How Dubai & Abu Dhabi Opened My Heart

 Some times we must leave something beautiful to fully appreciate it. I had this experience after my 18-hour long flight from Dubai. Headed home from the airport just before dawn to my Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhood, I couldn’t help but notice litter everywhere as a part of the landscape. That’s when it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen litter in over a week, for the entire time I was in Dubai; nor had I seen any homeless people. It was evident that in American culture people are thrown away much like litter, something unheard of in the Emirates.

It was then that I truly realized I had just left a place of extraordinary beauty that was also exceedingly civilized. The Emirati people are gracious, hospitality is a hallmark and the value put on how you treat others in this Islamic culture makes for a very heart and soul felt experience. There is a kind of sacred elegance to this way of life.

Emirati men at the mall entering the Rolex store

Elegance ~ While my friends live very nicely in the Emirates, I’m not referring to material things when I say elegance, although there was an abundance of that. Elegance because there is a kind of nobility that comes from people living a life based on long held values which include not only love of God (Allah) but an abiding love of family, extended family and respect for others. It creates something special in the air, literally and figuratively. Men and women seem to glide in their long robes. There is a certain way one carries oneself when dressed in robes. Do I sound naïve? Well let’s put aside the fact there are also in world those who wear long robes and spread death, war and misery. I know they exist, but for the sake of this post, I’m referring to my experience in the Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where there was an incredible generosity of spirit and a simple elegance to everyday life.

Fresh Lemon Mint and Pomegranate Juice from the Zahr El laymoun at the Souk al bahar across from the Dubai Mall

Ancient Tradition – Food From Nature ~Let’s start with the food. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices, dried fruit, particularly dates, figs and fresh juices are in abundance. Because alcohol is not a part of the culture many amazing and exotic fresh fruit juice blends are available. Think mocktails instead of cocktails. This is not some recent health food kick or fad. This is the way the Emirati people having been eating for centuries, before processed foods were made readily available and yet, they’ve maintained the old tradition of maintaining in their diet and abundance of food from nature.

Salad by SJ

I love pomegranates and had been eating at least one pomegranate a day since early autumn. Just a week or so before I left for Dubai, they were no longer available; the season had ended. But as soon as I arrived in Dubai I saw a huge billboard ad for pomegranates. Pomegranates are used as a garnish on many dishes and the whole fruit sans the skin, is eaten including the seeds; yes, the seeds are chewed and swallowed, like the pomegranates in this lovely salad made by SJ.  SJ a native of Nepal, and is the housekeeper for Shannon and Jim; she makes the most delectable meals. All that to say that in Dubai, I was back to eating pomegranates daily and drinking pomegranate juice. I was off to a yummy start. The drinks above were from a fabulous Lebanese Restaurant, Zahr El laymoun, that was just outstanding. The pink suede chairs had me dazzled. A very popular juice is a Mint and Lemon combo, and this one was a perfect balance of sweet and tart. That combo was one of most delicious libations I have ever had with the exception of that fresh pressed pomegranate juice.  It was ethereal, I felt I could just keep it drinking until I passed out. Incomparable!

The Souk ~ When Shannon (my friend and host) and I traveled to the souk or souq (old marketplace) there were long burlap bags filled with all manner of unique spices, resins, gums, rose buds and hibiscus teas, whole dried lemons and limes, frankincense and myrrh. These offering were all outside of each store, and the aroma!!! I was in aromatic heaven. But in-doors where the a/c was available, were the more expensive items like saffron, magically red sitting piled on glass plates under glass covers. A large variety of nuts were also available ~ cashew, almonds, pecans and pistachios. And the nuts came in a variety of options from raw and unsalted to flavored with curry and other spices.

