On the long flight to Abu Dhabi from New York I had ample time to contemplate. During much of the 13-hour journey, I deliberated how an Emirati who had lived most of his life abroad and had not been back in over a decade would be treated by his fellow citizens. Although the Etihad staff did their world's-leading best to ensure my comfort, I could not help but feel anxious in my cosy seat. Would I be treated as an outcast for not being fluent in the language? Would other Emiratis discredit me instantly for not knowing the culture and protocols? Would I forever be relegated to alien status due to my prolonged absence? My anxiety made the already lengthy flight much longer.
The first venture into an Emirati social setting following my return was attending a family friend's majlis, a traditional open gathering of family, friends and community. This event was preceded with a hint of apprehension as childhood memories of such occasions were anything but fond. Having to wear the unfamiliar kandura and ghutra, spend time greeting countless unfamiliar faces and sit politely listening to people converse in a distant second language had been far from my idea of a good time as a child.
On this occasion, the hosts, as well as the guests, provided genuinely warm greetings and gracious hospitality, which quickly dispelled any lingering apprehensions I may have had. I was surprised upon first entering the majlis, as every person in the room stood up to greet us with sincere smiles. Following my father's lead for protocol cues, we first greeted the head of the hosts' family followed by the person to his right and so on, until all the hands had been shaken. The logic behind this anti-clockwise welcoming direction, I later learnt, was the ease of transition from shaking one right hand to the next when taking this path.
The hospitality flowed from the minute we sat down, with the offering and reoffering of refreshments from the start. In addition to a lavish local meal, tea, fruit and dessert were part of the generosity on offer. Greetings were quick to come also as a guest engaged me in conversation without hesitation. Upon discovering my command of Arabic was limited, rather than reject me instantly, he took interest and inquired about my upbringing.
This majlis was a far cry from the social gatherings to which I had grown accustomed in the West.
The most noticeable difference was the separation of the men and women. Accustomed to engaging with both sexes in similar settings, it took me some time to accept this would never be the case here. Furthermore, I will have to get used to the different protocols and higher level of formalities. But at no time living abroad did I find the levels of greeting and hospitality given in the majlis to guests by Emiratis.
Attending more majlises, I have discovered how prevalent, significant and open these gatherings are in the Emirates' past and current society. In the past, these meetings served as the central point of exchange among the population. The biggest of these congregations were hosted by leaders of society and functioned as parliaments, schools and information outlets before any formal institutions were established. It was also the setting where many conflicts could be resolved through the public communicating their cases with their leaders. Furthermore, many of the more affluent members of society would use the medium of the majlis to engage with and help those less fortunate.
The majlis also fostered a tighter community by keeping its members at close quarters and exposing them to the goings-on of society.
This fact has not changed much, and the majlis is still a cornerstone of Emirati culture and society. Today's Emirati leaders still open their homes to Emiratis and expatriates alike.
Having attended one of these gatherings, I was astonished to see the access the public had to the country's leaders' homes, hospitality and ears. There is little comparison with the rest of the world, where in the majority of nations, the general public has no access to its leaders.
My recent visits to the majlises have given me first-hand access to a significant pillar of Emirati culture and society. Although a different social experience than the ones I am familiar with, it has shown me how hospitable, approachable and open Emiratis can be.
After my turbulent journey home, the majlis has helped smooth out my touchdown within the UAE. Why not see what it could do for you?
Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US. Contact him at email@example.com.