GRADUATE STUDENT STUDY ABROAD NOTE
By Shaundel Sanchez, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Anthropology
I applied for the Middle Eastern Studies Program’s (MESP) 2016 Graduate Student Summer Research Grant to continue conducting preliminary research on a project that began in winter 2015-2016. During the winter preliminary ethnographic research visit, I gathered data in order to inform my future year-long ethnographic project in the United Arab Emirates. As an anthropologist interested in the experiences of Muslim American migrants in Sharjah, UAE, I use the ethnographic methods of in-depth interviewing and participant observation. Using these methods, I proposed to MESP that I would collect data which would allow me to start answering my research question: What are the conceptions of citizenship held by people in the United Arab Emirates? This, in turn, had two subsidiary questions: Is it important for residents in the UAE to have a defined idea of citizenship? Are there advantages or disadvantages in assuming citizenship in the UAE?
It was my understanding before conducting summer research that there were two groups of Muslim American migrants living in Sharjah: a group that was invited to move to Sharjah by the Sharjah royal family, and another group consisting of Muslim Americans who had migrated using networks formed on the internet or in U.S. mosques. I was under the impression that the group with connections to the royal family possessed more privileges than the group without royal-family ties, such as con- stant funding, cheaper housing, and permanent sponsorship. Yet, the more privileged group knew they would never receive Emirati citizenship. These observations led me to consider that perhaps citizenship was not necessary for some people to live secure and fulfilling lives in the UAE.
Thanks to funding provided by MESP, I was able to test my assumptions. This funding allowed me to stay in Sharjah amongst my informants for a longer period of time. The extended period permitted more observations, as well as more in-depth record- ed interviews with informants. Many of these informants I knew from the three years I lived in the UAE from 2010-2013 and met during winter preliminary research two years later. I found that this summer, informants were more open to sharing sensi- tive information about how they came to live in the UAE. For example, during an in-depth interview with an African-American convert, Zahid (a pseudonym), he explained that his relationship with a royal family member granted him a life-long position working with the royal court. His position came with additional duties to fulfill beyond his job description. The primary, but not official, job this royal family member wanted him to perform was dawah (invitation to practice Islam) for Emirati citizens. As instructed by the royal family, Zahid came to believe that his main purpose living in the UAE was to perform dawah.
This interview led me to question why it might be important for the UAE to import Islam from the United States; after all, the Arabian Peninsula is the birthplace of this monotheistic religion; and why would these Muslim Americans agree to the addi- tional labor of performing dawah when they can never obtain UAE citizenship? These questions began to guide my research as I heard similar accounts of Muslim Americans as da’i (those who perform dawah) from many other informants and from at least one royal family member. With this new insight, I began to recognize the need to adjust my research direction. These new ideas that I encountered contribute to notions of citizenship, but in ways that focus on the role of the state as represented by Sharjah royal family members and on the duties that one must perform in order to “belong.” Therefore, my adjusted primary question for my research is: Wwhy do these Muslim Americans agree to perform dawah for the Sharjah royal family members despite their inability to obtain Emirati citizenship? Subsidiary questions include: Why do these Muslim Americans choose to live in Sharjah, as opposed to another Emirate or another Muslim majority country entirely; and why do Sharjah royal family members choose to use Muslim Americans to spread Islam in a Muslim majority country? Without the funding provided by the Middle Eastern Studies Program it is unlikely that I would have been able to formulate these new and improved questions for my dissertation project.