Arts & Culture The Identity Issue

In focus: The Westerners of Arabia

The tales of an American, a Brit and a British-American who found home in the Gulf Region.

By Georgie Bradley

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

First things first, the question “where are you from?” to child-cum-adult expats is a linguistic minefield that can be as complicated as crossing the Himalayas. After mapping out a cocktail of cultures comes the next question: “Well, where do you feel like you’re from?” Again, you’re hard-pushed to give a definition of what home is.  

This ilk of expat is not the two-year hopper who is resistant to being hemmed to one place for too long – indeed the Gulf is definitely a launch pad to somewhere else for many. However, there are a crop of ‘lifers’ who haven’t skimped or skimmed – they’ve stayed. And I make up part of that head count as a British-Greek expat with roots planted in Bahrain, and now in Dubai. But that hasn’t helped secure my loose grip on who I am.

“Lost. I’m lost,” says Max Stanton, an American-British expat, on his identity. “The thing is, I’m happiest when I’m in the UAE, but when I go back to the States I don’t feel like I belong.” Max spent his youth in Yemen which would prove elemental in his improbable affinity for the region –which goes way beyond a love of hummus. Over the last 13 years since he first moved to Sharjah to study marketing, he has integrated into Arab culture on an extraordinary timetable. 

Here’s an experiment for you: click on the video below, close your eyes and listen to him speak Arabic replete with an astonishing guttural ability to pronounce the most difficult letters in the Arabic language for a foreigner. Your mind’s eye will automatically assign him to your average Mohammed or Ahmed. Personally, I’ve never known anything like it.

Sekka interviews American-British Max Stanton, who is known as Max Of Arabia on social media. Story by Sekka. Filming by Ihsan Al Hayek.

Max, who is the founder of clothing brand One8 and the co-founder of new eaterie, Birdhouse, says his fluency is owed to “just practice” and his followers on social media who Berlitz him on the regular when he confuses gendered nouns. “How am I supposed to know if a chair is male or female?” he guffaws.

Oliver Allan, of British origin, who’s lived between Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and now Oman, is pretty much cut from the same cloth. Apply the aforementioned experiment to him and you’ll be dumbfounded once more. Both Max and Oliver speak, write and read in Arabic. In fact, Oliver has taken his next-level proficiency and carved out a career as a teacher at an Arabic institute in Muscat.

Oliver Allan is British but he has chosen to live and marry in Oman. In this photo he is wearing the Omani national dress. Photo courtesy of Oliver Allan.

What is an ephemeral feature for most expats in the Gulf is a saving grace for Max and Oliver when words fail them in English. “My English is actually bad now,” admits Max, “Sometimes I know the word in Arabic but can’t express it in English.”But both he and Oliver still fundamentally think in English. “I sometimes have the odd dream in Arabic,” adds Max.

Natasha Burge, an American expat and PhD student writing a transcultural psycho-geographic memoir, who has lived in Saudi Arabia her whole life bar her college years, resolutely calls the Kingdom her home. She’s worked her way up from conversant Arabic to a Sharqiyah accent as she makes strides in learning the Saudi dialect. “Being able to speak the language lets you in on so much,” she says.

Natasha Burge is an American who considers Saudi Arabia home. Photo courtesy of Natasha Burge.

Expats know that they should at least attempt to learn Arabic. However, vexingly, there isn’t a magic wand that makes learning Arabic a straightforward endeavour. Embarrassingly, the extent of my Arabic only gets me a stack of khubiz  (bread) worth 100 fils from my best arbab (boss, but here meaning man) in Bahrain’s Muharraq.

Maybe it’s not just their knack for languages, but an unquestioning loyalty and devotion to “being an honoured guest in the Gulf” as Max says, and “wanting to lap up the lure of the land via every outlet. “I have been to more places than 99 per cent of locals,” he adds. His dream is to have a house out in the wilds of the desert. He is particularly in awe of the tribal customs that still permeate modern Arab culture – “I feel so taken care of here. It’s infinitely safer than anywhere else.” Natasha’s familial history in Saudi dates back to the 1950s, “My grandfather was a keen photographer, and our family photo albums are full of his photos from the Old Hofuf Souq, Masmak Fort, visits with Bedouins, desert oases and fishing villages.”

From left to right: Oliver Allan, Natasha Burge and Max Stanton. Collage and edits by Greek artist Kostis Gravakis, who lives in Oman.

We’ve all experienced locals opening up their arms and welcoming us into their magnetic circles, making us feel better than we did before we met them. Oliver says he is considered “one of the guys” – because whether you speak Arabic or not, it never barricades that human connection. I can attest to this too.

For Max it was when he was waiting on the side of the airport in Saudi for a driver to pick him up. “A guy walked by and asked me where the steps were to get into the building. I told him I didn’t know because I was new here. He walked off and came back a short while later and asked me if the driver had my number. ‘Yes’, I told him, and he said, ‘OK, come have lunch at my house first, he can pick you up from there.’ There I was, a guy on the side walk at an airport. No chance this would happen anywhere else. This is standard generosity across the region. And I have yet to find all the words for ‘welcome’ in Arabic because there are so many of them.”

Natasha Burge speaking about her journey of learning Arabic and her background. Video courtesy of Natasha Burge.

Natasha feels it’s our duty “as transcultural people to serve as a bridge between our two cultures. In Saudi, I love answering questions about America and in America, I love answering questions about Saudi. It’s very important to me for these two sides of my heart to know how similar and connected they really are.”

Oliver is now married to an Omani and plans to bring up a family blending “the best bits of both cultures” (although both his and Max’s friendship groups are largely populated with locals and other Arab nationals). Incidentally, they both strayed from the family fold. None of their family members speak Arabic like they do. “My parents often wonder where they went wrong,” jests Max.

Photos from Natasha Burge’s family album. Click on each to enlarge it and read its caption.

But has this intense integration helped form who we are, or has it complicated it further? Because if living in this part of the world has informed us of a blatant truth, it is that no matter how much we immerse ourselves, the region defines us by what we are not. We are not Arab – even if Max and Oliver do wear the kandora and dish-dasha (men’s traditional dress in the region) from time to time. But then again, we don’t feel like we are from our passport countries either.

Collectively, we’ve all been struck by reverse culture shock. For me, the need to assimilate into the UK was quite a guilt-making procedure by dint of everyone’s shock at how “un-English” I was. My milky accent didn’t help the unenlightened either. What did  was coming back to the multiple worlds, as Natasha calls it – to that “in-between space” the region represents. It might not provide a ‘whole’ but the sum of its colourful parts fills the soul.

And where we can’t find our identities for ourselves, we find it in each other. Because as I untangled my lineage for Oliver two minutes into our call, he smiled and said: “Ah, you’re one of us.” That same warm hospitality that emanates from our Khaleeji counterparts, we’ve internalised and proffered to fellow ‘lifers’ in a huddle of cosy confusion.  

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Georgie Bradley is a British-Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after a lifetime in Bahrain – which she still frequents on a monthly basis. She is also a certified crisis counsellor for women victims of domestic violence, having volunteered for Women’s Crisis Care International in Bahrain. Elevating the voices of the region’s change-makers is what makes her tick.