22 September, 2008

Young and Arab in Land of Mosques and Bars

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In his old life in Cairo, Rami Galal knew his place and his fate: to become a maintenance man in a hotel, just like his father. But here, in glittering, manic Dubai, he is confronting the unsettling freedom to make his own choices.

Here Mr. Galal, 24, drinks beer almost every night and considers a young Russian prostitute his girlfriend. But he also makes it to work every morning, not something he could say when he lived back in Egypt. Everything is up to him, everything: what meals he eats, whether he goes to the mosque or a bar, who his friends are.

"I was more religious in Egypt," Mr. Galal said, taking a drag from yet another of his ever-burning Marlboros. "It is moving too fast here. In Egypt there is more time, they have more control over you. It's hard here. I hope to stop drinking beer; I know it's wrong. In Egypt, people keep you in check. Here, no one keeps you in check."

In Egypt, and across much of the Arab world, there is an Islamic revival being driven by young people, where faith and ritual are increasingly the cornerstone of identity. But that is not true amid the ethnic mix that is Dubai, where 80 percent of the people are expatriates, with 200 nationalities.
This economically vital, socially freewheeling yet unmistakably Muslim state has had a transforming effect on young men. Religion has become more of a personal choice and Islam less of a common bond than national identity.
Dubai is, in some ways, a vision of what the rest of the Arab world could become — if it offered comparable economic opportunity, insistence on following the law and tolerance for cultural diversity. In this environment, religion is not something young men turn to because it fills a void or because they are bowing to a collective demand. That, in turn, creates an atmosphere that is open not only to those inclined to a less observant way of life, but also to those who are more religious. In Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Algeria, a man with a long beard is often treated as an Islamist — and sometimes denied work. Not here in Dubai.

"Here, I can practice my religion in a natural and free way because it is a Muslim country and I can also achieve my ambition at work," said Ahmed Kassab, 30, an electrical engineer from Zagazig Egypt, who wears a long dark beard and has a prayer mark on his forehead. "People here judge the person based on productivity more than what he looks like. It's different in Egypt, of course."

To read the rest of the story, a blog on the subject and to view a slide show, go to:


Proud Emirati said...

very worrying !

DUBAI JAZZ said...

The article is well balanced, and very very realistic. I mean that Rami Jalal dude is almost everywhere here! It scares me to see how typical the way of thinking and the way of living is for those guys. Bored at home country, looking for challenges in Dubai, befriending prostitutes, high (false) aspirations, very simplistic way of looking at things: see for example how he thinks he can earn 10000 DH without justifying what qualifications he's willing to put forward to deserve it. Those guys are the outcome of corrupt governments and the lack of transparency and realism. I'd bet that bearded guy from Zagazig is in much better shape mentally and socially than Rami; 'cause at least his lifestyle and his beliefs are more congruent with where he comes from. While Rami Jalal is probably trying to emulate a western, materialistic life style that he certainly won't be able to sustain at home. Neither he could live with it forever. Notice how he says he feels suffocated? It's because of the feelings of guilt associated with any deviation from ingrained religious believes.

nzm said...

DJ: Compound what you've said together with how much financial debt these guys are incurring to live this lifestyle and the burden on them must be huge.

They're like hamsters on wheels, but the hamsters have already worked out that they can choose to get off the wheels.

Rose in Dubai said...

What struck me is how the Egyptian guy has absolutely no sense of self discipline. He wants to be controlled and blames the lack of control for his drinking. Does the concept of personal responsibility not exist for these guys? Impulse control anyone?

rosh said...

Yes, worrying indeed - however, this isn't new. It has been in the works for the past 10 years or so. It's hard/unfair on those who live & play fair - have a look at driving culture across the UAE for instance. There is a lot of good, however, for some reason, the bad breeds at a higher rate.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis by dubai jazz.
The Rami Jalal's in Dubai are very worrying, they have

1) Zero inclination towards higher education

2) Morals that say bribery, cheating, lying are all acceptable as long as they get more money

More often that not you will find such characters acting as shameless sycophants to Shaikhs or other rich people.

When I tried to advise some of my friends who live similarly,they said I probably was jealous of them (partying every night and hanging out with prostitutes), so your average Rami doesnt want good advice as well.

Mars said...

its about choices in the end. no one forced them to pray/not pray. no one told them to drink or see hookers. why do they need babying or blame others on their poor choices?

Emaratiyah said...

WoW DJ, what an impressive interpretation!
So true, so sad. Has lots to do with the personality, identity crisis, the confusing mix of the UAE and the diluted cultural and religious standards.