Just arriving at the Dubai Mall

Mall Life ~  Shannon, such a dear one, who’d  invited me to Dubai kept bringing up the mall, saying we would be going to this mall on this day and the other malls on other days. And I’m thinking to myself, I don’t even go to the mall at home, why would I want to go to the mall on a regular in Dubai, the mall of all places??? It took me a couple of visits to the mall to finally get it, to understand the importance of the mall life in this region. Here the mall is the new age market place, the new town square where you go to find what you want and need, hang out with friends, see neighbors, foreigners (very big international presence) and to soak in the beauty of life. The biggest and the best grocery stores are at the mall. There’s all kind of activities for the children at the mall. There are top end designer stores for the wealthy, as well as mid range priced stores, banks, the cleansers, money exchange windows, etc. There is something for everyone at the mall.

Not to mention, I was there in January, the winter season where the high was 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If the high is 75 in the winter can you imagine how hot it gets come late spring and summer? The temperature hovers around 115 degrees, and what better place to be than the air-conditioned mall where you have access to whatever you may want or need and be entertained. There are all kinds of eateries, everything from Garretts Popcorn to 5 star restaurants, movie theaters, ski slopes, ice-skating…I kid you not, and the Dubai Mall has an Olympic size fish tank. You could actually don a diving gear and swim with the fish. It seems people are either in their homes, their cars, at work, the Mosque or the mall. The other really exciting thing to do is to travel out to the desert, a place unfortunately, I didn’t get to travel to this time around. My friends shared that for the Emirati people, going to the desert is like going back home, a place of ancient traditions and a reprieve from the modern world of malls and excess.

Living room in the Dubai Museum

 The Dubai Museum ~ My visit to the Dubai Museum really gave me an invaluable perspective of Dubai. It’s not what I thought, some new place with skyscrapers that emerged from nothing. The Emirati people have lived here for centuries, but in a very humble way. Up until as recently as the 1970s Emirati people lived very much like traditional African people, close to the earth with a high value on community, family, elders, with most everything made by hand, woven clothing, woven baskets, hand made furniture, utensils, tools etc. and in a very communal way. Today the Emirati people still live communally, with several generations of a family in one household. What’s changed is the infusion of great wealth, but coupled with the same traditions in place. What a winning combination! Instead of exploiting their people, the Emirates have everything set up so that the Emirati people are well taken care of, no matter how many foreigners come to live and create wealth for themselves in Dubai, the indigenous people of that land continue to thrive.

With Tamu on the ground of the Emirates Place Spa in Abu Dhabi

Generosity ~ I stayed with two African American couples while in Dubai. And all I can say is that they treated me with so much care and generosity that it literally brought me to tears. One friend, Tamu booked us for spa treatments and then casually mentioned that it was her treat. This wasn’t just any spa, this was the Emirates Palace Spa. The grounds alone are astonishing and the inside, was epic. As I lay on the massage table I became so overcome with gratitude that the tears just began to flow. My heart felt expanded, opened by all that I’d been experiencing. This gift of an exquisite spa treatment was on the heels of nearly a week at the home of Shannon and Jim who were anticipating my every want and need, treating me to 5 star restaurant excursions and then after working all day, taking me out to the different malls and treating me to exceptional outings at night like Global Village and the Burj Khalifa. Both couples explained that the generosity they were offering me was what they had experienced themselves as expats in this foreign land and they had been influenced in this way by the culture.

Oudh

Oud ~ And then there’s oud or oudh, one the most expensive perfume ingredients known to the human nose! This was the thing that initially sparked my interest in traveling to a place half way around the world that is not known for its beaches. Oud is an intensely odorous oil procured from Agarwood trees and is easily found for purchase in the Emirates. Dark with an animalic scent, oud can be off putting; but blended in a perfume formulation, it enhances a scent as no other can. I wear oud for my own pleasure, but I also have it as an element in a couple of my perfumes, the Sita and Nola.  These day most top perfume brands are rushing to have an oud perfume in their repertoire.

