RANA AL MUTAWA
On the question of monolithic national narratives in the Gulf and notions of authenticity
Rana Al Mutawa is an Emirati researcher currently pursuing her PhD at Oxford on Middle Eastern Studies with a focus primarily on the construction of national identity
Your work discusses the monolithic narrative of the Gulf population and the fabricated sense of cultural homogeneity. You argued that “Monolithic depictions consequently end up sidelining integral parts of Khaleeji history and culture—such as the Ajami, Baluch, and East African cultures”. What is the current monolithic narrative, and how is it different from reality?
The current monolithic narrative does not take into consideration the influences of the Indian Ocean cultures on Khaleeji culture, for example, and rather sees Khaleeji culture as “purely” Arab and/or Bedouin. For instance, Khaleeji dialect generally has many Indian and Farsi words (just as Indian and Farsi have many Arabic words), such as “direesha,” “tijoory,” “seeda” and many others. There are also different languages used by Khaleeji citizens, such as the Ajami and Baluchi languages. Yet, in my experience teaching and conducting research, I found that when describing their culture, many Khaleejis use the “official” descriptions. When it comes to language, only Arabic is considered to be part of local culture, while Ajami and Baluchi languages are not. “Traditional” dress is often depicted as the thobe/dishdasha, ghitra and ‘agal..etc, when in reality “national dress” was varied - for example, a turban (an Indian Ocean influence), rather than a ghitra, was used among some Khaleejis, as I described in one of my articles. The East African influence on traditional Khaleeji music is not discussed much.
In some cases people are aware of this diversity but do not necessarily see it representative of local culture - their idea of culture is based on the national narrative. Others may not be aware of this diversity to begin with, and specifically in regards to certain topics. For example, I found that many are not aware that there were and are Sufis in the Gulf - although you can find photographs depicting them practicing their rituals. Until recently, I myself was not aware that, according to Dr. Aisha Bilkhair, some families carried the mother’s family name rather than the father’s historically. This requires a whole research paper in itself. I think learning these forms of social history — and not the surface history with very basic information on appearance, pearl diving or Bedouin life — can really show us the diversity of the Gulf.
Why is this narrative being revisited and revised today, to the discredit of our homogenous symbols? What purpose does correcting the narrative serve when maintaining it maintains an established sense of identity?
Perhaps the reasons depend on the academics discussing this issue. I was personally interested in this topic because I felt that we have a rich culture and heritage that is not represented and therefore not appreciated. During my teaching and personal life I saw that many locals were not aware of the historical cosmopolitanism in our countries. I believed that knowing about them would allow people to become more tolerant to difference, be more open to the “other,” and appreciate that tolerance existed in the Gulf well before the modernisation process. It is a historical example we can look up to.
For example, from some of my interviews, I was told that Muslims from different sects used to seek religious advice from one another. Photographs also show that Sufis, and an especially popular Sheikh called al-Mureed in Dubai, used to do the mawlid, and that Sunni Muslims attended these mawlids. Hindus (Banyans) also used to have a presence in the pre-oil era as trusted bankers.
I can’t speak for why other academics have also been interested in this research. I suspect some did for similar reasons. But I do not agree that this homogenising national narrative is simply the product of current Gulf states, as is often described. When I first began my research, the formation of the Gulf states was the only thing associated with this narrative. But when I started looking at magazines and journals Arab nationalists wrote, both in the Gulf and abroad, I found that there were many similarities between the two narratives. Looking at a Kuwaiti Arab Nationalist magazine from the 1950s, for example, there were countless instances where the Arab Nationalists spoke in an outright racist manner towards Ajami Kuwaitis. They also spoke strongly about “pure Arabness” and the superiority of being Arab. Some of what they said was so shocking that I wonder if they would be published today. To be fair, I heard that the movement apologised later on for using that language — but still.
It’s important to keep in mind that Arab nationalism was and still is considered a democratic and progressive movement. The height of Arab nationalism is an age that more liberal Arabs today look on nostalgically as a better time. I know and see posts by friends and colleagues who reminisce about this period, or ones who try to revive the ideas of Arab nationalism. And I think that’s dangerous, because it whitewashes and ignores these very harmful ideas that were spread at that time. I think it’s important not to automatically assume that this marginalisation is only promoted in “autocracies,” but acknowledge that movements that are perceived as “democratic” and “progressive” were major culprits, and that they themselves left a legacy for these ideas to flourish.
