INGULFED

In Shanghai

“شو بتفكّر عن ثورتنا؟” — “What do you think about our revolution?”

“What do you think about our revolution?”
“Freedom is beautiful.”
Beaming: “Yes!”

The university’s security staff is mostly Egyptian, almost exclusively supporting family back home, and quite openly champions of the overthrow of Mubarak’s autocracy. (Supporters, dejected, are less visible.) Engulfed in the politics of the Arabian peninsula, this American institution has made very evident the support for non-violent protesters, democratic ideals, and all Middle Eastern countries’ fights against their respective “the Man”.

But other than these interpersonal connections to the region’s groundswell, the UAE is barricaded in an impenetrable bubble — a piece apart from the line of dictatorial dominos that have fallen in rapid succession in recent weeks. A good reason for this: the word protest once meant, for Romans, to “assert publicly”. How could this be in the UAE when those most relegated are hardly even members of the public?


The short of it is that it is hard to complain about the quality of the buffet when you’re not allowed in the restaurant. It is of no use for a man with two heads to fiddle with a turtleneck. In countries currently the sites of civil uprising, protesters seek to actualize the value of their citizenship. In the UAE, those who would protest are all foreign — migrants, temporary, subject to the whims and reprimands of their employers. Why seek to raise the value of a stock that you do not own?

Abu Dhabi is a city parched for action — changing according to a plan (though revised and amputated), but never spontaneous. A worthwhile concert here is an event you attend or miss on its one night, not something you seek out when the mood is right. The chaos in the Emirates’ neighborhood stresses even more how utterly static the energy level is — if Bahrain is changing, why can’t we? It’s not that any system here needs toppling. It is only that the deep bunker of detachment from the zeitgeist gives the feeling of being left on the sidelines, and behind a thick, tall wall.

Last weekend, three students left privately for a flight to Bahrain, late but in time for protests against island management. The university called them back. Stern and without warrant, the administration threatened free adults with nuisance and consequence. The Iron Bubble has descended, inflated by the puffed-up cheeks of too many blowers of hot air and censors of experience.

This is why these demonstrations are so contagious: rebellion is itself an exercise of freedom; asserting is action and making public is making progress. Having access to those efforts hindered, ever — that really blows.

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