Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

My Dinner With Ahmad
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 12 2007 12:02 PM

Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

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Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I was put in touch with a guy named Ahmad who lives here in Dubai. Ahmad graciously invited me to dinner at Al-Hallab, his favorite Lebanese restaurant. Over scrumptious grape leaves, hummus, and chicken with garlic paste, I asked him to tell me his story.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Ahmad is a Palestinian refugee. He was raised in Lebanon and then went off to college in the United States, earning a degree in engineering. He lived in California for a while, started his own business, and married (and later divorced) an American woman. Things were going OK. Until 9/11 happened.

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Living in the United States suddenly became uncomfortable, he says. In the weeks after the attacks, Ahmad became frightened to let his mother leave the house—because she wore clothes that marked her as a Muslim. "Who knows what some cuckoo was going to do," as he puts it. He also found it harder to do business. "They'd rather deal with a guy named Jim than a guy named Ahmad," he claims. (If you doubt there is truth in this assessment, consider the Dubai Ports World debacle—in which some fairly naked racism drove a Dubai-based, Arab-owned firm out of America.)

The irritations accrued, and Ahmad decided it was time to move back to the Middle East. He chose Dubai, because it seemed a perfect compromise—Islamic, with a big dose of Western tolerance and First World amenities. He's now launching his own technology business here. He dreams of making millions and using his riches to fund education grants for other Palestinian refugees. As the baklava desserts arrived at our table, and the Emiratis around us sucked on their hookahs, I asked him if he felt Dubai might be viewed as a hopeful vision of a cooperative future between the Arab world and the West.

To my surprise, this question occasioned anger. "Dubai isn't a good example," Ahmad said dismissively. "It ducked the problems of the other Arab countries," he argues, because it never suffered from the same kind of "Western interference." Britain pulled out of the emirates around the same time that oil was discovered, and—armed with riches and independence—Dubai was left to make its own way in the world. If anything, according to Ahmad, Dubai is a vision of what might have been had the West stayed out of the Middle East from the start. At this point, of course, there's no erasing bitter history and, take-home message, we're all screwed.

This isn't quite what I'd hoped to hear from Ahmad. Yes, in some ways, Dubai is a grotesquerie: Hordes of white guys in suits trying to get their paws on Arab money; a monarchy with comic, megalomaniacal ambitions; a semi-indentured labor force; social problems swept under the rug in the name of profit. Still, I see things happening here that I like to pretend are good signs.

Look at the "Letters to the Editor" sections in the local newspapers. Every week, someone complains about the skimpy attire on the beaches. Someone else writes that this is what happens when you welcome heathen foreigners into your country. Another person chimes in with some words about harmonious diversity. And so on. It's a never-ending argument—and, granted, the stakes are sort of low—but if this leads toward a dialectically achieved compromise (instead of, say, a fatwa), then hey, we're making progress.

To me, here's what's promising about the cultural dynamic in Dubai: It throws very different people together within a peaceful and prosperous setting. That, I think, can be a good recipe for breeding tolerance. Even watching the TV commercials here gave me some perspective I think we're missing back in the States: I saw happy Arab families, traditionally attired, smiling as they were enjoying processed-cheese spread together. I can't remember seeing this kind of humdrum, positive portrayal of Arabs on American television. The fact that Westerners here are exposed to this everyday stuff, and the other way around (Arabs having nonterrible interactions with Westerners), should, over time, cement a mellower coexistence.

Of course, sometimes the two different Dubais bump up against each other in unsettling ways. One afternoon, I got lunch at a bistro on the ninth floor of the Fairmont Hotel. (By the way, this was the third-nicest hotel I saw in Dubai. The second-best was the One & Only Royal Mirage, and champ was the Burj Al Arab—the sail-shaped tower that is the one truly beautiful, iconic creation Dubai has given the world. I had a drink in the Burj Al Arab's top-floor bar and was not disappointed by the view or by the stylish clientele.) This restaurant had windows overlooking the outdoor terrace of the hotel pool. But the windows were one-way glass. A pair of gorgeous, sunbathing European women by the pool did not realize this, and they began admiring themselves in what they thought were harmless mirrors.

This came as a delight to the American businessman sitting at a table next to the windows. The women came toward the glass until they were no more than 2 feet away from his widening eyes. As the gals leaned in toward him and peeled their bikini tops back from their cleavage to check for tan lines, the man literally choked on his glass of water and performed a perfect spit take. It was like a Benny Hill episode come to life. And it was hilarious to everyone in the restaurant who saw it … save for the nearby pair of Muslim women covered in black from scalps to shoe tops. OK, it was a tad awkward, but it was still no big deal—and that's the idea.

Of course, perhaps I'm naive, and these two worlds haven't a prayer of ever finding middle ground. I hate to end on a bleak note, but I have to share my most depressing moment in Dubai.

I was on the chairlift at the indoor ski slope. I was sharing a ride up with a pair of snowboarding teens, and I asked where they were from. Turned out one was from Britain and the other from Holland, but they went to high school together in Dubai. Their parents were expats who had moved here for work.

"What do you think of Dubai so far?" the U.K. kid asked me, making small talk. I told him I was still making up my mind. "You grow to hate the locals," he said. I raised my eyebrows. "For one thing, they can't drive."

I smiled at this, as I must admit I'd seen my share of inventive maneuvers on Dubai's crowded roadways. But I fear I emboldened him to get nastier. Because now this little blond twit (with apple cheeks and wire-rim eyeglasses, wiping his snotty nose with his snowboarding mitten) unleashed some good old imperialist invective. "And they should really treat us with kindness and respect," he said, in his pipsqueak British accent. "They're rather cheeky. You know, if we went home tomorrow, this whole place would turn back to sand."

At that point, to my relief, the lift ride was over, and we went our separate ways. But I was left to ponder his comment. Ignoring the incredibly insulting assumptions embedded in what the kid said, I wonder if some Emiratis wouldn't gladly make that trade.