The modern city of Dubai sprang from the desert, seemingly erupted, in just a few decades. The city gleams and sparkles with buildings of glass and steel that soar, lean, bulge, twist and fold, often appearing to defy gravity.
And the people — the people are not what a visitor from the west expects. Yes, there are women in head to toe abayas with only their eyelashes on display. But there are also plenty of women, both Emirati and, of course, foreigners, in western wear. And the locals don’t mind explaining it all to a visitor.
What perhaps makes Dubai more visitor friendly than most is the fact that 90 percent of the population is NOT Emirati. And contrary to stereotype, that 90 percent doesn’t only comprise Filipina maids and nannies. A huge part of the folks who live here are corporate types who work in glass spires and live well.
So Dubai, including the Emirates, has learned to be more open to foreign ideas and, for the most part, more welcoming.
But understanding starts with communication, and that brings us to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, an absolute must visit.
In Your Bucket Because
- You have many questions about Middle Eastern life and culture.
- You are open minded about other cultures.
- You don’t mind trekking halfway around the globe for your answers.
- Good for folks interested in cultural understanding, gender issues, and an inside look into Islamic customs.
The sign on the wall in the center reads “Open doors. Open minds.”
And to this end, Khulood Atryat, a stunningly beautiful woman who led the question and answer session on my previous visit to Dubai said, “There is no such thing as an embarrassing, offensive or stupid question.
“There were many misconceptions on both sides,” Khulood continued. “Outsiders thought we were all religious fanatics and that our women were virtual prisoners. We thought outsiders were just here to make money, take our money, disregard our culture and leave.”
Inevitably our group wound up talking about dress. Of all the colors, in the hottest country, why do women wear black? The answers sometimes depend on who’s talking and maybe even which Middle Eastern country you are in. But at the Center, according to Khoulood, at least some of the reason may be rooted in history
Secrets of the Abaya
Black cloth “was the cheapest and the most convenient in the day,” Khulood said. It made women invisible for travel at night. It also completely concealed them by day. And it didn’t show dirt.
“Abaya,” by the way, means shield. But today, in some communities, it is sometimes as much a fashion statement, especially at parties, where rich women cover themselves with the black robes — and then cover the black robes with crystals and gems.
And what do folks wear underneath all that? For women, sometimes jeans, though one woman admitted to pajamas. For men (yes, you can see a bit through all that billowing white) maybe a T-shirt, boxer shorts or a simple piece of cloth. Or regular (thought light colored) clothes.
Nasif: A Man’s Perspective
My most recent visit to the center introduced me to Nasif Kayed and his keen sense of humor.
Someone asked if there is a set age when boys can begin wearing robes.
“My wife went out and bought one for our infant son. It cost more than mine!”
Then he led us through the center’s recreation of a village, explaining that narrow alleys not only provide shade but funnel cooling breezes. And he explained Dubai’s location at the edge of the Arabian gulf: pearls.
“Africa has diamonds and gold but we had pearls.”
Before the Middle East became oil rich, Dubai was a simple village on a creek at the edge of the sea. For hundreds of years, the main source of income was pearls, which people laborously harvested from the ocean bottom while living a traditional Bedouin life.
All that has changed in hardly a few generations. There are people alive today who lived in goatskin tents with rugs on a sandy floor.
The one thing that hasn’t changed for the descendants of those Bedouin is the Muslim religion. You hear the call to prayer across the city five times a day.
And at the cultural center, Nasif brought us into a mosque. First, the women put scarves on their heads (you can borrow one at the center), made sure their knees were covered and took off their shoes.
Then Nasif lead us inside and talked a bit about prayer and devotion, adding, “We live this life because we choose it. This is what we believe.”
And then we went back to the main center hall for Arab tea, dates, a chance to try on traditional dress (yes, the abaya is hot).
My thoughts on all this at the end remained mixed. I grew up in a Jewish community where the Orthodox also covered themselves (though in their case, in wigs and wrist to ankle clothing — and that in Miami Beach, in an era when few people had air conditioning). I struggled to understand it then for my community and struggle to understand it now for the Middle East. The Center offered a chance to dive in deeper, and ask questions. As Kloulood said, at the beginning of her presentation “There are no stupid questions.”
- The cultural center offers several activities ranging from a simple talk and stroll through the recreated village to typical Bedouin meals and a tour of the souks (old markets).
- Best time to visit Dubai is winter (November through March). Summer temperatures can hit 130 degrees.
- US credit cards work most places. Dollars are often accepted. But change some money for the markets and taxis.
- If you don’t want to have to borrow a scarf for the mosque visit, bring your own. And while western dress is accepted, for a visit to a mosque you have to have your knees covered, which means long skirt or pants.
- More info on Dubai. And tours.
- More on the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.
- YouTube link to Nasif talking.