Students discuss Abu Dhabi misconceptions from home

As students at NYUAD, we often hear questions like, “Don’t you have to wear that … thing?” and “Can you, you know, show your ankles there?” from ...

Sep 21, 2013

As students at NYUAD, we often hear questions like, “Don’t you have to wear that … thing?” and “Can you, you know, show your ankles there?” from curious friends and family members back home.
Disproving people’s notions about the blatant stereotypes of the Middle East can be difficult. In this small community abroad, expatriates attempt to dispel visions of shining silver skyscrapers arching endlessly into the blue meridian. Students spend their time at home rebutting falsified romanticisms about camel-riding, hummus-eating and good-looking sheikhs while assuring curious grandmothers that, no, the school does not have its own oil well.
Exacerbating the confusion is the fact that, for many, Abu Dhabi is not yet on the world map. It has neither the entrancing glamour of Dubai nor the headlines of the devastating civil unrest that continues to plague Syria and Egypt.
“The idea that [friends and family] have of Abu Dhabi is [because of] me, in the sense that they only think about it because I’m going to this university,” said freshman Alexandre Bagot.
Sophomore Mahlet Kassa has a similar problem with lack of representation.
“[People] refer to it as Dubai every time, they never say Abu Dhabi,” Kassa said.
Kassa also said that people in her home country of Ethiopia find it difficult to reconcile themselves with the idea of Abu Dhabi as a study destination. Few Ethiopians move to the Emirates to study; more often it is a destination for domestic workers.
“There’s a huge stereotype back at home … People go to the U.S. to study and come here to work,” Kassa said.
Freshman Issa Nasr grew up in Brazil but has Lebanese roots. He said that his family in Lebanon, confused by his decision to return to a place they had all left, discouraged him from coming back to the Middle East.
This reluctance to accept Abu Dhabi as a legitimate location for the pursuits of academia partly stems from a misconstrual of its cultural and religious norms.
“Many people did have these ideas about the fact that it’s a Middle Eastern country ... all the Middle Eastern stereotypes, like [being a] misogynistic society and women wearing the veil… all the [misconceptions] ... [go] along with being an Islamic country,” said Bagot.
Sophomore Mariko Kuroda agreed.
“At first I thought that because it was in the Middle East, women would not have as equal rights as men,” she said.
However, students have been able to take their perspective of the UAE home with them, spreading news of Abu Dhabi in an entirely unique and legitimate way.
“It’s a new place for expansion,” said Bagot.
Kuroda quickly disproved her own notion of the gender dynamic.
“The more I live here [the more] I feel like it’s not much different from Tokyo … If I do get glances from people on the street, it’s not because I’m a girl, it’s because I’m Asian,” she said.
Nasr said that people tend to have a positive image of the Middle East’s economic advancement, but they often don’t consider the political situation. The common perception of Abu Dhabi, Nasr said, is based on surface-level observations and it disregards the region’s many nuances.
“I don’t think they know a lot about the fact that Abu Dhabi is very modern; it’s more open-minded [than people think],” he added.
For sophomore Ahmad Al Tunaiji, an Emirati national whose family lives in Dubai, the hardest part of attending school here has been retaining his family’s name and culture in the liberal environment that a U.S. institution has fostered.
“Here, family names are very important things,” Al Tunaiji said.
He cited the fact that NYUAD is mixed as an issue. “Personally, for me, it’s fine. I’m comfortable with it. It’s actually another way for me to be engaged in class,” he said.
But having female friends can prove to be difficult. Al Tunaiji said that if someone saw him walking down the street with a girl, they would be quick to think that his parents did not raise him well. The issue arises mainly around exterior image, rather than a lack of trust on his parents’ part.
“[My mother] trusts me,” he said. “She’s just scared because if other people see it they would immediately think negatively of me.”
This familial trust was echoed by other students who said that despite ambivalent or negative reactions from others, their immediate family has been supportive. Taleke, Bagot, Nasr and Kuroda all expressed that their parents were happy with their decision.
As students attempt to explain their experiences to friends and family, they place great importance on spreading accurate and destigmatized information while fielding frustrating questions.
“People in Japan … ask me what’s Abu Dhabi,” said Kuroda, “not where’s Abu Dhabi.”
Tessa Ayson is a contributing writer. Email her at 
An earlier version of this article incorrectly wrote Mahlet Kassa as Mahlet Takele.
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