x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Expatriates reveal why they adopt UAE national dress and customs

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Emiratis say expatriates who adopt their customs and clothing should also conform to the behaviour expected of nationals.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Emiratis say expatriates who adopt their customs and clothing should also conform to the behaviour expected of nationals.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Emiratis say expatriates who adopt their customs and clothing should also conform to the behaviour expected of nationals.

DUBAI // When Mira Mohammed wants to look elegant and make an impression, she puts on an abaya and sheela.

"You can look great in just 10 minutes," says Ms Mohammed, 27, who is of Palestinian-Lebanese origin.

Instead of the business suit required for her job in the oil industry, Ms Mohammed can wear what she likes under the abaya and still look professional for any meeting.

"I can wear pyjamas under it and still look beautiful," she says. "I love the abaya and sheela. They are so comfortable, and at the same time respectful and modest."

Ali Ahmed, from Syria, goes even further in adopting local customs. As well as putting on a kandura he adopts an Emirati accent - even greeting Emiratis with a nose kiss, a local form of greeting where male nationals gently tap each other's noses while they shake hands.

"I like doing the nose kiss, even when I am not wearing the kandoura," says Mr Ahmed, 33, who works in property. "The Emirati greeting is more intimate than a handshake. It really helps break the ice."

Annie Davids, a mother of two from the US, has dabbled in Emirati beauty methods, having henna applied and lining her eyes with kohl. She has also tried local dishes.

But the one custom Ms Davids keeps returning to is the abaya.

"It hides all the flaws and is very pretty," she says. "It is just something different to try."

Dr Suaad Zayed Al Oraimi, an Emirati sociologist at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, says she sees all kinds of nationalities adopting UAE traditions and dress.

Adopting different customs is only to be expected in a society as mixed as the UAE, Dr Al Oraimi says.

"I personally have no problem with non-locals dressing up in our national dress, or picking up our expressions or habits," she says, but cautions "it has to be worn with respect and dignity".

Ali Alsaloom, the Emirati cultural adviser who writes a weekly column for The National'sM magazine, wonders if the average expatriate would have enough information to do so.

"Yes, you are welcome to wear the national dress but are you able to behave like an ideal Emirati while in it?" asks Mr Alsaloom. "We don't want people to unintentionally do something against our own values when they are adopting any of our customs."

Emirati customs and traditions range from the intangible, including oral traditions and performing arts, to the more obvious.

Emirati men and women usually stand out from the crowds of expatriates because of their traditional dress. The men don ankle-length, collarless white gowns with a ghutra, or headwear, while women wear black abayas over their clothing, usually with a matching black shayla.

With few distinctions in the actual cut of the garments, it is similar to traditional wear throughout the Gulf.

It is not uncommon to see Arabs, and citizens from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, regularly wearing the national dress. Depending on patterns on the headgear and the way it is worn, specific nationalities can be subtly identified.

While Emiratis appear to have no problem with other customs picked up by non-Emiratis, the issue of those who adopt traditional dress remains sensitive. Those UAE nationals who express reservations say acceptance depends on intention.

"If a man put on a kandura to mock it and call it a dress, then I get offended," says Ahmed Arshi, an Emirati film-maker.

But Mr Arshi has no issue with non-Emirati woman wearing the abaya.

"They look beautiful," he says. "In general, I like it when expat men and women adopt our customs as it shows they are trying to bridge a gap and understand us better."

Hanan Al Fardan, an Emirati teacher who has been teaching the local dialect to expatriates over the past year, has noticed more women showing an interest in adopting the customs and clothes of the UAE.

"They want to learn our history, our social habits, our favourite expressions," Ms Al Fardan says. "They particularly like the abaya and how it looks, and like the treatment they get when they are in national dress."

There have been times when respect has been lacking by those wearing the national dress. The US rap artist Snoop Dogg donned a kandura and ghutra, then used foul language during his performance in Abu Dhabi last month.

"As long as you are doing something Emirati out of love, I don't think any Emirati will have any objection to it," says Ms Al Fardan.

There is also no law preventing non-Emiratis from wearing national dress, says Isa bin Haider, an Emirati lawyer who answers legal questions from the public on Rouh al Qanoun on Noor Dubai TV.

The only conditions are on Emiratis themselves, who must wear their national dress on official occasions and when working in the government sector. Within the private sector, it is left to the employer.

"It is a matter of personal preference," says Mr bin Haider.

Those who wear national dress in places that serve alcohol or any place that is frowned on do so at the discretion of the establishment and themselves.

"It is more of a social code than a legal code," Mr bin Haider says.