation between different nationalities is to learn their language, even if you don’t become fluent,” she says.

Ms Seymour says that when she addresses people in their own language she gets a much warmer welcome.

“We all know the stereotype about English speakers not learning other languages. Use that to your advantage to be even more memorable,” she says.

“If you are English, talk about the weather. Take the chance to introduce yourself and say hi. Starting your conversation with a marhaba [a greeting that can be used all the time] or hella [Hello], and the whole tone of the conversation changes.”

Mohammed Haneef, from India, is an assistant accountant at the Department of Finance.

He says he does not have any close Emirati friends but “I am not bothered by that because everyone treats me well in my company. That is enough”.

Mr Haneef has lived here for 27 years and advises expatriates to show respect for the local culture.

In his experience Emiratis, like any other people, are not difficult to deal with as long as you approach them with the right attitude.


• For more information about Al Ramsa Institute for Emirati dialect and culture, contact alramsauae@gmail.com

•Follow @GoArabic on Twitter to learn some Emirati phrases