It’s safe to say that Ayesha Al Khoori has had a pretty terrible week. On March 21, The National published a controversial blog post by the young Emirati journalist, in which she argued against a new proposal to lower the legal driving age in the UAE; an argument she decided to spice up with personal anecdotes about her own driving habits. Three days later, she was forced to respond publicly to a deluge of thousands of angry responses from readers.
Al Khoori’s honesty hit a nerve: in a highly affluent country with clearly demarcated social boundaries, the roads are a leveller; a place where cultural and educational differences collide frequently, figuratively and literally, with often deadly consequences. Her nonchalant riff on the joys of speeding elicited a storm of comments, many tinged with cultural prejudices and expat exasperation.
We will never know to what extent Al Khoori’s article was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. In hindsight and with all the pressure emanating from furious readers, not to mention critical colleagues, she is likely to play up that element to deflect some of the embarrassment.
What we do know is that the post broke The National’s record for the most commented-upon online story since the paper’s launch in 2008. It certainly got under people’s skin, with messages about the post still doing the rounds on email and social media.
Some of the more hair-raising parts of her post include admissions of driving long before she got her license, routinely driving at speeds of above 160 kph and that “slow drivers and overzealous brakers” are causing more accidents in the UAE than those who speed.
Here is the paragraph I find most nauseating. It sums up all that is wrong with reckless drivers, irrespective of their nationality, gender or place of residence: they think that speed is a sign of competence or that, as you gain experience, you can earn the right to drive faster.
It took me time to be confident enough to drive at the speeds I do, but is that the case for every other driver in Abu Dhabi? Perhaps some people have nurtured their speeding habits less cautiously than I have. Are some learners too quick to speed?
Reading those passages I can’t help but hope that Al Khoori was intentionally (and perhaps even ironically) trying to incorporate negative stereotypes about Emiratis behind the wheel. But, unfortunately, it seems more likely that those are just slightly amplified versions of her actual personal views.
Like thousands of others who read her post, I felt bewildered and pretty disappointed afterwards. Not just about the cavalier attitude and lack of knowledge about the most basic traffic rules, but also about the fact that Al Khoori had given ammunition to racists and sexists to keep judging people’s driving abilities and, by extension their IQs, based on nationality and gender.
Be that as it may, I think it’s important to keep in mind three things. One, the story was posted on a blog, not as part of regular news coverage. Two, inadvertently or not, her article probably got more people talking and thinking about their own irrational behaviour on the roads than any other single piece of coverage. Three, at least she was being honest!
In the long run, the latter is probably the redeeming factor. No matter what their public opinions might be, most people privately know and many certainly also enjoy the experience she is describing; even if this 22-year-old's decision to wax lyrical about the thrill of speeding in what was supposed to be a critical comment on the recklessness of young drivers was a monumentally bad choice.
Al Khoori can certainly turn a phrase and knows how to hook a reader's attention. This gambit, for example, was surely meant to provoke:
I drive fast because I love it. I feel liberated and excited; in a boring life the thrill of fast driving provides the drama I need to keep me going.
After reading some of her previous posts on the My Year at The National blog, many of which give candid insights into her personal experiences of entering a profession that is still far from conventional for UAE nationals, I think Al Khoori’s work – including this little scandal – is more valuable than might meet the eye. This particular article might have overshot the goalpost, but at least it got people of all backgrounds to weigh in on an issue affecting their community. In any case, I hope she sticks with journalism and continues to write from the heart, just perhaps in a more informed and less divisive manner. Honesty, humour and the willingness to risk confrontations are much too rare among local commentators.
P. S.: After writing this post last night, I drove from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and, as usual, witnessed several potentially lethal manoeuvres. Against my better judgement, I found myself speculating about the gender and origin of the people behind the wheel; but the drivers’ identities were hidden by dark tinted windows and glaring lights. A good thing, I think, as it prevented an imagined ‘confirmation’ of certain prejudices that life in the UAE has a tendency to induce.