We visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
Operating an ‘open doors, open minds’ policy throughout the year, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) has been throwing open its doors to Muslims and non-Muslims alike during Ramadan, offering an iftar with a difference. Established in 1998 under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, the venture aims to open up the world of Emirati traditions and beliefs to Dubai’s vast community of expats, as well as visitors to the city. In the same spirit, the centre’s cultural iftar aims to share not only a post-fast dinner with its guests, but to share the experience of Ramadan and to demystify any aspect of local culture, as well as providing authoritative answers to common questions. In the middle of Ramadan, I thought it was high time I paid a visit to learn more.
Set in the historic Bastakiya quarter in Old Dubai, and housed in an old wind-tower house, the atmospheric sense of Dubai in days gone by continued as I entered the courtyard. It featured a majlis-style seating area and created a cosy, family iftar-style setting with woven cushions spread around the floor, where we were greeted by SMCCU general manager Nasif Kayed and several young male and female volunteers (our Emirati hosts for the evening).
Once the huge group of guests was settled, we waited in anticipation for the evening call to prayer known as ‘maghrib’, which signalled the precise moment for us to break fast together. Dates, Nasif explained, are the perfect food for this task because the nutrients are restorative after many hours of fasting, and they line the stomach to prevent indigestion once the iftar meal is eaten.
This first taste of food and water was followed by a sip of cardamom coffee served in traditional Bedouin style, which, we were told, was used for its properties for digestive health. Afterwards, guests were invited to observe as our Emirati hosts prayed: a privileged view into a usually unseen experience.
Each step of the evening was defined by eating or learning, though they were never mutually exclusive. The main focus as far as eating goes came when the iftar food was unveiled: a selection of traditional Emirati dishes that included lamb and chicken machboos (a dish of rice and meat, eaten across the Gulf, particularly in Bahrain); harees (a thick porridge-like paste made from wheat); vegetable saloona (a slightly spicy stew of root vegetables in a thin broth); and chicken biryani (an Emirati-style dish of chicken and rice).
SMCCU’s iftar dishes were originally prepared by Um Abdula, the mother of the centre’s founder, Abdula Bin Issa Al Serkal. Nowadays, although Um Abdula is too old to cook them herself, the dishes are still prepared in her kitchen to her recipes.
The couple sitting next to me, who had been in Dubai for many years, explained that the main draw of SMCCU’s iftar was the chance to eat Emirati food. However, for many other visitors I suspect it was the chance to strike up candid conversation with the Emirati volunteers, who spread themselves out among us as we ate.
Afterwards we headed to the local mosque, Diwan Masjid, and later for a tour of Bastakiya. Unfortunately the humid weather ensured it was the briefest of tours: highlights were pointed out swiftly by volunteer Waleed. ‘Keep moving, it’s too hot – I’ll explain when we’re inside!’ he called.
There were, in fact, plenty of explanations, among them Nasif’s humorous analogies to computers, operating systems and login details as a tool to explain the practices and concepts of Islam. Nasif’s charm and easy nature suggested he’d have made a good school teacher, although I suspect he sees his role at the SMCCU as not being that different.
Back indoors, once we’d cooled down, a selection of desserts including ‘lugamat’ – date honey and dates in an earlier stage of ripeness than those typically served – were dished up, alongside more candid conversation, this time as an open Q&A. With such a large group in attendance (the room of the central courtyard was crammed), visitors were perhaps not as confident to broach more complex questions as they would have been at a smaller, more intimate event. This was confirmed by Nasif’s comment that discussions can often get quite lively, as well as the fact that our Emirati hosts volunteered answers to questions they had evidently anticipated from previous discussions (why do Emirati men tend to wear white, while women wear black? Why do some Emirati women choose to cover their faces?). This openness was refreshing and, to some extent, enlightening: I learned a great deal, and the experience was well worth it.