Where were the camels? What time was the belly-dancing show? I'd like to think that questions like this didn't occur to me on the occasion of my first visit to the Middle East, in 2004, that I was somehow more enlightened than the stereotype of the typical American tourist, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. I had flown to Dubai in my capacity as a staff member of a friend's fledgling magazine, Bidoun, a Middle Eastern arts and culture title. We were staying in her parents' house in Jumeirah, an upscale neighborhood close to the beach, and in between working sessions she made an effort to take us around and show us different parts of the emirate: the gold souk, the beach club, the Emirates' Tower building, the bustling malls.
I felt uncomfortable, but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn't because of the surprise of seeing women in abayas accessorized with wrap-around Chanel sunglasses, going about their business. I had no issue with being woken by the predawn call to prayer, from one of the many mosques that dotted the desert landscape. I felt uneasy because it was all so shiny and new, scrubbed clean of history and open for business.
Funnily enough, that kind of voracious consumerist model is a particularly American export. What freaked me out about Dubai was the same thing that scared me about going to the local mall in Detroit. Not to say that it was just like home. Although Dubai is the most Westerner-friendly destination in the Middle East, there were still plenty of differences between Sheikh Zayed Road and 8 Mile.
After that first trip I returned to the Gulf many times. When I was setting up the foundation of Alef, a Middle Eastern fashion magazine I was to edit, I lived in Kuwait for six months. I also traveled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and, most often, to Dubai. Over the years I have encountered many strange (to me) and interesting things in the Gulf. I've observed a burqa-clad woman in Riyadh eating without removing her veil, deftly slipping her silverware back and forth behind the black fabric. I've seen cosmopolitan young women shopping in Kuwait, wearing headscarves and completely covered from head to toe, but in wildly printed Marni instead of an abaya. I've had dinner with a sheik in Dubai who wears YSL suits but won't sit at a table where alcohol is being served.
In moments like these I am aware of myself as an outsider, a Westerner, an American. I don't always fully understand the motivations behind what I'm seeing, but neither do I feel a rush to judgment as a result of that lack of understanding. I see it as my problem, not theirs, if indeed it is a problem at all.
Of course, there are some fundamental differences between me and "them," but there are probably more fundamental similarities. Whatever their cultural or religious ideas might be, the people I've met are primarily interested in earning a living, falling in love and having a good time, which sounds pretty much the same as what my friends in the United States are focused on. It's true that many people in the Middle East go about achieving those goals in a different way than I might, but then again I'm not sure how much I have in common with the methodology of my fellow Americans in the Bible Belt, either.
Which leads me to a useful analogy, at least for an American, to contemplate before making too many assumptions about the Middle East: consider how culturally diverse the United States is and, specifically, how many areas you'd probably feel like a fish out of water in. Speaking as an Indian-American and adopted New Yorker who grew up in a suburb of Detroit, I know that I've been stumped by many of the customs I've witnessed in the South, not to mention being unable to make out what anyone is saying. I've been mystified by the laid-back approach Californians take with life. I've been scared when driving through some of the plains states when I had the misfortune of spying an upside-down cross. And I've definitely been put off by my fellow New Yorkers' frequently brash attitude. The fact is I probably have as much (or as little) in common with many Middle Easterners as I do with many Americans, but I've been conditioned by the media and politicians to view them as the "other."
As a result of my experience in the region, however, I think my expectations have self-corrected. These days whenever I visit I'm more surprised by all the new developments that are going up than anything as mundane as an abaya. Doha and Dubai resemble giant construction sites, as real estate developers race to meet spiraling demand. Kuwait, which is less developed as a tourist destination because of its ban on alcohol, will soon be home to designer boutique hotels. Apparently there are enough business travelers and mocktail-enthusiasts to warrant nonalcoholic hospitality options. Everywhere you look in the region there are familiar brand names: Chili's, H&M, Cinnabon, Saks Fifth Avenue. It's fair to say that, after Allah, globalization is God. Sitting in a Starbucks in Dubai watching the crowds surge by is a looking-glass experience. Many familiar markers are there—Nike sneakers, Polo shirts, an explosion of denim on people of all ages—but the meanings are not necessarily the same. Sipping my herbal tea, analyzing and imagining, I try to sort the puzzle, and after a bit of time it begins to make sense to me. Some things are still a surprise, however, like the little kids snowboarding down an indoor mountain in Dubai, or the city-size palaces in Riyadh. Strangely, after all these years I still haven't spied a camel or seen a belly-dancing show. Maybe on my next trip.