Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dubai vs. Toronto: Part 4 - The Islamic and Cultural Aspect

Part 1: The Myths of Dubai
Part 2: The Harsh Truth Facing Immigrants to Canada
Part 3: Living in Toronto
Part 4: The Islamic and Cultural Aspect
Part 5: Dubai or Toronto?

The Islamic Aspect

Around 5 years ago, my Dad and I were exploring the IKEA store at one of the malls in Dubai. In the middle of our visit, it was time for Maghreb prayers. We parked our shopping trolley outside the small room at the mall that served as a prayer room, made our abolutions, and offered our prayers - and then went back to shopping. Some time back, my wife and I were in Ganting Highlands, Malaysia. Right next to the casino, they had a prayer room where we offered our zuhr prayers.

I recall this because last weekend, I was shopping at IKEA for a kitchen cabinet and the time for Asr prayers was due. Even though there are many mosques in Toronto, it's not often within walking distance - you may have to drive 10 minutes. So we ended up going to our car and praying there. For many muslims who may have to perform abolutions, doing it in a public washroom can be a hassle.

Another important aspect of the Muslim life is halal meat. Halal meat, just like kosher meat for the Jews, comes from an animal slaughtered in a ritually mandated manner. Many muslims in the West believe that since we live in a Christian majority country, the meat is allowed as Christians are one of the "People of the Book" as stated in Islam. Some other Muslims, mainly those formerly from the Middle East in my experience, eat strictly halal meat. Some are even stricter, but we will not go into that.

Again, this being Toronto, there are many halal stores and restaurants abound (we even have halal Japanese food now!) but most fast food and other 'common' restaurants do not serve halal meat.

Since prayers and food are the most important aspects of a Muslim's life (and for girls perhaps the hijab if you wear it) but I am a guy so I will stick to prayers and food (and food more :-p) these ritual aspects of Islam are easier to practice in the Middle East and other Muslim countries.

However, Islam is not about ritual aspects alone. Prayers, fasting etc. make up only a part of what makes one Muslim. There is a lot more to being Muslim - taking care of others, behaving nicely with others, taking care of the elderly, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the economically disadvantaged. Being Muslim involves taking care of the society and improving it by upholding the right and shunning the evil. Being a Muslim means to read, to learn, to better oneself and to think. Cleanliness is one half of Islam, it used to be said, be it personal hygene or spiritual wellness. Being a Muslim is about practicing not just the rituals but the spirit of Islam. And it is this important component that I find missing in the Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East.

In Canada, the culture is such that people are polite to each other. Due to our diversity, people are tolerant of each other and each other's personal beliefs. It's true - bump into a Canadian and he will say sorry! We respect each other's work (there is no shame in sitting next to a plumber or labourer on the bus - in Dubai there was strict class separation in a society that caters to the rich - this is much worse in a country like Bangladesh where a businessman will not even speak to the street sweeper).

Racism is a huge fact of life in Dubai. If you are brown, you can be sure of earning less than white person of equal caliber, regardless of your knowledge, and the white person will earn less than an Arab, who will earn less than a local Arab. Also, the amount of work done also decreases with pay!

I have a true story. A local guy I knew worked at a power plant. He went once a month to the plant - to collect his paycheque. When told by his manager (a British guy) to come at least one MORE day - the guy asked him - will I get two paycheques then? When said no, the Arab guy told the British guy (his boss, remember!) - "you have come here, we pay you well, so shut up about me and just be worried with your own work."

You can find job advertisements in UAE papers saying "UK/America" educated only and so on. One of my Australian cousins once applied to a job that asked for Australian educated applicants. When the Arab interviewer saw him, he remarked, "you are not a real Australian!"