It is confusing, specially for the younger generation. Can't forget the first time I saw a bunch of local guys sitting with a mix of nationalities, when a female friend of their came to join, they greeted her with a kiss on each cheek. In our culture that is something we don't do, but my guess these young guys were brought up in a school of a mix back ground and are identifying with some of the cultures they are exposed to.

Jalal's story is similar in many ways, cause he is identifying with a culture he is mixing with and maybe liking it or trying to fit in, with full knowledge it is nothing he would bring back home without trouble.

I think I confused the point I am trying to make...

Dubai Entrepreneur said...

I would have to say that I agree that tolerance in Dubai is much better than it is in a lot of other Arab/Muslim countries.

At my company, I try to keep it as diverse as possible (different ethnicities and religions). Despite the fact that I am agnostic and don't feel too comfortable around the ultra-religious, I did hire a bearded guy with a prayer mark on his forehead. People who know me would be surprised at such a move from my part. However, I tried to see past the physical appearance and restricted myself to the productivity at work.

Problem is, despite the fact that we are short-staffed and overworked with Ramadan hours, our long bearded guy refused to accept that he cannot go to Umrah because of that.. and just left!

In his mind, religion is a higher calling than work.

In my mind, I just got screwed. I also would never hire someone who is clearly going to have such priorities. Maybe others would, but not me.

Moral of the story is, for the most part, people are tolerant here.. until they get bitten.

hemlock said...

DE: i find your assessment unfair. the guy was as clear about his priorities as you are of yours. you would probably want a person with less conviction... who will jump when told to do so.

in this guy's mind, religion was a higher calling than work. in your mind, work was a higher calling than religion. how are you two different as individuals? (except for the part where you feel your priorities were higher on the list since you signed his paycheck?).
having such strong opinions of your own, you are hardly in a position to judge him for his.

you can choose to be a victim and resent him for not finding your employment offer indispensable, or you can respect a man for having faith enough to walk out on his source of bread and butter. =)

Proud Emirati said...

Well said hemlock ! Beside, who is this employer who let his employees have a vacation whenever they want?

Kyle said...

or you can respect a man for having faith enough to walk out on his source of bread and butter. =)

Hemlock, come on?

This isn’t about faith, or walking out on bread & butter, is it? It stems more towards insubordination and lack of commitment / respect to one’s own source of bread & butter, which in some unique way is tied to one's faith, no?

Correct me if I’m wrong but a Moslem can go anytime of year for Umrah, can’t they?

Proud Emirati said...

^^ but the reward in Umrah is better.

Anyway, the issue is about an employer not being able to manage his employees. There will always be people with different priorities, whether it was religious, family, personal, etc so it was odd to bring an example about a bearded guy to emphasizes how they abuse DE supposedly tolerance.

Pathetic ...

Kyle said...

but the reward in Umrah is better.

Excuse me? What's your point? Unless you agree with me that going for Umrah any time of the year is okay and not at the expense of one's commitment to work?

hemlock said...

kyle: (and im not preaching here)

for a believer, ramadan, especially the last ten days, hold more significance than any other time of the year. and if the month is supposed to be spent in prayer and in being grateful to the Creator, the thought is "what better place to be, than in da House of God(makkah)".

contrary to popular practice, to be muslim means being subservient only to and submitting only to the will of Allah, (and not the US forces, or your employer, or your uncle who may be leaving your a fortune).

It stems more towards insubordination and lack of commitment / respect to one’s own source of bread & butter

that depends on who you consider your source of bread and butter. if you believe DE (or any other employer) to be your provider, than yes, that is exactly what it is. but if you truly believe Allah to be the Provider, then you will walk out on your employer (if that is what you need to do) believing what is yours will not be denied to you.

yes umra is not mandatory in ramadan; yes, like a good little employee he couldve waited till his boss was willing to give him time off; and yes, Allah doesnt exactly tell you to quit your job to spend a week in Saudi.

but for this guy, one thing was more important than the other, and his decision (irrational as it may seem) wasnt driven by financial consideration. how many of us have the guts to operate like that?

there's a pleasure sure,
in being mad,
which no one but madmen know

John Dryden (1631 - 1700)

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Sorry to interject, but tolerance in workplace means secularism gets to have the upper hand, doesn't it?

Kyle said...


Thank you My Dear, I was really hoping you'd respond with valid counterpoints.

