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.