Dear Ali: Could you explain why some minarets on mosques have half-moon designs and others have full moons? MN, Sharjah
Dear MN: The minaret, an architectural feature on our mosques, is placed mainly in the four directions - east, west, north and south - or simply in each corner of the building. The main purpose is to transmit the call to prayer. Minarets today carry speakers to amplify the call.
The moon and the lunar calendar are important in Islam. A Quranic verse (2:189) says: "They ask you about the new moons. Say: They are signs for people to mark fixed periods of time, and for the pilgrimage." So the moon and its different stages help us indicate the passage of time. Hence we know when to announce the prayer time.
To Muslims, the crescent moon has been an important symbol since the time of the Crusades, to counter the cross symbol that Crusaders placed on their flags, shields and clothes. Later, the Ottoman government made it a symbol and placed it on its flag. It was later extended to be placed on minarets, although half- and full-moon designs are simply a matter of decoration.
Dear Ali: I'd like to buy a gift for my local sponsor's personal assistant to thank her for all her assistance for my company. She is Emirati. Being a male, will my buying her a gift on behalf of my company be viewed as inappropriate? LJ, Abu Dhabi
Dear LJ: Gift giving in our culture is common as we like to show gestures of our generosity and good intentions. Giving your sponsor's PA a gift in appreciation for her service is not inappropriate.
You should think about what you want to give her according to the type of person she is. If your professional relationship with her is good, then it makes it easy for you to know what to give her without fearing that it might be inappropriate. It is, after all, a corporate gift.
Just to be safe you should sign the card in a way that indicates that the gift is being given on behalf of the company. That should prevent any unintentional message.
Dear Ali: I am an English teacher and would like to learn the essentials for getting to know Emiratis better. They seem to be a little shy. I know they are not, but maybe there are some simple tips and tricks. MS, Dubai
Dear MS: You've made a good point about shyness. Some Emiratis who do not have a good command of English may be a bit shy as they do not want to embarrass themselves.
If you have Emirati students, you may consider getting to know some of them on a friendly level. They will always help you out and probably even invite you for dinner or lunch sometime.
The more you respect and appreciate our faith, culture and traditions - and appear modest in your way of dressing and the way you communicate - the better the chance you will be trusted. And trusting means Emiratis can introduce you to their family.
If you have Emirati neighbours, I strongly suggest cooking and delivering to them a nice, hearty meal as sharing food is common in our culture, especially between neighbours. This should encourage them to get to know you better once they return your plate with a dish from their kitchen, and you could strike up an instant friendship.
If you hear the henna lady asking you, "Ay naqsha tebain?", then she is asking, "Which design do you want?" You may respond: "Aba hatha el naqsh" ("I want this design").