Many Canadians don’t have firsthand experience of interacting with Palestinians. Perhaps my reminiscences from my years in the UAE can be helpful in this regard.
Soon after reaching the UAE, I learned that it was better to rent in the city of Sharjah compared to Dubai (where my job was located), because (a) rents were lower in Sharjah and (b) the apartments were more spacious there. Luckily, I found an excellent apartment in a very good location. Apartment buildings in the UAE used to be owned by wealthy local Arabs (and perhaps still are) and managed by a team consisting of a manager and a couple of support staff. The manager of my building was a Palestinian named Riyadh. He was tall and a bit on the beefy side. With his fair complexion, blue eyes and blonde hair, moustache and beard, he could have easily passed for a European. He was also a bit rude.
Within days, I realized that some of his rudeness may have been due to his troubles with his employer: he had been found to have embezzled 85,000 Dirhams (roughly equivalent to C$ 37,000 at the time) from the rents collected and was about to be fired.
Riyadh’s replacement was another Palestinian, a young man named Emad. In physical appearance, he was very different from Riyadh – although he could still have passed for a European, with his fair skin and sharp features. But he was of average height, clean shaven and had black hair. In fact, he bore a striking resemblance to the model for a brand of cigarettes called Davidoff. I soon learned that his nature was also very different from that of Riyadh. He was well-mannered and talkative.
For some reason that I have still not understood, he became fond of having long chats with me. The reputation of the UAE as a tax haven notwithstanding, there were several types of tax: a customs duty on imports, a hospitality tax on restaurants and hotels (which were passed on to the guests on their bills), income tax on the profits of foreign banks, and a tax on the tenancy of rented premises. The last one was payable by the renter and was 2% of the annual rent in Sharjah (in Dubai, it was 5%). Each year, a contract had to be executed (on a form available at the municipality), on which the payment of the tenancy tax was acknowledged. The tenant had to provide this completed form to the manager of the building.
When I met Emad for the first time (it was to hand over my very first tenancy agreement), we soon discovered that we were both equally chatty. After that, every time I had reason to visit Emad, he made me sit in his office and we would have discussions on a wide range of issues. The pattern didn’t take long to set: after exchanging salaams, Emad would invite me to take a seat and yell out to his Bangladeshi support staff: “Ya Mohammed, jeeb chai!”. Mohammed would then bring the type of tea known as Suleimani chai and Emad would launch into whatever issue was on his mind at the time. From time to time, Mohammed would reappear with the next round of tea.
I remember clearly that in one of our early discussions, Emad went on a rant against Islamists. His ire was particularly focused on the fact that many Islamists nurse ambitions of making every single human being a Muslim. At the time, I had not yet become familiar with the sounds of Arabic language (later, I learned the alphabet but not the language), so I didn’t catch the exact verse of the Qur’an that he quoted, but thinking back, I am guessing that it was la iqraha fi ad-deen (‘There is no compulsion in religion’).
Much later, after I had moved to Canada, I learned the history of this verse. I don’t claim to have much knowledge of Islam, but from what I have understood, this verse was revealed to Prophet Mohammed when some of the people around him had wanted to forcibly convert the Jewish children of Medina.
As a side note, I wonder if this verse is very popular among Canadians of the Islamic faith – and whether they would take kindly to Emad’s rant. As I have noted often, it was more possible to have frank discussions on some sensitive issues in the UAE than it is in Canada.
One of these contentious issues is the idea that all the Muslims of the world constitute one nation (the Muslim ummah). Emad used to point out that the history of Islamic societies is replete with wars and bloodshed as much as that of any other society – if not more. In fact, he took pains to emphasize that this infighting started right after Prophet Mohammed died. This is also the stance of many scholars and learned people within Islam. The crux of their argument is that this history belies the notion of ummah. But the notion persists, regardless of examples to the contrary – whether from the past or in the present.
It would be fair to say that while Muslims around the world are quite vocal in support of the plight of Muslims anywhere, within the political sphere (especially of the western countries), these incidents merely serve as the ‘flavour of the month’. For instance, has anyone heard much – if anything at all – about the Rohingya Muslims lately? Their issues have not been resolved. Now check back to 2017-2020 for all the pious statements that politicians issued about that refugee crisis emanating from Myanmar. Those statements will be oozing with compassion.
On the flip side, the anti-Islamists do take the notion of ummah seriously – and thus treat the Muslim population as a monolith. It is difficult to decide who does more damage to the welfare of Muslims – those who are anti-Muslim or those who profess (insincerely) to have their welfare at heart.
ONE BLIND MAN
As I said in the intro to this article, one of our main handicaps as a multicultural society is that while we are drawn – willingly or otherwise – into foreign issues, few of us have direct experience of the cultures from where these issues originate. In a sense, we are, to a greater or lesser degree, like the proverbial 6 blind men trying to describe an elephant. The personal experiences that I have shared with you in this article are the experiences of one of the 6 blind men. I hope to read / hear more of the personal experiences of other Canadians so that I can get a better idea of what an elephant actually looks like.
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(Image Credit: Montecruz Foto via flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons License)