Americans talk constantly of freedom. Both in terms of potentially losing it and in comparison with other countries’ levels of freedom. But the word has grown so overused and generic, like “love,” that few people genuinely stop to think about the power behind it. I’ll admit until this year, I would include myself in that category. Traveling to countries with different definitions of “freedom” than the U.S., however, changed everything for me.
I traveled twice this summer to Abu Dhabi and was shocked at how difficult it was to find thorough information online when I was there, compared with how easy and plentiful it is in America. I looked for descriptions of tourist attractions and restaurants, and many of the same inadequate sites kept popping up with mediocre descriptions. Some of the sites struck me as odd and seemed to paint everything in a positive light. Many sites were so vague I couldn’t get my questions answered, even when clicking on every link and tab offered. I gave the benefit of the doubt and figured it was just a language gap so I continued my search.
But in the weeks I was there, I continued to grow frustrated at the lack of useful information online. After looking up an attraction or historical marker and arriving there in person, it would be closed. How hard is it to post on a website the simple message “closed for restoration”?
Perhaps the most annoying instance for me came upon visiting the art and cultural museum, Manarat Al Saadiyat. I researched online and found that the museum was supposed have some exhibitions I wanted to see. I knew the museum was about 15 minutes outside the city center and on a different island where there would be a lot of construction on at least three other museums — a national museum, a branch of the Louvre and a branch of the Guggenheim. But I was not prepared for how incredibly desolate the island seemed. Acres and acres of dirt and sand, spotted with construction equipment and closed roads. Based on the museums’ websites still claiming major progress and probable openings this year, the fact that the sites barely were more than huge holes or basic foundations truly was shocking. Why not remove the opening date from the website and just put a banner stating “Coming Soon”?
My cabbie weaved through the construction sites and navigated the temporary roads as I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But when he arrived at the Manarat Al Saadiyat, it was a lovely, fully constructed building and I figured it would be fine. The cabbie dropped me off near the property (not ON it because the road was closed) and I went inside.
I was the ONLY PERSON THERE. It was eerie.
In the lobby I found one exhibit of a tower of chairs which visitors could go inside.
There was another exhibit called the “fat car.”
Then I looked around trying to find the other exhibits, but the four galleries were boarded up. I asked a guard where to find more, specifically the exhibit listed online that I came for, and she told me that most recent exhibition closed last month and the next wouldn’t arrive for another three months! What??!! What a waste to spend all that time, effort and money to go there and only spend five minutes looking at TWO THINGS. Why the heck did the website still list the exhibition that closed a month ago and why didn’t it say there were NO permanent exhibitions? At least I wasn’t the only one who got duped, as two other families arrived after I did. To say they were perturbed would be an understatement. All of us spent 20 minutes trying to call taxis to take us back to civilization (with the help of the kind museum employees) because there was nothing else around there except construction. It turns out there was an extra fee for booking via phone. Not pleased.
I was so disgruntled with my experience I wrote an online review, stating displeasure with the lack of exhibits and the lack of adequate information on the museum’s website. Lo and behold, within days some positive reviews began popping up on the review site saying how wonderful the museum was. How curious that foreign visitors left reviews labeling the museum as “disappointing” or “not much here” but Abu Dhabi locals extolled its virtues and cultural significance of the exhibits… even though there literally were no cultural exhibits during the time these locals posted reviews. It seemed clear that most of the reviewers hadn’t even been there, or at least not for months. Why such an effort to make everything rosy and perfect and the best ever? Fascinating, no?
Having been burned a few times, I did some research as to why there would be so much secrecy and puffery. In the middle of my research that night, something curious happened. I took a break to check Facebook and clicked on a link somebody had posted. It was supposed to be a dog getting doused with a sprinkler or something ridiculous like that. But instead of the dog, this is what came up on my screen:
That’s right, the government blocked my puppy video. It says the puppy in the sprinkler falls under the “Prohibited Content Categories of the UAE’s Internet Access Management Policy.” I tried again, but to no avail. Instead, I tried to figure out why such content would be blocked. I couldn’t get a specific answer as to what I violated, but the page listed descriptions of all content prohibited by the government:
Take a look at the prohibited content. Some of it doesn’t seem outlandish, like “terrorism internet content” or “internet content for hacking and malicious codes.” But if you look closely, you’ll also see “dating internet content” and “gambling internet content” and under the nudity category, content that “depicts acts of homosexuality, nudity and sexual material (including stories, jokes, animations, and video) or Internet Content that promotes sexual activity.”
Wow. No gambling websites? No dating websites? Imagine how different America would be without Match.com! And not even jokes or stories about sex? Very interesting. Within two days of my finding this, I also heard that an acquaintance’s friend, who is a journalist, was arrested in UAE. Details were sketchy but it sounded like the person simply was reporting on Syria and someone complained to the government. Being a journalist myself, I became nervous and stopped trying to dig up information until I got home.
When I returned to the U.S., I did more research and discovered eye opening information about “freedom” in the UAE. A flood of websites popped up decrying the country’s internet censorship, press censorship, lack of free speech for citizens and human rights violations. Reporters Without Borders has web pages dedicated to offenses, Freedom House explained perceived freedoms versus real restrictions and even Wikipedia has a page dedicated to human rights in the UAE. Site after site explained that residents could not voice anything negative about the government, religions, etc. At first I found this shocking because my time in the country mostly had been positive. The country portrays itself as cosmopolitan and growing more so each day, so I never thought to investigate censorship, which strikes me as an antiquated practice. It made me incredibly grateful for the freedoms I am allowed in my own country.
I learned that “freedom” really isn’t black and white; infinite shades of gray exist. One country’s definition of freedom differs from others. Although I found my internet experience frustrating, I imagine someone growing up with the UAE’s web regulations might not think twice about the censorship because it’s all they know. I certainly didn’t like the idea of potentially being monitored by government entities. But let’s get real here: following the uproar over the NSA spying on average Americans, our country clearly has plenty of its own issues. It appears that even our own definition of freedom continues evolving before our very eyes.
The experience was worthwhile and overall I really enjoyed the UAE. But it’s nice to be back in America. And not just for the ability to search for porn and “dog in sprinkler” videos.