x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Igrab creates link between tourists and Emiratis

The RAK tour group doesn't offer yet another clichéd desert trip: options include hikes to mountain farms, kayaking on the corniche or fishing off a pier.

The men of Igrab want to expose tourists to the real Emirati culture.
The men of Igrab want to expose tourists to the real Emirati culture.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // It began as an antidote to mall culture. Mohamed al Shehhi admits he was once a mall addict. Now he teaches tourists, residents and young Emiratis there is more to modern UAE culture than skyscrapers by hosting tours of "the real UAE".

The trips are nothing like the typical desert safaris touted to tourists. There is no Lebanese food and no Egyptian belly dance music. Instead, the young men take visitors to their favourite haunts.

"You see a gap between Emiratis and tourists," said Mr al Shehhi, who works as a policeman when he's not attending college. "They have their own hotels, their own facilities and different trips. It's nothing about the UAE. We want to give a picture of our society: how we have fun, how we spend our free time."

Options include desert barbecues, hikes to mountain farms, kayaking on the corniche or fishing off a pier.

The group call themselves Igrab, a word from UAE dialect that translates roughly as 'hospitality' but can mean 'be with me, share my food, be my friend'.

Igrab introduces the everyday culture that plays out in the homes and backyards of Emiratis across the country.

"The foundation of tourism in our country is moving in the wrong way," said Mr al Shehhi. "They consider building and hotels, not the culture, not the society of the UAE."

The men behind Igrab say they hope there will be more Emirati participation in the sector following the launch of RAK's new tourism authority and recent government support for entrepreneurs.

"We are hopeful now because the country is considering tourism," said Jassem al Khomere, 21, an Igrab guide and a pilot for Emirates Airline. "If you have the idea, if you have the good plan, you will have the sponsorship and support from the country."

For now, the tour is staffed by volunteers.

"We don't want to be a company, we will loose our truth," said Mr al Shehhi. "The hospitality is in our tradition; it's not a new thing."

He joked that their offer of homemade bread and date syrup served on a one-hour tour does not go far enough.

"If our grandfathers saw us they would punish us," said Mr al Shehhi. "If they have a guest they must have a whole goat."

His mother, the cook, is fully supportive. In fact, Mr al Shehhi said women are welcome in his home to learn Emirati cooking or tour his mother's farm, famous for its pomegranates. Future plans include visits to women's centre so tourists can buy handmade crafts as a remedy to Mr al Shehhi's distaste for the overabundance of camel paraphernalia.

Mr al Shehhi and his friend see a future in tourism.

"We actually want to take control of it," said Mohammed Bu Showairb, 21, a member of Igrab. "When our friend went on a desert safari and he saw how they do the falcons and the camels, he was jealous of it. He said, 'I can do that myself'."

"Tourists take the idea that everyone here is Bedouin, but we are many cultures. We are farmers, we are fishermen."

They hope to involve others to spread the idea of igrab.

"It must not be an exclusive programme for our group, it must be a culture," said Mr al Shehhi. "I am taking as a challenge that every tourist who comes here now he must know the meaning of igrab at the airport. It's a challenge for us that this word will stay for the next generations that come."