In­dian cou­ple Sa­jan Scaria and Ju­lia John got an in-depth in­sight into Emi­rati cul­ture with the coun­try’s first cer­ti­fied Emi­rati home ex­pe­ri­ence guide, Maitha Essa. Zenifer Khaleel joined them


The coun­try’s first cer­ti­fied Emi­rati home ex­pe­ri­ence guide gave us a won­der­ful peek into the cul­ture and tra­di­tions here – com­plete with lessons on why you should never refuse cof­fee in an Emi­rati house­hold.

Why do most Emi­rati houses have two en­trances? What is the right way to greet an Emi­rati woman? Why were deaf peo­ple em­ployed as cof­fee servers in ma­jlises in an­cient times? Although the 30-some­thing In­dian ex­pat Ju­lia John was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, she was not aware of a lot of her­itage or cul­tural norms and eti­quette of the UAE. Her hus­band Sa­jan Scaria, an equip­ment man­ager based in the cap­i­tal for the past 12 years, was equally clue­less.

‘The UAE is a dream desti­na­tion for ex­pats like us and we are given the free­dom to ob­serve our faiths and fol­low our tra­di­tions,’ says Ju­lia. ‘Christ­mas and Di­wali is cel­e­brated with the same fer­vour as is Eid. Yet the cul­tural ex­change seems to be one-sided as we [ex­pats] re­ally don’t know a lot about the cus­toms, tra­di­tions and her­itage of the coun­try we are liv­ing in.’

Sa­jan couldn’t agree more. ‘When­ever friends and fam­ily come vis­it­ing to the UAE, they are amazed by the op­u­lence, clean­li­ness, safety and in­fra­struc­ture of this coun­try,’ he says. ‘But I don’t know of many places where I could take them to so they can get an in­sight into Emi­rati cul­ture as well.’

So when the cou­ple got an op­por­tu­nity to en­joy a tra­di­tional Emi­rati home ex­pe­ri­ence, Ju­lia de­cided to sign up im­me­di­ately.

An ini­tia­tive by a 26-year-old Emi­rati en­tre­pre­neur Maitha Essa, the at­tempt aims to pro­vide ex­pats a first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence of Emi­rati cul­ture by of­fer­ing an op­por­tu­nity to min­gle closely with a lo­cal fam­ily, learn about the cul­tural norms and also en­joy a de­li­cious din­ner.

For a fee of Dh450 per adult, Maitha of­fers guests all of that at her villa in Abu Dhabi’s Mo­ham­mad Bin Zayed City where she re­sides with her fam­ily that in­cludes her mother and five sib­lings.

Last­ing around four hours, the in­ter­ac­tion gives vis­i­tors on in­vi­ta­tion, a fairly de­tailed ac­count of the coun­try, cul­ture and cus­toms while also giv­ing them a chance to dis­pel any doubts they may have about Emi­rati eti­quette. The ic­ing on the cake? Guests are also treated to an Emi­rati din­ner in­clud­ing cof­fee and dates.

Maitha, who works in the in­ves­tiga­tive and au­dit de­part­ment of a health in­sur­ance com­pany, also en­joys be­ing a tour guide dur­ing her off hours. She was one of the first grad­u­ates of the pi­lot Emi­rati Tourist Guide Train­ing and Li­cens­ing pro­gramme of the De­part­ment of Cul­ture and Tourism, launched last Novem­ber and is the only tour op­er­a­tor in the UAE who pro­vides a home ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘A lot of tourists don’t know much about our tra­di­tions or are un­clear about some cus­toms. I started this ex­pe­ri­ence after I put my­self in a tourist’s shoes. If I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence a coun­try, I’d love to visit houses of the lo­cal peo­ple rather than just see the tourist hotspots. It would also help to clear a lot of mis­con­cep­tions,’ says Maitha.

The first inkling the Scarias get that they have ar­rived at Maitha’s house is the strong scent of Ara­bic Oudh that wafts in the air. The

‘I started this ex­pe­ri­ence after I put my­self in a tourist’s shoes. If I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence a coun­try, I’d love to visit houses of the lo­cal peo­ple rather than just see the tourist hotspots’

guests face two en­trances – a large one and a slightly smaller one to the left of the main one. Dressed in a mukhawar (a long loose-fit­ting gown) her head cov­ered with a sheyla (head scarf), Maitha wel­comes us.

