Picture perfect: How the story of Dubai's other side can never be told
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It’s inevitable, then, that I sometimes forget Emiratis may even read my articles. I resort to using British idioms and words I know they wouldn’t understand, but it isn’t something I’m conscious of; the sad reality is that I’m simply not conscious of them at all. Except, of course, when the government steps in to demand that we remove a chapter or an article from a guide or a magazine.
I am tempted to provide an example of this sort of censorship, but I have been asked not to. While the incident between the government and Time Out is common knowledge amongst journalists in both my company and in other publishing houses, Dubai isn’t ready to admit that it breaches the media’s right to freedom of speech. But I’ll allow myself this: the piece that offended the government was a guide to alcoholic beverages sold legally in Dubai; it is neither news nor a surprise that the emirate has licensed liquor outlets within its borders.
It isn’t just topics like alcohol, prostitution and drugs that could get journalists in hot water. Exposing business practices and malpractices can also get you in serious trouble. Back in 2005, when I was working as a freelance journalist for a marketing magazine, I wrote a comparative analysis of Nakheel and Emaar, Dubai’s biggest, richest and most influential property developers. More importantly, however, the government owns 100 percent of Nakheel and 30 percent of Emaar, making them, to a certain degree, untouchable.
While both property developers had had their fair share of criticism, their PR strategies hadn’t been analyzed thoroughly, and no publication had pitted the two against each other yet. When my article was published, one of the two property developers attempted to bully me into providing all my source materials to substantiate the accusations I had made. I would have gladly submitted everything, but I felt my statement—that their PR strategy was nonexistent—didn’t warrant the liveliness of their reaction. They eventually let the incident go, but a year later, when I met the people I had interviewed at the Arabian Travel Market in 2006, I was seen as the journalist who wrote that article. While the feature itself wasn’t censored, the magazine exercised self-censorship and decided not to mention either company in its upcoming issues, at least until their bruised corporate egos healed.
You can blame it on companies being unaccustomed and overly sensitive to criticism, or you can look at the reality of being an expatriate journalist in Dubai. One of the problems we face is that we rarely hear an Emirati voice. They haven’t had a chance to develop one that foreigners can understand or relate to just yet. They will in time, but until then, the expatriate community will have to continue guessing which subjects we can tackle without having to deal with censorship or corporate bullies.
Such incidents of sporadic censorship have made me, as well as other journalists hesitant to tackle the real stories. As mentioned, it isn’t that the stories aren’t there, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a journalist who’s willing to have their career shredded for a 300-word article.
The result is that Dubai’s stories are rarely told. The truth about the conditions within labor camps throughout the city, where the men who toil for hours in the region’s unforgiving sun live, isn’t exposed. And the women who suffer the injustices of a so-called traditional society, while their men indulge in the freedoms of a modern world, rarely have their say.
But like most journalists, I make mental notes of the laborers forced to defecate on street corners for lack of toilets, and the Emirati woman who calls me once every four or five months to remind me she’s willing to talk, but not today; I hoard these stories, knowing full well that if I pursue them I’ll get barred from the emirate. But I’m waiting for the day I leave and have the freedom to write with the sort of brutal honesty these stories deserve.
Dana El-Baltaji is the assistant guides editor for Time Out GCC in Dubai. She holds an MA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut, an MSc in Writing and Cultural Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a BA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut. Prior to working for Time Out, Dana was a lecturer at the American University of Dubai and the American University of Beirut.
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