x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Dispensing cultural insights over breakfast

Amal Loring, a Briton, helps to lead popular cross-cultural discussions, which allow her to dispel religious and cultural misunderstandings.

DUBAI // Standing in front of 90 people in the Jumeirah Mosque, Amal Loring held her palms on either side of her head as she said "Allah hu akhbar" (God is the greatest).

She went on to recite a Quranic verse under her breath and afterwards, lowered her hands to her knees. After a repetition of the proclamation of God's name, she knelt on the soft carpet and placed her forehead and nose on the ground. She completed two rounds of prayer and said "salam alaykoum" over both shoulders. Then she picked up the microphone and began to explain what she had just done to the audience.

Ms Loring and three other volunteers have been leading about 1,000 tourists and expatriates on mosque tours every week, demonstrating the prayer and telling them about the other four central pillars of Islam. By the creek, at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), the volunteers also share breakfast and lunch with smaller groups. These gatherings give foreigners a chance to ask questions about religion and the Emirati culture.

It has been less than three years since she became Muslim, but Ms Loring said helping people to discover and learn about Islam had become her "life's purpose". It was a natural progression that began the first day she said the shahada, the confession of faith every Muslim must say. "There's still a huge gap in the knowledge between East and West, and I want to help build the bridge of understanding," she said.

"Because I am an expat, some people find it easier to ask questions they wouldn't ask a local, or they find it easier to be provocative. "Either way, this is good for people to communicate. It gives me an immense sense of gratitude that people take time out of their day to learn about culture and religion." Since converting, Ms Loring has remarried, to an Emirati who already had one wife and five children. She continued her work as a counsellor and embarked on earning a bachelor of arts in Islamic studies online.

Her husband spends every other night in her house, where she lives with her eight-year-old daughter. She wears a full abaya and niqab, even when travelling back to Britain, and eats on the floor, in the custom of a traditional Emirati family. Other than the tours, she prefers to keep the company of women. "My life has completely changed," she said. "Where I go, the way I dress, what I eat and the language I speak is different. Like a snake shedding its old skin because it didn't fit anymore or a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, it has been a 180-degree turn."

She began volunteering for the SMCCU in November because she wanted to do more to dispel what she calls the "myths about Islam", as well as help people distinguish between religion and culture. "There are some things which have nothing to do with Islam," she said, during her tour of the mosque. Holding up the gold-coloured face mask, or burqa, popular with the older generation of Gulf women, she explained its purpose.

"It was to indicate they were married and to protect their faces from the sun," she said. "It's wrong to say it was a religious requirement." She made the same point about the black abaya and the white khandoura. "It is a style choice, a fashion," she said. "The only stipulation the religion asks for is for men to dress modestly and for women to cover from head to toe." Every day, said Ms Loring, she fielded questions fuelled by misconceptions. Some are about Muslims being terrorists, others about women being oppressed.

"They all come from misunderstandings," she said. It is this lack of knowledge which founded the cultural discussions in the first place, said Abdullah al Serkal, the Emirati director of the SMCCU. They started 15 years ago with four or five people who would come to mosque after Friday prayers and join Mr al Serkal's family for lunch. There was such an appetite for knowledge about simple things, such as what food Muslims eat or how women and men interact within families. The numbers quickly grew and the daily tours began.

"Now we can have as many as 500 a day," said Mr al Serkal. "It is an honour to have the chance to help people understand our culture and country." It was also a religious duty, he said. "In our holy book and in other scriptures, there are descriptions about how God made us different so that we may know each other. In this world today, there is a lack of understanding of each other as human beings. We have to give ourselves the chance to be friends, to respect each other and to love each other not as East or West or as Christians, Jews and Muslims, but as mankind.

"The best way to teach is to lead by example," he said. Rupa Srinivasan, 55, a retired teacher from India, has lived in Dubai for 18 years. She had been meaning to visit the mosque for years. "Now I have learned the essence of Islam. I see it is so much like our religion [Hinduism]," she said. "The basic principles of all religions are the same." Candice Atkinson, 28, an accounts manager from South Africa, took her friend to the breakfast to eat traditional Emirati food. The experience cleared up many of her misunderstandings about the religion, she said.

"It's great to hear local people giving open and honest answers about subjects like Islam," she said. "Many times we are too scared to ask because we don't want to upset anyone. To host meals like this is a great idea. It helps break down barriers." The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts tours of Jumeirah Mosque for Dh10 (US$2.70), cultural breakfasts for Dh60 and lunch for Dh70.