Dissimilar Assimilation [Dubai]

It’s one thing to be a resident of Dubai, but another, impossible thing to fully assimilate.

I have spent time in a number of international cities around the world, and have noticed a couple of things to be true. There is often a mix of ethnicities that tend to gather and divide into neighbourhoods. One neighbourhood will have a lot of people from country A, the next couple of blocks will have people from country B, and on it goes. And everyone gathers into the main areas of the city to form a collective idea of what it means to be of that city.

For example, people come from all over to settle into a life in Paris. But once they are there, their lives change and morph into some variation of a ‘French’ way of going about one’s day. They often learn to speak the language, follow the current events, send their kids off to a French school – and before you can say ‘C’est la vie,’ they’re French. It’s more of the same in cities like London, New York, Toronto, among others. I have not found this in Dubai, incidentally. As strange as it sounds, there doesn’t appear to be much assimilation going on at all. I’ll paint a picture for you to better explain.

My morning metro

Each morning I walk under the blazing desert sun to the metro station. Currently, I’m living in a hotel until my apartment is ready (fingers crossed it won’t take more than a few more days). The people walking with me are mainly Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi. On the metro, in the ‘Women Only’ car, groups of people stick together and I can hear a hum of a few languages mixing around me. The Filipino women stand together in their various work uniforms having a chat, the Indian moms are deep in discussion as they absentmindedly readjust their elaborate scarves, while the Arab girls gracefully float in wearing their embroidered robes and headscarves. Just for good measure, there are a few Caucasian ladies carrying bags jammed with books and papers (like me), and the scattered bewildered tourist or two. Nobody really talks to anyone outside their group other than to excuse themselves or to ask for directions. If I happen to take the metro to an area of the city on the other end, I would exit the station to be surrounded by British and Australian expats.

Roots in language

Much of this might not seem so out of character in other cities when you consider the older population of recent immigrants. However, it is a bit strange to see such divisions among the youth of a city. If you’ve ever been on the metro in a city like London or Paris, everyone under a certain age looks really similar as far as fashion goes. They also tend to speak primarily in the language of that city and have a group of friends around them who represent a diverse selection of heritages.

The division of groups tends to focus on something less visual and clear-cut as country of origin. Conversely, no one in Dubai seems to speak Arabic unless that is their first language. The majority of business is conducted in English. There are schools and universities around who have nationalities as part of their title, and presumably the language used in the classrooms matches the nationality written on the side of the school gates. As an example, students in my adult General English classes speak a range of languages from Russian and Farsi, to Urdu and Malay. They communicate in English, and it’s rare to have someone in the room who can speak Arabic unless that is their first language.

Small signs

Many malls in Dubai are decorated to a theme. This one is Egyptian-themed. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Many malls in Dubai are decorated to a theme. This one is Egyptian-themed. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Seeing these divisions every day makes me wonder about the effects assimilation can have on the development of a city. I’m used to thinking about assimilation as a very visual and audible merge of cultures and backgrounds. But there must be some element of that here in Dubai, just on a smaller or slightly less visible scale. I suppose all of us expats (who make up more than 75% of the population, I should add) do follow a certain set of rules that are very much a part of this city.

A little earlier I mentioned riding in the ‘Women Only’ car on the metro. That gender division is a common sight around Dubai – in malls, restaurants, and government buildings you often find a section that is for women and children only. During Ramadan you won’t be able to find a restaurant that will serve you food during fasting hours unless you’re getting take-out. And now that I think about it, there are those rules posted outside of each mall about what is appropriate clothing and how you shouldn’t make out in public.

Temporary home

There is abundant foliage throughout Dubai, an indication of a wealthy city. Photo by Nancy Cater.
There is abundant foliage throughout Dubai, an indication of a wealthy city. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Clearly, we are assimilating to a degree by living here. But is it enough to create a sense of being a Dubai-ite… Dubai-er… Dubai-ian? One cannot become an Emirati because you are either born an Emirati or you’re not – the option of ‘becoming’ does not exist. The real estate agent who helped me find my apartment was born and raised in Dubai, but he will always have an Indian passport with a stamp in it allowing him to live and work here. If business suddenly went bust here, what would happen? Who would stick around? This city runs on people who can never be more than a resident. If there were a massive economic crash and business dried up, we’d all have to head back “home”.

I’m not entirely sure what it means to live in a city like this. I’ve only been here for a month and am still very much in the observational stage. I’m not sure what lasting factors will arise out of living in a city where I am permanently a visitor. I am, however, intrigued daily by the people who surround me on the street and in my classroom. Somehow, this city has brought us all here in search of something, and we really are trying our very best to get along in our temporary home.

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