In Canada, many mosques run soup kitchens and welfare programs that cater not just to Muslims but to everyone in the community. On any Saturday or Sunday, you will find lots of Muslims volunteering their time at these places. The Islamic Foundation of Toronto was the top fundraiser group for Sick Kids hospital. Many Muslims run for political office in Canada (we have had muslim Members of Parliament long before the US elected any Muslim senator). Muslims here are involved with the community. In Dubai, the mosque never raised funds, we never went out of our way to help the downtrodden (in fact, speaking about the truly oppressed in UAE - those labour workers - was banned). People attended Friday prayers, heard a sermon in a language they never understood and went back to shopping. Here, people will actually discuss the sermon (and perhaps even complain!) but Islam is thriving here.

If you go to any mosque during Ramadan, you will find it buzzing. I lived in the Middle East and it's a different type of buzz here. People here related to their mosque in Ramadan - it's a sense of community. In Dubai - it was mostly a thing to do because you are Muslim. Here, it's ... different.

Which brings me to the final part about Islam here. Freedom of speech. People here are free to criticise Islam - and Muslims. The effect this has is to make Muslims look inward, and see where the problem lies. Many of our faults are not due to Islam but due to backward cultural practices (such as forced marriages, status of women etc.) The fact that one can cause blasphamey has also caused Muslim thinkers to blossom in the West. The likes of Sheikh Hamza, Sheikh Yusuf, Imam Ziad etc. could never blossom in Dubai or other countries because you have to constantly watch what you say - for fear of the law. Therefore it is my belief that the revival of Islam and rebirth of Islam as a progressive religion perfectly capable of solving humanity's ills can come from the West. Even the Prophet of Islam, and the Caliphs succeeding him, permitted criticism - yet the Muslim leaders today are of higher stock than these illustrious people - it seems.

So if you can plan your prayer timings with your daily schedule, and plan where you want to eat (or abstain from meat if no halal options are there), Islam becomes much easy and a pleasure to practice here in Canada.

The Cultural Aspect

Not much to say on the cultural aspect, but Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism. You are encouraged to retain your own culture while integreting into Canada - which is different from the USA melting pot concept. If you read my blog you will notice that I have been a very Bengali guy in TO :-p always attending our cultural meetups and events - and there's a huge Bengali community in Toronto with lots of stuff happening all the time in Danforth. However, it's not Bangladesh, and yet - it's not that bad a place to be a Bengali.


Muslim Girl said...

I agree with everything you say. I just don't see how looking down onto others of lower status can be done by people who call themselves Muslims, which leads me to believe that there's no such thing as "Islamic/Muslim countries", just countries with a majority of Muslims living in them...

And yes, even Saudi Arabia falls under that, as sad as it is.

Anonymous said...

Nice Article Mezba. A few missing thoughts

Tax percentage comparision

Children Upbringing in both

Hash/Cocaine accecibility


Cost of living vs savings

Ur perception of dubai is 10 years outdated

Brown people lead half of the market
Now a days

Workers situation sad but true
Yet things are improving slowly

But tell me how many bengali people
Can get a work visa in toronto in 2 weeks time
And move there to support theie starving families

Asap ?

I typed this on my phone excuse the typos

Anonymous said...

Bangladesh where a businessman will not even speak to the street sweeper!


Anonymous said...

It's sad to see that the prophet's last sermon about equality of races not practiced in the ME.

I like the fact that rather than miss the prayer, you did it in your car.Proud of you!:)

'liya said...

Great post! Your observations are right on spot with what we saw there (in the short time we were there but enough time to agree with you 100%).

