Pausing at a Crossroads
“…the secret mysterious life of the East flows on- a life into which no European can penetrate, whose standards, whose canons, are so different from his own that the whole existence they rule seems to him misty and unreal, incomprehensible…” Gertrude Bell, 1894
I am in the airport in Dubai, an intersection of many cultures. It is 12:10 p.m. The stirring chant of a muezzin’s Call to Prayer is reverberating in Arabic on loud speakers throughout the airport. “God is greatest. There is no God except God….” This Call occurs five or six times a day throughout the Muslim world. The exact times depend on the movement of the sun and are noted in the local newspapers each morning: just before dawn (Fajr) and again at sunrise (Shorooq), which counts as one prayer session, then noon (Zuhr), afternoon (Asr), sunset (Maghreb) and night (Isha). I have come to enjoy this invitation to pause and reflect. Devout Muslims carry their prayer rugs with them, praying wherever they are, or they enter a mosque, removing their shoes and washing their feet first, with men and women going to separate spaces. There are Prayer Rooms in all malls, theaters, museums, and other public places. Hotel rooms have arrows on their ceilings pointing toward Mecca, the direction in which they pray. Some Arabs are secular, and just go about business as usual during the Call to Prayer. The chant ends, and the loudspeakers revert to easy-listening Western Music –specifically “All I Ask Of You” from “Phantom of the Opera”. Such are the jarring disconnects that occur here. From the foreign to the familiar, the exotic to the ordinary.
The airport is sparkling clean, gleaming with glass and steel and modern gadgets. Laborers bustle about polishing the waste cans, sweeping the ramps alongside escalators, dusting all surfaces. Two South Asian women perched on a counter in the bathroom explain how to work the remote control hand-wave toilet flushers. An East Asian man drives a high-tech floor-mopping vehicle. Behind me, new employees for Emirates Airlines, all women from the Philippines, are having a training session- in English. Where are the local workers? In fact, there are no Emiratis in menial jobs. Emiratis (like Qataris) comprise a mere 20% of the population in their home country and hold only “white collar” positions, mostly subsidized by the government. In the airport, they are the ones who drift about, elegant and aloof, serving as security officials or in passport control. There are reports that Emiratis and Qataris have recently been given raises of 60% and over to keep them content during the unrest of the Arab Spring.
The juxtaposition of East and West is especially striking here, the first exposure to the Middle East for many travelers. Although at first glance, you could be in Paris or Chicago or any international airport, the scent of cardamom in the coffee, the sound of the muezzin, and the sight of Arabs in their Muslim gowns evoke the same sense of mystery that so enchanted the great Middle Eastern scholar and explorer, Gertrude Bell, in 1894.
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