Story by Zoe Murphy and photo by Hannah Zaatar
Being raised between European and American cultures was a big enough disparity – or so I thought. That was until a complete shift in gears, for now a third time. At the age of fourteen, I moved to Dubai, the global crossroads in the United Arab Emirates. It was a change of the highest degree. I had never visited Dubai before, and had no idea what to expect. I was more consumed by culture shock than I ever thought imaginable.
Yet again, I found my footing through a mixture of familiar ground and reinvention. Similarly to Athens, I attended an American school and the people I met helped me define myself within the city. Once I did adapt, as anyone could, Dubai turned into a completely different place for me with options to explore, grow and learn. This shift in mentality is exactly what I hope to inspire in others. Dubai became my playground. A place so far detached from what I had known, only heightened my sense of the world. Dubai has many layers. It can be very traditional at times. In other moments, it represents a global outreach and tolerance that many feel is lacking in other Muslim countries. It can be stifling for some of the lower-level workers, but also a place of uplighting diversity and innovation where expats outnumber locals five-to-one.
Through the locals, known as Emiratis, I was introduced to their religion and the beauty of their practices. At first, the frequent mosque calls caught me by surprise. They later became a natural part of my day. I heard people’s one-on-one stories of how they were stereotyped, and how their culture is so drastically different compared to that of what many Westerners perceive. It opened my eyes to the fact that people have such rigid and specific definitions of who others are outside their bubble. However, in the multicultural atmosphere of Dubai, you automatically see past those stereotypes and understand that “people are people” who all want the same core things. I was a young teenage girl, initially way out of her comfort zone, who found that she could establish herself and grow immensely among people so far removed from her past experiences. I truly believe anyone who takes the time and effort is able to accomplish the same.
Dubai’s stringent class system, where low-paid Pakistani and Indian workers are forced to work around the clock, took me by surprise and made me very uncomfortable. My school, the American School of Dubai, an elite private school, was primarily home to kids whose parents worked in the profitable oil and banking industries. However, every Thursday at the school, a cricket match broke out between the Pakistani and Indian workers on the perfectly manicured grounds of the school. One day out of the week, the walls of separation broke down and it felt like everyone was equal. I remember always smiling and thinking that the barriers that were broken that day, should never be rebuilt.
Another example happened one New Year’s Eve. A good friend was visiting and our families went out together to a nice dinner on a boat to ring in the New Year. We heard commotion on the upper level, and I urged my friend to come check it out with me. It turned out to be a wedding reception by an Indian family living in Dubai. Their families and friends were all dancing in celebration. At first, it felt like we were intruding. We were about to leave and go back downstairs when the sister’s bride saw us as and asked if we wanted to join. Excited by the offer, we agreed and proceeded to dance and talk to them. We were included in some of their wedding photos and had the chance to chat with a lot of interesting people.
They did not see us as intruders or outsiders. They recognized the fact that it was a joyous occasion, and the fact that two girls took interest was flattering to them. Feeling welcomed into a personal family event, of people whom we’ve never met before, was a great feeling. During the time we were with them, we genuinely felt as though we were celebrating in unison. Small acts of inclusivity break down what can seem like obvious barriers, and can unite people even under the strangest circumstances.
Read more about Zoe’s journey here!