One of the truly wonderful aspects of traveling to and living in a country outside of your home is to have the opportunity to explore and experience first hand some of the culture of the place where you find yourself. There is a danger whenever anyone moves to Dubai of never actually really having any contact with the culture or the traditions of the local Emirati population. Sure, we see and hear the mosques each and every day and are aware of the fact that some people dress differently but a large swathe of us ex-pats limit our experiences of Dubai to somewhat self-indulgent and holiday-esque activities, such as brunches or adrenaline sports, and never take a peek under the hood of this fascinating region of the world.
One cultural event that there is no escaping from is Ramadan, which we are currently a about 2 weeks into. This annual month of daylight fasting observed by followers of Islam has a big impact on anyone calling Dubai their home. For one month there are no brunches, no live music, no night clubs or even the option of popping into a cafe for a quick coffee and bite to eat during a day off. The fast is publically enforced and so if you do choose to eat and drink whilst the sun is up – which is a large majority of the resident population – then it has to be done subtely and behind closed doors.
When a friend and colleague suggested we attend one of the Iftar meals held regularly at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding here in Dubai it was with a sense of intrigue that several of us headed down last Friday to learn something about both Ramadan and the Emirates. The evening started at six in the evening, as we entered the traditional central courtyard of the centre, which is set in a traditional Emirati house, and whilst we waited with grumbling tummies (and we hadn’t even fasted!) for sunset, which was scheduled to be 7.14pm exactly, we were treated to some vocal entertainment from a friendly Bedouin who sung and ground traditional Arabic coffee in the corner. Sat around on comfortable cushions with plush carpet beneath our bare feet and the smell of some incredible food set out in front of us, it was hard not to be instantly seduced by the charm of the Middle East. Our hosts for the evening were the head of the centre, a kandoora-clad gentleman by the name of Nisaf, who was a truly entertaining and enlightening speaker, and a number of young ladies, all dressed in traditional black abayas, a garment which I personally think looks very stylish and flattering. Most of the young locals who spoke and dined with us were volunteers with a keen interest in promoting the culture of their country and educating the likes of us who were keen to learn more about Dubai.
So, as the sun set and the call to prayer was heard emanating from the local mosque we were all given a date and some water, which is the traditional way to break one’s fast and marks the start of Iftar. Before we dived in and ate, our hosts prayed, which we were permitted to observe, before everyone was invited to descend on the veritable feast laid out before us on the carpet. The traditional method of eating is basically dive in and load your plate up before returning to sit on the soft cushions lining the courtyard and enjoy eating, drinking and talking with friends and family, reflecting on the challenges faced during the day’s fast and generally catching up. I didn’t realise, for example, that part of Ramadan is not only an abstinence from food, water and romantic contact, but also from negative actions or thoughts, which when feeling hungry and thirsty and, I daresay, a bit cranky, must be very tricky!
Following a superb meal comprising of a variety of dishes the names of which I am afraid allude me but which are making me salivate just writing this, we were served Arabic coffee and listened to some more interesting information about the Emirati culture. The next activity on the evening’s schedule was a visit to the local mosque, which was located just behind the centre itself. The ladies in our group were invited to wear abayas and we all removed our shoes before entering the mosque itself. The first thing that struck me was how luxuriously soft the carpet was and how truly relaxing, quiet, reflective and comfortable it was simply sitting in the main room of the mosque where worshipers congregate to pray together. Following a very inspiring talk from Nisaf, which had all of us hanging off his every word, we had the opportunity to witness the call to prayer before quietly filing out and back to the centre for desert before everyone arrived for prayers.
Desert was as epically delicious as the main meal, with the highlight for me definitely being the fried doughballs with syrup that were literally so moresome that one could be in serious danger of getting overweight very very quickly! I can only imagine how even more amazing such food must taste after a fast of over 12 hours and I must say I have a lot of respect for anyone who is actually able to see their fast through. Kudos indeed.
Before the evening came to a close and we all headed back to our ex-pat lives in Dubai, we had the opportunity to ask any burning questions that we had relating to Dubai, the Emirates, the culture…. anything. My question, and something that I had been pondering and unsure of since arriving here, was whether it was considered acceptable for non-Emiratis to wear the kandoora, a garment which is so much better suited to the stifling summer heat of the desert than clothes such as jeans. I had been told, or heard, before that it was considered unacceptable and insulting for anyone non-local to wear one. Not so it would seem. In fact, it was positively encouraged by our hosts and the girls all exclaimed that they love it when they see non-locals wearing one. Nisaf even told me where to go to buy one and how much I should expect to pay for one. So…… watch this space as you may see me rocking the kandoora at some point soon 🙂
My verdict on the evening was glowing and it is definitely something that I urge each and every visitor and new resident in Dubai to do. Learning even a little about what makes Dubai and the Middle East what it is really did add to the magic of living here.