Dubai is many things – interesting, enthralling, unusual – but it’s not a genuine glimpse of the Arab world. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. But it felt more like a business centre dropped into the middle of the desert than the Middle East I knew. It’s a world designed to encourage and promote the growth of ideas and invention. And it’s making great inroads in the representation of Emirati women in the workforce and in government. At the time of my visit, the UAE had eight female ministers in its thirty- member cabinet, and its ambitious 2020 Expo was being led by Reem Al Hashimy, another high-achieving woman. With its large expat community, many women are also active in the workplace. Laudy Lahdo, a Lebanese-Australian woman, is based out of Dubai as the general manager of Servcorp Middle East. She has found great success in her industry: in her first year working there, she won an award for manager of the year. So Dubai may have its critics, but arguably it is a place of dreams – easier to reach than the US if you’re from the East; attractive to Westerners for its financial benefits and imitations of Western life.
But my authentic Bedouin experience was quickly turning sour.
I had longed to touch the desert sands, and after a month of intense interactions and travel in the region, I wanted to have some fun with Chris. So I’d registered us for this expedition of desert exploration. I had no idea at the time that trips like this in Dubai constituted an entire industry, so large in scale that the only variations between tourist providers was whether you paid more and got a bottle of booze thrown in.
It was a decision I was now questioning, despite the joy I had experienced earlier, feeling the coarse sand fall through my fingers, the rush of being in a wide space where sky and earth are all you can see. That is, if you could tune out the vehicles speeding past as they bashed into sand dunes.
‘How many trucks come through every day?’ I’d asked our driver when we pulled over for photos, feeling a rising sense of unease. Everywhere you looked, a cluster of white four-wheel drives did their worst against mountains of sand, the echo of passengers’ excited yelps resounding in the humid air as the vehicles sprayed sand with every sharp turn.
‘About a thousand,’ he’d told me, without skipping a beat. His four-wheel drive was parked alongside two others, all of which had the hoods up to allow them to cool down.
I quickly started to regret my part in this tourist procession. I didn’t want to think about the environmental impact, the discarded glass bottles littering the earth around me. One thousand four-wheel drives polluting the desert sands daily, and the trash their passengers leave behind, are going to leave a footprint.
‘Did you hear that?’ I said to Chris. ‘It’s not One Thousand and One Nights, it’s one thousand and one jeeps.’
Now, back at the camp, we were both ready to leave.
I was quiet in the car as we drove back to Dubai, deep in thought, trying to decipher what truly irked me. Eventually it hit me, staring out of the window at the procession of those four-wheel drives heading back into the city: the tackiness of the so-called Bedouin camp appeals to tourists because it is, perhaps, the only way they can digest the Arab world.
One Thousand and One Nights. The legendary storyteller Scheherazade. The romance of the desert. Its intoxicating ‘otherness’. Gertrude Bell, whom Arab men apparently named their ‘queen of the desert’, an Anglo woman more greatly esteemed among them than Arab women themselves.
It wasn’t the myth or mysteries of the desert I was seeking that day. It was one step in a greater journey through the Arab world. I had hoped to fulfil a desire to connect to earth, to my heritage, transmuting an exoticised symbol into something more meaningful. In my mind, my ancestry trailed behind me, connected, unbreakable. I wanted to rebalance myself, and make peace with my culture, at once something I treasured but also found complex. I inherited this culture and my perspectives were influenced by many things, so I wanted to go back to a beginning. To create a new narrative.
Instead, here we were in a clichéd theme park version of the Arab world. Fire-eaters, belly dancers, camels, henna tattoos and shisha pipes. Like a choose-your-own-adventure for fifty dollars. It was overblown, simplistic and in no way genuinely engaging.
I have never felt that it’s appropriation to experience another’s culture. I do think it’s appropriation to dress it up and present it as a gimmick. It might be more forgivable if it’s done by people within the culture on display, but it’s no less tacky.
I felt a bit sick as I thought about how inaccurate this cartoonish depiction of Arab life was – also, that it was so popular among tourists. Is this how people want to see us? In simple, romanticised terms?
There are so many stereotypes around Arabs, especially Arab women. In pop culture, numerous books sell repression with veiled clichés. Hollywood has pilloried Arabs for as long as it has made cinema, trading in limited categories – taxi drivers, convenience store owners, oppressed wives, belly dancers – rather than three-dimensional characters who are incidentally Arab. Thanks to these books and the treasure trove of ‘Bad Arab’ tropes in Hollywood, the Arab world has come to conjure in the mind of many the arresting image of a veiled woman, whose only visible features are her eyes; she is an exotic mystery – and a symbol of oppression.
This limiting motif says nothing of real life in a region as complex as any other, where women can be as looks-obsessed as anywhere else in the world, and, equally, as uncaring. On my trip I saw women spending upwards of ten minutes perfecting a selfie, one unforgettably perched on a seat in a café, lazily puffing away on a shisha pipe as she did so. The extent to which women dress and beautify themselves in the Middle East does, however, vary greatly depending on the location. In Dubai, veiled women were generally heavily made up; even women in niqab elaborately lined their eyes. At the airport in Amman, Jordan, we saw a woman with a face veil give her eye make-up a touch-up before taking a selfie.
We’re either disparaged for not being ‘advanced’ enough, I thought to myself, for having a conservative nature or for going to war over religion, or we’re admired for anything that can be considered beautiful. Kohl-lined eyes and hips that won’t quit.
Evidently there is no shortage of accounts and analysis that try to unpack the experience of being an Arab woman, the major problem being that the women in these discourses are so often exoticised or minimised; or the complexity of life in a different country, which enjoys a rich and diverse culture, is buried under the assumption that the Western way is superior.
Problems are seen as cultural, not human; the solutions as needing to come from the outside, not within. And in stories from the Arab world, we are not often portrayed as sensual, sensitive beings. In many of the stories about us, we’re rendered mute or helpless. There’s no denying the Arab conservatism that shapes our interactions, but the truth is we are feeling, vibrant women who experience love, longing and heartbreak like anyone else.
This was the reason I had come to the Arab world. I had just journeyed through five countries in the Middle East – UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Qatar – to meet with women of all stripes. I was in search of, and thought there would be great value in reading stories about, the lives of women in the region, rather than the many I have read by Western authors examining the lives of these women and assessing them according to their own standards, fascinated by their ‘otherness’. Indeed, this strange portraiture came up often enough in my conversations, both in Australia and the Arab world. I didn’t meet anger so much as frustration and puzzlement. ‘You’re complicated. We’re complicated,’ the secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women noted. ‘[Western perspectives are] very simplified. Very flat.’
The Middle East is in focus for troubling reasons much of the time – the war in Syria, the after-effects of the invasion in Iraq, the occupation in Palestine – and women have long been held under a collective gaze. At the heart of this curiosity is a desire to understand how we live, and my discussions with women of Arab heritage – both in Australia and the Middle East – were intended to unpack this.
The stories in this book by no means constitute an exhaustive examination, nor are they academic or even wholly instructive. Because we are shaped by our experiences, and we all view life through a unique set of lenses, my narrative necessarily has its limitations. But please don’t just read this book. Listen to it. Connect to it. Get to know the women featured within. They sat with me and opened themselves up in trust, seeing only my face, not the faces of those who would come to read about them.
These accounts are treatments on life experiences, possibilities and difficulties. I hope they alter your understanding in some important way, as they have mine.