Not worth a spit? Dubai targets popular Asian chew

The crackdown — announced this week amid a broader effort to stem behavior deemed offensive — has stirred an unusual Arab-Asian culture clash.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) âÄî Be warned: Spitting here could get you deported. We’re not talking just any kind of spit. In this case, it’s the red-tinted juice of a popular Asian leaf that’s causing the fuss as Dubai tries to buff the image of its less-posh districts. The crackdown âÄî announced this week amid a broader effort to stem behavior deemed offensive âÄî has stirred an unusual Arab-Asian culture clash in a city where the friction is often between Western ways grating against conservative Gulf sensibilities. The tradition of chewing the leaves of the betel plant, a mild stimulant common from Pakistan to Southeast Asia, is so ingrained in some countries that it’s been mentioned in works as varied as Hindu’s sacred Vedas and the musical “South Pacific.” Even Myanmar’s authoritative regime has failed in efforts to curb its use. “It’s like telling an Italian not to have an espresso,” said Pakistani security guard Munir Ahmed. The assault on the betel leaf could be seen as a curious choice as Dubai’s faces far more serious troubles after the global recession crashed the boomtown’s party and left many construction sites idle and foreign workers packing up. But the slowdown has allowed Dubai officials to play catch up when it comes to imposing their sense of order âÄî on issues big and small âÄî in a place that was stuck for years on fast-forward. Dubai’s cosmopolitan tolerance is still strides ahead of any place in the region. Yet it’s clear the book of rules is getting heftier. Earlier this month, Dubai’s municipal authorities issued what amounted to a chaperone-style list of boundaries, like no serious kissing or hugging in public, no miniskirts and bikinis, and keeping a lid on public boozing and rude gestures. Most of the bans were already in place, but the message was that harsher fines âÄî or even jail time âÄî might be imposed. It’s seen as part of cultural push and pull of Dubai. At the moment, it’s the outsiders who are feeling some pressure from the Emiratis even though the locals are outnumbered about 8-to-1. The director general of the Dubai municipality, Hussain Nasser Lootah, announced Monday a clean streets campaign that specifically targeted the use and sale of betel âÄî a fast-growing vine whose leaves are widely chewed with tobacco, cloves or with the hard areca nut. The popular mixture is known as “paan,” from the word pan in Urdu, and promotes a reddish saliva. In some areas older Dubai âÄî far from the tourist glitz and walled beach resorts âÄî sidewalks and walls are stained with the red-colored spit of betel users. While it interferes little with day-to-day life, its not in keeping with the vision of Dubai as a modern, efficent city. “We are taking all measures to stop its sale here,” said Lootah. “Deportation is a crucial step.” Such threats, however, collide with the traditions of the South Asian workers and shopkeepers who were the backbone of Dubai well before its transformation from sleepy Gulf port to millionaire magnet. In teeming South Asian neighborhoods, betel leaves are sold in grocery stores, street stalls and cafeterias. “We were working and helping build Dubai before the rest of the world heard of the place,” said Rizwan Karem, an Indian exporter in the old commercial district of Deira. “This is a harmless little bit of home we enjoy here.” Rohit Mukherjee, a supermarket supplies salesman who has been living in Dubai for 14 years, wonders if the proposed punishment matches the offense. “I know that the red stains on the pavement look ugly,” he said. “But deporting somebody is too much.”