‘The larger en­trance leads to the main area of the house and is used by the fam­ily; the other one which opens to the ma­jlis (guest room), is for the vis­i­tors,’ ex­plains Maitha, gen­tly re­mind­ing us to leave their footwear out­side as a mark of re­spect.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the ma­jlis is the des­ig­nated room for guests, and vis­i­tors are not en­cour­aged to go to other parts of the house. It is set up with Be­douin style so­fas and low sil­ver­top ta­bles. Ad­her­ing to tra­di­tion, a dalla (golden cof­fee pot) and a plate­ful of dates adorn the cen­tre ta­ble.

Emi­rati houses have sep­a­rate ma­jlises for men and women. ‘A typ­i­cal Emi­rati house has as many rooms as the num­ber of peo­ple in the fam­ily,’ she says.

Maitha’s home is slightly dif­fer­ent in that it has a very con­tem­po­rary ma­jlis where she hosts all guests – men and women – in one area. It has an eclec­tic mix of mod­ern and clas­sic with sofa, cen­tre ta­bles and show pieces. What is essen­tially Emi­rati are the dates and the kahwa (Ara­bic cof­fee).

While it is not manda­tory to bring gifts when vis­it­ing an Emi­rati house­hold, you may carry choco­lates or a bou­quet of flow­ers as a to­ken of ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

‘Cof­fee plays a very im­por­tant role in our hos­pi­tal­ity and it is con­sid­ered im­po­lite for guests to refuse it,’ she says. ‘Only a fourth of the cup is filled at a time be­cause we want peo­ple to stay longer and chat over re­fills.’

The cof­fee is unsweet­ened but pair­ing it with dates gives it a very rich and sweet flavour.

‘Dates are pre­ferred to be taken in odd num­bers as that is the Sun­nah (tra­di­tion) of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH),’ she says.

The rit­ual of serv­ing cof­fee fol­lows strin­gent pro­to­col. If it is the male ma­jlis, the youngest able male mem­ber in the host’s fam­ily is ex­pected to serve the el­dest among the guests (in age or by virtue of po­si­tion).

Once the elders are served, the rest of the guests are served be­gin­ning from the right side of the room. Guests stretch out their hands if they need more cof­fee. If they are done, they jig­gle the cup – an in­di­ca­tion to the server that they don’t need any­more. The server is ex­pected to re­main stand­ing and in si­lence un­til the last guest has had his fill of cof­fee after which the cups are re­moved from the ta­ble.

‘I al­ways bear the brunt of be­ing the server as I’m the youngest,’ says Maitha, with a laugh.

The hand move­ments with the cof­fee cups have spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance. ‘The ma­jlises of yore were meet­ing ar­eas where dis­cus­sions usu­ally of a very sen­si­tive na­ture were held. Very of­ten, deaf peo­ple were em­ployed as servers as the tribal heads did not want any­one eaves­drop­ping over their con­ver­sa­tions. That’s a rea­son hand ges­tures were used as sig­nals for the servers to re­fill the cups,’ she says, serv­ing the guests a cup of cof­fee.

‘The mens’ ma­jlises are usu­ally more rigid and for­mal where the talk is mostly re­lated to busi­ness. Chil­dren as young as seven were taken to ma­jlises and mosques to learn about re­li­gion, cul­ture, eti­quette and man­ners. Women’s ma­jlises are more so­cial gath­er­ings, where you can re­lax and en­joy.’

The sound of a bird flut­ter­ing its wings makes Ju­lia, who is en­grossed lis­ten­ing to the cul­tural dos and don’ts, look up. Perched in the cor­ner of the room is an eyass (a fal­con chick). Maitha in­tro­duces her as Gha­zlan who is be­ing trained to en­hance the Emi­rati home ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘What is the cor­rect way of greet­ing an Emi­rati woman?’ asks Sa­jan, ex­plain­ing that learn­ing the right way would help him when in­ter­act­ing with his Emi­rati co­work­ers.

‘A woman is the pride of the fam­ily and her hon­our is pro­tected and guarded. Tra­di­tion­ally she is not al­lowed to min­gle freely with men ex­cept with her blood re­la­tions (not in­clud­ing cousins),’ ex­plains Maitha.

