It has been two weeks since my last blog entry. I didn’t mean to take this long before writing again, but it has been hard to find any time lately. During the week of Eid al-Adha, the university was closed and I took a trip to Sri Lanka. I took lots of pictures, and I will have upcoming blog entries about that trip. Catching up, after being away from everything for a week, has been very tough. It didn’t help that I was not feeling well for the first few days back. Anyway, onto the blog.
On Tuesday evening, the University of Waterloo, U.A.E. Campus had its second anniversary dinner at The Address hotel. This hotel is not the most impressive building in Dubai, but it does have my favourite name: “The Address”. The irony is that there are two hotels called “The Address”, but fortunately they are geographically close to each other. Our event was in the brown one in the Dubai Mall. The event included faculty and staff from the Dubai campus, along with the Dean of Math, the Dean of Engineering, the Associate Vice-President of Waterloo International, and the president of the University of Waterloo from main campus, and second year students. There were also members of the U.A.E. business community. I believe that one of the main purposes of the event is to raise the profile of the university, in an effort to connect with more potential co-op employers.
When we arrived at the hotel, there were many people in the foyer socializing. It was quite a busy scene with over 200 invited. Everyone was quite dressed up, including the students. After chatting for awhile, we were encouraged to get our food from the buffet stations in the foyer area, and take it to the tables inside. I sat with several of my colleagues near the back of the ballroom. The schedule for the rest of the evening included speeches by 10 different speakers. Honestly, overall I did not think the speeches were great. The opening speaker was from the Canadian Business Council. He was not good at all – he kept referring to the University of Toronto and he referred to the Director of the UW campus in Dubai as Peter Lewis instead of Peter Douglas. The ambassador from Canada to the U.A.E. spoke, which was nice to see. Most of the rest of the presentations were from UW administrators both from main campus and from the Dubai campus. Their speeches were fine, but not exciting – of course I am not the audience that they are really interested in impressing. The second last speaker was a co-op employer, and I thought his speech was pretty good. By far the highlight of the evening was the speech by one of the current second year students in math. She talked about her experience coming from Nairobi, Kenya to the University of Waterloo, U.A.E. campus, about her experiences on campus and in her co-op job. She spoke eloquently and passionately. Everyone I spoke to afterwards agreed that her speech was the best part of the event. I suppose that it is difficult to make evenings like this really dynamic. I am not sure how to make it better.
Since we were all going out to dinner on Tuesday evening, I cancelled the regular Dining Out in Dubai dinner on Wednesday. Instead I suggested that we organize a barbeque at a park on Friday afternoon. I was thinking that there might be 10 or 12 people interested in doing this, but by the end of the week, it looked like there were going to be about 30 people altogether. This included family members and the TAs from the campus. On Thursday after work, I went shopping with the Deputy Director (Ilham) and the wife of one of my colleagues (Liz). I was glad that Ilham had offered to drive me to the grocery store, because I was not sure how we were going to get everything back to the hotel – even though it is right across the street. Trying to estimate how much food to buy for 30 people was a bit tricky. In the end we didn’t buy enough meat (luckily, the director happened to bring extra kabobs that made up for the inadequate amount), and probably bought too many vegetables, but fortunately everyone got enough to eat.
The barbeque took place at Jumeirah Beach Park. This park is relatively small, but it is adjacent to a very nice beach. There is one section that has several grilling areas available. There were two things that I was worried about when planning the barbeque – one was hoping we had the correct amount of food, and the second was hoping we would get a barbeque pit. Fortunately, unlike in Canada, one thing I didn’t have to worry about was the weather. I was guaranteed to have a hot, sunny day.
The park was quite busy when we arrived, but we did manage to find a grilling area to use. I had absolved myself from any barbequing duties during the planning stage. I left things to people who knew much more about the process. There seemed to be a bit of a rocky start, but I kept my distance. It didn’t take too long before the meat and vegetables were successfully grilled, and the food was very good. It was all a bit disjointed, because it was hard to generate food for 30 people on one grill, but everyone did a great job. Some people decided to go swimming, and others just stayed around the grilling area. In many ways it felt like a typical barbeque with family and friends back in Canada – except for the fact that this was all happening in the third week of November.
We left just after sunset, and headed back to the hotel. There was some food left over, so I suggested that we take it to one of the apartments and distribute it. I dropped of my stuff in my apartment, and quickly washed up before going back to my colleague Mazda’s apartment. By the time I got there, his apartment was filled with the other faculty members who lived in the hotel. What started out as just a drink before dinner, lasted more than three hours. We at some snacks that Mazda provided and some of the left over vegetables from the barbeque. I thought it was great that, after spending the whole afternoon together, this group of people wanted to spend more time with each other. It turned out to be one of my favourite days in Dubai.
This morning I visited the Jumeirah mosque. This is the only mosque in Dubai that allows non-Muslim visitors. On Saturdays at 10:00 a.m., the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers a tour of the mosque as well as information about Islam. I went to the mosque with Mazda, who is Muslim, along with my colleague Surya and his wife Amy.
