- Biography of a Tolerant NationThe Year in the United Arab Emirates
Officially designated the "Year of Tolerance" by the local government, 2019 has been defined by the largesse of institutionally supported and funded initiatives in the United Arab Emirates aimed at promoting appreciation of intercultural diversity and awareness across a wide spectrum of the social scene. The country consists of seven emirates, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujeirah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Qaiwan, which were unified on December 2, 1971. With a local population of Emiratis, or Nationals of roughly 1 million, the UAE has been anything but lacking diversity, especially since the 1950s after the momentous discovery of vast oil reserves in the Arab Gulf and the explosive growth of the population. The World Bank cites an overall population size of 92,418 in 1960, while for 2018 the statistics show a population of 9,630,959, more than a hundredfold increase; about 89 percent of the population is expatriate ("United Arab Emirates"). Since the UAE does not grant citizenship rights to foreigners, with the nominal exception of a relatively small number of naturalized citizens, the main growth factor has been the expatriate, migrant work force. This past year's official motto of "Tolerance" is, thus, reflective of a sociocultural habitus, a recognition of the country's remarkable historical route along with a forward projection and anticipation of Expo 2020, the landmark event the UAE has been preparing for over the course of the last few years. Anyone living in the country during that time must have become intensely aware of the fast pace of infrastructural development heralding the Expo: the highly visible change of the cityscape along with marked innovations in the urban transit and communication systems as well as the service sector. The availability of funds along with the readiness to invest has created a sense of a place in constant transformation all over the Emirates, particularly in Dubai, even though the UAE's capital city is Abu Dhabi. Along with this notion of ongoing change, there is the consistent effort to rely on a recognizable past, hence the publication of historiographic works aiming at narrating the biography of a nation and of a society in flux that, nevertheless, retains its national character. [End Page 165]
Such historiography of the nation has encompassed biographical and autobiographical writing capturing the lives of exceptional Emiratis whose lifepaths reflect back upon the history of the country, and often on the particular emirate with which they primarily identify. One of the most remarkable features of such works is that they are written in English, not in Arabic, addressing thus an English-speaking audience while also reflecting upon the contemporary realities of the UAE and the ubiquitous presence of English as a lingua franca here. Raja Al Gurg's autobiography narrates the story of "a little girl growing up on the banks of Dubai Creek," becoming a successful business woman, and "perhaps most surprisingly" to herself, "a forthright advocate on women's issues" (3). A member of an influential merchant family in Dubai, Al Gurg is the daughter of Easa Saleh Al Gurg, a prominent businessman and former ambassador of the UAE to the United Kingdom, whose autobiography, The Wells of Memory, probably set the precedent for his daughter's memoir, thus establishing a father-daughter autobiographic continuum. The text's formative gesture is the author's desire to "testify" to the very change her native town of Dubai has undergone (i).
From within a background of undeniable privilege and social status, Raja Al Gurg's autobiography sets, in turn, a precedent of her own: that of an Emirati woman writing the story of her professional ascent.1 Al Gurg's text is unabashedly vocal about gender and the historically important role of women in Emirati society: "Far from being passive or repressed," Emirati women, according to Al Gurg, "have been working behind closed doors for decades, centuries even" (72). Yet, she is also aware of her own exceptional position. "It has not escaped my attention that I got to where I am today because of a man," she remarks wryly early on in her memoir...