A flurry of anticipation filled the room as a wide-eyed audience sat in “entertain me” mode, eager to hear some of the world’s most inspiring success stories. They applauded, laughed and at times sat silent, transfixed in thought.
They were at one of the globally popular Technology Entertainment and Designx (TEDx) conferences that dart about around the world, from city to city. This time it was in Ajman, one of the seven sheikhdoms that form the United Arab Emirates.
TED, a non-profit organization established more than 25 years ago in California, was created to provide various internationally known intellectuals a platform to share their ideas in 18-minute talks.
The independently organized TEDx conferences which are licensed by TED host a range of international speakers that can offer a live audience with inspirational ideas to jump start people’s lives. Under the TEDx slogan, they speak on “ideas worth sharing.”
But in Ajman, similar ideas were repeated in most of the talks given by Arab speakers: Pride, heritage and nationalism. The mostly Emirati audience were told stick to their heritage and not be influenced by interference from the many international cultures present in the UAE. Official statistics now state that expats make up over 88 percent of the UAE’s population of 8 million.
The audience was told to “remember where you come from, eat your mother’s food!” by Sheikh Abdulaziz Ali Al Nuaimi, a member of Ajman’s ruling family. They were then told, “to remember your religion, culture and manners,” by Jalal Bin Thaneya, another speaker at the conference who was promoting his campaign for special needs. Then, they were asked by Ali Al Saloom, an Emirati media personality in the Gulf, “[How] when a Western or non-Arab person greets you in Arabic, how many of you reply with something in English, just to show that you know how to speak English too?”
Mr. Al Saloom received the most cheers at the end of his speech. He talked about the influence of expats on Emirati culture.
“People that come to the UAE and see a huge number of expats, ask me: Don’t Emiratis feel like they are losing their own identity?” he said. “But without expats, Emiratis themselves could not function in their daily lives.”
Mr. Al Saloom then asked whether an Emirati man would iron his own clothes or if an Emirati man would himself fill his car at the gas station.
He made the reliance on expats clear, but Mr. Al Saloom then warned the audience of cultural clashes. “We [Emiratis] have allowed ourselves to be influenced by Westerners, which is good,” he said. “As you can see I am speaking English right now, I have been influenced.”
But he said that Emirati culture has been quietened down. He sternly asked the audience whether they knew their culture, heritage, leaders and background. Contemplation filled the air as both Mr. Saloom and the audience fell silent.
“Your values shape who you are,” he said. “Like a map, without it you would be lost.”
The other talks used similar creative catchphrases, so as to spark inspiration within the crowd of listeners.
Sheikh Al Nuaimi encouraged them to live unconventionally. “Live outside the box,” he said. “We work in the box, we eat in the box, and we live in the box until we die in a box.” A morbid thought, perhaps, but it left audience members intrigued.
“I feel in awe of these speakers. It is powerful stuff!” audience member Zinab Hamdy, an IT professional from Iraq, said.
Sheikh Al Nuaimi chose to talk on the falcon, a bird that is part of an age-old tradition in the UAE. Falconry is known as a sport that teaches endurance and patience in UAE culture. The bird itself is considered an emblem of strength and loyalty. Sheikh Al Nuaimi discussed the abstract idea of living as a falcon, capturing the bird’s image in what a person does in daily life.
“A falcon has vision that is eight times stronger than man’s,” he said. “So have foresight into the future; where do you want to be in life?” he asked the audience.
The social media scene was also a popular one amongst the speakers. Fahad Albutairi, a Saudi stand-up comedian and a well-known YouTube personality in the Gulf, spoke of social media as the spark that kick-started his career. He first discovered a popular stand-up comedy audition through Facebook, and since then, his career has taken a positive turn.
TEDx Ajman recognized the importance of social media as members of the audience were asked to come onto stage, sit in a chair placed on the side of the stage and write live Tweets about TEDx Ajman. The “tweeters” were engrossed in their mobiles or laptops, courtesy the free Wi-Fi connection.
Emirati female trio Ayesha Al Janahi, Hanan Huwair and Heba Al Samt also spoke excitedly about social media as the primary reason behind their success. They co-founded Emiratweet, an online Emirati community that brings together Emiratis to discuss and share topics of interest. Again, their presentation spoke of their strong cultural ties to the UAE that the trio wishes to spread and strengthen. A patriotic poem about the UAE was read and their presentation came to an end. The loud applause from the audience was triggered by an overwhelming sense of national pride.
Also featuring at the event was Abdulla Al Kaabi, an Emirati film director whose film, “The Philosopher,” has been nominated for awards 22 times worldwide, and has received three awards. His message to the audience was clear: Follow your dreams and become what you aspire to be. Similarly, the rest of the speakers wanted to encourage positive, pro-active ideas.
Although some speakers talked for longer than the 18 minutes promised by TEDx, their passion was influentially strong. Entertaining, it was.
TEDx conferences are available for viewers on TED.com for free. Translated versions with subtitles are also updated daily on their Website by volunteers globally.
(Eman El-Shenawi of Al Arabiya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)