Being here close to 2 years, we've come to better understand Islam and the significance of Ramadan. Yes, I know the last 10 days of Ramadan are more significant but when you address the term 'House of God', isn't any Mosque in town the same?

Now you mention the submission to the will of Allah, hence the submission in terms of prayer & devotion can be done at your neighborhood mosque or you must insist that it has to be done in Mecca?

If that's the case, I don't believe any religion (including Moslem) enforces upon its followers to just up and leave and submit to the will of the Almighty at the expense of their work? There is a time and place for everything and I'm sure God never imposes upon his followers to quit and submit at his will. If you still insist, then I'd say it's a bit wayward and totally out of the loop.

Lastly, it's not about guts - I'm referring to the guy at DE's workplace - I think he should have been considerate to his work and then proceeded on his pilgrimage with a clean bill on his conscience.

I know this is late but Ramadan Kareem to you & your family.

Awesome quote by John Dryden - reminds me of the weed impact!

Anonymous said...

The case of an employee leaves for Umrah (or whatever reason) is a paid-leave in the end. It all depends on the contract agreement of when the holiday can be taken, how long, the notice period, etc. Islam is more focused on fulfilling agreements and commitments than most of other things. I don’t know what the agreement was, so I can't tell if the bearded man is guilty or not...

But having a religious holiday in itself is a great thing. This is similar to Westerners having Christmas holidays and the majority of them give it higher priority than work urgency. But again, fulfilling the agreement is the first thing in place (as far as I understand).

Proud Emirati said...

This is a good point Hatim, this reminds me of how some Universities and Schools (Christian management) here change the holiday dates to comply with Christmas and Easter days even though they have no right to according to the ministry law.

Dubai Entrepreneur said...


Perhaps I wasn't clear enough. He did not resign. He just left without saying anything. I don't know about you or your faith, but that is hardly the decent thing to do. And yes, the contradicts with everything I believe in.

Dubai Entrepreneur said...

I just re-read the comments and I think you guys are missing the point. I have no problem with someone with strong convictions. I am completely indifferent to the individual's faith, gender, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation. What matters is the mutual agreement we share. The employee provides services and in return the employer compensates for them.

At any given time someone might find an arrangement unsuitable. There are agreed ways to break such an arrangement. Leaving without notice, however, is not one of them. That is a breach of contract. One that both parties have entered into.

The fact that in his mind, this higher calling justifies for such action is what makes someone like me reluctant to hire more people of the same convictions. It means that they do not respect contractual agreements.

proud emirati, under your country's rules, such an employee would require an absconder report. I am also reluctant to do so as it would mean a ban on him. I would much rather not feel responsible for inflicting such potentially damaging actions on an individual.. even if they obviously have no respect for me or the organization he was a part of. But, who am I to question things?

I don't think an employer is more or less important than one's faith. To each his/her own. I am simply saying, Dubai might be tolerant towards both ends of the spectrum, but it only takes one bad apple..

Anonymous said...

DE: in Quran: “O ye who believe! Fulfil your indentures.” [5,1]. I am muslim and I have never heard that going to umrah is preferred on breaching a contract, agreement, or even a verbal promise; whether in Ramadan or not.

What I know is that one-third of Quran speaks about worship (prayer, fasting, umrah, etc), while the other two-thirds speak about attitude and ethics, such as honesty, productivity, commitment, etc.

You may have some comments on some people you have seen, but it’s worth it to clarify what the religion says; this is because you say: "this higher calling justifies for such action is what makes someone like me reluctant to hire more people of the same convictions."

hemlock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hemlock said...

DJ: secularism by definition rejects religious idenitity. and i dont know about tolerance - the concept reeks of arrogance. as if you are doing someone a favour for letting them own beliefs different from yours.

kyle: when we say sala'ah (which can literally be anywhere), we face the direction of Makkah. you pray IN a mosque, you cant pray
facing that mosque. (it's a technicality)

the submission in terms of prayer & devotion can be done at your neighborhood mosque or you must insist that it has to be done in Mecca?

submission, in terms of prayer, can be done in your backyard (provided it's clean). islam has not specified coordinates. Allah (swt) is VERY flexible in what He expects from His creation. Hajj, considered the most important journey for the muslims, is only mandatory for those "who are able". Umrah, then, is a secondary thing.

that said, for hundreds and thousands of people, being in Makkah during ramadan brings them so much closer to God. here's a video of people who are there this ramadan just watch the first minute. it will give you an idea of what i'm trying to say. i dont think all of them have absconded, or walked out on their employers, or quit their jobs to be in Makkah. ramadan is a great time to reflect, and reconnect with your creator. it's more spiritual, based on belief, than on anything theoretical.

