DISCOVER DXB: Questions and cuisine at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

Courtesy Sheikh Mohammed Ctr Dubai

Photo by SMCCU

What about contraception? Are you allowed to use that? 15 people fall silent, except for the soft hum of cheeks heating up with embarrassment.

But Emirati tour guide Dahlia has heard it all before. She’s not married, she tactfully reminds us, but contraceptive is on sale everywhere in Dubai and her grandmother told her she used it.

DSC_1159Phew. It seems there is no question that can faze the dispensers of wisdom from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU).

Dahlia, 21, has been a guide since she was 16 and began working full-time after finishing university. She think she might do an MA and she’d love to study abroad – Scotland or the US, she thinks, though she admits Scotland might be too cold, as she was born and brought up in Dubai.

“I did this every single day for a year before I went to uni. I just love that I get to talk to people and bring a different, positive light onto what the Middle East and the Emiratis and Muslims are all about,” she says.

What’s the biggest mis-conception, we wonder? “That we are all very rich.”

And are there any questions Dahlia doesn’t like being asked? The current world situation must throw up some challenges.

Nope. “The more questions people ask the better! Every time something happens in the news, the attitude of people changes and that always brings people to ask more questions.”

What’s the strangest question she’s been asked? Dahlia says she’s surprised by nothing, but she was asked if Emiratis were posted cheques from oil money. Is she allowed a bank account, is another favourite. (Yes, she is)

Our young guide is the embodiment of SMCCU’s motto ‘Open doors, open minds’. It was founded in 1998 by Sheikh Mohammed himself to help build bridges between locals and the new influx of visitors. Guides are aged 17 to 50, so visitors get the whole spectrum of life in the UAE.

The centre runs guided tours of the Al Fahidi Historic District and Jumeirah Mosque, as well as welcoming communal meals where you can chat with UAE nationals while enjoying delicious Emirati food.

Al Bastakiya DubaiTo start our experience with the centre, Dahlia leads us through the narrow sikkas (streets) of the old city and points out the symmetrical wind towers that once cooled traditional stone-built homes.

She’s up for answering controversial questions, but there’s plenty of straightforward ones too, as well as revealing much of the UAE’s rich history, which she’s well versed in.

We learn how the Emirati men worked diving for pearls, which the women sold in the market place to merchants travelling along the famous Silk Route. In summer the population decamped to the mountains or further into the desert, where the humidity is less punishing.

“My grandmother doesn’t understand why we stay here in the summer now,” she smiles.

The tour hears a lot about her family and we’re eager to know more. No, her father doesn’t have a second wife. “My mum would kill him! And, you know, there’s a big desert out there,” she laughs.

A very small percentage of men in the region do take another wife, she tells us. Why do they? Well, you’ll have to go on the tour…or get in touch with SMCUU, which is up for answering question via social media or email.

The hour-long tour also takes in the district’s Diwan mosque. Be sure to dress appropriately, though albayas and shaylas are available for ladies. It’s the first time inside of a Muslim place of worship for most of the group and it’s less ornate than we expect, as the Islamic faith doesn’t permit pictures or statues.

Naji Pouring CoffeeWe return to the SMCCU headquarters to share coffee and dates, before more people arrive for the communal meal. We come together over huge plates of steaming chicken and veal machboos, sticky luqaimat (deep-fried donuts) doused in date syrup, before dressing one of the ladies in an albaya.

Again the questions flow, until Dahlia regretfully calls time, adding: “If you have questions you want to ask, come down, or get in touch with us. We open doors to everyone. That is what the UAE is all about.”

Tours and cultural meals start from AED 65 and take several times a week, but must be booked in advance. Visit www.cultures.ae to find out more.

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