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As I anticipated my first trip to the Middle East, I expected to encounter a different world.
But moments after my plane landed in Dubai, I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt. On the airport shuttle to customs, four young women in abayas and hijabs were chatting away and swiping through Snapchat filters. I stood in line for security with teenagers in fitted, distressed jeans and parents chasing down their giggling toddlers.
It didn't feel so different from home.
After exploring the city's architectural marvels and glittering attractions, I was wowed, but I was still curious. I loved the bustle, the industry and the rapid growth of Dubai, but I craved a down-to-earth conversation about culture.
It was at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) where I found what I was looking for: A place for questions, thoughtful conversations and Emirati hospitality. Located in the heart of Old Dubai, SMCCU is staffed by volunteers and offers a variety of cultural meals and tours for guests. It makes a perfect start to any trip to Dubai. Guests have a chance to become familiar with Emirati culture, meet locals and ask any questions that might be on their minds.
The morning I visited, SMCCU’s founder, Abdullah Bin Eisa Al Serkal, led my group through a guided tour of the the Al Bastakiya neighborhood. We meandered through the alleys between historical buildings with tall wind towers and textured walls built from coral. As we walked, he dis-cussed the city’s evolution, as well as Emirati family traditions.
Al Serkal described how, when he was growing up, families used to live together in large homes with open courtyards.
”The children had four mothers and four fathers in the same house,” he said. ”When they go outside the house, they have 1,000 mothers and 1,000 fathers watching them.”
We continued walking until we reached the Diwan Mosque, the only mosque in Dubai open to the public. After we discussed the tradition of washing before prayer, we removed our shoes, and the women covered their heads with bright-blue pashminas (provided by SMCCU) before walking inside. The lofty, domed interior was accented with beautiful gold Arabic script on the walls, complementing geometric designs in pink, blue and red. Al Serkal explained the Islamic tradition of calls to prayer throughout the day, demonstrating the various postures, and translating the Arabic phrases into English. He then offered a prayer, and his clear voice rang through the mosque as he spoke and sang.
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is located in Bur Dubai, one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. // © 2016 Megan Leader
The center offers tours for visitors of all ages, and it often hosts school groups. // © 2016 Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
Visitors can sign up for cultural meals, which include a lavish spread of pastries and savory dishes, served family style. // © 2016 Megan Leader
The Centre’s aim is to raise awareness of Emirati culture, customs and religion, encouraging understanding and acceptance. // © 2016 Megan Leader
While visiting the Diwan Mosque, visitors have the opportunity to learn about the tradition of Islamic calls to prayer. // © 2016 Megan Leader
Subtle geometric design motifs can be spotted throughout the Centre and its neighborhood. // © 2016 Megan Leader
On a tour of the Diwan Mosque, guides may demonstrate Islamic worship and explain the meanings of traditional prayers. // © 2016 Megan Leader
When the prayer ended, a slight echo resonated in the air and dissipated into a reverent silence. Savoring that moment, sitting on the floor of that mosque, I was reminded of what I love so much about travel: What starts out as being ”over there, across the ocean“ becomes ”here, where I sit.” Knowledge is translated to firsthand experience, and what was once foreign and unfamiliar becomes illuminated and approachable.
We returned to the traditional home where we started our tour and enjoyed a lavish breakfast spread of freshly cooked Emirati specialties. Over the meal, we had a Q&A session, where we were encouraged to ask anything that was on our minds. Nothing was off-limits. We talked about family dynamics, business, culture, religion and traditional dress.
I left SMCCU that morning with a greater sense of depth as I surveyed the city that surrounded me. It felt more comfortable, more familiar — and even more like home.