I knew I’d be writing a post about this topic at some point and I’ve been waiting quite some time to write it. I’ve just got back from a business-and-pleasure trip to the Middle East, and I knew I had preconceptions of what it might be like, and I knew they’d be challenged.
Over recent years, I have found that I have often carried a hotchpotch of preconceptions, misconceptions and travel-guide images of a place in my head when I go abroad. It takes days or even weeks for the reality to emerge and I call this the Kaleidoscope Effect. Like those childhood toys that contained tiny colourful beads, which you’d shake and see a clear pattern emerge through the eyepiece, I realise that my first impressions of a place are always way off and I have to shake them hard to discover what is really there.
I first noticed this effect when I went on a trip to Poland to visit a friend who was teaching English in Warsaw. I remember thinking, ‘bread queues and headscarves’ as I packed my bag, but how wrong I was. In the early 1990s the country was just emerging from its communist years and whilst the first thing I saw in the city was a load of soldiers parading around in the huge Soviet-style plaza, some of them with Lech Walesa moustaches, the thing that most struck me over the course of the trip was the youth, beauty and vitality of the place. Incredibly handsome, be-cheekboned university students were striding around everywhere in greatcoats, heading to cafes on the Nowi Świat (New World Street) to presumably talk about politics and philosophy (or is that another preconception?). I’d thought that Poland would be cold and uninviting, even in summer, so then spent a happy day sweltering in a chunky jumper at Chopin’s house in the countryside, listening to a world-renowned pianist being accompanied by a pondful of singing frogs.
Then came Kenya – possibly the biggest Kaleidoscope moment of all. I stayed in a coastal town near Mombasa called Watamu. Each day I went back and forth along the road between the house I was staying in and the bustling town. Sometimes I was driving, sometimes running. At first I saw poverty, dirt and latent danger in the shambas along the road. I’d run every day in the early hours up to a certain point and turn back. There’d be a gaggle of men on motorbikes under some trees, just staring at me. I had The Fear and could never get past them. That is, until, a Kenyan guy in the house explained that this was the local taxi rank. I felt ashamed that I had assumed they meant me harm.
One day, I ran past a shamba with a dog and it chased me. A woman, who was looking after her kids started laughing her head off at me, as I flailed around, the dog merely playing with me. Other villagers, and the taxi drivers, joined in and soon we were all laughing. How odd I must have looked among this nation of professional runners, white-skinned, red-haired and sweaty, not to mention wide-eyed from my encounter with the dog.
It wasn’t until a tourist remarked to me that he thought the level of poverty and lack of hygiene was so dreadful, and how awful it must be to live there, that I found myself violently disagreeing with him (inside my head). I had started to see smiling faces, happy babies, cleanly swept shambas, well-fed goats and laid-back taxi drivers. I’d said ‘jambo’ (hello) every morning to the group of tall Maasai living in a shamba outside the house – they were working as security guards at the local hotels and sending home money to their families in the Mara. I’d got to know the Kenyans in the house where I was staying, who had never been to Tsavo (the park nearest to them which cost too much for them to enter) and crowded round to see the pictures of animals on my camera, the youngest woman cuddling up to me, smiling.
And oh, that trip to Tsavo. We’d been warned of the Somali terrorist threat, which was very real, and were forced to drive there in a tourist convoy for safety. Before long the safari guys had left us behind but what remained were streams of kids going to school and adults going to work, smiling and shouting ‘jambo!’ as we passed. By the time we arrived at the gates of Tsavo my face was stuck in a smiling rictus and the effect of all that happiness stayed with me for weeks afterwards. It was better than the equatorial sunshine (which incidentally burnt me to a crisp when I was in the shade by the pool not wearing any sun factor).
And so to the United Arab Emirates. As a self-identified feminist I knew I was going to have some opinions about it. I already holiday in countries with Muslim populations – Egypt and Turkey are favourites – but in a sense, these tourist destinations don’t count because the locals are used to foreigners turning up and ignoring their cultural ‘rules’. But I enjoy respecting local culture so have already built up a bank of appropriate clothing and knowledge about what is considered respectful behaviour. I’d had encounters I didn’t enjoy (a man spiking my tea in a shop in Dahab, for instance, or seeing man in shorts and t-shirt walking next to his fully covered wife in the blazing Turkish heat) but have largely been left alone – Bodrum in Turkey is particularly liberal because it has a large gay population.
But I knew that in the UAE I was going to encounter a different level of all of this. Not a tourist destination, a dry state (and not just in a desert way), Sharjah operates under Sharia law with particular restrictions on clothing. This was going to be interesting. I decided to push any preconceptions aside and just experience it. What emerged in the Kaleidoscope was a hugely respectful scene. I already knew that Muslim communities are famed for their incredible hospitality and friendliness, so to experience that was less of a surprise. But watching men and women quietly make their way into the mosque near the hotel, under the hypnotic call of the Muezzin, made me realise that these are just people living their lives, respectful of each other and the code they choose to live by. The men here were mostly as covered up as the women (men cannot wear shorts), and the only surprise encounter I had was to see a Western couple in short shorts striding through the town. To me, they were the odd ones out and appeared so disrespectful – I started to wonder why we feel the need to disrobe so much in the west. My mother had always said that she’d covered up more in Kenya, to keep cool, and I could see the sense in the flowing white and black robes of the locals as they swished round the corniche. I had brought my long, cool, flowing clothing and was happy to wear it out and about. Why are we so hell bent on getting our bodies out? For me it makes no sense, as I don’t tan. I’m happy to preserve my skin in the sun and I always sit in the shade on holiday. With Factor 50 on.
I suppose it comes down to having a choice and being free. If you were forced to shroud yourself in fabric by law, then there would be cause for revolution, as we’ve seen in Iran with the emergence of the My Stealthy Freedom women, determined to let their hair flow free with no enforced hijab: https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom?fref=ts. I saw many variations of clothing for women in Sharjah, from skinny jeans and a shela (head wrap), to a full flowing chiffon abaya, just covering designer jeans and heels, and framing a beautifully made-up face. And some women just wore what they want, with as much skin as possible covered up. (This is a useful guide to appropriate clothing for visitors: http://www.grapeshisha.com/about-uae/uae-clothing.html).
Before we pronounce on anyone else’s culture or way of life, I think it’s useful to take a Kaleidoscope moment. Our preconceptions are built on years of false information mixed with truth and we don’t know what the reality is until we’ve witnessed it first-hand at close quarters and let it slowly reveal itself. There will still be things we don’t agree with or don’t sit well with us, but that view is often reciprocated by the people we’re judging. Before we pronounce on the policing of people’s clothing we should take a moment to consider how much our own clothing is policed by our own gender, by fashion, by our social groups. Same, same, but different, my friends.
When I exchanged a smile with a woman in a full black abaya in Dubai airport who was late for her flight, and she made the international sign for ‘phew!’ at the check-in desk, I just thought, ‘we’re just two women, flying somewhere, each with our own lives and wardrobes. And we still recognise a kindred spirit.’
Because we should.