Touchdown in the United Arab Emirates:
I stopped midway to the waiting jet and peered inside my laptop bag.
It’s not here.
Losing, forgetting and destroying valuables had become quite a theme for me this trip. First, I forgot my laptop at a campus in Canada; next I left my wallet on a bus in Australia; then I broke my phone in waterfall in the Philippines, and now I’d misplaced my laptop charger en route to the United Arab Emirates. What could I possibly lose next—my mind?
You know I can’t write interviews with a dead laptop. Please help—again, I prayed, retracing my steps to the boarding gate.
After I attempted to explain the trouble to the gate attendant, a guard went looking for my charger and returned empty-handed.
“— ——– – —- —- – – —-,” said the guard, his language unknown to me.
“If you just let me look for it myself, I know exactly where I left it,” I responded.
“— ——- – — – – —– – – —— — —– — ———- – – ——– —-,” he replied.
This bilingual duet went on for a couple of minutes, neither of us making much communicative headway in the otherwise pleasant conversation. Finally, the guard let me pass.
I almost discerned a golden halo quivering around the laptop charger when I spotted it suspended from a wall socket. Another answered prayer.
Then again, considering I hadn’t originally mapped out any destinations beyond “Genovia,” being able to visit the UAE at all had been an answered prayer.
Soon, I glimpsed the land for myself through airplane plexiglass: a sandy sheet of scattered lights, miniature palms and whitewashed cubes stretching towards the hazy horizon. Above the scene, a pale crescent hovered stark against the twilit sky.
Just like the moon on the Islamic flag.
After landing, clearing customs, and reuniting with my massive green backpack, I realized I had no idea who I should be looking for next. Or if I should be looking for anyone. My friends here had said they’d arranged for me to stay somewhere, with someone, but I didn’t know where, or with whom, or whether they’d be meeting me, or I’d be tracking down them.
No signs, no signs… I scanned the crowd in the terminal, hoping against hope to glimpse a sign with my name on it. Hey look—a family holding a sign with my name on it!
Soon after we greeted, a deep, musical chant began reverberating from somewhere overhead.
“What’s that sound?” I asked.
“It’s the Islamic call to prayer.”
The haunting tones, rising and falling, filled the terminal.
How different from the airport in the Philippines, I thought, with the statue of Jesus standing in the waiting lounge.
How would Christian students experience this officially Islamic nation, a highly multicultural society where 90% of the population is not ethnically Emeriti?1 I didn’t know, but I’d soon find out.
Culture and Christianity in the UAE:
“What can you tell me about the culture here?” I asked the young woman across the table from me the next evening where we sat at an Arabic restaurant. I should have brought my trusty laptop to interview this new friend, even if she isn’t a student anymore. Ah, but here’s a pen. “Pardon me while I take notes on this napkin.”
She smiled, hopefully becoming used to my inquisitive ways.
“I’ve heard many people, from many cultures, say they get really, really lonely in this city,” she replied. “Most of the people come here from different countries, looking for work. The hours are so long, most people can’t go to church because of their jobs. They slowly lose touch with the church, grow cold spiritually, and become lonelier and more depressed. Meanwhile, temptations here are strong, drawing people away by many other distractions.”
Business, loneliness, work pressures, lack of Christian connections…sounds like the lives of a lot of university students.
“What’s it like to be a Christian here?” I asked, momentarily abandoning my pen to tackle the dishes of mutton, chickpeas and rice which had arrived.
“Islamic laws here are strict,” she answered, “but much more lenient than in neighbouring countries. There’s a good amount of freedom to worship and minister in strategic ways, but we do have to respect Islamic religion and laws. My church has gone through serious questioning from the government, but we’re able to fit in here.”
Still, she told me, the UAE exhibits far more religious tolerance than her Buddhist home country, where she grew up awaking as early as 4:00 a.m. to attend secret “house churches.” Unlike the situation her home country, official churches do exist in the UAE, but only on controlled “compounds.”
Church compound. I’d heard that phrase before but had no idea what it meant. The name conjured up mental images, for me, of several church buildings clustered together within the confines of a high-security wall. When I did later visit a church compound, the single structure looked nothing like I’d envisioned. Actually, entering it felt like stepping inside a small college building—except for the sight of a huge golden directory filling the opposite wall.
Church name, pastor name, contact number, language of worship, day of worship—Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday, time of worship, service location, I read the directory headings. More than 55 churches use this building, meeting in different rooms on the same compound, the way college classes meet in different lecture halls at the same campus!
The many different languages of worship advertised testified to the UAE’s multiculturalism, and
to the reality that most Christian students here are “third culture” students. Neither fully immersed in their homeland’s culture nor local culture in the UAE, third culture students encounter a unique array of challenges and opportunities–perhaps like international students do anywhere.
“Being third culture gives you a lot of dynamics, diversity, and opportunities like no other culture would give,” explained one guy I interviewed, a Christian who recently graduated from business studies. “You have a combination of cultures in you. It’s amazing to see that, because you have the good aspects of both cultures. But one of the biggest challenges overall is finding out how to adapt to both cultures, how to associate with people from both sides–your family, your coworkers, and your classmates.”
“So what advice would you give another third culture Christian student?”
“First,” he answered, “I’d say, ‘Wherever you go, it’s important to have a proper basis. Without a proper base, you can’t build a building. You might look fancy on the outside, have a Bible app on your phone, and have flashy lights and a band at church. That’s all great, but the big question is how you’re applying all that spirituality to the rest of your life. Are you actually keeping up your spiritual walk, taking time to be with God, and thanking God throughout university? Do you get the opportunity to help and pray with others who are struggling? How are you showing what love is?'”
Hearing this graduate’s emphasis on spiritual foundation building, I could almost still hear a campus ministry leader in New Zealand echoing similar words about the importance of teaching students how to apply the gospel to every area of their lives. (See also, How Christian Students Can Prepare for Secular Higher Education.) Understanding the gospel and living it out in moment-to-moment decisions is as important for students on the Arabian peninsula as it is for students in New Zealand, or anywhere else.
Training students how to do this, of course, is a matter of discipleship–something that most people I’d met so far had mentioned, but few really explained. Now, having a better idea about what sort of cultural climate students in the UAE experience, I was about to learn about some of the exciting ways how local churches disciple students to navigate this culture with Christ.
But that’s a story for next time.
- CIA World Factbook, United Arab : https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ae.html