It’s my last day in Dubai. I’ve only just started to kind of get my bearings on this futuristic city after seeing it from the seat of a seaplane, and now it’s already almost time to leave. It’s still hot and dry and as I step out into the desert from the cool depths of the hotel the Arab summer hits me with a lungfull of hot air.
Our first stop is at the Armani Hotel, where we’ll be having lunch. If you’re a fashion lover or detail nerd, you’ll probably faint as you walk in the door. The reception area is cool and dark, with incredibly high ceilings, darkwood cladding along the walls and a specific scent that only the most luxurious hotels seem to have. Every inch of the iconic hotel was curated by Mr Giorgio Armani himself. Including the Armani suits worn by all the staff.
The long corridors have a distinct “catwalk” feeling about them and I later find out that this was the exact intention of the interior designers (Mr Armani); for guests to feel like they are strutting Armani’s own runway. For those lucky (or successful) enough to be staying at the hotel, a personal Lifestyle Manager will manage the check-in process in-room, book their spa treatments and possibly even think stressful thoughts for them, so they don’t have to.
The Armani Deli is the most authentic Italian experience you could ever imagine finding in the middle of the desert. This is where you’ll find Italian meats, European cheeses, freshly baked breads and eye-wateringly beautiful tiny desserts. I order fresh pasta with truffles and it’s so good I hardly converse with anyone throughout the meal.
After our decadent lunch we head out of the downtown area to the Ajmal Perfume factory, where I’m about to be schooled in the art of perfume. Upon arrival, we’re lead into a room where hundreds of men sit cross-legged, hospital masks covering their mouths, picking at small pieces of wood with sharp instruments.
The smell that hangs heavy in the air is pungent and heady, and it’s not a smell I know. I’m completely lost as to what these men are doing, scraping this black stuff out of these small pieces of wood. And I have no idea how this has anything to do with perfume.
What I’m standing in the middle of, it turns out, is an Oudh factory. A near-priceless entity in the Arab world, Oudh is formed in Agar trees when small insects burrow into the wood, leaving behind an infection that turns the wood black and scented. The Oudh has a sweet, woody, aromatic scent which is prized amongst Eastern perfumers.
A tiny piece of Oudh can sell for thousands of dollars, with one kilogram fetching up to 1 million USD! In Arab culture, where clothing and jewelry are not on display in public, scent plays a big role in the projection of wealth and class. Middle class families will often burn small pieces of Oudh in their homes, while the wealthier class will practise a technique known as “layering”; burning the wood to scent their skin, hair and clothing with the omnipotent aroma.
I’m fascinated by the process and by the factory. After a few minutes I begin to realise why factory workers wear the masks to cover their faces; the smell is overwhelming! As is customary in Dubai, we have an amazing tour of the factory with the one of the owners and leave with bottles of perfume to take home and remind us of the smell of the Middle East.
After showering back at the hotel, I can still smell the Oudh on my skin and in my hair. Now I feel like I am starting to fit in. It’s almost time for Iftar (the breaking of the fast when the sun sets during Ramadan) as we arrive at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. I take off my shoes and step into a room lined with soft cushions, Middle East style, with huge platters of food running down the centre.
I take a seat against the wall, with a view of the many people streaming into the room. It’s a mix of tourists and locals, with a group of gorgeous young people in traditional Emirati garb, chatting at the front of the room. As the sun sets and the call to prayer rings out, guests are invited to watch the volunteers pray. I find it both beautiful and moving.
After prayers, bowls of dates are handed around the room with water. It’s time to break the fast. I haven’t even been fasting but I am grateful for the delicious meal ahead. I can’t imagine how hungry those fasting must be.
After Iftar it’s time to step inside the mosque. Women cover their heads and we all find a seat on the soft carpet. It’s my first time inside a mosque and I’m eager to learn about the customs and practises.
The SMCCU is a NPO that works to raise awareness around the various cultures in Dubai. It’s an inclusive environment where anyone can ask questions and learn about the Muslim faith and Emirati culture. It’s facilitated by a group of students who are friendly and open and willing to chat about anything you might want to know about. I recently moved into Woodstock in Cape Town, into a Muslim neighbourhood. I always want to be sensitive and respect my neighbours but I have been a little scared to ask things like “what’s an appropriate gift at Ramadan?”, which I have been Googling up until now.
When it’s time for desert (there is literally always desert) it’s time for a Q&A. Visitors are encouraged to ask any questions that they might have about Islam and the Emirati culture. Nothing is really off-limits and people shyly start to raise their hands and respectfully ask the questions we all have. “Why do Emirati women wear black and men wear white?” “How do young Emirati women feel about polygamy?” “Why do women sit at the back in the Mosque?” The floor is open and I’m all ears.
I find my time at the SMCCU incredibly touching and it leaves me feeling rather emotional. Many thoughts about discrimination, inequality, stereotyping and misunderstanding run through my mind and I keep wondering “why aren’t more people open to learning and discussing and asking questions?” So much of what the Western media publishes about Muslims is negative and it must be exhausting, always feeling like you just want to shout “We’re not all like that!”
It’s a profound experience for me and as we head back out into the steaming summer night air, I know that I’m leaving Dubai not just fascinated by the architecture and the flash, but truly more enlightened about Muslim culture and the Arabic way of life.
Dubai really blew me away with its megastructures, its endless options for entertainment, its history and its unique desert oasis position, but also with its beautiful culture and commitment to faith.
*My visit to Dubai was sponsored by Visit Dubai South Africa. The trip was an initiative to learn more about Dubai and visiting during the holy month of Ramadan. I was in destination for three days. This is the telling of my final day.