To promote “unity” among Arabs, Arab nationalists not only argued for the “superiority” of Arabs, but also sought to homogenise the region. They argued that all Arabs shared a common language, history and culture. So they marginalised the many differences that give the region its richness and diversity in pursuit of a pan-Arab sentiment. Since all Arabs had to be similar (or the same), they would have one culture - and the culture that came to represent Arabs was really the culture of the Arab nationalists, who came from certain classes of the Levant and Egypt. Arab nationalism was certainly not the only factor that promoted homogeneity in the Gulf, but I focus on it because until now, almost all emphasis has been on how the formation of the Gulf states created this narrative.
What features prior to the modernisation process, and subsequent wave of Arab nationalism, allowed for diverse ethnicity to prosper?
I should also say that perhaps there was intolerance in the past that I am not yet aware of, so I hope what I say does not romanticize it. But in any case, we can see that there was diversity in the past, and perhaps one reason it prospered, or at least existed, is because people were possibly more practical than ideological then. Arab nationalism, for example, spread an ideology of pure Arabness and its “superiority,” and that ideology was based on exclusiveness.
But other than its ideologies, the Gulf started moving closer to the Arab world and further away from the Indian Ocean world during the wave of Arab nationalism. If you hear stories from Khaleejis who lived during the heights of Arab nationalism, you’ll find that they really looked up to the Levant and Egypt. Many of them dreamt of studying there and recount their experiences of going there for the first time as nothing short of amazing. So perhaps people let go of that diversity to become more like the Arabs in the Levant and Egypt. In an article discussing Afro-Khaleeji music, Braude said that while the music of the Levant and Egypt was popular in the Gulf, Gulf music was not popular in the Levant and Egypt, and argued that it was actually derided - especially as Khaleeji music had African beats. Whether this is entirely true or not, I do not know, but you can see today that when someone asks about the classical stars of Arabic music — even Khaleejis would say names such as Umm Kalthoum and Fairuz. So what defines “Arab” culture mostly comes from certain classes of the Levant and Egypt, and therefore marginalizes the other cultures within the Arab world.
In your research, you also talked about how the homogenised “local identity” gives credence to Orientalist tropes about the region. Can you talk more about the connections you see between identity and Orientalism, and perhaps even auto-Orientalism, in the Gulf?
Auto-Orientalism is interesting because it manifests in different ways. For example, you see it in desert safaris aimed at tourists where non-Khaleeji music is played and belly-dancers dance — an experience which is supposedly representative of the local culture. Khaleejis know that belly-dancers are not part of their culture, that it’s there for the tourists, so I wonder if this is really auto-Orientalism? Or is it using (or abusing) Orientalist ideas for marketing purposes? Perhaps it is still auto-Orientalism, but I feel it’s different than when someone is really not aware that these representations are not accurate. I think the auto-Orientalism that is more worrying is when we in the Gulf accept and promote amongst ourselves (and not just for tourist marketing purposes) the Orientalist ideas Westerners had about us: that our culture is homogeneous, that it is purely Arab and can only be represented with symbols like the camel, the desert, sea, and pearl divers...etc.
It’s also important not to be too puritanical, especially when people’s diverse histories and cultures are not being marginalised. For example, I think it is important for people to know that new buildings that are made to look like traditional ones today are different from the buildings our grandparents used in many ways, whether in how they looked, the material used, how it was used...etc. But I don’t think these buildings should be dismissed for being “auto-Orientalist,” and “fake,” as I heard some academics or architects describe them. Nor do I think they should be seen as being true representations of the past. They are efforts to recreate the past, perhaps in ways that are considered inaccurate, but as long as we know that, I think we should look at them with less judgement.