Even though times are chang­ing, she rec­om­mends not be­ing the first to ex­tend the hand for a hand­shake when meet­ing an Emi­rati woman. ‘Most women keep a hand on their chest when they meet a man to sig­nify that they pre­fer not to shake hands with men. How­ever, if the woman ini­ti­ates a hand­shake by ex­tend­ing her hand, there is no harm in do­ing so,’ she says.

An­other form of greet­ing, the nose touch, is a tra­di­tion of desert Be­douins. Maitha throws light on this cul­tural prac­tice. ‘When Be­douins used to move with their tribes across the desert, they would hold the leash of their camels in their right hand and their swords in their left. Since both hands were not free, the nose touch evolved as a form of greet­ing,’ ex­plains Maitha.

From the wide-eyed look of the guests it is clear that this in­for­ma­tion is new to them.

The gra­cious host­ess then of­fers a les­son about tra­di­tional at­tire. Women typ­i­cally wear black abayas (gowns) and black shey­las when they step out­side. In­side the house, though, they are free to wear clothes of their choices as long as there are no guests or vis­i­tors.

‘A com­mon ques­tion I am asked by vis­i­tors is whether I wear an abaya while sleep­ing as well,’ says Maitha with a laugh. ‘In­side the house, if there are no guests, we wear pretty much any­thing we want such as a py­jama set or a pair of jeans and a shirt.’

Janet is keen to know more about the burqa (the cloth mask worn by women over the brow and nose). ‘That was usu­ally worn by mar­ried women and mainly to pro­tect her beauty from the harsh sun and the dust,’ ex­plains Maitha.

For men, the pris­tine white kan­doora or dishs­dasha, is a sym­bol of pride. Emi­rati men can be dis­tin­guished from men of other Arab na­tion­al­i­ties (like Saudi, Kuwait or Bahrain) by the de­sign on the kan­doora. They will have a long plaited tar­boosh (white tas­sel) in front of the kan­doora. Oma­nis wear a smaller tar­boosh in the side and Saudis do not have it at all. The Emi­rati for­mal wear is a white kan­doora with white gutrah (head cov­er­ing). But for friendly gath­er­ings, they can wear red gutrahs as well.

‘What about mar­riages,’ asks Ju­lia. ‘How are al­liances fixed.’

Tra­di­tional mar­riage pro­pos­als were largely ar­ranged from within the com­mu­nity, ex­plains the guide. The wom­en­folk of the groom visit the

Tra­di­tional mar­riage pro­pos­als in the UAE were a three-step process largely ar­ranged from within the com­mu­nity, ex­plains Maitha

prospec­tive bride’s house where she is ex­pected to serve them cof­fee with all due re­spect. She is also ex­pected to not wear any make-up. If the groom’s fam­ily are pleased with her man­ners, they in­form the elders of the house that they are happy to go ahead. The se­nior men then meet in the ma­jlis of the groom’s house to fi­nalise the pro­posal. It is only after this that the bride and groom meet for­mally.

Maitha is quick to add that times are chang­ing and Emi­ratis are open­ing up to the idea of find­ing their own life part­ners. Even as she is ex­plain­ing about mar­riage, the de­li­cious aroma of a mut­ton biryani wafts into the room. Maitha is keen that her guests en­joy the meal in as tra­di­tional a fash­ion as pos­si­ble. The seat­ing is on the floor around a cir­cu­lar hand­wo­ven Ara­bic mat of date palm leaves.

The ap­pe­tiser is the melt-in-the-mouth madhrooba (rice cooked with chicken and mashed to­gether). ‘Madhrooba lit­er­ally means to be beaten up,’ says Maitha, ex­hort­ing the cou­ple to have an­other serv­ing. Next served is the mut­ton biryani. What makes Emi­rati food dif­fer­ent from other Ara­bic coun­ter­parts is the mix of spices like car­damom, cin­na­mon and the use of dried lime.

‘Chicken mach­boos (rice and chicken steamed to­gether) is com­monly served,’ says Maitha. ‘But for a change I thought we will go for biryani this time.’