I am not religious at all. I have not really decided if I am atheist or agnostic. Obviously, religion is very personal, and anything I have to say on the subject is likely to offend someone. However, I do feel that I should clarify my biases before reporting on what I saw and heard at the mosque today. I appreciate the value of a religious community like a church or a mosque as a support system for its membership, particularly in times of personal crisis. I have great respect for those who practice their faith without judgement of others who do not share their religious views. My impressions of the essential components of most religions is that the lessons are generally good rules to live by – for example the golden rule or karma. However, I feel that historically religion has been used too often to promote hatred and violence. I found out during my trip to Sri Lanka, that in 1959, the president of the country was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. I was extremely disappointed to discover that even Buddhists have used religion as an excuse to kill. Also, my impression of most organized religions is that women are treated differently than men, and in many cases in a subordinate manner. I admit I do not understand much of the politics in the middle east, but I am bothered by constant conflict that appears to be rooted in religious differences. I am equally bothered by the current paranoia towards Muslims in North America – particularly from what I see in the US media.
The practice of Islam is overtly displayed in Dubai, and I suppose in most cities in the middle east. The call to prayer, which happens five times a day, is broadcast over loud speakers all over the city. The first time that I heard it, was in the airport when I arrived. I can hear it faintly in my apartment every day, when I am at a mall, and at the university campus. There are two plaques in my apartment labelled quibla, with an arrow, indicating the direction of Mecca. Every public place, whether it be a mall or a park, has prayer rooms with signage clearly indicating where it is found. I went to the mosque today with the intention of learning more about Islam. I asked Mazda to join me so I could get his insight as well.
While I was taking the tour, I was expected to cover my legs, back, and shoulders. I was also required to cover my head. I brought a scarf with me, but they did supply a scarf for those women who needed it. The first stop was to explain the ablution, and visitors were invited to participate. This is a process whereby you wash your hands, arms, feet, and head before going to pray. This is supposed to be done before each time you pray, although there are some circumstances under which the act of ablution lasts between prayers. There are two major denominations of Islam – Sunni and Shia. The largest pocket of Shia Muslims is in Iran – which is where Mazda is from. The majority of Muslims in Dubai, and the rest of the world, are Sunni. According to Mazda, the Shia version of the ablution process is different from what I witnessed.
After the ablution demonstration we moved into the mosque. There was a presentation by a male and a female guide about the essential components of Islam, including a demonstration of a prayer. We were encouraged to take pictures of the mosque and even of the guide while he was praying. We were told about the five pillars of Islam: the creed, the five daily prayers, charity, fasting during Ramadan, and the hajj (a pilgrimage to Mecca). The times of the prayers are determined by the lunar calendar. Charity is both a set monetary percentage that all Muslims are expected to contribute, and non-monetary acts such as volunteerism or even a smile to a neighbour. I found out that the Kabba, which is the structure in the middle of Mecca, is empty. The structure was built to preserve the area itself, not to house a religious artifact. It is said to be the place where Adam and Mohammed were to have stepped. We were also told that the contents of the services in Dubai were all coordinated with the same message at every mosque in the city.
The emphasis in the presentation was to create an open dialog about Islam. At one point they asked for volunteers, two men and two women, to come to the front. Mazda encouraged me to step up, so I went to the front and stood beside the other women, separated from the men by the guide. In an effort to explain why men and women are separated when praying, he asked me and the other woman how would we feel if we were getting ready to pray, and there was a strange man standing on either side of us. I said that I didn’t think I would feel any different if there was a man or a woman beside me. The other woman said that she would probably feel a bit uncomfortable. He asked the men how they would feel if they were getting ready to pray and there were two young, pretty women standing beside them, and they replied that they would be happy. The guide said that because women would feel uncomfortable and men would feel happy, or distracted, that it was better that they be separated during the prayers. It was also explained that women could pray anywhere, and it would have the same effectiveness. However, men got twice the “value” if they prayed in a mosque rather than praying in another place.
After the presentation, the guides fielded questions. One person asked for an explanation of the difference between Sunni and Shia. After the guide gave the explanation, Mazda said he thought it was a very good answer. After answering a few more questions, they finished the tour. I took a few more pictures inside the mosque. Then, I went to ask a couple of follow up questions. I wanted to know why women had to cover their heads but men didn’t and why non-Muslims were not allowed in the mosque. The head covering was explained as part of the expectation that women dress modestly. A woman’s hair is considered to be more of an issue than a man’s hair in this regard. She also explained that the black abaya was cultural choice in the U.A.E., and that there was no colour specified for the clothes worn by Islam women. The question of not allowing non-Muslims in mosques was explained as an issue of respect. The problem was that non-Muslims were more likely not to dress appropriately and not to remove their shoes before entering the mosque. If someone walked into the mosque with their shoes on, it would dirty the place of worship, which was unacceptable.
Overall, it was an interesting visit. I can’t say that my views on religion have changed much, but I definitely learned more about Islam. This is something I probably would never have done had I not moved to Dubai.