Meanwhile, the way foreigners (including other Arabs) view local identity and its connection to Orientalism is another story. You find visitors complain that shopping districts filled with giant Western retailers can be found anywhere. This disappoints visitors because they want to experience something different in Dubai, something that makes them feel they’re in a “different” place. But that sentiment is quite Orientalist. Why is a globalised city like Dubai expected to be “different” than other globalised cities? It seems like some of these visitors are hoping to wander in a “traditional” souq where they can find an old Emirati sitting at his storefront and working on a traditional craft. But that is not how most Emiratis, or residents, live in a city like Dubai today. So Arabic coffee in small cups is something they can appreciate, but seeing young locals hanging out in Starbucks is not? These types of visitors are not looking for the reality of a culture and understanding it. Instead, they are searching for an image of what Gulf cities “should” look like, based on what they imagine symbolises Arab cities. This could be an image they got from the media, Aladdin or even in comparison to older Arab cities such as Cairo or Damascus. Some have their own experiences of “development,” and this might be one reason why we hear the phrase, “this city developed too fast,” as there is an expectation that new cities can only develop in the “right” way if they do it as European cities or as older Arab cities did.
I have also heard some visitors (including other Arabs) say that cities like Dubai are too international. They say that when they travel they want to see the locals – to speak to a local taxi driver and waiter. Yet when they travel to places like New York and London they expect these cities to be diverse, and they aren’t disappointed that their New York Taxi doesn’t speak in a mainstream American accent. So why are Gulf cities expected to be more “local?” And if these visitors want to know the culture of these cities, then why aren’t they interested in speaking to a Pakistani driver or a Filipino waitress, when we know that these groups make up a very large percentage of the populations in the Gulf?
Shopping districts, not just in the Gulf but also globally, are occupied by the same giant retailers and predominantly Western brands. These brands import not just trends, but also lifestyles. What impact does omnipresent imported goods have on local identity?
From some locals I’ve heard that we don’t see our culture in these spaces of giant retailers. I understand that sentiment, but “local identity” is always changing, and has always been influenced by different cultures, as well as by the “superpowers” of the times. I understand the concern about the influence of superpowers and neo-imperialism. But people are practical in their daily lives, and they use these spaces to socialize and thereby create their own identities. Major retailers like Starbucks, for example, are used by many locals as part of their social life. It is the same with big shopping malls, which are often derided as being consumerist and ostentatious for not reflecting the local culture. But these malls have become a part of people’s lives, and not just for purposes of consumption. It’s important to remember that consumption is part of socializing, that paying for a cinema ticket or a meal is a form of socializing. People use these malls to shop, yes, but also to run errands, to walk around, and to socialize.
This defines their lifestyle and becomes a shared experience that differentiates them from outsiders. While many young Khaleejis today grew up socializing in malls, teenagers in other countries may have grown up socializing in extracurricular activities at school. It is not only history, certain cultural values, or socioeconomic status that Khaleejis share. Similar socializing practices helps them develop a shared identity and understanding that outsiders do not.
The older generation may remember their childhoods in the dikkan (or bodega), but my memories from my childhood were in the Spinneys chain that people complained about when it first arrived. I remember walking there with my cousins on Fridays and even on Eid. The dikkan in our neighbourhood is actually still here and it is still being used, but speaking from a social rather than economic perspective, I think that the chain played a similar social role for me as the dikkan did for others. And I wonder if the big malls today will be synonymous to the younger generations as what Spinneys was for me and for others my age.
For young people today who grew up going to these malls, they also become part of the memories of their childhood or teenage years. Shared memories also create a shared identity. To label these spaces as completely consumerist and to judge them for dislocating “local identity” dismisses their humanity and their meaning to others.
How about other community spaces that are less consumerist that can bring people together?
To be honest, I find many of the cultural spaces that seek to be non-consumerist to be more exclusive than consumerist spaces. For example, the non-commercial arts exhibitions, galleries, talks, and cinemas showing independent films, are often dominated by intellectuals and elites, not “average” people. Often those who attend these types of spaces are from “progressive” circles, who oppose consumerism, capitalism and segregation – yet they don’t seem to have as much of a critical attitude towards these spaces as they do towards the giant retailers and shopping districts. I do think that these non-commercial spaces are filling a void for certain groups and are extremely important parts of the city. But I also find that many malls and shopping districts are more comfortable spaces for different segments of the community than intellectual cultural spaces are.
