Beyond A Certain Form of Cosmopolitanism

We only partake in a specific form of cosmopolitanism, one that is defined by our shared sense of culture. While we come from different cultural ...

Nov 15, 2014

We only partake in a specific form of cosmopolitanism, one that is defined by our shared sense of culture. While we come from different cultural backgrounds, we all have a basic understanding of what a global culture entails. You can call it global but for the most part it is a faux-U.S. American culture that we all have been exposed to through television, music and the Internet. This is not to say that all of us grew up listening to Avril Lavigne or the Rolling Stones or got our news from CNN. But our community values are defined by mostly Western values and it is important to adhere to some of these Western values to integrate within the NYU Abu Dhabi community, global though it may be.
This is evident in many ways: through the clothes we wear, the way we speak and through the music that is played in gatherings. The norms at this university and other universities that aspire to be cosmopolitan centres of learning are defined by the U.S. and anything else is exotic, interesting, abnormal or even uncool. This sort of cosmopolitanism is a reminder that we all share common beliefs but that they have been imposed on us in many ways. It allows us to interact and communicate, but it also stops us from realizing that we are trapped inside a certain culture and perhaps it is more restricting than it is freeing.
There are ways to move beyond this and Abu Dhabi provides many opportunities to do that. The streets, the shops, the people and the languages on the streets of Abu Dhabi are a reminder that there exists a different realm, or realms, guided by different rules and cultural values. These values have their own reasons for existing.
It’s a class difference too. At this university, we might not all come from the same economic class, but we all share a global middle class culture. That’s why Abu Dhabi needs to be explored and understood: People from different backgrounds can’t and don’t really hide, everyone is out in the open. Labour workers atop half-built skyscrapers look down on Ferraris speeding by traffic lights while women cross the street, dodging the gaze of South Asian males.
Cosmopolitanism should not be entirely comfortable. It should be a struggle to understand and interact. It might be difficult to sit at 9 p.m. at a street corner and sip one dirham chai or to sit in fancy, extravagant hotels, but that sort of discomfort is necessary when engaging with another culture. It’s about reaching out to understand a culture that is different from ours because it has its own different values and is built on a different foundation.
There is a problem of fetishizing poverty, hard work and other cultures. This mindset is only guided by our own cultural beliefs and understanding of the world. And while we can never escape our own understanding of the world, we can surely recognize it. Recognizing this, for me, is the first and the more important step to cosmopolitanism: we might be different, but we can and should all appreciate and experience one dirham chai, dinners in middle class apartments or gold-flaked cappuccinos in their own way, conscious that our understanding is restricted.
Muhammad Usman is deputy opinion editor. Email him at
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