Dubai’s cultural breakfast invites you to ask the questions you always wanted to ask about Emirati life
Neighbours and strangers – it is a peculiar condition in Dubai. For all the multiculturalism of this place we call home, for all the (roughly) 150 nationalities living side by side, there are few occasions when these cultures come together. When was the last time you strolled through a mall and noticed a group of girls giggling over a coffee? Now, how often is that group a mixture of European women clothed in T-shirts and jeans laughing along with Emirati women wearing hijabs? Exactly.
Like it or not, there are barriers between Dubai’s myriad cultures. But these barriers mostly result from simple lack of understanding. This is what the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding sets out to address. One of the ways it does this best is its weekly cultural breakfast. In a shady courtyard in Bastakiya, tourists and expats gather on comfy cushions to eat traditional Emirati food and find out about Emirati culture. Myths are dispelled, misconceptions addressed and a greater appreciation for each other’s way of life achieved. And, more often than not, you will find those ways of life are not so different.
Salamah Al Muhajira has hosted the breakfast for more than three years now. ‘For me personally, if you have information and people want it, you should make it available,’ she says. ‘It’s not to convert people to Islam,’ she explains, refuting a not uncommon misunderstanding about the event. ‘That’s never been the goal. It’s just so you can understand, for example, the Emiratis who move in next to you. It’s your chance to ask those questions – which we know you have – to get them cleared up.’
Best of all, there are answers to questions you never even knew you wanted to ask. Around 15 people attend at a time, all with their own particular queries, and Muhajira’s answers are honest and good humoured. On the morning Time Out visits, a question about arranged marriages offers a glimpse into what Emirati women gossip about (that there are not enough single men – sound familiar?).
Muhajira also confirms that she must ask her husband’s permission before visiting another emirate, but points out that a western woman is unlikely to go on holiday without at least leaving her partner a note. ‘Similar things happen across cultures,’ Muhajira tells Time Out. ‘You just might not call it the same thing or have a rule for it.’
Peter, a tourist from the UK, agrees. He booked the breakfast for his first day in Dubai. ‘The culture is more relaxed than I originally thought,’ Peter admits. He is also impressed by how comfortable Muhajira made everyone feel, as they munch and ask questions at leisure.
Perhaps most surprisingly, there is an overriding sense at the breakfast of a genuine desire to integrate. Renata Suzart, a Brazilian whose husband is working temporarily in Dubai, says, ‘When I was walking in the shopping centre the other day, I really felt like stopping one of the Emirati women I saw and saying, “Please, let’s talk”. But I was afraid, I didn’t know how she’d act.’
Muhajira agrees that expats are often uncomfortable about talking to a woman who has her face covered. But she questions that logic, reasoning that people talk without seeing each other’s faces – over the telephone and the internet – all the time.
Muhajira also argues that it is not religion, but language, that tends to separate Dubaians. She explains that you could approach a woman in a hijab and she might speak fluent English, French and Spanish, but is just as likely to only speak Arabic. ‘She might shake her said and say no, and you think, “The woman whose face is covered doesn’t want to talk to me.” What you don’t know is she doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to waste your time.’
There is plenty to learn at the breakfast. Maybe most importantly, it is a chance to actually sit and talk with an Emirati. Suzart says that for her the focus on Muhajira’s personal experience was the best part. ‘It brings the reality to you,’ she says. ‘Everyone that comes to Dubai should come here.’
Joanna, a British expat who has lived in Dubai for two years, also recommends it. ‘There’s not much cultural integration here, but this has encouraged me to integrate more,’ she concedes. ‘It’s good to live alongside other people and learn from them.’ And the food ain’t half bad, either.
Mondays at 10am at the centre in Bastakiya, Dhs50 per person. Book in advance as it always fills up. Lunch on Sundays at 1pm for Dhs60, 04 353 6666 www.cultures.ae,firstname.lastname@example.org
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Elvis Apr 08, 2009 01:15 pm
wow.. thats what i call info... nice one!
Arslan Arif Apr 07, 2009 02:20 pm
Very good information, Thanks for helping me.
PennyZ Mar 28, 2009 06:35 pm
I agree with Rebecca's comments above, I too was hoping to learn about Emirati culture from locals but have found precious few opportunities for this or to practice what little (Gulf) Arabic I have learned. I would also like for Emirati people to see that not all ex-pats are here to exploit; some of us are genuinely interested in participating and experiencing the Emirates and Arab culture in a respectful way.
Nada Dadoush Mar 12, 2009 10:19 am
Its an excellent idea to inform and teach people about different cultures. Its important as it teaches people not to conclude bad ideas and/or create bad images of certain cultures in their mind. Unanswered questions in their mind are answered and curiosity fulfilled.
I will definetely be visiting the Bastakiya for breakfast. Its a new experience to encounter in Dubai.
Rebecca Mar 12, 2009 10:15 am
I think it is very important and necessary to do these kind of events. Since I am in the UAE (1,5 years) I barely spoke to an Emirati woman nor was there ever friendship in sight. Not that I do not want it - in contrary. I came to the UAE with the aim to learn more about culture, language (i am attending private arabic classes but have barely chances to practice apart from these), traditions and its people but until now I did not have many chances to connect with Emiratis, especially the women as we can learn a lot from each other. Working in the office of a private company, I almost do not deal with Arabs at all. Unfortunately, I cannot attend the events in Bastakiya because the timings do not convene with my work attendance obligations. Can you please organize such a useful gathering on a weekend, let's say Saturday? Would be very helpful.