Arts & Culture The Identity Issue

How living abroad brought me closer to my national identity

Living overseas reaffirmed my belief that being an Emirati is wonderful.

By Naila Al Binali

Artwork by Saudi artist Abdulaziz Alsefri.

This story is brought to you by Dr. Rocco’s Specialized Dental Center in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

I have wanted to study abroad for as long as I can remember, and about halfway through high school, I made the decision to study in the United Kingdom. I knew that moving away for university was the right thing for me to do, and it was so in so many ways more than I expected. It taught me to be independent, and it helped me grow as a person.  But most significantly, living overseas for four years made me appreciate my identity as an Emirati a lot more than I used to.

Forced to eat bland meals I had cooked all alone in my dorm room made me value the fact that my parents, my two younger brothers and I would sit down for lunch every single day back home. It made me savor every bite of the local dishes that we always make that I once found boring and repetitive. Having a flat white with skimmed milk from the Café Nero or the Starbucks down the block almost every day got me craving the light and fragrant Arabic coffee I drank after lunch when I was in the UAE.

Whenever my phone beeped indicating that it was now prayer time, it also reminded me how much I loved living close to three mosques and hearing the athan (call to prayer) loud and clear five times a day.

I got jealous whenever my entire family would get together when I was not around, or when my friends decided to go try the new coffee shop everyone and their mother were raving about and I was not there to experience it with them.

Every time I put on my heavy, dark green parka jacket and looked at myself in the mirror, I thought about how the light and soft abayas (black cloaks) I wore back in the UAE made me look slimmer and a lot more elegant.

I even started to listen to songs of Emirati singers I had never thought I would like. Believe it or not, I also missed the feeling of our scorching sun on my face, especially during the cold and rainy days in the UK.

Living far away from home made me immerse myself more in my culture and traditions in the hopes of having a life in the UK that was similar to the one I had back in the UAE. I tried to remain as close to my culture as I could by creating beautiful memories with my fellow Khaleeji friends. My friends and I always tried cooking traditional meals together, despite our simple cooking skills. We gathered to break our fast together during the holy month of Ramadan. We dressed up and spent Eid together. We even attended events hosted by Khaleeji societies in our university, just to feel closer to home.

Studying abroad taught me a lot of things, and most importantly, it reaffirmed my belief that being an Emirati is wonderful.

Naila Al Binali is an Emirati UK graduate who is now an event manager in Abu Dhabi, UAE.