The U.A.E. is perhaps most well known for the cosmopolitan metropolis of Dubai, the home of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure. While the ultra-modern skyscraper rich cityscapes of Dubai and neighboring Abu Dhabi may be the country’s biggest claim to fame, many travelers come with a sense of cultural curiosity looking to delve a little deeper into Emirati heritage than the average tourist.
As the world sits up and takes notice of the Middle East, the U.A.E., it’s most modern and forward thinking country is only too keen to welcome visitors with open arms and introduce them to the warm and hospitable culture of the region. If you’re willing to explore the U.A.E beyond sunny beaches, raving nightlife, plush shopping malls and luxury hotels, here’s a list to get you started on your cultural exploration of the country. The only things you’ll need to bring are a respectful attitude and an open mind.
Visit a Mosque
Religion is an important part of culture and the U.A.E. is both open and welcoming when it comes to satisfying the curiosity of visitors about the religion of Islam. Take a tour of one of the tourist-friendly mosques in the country that encourage visitors to take a guided tour of the mosque during certain hours of the day. At the end of the tour, a Q&A session is the perfect opportunity to get your questions about the religion and ideology answered by a local culture guide. Both men and women must dress modestly with covered shoulders and knees. Men may be asked wear a kandora and women will need to wear a shayla and abaya over their clothes to enter the mosque.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is an example of striking architecture and design that combine influences and materials from Iran, Morocco, France and Turkey among other countries. With a tranquil white marble exterior, 82 domes, the biggest of which is the largest in the world and columns adorned with amethyst and lapis lazuli, the mosque is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The interior is just as grand with Swarovski crystal chandeliers and the world’s largest handmade carpet made in Iran. Guided tours are available daily at 10.00am, 11.00am and 5.00pm with additional tours on Fridays and Saturdays.
In Dubai, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding organizes cultural tours for non-Muslim visitors at the Grand Jumeirah Mosque. The mosque is built in the medieval Fatimid style with white domes and minarets, and an interior roof that rests on several columns. Tours are held from Saturday to Thursday at 10.00am and don’t require prior reservation.
The Al Noor Mosque in Sharjah is the first mosque in the emirate that welcomes non-Muslims. With a picture-perfect setting by the Khalid Lagoon, the Ottoman inspired mosque is an iconic structure with cascading domes and slender minarets, reminiscent of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It is open to tourists on Mondays only with guided one-hour tours at 10.00am, followed by a Q&A session.
Photography is permitted during the tours.
Shop in a Local Market
You might’ve spent hours admiring the shiny window displays and spending your cash in Dubai Mall, but you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve got wonderfully lost in a traditional souk or a neighborhood market. Follow locals, longtime residents and other tourists from the Middle East and Africa and they’ll lead you to bargains and plenty of market ambience in the narrow lanes of Deira and Bur Dubai, once the heart of Dubai and now often referred to as ‘Old Dubai’.
Deira’s Gold Souk is wildly popular with tourists and residents from India, Africa and the Middle East looking to buy gold and silver jewelry. Even if you’re not looking to take home any of it, it’s worth a visit just to see the glittering displays of opulent traditional Arabic and Indian wedding jewelry.
photo credit: lam_chihang
Right next door, the Spice Souk is hard to miss with its aromas of cardamom, turmeric, dried chilies, cinnamon, cloves and traditional Henna inviting curious visitors to take a closer look. Once, the main marketplace for spices from Iran, Yemen, India and Africa, frequented by residents, today the souk attracts crowds of tourists and locals living in the area. Interesting market finds that make great gifts are Dead Sea salt from Jordan, rose water, dates, dry fruits, nuts, traditional soaps and incense burners.
On a Friday, take a long drive through the dramatic scenery of the Hajjar Mountains to arrive at the Friday Masafi Market in Fujairah, bustling with weekend crowds. You’ll find fresh produce, date honey, palm syrup and other farm products made locally and in neighboring Oman and Saudi Arabia. If you fancy a souvenir, consider a traditional Iranian carpet but don’t forget to haggle on the price; it’s expected.
Experience Camel Culture
The role of the camel in Emirati culture isn’t just limited to taking visitors for a ten-minute ride on a desert safari. The love for the mighty beast of the desert runs generations deep to a time when nomadic Bedu desert tribes used them for transportation, milk and meat to survive in the unforgiving conditions of the Arabian desert. Though you can’t join a camel-led desert caravan through the Empty Quarter anymore, there are other experiences to help you understand the ‘camel culture’ in the U.A.E.
Between October and March, rise early one morning and experience the palpable energy at the Al Marmoum Racetrack. Camel racing is a huge sport in the U.A.E and crowds of enthusiastic locals gather at the racetrack as early as 6.30am to support their beloved racing camels from all over the Middle East. Dressed in shiny camel jewelry, the beasts, fitted with robotic jockeys, gallop towards the finish line leaving behind clouds of dust, nervous owners and excited onlookers. The stakes are high with the fastest camels winning cash prizes, luxury SUVs and a whole lot of prestige for their owners.
For a market experience like no other, take a day trip to the Al Ain Camel Market. You’ll get invited to take photos with newborns and race-bred studs by eager sellers. Some expect a tip while others are just plain proud to show you around and won’t take your money.
If you’re visiting the U.A.E in December, don’t miss the annual Al Dhafra Festival, held in celebration of Bedouin heritage in the desert region over an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi. One of the most important events is the Mazayna, the world’s only beauty contest for camels that attracts the light skinned Assayel and black Majahim breeds from neighboring Oman to as far as Jordan and Yemen. The camels are judged on physical attributes such as length of the neck, shape of the nose and gap between the toes and total prize money of over $12 million is awarded over the two-week duration of the festival. A camel auction is also held during the festival, with sturdy, winning and race-bred camels commanding the highest bids.
Camel meat has always been a part of traditional Emirati cuisine and there’s no better place to try it than in the heritage district of Al Bastakiya, by the Bur Dubai creek. Head to the Local House Restaurant and choose from their camel biryani or kabsa, a traditional rice dish prepared with camel meat and dry fruits. Also on the menu are a variety of camel burgers that you can choose to wash down with a camel milkshake.
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For general information to help you plan your trip to the UAE or Dubai in particular, including money-saving advice and recommendations for off-the-beaten-path day trips from Dubai, culture in Abu Dhabi, cool hotels, or popular places of interest such as the Dubai Miracle Garden, check out my UAE Travel Blog.
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