Wednesday, January 28, 2009

(Cow)Boys in Beemers

The young men of the Emirates love their cars like I imagine the cowboys of the old west loved their horses. In fact now that I think about it, that comparison seems particularly apt for this country, where the rule of law often plays second fiddle to the demands of honor and pride, males hold uncontested authority in all matters within the public sphere, and the prevailing ethos on the streets is may the stronger man win. The reckless confidence of the twenty-something Emirati barreling through Abu Dhabi at 80 mph in his shiny Land Rover, starched white dishdasha clearly in evidence through the tinted windows, seems to have much in common with the devil-may-care attitude of the young gunslinger in the wild west, boots gleaming, stirrups jangling, hat rakishly askew, who gallops into town with a bravado born of the certainty that no one dares challenge him on his own turf.

Both of these notions are obviously stereotypes, the second popularized by the Hollywood film industry and the first no doubt arising from the animosity I feel toward the speeding Land Rovers that endanger my life every time I venture onto the roadways of Abu Dhabi. But the fact remains that cars have become for many young Emirati men an essential part of their public persona, as important to crafting the image they present to the world as their traditional clothing.

On a rainy day last weekend, perhaps two dozen young men and boys convened in the intersection in front of my apartment building for what can only be described as a modern-day rodeo. For more than an hour, those among the group who were old enough to drive (and probably some who weren't) used a circle of wet pavement to show off their motoring chops before a crowd of eager onlookers:

Skidding, as it's commonly known, is a favorite pastime on Abu Dhabi streets. After banning skidding contests and threatening skidders with fines, jail time, and loss of license did little to diminish the activity's popularity, concerned authorities proposed building a track where skidding enthusiasts could practice their hobby without risk of hitting other cars or pedestrians (both have happened recently not far from where I live) and without disturbing residents with sounds of squealing tires and roaring engines.

One Abu Dhabi police officer suggested that skidding could be a way to combat the boredom of being young, male, and Emirati in a society where wealth and prestige are handed to you from birth on a silver platter. Is that the real explanation, or should we simply say that in any society, at any point in history, boys will be boys?

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