Dubai and hospitality are synonymous. April is the month for the Arabian Travel Market; an annual exhibition to highlight why tourists should come visit Dubai throughout the year. Yet above all of the various entries of resorts, tour providers, and world class travel providers, is the concept they will spout, but not describe. The inherent generosity behind the holy privilege of hospitality for the Emirati.
For thousands of years, people have arrived by boat to the Dubai Creek seeking trade, shelter from cyclones and to repair their dhows (wooden boats). From the south-west they also came by desert, connecting the cities in Yemen and Oman to the oases of Al Ain, the port city of Dubai, the oases of Liwa and up to our neighbours in Bahrain, Qatar and The Nejd (eastern Saudi Arabia). To play host even unexpectedly, is uniquely seen as a privilege to Muslims and thus the people of Dubai, not always the descriptor people would use when finding an unannounced guest. In Islam it is ruled that to feed or shelter a guest is equal to offering the same for God. “…then Allah will say, oh son of Adam, I was needed food but you did not feed me. Son of Adam responded, Oh Allah how could I feed You, You are lord of the worlds? Did not you know my servant was hungry but you did not feed him. If you had, you would have found me & benefit from me.” Yet aside from religious adherence, within the local culture, playing host became a source of interest, adding variety to the average days and even a friendly competition in who is most generous. The resources may have changed, but the intention of the Dubai host has remained the same; to leave the guests feeling welcomed, comforted and pleased beyond measure wanting to return.
It all starts with the kind, calm welcome and pleasing smile, urging the expected and unexpected guest to enter. Upon sitting down in a house, office or majlis it is an absolute expectation to serve steaming hot Qahwa, (Arabic Coffee) in just two to three sips at a time, followed by a simple, sweet date. One cup gives you the time to ask a question or seek a signature, while still having an exchange of hospitality. Or the guest may enjoy cup after cup to their hearts content, with each refill giving blessings toward the host from Allah, and perhaps stay on for a meal or longer. The serving pot for the coffee; called a della, is a favourite symbol of hospitality in the Emirates. The wide bottom, narrowing pot with an elegant dome topped by a baluster and the grand swoop of the handle, simply evokes this tool for welcome is for ceremony and not a mere vessel for boiling a drink. Held in the left hand, and a pile of small round cups in the right, the coffee server always stands, patient & ready with complete dedication to play server and break from less interesting duties as they listen in on the conversation of this new person and the host.
A meal may follow the coffee. The hosts will provide as much food as possible, to ensure some dishes would be pleasing to the guests taste. Some houses may urge the guest to eat on their own and not be shy, while most host will remain, eating bit by bit so as to share the meal and urge the guest on, yet making the impression this food is the guests. Meals are followed with teas and bukhoor (incense). Should the guest be needing lodging, an Arabic majlis is transformed easily into wall to wall bedding and yet is still outside of the private space of the family house. Female guests may also be welcomed into a bedroom within the family quarters. In either setting, good manners of Arabia and in Islam dictate up to three nights is a welcome blessing. Longer than three and you may end up putting strain on your host’s finances, time or space.
Hospitality of strangers is done less so in these modern years, where there is also much to care about in regards to protection and safety. In years past it was more sacrosanct and rarely abused. However, until now there are still those families, known to the poor or current Bedouin where they know they will be welcomed as a guest, even if their goal is more to fill their stomachs. They will be sent on their way only after their health has been checked, clothes laundered with likely a few surprise donations tucked in the pockets of some new items, hidden amongst the rest; no honour questioned or opportunity for shame. In Al Ain, hospitals even know which families will take on a discharged patient, alone, away from their family needing someone to look after them for a while. It is the honour of the families of Bedouin heritage especially who do so, returning a debt to Hoba (Karma) for hospitality received in the past and desired in the future.
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is participating in the Arabian Travel Market at the Dubai World Trade Centre where we will be reminding others in the travel industry that we are the premier entity for tourists and expatriates to experience and understand this unique Emirati hospitality. Come visit us there April 22-25.