The following post comes from Sam Abrams, an American who has just moved to Dubai.

“Don’t they all hate Jews there?” asked my 17 year old brother.

“Yes,” answered my grandmother.

The dialogue had not skipped a beat, but the rhythm of the conversation did not convey the colossal difference in the thought of the two speakers. My brother had asked the question in an attempt to sincerely yet nonchalantly inquire about how my Jewish identity would affect my four month stay in Dubai. My grandmother’s response though was far more literal. To her and many of the people that I have told of my work in Dubai, the Middle East and its inhabitants exist as a distant monolith: a conception informed by the media, notions of physical geography, religion, ethnicity, and US political concerns, and void of any diversity in culture, politics, or, (grave) threat to my safety.

The particular vision produced from these disparate sites of knowledge varies among individuals. My grandmother is concerned with anti-Semitism, others are probably afraid of a terrorist attack, and still others may not be able to articulate their fears. All of these sentiments though, are motivated by the same imprecise mechanisms of thought production. In this sense, it does not matter too much if I am in Dubai, Morocco or Pakistan. My grandmother as would many others, would probably feel the same way if I was in Morocco or Pakistan.

In grade school we used to call this “stereotyping:” unduly extrapolating judgements across an entire group based on limited knowledge or experience. A similar mechanism operates here except no one knows they are complicit in such injustice. Neither CNN nor the New York Times lie, but they only give you the news. No terror is no news. The president is incapable of completing a sentence about the Middle East without making the entire region (except Iraq) sound like Iraq. The full picture is missing, but no one provides the missing links. As you automatically fill in the blanks, you draw on what you know: violence and terror; by the time you are through, there is nothing but danger in your vision. Even when the Times writes an extensive travel reviews of Dubai, as it did last May, the constant flood of violent images and rhetoric reigns supreme over the mundane description of a cosmopolitan capital of global commerce. The mechanism is internal and invisible. Only a willful examination reveals its existence.

And thus, my grandmother who is especially interested in Israel can only imagine a sea of anti-Semitism. Most others do not have an acute focus: enveloped by an amalgamation of images of Palestinian suicide bombers, the Iraqi insurgency and Iranian ayatollahs, their conceptions are expressed as a genuine, undeniable, yet ill-defined fear.

I have not been in Dubai long. I am hardly in a position to offer a heartening anecdote—especially after seeing the taxi driver’s face after telling him I was Jewish. But this is beside the point. The point is a more thoughtful examination of how and what we know. Often the answer will inspire less confidence than we would like to think.

Advertisements