In a couple of months, I will be sharing my three year anniversary with Dubai. I am so happy I am still here, what a wonderful place to live. And now, I will be accepted as a real expat – for those that have been here for a little longer know, that if you make it past two years, the place has your heart, and you will be here for five years, ten, or maybe even the rest of your life. But a little confession before I go on – until last week, I had never joined the cultural gig down at the Sheikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding. I know, atrocious! So on Wednesday morning at 9:50, I bombasted my beast of a 4WD past all others to grab the last remaining carpark at Bastakiya, and re-entered my favourite little suburban nook in Dubai to find out all about Emiratis.
In case you haven’t been to, or heard about Bastakiya, it is a tiny suburb that holds the last remaining architecture of Dubai’s recent history. It was cordoned off and preserved by (I believe) the UAE Architectural society, and the buildings have been restored faithfully and lovingly. It is a maze of ochre walls, wind towers, crazy paving, modern art, carved cedar doors, and is a cool, quiet step away from modern Dubai. The building I entered has been set aside by ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and now gives lessons in the way of breakfasts and lunches and informal chats in a majlis – sharing the history and culture with people just like me.
The courtyard is cool and whitewashed, with the sun peeking just over the upper walls and being caught in the cut-out stonework, embellishing the blank spaces with lacy patterns. The central floor laid with a mammoth red carpet and camel-wool majlis cushions, and the centrepiece – three massive covered cauldrons, bowls of dates and pretty coffee pots and tiny crystal or porcelain glasses. With my tummy rumbling, I counted every minute past 10am, the official starting time.
Finally Nasif claps his hands together and says “Hello, Welcome!… Has anybody been here before?….No?….Ah, good! You are all fresh! I can mess with you. Ha Ha Ha” He sits down with a smile and his confident eyes make firm contact with each spectator separately. He adjusts his white ghutrah, first lifting it a little at the ears, then throwing the tails over his shoulder. As he begins, Yusif comes around with the coffee, pouring the lightly coloured, cardamom scented Yemeni blend into tiny cups – only half full, so we don’t burn our fingers. We are told we can ask anything we like – nothing is taboo, except preceding a question with the phrase “Sorry, I know this is a stupid question, but…”
One of the visitors has brought a baby – about a year old, and unburdened with adult abashment, she sets a path for the hidden feast. Najim’s booming voice scares her off while his smile and funny face make her giggle, and then he tells us he has a two year old, his seventh child. “Only one wife,” he says, “And I will tell you more about her…”, chuckling to himself, waving a finger and shaking his head. From Chicago. One year older than him. Divorcee. He pretended to be his mother upon hearing of the engagement, wringing his hands, grimacing, then slapping both palms over his face while wailing in a high-pitched voice “Son, you will make me die!!!” I imagine how much he must love her to put his relationship with his Mother to the test. He tells us that only 12% of married men have more than one wife, and only 2% more than two. It is more than just the man’s choice – it is about income, social standing, the likelihood of war, and how strong the man’s constitution is – for many, one wife is more than enough, and Nasif happily has his hands full.
As we are presented with more coffee and dried dates from Ras al Khamah, he relates the history of the bedouin in relation to dates. The body can be entirely sustained on Dates and water for quite some time – they are high in carbohyrates, fibre, magnesium, potassium and, as is rare for fruits, even contain iron. They keep well, and were the staple of the caravan trade. In the months-long treks over the desert, they would even retain the pits, which could be ground and fed to the animals, or even used in a tea-like concoction.
Not before time, the food is served. Diabetics and carb concious, you may not want to read the following. Nahee – a dish of chickpeas – boiled, and flavoured lightly with sugar, saffron and chillies are accompanied by Khameer bread – more than the standard khubz, this puffy flat bread has threads of saffron colouring it, and has been toasted and glazed and topped with sesame seeds. Next is Balaleet, sweet white and brown vermicelli noodles with small pieces of omelet and the fragrant taste of saffron and cardamom. At the end are lqeimat – fried dough balls somewhat like donuts. In scattered smaller bowls are our toppings – cream cheese and sticky, drippy, deliciously molasses-like date honey.
While I lick my fingers and try not to let the chickpeas roll off my plate, Nasif bares the historic soul of his people, and links it to the things that isolate them so much from western culture, their dress, the issues with women’s rights, religion and spirit. He reminds us that the UAE has never been colonised as such – when the British left the “Protectorate” (as distinct from a colony) in 1971, they did not leave behind any schools, hospitals, or even many British people for that matter, and thus their footprint on the region had been less significant than it was in places like India and the US. Nasif reminds us that 100 years ago, British women showing an ankle were considered risque, and the equivalent to the industrial revolution only happened in Dubai with the discovery of oil in 1966.
So this product that the west so desires has in turn injected the Emirati people into western culture, and they live with us, whether they like it or not. But Nasif likes it. Many, he says, like it. However that does not mean they are ready to drop their history and become white trash. We talked about Emirati women, abayas and hijabs and although he does mention religion and modesty, he says the dress is significant more in a historical sense – cover from the harsh sun, protection from sand storms, and it even has roots in providing anonymity to royalty. (I am in the process of interviewing an acquaintance to get the female side of the story, so more in a following post.) After all, he says, if he goes out in his traditional dress, everyone thinks he is a Sheikh! His assistant Yunis is dressed in brown, and Nasif tells him he is not cool – white is what it’s all about. And I have to admit – I love Arabic traditional dress, particularly on the men. They do look like princes, with their olive skin, piercing eyes and gleaming white robes. I have a particular liking for the more casual tying of the gutrah without the agal, and a pair of mirror aviators, preferably accompanied by an orange Lamborghini. Hmm, I digress….
We discuss the nature of the Emirati, and how they have changed in the last few decades. It used to be that if you remarked favourably on an Emirati’s (material) possession, he or she would often hand it over as a gift. Nasif says regrettably this has changed, because they are running out of Rolexes. There had been times when he thinks the people may have had their natures taken advantage of, and he says this has made them more wary of strangers, and less generous with gifts. But the feeling of “Arabian hospitality” is still alive, and he doesn’t need to tell me that – I have experienced it first hand (see the wedding), more than once. I wonder, if the people are such open and giving characters, why are they over there, and the rest of us over here, so to speak. Nasif believes it is purely demographical – the portion of the total population that is made up of locals rests well under 20%. I do question however if this is the case for all.
The breakfast is 60 dirhams, and held every Monday & Wednesday morning at 10:00am and Lunch is every Sunday & Tuesday afternoon at 1:00pm. There are other tours and activities to try on the website: For more information, click here, or call 04-353-6666