Big shopping malls, for example, have restaurants ranging from McDonalds to Fauchon, meaning they cater to different segments of the population. While these different groups do not closely interact with each other in malls, they at least share the same space – something you cannot say for many “progressive” cultural spaces, although there are exceptions. Therefore, malls can serve as a reminder of the different types of people who inhabit the city, and allow (or force) people to be more aware of that diversity. Perhaps in other countries the street serves the same purpose as a public space, but in the Gulf, the mall may be one of the closest alternative public spaces to a street. For this reason, malls have inadvertently become inclusive spaces, to an extent. I’m thinking of malls in Dubai - I have heard of malls in other countries in the Gulf that restrict “bachelors” and specifically south Asian men, so perhaps these have different dynamics.
One neighbourhood that is often cited as a good example of community space is Satwa in Dubai. People live there, work there, shop there, and spend their leisure time there – so it’s a mixed-use space anda community space. Now - people of different socioeconomic backgrounds may shop at Satwa, but those who live and use it are often of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. That makes it a great example of a community space, but I still think that you may find more diversity in shopping malls, which is something that I think is important.
So these spaces happened to become, to an extent, inclusive of diverse communities. What about ‘franchised’ museums and/or universities? Is it possible for them to unobtrusively and genuinely enrich the society they operates in?
I still believe we need to make our own institutions stronger and capable of producing thoughtful and reflective citizens, but my experience teaching in the national university made me question my opposition to imported institutions.
There are so many more restrictions placed on public universities versus private ones, such as how male guardians are told when their daughters’/wives’ enter and leave campus; how professors have almost no autonomy in the classroom; or that simple things like taking students to a local museum for an hour requires lengthy approvals.
I love that public universities bring people from different socioeconomic backgrounds together. But beyond that there is little diversity: most students are from one nationality, religion and gender. This makes it difficult to get diverse views and ideas both in the classroom and the overall university experience.
It is important to have that space at home, even if it is imported, because it allows those who have intellectual and creative interests to feel they have a place for them at home; that academic, educational and cultural activities can be found here, and they don’t have to be alienated. Imported universities allow for more exploration, critical thinking, reflective and diverse ideas.
Some might say we need to wait, that these things come slowly. I don’t think our generation and future generations should keep their interests on hold because of ideologies around education/culture/development. I think this stance is harmful and places ideology above actual lived experiences — it ignores how people using these institutions may genuinely benefit from them, and benefit others. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t have imported education when you’re not trapped in the system.
For example, although public universities are free for all citizens as opposed to private universities (although NYU Abu Dhabi is free for all Emiratis and children of Emirati mothers), they are not necessarily part of the community. At the university where I worked, people outside the public university rarely ventured in to explore or attend events. Public universities are actually closed to the public, with few events open to them (perhaps this varies with other Gulf states). Meanwhile, institutions such as NYUAD have public lectures on a daily basis. I think it’s existence has made a big difference for the external community that is interested in learning, because they can engage with it.
Of course, there are still many problematic issues in imported institutions. Socio-economic diversity and access is an issue we should always consider. Segregation is also an issue. Even if Emiratis can enter the university for free, one can find that there are very few Emirati (or Khaleeji) faculty at the university. There are also very few Emirati students, although I hear they are increasing. I think it’s problematic when you have a conference on the Gulf but there are barely any Khaleeji speakers invited. To be honest, this is sometimes an issue in public universities as well. I think part of the solution is to make efforts to raise awareness about these issues and make efforts to change, rather than reject, these imported universities.
Publications by Rana
'Women and Restrictive Campus Environments: A Comparative Analysis Between Public Universities and International Branch Campuses in the UAE', Gulf Affairs, Higher Education in the Gulf States: Present & Future (2017)
‘National Dress in the UAE: Constructions of Authenticity' , New Middle Eastern Studies, 6 (2016)
'Monolithic Representations and Orientalist Credence in the UAE' , Gulf Affairs, Identity & Culture in 21st Century Gulf (2016)