Thursday, April 19, 2012

Visitor Adventures: Bastakiya Heritage Tour

Our next adventure in Dubai took us to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Their motto, "open doors, open minds", which I love. They offer tours, talks, breakfasts and lunches to tourists with the goal of helping all visitors understand and appreciate Emirati culture and heritage. The centre and the tours take place in Bastakiya, which is a restored heritage village. The tours are given by UAE Nationals and the rule is "you can ask about ANYTHING". We had two tour guides and both were excellent, explaining about traditional housing, family life and a bit about Islam. Our second guide was a young university student who spent much of her life in South Carolina in the US - had she not been wearing Abaya, we would have assumed she was American. Both were informative and very open to all of our silly questions. Here are a few myths they dispelled during the tour:

Multiple Wives: The myth is that all Muslims are instructed by the Quaran to have up to 4 wives. Not true. The actual passage is something like, if you can promise to treat them equally, go for it, but one wife is best (clearly that's not a direct translation! :) What was more interesting was our guide's explanation for multiple wives. She told us that the practice started to help some of the war torn countries recover. When a country goes to war, many of the men are lost, which causes a steep imbalance of women to men in the country. So, the good Muslim, extends their family to provide an opportunity for more women to have stable family lives for the benefit of the community. And, she made it clear that the way it is supposed to work is that BOTH husband and 1st wife should agree to expand the family to include another wife. And then, both wives and their families MUST be treated equally. She explained it by saying, if you have two apples, you don't give one to one wife and one to the other, you cut both apples in half and give one half of each apple to each wife - that way, one wife can't say her apple wasn't as sweet. Jokingly, one of the male guides said that's exactly why he's planning to have only one wife! :)

Modest Dress: The myth is that women here are oppressed and forced to cover themselves by their husbands or by the rules of Islam. While this is probably true in some families, it's not a rule of the Quaran and certainly not the majority of the situations here. Most women choose to wear abayas and shayla and actually enjoy the freedom it provides. Think about it, under your abaya, you can wear your pajamas all day if you wish and still look elegant and put together. Under you shayla, your hair can be tied up out of your face - no blow drying, curling, hairspray.... Think of how quickly you could be out the door in the morning! :) "officially" women only need to cover their hair when entering a Mosque and are asked to dress "modestly", which most interpret as covered knees, shoulders and cleavage.

Entering a Mosque: The myth is that only Muslims can enter a Mosque. Our guide gave us some great guidance for entering a mosque (and also permission to enter any mosque we'd like). 1) dress modestly - covered knees, shoulders and cleavage; 2) women cover their head; 3) all - remove your shoes; 4) don't carry any bags, luggage, purses, etc. If you follow those guidelines, you can enter a mosque at any time. And after she described this, it totally makes sense. Think of a church back home - would we ever deny someone entrance? No, as long as they followed the rules - and what would our rules be? Enter quietly and respectfully; remain quiet and respectful while you're in there; be discreet if taking any photos; remove your hat? My favorite comment is when she said, "what does a Muslim look like? How would anyone know you weren't a Muslim anyway?" So true - might have to visit a Friday sermon some time before I left the sand box.

Here are a few photos from the visit.

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