The oud shops in Dubai were located in the malls. Elegantly set up, oud shops are like high-end jewelry stores, with elaborate chairs and offerings of bespoke espresso and coffee, two very popular beverages in the Emirates. I guess that addiction is all over the world. My addiction is fragrance and I had a good dose of it in Dubai. In addition to the natives wearing oud raw and in perfumes, it is burned daily in homes and businesses. Also, top brands fragrances from around the globe are sold and worn quite generously in Dubai. Beautiful and unique aromas were ubiquitous.

Here at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque covered in a robe that I was asked to wear over my clothing

Sheikh Zayed Mosque ~ Last but certainly not least the Mosques ~ Mosques are easy to find in the Emirates, so come prayer time (5 times a day) one can easily make their way to a mosque. Even with my stop-over in India, there were signs in the airport indicating prayer rooms. I knew I was entering another world when I saw that. On my weekend visit to Abu Dhabi I didn’t have a chance to go inside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, but Shannon and her husband Jim would not hear of me leaving the Emirates without seeing the inside of this famed mosque. So they made arrangements for me to go back and take in the grandeur of it all. A personal driver drove me back to Abu Dhabi, waited for me while I toured the Mosque and then drove me back to Dubai (a hour and a half drive each way). This is what I mean about how I was treated in Dubai, the level of generosity was humbling.

Some of the flowers of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque

The mere size of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is just astounding! I was spellbound by two facts. First, that Sheikh Zayed was inspired to build this mosque based on his visit to the Taj Mahal. And so he hired the same family of artisans that built the Taj Mahal, to build this mosque. It took ten years of planning the architectural design and an additional eleven years to build it. I was absolutely enchanted by the floral theme that cover the walls, pillars, were in the ceiling, and on the largest carpet ever made in the world. There were over a thousand different colors used to create the flowers, but they’re not painted. Instead, the floral designs are comprised of over a hundred different semi-precious stones and types of marble.

Marble flowers abound

The other fact was that was heart felt, was that Sheikh Zayed passed away before the Mosque was completed and the decision was made to bury him on the grounds of the mosque. The Holy Koran is recited 24 hours a day at his burial ground with the belief that the deceased can feel the energy of their environment and the people wanted Sheikh Zayed to feel on the other side of eternity, how very much he is loved and appreciated. But what blew my mind is that the recital is not recorded. It’s actually recited by a number of Imams taking turns through each day and night. Talking about devotion! What a great and beloved man, was Sheikh Zayed. He is the Sheikh who decided that in order to build a great nation, women had to be educated and then he proceeded to put in place all that was needed in order for them to go to school, including paying them to go to school. What a man, a visionary, a leader!

In Conclusion ~I had a most beloved experience in the Emirates that I will forever remain with me. I was surprised at how being in the Emirates warmed my heart and gave me another perspective on Islam. While I didn’t feel closed to Islam, I had an opportunity to more easily see the beauty of this faith in its motherland. I appreciate spiritual enlightenment from all religions. In my eyes every religion has something of value to offer considering all roads lead to the one Source. My new appreciation for Islam was a reminder of how we truly benefit from venturing out of our comfort zones and exploring other cultures.

Shannon and Jim

Thank you Shannon and Jim for your most generous and gracious hospitality.

Tamu & Amir

Thank you Tamu and Amir for such a wonderful and heart felt experience.

A view of the Arabian Gulf from the terrace of Amir and Tamu’s terrace

Check out this juice menu from the world renowned Hakkasan Restaurant at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.  Hotels are the only places allowed to serve alcohol in the Emirates but a fine selection of non-alcoholic fruit based drinks are always available.

Mock-tail offerings at Hakkasan Restaurant in Abu Dhabi

So as you can well see if you’ve gotten this far, I had a most wonderful experience and there was plenty more. But this post has to end at some point. I hope you enjoyed it.  Please share your comments, thoughts on this post.

Happy as a lark here on the beach known as the Arabian Gulf