x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Ask Ali: Are surprise birthday parties culturally sensitive for Muslims?

If it were up to me, I would make a surprise birthday party a mandatory task of every department in each company.

Dear Ali: I’m part of a group of staff at our company who are throwing a surprise birthday party for an Emirati manager without telling her, and I’m just wondering if that’s culturally acceptable or not? IY, Dubai

Dear IY: If it were up to me, I would make a surprise birthday party a mandatory task of every department in each company, but I guess not all people like to celebrate how old they become.

First of all, it’s great that you have cared to ask whether such a move would offend your Emirati manager because of the cultural sensitivity surrounding the concept of birthdays from one person to another in Islamic culture.

Most Muslims would agree that we don’t have a problem when it comes to our children’s birthdays. We gather with family and friends and have our kids cut the cake and receive nice gifts and so on. But once the child becomes an adult, it’s rare that the family would throw a party again or make it a big thing, but it does stay mostly among friends and they celebrate it with different themes. It all depends on the background of the people celebrating.

However, based on the facts that you’ve mentioned, that she is your manager and from the UAE, and coming from you as a female and not a male, then I’m sure that the surprise gathering would be totally fine and very much appreciated, as long as you don’t overdo it. So a small cake and some gifts or a greeting card signed by your team would be more than enough.

I remember some of my students surprised me once and also when I was surprised by my colleagues at work; they were lovely moments and I really appreciated the gestures.

Again, some people in the Islamic and Arab culture may have a different view on this subject, but the general rule is that you will always be thanked and appreciated that you have cared and remembered someone’s birthday.

Happy birthday to your manager.

Dear Ali: The other day, my Emirati colleague introduced his nephew and nieces to me using words similar to umm or abu, which I know is related to “mother of” or “father of”, but he also said words like weld ekhti. Could you explain what it means and can a non-Arabic speaker say that when communicating with Arabs? AO, Abu Dhabi

Dear AO: You’re aware of the term umm, which means “mother of”. That’s how people may call my mother – instead of mentioning her first name, they would say “mother of Ali”, which is a very-appreciated gesture in Arab culture. But for you, as an expat, you don’t have to call her that way, even though she would always appreciate it. The same goes to the term abu, which means “father of” – again, it’s a respectful way sometimes to communicate that, but when it comes to official uses and mentioning somebody’s name, you would go with their first name.

Now, the terms that your friend probably used is actually either weld ekhti (“son of my sister, ie nephew) or bnt (or bint) ekhti (“daughter of my sister”, ie niece).

Some people also may use the term frekhaat, which is an Emirati dialect for saying “little ones” or “kids”. Another term used for such scenarios is e’eyaal okhooy (or elkhti), which means “sons or daughters of my sister or brother”; el-ahal or el-aaayla both mean “family” or “my family”.

Also another good one is e’eyaal al jeraan, which translates to “the children of our neighbourhood”. And, yes, a non-Arabic speaker is more than welcome to use these terms – I encourage you all to do so, as it’s always great when we meet somebody who isn’t Arab but at least tries to speak the language.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question.

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