I like how you put in bold that Islam is not only about ritual aspects. I will tell you that when we were there it really didn't feel like we were in an Islamic city. The racism is just SO obvious and disgusting. Example: At the airport when we said Assalamwa alaikum to the (Emirati) passport guy he just stared back rudely and practically threw our passports back at us...no need for such nastiness, we only greeted him with how we thought Muslims all over the world greet each other...you know, something universal. In all other countries we were never greeted with such rudeness, but here in a Muslim city they (the local arabs) really go out of their way to make you feel unwanted. And you knw what, that just hurts the message they put out about Islam, because we know what Islam is but to other tourists, they aren't painting a pretty picture about Muslims who are supposed to accept all races and class levels. And then to make things worse, a few minutes later another (local arab) working at the airport stopped us and demanded to see V's passport even though we had JUST gone through the passport check. He didn't even look at V's pic, just flipped through, saw that he had travelled a lot and we assumed thought we must be important or something because then he shoved it back at us. What a nice welcome to Dubai! And all this happened in the first 30 min. since we arrived. The next 30 minutes weren't any better as we encountered two other incredibly rude (locals) working in the airport. Worst airport I have EVER been to! Even in America the service in airports isn't so bad!! But I guess we were just two brown people out of the hundreds there and they couldn't care less.

Another example: we wanted to go inside a mosque to pray, the men's entrance was locked. I was so surprised, it was the middle of the day and the mosque was closed? Apparently it's only open at prayer times and locked after. Well I can tell you one thing, I've never found a mosque locked in Toronto in the middle of the day :D

BTW we went to an Ikea store there, I wonder if it was at the same mall you went to.

Sorry for the long comment! I'd rather live in Toronto and be a vegetarian if I have to than live in Dubai and have all the halal meat I could have.

mezba said...

Here I am supposed to be writing my Valedictorian pitch and instead I am replying to blog comments! :-)

Muslim Girl, I agree - there is no Muslim countries, only countries with Muslims.

And the sad part is whenever you debate some ill of the Western society people here will toss the example of Saudi Arabia - as if that is the most perfect Islamic country.

The racism factor in Dubai also just bugs me about Dubai more than anything else! I mean it's sort of good for your country that other people are living there and ready to help develop the nation! People who live in Dubai have become oblivious to it but it's apparent as soon as you step out.

Anon 3:07, I did an earnings comparison in Part 1. About bringing up children, I can't say as I don't have any yet! Although bringing them up in Toronto shouldn't be hard. I would be concerned if it was some small town or a town with no immigrants though.

Ur perception of dubai is 10 years outdated

Brown people lead half of the market
Now a days

I wish you had expanded on this though as I am sure you may have some valid points to bring to this discussion. I was there just sometime ago and these were my impressions, not just due to having lived there.

Anon 5:19, yes, let some beggars crowd a man on the street and watch him shoo them away!

Lat, this was one of the things I really liked about Malaysia - about different nationalities coexisting - unfortunately it seems recently there's been some trouble between the communities there.

About the prayer - er, some "one" forced me to hehe.

Liya, sorry you had to go through that experience, even with a Canadian passport. You would think with Dubai broke they would be grateful for any tourists! Unfortunately ego, pride and arrogance is a big hubris. I was in Dubai and involved in a car accident, and actually was asked a bribe by the officer! (this was in Sharjah though - the neighboring emirate and supposedly the more Islamic one!)

Musa said...

Anon - 3:07, I live here and his analysis isnt outdated at all.

As liya said, many Arabs go out of their way to make you feel unwelcome, from looking at you rudely to not replying to Salam, to breaking queues.
If you tell them Islam doesnt condone such rudeness, they will reply "We dont need to learn Islam from non-Arabs".

The fact is that some people here are generally obsessed with only the rituals of Islam and "showing off", they will pray regularly but will be extremely rude, will lie, be corrupt etc.

luckyfatima said...

Mezba I agree with everything you say here co-signed, underlined with multiple exclamation points!!! You pin point the main ethical/spritual reasons I prefer being in a Muslim community in North America rather than in Dubai.

A few observations: It is possible to feed laborers in Dubai ONLY during Ramadan when suddenly everyone (self-included) cooks and sends dishes for them to the mosque. All of that warm hearted sharing stops when the Eid moon is sighted. Pathetic, really.