Lastly, it's not about guts - I'm referring to the guy at DE's workplace - I think he should have been considerate to his work and then proceeded on his pilgrimage with a clean bill on his conscience.

dude, i personally prefer to give people the benefit of doubt. i seriously cannot condemn him without hearing his side of the story. but yes, coming from where i do, i can sympathise with what may seem an irrational and bizarre act.

DE: for you, i think hatem has done a wonderful job of explaining the importance Islam places on keeping promises and contracts.
from what i understand, he asked you, you refused, so he left anyways. it does boil down to personal priorities. had someone in his family been sick, or had they died, you might not have refused his visit(im assuming). as for a trip driven by religious desire, you were unable to connect and couldnt see where he was coming from, hence the fallout. ya'akhi, people dont work in black and white. im not endorsing his behaviour; all im saying is if you have never had chocolate, you will never know what people obsess over.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Hemlock, secularism doesn’t ‘reject’ religiosity. On a state level it’s simply the assertion that religion and governance are separate. In the work place it means religion and personal beliefs don’t factor in anything at all (i.e. promotions, corporate regulations.. etc... ).

This is the abstract definition.

But it is understandably not the case here in the UAE, since it’s a Muslim country (in term of native citizens). However, and again you’ve got to take this in the abstract so that your own religious belief doesn't make your opinion biased; secular people are tolerant by default, religious people are not necessarily so!

Dubai Entrepreneur said...


I agree with you, not every relationship works out. What brought all this discussion here is in reference to the bearded guy who says that in Dubai, people look at your productivity vs. your physical appearance (in comparison to Egypt). What I am trying to say is, this is not necessarily true.

Because of the ethnic mix in Dubai, we tend to overlook a lot of things that may be scrutinized in one's home country (discriminatory things). However, I wanted to highlight that from a business perspective.. and a pure productivity measure, hiring unpredictable individuals (those who may have their own interpretation of a belief system) is counter-productive for a business.

I have no doubt that from a strictly Islamic point of view, the right thing to do was to resign and move on. Leaving without notice is not the decent thing to do. It is a cowardly thing that puts me (as a business) in the awkward position of having to punish him in a way that I don't want to. It also ruins it for those who 'appear' to share this seemingly twisted belief system.

This is all I'm trying to say. At our business, we have Muslims (Shi'a and Sunni), Christians (Catholics and Protestants and and..) and Budhists.. and agnostics and atheists.. Some practice their religions and some don't. Some pray 5 times a day and some don't. Some Muslims are fasting and some are not. It makes no difference to the business.

Also, on your note about tolerance in a secular setting being arrogant -- I completely disagree. Islam preaches tolerance and the very same values. In the Quran (and I am paraphrasing in English here), there are verses that clearly state, you have your religion and I have mine. There is nothing arrogant about it. Tolerance is simply saying, there is no way in hell I'm doing THAT, but hey.. if that's your thing, knock yourself out :)

In closing, I don't think anyone here is in disagreement. It seems like we're all saying the same thing, more or less.

Kyle said...


It’s been one hell of a debate. So before I end up offending anybody, I’ll just re-invoke my commenting discipline by staying the heck away from religion & politics.

‘Nuff said!

Thanks for all your insights!

Enjoy your forthcoming holidays next week :)

Lirun said...


nzm said...

I've been following this thread with interest and I'd just like to say kudos to you all for an intelligent and articulate debate. It's nice to see this a mature discussion after all the threads which quickly degenerate into name calling and insults.

Well done guys.


Abu Dhabi Blogger said...

Unfortunately the freedom to make choices has made this guy lose all control on himself. This is exactly how he would act if he were anywhere else in the world. ANY place which is not oppressive and conservative will give you freedom of choice. If he blames Dubai for using the services of prostitutes, then he is a pathetic loser who condones abuse.

Veiled Muslimah said...

Thanks for the article DJ. A very interesting read.

Veiled Muslimah said...

Dubai has its ups and downs when it comes to religion, or practicing it. It's fast become very secularised, especially in the work place.

A lot of people tell me they have a hard time practicing religion here. It might be hard yes, [I wear the Niqaab, and I know how it is], but again its the choices you make and the company you keep.

nzm said...

Veiled Muslimah: You've hit the nail on the head with 5 little words which combine into a powerful statement:

It's the choices you make.

Even the company that you keep is a choice.


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