Demystifying local traditions in Dubai

The Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) runs many programmes that demystify the culture, customs and religion of the UAE, offering an 'open doors, open minds' policy. The aim is to help remove barriers between people of different nationalities.

The SMCCU sees 500 to 750 weekly visitors during summer and more than 1,000 weekly guests over the rest of the year. Tours are organized in various heritage sites, including the Jumeirah Mosque, which sees about 30,000 visitors a year.

During Ramadan, the centre also hosts nightly iftar events, starting just before the evening call to prayer, usually at around 7.15pm. These nightly activities will run until July 26.

''Ramadan is a time when you are deprived of your most basic needs. It's when you have to be the best person you can be,'' says Dahlia, an Emirati volunteer at SMCCU.

Dahlia tells the visitors that fasting and maintaining self-control throughout Ramadan is one of the five main pillars of Islam and is compulsory for every healthy Muslim who has reached puberty. The month reinforces spiritual awareness and is a time when Muslims concentrate on avoiding bad thoughts and practices, including anger, greed, bad language and gossip.

''Having nothing to eat and drink from 4.15am to 7.16pm - well, it makes you kind of cranky,'' she says, speaking to about 90 tourists who are seated on the floor of an old wind tower house in the heart of the historic Al Fahidi district of Bur Dubai.

''It's tough. Patience is tested the most during Ramadan,'' adds Dahlia.

Nasif Kayed, General Manager of SMCCU, engages all with his theatrical talks and encourages a no-holds barred discussion. ''Don't be shy to ask questions,'' he tells the crowd of tourists. ''We will not take offence.''

And they don't. Someone asks why many Arabs have more than one wife; another doesn't understand why women and men should be separated when praying in a mosque. The general manager has all the answers, delivered in a jocular, contemporary way, the frankness perhaps taking some by surprise.

These cultural tours are equally refreshing for UAE residents who want to learn more about the people who inhabit their country.

When the evening call to prayer is heard, the tour participants end their fast with roasted Arabian coffee, water and dates. We are even allowed to watch and take photographs (from a decorous angle) while some of the men pray.

The iftar spread is enormous, consisting of traditional Emirati dishes of lamb, chicken and fish, along with vegetarian and rice varieties. A favourite among Emiratis is harees, a thick white porridge-like dish made from wheat and meat.

There are even some salads, although, as Dahlia says, traditionally they only eat meat and rice. ''After all, we're desert dwellers.''

The group walks a short distance to the Diwan Masjid, as Kayed explains that non-Muslims can visit any mosque, provided they understand the etiquette and protocol - dressing modestly, removing their shoes before entering, keeping quiet and leaving behind distractions such as mobile phones and cameras. Women also have to use a separate section of the mosque to pray.

Inside the mosque, a man stands in front of a microphone, clears his throat and utters the last prayer of the day at 8.45pm. It's our cue to head back to the wind tower house for dessert, tea and another question-and-answer session, guided by SMCCU intern volunteer Afra.

The spread of sweets is enormous, with favourites such as umm ali pudding - made of bread, cream, dried fruit and pistachios - and ligamat - small, round doughnut-like batter balls with saffron and cardamom, deep-fried in ghee and then drizzled with date syrup - taking the table.

The Ramadan Iftar Events are held every night. Tickets cost Dh135 per person. Children under 12 are free of charge, and private group visits are also available.

SMCCU - The centre is closed from July 28-31 for Eid Al Fitr celebrations. Tel: 04-3536666.

Source: Property Weekly

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