I agree about the classism and racism thing: it is open and in your face in Dubai (and also in South Asia). It is still there in N. America, it is more subversive and it is a very oppressive aspect of life, but at least people there are somewhat aware that it is bad. A Canadian professional might sit next to a Canadian plumber, but there are still class differences, just less openly. Here (Dubai), people accept racist and classist ideas as truth and if you challenge them they treat you like you are naive or crazy. I feel tho in Dubai it is in your face that you are benefitting from other peoples' poverty and exploiting them. In the US, all of our clothes, shoes, toys, our legacy of wealth and land and how we attained it, our currect position in an imperialist world, etc., we are really not different from Dubai but most of our laborers who we exploit to make our goods and serve for our nice life style are in foreign countries so we mostly never see them or think about them.

-Not to nitpick, but IMHO in Dubai white people with 'important' passports (i.e. not former Soviet countries, but any of the rich countries, especially Anglophone) earn MORE than everyone except local Arabs. Non-GCC Arabs are paid less than whites and are lower than whites on the social and pay scale. I don't think it is the otherway around. Brown people with Western passports and Western degrees are paid the same as white people. However socially they are still brown---treated as people who "took the nationality" and not authentic Brits, Aussies, Canadians, etc.

Suroor said...

Well let's just say that the UAE and KSA made me read history and Islam like crazy! When you meet well behaved Muslims with good morals and habits (like in Oman) everything is beautiful and you begin to believe that all Muslims must be like that. Then you meet the Saudis and Kuwaitis and Emiratis and you want to know what happened? Why are they like that? And then you begin to read their history and the history of their religion. So for that I'm grateful to them. But the rest ... :D

Such a wonderful series of posts! Well done. Really enjoying them.

And poor 'liya :( It doesn't matter what is the colour of your passport; if your skin colour is "wrong" you are often mistreated. I hate that about these racist people!

Dave said...

Another fine piece Mezba.

Yourself and the other commenters are so right about the racism factor of Dubai. The daily examples of one race believing they are superior to another (based purely on their income per capita) is astonishing. But not everyone gets used to it - as a westerner in Dubai I also feel a certain sense of powerlessness to prevent it in many instances. Especially when those inflicting the racism are predominently the local community.

One thing I believe that shines through in your writings is that you are not trying to 'change' the basic concepts of Canadian society, you are purely just trying to carve out a better life for yourself & your family within the exsiting framework of Canadian society. Best of luck to you.

Nadia said...

I just had the most horrible day last Tuesday with one of the RTA officer, an Emirati lady.

I was so furious and was already beginning to harbor hate for ALL Emiratis, when a male Emirati - who also works there, and on whom Masood was taking out all the frustration about what happened with me - listened patiently and spoke so gently and politely, assuring him that "InshaAllah it will not happen again." He somehow made me feel better. If there are rude Arabs, there are some very nice ones too, though they're just a handful.

'liya, based on what I had heard, the reason why they lock mosques, specially the male praying area, is because some people use the place to eat and sleep, and then leave all their trash behind them. Some even take showers in the ablution areas. I've even heard about men who started to live in the mosques.

Nice post, Mezba. The story about that local Arab guy working the power plant is just so, well, sad and disgusting.

Anonymous said...

It takes living in a foreign land to realise the meanings of what is essential and precious to us like our beliefs and to stop taking them for granted.

Yes, I was appalled to read about the stomping of cow head,finding a pig head mosque in M'ysia.Previously this sort of thing was unheard of.I believe the rising of religiousity and insecurity of other races of taking over their rights are reasons behind these spate of events.The current PM Najib insists that time has come to relook the special priveledges the Malays enjoy.

I once read an article by a local Dubaian on how his community should assert their rights as legitimate people over foreigners who settle there before they lose everything to them like that happened to Malays in S'pore! It leaves me open-mouthed everytime I read such comments.What's wrong with meritocracy that allows for any race to participate in the public sphere to advance in life whichever way you want.

Anonymous said...

