x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sweets, songs and questions for the sheikh at his majlis

I would go crazy if I had to entertain and listen to this many people every day

Just outside the elaborate tent encompassing a sitting area and two air conditioning units, a covered young Emirati woman approaches the sheikh and promptly starts crying. "I need a new house," she says as dark mascara and eyeliner run down her cheeks. "Our current house is falling apart and we barely have money," she continues before the sheikh has a chance to say anything.

The woman is just one of many people waiting outside the palace of the sheikh at the majlis that he opens to the public every other day. The sheikh smiles and gently tells the woman "not to worry"; he will see what he can do. "Abdullah, come here and take down the lady's information and look into it," he says, as an assistant hurries over with a thick notebook already overflowing with "requests" from people who have visited the majlis - or rather, one of the majlises.

"Doesn't it get tiring?" I ask. "Does what get tiring?" replies the sheikh, looking puzzled. "This? people coming and asking and complaining about this and that. It seems that everyone comes when they want something," I say. "I would certainly get tired." The sheikh smiles. "Be patient," he says and invites me to sit and spend the day at his majlis. At the end, he says, he will answer my question. So we take off our shoes, and go inside the tent. The most important dignitaries - senior people from abroad, for instance - would be greeted inside more lavish living rooms, but everyone else crowds into the traditional tent (though it is probably more sumptuous than those of 40 years ago).

As the sheikh enters, everyone scrambles to sit as close to him as possible. I am lucky and placed right next to him - making, I am sure, some of the visitors jealous and a few others curious as to what an uncovered woman is doing smack in the middle of a majlis. Noticing my anxious look, the sheikh whispers: "It is fine, we are up with the times, and we greet women into our majlis." Among those attending are sheikhs and royals from other Gulf countries.

"Do national women sit in a majlis with the men?" I ask. "No, they don't. Some come and wait outside to talk to me before I go or as I leave," he tells me. "Sometimes, if there is a problem, the woman sends a brother or their father, or some other male relation to come on their behalf." An elderly man in a kandura approaches the sheikh and kisses him on the nose in reverence. "Al-Salam alakum, Sheikh. I just wanted to send you my regards and check up on your health," he says.

The sheikh thanks the man and seconds later another person replaces him to also extend his regards and good wishes. And so it continues throughout the day. Occasionally, a visitor leans in close to whisper something private. One asks for signatures on some papers, others ask for the sheikh's patronage for this or that project. A third group just sits there, watching intently but saying nothing. One visitor comes carrying a tray of sweets, another arrives with servants carrying baked goodies that are distributed to everyone at the majlis.

And always, there is a non-stop supply of tea, coffee, juice and water. Thyme tea is served and unidentifiable colourful mixes of juices. There are breaks for prayers, and a substantial meal is brought in and placed on a mat to be shared among the visitors. At this, one of the men starts singing traditional Emirati songs, accompanying himself on an oud. Some are plaintive, others upbeat cheerful songs that have people clapping and bobbing their heads to the rhythm while others dance in the middle of the room.

Wow, I think to myself after several hours, I would go crazy if I had to entertain and listen to this many people every day. The open session lasts from the afternoon until about 10pm. Sometimes, they begin early in the morning and continue until after lunch. Finally, when everyone who wants to has had their conversation with the sheikh, it is over. "So, did your question get answered?" the sheikh says, turning to me. I don't have to think about the answer, but am diplomatic anyway. "Not really," I say.

The sheikh laughs. "We were blessed by being born into a ruling family, and it is our duty to give back to our people and listen to their concerns. That is the minimum," he says with a smile. "Besides," he adds, "we get to meet all kinds of people this way and find great unexpected friends among the visitors? like you." Where else in the world can just anyone approach a royal and sit with them? Even complain to them? As I head off into the night I feel so lucky, not just for the kind words and gestures from the sheikh and his family, but for having been able to witness at first hand the continuing tradition of an Emirati sheikh connecting with his people.