The Scarias soon find their groove of eat­ing seated on the floor. While Ju­lia de­cides to have a sec­ond help­ing of madhrooba, Sa­jan tucks into more biryani. ‘We haven’t had an au­then­tic Emi­rati meal, so the flavours are very new and dis­tinct,’ says Ju­lia.

All dishes are pre­pared at her home with Maitha’s mother over­see­ing the prepa­ra­tion.

The meal ends with a tra­di­tional suleimani (black tea) sweet­ened and en­hanced with car­damom. Din­ner over, Maitha in­tro­duces the guests to an­other tra­di­tion typ­i­cal of the re­gion one that in­vig­o­rates the ol­fac­tory senses. Light­ing a tra­di­tional in­cense burner with coal, she places a tiny amount of oudh in it.

One of the most ex­pen­sive per­fume in­gre­di­ents in the world, oudh is ob­tained from the bark of the agar­wood tree that is in­fected by a cer­tain mould of par­a­site. Emi­ratis use oudh that is largely sourced from In­dia and Cam­bo­dia. ‘Arabs love the strong musky scent and the long last­ing qual­ity of oudh. That’s why it is so pop­u­lar amongst them,’ says Maitha.

‘You should be care­ful that the coal is not over­heated other­wise, it could be toxic. Look out for the white smoke – that in­di­cates the cor­rect heat. If the smoke turns black, put out the coals im­me­di­ately,’ she says. Arabs place the burner care­fully un­der the abayas or kan­dooras so that the smoke per­me­ates their at­tire.

The Scarias close their eyes and breathe in deeply the lux­u­ri­ous scent of oudh.

As they are pre­par­ing to leave after an en­joy­able and il­lu­mi­nat­ing evening, Maitha sug­gests some must-see at­trac­tions in the cap­i­tal. ‘The Shaikh Zayed Memo­rial and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are musts,’ she says, ‘be­cause the story of the suc­cess of UAE is re­lated to the his­tory of the found­ing fa­ther.’

The newly ren­o­vated Qasr Al Hosn also should not be missed as it is the old­est build­ing in the Cap­i­tal. ‘The fort was built when they dis­cov­ered wa­ter in this area. The dhabi (gazelles) lead peo­ple to this wa­ter source and hence the name Abu Dhabi (fa­ther of the Gazelle),’ says Maitha. ‘Then there is the Wa­hat Al Karama (Oases of dig­nity) which is a mar­tyr’s memo­rial for fallen UAE sol­diers’.

As they are set to leave, Ju­lia en­quires about Maitha’s plans.

‘I want to change the per­cep­tion the world has of Emi­rati women. Most tourists think they can’t even talk to us. I’m try­ing to de­liver a mes­sage that the Emi­rati woman is strong and in­de­pen­dent while she holds on to her tra­di­tions. I get a few neg­a­tive com­ments for al­low­ing men and women to min­gle dur­ing this ex­pe­ri­ence, but I take it in my stride. We want peo­ple to know we are open and adapt­able. Be­cause tourists are googling rather than ask­ing us, they fall vic­tims of me­dia prej­u­dices about Arab world. Some­one who saw my brother with us four sis­ters thought it was his four wives!’

Her home ex­pe­ri­ence will soon in­clude an op­tion where the guests can spend a night in an Emi­rati home and other pack­age deals. She also plans to branch out to Dubai where there will be tra­di­tional Khaimah (tents) made of Sadoo (an­i­mal hair).

The Scarias leave, en­am­oured by their first visit to an Emi­rati house­hold. ‘Maitha put us at ease and it was like talk­ing to a fam­ily mem­ber,’ says Ju­lia.

‘She was very forth­com­ing in her an­swers and we got a lot of no­tions cleared,’ says Sa­jan.

Emi­rati home Ex­pe­ri­ence costs Dh450 for adults, Dh225 for chil­dren be­low 13. For de­tails, con­tact [email protected]­ or fol­low ex­pe­ri­ence abud­habi on In­sta­gram

‘I’m try­ing to de­liver a mes­sage that the Emi­rati woman is strong and in­de­pen­dent while she holds on to her tra­di­tions.’

Maitha Essa, a qual­i­fied tour guide, gives guests an over­view of lo­cal tra­di­tions - and also a de­li­cious din­ner

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