I consider myself fairly educated and world traveled, although I know I have a lot more to learn, and a lot more to explore. One region that we have not explored, and know so very little about, is the Arab world. It is challenging to try to learn the reality of Islam in an American media-driven world. If I accepted what FoxNews preached, I would be holed up in a bunker in Kansas, afraid to see daylight. At least, though, I understood what I did not understand when landing in Dubai, our first stop in our tour of the Middle East.
As part of our tour, we were invited to the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, where the motto is open doors, open minds. Set in a traditional wind house in the rebuilt, historic center of Dubai, the goal of the center is to encourage understanding of the Emirati people, traditions, culture, and the Muslim religion.
Visiting an Emirati Mosque
First, we visited a mosque with our guide, Nasif, who in quite a humorous and matter of fact way, explained some of the lesser known theories behind Islam, and how it compares to other religions. His goal was to debunk some of the rumors that surround the Muslim world, in a way everyone can understand.
We all removed our shoes, and the women were asked to wear a headscarf. As the only mosque in Dubai which is not only open to the public six days a week, but is dedicated to receiving non-Muslim visitors, I wondered how traditional this mosque really was, particularly as men and women sat together, we did not clean our feet and hands before entering, and some of the women’s dress I am sure would not be allowed in a traditional mosque. I wondered if it were more of a stunt mosque.
Nasif explained that yes, according to the Koran, a man can have up to 4 wives, but explained it is not not required “to upgrade.” Approximately 90% of Emirati only have one wife. He also explained why men wear white and women wear black. It is not to torture them, but instead the reverse is true, where the women’s goal is to torture men at home. His words, not mine. Nasif has realized that jokes about a husband and a wife are universal and translate across cultures. It helped to set the tone for his presentation.
He explained how Muslims pray, and how they prepare to pray, including that they be clean and that they cover themselves. There should be no distractions in the mosque, no camels, no mobile phones, no bags. Muslims in prayer sit shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot, and they must face Mecca. Nasif used Eric as a guinea pig to demonstrate how close Muslims pray to one another.
Men and women pray separately, of course and for “good reason.” If men are surrounded by women, then they cannot concentrate. The reverse is also true, that if women are surrounded by men, then they can feel uncomfortable. Also, if you pray at the mosque rather than at home, you get more “reward.” A woman, however, can get the same “reward” whether they pray at the mosque or at home because women are always busy. There was some logic here that I just did not understand, based on my life experiences.
More generically, he explained the definition of the word “God,” the concept of free will, and the idea that are good people and bad people in the world. Although he seemed to dance around some issues, including the concept of extremism, it was a good start to the tour of the cultural center.
Coffee, Dates, and Arab Traditions
After a brief walk through the historic area, and an explanation of the wind tower-style architecture, our tour concluded with a serving of Arabic coffee and dates, which I was quickly falling in love with. The tour guide, whose name I honestly did not catch, offered some additional explanations of Emirati cultures and traditions. She continued the discussion later in the day when we returned to the same room for a lunch of traditional Emirati cuisine, served as a buffet on the floor.
For example, many people assume that Emirati receive free houses from the government, and that is why there are no homeless Emirati. Instead, there are no homeless because of the importance of family. Even Nasif had mentioned “the bigger the family, the more strength, and more power.” The government does provide, though, a good education and free healthcare at a government hospital. She did not mention that these benefits are only provided to Emirati, and not to the majority of the population, which consists of expats and migrant workers.
As for the rumor of free housing, according to the SMCCU guide, Emirati receive land from the government. They cannot resell the land, or try to make a profit from it. Instead, they are given three years time to build a house, which is not cheap to do in Dubai. As an alternative, Emirati can receive a ready built house, where they pay for approximately one-half of the house costs within the first year, in order to qualify to receive the benefit from the government. Also, in order to receive a house, the Emirati needs to be married. Once married, they are placed on a list to receive a house. It is not as simple as just receiving a free house. It still seems like a sweet benefit though.
As for education, there are government schools and government universities. The schools have English classes, but the curriculum is in Arabic for high school and grammar school. Once in university, the curriculum is taught in English.
Is there full employment? Almost. Theoretically, it should be easy to find a job, if the Emirati wants a job. But, many want to go right into a management position without having any experience. Other work is often considered beneath them.
Women’s Rights in the United Arab Emirates
Although Nasif addressed some of these issues with humor, during lunch we received the opinion of one Emirati woman on many women’s issues. And, there were plenty of us raising our hands to ask questions, as we were told we could ask anything. I wanted to take full advantage of this opportunity to learn, as I often feel it is not okay to ask questions about any religion without causing offense, or being accused of discrimination. In fact, all I want to do is learn.
The guide continuously stressed the difference between politics and religion when it comes to customs within the UAE, and the broader Muslim world. She stated that many restrictions on alcohol and dress are for political reasons, and not for religious purposes. In other words, these are often not rules that are prescribed by the Koran. She described the separate sections in the mosque, to keep women away from men, as a rule that is more political than religious, based on the “concept of distraction.”
There continue to be arranged marriages in the UAE, although there are no forced marriages. Families are involved in making the decisions, but the arranged marriages remain common, and often are preferred.
With respect to women’s dress, the headscarf is required while a woman is inside the mosque, but otherwise it is free choice. It is cultural or political, more than a religious requirement. The Koran’s prescription is for women to be modest, it does not state that a certain percentage of the hair or body must be covered. She noted that, in her opinion, countries that place more restrictive dress requirements on women are making their decisions based on politics and not religions, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. These countries are “on the bottom of the list in keeping with the Muslim religion” and she attributes the restrictions as nothing more than “man control.”
When someone asked about the dress code and “courtesy policies” that are posted at the entrance to every mall in Dubai, she suggested it was to keep Dubai rated G – good for everybody. When pressed about the fact that female tourists had been fined for indecency for wearing shorts or a tank top, she skirted the issue. I asked again about this issue, to press it, but she ignored the question again.
Instead of focusing on the restrictions placed on women, she described a women’s rights under Islam, including the right of education, inheritance, dowry, the right to their own money, and the right to divorce, as well as remarry. In her opinion, Muslim women have more rights than women in other religions.
Her viewpoints were a little more clear with respect to the color options for traditional Emirati wardrobe. Recognizing that women wear black, whereas men wear white, it is only because the women refuse to wear white because it is see through. She dispelled the common notion that black absorbs the sun, saying instead that it reflects the heat. I am not entirely in agreement with that one. Regardless, a woman’s decision to wear black, or to wear an abbaya at all, is more of a fashion choice than a religious requirement.
My skepticism continued, but in Dubai, of all places, I assumed the locals wore traditional Emirati clothing to ensure that others know that they are, in fact, Emirati. There are a lot of privileges for Emirati, and the status that comes along with being a local, versus a migrant worker.
Surprisingly, she concluded that within Dubai society, everyone is living together all the same. Like a true melting pot. “There are no differences between us.” This struck me as odd in a world where Dubai faces a lot of criticism for its human rights abuses and treatment of immigrant workers. There are huge differences between a Muslim Emirati and a Christian from Kerala or a Hindu from Bangladesh. The idea of immigrants living in Dubai was not one that was clearly addressed in the presentation, nor was there a direct discussion of Muslim extremism. This was one area where I would not press for questions. I knew my place.
Overall, I enjoyed the discussions and learning about Emirati culture and Muslim traditions, but I could not shake the feeling that I was being fed bits of propaganda, with a side of coffee and dates.
Have you been to the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding? What were your thoughts?
Dubai Tourism hosted us for our tour of Dubai, but all of my opinions are my own.
Learn more about interesting things to do in the Middle East.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.