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Thursday, June 20, 2024

From the Midwest to the Middle East

by Colin Duling

© Photographs courtesy of Colin Duling
© Photographs courtesy of Colin Duling
© Photographs courtesy of Colin Duling

Winning second place in the Al Habtoor essay competition, llinois College student Colin Duling visited Dubai recently. It’s clear the city and its people made a last impression on him 

You’re going where?” This was a common response I received when explaining my reward for finishing second in the Al Habtoor Essay contest at Illinois College. My prize was the chance of a lifetime: a nine-day, all-expense-paid trip to one of the most unique and fastest growing cities on Earth – Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Throughout my time there, I was provided with luxuries fit for royalty. I swam at the beach in the 80-degree weather, jumped sand dunes on a desert safari, skied down the snowy slopes at a gigantic indoor mall, gazed upon an immense amount of gold in the alley ways of Old Dubai, and stared out over the city from the observation deck of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

My journey which had taken me across the world was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and the city of Dubai captivated my imagination in ways I won’t soon forget. My host, Khalaf Al Habtoor, was incredibly kind and generous.

However, as I boarded the plane to start my trip back home, my mind focused on a request one of the many friends I made during my stay had made me. He had simply stated, “When you go back home, tell your friends we’re not so bad after all.”

The goal of the essay competition was for students to attempt to: ‘Bridge the Gap between the West and the Middle East.’ Before researching the issue, I was clueless about the divides between the regions. My mind was clouded with unfair stereotypes, half-hearted opinions, and even, dare I say it, fear of the Arab sector of the world.

Like most other Americans, at that time everything I knew about the Middle East, or thought I knew, came from what I saw on television or heard through word of mouth. If someone were to ask me what I thought of the region, I would most likely have conjured up images of angry men holding AK47s and blowing-up buildings, or women covered from head-to-toe in traditional dress.

I’m ashamed to say that I, like many others, had been misled and misinformed. According to ‘Inside Islam’, a documentary about American views towards the Muslim faith, the US media, on which most Americans depend for their news, has narrowly focused its coverage on a tiny, fringe minority of extremists. Over 57 per cent of Muslims displayed by the American media are portrayed as militants, according to the documentary, while in actuality such militants make up only one per cent of the global Muslim community.

Luckily for me, I was given an opportunity to explore my curiosity of the Middle East. Throughout my trip, the cosmopolitanism of Dubai allowed me to meet people from all over the world. I encountered a wide range of nationalities, including Emiratis, Indians, Iranians, Afghanis, Algerians, Lebanese, English, Russians, Egyptians, Serbians, and Australians – just to name a few. A person’s culture of origin didn’t seem to matter here. What was evident was that, together, the people of Dubai were building a city each one of them could be proud of.

Here I was, in a portion of the world that many Americans fear, thinking of how similar it looked to what I had read in history books about the origins of the United States. One of my guides told me his story of how he had left his family in India to come to Dubai because of the promise of work and opportunity. He had found a job working in one of the many hotels and now sends money home as often as possible.

Sure, the original American colonies didn’t look much like a desert in the Middle East, but the wealth and competence I encountered looked very similar to what the United States must have experienced during some of its most dynamic periods.

What a difference from the nation we see today, where being an American seems to come with conditions such as primarily speaking English or following an accepted western religion. Perhaps we can learn from the people of Dubai who, while no place is perfect, are constructing a city that might even make George Washington and Thomas Jefferson a little envious.

As the world becomes more and more interconnected with each passing day, it is vitally important that Americans open up and become educated about other places, cultures and societies, to end the stereotypes that have dominated our opinions for far too long. I would strongly encourage anyone and everyone to travel abroad and explore the places you are curious about. Perhaps your eyes will be opened like mine were by this amazing trip.

Oh, and if you’re heading to Dubai, I’d be more than happy to serve as your tour guide. You should know the people there aren’t so bad. Actually I’d say they’re some of the friendliest and most pleasant people I’ve met in my life so far. I’m both proud and blessed to call them my friends. 

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