I recently visited the Sheikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding to see what a traditional Emirati breakfast was like.
I have never been to or heard of a country where you have to visit a cultural center to see what the local food is like, but in the case of the UAE – national tradition and culture is difficult to experience on a day-to-day basis.
Housed in a traditional Emirati home, the cultural center is an interesting place in its own right. It’s located in my favorite part of Dubai – the old part of town near the souks and bustling “creek.” Decorative lanterns and brightly colored pillows made it feel cozy. Of course the obligatory pictorial tributes to the sheikhs also made me feel right at home. Ha!
We made our way inside and I was puzzled by the British receptionist. I wondered, isn’t this supposed to be about Emiratis sharing their culture with foreigners? As we removed our shoes and ducked our heads under a couple of very low doorways, we found ourselves in a beautiful open room with lots of natural light and lovely scalloped arches. Our breakfast rested in big silver pots in the middle of the room and our group of 30-40 sat around it on pillows. My friends and I had speculated about the menu with very little experience to draw from. The covered pots kept us guessing.
We were greeted by our gracious hosts: a woman from the US who had converted to Islam 18 years ago and her husband, a charming Emirati. Although it was interesting to hear the woman’s story of how she ended up married to this man and having 7 kids with him, when prior to that she was working in an office in the US as a divorced mother of 2, I was disappointed that we didn’t have an Emirati woman as the presenter. Between the British receptionist and the American presenter, it felt strange to have such a western presence in what was supposed to be the center for learning about local life and culture. Nonetheless, the couple was quite funny and welcoming. The man served us Arabic coffee (to me, it was like a strong mix between tea and coffee) and offered us dates. They told us a bit about themselves and explained some of the idiosyncrasies of Emirati culture; for instance, why coffee is served in very small cups (so it stays warm), how to decline more coffee when your host offers it without interrupting your conversation (simply tilt the cup back and forth), etc.
Finally, it was time to eat. Unfortunately I don’t remember the real names of the dishes, but essentially there were some tasty chick peas (doesn’t sound too exciting – but they were flavorful), a flat bread, a round fried doughy type thing, similar to a donut, served with date syrup, and some kind of vermicelli dish. It was all quite yummy!
After the meal, the presenters conducted a Q&A session. The motto of the center is “Open doors. Open minds” so they tried to emphasize this as a way to encourage people to ask questions. We basically received a glossy overview of the history of the Emirati national dress and a rather dubious discussion of gender roles in which they made the case that most Emiratis view men and women as equal. When I asked about why, if men and women are equal, does a woman here in Dubai have to get her husband’s permission to get a driver’s license, they explained that it wasn’t about permission, but about the man agreeing to take responsibility for his wife. That it’s actually sweet because it’s just a form of protection for the woman. Hmmmm.
I really enjoyed the morning, appreciated learning new things, and was grateful for all the efforts of putting together this lovely breakfast. The chat had a very Disney-like optimistic tone; I felt like “It’s a Small World Afterall” should have been playing in the background. It was a feel-good experience. We chuckled as our presenters addressed some misconceptions about Emiratis and we smiled at the thought that underneath those abayas and niqab – we’re really all the same. I want to believe this. But something about the discussion kept nagging at me – the experience inside the cultural center didn’t seem to mirror what was happening in the street. In between the smiles, I couldn’t help but think about some of the rather unsavory experiences we’ve had with the locals. If we’re all the same, why do Emiratis, of all ages, cut in front of you (and an entire line of people) in a completely brazen manner at the grocery store, in immigrations lines at the airport, etc. If we’re all the same, why does the Emirati government worker make copies for other Emiratis, but not for me, sending my husband and I downstairs with two restless kids in tow to make 3 copies, after waiting in a long line? If we’re all the same, then why is it that not one of the 35 or so women who attended the breakfast has an Emirati friend? Or knows their Emirati neighbor? And lastly, it just really rubbed me the wrong way that the staff at the cultural center was not 100 percent Emirati. I get the feeling that for the most part, they aren’t really interested in “reaching out.”
As I write this, I feel guilty because I have such limited personal experience with Emirati people to be generalizing in this way. I’ve never actually held a conversation with one. Everyone who works at the grocery store or mall is an expat. I’ve met one neighbor on our entire street in the 3 ½ months since we’ve been here, and she is from the Philippines. If you take your kids to a place where Emiratis would be, the children are with nannies (most likely Filipinas), not their mothers. One time when my children were sharing a playground with a bunch of Emirati school children, the teachers completely ignored me, despite our having crossed paths several times. My smiles were met with averted eyes. (and incidentally, the children were quite mean to my kids, throwing sand and making my usually tough little one cry.) I think one little girl in my son’s class might be Emirati. My son happens to adore her and talks about her often, so I’ve tried smiling and making eye contact with the mother to no avail. She seems nice enough, she’s not overtly rude, but just not interested in making friends or even conversation.
There must be more to this, right? I’m hoping I can make an Emirati friend while living here. I have joined a gym that seems to be mostly local women, so maybe that’s a starting point. Other than that, I would have no idea where to begin!
(UPDATE: Apparently, not even the male presenter is Emirati. He was born in Kuwait.)