The first thing I notice on arrival at the Al Serkal family’s villa in Mizhar (just behind the Arabian Centre in Mirdif) is how quiet the area is – and how cool. ‘Yes, it’s always three or four degrees cooler out here,’ explains Souad Al Serkal, 26, who works as a spokeswoman for the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, and therefore for Emirati culture as a whole.
I’m at her ornately decorated family home to speak to her, her 16-year-old sister Hemian and her 55-year-old father Jamal Hussain (whose grandfather Abdul Latif’s house is now a museum in Sharjah) about life in the UAE, and how the emirates, and therefore the Emirati experience, has developed over time.
‘In the ’60s this neighbourhood was, for us, a huge country,’ explains Jamal, opening his arms to hug the air. ‘In the old days, if you were thirsty you’d just walk into your neighbour’s house, take a drink of water, and leave again. Getting from here [Mizhar] to central Dubai took about an hour and a half [it now takes only 15 minutes]. Also, there was no A/C around – only the best of 100 houses had A/C, and even then it was just one unit. So in the summer we camped behind Dubai airport at night, and would sleep there until morning.’
‘The desert winds are cold, even in summer,’ explains his 26-year-old daughter Souad, sitting back to let her father continue talking.
‘In the old days, if anybody in the neighbourhood had a problem, we would help them,’ he smiles. ‘One guy from the neighbourhood wanted to get married to a girl from the neighbourhood. He had land from his father, but no money to build a house. So every Thursday and Friday for six weeks the men would work to build his house before he got married. That was how society worked beforehand, and I felt so proud when we celebrated his wedding.
‘The centre back then was Deira, of course, and Bur Dubai across the creek, because the real thing was trading by sea. The main trading was with the Iraqis and Iranians, and of course India – we used to buy water from the Iraqis. This pulling together of cultures is what created the UAE’s understanding of different nations and languages.’
Souad interjects: ‘The population of Emiratis only makes up about 20 per cent of the UAE [8 per cent in Dubai], but that’s where the feeling of hospitality kicks in. In our tradition, if someone turns up at your tent you embrace them for three days. You feed them, protect them, put a roof over their head for three days, no questions asked. This is a part of who we are and how we were raised: if a stranger comes to you, you make sure their needs are met. A lot of people say we Emiratis must feel overwhelmed being only 20 per cent of the population. On the contrary, the people who have lived here have helped us become this, so how can we turn our backs to them and say they’re not welcome to celebrate with us?’
I then turn to Jamal to ask what it was like in 1971, when the late HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan formed the UAE. ‘Before the union, when we travelled from Dubai to Abu Dhabi there was a checking point and we had to take our passports. Then Sheikh Zayed arrived on the horizon, God rest his soul, and he sacrificed a lot to bring the emirates together. It was difficult to take what you believe in, in terms of territory and identity, and switch it to something bigger, something coast-to-coast.’
‘At the end of the day, change is hard – it takes time,’ adds Souad. On this note I turn to 16-year-old Hemian, who’s sitting quietly, smiling at her dad, wearing an abaya but without a hijab. I ask her what she thinks has changed, and what hasn’t. ‘Well, we do have interactions between men and women now, but it’s like, “You’re my friend at school, you’re my friend at work,”
but that’s where it stops. Also, on Friday we still have the whole family around to visit, and sometimes my dad and I still go fishing.’ ‘She’s better than me!’ he admits, proudly.
Bypassing the obvious fact that there are now skyscrapers jutting up everywhere, what else does Hemian think has changed? ‘In my dad’s day it was very important, as a woman, to have your scarf on and to cover up in public. Now my sister has the hijab, but look at me: no hijab. I believe later on it will fade away. I have it, but I only wear it to family events – if I go skating in The Dubai Mall, for example, I will not wear the abaya. I believe this tradition will fade out.’
‘In the future, it will maybe become a uniform, in the government, or like the kimono,’ Souad continues. ‘But what’s beautiful about this part of the world is that our tradition and religion is so intertwined, and this will carry through. However, in regards to development, our generation wants everything to happen, to get done.’
‘Yes, because you were born in the technology era,’ her father assures her. ‘You wait for your laptop to load – two seconds and you say, “Damnit, it’s too slow!” Advances will come, technology will develop – and that’s a path no human can stop,’ Jamal concludes.
I leave the Al Serkal house, after more coffee and sweets, with that flush of energy that comes from a deep-down, honest conversation. I realise that if the future of the UAE is in the hands of assured and articulate women such as Souad and Hemian, then this nation has a fantastic road ahead.