Dear Ali: I am coming to the UAE to visit my Emirati friend. Her mother has a terminal illness and has been told that she has a few days to live. Not that I want to get ahead of myself, but if she dies, I am not familiar with funeral rituals when visiting someone in the UAE. Are there any rules I should know or follow when going to a funeral at an Emirati home? HK, Arizona
Dear HK: I am so sorry to hear about your friend's situation, may Allah grant her the patience to get through this smoothly. Yes, actually, there are a few things that you might want to keep in mind when going to a funeral at an Arab's house.
First, I advise you not to bring flowers. I know this sounds strange, but flowers to us symbolise happy moments and to give someone a bouquet at a funeral is just not appropriate. We normally don't bring anything with us when paying our respects because what matters to us is the person and not the gifts he or she might bring to a funeral. Women may want to help out, so they could ask the host if anything needs to be done, as any sort of assistance will always be appreciated, but there is no obligation. Just showing sincerely that you are willing to help is really more than enough.
Also, even though our funerals are segregated, you will find that many women keep their abayas on, even though there are only women in the room. Wearing modest clothes shows respect to the deceased and the family. I am not saying that you must wear the abaya, but a suitably modest garment is definitely something you should consider, as this is not an occasion where you would want to show some skin. And by modest I mean not only appropriate covering, but also no flashy, colourful dresses. Normally, women don't wear any make-up as that indicates you are going to a celebration or place to be merry and happy. Therefore, I suggest you wear minimal make-up, too.
I think that's about it. Our rituals are fairly simple and, I hope, not complicated for westerners to follow.
Dear Ali: The other day I was involved in a minor road accident with an Arab woman. When the police arrived, I was shocked to see that she wouldn't leave her car to give details to the police. Instead he had to come to her! I feel this is demeaning to the status of a policeman, because where I come from, we are taught to respect officials, and getting out of the car is one example. DK, Dubai
Dear DK: That is a good question. Before I start, I hope you are well and have not suffered any injuries from the accident.
Actually the respect issue in this situation is reversed. We Arabs have a high regard for women, and for this reason they are not required to leave the car to complete police forms. It can be done while she is in the car, and even if she has to explain how the accident happened, that can take place within the comfort of her car too.
It is not considered disrespectful at all, because even policemen should follow certain etiquette rules towards women. Also, it is not acceptable from a cultural viewpoint to let a woman be exposed to the passers-by in such a situation. Arab women like to handle their matters in privacy and with minimal exposure to the public eye. It is also one of the reasons why we like to tint our car windows: so the women in our families can feel comfortable.
Usually it is the men who go to the funeral prayers as it is done during the burial ritual. You might hear your husband say "Ana sayer el janaza" which means "I am going to the funeral".