Meet the expat ambassadors of UAE
In a country that's allowed more than 400 nationalities to build their entire lives in it, it's no surprise that even non-Emiratis love to promote the local heritage.
'What do they wear under their abayas?' The asker is not being rude, just curious. It was this question, as well as several others, that writer Ilaria Caielli found fellow expats asking during her short tenure in the UAE that led her to co-author a guidebook to local customs and traditions with her Emirati neighbour, Roudha Al Marri.
The Italian expat first arrived in 2015 and lived in Abu Dhabi for two years before moving back to her country, where she is now based. It was in the UAE that her daughter was born and the mum-of-two, who had lived in several countries prior, remembers how "easy, quiet and safe" life was in the capital. "I absolutely enjoyed my time there," she says.
Something she noticed since her arrival, however, was a certain "wary curiosity" among the expat community towards the locals. "People were uncertain how to approach each other," she explains. "They were curious about so many things, but they didn't want to expose themselves by asking them. That's when I thought: why not do something to help everyone understand each other better?"
Ilaria and Roudha lived in the same compound in Saadiyat. Their kids were the same age, so they often arranged to meet up for playdates and coffee. With Roudha "more than happy" to collaborate on the project, was born. "As Westerners, we're not used to seeing people dress or speak as the locals do. But the UAE is an amazing multicultural place, full of opportunities, so why not help the community get closer? That's the basic idea we had: to foster better community," explains Ilaria.
The irony of people living for years in the UAE and being complete strangers to their neighbours is not lost on the 39-year-old. "It's probably because we tend to see the UAE as a place to work. and leave, a place of passage. So, that's a contributing factor to why many people don't spend much energy to understand each other - because they don't stay long," she supposes. "At the end of the day though, they're people like us: men and women with the same feelings."
It's been two years since Ilaria left, but she says the UAE is always a place she'd love to return to. "One of the biggest things that struck me about the local culture was their great sense of family that we've lost here in the West. Here, we tend to live individualistic lives, but the family and one's roots have great value in the UAE."
All cultural divides can be easily crossed if folks would have the courage to be more open and initiate conversations, she believes. "That's what I learnt!"
When Bill Bragin landed in the UAE for the first time five years ago, he was just in time for the National Day celebrations. The first thing he did? Go to the Corniche and celebrate with everyone else. What makes his story especially engaging though is how he went on to found Hekayah, an annual cultural programme that brings Emiratis and expats together for an evening of performances to celebrate the local culture, in his capacity as executive artistic director of the NYUAD's Arts Center. "Hekayah is ultimately a celebration of culture and heritage, but we also wanted to create a framework that recognises the UAE as a transnational place," he says of the platform's goals.
Bill employs a collaborative curatorial process, working with key players in the arts community to identify performers - local and expat alike - who'd be able to bring those themes home. What he's found across the board is a keen awareness and pride of the accomplishments of the nation. "That's because it's within people's living memory," he says. "The transformation of this country has been so profound and it's all happened in a period that's much shorter than my lifetime. So, there's a very deserving pride that comes with that."
He remembers the time the full weight of those achievements dawned on him. "It was during the first time I went out to the Liwa desert and returned. It was so beautiful out there, but it was during the return to the city, seeing all the buildings coming into view again, that it really struck home for me: what it meant for this country to have transformed in such a short period of time."
Being so closely involved in the promotion of the local culture has not left Bill without his own impressions of the country. "It's as rich and diverse and multifaceted as every other culture," he states. "There's a combination of dynamism and openness to constantly looking forward but, at the same time, really valuing the sense of heritage. What I've learnt most is the desire to not have it be segregated.
There's a strong sense of pride and of wanting to make sure Emirati identity is not lost in this very international mix of expats - but, at the same time, I've learnt how much that cultural exchange is part of the DNA of this place."
If expats don't know much about the local culture, Bill supposes it may have to do with how the local culture is highlighted. To chip away at these perceived divides, Hekayah welcomes everyone from local poets - whose work deals "very specifically with their Emirati-ness" but who write in English - to musicians like Mohammed Bafoory, who is quickly becoming a familiar sight around town, belting out rock music in his . "Perhaps, when he's dressed that way, people may not feel a connection. But when he starts to play, suddenly, they do, because they realise this guy is listening to the same playlist they do," says Bill. "That's what helps break down the boundaries."
Through the platform, he hopes people will take away a greater appreciation for what it means to live in the UAE, the incredible crossroads of people that make up this country, and the opportunities given to people who are not Emirati but are able to make their entire lives here. "But also that they'll hear a poem or story or song that will move them deeply," he adds. "The work that comes from these artists is not necessarily only about patriotism - some of it is very personal too; lessons learnt from those closest to you - and that's something everyone can relate to."
Ask Dutch chef Matthijs Stinnissen how he got to the UAE, and he'll ask if you have the time for a funny story. The 26-year-old is the head chef at BOCA in DIFC, but his story goes back 10 years ago to when he used to play video games online. "The leaders of the game I was playing were Emirati and we really connected as friends."
A few years later, they invited Matthijs to visit the UAE, with a promise to show him around the local culinary scene - and even paid for his flights and accommodation. "It was a very cool experience," says the young chef. "I saw a lot of development and figured I could be part of that gastronomic growth." And that's how he came to call the UAE home for the last four years.
It seems only fitting then that Matthijs recently collaborated with local chef Khaled Al Saadi for an Off The Menu: Emirati Edition, for which they created a six-course menu that infused the local cuisine with Mediterranean/Spanish dishes. And the results were wonderfully inventive, with offerings like hammour tacos, paella and crema Dubaiana (inspired by the crema catalana) to whet the fusion fan's palate.
The goal was to show the community what Emirati cuisine was all about, but Matthijs acknowledges that it can be a bit of an 'acquired taste'. "A lot of people might find the local cuisine quite basic, involving rice and meat cooked together with spices and seasoning. I understood there was a lot more to it, because my friends used to make amazing Emirati dishes for me."
The chef believes part of the reason for the lack of understanding of the local cuisine is because people aren't going beyond their comfort zones. "It's not just about Emirati cuisine; any cuisine is an acquired taste if you're not used to it. It takes time to adapt your palate, and a lot of people need time to learn how to appreciate certain foods."
He was personally struck by how many similarities the local cuisine shared with the Spanish cuisine that is the restaurant's calling card. " is a dish that's quite similar to the paella in the way they're cooked: you basically add all the ingredients to one pot and cook them together. Both cuisines also use a lot of saffron, and there's an amazing quality of fish here. People don't know these things, so it's up to us to collaborate and introduce them to the community in a friendlier way."
For Matthijs, it's an undertaking he's only too happy to engage in for the country that feels a lot like home and helped him gain a lot more recognition than he might have in his own country. "Whenever I come back to the UAE after a trip, it feels like coming home, even though I don't have family here. It really feels like a place I'd like to be in for a long time."
The success of his latest collaboration means we may soon see the crema Dubaiana as part of the restaurant's regular menu.