I loved the adhaans at the malls, and the available of prayer room within the building, its nicer and easier without having to go home and do prayers(later than usual)

There was eye scanning at the Dubai airport, am not sure if it was a random thing. I didnt' get my eyes scanned though some pple who flew with me from our destination to dubai were. Liya, did you have that done??? Btw, the washrooms at the masjids for the women section is PATHETIC and DIRTYYYYYYYYYYYYYY! (went to one with my kids at the souk) :S sf

mezba said...

I was travelling, so didn't get the time return and reply to these comments. Also have to finish the series, possibly next week in a post.

Luckyfatima, I love going to Islamic lectures and other series of events here, in mosques too, because they get such a wide variety of speakers that force you to think, and in the end, you are more at peace with yourself as a Muslim, and more involved too.

That's why I would prefer North American Islam over say, in the UAE where everything is very generic.

In the US though, from what I hear, the Middle East money is buying a lot of mosques, and even here in Canada I have seen some type people (you know - the ones who think Khutbahs should always be in Arabic even if no one speaks it - and we should all be wearing thobes and eating falafel) try to upstage event organizers.

Suroor, the day I had to pay a bribe in Dubai to a police offer to get a paper after a traffic accident was the day I stopped believing in the Islamic-ness of Islamic countries! The guy would never treat me like that if I were Arab or a local. And then, he saw my Canadian driver's license and did a double take! :-)

Dave, Thanks.

Yes I don't wish to change Canada much.

There's some things that has to be changed (the ingrained racism in Quebec for one) as well as civic issues like transit etc. but overall I find Canadians to be nice, humble and polite. We Muslims also have to become better neighbours and more involved in Canada - a fact I think is happening.

Nadia, of course I am not saying ALL Emiratis are bad. I too have met some good ones. However what I am criticizing is the systematic nature of the discrimination and racism. It's the culture - a few individuals are unfortunately not being enough to prevent that culture of arrogance and a strange sense of superiority complex!

In fact, the latest ruling in Sharjah of banning lungis is just the height of that stupidity!

As for that Arab guy at the power plant, unfortunately he is just one of the few stories I know for true. A friend started a business in UAE (and had to find a 51% local partner). That local guy ended up taking everything and the local "Shariah" courts wouldn't do anything to help the Indian expat.

Lat, someone once said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And I think this is what is happening in Malaysia. There is a fracture line between the people and rather than fixing it - the politicians are taking steps to use it to their own advantage.

Sf, oh the washrooms in the mosques in UAE, even the men's used to stink! There's a few good ones. Although I think the authorities cannot be blamed for that - some of the labourers were really dirty in their personal hygiene!

Mashriqi said...


I must say I love reading your articles related to Islam. You express bluntly, what many people choose to ignore, especially from the South Asian perspective. Being a Bangladeshi, I really appreciate that. I would really like you to check out my blog, which I have started very recently. I want to put forward views of Muslims, non-muslims and aethists from across the world.


mezba said...

Mashriqi, thank you for the comments and welcome to my blog. It is my hope that when enough people speak out bluntly we will be forced to acknowledge our own problems and fix them before blaming others for every ill in our society.

Ashna K said...

Very informative posts Mehzab. I just think you have a slightly outdated version of Dubai. Whilst your points regarding racism and the class divide are bang on, gone are the days when a local could get away with abstinence from work like that. Also as someone who has spent more recent time in UAE I'd like to point out that the local Emiratis as they are known, are some of the most humble down to earth people. I know people who are born dripped in gold but have no issues hanging out with an upper middle class desi immigrant like myself. Also many of them have been educated abroad and are very responsible young citizens. There is something quite amazing to be doing materialistic chores like shopping and having the opportunity to pray in perfect facilities. Also walking into a cafe and ordering bacon and eggs (which is halal and not pork) is a simple joy for many. If we get underpaid there, it's true that we also enjoy a massive pay rise and perks that our motherlands e.g. Bangladesh would ever offer. And remember we went there by choice not out of need like a refugee. PS- you are married? MA I thought you were much younger!

mezba said...

Hi Ashna, it's Mezba!

This post was written sometime ago and I have been meaning to do a reevaluation.